For the October Sustainability Happy Hour, we looked at biodiversity (the variety of life found within a particular ecosystem or habitat) in the Bay Area. We were joined by two knowledgeable experts, Sophie Christel from Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and Annie Burke from TOGETHER Bay Area. They shared strategies being employed by groups across the region to address the many challenges to biodiversity, exacerbated by climate change.

Sophie Christel kicked off the evening explaining that the Bay Area is one of only 34 biodiversity hotspots on Earth. The region’s diverse geology and topography, combined with the coastal influence, creates many micro-climates and in turn unique ecosystems leading to an abundance of biodiversity. It is estimated that there are 3,500 species of animals and plants in the Bay Area. Of these, 61% are endemic, meaning they aren’t found anywhere else on earth. The second factor making our area a hotspot is that the abundance of biodiversity is at risk. Nearly one third of the species here are listed as threatened or endangered and at least 70-75 percent of their native habitat has been lost to development or degradation.

Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District takes a three-pronged approach in protecting biodiversity. First, they protect sensitive species both by safeguarding their native habitats and by monitoring species for changes over time. Next, they control invasive species on their land. Volunteer opportunities in these first two areas are available for people who want to get involved in hands-on stewardship. Lastly, they focus on landscape management, a significant part of which involves strategically acquiring land in order to create connected stretches between refugia, areas of high-quality habitats, allowing species to move around unhindered throughout the region. As part of their overall approach, the District also focuses on climate change resilience – helping species to be able to adapt to where they live or to find more suitable habitat over time.

As part of the Santa Cruz Mountain Stewardship Network, Midpeninsula and other organizations have partnered to work on climate adaptation and resilience. Using climate modeling that shows how things will change over time in specific areas, they have developed vulnerability assessments to determine which species are most at risk and what can be done to protect them. Then they take an adaptive management approach, meaning they take action, monitor the results, and adjust their plans accordingly if needed, in order to continually adapt to new conditions.

Annie Burke is the Executive Director of TOGETHER Bay Area, a regional coalition of non-profits, tribes and public agencies in the 9 Bay Area counties and Santa Cruz county, collaborating for climate resiliency and equity. Their goal is to promote healthy land, people and communities.

Annie shared three stories with the Happy Hour audience. The first focused on the idea that the lands we inhabit today have been stewarded for thousands of years and that all of us should work to protect the land, whether it be open space, urban, rural or working land. Humans and their environment are interdependent and need to be in relationship with one another to thrive.

The second story provided examples of how the pandemic has catalyzed change, especially when it comes to protecting biodiversity in our region. Thanks to Zoom events becoming an everyday occurrence, it has been much easier to bring people and organizations across the Bay Area together to tackle biodiversity at various levels, including supporting fire smart landscapes, securing funding for the state coastal conservancy, and promoting the 30 x 30 initiative (an initiative set out by executive order of the Governor and President Biden to conserve 30% of the state’s lands and waters by the year 2030).

Annie’s third story outlined the regional approach that is being used to address biodiversity conservation, one that focuses on hyper-local activity. Because these very local endeavors share a lot in common with one another, they are able to leverage them across the region and state to achieve their larger goals. Annie highlighted the work for the Conservation Lands Network (CLN), a 15 year-old group involving more than 100 people across 10 counties to determine the lands essential to maintaining biodiversity. The group utilizes computer modeling systems to establish which lands have the most benefit for various species. This approach can be used at the local level to see how a specific area fits into the larger network and make the case for funding. CLN’s overall goal is to conserve 2.5 million acres of Bay Area land by 2050. It is noteworthy to point out that this number represents about half of all of Bay Area’s land –quite an ambitious goal! The lands they look at when protecting biodiversity include those below the water line all the way up to the ridge lines.

Sophie and Annie wrapped up the evening by encouraging the audience to get involved in protecting biodiversity at whatever level they can. Examples of taking action included volunteering for the local open space preserve, supporting conservation groups, adhering to signage in open spaces to preserve the ecosystem; creating pockets of urban habitats in your yard with native plants that appeal to pollinators, and supporting local sustainable agriculture.

Author: Susie Hodges