Reflections on Global Biodiversity and How to Take Action

Eryngium; Image: Paul G. Johnson

A conversation between Amina Sharma and Andrea Williams

May 22 is International Day for Biological Diversity, a day that is more of a clarion call to action than a celebration. Today, 1 million species are at risk of extinction, and wild vertebrate populations have dropped 69% since 1970, due in large part to habitat loss. A recent report by NatureServe found that 34% of plants in the U.S. are at risk of extinction, and California — one of the world’s most important places for biodiversity—has the greatest concentration of plants in peril.

With recent superblooms and exciting new findings, California’s biodiversity is a reminder both of how lucky we are to experience this natural world and how much we stand to lose. With that in mind, we sat down recently with CNPS Biodiversity Initiatives Director Andrea Williams to talk about biodiversity both at home and globally.

What is biodiversity, and why do we celebrate it? 

Andrea: Biodiversity, which is short for biological diversity, is the variety of all living things and their interactions. A pretty big subject, right? People think about biodiversity as the number of plants and animals, but it’s also the deep genetic history plants hold in their seeds.  

I think that biodiversity on its own is reason for celebration. I hope that we’ve all experienced joy in nature—seeing the vivid fields of a superbloom of wildflowers, witnessing the buzz of a hummingbird around sage, seeing a metallic green sweat bee alighting on a poppy. California is one of 36 global biodiversity hotspots, and plants make up the greatest share of the species found only here.Almost one-third of our state’s flora is endemic (naturally found only here), including almost 40 kinds of Clarkia, around 60 different manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.), numerous dudleya species, and giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Here in California, we have the highest concentration of plant biodiversity in the nation, but we also have the greatest number of plants at risk of extinction. Biodiversity is imperiled worldwide, and a day like this draws attention to the importance of it. 

What are some dangers to biodiversity? 

Andrea: It’s normal for biodiversity to change over time with climate, geologic forces, etc. Yet, change is happening rapidly now due to development, a warming planet with more extreme weather events, pollution, and the movement of goods and people among continents. 

As barriers between places dissolve, plants and animals naturalize in new areas. For example, invasive species such as black mustard (Brassica nigra) cover hillsides in Southern California and displace native flora. Interestingly, native California flora is also naturalizing in new places, and our own state flower is invasive in Chile. Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) has become the most planted tree in the world! Our own California flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum), considered a poor choice as a landscape plant here, is planted from the U.K. to Marseilles. California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) played a role in the development of loganberries, boysenberries, and marionberries. Many of our endemic dudleyas are sought after in the succulent trade, for good or ill.  

As I mentioned, one reason for biodiversity loss is development. Development displaces native species by removing their habitats. Then, non-native plant species are often planted around new developments, such as succulents, palm trees, and fountain grass. These plants easily naturalize in California’s climate but don’t provide the sustenance that animals need to thrive. They don’t benefit the soil or grow the kind of deep roots that native plants do and can be easily toppled by strong winds. Native oak trees have the record of the last Ice Age in their genes. Because they’ve grown in California for millennia, they are biodiversity powerhouses, enriching the soil and feeding countless insects, birds, and other wildlife.  

You talked about the “good” movement of plants, one that happens in nature through the movement of wildlife like birds. Can you talk a bit more about that? 

Andrea: Plants need to be able to move, but in ways that are incremental and suited to their slower pace of change. For example, wildlife corridors are crucial to plant movement. Mountain lions can carry plant seeds on their coats and paws. Humans have changed the environment in ways that make this more fragile. Connecting nature and allowing it to move helps us all. That’s one reason why California’s 30×30 plan to conserve 30 percent of the state’s land and water by 2030 is crucial. This is an international movement and California is the only state in the country that has adopted it.

What else should people know about biodiversity? 

Andrea: Indigenous stewardship is crucial to biodiversity. Globally, Indigenous people make up only 5% of the population but steward 80% of biodiversity. Their frontline engagement will be crucial to the success of the global effort to protect and restore biodiversity—a reality that informs both the United Nation’s international treaty on biodiversity and California’s Pathways to 30×30 plan

Three ways to take action for biodiversity now

  1. Start or Participate in a Community Science Project: One of the best ways to protect biodiversity is to help scientists know what species live where. You can help by documenting the species around you using iNaturalist and organizing community science projects. Have something in mind? Contact CNPS Community Science Coordinator Jose Esparza.
  2. Ask your California Assemblymember to support AB 1573, a bill that requires the partial use of native plants for landscaping in lieu of non-functional turf. Introduced by Assemblymember Laura Friedman, AB 1573 is the first bill of its kind, putting our built landscapes to work on behalf of biodiversity and water conservation. The California Assembly will be voting on the bill in the next few days. Look up your representative here.
  3. Ask your California representatives to restore funding for California’s 30×30 efforts. To reach 30×30, California must conserve 6 million acres in under 7 years. The Nature Conservancy estimates this will require an investment of $1 billion a year, but the Governor’s proposed budget includes deep cuts to conservation, science-based monitoring and mapping, and conservancies. Ask your representative to help restore much-needed funding, so California can reach this critical goal to protect biodiversity before it’s too late. Learn more here.

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