Monday, December 22, 2014

Thoughts on water and how humans waste it

In years of walking (for fitness and exploration of the surroundings) in Conyngham borough, Pa., passing by a water-wasting activity was a given each summer. While house-hunting in southwestern Idaho last summer, I again saw such waste.
A first thought then andc now was always: I wonder how Californians would think if they could see this?
That “this” was the watering of concrete sidewalks and the adjacent asphalt street; almost as if watering such an impervious surface would, ultimately, cause it to grow. (The little pellets of lawn fertilizer scattered across the asphalt/concrete would also help matters – and roots – along.)
Another water-wasting activity: Watering an already-green turf farm (aka the lawn) at the height of a summer day, prime-time for evaporation.
Here are some water facts published by the Lake Champlain Committee of Burlington, Vt.:
-        While 75 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, less than one percent is available for human use;
-        More than one trillion – yes “trillion” – gallons of water are wasted each year in the U.S. alone due to east-to-fix leaks in homes;
-        Letting a faucet run for five minutes uses about as much energy as keeping a 60-watt light bulb on for 14 hours (something I see daily in my Idaho neighborhood);
-        Fifty percent of the water used for watering gardens and lawns (aka turf farms) is wasted due to over-watering;
-        The average American uses 100 gallons of water each day, enough to fill 1,600 glasses with drinking water.
A phone chat yesterday with a longtime friend and fellow naturalist who lives near Nescopeck borough included this observation: The Colorado River, from which Las Vegas, southern California and a whole lot of the urban Southwest get their water, is drying up. The bathtub rings of the (fake) Lake Mead, the reservoir created by Hoover Dam, continue dropping further and further downhill as the water level continues receding.
No other substance, it’s easy to argue, has greater importance to Wild Nature than does water. The Wood Ducks I spotted with binoculars in my first visits in the 1990s to what became Nescopeck State Park were present on the floodplain of Nescopeck Creek because of water and quality habitat.
And birding on Christmas Bird Count teams near Bloomsburgh and Tunkhanock and Wyalusing were always more fruitful, fun and exciting when the quiet water of ponds and the flowing water of the Susquehanna kept both Bald Eagles and wintering waterfowl present in good numbers.
The sad ethos of the green all-American lawn calls for massive infusions of water and chemicals. The city in Idaho where I now live even warns homeowners to watch our for and remove the first weeds that might show themselves in Spring.
One more thought: Wasting water also wastes energy. The biggest use of electricity in many municipalities is supplying water and cleaning it up after its been used (aka “consumed”).
A lot of energy is used to collect, transport, treat and deliver water and wastewater. Water must be pumped from its source to its end use in homes, apartments, businesses and institutions like schools then collected again for post-use treatment.
Reducing water use and fixing leaks saves money and lessens demands on the energy-intensive systems that deliver, treat and heat water
There would be no Wood Ducks – or a lot of other wildlife and flora – were it not for clean water.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Just what is 'available' land?

Western states like Idaho, which I now call home, are rich in public lands.
And they’re a heritage today’s older generation ought to be protecting at all cost – 100 percent – as a legacy for future generations.
Americans who remember the first Persian Gulf War ought to remember the late Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. A recent visit to the land/water/nature shop operated in Boise by our federal land management agencies yielded a copy of a wonderful poster titled “Wildlife and Wildlands.” It’s focused on quotes and ideas from the historic Army leader on the safe enjoyment of public land and the wildlife that lives on it.
The poster rightly focuses on the Pacific Northwest, but I’ll paraphrase the general, for his words and thoughts apply equally well to public lands in Pennsylvania and the rest of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
Our wildlife in the Northeast – from the Jersey and New York shores across the Delaware and Hudson rivers and on into and beyond the Allegheny Mountains – is a heritage for which we are responsible.
As my Nescopeck-area friend Autumn has reminded me, “wild land is a treasure, not a ‘resource’.”
Schwarzkopf: “I encourage each and every one of you to practice and share with others the responsible stewardship techniques listed on this poster to help make your outdoor activities rewarding and safe for both you and our precious wildlife.”
That wildlife is not represented by just the always-diminishing population of grizzle bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. It’s also the woodland salamanders, wood frogs and American toads and red-eyed vireos of forest environs protected in places like Nescopeck and Ricketts Glen state parks.
Wildlife, though, pays no heed to the artificial boundary lines written on the land by human things like property deeds and the lines of incorporation created by the formal governmental standing of boroughs, townships and cities.
The slogan that appears on many states’ wildlife license plates – “Conserving Natural Resources” – ought to instead read: “Conserving our natural heritage.”
Long-distance walking and hiking are great times to think and ponder. That’s how it was the first time I trekked – both to burn calories and get out and explore a bit – out of Conyngham borough on East County Road.
And it’s the same notion that spurs me to go for long fitness walks today across local sections of the Great Basin Desert at Mountain Home, Idaho.
Among the questions I’ve considered on recent forays is this: What do folks think about as they carve out a new road, driveway and housing pad in what, until a bulldozer showed up, was wild land replete with native flora and fauna?
It would take many an interview and an armful of questionnaires to get anywhere near the point of answering that question.
But it remains something that not only borough council members and township supervisors should consider and think through before blessing more “development” of land that real estate posters describe as
"The things I feel very strongly about are education, the war on drugs, the environment and conservation and wildlife,” the general once told People magazine.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

More people, more scars upon the land

Most folks, I’m sure, have long forgotten him. But sometimes a story or happening stirs up the memory pot and it all comes rushing back to the fore.
An e-mail note from a longtime friend in Pennsylvania’s north country served as the stirring post for me in this bucket of memories.
It helped matters – a lot – that I just happened to be working on the Standard-speaker’s night Associated Press wire desk at the time. The job then and now, I think, revolves around selecting the key state, national and international news articles that ought to be in next morning’s edition, given their overall importance to the readership.
Among the news stories running on the AP wire that evening in 1997 was the obituary of singer John Denver, who had died when his private aircraft crashed into Monterey Bay, Calif.
Denver – the son of an Air Force fighter pilot – had many hit songs through his lengthy career and life. One constant in his work, though, was this: Denver often sang about the land – wild and natural land.
Veteran Pennsylvania conservationist and advocate for things wild and free, Ed Zygmunt, wrote this in response to a note I had shared with him and other friends: “This story brings to mind the lyrics from one of my all-time favorite songs, ‘Rocky Mountain High’ by John Denver: ‘More people, more scars upon the land’," Denver sang.
Here’s the note I wrote to which Ed responded: “As all of you know, I've been railing about the evils of sprawl development for a long time, as in decades. Well, it is true that I now live in a sprawl development. I cannot tell if Mountain Home [Idaho] is now a bedroom town for Boise (50 miles) or is simply growing to feed its own maw. In any case, I crossed paths yesterday with the real estate pro who worked with me to find my new home. Nice fellow. But as we're talking, he notes, with pride in his voice, that the 100-acre sagebrush steppe land across the main drag will be bulldozed starting next spring for more sprawl development. I didn't have the chutzpah to tell him that just days before I had spotted and photographed real live Sage Grouse on that same land.

“Little wonder that our natural heritage continues sliding down.”

Spend time out-of-doors and sooner, rather than later, you’ll see one of the scars upon the land that Denver sang about. Yes, Colorado, is a far hike from Pennsylvania, but the scars always have one thing in common: They degrade and destroy habitat needed by our natural heritage.

In my many years of transiting the Pennsylvania countryside between Hazleton and the suburbs of Wilmington, Del., on the way to Air Force Reserve duty at an air base in coastal Virginia, I passed many such scars: New roads, new subdivisions, new fast-food fry pits, new parking lots, new turf farms, etc. They all had this in common (and still do): Each meant wrecking a natural area to make way for human progress.
Twenty years before Denver’s passing, while I was cub reporting for an Idaho weekly newspaper that today is long gone, the editor-publisher swooped into the tiny newsroom and proclaimed that singer Elvis Presley had just died. The date was Aug. 16, 1977 and I was just months away from starting my career in the Air Force.

Elvis sang about love and having a good time, but he didn’t sing about the land, as Denver did.

Our diminishing natural heritage needs more defenders and advocates in the mold of Denver.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

'Sportsmen's' legislation

Dear Mr. Gregory:
Thank you for contacting me about the Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act of 2014. I appreciate hearing from you on this important conservation legislation.
The Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act of 2014, S. 2363 was introduced by Senator Hagan of North Carolina on May 20, 2014. This legislation represented a package of several bills that sought to expand conservation and sportsmen's opportunities on public lands. Key measures in the bill would have reauthorized programs that conserve wetlands to benefit of ducks and other wildlife and allow federal agencies to use revenues from land sales to acquire critical lands of higher conservation value. The bill would also allow recreational public access to federal lands for the use of hunting, fishing and recreational use and reauthorize funding for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a non-profit organization that matches public conservation dollars with private funds to preserve our nation's wildlife and habitats. While there is already access authorized for sportsmen on many of our public lands, the Sportsmen's bill would have helped to further prioritize access for hunting and fishing on these lands.
On July 10, 2014, despite strong bipartisan support for the underlying legislation and the widespread backing by numerous sportsmen's groups including the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, the bill failed to garner the votes needed to move forward and overcome a filibuster in the Senate. I share your frustration with the process we confronted with the Sportsmen's bill, it is a shame that despite solid support from sportsmen across the country, the debate on this bill became weighed down by unrelated amendments and interests that undermined our chance to expand hunter access in some of our nation's most valuable federal lands.
Growing up in Vermont, I recognize how important it is to make sure that everyone can enjoy our nation's natural resources in their own way. Having owned firearms in my youth and enjoying target shooting with my friends and family, I understand the importance of Vermont's outdoor tradition of hunting and fishing and the enjoyment those around the country attain through the use of firearms in a safe and responsible way. As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I have long fought to provide funding for natural resource management and protections. I remain committed to working to protect and preserve our federal lands so that generations to come can experience the rewards of stewardship and conservancy. 
Thank you for contacting me. Please keep in touch


United States Senator

Monday, December 1, 2014

Harvard University fossil fuel divestment

Just a gesture, or something more? In any case, public institutions like universities and colleges should exercise all their options when it comes to kissing goodbye to the purveyors of dirty rocks. This is what an LTE writer told NY Times readers.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Binoculars and the state of the Wild

This is a fresh newspaper column from me:

My first Zeiss-brand binoculars were so good they could pick up – in sharp focus – clumps of purple loosestrife growing in narrow marshlands on the shore of the Susquehanna River below the Council Cup promontory. From where I stood atop the rocky point, the distance was a good half mile.
It was the chance to see migrating raptors – birds of prey – that attracted me to the big rock pile a couple of miles upstream of Berwick. After all, Council Cup was much closer to home – Conyngham – than the very well known Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.
And there they were: Broad-winged hawks, American kestrels and peregrine falcons in September, bald eagles and ospreys in October and red-tailed hawks and other species in early November.
It was loosestrife that I thought of today, though, when I picked up my just-acquired copy of the new book Invasive Species and Global Climate Change.
Invasive, exotic (i.e., non-native) plants are, in themselves, bad enough for the future of our natural heritage. But we’re making things much harder to fix with our unrelenting burning of gunk fossil fuels.
Even folks who care only about the dollar bill and related economic matters should care and support efforts to take action. Here’s why: Non-native invasive plants and animals are taking over ecosystems in every state, crowding out habitat for native species and costing billions of dollars in control efforts and lost productivity. In the case of just one invasive – loosestrife – the effects of its invasion are long-lasting.
It destroys wetland habitat. Period.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers this assessment: “The impact of thriving non-native species can be devastating to the environment. Non-native plants that propagate and become invasive can have tremendous negative impacts—both ecologically and economically.  An estimated 5,000 alien plants exist in the United States, displacing native species. One example is the European purple loosestrife. It has been spreading at a rate of 115,000 hectares a year and has been blamed for reducing the biomass of 44 native plants and endangered wildlife, including bog turtles and several species of ducks that depend on the native plants.
“Loosestrife now occurs in 48 states and costs $45 million per year in control costs and forage losses.”
Our planet’s changing climate (again, don’t confuse the daily weather with “climate”), is hastening the spread of invasive plants and animals to places where they are invaders, not natives.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the agency that looks after our state parks and other public lands, says this: “Climate change adaptation is preparing for and responding to the impacts of climate change. While reducing greenhouse gases, a process referred to as mitigation, is essential, it won’t prevent the inevitable changes resulting from to the greenhouse gases already in atmosphere. Consequently, we need to begin developing strategies to deal with both the direct and indirect effects of climate change.”
A Google search turned up scores of papers and other documents discussing how warmer temperatures will aid and abet the spread of weedy invasive plants. One that looks at what is happening in the mid-Atlantic region can be read at
In all-day hikes across Pocono wild lands in the late 1990s, finding a clump or more of loosestrife and other invasive species like Japanese knotweed was a no-brainer. These and other alien plants take quick advantage of human activities like road-building and other development.
What can nature-watchers do to help?
-        Learn to identify invading plants and animals;
-        Take care not to spread them into new areas;
-        Report invaders to a land manager;
-        Volunteer to assist with removal or control programs.
Finally, tell the person who represents you in state and federal governments to take positive action, not to kowtow to moneyed special interests.