Nature Tiers : From City Parks to Wilderness

When I go observing, I basically divide the places I am going into “Tiers”, based on how human-impacted they are. I have four tiers. These are mine, they are kind of specific to Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.

  1. City parks, sidewalks, medians, yards, etc.
    These areas are cultivated for human enjoyment/use and have an artificial landscape. Most trees are ornamentals, as are many plants. There is little natural habitat an animal would want to use. There are still a lot of things to see in these locations: perching birds, and other birds, small mammals (squirrels), weeds and other plants, mushroom and lichen, and common insects.
  2. Nature parks, fields, farms, river banks, etc.
    These areas look more natural, and are dominated by non-cultivated plants (well, besides farms). They also generally don’t have constant human presence, which encourages shyer animals to visit. Along with what is present in 1, they also have non-ornamental trees, larger non-ornamental shrubs, a much wider variety of birds (including many non-perching birds and waterfowl), reptiles and amphibians, and many native, non-ornamental plants. They also have a wider variety of medium-sized mammals (such as raccoon), and maybe even deer. They still probably have a lot of invasive plants, as well as animals that are accustomed to people (corvids and squirrels)
  3. State parks and national forests, beaches and ocean front, river islands, wetlands, etc. These have large enough chunks of uninterrupted land that something like a natural ecosystem can exist. The forests are more than 99% native trees. Large herbivores are common (even if you can’t see them), and there are apex predators present (even if you can’t see them). Human impact is low, and animals whose niches require non-presence of humans are present. On the other hand, these areas are still close enough to roads that there are probably a lot of invasive weeds.
  4. Wilderness. No human structures or dwellings. This might be a designated wilderness, or it might just be a National Forest/public land that is relatively unused. All of the above, and unlike in 3., large changes to the landscape (like landslides or burns) are also probably present and aren’t “cleared away”. Also, since these areas are roadless, or almost roadless, their is almost no habitat fragmentation, and much less avenues for invasives.

Anyway, those are my “tiers” when I go out and observe. Most of my observations are in 1 and 2, and even at that level, there is a lot of diversity and things to see. I do get to see some at Level 3, but by definition, I don’t have much access to Level 4.
These are pretty specific to the Western US, other people might view these tiers quite differently. I have had some disagreements (where I promise I am not trying to be snotty), because in most of say, the Eastern US or Western Europe, there are few places more than 2 miles from a road—and to me, if there are roads, it isn’t wilderness.
But also, as a lot of us have experienced, its possible to be three hundred feet into a marshy area right next to a city center and be lost in nature!


As you say at the end, you should add the criterion of the presence of roads more than 2 or 5 miles from the forest …

I’d qualify that with type of road. An unimproved (dirt) forest road with light traffic is certainly less impactful than a four-lane highway.

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agree with jnstuart. I’ve been the only person I’ve seen for almost an hour at a stretch in some rural NM back roads. That’s a far cry from, say, I-40

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Roads mostly depend on the type of terrain. A road probably doesn’t change much going through a grassland, but in a forest, it opens up a pathway for invasive weeds. I was on a gravel road in a national forest a few weeks ago, and even though it was in a sparsely travelled area, like around one car a week, maybe, the road side had its share of invasive weeds—thistles, groundsels, dandelions, etc.

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I wouldn’t be so sure. The shift from native North American prairie to a landscape dominated by species from Eurasian grasslands can be difficult to see if you don’t know your flora that well, but it is definitely real.

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