Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
Marking A Watershed Moment by Katherine Ellison - Summer 2003
Jack McShane retired from New York City's police force 20 years ago. Today, he patrols in the woods. McShane and his wife have made their home on a 235-acre plot forested with native maples, beech, birch, and ash in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains - "my piece of Shangri-La," as he calls it. Now 65, McShane has learned how to manage his land with low-impact techniques, hoping one day to sell "sustainable" timber to help pay his property taxes. "I'm stewarding the land," he says. "My woods benefit, and I benefit."
Benefiting as well are some 9.5 million thirsty New York City residents. For decades, these urbanites have relied on the Catskill region's 2,000-square-mile forested landscape to purify their drinking water, a liquid of such exceptional quality that it has won taste awards and been credited with putting the pizzazz in the Big Apple's bagels and pizza. The area's trees and creek-side plants have provided this valuable service for free, cleansing the water as it sifts through roots and soil.
The system's remarkable efficiency is based on a simple principle: Healthy landscapes maintain healthy people and other forms of life. And the watershed's benefits don't stop with simple water-purification. The forest canopy and diverse groups of plants, plus their expansive root system underground, all help store and stabilize drinking supplies so rainfall and snowmelt don't run off unchecked into creeks, streams and rivers, sometimes creating floods. The ecosystem also offers habitat for wildlife, including pollinators; prevents soil erosion; and graces the region with remarkable scenic beauty.
Until recently, New Yorkers took this priceless asset for granted, with many city dwellers unaware, for instance, that the water they drink begins its life as rain and snow on mountaintops as far as 125 miles away. Yet over the past few years, they've discovered, as have many of the rest of us, the risk to our life-support systems from increasing development and pollution in our watersheds.
By the late 1980s, Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency had started to react to perceived threats to surface water supplies - lakes and reservoirs - from human encroachments in the watersheds. About 180 million people - two-thirds of the U.S. population - depend on such systems rather than groundwater. But urban sprawl, second homes, farms, new golf courses and the like are filling up land that historically has been part of the Earth's self-regulating system. Pesticides and sewage have been running into streams, overloading the plants' water-processing capacity, threatening the system with breakdown.