Blue Ridge Naturalist: The Importance of Conserving Natural “Infrastructure”

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© Marlene A. Condon

The Green Infrastructure Center in Charlottesville has released a book to guide community efforts to maintain the natural environment that humans are dependent upon for their survival. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.
The Green Infrastructure Center in Charlottesville has released a book to guide community efforts to maintain the natural environment that humans are dependent upon for their survival. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Generally speaking, people have become so removed from the natural world that they no longer realize that the environment constitutes our life-support system.  Many folks think that it’s not at all important to conserve natural “infrastructure”—the forests, fields, waterways, soils, and wildlife—without which mankind cannot easily survive.

The evidence that people feel this way is all around us. In the recent past, Charlottesville City Councilors continued their historical disregard of the intentions of Paul Goodloe McIntire when he donated a large swath of land to the city in 1926 to use as a park.

The councilors voted that the eastern edge of Mr. McIntire’s eponymous park should be destroyed so that a parkway could replace parkland. On the western side of the park, they voted to eliminate yet more parkland by allowing a huge building to be placed there.

In Albemarle (as elsewhere throughout the country), the desire to bring in more and more money—supposedly to limit the tax burden on the residents even though this has been experientially proven to be a fallacy—blinds many citizens and their government representatives to the more precious value of natural infrastructure.

Thus the Shops at Stonefield replaced woods full of wildlife with immense hardscaping that neighboring businesses across route 29 fear will create runoff problems for them. (A lawsuit has been filed against the county, the city, and the developers regarding storm water management.)

Most people have trouble discerning the true value of the natural world around them because they look out the window and not much seems to be happening out there.  Trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants do not change their appearance much from one day to the next. Birds are often the only form of life that is on the move and obvious to the casual observer.

Therefore it’s difficult for someone to grasp the significance of the natural world to his own existence. However, uncountable interactions are taking place in the environment that are essential to every human being’s existence.

All of those green plants are making available to us the oxygen that we cannot survive without. The roots of those plants are holding the soil in place so that it does not run off and smother organisms, their eggs, or their larvae that provide food and/or services to humans within our streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.

The soil itself functions to cleanse whatever harmful materials may get picked up by rainwater, such as agricultural and man-made pollutants that would degrade our waterways.

The plants we need for food and oxygen depend heavily upon innumerable organisms in order to grow and thrive. Recyclers (such as slugs and snails) and decomposers (such as bacteria and fungi) work on wastes and dead organisms to supply nutrients to the soil for the benefit of growing plants that will not be healthy without such assistance.

Pollinators (bees usually come to mind first for most people but there are actually many, many kinds of pollinators) help most flowering plants to reproduce so each species is perpetuated instead of going extinct.

Predators work to limit the numbers of other kinds of critters so that plant-eating animals don’t destroy the very plants they (as well as humans) depend upon for their survival. By limiting populations, predators are also making sure that the environment is not overwhelmed by wastes created as a result of life processes.

In other words, there is an incredible amount of activity taking place out there, even though most people are oblivious to it. The natural world is, in actuality, quite dynamic. Should it cease to work properly, humans will be in deep trouble.

We are steadily marching towards such a dysfunctional state as we eliminate organisms whose functions can be viewed like the cogs in a machine. Organisms may seem myriad in number and unimportant at the species level, but each species is essential to the most efficient and proper functioning of the environment as a whole.

Luckily for humans, the natural world does have a limited number of backup organisms that can take over the jobs of those organisms we continue to wipe out.  However, the key word here is “limited.” Eventually, if we choose to continue down this ruinous path, the natural world will no longer be able to support us.

But we don’t need to follow the pathway born of ignorance. In Charlottesville, we have the Green Infrastructure Center whose mission is to assist communities to “restore, manage, and protect…the natural resources and working landscapes” that provide clean water and air, thus ensuring quality of life while recognizing that the local economy must be sustained as well.

These folks work to identify critical ecological systems within urban, suburban, and rural areas that should be conserved in order to maintain healthy human and wildlife communities. They employ an integrative approach to land-use planning that maximizes returns for both the ecology as well as the economy of an area.

The idea is for local governments to take into account the natural world when considering population-growth, tax projections, traditional infrastructure, and capital improvement costs. This way of doing things should have been obvious long ago, but better late than never!

If you are a land-use planner, a developer, a member of a community group interested in helping to preserve the proper functioning of our environment, or even just an individual who wants the knowledge to speak out accurately at government meetings, you can purchase a resource guide called Evaluating and Conserving Green Infrastructure across the Landscape: A Practitioner’s Guide by Karen Firehock (available at the Green Infrastructure Center by calling 434-244-0322 or by visiting www.gicnc.org/)

This book starts with the basics, providing an overview of the reasons for green infrastructure planning, including the history of the field and definitions to make things clear.  It goes on to explain how to evaluate and prioritize natural assets, how to map them, and how to organize an initiative that takes into account the views of various stakeholders as well as experts.

The Green Infrastructure Center is a non-profit agency whose existence could not have come at a better time.  I hope citizens and government officials alike will take advantage of this group’s expertise and assistance.