Commentary: Fight another quieter crisis right in your backyard

By Sen. Stephanie Hansen

Today marks 50 years since the first Earth Day in 1970 – a day that in many ways signifies the beginning of the movement for environmental protections. In those days, when DDT and other pesticides were ubiquitous, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was still catching on fire, and there were few controls on air pollution, Earth Day provided a glimmer of hope that things could change. As Rachel Carson warned us about an impending Silent Spring, millions of people joined together to start a movement that led to the Clean Air Act (1963), the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), the Clean Water Act (1977), and federal Superfund laws (1980).

It is a history worth celebrating on this special anniversary and, as so many of us find ourselves stuck at home staring out at our yards and neighborhoods, it couldn’t come at a better time.

Sen. Stephanie Hansen

There are new challenges on the horizon today. And, while you undoubtedly know about climate change, the steady march back towards a silent spring is happening in our backyards.

In a short span of time, entire species of fish, reptiles, plants, and birds have disappeared from our state. As research from University of Delaware’s Doug Tallamy has shown, we have lost nearly a third of our native reptiles and amphibian species, 20% of our native fish species, 40% of all native plant species, and 41% of native bird species that depend on forest cover. Many of the remaining bird populations have been reduced by half – proof that our noticeably quieter spring mornings aren’t a figment of your imagination. These are species that are dying out or leaving our area and if we don’t act now, they will never come back.

The drivers of our local extinctions are habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, climate change, and invasive species. Unlike our native species and even many non-native plants and animals, invasive species are those that are especially prolific, displace native plants and animals, and cause economic or environmental harm.

These invasive plants, insects, fish, and other organisms are introduced into our ecosystem in many ways, but our most problematic invasive plants were brought here because they have a “nice look” and are relatively insect-free. But, since arriving, these plants with pretty leaves or flowers – think European privet, English ivy, Japanese barberry, Burning bush, various honeysuckles, multiflora rose, periwinkle, Chinese wisteria, and of course the infamous Bradford pear – have begun a rapid takeover of every green space we have left.

Research by the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Delaware has found that almost 60% of the plants in our small forested areas are invasive species that escaped from nearby yards and landscapes. And since native plants form the foundation of our food chain, this quick takeover means less food for birds, insects, and small mammals to eat. A full 90% of the insects that support our ecosystems depend specifically on native species for survival. When those native plants are replaced by “pest free” invasives, insects and all the other animals above them on the food chain start to starve or disappear as well.

The good news is we can fight back with your help.

Shortly after joining the Delaware State Senate, I led the effort to form a task force of experts from our environmental, business, academic, and governmental communities to study the issue. Over the next three years, that group published a detailed report (read here), formed the Delaware Native Species Commission to implement the 80+ recommendations of the task force, and just this year the Senate voted unanimously to ban the sale of invasive species in Delaware starting in 2022.

But no action we take in Dover will solve the problem if we don’t get homeowners, developers, gardeners, educators, and landowners on board. We know this because, as we met, countless Delawareans continued to unknowingly plant more invasive species, accelerating the rate at which Delaware’s ecosystems began to crumble and confirming that the first and most important step in undoing this damage is in the hands of our neighbors.

In today’s suburbanized landscape, what you do in your yard has a direct effect on our overall environmental health and sustainability. Calls for action on climate change, green energy, and other environmental topics will and must continue, but the fight against invasive species is one that you can join in an impactful way.

Help us spread the word. Check the Delaware Invasive Species Council’s list of invasive species and uproot the invaders where you find them. Look up and plant native plants. Talk to your local garden store about selling natives instead of invasives. Better yet – have them keep a list handy and educate their customers.

Rest assured, this is about far more than just how many birds you hear in the morning and how many butterflies land in your garden in the afternoon. Each species that disappears is another block pulled from our ecological pyramid, another unknown risk that we leave to our children.

We know what we need to do – we’ve done it before. Armed with this knowledge (and maybe a garden trowel or two), you can help restore ecological balance to our Delaware environment.

Sen. Stephanie Hansen has been a practicing environmental attorney in Delaware since 2001. Prior to practicing law, she served as an environmental scientist/hydrologist with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. She is the vice-chair on the Senate Environmental & Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Agriculture Committee. She represents Senate District 10 and lives in Middletown.