By Marcia Wolfe Contributor,
Valley Ag Voice
As an ecologist since I was about 2 or 3 years old (unbeknownst to me at the time), I tend to feel the interconnectedness with all aspects of the environment–everything from air, soils, water, habitats and wildlife. Up at Mount Rainier where I started plant collecting and identification, the air is somewhat thin. The elevation where I lived in Sunrise, WA was 6600 feet. Here in Kern County at almost sea-level (okay, for those who are picky, 263 feet elevation) the air is denser. But we are being told that the higher percentage of carbon dioxide in our air now is apparently increasing the rate of climate change. Climate change has significant effects upon our environment, plants and wildlife. First, realize climate change exists, not just recently but for many eons. The house I lived in on a ranch in New Mexico at 7300 feet elevation was in pinyon and ponderosa pine tree forest habitat on the edge of the Vermejo River valley. One day while working with the water well drillers, I found a large hunk of fossilized palm tree frond near the soil surface in the pine needles. At another time, I found a second piece. Clearly the pine forest was not always a pine forest!
Upon review, new changes in vegetation and climate are increasingly ongoing even well before people recognized what was happening. Humankind simply pays no mind to the surrounding tell-tale signs. Some issues are so widespread, going from the top to the bottom of the globe. We are so awash with the constant informational flood that staying “connected” induces that very little to no dots are connected to see the extent of effects on our environment.
The National Audubon Society has a motto “Birds Matter.” It wasn’t really until the recent “discovery” that almost 3 billion (not million, but billion!) birds have been lost in North America since 1970, that people began to wake up about climate change. That happened in only the last 50 years and we are just now seeing it in the literature and newspapers! That is 29 percent of all birds we have. I should say “had.” Birds let us know that their habitats were changing and disappearing, and not necessarily just from human development per se, but also from climate change. Also, it was not just the rare birds disappearing, but our most common bird and backyard species, sparrows, finches, robins, have been disappearing. Birds are considered indicator species. They are like an ecological litmus paper and we are getting a very bad sign from them. Birds are crucial to the health of many ecosystems and their populations may indicate the health of entire ecosystems, and that includes our agricultural ecosystems. From the smallest to the largest they eat all kinds of insects and feed upon numerous types of rodents. (Remember my article on doing owl nest boxes? You get almost free rodent control!) But those effects are real.
So, what can we do about climate change? We can’t stop it, as its been going on ever since the beginning of time. However, one of the big factors believed to be speeding up climate change is the high rates of discharge of carbon dioxide. We can all work together to help change that. The re-engineering of vehicles and fuel uses is an example. New types of vehicles are in design and production and continue to be marketed. The use of solar also has helped (reduced my power bill). But what about in agriculture? One way everyone can help with the global warming is to use carbon sequestration. Use of carbon sequestration is already utilized by gardeners, and organic growers to improve soil health. The storage of carbon in the soil contributes to the development of humus and improves soil health. It puts carbon in a stable form that may stay there hundreds of years, consequently helping slow the rate of increased climate change. Doing it reduces the amount of NPK that needs to be used. The plants break down the carbon dioxide. They use the carbon and mix it with water to make carbon sugars to fuel themselves. Consequently, when the carbon is removed, the oxygen is released into the atmosphere. That’s a good thing for us, and everything else that uses oxygen.
Not only does the carbon sequestration process improve general soil health, good soil condition helps all crops. Healthy soils create healthy crops, and even increases productivity and over time it’s less expensive. You don’t have to buy it; you can do it. It’s not free in the sense of cost, but over time it becomes less expensive. Not to mention, increased productivity can generate additional income.
Good, healthy soils also help to maintain the water cycle. Having healthy soil helps to ensure precipitation can leach into the soil, subsoil and ultimately aquifers, both alluvial and deep aquifers, to help contribute to the recharge of our groundwater. In addition to carbon sequestration in soils, the edges of drainages where primary and secondary floodplains generally occur is a major area where water percolation to recharge groundwater occurs. But when these floodplains are graded and eliminated and cut into steep banks, that important percolation has a much smaller area on which to occur, or it doesn’t exist at all except in the channel proper. With the straightening of the channels and steep cutting of the channel banks, that increases water flow velocity in the channel, even that percolation area is reduced, or even eliminated. The increased water velocity in the cut channels also increases cutting and downstream sedimentation. If that’s not on the owner’s property, someone downstream gets to clean it up.
The floodplains are also important bird habitat. Migratory shorebirds feed along the drainages. Some, like the greater yellowlegs, may even nest on the floodplain. Planting native shrubs along canals and roads supports beneficial insects, and they don’t require irrigation. They also stabilize the habitat, reducing pest rodent numbers, like California ground squirrels. Birds provide so much more value to agricultural lands, urban lands and natural lands that it is difficult to even calculate. We can work together on all these issues. If we lose most birds, we will experience extensive harm. All of these issues we are experiencing are interrelated! Everything is interconnected and dependent upon all other parts being healthy. Even if you don’t feel connected to carbon or a bird, take a walk this weekend without your phone, at least turn it off. Listen and look around to see what you can do to help improve the world. You’d be surprised. If we all do it together, we’d all be surprised about the extent of the positive benefits that would be generated.