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How to be a competent locally based conservation practitioner

6 Oct

So I’m reading this book edited by David E Naugle about conservation and energy development, and up comes this list in chapter 12 about key traits for hiring competent locally based conservation practitioners for working with a local community on landscape-scale approaches to conservation. You must “be aligned with core [organizational] values like integrity and excellence, be composed, deal well with ambiguity, drive for results, be interpersonally savvy, learn on the fly, be partnership oriented, have patience, perseverance, and political savvy, size people up well, and be a strategic thinker.”

Fortunately for me I’m not a locally based conservation practitioner, because I feel like I do about half those things reasonably well on my best days. This list highlights how hard it is to put conservation into practice when you’re not just a biologist or a government person telling people what to do–you’re a part of the community, leading from behind, listening and staying put for years.

I imagined what it would be like if I were to go to my first community conservation meeting in a small Western town, up in the Rockies, with people already committed to conservation and ready to begin a partnership. What do you think, would it be effective to start by standing up and saying:

“Hi everyone, I’m an overeducated treehugging Easterner here to work on landscape conservation. I’m 20 years younger than you and I stink at hunting and fishing but I love backpacking and kayaking. The good news is, the other 99.999% of our DNA is the same, and I feel as deeply connected to the place I come from, the Florida Everglades, as you do to the Front Range. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do when I’m in the woods and I ache when the woods get hurt. I want that landscape to be there for my children and I want my children to enjoy it and see it as their landscape, conserved but not preserved. I like bacon for breakfast and have a hard time getting out of bed some mornings. I look forward to meeting you all and talking conservation around the conference tables and politics over coffee. Thanks.”


Arresting Fear with Hope

2 Sep

My mother says I was never afraid of anything as a child.  I would run laughing into huge waves on the beach and climb trees so tall it made my brother dizzy to try and follow.  I am fortunate enough to have a family and personal safety net that means I do not fear the lack of food or a roof over my head.

And yet I live every day with fear, a deeply personal and also political kind of fear that is at the same time a bit laughable in the light of day and devastatingly realistic.  Climate change threatens my future and the people and places I love, and the physics of the atmosphere mean that there is no way to undo the damage we have already caused–all we can do is wait to see what the effects will be.  I find this terrifying, and even more so that our country has been so helpless (and in denial, and backwards, and corrupted) in response to the threat.

I usually deal with this diffuse sense of fear and helplessness in self-consciously quirky ways, like practicing survival skills and learning first aid, navigation, and other useful post-apocalyptic strategies.  I also try not to think about it too much if I don’t have to.  Last night, however, I did think about it, and I talked about my fear.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, Canada.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada. Photo credit Elias Schewel via Flickr.

At Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, over one hundred people gathered for a four-hour peaceful action training to prepare for a demonstration the next day.  We had come from all over the nation: California, Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nebraska, West Virginia, even Alaska.  Some were from DC, of course, but it was astonishing how many had come from so far away.  They had come for one purpose: to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and the increased tar sands mining and burning it will facilitate.

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The Science of Survival: Sit down and have a snack!

22 Aug

It’s very easy for us to get lost in the woods. Science has discovered that people are constitutionally incapable of walking in straight lines when they don’t have markers they know how to follow:

A Mystery: Why Can’t We Walk Straight? from NPR on Vimeo.

So it’s helpful to learn how to track and trail, and how to use natural features as “handholds” so you have a sense of how you fit in the landscape. The technique ranges from dead-simple to highly complex, beginning with the easy part: pick a relatively distant, immobile feature (mountain, bump in the landscape, really big tree on the horizon) and determine which direction you want to go, relative to it. Now, as you travel, just keep that feature in sight at about the same angle to your body as it was when you picked your direction. So if you think you should go straight ahead and there’s a distinctive mountain top off to your right, keep it to your right as you walk. Remember to reassess periodically and pick a new feature, or you will manage to walk in a beautiful circle all around that mountain…

When I teach my wilderness skills and survival classes, I always say the number one thing to do if you get lost or find yourself in a frightening situation is: “sit down, and have a snack.” You need to get out of the cycle of self-doubt and settle your judgement, as well as boost your energy for the challenging decisions you’re about to make as you try to get found or simply stay safe. And if you’re sitting down, you’re resting and you can hydrate, check your map, rearrange your gear, or clean the dirt out of your boots. These are all useful survival activities! Now science comes along to support my advice:

The brain, like the rest of the body, derived energy from glucose, the simple sugar manufactured from all kinds of foods. To establish cause and effect, researchers at Baumeister’s lab tried refueling the brain in a series of experiments involving lemonade mixed either with sugar or with a diet sweetener. The sugary lemonade provided a burst of glucose, the effects of which could be observed right away in the lab; the sugarless variety tasted quite similar without providing the same burst of glucose. Again and again, the sugar restored willpower, but the artificial sweetener had no effect. The glucose would at least mitigate the ego depletion and sometimes completely reverse it. The restored willpower improved people’s self-control as well as the quality of their decisions: they resisted irrational bias when making choices, and when asked to make financial decisions, they were more likely to choose the better long-term strategy instead of going for a quick payoff.

via Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? –

So while it’s no substitute for the many other things you should know how to do or for pure common sense and survival instinct in terms of getting through a sticky situation in the woods, just remember that science backs it up: when in trouble outdoors, first thing to do is sit down and have a snack.

Reviving Dead Stuff

9 Aug

Last week I attended the National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration (NCER 2011) in Baltimore, MD.  It was a four-and-a-half day conference, with about 700 attendees, almost all of whom gave presentations or posters.  It was packed, exhausting, and exhilarating!  It was great to meet so many people in such an amazing field: the field of bringing dead stuff back to life again.

I think there’s a lot of communicative value in the concept of ecosystem restoration, and a lot of room for political maneuvering and public support.  Storm Cunningham of REVITALIZ made this point in a workshop, and I agree with him: people love fixing dead things.  It’s so much easier to sell the idea of making some dirty, brown place green again and see that transformation than it is to rally uninterested citizens around contributing money or taxes for preservation of a place they never go to anyway.  So here’s the question: can revitalization, renewal, and restoration be tied to climate change somehow?

I think one of our best bets in this regard may be in coastal area restoration, where regaining some of the lost functions of the ecosystem will make shorelines more resilient to extreme weather, sea level rise, and saltwater intrusion into aquifers.

A design firm's vision for the restoration of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or "MRGO".

Thoughts on a laundry line

27 Jul

How does this:

lead to this: ?

And how is this:

related to this: ?

Many people have very skewed perceptions of how to conserve or save energy. Understandably, I think. Many of us have heard for years that we should turn off light bulbs when we leave a room, or use CFLs, or turn our computers off at night. Which we should! But it turns out “green fatigue” is a real thing, and just as research has shown that our we can wear out our will power (“self control is a limited resource”), we can wear out our desire to do right by the environment. This is especially true when we underestimate the power of our actions, and lose desire to further reduce our carbon footprint after, say, changing out all the lightbulbs. If a little more environmentally aware, it’s easy to bargain with yourself. I do this all the time: for example, I tell myself, “well, it’s OK to drive downtown today instead of bike, because I didn’t eat any meat over the past few days.”

Mean perceptions of energy used or saved as a function of actual energy used or saved for 15 devices and activities. The diagonal dashed line represents perfect accuracy. Inset: Individual regression curves for 30 randomly selected participants. (Attari et al 2010)

Shahzeen Attari and colleagues published a study last year examining the disconnect between consumers’ perceptions of how much energy a certain action uses or conserves and how much that action actually uses or conserves. It turns out, unsurprisingly, there’s a big gap, as shown in the figure excerpted from their paper. We are pretty accurate at estimating the energy use of low-ticket items, like replacing bulbs or unplugging electronics, but really bad at estimating the potential savings from line-drying our clothes and finding alternatives for big-ticket appliances like central A/C, dish washers, and space heaters. Note that the figure is charted on a logarithmic scale…meaning that the big ticket items are thousands of times more energy consumptive than the smaller ones.

Their findings, combined with the green fatigue concept, show a part of the reason why it’s so hard for us to reduce our overall energy consumption: if we perceive that unplugging our desktop computer is just as good for the environment as line-drying our clothing, any sensible person would do the much easier one. But in reality, turning off the clothes dryer is about 30 times more energy conserving than unplugging the computer. With green fatigue, we do the easy one, genuinely think we’ve done enough, and then…stop there.

That’s where the flooding comes in. False certainty about energy use means we’re not in control of our energy-driven carbon emissions, which are contributing to higher and higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The planet is heating up and more heat in the oceans and atmosphere means more severe weather events of all kinds, from this summer’s global heat wave (and last summer’s too, for that matter) to flooding in the midwest, Australia, Pakistan, and elsewhere around the world. The current concentration of carbon dioxide-equivalent gases in the atmosphere is 391 parts per million, and scientists have said we need to get back below 350 ppm to avert climate catastrophe.

So let’s line dry our clothes. It takes longer, it’s true. I’ve been doing it for the past two years (except in the dead of winter) and I hate hauling clothes around. But it gets me outside, it keeps me in touch with the weather. I don’t have to save as many quarters for my coin-op basement machines. I talk to my neighbors more. They call me if it looks like rain and I haven’t noticed yet.

As a matter of fact, it’s time to go do some laundry right now!

Bat guano, bones, rock mining, and clean water

7 Jul

Yale e360 has an article today about the importance and future scarcity of phosphate, a key mineral in fertilizers and therefore essential to our ability to feed ourselves.  Read the article and you can learn that phosphate, which is a key ingredient in animal bones and supplies phosphorous to plants, has long been used to boost fertility in agriculture and it is now inseparable from modern farming practices.  During the era of the British empire the mineral was shipped around the world in the form of bones to be ground into bonemeal, and later it was shoveled up from huge historic piles of bat and bird guano.  Some tiny islands in the Pacific, that were essentially just bird colonies, were leveled almost to the ever-encroaching tide line as their guano was mined and shipped away.  Now, phosphate is mined largely from deposits of mineral-rich rock, with most of the world’s exports coming from Morocco.  Other significant deposits are in the US and China, which use them mainly for their own use and don’t export them.  This brings me to this interesting passage, at the bottom of the article:

Phosphate strip mines are environment wreckers. They produce around 150 million tons of toxic spoil a year. Their massive draglines, huge slurry pipes, and mountainous spoil heaps dominate the landscape for tens of miles in key mining zones, whether in the North African desert or in Florida, a state that still provides three-quarters of American farmers’ phosphate needs.

The world’s largest mine is at Four Corners in an area known as Bone Valley in central Florida. The Four Corners mine covers 58,000 acres, an area five times the size of Manhattan. It is owned by Mosaic, a company recently spun off from agribusiness giant Cargill. Next door is the world’s second-largest mine, South Fort Meade. But South Fort Meade is living on borrowed time — its expansion plans are being opposed by local groups, and unless it can expand, the mine will have to close.

As the drag mines move south in Florida, anger has been growing about the environmental impacts. A million tons of mine waste, containing lows levels of radioactivity, are already piled up at dump sites around the state, and disputes are growing over promised mine cleanups. Rivers have dried up, and settling ponds have leaked.

Last year, the local chapter of the Sierra Club went to court to block Mosaic’s plans to extend the life of the South Fort Meade mine by expanding its footprint. The group is concerned about the fate of the Peace River, a vital source of Florida’s drinking water; it says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave approval for the expansion without first conducting a full environmental audit. The case is unresolved to date.

As for the impending shortages of phosphate, will technological advances and market forces solve the problem? We certainly waste a lot of this most valuable resource. Globally, we allow some 37 million tons of phosphorus to spill into the environment each year. It mostly flows down sewers and agricultural drains into rivers and lakes, where it feeds the growth of toxic cyanobacteria and consumes oxygen, creating eutrophication and “dead zones.”

Ah, eutrophication.  Now we’re looking at water quality.  As a matter of fact, these tremendous phosphate mines in Florida sit at the western edge of the Everglades, consuming huge quantities of land and wetland:


The movie above ends with the plea “Please stop phosphate mining.”  It’s not that simple.  Our entire agricultural model is built upon the availability of phosphorous inputs, and there is no engineered replacement for mined phosphorous (unlike nitrogen, which can be produced from petroleum).  The proposal of another anti-mining advocate is not much better:

Fortunately, the solution is easy. We did it for our first 100,000 years, and we’re the only creatures not currently doing it. The answer is eat, poo, and die in one place.

That doesn’t mean we all have to be farmers, but it does mean we need to be localvores and get over being sqweamish about the fact that we’re animals that are part of the web of life.

Plant food in your yard. Buy the food you don’t grow from local farmers. Insist on pasture raised meat. Compost every organic material you can find. Crap in a bucket. When it’s time to die, have yourself planted in the ground without preservatives so that a tree can build itself out of the molecules you’ve been using.

It’s just not practical for going on 7 billion people to “eat, poo, and die in one place” anymore.  The phosphorous that contributes to poor water quality comes not just directly from mining (permitted in Florida by the Army Corps, which is also responsible for the restoration of the nearby Everglades, which suffers from eutrophication) but from farm runoff all over the world–and we need those farms.  Their productivity would drop dramatically without added phosphorous.

What to do?  It’s too hard to say.  As a finite resource we may be approaching “peak phosphate,” and as we are currently seeing with concerns about “peak oil,” it is very hard to make a global switch in fuels or raw materials used at such a large scale.  Just as with oil, however, we will need to find technological, economic, and behavioral ways to wean ourselves off of phosphate before price and scarcity make it nigh impossible to find.


Thanks to Gabriel Mejias for a tip about the e360 article!

“Essayons!”: The Army Corps of Engineers and Water Management

28 Jun

In pursuing my Master of Environmental Science degree at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I conducted research on the Army Corps of Engineers to examine whether and how the institutional culture of the agency has been changing in response to increased societal pressure to concentrate on environmental management and protection.  The unique perspective this research gave me on the culture and history of the Corps inspired this analysis on the agency’s current challenges.

This is the first in a series of posts about the Army Corps.  This first post contains background on the Army Corps, its history of flood control management, and some of the factors behind the strength of this year’s flooding.

Army Corps red and white castle logo

The Army Corps of Engineers usually lies pretty low.  Engineers speaking earnestly while wearing hard hats and castle logos do not make for very tempting paparazzi bait, so the last time we heard this much about them was five years ago, when the levees failed in New Orleans during Katrina.  Five years before that they were also in the news, when journalist and author Mike Grunwald wrote a series for The Washington Post detailing pork-barrel spending, economic boondoggles, environmental destruction, and other ills that he considers the hallmarks of the agency.

2011 Spring Flooding in Minot, ND. From ND Dept. of Emergency Services

We’re beginning to hear from the Corps again as the divisions on the shores of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries are forced to make tremendous decisions day after day in order to deal with the record-smashing flooding in that region. These rivers, along with the Ohio river, cover over 1 million square miles of the United States.   More small communities and tracts of cropland fall victim daily to inundation as levees either fail due to the incoming cascades of water or are deliberately destroyed in order to spare an urban or industrial center downstream.

Interesting–it turns out that when the Army Corps makes the news, it’s usually for something terrible.  It almost makes you feel sorry for them.

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Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

21 Jun

Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  I was thinking of writing about the beauty of the passage of time, of watching and noticing the way the light changes and taking joy in it–but, James Carroll at the Boston Globe said it much better than I could:

Intimate awareness of nature and its cycles…was an ancient mode of survival. But survival is at issue again. Noticing the length of light now, reveling in the sun’s achievement, rejoicing in Earth’s perfect balance, honoring the summer solstice — loving it: This is how we became human, and it is how we stay human.

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, reads “The Summer Day,” which ends with the beautiful line that titles this post:

Happy solstice!

Climate change: do not, I repeat, do not be alarmed

15 Jun

A recent post on Grist  highlights the writings of a guy who really thinks hard about nexus and connections, Bill McKibben of  His May Washington Post op-ed was turned into a video mashup (below) by Stephen Thompson of Plomomedia, and it is must-see.  I was going to comment further about the connections between climate change and extreme weather events, but well, you should just watch the video or read the op-ed and see for yourself.

One point, though: it is not pessimistic or apocalyptic to point out the reality of what is going on right now.  We need to adapt to climate change as it is and as it will be on the ground, and there’s plenty of tough adjustment to be done without scaring one another about far-off probabilities.  This video uses current news footage to show what’s happening now.  It’s frightening because it’s a wake-up call, but we can deal with it if we get to work now.

About this blog: with a significant nexus to navigable waters

14 Jun

“Wetlands possess the requisite [significant] nexus, and thus come within the statutory phrase ‘navigable waters,’ if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as ‘navigable’.”

–Justice Kennedy’s concurrence in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715, 780 (U.S. 2006)

In two rulings over the past ten years the Supreme Court dramatically narrowed the definition of “navigable waters of the United States” for the purpose of maintaining federal jurisdiction over wetlands under the Clean Water Act.  The most recent case, Rapanos, set a confusing multi-part standard that has essentially boiled down to Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” concept as summarized above.  As a wetlands ecologist and water resources manager, the case fascinates me as an example of the tangled jurisprudential relationship that the United States has with its land, air, and water resources.  How can a wetland not have a significant “chemical, physical, [or] biological” nexus with other waters of the United States?  The water cycle by definition is not confined to any one place, phase, or administrative jurisdiction.  Ecologically, not only is all water within the United States a “water of the United States,” but it is also a water of the rest of the world.  Human legal structures were created to give meaning to the socio-cultural systems that we created, but they fail in strange ways when confronted with ecological systems where property, boundaries, and rights are meaningless.

Walking in the Big Cypress with my father

As a policy analyst and a citizen, I wonder where else this significant nexus concept might be useful.  It’s a strong (if ultimately unhelpful) attempt by Justice Kennedy to make sense of two completely different systems of existence (legal and natural), and as such creates a model for thinking about other cases where different systems interact or clash.

This blog will be an attempt to explore the significant nexuses we confront when we work in the environmental field.  People and ecosystems have so much in common, yet we insist upon seeing ourselves as separate.  When we bump into the reality of the ecological world, we find nexuses that surprise us and invite us in.

I will try to update about once a week.  Please jump in, comment away, and send me your thoughts and links!