A Living Gold Mine
by Lissa Fox and Peggy Olwell
"Native plants represent an irreplaceable gene pool for new medicines and crops that resist diseases, insects, and drought. The good news: federal lands provide habitat for untold numbers of these treasures."
Back in 1804 when Lewis and Clark made their historic journey, running buffalo clover thrived in rich, well-drained soils from West Virginia to Kansas. This small clover, thought to grow best in soil disturbed by buffaloes, began to disappear as hunters slaughtered the herds and farmers plowed the ground. Today, all that is left of this formerly widespread plant are a few dozen isolated populations.
Running buffalo clover is only one of many native plant species threatened with extinction. As human populations grow, some plant populations shrink. Plants fine-tuned through centuries of selection to survive in a particular habitat disappear when that environment is destroyed.
Many species of native plants thrive on federal lands. But mining, improper grazing, urbanization--all are contributing to loss of habitat and the disappearance of native plants. Other threats are also hastening the decline. Exotic species from abroad, introduced to the United States accidentally or intentionally, crowd out native plants. The result: Kudzu strangles the Southeast, honeysuckle swallows the Midwest, and leafy spurge overwhelms the West. Still another menace is the plant collector, who digs up ornamental specimens for transplanting; unfortunately, the collector's backyard often proves to be inhospitable and the natives die. Even the careless foot of a hiker can wipe out a rare survivor. And an afternoon of bulldozing can destroy one--or 100--populations of wild species.
The impact of this destruction is incalculable. The aesthetic gifts from these plants are obvious: Meadows come to life when wildflowers sway in the breeze, mountainsides blaze with fall colors, city streets are softened by the leafy shade of sycamores and maples. But the values of wild plants go far beyond beauty: Native species provide food, clothing, medicine, shelter, recreation, and wildlife habitat.
Perhaps more importantly, communities of native plants hold in reserve an irreplaceable gene pool that scientists can draw upon in their search for new medicines or improved agricultural crops. Of all medicinal drugs, 40 to 50 percent originate in wild plants, but only 2 percent of the world's plant species have been chemically analyzed. Only recently did scientists discover that a chemical called taxol, extracted from Pacific yew trees, is effective against a broad range of cancers. Scientists can only speculate at the countless other medicines that are out there waiting to be discovered.
Agricultural researchers also tap this native gene pool. At present, 90 percent of the world's food comes from a mere 20 plant species. To improve and protect these vitally important food crops, scientists add genetic material from selected native species. These new genes improve resistance to diseases, insect pests, and drought.
Native plants are an integral part of all ecosystems. Each species belongs to a carefully balanced system that supports other species. In a healthy ecosystem, plant and animal species interact to keep the system working properly. Birds feed on berries from shrubs; seed from the berries are deposited by the bird, thus dispersing the shrubs. Earthworms churn up the soil, aerating it and improving plant growth; the plants drop their leaves, providing the earthworms with organic matter for food. The intricacy of ecosystems--each with thousands of species of plants, animals, insects, and bacteria--boggles the mind. There is no way to know beforehand what the loss of even one species will mean to an ecosystem and,subsequently, to species such as humans who rely on that ecosystem.
As described by E.O. Wilson, prominent Harvard entomologist, healthy ecosystems provide ecological services such as producing and filtering air, protecting water quality by controlling soil erosion, moderating floods and droughts, regulating insect pests and diseases, influencing regional climates, and many other functions that sustain life. When species are removed from the ecosystem, the delicate balance may shift, and the system may falter or fail. When that happens, these crucial ecosystem services are no longer available. Insect pest populations boom; stormwaters rush down from denuded slopes to become devastating floods; soil, air, and water temperatures rise. Stopgap solutions--spraying pesticides, building dams, air-conditioning houses--exact a high monetary price and fail to do the job nearly as well as the original, healthy ecosystem did.
Federally owned lands, which make up 29 percent of the nation's total land area, provide habitat for innumerable native plant species, including at least half of the species currently determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be endangered. This abundance of habitat gives land-managing agencies an excellent opportunity to address the needs of vulnerable native plant communities -- ideally, before sensitive species become endangered. In the past, however, these agencies have concentrated on high-profile animals species. Even though plants represent more than 50 percent (450 plant species) of the listed species, federal agencies spent 97 percent of their endangered species funding on animals in fiscal year 1992.
This imbalance of funding concerns all the land-managing agencies. Public pressure inevitably targets the more charismatic animals, such as the bald eagle or bison. Rarely does the public understand the importance of native plants. The challenge for land managers is not just to shift funds and improve plant conservation efforts; they also have to educate the public and gain its support in the conservation of native plants and healthy ecosystems.
Many plants are widely distributed, growing in areas that cross political and administrative boundaries. Native plant conservation therefore requires cooperation among government agencies, private groups, and the public. A cooperative effort was initiated in 1994 with the formation of the Federal Native Plant Conservation Initiative. Seven federal agencies signed a memorandum of understanding to pool their expertise and information.
Signatories in the Department of the Interior are the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Biological Service. In the Department of Agriculture, they include the Agricultural Research Service, Forest Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service. Private cooperators include more than 15 organizations, such as the Center for Plant Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, The Garden Club of America, and the National Association of Conservation Districts.
The Federal Native Plant Conservation Initiative is concentrating on public education, research, conservation action, exchange of databases, and international programs designed to develop cooperative conservation strategies with our neighbors to the north and south. To kick-off the program, the Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management joined in a celebration of wildflowers during National Wildflower Week in May 1994. Hikes, festivals, restoration projects, and an 800-number hotline spread appreciation of wildflowers to hundreds of people. This celebration will be an annual event.
The Initiative's biggest coup for 1994 is a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that, together with matching contributions from private donors, will provide $250,000 for native plant conservation work. These funds will allow a number of conservation projects to make it out of the planning stage. Examples under consideration include the development of a training manual for volunteers involved in ecological restoration projects, a stewardship program for protecting and preserving imperiled plant species through conservation and education, and on-the-ground plant conservation projects.
With energy and cooperation, the Federal Native Plant Conservation Initiative will be able to increase the odds in favor of native plant species. More than anything else, saving the natives will take education. As Senegalese ecologist Baba Dioum has said,"In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand."
Lissa Fox is a writer/editor and Peggy Olwell is Threatened and Endangered Species Coordinator with the National Park Service.