A do-it-yourself, homegrown national park

By 'Asta Bowen

National parks have been getting a lot of love since the pandemic, so much that this summer you need reservations at many. For example, you must make a reservation just to drive Montana’s legendary Going-To-The-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, and passes can sell out within hours of release.

That’s better than stalking parking lots before sunrise and finding trails turning into conga lines, but it makes me all the more interested in a new national park that’s in the works. It’s even closer to home than I would have thought possible.

It’s also closer to you. “Homegrown National Park” is the brainchild of Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware and author of Nature’s Best Hope. His pitch: we’re in trouble biologically, and it has to do with things we often take for granted: basics like soil and water, and pollinators for most of the crops we eat, without which we two-leggers could quickly become extinct ourselves. Half a century after banning DDT, we’re still losing 60 million birds a year, and it’s not just their pretty singing that’s at stake. 

You could thank a yellow warbler, for example, for the coffee you’re drinking, which might have been ruined back in Costa Rica if not for the birds providing pest control on the plantation. As for those timbers holding up the roof over your head? It’s birds like the chickadee that helped protect that Doug fir from spruce budworm back in the forest.

When it comes to the food chain, those of us at the top will do well to understand what’s at the bottom, and here’s the rub: Saving trees is not enough. We also need the birds and bugs, and they can’t all live in national parks.

Despite our wealth of public lands, most of the country is under private ownership. Tallamy’s idea is to capitalize on that with a large number of small projects — as small as a city lot in the old railroad town of Livingston, Montana, or even a corner of your own front yard. 

So it’s about my yard, and maybe yours. They don’t have to be ecologically pristine to be biologically valuable, and you don’t have to dig up the whole lawn to make a difference. But if we build it, who will come? Even a few square feet of native plants can bring a missing species back home.

In Livingston, after Beth Madden planted her “postage stamp” lawn with native shrubs and wildflowers, the variety of visiting birds grew from seven species — mostly non-native starlings, pigeons and such — to more than 50. She saw flocks of warblers feasting for hours on tiny bugs to fuel their migration, and a giant sphinx moth pollinating the new bee balm. 

Over in Bozeman, a resident who started with a typical lawn found herself in the middle of a “pollinator desert,” despite being right across the street from a park, which consisted of mowed grass and just a few trees. Using thick layers of mulch and water-wise native plants, she turned a hot, south-facing part of her yard into a refuge drawing bees, moths, and before long, butterflies. As conservationist Paulette Epple noted, “The last plant blooming in the fall is smooth aster and it is always crawling with bees.”

Another bird enthusiast tried for years to attract hummingbirds to her feeders, with no luck. But after swapping out her petunias and marigolds for more bird-friendly plantings, she was rewarded with her first calliope hummingbird.

Even in downtown New York City, along the reclaimed Highline Trail, Doug Tallamy found native plants growing on “grit,” plus four species of native bees, and two monarch butterflies nectaring away — all 30 feet above city traffic. 

My own yard is a study in benign neglect, but last spring my neighbor and I decided to put in a “friendship hedge” along our property line. Together we planted two types of native currant bushes, and pollinators were on them before we’d even put the tools away. Come fall, the bushes with the most berries turned out to be — surprise, surprise — the same variety as a wild currant that was already growing just up the hill. 

You won’t find it in a travel brochure, but Homegrown National Park is open year-round. No crowds, no lines, and no reservations required.

Asta Bowen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She writes in Montana.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

04/25/2022 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
04/26/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
04/26/2022 Craig Daily Press Craig co
04/26/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
04/26/2022 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
04/26/2022 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
04/26/2022 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
04/27/2022 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
04/26/2022 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
04/27/2022 Delta County Independent Delta CO
04/27/2022 Montana Standard Butte MT
04/26/2022 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
04/25/2022 Tigard Times Tigard OR
04/25/2022 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
04/25/2022 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
04/25/2022 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
04/25/2022 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
04/27/2022 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
04/27/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
04/27/2022 Limon Leader Limon CO
04/27/2022 Eastern Colorado Plainsman Limon CO
04/28/2022 Missoulian Missoula Montana
04/28/2022 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
04/27/2022 Methow Valley News Twisp WA
04/28/2022 Taos News Taos NM
04/28/2022 KVNF Radio Paonia CO
04/28/2022 Auburn Examiner Aurburn WA
04/29/2022 Billings Gazette Billings MT
04/29/2022 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
04/29/2022 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
04/29/2022 Park Record Park City UT
05/03/2022 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
05/01/2022 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
04/26/2022 Uintah Basin Standard Roosevelt UT
05/06/2022 KVNF Radio Paonia CO
05/05/2022 Curry Coastal Pilot Brookings OR
05/07/2022 Durango Herald Durango CO
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Bill Klenn
1 year ago

A comprehensive article that offers a simple explanation of the interconnectivity of the food web and the importance of the often overlooked members of it.

Judy Tsiang
1 year ago
Reply to  Bill Klenn

I couldn’t agree more!

MIriam Haley
1 year ago

I just read the Asta Bowen’s Guest Editorial in the Montana Standard. I loved it! Thank you for inspiring me to revamp my new and pretty sterile yard.

'Asta Bowen
1 year ago
Reply to  MIriam Haley

Miriam, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. My own small efforts have been so rewarding; I just checked on the pinegrass starts, and of 20 planted last year, so far 17 are looking strong and healthy. Best wishes, and have fun collaborating with nature.

Linda Manchester
1 year ago

Ms Bowen, I am a member of the Montana Natural History Center and our book club is reading Wolf: Journey Home as our February selection. My neighbor says she worked with you in Seattle and tells me you may be interested in calling in to our Zoom discussion group on February 6. It would be an honor if you could work time into your schedule.If so, please let me know and I will have the leader of our group contact you. I loved the book! Thank you!

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