Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The quote of the week

 "An honest and scrupulous man in the oil business is so rare as to rank as museum piece."

Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, 1936

Roads and the future of wildlife

This is a fresh newspaper column from me

Almost from the moment in 1988 when my late wife and I moved to Conyngham from the Air Force base at Plattsburgh, N.Y., I began keeping track of roadkill – the native wildlife species I came across while hiking and fitness-walking on the many rural roads surrounding the borough in both Sugarloaf and Butler townships.
The list-keeping has continued ever since and also includes roadkills found in other states, both East and West. Most of the species I annotated in field notebooks (I’m now in my fourth volume) were, however, found on Pennsylvania roads. That’s simply a matter of having spent more time exploring, hiking, walking and cycling in Pennsylvania than elsewhere.
It takes very little to stir my memories of those journeys on foot. It happened again this week as I scanned through my photo library, coming across images of dead wildlife from those years.
There, see those eyes? I wonder what that Eastern Cottontail (that’s the official name for a creature most folks label a “rabbit”) would say if it had a chance? The photo, snapped with a first-generation digital camera on West County Road in Sugarloaf, shows the cottontail on the asphalt ribbon’s shoulder, its dark eyes staring upward, frozen in time.
Most roadkill, whether found on Butler Drive in Conyngham or on any other road, amounts to a carcass flattened almost to the point of making species identification difficult. But not this cottontail.
Even making a good guess at the roadkill data in Pennsylvania, or any other state, is hard-to-impossible as even keeping track of the dead of one species – the white-tailed deer – is tricky and time consumptive.
One thing for sure, though. Pennsylvania has to be the dead white-tailed deer champion throughout the species’ wide range. There are several factors at play in that estimation. From the ecological side is this: Pennsylvania has a lot of edge habitat; edge habitat favors habitat generalists, like the white-tail and raccoons, squirrels, opossums, skunks and more. And just like in other eastern states, Pennsylvania keeps on creating even more edge habitat (e.e., the zone between one habitat type (forest) and another (the shoulder of a road). Our society’s zeal for sprawl development and our reliance on the private automobile (the machine that made sprawl happen) mean even more edge habitat and more deer.
My field notebooks tell me this: I’ve now tallied the roadkill dead of 157 animal species, from bumblebees and green darners up to sapsuckers, screech owls, Canada goose, and on and on and on. My overall tally (and, again, most of those numbers were tallied in Pennsylvania) is, surely, quite conservative in scope.
If we were ever able to put together an entire team of naturalists to go out and, say, over a 24-hour period, keep track of every roadkill species found, the final tally would be much higher than what my own field notes reflect.
The solution?
Walk, not drive your car, when you can. Live in already established neighborhoods. Tell your borough council or township supers you do not like the idea of more sprawl development.
And tell them you want our community to be as friendly as it can be toward bicyclists and walkers – forms of transportation that keep practitioners slim, fight obesity, and burn calories, not fossil fuels.
And which save wildlife – our natural heritage.
Look carefully at the accompanying photo of an Eastern Cottontail: What do those eyes tell you?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The raping of our natural heritage

Yes, I know it's not a local, county, state or national "park." That's not the point, though. Most of our natural heritage -- the diversity of life we humans are dependent upon -- exists not on land protected for its conservation value but on the more ordinary places like ridgetop forests in Chittenden County, Vt. Increasingly, that flora and fauna exists in "island" habitats, places that've been cut off from other natural habitat by human artifacts like sprawl development.

I've been walking by this particular land-raping scene for several months now; even watched the earth-moving machines at work.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Local greenhouse gas factory

I shot this snapshot at the 5 Corners intersection in Essex Junction, Vt., yesterday. It's a casebook study on the carbon pollution of the great American motor vehicle. Pollute, pollute, pollute . . .

Fertilizer really a pollutant

See the tiny balls of white stuff next to the edge of the turf grass? Those re pellets of chemical fertilizer spilled on the impervious surface of the sidewalk by the fertilizer applicator. The first rain event that comes long, in turn, washes these pollutants into the nearest storm drain. From there, they travel (along with a lot of other gunk) into the watershed's principal receiving streams and lakes. In this case, that's Lake Champlain. No wonder the lake's water quality is worsening -- all in the name of the great all-American lawn.

This is ground zero among the local greenhouse gas factories. I watched this traffic debacle yesterday at the vaunted 5 Corners intersection in the village of Essex Junction, Vt. It takes several minutes of watching to find an automobile that has more than one person in it. And that means this: There is no carpooling or ride-sharing. The personal motor vee
hikle still rules the roost, I mean the highway.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Delmarva fox squirrel to leave ESA list

From my first visit to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Delmarva, watching for individual Delmarva Fox Squirrels became a mission. Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a proposed rule removing the species from Endangered Species Act listing. That means the species has recovered enough to warrant removal from the list of T/E species. Read the proposed rule here. And here's wa photo of Fox Squirrel habitat.

A thought about cars and nature

From the late great writer Ed Abbey: "We've got to close the parks to private cars if we want to keep them as parks. The parks are for people, not machines. Let the machines find their own parks."
Hah. One could easily apply this thought to any number of places/sites/neighborhoods/municipalities/counties/states and make, in the process, real contributions to the betterment of our collective quality of life.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Traditional vs. McMansion

This is the old, traditional New England house: Small front yard, perhaps 20 feet, at most, set back from a sidewalk; probably some turf grass and likely one or more big shade trees (sugar maple, sycamore, etc.); and a driveway (likely a dirt-and-gravel affair) leading around to the rear of the house and a one-car garage or carport; a bigger yard out back where the first family’s children played.
The modern, sprawl version: A McMansion (ranchette) set way back from a street capable of sustaining three lanes of traffic if need be, likely 50 or more feet back from the curb/sidewalk (if there’s one at all); a three-car garage that dominates the street view and takes up roughly half of the house’s frontal appearance; a two-lane driveway filled with cars, at least one of which is parked so as to block the sidewalk; lots and lots of turf grass, the boundary of which is marked by a little white flag left behind by the chemical fertilizer applicator; a parade of small shrubs stuck in the clay-like soil around the foundation (nearly all of them exotic species like, e.g., Japanese yew, Japanese barberry, mugo pine; and one shade tree, likely a Norway maple (another invasive, alien species) whose trunk is buried beneath a mulch volcano of dyed-red bark mulch.
That’s a quick look, for sure. But the one thing that stands out when considering the modern, trophy home is this: The way in which cars are treated as royalty, even to the point of giving them a luxury bedroom (aka the garage).
More often than not, the “modern” home is at least a mile (likely much more) from the nearest retail store and likely even further from any grocery. The paltry walkability of such houses is easy to determine: Click on Walkscore.com, type in a given address and click again to get the walk “score” for that address.
My own home – a condo, actually – in sprawl-happy Williston has a weak score of 38. That means it is a hike (a real hike) to reach the nearest super-duper market and all the other necessities of daily life (except the local gas station, which is only a quarter-mile away).
What this all means, in the end, is this: Nearly all errands require a car, and that means more pollution, more personal income devoted to caring the automobile (i.e., fuel, insurance, an occasional wash; some detailing perhaps; annual registration; tags and safety inspection, . . .
The car-centric society of which the modern house is a flag-bearer means paving over Wild Nature. I’m reminded of a trailside sign at Bande
lier National Monument, N.M., which carries this headline: “How Much is Enough?”
How much “growth” is enough? Has enough land been set aside to preserve our natural heritage, the diversity of life we are all dependent on?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Judge restores protection for Gray Wolves in Wyoming

The reintroduction of Gray Wolves to the Intermountain West was a real, honest-to-gosh wildlife conservation success story. I remember seeing photos move on the Associated Press wire the day that Intgerior Secretary Bruce Babbit and other high-vis celebrities released the first batch of Canis luplus at Yellowstone. Since that day, the livestock-friendly state lawmakers of Wyoming and Idaho have done their best to kill, rather than sustain, Gray Wolves that now call their states home. Here's some good conservation news.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Sprawl and quality of life in northern Vermont

A daily fitness walk route into and through the village of Essex Junction includes a hilly street named “Woods End” (the apostrophe is missing on the street sign). It’s truth in advertising because the landscape at the top of this street, where it transitions into Briar Lane, is indeed the “end of the woods.”
They’ve all been cleared, save for a few tiny woodlots. The reason? To make way for a new sprawl subdivision named “Village Walks.” The irony? Residents of Village Walks aren’t very likely to walk for groceries or anything else related to being consumers and members of society. But they are extremely likely to drive their personal motor vehicles; and not just to commute to workplaces, but for all the chores of daily life.
Sprawl practically mandates the use of cars. And it reinforces our ongoing proclivity to destroy wild nature, while sprawl itself ruins what at least some folks claim is their reason for moving into exurbia in the first place.
To be fair, it’s not just Essex Junction or even the wider stretch of land called Chittenden County. The sprawl machine is churning out more single-family homes this very minute. Sprawl, because of its reliance on the private automobile, also entails paving over the natural land, and that, in turn, means more storm water tainted with pollutants entering the watershed. In this case that’s Lake Champlain.
As was documented in the field work leading up to publication of The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Vermont, the fragmentation and outright loss of the natural landscape leads to population declines of Vermont’s native birds. It’s hard now to find Vermont’s state bird, the Hermit Thrush, nesting anywhere in the town of Essex.
More than that, though, the sprawl machine diminishes the natural heritage of Vermont – the heritage the older generation should be caring for on behalf of generations to come.
Someone has to pay for the services demanded by new development, and that burden goes to the people who already live in a municipality. Think new schools, new teachers, more school buses, police and fire protection, the sewer lines, street construction and maintenance, more street lights, more power lines, the public library, etc.
And because sprawl demands the use of cars, its carbon footprint is sizeable and ever-growing. That relates to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into our atmosphere by a single household, or neighborhood, or municipality, etc.
As the sprawl machine leapfrogs from yesteryear’s development to this year’s, everyone’s quality of life is harmed: Noise pollution, diminished water quality and loss of outdoor recreational opportunities like favorite fishing holes and hiking trails.
Yes, we’re all deserving of good homes, both for ourselves and our children. But shouldn’t we get people into the many existing houses now on the real estate for-sell lists before wrecking more of our natural countryside?
“Sprawl is expensive. It costs more money to pave a road and connect a sewer line to five families each living a block apart on wooded lots than to build public infrastructure for those same five families living in a condo. It costs more money (and takes more time and gas) to serve those families with garbage trucks, fire engines, and ambulances. And in return . . . those five sprawling single-family homes likely yield less in tax revenue per acre than the apartment building that could house our fictitious residents downtown,” writer Emily Badger states in her “Quantifying the Cost of Sprawl” article for the CityLab Web site (www.citylab.com/).
It’s not difficult to determine whether a neighborhood falls under the heading of “sprawl.” Take a look at it how friendly it is to the wonderful pastime and transportation choice of walking. There’s a Web site, Walkscore.com, that’ll help you do just that.
My own neighborhood (I’m off route 2A just south of the highway’s bridge over the Winooski River) has a pretty weak rating of 31 out of 100. And next to my home’s score are the words, “Most errands require a car.” That’s true for a bunch of things: Shopping for groceries, getting a haircut, visiting the dentist and family doctor, picking up prescription meds. Walking to the closest grocery can be done. It takes an hour or so, as I discovered a few days ago, and some of the hike involves walking on the highway shoulder (not good).
Homes in the neighborhood along Kiln Road (a new street at the top of Woods End) score even weaker than mine. The tag line for the address number I typed into the Walkscore.com search engine is 18 (almost all errands require a car).
Not all sprawl development scores so low. The Finney Crossing project across Williston Road from the Maple Tree Plaza shopping district has a walk score of 69 (Some errands can be accomplished on foot). But the housing project is chewing up former farm land.
CityLab again: “Sprawl may not be a four-letter word, but to many people it might as well be. You can include in that group the researchers at Smart Growth America, the national nonprofit coalition that advocates for ‘smart’ development in U.S. metro areas—i.e., cities and towns with neighborhoods where people can walk or bike or use mass transit to get things done, rather than driving everywhere.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What automobiles emit (and walkers breath)

Most motorists will neither care nor give a damn about these facts. Too bad. My daily fitness walks take me right up to the sidewalk vs. street border of the 5 Corners intersection in Essex Junction, Vt. Walkers like me get to breath all this “stuff” as we do our thing, burning calories not a fossil fuel, aka gasoline.

Vehicle emissions are created from the incomplete combustion of gasoline or diesel. Other factors such as emission controls, engine design, and vehicle maintenance may affect vehicle emissions.
Vehicles emit many pollutants into the air, including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and volatile organic compounds. These pollutants then combine to form secondary pollutants such as fine particulate matter and ozone. While emissions from an individual vehicle may be minimal compared to an industrial source, emissions from many vehicles on the road at one time can have a serious impact on air quality.
Pollutants emitted from vehicles can lead to poor visibility and health problems such as asthma and respiratory illness. Pollutants also can damage buildings and affect the quality of water resources.
Under the Clean Air Act, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set protective health-based standards for ozone and other pollutants in the air we breathe. Failure to meet the ozone and other standards over a period of time can result in an area being designated nonattainment by EPA. States strive to achieve attainment with the standards to ensure that public health is protected, promote economic growth, avoid the potential loss of federal highway funding, and preclude the time and cost required to develop and implement plans to re-attain attainment status. Learn more.
The most effective way to reduce emissions from your vehicle is to use it less.
  • Ride the bus, carpool, and share trips to reduce the number of cars emitting pollutants. If possible, choose nonpolluting travel such as walking or biking.
  • Reduce commuting. Choose to live close to your work.
  • Organize a carpool at your work. Call 345-POOL for help.
  • Combine trips to the same areas. Once you arrive, park your car and walk between destinations.
  • Avoid driving during peak traffic hours or in stop-and-go traffic.
All cars emit some pollutants; poorly maintained cars emit the most. A properly tuned car runs better, gets better gas mileage, and pollutes less.
  • Get regular tune-ups. Vehicles with worn spark plugs or clogged fuel or air filters do not run efficiently and emit more pollution.
  • Keep tires properly inflated and wheels aligned to reduce tire drag on the road. Gas mileage drops 1% for every pound below the recommended level of pressure.
  • Do not top off the gas tank. This allows harmful chemicals to escape into the air.
The harder your engine works, the more gas it burns, and the more tailpipe emissions you create.
  • Avoid carrying unneeded items. Each extra 100 pounds increases the amount of gas used by 4%.
  • Place items inside the vehicle instead of on roof racks. Remove roof racks when not in use. The wind drag from a rack increases gas consumption by almost 1 mile per gallon.
  • Drive at a medium speed. Most cars get the best gas mileage between 35 and 45 miles per hour.
  • Drive at a steady speed. Avoid stop-and-go traffic and take it easy on the brake and gas pedals.
  • Use the air conditioner only when necessary. Air conditioners can reduce your gas mileage by 20%.
  • Avoid long idles at drive-up windows or when waiting. Restarting a warm engine takes less fuel than letting it run for just 30 seconds.
  • During hot summer months, fuel vehicles in the evening to facilitate dissipation of volatile organic compounds that contribute to ozone formation.