When the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, what brought people into the streets were pollution of the air, water and land, and loss of wildlife. Earth Day was a reaction to massive oil spills, factories and power plants darkening the skies with toxic smoke, and waterways so polluted they could catch on fire. Back then, only a handful of scientists were talking about how the earth’s climate might be changing, and common use of the term “global warming” was still years away.
Today, as we observe Earth Day almost 50 years later, we can thank those early activists for the federal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Endangered Species Act and other legislation. While there’s still much to be done to stop pollution and protect wildlife, another issue has taken center stage, and it is the most serious planetary challenge we have ever faced: global climate change.
Here in the Pioneer Valley, we’re already experiencing its effects. Among them are warmer average temperatures, less snow cover, shorter winters, and stronger storms with more precipitation followed by unusual periods of drought. All of these changes impact the land along with the plants, animals and people that rely on it.
When you think about strategies to prevent more severe impacts, protecting land from development may not be the first action that comes to mind. The science is clear that we must reduce our fossil fuel use and curtail other sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Conserving and restoring the world’s forests, grasslands and wetlands, however, is also a critical tool for countering the effects of climate change. Every year, globally millions of acres of forests are cleared for development, grazing or crops. When this happens, most of the organic carbon stored in the original forest is released into the atmosphere.
Conserving land is one approach among the “natural climate solutions” that we must employ as part of a comprehensive climate change battle plan. According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, natural climate solutions, such as preventing deforestation, leaving wetlands intact and using sustainable agricultural and forestry practices, can make a huge impact. These nature-based solutions increase carbon storage and avoid greenhouse gas emissions so effectively that they could provide more than 30 percent of the emissions reductions we need in the next 10 years to stabilize warming below 2 degrees Celsius. What’s more, these solutions are cost-effective and we don’t have to wait for technology to catch up. We can implement them right now.
Land conservation means permanently protecting forests, farms and other natural areas from being converted for uses like suburban sprawl, strip malls or industrial development. Nonprofit land trusts, like Kestrel Land Trust here in the Valley, are key partners with government agencies in this process, helping landowners and communities achieve their conservation goals. Whether those goals include mitigating the impacts of climate change or not, conserving land always provides this critical benefit.
When we conserve forests as wildlands or woodlands, the trees and soils sequester carbon. The same is true for grasslands and wetlands. Leaving these ecosystems relatively undisturbed helps prevent the release of the carbon they have been storing, and allows the land to continue to capture and store more. Farmland can also store carbon when it’s managed without heavy tilling and using other sustainable practices. In western Massachusetts, forests cover most of the landscape and provide the most powerful opportunity to sequester carbon right here and now, by conserving land close to home.
Conserving local lands also helps mitigate the impacts of climate change in other ways. Plant and animal communities in our region have evolved in the climate conditions that have existed in Massachusetts for hundreds of years. Now, those conditions are changing — the latest National Climate Assessment report found that average temperatures are rising faster in the Northeast than in the rest of the contiguous U.S. This means wildlife will need to adapt if the habitat they have historically relied on no longer provides what they need. Conserving large expanses of forests that provide appropriate habitat in the future, along with the undeveloped natural corridors that connect them, can help give these species a better chance to survive by providing access to alternative habitats whose conditions may better meet their needs.
Another factor that land trusts consider when conserving land is its “resilience” to climate change. Resilience is gauged by how well a particular ecosystem can respond to disturbance or absorb a shock like drought or flooding and then recover without losing its fundamental characteristics. Using science-based models developed by The Nature Conservancy, land trusts can identify and prioritize protecting areas that are highly resilient, helping improve the survival of plant and animals communities in the future.
The realities of climate change can feel overwhelming, making us wonder whether any individual action we take is enough to make a difference. But one powerful way you can take action is by supporting land conservation efforts in your community, and by supporting your local land trust. On this Earth Day, make nature-based solutions part of the global climate conversation.
Kari Blood is Communications and Outreach Manager for Kestrel Land Trust. To learn more about nature-based solutions, visit nature4climate.org.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.