Sunday, August 30, 2015

Big Picture Pollinator Conservation: Land Use and Diet Choices


(Butterflies feeding within the 16,000 acre Edge of Appalachia Nature Preserve)  

Pollinator Habitat Reclamation

Today I’m happy to hear peoples' minds are opening up to caring for and protecting pollinators. Decades ago, their well-being was likely given much less attention as other topics of the hour seemed more pressing. Now much of society is finding out that Honeybees, Butterflies, and the many native pollinators are suffering, and it is expressed through crashing populations. There’s now talk of creating pollinator corridors millions of acres large, people are stoked about Milkweeds for Monarchs, and there’s a lot of energy in some places to replace lawn and highway right-of-ways with wildflowers of different kinds.

I’d like to write about something I haven’t seen brought up in these discussions/actions, that I feel is essential to understand so that we may funnel our energy appropriately in these efforts.

It is very safe to assume, nature (including pollinators) was in it’s ever changing state of perfection before the plows broke the prairie sod, the ax felled the trees, and the wetlands were drained so alas, it is time to talk about land use.

(Bigelow Ohio State Nature Preserve. Photo: Andrew Lane Gibson)

This half an acre Preserve makes up part of the less than 1% of the Ohio Prairie that remains.  The rest has been transitioned to mostly agriculture.

You can barely spot the preserve under the pin on the map to the right, but this area was once covered in prairies and savannah of different kinds that supported an unfathomable amount of life and diversity. It is now almost purely agriculture. See the picture to the right to see an even wider view of what was once a working ecosystem. What need would there have been for a pollinator garden before our multi-million acre modifications?

Some Numbers

  In 2007, in the USA 1/5th of our land area was used for Crop Production:
408 Million Acres (2007) Below are the Big 4 crops that together made up 63.5% (259.2 Mil. Acres)
 Corn-84 Million acres with 40% Ethanol Fuel; 36% Livestock Feed
Soybeans occupy 73.8 Million acres and 32% is Livestock Feed
Hay (Alfalfa) occupies 55.7 Million acres and 100% is used for live stock feed.
Wheat occupies 45.7 Million acres and I couldn’t find out how much is fed to Livestock but the European Union in 2007 fed about 42% of their wheat to livestock so possibly we used a similar number but am not sure.
788 million acres (2007) of land is grazed accounting for 42% of our land space excluding non-arable Alaska land (375 million acres). Yellowstone National Park is only 2.2 million acres.

When one adds the acres of crops fed to livestock (+110 Million Acres) and the grazed acres, America devoted about 47% of our land surface to livestock in 2007.

Our Collective Metropolitan Diet Shapes the Rural Landscape

This is how our demand for Steak, Hamburger, Ribs, Hot Dogs, Chicken, Dairy and other animal produces expresses itself in the landscape under the most utilized grazing tactics. How can pollinators, or the many other earthlings native to our ecosystems of prairies, forests, wetlands, and desert thrive when so much land has been altered, destroyed, fragmented, and manipulated for our 1st world diet?

If 47% of the U.S. land area is devoted just to livestock (2007), another roughly 148.8 million acres (2007) are devoted to other monocultured crops for other uses  (Ethanol, Oils, Food), another 40-45 million acres are devoted to lawns, and roughly 17 million acres are mowed maintained right of ways by state departments….are our little 100 square foot monarch waystations and pollinator gardens really going to make a difference in this nation’s ecology?

Well of sarcasm.

But how? Well, 80% of people live on the 3% of the land that is labeled metropolitans. The bulk of the rest of people live on another 3% of the land known as Rural Residential. So pretty much 4/5 people live wthin 3% of the land, and the other 1/5 people live within the other 3%. This is an amazing convenient opportunity to reach the masses and connect them with the life concentrating in our pollinator gardens and backyard prairies/wetlands/forest gardens.  I suggest we reframe our thinking and actions with the big picture in mind, the fact that the majority of this country has had its habitats destroyed beyond recognition. Also become aware that there are sustainable agriculture methods available now such as John Jeavons Grow Biointensive method, that guides one to grow a balanced vegan diet on 5,000 square feet of land (.11) acres. Hypothetically that would feed the current U.S. population on just 36 million acres, which is less land than we already have as lawn! Agroforestry techniques are developing as well incorporating savannah like perennial ecosystems that produce food and create habitat.

Without changing our unsustainable "luxury over need" agricultural system in a world which will see an additional 2+ Billion people added before the end of the century, how else could we birth the possibility for large scale unfragmented habitat restoration?

That would spell the end of loosing keystone species like the Eastern Puma, the end of such high greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized agriculture, and the end of having conversations about pollinator species decline etc. etc.  Even if you have no land to garden, divesting from the meat and dairy industry while supporting awareness raising efforts around ecology is an action potentially more powerful than a garden itself in the big picture view. Volunteering to remove invasive species in metropolitans is also a big impact action, as one study found 82% of invasive woody plants were brought here for horticultural use, and most horticulture (landscaping) is concentrated in our metropolitans which consequently are breeding grounds for invasive plants. In the midwest, I've noticed the further one drives away from a metropolitan, the less invasive plants are present, and then as you approach the next metropolitan, invasive plants increase.

What really else should we do, but return things back as well as we can, to the way they were? And in my view, studding our little 3% of metropolitan land with pollinator gardens and prairies for pollinator support is missing the target if not done with the intentions of openings our community’s hearts back up to nature. The majority culture is in a state of indifference and unaware. These external changes in land will be most temporary, if they do not change the internal state of humanity, expressed through a cultural values shift.

Please comment below to continue the discussion.

Written by Solomon Gamboa of Pioneer Landscapes LLC

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