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Nature's Best Hope: Changing Biodiversity One Yard At a Time

BYU students in the College of Life Sciences packed into a room to hear one man’s proposition for saving our planet's ecosystem. Doug Tallamy, a professor from the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware and co-founder of Homegrown National Park, invited all to “regenerate biodiversity and ecosystem function” by changing the way we landscape. In his seminar entitled “Nature’s Best Hope,” Tallamy extended an invitation to become a better steward of the earth and make a difference, no matter your circumstances.

It’s a breezy autumn day in New England when an acorn drops from the tallest branch of a red oak tree. After some time, a small hole in the acorn opens up, and then a larva, squeezing its way through, plops out onto the ground and wriggles its way beneath the earth’s surface. Meanwhile, a colony of Temnothorax ants takes up residence in the newly excavated acorn. Two years later something emerges from the spot where the larva burrowed—an acorn weevil. Other acorns from the tree are taken by a blue jay and tapped below the surface of the soil, a hiding place for a winter meal. But for every four acorns, the jay only remembers where one is—unwittingly, it plants three oak trees.

Nature is Not Optional

In an ecosystem, energy is transferred through a complex web of interactions between plants, insects, animals, weather, and more—like in the oak tree interactions Tallamy described in his lecture. Knowingly or not, the actions of humans worldwide have dismantled functioning ecosystems, causing a significant decline in the number of species (biodiversity) and continuity of ecosystems on planet Earth.

Well-functioning ecosystems provide our food and water sources, the clean air we breathe, and protection from drastic environmental changes. “Humans are totally dependent upon ecosystem services,” says Tallamy. “Nature is not optional.”

Tallamy claims that in order to reverse the collapse of food webs integral to the well-being of all life on earth, we need to restore functioning ecosystems. But how many? Enough to cover half of the land on earth, Tallamy posits. The science to back up this claim is outlined in E.O. Wilson’s book, Half Earth, but Tallamy points out that the text doesn’t offer a viable solution of how to do it. Tallamy suggests that there is a solution, and it's one of hope and empowerment.

Planting Native

“We can save nature,” Tallamy says, “but we’re going to have to change the way we landscape to do it.” Though it would be nice to set aside half of the earth for nature, it wouldn’t be possible since one-half is utilized for agriculture and there are 8 billion people living on the other half. “In the past, conservationists worked pretty much exclusively where there weren't a lot of people,” Tallamy explains, “but now we need to turn that on its head and practice conservation where there are a lot of people…because that's pretty much everywhere.” We need to start practicing conservation in our own yards.

Tallamy outlines four ecological responsibilities of every landscape, or the things we need nature to do to support us:

  1. Support food webs. 
  2. Sequester carbon. 
  3. Clean and manage water. 
  4. Support pollinators. 
Grass, a building is blurred but visible in the background.
Tallamy says that lawns are "ecological deadscapes."
Photo by Petar Tonchev on Unsplash

The problem is, one of the most common choices for landscaping does none of these things well: lawns. Native plants, however, provide these ecological services supremely well. Tallamy explains that planting natives helps create ecosystems that support a network of insects, birds, and other animals that have evolved to function together.

Tallamy went on to explain that not just any native plants will do. There are “keystone plants,” as he calls them, that sustain the greatest amount of biodiversity in an ecosystem. You can find keystone plants for your region on Home Grown National Park’s website.

Some non-native plants become invasive when they spread without any natural competitors. Left unchecked, these species can cause significant damage to a local ecosystem. Tallamy suggests that removing these species is also critical to restoring functioning ecosystems.

In all, Tallamy and Homegrown National Park’s invitation asks everyone to:

  1. Decrease lawn size. 
  2. Plant more native species. 
  3. Remove invasive species. 
  4. Protect existing natural areas of your property. 
By planting native you can bring in many important species of insects, but they won’t survive if you have bright outdoor lights on all night. Tallamy suggests you can:
-Use yellow light bulbs
-Put a motion sensor on outdoor lights

But does this initiative really work? Tallamy gave an example of one woman’s yard in the middle of Chicago that is three times smaller than the average lot size in North America. After getting rid of invasive plants and planting native ones, she has identified a total of 125 species of birds that have used her yard, proving that even small changes can have a significant impact.

A Sacred Stewardship

A narrow stone path that is lined with all sorts of flowers, bushes, and trees.
Photo by Aniston Grace on Unsplash

Landscaping with natives benefits life on Earth while also providing significant psychological benefits for those who participate. Tallamy points out that having a native landscape allows you to “develop a personal relationship with nature on your own time and at your own pace.” Instead of traveling long distances and sharing a trail with someone else, a person could walk out their door and immediately experience the peace and awe one can find in the natural world.

BYU Biology Professor Clint Whipple highlights the significant, even spiritual, moments one can have in a natural environment: “As marvelous as the creations of man may seem, a few minutes examining the underside of a leaf will put them to shame.”

Tallamy argues that everyone has an inherent responsibility to take care of the natural world. “[Nature] is essential for everybody,” he reminds, “and because it's essential for everybody, everybody has a responsibility to sustain it.” Whipple also sees this responsibility as a spiritual obligation. “Insofar as we have been given stewardship over this creation,” he says, “that is a sacred trust and responsibility.”

Whipple points out that in an “age of a lot of negative information about the environment,” Tallamy’s is a message of hope and empowerment. “We each can do our little part,” Whipple adds, “and those parts add up quickly.” But what if you’re a student living in an apartment? Tallamy suggests you can help get your landlord, parents, or others on board. “As dire as the biodiversity crisis might be, our capacity to ‘lift where we stand’ and ‘bloom where we’re planted' means we can start reversing the alarming trends,” Whipple hopefully declares.

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Beyond being simply a scientific or political necessity, the care of the earth and of our natural environment is a sacred responsibility entrusted to us by God, which should fill us with a deep sense of duty and humility. It is also an integral component of our discipleship. How can we honor and love Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ without honoring and loving Their creations?
Gérald Caussé, Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
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It’s a bright spring day, and you gently tap an acorn beneath the earth’s surface. Years later, the oak tree and other native plants support hundreds of species of insects and animals—all in your yard. You take a deep breath of satisfaction knowing that you've done something to make a difference for your own well-being, and for many future generations who will call earth home.

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Five Things You Can Do Right Now

1. Share this article with a family member or friend. 

2. Learn more at Home Grown National Park’s website. 

3. Learn about which plants are native to your area. 

4. Identify and remove invasive species from your yard. 

5. Conserve local natural areas near you by volunteering with organizations like Conserve Utah Valley 
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