Community Agriculture Alliance: Enhance the Yampa Valley's biodiversity with native plants

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Karen Vail

— Bringing nature home.

Pause on those three words for a moment.

After reading “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas Tallamy, I realized that as a botanist, I have let myself get waylaid by misunderstanding what natives truly mean in our world. Last year, I thought that using similar species in my gardens and other landscaping would benefit our local pollinators and wildlife just the same as our true natives. Turns out that is not always the case.

Tallamy is a professor and chairman of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. He specializes in interactions between plants and insects and how these determine the diversity and health of animal communities. We all have heard about the decline of honeybee populations in the past few years, but have you heard much about the decline in our native pollinator populations? Let’s go back in time a little and compare the diversity of the lower 48 states to present-day diversity.

Tallamy writes, “… the number of species that will survive human habitat destruction is a simple percentage of the amount of habitat we leave undisturbed, a 1:1 correspondence.” He gives an example of taking away 50 percent of undeveloped lands and putting them into cities, farms, etc., leaves 50 percent of the species that originally inhabited the area. Lose 80 percent of the land, and we lose 80 percent of the species.

We have converted 32 million to 40 million acres of natural lands to suburban lawns. That is an area eight times the size of New Jersey just for alien grasses. Ecologists have been working since the 1990s to determine how much land we have left undisturbed (with the definition of “undisturbed” not confirmed). The number is disturbing. Three to 5 percent of the land in the lower 48 states remains as “undisturbed” habitat for plants and animals.

Fortunately, biodiversity is a renewable resource that is easy to increase as long as the original inhabitants have not become extinct. Our valley’s biodiversity can be enhanced by adding native plants to your landscape. I am not encouraging you to rip out all of your existing landscape and replant it with natives, but you could replant a small section, or when a non-native plant dies, replace it with a native plant.

If everyone in Steamboat Springs planted a 15-foot swath of natives that connected with their neighbors, which connected with their neighbors, we eventually would have a line of native plants winding through our valley, and many eyes would be opened to the value and pleasures of bringing nature home.

An opportunity exists to be immersed in the values of natives by helping harvest wild edibles for the Yampatika Wild Edible Feast. The dinner is May 30 at Sweetwater Grill, and the nitty-gritty work takes place May 28 and 29. By helping harvest, you will learn about our wild edibles as well as what plants will work in your home landscaping so you can bring a little nature home.

Karen Vail is a naturalist with Yampatika.

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