Life is an accumulation of loss. I wish I could remember where I read or heard that quote. An internet search left me empty-handed. Maybe it sprang from my own imagination, but I doubt my thoughts are that profound. Still, the idea troubles me at times, as it must anyone involved with land conservation.
According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, North Carolina lost more than 600,000 acres of farmland from 2002 to 2007. The North Carolina Forestry Association says 1.1 million acres of forestland have been lost to development since 1990. Our population in the 2010 census was more than 9.5 million, an increase of 1.5 million in the first decade of the new millennium. That translates to a growth rate of 18.5 percent, the highest among Southeastern states. By 2030, our population is projected to exceed 12 million.
Numbers like these are staggering. If current trends continue, we can expect much of this growth to occur in the Piedmont. More open space will be lost to development. We must continue to conserve land through acquisition and voluntary easements, but we also need to make every scrap of land as productive as possible for wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation.
Few places do this better than New York City. Even though we’re nowhere near as densely populated, and I hope we never will be, we can learn some lessons from the Big Apple. The city has undertaken massive restoration efforts to make the most of its open space in recent decades.
The 843-acre Central Park went into a steep decline in the 1970s. By the time I moved to New York in 1990, a much-needed facelift was under way. I witnessed the transformation of Cedar Hill and the Harlem Meer. In the late 1990s, after we’d moved back to N.C., the restoration effort turned to Turtle Pond. I used to birdwatch there on my way to the Ramble. Its north-facing slope had a few large trees and scraggly shrubs. The groundcover was patchy at best. This same area dazzled me on a recent visit. Ferns and white wood asters now blanket the slope. Redbud, serviceberry, rhododendron and native azaleas crowd around the canopy trees as if they were commuters squeezing into a subway car during the morning rush. Dragonfly and damselfly species new to the park have shown up around the pond. Bird populations have increased since native vegetation was installed during the restoration of the Hallett Nature Sanctuary in the southeast corner of the park.
Being an island, Manhattan has built up, not out. Some of its parks are also skyscrapers. The 28-acre Riverbank State Park sits atop a waste water treatment facility along the Hudson River in Harlem. It has an Olympic-sized pool, skating rink, community garden plots and tennis and basketball courts. Downtown, the High Line was recently established along an abandoned elevated freight line. This linear park begins at the edge of Greenwich Village and will eventually reach 34th Street. Native plants such as serviceberry, sumac and bigleaf magnolia now have a place in the heart of a previously park-starved Chelsea.
For many years, the city turned away from the rivers that surround it, but during the time we lived there, an effort began to reclaim decrepit piers along the Hudson River. They provided space for playgrounds, skate parks and ball fields. Paths for walking and biking now loop most of the perimeter. Our friends on 106th Street recently set off from Riverside Park and biked to Battery Park at the southern tip of the island.
In the Piedmont, the luxury of open space can make us wasteful. Historically, we haven’t had to treat our land as a precious commodity. Often, it isn’t as productive for wildlife as it could be. Some of our land-use practices have damaged our working lands and natural habitats alike. Think of the terrible loss of topsoil we experienced before farmers started using no-till methods. In an effort to control the erosion, we introduced kudzu, an invasive species that created problems of its own. Before the establishment of best management practices, forests were routinely clear-cut right to the edge of rivers and creeks, leaving banks unstable and raising water temperatures. Rather than install watering stations, ranchers allowed their cattle to access fragile riparian areas.
Now, with no-till farming as our standard practice, we can go another step and install wildlife buffers around our fields. This land is often marginal land for crops, but it can be vital habitat for rabbit, bobwhite quail and other songbirds. In addition to following streamside management zones, our loblolly plantations will harbor more wildlife if we thin them aggressively and burn them frequently. We can also diversify our timber stands with Piedmont longleaf and shortleaf. Cattle can rotate on pastures of native warm season grass. On our farms and in our forests and natural areas, we can be more vigilant about removing invasive species.
Sometimes, when people who want to justify buying a tract of land or paying too much for it, they’ll say, “Well, they aren’t making any more.” That’s an attitude we ought to bear in mind as we make decisions about how to steward our land as well.
Many thanks to Marie Winn and Tom Fiore for sharing their vast stores of knowledge about Central Park, and to Nick Wagerik for documenting its insects.