This post started out as a brainstorm of “things that matter”, but morphed into one about positive developments in conservation. Apologies in advance if it feels a bit too tree-hugger-ish, but these sorts of things excite me and seem worth writing about from time-to-time.
I’m a longtime member and a big fan of the Nature Conservancy. The group started in 1951 as an organization that purchased land for conservation purposes, and as of 2009 the conservancy’s assets totalled over $5.64 billion with more than 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers protected worldwide. Over the years, while continuing to buy and conserve land, the conservancy expanded its mission to include scientific research and partnerships with a huge variety of organizations, and today is known for its ability to find ways to bring together individuals who might otherwise be battling one another.
One early example of how the conservancy worked to bring together two very different groups is with ranchers. Historically environmentalists and ranchers haven’t been allies, despite the fact that most ranchers want to see their land kept natural and most environmentalists would far prefer a ranch to a subdivision. The Nature Conservancy wanted to maximize its conservation dollars, and so began experimenting with an arrangement known as “grass banking“, wherein they buy a ranch and allow neighboring ranchers to graze cattle on it in return for agreeing to manage their own lands more sustainably. Quoting a New York Times article on the practice: “A result is that the ranchers get more range than they could otherwise afford, and the conservancy protects more range than it could afford to buy.”
In contrast with the gloom and doom that seems to be the status quo for most of the environmental movement today, here are a small selection of conservancy projects and partnerships that provide reason for optimism:
- Oyster reef restoration. Scientists have recently been paying more attention to the role that oyster reefs play in creating wildlife habitat. Compared to historic numbers oyster populations have crashed, and as a result the reefs that once protected shorelines and helped to filter sediments out of the water have disappeared in many places, resulting in water that is too murky for plant growth, waves that are stronger and cause more erosion, a smaller food supply for fish and birds, and a major degradation of the local ecosystem. The conservancy has thus been working to restore reefs in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast and has already seen noticeable improvement to shoreline wildlife habitat in project areas. In addition to wildlife, beneficiaries of this work include fisherman, who will enjoy improved fish spawning habitat, and land owners, who should see reduced damage from storms.
- Floodplain restoration. After years of levee building and river straightening, floods today are often increasingly destructive since the entire output of a storm is now forced into a single, narrow channel, instead of being able to spread out in a wider area as would happen naturally. One of the conservancy’s areas of focus is in proving that by selectively removing levees, thus allowing a river to reconnect to portions of its historic floodplain, that flood damage can be reduced while simultaneously improving river health and wildlife habitat. In one example, during a flood in Mississippi when a river prematurely breached a levee that had been scheduled for demolition, the volume of water that entered the adjacent floodplain almost immediately reduced the water level in flooded towns downstream. The hope is that the conservancy’s work will spur government to reconsider floodplains as tools for combating flooding, while simultaneously helping restore natural ecosystems.
- Migratory bird protection. While areas of high wildlife concentration are obvious targets for protection, the conservancy also began looking into other threats to wildlife. For migratory birds, having “stopover” points during migration is a key to ensuring survival, so the conservancy identified and purchased several sites along the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere that were shown to be important rest stops for birds making long journeys. Even though the species in question might be there only briefly, having places to rest and refuel during migration proved to be vital to the species’ long-term viability.