By Melissa Grieco, Rye Garden Club Conservation Committee
A little known but compelling data point about the Garden Club of America is the organization’s long history of legislative involvement. In fact, the stated purpose is to “restore, improve, and protect the quality of the environment through educational programs and action in the fields of conservation and civic improvement.”
The GCA created its National Affairs and Legislation (NAL) Committee in 1969 to “bring to the attention of the membership important legislative proposals in Washington which fall within the fields of our endeavor.” The Committee’s efforts have helped to pass many pieces of legislation including environmental laws on Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Unfortunately, not only many native plants but also botanists, themselves, are an endangered species these days.
This year’s NAL Conference took place in February in Washington D.C. and, as a member of Rye Garden Club’s Conservation Committee, I was lucky enough to number amongst the 300 delegates sent to represent their local garden clubs. The speaker lineup of scientists, researchers, experts, and members of congress from both sides of the aisle was top-notch and attendees were presented with a slew of information, data, and insights.
On the first day of the conference, presenters covered a wide range of topics, including the growing threat of wildfires, the importance of speaking out about climate change, and our broken food system. The following day, we gathered at the Capitol to hear members of the 116th Congress address the various conservation initiatives and issues they are championing and sponsoring.
The annual gathering serendipitously coincided with a major legislative victory that had been a long-time focus of GCA’s legislative efforts. On February 26, Congress voted to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund following a 363-62 vote of the U.S. House of Representatives. Buoyed by this unique display of bipartisanship and coming together to protect and provide access to America’s natural resources, attendees had a skip in their step on the third and final day of the conference as we gathered at the Capitol to meet with our members of Congress. The purpose of these meetings was for Garden Club delegates to advocate for GCA-focused legislation.
As such, we met with legislators and their aides to advocate for the Botany Bill, Scenic Byways Act, and National Park backlog funding. Although we met briefly with Senators Schumer and Gillibrand (both of who have a 100% voting scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters), the substance of our discussions took place with their senior aides, who commonly advise them on policy matters. At one such meeting, I was honored to present the Botany Bill — the Botanical Sciences and Native Plant Materials Research, Restoration and Promotion Act.
The bill, which is soon to be reintroduced to Congress, establishes a preference for the use of native plants in federal restoration and other projects while promoting education and careers in botanical sciences. Unfortunately, not only many native plants but also botanists, themselves, are an endangered species these days. The recent past has seen a precipitous decline in the number of students choosing to pursue a botany education and career. (Bureau of Land Management reports that it employs only 54 botanists per 4.6 million acres of federal land.)
The NAL conference fully exceeded my expectations on every level, especially in how much I learned about the inner workings of our democracy and strategies to navigate it successfully. I, and other delegates, will be closely following the progress of the Botany Bill and other GCA-endorsed legislation, and will continue to advocate for it with local representatives here in Rye.
While waiting for the wheels of Congress to turn, Rye landowners can easily and affordably contribute to the larger intent behind the Botany Bill by incorporating an array of native plants in our own yards! Native plants are specifically adapted to thrive in our local environment, require less water to grow, combat the proliferation of invasive species, and provide critical shelter for native wildlife. In fact, we can all become amateur botanists by educating ourselves about the benefits and characteristics of our native flora and by promoting its well-being in our backyards and community-at-large.