The Quiet Ex­tinc­tion: Sto­ries of North Amer­ica’s Rare and Threat­ened Plants by Kara Rogers, Univer­sity of Ari­zona Press, 248 pages

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Global warm­ing. Hu­man smug­gling. Drug traf­fick­ing. Oil frack­ing. Is this an elec­tion-year book about pol­i­tics and pol­icy in the U.S. South­west? Far from it. It’s a book about en­dan­gered North Amer­i­can plants. In­deed, it just so hap­pens that many of our most vex­ing so­cial crises and en­ergy-use is­sues hap­pen to be wreck­ing the pop­u­la­tions of in­dige­nous Amer­i­can plants, po­ten­tially wip­ing sev­eral of them off the planet within the next two decades.

Con­sider the Acuña cac­tus. Each March, the small cylin­dri­cal cac­tus is the first of its genus to bloom in Ari­zona’s Or­gan Pipe Cac­tus Na­tional Mon­u­ment. Atop its spire of thick spines, the cac­tus un­furls a hot ma­genta-col­ored bloom. Science writer Kara Rogers is amazed that this plant has been on a fed­eral list of threat­ened species since the mid-1970s. Since then, on­go­ing drought con­di­tions and ex­panded cat­tle graz­ing in the South­west have only wors­ened its prospects. Three- quar­ters of the re­main­ing Acuña cac­tus are found in Or­gan Pipe or across the bor­der in Mex­i­can Sonora. Un­for­tu­nately, the cac­tus’ lo­ca­tion in a fed­er­ally pro­tected park along the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der have done it lit­tle good, as bor­der pa­trol agents, hu­man smug­glers, and f lee­ing im­mi­grants have in­tro­duced ran­dom ground dis­tur­bances through­out the park that pay lit­tle heed to the plants un­der­foot.

The cac­tus is one of more than a dozen plants con­sid­ered in Rogers’ book, which aims to bring at­ten­tion to the fate of Amer­i­can and Cana­dian plants and land­scapes un­der threat. Un­like trop­i­cal rain forests, writes Rogers, North Amer­i­can bio-re­gions get lit­tle press at­ten­tion for the rate at which habi­tat and species are dis­ap­pear­ing. “Be­tween 2000 and 2005, North Amer­ica lost nearly 114,000 square miles of for­est cover — an area equiv­a­lent to the size of the state of Ari­zona,” Rogers writes. “It was the great­est ex­panse of for­est cover lost on any con­ti­nent dur­ing that time, and it ac­counted for an as­ton­ish­ing 5 per­cent of to­tal for­est cover world­wide and al­most 18 per­cent of North Amer­ica’s to­tal forested land.”

Most of the habi­tat loss was be­cause of ex­pand­ing log­ging in south­ern Canada and the South­east­ern U.S., as well as a spate of mas­sive wild­fires in both coun­tries. Both events have en­abled the spread of blight and tree-eat­ing in­sect out­breaks through­out forests. Most of the es­says in the book trace a plant’s en­dan­gered sta­tus back to global warm­ing, ex­panded res­i­den­tial devel­op­ment, and the loss of wildlife that once fed on these plants and spread their seeds through­out a re­gion.

Yet the au­thor i s far from hope­less about the situation. She writes, mostly en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, about in­di­vid­u­als and groups who vol­un­teer their time “rewil­d­ing” these threat­ened plants, whether through restor­ing t heir nat­u­ral habi­tat or plant­ing seeds and saplings in new en­vi­ron­ments that are bet­ter suited to the plant’s long-term sur­vival.

For in­stance, in North Carolina, a loose coali­tion of botanists, ecol­o­gists, and week­end nat­u­ral­ists have con­vened to man­u­ally rewild t he Florida tor­reya tree. Once so com­mon in the Florida Pan­han­dle that a state park i s named af­ter t he t ree, t he ever­green conifer be­gan dras­ti­cally re­duc­ing in pop­u­la­tion af­ter World War II. It is now so dec­i­mated by fun­gal blight that sci­en­tists think fewer than a dozen trees in its na­tive Florida habi­tat are even ca­pa­ble of re­pro­duc­ing.

A group call­ing it­self Tor­reya Guardians has been seed­ing green­house-cul­ti­vated saplings of the Florida tor­reya in the Ap­palachian moun­tains of North Carolina. Tor­reya Guardians was es­tab­lished af­ter mem­bers stud­ied field re­ports that noted the suc­cess of other tor­reya species in mi­grat­ing up moun­tain­sides when threat­ened by ris­ing tem­per­a­tures. A re­cent

Econ­o­mist pro­file of the plant ad­vo­cate group dubbed them “a mod­ern ark.”

“To sur­vive, re­searchers have pro­jected, Florida tor­reya would have had to track the cool cli­mate along the Chat­ta­hoochee River into the south­ern Ap­palachi­ans, com­plet­ing a jour­ney of more than 370 miles,” writes Rogers. “It never made the trip on its own, of course ... But we can make the jour­ney for it, de­liv­er­ing it to the Ap­palachi­ans to help it es­cape ex­tinc­tion.”

While many of the trees in North Carolina have at­tained a height rarely ob­served in the tor­reyas’ orig­i­nal Florida habi­tat, not all Tor­reya Guardians agree with this strat­egy. Dis­senters fear this strat­egy could cre­ate an in­va­sive species that de­stroys or threat­ens ex­ist­ing plants and an­i­mals in the Ap­palachi­ans. None­the­less, Rogers con­sid­ers the tor­reya rewil­d­ing tak­ing place in North Carolina to be a mov­ing ex­am­ple of how vol­un­teer hu­man ef­fort can ac­tu­ally save plant species clearly headed for ex­tinc­tion.

Rogers’ book is only a snap­shot of a few species un­der threat in North Amer­ica. As she re­minds the reader, the prob­lem un­fold­ing is much more vast. “About a thou­sand species of plants in the United States and Canada are rec­og­nized for­mally as be­ing threat­ened or en­dan­gered, and sev­eral thou­sand more are at risk of soon reach­ing threat­ened sta­tus,” writes the au­thor. “But the real tragedy is that few peo­ple are aware that the re­gion’s iconic trees and beau­ti­ful plants are dis­ap­pear­ing and that they are do­ing so rapidly.” — Casey Sanchez

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