Til the River Runs Dry

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Colorado River

The Colorado River Credit: StormeTX/Flickr

In the Colorado River Basin, water is in short supply. Millions of people rely on the Colorado River for domestic water, agricultural irrigation and even electricity. Take the products produced by the agricultural fields fed by the Colorado, factor in where all of them are shipped and consumed and you’d be hard pressed to find many areas in the U.S. that aren’t in some way dependent on the Colorado River.

Recently, this important waterway has been subjected to a number of problems. The whitebark pines that shade its northern snowpack are declining; recent wildfires are interfering with water quality and temperature; and development is diverting the water for a variety of purposes. (For a sobering documentary on the Colorado River, check out Peter McBride’s Chasing Water.)

This is why recent findings in the arid Southwest are particularly troubling. A large-scale study of ecosystems in the American Southwest — supported by scientists from Oregon State University, the Conservation Biology Institute and NASA — has found that the death of millions of acres of trees could have an immense impact on the local ecosystems throughout the region, including the Colorado River itself.

It is a fairly well understood fact that trees need water to live. What we often forget — and what many never learn in the first place — is that to flow properly, water also needs trees. Even a river in dry, rocky, nearly barren land (say, the Southwest) is depending on trees to keep it flowing. Trees along riverbanks stabilize the soil, preventing erosion into the water, which keeps the water cleaner and the river flowing at its current level. The trees also filter out pollutants, regulate the water temperature (which aquatic creatures, like fish, appreciate) and provide additional oxygen. But even trees that don’t border a river can ensure its steady flow. Trees shade snowpack from the glaring sun and prevent it from melting too quickly. This allows the snow to melt at a steadier rate over a longer period of time, which can keep water flowing into rivers long through the summer months — even when rain is scarce.

New Mexico Plains

Pinyon pines in New Mexico Credit: Robyn Gallant

In the Southwest, two particularly hardy trees — pinyon pine and juniper — act as the framework for an ecosystem that has adapted to survive on small amounts of water. Winds in this region can be harsh and kick up a great deal of dust and soil, but pinyon pines and junipers literally hold the dry, dusty land together. They also protect the water supply by shading the seasonal snowpack and prevented sun-warmed dust from blowing onto the snow and causing it to melt. And, don’t forget the wildlife — they provide food and habitat for a variety of species.

Yet, over the past 15 years, more than 2.5 million acres of these trees across the Southwest have fallen victim to a combination of severe drought and mountain pine beetle infestations, leaving the landscape open to what scientists fear could quickly become extreme deterioration. Without the pines and juniper, this windy, arid region could become severely eroded, and the ecosystem’s ability to protect or add to the water supply could disappear. With millions relying on the water it provides, we can’t afford to underestimate the value of trees to this river that acts as a lifeline to the entire Southwest.


Science Versus Perception

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

The shelf cloud on the leading edge of June 29th’s derecho in LaPorte, Indiana

The shelf cloud on the leading edge of June 29th’s derecho in LaPorte, Indiana. Credit: Kevin Gould/NOAA

According to the National Climatic Data Center, June 2011-May 2012 was the warmest 12-month period in the U.S. since recordkeeping began more than a century ago. Heat waves across the U.S. over the last few weeks have helped fuel record-setting fires and major storms like the derecho that left millions of people without power across the East. But, yet, in a new poll released this week by The Washington Post-Stanford University, climate change is no longer Americans’ top environmental concern. Curious.

The poll, conducted just days prior to the onslaught of extreme heat and storms in late June, reveals that only 18 percent of Americans rate climate change as their primary environmental concern, compared to 33 percent in 2007. Today, the top concerns at 29 percent are water and air pollution. So why this shift despite the U.S. experiencing two of the warmest winters and springs on record this year?

According to some of the interviews in The Washington Post report, it might boil down to lip service. In 2007, the UN had just released a major climate report and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was making the rounds. In 2012, political headlines have been dominated by health care, the economy and elections. As the Post relates:

“I really don’t give it a thought,” said Wendy Stewart, a 46-year-old bookkeeper in New York. Although she thinks warmer winters and summers are signs of climate change, she has noticed that political leaders don’t bring up the subject. “I’ve never heard them speak on global warming,” she said. “I’ve never heard them elaborate on it.”

For those of us in the environmental community who think about climate change quite frequently, this disconnect between the reality of the climate-change situation and the perception of its importance is a bit alarming.

A helicopter drops water on the Waldo Canyon Fire on June 27, 2012

A helicopter drops water on the Waldo Canyon Fire on June 27, 2012. Credit: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock/U.S. Air Force

While scientists are loath to connect all extremes in heat and weather directly to climate change, they are willing to point to the recent, devastating weather events as prime examples of what’s to come with climate change. As University of Arizona’s Jonathan Overpeck tells the Associated Press’ Seth Borenstein, “This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level. The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”

Borenstein’s story goes on to reveal some alarming data:

  • 40,000 hot temperature records have been set in the U.S. since January 1, 2012 — only 6,000 cold weather ones.
  • Throughout the 1900s, hot and cold temperature records fell evenly. In the 2000s, the ratio is 3:1 in favor of hot. In 2012, that has spiked to 7:1.
  • More than 2.1 million acres have burned in 2012 wildfires.
  • Two-thirds of the country is currently experiencing drought conditions.

It appears that even if we humans aren’t talking about climate change, Mother Nature is doing some speaking of her own. Let’s start talking back and taking action by encouraging legislation and funding for programs and initiatives that will aid the environment. Our fate and nature’s are intertwined, so we must look out for each other.


Happy 4th of July!

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland & Michelle Werts

American Forests wishes everyone a happy and safe 4th of July.

Fireworks over Hood Canal, Washington

Fireworks over Hood Canal, Washington. Credit: GoRun26/Flickr


Where Not To Find Forests

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Deforestation is a common topic here on Loose Leaf.

There are just so many things that can — and are — destroying forests and trees across the globe: from human activities like development and water management to natural factors like wildfires and climate change. We lose acres upon acres of forest each year. So you would think that whenever more trees are growing, we would be happy about it … but not all new forest growth is worth celebrating.

Tundra

Arctic tundra Credit: Billy Lindblom

In the far north, warming temperatures are causing the frozen tundra’s permafrost to thaw out, paving the way for new forests to grow in places where trees haven’t existed in millennia. Scientists from the University of Oxford’s Biodiversity Institute and the University of Lapland’s Arctic Center have found that in stretches of tundra along Russia’s arctic coast, new greenery is appearing much faster than anyone had anticipated. With a longer growing season, shrubs are growing to the size of trees, several feet taller than one would normally find them — all in just in the past few decades. The team’s findings completely thrashed the previously accepted notion that a warming climate would turn tundra into forests slowly as the treeline crept across the tundra over several centuries. Whether or not this is a good thing is unclear, as scientists continue to debate the issue. Some argue that the conversion of tundra to forests will result in more carbon sinks — areas that absorb more carbon than they produce. Others argue that these new tundra forests will actually result in more carbon being produced: Warming temperatures and the resultant increase in biological activity could release the carbon that has been long stored in the disappearing permafrost.

African savanna

African savanna Credit: gary.fotu

And the not-as-frozen tundra isn’t the only habit seeing new trees. Recent studies tell us that savannas and grasslands may be slowly transforming into forests too. Normally, grasslands hold almost no trees at all, while sparse trees and shrubs dot the landscape across savannas. The increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is essentially fertilizing the plants in these ecosystems, allowing some of them to grow more rapidly than usual and disturbing the ecosystem’s regular balance of flora. Scientists from Goethe University and the Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Germany have found that Africa’s iconic savannas — vital habitats to any number of creatures including lions and zebras — could be transformed into forests by the year 2100. In fact, a full-scale ecosystem shift could occur across the continent, changing deserts into grasslands, existing grasslands into savannas and existing savannas into forests. Such a wide-scale change could have devastating results for the species that rely on these various ecosystems.

Though we cannot predict the exact rate or details of these changes, the mere scope and speed of these massive ecosystem shifts is unsettling. If the Arctic tundra and African savanna — both landscapes known for their lack of dense tree cover — could become forests in less than a century, exactly how different will our planet look in 100 years?


Northern Neighbors

by Loose Leaf Team

Climate change is a greatly talked about topic these days, and huge proportions of Canadian birds are feeling its impact and in serious trouble. As the ozone depletes, so do the habitats of these birds, causing a severe domino effect.

least flycatcher

Least flycatcher Photo: Seabamirum/Flickr

Since 1970, there has been a 12 percent overall drop in bird species across Canada. These shocking numbers were part of Canada’s newly released The State of Canada’s Birds, the first report of its kind for the country. Of the 460 bird species in Canada, 44 percent of them have declining populations, and 66 species have dropped so drastically that they have ended up on the endangered list. And scientists are finding it hard to pinpoint exactly what is causing these shifts in population. As Ted Cheskey, manager of bird conservation programs at Nature Canada and author of The State of Canada’s Birds, told Scientific American, “One of the concerns is … that climate change is happening so fast it’s throwing out of synchrony the food supply and cycle of migration.”

Much of the decline is largely due to loss of food supply and habitat. Some of the species in sharpest decline are grassland birds, migratory shorebirds and birds that eat insects in flight. Aerial insect feeders, like barn swallows, chimney swifts and flycatchers, have seen an overall decline of 64 percent. Part of this could be due to climate change causing many insect populations to peak earlier in the year than the birds expect. Because these insects are peaking earlier in the year, the birds are not able to feed them to their young when they are born in the spring.

When trying to cope with the warming climate, many species have shifted where they live and breed in order to stay in ideal temperatures. In turn, this shift alters their migration patterns. Birds that travel great lengths for food sources and breeding grounds are being greatly affected because they are not able to determine the status of their final destination. Species like the wood warbler suffer from the accelerated season changes because when they arrive at their destination, often, their food supply has already come and gone.

snow geese

Snow geese Photo: Glyn Lowe

There is a small silver lining to this report, though. A handful of bird species in Canada are thriving. Many waterfowl populations have found success living in wetlands like bogs and marshlands, where they have an abundance of food sources and nesting sites. Many duck and goose species have seen notable increases, like the snow goose, whose population has increased by more than 300 percent in recent years.

Knowing the effects of climate change on such a large group of birds in a specific area gives a good indication of how climate change is affecting our environment as a whole. This report brings to light the decline in bird populations, while also revealing the state of the ecosystems that the birds live in. Protecting areas where we have seen bird populations decline will also aid in protecting areas that have suffered harmful effects from climate change.


Diverse Heritages

by Loose Leaf Team

By Michelle Werts

Have you ever marveled at the diversity of America’s national parks? If not, today is your chance as we celebrate two drastically different, but equally impressive locations.

As I experienced last week on my first trip to the Pacific Northwest, that area of the country is full of some spectacular landscapes — and one of those landscapes is celebrating an anniversary today.

On June 29, 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed legislation creating Washington’s Olympic National Park, preserving and protecting almost 100,000 acres that encompass a great diversity of landscapes and ecosystems:

  • Some of the largest areas of old-growth forest and temperate rainforest in the lower 48 states, plus three other forest types (coastal, montane, subalpine).
  • More than 1,450 types of vascular plants — equal to the number on the much larger British Isles.
  • The glacier- and stream-carved peaks of the Olympic Mountains.
  • The 73 miles of wilderness coastline with its sandy beaches, tidepools and rocky cliffs.
  • More than 10 major river systems that provide habitat for a variety of aquatic species.

It’s no wonder that the United Nations named this majestic, diverse landscape a World Heritage Site in 1981.

  • Olympic National Park. Credit: Jason Pratt/Flickr Olympic National Park. Credit: Jason Pratt/Flickr
  • Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park. Credit: Evan Balbier ([evan hunter])/Flickr Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park. Credit: Evan Balbier ([evan hunter])/Flickr
  • Marymere Fall, Olympic National Park. Credit: Rickz/Flickr Marymere Fall, Olympic National Park. Credit: Rickz/Flickr
  • Hoh River Valley rainforest, Olympic National Park. Credit: James Gaither (J.G. in S.F.)/Flickr Hoh River Valley rainforest, Olympic National Park. Credit: James Gaither (J.G. in S.F.)/Flickr
  • Lake Crescent, Olympic National Park. Credit: Hawthorne Ave/Flickr Lake Crescent, Olympic National Park. Credit: Hawthorne Ave/Flickr
  • View from Anderson Pass, overlooking Dosewallips Valley, Olympic National Park. Credit: ((brian))/Flickr View from Anderson Pass, overlooking Dosewallips Valley, Olympic National Park. Credit: ((brian))/Flickr
     

Also celebrating an anniversary today is a national park known more for its history than its landscape: Mesa Verde National Park. According to the park’s website President Theodore Roosevelt established it on this date in 1906 to “preserve the works of man,” making it the first national park of its kind.

Located in Southwest Colorado, the park protects more than 4,000 known archeological sites, such as cliff dwellings, pueblos, masonry towers and other structures that were constructed by Pueblo Indians, who inhabited the region from about 550 to 1300 A.D. The famous cliff dwellings, like Cliff Palace, are multi-story, multi-room structures built of sandstone and mud mortar. Like Olympic National Park, Mesa Verde is a United Nations World Heritage site. Mesa Verde also represents one of my favorite aspects of America’s national park system: It recognizes beauty in a variety of ways, from those of the nature-made variety to those representing the feats of man.

  • Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Justin Otto/Flickr Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Justin Otto/Flickr
  • Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: jphilipg/Flickr Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: jphilipg/Flickr
  • Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Mark Byzewski/Flickr Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Mark Byzewski/Flickr
  • Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Mark Byzewski/Flickr Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Mark Byzewski/Flickr
  • Pipe Shrine House and Far View House, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Catherine Snodgrass (Caitlyn Willows)/Flickr Pipe Shrine House and Far View House, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Catherine Snodgrass (Caitlyn Willows)/Flickr
  • Overlook of Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Jeffrey Keeton (Mulsanne)/Flickr Overlook of Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Credit: Jeffrey Keeton (Mulsanne)/Flickr
     

The Flames of Change

by Loose Leaf Team

By Katrina Marland

Waldo Canyon Wildfire Colorado Springs

View of the Waldo Canyon fire from Garden of the Gods, a major tourist attraction in Colorado Springs Photo: Don Savage Photography

As quickly as I’ve adapted to being back here in our nation’s capital, it doesn’t seem like so very long ago that I was at home in Colorado Springs, with the Rockies on my doorstep and a view of Pike’s Peak out the window. So you can imagine how the headlines coming from the fiery front lines in Colorado are grabbing my attention.

As I’m writing this, the Waldo Canyon Fire has burned through more than 18,500 acres near Colorado Springs and has forced the evacuation of 32,000 people from the city’s outskirts. The High Park Fire, now the second largest to ever hit Colorado, is burning near Fort Collins; it has destroyed hundreds of homes, forced the evacuation of 4,300 residents and claimed at least one life. According to Reuters, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has declared this “the worst fire season in the history of Colorado.”

The Southwest is no stranger to wildfires, but lately conditions across the region are drier, hotter and windier than the norm. Experts agree that the low amount of winter precipitation means the 2012 wildfire season is likely to get worse before it gets better. For the towns and cities threatened by these fires and the others burning across the Southwest, the impacts are felt in the losses to property, lives and economies. But what will the cost be for the landscape itself?

High Park Fire Ft. Collins, Colorado

National Guardsmen approach the High Park Fire near Ft. Collins, Colorado Photo: Sgt. Jess Geffre, Army National Guard

Craig Allen, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, asserts that the severe wildfires throughout the Southwest, combined with the effects of climate change on the region, are transforming the landscape from forests to grassland. Using tree ring data, scientists studying the climate history of the Southwest have established that the region is historically prone to frequent fires, but not intense ones — fires of the past rarely reached the treetops. These regular fires cleared the forests of surface debris and prevented overcrowding without permanently damaging the forest itself.

Over the years, forest management practices have changed the game, leading to denser forests with too much fuel — fuel that burns hot enough to destroy the forest. Once this happens, the ecosystem has to start from scratch. Allen notes that tree species common to southwestern forests are struggling to reestablish themselves in an environment that is even drier and hotter than they’re used to. Without new trees and their seeds, every acre of forest burned has less chance of ever becoming a forest again. Instead, hardier, more opportunistic plant species like grasses and brush take hold. As this process occurs over and over again, we may see more acres of grassland rise up where forests once took root. As commonplace as wildfires have become across the Southwest, we may need to start seeing these fires not just as natural disasters, but as agents of permanent change, capable of irreversibly transforming landscapes.


From Farms to Forests

by Amanda Tai

The Farm Bill benefits farms as well as forests. Credit: NRCS

I’ve mentioned the Farm Bill in a previous post, talking about its significance for forests and conservation program funding. The comprehensive bill also determines national policies for trade, rural development, research and many other affairs under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The current bill passed in 2007 to begin in fiscal year 2008. Now, halfway through its fifth year, the bill’s expiration date is quickly approaching. Congress has been working to get a new version together this year; ideally before the election takes over the agenda.

Despite the challenges of a partisan and stagnant Congress, several groups have helped move the Farm Bill forward. For example, American Forests — as part of the Forests in the Farm Bill Coalition — advocated that the Farm Bill prioritize issues like increasing forest research opportunities, combating invasive species, and strengthening forest conservation programs. The coalition distributed a list of forest priorities and letters to the House and Senate Agriculture committees to ensure that forests have a voice in the Farm Bill discussion.

The Senate passed their version on Thursday last week and the House plans begin their drafting process soon after it returns to session on July 11. In the weeks leading up to the Senate vote, we tracked several amendments to the bill. We supported some and opposed others. The main effort was geared towards making Senators aware of the harmful amendments so they would not vote for them. Here are the ones we opposed:

  • Amendment 2313, from Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), would eliminate the Forest Legacy Program, a voluntary grant program of the U.S. Forest Service that helps states acquire or purchase conservation easements for threatened forest lands, wetlands and wildlife habitats. Many of these privately owned lands would otherwise be lost to development.
  • Amendment 2314, also from Lee, would repeal the Conservation Stewardship Program and Conservation Reserve Program which provide economic incentives for landowners to implement conservation practices on their land.
  • Amendment 2353, from Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), would repeal two critical Natural Resources Conservation Service programs: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program. Both programs have been critical means for providing financial and technical assistance to landowners that want to implement conservation practices on their land.
  • Amendment 2291, also from Coburn, would repeal the International Forestry Program, which deals with trade issues and prevention of invasive species.
  • Amendment 2292, also from Coburn, would repeal the Urban and Community Forestry Program which helps reforest urban areas and create green space.

In the voting process, the first two amendments were voted against and the last three were not even brought up for vote. Passing the Farm Bill and voting against amendments that threaten conservation programs is a big win for the forest conservation community!


The Bright Side of Rio+20

by Alison Share, Environmental Public Policy Associate, Crowell & Moring LLP
Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Terry Dunn (terrydu)/Flickr

While expectations might not have been high entering the recent Rio+20 United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development, hopes certainly were. With leaders and delegates from 188 countries, including more than 100 heads of state and government, as well as thousands of representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses and other organizations, this was to be the next step forward for bold initiatives in human rights, sustainable development and the environment.

As Amanda noted in her post last week, forests were sadly left off the list of the major areas to discuss during official meetings and negotiations. But forests were only the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg: As the talks progressed, it became clear that nothing along the lines of the Rio Conventions on Biological Diversity, on Climate Change and to Combat Desertification that came from the original 1992 meeting would be replicated this year. The final document that emerged from Rio+20 — The Future We Want — is replete with nonbinding and modestly aspirational goals.

The parties to The Future We Want did commit to improving the conditions of people and communities around the world so that they can better sustainably manage their forests. This commitment to improvement includes strengthening the “areas of finance, trade, transfer of environmentally sound technologies, capacity-building and governance.” In other words, a lot of encouraging words, but not a lot of actual action. Lest the forest community feel alone in their soft-shoe treatment, climate change, desertification, mountains, oceans and other critically important environmental topics also received similar commitments, reiterations and reaffirmations.

Panelists at the Rio+20 UN Women Leaders Forum

Panelists at the Rio+20 UN Women Leaders Forum. Credit: UN Women/Fabricio Barreto

Yet, while the final language of the document left many observers and participants deflated, the conference still produced action and tangible excitement. Many individuals came ready to discuss what is actually happening on the ground around the myriad of environmental challenges we face. Set apart from the main negotiations, individuals representing cities, community groups, businesses and other organizations had the opportunity to attend numerous side events covering a gamut of topics. Topics ranged widely, such as “The Protection of Lake Chad,” “Agro Ecological Farming Can Feed the World: In Practice” and “Healthy Women, Healthy Planet: Women’s Empowerment, Reproductive Health.” It is these side events that can — and maybe should — be the true legacy of Rio+20.

The 1992 Rio Convention on Climate Change has its own legion of supporters and detractors, both in and outside of the environmental movement. The convention also contained promises and encouragements, and its enforcement was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which required its signatories to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions. As Kyoto has shown, however, even with large-scale, binding documents, the results can be less than expected. But, the individual meetings, conversations, ideas and actions taken towards achieving the same goal — reduction of greenhouse gas emissions — often can make a more permanent impression. While protocols can be superseded, changes to individual habits and the creation of innovative technologies and their progeny can last much, much longer.

Think about your own life.

Chances are, you are not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, but you may be taking steps within your own day-to-day activities to stabilize or reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. Maybe you walk to the store only a few blocks away, rather than drive. Perhaps your home is composed entirely of Energy Star appliances. Or maybe when you do drive, it is a vehicle that gets more than 35 mpg. These individual actions are a recognition that no single country, business or person can limit all greenhouse gas emissions alone.

Maybe that is how we can best view the Rio+20 result: There was no grand Convention on Sustainable Development and a Green Economy (a pure hypothetical), but there are thousands of people that had a conversation with a mayor or an environmental activist or a start-up company that may lead to tangible action. Be it a removal of barriers to bringing off-grid solar power to India, more renewable energy in Brazil or a joint project for forest protection and conservation in the African Mayombe area of conservation, these projects and actions may lead to more positive results than the platitudes of The Future We Want. Their importance should not be discounted.


Wasteland Gold

by Loose Leaf Team

When I think of a flourishing and healthy habitat, green trees and acres of vegetation come to mind. Although healthy, prospering land is an important part of most plant and animal lifecycles, it may not always be the best. In Britain brownfield sites are coming into focus as significant reservoirs of biodiversity for a variety of ground plant species and invertebrates. The federal government defines brownfield as “abandoned, idled or underused industrial and commercial properties where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.” This may make you think of unclean wasteland but in reality, many brownfield sites have had little environmental damage from previous construction.

A brownfield site in Britain Credit: Richard Croft

Brownfield sites are rich in bare ground, which can serve as a framework for hardy, slow-growth plants. The hard, compact soil is perfect for the development of diverse, complex plants. These plants — which include willowherb, prickly lettuce and dandelions — are able to grow at a slower pace and mature without the interruption of fast-growing plants that would otherwise dominate nutrient-rich soil. Low nutrient soil provides opportunities for a variety of other plants to grow, increasing plant diversity. In turn, this creates habitat for many invertebrates that have complex life cycles and need more time to mature. The exposed ground also heats under sunlight and becomes a microclimate for insects like moths and beetles that cannot normally survive in a humid and damp environment.

One moth in particular — the small ranunculus, which was last seen in Europe before World War II — was recently spotted in brownfield sites in England and Wales. The UK wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation noted that the moth’s larvae find food in plants that thrive in low-nutrient soil of abandoned industrial sites. Other moth species, like the four-spotted, wormwood, bright wave and elephant hawk moths, can also be found in brownfields across Europe. These seemingly useless lands are not just providing habitat for these invertebrates, but are also attracting other species that depend on them, jump-starting a new ecosystem.

Small ranunculus moth Credit: Entomart

The problem is that, thanks to their aesthetic shortcomings, most government officials do not recognize these lands as beneficial to wildlife or the environment. Because of this, they have done little to reverse the trend of “greenwashing” — turning these abandoned industrial sites into green spaces by replacing low-grade soil with rich topsoil. This practice can be devastating to the rich wildlife that find homes in this unexpected goldmine of fertile land.

It is important to bring attention to this susceptible land to show that individual species can prosper in a variety of habitats. These UK findings will hopefully draw attention to the environmental potential of brownfield sites in the United States and all over the world. If the trend of converting brownfield sites continues, there is no way of knowing what threatened species could go down with them.