Beyond Parks and Preserves / June 23, 2021
In a recent NY Times article, Zoë Schlanger describes a policy shift in managing our national parks, from protecting all species within our parks to picking and choosing which ones we have the resources to save. Climate change is blamed as the culprit that has pushed park managers and budgets beyond their capacity, although most of the actual problems described in the article are caused by invasive species we have brought to this country and would be problematic even without climate change. Climate change is indeed serious management issue, though not the only issue, and it has shown us the limitations of restricting conservation to parks and preserves. Parks are fixed in location, but a changing climate demands flexible responses on the part of plants and animals they are designed to protect. When confined to a fixed space, they lose that flexibility.
If we must now pick and choose which species to save and which to sacrifice - - - nothing short of conservation triage, - - - - it’s because we have shackled conservation, both in terms of the places we can employ it and the money we have to spend on it. But these are artificial limits that we have imposed ourselves. The fact is, we can and must practice conservation anywhere and everywhere: not only in parks and preserves, but in our yards, our corporate landscapes, our golf courses, roadsides, airports, and even in on our farms. We have oodles of money that we could and would spend on conservation efforts if we truly understood the ramifications of allowing nature to die. It’s all a matter of priorities. Congress has designated the budget for our national park system as non-essential and the entire annual budget is equal to the cost of one B3 bomber!
Yet nature IS essential.
Just like all living things, every person on the planet depends entirely on the quality of earth’s ecosystems. As the life support provided by ecosystems is degraded, so is the quality of life for all species, including our own. I am talking about the clean air and water essential to all life; the food manufactured by plants from the sun’s energy; the moderated weather, flood control and carbon sequestration that keep most of the planet reasonably habitable; the creation of topsoil and control of its erosion. And let’s not forget the necessary jobs animals do for the plants that produce the ecosystem services just described: the seed dispersal and pest control provided annually by countless birds, insects, and mammals, as well as the pollination performed by native bees, moths, flies and beetles that enable most plants to reproduce. These ecosystem services are not optional and they are not guaranteed. They must be thoughtfully, purposefully, and continuously protected and, when necessary, managed for the good of all living things.
Many people are either somewhat, or very, concerned about the loss of earth’s biodiversity, but when they read reports that an endangered rhino has just given birth in a zoo, or that the Nature Conservancy has successfully purchased 500 acres of remnant longleaf pine forest, anxiety over the extinction crisis understandably dissipates. Perhaps not as many species will disappear after all and all will be well. What we fail to appreciate is that, for our own well-being, we need lots of animal and plant species everywhere, not just in zoos or in a few isolated parks and preserves. We need these species for what they do, not for what they are. Unlike our grandmother’s silverware, we don’t need to save species so that we can assemble a complete set of the creatures we see on television. We need to save them because it is all species - the big and the small; the charismatic and the repulsive, the ones with and without backbones - that run the ecosystems that support us. And we need self-sustaining populations of these species everywhere, because we need functioning ecosystems everywhere.
Of course, we will not be able to conserve the natural world outside of protected areas unless we rethink our relationship with nature. Too many of us believe that humans are separate from nature, that we do not depend on it, and that nature is inherently messy at best and deadly at worst. In fact, the way we typically design built landscapes suggests that we firmly believe humans and nature cannot coexist - - in the same place, at the same time. Yet, as members those on the of Homegrown National Park™ MAP are demonstrating each day, we can coexist with nature, we can practice conservation outside of parks and preserves, and we can reverse the disheartening statistics we hear about nature’s demise as we start a new HABITAT™. Living with nature is not cost free, but living for long without it is not possible. Thank you for doing your part on your piece of the earth!