What is Biodiversity and Why Does It Need Our Help?

Biodiversity, or Biological Diversity, is the variety of life in all its forms, and all the interactions between living things and their environment. It includes ecosystem diversity, landscape diversity, community diversity, species diversity, and genetic diversity.

Humans care about the diversity of life for as many reasons as there are species and ecosystems.

Some of us care because we understand that all of the pieces of an ecosystem are important in its functioning, from the bears, bobcats, and falcons all the way down to the soil microbes that decompose leaf litter. The great conservationist Aldo Leopold said it best; "The first step in intelligent tinkering is to save every cog and wheel" This may be one of the most widely quoted sentences in conservation writing, for good reason. Leopold recognized that humans are tinkering with nature, and that as tinkerers we should follow the example of a good mechanic who is a bit of a packrat, keeping odd parts around "just in case." We can't always predict how a 4-inch bolt may come in handy, nor can we predict whether we'll need a passenger pigeon again someday. If we find we need the passenger pigeon, we'll be out of luck.

Some of us care because we find solace in being surrounded by wild nature. Nature gives solace because of its diversity. An evening woodland walk without the sound of the hermit thrush would somehow seem empty. We'd be disappointed if the only shrub we saw on our walk was the Asian Morrow's honeysuckle - we'd miss the witch hazel, moosewood, and shadbush. If the soil fungi were missing and we couldn't smell decaying leaves in the fall, our sense of smell would wonder what was wrong.

Some of us care because we know that there are medicines and other useful products yet to be found in nature. A full 40% of all prescription drugs contain active ingredients originally derived from wild plants and animals. These medicines and others earn $40 billion a year on the international trade market. Countless other natural medicines used by traditional cultures never make it into the global marketplace, but they have great value in promoting health and curing disease.

Some of us care because we respect all forms of life. For many people, all life forms are created equal and deserve equal care and attention, just as for Americans all people are created equal and deserve equal rights and protections under the law.

Some of us care for all of these reasons.

But does biodiversity really need our attention? After all, new species are constantly evolving, and species naturally become extinct over time. Unfortunately, the rate of extinction has accelerated dramatically in the past 100 years. Species are going extinct much faster than they ever have, so that extinctions are outpacing evolution. Humans are the main cause of extinction today. As our population grows and our standard of living increases, we clear forests, overgraze natural grasslands, convert natural areas to industrial land, fragment forests with new roads, spread our residential and commercial areas out into the countryside, and degrade the quality of our air and water.

Happily, Vermont is still in very good shape when it comes to biodiversity. We have nearly the full complement of species that settlers saw when they first arrived here in the 18th century. Our forests are in much better shape than they were 150 years ago, when sheep grazed nearly every valley and hill in the state. But the population of the state is growing. We no longer have more cows that people, and more and more Vermonters drive long distances to work from their large country or suburban homes.

Because Vermont is still green, and also because there are threats to it, now is a good time think strategically about our future. Where is the biodiversity in the state? Is some of it already protected? Of the part that is not protected, where and how can we most efficiently protect it?

These are the questions we sought to answer in Phase I of the Vermont Biodiversity Project.