Friday, January 31, 2014

Keystone pipeline: State says it'll be OK, but?

Folks, let's remember that Earth is our only planet. And let's not forget what tar sands mining is doing to Canada's boreal forest -- the forest that used to be a major carbon sink. The NY Times offered this coverage last evening about the State Department's study/report.

How to kill a wild, free-flowing river? Dam it

That's the proposal being floated by the usual economic "growth for the sake of growth" personalities for the Gila River of the Southwest. Read about it here. The photo I've included in this post shows a bit of the landscape of the Gila's watershed.

New York DOT chief throws cold water on 'Rooftop Highway'

What this article does not mention is this: Roads fragment, degrade and destroy fish and wildlife habitat. And a read of the piece from North Country Public Radio includes the same tired argument conservationists have been hearing for decades: New roads/bigger roads foster economic development. Good quality-of-life demands open space and Wild Nature, not yet another polluting eyesore.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Monarch butterfly population at record low

And human activity is to blame, as this article points out. The thrill of watching migrating Monarchs cross the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on their way south in the fall is just one of many Wild Nature moments that is, in itself, endangered because of what we - humans - are doing to Wild and Free Nature. The photo shows healthy Common Milkweed plants (the big leaves) at West Rutland Marsh, central Vermont.

Monday, January 27, 2014

What Pulitzer-winner Wallace Stegner said

I read Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Angle of Repose” way back in high school lit class. Other assigned readings then included Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and works by Samuel Clemons, a k a Mark Twain.
Stegner’s works came to mind at lunch today upon reading Essex, Vt., resident’s Bruce Post’s letter to the editor in Seven Days, a thick (and free) news weekly in the Burlington, Vt., area.
Post writes that Stegner “once wrote: “Namely, ‘that America’s whole history can be read as one continuous real estate transaction.’”
Post goes on: “Stegner, a defender of wild places, conservation and public lands, autopsied the West’s destruction by alliances of crony politicians and what he called land grabbers, boomers and busters. Later, he turned his attention to Vermont from his second home in Greensboro . . . Were he still living, I suspect Stegner would, on the one hand, nod approvingly about Vermont’s attempts to control development, but on the other, shake his head mournfully over much of what is happening as a de facto real estate syndicate devours our mountaintops and hillsides, neighborhoods and cityscapes. Of course, Stegner is gone, but fortunately his words linger on.
“We can learn a lot from one memorable phrase he used to color those intent on gobbling up our precious heritage for pecuniary gain. They were men with ‘itching fingers.’”
The target of Post’s ramble was Burlington Mayor Miro Wenberger and friends.
Stegner’s words, though, are more than appropriate when considering much of today’s development juggernaut.
A war story: My career as an Air Force Reserve officer first took me down Pennsylvania Route 100 through Lehigh County in 1992. That’s when I first journeyed to Langley Air Force Base, Hampton, Va., the U.S. having won the Cold War not too many months before.
Route 100 then, and now, runs through Macungie. On that first trip south I was pleased to see a downtown that was still full of life: Pedestrians, not cars, moving about, many of them coming and going from local eateries, shops, a jewelry store, a storefront for people with hobbies and crafts, a barber shop, etc.
Not too many more years ahead, though, that Norman Rockwell-like picture was long gone, replaced by a chain pharmacy and grocery, a collection of Big Box retailers, and sprawl streets of look-alike town houses. And there was lots of gas station-convenience stores to fuel the now car centric town.
Like much of Pennsylvania from the northern fringe of Philadelphia up to and past Allentown, the tale holds. I saw much the same in the Tidewater and Hampton Roads parts of coastal Virginia in October.
I’m not picking on Macungie; hundreds of other municipalities seem intent on growing into a look-a-like of the next town over and the one just beyond that and so on.
Pennsylvania, like Vermont and other states, has a strong land trust movement; non-profits that heroically save key natural areas. But just as Stegner lamented the land grabbers, the loss of America’s Wild Nature lurches on – pavers, graders, dozers, shovels, chainsaws and all the other assorted tools of developers chopping up our natural heritage; wet weather barely slowing the pace.
I wonder again, just as I have for decades, what the salamanders, snakes, birds and the native plant friends think about it all as humankind swoops in to convert more natural landscape into parking lots, streets, and turf farms.
From the Clemson University Cooperative Extension comes this nice summation: “Every wildlife species requires a general environment in which to live. To properly manage land for the benefit of wildlife, landowners must be aware of those things in the environment that wildlife need to survive and reproduce. The environment or natural home where a wild animal lives is called its habitat.
“Just like humans, wild animals have specific requirements that they get at home. Habitat for any wild animal must provide: cover (shelter) from weather and predators; food and water for nourishment; and space to obtain food, water, and to attract a mate.”
Us two-legged competitors get along best in places with lots of green space, urban forests, unpolluted streams, and the hundreds of native plant species that Wild Nature put there.
The reasons are many, but one thing is for sure: This is not a good time to be logging trees and converting our natural heritage to deserts of “development.”
Let’s save more of it before it really is too late.

In local TV news biz, only 'breaking news' counts, not the planet

Some may think me as being harsh in what I say in this column about the local tee vee news biz, but as a journalist of 40-some years' experience, I think I know what's going on. What do you think?

The talking heads of the TV news networks don’t seem to get into this long-term thinking. My guess: It doesn’t fit under the banner of “breaking news,” like the latest car crash out on the interstate.
Here’s what NASA scientists said in a news release I just looked at: “NASA scientists say 2013 tied with 2009 and 2006 for the seventh warmest year since 1880, continuing a long-term trend of rising global temperatures.
“With the exception of 1998, the 10 warmest years in the 134-year record all have occurred since 2000, with 2010 and 2005 ranking as the warmest years on record. NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, which analyzes global surface temperatures on an ongoing basis, released an updated report [Jan. 21] on temperatures around the globe in 2013. The comparison shows how Earth continues to experience temperatures warmer than those measured several decades ago.”
You can read the entirety of NASA’s release at
On the policy-making front in D.C., meanwhile, nine U.S. senators signed a two-page letter to the top brass of FOX News, ABC News, CBS News and NBC News. In it, the lawmakers (their last names are Sanders, Boxer, Cardin, Blumenthal, Murphy, Schatz, Whitehouse, Merkley and Menendez) first expressed “deep concern over the lack of attention to climate change” on the networks’ Sunday talk shows.
Driving the need for more media coverage is this, the senators wrote: “According to the scientific community, climate change is the most serious environmental crisis facing our planet. The scientists who have studied this issue are virtually unanimous in the view that climate change is occurring, that it poses a huge threat to our nation and the global community and that it is caused by human activity. In fact, 97 percent of researchers actively publishing in this field agree with these conclusions.”
The senators also note: “We are more than aware that major fossil fuel companies spend significant amounts of money advertising on your networks. We hope this is not influencing your decision about the subjects discussed or the guests who appear on your network programming.”
You can read the senators’ full letter at
By emitting ever-increasing amounts of greenhouse gases (chiefly carbon dioxide) into our one and only atmosphere, we are birthing extreme changes to our natural heritage.

An example: In a recent edition of the local daily was a feature about how the extreme cold weather of late might at least slow down the spread northward of an invasive insect that’s been sucking the life out of Eastern Hemlock trees in the East.
The critter, Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, came to North America from Japan, first appearing in the region in the early 1950s and quickly becoming established in hemlock stands in Virginia. (Learn a whole lot more about the insect at
But, as average temperatures climb, populations of the adelgid, an invasive insect that destroys Eastern hemlock, are creeping up the East Coast. Intolerance of cold weather has checked its spread north of Massachusetts, but as temperatures rise over the long term, hemlock stands in northern New England are becoming vulnerable to this non-native species introduced from Japan.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “Adelgid infestations can kill a hemlock in just a few years, sucking it dry of the nutrients it needs to survive. The insect inserts its piercing mouthpart into the base of a hemlock needle and then sucks out the sap, killing the tree’s nutrient supply. With two generations produced each year, adelgids can quickly spread to new territory.”
I saw the adelgid in action every spring, summer and fall starting in the mid 1990s while on a favorite fitness walking route into a section of Sugarloaf Township just north of Conyngham. Fuzzy white balls attached to the needles of hemlocks in a grove alongside Fredrick Drive told the story.
FWS again: “Eastern hemlocks are integral to the ecosystems they inhabit. They provide dense shade necessary to keep forests cool. According to a study, brook trout are three times more likely to be found in streams surrounded by hemlock because they help provide cooler water temperatures” for this coldwater fish.
FWS intern Michael Gardner, in a release about what climate change is doing to Wild Nature, wrote: “A growing body of evidence has linked accelerating climate change with observed changes in fish and wildlife, their populations, and their habitats in the United States. Polar bear population declines have already been noted in Canada, and extirpations of Bay checkerspot butterfly populations in the San Francisco Bay area are also documented. Across the continental United States, climate change is affecting the migration cycles and body condition of migratory songbirds, causing decoupling of the arrival dates of birds on their breeding grounds and the availability of the food they need for successful reproduction.
“Climate change has very likely increased the size and number of wildfires, insect outbreaks, pathogens, disease outbreaks, and tree mortality in the interior West, the Southwest, and Alaska. In the aquatic environment, evidence is growing that higher water temperatures resulting from climate change are negatively impacting cold- and cool-water fish populations across the country. Along our coasts, rising sea levels have begun to affect fish and wildlife habitats, including those used by shorebirds and sea turtles that nest on our coastal National Wildlife Refuges. In the oceans, subtropical and tropical corals in shallow waters have already suffered major bleaching events driven by increases in sea surface temperatures.
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report estimates that approximately 20-30 percent of the world’s plant and animal species assessed as of 2006 are likely to be at increasingly high risk of extinction as global mean temperatures exceed a warming of 2 – 3 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels . . . The IPCC also reports that the resilience of many ecosystems around the world is likely to be exceeded this century by an unprecedented combination of climate change; disturbances associated with climate change, such as flooding, drought, wildfire, and insects; and other global change-drivers, including land-use changes, pollution, habitat fragmentation, urbanization, and growing human populations and economies.
“These projected changes have enormous implications for management of fish and wildlife and their habitats around the world.”
Many Americans enjoy the out-of-doors, whether they’re fishing and hunting or just watching the flora and fauna. What will future generations think when those cultural traditions are gone?

Cars vs. wildlife: Cars keep on winning

It didn’t take long for the new year’s first car vs. wildlife milestone to reach the headline-making point. The Associated Press report: “An endangered Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi) has been killed in a three-car crash in southwest Florida.
“It's the first recorded Panther death of the year. Wildlife officials say collisions with vehicles pose a significant threat to the rare cats. Roughly 100 to 160 adult panthers remain in the wild. (Read a fact sheet about the species at
“Darrell Land of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says the Panther fatally struck by a vehicle Thursday along Interstate 75 in Collier County was a young male that weighed up to 120 pounds. Biologists believe he was the same cat that has been roaming a Naples neighborhood recently.  Florida Highway Patrol officials say minor injuries were reported after the crash.
“Land says 20 panther deaths were recorded last year. Most of the Panther deaths recorded in recent years are caused by collisions with vehicles.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracks such data because the Florida Panther is among the most critically endangered native mammals and it has management authority through the Endangered Species Act. The Florida FWCC helps simply because it’s Florida.
While in Boise, Idaho, for three weeks of visiting my sister and her family and our mother, tradition called for me to head east to the much smaller city of Mountain Home – first, to visit an aunt and uncle (Bob, like me, is retired from the Air Force; he’s a chief master sergeant, the top enlisted rank), and then to shop at the Mountain Home Air Force Base “Base Exchange” (known to retired and current military people as the BX).
To get there meant driving a stretch of I-84 that’s famous (or is it infamous?) as the place where, just over the last decade alone, dozens of Barn Owls have been hit and killed by passing vehicles.
The Idaho Fish and Game Department collects roadkill data on this owl species because there, like Pennsylvania, it’s a species of special concern, one that demands a conservation strategy of its own.
The plus side: Since moving to Vermont in 2011, I’ve seen only two roadkill white-tailed deer along a highway shoulder. That’s a heartening anecdote since roadkill whitetails were often-times found on this or that street in Conyngham Borough through my two decades of residency there.
A fundamental truth about America’s century of love of the automobile is this: The infrastructure (roads, streets, freeways, highways, driveways) associated with the nation’s automotive fleet is directly responsible for ongoing and deepening reductions in our natural heritage; what conservation biologists call “biological diversity or simply “biodiversity.”
The principal issue is fragmentation – the fragmentation of otherwise quality habitat by the construction of a road and the sprawl development that often accompanies new strips of asphalt.
And for more than two decades now, the tailpipe emission from that fleet of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide has worsened what scientists have warned over those same years is causing our planet’s climate to change.
This isn’t a far-fetched liberal fantasy, or something dreamed up by progressives. It’s real and is happening. The Arctic cold snap that we Vermonters just endured is weather, not climate.
In Boise, the daily  three-mile walk between my mother’s assisted living center and the hotel I stayed in gave me – as walking always does – a chance to see the world one can’t get close to while seated in the cockpit of a car, SUV or truck. I coined the term “carbon dioxide factory” to describe the daily mishmash of traffic jams – some of them extending down Cole Road or Fairview Avenue or Milwaukee Street for two-plus miles at a hack.
An addendum: Boise, like many other municipalities, does a lot and spends a lot to make life better for cars. But what about people who choose to walk or bicycle?
Yes, Idaho’s capital city does seem to have more bicyclists per capita than any metro area in Luzerne County, Pa. And it was especially heartening to watch cyclists riding on snow-and-ice-covered bicycle lanes on the busiest arterial streets (see the list above).
But Boise is especially emblematic of the environmental and societal ills that always accompany a city’s reliance on private automobiles. On each of my three treks to The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey (10 or so miles south of the metro area), I passed through a space-time continuum known by the nation’s planning and zoning officials as “sprawl.”
The high desert habitat that once widely separated city from a part of the Great Basin  Desert has been paved and built on to the very political (not ecological) boundary of federal public land.
And it was reliance on the private car that made it possible. Our fellow Americans who choose to live in this and other asteroid belts of sprawl must drive their car, SUV or truck to complete the most mundane of household chores, like buying a half-gallon of milk.
Crank your car’s engine to life and it too becomes part of the carbon dioxide emissions factory.

The EPA: “While not regulated as an air pollutant, (carbon dioxide) is the transportation sector’s primary contribution to climate change. Carbon dioxide emissions are essentially proportional to fuel consumption (and inversely proportional to fuel economy) – each 1 percent increase in fuel consumption results in a corresponding 1 percent increase in carbon dioxide emissions.

“About 19.4 pounds of carbon dioxide is produced for every gallon of gasoline combusted.”

For advocates of conservation focused both of habitat (the land) and wildlife,  “Present-day protected areas will not be enough to help wildlife survive the coming impacts of climate change,” states a release from the Wildlands Network. “Conservation biologists now believe that the only way to accommodate the needs of wildlife as unpredictable climate patterns emerge is to protect, restore, and connect a larger mosaic of habitat and vegetation types – much of it outside the outlines of today’s national parks, monuments and wilderness areas.”

Natural Resources Defense Council: “Moreover, the loss of undeveloped landscapes threatens economic as well as psychological values. Over 130 million Americans enjoy observing, photographing, and feeding wildlife and fish, thus supporting a nature-oriented tourist industry in excess of $14 billion annually.

“The National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation found that 77 percent of the U.S. population enjoys some form of wildlife-related recreation, and a 1987 poll sponsored by the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors found that ‘natural beauty was the single most important criterion for tourists selecting outdoor recreation sites.’ Independent of recreation and tourism, proximity to open spaces has been found to raise the value of residential property by as much as a third in some cases, raising property tax revenues as well.”

If you walk to your workplace and/or walk to the food market, congratulations for doing your part (i.e., burning calories, not a fossil fuel). If you’re walking is limited to, for example, getting from your front door to the garage door, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Towns should invest in walkability, not infrastructure for cars

Parking, roads, sprawl housing and highways equal traffic congestion.
That’s what I see daily on one particular highway in Vermont.
And just as I used to do while walking along Route 93 in and near Conyngham, I look closely at each passing car to determine how many people are in it. My conservative estimate is this: Only one of every 99 motor vehicles that zips past me as I walk the shared walkway/bicycle path has more than one person – the driver – inside the cab of the hurtling 2,000-pound hunk of steel, plastic and glass.
That tells me this: There is no ride-sharing or carpooling to speak of. Vermonters, just like most Americans across the land, are true believers in the “freedom to pollute” philosophy I first heard about while a college student at Idaho State University in the early 970s.
(I write to air some personal thoughts, not pass on those of any organization).
After having my new passport photo taken at the town hall in early July (yes, Vermont has “towns;” Pennsylvania has one, Bloomsburg), I walked across the street to the Williston library to get a new library card. And it will let me borrow books from other local libraries, like the one in Essex Junction village to the north, which I actually live closer to and can walk to, not drive.
I could walk as well to the Williston library, but doing so would pose all sorts of safety hazards – all created by the absence of sidewalks or walkway.
When parking at a grocery store two miles from home, I always shake my head in wonderment at the home builder’s sign stuck into the turf across the road I just traveled, for that is a perfect example of what helps generate more vehicular traffic in the first place: Sprawl development.
It’s the same “highway-leads-to-sprawl-and-more-cars” situation I saw for years snaking across the Nescopeck Creek valley outside Conyngham.
Yes, I know everyone deserves a nice home. It’s American, after all. But yet I see, while walking, more than a few nice places for sale these days, both in Williston and in Essex Junction. It was much the same situation in the Hazleton area during my two decades there.
 How about we try and get people into these existing houses before more natural land is chewed up for a new sprawl neighborhood and its attendant automobiles? Will there be yet another “meadows” development in Sugarloaf? It’s inevitable, I guess.
So, I offer some suggestions: Put walkways, bicycle paths and sidewalks at the top of the funding heap. And remember that spending less on roads means more for public health and environmental mitigation.
Don’t allow any more trees to be felled. Trees native to Pennsylvania (just as those native to northern New England) are carbon dioxide sinks and yield oxygen in the bargain.
The objective of our municipal planning work should be to give people the freedom to move about freely without the burden of enormous gasoline and automobile expenses. What could be more American than that?
P.S. Experts recommend at least 2½ hours of moderate activity (such as brisk walking, brisk cycling, or yard work) a week.  It's fine to walk in blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day and week. If you're worried about how brisk walking might affect your health, talk with your doctor before you start a walking program. Daily dog walks are also a great way to keep up your walking routine.
And walking helps you meet other folks. You can’t do that when behind the wheel of your car, truck or SUV.
Vermont, I grant, is a leader in alternative transportation choices, but widening highways or building new ones simply to relieve congestion does not work – regardless of the state.