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Climate ChangeAmid the Sprawl, a Long Island Prairie Makes a Quiet Comeback

Amid the Sprawl, a Long Island Prairie Makes a Quiet Comeback

The Hempstead Plains Preserve is a spot where you’ll be able to imagine the presence of creatures past. Birdfoot violets, now gone, once coloured the landscape with a wash of purple in spring. The heath hen, a big grouse that went extinct 90 years ago, performed its elaborate courtship dances on the Plains.

On a late afternoon in October, the slanting autumn sun lit up in a blaze of gold the grasses and wildflowers on this narrow, 19-acre sliver of land — just about all that’s left of the tallgrass prairie that after covered greater than 50 square miles at the center of Long Island, Latest York, a fish-shaped island that stretches east into the Atlantic Ocean. “This place desires to be a grassland so bad, but so many obstacles are in the way in which,” says Rob Longiaru, the preserve’s habitat director.

In 1741 an English physician traveling within the Hempstead Plains lost his way on trails that meandered through the towering wild grasses and was forced to “blunder about an amazing while.” A century later, when the poet Walt Whitman explored the grassland as a boy, it was an enormous grazing commons. “I actually have often been out on the sides of those plains toward sundown,” Whitman wrote, “and may yet recall in fancy the interminable cow processions, and listen to the music of the tin or copper bells clanking far or near and breathe the cool of the sweet and barely fragrant evening air.”

Conservation gardens could seem small and inconsequential, but added together they will have a significant ecological impact.

Nonetheless, even the tenacious grasses that grew as tall as a horse’s shoulder proved no match for the demographic revolution that began on this globally rare natural community on the doorstep of Latest York City — urban sprawl. When World War II ended, real estate developer William J. Levitt constructed Levittown, an easy suburb of greater than 17,000 modest, single-family homes for returning GIs. The event spawned copycat communities, creating the template for urban sprawl in the USA, and beyond.

Probably the most striking thing in regards to the remaining rectangle of grassland is the sheer improbability of its presence within the business core of suburban Nassau County, hemmed in by the Nassau Coliseum sports arena, a Marriott Hotel, Nassau Community College, a police academy, warehouses, and several other multi-lane highways. Not only has the Plains shrunk drastically, but invasive plants from across the globe have taken root and pose a significant threat to the native grassland denizens.

Many unique and disappearing landscapes just like the Hempstead Plains endure only because dogged advocates struggle to boost funds to revive and maintain them. Now, a growing body of research is demonstrating that “conservation gardens” — planted in places like business zones, residential yards, schoolyards, and company landscapes — might help bolster these hotspots of urban biodiversity. The authors of a paper published in Landscape and Urban Planning last June sum up the brand new research: “While urbanization is a significant contributor to declines in native biodiversity worldwide, ecological research across the Global North and South has demonstrated that yards can provide crucial habitats for birds, pollinators, and other wildlife inside urban regions.”

The historical extent of the Hempstead Plains on Long Island, Latest York.
Neidich-Ryder & Kennelly, 2014

Residential yards make up about 50 percent of the whole green space in U.S. and western European cities. “That’s a big amount of land with potential to offer quality wildlife habitat,” says Susannah Lerman, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist. Actually, these areas could seem small and inconsequential, but added together they will have a significant ecological impact.

Lerman was one in every of the lead researchers of an ambitious five-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and published last yr in Ecological Applications, which concluded that conservation gardening, when adopted on a wider scale, might help boost biodiversity. Lerman and her coauthors posited that when situated adjoining to urban wildland fragments, these yards, planted with quite a lot of species and designed to draw wildlife, might help support resident wildlife by increasing the scale of the available habitat and its connectivity to other natural areas. With the world urbanizing rapidly, she says, understanding methods to conserve biodiversity in such human-dominated landscapes “is one in every of the century’s best challenges.”

When Betsy Gulotta arrived at Nassau Community College as a young biology professor in 1969, large swathes of the encircling Hempstead Plains were still intact. While out exploring, Gulotta and her students would encounter nests of the upland sandpiper, a black, brown, and white-mottled grassland specialist often called the shorebird of the prairie. But within the early Nineteen Seventies, she says, “once they began constructing the Coliseum and the Marriott Hotel and Charles Lindbergh Boulevard,” an eight-lane gash through the grassy Plains near where Lindbergh took off on the primary solo transatlantic flight in 1927, “those birds just disappeared.” The identical fate befell the grasshopper sparrows, box turtles, and countless other creatures that made their home in the traditional landscape.

A 2018 appraisal of the remaining Hempstead Plains ecosystem found 14 rare and vulnerable plants.

In 2001, with the wild grassland teetering on the point of extinction, Gulotta and a bunch of colleagues formed Friends of Hempstead Plains. They persuaded the Nassau County executive, who by joyful coincidence was Gulotta’s husband, to incorporate two parcels within the county’s “perpetual preservation plan”: a 19-acre fragment on the Nassau Community College campus that’s now the Hempstead Plains Preserve, and a more overgrown 26-acre, county-owned tract nearby, named the Francis T. Purcell Preserve. Today, the Friends manage each places. “Our dream,” says Gulotta, “was if we could preserve the faculty’s land and do what we could with the Purcell Preserve, possibly that’s enough to permit a few of the wildlife to return.”

Like an increasing variety of urban wildland fragments, the 2 preserves are a refuge for vanishing regional biodiversity. They harbor species unique to rare sandplain grasslands found only along the northeast coast of North America, including the state-threatened bushy rock rose, a low-growing perennial with large buttery yellow, five-petaled flowers. “The range that continues to be maintained within the Hempstead Plains is incredible,” says Polly Weigand, executive director of the Long Island Native Plant Initiative, an all-volunteer effort to guard the island’s botanical diversity by establishing business sources of local “ecotypic” plants — genetically distinct geographic varieties — to be used in habitat restoration and by nurseries, landscape designers, and residential gardeners.

Volunteers remove invasive Chinese bushclover from the Hempstead Plains Preserve at Nassau Community College.

Volunteers remove invasive Chinese bushclover from the Hempstead Plains Preserve at Nassau Community College.
Friends of Hempstead Plains

A 2018 appraisal of the remaining Plains ecosystem by the Latest York State Natural Heritage Service found 14 rare and vulnerable plants. Alarmingly, the botanists also documented 34 invasive non-native plants that threaten Plains natives, up from six within the Nineteen Eighties.

Although the Friends have been successful at protecting imperiled plants and removing opportunistic woody shrubs, controlling mugwort, cypress spurge, and other herbaceous invasives has been a critical challenge. Longiaru, a conservation biologist with the Town of Hempstead who moonlights because the Friends’ habitat director, mows and hand cuts recurrently to maintain down the problematic plants. Boy Scouts and other volunteers help. Gulotta, the group’s conservation project manager for 18 years, hopes there may be enough money left from a BAND Foundation grant to burn a portion of the preserve next yr to suppress woody vegetation and stimulate the native wildflowers and grasses. “We don’t have numerous money,” she says. “We do what we will.”

Anthony Marinello, who grew up in West Hempstead within the early 2000s, discovered the Hempstead Plains as a biology student at Nassau Community College. “I stumbled upon the preserve at some point after I was bored between classes,” he says. The grassland piqued his interest, and two years ago Marinello established Dropseed Native Landscapes, a nursery and landscape design business. Every Saturday from April through November he may be found on the farmer’s market at Crossroads Farm on Hempstead Avenue. Surrounded by his potted milkweeds, pussytoes, switchgrass, and other inhabitants of the grassland community, he encourages the locals “to plant their very own little pocket of the Plains.” In keeping with Marinello, “Most individuals around listed here are completely unaware that it even existed.”

“There are a whole lot of papers now that have a look at the conservation role that residential yards can play,” says a researcher.

Conservation gardens, like people who Marinello plants for schools and individuals, are starting to look in countries across the globe. Although still far outnumbered by manicured lawns, within the U.S. there at the moment are greater than one million pollinator gardens, over 40,000 registered “Waystations” for declining monarch butterflies, and 283,000 wildlife gardens certified by the National Wildlife Federation. What’s more, the interest in conservation gardening is growing. “In 2020 we saw a 50 percent increase in people creating and certifying wildlife gardens,” says Mary Phillips, head of the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program. Prior to now two years, she adds, that number has held regular.

In 2001, before starting her PhD, Susannah Lerman, of the Forest Service, was driving around Phoenix through desert and residential areas when she had a revelation. Back then, she says, biologists saw the struggle to preserve nature as an epic clash between cities and rural wildlands. They were convinced that “the wild places are where all of the biodiversity is, and concrete development is bad,” Lerman recalls. “I got here to this realization that we will’t stop urban development so we’d like to work out methods to make it less bad.”

Twenty-plus years and a doctorate later, she is one in every of the pioneers of conservation gardening research. “There are a whole lot of papers now that look specifically on the conservation role that residential yards can play,” she says.

A wildlife garden in Washington, D.C. that has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation.

A wildlife garden in Washington, D.C. that has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation.
David Mizejewski

Of their five-year NSF study, Lerman and her colleagues analyzed the differences in breeding bird use of personal yards and natural areas in parks in Baltimore, Boston, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix and Los Angeles. The yards were either typical lawn-dominated suburban properties or were managed for conservation. Lots of the latter landscapes were wildlife gardens certified by the National Wildlife Federation.

The highly maintained lawns tended to host common “generalists,” comparable to house sparrows and house finches, which will not be fussy about food and nesting places and due to this fact thrive in disturbed urban areas. In contrast, rarer “specialist” birds with specific food or cover requirements were present in the certified yards, including species of conservation concern comparable to curve-billed thrashers in Phoenix and wood thrushes in Baltimore. As well as, while similar collections of birds were observed at lawns across most of any given city, and to some extent even across the country, different bird species often turned up in each certified yard since the plants in them varied, creating quite a lot of habitat niches. Lerman points out that this diversity, combined with the synergistic role that the house conservation gardens can play in bolstering urban wildland fragments, indicates they’ve the potential to assist reverse the lack of biodiversity in urban areas.

“There is no such thing as a downside to growing appropriate native plants in urban landscapes,” says a conservationist.

Studies suggest that conservation gardens could be a boon to native flora in addition to fauna. In a paper published in Nature Sustainability in May, researchers in Germany, Portugal, and the Czech Republic note that global measures for saving plants, most notably by safeguarding habitat in large protected areas, “have did not halt systematic widespread declines in plant species.” While these efforts are key to successful plant conservation, they add, latest approaches are urgently needed. The brand new approach they propose is to mainstream conservation gardening.

Using Germany, where 70 percent of plant species are in decline, as a case study, the scientists documented how horticulture has already played a key role within the recovery of some species. In recent many years, for instance, planting in home gardens has increased the whole numbers of two natives: grape hyacinth, classified as vulnerable on the German Red List of threatened species, and customary bluebell by 65 and 1,104 percent, respectively.

In Germany, as in other countries, several obstacles are slowing the continued growth of conservation gardening and decreasing its ecological value. One stumbling block is that the native-plant industry caters primarily to the needs of large-scale ecological restoration. And while the demand for natives in consumer horticulture has grown, the emphasis has been on producing “nativars,” specimens with unusual ornamental traits — showy flowers with extra petals, say — and using propagation techniques comparable to cloning that preserve the specified characteristics but diminish the plants’ genetic diversity and resilience. The authors of the Nature Sustainability paper recommend labeling standards to make it easy for nonprofessionals to discover plants suitable for conservation gardening.

Bumblebees on goldenrod blooms in a yard in Floral Park on Long Island.

Bumblebees on goldenrod blooms in a yard in Floral Park on Long Island.
Anthony Marinello

“There is no such thing as a downside to growing appropriate native plants in urban landscapes,” says Polly Weigand of the Long Island Native Plant Initiative. “It is barely useful.”

On a crisp, sunny day in November, bumblebees feasted on late-season nectar and pollen from good goldenrod blooms in one in every of Anthony Marinello’s residential gardens, a pocket prairie backed by a white picket fence on a quiet suburban block in Floral Park on the western extreme of the historic Hempstead Plains. Every afternoon the garden “is totally full of songbirds eating the seeds,” he says.

Conservation gardens comparable to this will provide the vital connective tissue that permits ancient natural communities to survive and even thrive. Brimming with native grasses, sundrops, dotted horsemint, and other wildflowers, the pocket prairie might help link the Hempstead Plains and other patches of sandplain grassland that dot the south shore of Long Island east to its terminus at Montauk Point. “You possibly can’t knock down the shopping malls and subdivisions,” Marinello says, “so we’d like to include these species back into our landscapes.”


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