Betsy Neely, Senior Conservation Planner for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, leads regional and statewide conservation assessments and partnership initiatives. She coordinates the Colorado Rare Plant Conservation Initiative with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, working with 22 private groups and public agencies, to conserve the state's imperiled plants and their habitats. Betsy has worked for the Conservancy for 21 years.
Why should people care about rare plants in Colorado?
Rare plants are the “Forgotten Majority.” So often people focus on the more charismatic large animals, but 75 percent of the imperiled species in Colorado are plants…of those, many are found nowhere else in the world.
That means we’re responsible for taking care of those plants and making sure they survive. They’re really an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage.
Rare plants are also valuable indicators. Their persistence over time serves as a measure of good stewardship and ecosystem health.
Do rare plants benefit people?
If we lose our plants, we’re losing scientific treasures and the benefits they offer to humans. Plants provide us with foods and medicines but very few of the world’s plants have been analyzed for possible medical treatments to treat cancer and other diseases.
We don’t want plants to go extinct before understanding what significant benefits they could provide to our own lives. And who doesn’t enjoy the brilliant colors and beauty native and rare plants add to our natural landscapes!
Why are rare plants in trouble?
Colorado is one of the fastest growing states in the U.S. Pressures on plants and their habitats mainly come from residential development, energy development, motorized recreation activities, and road construction/maintenance.
But today one of the biggest and the most serious threats to our rare plants is climate change, especially to plants in specialized habitats like alpine environments. If plants are restricted to specific habitats, they have few options for moving when the climate changes.
What's your favorite rare plant and why?
That’s hard because each one is so interesting, but the round-leaf four o'clock is a favorite. It occurs only in Colorado’s Arkansas Valley near Pueblo and is limited to shale barrens of Niobrara Formation where few other plants can grow because the conditions are so harsh.
It grows to be about one foot tall and has bright pink or magenta flowers that only open in early morning. And it really responds to rain. If we’ve had a dry winter or spring, plants adapt by not growing above ground and are hard to find—so it’s like a treasure hunt. They’re at risk of extinction due to residential development and mining, and most people don’t even know they exist.
What will “success” look like for the Colorado Rare Plant Conservation Initiative in ten years?
Along with our partners, we will have secured on-the-ground protection for all of Colorado’s imperiled plant species. This can be accomplished by working with: 1) local land trusts and willing landowners on conservation easements; 2) public agencies on special designations and seed collections; and 3) energy companies on best management practices to reduce impacts of oil and gas development on plants.
But long-term success means the establishment of a state program, policies, and funding mechanisms dedicated to the conservation of Colorado’s imperiled plants and their habitats.