Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.
Restoring full protections to national monuments marks a win for environmental justice.
The story: The Biden administration has restored three federally protected areas that were severely downsized or downgraded by the Trump administration, reports Hallie Golden for The Guardian. The restored areas include Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument off the coast of New England. The Trump administration had slashed the size of Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante — the largest rollbacks of protected areas in the nation’s history, according to research led by Conservation International. It was part of a larger trend in which governments around the world have scaled back or eliminated protections on parks and other landscapes.
The big picture: Restoring protections to these national monuments makes them off-limits to commercial fishing, mining and drilling — a key step toward ongoing efforts to protect 30 percent of all U.S. lands and waters by the year 2030. The restoration of Bears Ears is also considered a significant win for Southwest Indigenous nations — including the Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian Tribe, and Navajo Nation — which originally proposed that the lands be enshrined as a national monument to protect their significant cultural and ecological value.
“Restoring legal protections for these monuments is a landmark decision that advances environmental justice,” said Conservation International scientist Rachel Golden Kroner. “It is an affirmation of Indigenous-led conservation and an integral part of our efforts to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, together.”
- Study: Too often, COVID recovery comes at nature’s expense
- Protected areas see recent rise in legal rollbacks: study
Climate-friendly grains could solve a perennial problem.
The story: Most commercial crops provide just a single harvest and must be replanted every year — a process that puts pressure on ecosystems, pollutes waterways and significantly contributes to global carbon emissions. Scientists hope to solve this issue through the development of a new kind of grain called Kernza that provides a harvest year-over-year from a single seed, reports Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post.
Kernza is a domesticated form of wheatgrass developed through selective breeding by the Land Institute, a non-profit dedicated to sustainable agriculture. These new grains are perennials, which means that they continue to grow and produce crops each year. This makes them more similar to native grassland plants than wheat, and their sprawling root systems can store carbon, improve healthy soil and protect waterways from erosion.
The big picture: Kernza’s creators believe that the grain represents a “paradigm shift” in humanity’s approach to agriculture — rethinking how we have cultivated plants over last 10,000 years. “We want to create an agricultural system to feed humanity that uses nature as the measure of success,” said Rachel Stroer, the president of the Land Institute.
Global food production is inextricably linked to nature, requiring clean water, healthy soils, pollination and more. At the same time, it contributes about 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, due largely to fertilizers, pesticides and animal waste. As humanity combats climate breakdown, innovations in agriculture, such as sustainable and regenerative farming practices, could help sequester climate-altering greenhouse gases.
Even the world’s largest trees are feeling the heat of climate change.
The story: A dangerous fire season spurred by runaway climate change has scientists worried about the future of California’s giant sequoias, reports Gabrielle Canon for The Guardian. Giant sequoias are the world’s largest tree and one of its most resilient, living for as long as 3,000 years. Natural forest fires are a part of the giant sequoia’s life cycle, allowing their cones to release seedlings. Without fire, the seeds remain trapped inside, sometimes for as long as twenty years. However, the ongoing blazes across the American west have burned hotter than ever in recent years, rapidly felling the trees themselves — an unprecedented event that some experts thought impossible.
The big picture: Even as firefighters step in with novel ideas to ensure the protection of some of the oldest sequoias, extended periods of drought and dry conditions are expected to continue for years to come, threatening famous sequoia groves across the West.
“There is a good possibility that a lot of these forests may not come back as forests in our lifetime,” Nathan Stephenson, an expert with the U.S. Geological Service, told the Guardian. Stephenson warned that we may be reaching what he calls “a climate threshold” — a point where ecosystems like these could begin to suffer permanent, irreversible changes.