Date of this Version
Natural Resource Report NPS/HOME/NRR—2019/2049 / NPS 368/165835, December 2019: xxvii, 283 pages
Published by United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Natural Resource Stewardship and Science, Fort Collins, Colorado
Also available at: https://www.nps.gov/im/publication-series.htm
Please cite this publication as:
Jones, D. S., R. Cook, J. Sovell, C. Herron, J. Benner, K. Decker, A. Beavers, J. Beebee, and D. Weinzimmer. 2019. Natural resource condition assessment: Homestead National Monument of America. Natural Resource Report NPS/HOME/NRR—2019/2049. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.
The National Park Service (NPS) Natural Resource Condition Assessment (NRCA) Program administered by the NPS Water Resources Division evaluates current conditions for important natural resources and resource indicators using primarily existing information and data. NRCAs also report on trends in resource condition when possible, identify critical data gaps, and characterize a general level of confidence for study findings. This NRCA complements historic resource assessments, is multi-disciplinary in scope, employs a hierarchical indicator framework, identifies and develops reference conditions/values for comparison against current conditions, and emphasizes spatial evaluation of conditions and GIS (map) products.
Congress established the Homestead National Monument of America (hereafter referred to as HOME, Monument, or park) in 1936 under the stewardship of the NPS to “retain for posterity a proper memorial emblematical of the hardships and the pioneer life through which early settlers passed in the settlement, cultivation and civilization of the Great West.” On September 25, 1970, Congress added the Freeman School parcel to “further the interpretation and commemoration of the pioneer life of early settlers of the West.” The mission of the Monument is to maintain a memorial that commemorates and interprets the Homestead Act and its influence upon the country. The mission is to maintain the 160-acre original homestead and the Freeman School addition in a manner that provides visitors an approximate perspective of the influences and impacts upon the land in its transition from its natural state to cultivation and agriculture.
The NRCA for HOME began in 2012. This study employed a scoping process involving Colorado State University, Park and NPS staffs to discuss the NRCA framework, identify important park resources, and gather existing information and data. Indicators and measures for each resource were then identified and evaluated. Data and information were analyzed and synthesized to provide summaries and address condition, trend and confidence using a standardized but flexible framework. A total of 19 focal resources were examined: six addressing landscape context – system and human dimensions, three addressing chemical and physical attributes, nine addressing biological attributes, and one addressing integrated natural/cultural resources.
Landscape context – system and human dimensions included land cover and land use, night sky, soundscape, scenery, climate change and fire disturbance regime (Table 5.1-1). Climate change and land cover/land use were not assigned a condition or trend—they provide important context to the park and many natural resources, and can be stressors on resources. Land cover analysis incorporated spatial data for landcover classes, natural vs. converted landcover, impervious surfaces, population and housing trends and conservation (i.e., protection) status for buffer areas outside the park. Land ownership in the region is overwhelmingly private. Some of the land cover and land use-related stressors at HOME and in the larger region are related to the development of rural agricultural land and increases in population/housing over time. The trend in land development, coupled with the lack of significantly-sized and linked protected areas, presents significant challenges to the conservation of natural resources of HOME to also include dark night skies, natural sounds and scenery. Climate change is happening and is affecting resources, but is not considered good or bad per se. The information synthesized in that section is useful in examining potential trends in the vulnerability of several sensitive biological resources below. The fire regime is included here because in this region fire is a key natural process under which many biological components have evolved. Therefore, it is deemed a critical component of the long-term persistence of prairie species and the ecological integrity of the system. The fire regime warranted moderate concern with an unchanging trend, and might be significantly ameliorated via planning for a more heterogeneous fire regime with occasional high severity. Fire regime within the bur oak community was discussed—the lack of fire within that system appears to be degrading its condition and contributing to a declining trend.
and stream hydrology/geomorphology. The condition of these resources can affect visitor experience such as visibility and scenery as well as biological components such as vegetation health and stream biota. Air quality and stream hydrology/geomorphology warranted significant concern, while water quality warranted moderate concern. Conditions were estimated to be unchanging for air quality and stream hydrology/geomorphology, with an unknown trend for water quality due to a lack of data. Air quality and water quality in Cub Creek are significantly impacted by land uses outside the park boundary. Impacts to air quality appear to be largely from distant sources that are affecting regional air quality, or local sources produced by ecologically necessary prescribed burns. Both stream geomorphology and water quality appear to be significantly impacted by cattle grazing and upstream land uses. Incision of Cub Creek is a legacy of historical land uses as well as conversion of natural systems to agriculture.
The floral biological components examined included prairie vegetation, invasive exotic plants and the mesic bur oak community (Table 5.1-1). The tallgrass prairie at HOME is considered an excellent example of a restored tallgrass prairie, and is one of the oldest restorations of its kind in the U.S. The vegetation composition is thought to be similar to that of presettlement vegetation, although forb species richness is still below expected levels. Enhanced management of prescribed fire and continued invasive plant management would likely increase the heterogeneity of vegetation and overall habitat quality. Grazing of native ungulates such as bison would likely have ecological benefits but their management is not considered practical for the small site. The bur oak community is considered an excellent example of this rare type in Nebraska. Historic cutting and disturbances, the lingering effects of those events, lack of fire, and dominance of undesirable tree species continue to impact this community, which warrants moderate concern. Challenges related to invasive plant management and fire regime contribute to management concerns. Although the prairie is rated in good condition, there is some risk associated with potential expansion of nonnative invasive plants. Intensive, park-wide surveys occur regularly and management is driven by the monitoring results. Maintenance of a desirable fire regime can help control woody plants and promote floristic diversity, but is challenging due to the park’s location within an ex-urban area and limited implementation of prescribed burns.
The faunal biological components examined included aquatic macroinvertebrates, terrestrial invertebrates, birds, fish, herptiles and mammals. Two of the six resources examined were found to be in good condition with an unchanging trend. Aquatic macroinvertebrates are being impacted by poor water quality and altered stream flows/hydrology that originate upstream outside the boundary. The fish and mammal communities warranted moderate concern. The herptile community warrants significant concern. The bird community is in good condition. Trends for faunal resources examined are unchanging or unknown. Because of the small size of the park and the predominance of developed and agricultural land uses, opportunities to support a diverse faunal assemblage at HOME, including a variety of herpetofauna, carnivores, ungulates and other species is limited. Many animals have been lost from the landscape and are no longer present in the park. Nonetheless, the park still provides an island of restored prairie and bottomland forest that provides habitat for native animals. The role of connectivity and partnering with other landowners will be critical to maintain and enhance the fauna at HOME.
The identification of data gaps during the course of the assessment is an important outcome of the NRCA. In some cases significant data gaps contributed to low confidence in the condition or trend assigned to a resource. Primary data gaps and uncertainties encountered were lack of recent survey data; uncertainties regarding reference conditions; availability of consistent, long-term data; and incomplete understanding of the ecology of rare resources. Findings from the NRCA will help Monument managers to develop near-term management priorities, engage in watershed or landscape-scale collaboration and education efforts, conduct park planning, and report program performance.
Ecosystem stressors impacting park resources and their management exist both inside and outside park boundaries. Altered disturbance regimes such as fire and flooding, conversion and fragmentation of natural habitats, spread of invasive exotic plants that threaten regional biological diversity, altered hydrology and channel degradation of streams, and water pollution appear to be significant stressors of biological resources. Other resources related to human dimensions and visitation appeared to be stressed or directly affected by changes in land uses and land cover, population and housing densities, commercial wind energy development and traffic. Many of the resources were found to have interrelated stressors, the most common being invasive plants, altered fire regime, and stream alteration.
Regional and park-specific mitigation and adaptation strategies are needed to maintain or improve the condition of some resources over time. Success will require acknowledging a “dynamic change context” that manages widespread and volatile problems while confronting uncertainties, managing natural and cultural resources simultaneously and interdependently, developing broad disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge, and establishing connectivity across broad landscapes beyond park borders.
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