History of the Ecological Classification System

Ecological classifications of land have a long history, starting with the Greek scholars, Aristotle and Theophrastus during the 3rd century B.C. Pliny the Elder, in the 1st century A.D., also developed descriptions of species and classifications. Scientific discoveries through the centuries have resulted in many different approaches to biological and ecological classification.

The need for land-use planning assessments in the 1930's pushed the development of ecological classification in Europe. It was mainly used as a tool for large-scale planning, such as that on agricultural land or forest reserves. The term "ecological land types" originally came from European assessments.

In contrast, the United States from 1900 to 1960 concentrated resource management on protection from catastrophes (e.g., fire, flooding) and resource extraction (e.g., timber harvesting, mining). Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, there was an increased awareness of environmental impacts and issues by the public and government. This new focus highlighted the need for a structured ecological data assessment tool. As a result, multi-factor classification systems that recognized ecosystem complexity and inter-connectiveness were developed to address multiple use and biodiversity issues. By the late 1970s, the Forest Service began its evolution from single resource classification to a hierarchical approach. A need for standardization and common terminology/ criteria was recognized. In 1992, the Forest Service published the "New Perspectives" initiative. It highlighted the need to demonstrate the scientific basis for ecosystem management, to conduct more multiple-use management, and to incorporate biodiversity conservation into planning and management activities. The result, the National Hierarchical Framework of Ecological Units was officially adopted in 1993. It has received widespread support from state and federal agencies, and is considered the principle guide for ECS development in North America. The Forest Service now conducts on-going ecological surveys with major emphasis on terrestrial classification. Cross-boundary, cross-agency cooperation is increasing as the Forest Service becomes more involved with state agencies and organizations to develop units at landscape and regional scales for watershed-wide and/or statewide planning.

The Minnesota DNR has also made extensive progress in ECS development. Currently, the DNR uses significant portions of the Forest Services' National Hierarchy of Ecological Units for guidance in developing lower level ECS units. Province, Section, Subsection maps have been developed and Land Type Association maps are being developed in collaboration with the Forest Service and other partners. The costs and benefits of developing Land Types for DNR land will be assessed in the future. The DNR has deviated from the National Hierarchy at the lowest level, Land Type Phase. This level is currently being developed by Minnesota DNR using an approach that considers habitat type. The approach will be similar to ones used by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Michigan DNR, Wisconsin DNR, Boise Cascade Corporation, and Blandin Paper Company.

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