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Tuesday, July 21, 2009


One of the things I keep hearing is how we evil humans are causing the destruction of vital ecosystems. While I certainly agree we are responsible for quite a bit of damage, as usual, the reality is a bit more complex that simple greed and materialism.

In one of my more recent reads, I saw examples of how the very laws designed to protect the environment have instead lead to its destruction, particularly in the US. The Endangered Species Act, rather than saving species, has led to "shoot, shovel and shut up," while stopping the very activities that helped re-establish species that had been driven out.

Some typical examples include forest management. People who have planted trees to provide wood to the marketplace, reforesting regions that once had been cleared for farming, simultaneously provided conditions allowing certain wildlife to return to a wooded ecosystem. Unfortunately, birds on the endangered species list would also move in.

Why is this unfortunate?

Because once these birds were rediscovered, the owner would suddenly not allowed to use their own land and trees, supposedly to protect the birds that wouldn't be there if these people hadn't created their preferred environment in the first place. Facing the prospect of losing more millions of dollars in resource value, the owners would stop the planting and harvesting methods on their remaining land. Instead of these new ecosystems being expanded, people were forced to curtail them, or loose their investments, as well as control of their own personal property. Another example would be prevention of farming practises to protect a burrowing animal, only to have the animal move out of the area because the land became choked with thatch those agricultural practises kept clear, leading also to massive destruction by fire because so much fuel had formed. People who had once planned on re-establishing species onto their land changed their minds once the ESA passed. Had those species been brought back, they would have lost all control of their land, so they instead prevent those species from returning to protect themselves. Even Penn & Teller did an episode on the ridiculousness of the situation.

Part one
Part two
Part three

I find myself thinking, however, of more urban examples. There are a lot of attacks on human encroachment on wild life. Housing developments are frequently used as examples.

I had the opportunity to see some new housing developments in various stages of construction, all in sequence. On one end of an area, land was still being cleared, while in the other, neighbourhoods were well established.

At the "raw" end of the neighborhood, I saw large swaths of bush that had been cleared. One could understandably object to this destruction of a wooded ecosystem. Where once had been trees and brush, there was nothing but bare dirt, infrastructure newly installed, waiting for roads and driveways to be installed, then houses built. There were still treed areas on the outskirts of the area, including right next to the houses I was observing this from, but the construction zone was nothing but dirt, a pad where a entry sign would eventually be installed, and in one spot, a giant hole.

It was the giant hole that piqued my attention. Beyond it, I could see others that had been completed. They were man made lakes and ponds, surrounded by completed houses and newly completed yards, giving a preview of what the construction area would look like once completed.

The newly finished development wasn't fully established yet. A few houses remained unoccupied, and a couple of yards hadn't been landscaped yet. Most of the back yards faced these man made lakes.

The lakes themselves, new as they were, already had wildlife using them. Nearby yards had flower gardens, shrubs and young trees, all of which were already providing shelter and food for birds, insects and small animals.

As I progressed through the development to the oldest buildings - less than five years old - I could see more established ponds and lakes. These had paved paths through them, small seating areas, and the occasional sculpture. These were barely visible, hidden by the cattails edging the water. Other water plants were established and thriving. More waterfowl made use of nesting areas, while songbirds darted in between the cattails along the water's edge and the shrubbery and flower beds in nearby yards. Even muskrats had already moved in. The streets were lined with trees that would, in a few more years - or decades, for some varieties - provide shade and shelter. People's yards all had more trees that, on maturity, covered a variety of sizes and density, as well as flowering and fruiting trees that would not have grown in previous conditions. Many homes had bird houses and feeders as well.

So while it's true that the housing development did lead to the destruction of one type of ecosystem dependant on dense trees and brush, two new ecosystems were created, one based on water, the other on more open spaces, flowers and a wider variety of trees. There had been no open water in the area at all, yet once these lakes were made, water dependant wildlife quickly moved in to take advantage of it, well before the construction was complete. Shrubbery in people's yards provided shelter and safety to song birds, as larger forest birds, such as magpies and crows, that attack them and their nests were less able to reach them. Increased varieties of flowers supplied nectar for insects that would have found little to no food in the bush that had been growing there before.

Even larger animals, such as deer, where not driven out completely. There was still a wide belt of bush, but now there was a reliable water supply - though having deer come into people's yards is a mixed blessing, as they are notorious for destroying trees and gardens. Smaller animals such as jackrabbits could graze in relative safety from their predators; the foxes and such that are less likely to approach human habitation.

Thinking about the type of wildlife that lives in the sort of wooded area leveled for the housing development, and comparing them to the types that lived in the new conditions created by people in the housing development, I came to the realization that the housing development created ecosystems that supported a larger and more varied population of wildlife.

The encroachment of human habitation had actually led to a net increase of wildlife.

Not quite the death and destruction housing developments are supposed to be responsible for.

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