Sunday, February 22, 2015

Reclaim and Restore

Our human footprints are found all over the world, in every habitat on each and every continent. Areas that we consider truly wild have the faintest imprint of humans on them, but there is no where on this planet that is untouched and pristine. We are everywhere because we are part of nature and have successfully spread around the world colonizing every habitat. Now, in order to escape our built environment that seems so far removed from nature, it seems we must travel long distances to seek out solitude.

Mt. Banner and Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area - Inyo National Forest, California
Wilderness is an area that we crown with this title. According to The Wilderness Society, ‘Wilderness is a type of protection given to the most pristine wildlands - areas within national parks, forests, recreation areas and other wildlands where there are no roads or development”. Webster’s Dictionary defines wilderness as, “a wild and natural area in which few people live”; but there are still people, if even only a few. In order to obtain a sense of wilderness and peace in nature, to maintain habitat for other species to coexist with us, we must now restore areas we have degraded through human industrial activities. In order to protect our urban habitats from storms, which are becoming fiercer and more frequent, we must build our environment as close to a natural system as possible so that it will withstand the strong winds and waves that come with each passing storm and help protect our homes and businesses from damage.

Damage along the New Jersey shore from Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Without a natural buffer of barrier islands, these coastal habitations were flooded and many of them uninhabitable after the storm. (Photo by U.S. Air Force)
Restoration is the act of returning something to its original condition by repairing it. This can happen naturally in areas that are adjacent to intact, undegraded habitat where there are plants nearby to supply seeds for regrowth. Over time, seeds will drift in or be carried in by animals allowing plants to regain a foothold, or rather, a roothold. Terrific examples of this abound: Pripyat, the town near Chernobyl, and areas of cities like Detroit where after decades of being abandoned, plants and trees have sprung up through the old buildings and factories to reclaim the land; and right here in North Key Largo, where the land was scraped and leveled for agriculture then cleared for housing developments that were never built and has now returned to hardwood hammock, complete with several endangered species that are under Federal and State protection.

The ghost town of Pripyat in Ukraine (Photo by Gerd Ludwig for National Geographic)
A cabin succumbing to the hardwood hammock in North Key Largo
An endangered Key Largo Woodrat (Neotoma floridana smalli) nest in the base of the trees' roots. This area was likely a key lime orchard in the 1940s and has naturally returned to hardwood hammock over the years. Due to the alteration of the topography, land managers must now create artificial nests for the woodrats. This nest was created by power washing the bases of the trees to create an underground living quarter.
Plants are highly adaptable, especially here in a hurricane zone. Coastal plants around the world in subtropical to tropical latitudes have evolved with tropical cyclones (hurricanes are one type of cyclone) and all the chaos that comes with them: pounding rain, high winds and flooding from storm surges. Right here in our Gardens, a native Sea-grape tree (Coccoloba uvifera) at the beach was blown over and nearly uprooted by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 but has resprouted and is a stunning shrub. We also have a stubborn little fire bush (Hamelia patens) in our parking area that has made a coral rock its home for a quarter of a century! Designing our future shorelines and barrier islands for storm protection really hit home after Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and most recently Sandy in 2012. Many municipalities are looking to innovative green building designs coupled with restoring marshes and beaches with locally adapted native plants for their resilience and tenacity in the face of these storms.
Coccoloba uvifera - Sea-grape tree that was nearly uprooted during Hurricane Wilma in 2005 is thriving once again
Restoration can also be facilitated by us, think of gardening on a landscape level with bulldozers recontouring the land and native plants repopulating the landscape. Seeds are collected and either grown out in a nursery or directly seeded across the landscape to reintroduce the local native flora back onto the site. This type of restoration must be done when the degree of disturbance is high, such as with mining operations and other large-scale land disturbances like landslides and hurricanes. It may also be useful in brownfields and abandoned agricultural areas. 

Genesee Coal Mine & Power Plant in Alberta, Canada- Reclamation projects have been in place since 1990, returning mined lands to agricultural use and wildlife habitat. 
The largest restoration project east of the Mississippi River is in North Florida on the 51,000-acre Nokuse Plantation. This formerly neglected land is being turned back into longleaf pine forest (Pinus palustris), of which only 3% remains in the southeast United States. By repairing our damaged landscapes, we may bring a bit of wilderness back into our lives, right in our own backyards and cities. Wilderness does not need to be an out-of-the-way, untouchable resource that only a few hardy individuals can make the trek to experience.

A hiker along the Florida National Scenic Trail heading into Nokuse Plantation longleaf pine forest
If we are fortunate enough to live near a national park or forest, a wild and scenic river, a state or county park, or even undeveloped land, we can experience that sense of wonder and place in nature. These parks may also provide an outlet for volunteering on restoration projects. For several years I worked in the Presidio of San Francisco where they have a community-supported restoration program. The Presidio is a former military post and over the last 2 decades it has been managed for restoration of its natural areas, to minimize landfills deposited by the U.S. Army and to help preserve its habitats for rare plants, insects, birds, and mammals. The convenience of the park being within the city limits of San Francisco encourages many citizens to come out and lend a hand in restoration activities. After heavy equipment hauls out the remains of landfills and recontours the slopes of the sand dunes and bluffs, crews of volunteers and school groups come out to assist with the restoration efforts. Needless to say, parts of the park have been transformed back into wilderness areas with coyote and gray fox prowling amongst the rare wildflowers on the dunes once again. If you plant it, they will come!

Our wildlife ecologist managed to snap a picture of a rare sighting of a grey fox! The last record of a grey fox sighting in the Presidio was in 2004. The fox scrambled onto some branches along with a raven as a coyote prowled around a bush below. Thanks to Jon Young for the incredible picture! (Feb. 2015)
No matter where you live, you can rewild your yard by planting native plants or becoming involved with an organization in your community that is restoring a local natural area. Being out in nature is beneficial to our spirit and mind and experiencing a restoration project adds an extra layer of care for the earth; we become personally invested in our natural areas. It is a great way to learn the local flora and fauna and connect with other community members. We can all contribute to creating wilderness a little closer to home. As David Byrne said in his 1988 hit (Nothing But) Flowers, "Once there were parking lots, now it's a peaceful oasis".

Emily B. Magnaghi
Associate Director

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