Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Big Picture Land Use and High Impact Local Action/Outreach

(The millions of acres of farmland and pasture in-between metropolitan areas colored light green)

This post is about overall land use in the U.S.A. and is meant to deliver a large picture. The dark green streaks in the picture above represent private and publicly owned forest-land likely on topography that didn't favor agriculture which is all of the light green colored land in between these Indiana and Ohio Metropolitan areas. 

Not counting Alaska which has effectively no agricultural land, at least 43.5% of the total U.S. Land was devoted to livestock grazing or cropland growing silage and/or fodder in 2002.

To find this number you must find out how much Corn, Silage, Alfalfa, Soybeans, Sorghum, and Wheat were grown for livestock, which is part of the cropland land use but not attributed to livestock. Where as Rangeland and Pasture are directly attributed to livestock use. One must also add the 134 million acres of Grazed Forests under the Forest-use land category.

Also, when you don’t count the 375 million acres in Alaska which are again, mostly unusable to agriculture, agricultural purposes in total (including grazing) occupied over 62% of the U.S. Land Area in 2002.  Counting Alaksa, the number is 52%.

(Overview of Urban-Suburban and some Rural Residential land in NKY/Cincinnati Metro Area)

In comparison, Urban Land (2.6% - 60 million Acres) and Rural Residential Land (4.2% - 94 million acres) only occupied a total of 6.8% of the U.S. Land’s surface.  Lawn occupies an estimated 40+ million acres of that land (26%). Here’s the bad news, 6.8% of a highly fragmented land surface will not save biodiversity through native plant landscape renovation and invasive species removal alone, the footprint is too small and spread out throughout the country. But the people! Here’s the good news; 100% of the population is concentrated on 6.8% of the land!

Why does this matter so?

Our ecological integrations on our hometown properties could quite possibly be the most effective cultural outreach ever attempted on behalf of the environment/nature. Why focus on cultural outreach? Because it is our collective culture that is indifferent to/unaware of/or ok with 43.5% of the land being used by livestock, and 62% of the lower 48 states being occupied by largely unsustainable, ecologically destructive/limiting forms of industrial agriculture.

Though I don’t think it’s going to be as simple as education and giving people “facts”. People know that climate change is happening, they’ve heard plenty of facts, that hasn’t translated into cultural change/reaction that shows we as a society are ready to face this dilemma.  The majority of the country is still carrying on with our energy wasting lifestyles for the most part. Education and awareness campaigns have their place, but if they’re not bringing about a grassroots transformation, literally, then they’re likely supplementing/attracting the people who already would support more sustainable land management-the people like you and I who are reading and writing blog posts like these,  leading/attending conferences and workshops, and putting these earth balancing methods into practice.

(Birds eye view of a section of the suburban-city Mason, Ohio)

My question is, given our small piece of land that homeowners own, work in, attend school/church/events, shop, and commute about (6.8% of the U.S.), how do we engage the masses? If provided the proper directions, anyone can construction a native prairie planted with edible fruit producing trees and shrubs, and tree/shrub nut-crops, but how do we involve our communities who are mostly compromised of people who would never think to engage in such lively land management. I don’t mean to paint them as hopeless or aversive to these ideas, but I certainly mean to express the tasks we are given as people wishing to reconnect the masses to nature culturally who are currently disconnected.

When I say we are disconnected I mean I would bet that 9/10 of my neighbors can’t describe the destruction that Bush Honeysuckle is doing to our local ecology, 9/10 of my neighbors can’t list any health risks to their families, wildlife, or the watershed of applying pesticides and herbicides to their lawns, and 9/10 of my neighbors can’t identify 3 of the native trees on my street, on their properties with the 1/10 being myself.  I’m also willing to be that 9/10 people don’t have a basic understanding of land-use in the U.S., any idea of how much land is devoted to livestock production, the carbon footprint associated with non-local/regionally sourced foods and meat production, soil degradation associated with industrial agriculture, the 6th mass extinction, or even name 3 trees that may have once grown where their property now sits.

We can supply that kind of information to paint a vague picture of a scary reality that us earth-conscious people must bare, but I again emphasis the point that education campaigns and awareness raising campaigns have had very variable and many unsuccessful results. A study done on a community based tree planting program in California showed that the community members who were involved with tree selection, organizing the planting events, and executing the planting the tree were much more likely to nurture the tree they received.  That demonstrates that a bond was formed, and care for this “other” life form had become desirable to an individual. Where as community members who received trees, but weren’t involved in selection, planting, planning, or event execution were significantly less likely to nurture the trees.

(An infographic of a temporarily shelved pilot program to engage people in nature)

Back when I was working 40 hours a week at Cincinnati Parks as a Horticulturist, while building Pioneer Landscapes LLC after work and on the weekends, I naively but innocently attempted to pioneer a community based tree planting program that would later grow to include native shrubs, native wildlfowers, native grasses, and edible native and edible non-native plants for food production. Our target was to work with non-profits, churches, and business that were interested in being more involved with their communities and carrying out environmentally positive actions. I along with a few volunteers even completed a piolot project in which a non-profit grew over 70 Oak trees and distributed them freely to those who wanted them. The idea of Oak trees turned out to be scary to our big-tree wary culture and perhaps only 20 were adopted, but we had to go with Oak trees as the pilot project was rushed and that was the only seed we had available that spring. In the future when I have the free-time to revive this project, we’ll be focusing on the most nature/people bonding plants such as those with outstanding beauty like Black Gum, Eastern Redbud, and Flowering Dogwood, as well as those that produce human edible foods like Persimmons, Hybrid Hazelnuts, and PawPaws, as well as canopy sized trees like Hickories, Oaks, and Sugar Maple.  The quick instant gratification of native wildflowers and grasses will also be distributed through a model like this to directly engage people (-video link) in the growing, pot loading, planting, and nurturing of plants while reaping the fruits of the labor figuratively and literally. This model was also very economically affordable, costing the community organization partner only 25 cents to produce a native shrub, wildflower, or grass and $4.25 to produce a native tree of which about $4.00 was for deer protection.

(Oak Saplings being grown and nurtured by Happen Inc.- A community focused non-profit)

I felt like that model had many of the ingredients to engage communities actively in the physical/natural environments of their neighborhoods attracting those interested in ecology, aesthetics, and food production to be leaders/facilitators, while also being educational, unique, and fun enough to attract school and community youth participation. After breaking down under the stress of leading that non-profit program, while building a for-profit business, and working a 40 hour week job, I had to shelf the program but I believe it is experience based programs like these that can effectively connect people to nature, as opposed to just education/awareness focused programs. Letting nature be the teacher…..bees pollinate,  grasses dance in the wind, butterflies flutter, fruit tastes sweet…… one our jobs as people interested in saving nature I believe is creating the landscapes or programs that create the landscapes and experiential opportunities; that allow nature to change the minds and hearts of those who experience her in good health.  

In closing I’d like to tell a short story. I was walking the Cincinnati Botanical Zoo a few years ago in early spring. Forsythia, a non-native with no local genetic ties to our pollinators, was in full bright yellow bloom. It blooms so thickly and early in the season, one would think people would crowd around them in a high traffic area like the Zoo to see the spectacle. But to the left of the patch of forsythia stood one small cherry tree. Even though the Cherry tree wasn’t a native or native cultivar, since Cherries (Prunus species) have close genetic ties to local cherries species (Black Cherry and Wild Plum species) local pollinators have adapted well to landscape cherry trees. I must say, I do not advocate the planting of non-native ornamental cherry trees as there are strains locally that are shade tolerant and becoming dangerously invasive in local forests out competing Beech and Sugar Maple in the understory. Anyways, there were 2 or 3 ladies standing directly under this cherry tree, who bloomed a modest soft whitish pink, enamored by the activity occurring in, around, on, and through it. The tree was buzzing  with easily over 100 pollinators with native bees and honeybees well represented which was deeply captivating to the pedestrians. Meanwhile the brightly colored patch of forsythia may have briefly caught a few wandering eyes, it did not stop people in their tracks and captivate their minds like that little cherry tree covered in life, pollination in action. Native plant landscapes integrated with food producing tree and shrubs have the potential to reconnect people back to the land/life. Let us focus on building these cultural connections, and keep in mind, we have the whole population concentrated on 6.8% of the land, that is an opportunity to move people, an opportunity to change culture, an opportunity to save nature through paradigm shifts.

I digress with this parting note, without competing with other social action movements or threatening the art of horticulture creating opposition, we with bonds already developed with nature must be the ones to cultivate a greener tomorrow, today. Think about it, if not us, than who would care enough to?

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