Restoring habitat is our mission at The Long Island Conservancy. We must restore native habitat wherever we can if we are to have an environmental future on Long Island. It is now that we must make a stand, or our bays, rivers, streams, woods and fields, swamps and marshes will continue their way to ecological collapse.
What we are living through on Long Island, as we witness bays and lakes collapsing, marshes shrinking, forests overrun with invasive plants and increasingly lifeless, are all local manifestations of The Sixth Great Extinction, aka The Holocene or Anthropocene. Yep, we did this. The best we all can do is to fight back locally but restoring habitat in our locally everywhere we can.
Restoring Habitat on Long Island and in Your Town
Restoring habitat on this pervasive scale will take all of us, in every community, every business, municipality, and every homeowner. It will take an army. It will take decades. But we can and must build a future we’d want to live in. We are in this together, here on this vibrant and crowded island. How can people and nature live densely together? That is the burning question for Long Island.
The first task is to build awareness: What plants are native, what are non-native, and what are invasive? There will be the shock of knowing: Maybe 30% of what is in your yard, or in a public space, is native to the area. And much of what you do see is invasive. Oriental Bittersweet, Porcelain Berry, Japanese Honeysuckle, Japanese Multiflora Rose, Mugwort, Burning Bush, Tree of Heaven, Norway Maple, English Ivy, Privet. These last three came with the English. We all wanted to replicate the English Manor here, so now they are here as invasive plants.
The Dutch brought their weeds. With cattle came their grasses. Centuries of gardening and landscaping – of the importing of exotics – has destroyed an enormous amount of habitat globally. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Long Island is losing a battle it didn’t even know it was fighting. Little remains of what was here, but it is not too late for us to begin restoring habitat, locally and at scale. We can take on the invasive plants and put back what should be here.
We have to be in the business of restoring habitat because without native plants, we have no insects. No insects mean no birds, amphibians, reptiles, far fewer mammals — the food web collapses. As we developed Long Island, we destroyed habitats wholesale. Then with suburbia came the fetish for the lawn, for landscaping, and for killing any bug we could. We see the aftermath of this in our silent parks and lifeless yards.
From 1974, we have lost 45% of our insects globally, according to E.O. Wilson. We have not coincidentally seen a 1% drop in songbird population every year since 1964. By planting non-natives and letting invasive plants run wild, we are literally starving to death our local animals, driving them locally to extinction.
The Long Island Conservancy’s mission is to change that fate for our local animals by returning our local plants, by working with local groups in every community to help them tackle invasive plants and to recreate the local habitats. There should be no differentiation between human and animal habitat. “Rewild” your yard, as Prof. Doug Tallamy recently advised in “Bringing Nature Home.” Restoring habitat in your yards is not just ‘green advice.’ It is imperative if our local creatures are to survive The Holocene Extinction where globally over million species are at stake.
So what is Long Island’s environmental future? How to we ramp up our efforts at restoring habitat to the point where we have enough local native plants to support our wildlife?The situation is rendered more dire for the fact that it was here, arguably, where suburbia was invented, where lawns and topiary became part of the tract housing aesthetic. As Long Island quadrupled in population post WWII, as people left New York for the emergent suburbs, the local environment was devastated, many square miles bulldozed, so easily done on this giant sandbar.
Today, if Nassau and Suffolk were its own country, it would be the 4th most densely populated in the world, with Bangladesh. And we built with little concern for the fact our water came from an aquifer left by the glacier under all that sand. We had the best drinking water in the country at one point. We are ranking near the bottom in New York State now, with countless spills, major and minor, on this congested island, with 560.000 cesspools, and with fertilizer, pesticides, road runoff, and a loss of native habitat generally, including in people’s yards, all contributing.
We live on an island, and therefore share a common environment and a common fate. We must have a comprehensive plan that assures a viable future. What is our plan, across all jurisdictions? What is Long Island’s map to a sustainable future? This comprises everything: Energy, transportation, housing, but most importantly, civic engagement. Without a commitment everywhere to local stewardship, to civic engagement, we will surely see the Long Island we have loved finally disappear, swallowed by vines.
By restoring habitat and reconnecting to Nature, we reconnect with each other. We create new tribes through common effort. Our inaugural effort has been in Sayville, at Foster Marina Park. Eight acres on the water. Gorgeous setting. Almost completely overrun with invasive species. Lifeless by all accounts. A neighbor noted a massive wisteria infestation. Neighbors emerged spontaneously with tools to take it on. It was here we decided to take back this space for the community.
As per our philosophy, we involve all constituents — the Rotary, the Chamber of Commerce, the schools, families, neighbors. 65 people and an excavator cleared 8 truckloads of weeds, carted off by The Town of Islip. They manage 107 parks, and there are 13 towns and 89 incorporated villages on Long Island. Every one of those parks needs to be adopted locally. Without local stewardship, these thousands of public spaces will be ecological dead zones.
Each of us, armed with the knowledge as to what is good for the local environment, can now make a difference. Restoring communities can be about turning a sump into a bird sanctuary, or planting a wildflower meadow in the high school lawn. It can be about knowing what to order at the garden store. It can be about “leaving the leaves” to build soil, habitat, and resilience, about not wasting money on fertilizer, water and pesticides because you are no longer trying to grow things that don’t belong here. Natives need nothing, and there’s a cost savings there. Plus natives are of course naturally beautiful.
They are not only good for the environment: They ARE the environment.
We encourage then every community that now seeks to restore a bit of local habitat to reach out to us at The Long Island Conservancy. We are armed with advice, and are always ready to learn, for each problem will have its own solution. In the end, it begins with a commitment to local stewardship. We need to heal this island, and there are many places to start.