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Go green: It’s easier than you might think

By Staff | Apr 29, 2009

“Go green” taps us on the shoulder wherever we turn these days. We all know it’s a good thing when we see it, but do we really know what it means?

Any talk about going green inevitably leads to our carbon footprint – the amount of carbon dioxide our activities emit into the atmosphere. I decided to check out my individual footprint online. Using a carbon footprint calculator, I discovered what I’m contributing to climate change. The results gave me some things to consider.

I recently attended a conference in Orlando billed as a “green” conference. Organizers donated money to a fund to plant native trees in parks and wildlife refuges for the carbon offset.

For this particular conference in Florida, trees were planted in a forest in the Midwest.

Fine concept, but wouldn’t it be more helpful to “go green” right in the same backyard where the carbon footprint had been left? I discovered a project that keeps it local and does more than donate funds.

It started when The Wildlife Society’s Florida Chapter wondered how to offset the carbon impacts from its 2008 National Conference in Miami.

“We wanted to do more than merely contribute funds to a project that might not be compatible with our long-term objectives for biological diversity,” said Jay Exum with the society. “We felt it important to enhance biological diversity and environmental resiliency – an important component of lessening the impacts associated with climate change.”

Diverse habitat and wildlife provides greater opportunity for resiliency, something the biologists passionately speak about when addressing the impacts of climate change on wildlife.

“We also wanted the project to be as local as possible,” Exum said. “A proposal from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Wildlife Legacy Initiative fit the objectives of our vision.”

Peacock Springs, near Live Oak, held all the keys to a perfect project funded by the State Wildlife Grants Program. The sandhill site, managed by the Suwannee River Water Management District, lacked longleaf pines, wiregrass and wildfires – all necessary components of this ecosystem.

Longleaf pines are crucial to the sandhill landscape. The trees are fire resistant and can live for 500 years. Their expansive root system keeps them in place during hurricane-force winds.

Historically, annual summer fires burned through this ecosystem, burning plants closest to the ground, but leaving the tall longleaf pines intact. When fires are suppressed, the ecosystem balance becomes skewed.

Wiregrass, growing in huge bunches low to the ground in sandhill habitats, is the perfect fuel for the fires. It also nestles other low-growing plants and supports wildlife at the base of the food chain. Without the wiregrass, other plant species cannot exist; and without the other plants, their seeds, flowers and fruits cannot provide sustenance for insects and other tiny wildlife.

Without those tiny members of the animal kingdom, animals further up the food chain do not have the food they need to exist.

The planting of longleaf pines began in February. Next, workers will plant wiregrass. Prescribed burns will further the restoration process.

How does all this relate to climate change and wildlife in Florida? Without healthy habitats, no matter how rural and non-urbanized, wildlife cannot adapt or survive what is in store as the climate changes.

“A project like this one at Peacock Springs restores an important Florida ecosystem and builds resiliency into the landscape,” said Doug Parsons of the FWC’s Climate Change Team. “It’s going to help us get through these long-term changes as the climate warms.”

What I discovered about my own personal carbon footprint shocked me. Using a carbon footprint calculator on The Nature Conservancy’s Web site – www.nature.org – I determined my estimated greenhouse gas emissions exceed the national average, and I thought I was carbon-conservative.

Traveling – flying and driving – really drove up my footprint. I need to make some changes now, because the experts agree that we can not stop climate change; at this point, we can only lessen its impact. I can contribute to a carbon offset program, lessen my personal footprint or plant a native tree in my backyard. In 70 years, that tree will help offset my footprint now.

Look in your own backyard for your carbon footprint. If we follow the lead of The Wildlife Society, footprints in the sand may only leave an impression – not a deep hole.

(Patricia Behnke is a columnist who writes “The Wildlife Forecast” for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation. Contact her at pat.behnke@MyFWC.com.)