Thursday, October 16, 2014

Trees and the human quality of life

This is a newspaper column I just dashed off.

I saw a sign like this – actually a placard – only one other time in two decades of exploring both natural lands and urban places in Pennsylvania.
And that previous time wasn’t in a spot of public land. It was on the grounds of the Phipps Conservatory in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh.
The recent find: I was hiking along an urban thoroughfare from Point A (a parking lot in front of a strip mall) to Point B (the Church Street Marketplace) in Burlington, Vt., when the 6X10-inch sign placed at eye level in the crook of a northern oak tree invited me to look closer.
(Learn about the Church Street Marketplace at
“Please . . . love this tree,” said the sign’s headline next to a black-on-white impression of a tree with spreading crown.
Then: “It gives you shade and clean air to breathe.”
Indeed it does. Indeed they do.
More: “Water and care for it like it’s your own. This tree was planted by the Burlington Parks and Recreation Department. What type of tree is it?”
The closer: “This tree was grown by volunteers of Branch Out Burlington! In the Bulrington Community Tree Nursery. For more information on urban tree care:
So Plant a tree, not a lawn (a.k.a. a turf farm). Here’s why:
-        Trees combat the greenhouse effect (To produce its food, a tree absorbs and locks away carbon dioxide in the wood, roots and leaves. Carbon dioxide is a global warming gas. A forest is a carbon storage area or a "sink" that can lock up as much carbon as it produces. This locking-up process "stores" carbon as wood and not as a global-warming "greenhouse" gas.
-        Trees clean the air;
-        Trees provide oxygen;
-        Trees cool the streets and the city;
-        Trees conserve energy and water;
-        Trees help prevent water pollution;
-        Trees slow runoff and hold soil in place;
-        Trees buffer noise pollution sources;
-        Trees act as wind breaks;
-        Trees make great places to hide in the childhood game of hide-and-seek, and the big ones are perfect locales for tree houses.
I remember many favorite trees, trees that I loved on first glance.
-        My first Alligator Juniper tree in south-central New Mexico;
-        The Shabark Hickory I once gawked at every time I stood near its trunk along Little Nescopeck Creek a mile from Conyngham;
-        The 1,000-year-old Douglas-fir wife Monica photographed me standing next to in the Grove of the Patriarchs, Mt. Rainer National Park, Washington State;
-        The Hackberry I planted in the backyard of our home in Conyngham;
-        And the big Yellow Birch I hugged uphill of the back side of Heart Lake, Adirondacks.
Take a moment; reflect back on your own encounters with the trees of Wild Nature. And ask your local municipality’s leaders why it doesn’t have a similar nature education program in place.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Scientific integrity and facts

Dear Alan:
It is often said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own set of facts. That is not the case in government where there is a rich history of political appointees ordering up their own facts by manipulating the documentary record and deep-sixing discordant facts.

This right was reinforced by the Roberts Supreme Court which ruled in 2006 – Justice Samuel Alito’s first swing vote – that government employees have no (as in zero) First Amendment free speech rights when acting within their scope of duty because, the court reasoned, the government owns their speech. 
Like a volcanic island rising from the seabed, a new body of science law is fitfully evolving.  PEER has played a pioneering role in helping adopt and apply new scientific integrity rulesprohibiting political manipulation of technical works and declaring transparency in scientific matters for all federal employees, contractors and grantees.  These new rules vary from agency to agency, are uneven, incomplete and poorly enforced – but it is a start.
The stakes could not be higher.
From global climate change to nanotechnology, the economic and political implications of environmental research have never been greater.  For that reason, so too are the pressures to quash off-message findings and those who create them. 
By conferring legal status on scientific work-products and those who create them we can reform the way decisions in public service are made. By arming scientists and technical specialists with the ability to indelibly embed inconvenient facts in the record, we force political appointees to confront what they would prefer buried. 
PEER is founded on the notion that the key agents of reform are those within who intimately know whether change is real or merely rhetorical.  Please help us do this work.
Jeff Ruch
Executive DirectorP.S. Watch the NBC Nightly News report on the dangers of synthetic turf and tire crumb featuring University of Washington goalie coach Amy Griffin, who came to PEER to ask for our help in elevating the profile of this story and inducing agencies to begin doing meaningful risk assessments of a product they formerly claimed was safe.
P.P.S.  Meanwhile, in Malibu, the schools have finally promised to remove any toxic PCB contamination above federal limits – the catch is that they refuse to look for it.
P.P.P.S. Across the country at Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore, the Park Service once again shows that it stirs to action only when exposed as corrupt.
The two-year-old investigative report PEER unearthed quotes the park superintendent blaming all Canaveral’s problems, including her $800/month work cell phone bills, on a “small group of White Caucasians” who have the misfortune to work under her.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A look back at a Raven nest and more

This is a fresh newspaper column I finished today.

A week or so passed before I ventured far enough down-slope to see the spot where a family was started.
The flat rock, protected from weather by a rock/earth overhang, had been used not too many years previous by a nesting pair of Common Ravens. A collection of sturdy, weathered sticks – likely pulled from snags and live trees – marked the nesting site. I photographed it at least a dozen times, but those pix were taken with slide film and I just can’t fathom the notion of loading tray after tray of slides onto my aged projector to find the Raven nest pix. (The slides are priceless as slide film and slide projectors aren’t freely available anymore.)
Ravens, known by the scientific name Corvus corax, haven’t nested now for at least two decades on that ledge that’s part of the Council Cup promontory overlooking the Susquehanna River valley. But Peregrine Falcons returned as nesters a few years into the new century, a sign that a bit of avian wildness had returned to the river valley.
Ravens, though, remain a favorite of mine because even to hear one croak as it flies over, oftentimes too distant to see with naked eyes, is a positive sign of Wild Nature.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Web site says this about the calls of ravens: “Common Ravens make many different kinds of calls varying from a low, gurgling croak to harsh grating sounds and shrill alarm calls. Scientists have placed their vocalizations into as many as 33 different categories based on sound and context.
“The most commonly heard is the classic gurgling croak, rising in pitch and seeming to come from the back of the throat. It’s much deeper and more musical than a crow’s simple, scratchy caw. Ravens make this call often. It’s audible for more than a mile, and ravens often give it in response to other ravens they hear in the distance. Among their other calls, ravens make short, repeated, shrill calls when chasing predators or trespassers, and deep, rasping calls when their nests are disturbed.
“Dominant females sometimes make a rapid series of 12 or so loud knocking sounds that lasts about a second. Common Ravens can mimic other birds, and when raised in captivity can even be taught words.”
You can listen to the classic cr-r-ruck call and other sounds ravens make at
In Pennsylvania, ravens like forested mountainous areas. Many times, though, while observing and tallying birds for the Southern Bradford County Christmas Bird Count, ravens voiced their thoughts, their rasping notes carrying for long distances across the otherwise quiet early-winter landscape. But the species sometimes shows up in spots closer to humans. On overnight visits to a friend’s home at Boalsburg, Centre County, it was commonplace to both see and hear ravens nearby.
How do tell a raven apart from the more common American Crow? The principle field mark is size: Ravens are much larger. offers these clues: “Not just large but massive, with a thick neck, shaggy throat feathers, and a Bowie knife of a beak. In flight, ravens have long, wedge-shaped tails. They're more slender than crows, with longer, narrower wings, and longer, thinner ‘fingers’ at the wingtips.
“Common Ravens are entirely black, right down to the legs, eyes, and beak. Common Ravens aren’t as social as crows; you tend to see them alone or in pairs except at food sources like landfills. Ravens are confident, inquisitive birds that strut around or occasionally bound forward with light, two-footed hops. In flight they are buoyant and graceful, interspersing soaring, gliding, and slow flaps.”
A raven that was rehabilitated from an injury is now among the educators at The Wild Center, the natural history museum of the Adirondacks, Tupper Lake, N.Y.
Nieces and I watched studiously as a museum docent – raven perched on his gloved hand – told museum visitors the bird’s life history. For me, it sparked memories of “Ravens in Winter” author Bernd Heinrich’s visit to Penn State Hazleton for an early 90s’ public lecture.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fighting blight, the Vermont way

Note: This column of mine was published in the Hazleton, Pa., daily five years ago, but its message remains meaningful.

The state of Vermont recently celebrated a major anniversary, and it had nothing to do with the construction of a professional sports arena, subdivision, airport or other land-consuming project.
Vermont, in 1968, said “no” to the placement – anywhere in the Green Mountain State – of new billboards, those oftentimes mammoth placards atop steel posts that scream to passing motorists, urging them to buy this product or that service.
Although several states have followed Vermont’s lead, the Green Mountain State was the first to outlaw billboards and enact a set of stringent rules regulating all kinds of other signage. The 1968 law prohibits privately owned, off-premise signs and restricts the size, height, and distance from roads of said signs. Signs also aren’t allowed to have moving parts or flashing lights. All signs are forbidden on the legal right-of-way. Communities may adopt laws more stringent than the state’s.
Proponents of Vermont’s billboard law point with pride to the state’s scenic, uncluttered roadsides as a key attraction for visitors, especially the thousands-upon-thousands of “leaf-peepers” who visit Vermont to view the bright foliage of autumn. (These same roadsides benefit from the anti-litter campaign launched when the state began requiring sellers of many canned and bottled beverages to pay a 5-cent deposit per container to customers returning them.)
"Whereas, billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising are becoming a matter of increasing concern to many residents . . .”
So began the joint resolution of the Vermont State Assembly in 1967, when it created the Committee to Study Outdoor Advertising, which included future U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords.  It held public hearings, conducted research and reviewed the relevant law on outdoor advertising.
The committee's report, in part, stated: "Our scenic resources . . . have contributed much to our economic development by attracting tourists, . . . residents, and new industries and cultural facilities. . . .[T]he scattering of outdoor advertising throughout the state is detrimental to the preservation of these resources, and consequently to the economic base of the state."
So, in the following year, Vermont prohibited new billboards and provided an amortization period of five years to remove existing billboards.  By 1974, Vermont had felled its last billboard.
In 1997, the state commissioned an independent study of outdoor advertising to review the success of the billboard ban and to assess other forms of advertising.  Public opinion polls and studies echoed the 1967 report.  The study stated that traveler information solutions must maintain Vermont's quality environment, continue to prohibit billboards, and prevent sign clutter.
Businesses still receive the state government’s help through the posting of small chest-high signs devoid of accouterments which simply identify its name and travel distance.
Some Googling turned up choice statements like this one attributed to former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm: "Billboards contribute a minuscule amount to our economic well-being, but they impose a high cost.  They detract from Colorado's attractiveness to tourists and from the pleasant surroundings for our residents."
At the municipal level, more than 700 communities nationwide prohibit the construction of new billboards.  Why? Because billboard control improves community character and quality of life – both of which directly impact local economies. In fact, despite billboard industry claims to the contrary, communities and states that enact tough billboard controls have actually enjoyed strong economic growth (the current recission aside).
While some signs are necessary to provide directions to travelers, most billboards merely contribute to visual clutter – also known as “blight.”  For example, on one section of road in Hampton, Va. (and I have driven this very stretch), there were so many signs that a driver going 45 miles per hour would need to read 1,363 words per minutes just to understand all the information.  That is five times the normal reading speed of a stationary person.
The billboard industry often claims that controlling outdoor advertising will, over time, create economic ghost towns.  In fact, the undeniable aesthetic improvements to a community that come from controlling billboards actually helps its economy, notes Scenic America, a non-profit organization founded, in part, on the strength of Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to beautify America’s roadsides.
Billboards are both a symptom and cause of urban blight. And the presence of fewer signs actually signals a community’s economic health.
Mull this tidbit from Scenic America: Communities can thrive without billboards, because most billboards have no connection to the local economy.  They advertise either national brands or out-of-state products and services . . . Billboard industry naysayers claim that businesses such as gas stations and eating and drinking establishments would be financially hurt by reducing or eliminating their outdoor ads.  On the contrary, in cities and towns such as Williamsburg, Va., Raleigh, N.C., and Houston the period following implementation of stricter billboard controls and/or bans on new billboard construction was marked by steady growth of sales in those industries.
Consider what happened in Raleigh: Sales for eating and drinking establishments rose from $243 million in 1989, before billboard control, to $307 million in 1992, after controls were introduced, a rise of about 20 percent.
Billboard control is especially key for communities that depend on tourism.  According to the Travel Industry Association of America, travelers spent $541 billion nationwide in 1999.  The President's Commission on Americans Outdoors reported that “natural beauty” was the most important criteria for adults choosing a site for outdoor recreation.  “The more a community does to enhance its unique natural, scenic, historic, and architectural assets, the more tourists it attracts.”
Back to the scenic vistas of Vermont: When the Green Mountain State took down its last billboard in 1975, the state’s tourism revenues increased by more than 50 percent in the following three years. The president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce noted at the time: "Although there was some initial sensitivity that removing billboards might hurt tourism, it has had the opposite effect.  Tourism is up for all businesses large and small."
Many prime tourist nations prohibit new billboard construction even as their tourism revenues keep rising. The long list includes Martha's Vineyard, Mass.; Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, N.C.; South Padre Island, Texas; Santa Fe, N.M.; Aspen and Boulder, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon.
Vermont is hardly alone at banning billboards statewide. The others include Hawaii and Maine and each continues drawing people from around the world to view their scenic wonders.
Remember these lessons from elsewhere the next time you’re motoring along a well-traveled Pennsylvania highway.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Truth in the naming of new streets

We’ve all seen the signposts telling us that we’re about to turn onto such and such street. In sprawl U.S. of A., the streets are often named after the trees that were felled/cleared to make way for ribbons of sphalt, McMansions and turf farms (and lookie younder at the three-car garage).
Well, instead of such monikers as “Maple  Street,” “Pine Circle,” “Hemlock Avenue” and “Oak Hill Drive,” lets convince the sprawl developers to name their streets in keeping with what really happened.
So, here are my choices for street names for the next sprawl debacle coming soon to a municipality near you: Clearcut Avenue, Logjam Street, Bulldozed Acres Circle, Wildlife Gone Avenue, Carbon Footprint Beltway, Turf Farm Alley, Chainsaw Boulevard, 3-lane Court, Congestion Highway, Engine Idling Motorway, and Backhoe Drive.
Suggestions welcome