Brian Moench and Heather Dove: Salt Lake City needs a natural makeover

Destruction of natural landscapes will only encourage the growth of mosquito and tick populations.

(Adrienne Grunwald | The New York Times) Pawel Pieluszyński, a gardener at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York, on a butterfly-tagging mission on Sept. 26, 2021. New York is now “the greenest big city on earth,” one naturalist says.

Forty years before “extreme makeover” became reality TV, New York City launched an initiative to turn NYC, of all places, into “the greenest city on earth,” by cleaning up its natural habitat including its parks, waterways, forests and wetlands. The result has been far better than reality TV.

“You are seeing miraculous occurrences of wildlife right in the middle of the city,” said Adrian Benepe, the president of Brooklyn Botanic Garden. New York City wildlife now includes bald eagles, osprey, egrets, bats, beavers, bobcat, mink, foxes, a coyote in Central Park, a seal, endangered sea turtles, American eels, endangered butterflies, rare native bees, baby damselflies and exotic insects not seen for decades in the area, and even wild blueberries.

How did NYC accomplish this extreme, natural makeover? Wildlife habitat restoration, planting native trees, wildflowers and grasses, and, perhaps most importantly, banning pesticides.

Rebecca McMackin, the director of horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park told The New York Times that, said, “‘cities can provide refuge for animals that can’t survive in rural and suburban areas,’ largely because of heavy pesticide use on suburban lawns and rural agricultural fields.”

Preserving biodiversity, protecting and restoring natural habitat and avoiding pesticides are also three key components of the strategy used by Boulder, Colorado, and Madison, Wisconsin, to control mosquito populations, allowing them to avoid using toxic pesticides.

The Great Salt Lake is a wilderness adjacent to a city. The lake is considered of “Hemispheric Importance” because it provides food, shelter and breeding grounds for 10 million birds, including more than 330 different species, migrating between the Northern and Southern hemispheres; among them Snowy Plover, Eared Grebe, pelicans, avocets, ibis, and phalarope. To them, the lake ecosystem, and it’s shifting mosaic of land and water, literally means survival.

Salt Lake City is also launching an “extreme makeover” of its Northwest Quadrant, unfortunately pretty much the opposite of what’s happening in NYC, Boulder and Madison. It is more like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor. The industrial metamorphosis via the prison and the looming inland port constitutes anything but wildlife habitat restoration. A massive warehouse farm replacing natural grass lands, wetlands and an invading army of trucks, trains, heavy equipment and a smothering blanket of diesel pollution will undoubtedly drive away the antelope in the area and many of the birds, and likely will increase the mosquito population.

Bird populations have plummeted worldwide. In North America, populations have dropped about 30% since 1970, with a loss of nearly 3 billion birds. While there are multiple factors, in France researchers pinpointed pesticides as the number one cause of the decline because they have decimated the population of insects that birds feed on.

Biologists have observed a dramatic decline in insect populations worldwide, describing it as an “insect apocalypse.” A German study found that insects in the wild have declined by 75% over 27 years. Nonetheless, some pest insect populations, like mosquitoes and ticks, have generally increased, in some areas by a factor of 10 in the last 50 years.

Mosquitoes (everyone’s least favorite form of wildlife) thrive where landscapes are disrupted, where other wildlife like their predators have been driven out, and where human activity degrades natural ecosystems. Urbanization also often changes the species diversity of mosquitoes, giving a boost to those species that prefer feeding on people, such as Aedes aegypti, and forcing declines in more benign species adapted to the natural landscape like wetlands.

Warmer temperatures and higher CO2 levels accelerate the evolution of mosquitoes, as well as increase the replication rates of viruses like West Nile within mosquitoes like Culex tarsalis species. Mosquito and tick populations are spiking in much of the country for other reasons as well, like the climate crisis with its associated hotter temperatures, precipitation extremes in both directions and storm-caused destruction of landscapes.

The Great Salt Lake ecosystem is facing its own makeover — “extreme degradation” — primarily by human mismanagement. The unnecessary, hazardous, neurotoxic pesticides used by Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District, and the equally unnecessary, hazardous pollution onslaught from the inland port, will only add to its collapse. The diversity and health of wildlife populations are harbingers of the quality and health of the human environment, and collectively of humans themselves.

As the Nature Conservancy says, “None of us can separate nature’s fate from our own,” even in Utah.

Dr. Brian Moench | president, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment

Brian Moench, M.D., is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

Heather Dove

Heather Dove is president of Great Salt Lake Audubon.