Hello, iNaturalist Forum participants.
I’m new to iNaturalist, but excited to harness its potential. I need your help; in a nutshell, I tried to create a Place in iNaturalist, and it was rejected. I am writing to you today to request your guidance and help for a project. The case for the creation of this place in iNaturalist is below. Thank you in advance for taking the time to read my plea, and for responding.
A case for creating Ecoregion places in iNaturalist
The concept of “native” vs. exotic plants has been coming to the forefront of people’s minds more and more in recent years, as people realize that most plants with which they are familiar in the built environment, right down to their lawn grass, and nearly every plant sold in Big Box stores, are not native to the Americas and do not benefit the local ecosystem at all. Ecosystem support starts with native plants that are, in turn, utilized by the local insects that co-evolved with them, which are, in turn, utilized by other native fauna. This truth has been helped along by luminaries such as Benjamin Vogt and Doug Tallamy, and many advocacy and education groups such as Wild Ones, Southern Grassland Institute, and so many more. The word is finally getting out that ecosystems are in trouble, nationwide, and direct action is now required to prevent ecosystem collapse in many places. Many average property owners want to help, but good guidance and “how to” information is lacking in many places. They don’t know where to start, and many give up.
In diving deeper into the concept of “native,” many are coming to realize that “from the United States” is not good enough for providing true ecosystem support locally. Some “natives” are really just “less exotics” when placed in your yard; “natives” are the plants that truly support ecosystems, as I’m sure you are aware, but LOCALLY NATIVE plants are the very best for ecosystem support, experts agree.
Getting the public to buy into the concept of locally native, and to participate, is largely dependent on education and a consistent message. The general public is “native curious,” but people generally do not have a good way to recognize which “native” plants are “best” to plant in their yards for local wildlife value. They do not have any idea where they could acquire them; people are used to simply going to a Big Box store and buying plants. Also, people can be quick to turn off to the discussion when there are “differences of opinion” on what is “best”. Adding to this problem, learning about native plants can be overwhelming and exhausting. For best acceptance of the concept of localized planting for ecosystems, it is a requirement that the decision making and acquisition of plants simply be easier. For ecology’s sake, it would be best if the information that is disseminated is as correct as possible for the individual’s ecosystem. But how does one define the “local ecosystem” for a particular property, and then identify and purchase plants from that local ecosystem?
I faced this issue firsthand when I started a full ecological restoration of my residential yard last year. I bought plants at the local University plant sale marked “native” and later discovered that they are native to the state, but native to the opposite end of my very wide state; they were not native to my area at all. I purchased a “highly endangered” native, only to find out its native range is a very small spot in another state, far to the south of my city. I also purchased “nativars”, which I later discovered often do not have much value for wildlife because they are significantly different than the straight species. Finally, I purchased seeds from a well-known, respected native seed provider; while the species are, by most accounts, correct for my area, the individual plants that provided the seeds were adapted to a place many states to the northwest of my city - it is possible that the plants grown from that seed might not support my local ecosystem as well, as a result, or might not thrive in my local conditions.
These issues drove me to want to restore my property to exactly what ought to be in my location, using plants that are already locally adapted. As you can imagine, I discovered that there is virtually no information available that provides this information. There are historical records of plant collections, but they are cataloged by political boundaries. Thus evidence of a particular plant might have been collected in a certain spot in my county 100 years ago, and thus that plant is marked “native” to my county, but it is very possible that that plant was actually found in a different “ecoregion” from that of my property, which brings me to the concept of “ecoregions.”
Based on the exceptional work of J.M. Omernik, the EPA established Ecoregions which are likely to have common flora and fauna. The EPA says:
Ecoregions are identified by analyzing the patterns and composition of biotic and abiotic phenomena that affect or reflect differences in ecosystem quality and integrity (Omernik 1987, 1995). These phenomena include geology, landforms, soils, vegetation, climate, land use, wildlife, and hydrology.
These boundaries are not political in nature, nor are they traditional places with names. They can be right next to each other, in the same political boundary, but highly distinct. Ecoregions are the reason there can be no “recipes” for planting natives for ecosystem support that will work in all places.
I would argue that Ecoregion Level IV boundaries are important enough that they should be part of the fabric of iNaturalist and not a project or place at all. I understand that may not be easy or realistic, but I hope to convince iNaturalist to take up this issue.
Why try to isolate observations by Ecoregion? Because:
- it will provide a highly nuanced understanding of local ecosystems
- it will become obvious what organisms are highly associated with that Ecoregion, and perhaps are NOT associated with immediately adjacent Ecoregions, or are less so
- it will help us to directly begin to restore properties within the Ecoregion with a level of exactness not currently available to the public
- the floral and faunal composition of an Ecoregion will be observable over time, which can inform on climate change, habitat loss, and the need for informed restoration
- determining what exotics are found in an Ecoregion can lead to the development of best practices for their eradication in the Ecoregion, and open the door to development of policies and incentives for their reduction
- knowing the location of seed-bearing populations of identified natives is a valuable resource for propagating local ecotypes rather than shipping in seed and seedlings from elsewhere (which is currently the most utilized method.) As stated above, seed from outside the Ecoregion is derived from plants that are not as well adapted as those in local populations, and may even have characteristics that make the plants less valuable or, potentially, not valuable at all, to local fauna
- Seed from local populations can be aggregated before dissemination, leading to more genetic diversity in local populations, and thus, supportive of the ability to adapt as conditions change
- Groups that “run in front of the bulldozer” to save native plants, and then work to re-home them, could collect the plant in its original position in iNaturalist, and then be able to offer plant tags that share its original conditions and Ecoregion profile, resulting in better placements and a higher survival rate for their efforts
- All of the above will make it easier to start localized native plant nurseries that provide the best plant options for the Ecoregion
- Having nurseries that provide appropriate materials on a large scale will help municipalities make appropriate plantings on public land that are highly likely to survive without care, even in the harshest environments.
- Having local nurseries that can make it obvious that plants are locally native, sourced from local seed, will allow members of the public to choose plants that directly benefit the local ecosystem.
- Having detailed knowledge about the plants of the local ecosystem and the ability to direct the public to local nurseries that provide this plant material will allow groups like Wild Ones to develop planting plans that work for the Ecoregion.
- Having a reliable local nursery that can provide locally-derived planting material on demand will allow for the development of local native landscaping businesses that thrive because their plantings, by and large, succeed.
- The more plantings of locally-derived plants that succeed, the greater the support for local ecosystems.
The list of benefits is likely longer than this.
In the interest of providing clarity on the subject, I have devised The 67f Project. I will be giving a talk on this project at Seed Savers Exchange 43rd Annual Conference July 21 or 22, 2023 (to be held virtually), so I’d love it if I could present it as I have fully envisioned it. For that, I will need your help.
The 67f Project focuses on Ecoregion 67f, which is mostly found in East Tennessee, near the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, and which is commonly referred to as “Ridge and Valley” (although true ridgetops are a different Level IV Ecoregion altogether.) A large portion of Knox County, TN (though not all of it) is in Ecoregion 67f. My property is found in this Ecoregion.
I started the project not knowing about the collection power of iNaturalist. I created a spreadsheet, and to it I added plants that were volunteers on my property, were verifiable as known to be native to my portion of the state, and did not seem to have parent sources that appeared to be cultivated. These factors made it very likely that the plant was truly native to my property.
I verified that an interested friend’s property was also in the same Ecoregion, and she contributed information on the volunteer natives she observed in her yard. Through this we discovered that the collection system was cumbersome, and it was time-consuming to make folders for species photos and associate them with the records.
I announced the launch of The 67f Project at the most recent meeting of our local Wild Ones chapter (of which I am now Vice-President.) One of the attendees said “are you using iNaturalist?” I misunderstood, and thought she was referring to how we were verifying that plants were native, and replied that I personally don’t use it because I find it clunky and that the results are dubious. (I now see that the tool has come a long way since my last regular use of it, and I don’t find the website clunky; I will say that the app is not as good as the web version.)
This set me on the path of exploring iNaturalist, and who was using it in our region. That’s when I discovered Will Kuhn and his use of iNaturalist as a way to encourage citizen science in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as part of Discover Life in America. Will told me that iNaturalist was definitely the way to go to capture the data about native plants in Ecoregion 67f. He created a KML for me, based on the EPA’s map, which I appreciated.
Upon trying to upload the KML and create the place Ecoregion 67f, I received the error “There were problems importing that place: Place geometry contains too many observations to import, Place geometry can’t be blank.” In reading on this Forum, I see that having a lot of pre-existing observations in a new place bogs down the site and has, therefore, been restricted to some extent. I do not know what to do next, so I have turned to this Forum for guidance.
Please let me know what you think of my Ecoregion pilot project, which I think would be highly replicable if successful.
If I am already duplicating something you already have in place, I would love to be directed to the place I should start. I appreciate any other thoughts you might have that would help me move forward with developing a way to harness knowledge to benefit the ecosystem in my Ecoregion.
Regina Santore, Vice-President
Wild Ones, Smoky Mountains Chapter