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Getting to Know the Other Species
by Jenny McBride
The Surviving Climate Change Roundtable in St. Louis was well worth the trip from Chicago. Carpooling with people I wish I’d met long ago made the journey itself quite educational. Starting early Saturday morning, the panels on Energy and Healthcare found me taking lots of notes, an enthusiastic mish-mash of facts, well-honed phrases, and variations on the theme, “not compatible with our economic system.” But I didn’t write much during the third panel, “Earth, Air, Forests and Water.” When the first speaker sketched a historic forest stretching from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, I winced, being from the prairie state.
This might not have bothered me for more than a few moments if I hadn’t already been worried about the waves of anti-prairie sentiment that continue to threaten restoration efforts in the Chicago area. To make a long story short, where trees are being cleared to protect remaining prairie sites on forest preserve land, neighbors have been organizing to block restoration work. At one public hearing a resident proudly proclaimed, “I can’t tell an oak from a buckthorn, but I like my woods.” The anti-restoration backlash has been effective. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County (Chicago’s home) banned prescription burns for several years. If you don’t burn, trees start growing in the prairies, the prairie plants die from lack of sun and you don’t have a prairie anymore. Not a problem for the humans whose property abuts the forest preserve, but a dire predicament for plants and animals that can only live in a prairie ecosystem.
A couple of comments during the discussion period for the “Earth, Air, Forests and Water” panel drove home the fact that we need to spend more time getting acquainted with the ecosystems outside our urban doors. One woman described large holes in the “endangered” black oaks on her property, bemoaning the fact that these trees appeared to be in great distress. Actually, tree cavities are part of a healthy ecosystem. Bird watchers soon learn that many species are “cavity nesters,” requiring tree cavities for nest sites. Many mammals also require tree cavities for raising young. Furthermore, black oaks are not endangered, and occur in many states. Another comment suggested that the northern cardinal’s recent arrival in Vermont is a result of global warming. In fact, cardinals have been moving northward since the nineteenth century, expanding their range with changes in land use and, more recently, the bird feeding boom.  We need to learn more about changes in species distribution in order to comprehend which ones are truly alarming.
Part of surviving climate change will be understanding its effects on ecosystems and their species. If we don’t spend time getting to know the plants and animals around us, we will be confused at best, and perhaps counterproductive.
Jenny McBride is on the editorial board of Synthesis/Regeneration.
1. Halkin, S. L., & S. U. Linville. 1999. Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). In The Birds of North America, No. 440 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
[17 dec 08]