Planting Projects, Backyard Habitats Can Re-Create Livable Natural Spaces
By April M. Short
The world's wildlife is in danger of dying off, and inevitably taking humanity out with it. Humans have destroyed enormous portions of the planet's natural spaces, and caused a climate disaster as well as the unprecedented acceleration of mass extinction events. Among the many species struggling to stay afloat are the butterflies, birds, bats, bees and other pollinators we depend upon in order to grow basic food crops. People cannot live without the earth's diverse wild plants and animals.
Scientists agree that continued disruption of the earth's ecosystems threatens the future survival of humanity as much as climate change does. And the two aren't entirely separate issues; healthy forests and soil systems, for example, sequester carbon naturally. As they are destroyed, there is increased carbon in the atmosphere. A study published in 2019 in the journal Science found that forest restoration is among the best possible climate change solutions.
The current pandemic brings these issues home, as the problems of climate change, habitat destruction and pollinator decline are intricately linked, as outlined in an article by Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust published in Modern Diplomacy in April.
And, as explained by Ensia's environment editor John Vidal in an article that appeared in Scientific American in March, the destruction of wildlife habitat in particular creates breeding grounds for new viruses — and is a likely cause of the devastating current outbreak of novel coronavirus.
"Only a decade or two ago it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harboring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases in humans like Ebola, HIV and dengue.
"But a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity's destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19 … to arise — with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems."
As Vidal notes, this likely won't be the only pandemic we experience. Keeping the next one at bay hinges on protecting and stewarding habitat spaces for wildlife.
While the outlook on both pandemic and climate change can seem bleak, we're also witnessing a demonstration of how quickly the planet can repair itself when people merely slow down a little. In just a matter of months, without changing much other than how often we go out to work, spend and gather in public spaces, the world's skies have cleared up in places that were murky with smog for generations.
The pandemic has caused a steep decline in air pollution levels around the globe. Weeks without hordes of tourists have deepened the blue of the waterways of Venice, Italy, and there are reports of fish being visible through the clear waters for the first time in decades; the Himalayas are visible in parts of northern India that haven't been able to catch a glimpse of them in 30 years; Los Angeles's famous traffic has eased up. It's clear that the small efforts by large numbers of people can and do ripple throughout the world, and they have the potential to combat mass destruction. If so much can begin to change when all we do is ease our operations a little, what can change if we make concerted efforts together in support of nature's resilience?
Planting Habitat From the Grassroots
Gardening to support pollinators and other wildlife is one way individuals can help. The movement for native habitat planting seeks to re-supply wildlife with the plants and habitat spaces that support them, by way of individual garden projects.
Since the 1970s, the native plant movement has encouraged people to garden and grow native species of plants, which can provide biodiverse habitat for birds, butterflies, amphibians and other creatures that live among us. Out of the native plant movement, many backyard and community habitat gardening certification programs have emerged across the country, to educate and incentivize people to plant habitat gardens.
The largest habitat gardening certification effort in the U.S. is the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)'s Community Wildlife Habitat Program (CWHP), which offers tools and a certification program not just for individual backyard gardens, but for whole communities interested in participating. The program started in 1997 in the small town of Alpine, California, in San Diego County, as a grassroots effort by a few individuals who decided to team up and encourage local native garden projects. Now, the program is a concerted national effort that works with approximately 200 certified communities and municipalities across the country, including some major cities, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, and Houston, Texas.
NWF has encouraged people to create habitat gardens for more than 40 years through its Garden for Wildlife. The CWHP builds upon that longstanding initiative, with a science-based program framework for community leaders to restore wildlife habitat — including wildlife corridors and road passage areas — and engage residents. The end goal for areas that participate is to be certified as a wildlife-friendly community through the NWF.
The program encourages communities to integrate a set of wildlife-friendly practices into plans for parks and general sustainability. It offers tools for its members to educate as well as motivate private community members — residents, schools, places of worship, and others — to get involved and transform their garden spaces via native trees and plants, and non-toxic practices.
Patrick Fitzgerald, senior director of community wildlife for NWF, says anyone can get involved with the habitat gardening effort, even people in highly urban areas, via container gardens.
"If you're planting a garden, you can really make an impact for wildlife and the environment literally right outside your front door," he says, noting that the monarch butterfly offers a particularly potent example of a species that might be positively affected by collective individual efforts. The Western monarch's populations have been plummeting, down from the millions in the 1980s, to 200,000 in 2017, and just 30,000 as of 2018, as reported in March 2020 by The New York Times.
"The example of the monarch shows how the simple act of planting milkweeds in your garden, in a pot and just about anywhere, can have an impact for a very specific species," adds Fitzgerald. "A lot of folks, myself included, just love this monarch butterfly for its migration and metamorphosis. It's an amazing species. We've seen a call to action for the monarch butterfly, and so many people are planting milkweed and other native plants that they need to survive in their yards and telling us about it. … Knowing that you're part of millions of people doing this, all for the sake of one black and orange butterfly, is a pretty powerful thing. It's just tremendously rewarding."
The NWF program also works with communities interested in larger restoration efforts, such as wildlife thoroughfares, urban forestry, water conservation, planting for climate resilience and green infrastructure efforts.
"In terms of climate resilience, a lot of the actions that our teams in our cities, counties and communities are taking have multiple benefits for wildlife and for people — and they're also helpful in terms of addressing climate change in different ways," Fitzgerald says.
He points to efforts like reforestation and planting trees along waterways to reduce erosion and mitigate runoff into waterways, or efforts to increase soil carbon storage.
"A lot of folks who participate in our programs, they just love wildlife, and from there, they're looking for strategies to attract more wildlife to their neighborhoods and communities," he says.
Houston, Texas, is one of the largest communities certified by the NWF Community Wildlife Habitat Program. Kelli Ondracek, the natural resources manager for the City of Houston Parks and Recreation Department, says that when the city started working toward the certification in 2016 it was a natural fit, as many of the efforts already underway in the city overlapped with the NWF's habitat certification program. The city of Houston partners with the Houston Audubon, for instance, to replace invasive plant species in public areas with bird-friendly natives, and Houston is a certified "Bird City" of Texas by the state's Parks and Wildlife program.
In order to encourage Houston residents to participate and plant backyard habitat gardens, Ondracek says they began to include information about the certification effort at all of their regular events. Since the city was already offering many of the educational events and information required for the NWF certification, once they got enough homes and common areas involved with the project, it came together citywide, by way of volunteer efforts.
Among the bigger habitat initiatives in Houston is its longstanding prairie restoration project, which replants fields full of native prairie grasses and wildflowers throughout the city's parks, medians, and other relevant public spaces. Ondracek, who oversees the city's greenhouses, says the prairie restoration efforts have involved collecting seeds and propagating more than 10,000 gallon pots' worth of native plants.
Ondracek says the wildlife habitat project in Houston involves taking inventory of the land in their parks system — which is vast — and assess what that land would have historically looked like. Then, they work to re-create it.
"We try to get it as close as possible back to the historic habitat, with a focus on really diverse native species," Ondracek says. "We're really trying to focus on native plants — and we're growing them ourselves because often you can't really purchase them — so that we can get our restoration projects completed."
The prairie restoration project serves to provide habitat, and also to mitigate climate change–related threats such as increased flooding and drought, as detailed in a Christian Science Monitor article published in October 2019.
Ondracek says Houston also has a native tree farm and is working to replant trees along waterways in 70 of its parks, with the goal of planting more than 200,000 trees along the city's bayous and other water systems. Trees along the waterways, known as riparian buffers, serve to reduce the impacts of flooding and improve water quality for both humans and wildlife. The goal of this effort is twofold: to rehabitat these spaces as wildlife corridors, and to create a more climate-resilient future for the city. The tree project acts as part of Houston's Climate Action Plan, which centers on large restoration projects like tree installations to mitigate inevitable increased flooding and help sequester carbon.
Many cities, counties and states around the U.S. offer their own habitat certification programs, unrelated to the NWF's certification. Portland, Oregon's local Backyard Habitat Certification Program (BHCP), for instance, is a collaboration between Portland Audubon and Columbia Land Trust.
Megan Van de Mark, the Portland BHCP's program manager, says the localized program is particularly hands-on and serves more than 6,100 properties throughout Oregon's Clark, Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties. The program originated in Portland, where more than 4,600 properties are enrolled, and works hands-on with community sites, including religious institutions, multi-family complexes, schools, etc., as well as private backyards.
"One person can make a difference where they live by incorporating native plants in their yards and gardens, by removing noxious weeds, by reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, and by taking actions that steward wildlife and manage stormwater at home," Van de Mark says in an email.
Van de Mark says the program shows that the cumulative actions of individual people can add up to a significant positive impact.
"An ecosystem is an interconnected system," Van de Mark says. "What each of us does makes a difference specifically because we're all connected. The ecosystems within which we reside are home to many. By building habitat where you live and reside (i.e., by planting native plants, removing noxious weeds, reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, and by taking actions that steward wildlife and manage stormwater on-site), you can help ensure that birds, pollinators, and other species also have enough to eat, a way to get around, and a place to call home. We're all in this together."
This article was reposted with permission from Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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By Michael Svoboda, Ph.D.
Despite a journey to this moment even more treacherous than expected, Americans now have a fresh opportunity to act, decisively, on climate change.
The authors of the many new books released in just the past few months (or scheduled to be published soon) seem to have anticipated this pivotal moment.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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