Kristin DeBoer: Can the Valley be resilient to climate change?
AMHERST — There are lots of people who don’t worry that much about the future of life on Earth. I used to be one of them. Everyone needs time to enjoy today without fretting about tomorrow. However, like most environmentalists, I worry now — a lot.
What is there to worry about globally? I worry that population growth and sprawl is overwhelming wild places; that deforestation undermines subsistence villages; that more frequent floods are eroding topsoil; that droughts are exacerbating famine; that too many species are on the edge of extinction. The list goes on… but most of all, I worry about catastrophic climate change and its potentially debilitating impact on future generations of people and wildlife.
Locally, I don’t worry as much about the Connecticut River Valley. This is a place where it is possible to live well and relax, just a little. It is a place where culture seems more in balance with nature than at odds. The fact that this area is a great place to live is a result of good fortune and good planning. For starters, we have fertile farmland, verdant forests and abundant waterways, which attracted the region’s first settlers and still provide us with access to local food and clean water, two basic necessities that we can no longer take for granted in a changing climate.
It is good fortune that the Valley has some of the best agricultural soils in the world. It is good planning that landowners and conservationists work together to permanently preserve this farmland. With additional foresight, protected farmland could set the stage for a sustainable regional food system. According to the New England Food Vision 2060 developed by professor Brian Donahue at Brandeis University, New England could grow at least one-half of its food within the region to help maintain a diverse and healthy diet.
This vision would require a tripling of the acres under agriculture throughout New England. The Valley, with its productive floodplain farms and innovative Hilltown farms, could be an important part of this transition to expand farmland in order to ensure food security in an unstable climate.
It is good fortune that our Valley’s forests are still relatively intact. It is good planning that these woodlands are protected for drinking water, to create public conservation areas and for sustainable forestry. With additional science-based planning, protected forests could also help wildlife respond to climate change. The new Resilient Landscapes Initiative, led by the Open Space Institute, a conservation organization and think tank in New York, and based on research done by the Nature Conservancy is identifying which Northeast landscapes will be the most “resilient” — defined by ecologists as the ability to respond to a disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly.
It turns out that our region’s Hilltowns are one of the “best bets” for permanent conservation to provide opportunities for wildlife to adapt to a changing world.
The concept of resiliency suggests that the more varied, complex and connected the landscape, the more likely it will support the greatest diversity of plants and wildlife, regardless of how the climate changes. By protecting Hilltown forests, from Leverett to Westhampton, we not only ensure our own access to clean water and open space, we can give wildlife a fighting chance as well.
Finding a way to actually solve the climate crisis is a tall order. There are many ambitious initiatives, like 350.org, a global grassroots movement, that are building our collective willpower to curb the world’s appetite for energy in order to shrink our carbon footprint. That work is critical, but it is not enough.
Land conservationists can respond to climate change by permanently conserving the land that matters most to both people and wildlife. Climate change is a big worry globally and locally, but instead of being overwhelmed, we can use the idea of resilience to empower ourselves to prepare.
The Valley’s forests and farmland could give us the capacity to adapt to changes in the future if we protect the land now and treat it well.
Kristin DeBoer has been working in the environmental movement for 25 years. Since 2006, she has served as the executive director of Kestrel Land Trust, a nonprofit regional land trust dedicated to conserving land that sustains the quality of life and ecological integrity of the Connecticut River Valley.