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Rekindling the Practice of Cultural Burning: An Act of Climate Hope

Mon, 01/23/2023 - 05:00

After more than 100 years of suppressing the West’s fires, land managers and government agencies are finally warming to the idea that fire can be beneficial — and necessary — for many landscapes.

This idea is far from new among Indigenous communities in the region. For many Tribes, the use of fire to manage plant communities was common practice until it was outlawed by colonizers.

Today, as climate change increases threats of more severe and more frequent large-scale wildfires, Tribes are re-engaging with the practice of Indigenous-led fire — also referred to as cultural burning. These smaller and lower intensity burns can help replenish soil nutrients that aid native plants and restore the land.

“There’s this inherent fear of fire right now that’s totally justifiable,” says Melinda Adams, who is studying the reclamation of cultural burns as a doctoral student in the department of Native American Studies at University of California, Davis. “So what we try to do as practitioners is to work on reestablishing that good relationship, that respectful relationship, because fire is a relative too.”

The Revelator spoke with Adams about how cultural burning changes the land, why attitudes about it are shifting, and what it can do for communities.

How did you become interested in cultural burning?

I come from a Tribe in Arizona, and I grew up in New Mexico, and I went to a Tribal college in Lawrence, Kansas. It was in the Midwest that I started being interested in fire through research with biochar. I’ve worked with pyrolysis and making soil amendments, creating them and putting them back into the soils to regenerate some of the more highly degraded soils that we have in the Midwest due to mining or over-usage by agriculture.

I did prairie burns, which are culturally significant to Tribes in the Midwest for food, medicine and basket materials.

Now at U.C. Davis my dissertation topic concentrates on land-stewardship practices that have been created and sustained by Indigenous peoples of what we now know as the United States, and specifically in what we know as California.

I am a trained ecologist and environmental scientist. I’m studying the physical and chemical soil responses of what we’re calling “good fire” — that’s cultural fire led by Native practitioners. These burns differ from what a government agency would consider a prescribed burn or a controlled burn because they are rooted in Indigenous knowledge and practices.

Being a Native person and taking up space in scientific fields, I also am called upon to talk about colonization, land dispossession, erasure of our histories, and our lived experiences. So with cultural fire, I use that as an entry point to talk about the history of California, of Native peoples of the United States, and how we’ve always held these land stewardship tools.

What’s different about cultural fire?

Cultural fire that’s a slow and low-intensity burn helps provide nutrients that native plants favor. Those chemical reactions from those lower-intensity burns provide better and more fertile areas for the plants, soil and microbes.

Cultural fire is also more guided. In the burns that I participate in, we tend to back away from using heavy fuels or machinery. With cultural fire, there’s more time spent getting ready for the burns and cleaning up afterwards than when fire is actually on the ground. That end care is huge and it makes a big difference.

I was at one of the practitioner’s properties and I could see where people didn’t prep the piles or they used fuels, and there’s white ash that looks like the ground has been scorched. There weren’t any plants coming back on that plot.

Then 100 feet to the right, I could see a cultural burn that was prepped — where we cut the plant materials, piled it and lead the burn. Then we went in after and mixed the soils. Native plants came back on that plot.

How are attitudes about cultural burning changing?

Most of the ways that [federal and state] agencies are trained to work with fire is suppression. And it’s been that way for a very long time. The very first piece of California state legislature in 1850 was to remove “Indian fire” based on very skewed misconceptions about Indigenous people’s relationship to the land.

When John Muir set foot here and saw these wonderful mosaics of different plants growing together, he didn’t give credit to Indigenous peoples for stewarding those lands and maintaining that biodiversity.

The California legislature prohibited small burns or family burns, and they’ve more or less been upheld until now, when legislation [in 2022] changed that. On top of physical violence to remove us from our lands, there was also the removal of stewardship practices, land tending, water care, and relationships with relatives other than humans. All of that was removed once colonizers arrived.

Today, in the West, an increase in the amount of catastrophic wildfire has been created because of the buildup of fuel and the under-utilization of prescribed burns. We’re feeling the effects of no-burn policies that have been upheld for close to 200 years now. And with climate change, when things burn, the large-scale wildfires are emitting greenhouse gases. And it’s creating higher-risk living areas where wildfire can consume entire homes, entire communities.

But we’re seeing some change [in practices] and more inclusion of voices that haven’t had a say in decision-making before. Biden just acknowledged traditional ecological knowledge that’s supposed to be in government training and working relationships with Tribes. It also helps that we have Secretary Deb Haaland as the head of the Department of Interior, who controls the vast majority of public lands.

There are shifts in perceptions of the intelligence and knowledge that our communities hold. And they’re being called upon now, although maybe not at the speed and scale that our communities have been waiting for since colonization.

Where is cultural burning taking place?

I’ve been a part of these cultural burn demonstrations since 2018, and we work with Chairman Ron Goode of the North Fork Mono Tribe near what we know as the Yosemite area. I also have partnerships and friendships with the Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa Tribes that are far north in California. They’re doing some amazing cultural fire work. They’re training people in the art and the science of good fire. They’re leading the way with a lot of the knowledge building and reclamation of larger-scale cultural fire.

Melinda Adams lights a field of deergrass on fire during the Tending and Gathering Garden Indigenous fire Wworkshop at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve in Woodland, Calif. Photo: Alysha Beck/UC Davis

I also work at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve, which has a small section that’s called Attending and Gathering Garden. That space came about specifically for Patwin practitioners, harvesters, traditional gatherers and Native peoples of the greater community to gather basketry materials.

It was envisioned 25 years ago by a geography student at U.C. Davis and the Native elders as a space to do cultural reclamation. The fires started to be planned and implemented more regularly when I came there in 2018.

What we’re burning is tule, a reed wetland species. It’s hollow on the inside and dry on the outside. So it’s the perfect igniter and the perfect carrier of fire. We don’t need propane and fuels. When we do our burns, we just use tule.

When we burn, it’s on an island and the water dries up [part of the year], so you can see the soil layers that these women have created — the rich, dark charred materials on the top, then some organic material underneath, and then some gray material from the water trickling in and out, and some orange from oxidation.

I love soil profiles and horizons. They’re amazing because as Native people, we’re storytellers, and you can see the story of the land if you look at the layers.

It’s also a former gravel-mining site with degraded soils that don’t hold nutrients very well. It makes it interesting to apply good fire to the space to replenish those soil nutrients. We have burned every year in that space, and I’m tracking the changes in soil and the yield in the plants.

What the practitioners who harvest these plants for basketry are seeing is that the plants are growing back taller, they’re growing back stronger, in more dense stands, and the color is more vibrant.

In addition, my qualitative data is telling me that there’s an increase of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium — the big ones that you tend to need when you’re trying to grow anything.

I’m also measuring culturally significant plants for their aboveground yield over the course of a year. Because most of these are perennials, we’re looking at a snapshot of their regeneration.

What do you hope cultural burning can do?

The hope with this work is to rebuild our relationship with fire.

But this is also about more than fire. It’s about our time on the land and reclaiming parts of ourselves that were taken away a long time ago — and having the space to do that. The word that keeps coming up is healing. We’re healing these landscapes with fire, which is tied to water, animals and pollinators.

I’m participating in something that my ancestors did hundreds of years ago that was taken away. So that’s so powerful for me as a Native woman.

I just want people to know these are healing fires, they’re healing stewardship lessons — and not just for Native peoples. We’re privileged in the fact that it’s part of our culture, but there’s definitely space for allies, for people who are working towards improvement in our environment and the mitigation of climate change.

The practitioners that I work with are so excited to share their knowledge, their practices, their worldviews, and their time with allied scholars. This is climate hope. This is hope for our future actualized on the land and together.

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Previously in The Revelator:

Can Native American Tribes Protect Their Land If They’re Not Recognized by the Federal Government?


The post Rekindling the Practice of Cultural Burning: An Act of Climate Hope appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Book of the Dead: The Species Declared Extinct in 2022

Thu, 01/19/2023 - 05:00

Last July scientists in Texas announced some surprising news: They had rediscovered an oak tree species previously believed to be extinct. Until then the last known Quercus tardifolia tree was believed to have died more than a decade earlier. But lo and behold, one more tree was discovered in Big Bend National Park, meaning the species wasn’t extinct after all.

The rest of the news wasn’t as good: That lone tree isn’t doing so well. It’s been burned by fire and shows signs of a fungal infection. Scientists say it’s in need of “immediate conservation.”

This situation isn’t that atypical in the world of wildlife conservation, where species that have avoided extinction in the Anthropocene still need dramatic support. A recent study found that more than half of all known endangered species require targeted recovery efforts if they’re to avert “human-induced extinction.”

If that doesn’t happen, we’re going to lose more species — a lot of them. Despite rediscoveries like the oak tree in Texas, the world is still losing biodiversity at dangerously high rates. In 2022, scientists announced that they had given up efforts to find dozens of long-lost species, including two frogs, one of the world’s biggest fish, an orchid from Florida, a grass from New Hampshire and many others.

And those are just the ones we know about. Another 2022 study warned about the threat of “dark extinction,” the loss of species science has never even identified as having existed in the first place. By conservative estimates, millions of species are yet to be discovered, identified and named, and most are at risk of disappearing before that ever happens as humanity continues its relentless expansion. And if we don’t know they exist, we can’t do anything to save them.

So let’s take a moment to talk about the ones we do know that we’ve lost, to remember their names, to add them to the Book of the Dead, and to use their lessons to prevent others from suffering the same fate. We’ve compiled dozens of stories of extinction from the past year, including species that have been declared lost after many decades of looking, other species that have vanished from key ranges of their habitat, and others that are now extinct in the wild and exist only in captivity.

But before we get to those names, let’s take a lesson from the Endangered Species Act here in the United States — a law that turns 50 this year. Virtually every species that has been protected under the Act has had its extinction prevented. Some were added to the list too late, and they died out as a result. Many are still hanging on by a thread, but active conservation efforts are preventing them from disappearing any further. Many have recovered — most recently two plants from the Channel Islands — and more are likely to do so in the future. That is the ultimate lesson of the extinction crisis: It’s preventable if we work hard enough.

Chinese paddlefish (Psephurus gladius) — The declared extinction of this iconic fish shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Last seen in 2003, these massive beasts — who reportedly reached up to 23 feet in length — were already on the decline due to overfishing and habitat degradation before the Gezhouba Dam was built in 1981. That dam cut off their migration route in the Yangtze River and doomed the species. People have been looking for them ever since but, given their gigantic stature and the fact that no one has spotted any in that time, the species was declared extinct this past year. As the only member of its genus, the Chinese paddlefish’s extinction represents the loss of an entire evolutionary line.

Yangtze sturgeon (Acipenser dabryanus) — An extinction in the making, or recovery on the cusp? Either of those could be the fate of the Yangtze sturgeon. No mature fish have been seen in the wild in years, and the species was declared extinct in the wild this year by the IUCN. Ongoing captive-propagation efforts have produced tens of thousands of young sturgeon, who are released annually into the Yangtze River, but so far that hasn’t paid off in terms of wild reproduction. The species initially declined due to a long list of threats, including overfishing, shipping, dams, pollution and other habitat degradations, and few of those dangers have faded. Those same threats affect all other sturgeon species: Two-thirds are now critically endangered.

Florida govenia (Govenia floridana) — This large orchid, native to Everglades National Park in Florida, was mistakenly identified as another species when it was first discovered in 1957. That delay in recognition probably doomed it. At the time of discovery, only 25 plants existed. Poaching probably quickly wiped them out before they could be protected. The IUCN declared the species extinct in 2022, decades after its last verified sighting in 1964.

Sharp-snouted day frog (Taudactylus acutirostris) — Gone in the blink of an eye. It took just five years for this once-common Australian amphibian species to decline and ultimately disappear, probably due to the deadly chytrid fungus, which is causing frog extinctions all around the world. Last seen in 1997, the day frog was declared extinct this past year following two decades of extensive searches.

Mountain mist frog (Litoria nyakalensis) — Another Australian frog, another probable victim of the chytrid fungus. This one was last seen in 1990, and extensive searches have failed to prove it still exists.

Photo: Denise Molmou via Kew Gardens

Saxicolella deniseae — Known from a single waterfall in the Republic of Guinea, this herb appears to have gone extinct after its only habitat was flooded during construction of a hydroelectric dam.

Raiatean ground partula snail (Partula navigatoria) and Garrett’s tree snail (P. garrettii) — These species from French Polynesia were nearly eaten into extinction by the notorious, carnivorous rosy wolf snail, an invasive species around the planet. The last live animals were found and brought into a captive-breeding program in the early 1990s. A reintroduction program began in 2016 at a site that (unfortunately) was later found to contain another predatory invasive species, the New Guinea flatworm. Pending the success of future reintroductions, these species have been assessed as extinct in the wild, joining other snails from French Polynesia in that purgatory-like category.

A jaguarini photographed in Belize in June 2022. Photo: © giana521 via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC)

Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) in the United States — One of the major regional extinctions on this year’s list. The jaguarundi, a small feline, was last officially seen in the United States — the northernmost part of its range — in 1986. In 2022 a major 18-year study reported no evidence the species still exists in the country and declared it ripe for reintroduction efforts.

Beilschmiedia ningmingensis — This tree was last seen in China in 1935, in an area that has long since been converted to agriculture and plantations. China already considered it extinct; the IUCN added it to the list of extinct species this year after extensive recent surveys.

Coote’s tree snail (Partula cootei) — Last seen in French Polynesia in 1934, this snail probably disappeared slowly as it hybridized with another introduced species. Researchers assessed it as extinct in 2017, but the information wasn’t published or added to the IUCN Red List until this past year.

White-handed gibbon. Photo: Bernard Dupont (CC BY-SA 2.0)

White-handed gibbon (Hylobates lar) and northern white-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) — China formally declared both these primates extinct in the wild within their borders this past September, at least a decade after they were last seen in the country. Researchers blamed “human activities” (including hunting, deforestation and the pet trade) for their disappearance. Each species still exists in other countries in Southeast Asia, although the white-handed gibbon is endangered, and the northern white-cheeked gibbon is critically endangered.

Dugong (Dugong dugon) in China — These gentle manatee relatives, who are considered “vulnerable to extinction” through most of their range, have all but disappeared from China, another major extirpation for the country this year. A paper published in July declared dugongs “functionally extinct” in Chinese waters, meaning some of them still exist there but not enough to form a healthy population. This, according to researchers, represents “the first reported functional extinction of a large vertebrate in Chinese marine waters” and serves as a “sobering reminder” of the threats faced by other species.

Poecilobothrus majesticus — What little we know about this long-legged fly from the United Kingdom stems from a single male specimen collected on the Essex coast in 1907. Scientists didn’t taxonomically name it until 1976, and a 2018 report on UK flies of the Dolichopodidae family concluded that it was probably extinct, as “one would have expected them to have been encountered by now.” The IUCN added it to the Red List as extinct this past year.

Luciobarbus nasus — This fish was known from just a single river system in western Morocco, where it hasn’t been seen since 1874. Pollution from a nearby city may have done it in, but that remains unclear. Here’s the good news though: After years of scientific debate, this species has now been reclassified into four species, with three of them remaining in existence (and one of those endangered).

Chott el Djerid barbel (Luciobarbus antinorii) — When you use too much water, don’t expect fish to stay alive much longer. That’s what happened in Tunisia, where this rare fish disappeared sometime around the 1990s or 2000s. It was listed under the IUCN Red list as a data deficient for many years but was declared extinct in 2022.

Syzygium humblotii — This tree, a member of the myrtle family, hasn’t been seen in about 130 years. It grew in Mayotte, an overseas department of France located in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mozambique, in an area that has since been degraded by farms, livestock and other nonnative species. Searches over the past three decades have failed to turn up signs of its existence, so this year the IUCN declared it extinct.

Kalanchoe fadeniorum — Relatives of this long-lost Kenyan plant are grown as houseplants around the world. This species isn’t as lucky. Known from just one site, it hasn’t been seen since 1977. The areas surrounding where it grew aren’t very well surveyed, so scientists are hedging their bets and calling it “extinct in the wild.”

Heenan’s cycad (Encephalartos heenanii) — Every member of this plant genus (commonly referred to as bread trees or bread palms) is endangered due to overcollection, sometimes for food, sometimes for traditional medicine, sometimes just to own them. Previously listed as critically endangered, Heenan’s cyad was reassessed as extinct in the wild in 2022 due to “persistent pressure from plant collectors.”

Giant Atlas barbel (Labeobarbus reinii) — Although this Moroccan fish was last seen in 2001, it was listed on the IUCN Red List as “vulnerable to extinction” for several years. Well, that prediction has come true: This year the IUCN declared it extinct. It was known from just one small stretch of river that suffered from pollution and runoff from a nearby city, as well as a dam that separated populations. These factors undoubtedly affected the fish, but the exact reason for its extinction remain unknown.

By Grahame Bowland, CC BY 3.0, Link

Abrolhos painted button-quail (Turnix varius scintillans) — This Australian bird subspecies is known from just three islands. Now it’s down to two. The population on North Island in the Houtman Abrolhos Archipelago has been “eaten out of house and home” by introduced invasive species, which degraded the habitat. Researchers spent nearly 13,000 nights camera trapping the island between 2018 and 2021 and concluded in a 2022 paper that the bird no longer exists there. The quail is considered one of the five Australian species most likely to face extinction in the coming years, so this extirpation represents a major blow for its conservation.

Cystophora — Not one extinction, but many? A 2022 paper declares several species of this algae genus “functionally extinct” along the coast of southern Australia. At least seven species are reportedly now absent from the warmest edges of their historical range. The causes of their decline and disappearance are not known, but the paper cites slightly likely impacts from “gradual warming, marine heatwaves and rapid urbanization.”

Smooth slender crabgrass (Digitaria filiformis var. laeviglumis) — Known from a single park in Manchester, New Hampshire, this rare plant was last seen in 1931. The New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau declared it extinct this past June. Other varieties of the crabgrass species still exist in neighboring New England states, but this version was unique and is now considered lost.

Mollinedia myriantha — This Brazilian tree has a sad history. It was discovered in 1992, then lost for 123 years. A sole individual tree was rediscovered in 2015, but fieldwork conducted in the following years found that the lonely tree had died. Researchers officially declared it “critically endangered, possibly extinct” this past year. The same paper warns that the genus faces a wide range of threats and many species remain unassessed, meaning they too could soon face extinction.

Dan Koehl, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) in Cambodia — The last individual of this species in Cambodia was found dead on Feb. 15. It had been injured by being caught in fishing gear — it escaped, but only after receiving injuries that left it unable to hunt. Irrawaddy dolphins remain in other countries, but the species is endangered, and its loss in Cambodia represents a major population gone.

And 562 more? — Proving an extinction is never easy — it’s easier to see something than it is to not see something. But many species have gone unseen for decades, and while scientists still look for them every year, hope begins to dwindle after a time.

Is it time to give up hope for 562 lost species? That’s the question raised by a paper published this May, which examines long-unseen species listed on the IUCN Red List. It identifies 137 amphibians, 257 reptiles, 38 birds and 130 mammals that have not been seen for at least 50 years and asks if that half-century of no sightings means they’re extinct. Maybe, maybe not. We need to be prepared for that possibility, but the paper suggests this analysis actually provides something positive: a way to prioritize geographic “hotspots” where scientists can target their searches for long-lost species.

In other words, let’s find these lost species while there’s still time.

Previously in The Revelator:

The Lord God Bird and Dozens of Other Species Declared Extinct in 2021

The post Book of the Dead: The Species Declared Extinct in 2022 appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

One River Dies, Another Is Born

Tue, 01/17/2023 - 05:00

Jaime Lucian dos Santos Filho was born and raised in a stilt house on the Araguari River, in the north Brazil village of Bom Amigo. His family and the several dozen other inhabitants of the town ate fish from the Araguari, ranched buffalo on its banks, and watered subsistence gardens with it. When they went shopping, they took a boat.

In flood season the Araguari became a mighty torrent, more than two miles across. The rest of the year it just flowed along. That started to change in the early 2000s, when Filho noticed the river’s current slackening. Sand bars began to appear off the town’s docks, and then gradually grew. By 2013 the riverbed of the Araguari — all the way to its mouth at the Atlantic, 12 miles away — had filled with silt, and the river no longer flowed past Bom Amigo.

Filho says extra land appeared, but it was a mixed blessing. “The fields opened up for cattle. There are some more land for us to plant. But the water became scarcer.”

Today, miles of the Araguari’s old bed flood for a few rainy months. They turn dry and stone-hard the rest of the year.

Robbed of the reason for the town’s existence, residents moved away.

Fihlo’s daughter-in-law, Joselina Barbosa Tavares, said, “I never imagined that a mighty river like that could ever dry.”

A maritime buoy rests on a floodplain that was once Araguari riverbed north of Bom Amigo village. (Dado Galdieri/Hilaea Media)

At about the same time, villagers 20 miles away in a town called Junco were uprooted by a different river’s transformation. In that case they were inundated with water, not deprived of it.

In 2012 Domingo Maciel da Costa was hired to guard a water buffalo ranch just east of Junco, on the north branch of the Amazon. A small river called the Urucurituba Channel ran through the land.

The Urucurituba has changed dramatically during da Costa’s life. In the mid 1990s, before it even had an official name, it was about 200 feet across and ran only a few miles from its headwaters in a palm jungle to its mouth, where it emptied into the Amazon. After that it started metastasizing. By the time da Costa took the ranching job, the river was a quarter of a mile from shore to shore and 25 miles long.

And it kept growing. On some days it grew half a dozen feet wider.

Sitting in a boat bobbing in the Urucurituba, half a mile from the nearest land, and recalling his years at the ranch, da Costa waves his hand around. “In a short time, it became this monster you see here,” he says.

He was floating on top of where he used to work, which had long ago been swallowed up by the river. “This is where our house, our pasture, our land, stood,” he says, looking into the water.

Former buffalo herder Domingo Maciel da Costa floats on a boat over where his land plot once stood. (Dado Galdieri/Hilaea Media)

Where did this monster come from? Brazilian scientists studying the Araguari River and the Urucurituba Channel have concluded that the silting up of the former and the ongoing expansion of the latter are flip sides of the same coin, caused by the same process: the combined consequence of a hydroelectric dam built far up the Araguari and the introduction of water buffalo into its flood plain.

James Leonard Best, a geology professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says he’s startled by the rapidity of the Urucurituba and Araguari’s metamorphoses. Still, he expects more surprises such as these in the future, as human encroachment on the channels and shores of the world’s rivers increases. In a 2019 paper he published in the journal Nature Geoscience, he warned about extensive river-sand extraction, accelerated hydroelectric power plant construction, introduction of non-native species and other, “anthropogenic stressors.” He predicted that “large-scale, and potentially irreparable, transformations may ensue in periods of years to decades, with ecosystem collapse being possible in some big rivers.”

Last April I traveled with Brazilian photojournalist Dado Galdieri to see what forces blocked the Araguari and gnaw the shores of Junco. We hired a squat wooden freighter and crew in Macapá, the capital of the state of Amapá, and set off.

Twelve hours downstream of Macapá, Marlon Pantoja Cardoso, our captain, steered into the north fork of the Amazon. Right past Junco we entered a gap in the shore that looked to me like a broad bay burrowing into the jungle. Cardoso said this was the mouth of the Urucurituba Channel, nearly a mile across. He’d heard that the blockage of the Araguari’s mouth caused the Urucurituba to swell, and it made sense to him.

“The water had to go somewhere, and it came here,” he said.

We headed up the Urucurituba. Where the forest had once stood, broad wetlands flanked the river’s deep channel. A flock of scarlet ibis, startled by our motor’s throaty roar, took flight in a shimmering cloud of neon orange. Water buffalo chewed water hyacinth and eyed us warily. Some of them trudged in small groups snout-to-tail through the muck.

Before leaving Macapá, I’d heard that these listless creatures — an Asian species introduced to Brazil in the 19th century — had broken down the shallow divide that had kept the Araguari and Amazon basins separate and created the Urucurituba’s Niagara-Falls-scale flow.

Alan Cunha, a professor of civil engineering at the Federal University of Amapá, explained how this had happened.

Cunha has been studying the Araguari for decades. He said the buffalo were one of two powerful forces that together stoppered the lower Araguari and opened the Urucurituba.

The Amazon and Araguari rivers occupy adjacent flood plains. Until about the early 2000s, a feeble berm a few feet high kept the rivers apart in separate basins, the former originating in the Andes and the latter in a range called the Tumucumaque mountains.

The base of these flood plains is geologically young, made of sediment too recently deposited to have solidified — or, in geologists’ terms, “consolidated.” So, Cunha said, the natural berm is “extremely fragile and vulnerable” and easy to disturb.

Encouraged by subsidies from Brazil’s military government in the 1980s, ranchers began setting water buffalo lose to graze in this region. Nobody predicted how much mischief they’d cause. About 200,000 buffalo now wander freely there. The ones we saw from the boat demonstrated why ranchers prize them: The livestock happily wade in the marshes and shallow streams. Compared to cattle, they swim better and eat more kinds of grass.

Cunha says one behavior has made water buffalo particularly damaging to the divide between the Amazon and the Araguari. He says that they march in troop-like single file, gouging trenches in soil.

Herds of buffalo roam freely around the areas between the Amazon and Araguari river basins. (Dado Galdieri/Hilaea Media)

In the decades after buffalo were introduced, their relentless hooves turned natural creeks that fill and drain with each tidal cycle into a dendritic network of waterways that extended the embryonic Urucurituba. Then, sometime in the late 2000s, the incessant stomping, compounded by ranchers’ forest-clearing and ditch-digging, broke open a path between the Urucurituba and the Araguari. The two rivers became linked, and the Araguari’s flow started running through the Urucurituba into the Amazon.

Cunha was the first scientist to report that the Urucurituba was draining the Araguari. In 2012, he took a speedboat from the upper Araguari toward the Atlantic. Near the mouth, he noticed shoals where he expected deep water. The current was far lower there than it had been where he’d started, a finding that puzzled him. River discharge generally increases downriver, with contributions from tributaries.

“How is that possible,” he thought. “Where is the water going?”

He retraced his route back upstream, looking for a missing branch draining the river. Forty-five miles from the mouth, he noticed what seemed at first like a small creek breaking away. He tied a device for measuring the current to a tree. A week later he returned to get the data. But the device was gone. So was the tree. Both had been carried off when a big hunk of shoreline slipped into the mysterious river.

“That’s when we started connecting the dots,” Cunha says. He’d discovered the headwaters of the Urucurituba Channel. And it was on its way to draining the Araguari’s full current.

He discovered that the Urucurituba was growing wider at breakneck speed. Between late 2011 and mid-2016 it widened an average of 16 feet every month. Soon it had become as wide and deep, and half as long, as the Panama Canal. The Araguari’s entire current was going through the Urucurituba to the Amazon.

“It was a huge surprise,” Cunha says. In scientific terms, the Amazon had “captured” the Araguari.

Maps data: Google, Image Landsat/Copernicus

Grazing buffalo kicked, and their ditch-digging ranchers opened, the natural dike separating the Amazon and Araguari basins. But Cunha says the animals and their keepers didn’t silt up the lower Araguari and open the Urucurituba all by themselves. They got help from the Coaracy Nunes power plant, the first of three large hydroelectric installations built on the Araguari.

Valdenira Santos, a geologist at the Institute of Scientific and Technological Research in Macapá, says the builders of the dams “did not consider the downstream effect the hydroelectrical plants would cause.” Santos wrote her graduate dissertation on the Araguari. The flow of water just upstream of the Araguari’s power plants, she says, varies greatly between rainy and dry seasons. Reservoirs built for each of these plants smooth out these variations, stabilizing power production. But suppressing natural extremes in river flow also altered the movement of sediment near the river’s mouth.

One day soon after our excursion up the Urucurituba, Galdieri and I sat in a speedboat mid-river in the Amazon’s north channel. Railan Souza, the boat’s pilot, scanned the line where the river met the sky. We were on a mission to see one of the region’s natural wonders, which also plays a role in explaining changes in the region’s plumbing.

A wave sprinted toward us, rising higher and cresting in a line of white spray. It was the tidal bore, known in Brazil as the pororoca, a train of waves that race up Amazon twice a day. When the moon is full, as it had been the previous night, the waves are biggest. The frothing torrent soon licked at our prop. It must have been at least six feet high. Souza cast a nervous glance behind us, first gunning the engine, then slowing down to let the wave lift us up. Hooting with joy, he matched our speed to it, perching us atop the wall of water. The crest’s alabaster color belied the contents of the liquid. Tidal bores bear incredible amounts of sediment mixed into their convulsions, sometimes 50 times as much silt as smoothly moving water.

Every year the Amazon discharges half a billion tons of silt into the Atlantic, about 10 times the annual mass of sand and gravel mined in the United State. A plume of this material, easily seen from space, spreads 60 miles out to sea and up the coast, right past the Araguari’s old mouth, like coffee grounds spilled on a sheet of blue glass.

An oceanic canal enters the sedimented Araguari river mouth in Amapa, Brazil, April 22, 2022. (Dado Galdieri/Hilaea Media)

Before the Araguari got clogged, it also had pororocas. Visitors came from all over the world to surf on them. The waves also carried thousands of tons of sediment from the Amazon’s silt plume upstream and dropped it on the riverbed.

Cunha says the river’s current and ebb tides used to wash these deposits back to sea, keeping the Araguari’s channel and mouth clear. But he says the natural process of deposition and removal of sediment was upset when the Coaracy Nunes plant went online in 1976. During the dry season, when the river was already running at its slowest, powerplant operators held back water to let it accumulate in its reservoir.

There’s virtually no data about the Araguari from back then, but Cunha says it seems that when enfeebled by power plant operators, the river could no longer flush accumulated sediment out its mouth. As silt filled the Araguari’s lower reach, the river’s original bed was no longer the easiest path for the current, and so a portion of the flow drained into the Urucurituba instead. He suspects that silt released by the gradually widening Urucurituba compounded the problem. This material, suspended in the flow, was carried up the Urucurituba with tides running up from the Amazon’s mouth and then dropped into the lower Araguari. And, in a vicious cycle, this extra load blocked the river’s mouth more and coaxed even more water into the Uricurituba, eventually completely blocking the Araguari’s passage to the Atlantic.

The Urucurituba continues growing wider, flooding forests on either shore and advancing deeper into Junco. Da Costa, who first showed me the “monster,” says the town has also lost 25 acres of palms, about 14 soccer fields’ worth, that once produced lucrative açaí berries, the superfood that is among the region’s major cash crops.

Cunha says the Araguari near where the Urucurituba Channel begins is also widening. In the town of Pracúuba, a short distance upstream from that fork, many residents are in constant fear that their houses will collapse into the river. Scores of people have dismantled their homes and rebuilt them farther inland.

José Freitas, who lives near the Urucurituba, says he’s collecting construction materials for building a new house when the river gets too close. But he can’t say how he’ll afford a move.

“Everywhere we’d go there’s already an owner. And we don’t have money buy new land.”

James Best, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign geologist, says millions of people across the planet could soon find themselves uprooted like the residents of Junco, Bom Amigo and Pracúuba. Rivers everywhere are straining under the combined assault of multitudes of insults — from dams to pollution to shoreline disturbance.

“These are going to impact humans living in riverine corridors big-time.”

Geologist Valdenira Santos sees the transformation of the region as a cautionary tale — and not just for people living in river basins.

“Our biggest challenge now, as planet, is to be able to coexist along these natural processes in a wiser fashion,” she says. “Human beings shouldn’t have the illusion that we can tame all of nature. It will be always stronger than us.”

Reporting for this story was funded with support from the Pulitzer Center, and Abby Rockefeller and Lee Halprin.

Previously in The Revelator:

5 Reasons to Rethink the Future of Dams

The post One River Dies, Another Is Born appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

The EV Revolution Brings Environmental Uncertainty at Every Turn

Wed, 01/11/2023 - 05:00

Manufacturers, governments and consumers are lining up behind electric vehicles — with sales rising 60% in 2022, and at least 17 states considering a California-style ban on gas cars in the years ahead. Scientists say the trend is a key part of driving down the transportation sector’s carbon emissions, which could fall by as much as 80% by 2050 under aggressive policies. But while EVs are cleaner than gas cars in the long run, they still carry environmental and human-rights baggage, especially associated with mining.

“If you want a lot of EVs, you need to get minerals out of the ground,” says Ian Lange, director of the Energy and Economics Program at the Colorado School of Mines.

That’s because manufacturing EVs requires about six times more minerals than traditional cars. That requirement — coupled with growth in consumer electronics and renewable energy infrastructure — will double global mineral demand over the next two decades, according to the International Energy Agency.

And that’s only under current trends. The IEA says meeting the Paris Climate Accord goals for decarbonization will require even more — far more — minerals: as much as four to six times present amounts.

That will mean a lot of mining, with much of it for EV batteries. And at least some of it will happen in the United States, as the Biden administration and many Republicans want more EV materials sourced at home, both to act on climate change and to wrest some control of supply chains from China.

Lange, who served as an economic advisor in the Trump administration, says it will be a big change for the country, which “got out of the minerals game” in recent decades. And it will bring challenges — including obtaining permits for minerals development, developing the needed workforce, and building processing capacity. The Biden administration hopes that funding from the landmark Inflation Reduction Act and other sources will help overcome these obstacles.

But the rush for renewables will also bring another big hurdle: environmental impacts. Already, as the search for EV materials ramps up, Tribes, landowners and communities find themselves wrestling with the not-so-green side of green energy.

Environmental Considerations

For a sense of things, consider cobalt. About 30 pounds of it go into each EV battery to boost performance and energy storage, which are key to luring consumers from dirtier gas cars. But today 70% of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an estimated 40,000 children as young as 6 work in dangerous mines. The mines also bring deforestation, habitat fragmentation and high carbon emissions from mining and refinery processes that rely heavily on fossil fuels to produce electricity and drive heavy machinery. Some sources say cobalt mining’s CO2 emissions could double by 2030.

EV boosters are eager to put mileage between their products and human rights abuses, which fuel Republican and oil industry criticisms of battery power. Although efforts are underway to improve overseas practices, another way to tackle the issue would be to mine cobalt in the United States, which would also increase domestic sources of EV materials. But today the country has only one cobalt mine, and building others would likely raise environmental concerns.

Lange says that’s certainly the case in Alaska, where copper and cobalt rest beneath rolling tundra in the Ambler district south of the Brooks Range. Accessing it would require a 200-mile road through traditional Alaska Native lands, caribou habitat and Gates of the Arctic National Park, with gravel quarries dug every 10 miles. It’s something state leaders support but state and national environmental groups and several Indigenous communities oppose. Permitting for the road began during the Obama administration and was approved under Trump, but it’s now under reconsideration by Biden.

According to Lange, such regulatory sagas breed uncertainty within the minerals industry that slows investment in the minerals needed for EV batteries. He offers up the Twin Metals Mine near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness as another example. Here the target is nickel, another important EV metal mined in only one U.S. location. In a political tug-of-war, the mine’s long-held leases were denied renewal by Obama, reinstated under Trump, and then canceled under Biden.

In both cases, concerns over compliance with the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act led to lawsuits and claims of rushed environmental analysis. Lange says these bedrock environmental laws have improved air quality and human health conditions in the United States, but at the same time they may also contribute to the lag in sustainable production of EV materials.

“When we restrict access to natural resources, these international companies can choose to go elsewhere,” he says — often to countries with lax environmental and human rights laws.

The tension between environmental protection and renewables development is becoming a bigger and bigger issue. Adam Bronstein of Western Watersheds Project sees it in northern Nevada, where his group has joined a lawsuit against a proposed open-pit lithium mine in Thacker Pass, an area of remote desert that’s home to sage grouse, antelope, Lahontan cutthroat trout and other sensitive species, including some only found locally. It also holds hundreds of Native American heritage sites that remain important to Tribes today.

Thacker Pass looking toward Kings River Valley. Photo: Ian Bigley (CC BY-NC 2.0).

“It’s a very remote and undeveloped landscape, where the stars are still bright and the air is quiet,” he says.

Bronstein says the West is quickly losing such landscapes to development, including large-scale solar projects and renewable energy mining. At Thacker Pass, for instance, the lithium mine would entail a 2-mile-long open pit with waste ore, acid dumps and massive water usage. Like opponents of Alaska’s Ambler Road, some also worry it would open access to additional claims, spreading impacts to further wildlands.

Mine proponents say Thacker Pass lithium could support more than a million EVs annually and would add jobs and tax revenue.

Bronstein questions the notion that ecologically valuable areas must be sacrificed for climate goals. Others agree, including a rising chorus who say solar and wind development in Nevada and California are eliminating vast areas of wildlife habitat, contributing to biodiversity loss worldwide.

As a judge considers the Thacker Pass lawsuit, nearly 2,000 miles away, residents of Coosa County, Alabama, express similar concerns over plans to mine graphite, an EV mineral not currently produced in the United States.

“It’s going to be a mess,” says Chris DiGiorgio, a lifelong resident of the area and a board member of Coosa Riverkeeper, which protects, promotes and restores the Coosa River.

DiGiorgio says graphite mining will level forest, disrupt hydrology, and leave chemical pollution that could last generations. Yet he also acknowledges the need for minerals to support renewable energy.

“We all want to stop climate change,” he says.

Still, DiGiorgio feels that state officials unjustifiably fast-tracked the mine’s permits, and he questions whether graphite demand will still be high by the time mining starts in 2028. But whereas Western Watersheds Project is fighting the Thacker Pass mine, Coosa Waterkeeper appears settled into guarded acceptance and a commitment to playing a watchdog role over the mine.

Navigating the Transition

Josh Johnson with the Idaho Conservation League has taken yet another approach. As Australia-based Jervois Mining prepared to open the United States’ only cobalt mine in Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains, he helped secure $150,000 in annual funding from the company for local conservation work — money that can also be leveraged to help secure matching funds from state and federal grants. Two years in, the funding has helped restore overgrazed streambanks and supported acquisition of vital fish habitat. Each year, the organization determines where the funding goes, with input from Tribes, agencies and others.

Johnson says that the cobalt mine connects to the league’s conservation goals, which include promoting renewable energy and adopting EVs. And while he recommends that environmental groups take a nuanced look at such mines, he stresses that his partnership doesn’t compromise Idaho Conservation League’s watchdog role as mining gets underway.

But it’s also important to consider what happens after Idaho’s cobalt meets daylight. With no processing plants in the United States, it will be shipped to Brazil, then to China for manufacturing, and eventually back to the United States tucked inside a new EV battery.

Generous incentives for EVs in the Inflation Reduction Act aim to tighten that supply chain — and ease reliance on strategic adversaries like China to reach U.S. climate goals. They join funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, the Defense Production Act and other sources in a strategy that aligns with IEA recommendations for diversifying global mineral sources. And while this all-in approach on industrialization raises biodiversity and other concerns, it could move the United States closer to reaching Paris Climate Accord goals and the Biden administration’s target to cut economy-wide carbon emission by  50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

BREAKING NEWS: USPS Intends To Deploy Over 66,000 Electric Vehicles by 2028, Making One of the Largest Electric Vehicle Fleets in the Nation.

— U.S. Postal Service (@USPS) December 20, 2022

Lange agrees the funding will boost research, development and processing capacity, but he questions whether it moves the needle on EV mineral production in the United States.

Inevitably, technology should resolve some of the issues surrounding EVs. Scientists worldwide are tinkering with EV batteries to improve efficiency and replace problematic metals like cobalt, nickel and perhaps even lithium. Other research highlights better ways to mine, including by salvaging EV materials currently discarded as waste at existing mines. This is happening at a Rio Tinto mine in California’s Mojave Desert, which has long produced minerals for soaps and cosmetics but is now also pulling lithium out of its old tailings.

Lange says advances in recycling may also help. The IEA anticipates a surge in recyclable minerals as first-generation EVs reach the end of their lifespan, perhaps meeting 10% of demand by 2040. It could help ease shortages, stabilize prices, diversify sources, and chip away at harmful mining, including deep-sea mining in sensitive ocean ecosystems. Yet as with everything else related to EVs, Lange says the United States lags behind China and other countries in recycling research, development and capacity.

To Bronstein and others, placing solar at already developed areas like canals and parking lots and developing smarter cities that disincentivize driving will also remain important strategies for adopting clean energy in ways that minimize impacts on undisturbed wildlands.

Cities and the federal government can also shape strategic adoption of EVs by working to replace fleet and transit vehicles first.  This recently happened in Antelope Valley, California, where the local transit authority became the first in the country to replace its fleet of diesel buses. Since its 87 new electric buses, vans and coaches are cheaper to operate and maintain than dirtier diesel buses, the city is now using the savings to expand public transit and build a solar field to power the fleet. Similarly, in December the U.S. Postal Service committed to buying at least 45,000 electric delivery trucks and to explore how to electrify its entire fleet.

The approaches replace the vehicles that log the most miles first, rather than relying on individual drivers to adopt EVs.

Whatever path it takes, says Bronstein, “the renewable energy future is coming.”

Scientists, activists and other experts have spent decades advocating for this change, even as the dangers of burning fossil fuels have increased. The future has finally started to arrive. But as Bronstein reminds us, making the transition to cleaner fuels still requires careful planning and restraint to protect our already beleaguered biodiversity and other natural resources.

Previously in The Revelator:

Will the Race for Electric Vehicles Endanger the Earth’s Most Sensitive Ecosystem?

The post The EV Revolution Brings Environmental Uncertainty at Every Turn appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Protect This Place: Oregon’s Twin Lake

Mon, 01/09/2023 - 05:00

The Place:

Atop a ridge in the Blue Mountains, just west of the small town of La Grande in northeast Oregon, hides a beautiful small lake and associated wetland. What we now call Twin Lake or Little Morgan Lake — its Indigenous name is unknown to me — offers the promise of secluded summer breeding habitat for aquatic species, as well as food and respite for many birds following ancient migration routes. Clean, perennial water supports a complex community of aquatic plants, invertebrates and amphibians.

Why it matters:

Twin Lake hides behind its larger sister, Morgan Lake, on Glass Hill. Construction of a small dam in the early1900s increased the size and depth of Morgan Lake, creating a reservoir for irrigation and, soon thereafter, electrical power. Water released from the dam tumbled down 1,000 feet, passing through turbines to generate electricity for the growing town below. Twin Lake, however, escaped development and remains a place of peaceful natural beauty.

By the 1960s local power no longer depended on the dam, and Morgan Lake reservoir appeared to be doomed to become an exclusive, gated development of waterfront homes. Against long odds, a dedicated group of local conservationists affiliated with the Isaak Walton League helped to forestall this plan. The lakes and remaining wetlands were deeded to the city of La Grande in 1967, providing some measure of protection for native vegetation, wildlife, and recreation.

Today the city of La Grande owns and manages the property as Morgan Lake Park. Stocked with fish each summer, Morgan Lake attracts boaters, fishers and picnickers. Twin Lake, though part of the park, has largely escaped public attention. Somewhat hidden to the west, it remains in near pristine condition, where it provides refuge for an extraordinary diversity of emergent aquatic plants, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, and countless seasonal nesting birds and annual migrants.

These ridgetop wetlands harbor secrets of some ancient geologic magic. No inlet stream enters either lake, yet both Twin and Morgan lakes remain wet year-round. Subterranean springs pump water upward from an active aquifer hidden somewhere below. Snowmelt also contributes moisture to the system.

Twin Lake comprises a broad, shallow pond filled with emergent plants that exhibit surprising botanical diversity. A lush growth of native great yellow pond-lilies (Nuphar polysepala) thrust their large flowers up through dense mats of floating leaves. Common bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris) catches and digests tiny insects and crustaceans in trapdoor bladders hidden among their leaves submerged beneath the water. An unusual plant known as bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), found nowhere else along Glass Hill, flourishes in Twin Lake.

The threat:

Idaho Power Company has applied for a permit to construct a 500-kilovolt power line that would run through the property directly adjacent to Twin and Morgan Lakes. Following official condemnation of the surrounding private lands, deep blasting will commence in order to set the footings prior to construction of immense towers. In addition to a higher wildfire threat from the high-voltage lines, construction and operation of the power line will introduce invasive plant species and possibly alter the area’s hydrology irreparably.

The underlying geology of Glass Hill is complicated and not well understood. No one knows exactly how the flow of subterranean water to Twin and Morgan Lakes might be altered by tower construction. Without life-sustaining spring water, Twin Lake may dry up quickly, leaving behind only a dry, fire- and weed-prone field of little ecological value.

My place in this place:

The origin story of Glass Hill includes explosive volcanic eruptions, lava flows from ancient fissures in the underlying rock, and faults thrusting layers of basalt upward in seismic events buried in long, geologic time. Next, layers of fine volcanic ash spewing from the great eruptions of Mt. Mazama 7,700 years ago added layers of fertile soil throughout the forests of northeast Oregon. Indigenous people walked this ridge for many thousands of years, creating their stories and life histories in harmony with the land. People from the Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla and Nez Perce Tribes arrived to harvest abundant camas bulbs and fish in the Grande Ronde Valley below.

Eventually wagon trains following the Oregon Trail westward from Missouri brought many new people to this place, including some of my own ancestors. Changes to the landscape were profound, as farming, mining and railroads replaced sustainable hunting and gathering. As a botanist, I grieve the many losses and acknowledge that what remains is precious.

Plants emerge from Twin Lake. Photo: Karen Antell

Innumerable stories could be told about the complex web of interactions of any native ecosystem. These stories inform the collective wisdom and experiences of the communities they embrace. Our lives, like those of Indigenous people before us, become impoverished when these connections disappear from living memory. I feel protective of this place and have sought to keep knowledge of the natural ecosystems alive through public education. The unique wetlands springing to life along this obscure ridge top might continue to fill us with wonder and inspiration for many more generations, if we can only keep it whole.

Who’s protecting it now:

Twin Lake has no official protection beyond its inclusion within Morgan Lake Park. A grassroots organization, the Stop B2H Coalition, has formed in opposition to the transmission line, which will run 305 miles and require 1,200 towers.

What this place needs:

Strong environmental protection ultimately requires time, money, political savvy, and sustained community involvement. The economic forces driving big energy projects like this one quickly overwhelm small communities. Twin Lake needs the legal protections that a strong conservation easement might provide. Legal documents require attorneys. Attorneys require fees. Fundraising requires dedicated volunteers, donors, and an engaged community.

Lessons from the fight:

We must practice constant vigilance. Concerned residents and the Isaak Walton League helped save this area once before from commercial development. We became complacent, assuming that this special, peaceful place would always be here for morning birdwatching, afternoon walks, and summer star-gazing. No one ever imagined that the day would come in which the very existence of this important wetland would be threatened by construction of high-voltage electrical power lines. Special places require special protections, and once the threat appears, it may be too late.

Get more from The Revelator. Subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Previously in The Revelator:

Protect This Place: Kenya’s Kinangop Grasslands

The post Protect This Place: Oregon’s Twin Lake appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Birding for All: How to Make Enjoying Birds More Accessible

Thu, 01/05/2023 - 05:00

Freya McGregor is adamant that anyone can be a birder. You don’t have to be able to identify the birds you see or keep lists of the rarities you’ve spotted. You don’t need binoculars — or even sight.

A broad definition of birding makes for a more inclusive community. So too, does attention to accessibility needs. McGregor knows this well — she’s a birder with a disability. She’s also an occupational therapist who works with people with blindness and low vision. And she runs a consulting company, Access Birding, that helps train staff and volunteers at nature organizations and public lands to improve access and inclusion for birders with disabilities.

“Disability is remarkably often left out of the conversation when talking about equity, diversity and inclusion in the outdoors — and in general,” she says. “Which is bizarre when you think about the fact that 1 in 4 Americans has a disability. It’s the only minority you can join at any time.” An estimated 5% of Americans experience short-term disability each year, and the rates of vision, cognitive and mobility disabilities rise as lifespans increase.

The Revelator spoke with McGregor about the joys of birding, what land managers can do to make birding more accessible and why we all benefit from inclusivity.

What is it that you enjoy about birding?

I grew up in Australia. My parents were birders, so I’ve had binoculars in my hand since I was a little kid. But then I was a teenager and it wasn’t really cool to be doing the things your parents enjoyed doing. So I was defiantly not a birder for most of my life.

Then I fell in love with an American and moved to the United States, and suddenly there were all these birds around that I didn’t just know what they were. I discovered that woodpeckers and hummingbirds are real. These are two families of birds we don’t have in Australia. My mind was blown. The transformation from not-a-birder to a birder was pretty quick after that.

I like wondering who is around, what birds are out and about today. I’m a military spouse, so I’ve lived in four states so far and there’s different birds in different places.

I love that birds can be the prompt to explore new places. Wondering what birds are out there can be a reason to broaden your horizons. For some folks that’s a new park or a new state or a new country. But it also could just be a trail in the neighborhood that you’ve never wandered down or that nice little patch of woods that you’ve just never checked out before.

Birds are an excuse to get outside and be out in nature. There are so many benefits to spending time in nature, including therapeutic ones, which I’m particularly interested in as an occupational therapist.

Freya McGregor. Photo: Patrick Oaks

There are 45 million birders in the United States and a lot of folks go birding in community — in groups, as part of local bird outings and Audubon chapters. You can meet people and make friends.

How do we make it more accessible for people with disabilities?

Disability is so diverse and different folks with different disabilities have different access needs, but [for many] things like trail surface is important. Dirt trails that can get muddy are challenging to navigate. Getting stuck in gravel, grass and sandy trails isn’t super fun if you’re using a mobility device like a wheelchair or crutches or if you have balance issues.

Things like benches are also important. There are so many different people who need benches to have a rest. Every bench you add makes a difference.

There are also bird blinds — buildings that you go into and look at birds through windows that maybe are only at the height of standing people. So we need to have windows that are lower down for folks who are seated or folks who use wheelchairs. With observation platforms, hopefully there’s a ramp, not just stairs.

The safety barrier that’s trying to help you not fall off the edge is a good thing, but sometimes that top railing is really thick and if you’re in a wheelchair or a scooter there’s this five-inch piece of wood at your eye line. That’s a totally unnecessary barrier because there are all kinds of ways to design safety barriers that still keep visitors safe but don’t need to create such a big visual obstruction.

Maintenance is another really big one. Just because you build a really wonderfully accessible birding location, it won’t stay that way. Nature happens — trees fall and shrubs grow and start encroaching on the trail widths and potholes develop. If you’re not maintaining the area, it’s not going to stay as accessible as it could be.

There are all kinds of different access features of birding locations that can be really supportive or can create barriers that often they just don’t need to be there. It’s not that the land managers are trying to exclude folks, they often just didn’t think about it, which is a real shame.

Learning from the disability community is also important. Anytime you’re trying to serve a particular group of folks, you need to be learning from them because they’re the experts in what they need, not you.

What’s the best way to find out about whether a birding location is accessible?

The biggest thing is for nature preserves [or other public lands] to describe on their websites the access features that are present and to provide trail descriptions for all trails — not just the ones that they think are accessible. Share that information so people can make informed decisions about where they want to go. Is it worth driving two hours or is that observation blind steps-only and I can’t get in after all?

Tell me about every trail because everyone has different access needs. I have a dodgy knee, but I can do some slopes if my knee is doing well that day.

A state park might say on its website that a trail is “easy,” but what does that mean? Easy for whom? Are there benches? How many are there? What’s the surface? What’s the trail width? Are there any steep slopes?

Birdability is a nonprofit that I cofounded two years ago, and with National Audubon Society, we created the Birdability map to provide information about the accessibility of birding locations. Anyone can access it and find out that information ahead of time or submit a site review to the map of somewhere they visited.

Different adaptive sports or adaptive outdoor groups sometimes have this kind of information on their website too, although it’s often more local in scope.

I’m also working on a bird travel book. It’s the first one by a disabled birder for disabled birders and I’m writing about the physical accessibility of locations across North America.

I hope that will be a really helpful resource for disabled birders to find places that they should be able to be confident that they can visit with success and have a great experience. I hope it will also prompt other bird travel guide authors to consider this kind of information when they’re writing their books.

Floor-to-ceiling windows of the accessible observation building at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Photo: Freya McGregor

Who can be a birder?

Anyone. There are so many different ways to enjoy birds and birding. Any way you do it is valid, and you don’t have to do it in a particular way.

We can keep lists, or we don’t have to keep lists. We might enjoy the birds at our feeders. We might travel for birds. We might bird by car. We might bird through our computer by looking at nest cams and feeder cams because maybe you have chronic illness and can’t get out and go hike a trail. You can enjoy birds virtually.

You don’t even need binoculars. They’re helpful, but some people can’t use binoculars. They can’t hold them up. They’re too heavy. They don’t have upper limb strength or stability. They’re expensive, too. Not everyone can afford binoculars.

You don’t even need to see. My clinical background as an occupational therapist is in blindness and low vision services. And bird watching is only one way to enjoy wild birds because birds make sounds. And bird listening is just as valid as bird watching. Lots of folks who are fully sighted bird by ear just as much as birding by sight.

It’s really easy to make this hobby more inclusive and accessible. We just have to start thinking about what we’re actually trying to do and who we’re trying to serve.

What do we gain by more people being able to access nature and go birding?

There are individual benefits. We know that spending time in nature can help decrease feelings of anxiety and combat depression. It can also increase our attentional capacity, which is how much brain space you have to focus on something. We know that listening to bird songs can help improve people’s moods.

Even just seeing a tree out a window has therapeutic benefits. There’s research with women going through chemotherapy for breast cancer and sitting for 10 minutes on a bench in a garden helped improve their attentional capacity during treatment.

You don’t have to hike a mountain for five days. You just need little bits of nature. This is equity — everybody should be able to access those health and wellness benefits whether you have a disability or not. It should be a fundamental human right.

There are also community benefits, too. Birding can be a way to find a local community group to tap into and get social support.

The other really big reason to make nature and birding more accessible is that the more people who we can convince that birds are awesome and nature is cool, the more people they’ll be who can take action to help protect it. And the more people who are doing that, the better off we’re going to be on a planet that really needs as many people as possible helping care for it and act on behalf of it.

Get more from The Revelator. Subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Previously in The Revelator:

These Books Are for the Birds (and Bugs)

The post Birding for All: How to Make Enjoying Birds More Accessible appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Species to Watch in 2023

Tue, 01/03/2023 - 05:00

Here at The Revelator, we spend our days reading and writing about endangered species and our nights worrying about them. At the same time, we spend our days talking to and writing about people working to save these species from extinction — and that helps us sleep better at night.

As we move into 2023, here are more than a dozen species we’ll be watching in the year ahead. They represent species on the brink, those awaiting protection, those recovering, and those whose habitat could be disrupted in the coming year. They don’t represent everything — there’s no way one list could encapsulate every threat facing endangered species, or every species deserving attention — but this should give you an idea of some of the reasons wildlife on this planet are suffering and the things we can do to help them.

Photo: Bri Benvenuti/USFWS Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus)

A rebounding population of Great Lakes piping plovers provides a glimpse at the success of dedicated conservation efforts and endangered species protections.

The Great Lakes population of these shorebirds was listed as endangered in 1985 after it was lost from all of its range except Michigan, with just 19 pairs remaining. Habitat destruction from shoreline development and recreation likely played a big role in the decline.

But years of dedicated recovery efforts helped make 2022 a banner year for these plovers, with 150 chicks fledgling in the wild — the most since they were protected as endangered. These efforts included “nest protection via enclosures and fencing, site monitoring, education and outreach, captive rearing, and annual banding,” reported Audubon.

It’s a bright spot in a dim overall outlook for birds across the United States. A 2022 State of the Birds report found bird populations declining in virtually every type of habitat, and 70 species have lost two-thirds of their populations in the past 50 years. The one habitat exception was wetlands, where conservation dollars have poured in to help ducks and geese, who are popular with hunters. The biggest losses have been felt among grassland birds, where agriculture has destroyed native grasslands and introduced toxic pesticides. Shorebirds have suffered major declines as well — 10 species had population declines above 70% since 1980.

We’ll be watching to see if the numbers of Great Lakes piping plovers continue to climb and if their recipe for success can be applied to more at-risk birds.

Gray wolf. Photo: John & Karen Hollingsworth/USFWS Wolves (Canis lupus)

To understand why we included wolves on this year’s list, just look back to 2022. Colorado moved forward on plans to reintroduce wolves to the state (and perhaps kill too many of them in the process). Wolf populations increased in California and Oregon. Poachers killed animals in Oregon and other states. Idaho and Montana moved forward on more plans to legally hunt more wolves. Conservationists sued to restore national protections to wolves under the Endangered Species Act, after a judge reinstated protection for some populations outside the Rockies. Scientists outlined a plan to restore more wolves to more parts of the American West. Mexican gray wolves got a revised, if imperfect, restoration plan. Red wolves got a new draft plan, too, and the first red wolf cubs since 2018 were born in the wild.

On top of that, few species represent the breadth of conservation issues that we see in wolves. They’ve gained and lost protection more times than we can count, and the constant push between conservation, hunting and other interests remains potent. Meanwhile wolves — who have enormous value for numerous human cultures — display a resilience that allows them to continue to spread and regain territory in places where they were once exterminated. We expect more of all of that — on all these fronts — in 2023.

Asian elephants in Bandipur National Park, India. Photo: Mike Prince (CC BY 2.0) Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus)

These pachyderms make our list this year because, well, no one else around here seems to be talking about them.

Asian elephants don’t get nearly the same scientific or media attention as their larger African cousins, but they face the same — if not worse — pressures from habitat loss, conflict with humans, population fragmentation, disease, poaching and other exploitations. A recent paper calls this a “charisma failure” and finds that it results in less public awareness of Asian elephants’ endangered status. This, in turn, results in lower conservation funding and prioritization, especially in comparison to other charismatic megafauna species. It also restricts the size and effectiveness of protected areas available to Asian elephants, which leads to more elephant-human conflict, according to a recent study in Malaysia.

The media doesn’t help in this regard. Most of the recent media articles we found mentioning Asian elephants concerned cute baby animals in zoos, and the majority of those fail to mention the species’ endangered status or conservation challenges.

We expect Asian elephants to have a unique opportunity in the year ahead, with 30×30 dominating many top-level conservation discussions. Will it pay off for this oft-neglected species? We’ll be watching.

Tom Jefferson, courtesy NOAA Fisheries West Coast Vaquitas (Phocoena sinus)

With maybe 10 of these small porpoises left alive in their only habitat, the Gulf of California, all eyes should be on the Mexican government to see what it does next. Tragically, “what it does next” has traditionally amounted to “nothing.” Pay attention: Every further vaquita death matters.

By Chong Chen (CC BY-SA 3.0) Sea Pangolins (Chrysomallon squamiferum)

Hydrothermal vents, where mineral-rich waters spew from cracks in the seafloor miles below the surface of the water, support a unique and diverse array of animal life on par with the biodiversity of rainforests and coral reefs. Scaly-foot snails, also known as sea pangolin, are among these deep-sea residents.

In 2018 the IUCN listed the mollusks as endangered — not because of an existing threat, but because of one on the horizon. Two of the snails’ three known microhabitats in the Indian Ocean are being investigated as potential sites for deep-sea mining by companies looking to cash in on the demand for minerals needed for electric car batteries. “If mining is permitted the habitat could be severely reduced or destroyed,” the IUCN assessment found. “Even the initial exploration is likely to cause disruption to the habitat.”

Unfortunately sea pangolins are in good company. A 2021 global assessment of mollusks endemic to hydrothermal vents led to 184 being added to the IUCN Red List.

Time may be running out to save them. Despite calls for a moratorium, deep-seabed mining in international waters could begin as early as July, and the testing of mining equipment on the seafloor has already begun.

Guizhou Snub-Nosed Monkey © 花蚀 via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) Guizhou Snub-Nosed Monkeys (Rhinopithecus brelichi)

There are easily a few dozen primates that could end up on this year’s list, but for now let’s focus on this bizarre-looking species. Native to China, only about 125 to 336 of these monkeys are left alive, crammed into a single nature reserve — one that was created to protect them. But that promise has failed, and the population has plummeted over the past decade as tourism and nearby agriculture have soared. Now researchers have called on China to place immediate limits on tourism in the reserve, reconnect a migration corridor to improve genetic health, and create additional populations in case the first one crashes further. “Without immediate action,” they warn, “the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey could go extinct.”

The snub-nosed monkey is not alone in its plight: Primates around the world are generally in peril, and the species in China are often at the tip of that spear of extinction. Will China take action to protect this species — and others within its borders — before it’s too late? Will other countries stand up to conserve their own native primates, to set aside nature for them and other species to live, and to reestablish migration corridors?

If the nations of the world don’t address these issues, we’ll be asking another question: How long until the next primate extinction is announced?

Photo: James St. John (CC BY 2.0) Pillar Corals (Dendrogyra cylindrus)

Mass coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef has signaled dire times for corals, but there’s more bad news in the Atlantic, too.

Pillar corals, found in the western Atlantic from Florida to the Caribbean, are in peril. These stony corals have been moved from vulnerable to critically endangered on the IUCN Red List as their populations fell 80% across much of their range since 1990, with most of the loss being much more recent.

The biggest threat is a relatively new one: stony coral tissue loss disease, which was discovered on the Florida reef tract in 2014 and rendered pillar corals there “functionally extinct” a few years later. The disease has since spread south to the Caribbean.

It’s not just pillar corals at risk, either. At least 22 species of reef-building corals are vulnerable, and the disease can kill within weeks or months after infection.

Pollution, destructive fishing practices, and climate change add to the problem by weakening corals.

As scientists work to prevent the disease from spreading further, other corals face grave threats as well. Globally, one-third of all coral species are now listed as endangered. Climate change is a primary contributor in many places.

If we don’t work to stem rising sea temperatures, the biodiversity implications of coral loss will be massive. Reefs support 25% of marine species. Without them entire ecosystems could collapse, and thousands of species of fish, birds, sea turtles, plants, invertebrates and marine mammals could be without the food or shelter that reefs help create.

Woodland caribou in northern Ontario. Photo: J.H., (CC BY-ND 2.0) Caribou (Two subspecies of Rangifer tarandus)

Climate change poses one of the biggest threats to Dolphin and Union caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus), a distinct population of barren-ground caribou native to Canada’s northern territories. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the caribou as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in December. Their population has alarmingly dropped 75% between 2015 and 2018.

The caribou migrate across sea ice between the mainland and Victoria Island. Warming temperatures weaken the ice, making the journey to their breeding, feeding and wintering grounds potentially fatal. A decrease in sea ice has also brought more shipping and industrial activity, which further disrupts sea ice formation and threatens the animals with “mass drowning events,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

As climate change drives more warming, expect more trouble for these caribou.

But these northern subspecies aren’t the only ones facing grave dangers. Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) once ranged across half of Canada and some northern U.S. states. But they’re now mostly gone from their southern range. In Canada’s boreal forests, they’re listed as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act, Canada’s version of the Endangered Species Act.

Their biggest threat is habitat fragmentation driven by logging, mining, and oil and gas development.

While Canada’s boreal woodland caribou try to hang on, in the United States the damage has already been done. Here southern mountain caribou, a distinct population segment of woodland caribou, were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, but none are believed to still be living in the wild.

Will Canada increase protection efforts and safeguard caribou habitat? A recent announcement at the U.N. biodiversity conference in December suggests that some help could be on the way with an agreement between Canada’s federal government and Yukon to increase protected areas in the far north. “Barren-ground and boreal caribou, along with wood bison are at-risk species the agreement says will be prioritized,” the CBC reported.

Quick Hits:

Our colleagues, the activists at the Center for Biological Diversity, suggested several additional species to add to this year’s list, chief among them a toad and a rare plant.

Both the Dixie Valley toad and Tiehm’s buckwheat just gained Endangered Species Act status in December, which could protect their habitats from potential renewable energy projects. The world desperately needs more renewable energy, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of endangered species or even extinction — a fate that could await these two species if their habitats are destroyed for geothermal energy or lithium mining.

Meanwhile, coal still causes problems for a lot of wildlife, including the yellow-spotted woodland salamander, who lives only on an outcrop of Appalachian rock that’s due for mountaintop removal.

A jaguar in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Photo: Bernard DuPont (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Jaguars are starting to wander back into the United States decades after they were eradicated here. In December the Center filed a petition to have the government more actively reintroduce the species. They’re trickling in slowly on their own but need plenty of help to re-establish themselves in their ancestral homes.

The fish of the Colorado River will need some attention as the drought there continues. Wildlife have traditionally gotten short shrift when it comes to Colorado River water allocation, and now several species are paying the price. New rules currently in the works could be all it takes to end several of the river’s key fish species.

We’re eager to learn the fate of the regal fritillary, a large, colorful butterfly that relies on Prairie remnants across the upper Midwest. Conservationists petitioned to protect it way back in 2013; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is supposedly going to finally look into that this year. We hope the news is worth the wait.

And what list would be complete without the eastern hellbender? The Fish and Wildlife Service denied a petition to protect that species last year; conservationists hope this year will bring a reversal. Hellbenders are some of the world’s biggest salamanders, and they’re at risk from a wide range of environmental threats that also affect humans. Saving them would be heavenly news for us all.

What species will you be watching in the months ahead? Drop us a line anytime.

The post Species to Watch in 2023 appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Our Best Articles of 2022

Wed, 12/28/2022 - 05:00

Looking back at the year that was, we can’t help but also look forward. That’s what the best of our articles and commentaries did in 2022: They visualized the next steps toward a better future for wildlife, the planet and us.

Of course, sometimes getting to that point means looking at the pain, and there was plenty of that in 2022. But we remain resolute in our beliefs that good people can change the world for the better and that journalism is often the lens through which that echoes and amplifies.

So here are some of our best articles of 2022. They cover heavy topics like the extinction crisis, environmental justice and climate change, but they also celebrate those working to reverse the threats all of us face.

Learning to Love — and Protect — Burned Trees — A much-needed reminder that we don’t have to keep doing things the same way we always have.

Native Renewables solar project. (Courtesy of Native Renewables)

Solar Sovereignty: The Promise of Native-Led Renewables — Renewable energy isn’t always easy, which is why we focus on folks who are making a difference, especially for underserved communities.

30 Ways Environmentalists Can Participate in Democracy  — The midterms may be over, but the buildup to 2024 has just begun, and there’s still a lot left to do on all fronts. Environmentalists often bemoan the political process, but we should never underestimate our power and potential.

Left Out to Dry: Wildlife Threatened by Colorado River Basin Water Crisis — One of the biggest crises facing the country right now. It’s easy to ignore wildlife when people are suffering, which is why this look behind the curtain is important.

Collision Course: Will the Plastics Treaty Slow the Plastics Rush? — Plastic pollution threatens us on a cellular level, and plastic production worsens the climate crisis. The United Nations could finally step in to help.

Another Dam(n) Extinction — Sad news, but a call for change. And a warning of what else could come if we’re not watching closely.

10 Ways War Harms Wildlife — With war in Ukraine raging on, we need to look at the effects of violence on the planet.

Photo: USDA (uncredited)

Cargo, With a Side of Hornets, Flies and Crabs — Your online shopping comes with a cost, and not always the one you might expect.

Dam Accounting: Taking Stock of Methane Emissions From Reservoirs — Hydropower often gets presented as a clean energy solution. It pays to examine those assertions.

On the Clean Water Act’s 50th Birthday, What Should We Celebrate? — One of the country’s milestone environmental laws celebrated an important anniversary this year, which serves as a reminder of what we can accomplish and what we’re still missing.

The Fight for an Invisible Fish — What you can’t see is still worth protecting.

Rainbows from Bunsen Peak, Mammoth Hot Springs. Photo: Neal Herbert/NPS

Environmental Groups: Earn Your Place at Pride — The environmental movement is still too white, too straight, and too willing to overlook its own diversity and equity problems. This op-ed challenges us to be better.

Is the Jaguarundi Extinct in the United States? — Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone. But sometimes there are opportunities to bring it back.

Armadillos Make Great Neighbors — We’re all connected.

Six Ways to Talk About Extinction — The more we talk about it, and the better we talk about it, the more opportunity we’ll have to prevent future loss.

How to Stop Wildlife Trafficking in Its Tracks — An important roadmap for the future.

Thanks for reading in 2022. Thanks, too, for your comments, questions, suggestions, shares and general support. We couldn’t keep running The Revelator without you, our valued readers and writers.

Here’s to more moving forward in 2023 — and beyond.

The post Our Best Articles of 2022 appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Our Favorite Environmental Books of 2022 

Wed, 12/21/2022 - 05:00

In a world where news is often reduced to soundbites, 3-minute videos or 280-character tweets, the art of book writing has somehow endured. We couldn’t be happier — except that it’s made narrowing down our favorite nonfiction environmental books this year a bit tough.

We interviewed numerous authors this year and reviewed dozens of books. Below are some that stood out for us, but it’s in no way exhaustive. If you’re looking for more recommendations, we also rounded up great reads for kids, and books about our winged friends, feminism and the environment, and more.

A History Lesson

Let’s start with hope. Environmental historian Laura Martin’s Wild by Design focuses on ecological restoration. There’s much we can do to minimize and alleviate some of the harm we’ve caused to this planet. But to do a good job of that, we should know how we got here. Martin traces the history of ecological restoration in the United States and how the scientific field of ecology got its start. It’s not all a pretty picture.

“I wanted to put the history of ecological restoration in dialogue with the future of ecological restoration,” she told The Revelator in an interview. “There are so many times I’ve heard people say, ‘It’s been done this way for decades.’ But when I dug into the archives I found that wasn’t always the case.”

People and Planet

To better understand why we need social justice and environmental action in tandem, Leah Thomas’ book The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet is the perfect primer.

“The book serves as an introduction to the intersection between environmentalism, racism, and privilege, and as an acknowledgment of the fundamental truth that we cannot save the planet without protecting all of its people,” her website explains.

Slow Water

The concept of slow water may not yet be as common as slow food, but journalist Erica Gies has done much to help it gain needed recognition with her book Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge.

“In all of the cases I looked at,” she explained to The Revelator, “The water detectives were trying to give water access to its slow phases again, whether that meant restoring or protecting wetlands, or reclaiming floodplains, or protecting wet meadows, or in a city, creating something like bioswales.”

Standing Up for Sharks

Sharks are much maligned in the media and scientist David Shiffman helps set the record straight in Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive With the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator.

He explains sharks’ importance, why many are threatened and what we can do to help them. (Bonus: He also offered us his tips for a successful book tour.)

Graphic Images

Cartoonist Kate Beaton provides an intimate and heartbreaking look at life in Alberta, Canada’s dirtiest industry in her graphic memoir, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands. In a year packed with environmentally themed graphic novels, this one packed the biggest punch.

The book “is an untold story of Canada: a country that prides itself on its egalitarian ethos and natural beauty while simultaneously exploiting both the riches of its land and the humanity of its people,” explains the publisher.

Big Bears

It’s been 11,000 years since giant short-faced bears — which stood 10-feet-tall on their hind legs and weighed nearly a ton — disappeared from the planet. Author and Center for Biological Diversity creative director Mike Stark brings them back to life in Chasing the Ghost Bear: On the Trail of America’s Lost Super Beast.

This meditation on a long-lost species also offers us a chance to examine the cost of today’s extinction crisis.

North Woods

“The trees are on the move. They shouldn’t be. And this sinister fact has enormous consequences for all life on Earth,” writes journalist Ben Rawlence in The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth.

The book tells the complex ecological story of how climate change is already affecting the northernmost forests by focusing on seven tree species in seven different boreal ecotones. His reporting is both fascinating and terrifying. And he provides a much-needed examination not of what climate warming might mean for future ecosystems, but what change it has already wrought.

Boreal forests, he told The Revelator, are “going to be key players in what comes next.”

A Legacy

Celebrated nature writer Barry Lopez died in 2020, but his posthumously published collection of essays, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, adds to his literary legacy and includes some previously unpublished works.

“Thrilling encounters with wolves and killer walruses notwithstanding, Lopez wasn’t after Animal Planet-worthy adventures,” writes Ben Ehrenreich in a review for The New York Times. “He wanted us to seek out the human histories that reside in the landscape, too: the legacies of atrocity and exploitation that bounce around the rocks and valleys of this country as much as elks and coyotes do.”

Get more from The Revelator. Subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Previously in The Revelator:

How the Media Stokes Needless Fears About Sharks

The post Our Favorite Environmental Books of 2022  appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

New Hope for Horseshoe Crabs — and the Shorebirds That Depend on Them

Fri, 12/16/2022 - 05:00

A globetrotting bird, a crab that’s not a crab, a marine snail and a fish whose reproduction is so mysterious it fascinated Freud — they all walk into a sandbar. Unbeknownst to them, their future — no joke — hung in the balance of a decision made this November by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

For the past decade the commission has maintained a strict ban on fishing female horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay — not because it’s full of diehard feminists, but because horseshoe crab eggs are a hot commodity. Fish and shorebirds hurry to gobble up these fat-rich, blueish-green gifts from the sea.

None of these diners are hungrier than the red knot. This robin-sized bird flies from the southernmost tip of South America all the way up to the Arctic to breed. Thousands of endangered red knots stop in Delaware Bay to bulk up to prepare for the remainder of their migration. How much weight they gain is the difference between a successful brood or a total reproductive bust.

Photo: Gregory Breese/USFWS

In the late 1990s, the red knot population began to plummet. Biologists thought that the unregulated harvesting of horseshoe crabs in the region left too few eggs for knots to gain the necessary weight to finish their migration.

As a result, in 2012 the fisheries commission developed a framework to limit the number of horseshoe crabs fished so there would be enough eggs for the birds. Unlike most fisheries limits, this method considered not just the species being fished but the species that rely on them as well.

A lot can change in ten years. The fisheries commission met this November to vote on a revised version of the model that outputs horseshoe crab harvest quotas, which suggested that females could be fished without hurting the red knot population. The proposal generated immediate concern in the conservation community, as the model was not scheduled to be published until after the vote Nov. 10.  This concern over lack of transparency turned to action, and the fisheries commission received more than 30,000 letters in defense of females.

That’s right. More than 30,000 letters standing up for a crab who’s not a crab — an un-crustacean.

And it wasn’t just tenderheartedness driving that concern. Some biologists worried the new model wouldn’t incorporate enough information. Larry Niles, a prominent biologist who studies the interaction between red knots and horseshoe crabs, believes the model should incorporate egg densities.

These densities have not increased since the early 2000s and remain pathetically low compared to past counts. In 1880 4 million horseshoe crabs were taken from the bay, their bodies stacked along the beach. They were so plentiful they were used as fertilizer until a synthetic product replaced it.

Still Exploited

Now horseshoe crabs are used as bait in the eel and whelk fisheries. In 2021 fishers landed 365 tons of channeled and knobbed whelk, two species of marine snails, in the Middle Atlantic and New England, generating $8,229,963, while 184 tons of American eel generated $18,664,377. Eels, whose strange sexual development cause Freud to dissect 4,000 of them, are considered endangered by the IUCN, but not by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Though eels can be eaten, they are also often used as bait in the recreational striped bass fishery, elongating the food chain beyond its natural limits. Whelk, marine snails with beautiful whorled shells, can take up to 10 years to reach sexual maturity, putting them at higher risk of exploitation than faster-growing species.

But that’s not all people want with horseshoe crabs. They’re also collected for their valuable blood, which contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, a compound with a similar function as our white blood cells. Horseshoe crabs have an open circulatory system that renders them susceptible to bacterial infections. To deal with this, LAL clumps around bacteria and stops them in its tracks. For the horseshoe crab, this prevents nasty infections from reaching their organs and killing them. For humans, it allows quick, lifesaving identifications of bacteria in a biomedical device, vaccine or other injectable.

Yet there’s a dark side to this lifesaving enterprise. Data on how many horseshoe crabs biomedical companies abduct for blood donations is not public, but we do know that the largest biomedical company involved in collecting them, Charles Rivers Labs, was found guilty of taking the animals from Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge without the necessary permits. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lost a court case for allowing the company to collect horseshoe crabs in this protected area. In another infraction, Charles Rivers Labs was found keeping horseshoe crabs in illegal holding pens, which violate the Endangered Species Act by preventing them from spawning and reducing the number of available eggs for red knots.

Since degrading their relationship with South Carolina, the company has relocated to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This raises concerns of overharvesting in an area with fewer, smaller, and more exploited horseshoe crabs.

A Unique Species with Shared Threats

Beyond their unique contributions to blood and birds, horseshoe crabs inhabit a blackened branch of the evolutionary tree that’s extinct except for them. They look almost identical to the oldest known horseshoe crab, Lunataspis aurora, granting us a window into the past. They’re steadfast survivors. Their ancestors were around when Earth’s landmass was clumped together into the supercontinent Gondwana. As the land mass broke up, Gondwana eventually landed on the South Pole, ushering in a 20-million-year ice age.

Scuttling along the seafloor the whole time? Helmet shaped non-crabs with sword-shaped tails.

While horseshoe crabs are alone on their branch of the evolutionary tree, they’re not alone in the threats they face from people. Sea-level rise and shoreline hardening threaten their spawning habitat.

They’re also not alone in their reliance on natural beaches. It’s important to take all these shifting threats into account when setting quotas, which is what happened with horseshoe crabs.

Yes, the facts — and the 30,000 protest letters — outweighed the proposed model. As a result, the fisheries commission still accepted the new model but upheld the moratorium on females. This saves horseshoe crab eggs for red knots — and for future generations of crabs.

Horseshoe crab eggs. Photo: Gregory Breese/USFWS

And in the process, this further supports (at least until the commission meets again) the original framework that served to protect both species at the same time.

That approach works, and it should now be further incorporated into other fisheries models and redefine the very concept of “sustainable fisheries.” Catching one species doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it affects other species that live in tandem with the target animal, and that has to be considered when establishing catch quotas.

Almost every wild population is being pushed to its limits by people. The ocean and atmosphere are changing rapidly due to the carbon we emit. Temperatures are rising fast, and we are leaving less room for wild creatures on land and in the sea.

When setting limits on how many animals we take from the sea — be they fish, whales or horseshoe crabs — we must combine science with an ethic of restraint enforced by public outcry. People care about horseshoe crabs and the animals that rely on them. We need to extend that care to more species and incorporate this non-quantitative consideration when setting fisheries limits.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.

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Categories: H. Green News

Exposed: The Most Polluted Place in the United States

Wed, 12/14/2022 - 05:00

The most polluted place in the United States — perhaps the world — is one most people don’t even know. Hanford Nuclear Site sits in the flat lands of eastern Washington. The facility — one of three sites that made up the government’s covert Manhattan Project — produced plutonium for Fat Man, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II. And it continued producing plutonium for weapons for decades after the war, helping to fuel the Cold War nuclear arms race.

Today Hanford — home to 56 million gallons of nuclear waste, leaking storage tanks, and contaminated soil — is an environmental disaster and a catastrophe-in-waiting.

It’s “the costliest environmental remediation project the world has ever seen and, arguably, the most contaminated place on the entire planet,” writes journalist Joshua Frank in the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America.

It’s also shrouded in secrecy.

Frank has worked to change that, beginning with a series of blockbuster investigations published in Seattle Weekly a decade ago. Atomic Days offers an even fuller picture of the ecological threats posed by Hanford and its failed remediation.

The Revelator spoke with him about the environmental consequences, the botched cleanup operation, and what comes next.

Why is the most polluted place in the country so little known?

We have to understand what it was born out of, which was the Manhattan Project. There were three locations picked — Los Alamos [N.M.], Oak Ridge [Tenn.] and Hanford — to build the nuclear program.

Hanford was picked to produce plutonium and it ran for four decades, from World War II through the Cold War in the late 80s. For decades people that lived in and around Hanford didn’t know what was really going on there. It was run as a covert military operation. Even now, it’s still very much run like a covert operation because of the dangers that exist with the potential for an attack on one of the nuclear waste tanks.

It wasn’t even until the 80s that we started learning more about a lot of the stuff that had happened during its operation as far as leaks go, near accidents, intentional releases of radioactive material to test wind patterns, or potential biological weapons.

To this day a lot of stuff is still under wraps. The government still isn’t letting us in to understand the full totality of what the Hanford project has been for the Northwest.

What are the known environmental dangers?

There are 177 underground tanks that hold 56 million gallons of nuclear waste. We know that 67 of those tanks have leaked in the past into the groundwater that feeds the Columbia River.

We know that during its operation in the 50s and 60s the government was monitoring the water in the Columbia River, and even at the mouth of the Columbia they were finding radioactive fish. So we know that there have been leaks that made it to the river.

Right now, we know that there are two tanks currently leaking. The Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Department of Energy know about these leaks, but they can’t do anything about them because there’s no other place to safely put the waste.

Their answer right now is to throw tarps over these tanks so that when it rains it’s not pushing that radioactivity into the groundwater.

During its operation, there were also hundreds of billions of gallons of chemicals and other radioactive waste that were just dumped into the soil.

There’s also the potential for an explosion to happen in one of these tanks. One whistleblower I spoke to, Donald Alexander, is a retired Department of Energy scientist who worked at Hanford for a really long time. What he was most concerned about was a hydrogen explosion — pressure building up in the tanks that would release radioactivity throughout the Northwest.

A similar accident happened at a Soviet facility called Mayak in 1957. The Soviets didn’t let the public know what had happened because it was a covert production site for plutonium.

The CIA found out about it a few years after the fact. But by then the damage had been done. Hundreds of square miles were eviscerated and communities were completely destroyed. The long-term impacts are still being felt there because radiation lasts millennia.

Donald Alexander was part of the delegation that went out there and looked at the impacts and the damage that happened. He came back really concerned that something similar could happen at Hanford.

He’s concerned that the longer the waste sits in storage tanks, the more the risk increases.

What has the cleanup process been like?

The big thing right now is trying to get all this waste vitrified, which is turning it into glass so it can be stored safely and permanently. The government thought that could be done in four years, but that was 30 years ago now.

I would argue, when it comes to vitrification, they’ve made almost no progress. So far, we’ve spent $40 billion to build a huge facility that doesn’t even work yet. A couple of the whistleblowers who I talked to tell me that they don’t think it’ll ever work.

I hope they’re wrong, but it seems to be so far that they’re right.

Bechtel is the big contractor for this “vit plant,” as they call it. But they have a really bad track record and are well known for reaping the spoils of U.S. military ventures all over the globe.

In October they had a test facility up and running that was going to do a run of vitrification for low-level radioactive waste. They basically had a ribbon cutting for this big machine and it ran for a week, then overheated, and they had to shut it down.

So even their test run for vitrification didn’t work.

Bechtel is a privately owned corporation and we’re spending billions of dollars paying this company to not get the job done. It’s a big mess.

Hanford D and DR reactors in 1955. Photo: Atomic Energy Commission, public domain.

Are the people who live nearby concerned?

Richland is the town that’s closest to Hanford, and it’s basically a government town — it always has been. Richland was born out of the Manhattan Project. It used to be full of nuclear engineers and physicists [helping build weapons], and now it’s full of nuclear engineers and physicists who are working on the cleanup.

It’s interesting going to Richland because they still celebrate the atomic age. There isn’t any real talk about how polluted the place is, and there’s no mention of what the bomb did to the Japanese.

But there are also other communities nearby that have been deeply involved in trying to remediate the site. The Yakama Nation has been very active, as well as other organizations, like Columbia Riverkeeper in Hood River and Hanford Challenge up in Seattle.

What could help? Are there elected officials or others watchdogging this?

When it comes to elected officials on both sides of the aisle, they’re in lockstep that we need to keep the money flowing for the cleanup, but they’re not calling for more accountability.

As far as agencies go, I would say the Washington Department of Ecology is by far the most involved and is very critical of the operation, but they’re just a state agency. They don’t have a ton of power.

The Department of Energy, I have been told over and over again, is just completely understaffed and underfunded. They don’t have the personnel and expertise to manage [the Hanford cleanup], which is frightening really.

I would argue it’s going to take more ingenuity and more expertise to clean it up than it took to develop the bomb in the first place. I think we should be putting our best people on this. I think that ultimately, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to privately contract this stuff out. The government’s not capable of doing it themselves, but they certainly are capable of overseeing it properly.

I’d like to see more accountability. I’d like to see some congressional hearings. At a very basic level, I think everybody can contact their congressperson and ask them if they know about it and where they stand.

Has writing this book changed your thoughts about nuclear power?

I went into the book being a critic of nuclear power, but coming out of the book, I was way more than just a critic. The big problem in relation to the Hanford project is nuclear waste. And it’s the same with nuclear power. In a nuclear reactor, you’re going to have plutonium and other byproducts of the process. Plutonium, for instance, lasts 250,000 years. Every nuclear reactor produces this stuff. And we don’t have an answer for where to put it.

Nuclear power is also very expensive. It’s very slow to roll out. So as far as climate change goes, it’s just not going to happen fast enough. And then there’s a myth that it’s carbon neutral. It’s not. Uranium, which is integral to the nuclear process, is mined and to extract uranium from uranium ore, it’s very carbon intensive.

There’s a lot of reasons to oppose nuclear power. But nuclear waste, to me, is the one that really sticks out.

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Previously in The Revelator:

What a New Jersey Creek Taught Us About How Animals Respond to Pollution  

The post Exposed: The Most Polluted Place in the United States appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

10 New Books for Environmentally Active Kids and Families

Mon, 12/12/2022 - 05:00

Winter is settling in, so warm up your brains — and the next generation of Earth activism — with these new books for eco-curious kids and their families.

We’ve picked 10 amazing titles — all published in 2022 — offering important lessons, cutting-edge STEM knowledge, and practical advice for saving the planet and everything that lives here.

Animals Lost and Found: Stories of Extinction, Conservation and Survival

by Jason Bittel, illustrated by Jonathan Woodward

Our take: Bittel has long been one of the world’s wittiest wildlife journalists, and his work for kids brings that home.

From the publisher: “Shine a spotlight on animal species throughout history and the ones alive today in Animals Lost and Found, through beautiful illustrations and interesting facts. Children will learn about animals lost to extinction, animals we thought we’d lost but have found, and animals that are the focus of conservation efforts all over the world.”

This Book Will Save the Planet: A Climate-Justice Primer for Activists and Changemakers

by Dany Sigwalt

Our take: There are a lot of climate books for kids, but few place such direct and powerful focus on issues of justice and equity.

From the publisher: “Our planet is in crisis. The ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, wildfires are raging … and those most affected by global warming are marginalized communities across the globe. But all is not lost — there’s still time for each and every one of us to make a difference. Through the lens of intersectionality, author Dany Sigwalt lays out the framework for how we can come together to fight climate change, and how we can work to put people over profit.”

Outdoor Kids in an Inside World: Getting Your Family Out of the House and Radically Engaged With Nature

by Steven Rinella

Our take: Every time I see a kid walking down the street with their face shoved into a phone, I want to hand their parents — or them — a copy of this book.

From the publisher: “Living an outdoor lifestyle fosters in kids an insatiable curiosity about the world around them, confidence and self-sufficiency, and, most important, a lifelong sense of stewardship of the natural world. This book helps families connect with nature — and one another — as a joyful part of everyday life.”

History Comics: The National Parks

by Falynn Koch

Our take: This gorgeously illustrated graphic novel — one of School Library Journal’s best books of 2022 — celebrates “America’s wild places” but doesn’t shy away from tough topics like colonialism and Indigenous land theft.

From the publisher: “…turn back the clock to 1872, when Congress established Yellowstone National Park as an area of unspoiled beauty for the ‘benefit and enjoyment of the people.’ Meet the visionaries, artists and lovers of the American wilderness who fought against corruption and self-interest to carve out and protect these spaces for future generations. See for yourself how the idea of National Parks began, how they’ve changed and how they continue to define America.”

Save the People! Halting Human Extinction

by Stacy McAnulty, illustrated by Nicole Miles

Our take: A provocative title, sure, but I bet it already got you to sit up and take notice. That’s good, because even this jaded reviewer found inspiration in this inventive new book.

From the publisher: “Scientists estimate that 99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. Whoa. So, it’s not unreasonable to predict humans are doomed to become fossil records as well. But what could lead to our demise? Supervolcanos? Asteroids? The sun going dark? Climate change? All the above?! Humans — with our big brains, opposable thumbs and speedy Wi-Fi — may be capable of avoiding most of these nightmares. (The T. rex would be super jealous of our satellites.) But we’re also capable of triggering world-ending events. Learning from past catastrophes may be the best way to avoid future disasters.”

Science Comics: Birds of Prey

by Joe Flood

Our take: Subtitled “Terrifying Talons,” this fun graphic novel is packed with awe-inspiring details about eagles, hawks, and other skyborne predators.

From the publisher: “…get up-close and personal with some of the world’s most skilled hunters, from the majestic eagle to the oft-maligned scavenger vulture! Armed with razor-sharp claws, keen eyesight, powerful wings and killer instincts, these stealthy predators can make a meal of rodents, fish, snakes, lizards, monkeys and even kangaroos! Discover how these amazing birds, who are often at the top of the food chain, play an integral role in many different ecosystems around the world.”

Ecoart in Action: Activities, Case Studies and Provocations for Classrooms and Communities

edited by Amara Geffen, Ann Rosenthal, Chris Fremantle and Aviva Rahmani

Our take: Break out your pens, markers and paint (or graphics software if you’re digitally inclined) and get ready to make a difference.

From the publisher: “How do we educate those who feel an urgency to address our environmental and social challenges? What ethical concerns do art-makers face who are committed to a deep green agenda? How can we refocus education to emphasize integrative thinking and inspire hope? What role might art play in actualizing environmental resilience? Compiled from 67 members of the Ecoart Network, a group of more than 200 internationally established practitioners, Ecoart in Action stands as a field guide that offers practical solutions to critical environmental challenges.”

A River’s Gifts: The Mighty Elwha River Reborn

by Patricia Newman

Our take: We’ve covered the science of the Elwha River restoration here at The Revelator. This kids’ book looks at it from a different lens and brings the river to life.

From the publisher: “For thousands of years, the Elwha River flowed north to the sea. The river churned with salmon, which helped feed bears, otters and eagles. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, known as the Strong People in the Pacific Northwest, were grateful for the river’s abundance. All that changed in the 1790s when strangers came who did not understand the river’s gifts. The strangers built dams, and the environmental consequences were disastrous. Sibert honoree Patricia Newman and award-winning illustrator Natasha Donovan join forces to tell the story of the Elwha, chronicling how the Strong People successfully fought to restore the river and their way of life.”

The Ultimate Book of Big Cats: Your Guide to the Secret Lives of these Fierce, Fabulous Felines

by Sharon Guynup and Steve Winter

Our take: Few people have done more to bring awareness to the plight of tigers and other big cats than the journalistic power couple of Guynup and Winter. Their latest book comes at a critical time for many of these endangered species and offers a bounty of reasons to celebrate them.

From the publisher: “Get ready to sink your teeth into the hidden worlds of the seven spectacular big cats — and meet some of their smaller cousins… From rarely seen snow leopards high up in the Himalaya to tigers silently stalking prey through thick jungle to lions going in for the kill, you’ll get the inside scoop on the fascinating worlds of wild felines and what it’s like to live alongside them.”

Meltdown: Discover Earth’s Irreplaceable Glaciers and Learn What You Can Do to Save Them

by Anita Sanchez, illustrated by Lily Padula

Our take: Science-oriented kids will love this. It’s crammed full of amazing detail, vividly visualized, and unflinchingly (if realistically) hopeful.

From the publisher: “Packed with information, grounded in the latest science, with lively writing and illustrations throughout (including graphs, charts, infographics, photographs and full-page art), Meltdown gives readers an eye-opening overview of glaciers and how important they are… We learn the secrets of earth’s climate history hidden deep in a glacier’s core — and discover how climate change is causing glaciers to melt at unprecedented rates, putting the health of the planet in jeopardy. But we are not left without hope. The final chapter offers positive steps readers can take to become climate activists, reduce their carbon footprint, and save the glaciers.”

That’s it for this month, but you can find hundreds of additional environmental books — for both children and adults — in the “Revelator Reads” archive.


The post 10 New Books for Environmentally Active Kids and Families appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Good News for Bears, Birds, Whales and People

Fri, 12/09/2022 - 05:00

Did you hear the recent good news about songbirds, whales, bears (both black and grizzly), and pollution?

No? Well, that doesn’t surprise us. In a season dominated by the chaos of the midterms, the latest U.N. climate conference and billionaires gone bad, a lot of good environmental news slipped through the cracks.

So let’s spackle those cracks with some stories you may have missed. Welcome to Links From the Brink: Good News Edition.

A Song of Joy

Conservationists are breathing sighs of relief this month for the straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus), an Asian songbird with some of the natural world’s most beautiful vocalizations. Alas, those songs — meant to attract mates — are the main reason this bird has become endangered in recent years, as humans have trapped so many of them that some of the species’ native forests have fallen silent. The caged and trafficked birds end up competing in Southeast Asia’s songbird competitions, where owners can win big prizes for the birds with the best songs.

Photos: Michael MK Khor (CC BY 2.0)

But November saw important progress when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) finally added the bulbul to its list of species that are banned from legal commerce. This only affects international sales, not those within a nation’s borders, but it’s a huge step that will help to support existing national legislations.

Also protected by CITES this year: Another songbird (the white-rumped shama), 90 shark species (including hammerheads and guitarfish), 53 turtle species, all 160 glass frog species, and lots more. Meanwhile proposals to reopen trade in elephant ivory and rhino horns were, thankfully, defeated.

Discussions about protecting wildlife continue this week at the UN Biodiversity Conference, which finally convenes in Montreal from Dec. 7-19 after a string of Covid-related delays. Here’s what to expect.

Residents’ Rights

In more local news, the city of Port Townsend, Washington, this week officially recognized the inherent rights of the last 74 Southern Resident killer whales, who often swim past its shores.

The latest victory in the Rights of Nature movement, the city’s proclamation declares that the orcas have “the right to life, autonomy, culture, free and safe passage, adequate food supply from naturally occurring sources, and freedom from conditions causing physical, emotional, or mental harm, including a habitat degraded by noise, pollution, and contamination.”

Southern Resident killer whales. Photo: NOAA

Of course, Port Townsend can’t save the Southern Residents on its own. These whales need additional support from other communities. Gig Harbor could be next: The city council will read a proclamation recognizing orca rights at their meeting on Dec. 12. Meanwhile, organizers hope to convince Washington to extend Rights of Nature to the orcas on the state level.

The Good News Bears

Hunters in Washington can lower their rifles: The  state just closed the door on its annual spring black bear hunting season. Last year hunters killed a reported 1,686 black bears out of an estimated statewide population of 20,000. About 120 of those came during the now-closed spring hunting season, which happened to correspond to when hungry bears (including new mothers) emerge from hibernation.

Most states do not permit bear hunting during this post-hibernation season, and Washington now, at last, joins their ranks.

Which brings us to good bear news # 2: The Biden administration just jumpstarted long-brewing efforts to reintroduce grizzlies to Washington’s North Cascades National Park. The plan, like so many others, fell by the wayside during the Trump years and has now been resurrected. Getting more grizzlies to the park — a handful may already live in the region — could take years, but this is a huge step in the right direction and could signal renewed willingness to reintroduce the bears in other parts of the country.


Conservation Quickies

Here are some more success stories to warm your heart and keep you motivated:

Got Any Non-Animal Stories?

Sure — how about one on energy? Renewables will overtake coal by early 2025 to become “the largest source of global electricity generation,” according to a stunning new report from the International Energy Agency.

Why the rapid shift? Two words: energy security. That’s usually a term bandied about by Republicans supporting domestic fossil-fuel production, but in this case it’s the growing recognition that reliance on fossil fuels is inherently unsafe due to production and distribution disruptions — like, say, the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“Energy security concerns caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have motivated countries to increasingly turn to renewables such as solar and wind to reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels, whose prices have spiked dramatically,” writes the IEA.

The Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island. Photo: Dennis Schroeder / NREL (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This report offers exactly zero solace to the suffering people of Ukraine or energy insecure households in Europe, nor does it justify this destructive war. But at the same time, this feels like a potential transformative moment. It could be one of the most important environmental stories to watch in the coming year.

Polishing Off Pollution

And speaking of fossil fuels, who are the world’s worst polluters? New mapping projects have some answers.

The first, called Climate Trace, tracks the greenhouse gas emissions of nearly 80,000 of the worst polluters on the planet — everything from oilfields and cargo ships to cattle feedlots. Anyone can dig into the maps to find the polluters in their area (in my case, the worst are an airport, a steel factory, and a couple of landfills) or just look at the world to see how nations compare.

The second map covers just the United States, but there’s a lot to cover. The EPA’s FLIGHT project tracks greenhouse emissions from large industrial facilities around the country — about 8,100 of them. Users can zoom into their state or filter the results by facility type (power plants, chemical factories, etc.). You can even see how things have changed over time, with data going back to 2010 (and yeah, they got worse in the past year).

Seeing all these polluters visualized out can feel, admittedly, a bit disheartening. But there’s a reason we included this work in the “good news” category: The more data like this we have, the better we’re able to target emissions and shut them down. These maps will help regulators, activists, and everyday citizens to let us all breathe a little easier.

That’s it for this edition of Links From the Brink. Look for the next column in late January. Until then, mark your calendars for International Mountain Day on Dec. 11, Monkey Day on Dec. 14 and National Bird Day on Jan. 5. And of course, tip a glass or your hat to the Endangered Species Act, which celebrates its 49th anniversary Dec. 28.

The post Good News for Bears, Birds, Whales and People appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Learning to Love — and Protect — Burned Trees

Wed, 12/07/2022 - 05:00

A forest needs all kinds of trees — even dead ones.

Dead trees, known as “snags,” are some of the most valuable wildlife structures in the forest and help support hundreds of animals.

“A tree really has a second life after it’s been killed, particularly with fire-killed trees, which decay far slower than if a tree succumbs to disease or insects,” says Timothy Ingalsbee, a wildfire ecologist and executive director of the nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. “I’ve called them ‘living dead trees.’”

Wildfire-ravaged forests may appear devoid of life from a distance — they’re often described in the media as “destroyed” or “moonscapes” — but the reality is quite different, as more than 200 scientists and land managers wrote in a letter to Congress when the 2018 Farm Bill contained proposals to speed up and expand logging on public lands in response to increasing wildfires:

“Though it may seem to laypersons that a postfire landscape is a catastrophe,” they wrote, “numerous studies tell us that even in the patches where fires burn most intensely, the resulting wildlife habitats are among the most biologically diverse in the West.”

But that hasn’t stopped federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management from cutting trees burned in wildfires or selling the logging contracts to private timber companies. Post-fire logging, which is done in forests all over the world, is prevalent the western United States, where there’s a large amount of federally owned land, a lot of big trees, and frequent fires.

Even the term frequently used by agencies for post-fire logging — “salvage logging” — gives a good indication of how forests are seen after a fire.

“Just about every time you get a burn — a severe burn, especially — the agencies are going to go in and do post-fire logging,” says Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at Wild Heritage, a nonprofit that focuses on forest protection and restoration. “They’ve taken advantage of the public’s perception that if there was a big burn and it’s a blackened forest, it’s no longer important, so why not just log it.”

The Value of ‘Living Dead Trees’

The ecological reasons for leaving burned trees in a forest are numerous.

For one thing, dead trees help jumpstart the new forest. They’re biological legacies that offer habitat, food, and other resources to bugs, birds and mammals.

After a fire life returns within days. Longhorn beetles and other wood borers come to feast on the sap from burned trees while they’re still smoldering. They’re usually followed by the birds that feed on them. In the West’s coniferous forests, that often means black-backed woodpeckers. They build homes for themselves in the burned trees, as well as for other cavity-nesters, including birds, squirrels and martens. Other birds that flock to burned forests include white-headed woodpeckers, Lewis’s woodpeckers, three-toed woodpeckers, olivesided flycatchers, Clark’s nutcrackers and mountain bluebirds.

As wildflowers, shrubs and morels emerge, more small mammals arrive to eat the newly regenerating vegetation. Then come the larger mammals and birds like spotted owls to prey on these smaller animals.

Mountain arnica blooming in profusion near the Siskiyou Crest at the headwaters of East Fork Indian Creek following the 2020 Slater fire. Photo: Luke Ruediger. Used with permission.

Snags provide areas for foraging, nesting, roosting and denning. They’re particularly important for birds — one-quarter of all birds in the West’s forests rely on dead trees at some point in their lives.

When snags fall, they also have benefits. Downed trees can help retain moisture, add nutrients to the soil, and become “nurse trees,” out of which new saplings grow. “An astounding two-thirds of all wildlife species use deadwood structures or woody debris for some portion of their life cycles,” wildlife biologist Richard Hutto of the University of Montana wrote in a study for Conservation Biology. They can even help provide habitat for fish and other aquatic animals if they fall into creeks and rivers.

“The snags and the downed logs are all part of the rebirthing of a forest — a process that eventually gives you an old-growth forest,” says DellaSala.

Logging’s Degradation

While some people may think a wildfire is a disaster for a forest, DellaSala says the real disaster is what can happen if the area is heavily logged after such an event. The process can impede the forest’s recovery by compacting soils and killing the associated microbial communities that are important for a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem.

“A burned forest is very sensitive to additional disturbances,” says Ingalsbee. “Bare exposed soil is very erosive and when you’re slamming large logs and dragging them on steep slopes, then you lose forest soil and that is more or less a permanent loss in a human lifetime. It takes a long time to develop a fertile soil bed.”

Logging trucks and equipment can also kill or disturb native seed banks that would naturally regenerate after fire and lead to new growth. The associated roadbuilding can cause water-quality problems and degrade habitat.

Extensive soil damage and clearcut post-fire logging in the Slater Fire footprint in southwestern Oregon. Photo: Luke Ruediger. Used with permission.

And it’s not just the initial clearcutting that’s problematic — it’s also what follows, which is usually intensive management with tree planting and herbicides.

“Instead of having this natural diverse mosaic of vegetation patterning that comes in after a fire with patches of hardwoods and patches of conifers and open areas where flowering species can thrive,” says Luke Ruediger, conservation director of the Klamath Forest Alliance. “The agencies tend to come in and plant these even-aged, evenly spaced and relatively densely packed plantation stands that then can increase fire risks and are more biologically sterile than the naturally regenerating habitats that surround them.”

Agency Rationale

These cumulative impacts add up to a lot of reasons not to log a forest after a wildfire.

“I am hard pressed to find any other example in wildlife biology where the effect of a particular land-use activity is as close to 100% negative as the typical postfire salvage-logging operation tends to be,” wrote Hutto in the Conservation Biology study.

So why does post-fire logging persist? Mostly, it’s money.

“Harvesting timber following fire is usually an economic undertaking and rarely a restorative activity in the sense of ecological restoration,” a 2009 Forest Service study makes clear.

Fire-killed or damaged trees are still seen as valuable if they’re cut within a couple of years. Usually there’s just a thin layer of char on the outer bark of the trees that can be stripped off. The inside wood is then used for lumber or other wood products, just as green-cut trees would be.

While private companies can make good money, government agencies also bring in a fair amount. “The federal government pulls in about $150 million annually from selling the timber in national forests, about one-fourth of which comes from post-fire logging,” reported Forbes.

But the math doesn’t always pencil out for taxpayers, who also foot the bill for roadbuilding, replanting, herbicides, and the other treatments that follow. A 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office found that salvage logging after the 2002 Biscuit Fire, which burned 500,000 acres in California and Oregon, was a $2 million loss for taxpayers.

The other reason is safety. Fire-killed trees in areas where people drive or recreate can be hazardous. That’s why popular hiking trails are often closed following wildfires when trees are at risk of falling.

Removing dead trees that pose a public safety risk is a legitimate concern. But increasingly environmental advocates say they’ve seen roadside post-fire logging projects for remote Forest Service roads or needlessly far from the road’s edge.

“A number of years ago they were logging about 50 feet on either side of the road and now they’re going to 200 and 300 feet, which starts to look and feel a lot more like unit logging than hazard tree removal,” says Ruediger. Much of this work is done using a “categorical exclusion” under the National Environmental Policy Act, which doesn’t require an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement. That makes the approval process quicker and allows cutting to begin before fire-killed trees are too compromised by bugs and rot to be used for lumber.

Post-fire logging after California’s Rim Fire. Photo: Tara Lohan

“Agencies were proposing a lot of categorical exclusions for roadside logging, calling it ‘road maintenance,’ ” he says. Last year in Oregon, for example, the Forest Service planned to allow commercial logging 200 feet on either side of 400 miles of Forest Service roads in areas burned during the 2020 Labor Day fires in the Willamette National Forest.

The agency said the 20,000-acre plan fell under a categorical exclusion for “repair and maintenance” of roads in the national forest. But three conservation groups sued, saying it was nothing more than a standard logging project disguised as a hazard tree removal effort and should be subject to environmental review.

A federal judge agreed, writing in his decision that, “This Project allows commercial logging that, at least at this stage, will almost certainly have more than a minimal impact on the environment.” His order halted the project in November 2021, and the agency formally withdrew the plan in January 2022.

In a similar case last year, the Klamath Forest Alliance legally challenged a 4,000-acre logging project in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest following the 2020 Slater fire along the California-Oregon border. The group contended that many of the areas proposed for logging to remove hazard trees were along backcountry roads that saw little traffic. The Forest Service settled with the organization out of court, agreeing to limit cutting to only important roadways where there are imminent safety hazards.

Shifting Perspective

Legal challenges from environmental groups have helped prevent some unnecessary logging of snags, but DellaSala admits that a much bigger effort is needed to change hearts, minds and policy. Getting the public, legislators and agency staff to see the benefit of a burned forest isn’t easy, because wildfires — pardon the pun — are a heated issue.

“There’s issues of economics, the smoke, fire phobia, misinformation, people losing their homes, firefighters losing their lives,” he says DellaSala. It’s complicated.

Diverse and spectacular floral displays in the Slater Fire footprint. Photo: Luke Ruediger. Used with permission.

His own understanding of the value of burned forests changed after three decades of studying forest ecosystems. In 2012 he went for a hike with his daughter near their home in Ashland, Oregon. The area had been burned a decade earlier in a wildfire, but they were surprised to find the area alive with wildflowers, dragonflies, butterflies, songbirds and woodpeckers.

“There was more sound in that high-severity burn patch than I was used to hearing in old-growth forests. It was so alive. It was not a moonscape, it was not a catastrophe,” he says. “I had to recalibrate my understanding of what a forest is.”

Ruediger has seen the same thing in the mountains of California and Oregon.

In July he hiked through forest burned two years prior in the Slater fire and found a superbloom. He wrote of the experience:

Bursting with vibrancy, life and unbelievable color, the flowers are currently so thick that you can see bright yellow swaths of Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum) and mountain arnica (Arnica latifolia) blooming from ridges away. The butterflies, bees, pollinating beetles and flies swarm the sea of blossoms in a frenzy, collecting pollen and nectar. Songbirds dart about in the regenerating vegetation, eating insects and wildflower seeds. Deer and elk nibble on the herbaceous growth and the abundant, fire-coppiced trees and shrubs. Bears graze on the greenery. Raptors soar above the snag forest looking for prey species, whose populations have exploded since the fire, and woodpeckers drum against the standing snags in a repetitive chorus, noisily foraging for ants, grubs and other insects.

And that experience, he says, is not uncommon.

“I think that people will be shocked and surprised by how much life there is in a lot of these areas that they were told were devastated by wildfire,” he says. “My experience is that as long as there isn’t post-fire logging, in a lot of these situations the regeneration comes back — the trees come back. Sometimes that just takes more time than people are willing to give it.”

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Previously in The Revelator:

The Bad Seeds: Are Wildfire Recovery Efforts Hurting Biodiversity?

The post Learning to Love — and Protect — Burned Trees appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

The Earth Has a Microbiome — And It Needs Help

Mon, 12/05/2022 - 05:00

Tackling the biodiversity crisis may mean starting small — very small.

The life we can’t see is some of the most threatened, say researchers of a new study in Nature Microbiology. And those microbial organisms — tiny bacteria, fungi and viruses that live in the soil — are fundamental to our existence.

“A functioning Earth without a functioning microbiome is nearly unimaginable,” they write.

But soil microbes today are at risk of extinction and homogenization. A wide variety of environmental changes has spurred these losses, including deforestation, intensive agriculture, pesticides, soil compaction and soil sealing.

There’s also the threat from “accelerated co-extinction” — as host plants decline, so do their specialized microbial networks.

The Earth microbiome urgently needs our defense, the researchers urge in their study. And they provide three avenues to help do just that.

“We need to conserve, we need to restore and we need to integrate microbes into managed landscapes,” says study co-author Tom Crowther, a professor of environmental systems science at ETH Zürich. “The belowground world is exactly as important as the aboveground world. It’s also exactly as diverse.”

The first step to conservation is data collection, so we know what exists where and how it’s changing over time.

Thousands of soil ecologists all over the world are engaged in this process, which has been streamlined by the use of DNA sequencing.

“By compiling all of those data sets, you can start to see the patterns in microbial communities across the globe,” says Crowther. “Then we link it up with satellite observations and climate information to look at the correlations.”

But we need to devote more effort to quantifying and mapping the Earth’s existing microbiome to identify knowledge gaps and emerging threats. The researchers note several projects already underway attempting to do just that, including SoilBON, the Global Fungi Database and the Earth Microbiome Project.

But while data availability has exploded, they warn that “there are clear and persistent sampling gaps in our global picture of the Earth microbiome.” There’s still a lot we don’t know and many places where data doesn’t yet capture a long-term picture that can help identify decline. Places where we lack information include the northern parts of Canada and Russia, the Amazon, southeast Asia, and the entire African continent.

This information could aid efforts to include microbial biodiversity in conservation planning and in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of species in need of conservation, the researchers say.

In the second step, the research shows that ecological restoration efforts should include attention to restoring microbiomes.

Restoration can take place by allowing nature to regenerate on its own, but that can also be an incredibly slow process. There’s now evidence that active microbiome restoration — which includes mixing microbial spores into water and spraying the landscape or using soil inoculants that contain microbes— can help the speed and resiliency of ecological restoration projects.

The researchers reviewed the findings of dozens of previous studies that examined these practices and found that restoring native microbial communities helped boost plant growth by an average of 64%.

This kind of restoration can be used not just for natural landscapes, but also those managed for agriculture.

Agricultural field, Idaho. Photo: Nicholas D. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Managed landscapes are “a vital and underappreciated avenue to promote microbial biodiversity,” the researchers write, and exploring the possibilities of microbial restoration in these areas is the third avenue the study recommends.

Efforts should be made, they say, to identify diverse, native microbiomes that can be restored to fields and forests managed for agriculture, which covers nearly half the planet’s land.

For farmers, the benefits are twofold. “Simply spraying these microbes — healthy, diverse mixtures across soils — increases your diversity within the system, will be beneficial in itself to farmers,” says Crowther, especially if incentives for promoting biodiversity become available in the future. And it can also help boost plant production.

That, he says, is “a rare example in ecology where we’ve got something that improves biodiversity and at the same time increases (crop) yields.”

The end goal of this work is for belowground ecosystems to receive the same attention as the ones aboveground, so we know how to appropriately restore them and protect them.

“If we manage a tropical forest the same way we manage a boreal forest, it wouldn’t work very well. So we manage them very differently,” he says. “We also need to be managing our soils relative to the variation in microbial biogeography. We need to understand those ecosystems if we’re going be able to manage them right.”

Crowther believes that’s starting to happen, but there’s still a long way to go.

Fungi have gotten the most attention so far, which is important, “but fungi are just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “There’s a wealth of soil biodiversity that’s absolutely critical for the survival of everything on this planet — the bacteria, the nematodes and the soil animals that are essential.”

Despite an increasing awareness of the importance of protecting soil biodiversity, there’s still no strong conservation planning around it, says Crowther. “We really have to start getting serious about it — that’s the case for all biodiversity and particularly the belowground world.”

The next big chance to do that will be in December at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, he says.

“I hope it will be a big turning point in the environmental movement for bringing biodiversity up to a place that’s as important as climate in our international policy governance.”

Get more from The Revelator. Subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Previously in The Revelator:

‘Soil Isn’t Forever’: Why Biodiversity Also Needs Protection Below the Ground

The post The Earth Has a Microbiome — And It Needs Help appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Reptile Trade Blues

Fri, 12/02/2022 - 05:00

Reptiles are extremely popular in the global pet trade. People love them — love them to death.

Thanks to the increasing demand for reptile pets, many species are now threatened with extinction. Among these are the approximately 80 species of varanids, or monitor lizards, from Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and parts of Oceania.

While many monitors reach enormous sizes — the massive Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) being the largest — some are considerably smaller and seen as easier to maintain in captivity. This includes the tree monitors, a group of nine brilliantly colored species that evolved on isolated islands. Their stunning appearance, small size, prehensile tails, and seemingly intelligent nature mean they’re more and more sought after — by any means possible, legal or illegal.

Our research focuses on the plight of the blue tree monitor (Varanus macraei). This intricately patterned species, which grows to a length of about 3.5 feet, lives mainly in trees and is only found on Batanta Island and some of its small offshore islands, in the easternmost part of Indonesia. It likely has the most restricted range of any monitor lizard.

The blue tree monitor was only described scientifically in 2001, based on specimens found in the wildlife trade in the United States. It was named after Duncan R. MacRae, a reptile trader who was instrumental in the species entering the international pet trade. The specimen used to describe the species was caught on Ayem Island (off Batanta) and entered the international market via a trader on Batanta.

Under two decades later, in 2017, the IUCN listed the species as endangered. Researchers warned that this little varanid is in serious decline due to illegal over-harvesting in its small range, with the demand coming from traders and hobbyists. The species is so rare that researchers spent a few days between each sighting.

Our research highlights the volume of blue tree monitor trade and the issues in controlling it.

A Snapshot of the Market

Earlier this year we investigated the online trade in Indonesia to spotlight the threats this species faces and illuminate the need for urgent and more effective measures to prevent poaching and illegal trade.

On June 25 we conducted a search for blue tree monitors for sale online within Indonesia. Because there is no legal harvest for the species, and the commercial trade in captive-bred and captive-born specimens is mainly (or even exclusively) for the international market, we expected to find very few.

We were wrong.

Finding blue tree monitors for sale online was simple. We found 18 advertisements on seven different platforms. Several of the sellers indicated that they had more individuals available or that additional specimens could be obtained if required.

Blue tree monitor lizards on Batanta. Photo: Brian Gratwicke (CC BY 2.0)

Ten sellers were commercial traders or established pet shops. One appeared to be a hobbyist. Sellers were mostly based on Java, with seven in the Greater Jakarta area, and one each in Semarang, Jember and Surabaya (the last of which is over 1,240 miles, or 2,000 kilometers, from Batanta). One trader was based in Banjarmasin, on the island of Borneo.

All advertisements and posts were written in Indonesian, with some English terminology widely understood in the reptile hobbyist community.

All but two of the lizards for whom we were able to establish an age — or for whom age was given — were adults. Five sellers specified that their animals were “jumpy” or “shy,” and two added that the animals were “damaged.” None indicated that the animals were tame or that they were captive-bred. This all suggests it was wild-caught individuals being offered for sale. While four of the sellers indicated that the species was “rare” or “super duper rare,” none indicated that capture was prohibited, that trade was strictly regulated in Indonesia, or that its export was covered by CITES.

Research like this allows us to develop recommendations for the government of Indonesia and importing countries where demand driving the trade can, and should be, addressed. Our aim was to find what platforms offered this species for sale, where traders were based, and who offers them for sale (hobbyists, commercial traders, pet shops, etc.) and ultimately, to inform importing countries of the illegal nature of this trade.

Mystery Sourcing

So where do the traded lizards come from?

As we saw in our snapshot sampling, and from an abundance of literature, there’s ample evidence that registered reptile breeders in Indonesia often illegally remove animals from the wild and launder them into the global trade by claiming they were bred in captivity.

This is not uncommon. While shipments of laundered reptiles from Indonesia are sometimes detected and seized, officials in importing countries often grapple with proving the animals were not bred in captivity. This method of smuggling is rife and a major obstacle in the fight against reptile trafficking.

How many lizards are we talking about? Data from the CITES wildlife trade database shows that Indonesia reported the export of 3,167 blue monitor lizards for commercial purposes from 2010-2020 (inclusive). Of these 1,199 were reported to have been bred in captivity (i.e., they were second-generation offspring, bred out of parents who themselves were bred in captivity) and 1,968 as being born in captivity (bred from parent(s) who had been wild-caught). It’s likely that at least most of the blue tree monitors exported from Indonesia are in fact wild-caught.

Totally protected, Blue Tree Monitors Varanus #macraei are illegally captured to supply international demand for pets, violating #Indonesia’s #wildlife laws. Said to have the smallest range of any monitor #lizard, locals report major declines. #reptiles

— Monitor Conservation Research Society (@MCRSociety) July 5, 2022

In a recent study, Indonesian ecologist Evy Arida and colleagues spoke with lizard collectors living on the island of Batanta, who reported that blue tree monitors used to be available in the vicinity of their homes some 30 years ago, prior to their popularity in the pet trade. These same people told the researchers that blue tree monitors have become very scarce; they now must travel by boat to find the lizards in remoter parts of the species’ range.

The research shows that local collectors specifically target blue tree monitors and purposefully search for them to sell to traders who eventually export the species. Their assessment also shows that while these collectors do make some welcome cash from their illegally sourced monitor lizards, none of them rely solely on blue tree monitor collection for income. Instead they regularly sell fish, vegetables and fruit in the markets, and tree monitors are an occasional but dwindling bonus.

How Do We Protect Them?

Clearly the species is in grave danger.

And yet these lizards still generate big profits for some people. Research published in 2015 estimated that the total retail value of the international trade in blue monitor lizards is more than $100,000 a year, based on a retail price of $750 per lizard.

New Guinea villagers receive a very small proportion of the final sale. This provides little incentive for local people to harvest these species sustainably or to protect the habitats in which they live.

Blue tree monitors, or Varanus macraei, are elusive, arboreal reptiles that live on the small, Indonesian island of Batanta. Though closely related to the black tree monitor and green tree monitor, they are by far the rarest.

— Potter Park Zoo (@potterparkzoo) August 7, 2021

Moreover, illegal trade can undermine sustainable harvest and community-based conservation initiatives.

There is clearly little in the way of disincentive as well, as efforts to prevent the illegal capture and trade in the species appear to be minimal.

Obviously continual illegal take of this species could potentially lead to its extinction in the wild. To prevent this, the Indonesian government must start enforcing existing policies prohibiting its capture.

In addition, we see three opportunities to prevent further decline in the wild population of blue tree monitors:

First, the government of Indonesia should propose the species be listed in Appendix I of CITES to assist in preventing international trade.

Second, the European Union, which currently has a temporary suspension on blue monitor imports, should make the ban permanent.

Finally, the United States should protect the blue tree monitor under the Endangered Species Act. As a major importer of such reptiles from Indonesia, its listing of the monitor would deter demand in the country and have positive impacts on conservation of the species.

On top of these three steps, we recommend all other major consumer states explore, develop, and put into action strategies to reduce demand.

Similar steps already protect many species around the world from the covetous eyes of collectors. It’s time to extend that to the blue tree monitor — an evolutionary marvel that deserves to thrive in its native habitats instead of lonely cages around the world.

Previously in The Revelator:

Wildlife Trafficking: 10 Things Everyone Needs to Know

The post Reptile Trade Blues appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Europe’s Surprising Record of Dam Removals

Wed, 11/30/2022 - 05:00

The 1999 demolition of the Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River set off a wave of dam removals across the United States. Since then some 1,200 dams have come down to help restore rivers and aquatic animals, improve water quality, and boost public safety — among other benefits.

Across the Atlantic, European nations have been busy removing thousands of river barriers, too. But until recently the efforts have gone largely unnoticed, even among experts.

Pao Fernández Garrido can attest to that.

An engineer and expert in ecosystem restoration from Spain, Fernández Garrido was finishing her master’s thesis in 2012 when she attend a dam-removal training in Massachusetts that was part of a conference on fish passage.

She was floored to learn about the United States’ widespread dam-removal efforts and returned to Europe determined to learn what was happening with dam removals on the continent — and to be a part of the action.

So did Herman Wanningen, a freshwater consultant  from the Netherlands, who also attended the conference. Fernández Garrido joined him when he founded the World Fish Migration Foundation in 2014. Soon after they helped form a coalition organization called Dam Removal Europe that also includes European Rivers Network, WWF, Rewilding Europe, the Rivers Trust, Wetlands International and the Nature Conservancy.

One of the first things Fernández Garrido and her colleagues wanted to know was the extent of river fragmentation on the continent. That wasn’t easy: While the United States has an exhaustive inventory of its 90,000 dams, not every European country, they learned, had collected similar data.

At the time not much was known beyond the fact that Europe had 7,000 large dams. But as their project to map river barriers, known as AMBER, got underway, they learned the on-the-ground reality included many smaller dams and other barriers — at least 1.2 million river barriers in 36 European countries.

Fernández Garrido and her colleagues spent more than three years on research, including river surveys in 26 countries, to gather the more robust data. Their results, published in Nature in 2020, found that on average river barriers occur almost every half mile.

Two-thirds of these barriers are under seven feet tall, but small doesn’t mean insignificant. Low-head dams and smaller obstructions like weirs and sluices can still block the movement of some fish, as well as aquatic plants, invertebrates, and the flow of sediment and nutrients.

Many of the dams — around 150,000 — are also obsolete and no longer provide any beneficial functions.

The good news, though, is that they also found that 4,000 European river barriers had already come down in the previous 20 years, with France, Finland, Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom being the most active.

These efforts, though, had largely flown under the radar.

“Nobody was talking about these, nobody,” says Fernández Garrido. “The United States is celebrating that it has removed 1,200 and nobody’s celebrating in Europe because nobody knows.”

That’s changed as they continued with their work to compile research, organize supporters across the continent, and push policymakers for action.

In 2019 the researchers delivered a report on case studies of dam removals and their benefits to the European Commission. The following year the World Fish Migration Foundation published the first-ever Living Planet Index on the global state of migratory fish. It found that migratory freshwater fish populations in Europe had dropped 93% since 1970, much higher than the already dismal global average of 76%.

The cumulative weight of those findings may have had a big impact on policy.

That same year the European Commission published its biodiversity strategy for 2030.

“For the first time ever in history, it stated that we should free at least 25,000 kilometers (15,500 miles) of river in Europe from barriers by 2030,” says Fernández Garrido.

While that was welcome news, it was still only a guideline — not legally binding.

In May 2022, however, the commission followed up with a proposal called the EU Nature Restoration Law. “In this law, they say we must start removing dams,” she says. And the proposed language calls for restoring 15,500 miles of river to a “free-flowing state by 2030.”

The European Parliament will need to ratify the law in the next couple of years. “In the meantime politicians could work to weaken it,” she says. “That’s why environmental groups are working hard to keep it strong.”

On the ground, the work to restore free-flowing rivers continues.

Last year 239 river barriers were removed in 17 European countries, including more than 100 in Spain. Finland is in the process of removing three hydroelectric dams on the Hiitolanjoki River, which will aid salmon populations. And France is home to the tallest dam removal on the continent yet, the 118-foot Vezins Dam on the Sélune River in Normandy, which was removed in 2020. Demolition began this summer on a second dam on the river, La Roche Qui Boit, which will allow the Sélune to run free for the first time in 100 years. Migratory fish populations like salmon are expected to return, and the dam removals will also reduce toxic algae that pooled in the warm waters of the reservoirs during summer.

Some of this work — and more — is showcased in a new documentary, #DamBusters, by director Francisco Campos-Lopez of Magen Entertainment. The film follows Fernández Garrido across Europe as she meets dam-removal heroes in Spain, France, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland.

“Restoring nature is probably the job of our time, our generation,” she says in the film.

But it’s a process that will also take time.

“There are some river systems, like for example in North America, where the benefits of dam removal are shocking and so amazing because that river system was only blocked for only 100 years,” she tells The Revelator. “But when you are talking about recovering our river systems in Europe that have been controlled and mismanaged for 500 years, 600 years, 1,000 years, we have to be cautious about what we expect.”

But even if ecological restoration comes more gradually, political movement has been swift.

“The progress since we started in 2016 until now — having policies proposed at the European level — it’s amazing,” Fernández Garrido says. “It’s really an achievement.”

The combination of research, policy reports, political pressure and movement-building have kickstarted a river restoration effort that shows no signs of slowing down — and could be a model for other regions.

Get more from The Revelator. Subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Previously in The Revelator:

5 Reasons to Rethink the Future of Dams

The post Europe’s Surprising Record of Dam Removals appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

‘Free Water’ Was Never Free, Writes a Historian of the American West

Mon, 11/28/2022 - 05:00

The West uses too much water. For such a simple problem, the obvious solution — use less — lies frustratingly out of reach.

That inability to change may seem hard to understand, but the root of the problem becomes clearer if we consider the role of the West in the historical development of the United States:

The purpose of our system of “free water” — heavily subsidized water for irrigation — was to provide opportunities to settlers.

The frontier has served an important function in the Euro-American imagination since before there was a United States. For historians of the American West like me, the significance of the frontier has been at the center of our field for more than a century. Thomas Jefferson made the most notable case for westward expansion, prescribing it to relieve the social and political pressures that were building up as eastern populations grew and fought over limited resources. By the mid-1800s policymakers believed his ideal of yeoman homesteaders and their patchwork of farms was the Manifest Destiny of the United States’ exceptional democracy.

But that ideal never made it all the way across the continent. It ran into a problem right around the 100th meridian, west of which there wasn’t enough rainfall for agriculture.

Agriculture would require irrigation. A lot of it.

Colorado desert irrigation in 1990. Photo: Gary Todd (public domain)

To solve this problem, the United States formed the Reclamation Service (the precursor to the Bureau of Reclamation) just over a decade after the frontier closed in 1890. While the federal government wasn’t quite powerful or rich enough, at the time, to construct many major irrigation projects, the Service provided a signal of the nation’s commitment to investing in the West as a site for settlement. It was too important a project to leave to private irrigation companies and too much work for individual homesteaders. As historian Donald Pisani put it in his book Water and American Government, “Federal reclamation was the last stage of Manifest Destiny.”

With the New Deal, the Bureau of Reclamation came into its own: Hoover Dam, completed in 1935 as the world’s largest dam, served as a symbol for the country’s ability to conquer nature.

Progressives championed desert reclamation at the turn of the century, but the federal government’s willingness to build infrastructure and give water away on extravagantly lenient terms was just as appealing for conservatives after World War II. Even Barry Goldwater, while courting the libertarians of the nascent New Right, advocated for the federally funded Central Arizona Project in his home state so that farmers could grow cotton in the Sonoran Desert.

That’s the defining contradiction of life in the West: “Government,” in Western parlance, was and is the stuff of restrictions, even when it’s the government that underwrites ever-popular sprawl.

While some made fortunes off this deluge of government spending, the enrichment of a few landowners was not the policy objective. Rather, the purpose of all the free water was to retain the West as a “safety valve,” a place of refuge for those who wanted to avoid the taxes and regulations of the East. But to accommodate growth without limits as the population boomed, the region would need to heighten the contradictions and become increasingly profligate with its scarcest resource.

Agriculture was once the means for permanent settlement of the arid West, and it continues to drive water consumption today. Around 80% of Colorado River water goes toward agriculture. About half of that is directed toward alfalfa hay that feeds cattle, an extremely inefficient way to provide calories for humans.

AZ must reduce water usage by 21% — and smaller cuts are needed in NV and Mexico — to avoid a “catastrophic collapse” of the Colorado River, the U.S. govt says.

The area is facing its worst drought in 1,200 years — now ongoing for 23 years — largely due to the climate crisis.

— AJ+ (@ajplus) August 18, 2022

Agricultural water rights are some of the oldest in the West, and water law here revolves around seniority. Yet even if there were a ready legal pathway to divert water away from alfalfa fields, the fact remains that the apparatus for western water delivery was simply not built with a regulatory lever. The underlying imperative to grow without limits would inevitably lead back to a state of crisis.

Consider St. George, Utah. The fastest growing metropolitan area in the country consumes almost no agricultural water, yet its lawns and golf courses quickly suck up its scarce water supply. The city, a popular destination for retirees, is expected to double in population by 2050. Officials now find themselves struggling to find sources of water for the surge in residents. What is quickly becoming a crisis for humans is also creating additional pressure on other species such as the endangered woundfin and Virgin River chub.

Sprawl in St. George, Utah. Photo: Murray Foubister (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The system’s deference to ideology over pragmatism is clear when it comes to the Basin’s 30 Native American Tribes. Collectively, they control about 20% of the water rights in the Colorado River system, yet many of those rights consist of “paper water.” They’re unrealized due to a lack of infrastructure. Building the necessary water projects for the Tribes would not only cost money but also push the system past the point of collapse. The very viability of the free water system depends on a de facto denial of the water rights of Indigenous nations, just as broken treaties facilitated the “free land” policy of the 19th century.

Free water was destined to run out eventually. Facing this problem in the West will be difficult, considering that politics and culture have worked in tandem for so long to keep “government” out of government-subsidized water. It’s unclear whether the system can be retrofitted with an off switch and whether the necessary governments can work together to do so before the Colorado River system crashes.

So how do we move forward? Ending the current subsidies seems the most commonsense solution — as well as the most unlikely to gain political traction.

Another possible solution: commodities trading. The classic solution for an imbalance of supply and demand is to introduce markets. Yet applying this approach to western water faces logistical challenges and can do little about longstanding problems of equity.

Still, the problem is big enough that all interventions may be necessary. Perhaps these first two ideas can be implemented. And perhaps we can think bigger.

One way forward is for the government to recognize the inherent worth of natural waterways, rejecting the premise that all fresh water must be consumed. Giving legal rights to ecosystems is the goal of the rights of nature movement, which has had some success across the world and even in the U.S. West. The organization Save the Colorado helped the communities of Ridgway, Nederland, and Grand Lake in Colorado pass resolutions recognizing the intrinsic rights of their watersheds. I’m part of an organization, Save Our Great Salt Lake, that’s exploring a similar strategy.

Wherever the future leads, the aridification of the American West will have consequences not just for those living here, but for the entire country.

It’s conceivable that westerners will adapt more readily to a drier climate than the rest of the nation will adapt to the loss of a region that functions as a safety valve. At any rate, we’re approaching the end of an era in which water was taken for granted. Just as human beings physically depend on water, our policies and conversations need to align with the water cycle.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.

Previously in The Revelator:

Left Out to Dry: Wildlife Threatened by Colorado River Basin Water Crisis

The post ‘Free Water’ Was Never Free, Writes a Historian of the American West appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Let’s Rename the Day After Thanksgiving ‘Extinction Friday’

Wed, 11/23/2022 - 05:00

This is the week when Americans gather to eat turkey and pie, watch football, argue at the dinner table, and — after we’ve digested our excesses — line up in front of our computers or big-box retail stores for the chance of shaving a few pennies off the already low, low price of a shiny new 75-inch 8K QLED TV. Of course, the marketers tell us, we need the model with built-in Alexa voice control — for more shopping without ever getting up from our well-worn couches.

Black Friday has become a testament to our society’s embrace of overconsumption — a blood-sport game of conquest and consumerism that’s as far as we can possibly get from a holiday supposedly devoted to giving thanks.

So this year, let’s ditch Black Friday, Cyber Monday and whatever they’re going to try to get us to “celebrate” this coming Wednesday.

Let’s pull back and remember those we’ve left behind.

Let’s mark the post-Thanksgiving date as Extinction Friday: a moment to think about the peoples and species we’ve driven off the face of the Earth, and to promise to do our part to prevent others — or ourselves — from joining them.

This Friday, instead of shopping, offer up a homily for Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died alone in her cage at Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, and vow to do your part to ensure that no other bird species share her fate.

Give a moment to think about Toughie, the last known Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, who gave up this mortal coil in 2016. Promise to protect any amphibians who cross your path.

Bow your head to George, the last Hawaiian tree snail of his species, gone since 2019. May his memory serve to remind us to grow a backbone when it comes to standing up for the invertebrates around us.

Raise your hands to the unnamed thousands of species (and trillions of individuals) we lose each year to the forces of commerce and progress, and then offer a mantra to slow the growth that’s killing us all. The people dying in Cancer Alley in Louisiana. The tribes facing deforestation in the Amazon and displacement in Africa. The mountain gorillas falling to the spears and shotguns of wildlife traffickers. The corals getting bleached by climate change — our ultimate sin. The orangutans slaughtered to make way for the cheap palm oil baked into this weekend’s pumpkin pie …

The list goes on and on. Don’t limit yourself; devote yourself to those you can help, or inspire others to help.

Because Extinction Friday isn’t just this Friday. It’s also Extinction Saturday, Extinction Sunday, Extinction December, and on and on, ad nauseum.

But we can do better. We can skip that 8K UHD TV. We can avoid shopping at Amazon-dot-com and protect the calm of the natural forest. We can give thanks for the world around us, let the memories of those we’ve failed change us as much as they haunt us, and act.

We can steer the narrative and alter our reality. We can turn Extinction Friday into a Day of Evolution.

Then — only then — can we rest and truly be grateful.

The post Let’s Rename the Day After Thanksgiving ‘Extinction Friday’ appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

How (and Why) I Planned a 40-City Book Tour About Shark Science and Conservation

Mon, 11/21/2022 - 05:00

As a shark scientist, I know the importance of generating public support for endangered, poorly understood or ignored species. That’s why I wrote my new book, Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive With the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator — to reach people I couldn’t through my technical papers, articles or conference presentations.

I spent almost 10 years writing the book, but as the publication date neared, I realized that was just the first step. I also needed people to know it existed so they could buy it, read it, and hopefully act on its recommendations.

My publisher has some resources to help with media interviews, but like most academic presses their promotional budget is limited. I knew that if I wanted to really get the book out there, I had to do it myself.

I decided that a book tour was the best option.

As I write this, I’m in a hotel room in Raleigh, North Carolina — stop number 28 on a 40-city (and growing) tour that’s already gone better than I expected. I’ve reached thousands of people, sold crates full of books, and spread the message that sharks are worth protection and conservation.

Yes, I did all the planning for this myself — it’s beyond the scope of an academic publisher — and I planned it all as environmentally mindfully as possible.

Here’s how I accomplished that.

Why I Wanted to Do a Book Tour

Authors always want people to read their books, but good scientific communicators embrace the principle of “double dissemination” — telling the same story in multiple ways, and possibly different formats, for varied audiences.

I knew going into this tour that some folks would be more receptive to my book’s “here’s how we have to change our behaviors to save the planet” arguments if they heard them delivered persuasively by an expert speaker. That’s why the public-speaking component of a tour helps the cause I care about so deeply.

I love public speaking. Standing on a stage in front of a live audience has been a welcome break from giving talks into my webcam from my living room. They’re a lot more exciting, too. Each of my talks includes a Q&A component, which lets people ask me anything they want to know about sharks, marine biology or ocean conservation. You never know what you’re going to get asked, so this is also a good test of your ability to speak off the cuff.

The book tour has also, obviously, helped to drive book sales, both in person and through media and social media attention that sold even more books elsewhere.

Doing some media during the lunch break

— Dr. David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) October 22, 2022

I had a few additional, personal reasons for the tour.

After the past couple of years, I’ve really missed travel. As an academic, some of my closest friends are now scattered all over the world. Work travel lets me visit places (and people) where I used to live and now miss, and it lets me go to some places where I’ve never been and have always wanted to visit. I wanted to do more of that.

I certainly got to — but that came with challenges.

Balancing the Environmental Impact of Travel

Travel, especially air travel, has an environmental impact that we can’t ignore.

I don’t believe that the answer is “never travel if you care about the planet,” but instead to be thoughtful and strategic about it. For me, flying halfway around the country to give a half-hour talk is neither thoughtful nor strategic.

Instead I rely heavily on a concept introduced to me in Brett Favaro’s book The Carbon Code: If you can’t minimize your carbon footprint, maximize the value you get out of it. Do more than one thing per trip.

That meant sometimes building a book tour talk into trips to places I was already going. For example, I attended a conference in Spokane, Washington this summer, so I also gave a public talk there and added on side trips with talks in nearby Seattle, Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia. (I used to live in Vancouver, so this also let me catch up with friends and colleagues while I was there.) The only flights associated with this trip were to Spokane and home from Canada.

I also planned regional swings, often centered around an anchor point. Some venues don’t really care when I speak, while others have a particular date in mind (or were based around work events like scientific conferences with fixed dates). In those cases, I’d make sure to be in the area when the venue needed me, then reach out to other nearby venues and say, “Hey, I’m in town for X and free these days to give a talk.”

That allowed me to limit my coast-to-coast flights to one round trip. I flew to California once and visited five cities while in the area.

Throughout the tour, I’ve flown as little as possible. Sometimes this meant trains, while other times it meant driving. My personal rule is if I can get there in less than six hours of driving, I won’t fly. Your (literal) mileage may vary here.

How I Arranged It

I’m an experienced public speaker and I’ve developed an extensive network of contacts from years of conferences and professional events. I also have a significant social media following and contacts with folks who run social media for venues all over the world. All of this is to say that some of this was easier for me to arrange than it might be for you — but the basic principles should work for anyone interested in planning similar events.

The basic model of my talk was a 30- to 40-minute presentation, followed by a Q&A, book sales and signings. I mostly worked with zoos, aquariums and science museums, as well as a few universities with public lecture series, bookstores that do author events, and libraries.

Step one was to lock down the anchor talks. I started by using social media and emails to announce that I was planning a book tour and inquire if anyone had interest in hosting me.

Here’s the important lesson I learned: I don’t reach out randomly to anyone who lives in a town I hope to visit. I start with people I already know who work for venues that might be interested in the type of events I’m offering. If I knew of a venue but didn’t know anyone who worked there, I used social media to ask if anyone could connect me. This avoided the need to cold call anyone.

Once I had anchor talks in place, I started looking into nearby cities and venues.  I asked my connections something like “I have a talk at South Padre Island on X dates and I’m interested in event venues in nearby cities and towns — do I know anyone with contacts at venues in Corpus Christi, Port Aransas, etc.”

My contacts had another key role: Local champions have helped bring me to their areas and arrange logistics, including meet and greets with local scientists and students. Many helped arrange housing and other accommodations, including some meals and rides from the airport.

The Economics

Academic publishers don’t pay for things like this. At my book’s intentionally affordable price point of $25, a tiny portion of which goes to the author, I would need to sell a lot of books to cover the costs of even one of my trips. (Venues usually sell my books directly, or through a partnership with a local bookstore, to avoid me having to carry books around the world.)

So how does it work? Simple: The venues pay my speaking fee and travel expenses. We negotiate based on venue size and resources — a rural public library wouldn’t have the same events budget as a large city science museum. But on every one of my regional legs, I made more in speaker fees than it cost me to get there — often substantially more.

As an academic I can take advantage of another way to pay for me travel costs: departmental research seminars. I was able to get to several cities because a university brought me out to speak about my research to their students and staff. Then, while I was nearby, I could arrange events at smaller public-facing venues.

Also worth noting: I kept my day jobs and worked remotely while on the road, although I sometimes had to take half days to account for travel.

Pros and Cons

As of this writing I’m about three-quarters through the originally planned 2022 book tour, and I’ll extend it through 2023 in some capacity. I had feared that I might be burned out by now, and I need to tell you — I’m not. I’ve visited friends and colleagues I haven’t seen in years and visit traveled to places I used to live and now miss.

I’ve also gotten to tour tons of wonderful museums, zoos and aquariums and chat with some fascinating people.

My book has taken me to some pretty cool places! Currently eating fish and chips overlooking the Tower of London.

— Dr. David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) October 25, 2022

And there’s nothing like a live audience who appreciates what you have to say. I love this.

When the tour is all over, I’ll be thrilled that I did it and look back fondly on the memories I made.

But I do miss sleeping in my own bed, and I haven’t seen some friends at home for a while. Planning this tour has been a ton of work. While I’ve avoided burnout, being on the road living out of a suitcase and eating unhealthy roadside food and visiting tons of different time zones all takes its toll.

I can’t imagine I’ll ever do anything like this again.

Unless the sharks still need me, of course.

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