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Natural Awakenings South Jersey

A Case for Conservation in the Pinelands and Globally : What’s the Big Deal about Biodiversity?

Apr 01, 2015 10:01AM ● By Dr. Amy Karpati

Biodiversity—the variety of life on Earth—is valued by many people for its intrinsic worth. Preserving biodiversity for its own sake of existence, for making sure our world is full of unique and wonderful species, is often the primary motivation of environmental conservation proponents. On the other side of the equation is what biodiversity does for us—the utility of biodiversity in terms of the ecosystem services it provides that benefit society as a whole such as food production, water purification, climate regulation, pollination services and medicinal values.

If you are the type of person who’s generally in tune with nature, you probably don’t need scientific studies to convince you of what you already know is true—that biodiversity is one of the most important characteristics of a sustainable ecosystem. You may have heard that different species play different roles under different conditions, and so the more species there are in an ecosystem, the better that ecological functions are sustained over time. Regardless of the intuitive nature of this concept, it helps the cause of conservationists when science agrees that biodiversity is important. Fortunately, such scientific affirmation has been presented in a string of recent studies.

A 2009 report by 29 authors from the U.S., Europe and Australia published in the scientific journal Ecology and Society presented initial estimates of “planetary boundaries”—the limits of global ecosystem properties which, if transgressed, could trigger major environmental changes that threaten human sustainability. By the authors’ estimates, three of these boundaries—climate change, changes to the global nitrogen cycle, and rate of biodiversity loss—have already been crossed. It’s estimated that we’re currently losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural background rate. The current and projected rates of global biodiversity loss indicate that Earth could experience the sixth mass extinction within a couple of centuries.

In 2012, a study published in Nature by international scientists cited evidence that biodiversity loss is altering ecosystem processes critical to sustainability with a magnitude comparable to that of climate change. Another, published last summer, revealed that the ability of an ecosystem to maintain important functions is significantly affected by biodiversity not only at the level of species, but also at the level of biological communities (meaning it’s not just that more species equals greater ecosystem function, but more ecological communities also equals greater ecosystem function). The researchers state, “In addition to conserving important species, maintaining ecosystem multifunctionality will require diverse landscape mosaics of diverse communities.” In other words, a patchwork of ecological communities—large mature forests, young forests, wetlands, uplands, grasslands and more—must be conserved within any given landscape in order to preserve ecosystem function and services.

So how does all of this relate to the New Jersey Pinelands? It’s a hotspot of biodiversity in an otherwise dramatically human-altered landscape. Species found nowhere else on the planet live here. The intrinsic value of Pinelands species and ecological communities is unmistakable—Pinelands enthusiasts talk of the beauty, serenity, strangeness and history within this landscape. Less conspicuous are the ecosystem functions performed by the diversity of species and ecological communities in the Pinelands. Maintaining pockets of biodiversity like the Pinelands is critical to promote local and regional sustainability. We don’t know what direct impacts the loss of individual species might have but we do know that conserving biodiversity is critical to the ecosystem as a whole—of which we are a part. The continued existence of Pinelands species, both rare and common, is a major part of this mission at the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

Dr. Amy Karpati has worked as a conservation biologist with the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and teaches Urban Ecology through Columbia University’s Master of Science in Sustainability Management program.

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