The 40-acre bog is layered with red, orange and green sphagnum mosses, giving the wetland the appearance of a dated shag carpet. The carpet compresses with each step Rocchio takes, like a waterlogged memory foam mattress that springs back into place as he removes his weight. The less decomposed, the springier, says Rocchio, who’s become personally invested in the bog.
“I’ve come out here so many times, [my kids are] like, ‘Where’re you going dad?’ ‘I’m going out to the bog.’ So slowly over time it became daddy’s bog,” he says.
That passion pushes Natural Heritage program ecologists to avidly classify, inventory and study native flora to help protect them as efficiently as they can. While the Heritage program focuses on plants and plant communities, particularly rare ones, conserving habitats important for plants can benefit other living things.
Considering the importance of biodiversity, it’s a big job.
Ecosystems can often keep functioning well even when some species disappear. After enough losses, however, they fundamentally change. Those functions, or ecosystem services, include regulating water, offering habitat for pollinators, filtering nutrients and serving as carbon sinks.
“So having a diversity of species that play different roles and do different things is important to keep those ecosystems functioning,” says Dr. Joshua Lawler, a conservation-focused ecologist and professor at the University of Washington, who has prepared reports on the relationship between climate change and biodiversity in the state.
The Natural Areas site designations have been hugely efficient so far, Rocchio says. Last year, program ecologist David Wilderman analyzed them and found that these sites, which account for about 0.4% of the state’s landmass, represent members of nearly 60% of the state’s native plant species.
But climate change requires an updated approach so state ecologists can understand how many rare species and ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to climate change.
Rocchio says this is why he’s passionate about monitoring them. “We need to measure these changes we think are happening, because oftentimes things are happening in non-intuitive ways,” he says.
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