In the Face of Climate Change
The Society takes notice and action
By Jack Curtis
This article appeared originally in the winter 2009 issue of our members magazine, New England WILD
Found in only two locations in New Hampshire’s White Mountains—and nowhere else in the world, a small, delicate plant with showy yellow flowers, Potentilla robbinsiana (Robbins’ cinquefoil) was added to the Federal Endangered Species List in 1980. After a decade-long recovery project, partnered by the Appalachian Mountain Club, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Service, USDA/Forest Service, Center for Plant Conservation, and New England Wild Flower Society, the plant was removed from the List. Yet with the growing concern about climate change, which threatens alpine species such as Robbins’ cinquefoil, staff at the Society in recent years was forced to ask: What will become of this success story?
How could I look my grand children in the eye and say I knew about this and did nothing? — Sir David Attenborough, naturalist and BBC nature program producer/host
This particular question led to broader questions about climate change that touch on the Society’s core activities and mission. Which plants will survive and which plants will be lost if climate change predictions prove correct? How would climate change impact our conservation mission? To get a sense of the challenges facing conservationists, staff at the Society turned to the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment, an appraisal, released in October 2006, of climate change on key climate-sensitive sectors in the northeastern United States, conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists with a team of independent experts.
The study anticipated bleak scenarios where the Northeast of the future would be a different place—a region of shortened winters, lengthened growing seasons, summer droughts, and flooded coastal areas. With rising carbon emissions and global temperatures, many plant species in North America would shift their climates zones northward. Staff members understood that the realities of the coming conditions and species changes demanded new thinking and methods.
In spring 2007, the Board of New England Wildflower Society adopted the “Policy on Climate Change,” which states that “These (climate) changes pose a threat to all forms of life and ecosystems and pose a direct challenge to the conservation of the flora of New England.” Founded on current scientific research, the policy delineates a plan of action that encompasses collaboration, advocacy and education, greenhouse emissions reduction, plant restoration, and invasive plant control—and possibly some new tactics.
These are [climate] changes we can see. People can see the changes in their gardens, or when the birds arrive at their birdfeeders. It’s a change that can resonate with people.
— Abraham Miller-Rushing, biologist,
on research comparing field data in present-day Concord, MA, with Thoreau’s plant records, revealing that species are disappearing amid global warming,
Boston Globe, October 2008
The traditional approach to plant and animal conservation emphasizes land protection. Protect large pieces of land and you automatically conserve the systems, communities, and plants that live there. This long-championed, deliberative measure has guided many environmental organizations. But in the face of dire climate change predictions, some ecologists are starting to think that conservation-as-usual will no longer suffice.
“The need to address global warming may spark a paradigm shift in conservation methods,” says Bill Brumback, the Society’s Conservation Director, “We might have to move beyond conventional conservation strategies. Shifting environmental conditions may push us to reassess our basic concepts and approaches, and even force us to take radical steps.”
For example, the Society’s notion of “native,” according to Brumback, could be challenged as plants migrate. “What will we consider a ‘native plant’?” he asks. “‘Native to New England’ (or a state within New England) will change as native plants from the south move northward into our region. Will plants native to southern regions that travel into our region be labled ‘invasive’? When assemblages of plants become rearranged, what then is a ‘natural community’?”
Other issues, says Brumback, involve accommodating shifting species and processes and deciding which plants deserve protection as rare native plants.
The policy commits the Society to scientifically backed actions and a state of preparedness to act as more data arises. It calls for a two-pronged approach: to “adapt” to the climate changes already underway and minimize their impact on the region’s habitats and to “mitigate” global warming by reducing the Society’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The identification of humans as the main driver of global warming helps us understand how and why our climate is changing, and it clearly defines the problem as one that is within our power to address.
— Union of Concerned Scientists, 2006
As outlined in the policy, the Society is moving ahead on several fronts:
- exploring long-range collaborations and strategies with regional conservation groups
- advocating for environmental laws and programs that seek to mitigate and adapt to climate change
- supporting agencies and organizations pursuing protection of large, linked tracts of land, which are more likely to accommodate rearrangements of plant communities
- working with the region’s land trusts to survey the ecosystems of their properties and implement species management strategies.
• Seedbanking and restoration
The Society has collected seeds from selected populations of rare New England plants for many years and stored these seeds in its own seed banks and various repositories around the country. Nationally, for the Center for Plant Conservation, and regionally, for the New England Plant Conservation seed bank program, the Society has more than 400 collections of over 200 species of rare plants—intended as a backup in the event of catastrophe in the wild. More recently, the Society began collecting the seeds of common plants for the Millennium Seedbank at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK).
• Tackling invasives
As the climate warms, many signs point to increased competition from invasive plants. The Society continues to control invasive species (even as their definitions shift) in the New England landscape, seeking to reduce competition with native plants and thus help assure their survival and maintain biodiversity.
• Assisted migration
The policy steps forward to introduce “responsive management, where “the Society seeks to help species move northward, if necessary, while protecting those that remain.” Because plants cannot move quickly enough to adapt to shifting temperatures and now face human barriers, such as highways and entire cities, plants may actually need “assistance” in their migration, an unsettling concept to many ecologists and conservationists.
The Society may also consider replanting invaded habitats with ecologically successful genotypes of native plants. According to Brumback, the Society will pursue such controversial measures only in consultation with the conservation community and with “the best science possible” in hand.
“No matter what conservation methods are used,” states Brumback, “it’s critical for New England’s scientific and environmental communities to collectively decide the best course for addressing climate change and put it into action. Because of its long, proud history of combining conservation and horticulture, the Society, in all its manifestations, will play an important role in addressing climate change.”
This past November at Bently College, the Society and other governmental and environmental organizations sponsored the regional conference, “Responding to Climate Change: Working Together to Conserve Wildlife, Plants, & Habitats,” at which Brumback was a panelist.
• At Garden in the Woods
Through its daily—and observable—practice of sustainable gardening, the Society’s Horticulture Department has helped reduce the Society’s greenhouse gas emissions. The team composts all their garden waste and shreds fallen leaves to create a natural mulch, which saves the need to import bark mulch. By further eliminating manufactured fertilizers and other outside inputs, they have cut down on deliveries to the Garden and thereby minimized use of fossil fuels.
In the past year, the horticulture team introduced a rain garden, which demonstrates an ecologically sound approach to storm runoff, and built a roof garden, which cuts down on radiant heat and reduces storm water runoff. In it own focused conservation effort, the horticulture team grows rare and endangered plants on site and monitors their viability in the face of climate change.
“We diligently look for new ways to reduce emissions and minimize our consumption of precious natural resources,” says Scott LaFleur, Horticulture Director. “We teach by example. The Garden functions as a ‘closed system,’ where we use everything we have on-site and limit outside materials. By demonstrating our ecologically sound practices, visitors learn to apply these approaches in their home gardens. This way gardeners can feel they’re part of the solution.”
• Community awareness and participation
The policy’s final mandate stresses community outreach. Aware that its constituents will also have to adopt new approaches and thinking, the Society will help them understand that both their gardening practices and their lifestyle choices can help mitigate climate change. The Society’s horticulture practice and conservation actions, its teaching and advocacy aim to nurture people who will commit their energy and knowledge to environmental stewardship. Brumback and LaFleur like to call them “ambassadors for plants.”
Public gardens at the fore
As Gwen Stauffer, the former executive director of the Society, wrote in the fall 2007 issue of Public Garden: “Our constituencies are looking for something they can do to strike back at an overwhelming, little understood, and frightening threat. Public gardens are in a unique position to not only help the public understand the impact of climate change, but to give them knowledge, basic tools, and the hope they need to do something about it.”