Monday, December 2, 2013

Metropolitan Ecological Restoration

Metropolitan Potential

Our metropolitans are home to 79% of America's population. The concentration has pros and cons relating to the environment, but one pro is the available manpower for restoration projects within our  invasive plant infested metro-areas. Throughout the midwest it is typical that a mixture of invasive trees and shrubs dominate disturbed natural areas within the metropolitans. Disturbed natural areas could mean a second growth forest, broken canopy woodlands, wetland or naturally vegetated wet areas, unmaintained land that was clear cut then "let go", or degraded prairies that have been plowed and/or grazed. Basically any un-developed area within the metropolitan where native plants and invasive plants do battle to reclaim land, including nature preserves, city, county, state, and national parks. These remaining fragments of nature are key to the surviving biodiversity existing from downtowns to the suburban outskirts. Metropolitan Ecological Restoration applies ecological restoration practices to natural areas within metropolitans for environmental education opportunity, public health benefits, environmental health, and potential economic opportunity.

Environmental Education/Awareness

As environmental education is worked further into k-12 curriculum through organizations like "Hamilton County Soil & Water", non-profits and their local chapters like "Leave No Child Inside", the "Children and Nature Network" and "ALI", our youth can grow more and more aware of the effects of our mass development on ecology. Education from the bottom up also occurs when focusing on the youth, as parents are often introduced and find good value/meaning in participating in the environmental cause. In this time in which our metropolitan natural areas are most invaded and degraded, our youth are spending and average of 53 hours per week plugged into entertainment media negatively widening the awareness gap. With 79% of the total population located in metropolitans, what percentage of our youth distracted by modern technology based entertainment, will have the opportunity to experience the beauty and intricacies of a healthy ecosystem locally? Further raising of awareness in the public of the presence and effect of invasive plants is also happening through park systems who give conservation a priority, organizing/hosting volunteer events and making efforts for educational outreach. 

Higher education, with standout professors like Dr.Crail of the University of Toledo, also play a valuable role in nurturing the awareness within metropolitans of the problems and solutions concerning our local ecosystems (pictured above) by giving college students direct experience in restoration projects. "Tell me, I will forget. Show me, I'll remember. Involve me, I will understand" a Chinese proverb Dr. Crail is demonstrating. In the first pictured scene students of Dr.Crail's course removed buckthorn, an invasive shrub, from the understory and wood edges of Irwin Prairie State Nature preserve. Projects like these not only quickly benefit local ecosystems, but they also plant the seeds of experience and awareness within students who may have never known their local ecosystem was under such an alarming foreign plant threat. For a student like I was at Cincinnati State starting out in environmental science trying to figure out what I wanted to do for a career, an experience like this would have been profound and potentially opened me up to the field I have circuitously grown a great passion for, being ecological restoration.

Religious organizations also have potential to make a great positive impact of raising awareness about ecological restoration amongst other environmental issues, by ways of organizing task force oriented groups like the Marianist Environmental Education Center locally, and nationally the Evangelical Environmental Network and the Catholic Climate Covenant. These groups have high credibility within their respective communities and therefore have large circles of influence within this predominantly Christian nation.

We have many times more than needed, of man power to reclaim our metropolitan ecosystems from invasive plants, what we need more of is experiential education and collaboration/organization to nurture the widespread awareness required to truly "bring nature home" as Entomologist Doug Tallamy would say.

(Invasive Buckthorn, Multi-Flora Rose, and Honeysuckle dominate understories and wood edges)

Niches for the Taking (The Metropolitan Battleground)

Understory Niche

Now that at least the first rounds of mass logging projects have been mostly completed, we've seen maturing second and young third regrowths of forests throughout the Midwest and Eastern United States. Most of our invasive shrubs and trees weren't dominant as these forest first started regrowing which allowed for natural establishment of fairly diverse second growth forests that are missing only a few climax canopy species due to foreign pathogens and insects transported by human activity. The future diversity of these forests is under great threat, due to proliferation of invasive shrubs that have been able to create near monocultures in the understory habitat. The light that penetrates these young woodlands is already limited, and with a thick understory of invasive shrubs already dominating that light, there often isn't enough light for tree sapling regeneration. Not only do these shrubs prevent and stunt forest regeneration long-term, they leaf out so early in the spring, that the beautifully diverse carpets of forest wildflowers that color the spring scenery of our forests, cannot not co-exist with the invasive shrubs. A large portion of plant diversity within the American temperate forest ecosystem exists in the understory within the herbacoues layer and woody understory species. Referring back to the opening picture of Dr.Crail's class removing the Buckthorn, this now allows for future restoration of that herbaceous layer of grasses and wildflowers, spaced out native shrub/small tree layer, and native tree canopy sapling populations to regenerate in the absence of the foreign buckthorn.

Wood Edge/Open Disturbed Land

Often the invasive shrubs and trees that exist in our understories, also dominate the edge of the woods and disturbed open environments such as areas adjacent to construction sites, abandoned land, un-mowed land, an/or public right aways. But there are also invasive species like Tree of Heaven, Siberian Elm, Mimosa, and Ornamental Pears that require the high light exposure of the wood edge/open environments to reproduce, and in those environments, they reproduce very aggressively. These species typically succeed the invasive vines and herbaceous plants that colonize the open ground first, displacing the natural succession process with indigenous plants ideal for ecological support. Loading up our maintained landscapes with Black Gum, Black Cherry, Shingle Oak, Pin Oak, Sassafras and other long distance transported native trees instead of the Ornamental Pears that are now littering open ground environments as quickly as European Starlings can consume them, will help re-arm the native plant communities to claim their successional roles back. But first we have to strategically identify our focus and goals of restoration within our metropolitans based on the current states of city, county, and state nature preserves along with non-profit's land and land trusts'. It helps to have a collaboration of passionate professionals, students, and citizens to aid you in your mission.....

(Green Umbrella is a “backbone organization” that helps all member organizations work better together to promote a more environmentally sustainable region for the OKI Region.)

Progress through Organizational Collaboration

In the above 3 minute video, you'll see how the Southwest Ohio/Northern Kentucky?Southeast Indiana metropolitan plans to move forward with a non-profit organization that organizes, sets agendas, executes, and connects all interested people throughout the spectrum of sustainability. It is set up with an array of action teams to cover each environmental issue thoroughly, made up of volunteers from those respective professions, industries, and interests. Each of these teams have their own agenda, with the same goal of making this region more sustainable.

The metropolitan reclamation concept would be applied in the Land Action Team. With organizational support, a pool of passionate citizens, students, and professionals; a structure exists to build through collaboration making sustainability-sustainable.  Organizations like Green Umbrella that bring in partners from all sectors of business, government partners, school districts, colleges and universities, amongst others for a common goal provide an incredibly effective blueprint for large scale environmental progress. Each metropolitan has these pieces, each metropolitan has the manpower, each metropolitan has the passionate people, and when a structure like Green Umbrella is created, each metropolitan can be effectively organized and empowered to reclaim not only their local ecology, but all facets of sustainability. Community Development Organizations and Councils can play a major role within local scale restoration/beautification with collaborative partnerships with these environmental collaboratives.  A city with 1,000 organized and commonly united people, is much more empowered than a city with 10,000 disconnected people regardless of their passion and agreeability.

(Studies have shown higher densities of Eastern Bluebirds within metropolitans where custom fitted bird boxes are maintained to replace the tree cavities they now lack in our disturbed landscape.)

Beyond Restoration

Reconciliation Ecology is the branch of ecology which studies ways to encourage biodiversity in human-dominated ecosystems (metropolitans). An easy to understand concept of this would be the recent widespread success of the Eastern Bluebird boxes as noted in the caption above. This concept still utilizes ecological restoration principles but fused with human landscape constraints. Another example would be what I through, Pioneer Landscapes, am basing my private sector career on, prairie/savannah land management. With over 40 million acres of lawn occupying land within America, in the large pool of non-recreationally used lawn we have an opportunity to manage developed land in better harmony with local ecosystems. A business that sits on a developed lot of 5 acres, maintaining 4 of those acres as lawn at potential detriment to the environment, can pursue maintaining that same acreage or much of it as a native prairie restoration or savannah with Hickory and Oak species planted within the prairie. This beautifies the landscape, puts in place a long term maintained native habitat, wildlife recreation infrastructure, and lowers local smog levels, storm water run-off, noise pollution, and water pollution creating the win-win as described in Michael L. Rosenzweig's Win-Win Ecology book. Green infrastructure like rain gardens, bio swales, and green roofs can also serve as a Win-Win when properly designed with native plants that support the local ecosystem. 

Traditional ecological restration is of highest priority in reference to our nature preserves and other protected land as these lands are the least disturbed and have the highest potential biodiversity value. Reconciliation ecology should not compete with those projects, but rather allow our more disturbed and developed lands to complement the overall region's ecological health. I've spoken on a lot of different topics and organizations, below is a compilation of links relevant to this blog's content.

Environmental Education Advocacy Groups

"ALI" Alliance for Leadership and Interconnection - Cincinnati Local                                                            

Religious Environmental Organizations

Catholic Climate Covenant       Facebook
Evangelical Environmental Network    Facebook
Marianist Environmental Education Center   Facebook

Books and Miscellaneous

Reconciliation Ecology
Richard Louv Author of Last Child in the Woods, and the Nature Principle
Doug Tallamy Author of Brining Nature Home
Green Umbrella  Greater Cincinnati's Regional Environmental Collaborative Facebook
Enright Cincinnati's Urban Ecovillage  Facebook

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