When Elizabeth Johnson decided to become an ecologist, she never dreamed she would end up in the urban jungle. But as manager of the Metropolitan Biodiversity Program at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Johnson aims to protect the natural resources of a region of more than 21 million people that is more asphalt than green. "People write off urban and suburban areas, but they are really important," she says. "That's where the effects of sprawl, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and climate change are more intense."
The Metropolitan Biodiversity Program, which Johnson founded in 1997, is designed not only to educate a broad audience--from city dwellers and amateur naturalists to land-use planners and development consultants--but also to use education to influence land-management decisions. It focuses primarily on invertebrates--such as butterflies, mussels and especially those unloved creepy crawlies, many of which are threatened or endangered. "Our goal," says Johnson, "is to provide good research and good science in a way that policymakers can understand."
The program holds workshops that enable participants to hone their species-identification skills and learn about ecology and conservation challenges. It has developed a guide to the region's fresh-water mussels and another for its 400-plus species of bees. A booklet called Life in the Leaf Litter, about what Johnson calls "the invisible creatures you walk past unknowingly every time you visit one of our city parks," became an unexpected hit. It grew out of a survey of New York City's Central Park that turned up a new species of centipede. Now in the works: an "invertebrate observer's calendar" for New Yorkers interested in seeking out horseshoe crabs, lightning bugs and other creatures. "We're always looking for new ways to reach out to the community and make people appreciate nature where they live," Johnson says. "When people learn to love local nature, that translates into conservation." --By Andrea Dorfman