By Michaela McCown, Vanguard Faculty
I talk a lot with my students about the benefits that humans gain from the environment. Most of us realize that we depend on the earth for a lot of goods that we use on a daily basis: energy, food, clothing, shelter. What we don’t often think about are the services that functioning ecosystems provide us with: crop pollination, water and air filtration, recreational benefits, climate regulation, flood protection, among others. As humans dissociate from the land, we forget the many benefits we receive from natural, intact ecosystems. More and more children and young adults grow up with “nature-deficit disorder,” where they no longer understand environmental concepts or appreciate being outdoors. As more of the human population enters into the adult world with nature-deficit disorder, we see a greater shift in policies and decisions that fragment and degrade ecosystems. We build pipelines through land rarely seen by humans to supply the endless demand for energy, construct cities in deserts that cannot supply the average per person indoor water use of 90 gallons per day, and emit pollutants into the atmosphere that leave no acre on the earth untouched by human impacts. What we seem to forget is that as we degrade ecosystems across the globe, not only are we hurting all of the organisms that rely on a natural habitat, but we also affect our own ability to receive goods and services from the environment.- Vanguard College Preparatory School Faculty
This fall, my environmental science class read a study conducted in 1997 that considered the value of ecosystems solely because of the services that they can potentially provide humans. Costanza et al. 1997 specifically looked at the economic value attributed to ecosystems due to services provided including: soil formation, nutrient cycling, water regulation, disturbance regulation, biological control, pollination, among others. Each ecosystem type specializes in sustaining life on earth through different means and also contributes to human welfare – we need these benefits from the environment just as we need those ecosystems. When we remove and damage these ecosystems, there is an actual economic loss because of the benefits we subsequently loose. Though each ecosystem is valued differently, globally, Costanza et al. 1997 estimated all the intact ecosystems across the planet provide us with services estimated at an average of $33 trillion per year (and this would be greater now due to inflation!) Because of my background in environmental science, I have always valued and appreciated the importance of maintaining intact ecosystems, but this number blew me and my students away!
So, given the importance of maintaining pristine ecosystems, how do we actually do this in a state that is growing by over 1,000 people per day? The huge variety of ecosystems in Texas – lakes, rivers, wetlands, forest, grassland, desert – all provide us with benefits that make our state a pretty incredible place to live. But as the population grows and we continue to expand our cities, how do we protect our ecosystems and the services they provide us? First off, be aware of how you personally impact ecosystems – and think about how you can reduce your impact! This may mean reducing your energy consumption, taking shorter showers, planting native plants that use less water, purchasing less, recycling, keeping your car maintained so it leaks less, picking up your dog’s poop, giving up straws and single-use plastic items, among others.
Another way to help maintain our ecosystems is to support organizations that protect land, water, and wildlife. Over the last few years, I have become involved with Texas Land Conservancy, a state-wide land trust in Texas. If you are not familiar, land trusts protect land through establishing conservation easements. A conservation easement is a legal agreement where a landowner permanently separates certain development rights from a particular tract of land. Land trusts then hold the conservation easement and ensure that the conservation value of the land is maintained forever. This means that no matter if the property is inherited or sold, future owners will not be able to develop the land. With 95% of Texas land being privately owned, land trusts are invaluable in ensuring that Texans continue to benefit from ecosystem services that protected land and water provide. This also ensures that there will be wide open spaces for younger generations to enjoy – to reconnect with the environment and combat nature-deficit disorder.
I had a very fortunate childhood and grew up on my family’s ranch located just west of Austin. My experiences growing up on the property shaped me into the individual I am today: someone who loves being outside and whose career and passion is centered around teaching others about nature and the environment. I was able to see the land, particularly vegetation, flourish as we transitioned from an agricultural valuation with cattle on the property to a wildlife valuation managing for local flora and fauna. As Austin expanded and more homes started popping up in our area, I also witnessed the change in the creek on the property – historically it would flow year round except during drought, but in the last decade was frequently dry due to the lowering of our aquifer’s water table. Seeing these changes in the land encouraged our family to look into establishing a conservation easement on the property. We were able to work with Texas Land Conservancy to establish a conservation easement, finalized in 2018, making our property part of a network of protected land in the state that helps to preserve wildlife habitat and protect ecosystem services. Through the conservation easement, we are not only protecting wildlife habitat, but also the headwaters of Little Bee Creek, which flows into Bee Creek and eventually Lake Travis, a major water source for the City of Austin. Working with Texas Land Conservancy through this process taught me a greater appreciation for our native Texas ecosystems – by protecting our little slice of Hill Country, many other Texans will continue to receive the benefits – even if they physically never set foot on our property.
Seeing the impact and importance of land conservation inspired me to join Texas Land Conservancy’s Board of Directors of this last year. I am excited to be a part of a team and mission that will impact and better the future of all Texans. In addition, serving with Texas Land Conservancy has given me insight into modern environmental issues to bring into the classroom. I hope each one of us can find ways to get involved in our community and state to help improve our environment for current and future generations. It is exciting to hear of the many ways that individuals of all generations are diving in to support this effort in their own way, with their different talents and expertise.
We have several individuals from the Vanguard network who are currently engaging on conservation issues in unique ways. I invite you to come to our educational presentation on January 13th from 6:00 – 7:00 pm, Land for Water and Wildlife, to hear how a faculty member, student, and alumna are all engaged in various aspects of conservation and how you can get involved.