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Two Sides of the Same Coin

by Dan Crescenzo


Ninety-three percent of land in the state of Georgia is privately owned, as is most land east of the Mississippi River. Georgia is among the fastest growing states in the country, with the Georgia Piedmont growing the fastest. Everything from water quality to high priority natural habitats to working lands such as cattle pastures and managed pine forests, is threatened by this development. Conservation easements which protect land in perpetuity are the best available tool for ensuring that these lands remain places where native species can thrive and families can make a living.  Indeed, ORLT’s work and the work of other land trusts in fast-developing parts of the country has never been more important.


However, that work is not sufficient to protect viable populations of many species over the long run.  Conservation easements protect land from negative impacts on streams and wetlands, on forests and soils, and more, by proscribing certain kinds of activities and management practices, and in some cases prescribing them.  But they cannot help to make the hundred and fifty-plus million acres of developed land in cities and suburbia on unprotected private properties more habitable for native  plants and wildlife.  Accomplishing this latter feat requires a shift in philosophy. As Aldo Leopold recognized, and Douglas Tallamy puts it succinctly in his recent book Nature’s Best Hope, it requires abandoning “. . . our notion that humans and nature cannot mix, that humans are here and nature is somewhere else… We must learn how to coexist.”  Nature is not only in the park up the street or on the farm outside of town, it is also on the Maple Street cul de sac.  

Mowed paths and yard spaces can be maintained between colorful native wildflowers such as this bright orange butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), food plant for monarch butterflies and a feast for diverse pollinators, and the hummingbird-attracting scarlet bee balm (Monarda dydima).


When we think about nature in suburban and urban environments, we must consider the native species that used to be there and could be there now but are not.  Native plant species directly benefit a variety of pollinators, including the familiar bees and butterflies, but also moths, wasps, flies, and beetles, the very same pollinators which pollinate more than half of our commerical crops   They  provide food for many more species of insects than introduced ornamental plants, and their fruits are often more nutritious for birds.  Even birds that eat seeds or fruits most of the year typically feed their young  insects during breeding season – thousands of them per clutch, in fact – so landscaping with native plants that  support this volume of insects, as opposed to non-native ornamentals, will help both year-round resident and migratory bird species.   Native species that are excellent for insect and bird populations  and require little care to grow in the  southeast include oaks of all kinds, wild cherries and plums, willows, maples, hickories, dogwoods, blueberries, elderberries, wild sunflowers and asters, and goldenrods. 


White oak trees, like these specimens growing on a conservation easement near Athens, GA, and oaks in general, are the single most important tree you can grow in Georgia to help support bird populations due to the huge volume of caterpillars they support. If you can only plant one tree, and you have room for it, plant an oak!


In short, we can mitigate the impact of development on native species and species diversity by giving back to our local ecosystems, by putting in the time and effort to restore some of what has been lost in the development.  This goes against prevailing expectations of neatly manicured boxwoods and crape myrtles and uniformly green, species-impoverished lawns.  In many subdivisions in the United States, HOAs actively prohibit planting of anything like a native habitat on the grounds that it’s messy or unkempt!  But this attitude is changing.  Just a few years ago, Maryland passed a law enabling homeowners to grow native plants taller than 12” in height, even if the HOA has an ordinance against this.  Such laws are desperately needed across the country. Yards full of native species are not unkempt; on the contrary, from the perspective of ecosystem health and ecosystem services, they are more responsibly managed and better cared for than sterile lawns treated with harmful chemicals. 


Native asters, such as this beautiful heart-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), a Georgia native, will attract loads of pollinators to your yard in the fall.


Conserving natural habitats and working landscapes in rural areas goes hand in hand with managing suburban and urban environments to create habitat for native species.   In every case, we must ask how we can manage  land to contribute to its health and  sustainability  for future generations of human and nonhuman nature.  This question is always relevant wherever we go and wherever we live, because our environment and our impact on it are everywhere we go, and because even suburban and urban environments are a part of the larger ecosystem, of which we are all contributing members.


For a more extensive list of species that are particularly important for ecosystem health, take a look at the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife document, Eastern Temperate Forests – Ecoregion 8.  Also, any of Doug Tallamy’s books could serve as a great resource. The UGA Botanical Gardens also has a list of native plant suppliers in the Southeast: 

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Jul 02

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