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There's no place like habitat

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
May 22, 2003


"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." — John Muir

David Brower, the archdruid of 20th century environmentalism, culminated his lifetime of activism with the concept of Global CPR (Conservation, Preservation, and Restoration.) The intended goal of this 3 time Nobel Prize nominee was to heal fractured communities collapsing under the weight of human population. With three common words, David Brower had come up with a prescription to save the world.

Here in the sprawling confines of suburban southern California, conservation and preservation will soon be a moot point as the last piece of undisturbed open space is destroyed in the name of shortsighted progress and generic esthetics. Everyday, the amount of indigenous California lost to the ecocide of housing tracts and shopping centers continues to grow, even as the economy weakens. Caught in a failing paradigm governmental policy only makes matters worse by promoting inaction, while encouraging over population.

I say Global CPR should begin at home.

It's time ecological wisdom is reintroduced to our communities. And what better way than one neighborhood at a time? One yard at a time. Why? Because the earth is our backyard and we have to start somewhere. Of course this epiphany is far from new, nor did it happen in a vacuum. The consideration, to have the Scenic house certified as habitat, was prompted by a woman who chanced upon me tending the natives in my front yard.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Southern California is basically a desert. Our complete reliance on imported water is proof enough. Yet, this lack of water is hardly evidenced by the lush chaparral separating our home from the street. Teeming with life, our yard gets by on what nature provides. Oaks, Lemonade berry, Toyon, California buckwheat, Ceanothus, Poppies, and Monkey flowers thrive where once there was a lawn and other non-native ground covers.

The woman was amazed at the spring bloom gracing our yard. Most notable was how the yellow blossoms of the flannel bush, complimented the orange riot of California poppies, and the beauty of the mountain lilac in full bloom. Leaning out the window she asked if our yard was registered with the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat Program. Of course I refrained from launching onto my usual soapbox about federal environmental policy and the wisdom of California succession, I simply said no.

Handing me her card, she said she would love to assist me in registering our fertile slice of paradise. As they drove away, I filed the encounter under random validation, and went back to tending the natives. From the experience of a friend, I knew that designating property as backyard habitat did nothing to protect it. So why bother? The only people that needed to know about my front yard habitat is wildlife looking for a place to call home.

This is what David Brower meant by restoration. By taking out the lawn and the tropical plants, and restoring what was here before the heavy hand of man laid waste to the biotic community known as coastal sage scrub, I am doing my part to preserve species that predate western civilization. Providing habitat for robust populations of Sceloporus occidentalis (Western Fence Lizard/Blue-Bellies) and Elgaria Multicarinata (Southern Alligator lizard) means I am providing habit for a diversity of other species as well. How's that for validation?

Lizards are a good thing. A key species in the southern California food chain, they are a good indicator of ecological health. Southern Alligator lizards feed on various insects, small animals such as young mice and birds, tree frogs, and even other lizards. For their part unwary Blue Bellies feed predaceous mammals, hawks and snakes. King snakes and Striped Racers are particularly fond of these small lizards. Although snakes have yet to take up residence in our suburban scrub, I'm sure it is only a matter of time.

At a time when bird populations are in decline due to over development, backyard habitats become vital refuges. By fostering native plant species, not only do property owners save water, they contribute to the conservation of bird species threatened by the growth machine and the clear-cutting of wild Southern California.

Make no mistake, coastal California is in desperate need of life support, and conservation, preservation, and restoration are merely triage. Needed most of all, is a commitment to ecological sustainability, and what better place to start than your own backyard. So instead of ignoring the opportunity to seek a toothless certification for the restoration work we are doing, the plan now is to document the restored habitat than fight like hell to preserve it until California succeeds.

Who knows, official documentation just might be what is needed to coax a pair of gnatcatchers to start nesting in one of the Toyon.

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