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Religion & Environmental Stewardship

Throughout history and to this very day, differences in religion have been the source of significant conflict in the world. The intersection of religion and environment has also been laden with discord, particularly in the last half of the 20th century. In the oft-cited 1967 paper “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” which appeared in the journal Science, medieval historian Lynn White, Jr. went as far as to argue that the Christian influence in the Middle Ages, with it’s “exploitative” attitude toward nature, was at the root of the ecological crisis.

Yet despite this conflict-wrought history, there are signs that organized religion may be emerging as a potentially powerful source of hope and collaboration. In past issues of Leaf Litter (focused on Traditional Ecosystem Knowledge and Rights of Nature, to name two), we have touched upon the care and reverence for nature that is ingrained in the lives of many of the world’s indigenous cultures, who hold a deep, spiritual connection to the land. But more recently, particularly in the months leading up to the United Nation’s COP 21 Paris climate talks, we are seeing these same themes emerging in other world religions.

Religious environmental activists at the Vatican

Religious environmental activists at the Vatican

This spring, Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ not only helped direct worldwide attention to environmental degradation; it declared misuse of Earth a “sin,” and the care and healing of “Our Common Home” as a moral obligation for all people, regardless of faith.

The Catholic Church has not been the only religious community to release this kind of powerful statement. The Hindu community presented it’s global Declaration on Climate Change at the 2009 meeting of the Parliament of World Religions. SymbolsThe Dalai Lama has spoken out on climate change for decades, and in 2009 he and other Buddhist leaders collaborated on a primer for the development of pan-Buddhist policy for a safe-climate future. This year, the Dalai Lama was the first to sign a pan-Buddhist statement “The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change.” At the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium this past August, Muslim leaders and academics adopted the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, which calls not only upon Muslims, but all COP21 participants, wealthy and oil-producing states, national leaders, and all people to do their part to reduce greenhouse gasses. As of last month, 425 rabbis from around the world have signed the Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, which calls for vigorous action to improve the environment and eco-social justice. All of these declarations include an element of environmental justice and care for the disenfranchised, and all, in their own way, acknowledge humans as being an interconnected part—albeit a powerful part—of a larger community of life.

Cathedral of the Incarnation Bioswale Designer: Jean Mellott •Installed by Blue Water Baltimore and church Creation Care Team

Blue Water Baltimore & Cathedral of the Incarnation Creation Care team install bioswale designed by Jean Mellott

You need not go to Paris or read formal declarations to see faith communities in action on behalf of the planet. Chances are, you can find religious environmentalism happening in your own neighborhood. Here in Baltimore, for example, the Blue Water Congregations program, co-implemented by Blue Water Baltimore and Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, is working to reduce stormwater runoff from places of worship. Since its inception in 2014, the program has already engaged 72 religious institutions. A mere 20-minute drive from our office is the Pearlstone Center, a Jewish retreat center and sustainable farm that fully integrates environmental stewardship into its operations and educational programming.

Could this swell of religious environmentalism on the local and global scale be a game changer when it comes to healing the planet? Could the common threads of awe, compassion, and responsibility found in so many world religions be strong enough to unify and inspire people for the good of the planet? These are the questions we had in mind when we chose to explore the topic of Religion and Environmental Stewardship in the 2015 Winter Solstice issue of Leaf Litter.

It would be impossible to examine every religion, let alone every denomination or sect, but we hope that this issue will pique your interest in a growing movement that may somehow connect with the work that you do, and the communities you engage.

Elizabeth Allison

Elizabeth Allison

We begin by asking scholars and activists of five major world religions the same six questions about these faith community’s connections to nature and motivation for stewardship.

We also share a bulletin on the actions of religious communities at the 2015 COP21 Climate Conference in Paris, France.

In our Expert Q&A, we chat with Elizabeth Allison, who has been at the forefront of the integration of religion and ecology in education and scholarship.

DVDLLWe review the film RENEWAL, the first feature-length documentary to capture the vitality and diversity of today’s religious environmentalist activists.

For many people, religion is profoundly important to their understanding of the environment, their role in caring for it, and their career choice. Such is the case with Biohabitats’ Great Lakes Bioregion leader Tom Denbow and water resources engineer Meghan Gloyd, who share personal reflections on their faith and work.

Leaf Litter’s Non-Profit Spotlight shines upon GreenFaith an interfaith GreenFaithSolarPowerFEATUREDcoalition that bills itself as a “one-stop shop” for the resources and tools religious institutions need to engage environmental issues and become religious-environmental leaders.

From materials written by our featured scholars to web sites, recent news items, and further literature, we share resources on the topic of religion and environmental stewardship. We also update you on Biohabitats projects, places, and people.

We hope you enjoy this issue and accept our heartfelt wishes for a peaceful New Year.

Banding Together for Bird Conservation

PanoramicFor me, any day spent on the beach rather than in my office is a good day. Add in great people and fun, active work aimed at protecting rare shorebirds, and that beach day quickly upgrades to great. Throw in the chance to hold fluffy, adorable chicks, and, well…we’re talking epic.

birds in flight

Black skimmer (Rynchops niger) in Hempstead, NY

Last week, I had the opportunity to join staff members from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), the New York Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Town of Hempstead on an annual outing to Nickerson Beach in Nassau County, Long Island to band a colony of black skimmer (Rynchops niger) chicks.

As their name suggests, black skimmers literally skim the surface of the water to feed. Their lower jaw slips beneath the water, and when it touches a fish, the upper bill snaps to catch it.  It’s a cool bird to watch…but the chance to see one is sometimes difficult.

black skimmer (Rynchops niger) chick

A young black skimmer chick

In wintertime, black skimmers are primarily located on southern coasts, from the Carolinas to Central America. But in the spring, they migrate north to breed, and they like to nest on sandy beaches and marsh islands. The same kind of sandy beaches that we humans like to vacation on. So it is not surprising that the black skimmer is now endangered in New Jersey and of special concern in New York.

Holdling Bird

The team banding the chicks

Because of my involvement in dune nourishment projects, I do a lot of monitoring of shorebirds along New Jersey beaches. This summer alone, I have probably spent 10 hours or more each week taking note of bird life along these beaches, but not once this summer on the New Jersey Beaches have I seen a black skimmer.

So it was amazing, last week, to walk out onto Nickerson Beach and suddenly see a colony of 600 breeding pairs. According to my colleagues on the banding trip, this population is stable.  Once my sense of awe subsided enough for me to actually move, the fun really began.

black skimmer (Rynchops niger) chick

Apparently, last year, it took three days to chase and catch only 25 black skimmer chicks to band. But this year, Jason Smith from NYSDEC developed a new way to corral the chicks, who cannot yet fly, using a temporary fence-like structure and we were able to band 89 of them within two hours. This method not only lessened our stress, but that of the chicks and adults. Each chick was banded with a USFWS metal band on its left leg, and those with big enough legs received a bright yellow field-readable ID band on their right leg.

Banding these birds is important because it helps us find out where the skimmers are going during the rest of the year and see how many chicks return as adults to breed in their natal colony.


Trying to keep the chicks calm while banding

It is one thing to look for, read about, and then actually see a species that is endangered (in New Jersey). It is quite another to hold one in your hand, where its vulnerability is, literally, tangible. The chicks felt so fragile. When I held them in order to band them, all I could feel was the beating of their hearts. That is the pulse of a day well spent.

Looking Back to Move Forward – Celebrating Ecological Restoration

Presentation by Keith Bowers

at the 2015 SER Mid-Atlantic Conference

University of Delaware, Newark, DE. March 23, 2015

Keith Bowers

Keith Bowers

Before we focus on the future of restoration, I want to reflect back for a moment on the past. It is always good to know whose shoulders we are standing on before we dive head first into the future.

For me, the past in ecological restoration started when I was in college, in the late 1970s. Back then, only a handful of people had been engaged in what we now know as ecological restoration. Up until then, the primary means by which people participated in the environmental movement was to give money to a conservation organization that bought and protected land.

But soon I discovered Dr. Edgar Garbicsh, once a professor from the University of Michigan, who took a sabbatical in the early 1970s, moved to St. Michaels, Maryland, and began tinkering with salt marshes. He started by propagating and growing marsh grasses. Then he set out to learn about how marshes function. And finally he developed, through much on-the-ground trial and error, techniques to restore and revegetate tidal marshes up and down the Eastern seaboard. Today, thousands of acres of marsh are restored each year thanks to Dr. Garbicsh’s tenacity, determination and vision.

Being a college kid still trying to figure it all out, all I could think about at the time was, “How cool was this? Someone was getting paid to be on the water all day, whizzing around in an airboat, planting marsh grasses and getting a tan.” Now that was for me.

Little did I know that most days consisted of swatting away merciless mosquitoes, horse flies, and no-see-ums. Fighting off stinging nettles and sunburns. Getting stuck in the mud up to my chest and having to be rescued by ropes and winches. Watching my unmoored boat drift haplessly into a shipping lane in Baltimore’s Inner harbor. And if all of that were not enough, after an exhausting day of planting thousands of plugs of spartina alterniflora and patens, returning the next morning to find that all of the plants had been unceremoniously yanked from the ground and devoured by flocks of hungry geese during the night. Not as glamorous as I had thought. So began my love affair with ecological restoration.

Last April I had the honor of speaking at the Northeast Society for Ecological Restoration Chapter annual conference at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts. SER, along with the Conway School of Design, dedicated the conference to Ed Garbicsh’s work and brought Joanna Garbish, his wife, to the conference to receive an award for Ed’s groundbreaking and tireless work in wetland restoration. They gave me the honor of saying a few words about the impact/influence Ed has had on my career (and really on my life) and the opportunity to present the award to Joanna.

No doubt some of you in this room today probably knew Ed a lot better than I did, and had the privilege of working directly with Ed or for Environmental Concern. Ed was a huge supporter of SER in the early days, and most people don’t realize that he provided much needed financial support to SER in the early 2000s. So when I think about the past 10-20- 30 years of ecological restoration, I immediately think about Ed and all of the ecological restoration pioneers like him on whose shoulders we now stand.

In comparison to today, 30 some years ago certainly seemed like simpler times. Partly I suspect out of ignorance to what we now know, and partly because they were simpler. Today we are faced with the growing impacts of climate change, the ubiquitous spread of invasive species, the collapse of trophic food webs, the impending extinction of thousands of species, and the often times invisible changes to Earth’s biogeochemical processes.

But rather than dwell in what often seems like insurmountable challenges, and before I say something pithy and profound about our collective roles in the future of ecological restoration, I thought I would tell you a story. Or better yet, three stories.

How many of you listen to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me on NPR, hosted by Peter Sagal?  Every week, as part of the show, they play “Bluff the Listener.” Panelists tell three stories and the listener needs to identify the true story.

So, our three stories today focus on the future of restoration. You are the listener and I will play the part of the panelists. And instead of guessing which story is correct, as they do in the show, you need to guess which story is made up.

Ok, here goes.

STORY #1: Restoring a Volcano

Mr. Bowers, I am Youngbae Suh,
 Co-chair of the National Promotion Committee for Restoring Hanon Volcanic Crater, located in Jeju Province, South Korea. Jeju volcanic island was formed more than 1.8 million years ago from numerous volcanic activities, and is designated by the UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage site, and Global Geopark,

The Hanon volcanic crater is the only maar type of volcanic crater and the largest volcanic crater in Korea; more than 1 km in diameter. The volcanic crater is important natural heritage, like a ‘time capsule of  Earth’s environment,’ preserving invaluable scientific information that reveals the process of Earth’s climatic and ecological changes through pollen, spores and yellow sands accumulated as thick as 15 meters inside the lake and wetland sediments of the crater over the last 50,000 years

The volcanic crater was transformed into farmland about five hundred years ago. A dense primeval forest along with its crater lake disappeared to farm the inside of the crater. More recent human activities including indiscriminate land development have severely damaged the area. Recently, there have been discussions on the need to restore this crater wall, lake and vegetation in order to conserve the environmental value of this rare type of volcano.

As you may know, the Secretary General of IUCN recently urged the Korean government to set up a national plan for restoring the Hanon Volcanic Crater. We are curious if Biohabitats would be interested in developing an ecological restoration master plan to restore this volcano to its full natural beauty.

Mr. Bowers, do you think you can restore a volcano and is Biohabitats interested in helping us? We assure you there is no chance of the volcano erupting during your work.

STORY #2: Restoring Interstellar space

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Mr. Bowers, I am Olga Dominaquez, the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Strategic infrastructure of NASA.  I live in Annapolis, MD, work at Goddard Space Flight Center and my background is in Fish and Wildlife Management and Zoology. NASA is concerned about all of the space debris that is beginning to accumulate (over a half million pieces and counting) along with the disturbances that were made to the moon surface from the Apollo missions and the current scaring that is taking place on Mars from the Rover missions. While we have a progressive environmental sustainability program for the international space station we are now recognizing that we need to begin thinking about restoring the disturbances to the moon and mars, and to begin developing the technology to clean up space debris.

I would like to invite you and a select number of colleagues from your firm to meet with a mission support team at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin a dialogue on what it would take to carry out these restoration initiatives. I would like to schedule a call with your team the week of April 21st to go over some background, security and logistics.

Mr. Bowers, is Biohabitats interested in helping us and do you think you can restore the surfaces of Mars and the Moon and clean up interstellar space? We assure you that future space travel will be minimal.

STORY #3 Restoring the Deep Abyss

Mr. Bowers, I am Cindy Van Dover, Director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory and Chair of the Division of Marine Science and Conservation at the Nicholas School of the Environment. Last month, Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian company, was granted a 20-year mining lease by the government of Papua New Guinea for mineral extraction at a site known as Solwara 1 in the Manus Basin off their coast. The company plans to commence open-cut mining within the next few years, removing mineral ores on the ocean floor, more than 300 meters in depth. At this depth, considered the Deep Sea, no light penetrates the ocean floor and only deep-sea submersible remote control vehicles can operate due to the pressure. The mining operation will cover an area equivalent to about 10 football fields. Deposits of cooper, zinc, silver, gold, and magnesium have been identified in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, which also include many magnificent organisms that are still unknown to science.

We, along with Nautilus Minerals are interested in exploring how one would go about restoring these deep-sea hydrothermal vents post mining, including salvaging and transplanting associated species, all by unmanned remote controlled customized restoration vehicles. As you may know, many defense contractors are exploring the market of deep-sea mining from both a business proposition and a national security issue.

Mr. Bowers, is Biohabitats interested in working with us to develop the technology and practices required to restore deep sea hydrothermal vents? I can assure you that you no sharks, killer whales or giant squid have injured any of our crews…yet!

So, listeners, which two stories are true, and which one is made up? Where is the future of restoration?

Is it story #1 about restoring a (hopefully inactive) volcanic crater off the coast of South Korea in order to preserve the natural history buried deep within its sediments?

Is it story #2 about restoring the surfaces of the moon and Mars from past NASA missions, along with helping to develop ways to clean up interstellar space of over a half million pieces of space debris?

Or finally, is it story # 3 about restoring the deep abyss – the ocean floor where deep-sea mining will be impacting naturally occurring hydrothermal vents that consist of species still unknown to science?

Hanon Crater currently being used for agriculture

Hanon Crater currently being used for agriculture

Well, story # 1 Restoring the Volcano is true and story #3 is true.

Sorry to say that story # 2 is made up. We have not yet been contacted by NASA. In fact this story was fabricated last year on March 31st. Needless to say the next day, April 1st, there were some Biohabitats team members who thought we were headed to Cape Canaveral.

So, it’s fun to imagine where ecological restoration might take us in the next 10-20 years. But in the meantime, where does that leave us now?

For me, the future of restoration is currently planted in two camps, with a lot of in-between space. And while these two camps may appear to be diametrically opposed, I believe that the survival of each, and possibly the survival of wild nature, is wholly dependent on the ability of both camps to prosper. The key, I believe, is context and connectivity. And that is where we, as restoration practitioners and restoration ecologists, can make a difference.

Several years ago I was invited to participate in workshop on islands in the Puget Sound led by Richard Hobbs, Eric Higgs, and Jim Harris along with a cadre of restoration ecologists, conservation biologists and scientists from around the world. We debated, developed, and put to song (that’s another story after a few beers) the beginning foundations behind the concept of novel ecosystems. Novel ecosystems are ecosystem that have been highly altered by human agency, at relatively rapid temporal scales, that have no historical analogue, and which are posing new and challenging conundrums for how to restore and manage ecosystems.

Based on my practical experiences as a restoration practitioner, a lot of this made sense to me. Practicing in highly disturbed landscapes, many of us can relate to the difficulty of developing an historical reference template for restoration. Our sites are often times so altered that for both practical and economic reasons, we are left with applying restoration approaches that favor certain ecosystem processes or species compositions, or require extensive ongoing management. I am finding that restoration is often combined with other approaches, including ecological engineering, bioengineering, biomimicry, and so on.

Nothing is wrong with this. No doubt we are changing the face of this planet at dizzying speeds, and that through urbanization and resource consumption, we have greatly altered the natural landscape and its associated ecological processes and functions. In many cases, it makes little sense to invest the time, resources and energy required to restore all of these ecological functions back (or forward if you will) to a natural state. In many cases we don’t have the technology and we certainly don’t have, sadly, the political, social, or economic will to do so. Unless we, as a society, are prepared to spend millions of dollars a day (not without precedent – our nation managed to spend upwards of $70 million a day to sustain the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) to fully restore the full suite of ecosystem processes and functions we have lost, we are then left with restoring lands that prioritize and emphasis certain ecosystem services – within a novel context, to mostly benefit us, first and foremost. Nature takes a back seat. While some of us can argue that this is highly regrettable, others will say this makes the most practical sense given current population growth, resource consumption, and our need to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

So I have one foot firmly planted in the Novel Ecosystem World. 

On the other hand, as many of you know, I have been a long time member and served for many years on the board of directors for Wildlands Network, an organization founded by Dave Foreman, Michael Soule, John Terborgh and others. Wildlands Network is dedicated to the idea of reconnecting, rewilding and restoring large landscapes and corridors across North America. Their mission is audacious, ambitious, and, I believe, absolutely critical for preserving wilderness, biodiversity, and the ecological processes that sustain all life on Earth. For intact areas to remain intact and evolve, they need to be big and in the right location, they need to have good boundaries, buffers and connectivity, they need for ecological restoration to play a pivotal role in repairing and maintaining their integrity and they need effective policies that ensure their long term protection. As Edward Wilson and other noted conservationists advocate, we need half of Earth for nature.

I argue that we need to make a serious commitment to conserve and restore large swaths of interconnected land–and seascapes. Doing so, as Michael Soule puts it, “protect Earth’s extraordinary diversity of wild plants, animals and ecosystems, ensures the perpetuation of the 3.5 billion year saga of biological evolution and speciation, and ensures opportunities for people, now and well into the future, to benefit spiritually and physically from wildness and the diversity of wild beings.”

RoadConstructionJust this week a paper written by a team of 24 international scientists and headed by Nick Haddad, a professor at North Carolina State University, reported that “Nearly 20 percent of the world’s remaining forests are the distance of a football field—or about 100 meters—away from forest edges,” and seventy percent of forest lands are within a half-mile of forest edges. That means almost no forests can really be considered wilderness.” It also means that we are losing. We are continuing to slice and dice the landscape into thousands of pieces, not really seeing the forest for the trees.

So my other foot is firmly planted in the camp of large, interconnected landscapes. Unlike the perspective that nature is a resource, to be used, exploited, designed, shaped, and morphed to our liking, this camp views the landscape as part of a greater whole, in which nature serves all life on Earth without preference or bias to us. I argue that if we lose sight of that whole, not only do we jeopardize all other life on this planet, we jeopardize our very existence.

So the future for me is framed by the need to recognize that the concept of novel ecosystems provides a useful foundation for deciding how, when, and where, to apply restoration to highly disturbed landscapes; and simultaneously by the need to champion, support and enable restoration initiatives that leverage the conservation of large, intact interconnected land and seascapes across North America.

To do this, I go back to the notion of context and connectivity.

We need to ensure that all of the restoration we do is placed within a greater context of supporting the idea of large landscape conservation. This will obviously mean different things for different sites. Ultra urban sites may support large landscape connectivity and conservation very differently than a site bordering on a regional park or in a rural setting. More importantly, it means that we need scientifically robust and socially inclusive policies to frame and give shape to large landscape conservation measures that are grounded in bioregional attributes. And we need to demonstrate to the public that this is essential for ensuring our long-term health, prosperity and happiness.

I know this will be a long, hard, messy, and complicated slog. But I also know we as restoration practitioners and restoration ecologists are in a perfect position to lead and be seen as leaders. There are several things we can do:

  1. Become familiar with and support ongoing efforts to create connectivity plans for states and regions. Maryland and New Jersey have been long at work on these types of initiatives.
  1. Support the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) in their efforts to explore and implement large landscape conservation and connectivity.
  1. Take a step back from your restoration work or project and think about how it fits into the larger landscape–its context. Is it a piece of a larger puzzle that plays a pivotal role in stitching the landscape back together? Ask how can you leverage this.
  1. Embed research and monitoring into everything you do, formally or guerilla style. It will take time, so we need to continue learning what works, what’s effective, and what holds the most promise.
  1. Most of all, stay upbeat, committed and passionate about what you are doing. We are all doing good work that we can all be proud of.

I believe my time is running out and the beer is calling. Thank you so much for your attention and patience.

Can psychology help environmental work?

Thoughts on Psychology

Amy Nelson, Editor

A wildlife biologist I interviewed for Leaf Litter a few years ago confided that he once contemplated suicide because he just couldn’t bear the constant sense of loss and hopelessness that came with his job. My memory of that conversation came immediately to mind when Erica Robak, our administrative assistant, suggested that we explore the role of psychology in ecological restoration, conservation planning, and regenerative design. Erica had studied psychology in college, and was intrigued by its potential to enhance and inform environmental work.

If you have ever struggled with your own feelings of loss, frustration, anger, or despair over the havoc we humans have wreaked on the biosphere, or if you have ever tried to change public behavior to benefit the environment, you’ll want to read this issue.

As we work to restore ecosystems, conserve biodiversity, and regenerate human connections to the landscape, we know that whole systems solutions require interdisciplinary approaches. But are we including the discipline of psychology? We ought to. Not only can psychologists help us become more resilient to environmental doom and gloom so we can continue to work for a better planet; they bring unparalleled insight into the main cause of environmental degradation–human behavior.

What are the psychological barriers to pro-environmental behavior?  Can people actually be motivated to act altruistically? And why is it that only one-third of the public even talks about climate change? To explore these and other questions, we turn to three psychologists whose work directly applies to the environment.

Dr. Susan Clayton

Dr. Susan Clayton, ©Amanda Kowalski Photography

Susie Burke, senior psychologist with the Australian Psychological Society, shares insight into the biases that affect everyday decisions and behavior. She has spoken about the connections between mental health and climate change before the Australian Parliament and as part of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. Conservation psychologist, architect, and educator John Fraser was not only researched attitudes and behaviors related to the environment, but applied that research to projects through his non-profit think tank, NewKnowledge. He strongly encourages us to frame a positive narrative around environmental issues. Susan Clayton, who helped craft the American Psychological Association’s report on Psychology and Global Climate Change, is a conservation psychologist and Wooster College professor of psychology and environmental studies. Intent on informing efforts to enhance public engagement in conservation, she spends a great deal of her time at zoos, studying the ways in which people connect with nature.

It’s tempting to think that we understand human behavior, because, well…we are human. In her piece, Psychology & Environmental Work: Time to Test the Waters, Erica Robak tells us why it’s best to resist that temptation and instead turn to psychology to inform our efforts to promote behavior that benefits the biosphere.

As we learn from our psychology experts, it turns out it is important to our own well-being that we express the negative feelings we sometimes experience in our line of work. So in addition to providing resources on this topic and the latest news from Biohabitats, we also share some feelings. With only a  little bit of arm twisting, a few Biohabitats team members got in front of the camera and expressed their feelings of fear, sadness, and ultimately, hope.

May this encourage you to do the same with your friends, family, and colleagues, and may your hope soar as we continue to work for a better planet in the coming year. Happy Winter Solstice!

What if the People’s Climate March had Included Plants & Animals?

American Pika (Ochotona princeps) ©National Park Service

American Pika (Ochotona princeps) ©National Park Service

According to the latest estimates, nearly 400,000 people gathered in New York City this past Sunday to participate in the People’s Climate March. Thousands more took part in similar events in London, Paris, Istanbul, Jakarta, and other parts of the world. Photos of the massive turnout, timed to precede today’s UN Climate Summitdominated yesterday’s news and social media feeds.

400,000 people. It’s an impressive number, and it does give me hope.

But as someone who just wrapped up an issue of a publication that explored the topic of climate-driven species movement, I wondered: how high would the count be if plants and animals had the ability to represent themselves at the People’s Climate March?

Quiver trees (Aloe dichotoma), living and dead, in Namibia.

Quiver trees (Aloe dichotoma), living and dead, in Namibia.

Imagine hosts of Baird’s sparrows (Ammodramus bairdii), flying down Sixth Avenue, over the heads of the marchers, demonstrating their outrage over the recent projection that they will lose 100% of their breeding range by 2020 thanks to climate change. If Quiver trees (Aloe dichotoma) could uproot themselves from the deserts of Namibia and South Africa, surely they’d march on behalf of brethren who are dying at increasing rates in low elevations and areas closer to the equator. What if colonies of pika (Ochotona princeps) who have already disappeared from one-third of their previously known habitat because they cannot escape rising temperatures, skittered among the marching feet of protesters?

Landscape architect Michael Spina (2nd from L) with friends & family at People's Climate March

Landscape architect Michael Spina (2nd from L) at the People’s Climate March

My colleague, Michael Spina, was one of those protesters. After attending the march with his friends and family, he said, “we all took away a feeling of positivity and hope, which was palpable being surrounded by such a large powerful community of folks who are concerned about the environment.”

To Michael, and to all others who take action by participating in events like the People’s Climate March: thank you. Your “community” is larger than you can imagine.

Climate-Driven Species Movement

Earth’s climate has always been changing, and living things have always needed to adapt to changing environments in order to survive and reproduce. For many species, this has meant movement. But for species on the move due to modern climate change, travel ain’t what it used to be.

First, there are the travel routes. By altering the landscape in the name of development, agriculture, and infrastructure, we humans have not made it easy for any kind of species migration, let alone those we cannot yet anticipate.

Then, there is the pace of climate change. Stanford climate scientists warn that the likely rate of change over the next century will be at least 10 times quicker than any climate shift in the past 65 million years. A 2011 study showed that species movement in response to climate change is happening two to three times faster than previously estimated, but is that fast enough? Can species keep pace? Last month’s news about the brown argus butterfly, the first known species to lose its ability to do something essential (eat and lay eggs on one of the two plants it has needed for survival) as it moves in response to climate change, raises doubts. So does Audubon’s recently released Birds and Climate Change Report, which projected that in merely 66 years, half of North American bird species will have lost 50% of their climatic range.

By 2080, the burrowing owl could lose 77% of its breeding range © Rinusbaak Dreamstime.com Burrowing Owl Chicks

By 2080, the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) could lose 77% of its breeding range

What do we know about current and projected climate-driven species movement? Can this information inform our work in ecological restoration, conservation planning and regenerative design so that we can facilitate species movement as the climate changes? What about the movement of invasive species in response to climate change? In the latest issue of Leaf Litter, we explore climate-driven species movement.

To get a sense of the state of the latest science and challenges associated with it, we chat with two researchers who are studying climate-driven species movement. Dr. Josh Lawler is an ecologist at the University of Washington whose current work involves modeling the responses of animal species and populations to land-use and climate change. He is the author of several papers on species-driven movement and contributor to the U.S. National Climate Assessment.

Dr. Miguel B. Araújo holds the Chair in Integrative Biogeography at the Imperial College London, while also serving as a research scientist at Spain’s National Museum of Natural Sciences and a visiting professor at the University of Évora, Portugal and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Last year, his work studying the effects of climate change on regional and global biodiversity earned him the prestigious Ebbe Nielsen Prize, which recognizes innovative research excellence in integrating biodiversity science and informatics.

Whitebark pine, an important food source for the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)

Mountain pine beetle infections, made worse by climate change, impact whitebark pine, a food source for grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) food sources.

Though the study of climate-driven species movement is relatively new and constantly evolving, many people are applying the science to their work in restoration and conservation. Strategies range from ex situ conservation to the oft-debated approach of “assisted migration.” We share some examples.

One outstanding example, which we’re delighted to highlight in our Non-Profit Spotlight, is Wildlands Network, an organization that is hard at work creating continental-scale “wildways” to facilitate species movement throughout North America.

In her article Moving on up, Jessica Norris reminds us that in our efforts to restore coastal ecosystems and protect communities in the face of sea level rise, we must allow for the upshore movement of non-human members of those communities. We share resources on this topic, as well as latest news at Biohabitats. Are you considering climate-driven species movement in your work? Tell us about it right here!

Thoughts on Threatened Species

Thoughts on Threatened Species

Boykin's Lobelia ©Jim Stasz, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Boykin’s Lobelia ©Jim Stasz, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

It is true that in nature, species come and species go. On rare occasions they even return. Just last week, a globally rare plant, Lobelia boykinii (Boykin’s lobelia), resurfaced in Delaware, a place in which it hadn’t been seen for over a century.

Scientists say that species extinction occurs naturally at a “background” rate of one species per one million species per year.  But add in human influences and that rate accelerates. A lot. As in 1,000 to 10,000 times. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, this translates to the loss of 150 to 200 species every 24 hours. And when threatened species include yew trees whose bark contains high concentrations of a compound used in fighting cancer, or reef-building corals that help protect warm water coastal communities from storm surges, the link between the fate of other species and our own cannot be denied. In fact, many researchers believe we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction.

Despite all of this, people around the globe continue to work to protect plants, mammals, birds, fungi, amphibians, invertebrates, and marine species from extinction. Yes, despite the doom and gloom, this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the IUCN Red List and the 41st anniversary of the passing of the Endangered Species Act. These landmark initiatives have prevented thousands of species from going extinct.

North Atlantic right whale ©New England Aquarium

North Atlantic right whale ©New England Aquarium

As threats to biodiversity mount, so does something else: the resolve to do something about it. In our 2014 Spring Equinox issue of Leaf Litter, we take a look at some of the people and organizations deeply involved in the protection of threatened species. In doing so, we examine our own role in the protection and regeneration of biodiversity in the face of mounting threats.

What are YOUR thoughts on threatened species. Share ’em here, or feel free to contribute to our growing album of threatened species on the Biohabitats Facebook page.

Tomorrow’s eco-professionals bring much needed hope – and action

Newspaper Headlines Bad NewsWhen you work in an environmental field, you get used to the daily barrage or alarming news: dying whitebark pine…thinning Arctic ice…dwindling coastal wetlands, etc.  Despite the great work we do at Biohabitats to restore the Earth and inspire ecological stewardship, it can sometimes feel like the “doom and gloom” news ticker is constantly crawling along the office wall.

That’s why it was incredibly refreshing to put together an issue of Leaf Litter which focused on the education of tomorrow’s practitioners in ecological restoration, conservation planning, and regenerative design. Nearly everything I heard from the students and professors with whom I spoke while working on the issue gave me hope.

Biohabitats intern Nick Cloyd

Biohabitats intern Nick Cloyd

Al Unwin, who teaches restoration ecology at Canada’s Niagara College, said that  today’s students are more eager and willing than ever to take action on behalf of our environment. Students in Nathan Gauthier’s sustainability courses at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology in Rwanda are not just engineering, design, and environmental science majors; they’re education, business, and political science majors who recognize sustainability as linked to their future professions. Every year since 2005, a new group of leaders emerges from a unique, international masters program in Sweden, and they are already changing the world. Our own summer intern Nick Cloyd said to me, “The movement is happening, and I do have hope. That’s why I’m in this field.”

Take that, ticker.

If you, too, could use a healthy dose of hope, check out this issue of Leaf Litter and let me know what you think.


Art + science = environmental awareness

Step inside the studio of artist Jann Rosen-Queralt

“I am more comfortable in the water than I am on land,” says Jann Rosen-Queralt, a swimmer, scuba diver, and artist with environmental concerns. Upon entering her studio, this is immediately evident. Sitting atop an expansive work table is a maple cutout of the Chesapeake Bay which she will cast in ice and wax.  Under the table is a box of horseshoe crabs coated in various patinas. Decals from a recent installation about water consumption are scattered atop another table. On the floor rests an algae-inspired boardwalk design prototype intended for a riverine island park.  A steel and cast iron sculpture, reminiscent of a water-filled porthole, awaits final touches in the studio’s adjacent workshop.


As she tinkers with these works in the privacy of her studio, Rosen-Queralt refines and strengthens her voice…a voice that requires confident, compelling expression when her pieces become public art.  Injected into collaborative problem solving with scientists, engineers, architects, and planners, it is a voice that has the power to catalyze partnership, discovery, and stewardship.

For Rosen-Queralt, the artistic problem-solving process begins with a question. While on a team designing the City of Arlington, Virginia’s Powhattan Springs Park, a project requiring a skateboard area, soccer field, and nature park, Rosen-Queralt asked “Where is the water?” This led her to recommend the use of a raingarden to manage stormwater and serve as an inviting, interactive, child-friendly, water-themed nature park.


In 2003, Rosen-Queralt helped develop an Art Master Plan for the Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington state. The site, not only a state-of-the-art, LEED ® Platinum, non-odorous facility, had become a popular recreation destination. When challenged by Brightwater to create artwork to expose the working processes of the system and engage the public in inquiry and discovery, Rosen-Queralt had two questions: “How do we celebrate this engineering, and how can I visually give people a sense of the 13 million gallons of water a day that pass through this plant?” She answered these questions by creating Confluence, a small-scale installation reminiscent of a tidal pool. Confluence uses the hydraulic action of a “breathing lung,” and the seeping and rushing of water that flows dramatically through a sunken pool and open pipe to reveal the engineering and capture the imagination of visitors to the plant’s community center. The work includes a grove of willows which, upon reaching ten feet in height, will represent the volume of less than .01 percent of the amount of water that flows through the plant on a daily basis.

When the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenberg, North Carolina sought Rosen-Queralt’s input on the creation of an outdoor space for a mental health facility, her work began, once again, with a question. A beautiful, wooded ravine, bisected the Billingsley campus. Knowing that nature was used in the Center’s rehabilitation programs, Rosen-Queralt asked, “How can this natural habitat be more available to patients?” Her solution was to create Awi-Spek, a refuge area in which “ear trumpet” sculptures amplify the sounds of the birds, rustling leaves, and creaking branches. Located on the north side of a newly constructed bridge connecting the campus, the space, she says, “allows people to revel in the sounds and patterns of movement.”

For Rosen-Queralt, the best and most difficult aspects of working with scientists, engineers, and design professionals are one and the same: the establishment of trust and communication. “I have had some of my most rewarding experiences when the collaboration has been one of reciprocated trust.”

JannR-Q6“I’m not a scientist,” explains Rosen-Queralt. “I’m trying to poetically and didactically make people aware of things that are important. I can get people’s attention in a way that other professionals can’t.  Engineers are inventive, creative people, but they are very focused on a problem, and if they move too far away from that problem, they’ll lose their focus.  I have the luxury of being able to look at the problem and focus in a different manner. I can let the wonder of a situation, rather than the solution, be the leading quality.”

Though seeing her work on display is gratifying, knowing that it is generating awareness of water concerns is what Rosen-Queralt finds most rewarding.

Thoughts on Giving Children the Gift of Nature

LeilahandsFor most of us, this time of year is associated with gathering, feasting, celebrating, and gift giving. For the children in our lives, it is a particularly exciting season. Many a toy, game, action figure, and electronic device will be unwrapped in the next few days.  There is one very important gift, however, that may have been overlooked.

Though it cannot be purchased or wrapped, and though it’s unlikely to appear on many wish lists or letters to Santa Claus, a fun and meaningful experience in nature is something we all ought to consider giving to the children in our lives. Their health and well-being—and the future of our planet—may even depend on it.

What do we really know about the importance of unstructured play in nature? How did this topic end up on the agenda at the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress this fall?  What can we—as practitioners and as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends of kids—do to rebuild the deteriorating connection between children and the natural world?

Girl&FlowersWe begin exploring this subject by chatting with author Richard Louv, who coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” when he wrote Last Child in the Woods in 2005. The co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, Louv is widely credited with sparking an international movement to reconnect children with nature.

One of the first sparks to ignite was in Canada, where Louv’s writing provided biologist Bob Peart with such a renewed sense of hope and purpose that he founded the Child & Nature Alliance of Canada. We were delighted to talk with him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADr. Stephen R. Kellert, Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and Senior Research Scholar at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies shares a piece he wrote just for this issue. Much of Dr. Kellert’s work, including his new book Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World, focuses on understanding human need and affinity for nature.

We take a look at some communities who are tackling nature deficit disorder through their schools and government.  Learn what can happen When Nature is Your Classroom and when local government officials view Connecting Children to Nature as Public Service.

AndreiWith help from Biohabitats’ Bioregion leaders, we shine our non-profit spotlight on a few organizations that are actively connecting kids to nature through innovative programs and services.

We provide resources for those of you who want to learn more, and we share the latest about what we’ve been up to at Biohabitats.

This issue of Leaf Litter has given all of us at Biohabitats an opportunity to pause and think about the importance of sharing our passion for nature with young people. We hope that the smiling children in the photos included in this issue (many of whom are members of the Biohabitats family) serve as a reminder of the good that comes from giving the gift of nature.

Let us know what you think of the issue!