Focus on Biodiversity

Dan Sealy, NEC Board Member

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, one of the most comprehensive environmental laws enacted by Congress, the scientific and political news is troubling and requires our focus.

The National Geographic Society defines the term biodiversity as “the enormous variety of life on Earth. It can be used more specifically to refer to all of the species in one region or ecosystem. Biodiversity refers to every living thing, including plants, bacteria, animals, and humans.” For conservation, it typically refers to native life forms. 

The non-profit organization NatureServe, the nation’s oldest and most comprehensive collaborator for scientific biodiversity data in the United States, just published an analysis of biodiversity data. “In the first report of its kind, ‘Biodiversity in Focus: United States Edition,’ 50 years of data reveals an alarming conclusion: 34 percent of plants and 40 percent of animals are at risk of extinction, and 41 percent of ecosystems are at risk of range-wide collapse. The analyses presented in the report inform how to effectively and efficiently use our financial resources to make the best conservation decisions.” The informative, color-coded maps of the US included in the report illustrate California’s ecosystems and native components as some of the most diverse, and most at-risk, while also identifying critical opportunities for biodiversity protections.

At the same time, Congress offered up the weakening of our most important environmental public oversight laws, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), to avoid the deficit default. Congress readily feels free to freeze budgets for conservation agencies in spite of hefty inflation which means agencies cannot do the same protection and restoration work for the same dollars, resulting in budget cuts to conservation agencies. 

Attacks on the ESA in Recent Years

“Anti-wildlife politicians have introduced bills that attack the Endangered Species Act at a pace of more than one a week…” Reports Mary Elizabeth Beetham, Director of Legislatives Affairs, Defenders of Wildlife, in a May 2023 press release. 

Conservation writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams challenges us: “Don’t look away.”  If we want to protect our natural world, we need focus to be effective, firsthand witnesses when our natural world is poised for destruction. Those eye-witness accounts from true field observations, supported with verifiable scientific data, have historically been the most effective tools for conservation activists and storytellers. 

NatureServe, headquartered in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, partners with state, regional and local agencies and nonprofit organizations in all 50 states to record detailed data on terrestrial and aquatic species and their habitats.  They also track the health of rare species and species of concern. The report documents and analyzes 50 years of field-tracking thousands of species of plants, animals and ecosystems using scientific standards.  

Many may find some of the report’s findings surprising. Take rare animals, for example. In Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, most knowledgeable people can tick off two or three rare animals and maybe plants. Spotted owl, gray wolf, coho salmon, California condor come to mind, and perhaps even a plant like Lassics Lupine might round out the list. It is difficult for the average person to recognize insects and small aquatic invertebrates to species level yet those species, at the bottom of the pyramid of the food chain, are disappearing at an alarming rate. The report (see link below) is full of clear graphics pointing out unexpected targets of conservation priorities we might otherwise overlook.

“For example, the status of rare animals in California, teased out from the data collected and documented by local conservationists and by one of the report’s authors, Regan Smyth, Vice President, Data & Methods at NatureServe.”

Similarly, when ticking off endangered species, plants such as orchids are often overlooked in favor of larger charismatic species.  Yet those are some of the most threatened.

The California Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB) is California’s “natural heritage program.” CNDDB contributes to the data used in the nationwide report. The California program also has tools for conservationists to identify those areas of greatest species and ecosystems biodiversity coupled with identifying areas in greatest need for additional protection.

California’s 30×30 Opportunity 

Entomologist, ecologist and author, E.O. Wilson published the book Half-Earth in 2021 arguing we needed to protect 50 percent of lands globally for the planet’s ecosystems to survive. 

“The crucial factor in the life and death of species is the amount of suitable habitat left to them,” Wilson has written.

With the state’s 30X30 legislation signed by Governor Newsom, California pledged to protect and restore 30 percent of the lands and waters of the state by the year 2030. To accomplish this goal regional groups of conservationists, local agencies and tribes identify areas that need additional protection. Those lists of priorities are provided to state legislators for funding. Though the state has been somewhat generous in years of a budget surplus, in lean budget years such as the upcoming 2024 budget, few priorities may be funded. California, with large areas of public lands such as state and national parks and monuments as well as national forests and Bureau of Land Management areas can achieve the 30X30 goal, if we stay focused. The above  nationwide map of the endangered ecosystems shows clearly how important California is to achieving the large, protected areas E.O. Wilson described as necessary to avoid extinction.

If biodiversity is a focus, the report reveals an important opportunity right now. People who personally witness the destruction of a beloved place that harbors rich biodiversity can back up their personal observations and testimony with sound scientific data. Protecting biodiversity and our species most at risk is not a “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) concern; it is a concern of national importance. As those who spend time outdoors witnessing change, conservationists can be a strong voice for protection. And as Ms. Williams challenges us: “Don’t look away.” Be focused.


  • NatureServe and the 50 Year Report:
  • California Native Diversity Database:
  • Power In Nature:
  • Endangered Species Coalition:
  • Terry Tempest Williams: