Protecting Nature's Diversity
The fate of birds, mammals, frogs, fish and native plant life depends on humans finding ways to reduce the size of their imprint on the planet. A new report offers Delaware a road map.
By Lynn E. Broaddus, Ph.D.
Some people bemoan urban sprawl, some are looking for more protection of open spaces, still others cry out for enhanced management of native species. These are all symptoms of the same ailment: the challenge to maintain the delicate balance between growth and biological diversity.
Species declines and extinctions have always been a natural part of evolution, but the current rate - an estimated 1,000 species a year - is unprecedented. With a rough guess of four million to 40 million species still to be catalogued, many are being lost before they have been identified, before we know what their disappearance might mean for the planet's life-support system.
Many of the changes to our landscapes have come so slowly they are barely noticeable. Nonetheless, there are hard facts that show the cumulative toll. Take for instance the songs of the forest. Forty-one percent of Delaware's forest-dependent birds are now rare or have completely stopped nesting in the state. This is due not only to the loss of total forestland, but also to the fragmentation of the remaining forests. Ecologically specialized bird species that require large tracts of forest to raise their young successfully now find it increasingly difficult to make a home here.
Among those hardest hit are the neotropical migratory songbirds that must make their way across thousands of miles of fragmentary landscapes in an ever-harder search for suitable habitat. Fewer and fewer are stopping in Delaware, but how many of us have missed their serenades? With 82 percent of our freshwater wetlands lost, there are many frogs and toads we no longer hear, either.
Because more is known about the nearly 10,000 bird species than any other class of animal life, they are obvious indicators of the health of an ecosystem. The most recent news is not good; estimates are that at least two out of every three bird species are in decline worldwide. The leading culprits are habitat alteration or loss, exotic species invasions, excessive harvesting, the extermination of "harmful" species and chemical pollution. But the impacts are not limited to birds.
Nearly 40 percent of Delaware's native plant species are now rare or entirely missing. A disproportionate number of freshwater wetlands species are rare. Stream or wetlands-dwelling animals have been hard hit. Most were once common, but their habitat has been largely consumed by development or agriculture. Most notable is the lowly freshwater mussel. Once a mainstay of Delaware's creeks and rivers, nearly 80 percent of our native species are now either rare or missing in action. Mussels once sustained a cottage industry of button-making in the state; today it is cause for excitement if one encounters a living freshwater mussel.
Delaware's list of animal species headed for trouble includes six mussels, 17 fish, seven salamanders, three treefrogs, the carpenter frog, 11 snakes, two turtles, five beetles; 21 butterflies, 59 dragonflies and damselflies, and six mammals. Twenty-five species of birds, reptiles, insects and mussels have not been identified in Delaware in more than 15 years.
How have we arrived at this point? A key factor is that more people now live in Delaware than ever before. Between 1982 and 1992, the state's population increased by 15.2 percent. In that same time period, the amount of land in the state affected by development increased by 20.6 percent. In other words, there are more people and they are taking up proportionately more space. And it is a fact that we human beings are the source of clear threats to nature. The good news, however, is that we also are capable of taking steps to sustain biodiversity.
A recent study by the Environmental Law Institute, an internationally recognized research and education center, lays out some tools to help turn the tide on the problems we face. It may not be on the best seller list, but it is getting the attention of Delawareans. The title, "Protecting Delaware's Natural Heritage: Tools for Biodiversity Conservation," is a mouthful, but the content is powerful. This report does what it says - it shows us how Delaware's existing regulations and policies (the "tools") can be applied or updated to better protect the state's natural resources.
The message is timely. Delaware is joining at least 14 other states that already have efforts underway to develop comprehensive statewide strategies for protecting and restoring biological diversity. Bringing biodiversity issues to the forefront of public consciousness will be a major part of the undertaking.
Delawareans care about the state's native plants and wildlife, as well as protecting open spaces. They want tree-lined roads rather than six lanes leading to a strip mall. When they have a moment outside they want the sounds of warblers rather than engines. They want to see native wildflowers when they walk through their favorite patch of woods. This is caring about biodiversity.
Similarly, Delaware's business communities have a stake in the preservation of biodiversity, whether they know it or not. Businesses use images of pristine beaches, wetlands, rivers and state parks to sell prospective employees on the quality of life in the First State. The tourism industry attracts out-of-state visitors with promise of our best outdoor offerings. The state's fisheries industry, which depends on the quality of wetlands and estuaries, as well as a balanced and productive ecosystem, certainly cares. And political leaders know it makes economic sense to focus new development in already urbanized areas rather than to squander open spaces and agricultural lands on sprawling development. These all translate into caring about biodiversity.
However, while every Delawarean is a stakeholder in the protection of the environment and the state's natural heritage, many citizens feel powerless to do anything. "Protecting Delaware's Natural Heritage" shows us a path forward, should we choose to take it. Best of all, it shows that there are many paths and that the challenge needs to be shared.
The effort that led to the publication was set in motion almost years ago when Gerald F. Vaughn, a retired University of Delaware professor, brought his concerns about Delaware's vanishing biological diversity to Division of Fish and Wildlife Director Andrew T. Manus. He, and others, were growing increasingly alarmed by the state's rate of habitat loss and environmental degradation.
Not long after that meeting, Manus was at a national conference where Jessica Wilkinson, a senior policy analyst for the Environmental Law Institute, was speaking about a biodiversity assessment she had recently authored for the state of Indiana. Impressed, Manus came home determined to have ELI take on a similar project for Delaware. By early 1998, the Delaware Biodiversity Working Group was formed, funding was found and a team of ELI staff members had rolled up their sleeves and started to work.
Wilkinson and her colleagues did not presume to have all the answers to Delaware's environmental quandaries. Rather, they knew what questions to ask and looked to people living and working in Delaware for the answers. Over the course of a year, they gathered information from fish and wildlife biologists, environmental scientists, resource managers, planners, conservationists, agricultural experts and transportation policy makers. In all, well over a hundred local experts were interviewed for the project. The very comprehensive report was published last fall.
According to Wilkinson, the states are far better positioned than the federal government to protect and restore the nation's plants, animals and ecosystems.
"Many citizens look primarily to the U.S. government to confront the biodiversity crisis. Yet to a significant degree, the federal government does little to protect species from reaching critical status."
In reality, she says, "Even if the federal government did all it could to preserve biodiversity, its legal, polity and research tools are not adequate to specifically protect species diversity or to address the primary causes of its degradation.
"In many ways the states, where key land use regulations are made and implemented, are uniquely appropriate places for developing comprehensive initiates for protecting and restoring biodiversity."
In addition, continues Wilkinson, "people identify with their home states. They care about what they know, and what they know are places they experience through hunting, fishing, walking, photographing their surroundings, and answering the countless questions their children ask about the natural world around them. The sense of place provides a basis for energizing political constituencies to make policy decisions, such as voting for bond issues that fund open space acquisition, and taking private voluntary actions."
The Solution Has Many Pieces
What ELI's 150-page report offers is a blueprint for biodiversity conservation and management in Delaware. It looks at current threats, hopeful trends, resource management, land use and transportation planning mechanisms, species and habitat laws and regulations, open space protection and private landowner programs. It draws conclusions and makes sometimes controversial recommendations.
Measures for improving the protection and conservation of biological diversity in Delaware include strategic planning, increasing coordination, building partnerships, improving the knowledge base through enhanced inventorying, monitoring, assessment and analysis of the state's biological resources, and gaining the understanding and support of decision-makers as well as the general public.
Key policy recommendations suggest ways biodiversity conservation and restoration can be enhanced by adopting new laws, reinterpreting existing laws, fine-tuning management practices and working cooperatively to market innovative tax incentive and voluntary cost-share programs already available in the state.
For example, the recommendation to update Delaware's endangered species list based on information collected by the Natural Heritage Program has already been implemented. Others, such as protecting rare plants and providing for habitat protection for our state's endangered species, will require new statutes to be adopted by the legislature.
Sometimes biodiversity enhancements come where you least expect them. Waterfront property owners frequently find themselves trying to stem erosion along the waterline. In the past, this was generally solved by bulkheading - a practice that is the ecological equivalent to paving the forest floor. Now, DNREC is working with landowners to create shallow marshes along the edge of their property. These marshes absorb eroding wave action, thus protecting the shoreline while filtering pollution and sediment from upland runoff and enhancing habitat for fisheries and other wildlife.
Agencies and corporations can do their part to enhance wildlife habitat while saving money and reducing air pollution. For example, the Ohio Department of Transportation cut back on roadside mowing, resulting in increased ground-nesting bird populations while saving $200 per mile. In Delaware, this would translate to a savings of more than $750,000 per year.
While the ELI report focuses on changes that governmental agencies can implement to better steward our environment, property owners and individuals can contribute as well. Among them:
A New Way of Doing Business
Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Nicholas DiPasquale is committed to ensuring that the ELI report makes its mark on Delaware. "It moves us into the next generation of environmental management," he says. "Now that regulators and environmentalists have a fairly good understanding of the role that pollutants play in the environment, it is time to broaden our perspective, to more fully understand the role biodiversity plays."
One of his goals is to get each of the Department's five divisions - Fish and Wildlife, Parks and Recreation, Water Resources, Air and Waste Management and Soil and Water Conservation - to incorporate biodiversity conservation principles into its activities and policies whenever possible. He also hopes to enlist other agencies and local governments as partners in the effort.
DNREC, ELI, The Nature Conservancy and Delaware Nature Society will host a conference in October with objectives that include educating policy makers and others about the importance of biodiversity in preserving natural balance and building broad-based support for the development of a statewide strategy for protecting biodiversity.
"The basic message of the ELI report is that there is work to be done to ensure the future diversity of Delaware's plant and wildlife species and ecosystems," says Secretary DiPasquale. "But we've made a good start. In recent years, open space has been protected at an unprecedented rate. There are habitat restoration projects throughout the state, as well as aggressive efforts to deal with invasive exotic species. Many of the environmentally harmful practices of the past have been addressed. There is a growing network of government agencies, conservation organizations, corporations and private landowners already committed to protecting Delaware's natural heritage. And in the end, we all have a very selfish stake in preserving biodiversity: as species disappear, the world will get less and less interesting, less and less beautiful."
Delaware residents can order a free copy of Protecting Delaware's Natural Heritage: Tools for Biodiversity Conservation by contacting Elizabeth Gordon at the Environmental Law Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org, 202/939-3863, or mailing the request to her at: ELI, 1616 P Street, NW, Washington DC 20036. The executive summary is also available at ELI's web site, www.eli.org.
Lynn Broaddus is former coordinator of the Delaware Natural Heritage Program and served on the Delaware Biodiversity Working Group. She is currently acting director of the Association for Biodiversity Information's U.S. Network Partnerships.
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