As the refrain goes, if you want to change the world, start in your backyard.

It turns out the backyards of Southeast Minnesota are a globally significant place to start.

Scientists at The Nature Conservancy have identified and mapped a network of lands and corridors that will sustain complex ecologies through the effects of climate change.

One of those resilient areas is the bluff country in the heart of the Driftless Area of Southeast Minnesota.

This region has a unique topography and geography to help complex natural systems survive as the climate changes, the report shows. It was one of four in Minnesota the conservancy identified. The other spots on the list include Superior National Forest, Tettegouche State Park and Lake Agassiz Beach Ridges.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“This gives us hope that if we work to keep these special places strong, they will keep nature strong,” said Ann Mulholland, director of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota.

That’s not to say these areas won’t feel the effects of climate change or that species within them aren’t at risk of extinction. The designation means these areas, if protected, can sustain complex ecosystems through predicted and unpredicted effects of climate change.

In fact, the Driftless Area has already done that through multiple ice ages. The region is known as Driftless because the land formations have been untouched by glaciers and haven’t filled in with glacial debris, known as drift, and feature land formations that are hundreds of millions of years old. Some species of animals and plants that existed in the surrounding region but died out during natural cycles of climate change have survived here.

That doesn’t mean it won’t take some work to retain that resilience. Human activity the past two centuries has altered landscapes. Bluff prairies have been covered by trees after native grazers have been pushed out of the area. Wetlands have been converted to farms, which has hurt water quality.

The Nature Conservancy, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, area soil and water conservation districts, and land owners have been working to reverse some of that change and restore diverse habitats in the area to sustainable levels.

The national report highlights the importance and longevity of that work, said David Ruff, Southeast Minnesota conservation coordinator for The Nature Conservancy.

“It shows that we are investing in places that are going to stay important even as the world changes around them,” Ruff said. “We’re making sure we’re betting on the most promising places.”

Ruff has taken part in efforts to restore wetlands along the Root River, restore prairie bluffs and create conservation plans a few acres at a time in the Driftless region.

The report not only says these efforts so far are worthwhile on a global scale, but future efforts will be needed as well, Ruff added.

“This is one of those places where it’s important to get conservation right,” he said.

John Molseed is a tree-hugging Minnesota transplant making his way through his state parks passport. This column is a space for stories of people doing their part (and more) to keep Minnesota green. Send questions, comments and suggestions to