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Douglas Owens-Pike

Owens-Pike has worked in the landcare industry for decades and is an advocate for introducing new species to areas to help those areas thrive.

Trees, plants and nature in general are depleting at a rapid pace and a local conservation group is alerting the public on what can be done about it.

The Chippewa County Land Conservancy organization held its annual meeting Tuesday night at Chippewa Valley Technical College’s Chippewa Falls campus, featuring a presentation by sustainable landcare trainer Douglas Owens-Pike. Owens-Pike’s presentation featured a plethora of information on the problems surrounding the inability for local trees and plants to flourish in this area and offered some potential solutions to help Chippewa Valley area lands thrive again.

Owens-Pike said the core problem is climate disruption in the Upper Midwest. The Chippewa Valley area typically experiences a longer growing season, warmer summer nights, increased tropical humidity, the occasional polar vortex, increased insect damage and stressed plants not adapting to the new climate.

He said possible action steps involve bringing similar genetic materials from further south and introducing them here and bringing new diversity from around North America to try and find potential survivors from around the country.

“It’s important to work with our local species that are well adapted to the conditions,” Owens-Pike said. “But we can also bring in species from further south so we can test and see if they’re going to do better than the local trees. We don’t know, it might be totally site specific.”

A few of the species currently adapting best to the rapidly changing climate include hackberry, hickory, Kentucky coffee tree, walnut, cottonwood and silver maple. A few other species of trees further south which have demonstrated to survive in the upper Midwest Owens-Pike said are black locust, gink, honey locust and sycamore.

In addition to wanting to introduce these new species of trees and plants to help the area lands thrive, in his book “Beautifully Sustainable: Freeing Yourself to Enjoy Your Landscape,” Owens-Pike said the increased health of area lands will set landowners at ease.

“The direction that I want to take us is how to get the right plants around your landscape, home or whatever setting it may be so that it requires less care,” Owens-Pike said. “If the plants are going to die because of extended drought then we need to be switching to plants that are more drought resistant.”

Chippewa County Land Conservancy Member Richard Smith said the work Owens-Pike is doing is important, as the climate in the Chippewa Valley and around the world will be drastically different decades down the line and this generation needs to adapt to survive.

“The research he’s doing on the kinds of tree species that are going to persist and thrive as we go forward is really important,” Smith said. “When you plant a petunia it doesn’t matter what the species or variety is because it’s going to be dead at the end of the season. But when you plant a tree you fully expect it to be there in 100 years. You’ve got to think about what the world is going to be like then.”

In theory, the introduction of new species would help the area thrive, but the idea has often not worked throughout history. Smith pointed to the example of the attempts to revitalize the Great Lakes, a situation which challenged the ethics of introducing non-native species and the problem of an endless cycle of invasive species being fed.

“All of this is intriguing, but it’s very ethically challenging,” Smith said. “Failed past attempts to revitalize places like the Great Lakes makes one wary of even walking down the road of trying to introduce weird stuff that doesn’t have a really strong track record of experimentation and history. It would be nice to sit on our ethics, but we’ve got to do something.”

Owens-Pike ended his presentation to the Chippewa County Land Conservancy by stating the problem with climate change is here and we need to do something about it to save our environment. He said he doesn’t have all of the answers, but helping revitalize nature is the first step to long term sustainability.

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