Native Vs. Nonnative

Alan Haney is emeritus professor of forest ecology and former dean of the College of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Haney has been recognized repeatedly as a distinguished educator. He is author of several books on ecosystem restoration and management, and a widely published scientist. 

Jacob Blue, RLA, is a senior landscape architect and Design Director at Applied Ecological Services, Inc. He provides design direction and oversight as well as experiential expertise for large- and small-scale design and restoration projects. Because of his understanding of native plants and his design strengths, Blue is keenly interested in the use of native species in both restoration and non-restoration designs as well as the habitat and aesthetic implications of their use.

Sidebar #1

Characteristics of healthy ecosystems and adaptive design principles:

Dynamic and responsive. As conditions change, both the genetic makeup and populations of species respond, leading to domino effects in relationships between species.


Resilient. Following a disturbance or sudden change in environmental conditions, individual species respond with both physiological and population-level adjustments, and with corresponding changes in interactions of populations … ultimately resulting in recovery of steady-state conditions. This process—affecting all aspects of structure, composition, and functions in the ecosystem—is called succession.


Redundant. Many species have overlapping niches and perform similar functions, which contribute to efficiency, resiliency, and stability.


Self-organized. Community associations reflect long-standing evolutionary relationships with each species and each association located in the landscape where it is best adapted to compete, and with remarkably similar associations in similar habitats.

Self-replicating. When disturbed, communities tend to return to the pre-disturbance structure and composition, and similar associations will develop in similar habitats if no barriers exclude key species.


Conservative. All waste is recycled, and nutrients are largely retained. Any water leaving the system is relatively free of contaminants.


Having a hierarchy of temporal and spatial scales. Small scales of organization and functions contribute to larger scales of organization and functions.


Tending toward lowest possible energy levels. Ecosystems operate according to laws of thermodynamics, absorbing just enough energy to offset entropy when mature and undisturbed.

Continuous and open. Ecosystems exist along spatial and temporal continua, such that sharp edges are rare, although some gradients may be steep.


Functional. Some functions cease or decline at small scales, such as minimal “home range” required by some species, or minimal time required for meaningful evolution or soil development.


Moving along gradients. Transitions from one association or habitat to another, called ecotones, is where many functions are more common, for example, hybridization and evolution.  Movement of species along gradients is also one of the important ways ecosystems remain dynamic and responsive.


Vulnerable to catastrophic disruption. Disturbances that exceed the evolutionary experience of species or communities can lead to collapse of resiliency.

Sidebar #2

Design principles:

Recognize and retain, or restore/create community ecotones with supporting environmental gradients.

Use locally sourced native plants from the same physiographic province, or closer if the project interacts with high-quality natural areas or scientific areas.

Manage stormwater retention, infiltration, and interception within the landscape to emulate hydrographs of matched healthy ecosystems.

Do not introduce nonnative or native invasive species.

Allow designs to be dynamic, and foster species and community shifts as conditions change.

Create a design that results in low contaminant concentration (including nutrients) and suspended solids in runoff or infiltrating waters.

Design plans that build and protect soil.

Develop communities that emulate structure, composition, and patterns found in local native-plant communities.

Develop designs for durability and low maintenance that require infrequent management interventions.

Connect designs to and across landscapes following gradients and natural features.

Provide for wildlife and aquatic organisms access and appropriate habitat conditions across the landscape with continuity for safety, daily mobility, pollination, migration, foraging, and breeding.

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