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Apr 222010

By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now

Lemurs, a threatened species (Photo: Osoman/Dreamstime)

Lemurs, a threatened species (Photo: Orsoman/Dreamstime)

They are slipping through our fingers. Our tenuous hold on the Earth’s threatened animals, plants and fish, rivers and oceans, forests and ice caps is not strong enough. It’s not for lack of trying – environmental and eco-conscious groups are in a constant scramble to slow the lengthening list of losses.

But the numbers tell the tale:

Every year, more than 2 million acres of Amazon rainforest – called “the lungs of our planet” for its massive daily recycling of carbon dioxide into oxygen –  is lost to logging, agriculture, roads and more.

At last count, out of 44,837 known species of living creatures on Earth, nearly 40 percent are threatened and 804 are extinct.

Climate change could destroy one-quarter of all land animals and plants in 40 years, the Wildlife Conservation Society says.

Amazon (Photo: House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming)

Amazon rainforest, losses to logging and agriculture continue (Photo: House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming)

Agriculture and overpopulation are draining some of the world’s biggest rivers that once flowed powerfully into the sea.

There are many other threats – invasive species, water overuse, polluted runoff, overfishing, mining and poaching –  problems begun at the hands of men.

The delicate web of the world’s eco-systems is fraying. Species survive because of other species, and those survive because of others: Pull a single strand from that web and the unraveling begins. The process can lead to destruction of all that exists within that finely balanced environment.

An example:  Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain took a big hit from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the water that flooded into the lake was thick with agricultural runoff and sewage. That spawned algae growth, which clouded the water, which killed aquatic plants, which killed small fish that needed the plants to sustain them. Larger fish began to die, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Another: The isolated island of Madagascar has an estimated 150,000 species unique to that place. But many are nearly gone, as 80 percent of the lush forests that sheltered them have given way to logging and agriculture. The people who live there are poor, and have survived by using the land. Conservation efforts have grown stronger, though, making eco-tourism and habitat restoration a new source of income.

It’s fitting, then, that the United Nations has designated 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity. Humanity is part of that delicate biological balance – we depend on plants, animals, marine life and more for everything from medicine to supper.

There is some good news.

China's Pandas benefit from land being put into reserve and national parks (Photo: Wei Liang/Dreamstime)

China's pandas benefit from land being put into reserves and national parks (Photo: Wei Liang/Dreamstime)

China recently opened its country’s first national park, according to the Nature Conservancy. It is the beginning of building a national park system for China. The country has more than 2,000 nature reserves, but they are said to be poorly managed and none house as many endangered species as this single park.

Halfway around the world, $26 million owed to the U.S. by Costa Rica was recently forgiven. In exchange, the small nation will maintain long-term conservation for its lush tropical forests and massive areas of biodiversity. The Tropical Forest Conservation Act will protect Costa Rica’s species from manmade threats.

Here’s is even better news. You can help.

Here are 8 ways you can help conserve the earth’s ecosystems:

1. Rid your yard of invasive species. There are innumerable non-native species of animals, invertebrates, fish, bugs and plants plaguing the U.S. Most of them arrived as unseen stowaways at American ports. Others

A field of juniper infested with Japanese climbing fern (Photo: University of Florida extension service.)

A field of juniper infested with Japanese climbing fern (Photo: University of Florida extension service.)

were brought in with good intentions: as a means of controlling other invasive or destructive species. Some were just pretty plants destined for the landscape, or exotic pets that were set free.

Instead of solving a problem, or just sitting pretty, they took over, eating or smothering native vegetation, fish, insects or animals.

Take, for example, the Japanese climbing fern, which arrived in America in the 1930s. It was brought here as a lovely tropical plant for the landscape. Unfortunately, the fern quickly spread out of control, overwhelming native plants in forests. Researchers are still looking for an insect or microbe that could take on the Japanese fern.

You may have some invasive plants in your back yard, or in the neighborhood park. The USDA has a map that will tell you which invasives are hanging around your town.  Don’t start ripping out plants or grabbing bugs without talking to an area expert. There are many listed on the USDA site.

2. Create a backyard wildlife habitat. While you’re in the mood to help the good members of the plant or animal world, you can set up you your own ecosystem – a backyard built to nurture your area’s wildlife.


Keep a wildlife friendly backyard, with native plants to support birds and other animals (Photo: Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA)

There are plenty of Earth-friendly non-profit groups that will walk you through the process of creating a new home for your area’s natives, be it for a balcony garden to a farm. The right kind of food, a water supply, places for wildlife to hide and nest, all grown organically, can net you a certified wildlife habitat designation and other goodies from the National Wildlife Federation. The NWF offers guidance in their Garden for Wildlife online manual. The NWF has a drive on to certify 150,000 new wildlife habitats.

State extension offices can advise you on this, too, and many states will give you an official designation if you follow guidelines and devote a certain amount of space to the project.

3. Try to lure some bees for pollinating with native plants and flowers of different colors and shapes, planted in groups. Or set up for butterflies with a variety of plants (they like milkweed and thistles, but most people call those weeds), places for them to hibernate, lay eggs and for the caterpillars to eat. Butterflies like to hang around puddles of water when they make their warm-weather appearance. See the Pollinator Partnership for more information.

4. Grow and buy organic food. If you don’t grow your own, try to buy from local organic farmers. Plants grown organically don’t use chemical herbicides or synthetic fertilizers, which leach contaminants into the water supply and ground, contaminating the natural environment. If your organic food is grown close to home, you have shrunk your carbon footprint to boot.

Farmed oysters (Photo: Monterrey Bay Aquarium)

Farmed grilled oysters with Miso and Wasabi (Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium)

5. Eat sustainable seafood, caught legally and in plentiful supply. For example, Mahi Mahi from the U.S. Atlantic that is caught by trolling with a pole and line is a good choice. Not sea bass: It is overfished, caught using illegal methods and may contain mercury. See the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch for more information on which fish to eat, and which to avoid. In honor of Earth Day, the aquarium has put out a list of Super Green seafood and recipes that rely on sustainably sourced seafood.

6. Buy fair-trade and sustainable goods. Fair-trade goods are made in poor countries by workers who receive equitable pay for their labor. The eco-friendly jobs provide an alternative to more destructive means of subsistence that could wipe out ecosystems. Sustainable goods are those made from easily renewable natural resources that will not be depleted for future generations.  An eye toward items with a small carbon footprint (close to home, minimal transportation required) is a good idea. See the Fair Trade Federation website for details about how businesses are certified and how to find products from Fair Trade sources.

7. Take an eco-tour. Your next vacation could be to a destination that takes steps to care for its environment and its people. Fair wages and jobs that sustain a nation’s rich eco-culture are the result.

For example, a trip to Peru’s lowland Amazon rainforests offers access to the amazing, colorful birds of Tambopata, one of that nation’s most accessible forest birding areas. The International Ecotourism Society has details on that and many more eco-destinations.

8. Plant a tree. It’s easy. Do a little research to find what trees are native and most beneficial to your area, then contact a nearby nursery that sells native plants. Plant your tree in the right place, at the right time of year. Arbor Day sounds good – the date can vary from state to state. Find your area’s Arbor Day here, and get your conservation efforts going.

More Earth Day coverage:

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