“If we continue to damage our ecosystem, we damage ourselves. Can our intelligence save us?”
— David Attenborough
We are living in a wounded world. If you dwell on the state of things too much, you can feel paralytic, helpless, and angry. But we must keep calm and carry on. We owe it to ourselves, to the wild beings we share this beautiful planet with, and to future generations.
In the company of Aldo Leopold, Mardy Murie, and Terry Tempest Williams—David Attenborough is one of my greatest heroes. His lifetime achievements are head-spinning, and his integrity and insight are unmatched.
Heroes like David give me hope, direction, and resolve as I choose how to best serve my community, my clients, and my higher purpose.
In honor of these conservation champions, and from my little corner of the world, I aim to provide you, dear reader, with a healthy dose of insight and inspiration as we all work together to heal the wounds we’ve inflicted on the natural world.
Just as a physician needs to understand what is making someone sick, we need to understand what damage is being done to our ecosystems, and how we can begin to heal them. So let’s get started, shall we?
In today’s blog, we’ll explore what “ecosystem health” really means, review the biggest stressors acting on our wildlife populations today, and then I’ll offer some simple things you can do right now to help restore health and ecological integrity to the ecosystem right outside your own back door – and the front door, too!
What is “ecosystem health,” exactly?
An ecosystem (a community of organisms and their physical environment) is analogous to the human body (or any organism for that matter). Just as we are a collection of parts that are built to work together, an ecosystem is similarly inter-connected. If one part is compromised, there is a cascading effect throughout the entire body with dramatic and complicated consequences.
For example, high blood pressure can lead to kidney damage, which then compromises the body’s ability to balance fluids, regulate hormones, and excrete wastes – which in turn leads to a whole host of other compounding problems. In order for the body to function properly, each of the organs, tissues, structures, and processes must be in place, performing their specific roles.
Ecosystem health is much the same. No matter the size of the ecosystem – from a tiny garden to a vast forest – its vitality depends on the individual health of each naturally occurring component and their intrinsic, unimpeded relationship to one another. Just as the human body is designed to function as a whole, as the sum of all the parts – natural ecosystems are similarly built.
What is ailing our ecosystems?
Just as you can’t treat a human patient until you know what is ailing them, you can’t restore the health of an ecosystem until you understand its injuries.
Therefore, let’s review some of the greatest threats and stressors to wildlife in our region today.
Globalization & Introduced Species – Our global economy has been disastrous for wildlife populations because we have introduced alien species that out-compete or otherwise harm native populations. Some of the best examples of these include non-native invasive plants and insects (like the Emerald Ash borer, an exotic beetle that may wipe out all our ash trees). Introduced mammals, like domestic cats, can wreak havoc as well.
Fact: Feral (stray) and outdoor cats kill close to 2.4 billion birds every year in the U.S. alone. For more information and resources visit The American Bird Conservancy.
Climate Change – Unfortunately, the well-documented process of human-induced climate change has been highly politicized by special interest groups with deep pockets. This has clouded the issue to such an extent, that the science has been altogether lost in public debate. An extensive body of international scientific literature clearly demonstrates that the Earth’s climate is undergoing an unprecedented and rapid change.
Fact: Scientists predict that many of our wildlife populations will decline as a result of climate change, including some of Maine’s most iconic species: moose, Canada lynx, Atlantic salmon, and Atlantic Puffin.
Habitat Loss & Fragmentation – Our landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented, and its pace is accelerating. New roads, houses, industry, and infrastructure development are carving their way deeper into the landscape. This fragments habitat, creating a patchy distribution of areas surrounded by unsuitable or inhospitable habitats. Habitat fragmentation isolates wildlife populations and can hinder or prevent their ability to travel, feed, or reproduce. Development also creates conditions that allow invasive species to spread and colonize areas and can create conditions that are detrimental to wildlife.
Fact: In New England, we are losing about 65 acres of forest to development, each day.
It’s overwhelming to think about all these stressors acting on the natural world. It can leave you feeling helpless and defeated. But the natural world is our life support system and is in dire need of repair and there is no time to waste. So…
What can you do in your own little corner of the world to help offset the damage, restore nature, and to give wildlife a leg up?
Lots of things, that’s what! … Including doing nothing, see number 2, below.
Habitat Design is Good Medicine
Crucial to our collective efforts to heal our ecosystems, is understanding the importance and role of biodiversity – even at the smallest scale – because biodiversity is key to ecosystem health.
For this reason, I recently wrote about why biodiversity matters, and how you can boost it in your garden, yard, and beyond.
This is the crux of it all: ecosystems can better handle stress when all the parts are functioning together as a whole. All the moving parts, their relationship to each other and their unique functions, create a more stable and resilient system.
To that end, here are two easy, but impactful ways that you can help ensure that the ecosystems around your home and in your community can function more holistically, for all the parts that belong there. Together we can create richer, more balanced and stable landscapes.
1) Reduce the size of your lawn. Lawns are wonderful for recreation and open space, but as the saying goes, “everything in moderation”. Here’s a staggering statistic: we have converted 40 million acres of habitat to lawn in this country. That’s eight times the size of New Jersey! Because lawns are monocultures of short alien grasses, they are of no value to wildlife. What’s more, our appetite for huge lawns contributes to climate change (we burn 800 million gallons of gas a year in our dirty engines to maintain these biological deserts).
Be part of the change and reduce your lawn in whatever way you can, by up to half is a great long-term goal. Replace portions of your lawn with plantings of mixed native perennials, shrubs, and trees that will provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for bees, butterflies, and birds.
2) Leave a “mess”, where you can. Fallen branches and trees are key to nutrient cycling, soil stability, and moisture retention, and provide nurse logs for trees and plants. Fallen trees also provide excellent wildlife habitat as decaying logs. Tunneling invertebrates, small mammals, and large mammals will use the important microhabitat of fallen branches and trees. In addition, downed woody material is an important substrate for communities of fungi that are highly beneficial to forest health.
As you go about your “spring cleanup” leave downed branches and fallen trees on the ground, wherever you can, so they may naturally decay in place. I am not suggesting that you leave a fallen tree in the middle of your (reduced?!) lawn but do leave them in wooded areas and edges. You’ll be surprised how “a mess” can turn into a beautiful, dynamic space where wildlife can thrive.
We are all part of a quiet revolution, where people are awakening to the fact that they can make a difference for declining populations of wildlife – one yard, garden, & woodland at a time. In honor of my heroes – David, Mardy, Aldo, and Terry – I’d be delighted to assist you on your journey, for the benefit of wild things. Work with me to take the next step toward crafting your habitat vision at home.
Did you know? Sir David Attenborough, who will be 92 on May 8th, has at least 11 plants and animals named after him.