The idea of home is really pressing in a lot of people’s minds right now—mine included. When I was in kindergarten, our science teacher, Mr. Andy Wood, taught us an animal’s home in the wild is called a “habitat” and loss of habitat was a serious danger for animals. Right now loss of habitat feels like a serious danger for people. The events of the last few weeks have reminded me one of the major factors in habitat destruction for both humans and animals alike is climate change—and no one is immune to its impacts.
Andy Wood has dedicated much of his adult life to educating others about the impacts of habitat loss and its causes. Though it might seem like an incongruous event right now, his nonprofit, the Coastal Plain Conservation Group (CPCG), is holding an educational fundraising gala, The Butterfly Ball, on October 13 at The Annex at Brooklyn Arts Center.
In spite of demand of securing living spaces of myriad creatures the Wood family cares for, and cleaning up from the trauma of Hurricane Florence, Wood took a few minutes to answer encore’s questions about The Butterfly Ball and his conservation work.
encore (e): Tell us a little about the conservation group.
Andy Wood (AW): As our name implies, [we are] a nonprofit conservation organization working to protect southeastern North Carolina’s rare and imperiled plants and wildlife, and the habitats that support them and us. In a very real sense, CPCG is a family-founded group, [which I direct], with help from my naturalist son, Carson Wood, a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCWO) biologist with more than a decade of work experience with this endangered species. At 29, Carson is likely the youngest person to hold necessary permits required to manage and protect RCWO—a non-migratory longleaf pine specialist now critically-imperiled by rampant habitat loss throughout its range.
CPCG is a small entity focused on imperative efforts to prevent extinction of lesser-known species that otherwise fall through “conservation cracks.” As an example, in the words of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, we have all but singlehandedly prevented extinction of the magnificent ramshorn, (Planorbella magnifica), North America’s largest freshwater-lunged snail once found in ponds and slow streams associated with the lower Cape Fear River, including Greenfield Lake. Today, the magnificent ramshorn and its quarter-inch cousin the Greenfield ramshorn (Helisoma eucosmium), are believed gone from the wild (extirpated). The thought is based on exhaustive searches throughout the past 25 years, which last yielded wild P. magnifica in 2004. The last wild H. eucosmium were seen in 2008.
By good fortune for both species, CPCG has been maintaining critically rare animals in captive care—a “crusade,” as my son Robin calls it, that has been a family affair since 1992, the year former US Army Corps of Engineers biologist Bill Adams and I rediscovered P. magnifica in a private mill pond connected to the Cape Fear River.
e: Why is it time for a fundraising gala?
AW: October is the time of year when our area is visited upon by migrating monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). The Butterfly Ball, inspired by a British book of rhymes of the same name, is intended as it sounds: a fun time to celebrate butterflies and the natural world they share with us. In keeping with the concept, dress for the occasion is black tie optional and costumes encouraged. We hope being scheduled close to Halloween may inspire the young and elders alike to don festive, colorful dress [for a little fun]. The Butterfly Ball is CPCG’s first gala event. In fact, it is CPCG’s first “live” fundraiser. We conducted a GoFundMe crowd-funding campaign back in 2015 that successfully enabled us to purchase and protect a 10.5-acre tract of longleaf pine habitat in Pender County that was threatened with conversion to horse pasture.
e: Your passion is snails and Carson’s is woodpeckers. So why butterflies?
AW: While I have been leading the charge to prevent extinction of two little-known Cape Fear River snails, my passion is education, especially public speaking and interpretive writing. Since my first encounter with P. magnifica, one of the rarest animals on Earth, I have included its story in almost all my public presentations. In fact, while serving as a lobbyist for the National Audubon Society in 2009 through 2012, I carried living P. magnifica into the Senate building to show then Senator Dole and current Senator Burr consequences of climate change, including ocean expansion (sea-level rise), [which] are already having impacts on our environment as evidenced by coastal swamps and other habitats being drowned in salty water. My point was to try to put a face on the issue of climate change and its real-world impacts to people, plants and wildlife.
While a rare snail and bird may be valuable ambassadors for the environment, they are creatures few people will ever see in the wild. Butterflies, however, may be more compelling, simply because they are visible and cheer-bringing members of our community. For this reason, CPCG has been planting pollinator-friendly gardens, with financial support from grants, and in partnership with Habitats Gardens, LLC—a conservation (sustainable) landscape company.
From 2015 to present, CPCG and Habitats Gardens has installed more than 15,000 wildflowers in several acres-scale sites in southeast North Carolina. Rather than planting seeds and hoping they will germinate, we contracted commercial growers to cultivate seedlings in 1- to 4-inch containers to give the plants a rooted head start in their new surroundings. While it is a labor-intensive process, we have been assisted with student and community volunteers, eager to learn about creating pollinator gardens at all levels—from planter boxes to habitat-restoration scale.
e: Why is habitat protection important right now?
AW: “Habitat” is a term that refers to a place where something lives, whether it’s a plant or animal. Southeastern North Carolina is composed of several unique and significant habitats, including but not limited to: riverine swamps, hardwood forests, longleaf pine savannas and sandhills, pocosin (evergreen shrub thickets), freshwater marshes, saltwater marshes, barrier islands, and the open beaches where land meets ocean.
Southeastern North Carolina is part of the North American Coastal Plain, and a biodiversity hotspot as designated by Conservation International, a global leader in ecosystem protection. The hotspot designation is not entirely flattering, however. While our region may boast 1,500 species of native plants, the reason we are a so-called hotspot is because we have lost at least 70 percent of our native habitats.
e: What will the gala include?
AW: The Butterfly Ball is simply a party in celebration of [our] unique natural heritage—especially the colorful autumn butterflies and flowers that help draw us closer to nature. The ball is an event to connect people with CPCG and our works to protect the ecoregion’s special plants, wildlife, and irreplaceable habitats.
When we started planning the event, we knew it was timed within hurricane season, but we had no idea our area would be struck so forcefully by a storm that has turned the community seemingly upside-down. So, the ball now has greater relevance because, in spite of the ravages nature can unleash with a hurricane, the fact remains nature’s flowers, birds and butterflies offer comfort and solace in troubled times.
It has long been known one of the best places to find sanctuary is in a garden, especially after a hurricane has ravaged a community’s otherwise compelling landscape. We can’t transform Brooklyn Arts Center’s Annex into a true garden, but we will make every effort to decorate and illuminate the space to be enchanting and welcoming as possible.
As a fundraiser for CPCG we’ll have raffle items and a silent auction, along with a photo booth featuring a butterfly ambassador to help make the evening memorable.
e: What do you hope attendees learn? And what is next for CPCG?
AW: Given the recent weather-related trauma our region has endured, the ball has greater significance as an opportunity to remind ourselves of benefits we derive from nature, including the joy of watching butterflies fluttering among flowers, hearing songs of birds in a garden, and knowing these beings are members of the same habitats providing ecosystem services to our benefit.
e: What would you like people to start doing at their own homes to make a difference for habitat?
AW: While it is helpful for people to contribute funding to organizations like CPCG, conservation begins at home, at work, and where we play. Reducing unneeded plant maintenance is one way to cut landscape expense, and the simplest strategy to accomplish this is selecting the right plant for the right place. This approach to landscape management has the added benefit of reducing air, noise and water pollution.
Our yards can be urban oases for wildlife, including butterflies, songbirds, frogs and turtles. Practicing conservation landscaping to reduce resource consumption has the added benefit of saving money that can otherwise be used to enhance and renovate property spaces to increase curbside appeal, while also creating a welcoming sanctuary where people can connect with nature right outside their doors.