Although we may be able to restore natural areas to a semblance of what they once were (see my last blog), there is no way to fully replicate what was lost. The only way we can be certain we are protecting the majority of species within an area is by protecting the entire area and limiting resource use to light recreational activities. (This is not always possible, especially in developing countries, but that is another blog.) Scientists agree that no place on earth is untouched by humans; either prehistoric humans or current changes in climate leave no stone unturned, so to speak. However, there remain many habitats all over the world with unique life that need to be protected before they are destroyed by our quest for resources. Ecosystems provide humans with valuable services like water production and filtration. Plants especially, provide us with CO2 sequestration, O2 production, and air filtration. By protecting and preserving natural areas, we only help protect and preserve our human health into the future.
The complexity of the natural networks and webs within ecosystems are so elaborate that we do not even understand them yet. For instance, in just the last 10-15 years we have discovered that plants’ roots are networked underground via specialized mycorrhizal fungi that connect to the roots with their hyphae, the branching filaments that make up the fungal mycelium. Plants may share or steal resources, alert each other to insect pests and threats, and undoubtedly, more exciting discoveries will be made as research is on-going into the complexity of this fungal internet. Once a forest is clear-cut however, how do we replace that network? How do we replace species that we do not even know exist yet?
|Hyphae. Photo by TheAlphaWolf, Wikimedia Commons|
In arid and semi-arid habitats there are cryptogamic crusts otherwise known as biological soil crusts that cover areas of ground between vegetation and are composed of mosses, lichen, fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria. This “endangered soil” is highly susceptible to trampling disturbance by humans (that’s right hikers! watch where you walk), livestock, and off-road vehicles. Some of these crusts may recover from trampling in up to a mere 20 years, but others may take hundreds of years to reform. Biological soil crusts are important for retaining soil moisture, providing nutrients to the soil, and helping with seed germination. Desert plants need all the help they can get with such low rainfall (<10 inches/year) and these biological soil crusts play an important role in water retention in this ecosystem. I myself have inadvertently trampled delicate areas of soil crusts while out botanizing in the California deserts; I winced with each step as I heard the soft crunch underfoot. This gave me new meaning to the familiar quote by Chief Seattle, “Take only memories, leave only footprints” as I did not want to leave even a footprint. We think of deserts being full of loose sand, like Lawrence of Arabia crossing the dunes, but many arid regions have compact soils with little or no water-holding potential. Once we develop these areas for suburban sprawl, military activities, and even parks for hiking, there is very little we can do to restore the biological crusts and the limited plant life may not be able to reproduce due to unsuccessful seed germination.
On the flip side, consider the rainforests of the Northwest Pacific coast. The Pacific temperate rain forest ecoregion is characterized by high rainfall of up to 120 inches/year and moderate temperatures averaging between 50-70℉. In Oregon and Washington, less than 10% of the original old-growth Douglas-fir forest remains. These coniferous forests, including the coastal redwood forests of northern California and southern Oregon, are relicts from 5 million years ago when conifers covered much more of the Earth during a cooler ice age. What little we have left, only about 4% of which is old-growth redwood forest, requires serious protection. With climate change and global warming, these forests are already at risk of extinction and with added logging pressure, these magnificent old-growth stands are certainly doomed unless they are within park boundaries. Luckily, Redwood National and State Parks protects 45% of that remaining 4% of coastal redwood forest for us and the creatures that live there. How do we replace trees that may live up to 2000 years? Haven’t we cut enough down already or do we really need to hit the 100% mark?
Humans have an innate affinity for nature. We are genetically programmed to feel comfortable in a savanna setting, the type of habitat where we evolved into modern humans. The first time I experienced a true savanna and prairie was on Walpole Island nestled between Michigan and Ontario at the mouth of the St. Clair River. The indigenous 1st People, a blend of Ojibway, Pottawatomi, and Ottawa tribes, have always lived on the island, never ceding it over to the Canadian government. Because of this, Walpole Island has the largest existing prairie and savanna ecosystem left in the Great Lakes. I never thought I would see these habitats despite my attempts to seek them out in little slivers along railroad lines and at the edges of graveyards. Most of the great prairies were turned into agricultural fields long ago and the remnants that remain are difficult to manage since they need to be burned periodically. The Walpole Island prairies and savannas have been actively managed with fire by tribal members for as long as their history exists, which is centuries before the introduction of the European settler. There are hundreds of species of plants that occur nowhere else and I could not believe my eyes as I stood in the middle of their majestic tallgrass prairie. A photo does not do it justice, one must experience the grassland, as is the case with most awe-inspiring events. Maybe it was my genetic programming that kicked in or simply the beauty of the grassland, but it certainly was a very moving moment that brought tears to my eyes. I wanted everyone to have an experience like that in nature as we all need it on a fundamental level.
|Walpole Island savanna. Photo by Dave Kanaga.|
Places like Walpole Island do not exist in our reality anymore. Unless they are protected and shared by governmental organizations or we are fortunate enough to live or work in a park, nature has been largely removed from our lives in the Western world. Having public parks with open access for non-impact recreational activities is important to keeping us human. And I don’t just mean large national parks or biosphere reserves, but on a smaller scale, state & county parks are effective ways to preserve habitats and afford direct access from nearby communities. Indeed, in Miami-Dade county there is a program called Connect-to-Protect which is tasked with connecting the remaining pine rockland habitats within the county through private landowners’ properties. By planting native pine rockland species, homeowners can facilitate gene flow between plant populations by encouraging insect pollinators and connecting the remnant pine rocklands on a regional level. This extremely threatened habitat was once found along the rock ridge from northern Miami Beach south and west into Everglades National Park. Just 2% of this habitat remains outside of the national park and numerous endangered species of plants and animals are hanging on by a thread. By preserving what remains and educating the public on its importance, there is hope that this endangered habitat and its inhabitants will grow and flourish once again.
|Local students on a ranger-led hike in Biscayne National Park, Homestead, Florida. Photo by Biscayne NPS, Wikimedia Commons.|
We need to preserve what is left not only for our sanity but for our children and future generations to enjoy and learn from. Most importantly, we are the voices for plants and animals who cannot save themselves from our civilization. We are all connected and as different parts of our ecosystems break down, they become more and more fragile, breaking our society down with them. When we are cooped up in cities with no outlet to natural spaces, we lose touch with the Earth and where we come from, we lose the desire to protect natural areas since we have lost our connection with the outdoors, and we become grumpier and less happy. Nature-deficit disorder has been coined has the phrase to describe modern children (or people in general) who are growing up without unstructured play in the outdoors, and their propensity towards depression and obesity. Education is the key and the outdoor classroom is the best place to learn. No one is too old to learn how important and useful plants are, how fascinating insects can be, and how interesting birds are. We are naturally happier when outdoors, as long as predators are not lurking in the underbrush!
Emily B. Magnaghi