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Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The Forest for the Trees: Reflections on an Ecological Land Classification (ELC) Project

Looking back on my last semesters at Seneca College during the pandemic, a highlight that stands tall was our Ecological Land Classification project.

This is definitely something I would like to share with nature-lovers considering taking the environmental technician program, and I was lucky enough to conduct this project twice, once as a soils student, and once again as an ecology student.

While the second experience was was incomplete due to the pandemic, it did offer extra opportunity to tighten my grasp on concepts, be absorbed in the process, and reflect on the system's relevance. (And a slide doc to dump some of the photos I have accumulated from several visits to the college's King Campus --link to the final product is just below the last image in this post if you want to jump to the SlideDoc).

Ecosystems can be described as communities of living things that interact with each other as well as nonliving things in their environment. So this means it includes plants and critters and microorganisms, as well as the types of soil and how water drains through it.

There is an old saying that talks about being unable to "see the forest for the trees". While this proverb is usually used figuratively, it can be a literal difficulty in ecology.

Say you and I were naturalists that hiked through these two forests: one forest that is virtually all coniferous in the crisp, Yukon wilderness, and then a mostly deciduous forest in Southern Ontario. If we were asked to explain the difference between these two forests most of us would probably quickly point out that one is all hardy evergreens, and the other is not with trees that transforms the forest into a glowing orange world in autumn.

But what if we had to be more specific than this? 

Also, what if we were comparing two forested areas in Southern Ontario where the differences are not so obvious?

While describing forests more generally could be all a photography hobbyist needs, it may not suffice for a land use planner or ecologist.

In a case like this, we would have figure out what to focus on to allow a person to understand what characterizes a forest; what sets is apart from another forest from an ecological perspective. This can be important for land planning and conservation.

The ELC System

The Ecological Land Classification (ELC) system  is a method of putting different types of ecosystems into set categories. This way, instead of having two ecologists visiting the same place in nature and potentially focusing on different aspects of it, the ELC system provides a standard for identifying and communicating what type of ecosystem it is based on soil and vegetation.

For our assignment, we got a taste of parts of the Ecological Land Classification process, including on-site soil sampling at Seneca College's beautiful King Campus.

One slide from our final document. (See link in this post). If you are in the King City, Ontario area I'd definitely recommend visiting Seneca's King campus for hiking!

We made our observations by drilling into the ground with a hand auger to identify and measure soil layers (the deeper layers were quite dry so yes it takes some muscle work), and identifying and tallying up vegetation using a forester's prism to keep our observation method standardized. (If your curiosity about this is burning you can check out this video about it on youtube).

King Campus is not our program's primary campus, but it was always a little adventure to visit; it was a special treat to do this to dig into into the concepts examined for our ELC report firsthand, do some more research and group discussion, from home, and finally narrow it down to a "Dry-Fresh Sugar Maple Deciduous Forest" classification. Reflecting on potential implications for conservation of this unique old growth forest also gave it special meaning. While this could not be included in the report as it was slightly outside our polygon, on the way into King Campus I noticed tulip trees, unique to Carolinian Forests. I first learned about these trees from a Naturalist at the pinery, but perhaps the details of that memoir can be saved for another day.

It was also fun to go through old photos from King campus over the past couple years in the program, and be able to apply them to our final in-leu-of-presentation slide doc.

Without further ado, here is a link to view the PDF:*

or click the text, not the image.

*Note: published with permission of all co-authors.

I also truly enjoyed working with my group members on this assignment. Being able to dig into this subject -both literally and figuratively- with a group that is so passionate and curious about nature was a highlight of my time at Seneca College. In case you would like to connect with any of them, here are the LinkedIn pages of the co-authors of this assignment:

Additionally, if you liked the style of our document and might be interested in collaborating on something like this for professional purposes, feel free to contact me via LinkedIn above or the contact form at the bottom of this blog.

The calm of standing between the trees, and feeling of fulfilment that came from building this project is what motivates many students take Seneca's Environmental Technician course for. The method felt quite natural; letting it grow from its very basic roots of observing nature; looking at it and examining its details, touching it, naming it. Followed by recording what we learn, and then communicating that information in a way that is useful and potentially inspiring or beautiful to a particular audience with eyes open to see value. 

Many students may not end up working outdoors; there are many jobs that need to be filled in labs, offices, and community centers. But in either case, it was a great experience to be reminded of one aspect of what we are all working for.

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