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Q&A: ‘We Only Have One Planet Earth’ Warns Environmentalist Daniela Shebitz, Ph.D.

Daniela Shebitz, Ph.D., is executive director of the School of Environmental and Sustainability Sciences at Kean University. She has conducted research and published on topics ranging from restoration ecology to medicinal botany.

Q. We’ve seen the images on TV of wildfires raging in Australia and Northern California. Are wildfires becoming worse overall, and if so, what is the cause?

We’ve all been traumatized by watching beautiful environments go up in flames. It’s important to understand that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem in much of our world. Places like Australia, California and even New Jersey evolved with low-intensity fires throughout history that either happened naturally or were managed by indigenous people. But after Europeans settled, in both Australia and the United States, they changed land management practices and suppressed fires instead of letting them happen. All the trees that would have naturally died accumulated as debris, so when fires do happen, they burn very hot and out of control. 

The second factor is that climate change is causing the environment to become very hot and dry. When you add hot and dry conditions to brush and debris that has accumulated more than it should have, conditions can cause fires so intense they are impossible to contain. Not only is it getting hotter and drier, in many areas that would have snowpack, like California, if it’s not cold enough for snow to accumulate and then melt in summer, you don’t have that feed of water to moisten the soil and lessen the severity of fires. A lot of water is also being diverted from rivers, aquifers and reservoirs. With those conditions, you’ll see no way to limit the spread of wildfires. That’s happening throughout the world.

Q. What are the long-term effects of fire on our ecosystem?

Fire is important to the ecosystem. Many natural areas would not be that way if they hadn’t evolved with fires. The Pine Barrens, for example, have an amazing diversity of plants that rely on frequent low-intensity fires that recycle nutrients, eliminate competition, and allow sunlight to reach seedlings on the forest floor. The problem with the fires we’re seeing today is they’re so intense and hot. When fire becomes so intense, it burns through organic material in the soil and leaves bare mineral soils. There are no nutrients left, no seeds left, nothing left to sprout. 

Q. Are there ways to get this under control? Are there better ways to manage and control fires in the wild?

There are ways we can start to get fire regimes back to where they were. In Australia, a lot of attention is turning toward the Aboriginal people, who managed land through human-made burning for 50,000 years. They read the landscape and knew exactly when to burn. If we could rely more on traditional knowledge, there is hope. We still have people who hold that traditional knowledge here in the U.S. as well. Throughout North America, a lot of the forest service now sets fires, instead of just putting them out. They are learning here as well.

Q. Huge numbers of animals and species have died in fires in Australia. What effect does that have on the world overall?

It is heart-wrenching to think of the number of species lost in Australia. Estimates are at a billion animals, and that means birds and mammals and amphibians. That’s not taking into account the enormous number of insects. Many people might care less about insects, but they are the basis of the food web in Australia and throughout the world. We’re hearing the world is experiencing an insect apocalypse. There’s been a massive die-off of insects worldwide. Without insects, there’s not going to be nutrients for all those critters who eat insects to get the energy they need. So even if they didn’t die in the fire directly, when they recover they very likely won’t have food. It’s incredible to even think about what that means for the greater ecosystem. Everything is connected. I am incredibly fearful we will continue to lose animals and species. I think forests will return in areas that had great forests, but species assemblages will be very different. That could have been avoided.

Q. How is biodiversity impacted by land management practices? Can you explain what is happening in general, and in New Jersey?

Biodiversity means diversity of life. It includes plants, animals, and things like fungi in soil or insects we might not notice. They all work together in concert. Humans are part of the ecosystem, and there are many ways we can foster biodiversity, like managing human-set fires. But if we look at ourselves as separate from and dominating the ecosystem, land management can be very unsustainable.

In New Jersey, where we are the most densely populated state, we’re managing things in a way that is very human-centered if we convert wetlands to housing developments or clear-cut forests. We’re going down a dangerous path when we think we don’t have to worry about wetlands, forests, grasslands and prairies. By prioritizing ourselves we negatively affect native biodiversity.

Q. How do land management practices affect natural disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey?

Wetlands are incredibly important systems. They act as sponges that can hold onto an enormous amount of water. They’re also carbon sinks, where carbon can accumulate for thousands of years. When we destroy wetlands, we allow carbon to go away, and carbon released to the atmosphere contributes to climate change. We also make it hard for stormwater to find places to go.  

When we mismanage vital ecosystems, they’re not there to help withstand environmental disasters such as hurricanes. The trees that held soil against erosion are gone. The wetlands are gone, so stormwater has no place to go but in our basements. In New Jersey, I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know of a forest that’s gone or a farm that’s been converted to a housing development. Poor land management is risky and short-sighted in the sense that, we get immediate gain at the expense of long-term consequences.

Q. But can government, organizations or individuals help?

There is hope. I am the last person who will give up hope. Every single person should be prioritizing the environment, there are many personal steps you can take and convince others to take. The first is vote. Vote for people who care about the well-being of the environment and society.

The second is take personal action in your daily lives. Eat less meat, which has enormous consequences with carbon emissions, water and land use. Reduce what you need. We’ve put too much emphasis on recycling, we have to shift to just reducing what we use. Use a reusable water bottle instead of disposables. Don’t buy five shirts if you don’t need them, just buy the one you do. Really pay attention to every decision you make.

On a broader scale, there is a movement to prioritizing restoration. There’s a big emphasis on recognizing the importance of planting trees, and in New Jersey, a lot of energy is going into coastal resilience, like rebuilding dunes. How do we make our coastlines and environments more resilient to climate change? The field of restoration ecology is becoming increasingly important.

Q. One reason the California fires and the hurricanes along the East Coast had such impact is that housing construction has occurred in formerly remote areas. Should we stop building in harm’s way?

If you ever want to panic, look at the clock of the world’s population. We’re growing exponentially. There are more than 7.7 billion people on this planet. In 1975, it was 4 billion. If all these people want huge homes, or to be right on the coast, ecosystems will give way to housing developments. Then when an environmental disaster happens, there’s nothing to buffer homes from tragedy. 

We need to think wiser. There’s a push to get closer to urban centers which is great, but we have to be careful there, too. High-density living is good, but it has to be smart high-density development. We have to stop eliminating wetlands or cutting down forests. We need to think wisely about where to put all these people. We only have one planet Earth. 

Q. Shifting topics for one last question -- you teach a class on medicinal botany. What is that? Is it a growing trend?

Medicinal botany is looking at plants used as medicine, not just when you’re sick, but also to help you remain healthy. Many people throughout civilization have lived closer to resources and the earth, and used plants around them for medicine. A lot of plants in the forest have natural compounds that fight bacteria or the common cold. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. or even a college course, there are many resources. Just explore the forest and bring books with you. We could benefit tremendously by understanding how traditional medicines can help our ailments.