Two of the programs were created while I was working for The Nature Conservancy (https://www.nature.org/). The first was a community-based pilot program on Martha’s Vineyard, called the Vineyard Habitat Network, created with my colleague Matt Pelikan. The second was web-based program co-developed with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, called the Habitat Network ((https://news.cornell.edu/essentials/2016/10/create-wildlife-friendly-spaces-habitat-network).Neither program is active any longer, which led me to ponder how a community-based program might be rendered sustainable – both financially and institutionally. Based on experiences gained from both programs, Village and Wilderness collaborated with BiodiversityWorks to create a program intended to be both replicable and sustainable at the community level, called Natural Neighbors (https://biodiversityworksmv.org/programs-projects/natural-neighbors/).
Village and Wilderness is developing a network of practitioners, be they from established or emerging programs. We will survey the practitioners to prioritize problems and identify the solutions that have already been proven successful, and those that have yet to be developed. Our goal is to develop a portfolio of case studies of different solutions, from which programs can pick those that best suit their community and circumstances. We will report those on our Tools and Insights page. Another goal is help to help partners develop new strategies. A third goal is to encourage collaboration and the exchange of ideas and expertise across the network (more information may be found on our Contact page).
What we report here is summary of the Village and Wilderness approach, the threads of which run through all the programs we have helped developed. To see how the Natural Neighbors is evolving as that program evolves and adapts, I encourage you to follow their progress and newsletter (https://biodiversityworksmv.org/programs-projects/natural-neighbors/).
Though possibly unavoidable, the word “restoration” is slightly problematic here. Our goals were easily confused with those of ecological restoration, which typically aims to restore plant and animal communities in natural areas. While many yards can indeed be beneficially landscaped with the plants that were formerly native to it, most are too small to support enough of the constituent animal species to sustain a natural community. Besides, the surrounding landscape is, by definition, not natural anyway. (Mary Reynolds coined a apt term for re-naturalizing small spaces to the extent possible: “arking” https://wearetheark.org/). Our goals for Natural Neighbors were to restore ecosystem services not in individual spaces, but through the aggregated impact of many yards across the fragmented landscape.
To achieve this, our approach was to make properties “hyper-productive,” mimicking the concentrations of abundance and diversity one sees in natural communities. We did this by juxtaposing the resources that a species needed to reproduce, thus minimizing the need for adult breeders to emigrate. In practice most property recommendations were generic: provide water, cover, and increase the diversity of native plants. However, in many cases, where there were species of interest in the yard or the neighborhood, we would recommend practices targeted for them, such as installing hibernacula for bats for snakes. (See below on how we customized recommendations.)
Related, we have found it important to not let property owners feel shamed because the don’t have a large yard, or because they acquired a very manicured one. We emphasize that anyone, anywhere can contribute to restoring ecosystem function. A few plants grown on a balcony can yield hundreds or thousands of seeds for other sites. An urban site can be an excellent lot to grow plants that are otherwise preferentially over-browsed by deer in a suburban setting.
To have meaningful ecological impact, we imagined that creating a network of source habitats would be a long-term process, perhaps taking generations of time. This perspective imposed two considerations. One, that our goals were not simply to recruit enough yards, but to engage enough people over time to influence what we called a “culture of stewardship” in the community.
Two, we abandoned the assumption that yards, like conservation lands, must be permanently protected to be of value. We realized that when properties are transferred to new owners, the re-naturalizing work may be destroyed in some. While we were gratified to see evidence that re-naturalized properties tended to attract like-minded new owners, we didn’t count on it. Instead, our goal was to continually increase the number of participating properties over time so that, for example, if one property was lost two others might be created. The point was to grow a network of source habitats to restore ecosystem functionality, not to preserve individual lands.
In all three programs that we have been part of, recommendations have been made with increasing humility. One reason is ecological. For reasons that are not clear, some plants and animals prosper in one yard but not in a seemingly identical one nearby. We have sometimes speculated that it has to do with soil conditions, microclimates or the level of stewardship provided by the property owner, but we don’t know. All we do know for certain is that much of our training has been developed in the well-established fields of wildlife management and habitat restoration of large lands and wild populations. As a field, we know very little about how to make the most of tiny fragments of land, and yet most property owners look to us as “experts.” This leads to a second reason for humility, and that is that quite often an enterprising property owner will develop a technique, undertake a practice, or see something that hadn’t occurred to us. Re-naturalizing the fragmented landscape is a field ripe for the contribution of citizen science and skilled naturalists. If we listen to the property owners as we listen to what the land itself is telling us, then the community itself becomes an expert.
Many ecologists are understandably wary of advocating for practices that have not yet been thoroughly vetted by scientific research. For example, how many yards are needed, and in what condition, to restore ecosystem function is unknown – assuming it is possible at all. We make recommendations based on the best available evidence such as Desiree Narango’s research (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320717305153), which showed that yards landscaped with native plants produced more chickadees than those without, so it follows that more yards can be more productive. But how many yards need to establish practices to have meaningful ecological impact at the landscape scale is a critical question. Analogously, how many community participants will it take to make re-naturalized landscapes socially preferable? How long will they have to participate to develop a culture of stewardship? What are the most effective means of marketing these programs? The answer to these and many other questions will benefit from peer-reviewed research in both the social and ecological spheres. In the meantime, all programs may benefit from the sharing of experience and best practices among the practitioners themselves.
The world population will soon exceed 8 billion people https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/07/1122272) who are increasingly moving towards the cities and their surroundings (https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2018/05/22/demographic-and-economic-trends-in-urban-suburban-and-rural-communities/). Habitat fragmentation is no longer a fringe suburban issue, but a global phenomenon – and a threat to biodiversity, ecosystem function, climate adaptation and ultimately human welfare. In response, there appears to be a large movement underway to convert small landscape fragments into useful habitat. The scale, goals and audience of related programs are quite diverse, ranging from community-based to national, general environmental to species-specific, urban to rural. As varied as they are, these programs face similar problems such as how to fund, market and staff them. There are myriad technical problems that remain to be solved, ranging from how to develop a reliable source of native plants, or how to monitor the effects of practices from the scale of the individual site to the surrounding landscape and ecosystem.
For reasons I’ve outline here, Village and Wilderness believes that there need to be more community-scale programs, for both ecological and sociological reasons. International, national, and statewide programs are essential for achieving the broadest reach to the individual property owners, but the most effective recommendations will be customized to the local ecosystem, community, and individual property. A problem with such local customization is that no two communities are alike. Therefore, there needs to be menu of strategies that both established and aspiring programs can draw from to create programs that fit their individual circumstances. Likewise, there needs to be a source that can help programs develop new strategies and share them. That is Village and Wilderness’s goal, to build a platform for a network of practitioners, scientists, and other experts to develop new strategies and share best practices. If you or your program – be it established or still just and idea – would like to join this network, please reach out to us via our Contact page.
Thank you for reading.