Can Forgotten Cemeteries Help Restore Biodiversity?

Friends of Warren Ferris Cemetery, a nonprofit organization in Dallas, Texas, is working to transform cemetaries into sanctuaries for wildlife and native plants.

For more than a century, Warren Angus Ferris cemetery was a neglected site, overgrown with invasive plant species. But in 2018, local resident Julie Ann Fineman decided to restore the land and recover its historical and environmental value. “I realized the land is a jewel for the community and for the city,” Fineman tells Food Tank.

Fineman began recruiting neighbors, collecting funds to support the restoration, and launching a non-profit organization. Once established, the group removed invasive vegetation, allowing native species to bloom. To date, Friends of Warren Ferris Cemetery has documented 50 different species, including slender verbena or Texas vervain, narrow-leaf stoneseed, sunflowers, and junipers.

“Transitioning these neglected landscapes to feature native plants would correspond to sustainability benefits,” Fineman says. These actions can foster beneficial conditions for pollinators such as bees, birds, beetles, butterflies, flies, moths, and wasps. Their presence also prevents soil erosion and facilitates sustainable food production.

Today, Friends of Warren Ferris Cemetery is working to maintain the cemetery’s landscape. They wish to see new native plants such as Chinkapin Oak Bois’d’Arc, and local cacti prosper without the help of irrigation.

“This environment could become host to a multitude of the 125 rare, threatened, and endangered animals listed by Texas Parks and Wildlife as Species of Greatest Conservation Need,” Fineman tells Food Tank. She hopes these efforts will draw species including the monarch butterfly, which migrates annually from Canada to Mexico, bald eagles, western burrowing owls, and Texas horned lizards.

The organization is also conducting the Native Plants Identified program to document native plants. The project asks visitors of the Cemetery to upload three photos of a plant on their iNaturalist page to identify new species. By encouraging visitors to learn about new species, Fineman hopes that residents will replace traditional lawns with native plants that can act as small-scale wildlife sanctuaries.

Communicating the relevance of the area is also important, Fineman says. The organization is working on an eight-part documentary series about their work—the first three have already been completed and can be found on their website.

Friends of Warren Ferris Cemetery also plans to collaborate with Dallas public schools to restore the area’s biodiversity. “Imagine a national scale effort, where habitat corridors lost to urbanization are restored to provide wildlife food and shelter for animals,” Fineman tells Food Tank. “Education is crucial to build awareness and to create change.”

Photo courtesy of Julie Fineman

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