Solutions 6/21: Preserving natural resources and fighting climate change

By Huck Fairman

What can and what should a community do to help save life as we know it locally and around the world?

The threats to our environments globally, are so extensive and serious that many knowledgeable scientists and other specialists strongly urge that we do everything we can. That is, respond in all ways possible internationally, nationally, regionally and in our states and towns.

Once again, responding to this urgency, ‘Sustainable Princeton’ and the Princeton Public Library assembled a highly experienced panel to voice ideas on what our community needs to do to protect our natural environment and the livability of our community on the evening of June 17.

Holly Welles, Princeton University’s Program Manager of its Carbon Mitigation Initiative, served as moderator and set the stage for the panel’s remarks by briefly outlining the town of Princeton’s ‘Climate Action Plan.’

This plan has brought together the experience and knowledge of 50 volunteers for the broad purposes of reducing emissions and increasing the town’s resiliency in the face of the current and future extreme weather. A town study has found that 2/3’s of the town’s emissions come from residential and commercial sources, while 1/3 comes from transportation.

Where the 50 volunteers will focus on five different areas needing action, the evening’s talks focused on natural resources. This meant that the panel would look at (a.) the need to preserve and enhance the town’s natural resources, (b.) the need to protect natural corridors for plant life and wildlife, and thus their survivability, and (c.) reduce the number and types of gasoline-powered vehicles and tools, as part of the overall goal to reduce emissions by 80% in the coming decades.

Next, Will Price, President of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation spoke, first widening the perspective to a national and global view in which the challenges we all face are “immense.” So that “we should all be worried.” Globally we have already exceeded the supposedly safe temperature rise levels of a few years ago. New Jersey started warming in 1975 and today that warming is accelerating. And given that, he urged that we (residents of this town and planet), need to not only reduce emissions but develop new ideas to protect all flora and fauna living here.

He then narrated a short video and a series of charts showing the increasingly dire circumstances we have created, but also the projected, potential improvements possible with the adoption of new policies. And these new policies need to address not only means of capturing carbon, but also preserving natural resources on land and water.

Encouragingly, he cited the fact that we have the natural tools to capture 37% of the greenhouse gases we are producing. Those tools include forests, whose maturing trees sequester increasing amounts of carbon. But to expand forests and other plant life we need, he explained, better land management. We need to protect, restore and improve forest lands, their trees and other natural landscapes. But sadly, he noted, just when we need to increase the carbon-capturing ability of forests, forest acreage, in this country and elsewhere is declining. We are losing the very buffer we need against higher temperatures.

In addition to forests, we could alter our lawns and playing fields by adding green growth, which could not only help capture carbon but reduce gas-powered maintenance. As he said, we need to do everything we can, at all levels of society. And using and expanding our natural, green resources is an essential strategy.

Water too must be part of the overall preservation plan – particularly water clean enough to drink. It is a sad irony that when many parts of the world are suffering drought we in New Jersey and the Mid-West are deluged by storms and flooding. The run-off contaminates water supplies with fertilizers, pesticides and oil products.

Wendy Mager, President of Friends of Princeton Open Space, amplified these observations, particularly in regard to Princeton. Open spaces, she explained, are essential to the well-being of the town. Development, beyond its current reaches will threaten the health of our environment. This is because trees filter and absorb the water from rain and storms. And our local vegetation and animals need those natural reservoirs. Our natural environment survives when in symbiotic balance. Reducing its space and numbers further, threatens all. A map she showed revealed that 25% of the town is preserved land, in largely separate segments. Doing more to connect them would improve not only their health, but their resiliency.

Another threat to our local environments is invasive species. Some grow so rapidly that they crowd out local species and prevent them from replacing themselves – forest trees most importantly.

But beyond our own welfare, preserving open and green spaces contributes to the national and global efforts to preserve the world we have known.

Such spaces also help control the increasing volume of storm water run-off from the powerful rain storms that have washed over us. That volume of water is not only destructive but expensive to deal with. Mitigating the effects ahead of time, by increasing natural absorption makes sense environmentally and financially.

Considering the various aspects of environmental preservation, Mager suggested that we need Open Spaces Managers to be a regular function of governments. Otherwise we risk overlooking key components of preservation. Additionally, she observed that lawns are the largest crop in the state, with more acreage devoted to them than to all the farms. And those often-fertilized lawns permit their nutrients and chemicals to be washed into our water supplies.

Taylor Sapudar, Princeton’s town arborist then spoke on the need for tree and plant diversity necessary to survive the changing weather and newly arriving bugs and diseases. The town has planted over 30 tree species to maintain healthy, resilient diversity. He also explained why the town in specific cases needs to take down weakened Ash or Oak trees to insure right of way and safety. If caught early enough, inoculating Ash trees against the borer, can preserve them. But he warned that not all garden service companies are aware of the best practices for preserving trees, properties and a local environment. He urged property owners to educate themselves and discuss issues with the servicing companies.

Finally, Lily Krause, Vice Chair of the Shade Tree Commission voiced a pet-peeve, and unhealthy practice, namely “mulch volcanoes.” These are large mounds of mulch placed around the bases of new trees. This excessive mulch actually restricts the growth of roots in newly planted trees, and she urged owners not continue the practice.

Secondly, she counseled that it is more healthy for lawns and less expensive for the town if property owners chip and mulch leaves on lawns in the Fall, thereby providing nutrients for lawns and saving town leaf collection.

Thus while a number of the preservation needs and strategies described by the speakers are local, and specific to our town and its environment, adopting enduring policies is not only essential for us but can be replicated elsewhere, just as Princeton has borrowed ideas from beyond its borders. And our environmental situation has reached, as the panel’s speakers warned, the point where we need to do everything we can.