Protecting Our Urban Forests to Protect Our Globe’s Biodiversity

By Dan Buckler, DNR Urban Forest Assessment Specialist, Madison, daniel.buckler@wisconsin.gov or 608-445-4578

The natural world lost one of its most ardent champions last month with the passing of biologist Edward O. Wilson. Wilson was an extremely accomplished observer (especially of ants) and theorist of nature, winning two Pulitzer Prizes among many other awards and accolades. However, he dedicated himself to cultural and political campaigns to protect animal species and their homes for much of the last two decades.

Wildlife benefits are lumped in amongst other “ecosystem services” that urban forests provide, though they often play second fiddle to more human-centric contributions of trees.

Likewise, the urban forestry community’s excellent focus on species diversity (especially in light of emerald ash borer) is framed by diversity’s role in mitigating future damages and costs, rather than what diversity can offer to wildlife or any intrinsic value of maintaining many species on the landscape.

Both approaches are good, of course, especially the emphasis on diversity to mitigate future disturbances; EAB has been an ecological, aesthetic, public health and budgetary trauma that nobody wants to repeat. But this author believes that urban forests’ role in providing habitat and encouraging biodiversity will become a prominent fixture of our defense and promotion of local trees in the next few decades.

According to a 2018 article by Forest Service researchers, Wisconsin urban areas were expected to go from 3.5% of the state’s land in 2010 to 9.2% by 2060 if trends continue, amounting to urban expansion of more than 3,000 square miles. That’s a lot. And that is only what the U.S. Census defines as urban; there are plenty more heavily impacted and developed lands not classified as urban in Wisconsin.

Because of the sheer extent of developed land and its concentration along ecologically important waterways, responsibility to provide important habitat cannot simply be outsourced to increasingly shrinking and fragmented rural spaces. Responsibility is also with us, among our communities’ streets and yards and parks.

The Wisconsin DNR’s assessment program will continue to collect data on the composition, extent and health of the state’s community forests. We have entered a year when we can hopefully start to report results from the Urban Forest Inventory and Analysis (UFIA) effort. But we welcome additional data and partnerships to help understand urban forests’ role in providing habitat to different plant and animal species. If you’d like to explore more opportunities, contact Dan Buckler, DNR Urban Forest Assessment Specialist, at daniel.buckler@wisconsin.gov or 608-445-4578.

E.O. Wilson had an audacious plan for protecting half of Earth for nature. While it’s hard to wrap one’s head around ambitions like that, we all have some part to play in making urban areas home to more than just our own species.

In 2020, while watching a video of Dr. Wilson, I wrote two connecting haiku that now seems an appropriate memorial for his life.

 

How lucky we are

To live on this Earth with all

Creatures big and small

 

But I hope we make

A planet to make him proud

Wilson, Mister Bug

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