TOOMEY: More is better, of course, when it comes to biodiversity. But counting the variety of life found in a region can require lots of people power. Massachusetts is the first state in the country to recruit thousands of volunteers to go out and count as many different species of plants and animals they can find, and in doing so, help get a reading on the state of the state's environment. Pippin Ross has our story.
ROSS: Armed with butterfly nets and binoculars, about 200 people gather in a pasture surrounded by forest. They're receiving marching orders for a three-hour foray into the woods.
MAN: There had been quite a few reports of a mother bear and cubs in the neighborhood. So be alert. She'll probably stay the hell from us, but pay attention.
ROSS: Although there's a chance the group will encounter a large critter or two, their attention will be focused on much tinier plants and animals.
MAN: For those who would like to do insects or mainly dragon flies, bees, wasps, butterflies, can you remain behind here?
ROSS: This trek is one of hundreds that took place during three Biodiversity Days, an all volunteer effort to count the flora and fauna of Massachusetts. Bob Durand is the secretary of the state's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.
DURAND: For me, this is a great way to reconnect people to the natural world. At the same time, collect all the data, which we're doing, and we're developing an enhanced bio-map for the state of Massachusetts that will identify critical habitat so that we can use our land protection program and provide long term protection.
ROSS: The state recently set a goal to protect 200,000 acres of open space by 2010. The information gathered during Biodiversity Days will be used to determine which tracts will be preserved.
MAN: That was a ...
WOMAN: Mm-hmm. And this?
PIPPIN ROSS: Convincing the flak-jacketed, bird guide bearing crowd who have come to this woodsy hillside that they need to care about biodiversity is a bit like preaching to the choir. Most are avid amateur naturalists with a passion for botanic names and devotion to the several well-known naturalists who lent their support to the cause. Peter Alden is the author if 14 books, including several Audobon bird watching guides.
(Bird song in background.)
ALDEN: So we listen now. We're going to hear a bird that sings 20,000 times a day. Its name is the red eyed veri. It goes "Chureep, churoop." And the other bird in the background is the eastern wood peewee, which comes in from the Amazon. Listen.
ROSS: In the company of someone like naturalist Noble Proctor, a biologist at Southern Connecticut State University, combing through a pile of leaves and dirt is like going on safari.
PROCTOR: In here there will be pseudo-scorpions, there will be mites, there will be spiders. Within six square feet, you could do 200 species with no problem at all.
ROSS: Still, the state has far fewer species than it did just a decade ago. What scares Proctor and the other naturalists, more than dwindling numbers, is the invasion of more aggressive species.
PROCTOR: So we have fewer species of birds, but within them are cowbirds and grackles, and we may have a thousand times as many of those. And so you can still see the same number of species, but the total numbers are fewer.
ROSS: These invasives can snuff out variety, resulting in an unhealthy ecosystem dominated by just a few species.
MAN: Well, the nice thing with these, when you look at the land....
ROSS: After digging and plucking minuscule bugs and beatles, larvae and lichen, the group gathered at a hilltop, standing beside sand dunes erected by Allegheny mountain building ants. Renowned author and ant expert E.O. Wilson gives a riveting description of the complex, highly socialized insects.
WILSON: In Switzerland, a similar ant is used by the mountaineers as a compass. You can always tell where south is.
ROSS: Wilson says if development continues at its current rate -- 44 acres of open space are being lost in Massachusetts each day -- delicate ecosystems dating back millions of years won't survive the next 100. The trick, he says, is convincing people there's economic value to conservation.
WILSON: The natural ecosystems of the world provide us some 33 trillion -- trillion --dollars' worth of free services like control and cleansing of the water supply. Maintaining the richness of soil and the very air we breathe, of course, is vital. Thirty-three trillion every year. And they give it to us free.
ROSS: If the turnout for Massachusetts' second annual Biodiversity Days is any indication, people are beginning to see a connection between the quality of life and healthy ecosystems. The number of volunteers tripled from last year, and twice as many cities and towns participated in the species count. It's now up to the Office of Environmental Affairs to compile the data to get an idea of how many plants and animals share the state with its residents. For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross in Groton, Massachusetts.
(Music up and under)
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