New National Park and Preserve

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In December 2020, America’s 63rd National Park was designated in West Virginia, the state’s first. Named the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, it spans 70,000 acres of land along the New River between the towns of Hinton and Fayetteville. The park’s updated status was part of an omnibus spending bill signed into law in late 2020, and Senator Shelley Moore Capito has touted the park as a win for West Virginia.

The New River Gorge Bridge is the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere.
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Legally, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve has been under the protection and management of the National Park Service (NPS) since 1978 as a National River. In her statements, Capito has emphasized economics as a key component of the decision to designate the area as a National Park instead, a classification that imparts new signage, additional parking, and increased media attention. Based on figures from other monument and park designations, Capito hopes for a 20 percent increase in annual visitors to the area.

According to the NPS, the new law allows for the possibility of purchasing an additional 3,700 acres of land from private landowners to add to the preserve in the future. While the update and potential expansion promises a boost to adventure retailers and tour guides in nearby Fayetteville (with additional federal investment in increased parking near popular trailheads), some locals, including hunters, are wary. Even though most of the area will still be open to backcountry hunting (designated a National Preserve by the NPS to allow for this traditional activity), local hunter Larry Case says, “Hunters really took it on the chin.” With this decision, the 7,021-acre area centering on the New River Gorge Bridge — the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere — has been made off-limits to hunting. Case says he doesn’t know whether it’s the most scenic spot, but it’s “the heart of the gorge.” While the new National Park might put the gorge on the radar of many in the Washington, D.C., metro area, Case worries about how larger crowds of visitors will impact the area and effectively restrict access for locals. And locals like Case might have an essential role to play in protecting such tracts of land in the future, since a place’s prestige and preservation can be swayed by ever-changing legislation.

The National Park designation will likely increase tourism to the region.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Ryan
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is set to join 19 other National Preserves in the United States, only two of which are east of the Mississippi River. Learn more at National Parks.

America’s Diverse Family Farms Report

In 2019, family farms accounted for 98 percent of farms and 86 percent of production in the U.S.
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A majority of the approximately 2 million American farms are still family businesses, in one finding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual report “America’s Diverse Family Farms,” which contains the latest government statistics on U.S. farms. According to the report, “Family farms as a group, across type, accounted for 98 percent of farms and 86 percent of production in 2019.” Of those, 90 percent are “small” (grossing less than $350,000), but are responsible for only 22 percent of production, while large-scale family farms account for 44 percent of production.

The report covers production, financial performance, and farm household characteristics by farm size through 2019. Other key conclusions from the report include:

  • Women act as operators in more than half (51 percent) of all farming operations, with the largest share of these being farms that specialize in poultry and other livestock. Women are joint or primary operators on 58 percent of dairy farms.
  • Direct-to-consumer crop sales are the most common form of direct sales, but only 9 percent of farm operations participate in direct-sales supply chains.
  • In the next five years, 17 percent of principal operators plan to retire, but more than 60 percent of them don’t have a successor or a succession plan for their farming operation.

To read the report and the rest of its conclusions, go to America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2020 Edition.

Sweet Potato Biodiversity for Climate Resilience

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Sweet potatoes are one of the most-grown crops globally, making them a staple of diets around the world. They’re also hardy and highly nutritious, stocked with vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, dietary fiber, and protein. Recognizing their importance, the International Potato Center (CIP) hosts thousands of sweet potato genes in its genebank in Lima, Peru, making its supply one of the world’s largest sweet potato cultivar collections. CIP maintains more than 5,500 accessions in vitro to conserve overall diversity and to create a cache from which researchers and breeders can pull. 

Almost 2,000 of those cultivars, from 50 different countries and comprising both traditional and modern varieties, were examined in a recent study undertaken by CIP and several other research institutions to analyze the role of sweet potato’s genetic diversity in “the productivity and resilience of food and agricultural systems in the face of climate change.” The sweet potato is already known to be tolerant to “climatic shocks”; researchers sought to take this understanding one step further and identify which cultivars within the species best stood up to heat stress. They planted the cultivars in a desert in north Peru and repeatedly exposed them to extreme temperatures.

The results, published in the Nature Climate Change journal in October 2020, conclude that, despite the threat climate change poses to crops worldwide, sweet potato cultivars can stand up to a changing climate — particularly traditional local varieties. The researchers highlight the importance of this “intraspecific diversity,” and they recommend the dissemination of this information so farmers can adopt high-yield, resilient varieties to better manage climate risks and increase their farms’ adaptability. Learn more at International Potato Center.

Native Plant Trust Online Courses

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Plant conservation organization Native Plant Trust has long offered educational opportunities, with partnerships and programs throughout New England. But at the start of the pandemic, like so many others, the organization began to transition its programs to virtual platforms — a move that attracted additional learners. According to Courtney Allen, director of public programs, Native Plant Trust saw a 20 percent increase in registration as a result of the increased accessibility. Allen says some of its still-current courses were already online, which gave the organization a foundation to work from in designing three new self-paced, facilitated certificate courses that it launched in early 2020: Plant Form and Function; Plant Ecology; and Plant Families. These three online courses will be offered again this year for the May to September term. Registration opened in mid-February and applications are accepted on a rolling basis.

Allen says these courses have allowed Native Plant Trust to experiment with new teaching frameworks and techniques for a wider spectrum of learning styles. “We can examine a plant in different formats: We can use a photo of an herbarium specimen or an image through a microscope lens,” she says. “We can send students packets of plant samples or give them a guided worksheet for discovering specific plants independently. We can record horticultural demonstrations or field walks, live or prerecorded with live instructor narration.”

Despite these benefits, she says, some perks of in-person learning, such as detailed research and skill-building, are irreplaceable, so the organization looks forward to returning to in-person classes while still offering online opportunities.  

Additionally, Native Plant Trust plans to provide livestream programs this semester, including an author book-talk series, as well as programs focused on diverse plant-related perspectives, such as Decolonizing Botany, Roots of Black Botany, and Environmental Justice. To view Native Plant Trust’s program catalog and find further information on its initiatives, visit Native Plant Trust.