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Hilton Jr., B. 1994. Variety--The price of life: South Carolina biodiversity. South Carolina Wildlife 41(6):36-39.

(Note: The draft below was submitted to South Carolina Wildlife magazine; the article that actually appeared in print may have been edited.)

"The Earth is like a plane flying in the sky and the rivets that hold the plane together are its inhabiting species. Losing one or two rivets from the plane is not critical. However, rivets are popping out of the plane at an unprecedented rate. The impending result is obvious."-- Dr. Paul Ehrlich, biologist

Imagine having only one television station to watch, or listening to just one song played over and over again on the radio, or being able to buy clothes that come in only one style and color. Or imagine having a "choice" of just one model when you purchased a new car, and imagine if everyone were the same height and weight.

Imagine a society without different perspectives and ideas. It would be a society without growth or change. There would be no new inventions, no creative approaches to problem-solving, no intellectual or cultural improvements. If you can imagine a monotonous human society like this, you begin to get an idea of why something called "biodiversity" is so important in the world of nature.

"Biodiversity" is a straightforward term; it means a world in which there is a wide variety of living things, where growth and change constantly occur. If a place is biologically diverse, it supports many different kinds of organisms, whether plant or animal, fungus or bacterium.

In a sense, a biodiverse locale would not be "boring" to visit. Just as a diversity of music, books, TV shows, and encounters with other people entertain and broaden us as individuals, a biologically diverse location is filled with varied organisms and phenomena to learn from and observe.

But biodiversity isn't important just so the human observer won't be bored. Without biodiversity, Earth would be a vastly different and--many ecologists say--unbalanced, dysfunctional, unhealthy place. Without biological diversity and constant interaction between different kinds of living things, the natural world we know--like the boring human society described above--might stagnate and cease to exist at all.

In South Carolina, a small 40-acre woodlot that is biologically diverse may support 70 kinds of trees and shrubs, three dozen species of breeding birds, several kinds of wild mammals and reptiles, a sizable assortment of wildflowers and grasses, various mosses and ferns, plentiful spiders and butterflies, and nearly limitless soil bacteria and fungi. This is true biodiversity, and biodiversity also implies that each of these species of organisms occurs in sufficient numbers to maintain its population.

One of the quickest ways to eliminate biodiversity is to cut down the predominant plant community in a given area. For example, removing all the trees from our Carolina woodlot would eliminate habitat needed by other organisms that occur there naturally. Here in the Palmetto State, plowing up natural grasslands, defoliating ocean side dunes, or destroying fencerows around an old farm also remove locally dominant vegetation and greatly diminish biodiversity. Over time, disturbed habitats may regenerate themselves, but rare or delicate flora and fauna may be unable to repopulate an area and can be lost forever.

Some human endeavors are simply incompatible with biodiversity. Draining a bottomland swamp and replacing it with a mall and parking lot limits the diversity of the area to birds such as House Sparrows and European Starlings, to mammals such as Norway rats, and to such insects as cockroaches. For private landowners, even putting in a highly maintained lawn greatly reduces biodiversity; mowers and chemicals may make the front yard lush and green, but what results is an unnatural, non-diverse assemblage of a few species of grasses and an occasional American Robin looking for an earthworm that probably isn't there.

In these modern times, the difficulty in maintaining biodiversity is finding the balance between human activity and the needs of organisms in the natural world. Within South Carolina, this challenge falls in large part to the Department of Natural Resources and especially to the Nongame and Heritage Trust Program. Nongame chief Tom Kohlsaat has placed a strong emphasis on maintaining biodiversity on public lands in the state, and he sees spreading the word about the importance of biological diversity as one of his agency's most important goals.

"On the very highest level," Kohlsaat says, "we need to maintain biodiversity in South Carolina and the rest of the world simply because it's the right thing to do. We're each linked to all the habitats and organisms in the state in ways we don't understand, and if we continue to destroy or eliminate what we have, we may upset the balance so badly that it can't be fixed."

Kohlsaat hopes his agency can educate the state's residents, governments, and businesses about the importance of biodiversity so that all future development and planning will be environmentally sensitive. "We want to be to the point," Kohlsaat says, "where we're not just reacting to building permits in the 'property vs. environment' mode to decide what's important. In fact, we're already getting into partnerships in which we work with local and state governments to find ways people can make a living off the land without destroying biodiversity."

According to Kohlsaat, the best way to protect individual species is to protect their habitats, and not just in small segments. "A good example of how things should work is the Greenville Watershed, an expansive 30,000-acre project in which many different players were involved. Personnel from the state wildlife department, the City of Greenville, The Nature Conservancy, and Naturaland Trust all played important roles. Experts from different disciplines assessed the biota and determined that protecting the entire watershed was the best way to meet Greenville's long-term water needs. In short, they found it was cheaper to protect the whole 30,000-acre watershed than sell it off and build a new filter plant, so the project showed that maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem structure and function was at the same time a very wise business decision."

Kohlsaat also cites the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker as an example of the "new approach" to maintaining biodiversity. Previously, wildlife managers protected individual nest trees in the South Carolina coastal plain in the hope the woodpecker would be able to maintain its numbers. Now "we're looking at whole landscapes," Kohlsaat says, "and trying to provide incentives for land owners to improve and restore the entire longleaf pine ecosystem so that we enable the birds take care of themselves."

Protecting a large-scale habitat so that Red-cockaded Woodpeckers can "take care of themselves" indicates a new trend in endangered species protection. Historically, we have intensively managed individual organisms without always understanding how they fit into the big picture; most ecologists believe that no matter how long we study a particular habitat or ecosystem, we may NEVER comprehend how all the parts of the puzzle interact. What is apparent is that if we begin to lose the pieces, pretty soon the puzzle falls apart, and it's difficult to predict which pieces might be most critical.

Humans once insisted that "critical resources" were those that had "extrinsic value" and were important primarily for economic reasons: A forest was valuable only because it sheltered deer that could be hunted for food or because it provided lumber that could be sold to build houses. However, in a modern ecosystem approach, land managers look not only at the economic value of a resource, but also at "intrinsic value" that does not refer to usefulness to humans. Under traditional management, the primary beneficiaries were always human beings, but under a philosophy of biological diversity, all species--humans included--stand to benefit.

One argument frequently used for protecting rain forests has been that one never knows when some tropical plant that goes extinct will take with it a potential cure for cancer. Many "miracle cures" used by 20th century physicians are indeed descended from herbal cures discovered ages ago by native peoples of the rain forest. Protecting tropical habitats for reasons such as this are therefore valid, but most ecologists say it is time our worldwide philosophy shifted toward protecting the global habitat for its own sake.

As pieces of the puzzle, the temperate forests of Europe and Asia, the deserts of the American Southwest, the world's oceans, and our little 40-acre South Carolina woodlot are no more or less important than South America's rain forests. Whether we want to admit it or not, human society is also just one of the pieces in the complex master ecosystem we call Mother Earth. We humans have often seemed intent on gathering up the other pieces for our own short-term uses, but it's becoming more and more apparent that all or most of those pieces need to be in place if the planet is to function properly.

Here in South Carolina, as elsewhere, restoring and protecting biodiversity is the logical way to help insure that Mother Earth stays healthy so humans and all other species will survive. Without biodiversity and a healthy planet, EVERY organism is in trouble because--in the words of the Sierra Club--"There's no place else to go!"

Bill Hilton Jr. is a science education consultant, writer, naturalist, and Macintosh computer enthusiast who lives in York, South Carolina. He has graduate degrees in education and ecology and behavioral biology.

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