Citizen naturalists are helping the endangered Florida torreya move back home

Sometimes I start out to write about a particular story and then, while researching, discover an angle that really makes me stop and think.

This time, I was going to write about how people are finding ways to use invasive species, or to create jobs and work while removing them – as a brilliant South African program called Working for Water has done for many years, removing non-native trees that use up large amounts of scarce groundwater.

And then I came across the Torrey Guardians and became fascinated, both about their work and about the issue it raises as global warming alters our climate. Do we relocate species if they are endangered, even if it means putting them into another habitat? What does it mean if we move a species into a habitat where it’s not native? And what, in a time of climate change, is a native habitat anyway?

The Florida torreya, sometimes called the Florida nutmeg or the gopher tree, is ancient and once was very common, says the Florida Park Service. There may have been as many as 600,000 Torreya trees in the state’s Apalachicola River Valley during the early 1800s, and people used it for everything from fence posts and shingles to Christmas trees and riverboat fuel. But only about 200 survive today and in its native habitat, it no longer lives long enough to bear seed in the wild.

“Modern scientists report that the Torreya once lived across North America and is one of the oldest known tree species on earth,” it says. “This is interesting in light of local legend that the Florida Torreya was the Biblical “gopher wood” from which Noah built the ark.”

The Florida Park Service is working with the Atlanta Botanical Garden to grow new Torreya trees by growing seedlings using seed obtained from living trees, and plant them in Torreya State Park. That’s because Atlanta now has the largest population of Florida torreyas in the US – more than 1,000 specimens that live mostly in various propagation beds and a potted orchard there. 

Ron Determann, director of the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s spectacular conservatory complex is one of a handful of people who have managed to get the tree to produce seeds, according to a 2014 Audubon feature. The focus is to restore the tree in its native habitat. “The idea is to create a backup system,” Jenny CruseSanders, the Garden’s director of conservation and research, told Audubon. They want to propagate enough plants to distribute to sites around the US so that if storm, disease, or other catastrophe wiped out Atlanta’s torreyas, others would still be available for conservation work. Assisted migration is not part of their plan.

But it is the plan of the citizen naturalists who call themselves the Torreya Guardians, who believe climate change is hastening the tree’s demise and want to help it find another habitat before the Florida Panhandle becomes completely inhospitable. In 2008, they planted 31 seedlings in the North Carolina mountains, some 400 miles north of the Florida torreya’s current natural range. (Florida torreyas have long been grown in a greenhouse in Asheville, which suggested the climate might be right for the first satellite forest.)

“Their action has intensified the debate over using “assisted migration” as a tool for saving species unable to keep pace with rapidly changing conditions on their own,” said Audubon. “It has also sparked a new controversy about how far citizen activists should go on their own to help imperiled species.”

The thing about trees, unlike animals, is that they cannot move of their own accord. So they need help if their habitat is drying up or heating up, as Florida is. And that is where the Torreya Guardians come in. They’re not prepared to wait as Florida warms and the tree dies out – they’re busy finding out where else it can grow in the wild, and they think that maybe that means going back in time, before the Ice Ages. The tree is widely believed to be a cool climate species pushed south to Florida from the Appalachians that was unable to reclaim its original northern habitats when the glaciers retreated. 

Thus, for science writer and Torreya Guardians’ founder Connie Barlow, it’s in a sense about taking the torreya back home and letting it grow there once again in the wild. Keeping the tree only in botanic gardens is the botanical equivalent of caged, she says.

In 2005, when she set out to create a “no-budget, self-organizing, completely volunteer and paperwork-free recovery plan” for the Florida torreya, Barlow’s “idea for assisted migration, or using human intervention to move species and help them establish new habitats, had never been deliberately implemented for a plant in the United States,” says Earth Island Journal.

She now believes that the torreya, if it continues to grow successfully in the wild in North Carolina, could come to replace the eastern hemlock which has disappeared from many eastern forests because of an invasive species from Asia. The hemlock shades deciduous forests.

And she believes that the Torreya Guardians’ work can serve as a case study for what is likely to be increasingly necessary in the coming years – assisted migration of even common species. Citizen naturalists and professional researchers need to learn to work together. “We learn by acting first,” she says of citizen naturalists.

“As climate change intensifies, humans inevitably will become the movers of last resort for a growing number of plants and animals,” says the Audubon article. “In fact, the transformation of almost biblical proportions we have unleashed on the world will be so staggeringly complicated and costly that public funds and scientific manpower will likely be stretched to the limits just managing species that play major ecological roles. There is already speculation that the fate of so-called non-keystone species may be left to citizen groups like the Torreya Guardians.”

“But translocations are a conservation option that we can’t just dismiss,” says The Conversation. “A new paper on assisted migration from a team of international researchers calls for the risks of translocation to be balanced against the risks of doing nothing at all. Given the immediacy of the climate crisis, it is now the path of least risk that we must take.”

The Torreya Guardians are “becoming a symbol of what can be achieved when a group of private citizens puts their hearts and minds towards saving an endangered species,” says the Earth Island Journal. “Their radical if controversial approach might end up shifting the future of conservation, particularly in a warming world.”

Sources:

Torreya Guardians website.

Guardian Angels. Audubon magazine, Feb. 2, 2014

The rare Florida torreya tree. Florida State Parks.

Helping Plants Move North in Anthropocene Climate: Torreya Guardians 2013 Report.

Scrappy Group of Citizen Scientists Rallies Around One of World’s Rarest Trees. Earth Island Journal, Oct. 4, 2018

Why climate change is forcing conservationists to be more ambitious: by moving threatened species to pastures new. The Conversation, Jul. 16, 2021.