- New study: More than 50 percent of the original natural systems in the United States are now gone or highly altered.
- These changes are affecting nature and humans -- with effects ranging from destructive wildfires to reduced outdoor recreation.
- The solution: Smarter land management techniques and full funding of conservation initiatives.
"How much change can nature sustain and still provide the benefits we depend on, like water filtration, recreational activities, forest products and much more?"
--Kori Blankenship, Nature Conservancy fire ecologist
How much trouble is nature in in the United States? Much more than previously thought, according to a pathbreaking new study by scientists at The Nature Conservancy — at a time when federal funding for conservation is severely threatened:
- The study — published in the journal PLoS One — finds that more than 50% of the United States’ original natural systems are either gone or highly altered.
- Some places are more impacted than others. Specifically, 33% of ecosystems in the lower 48 United States — from the forests of the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts to the Great Plains of the Midwest to the Great Basin of the U.S. West — are "critically endangered," meaning that more than half their vegetation has been lost or highly altered since first European settlement.
- And merely designating areas as “protected” has not always halted the degradation — more than 20 percent of the area within our public lands have "high levels of ecosystem alteration."
- Large areas of deciduous forest — from New England to Appalachia — were found to be highly altered, including areas that urban residents in Boston, New York and Atlanta rely on for drinking water and forest products.
- The central United States has a host of critically endangered ecoregions, including much of the nation’s prairies -- a huge problem for already stressed grassland birds such as prairie chickens and Henslow’s sparrow.
- 35 of the 69 ecoregions in the United States increased by one or two risk categories, from Vermont and New York State’s St. Lawrence-Champlain Valley to Washington State’s Okanagan.
- Where fire suppression has altered vegetation and increased fuel loads, there is increased risk of unnatural megafires, especially in the West. Such fires destroy habitat, increase soil erosion and reduce water quality, in addition to threatening people’s homes and lives.
Solutions: Smarter Management of the Nation's Lands
- Restoring the natural role of fire,
- Using improved forestry techniques that support native vegetation,
- Controlling the spread of invasive species, and
- Improved grazing practices.
“Nature is resilient, we already have an incredible network of protected areas upon which to build in the United States, and people are adaptable,” says Blankenship. “The conservation need is great across the lower 48 United States — but we know enough to start taking action on our findings. Important federal efforts such as the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration program and the Integrated Resource Restoration budget proposal make necessary investments in improving the health of our lands for both people and nature.”