Posts Tagged habitat loss
Most avid gardeners understand that their home landscapes don’t grow in a botanical vacuum. Our little tomato patches, and rose and cottage gardens all grow within a larger context. In my case, that context is the southeastern piedmont region of the United States. It’s easy to forget this larger context when we are battling aphids on our tomatoes or worrying about black spots on our rose leaves, but it’s important not to forget.
I was reminded of the interconnectedness of the natural world and the increasing fragility of those connections when I recently attended the annual meeting of the NC Friends of Plant Conservation (FOPC). This small nonprofit organization was created to help support the work of the NC Plant Conservation Program (NCPCP), a tiny NC government group charged with conserving native plant species in their native habitats now and for future generations. David Welch, the Administrator of this NC program says his group is one of the only one of its kind in the country targeting the preservation of rare plant species. He says, “We’re breaking new ground, setting the standards in this field.”
This year’s meeting of the Friends of Plant Conservation focused on the preservation status of rare plant species native to the piedmont region of North Carolina. You should visit the Web sites of the FOPC and NCPCP for all the details, but as I understand it, the ultimate goal of the NCPCP is to establish two preserves for each plant species on their list. They use data from the NC Natural Heritage Program to identify which plant species are most imperiled, and to learn where they are still known to exist.
The NCPCP divides my state into four regions: mountains, piedmont, inner coastal plain, and outer coastal plain. Currently, the NCPCP has 419 plant species on their list of plants they need to preserve; 21 of these are on the federal protection list. That breaks down to 177 mountain species, 87 piedmont species, 92 inner coastal plain species, and 157 outer coastal plain species. For those who are counting, that adds up to more than 419, because some of these rare species occur in more than one geographic region of NC.
At best, the NCPCP is managing to create one preserve a year. At the rate they’re going, many of the endangered species will likely be gone before the NCPCP can protect them. The FOPC is trying to help accelerate preserve creation by soliciting funds from the public, but they are a tiny, mostly unknown nonprofit. They need the help of every North Carolina lover of the natural world, which is why I’m writing about them today.
Early in this century, a number of federal and state programs existed that granted funds to organizations like the FOPC and NCPCP to enable them to do their work. But I learned at this meeting from Jason Walser, Executive Director of The Land Trust for Central North Carolina, that today only 10% of the funding once available for land protection is available today. Only ten percent!
Why should we gardeners care about preserving rare species? I can think of several reasons. First, as lovers of beauty and appreciators of the gifts plants bestow on us, we value the exquisite beauty of all plants, especially the rare ones. From an ecological perspective, rare and endangered species are the proverbial canaries in coal mines. Before the days of oxygen sensors in coal mines, miners carried canaries with them, because the birds were more sensitive to low oxygen levels than humans. If the canaries suddenly keeled over, the miners knew they had only minutes to evacuate the mine before they too died. The demise of rare plants usually points to environmental degradation. Factors such as pollution, habitat destruction via land clearing, habitat fragmentation, and the introduction of invasive non-native species are destroying the special environments that shelter these species. When they start disappearing, we know we are losing pieces of our ecosystems. No one knows how many links in the chain can disappear before the entire ecosystem fails. Personally, I don’t want to find out.
As our native ecosystems are degraded, their health declines. When native plant species disappear, the native animals that need them — insects, arachnids, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals — also disappear. As gardeners, we should be paying attention, because this will affect our home landscapes. Butterfly gardens won’t get many visitors if the native plants their larvae require are gone. Other native pollinators — from mason bees to bumblebees to many species of wasps, flies, and beetles — require native ecosystems for their reproductive cycles. Without our native pollinators, fruit and vegetable production will decline as flowers fade without being pollinated. It is in the best interests of everyone who enjoys the natural world and/or likes to eat fruits and vegetables to start paying attention to what we are losing at an increasingly rapid pace.
Now that I know how few grant funding sources remain for the work of preserving and protecting our native ecosystems, I feel obliged to call upon my fellow plant-loving gardeners to step into the void. As we approach the traditional season of giving, I’m asking that you set aside a few dollars to give to one of the many struggling nonprofit groups trying to preserve as many links in the chains of our ecosystems as possible. I’m starting with North Carolina groups, because that’s where I live. I’ll be featuring some of the ones I support in the coming weeks, beginning today with the NC Friends of Plant Conservation.
You can get a sense of the kind of plants they’re protecting from their Web site, and from this blog by Rob Evans, Plant Ecologist with the NCPCP. Even small donations can make a big difference. As you can see from this page, even $25.00 is enough to pay for essential tools they need to protect the preserves.
We protect ourselves, our gardens, and those who come after us when we protect our native ecosystems. This year, please consider donating the money you were going to spend on a new plant or gardening tool for your yard to one of the many conservation nonprofit organizations valiantly working to protect us all.
Some days, I confess, I weep for our Earth. Perhaps I am a sentimental tree-hugger, but I know that my sentiment is based on science; I mourn for what mankind is losing. Among the degrees I’ve earned (I have three), is a master’s in environmental management from Duke University. My study focus was southeastern ecology and environmental resource management.
Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to take my words seriously on this day when we celebrate our home planet.
Humanity’s time on the Earth has often been marked by turmoil and destruction. And throughout history, mankind has taken whatever it could from our planet – minerals, oil, diamonds, and now, more than ever, trees.
People who do not understand ecology, who do not know the difference between an oak and a maple, a loblolly and a red cedar, think vegetation is infinite and completely replaceable. Here in the southeastern US where I live, until the last couple of decades, when you cut down a forest, it grew back pretty much the same. This is no longer true.
Let me repeat that: Today in the southeastern US when you cut down a forest, what grows back will only superficially resemble what you removed. This new reality is primarily the result of an alarming increase in invasive exotic species – insects, diseases, animals, and plants that are not native to the southeast and therefore have no natural enemies here. The invaders now have the edge over natives largely because deforestation due to urbanization has reduced remaining woodlands to small, scattered, highly fragmented tracts – easy pickings for non-native invaders.
Small woodlots that once were havens for the Southeast’s abundant native species of plants and animals are now overrun by invaders the natives are not evolved to fight. The species diversity in our dwindling native forests is declining faster every year. For hard data backing me up, try here or here or here.
Why should you care? Because an absence of species diversity creates a biological desert – a place where almost no creature can thrive, a place where our songbirds, our pollinators, our frogs and toads, our dogwoods and ash trees cannot survive.
Parking lots, shopping malls, and city centers full of skyscrapers are obvious biological deserts in my region. They don’t have to be. If you try an Internet search on sustainable urban landscapes, you’ll find exciting developments going on all over the world, even in a few places in the United States. Not so much in the Southeast. Green roofs on buildings — even green walls on sides of buildings – are successfully providing food for people and animals, ameliorating the heat island effect known to afflict urban areas, and elevating the moods of the people who live in such areas. Humans crave green; we evolved with it; on a deeply visceral level, it makes us happy.
Suburban deserts are less obvious to the average person, but they are entirely real. Start with the archetypical symbol of suburban life: the grass lawn. Somewhere back in time – probably about the time fertilizer companies commercialized chemical fertilizers – someone in the real estate industry decreed that “curb appeal” depends on how startlingly green your grass lawn is. Only certain species of grass – all non-native to the Southeast – are allowed, the height of the lawn must not exceed a few inches, and it must be kept artificially green at any cost. Chemical fertilizers and weed suppressors must be religiously applied, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water must be poured onto the sacred green plot to preserve its holy color. (Imagine what better uses for their money suburbanites could find if they weren’t squandering it on maintaining their lawn deserts.)
The consequences of failure to conform in suburbia are dire. Your Home Owners Association (HOA) will first try to shame you into complying with the rules regarding Sacred Lawn Maintenance, and if that doesn’t work, they will fine you. Some HOA rules might even allow the HOA to foreclose on your home for noncompliance.
Anyone who lives in a typical suburb with an HOA has heard stories about unfortunate neighbors who fell victim to the wrath of HOA despots. My neighbor recently told me that her daughter, who lives in a nearby town of rigidly regulated suburban deserts, was recently castigated by her HOA for the crime of allowing clover to grow in her lawn. It might interest the despots to know that before the commercialization of chemical fertilizers, grass lawns were deliberately interplanted with Dutch white clover, because the clover’s nitrogen-fixing roots added this nutrient to the soil, thereby helping to keep the grass green.
Does any real estate expert really think that clover in a lawn will bring down the value of the entire neighborhood? Really? My neighbor’s daughter also got in trouble last year when her child grew sunflowers for a school science project. The sunflowers were deemed to be unsightly by the HOA despots. Apparently, any attempt to increase species diversity in a suburban desert is against the rules of most HOAs.
The population of my part of North Carolina has grown immensely in the last twenty years. Former large tracts of forest that once separated towns are almost all gone now, replaced by suburban sprawl – thousands upon thousands of housing developments, many full of nearly identical houses surrounded by manicured lawns perhaps punctuated by a lone tree struggling to survive outside the context in which it evolved. Southeastern trees don’t naturally occur in the middle of chemically altered non-native mowed lawns, folks. And what you do to maintain that green desert is slowly killing any tree you insert into that unnatural environment.
This situation could so easily be fixed. Europe is way ahead of the US in this area, but even in the US, if you search on “sustainable communities,” you’ll find some exciting examples of entire suburbs being constructed according to sustainable concepts.
Sustainability is more than energy-efficient building methods, green materials, and even adding food plants to your landscape. Your food plants won’t thrive if the native pollinators are gone, if the songbirds and frogs that eat insect pests are gone. These animals need the environments they evolved with. In my region, that means healthy, diverse native southeastern forests. This can be accomplished easily if suburbanites will throw off the shackles of archaic HOA rules based, not on ecology, but on some real estate expert’s notion of what looks good.
Lawns should be reserved for parks, soccer fields, and other large spaces where people like to play and run on short green surfaces. These lawns can remain healthy without regularly dumping chemicals on them. They should not contain one species of non-native grass. Clover should be welcomed. Occasional applications of animal manure or other organic nutrients is likely all they’ll need, especially if they are mowed less frequently and maintained at a slightly higher height.
Instead of deserts full of green lawns bereft of all other forms of life, homeowners should consider working together to rebuild a patchwork of native forest in their neighborhoods. In developments full of tiny lots, this might mean one homeowner plants one large canopy tree – an oak, a maple, a tulip poplar. As it grows, native understory trees and shrubs can be added for color and species diversity – dogwoods, red buds, sourwoods, persimmons, viburnums, blueberries, deciduous azaleas – all of these species provide food for native wildlife while contributing to the beautification of the area they occupy.
The traditional suburban aesthetic is killing our land by creating biological deserts where our songbirds, pollinators, and other wildlife cannot perpetuate themselves successfully much longer. This catastrophe can be avoided if homeowners in these deserts will stand up and defend our planet – and their homes – by working to change the HOA rules that prohibit the nurturing of native species diversity in their home landscapes.
Do it for your children and grandchildren who will suffer the consequences of current HOA scorched-earth policies. Do it for the migratory warblers seeking safe nesting sites, the insect-and-slug-eating toads who need non-poisoned waters to reproduce in.
Do it for the Earth.
Do it today.