Many Michiganders enjoy walking in our outdoor spaces, whether private or public, being rejuvenated by the sights and sounds they encounter. But how many know what they are experiencing? Are they just seeing “walls of green?” Are they merely hearing a sound coming from somewhere high in a tree? And do they know whether the animals and plants they see are healthy?
Michigan boasts an incredible amount of natural beauty, attracting people from within and beyond the state. While many people flock to our treasured national lakeshores and forests, nearly 72% of Michigan’s beautiful landscapes are privately owned. Southern Michigan alone is almost 90% privately owned, which is slightly above the 87% of land in the U.S., east of the Mississippi River, that is privately owned.
From a wildlife perspective, considerable amounts of the highest quality habitat, such as that along riparian areas, is in private hands. Why is this significant? Plants and animals do not see our borders, so most species depend on private lands as much, or more, than public lands. So public and private habitat are connected and interdependent.
Biologists struggle to keep track of and document biodiversity on our public lands; how much greater is the gap in information for our private lands? How can we conserve what we don’t know? Understanding biodiversity—knowing species distributions, their ranges, and the threats they face—is foundational to conservation, and yet we lack this core biological information for the majority of the land in our state and country.
Thus, private landowners have a vital role to play in biodiversity conservation and in safeguarding the plants and animals that make our state great. I’d contend that private landowners love their land, but their love does not necessarily translate into knowing plant names, or what creatures are utilizing their properties’ habitats. The “walls of green” that most people see obscure the changes occurring on their land, and most landowners (in my experience) are unaware of the ongoing loss of their land’s biodiversity value.
Many people would want to do something. Many landowners would want to take the next step to document and improve biodiversity. People want to be a part of a greater cause, but they are not sure what to do or how to do it, and they have not been invited to take the next step to participate in conservation. Landowners need to be invited, and to know that they can play a vital role in conservation.
I started an organization, Rate My Land, to foster the value of biodiversity and an appreciation for knowing a property’s wild creatures. The RML idea is to call on landowners to play a role in species conservation and connect them with biological consultants, who have the expertise to conduct surveys, answer landowner questions, and give advice or direction. Rate My Land provides an opportunity for landowners to discover what is on their land and then share that with a community. Today’s social norms are influenced by social media. Because of this, RML’s website provides the opportunity to post the biodiversity rating that a property receives from one of the Rate My Land surveys for plants, herps (amphibians and reptiles), invertebrates, or birds. Landowners can choose to share about their beloved property with the RML community.
The information collected on species distributions can help the landowners track changes over time, such as new invasive species infestations. It could help landowners develop an informed management plan for their property that directs their resources to the aspects of the land that they would like to see managed. Learning the species on their land may reveal a species that can be used as leverage for receiving technical assistance or financial support from organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Hiring a RML consultant will provide landowners with new ways to connect with their land by knowing the plants that grow along the stream or the bird that sings out of sight in the forest canopy.
If landowners take the lead in documenting biodiversity, either on their own or through hiring a biological consultant, we will have a more complete foundation from which conservation biology can succeed. We will be able to track common species to make sure they stay common. We will have a better understanding of species ranges and distributions to evaluate species recoveries and conservation needs. A culture of private landowners getting excited about new discoveries and the prospect of their land harboring a greater diversity of animals will emerge. We need to assign a new value to a land - a biodiversity value - and this needs to become a social norm.
Private landowners can have a tremendous influence. Take for example the thousands of private landowners who, as part of the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, set aside small strips of their land for birds, and together, over three decades, helped Henslow’s Sparrows rise from a precipitous low population to a more stable population today. This grand accomplishment of saving a species could not have been accomplished by a federal agency alone. It took a network of private landowners.
Michigan landowners can be the forerunners, helping to pin down the distributions of plants and animals that rely on private lands. Would you rather walk a trail on your property wondering but never knowing what it is that grows, flies in, or travels there, or would you like to be armed with the names of the plants and animals documented on your land so that you, too, can make new discoveries and observations?
We can lead the nation in fostering this biodiversity value for our land. Maybe this translates into tangible values that help with selling a property, having better hunting success, or employing more biology graduates. Doubtless, assigning a value to plants and animals, whether or not they are perceived as “useful” to humans, can only enrich the whole, fulfilling tableau of Michigan’s natural heritage.