Why Seed Banking Matters in New England and Who’s Funding It

A hot topic in the world of plant conservation is seed banking, and it's is an especially important issue in the New England area. According to the New England Wild Flower Society, 17 percent of the region’s native plant species are on the brink of extinction and five percent are already gone. Dedicated to the preservation of native plants, this is one of the most respected nonprofits in the Boston area.

With an ambitious plan to bank seeds from all of New England’s rare plants by 2020, the society set a fundraising goal of $5 million. This campaign was jump-started by the Rhode Island-based Hope Goddard Iselin Foundation, with a $500,000 gift. The sum was especially significant because this funder pledged nearly its entire annual grant funding over the next five years to NEWFS, according to a press release.

So why is seed banking such a critical need in the Boston area and throughout the Northeast?

The Wild Flower Society’s “State of the Plants” report found that 22 percent of native plant species in New England (that’s 593 species) are globally or regionally rare or possibly extinct in the region. The society is one of the partner organizations that brought the alpine plant, Robinson's Cinquefoil, back from the brink of extinction by propagating it within the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where it had once thrived.

Overall, seed banking has gained urgency around the world as plants are threatened by habitat loss to agriculture, development and climate change. The New England group plans to secure seeds from at least 2,000 of the 3,000 rare plant populations. This work involves getting landowners’ permission, federal and state permits, and following detailed procedures for collecting, processing, storing and testing the seeds at regular intervals.

To learn more about how this nonprofit is securing its support and who’s funding this cause, I connected with the New England Wild Flower Society’s executive director, Debbi Edelstein, to ask a few questions. Her responses shed some light on how seed banking and plant conservation funding can provide tangible and local contributions to the greater goal of dealing with climate change.

IP: In addition to the Hope Goddard Iselin Foundation's generous donation, have other foundations or donors begun to support this cause? Any in the Boston area?

DE: Once we received the pledge from the Hope Goddard Iselin Foundation, we began contacting both individuals and foundations that might support the project with gifts of $500,000 or more. The first meeting was this month; others are in January. We hope to have good news soon!  

How did your relationship with the Hope Goddard Iselin Foundation come about?

The foundation does not accept applications, but rather picks organizations whose work fits the interests of the late Mrs. Iselin. I received a call from a foundation trustee about four years ago offering us $125,000 for work of our choice at our botanic garden in Framingham, Garden in the Woods. We used that money to leverage another $150,000 grant, which enabled us to develop a comprehensive master plan for the garden. The Iselin Foundation then followed up with two more grants for the revitalization of a core part of the garden. In conversations over time, we discussed the importance of seed banking the rare and endangered plants, and the result was this five-year pledge from the foundation. 

(By way of background, the Hope Goddard Iselin Foundation is an environmentally focused funder that also supports the Garden Club of America. Iselin was one of GCA’s early leaders and was the first chairman of the Billboard and Roadside Improvement Committee in the 1920s and 1930s. During her lifetime, she was interested in beautifying urban areas with gardens and green spaces and providing opportunities for people to visit them.

Iselin was also an “heiress, sportswoman, the first woman to compete as a crew member in the America's Cup yacht race, and the last surviving member of Mrs. Astor's 400.” She passed away in 1970, and a foundation was established in her name in 1972 in New York.)

Who are you targeting with your fundraising drive? Individual donors, small private family funds, big national foundations? Where does your organization typically find the greatest show of support?

For this fundraising drive, we will look to all three. I'd like for the big national foundations to understand the importance of banking the seeds of all the rare and endangered plants in the United States, which can be accomplished for $100 million, and is a goal of the Center for Plant Conservation, a national organization which the Society helped create 25 years ago. Protecting the genetic diversity of plant life via seed banking is an important "insurance policy," given the multiple threats to plants—even before adding the effects of a changing climate. Recently, Inside Philanthropy has challenged the big foundations to put more money into climate change: This is one concrete action they can fund that has guaranteed success. New England Wild Flower Society has had several successes restoring or augmenting rare plant populations; for example, we used seeds from our bank to augment Robbins' cinquefoil, atop Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, which came off the federal Endangered Species list as a result. 

To answer your second question, support for our core conservation programs typically comes from individuals as well as grants and contracts from government agencies. There is little foundation support for plant conservation in this country. Although the majority of endangered and threatened species in the United States are plants, they receive less than 5 percent of the funding allocated for recovery efforts, despite analyses indicating that bringing a bird off the endangered list costs nine times more than delisting a plant. As you know, many of the major American foundations spend the majority of their conservation dollars on land protection, oceans, and the conservation of wildlife—and quite often, those dollars are focused on initiatives outside the United States. But a relatively small investment in plant conservation would pay huge dividends, as it is fundamental to the success of all those other conservation efforts.

In your opinion, what is the greatest environmental challenge/need in the Boston area? In New England? 

Our recent "State of the Plants" report makes a clear case that the greatest challenge is to reduce, mitigate, or reverse a litany of man-made threats to the environment—from pollution to ill-considered development to invasive pests. Plants and plant communities—which constitute the habitat for all terrestrial species and are the base of the food chain that leads to our own dinner table—are deeply stressed, and our data indicate that a single rare plant population suffers from as many as five simultaneous threats. When native plants are imperiled, entire ecosystems are at risk, because the loss of even a single plant species can disrupt an intricate web supporting myriad plants and animals.

We have lost so much of the natural world that our challenge is to keep what we do have functioning. Consider some sobering statistics: 22 percent of New England's native plants are rare or historic, 31 percent of the documented plants in the region are non-native, and of those, 10 percent are invasive and directly threaten native species. We have lost 50 percent of the sandplain grasslands and heathlands in New England; 80 percent of estuarine marshes on Cape Cod exhibit die-back; there are more than 10,000 dams altering the ecosystems of New England's rivers; and for the first time in 200 years, every state in New England is losing forest.

And all of this decline is taking place before a changing climate has a major impact. We need to work together to halt the decline, while also funding the "insurance" against disaster. For plants, that insurance is seed banking.  

At the time this article was written, the Seed Ark campaign had amassed $724,249 of its $5 million goal. Donors can contribute to the cause online or reach out to the society's philanthropy department by calling 508-877-7630, ext. 3802.