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