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The Future of Conservation: What We Need to Do Now

Doug Tallamy, Ph.D.
Outdoor America 2022 Issue 4
Native plants in a school yard - credit Plant Nova Natives

As the Izaak Walton League begins its second century, Outdoor America has asked experts about the coming challenges and priorities for conservation.

Douglas W. Tallamy is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. A prolific author of research publications, he has focused on the ways that insects interact with plants and their role in biodiversity. We asked Tallamy what will be required of us during our next century of conservation work.

Recognize the Large Role of Small Animals and Plants

In my view, if conservation is to be successful in the future, we have to do three things.

Small animals and plants have to be conserved as well as the charismatic megafauna.

In the past, the vast majority of our conservation efforts has been directed at conserving the big mammals: the lions, tigers, wolves, elephants, rhinos, whales, etc. We do need to protect those species, but we also have to conserve the smaller, less charismatic species: the birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles, etc. that contribute more to ecosystem function than we think.

And we have almost entirely ignored serious conservation of the plants that are the essential foundation of all ecosystems. That has to change. Every time a species is lost from an ecosystem, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it is, that ecosystem is more unstable and less productive.

Foster Healthy Ecosystems Everywhere

It is biodiversity that runs the ecosystems we depend on.

We have to start doing conservation outside of parks and preserves, as well as inside of them. For the past century, we have focused primarily on conserved areas, and yet we are now in the sixth great extinction, with enormous global declines in insects, amphibians and birds.

Obviously, our parks and preserves are not big enough to protect Earth’s biodiversity. It is biodiversity that runs the ecosystems we depend on, and we need healthy ecosystems everywhere, not just in parks and preserves.

Restore the Land, Starting with Native Plants

We must move our efforts from conservation to restoration. We certainly need to continue to conserve existing natural areas, but we have destroyed ecosystems over such huge areas of the planet that we must now work to restore them as best as possible.

To do this we need to put the plants back, and not just any old plant. Planting a trillion eucalyptus trees in areas outside of Australia – where eucalyptus contributes little to sustaining animal diversity – will get us nowhere.

We must recognize that plants differ widely in their ability to support animals, and therefore we must focus on those relatively few plant species that contribute the most to regional animal diversity.

Top photo: School yards and other public places can serve as friendly places for native plants and insects and the creatures that depend on them. Credit: Plant Nova Natives.

Doug Tallamy, Ph.D., has written several widely acclaimed books including Bringing Nature Home, The Living Landscape, Nature’s Best Hope, and The Nature of Oaks.