Thinking about conservation broadly

By Lauren Lewis

I recently had the opportunity to attend a Local Nature Walk in the Inner Sunset’s Green Hairstreak Corridor, a project of Nature in the City. The corridor is a series of nearby small green spaces that are carefully planted and managed specifically to support the presence of the Green Hairstreak butterfly, a nickel-sized, quick green butterfly that’s native to coastal SF. On this particular walk at the end of March, the big crew of butterfly enthusiasts was on the lookout for the first Green Hairstreaks of the season, and we were lucky to spot 2 or 3 while I was there. The spotting moments were full of wonderful nerdy excitement from the group, and very joyous, and it made me feel grateful for this seemingly niche work going on in the urban nature community.

If you pay attention to any sciencey news outlets, and increasingly mainstream news, you’ll notice that the news on insects is dire. The New York Times Magazine recently published a feature piece titled “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here.” The article describes how much insect biomass the earth seems to have lost recently, the challenges of tracking the changes, and humanity’s poor ability to understand the scale and the implications of the losses. Changes are slow and therefore hard to see, and insects are small and seemingly everywhere. In California, the main long term dataset comes from UC Davis professor Arthur Shapiro, whose team has walked transects of central California for nearly 50 years, counting butterflies. His most recent annual summary is dismal.

With these trends in mind, the successes of the Green Hairstreak Corridor and similar projects feels very meaningful. In the Presidio, naturalists recently discovered a bustling colony of silver digger bees, a species that was last seen in SF in any significant numbers nearly 100 years ago. This and other species rejuvenations are attributed to nearly 30 years of habitat restoration work happening in the Presidio- careful removal of non-native plant species and replanting of plants that support a ecosystem more like the one that existed before humans used the land for buildings and roads.

I also recently read “Rambunctious Garden” by Emma Marris, and while it’s now nearly a decade old, the book is still very worth a read if you’re thinking about restoration projects like these. Marris encourages the reader to view conservation not simply as bringing pieces of land back to some old “wild” state (what we think of as “wild” is often wildly inaccurate), but rather something that depends entirely on our goals. Humans have impacted literally every inch of the planet in some way, so when we work to conserve the environment, we must know our specific goal in that instance and work toward it, rather than just reaching for some ill-defined and probably unattainable “wild” state.

For Nature in the City and the Presidio Trust it’s about preventing the loss of once-thriving species, but even within that, you have to ask: why? The answer could be ecological, aesthetic, moral, something else, some of each. No reason is necessarily better than the others, but the key is that we go about the work with thought and intention. The joy of spotting the years’ first tiny butterfly with fellow appreciators might be precisely the goal, and maybe that’s just fine.


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