by Leonard Green

I’m in Panama, where it’s hot and dry. It’s the dry season this time of year, so that’s normal. The enormous queue of ships backed up waiting to enter the canal, however, is not normal.

There’s just not enough lake-fed water in the canal for normal operations.

There was a 27 percent drop in rainfall during last year’s rainy season. That has certainly contributed to the problem. But as far back as 2005, NASA satellite photos pinpointed the fundamental cause: deforestation.

 As NASA’s Earth Observatory publication reported, “…logging and slash-and-burn agriculture have claimed half the surrounding rainforest. Deforested land cannot absorb the region’s heavy tropical rains; the excess water floods Gatún Lake and flows out to sea.”

Rain Forests, Local Forests

The Canal is probably Panama’s second most valuable piece of infrastructure. The first is its forests. Forests are primary infrastructure that provides irreplaceable natural services. Clear-cutting them undermines structures we need for survival, especially as we suffer the consequences of climate change.

Betsy Mcully’s excellent website, New York Nature, reminds us that we have lost most of our forests at home, as well.

“For at least 5,000 years prior to European settlement, it’s estimated that 95 Percent of Northeastern United States was covered by forest.”

Look around. Barely a ghost of that remains. Whenever I drive west on the LIE, my heart sinks at the sight of newly cut woodland destined to become hard packed, impervious surface. This is valuable lost “green infrastructure.”

We live atop a sole source aquifer. Forested land protects our water by maintaining healthy soil — soil that, thanks to a living soil biology, filters water, prevents polluted runoff, and sustains a functioning hydrological and nutrient soil cycle. 

Removing trees shuts down these services. We need more native trees and grasslands, not fewer.

Furthermore, two thirds of the carbon in our atmosphere comes from burning fossil fuels. The other third results from removing our natural, living infrastructure. When we cut down forests or plow under grasslands, we not only release captured soil carbon into the atmosphere, we impair soil’s capacity to store carbon. 

According to Judith Schwartz’s “Soil as Carbon Storehouse (Yale Environment 360), “Scientists say that more carbon resides in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined…”.

That’s a lot of wasted capacity.

Soil and Water

As we see in Panama, we also limit soil’s capacity to retain water, depriving our aquifer of needed replenishment. 

The New York Times has recently run a series of important articles on America’s water problems. One title pretty much sums up the matter: “America Is Using Up Its Groundwater Like There Is No Tomorrow.”  

According to the Suffolk County Water Authority, during peak summer usage on LI, we are pumping over 550,000 gallons a minute, and most of that is for lawn irrigation! 

All of this bad news makes it all the more heartening to see that there are more and more signs that we are awakening to the problem. New York State, for example, now has a GreenNY, Sustainable Landscaping program for all its new building sites.

 “Increasing impacts from climate change make clear that sustainability requires a sea-change in entrenched cultural expectations to ‘control’ nature,” according to the program. “New York State needs to lead by example in reducing our footprint to maximize places for natural systems to perform critical, life-sustaining functions.” 

Practically speaking, this means preserving native plant communities and mature trees where possible, replacing removed vegetation with native species, using pollinator-friendly natives, and creating or maintaining habitat connectivity.

This, I believe, should be a good model for local municipalities as well. Over the last several years members of Change Hampton and ReWild LI have approached our East Hampton Town Board to adopt just such measures. 

The good news is that our representatives have been receptive. Whatever you may think of the controversial new East Hampton Senior Center proposal, “sustainable” native landscaping is written into all the site planning documents. 

Natural is Beautiful

The Ross Barney architectural team clearly aspires to integrate the Senior Center building into the woodland landscape with minimal tree cutting, native meadowscapes, and in-kind replacement of native trees lost to construction. 

Because monocultural turf lawns have been largely replaced by native grassland species in the design, there will be no need for water-wasting irrigation systems or gas spewing, energy-wasteful lawn equipment. This is an admirable effort to mirror the building’s net-zero energy efficiency with climate-friendly sustainable landscaping.

It’s one thing to understand the importance of tropical rainforests in Africa and South America, but it is as important to recognize what we have lost at home, and what we can do in our own backyards to repair the harm. 

Attractive native gardens and mini-meadows are perfect alternatives to turf lawns. Grassland plantings on corporate landscapes can be both beautiful and environmentally responsible. And our local governments can support sustainable, green landcare on municipal properties. We can make it happen.


Leonard Green grew up on Long Island, spending his summers in the African-American summer community of Azurest, Sag Harbor. He now lives in East Hampton, and is a founding member of the environmental action group, Change Hampton. | www.changehampton.org

Climate Local Now is a partnership between the East End Beacon and two leaders of a grass-roots group inspired by the science of Project Drawdown to advance local climate solutions.

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The East End Beacon is your guide to social and environmental issues, arts & culture on the East End of Long Island.

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