KEEN Connects: Healthy Communities Have Ecological Integrity
In the Kittitas Valley, we are losing our ecological services. Our native pollinators are in decline, our soils are becoming compacted and alkaline, and we have seasonal soil erosion and flooding. Exotic invasive plants such as cheat grass and knapweed have invaded our valley. Catastrophic forest fires scorch the hillsides nearly every summer; climate change predictions show them growing ever larger and more frequent. Our creeks and rivers have little or no large-woody-debris, they lack sinuosity, and we have only museum stocks left of our historical salmon runs. Several keystone species are listed as threatened or endangered in Kittitas County (including grey wolf, lynx, sage grouse, steelhead, the shrub-steppe habitat, and Ute ladies’ tresses). In nearby Douglas County the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit went extinct in 2008. Our lives and health are being compromised as central Washington becomes ecologically depauperaute.
Healthy communities have healthy environments. Healthy environments provide ecological services. Ecological services are the processes by which the environment produces resources that we often take for granted, such as clean water, productive forests, habitat for fisheries, and pollination of native and agricultural plants. Beyond the production of resources, ecological services also include such things as the recycling of nutrients, regulation of microclimates, flood control, suppression of undesirable organisms, and detoxification of chemicals and waste.
Because humans are included in ecosystems, we need to recognize that healthy environments are relevant to public health policy and practice. In 1986, the World Health Organization recognized that “the fundamental conditions and resources for health are peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable ecosystem, sustainable resources, social justice and equity”. A ‘stable ecosystem’ is thus both a condition and a resource for human health and well-being.
Our medical doctors and public health administrators can and should help make sure we have ecological integrity. Human health ultimately depends upon the availability of fresh water, clean air, uncontaminated foods and renewable fuel and energy resources. Significant health impacts can occur if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet our needs.
There is a direct correlation between our physical and social well-being and intact, functional ecosystems. Without ecological integrity, our community health is impoverished.
We do not have to take the depletion of ecological integrity lying down. We can proactively reverse, correct, and improve through education, connecting with nature, and engaging with community. The question we should ask is, ‘Do we want to hand over an ecologically insolvent landscape to our children’? I think the answer is ‘no’.
Without these proactive connections, our children are at risk of becoming ‘ecologically’ illiterate. They can read and write, but do not know the common plants and animals in their surrounding valley. We live in the “Evergreen State” yet most of our students cannot identify the five most common conifers found in our surrounding forests. If we do not know what we have, how can we protect it or value it? We know a lot about the connections between ecosystem health and the health and well-being of people. Our challenge is to better understand this connection and integrate it more deeply it into our daily lives.
To regain our ecosystem services, support ecological stability, improve public health, and actively shape our future, we need to work together to become more ecologically literate. Public policy should take into account ecological health and ecological literacy.
KEEN seeks to engage with our public health and medical community. We want to discuss and address issues such as; how land use, transportation patterns and systems, energy use, food production and distribution, water use, and population growth contribute to climate change, ecosystem degradation, species extinctions and biodiversity losses, and how these, in turn, threaten human health on local, regional and global scales. We need to work together to educate and engage because we know that healthy communities have ecological integrity.
Jerry Scoville is KEEN’s Board Fundraising Chair. He is an Adjunct Professor and Research Associate at Central Washington University. Prior to moving to Ellensburg, Jerry was associated with Round River Conservation Studies for 13 years, and worked with Cheetah Conservation Fund, Save The Rhino Trust, Turner Foundation, American Museum of Natural History, QQS Projects Society, and Heiltsuk’s Big House Society. Jerry has had a lifelong interest in avian ecology and evolution.
KEEN Connects is a monthly column produced by Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) board members and volunteers. KEEN’s focus is on creating an ecologically and environmentally literate citizenry who connect and engage with their surroundings. Our goals include establishing the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center, restoring native habitats at Helen McCabe Park, and helping our community make lifestyle and behavioral decisions that support the ecological integrity of our region. You can find out more about KEEN at www.ycic.org