For Earth Day: Protect Biodiversity in Our Community

The natural beauty of Albemarle County is especially breathtaking in the spring. We enjoy the parade of subtle changes that start with the pastel purple of blooming redbuds against the gray backdrop of the hardwood forest. Then on those warm, rainy evenings we are again awakened to the arrival of spring by a chorus of tree frogs. And we know spring has truly arrived when we hear the melodic call of the whip-poor-will.

This perfectly timed spring orchestra is a reflection of the interconnected and complex web of living organisms that build our ecosystems. It is this biodiversity—a wide variety of plants, animals and microorganisms that supports all life on earth—that provides stability and resilience to ecological systems.

The arrival of Earth Day (April 22 this year) provides a moment to consider how we depend on biodiversity for the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and for our general health and well-being. Biodiversity is the foundation of the natural beauty we love, and it is important for us to protect it. Fortunately, there are efforts underway to preserve and restore biodiversity in our community by way of county policies and through the efforts of local organizations.

Albemarle County is one of the first communities in the United States to address biodiversity protection in its planning documents. In fact, in 2003 Albemarle had one of only six regional protection plans in the country. So how did we get there? It all started with a group of citizens who formed a biodiversity working group. Members included planners, forestry professionals and scientists—wildlife biologists, ornithologists and botanists. Thanks to the efforts of this group, biodiversity protection language was added to the County’s comprehensive plan.

There was also a call to produce a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) and to form an official advisory committee. The Natural Heritage Committee (NHC) was subsequently created and is appointed by the Board of Supervisors with a mission to maintain and restore the County’s native biological diversity and provide a healthy environment for the residents of Albemarle County. The BAP was completed in June 2018. In July of 2019, the Comprehensive Plan was amended to adopt several recommendations of the BAP, and to make implementation of the plan a County goal. Implementation is currently underway through the County’s Natural Resources Program and with input provided by the Natural Heritage Committee.

The Biodiversity Action Plan includes 21 goals and 97 recommendations. It addresses threats to biodiversity such as forest fragmentation, invasive species, climate change and habitat loss. So where do we start? The County Natural Resources Manager and the NHC have created a work plan to prioritize projects based on the interests and expertise of the committee members, and in collaboration with other county departments like Parks and Recreation and with community organizations that support biodiversity protection like the Piedmont Master Gardeners, Rivanna Master Naturalists, Blue Ridge PRISM (Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management) and others.

For example, two of the key goals outlined in the BAP support biodiversity by encouraging use of native plants. To promote the use of locally native plants in the County’s developed areas, BAP Goal 19 calls for creating a list of approved plants for the different types of projects that require County approval, such as site plans, stormwater management facilities and stream buffers. It also sets a minimum target of 80% locally native species in all County projects and projects reviewed by County staff. Similarly, BAP Goal 8 calls for educating the public regarding the harm caused by invasive species and the benefits of using locally native plants for gardening and landscaping on private lands.

Greer Elementary School students and Piedmont Master Gardener volunteers prepare to plant natives in the school pollinator garden. Photo by Vicky Chen

The Piedmont Master Gardeners are supporting the Biodiversity Action Plan goals by participating in the Plant Virginia Natives campaign to encourage local retailers to provide native plants for sale and to share information with the community about the value and importance of native plants. PMG is also collaborating with community programs such as The Center at Belvedere, Habitat for Humanity and Albemarle County elementary schools (Crozet, Greer, Stony Point) to engage community members and students in planting native plant gardens to support wildlife, especially pollinators, butterflies and birds. These gardens will serve as living labs to observe and learn how native plants support biodiversity.

You might wonder what you can do in your own backyard to protect and restore biodiversity. Consider converting your landscape to become a part of the Homegrown National Park movement. Start by reducing the size of your lawn and begin adding a variety of native plants. Check out the PMG Native Plant webpage for help finding the right plant for the right place, and visit local garden centers that are participating in the Plant Northern Piedmont Natives (PNPN) campaign to purchase native plants for your yard. For more information about the PNPN campaign, check out Cathy Caldwell’s article in the April 2022 issue of The Garden Shed, the Piedmont Master Gardeners’ online newsletter. And give native plants a better chance to grow and thrive by learning to recognize and remove non-native, invasive plants. Blue Ridge PRISM is a great resource for information about invasive plants and recommended methods to eradicate or control them.

The NHC meets on the first Thursday of each month from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. These virtual meetings are open to all, and the public is encouraged to listen in to learn more.

Working together we can protect and restore the native biodiversity and natural beauty of our local community for future generations to enjoy.

Prepared by Christine Putnam, a Piedmont Master Gardener and chair of Albemarle County’s Natural Heritage Committee