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New England Faces Urgent Need to Conserve Land for Plant Diversity: Report

Michael Piantedosi © Native Plant Trust
saltmarsh hay (Spartina patens)

New England faces a critical loss of native plants and the species that depend on them unless millions of acres are protected from development, according to a new reportfrom conservation groups.

The Nature Conservancy and Native Plant Trust are calling for conservation of an additional 382,000 acres in specific habitats across Massachusetts — out of 2.3 million additional acres across New England. An area of 2.3 million acres is roughly equivalent to one-third of the acreage of Massachusetts.

“Our key question is to look at New England and ask ourselves, ‘Has a century of land conservation protected enough land in the right places to save the region's plant diversity as the climate changes?’” said Mark Anderson, director of conservation science at the Nature Conservancy. “The bigger answer is, ‘Not yet.’”

The report, “Conserving Plant Diversity in New England,” finds that in Massachusetts, globally rare habitats like coastal plains, pitch pine barrens, and sand dunes are meeting minimum standards for protection, but they are particularly vulnerable to climate change. It ultimately calls upon policymakers and land trusts to save plant diversity by banning development in “climate resilient sites” that have physical and topographical features known to have a mix of microclimates able to support plant life.

The 250-page report also includes an interactive mapping tool to help policymakers and land trusts decide where and how to conserve climate-resilient habitats with high biodiversity.

As climate change wreaks havoc across all kinds of natural spaces across the region, plant communities will have to rely on resilient habitats to move and shift their ranges to more accommodating areas.

On the Cape, Coast, and Islands, said Michael Piantedosi, director of conservation at Native Plant Trust and co-author of the report, sand- and silt-based coastal habitats are largely unprotected from development, and face immediate threats from storms, erosion, and sea level rise.

“A lot of the sand- and silt-based habitats in Massachusetts are disproportionately eroded or degraded or unsecured,” Piantedosi said. “And that makes sense to be the place to invest a lot of conservation effort into.”

Coastal plain habitats, he said, are also at risk.

“Because of how uncommon [they are], even just in our six-state region, you have a disproportionate amount of rare and endangered plant taxa that occur in those places, occur only in them,” he said, “are endemic to them, essentially.”

In fact, Anderson added, in Massachusetts the average amount of protection for each habitat type is only about 9 percent.

“These are super valuable habitats we have. We have done a lot of protection on them, which is great, but they look to be very vulnerable to climate change,” he said. “And we should we should identify the resilient places and increase the levels of protection.”

Time is running out, he added. During a 40-year period in North America, butterfly populations declined 35 percent and birds declined by 29 percent. In a 2015 report, researchers found that 18 percent of historically documented native plant species in the state no longer exist.

“It's really critical that we think about if we want a future that we share with all other forms of life that we evolved with,” Anderson said. “we have got to start devoting habitat space to other species.”

The report identified nearly 240 important plant areas across the New England states that are home to an abundance of rare species, and now, Anderson said, regulators and land trusts have their work cut out.

“We've got on our hands quite a crisis and it's urgent,” Anderson said. “I don't know what the answer is to what happens if we don't meet these goals, but my hunch is that the trends that are out there now just keep going and they're going all in the negative direction.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.