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Whither Plant Conservation? Commentary from a U.S. board member and peer

12 June 2015

By Dr. Ed Guerrant, Director, Rae Selling Berry Seed Bank & Plant Conservation Program, Portland State University

Reproduced from Rae Selling Berry Seed Bank's Spring 2015 newsletter published at

Every once in a while coincidence sets the stage for a broad and timely discussion about the direction an organization or a whole field is heading. Such is the case with three major botanical garden based plant conservation organizations: the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC), Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) and BGCI US. Within the last few months all three organizations have brought on new leaders, two of them for the first time in a decade or more. And new leadership frequently stimulates conversations about organizational vision.

I don't know what issues will emerge let alone percolate to the top, or even how similar the three conversations will be. All three organizations are consortia of otherwise independent entities. This means they have the strength of many centers of innovation. On the flip side, such organizations are not necessarily easily governed or given strong direction from a central office.

This confluence of events is particularly interesting to me because I am both a participant in this discussion and an observer. I have been deeply involved in the CPC for over 25 years and have served on the Board of Directors of BGCI US for about five years, and I know both the outgoing and incoming Secretaries General of BGCI.

These leadership changes come at an important and possibly pivotal time for the field of off-site or ex situ plant conservation. The Rae Selling Berry Seed Bank was originally established in 1983 as the Berry Botanic Garden Seed Bank for Rare and Endangered Plants of the Pacific Northwest. The Center for Plant Conservation was established in 1985, with about a dozen participating institutions, including the Berry Botanic Garden, as founders; it now has 40 participating institutions. BGCI, established in 1987, now boasts over 800 members in 118 countries, of which 105 are in the USA.

Importantly, during the formative years of these organizations, the major forces seen to be driving the loss of biodiversity were habitat destruction, with its attendant fragmentation and isolation of suitable habitats, and the negative effects of invasive non-native species. Because of the increasing specter of global warming and consequent climate change, and their effects on biodiversity, now is the perfect time to reassess what these major conservation consortia are doing, and how best to fulfill their collective vision.

"The mission of the Center for Plant Conservation is to conserve and restore the imperiled native plants of the United States to secure them from extinction." The previous and longest serving Director of CPC, Dr. Kathryn Kennedy spent the last few years increasing the number of participating institutions of the CPC. The CPC has historically been comprised of 'full service' institutions that undertake a range of ex situ plant conservation activities: collecting seeds of rare and endangered species, storing them for long periods of time and learning how to germinate and grow them, as well as using the material to augment or reintroduce populations in the wild.

One limitation of this model is that rare plants, and therefore the need for these services are not uniformly distributed across the country. In some areas there are multiple participating institutions in close proximity to one another, sometimes differing widely in expertise and other resources. I wonder if we might increase effectiveness if the CPC were to explore a 'division of labor,' where additional, possibly narrowly specialized, organizations or groups could join CPC's full service institutions, working cooperatively to increase overall capacity. For example, perhaps the CPC might include organizations specializing in long term seed storage, but without the institutional capacity to determine propagation requirements, and vice versa. It might also make sense to include groups such as native plant societies that can monitor wild populations and collect seed, sending it to facilities that would specialize in growing or storing the seed.

One result of the change in leadership, with Dr. John Clark at CPC, and Ms. Kate Sackman at BGCI US, has been a conscious effort to reach out to and understand the various roles of botanical conservation organizations in the USA. In addition to exploring the functions served by their own organizations, they are looking at the Plant Conservation Alliance, American Public Garden Association and the Seeds of Success Program. At the very least, this exercise should identify areas where the groups overlap (not necessarily a bad thing), what important conservation tasks might be falling through the cracks, and how they can jointly work to meet our common goals.

Botanic Garden Conservation International was established in 1987 as a small secretariat under the auspices of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Dr. Paul Smith has recently taken over the reins as Secretary General of BGCI from Sara Oldfield, who led a very productive decade. Previously, Dr. Smith had worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for eighteen years, fifteen of which were with the Millennium Seed Bank, the last nine as head. He thus brings a long history of working throughout the world, having helped forge many bilateral agreements between Britain and 80 other countries to bank seed of native plants.

The BGCI mission is: "To mobilise botanic gardens and engage partners in securing plant diversity for the well-being of people and the planet." Perhaps the greatest achievement of BGCI is to have spearheaded a broad based effort to develop Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), which has been adopted by 187 countries under the Convention on Biological Diversity. By adopting the GSPC, the world's governments are committed to "halt the current and continuing loss of plant diversity."

The GSPC consists of five objectives including "Plant diversity is urgently and effectively conserved." Each objective includes a number of more tangible targets. Target 8 is "At least 75 per cent of threatened plant species in ex situ collections, preferably in the country of origin, and at least 20 per cent available for recovery and restoration programmes." The Rae Selling Berry Seed Bank has met this standard for the most critically threatened and endangered species in Oregon, and for many less endangered categories as well. It is worth noting that another objective of the GSPC is "Plant diversity is used in a sustainable and equitable manner." The Strategy thus does not value conservation to the exclusion of human needs, rather sees plant conservation as one ingredient of a healthy planet for the benefit of healthy societies.

By bringing on Ms. Kate Sackman as their new Executive Director, BGCI US has acquired the services of a dedicated conservationist. I have served on the board of BGCI US with Kate for a number of years, and she brings a very sharp mind and an expansive view of how it might become a more effective organization. Not the least might be by finding more and better ways to connect meaningfully with BGCI member gardens and the many people who visit them. Perhaps her most tangible contribution before coming to BGCI US is Ecomyths, a private non-profit she created, whose mission is to "...empower people to make eco-friendly choices by presenting simple science in entertaining ways." Ecomyths' vision "is that environmental living will become accepted as mainstream and routine--instead of something perceived as extreme or hard. We seek to overcome the overwhelmingly negative messages surrounding environmental issues, which we believe discourage people from taking simple, positive steps that really can help green our world." All three organizations must do a better job of connecting with more people, and Kate's perspective promises to open up avenues not yet explored to achieve that goal.

In conclusion, long term success in plant conservation, like effectively addressing the root causes of global climate change, does not hinge solely on the efforts of activists and other directly interested parties. It is largely dependent on public perception and understanding, and, ultimately, societal will to address these environmental challenges. That three major plant conservation organizations have brought in new top leadership in recent months, and have been spurred to deeper discussions within and among themselves by these changes is a real cause for hope.

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