This page is dedicated to fighting the good fight for animals and plants that can't fight for themselves. Biodiversity has become a very dear subject to so many well-meaning people. To the snail darter detractors and those who slight the spotted owl, biodiversity has become the poster child of extremist environmentalism. To us here, it's a sad subject because man's increasing influence on this planet means less room for those animals with a more tenuous grasp on what ever tiny niche in nature from which they are slowing being wrested.
At Long Last the BIOMAP2 11.09.10
In this era of slashing government spending, anything called BIOMAP 2 is not likely to see the north side of any state's budget. However, this Massachusetts project seems to have gotten in under the wire and the Bay State needs the BIOMAP2 as much, or more, than any other state we can think of. The BIOMAP2 illustrates important environmental areas in the state and those with the greatest diversity of wildlife. The BIOMAP2 is supposed to be a reference for local planning, zoning and conservation agencies weighing development and wildlife protection issues. Its announcement last week got us thinking: how many other states have such projects. We used the search terms “biodiversity" and "map” and headed into the wilds of Google News to conduct a semi-scientific, state-by-state survey. Here's what we found.
The Arizona BioMap, is a statewide effort aligned with Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap. It displays Arizona bioscience firms, research institutes, educational institutions, hospitals, and more. Then there is the University of Arizona’s BioInstitute5, but that’s a southwest region-wide, academic effort. Not quite the same thing. Florida has got its Natural Areas Inventory, a nonprofit organization which clearly is mapping one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems: The Everglades. Good luck with that folks. The closest we came to the BIOMAP2 is California's government sponsored Biodiversity Council. It’s charge is to discuss, coordinate, and assist in developing strategies and complementary policies for conserving biodiversity. Not quite a BIOMAP2.
In that the first three states we Google-searched didn’t turn up anything like Massachusetts' BIOMAP 2, we’re now going to extrapolate to the rest of the country and say that Massachusetts is No. 1 in the nation in promoting biodiversity. It's also the third most densely populated state that's well-earned it's nickname Taxachusetts. If there's a state you might expect to find a BIOMAP2, it's Massachusetts. Which begs the question: should the rest of the states be shelling out tax dollars to draw up their own BIOMAP2s? We don't know how much it cost but it could not have been cheap. Would we want the federal government putting such a map together and imposing environmental protections nationwide according to its dictates? It already has in some respects. The Endangered Species Act allows citizens to argue a rare animal or plant is worthy of sometimes draconian protections that have been the source of bitter disputes. Which brings us to the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit in Washington which went extinct in the 1990s. You have to wonder if a BIOMAP2 might have protected this little fellow a little better than the Endangered Species Act.
Which leads to a question that may get a less favorable answer in the wake of the past election: are endangered species like the piping plover, blandings turtle and blue spotted salamander worth spending tax dollars to save? Before you say “of course” consider that 90 percent of the US population has probably never seen any of these animals. Then consider this Boston Globe piece which has a developer holding back his bulldozers until the meanderings of eastern box turtles on his proposed construction site can be mapped with radio beacons and a preservation plan plotted that will likely involve building special box turtle roads through the development. Can’t we just send the Eastern Box Turtle to Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit heaven? NBN says, heck no. But what does a builder whose business has been idle for the past year have to say as he spends down his 401K waiting for a box turtle to get from Point A to Point B? If you think these are decisions for another generation, think again. These are the decisions we face now and unless we put in place plans like the BIOMAP2 we could soon be saying goodbye to a lot more species as the nation's leadership shifts toward one which is much keener on feeding the builders and burying the bunnies. Here’s a great NatGeo piece on North America’s most likely candidates for extinction. The NY Times also did something on the BIOMAP2
Please click here to add your two cents. Or two bits.
Save the Forest and Balance the Books? 10.12.10
Is your forest looking a little peaked? Too much underbrush and not enough majesty? Then you might want to contact Massachusetts' NRCS for lessons like these in how to keep your forest looking its best. What? You don't own a forest? Then maybe there's a future for you in forest management. More and more people do own their own forests making forest management a very real business to go into. But all this private ownership of massive tracks of forest have raised some ugly issues like what’s happening in Maine’s Unorganized Territories.
With construction on the ropes and the US paper industry folding operations across the country, the timber industry has come crashing down. That means really big tracks of forest are no longer producing the money they once were. As a result, there's been something of a forest fire sale in certain parts of the country. Perhaps nowhere more so than in Maine's Unorganized Territories. This is a massive track of woodlands that's been clear-cut and replanted for pulp-wood production for well over a century. With US paper production being shredded by foreign competition, a traditional industry and way of life for a generous section of Maine has rather suddenly disappeared. Investors moved in and started buying up acreage in five-figure chunks, often for as little as $500 an acre and are once again mining these forests for timber.
This new forestry is not clear-cutting tracks of land wreaking havoc on habitats and creating erosion problems along the way. In many cases, this new forest management is going on inside stunning, pristine wilderness with lakes, rivers and ponds. These management companies actually cut down trees in an environmentally sensitive fashion and return part of the timber revenue to the owner, sort of like how a stock pays dividends. Only these dividends are pretty small. At least, that's what a company like the one linked above told a group of marauding environmental journalist who stopped by their operations one day in 2005.
Warning! Personal anecdote approaching. This trip was like Hunter S. Thompson meets Euell Gibbons. A bus full of environmental journalist, myself included, were given a tour of Maine's more vibrant, and challenged, environments compliments of a non-profit group called the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources. During the day we're getting hands-on field instruction in organic farming, lobstering, fish farming...etc. At night we're drinking beer and listening to locals complain about the “damn environmentalists.” Instruction material included: white water rafting, sleeping under the stars watching the Aurora Borealis, hiking, boating, and eating local food, like dulse. Back to the story.
This is where Roxanne Quimby comes in. She made her money from Burt's Bees skin care products. She bought up tens of thousands of acres around Mount Katahdin and promptly banned snow mobiles and some other public recreation. She’s the queen bee of private forest owners and she represents a none-too subtle shift in perspective regarding what's best for Maine's 9.3 million acres of woodlands. Quimby has made few friends in towns like Millenocket, ME, shown below. She wants to use her land for part of a massive national park. But she also wants to limit how that parkland is used. This brings up some tough questions. Should investors be allowed to fence off these forests? Should they be allowed to dictate how these lands are used if they were once opened to the public? Or is it better to fund public purchases of these lands now that they are cheaper than ever?
Perhaps, a mixture of both. Could we form a forest preservation authority, which could acquires these propertyies through bond issuances and then sell the bonds to private investors. The forest could then be managed on a comprehensive basis through a quasi-public authority rather than piece meal privately. Put snow mobile courses in the least sensitive areas. Build a ski resort or two with the same precautions. Harvest timber in ways that are government-certified safe. Provide lease opportunities for established recreational businesses while assessing how best to enjoy the untouched tracks. Use all that revenue to pay off the bond-holders. It's got to work better than just carving it up in private ownership with no uniform management scheme. Maine's north woods are a singularly unique track of land, larger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. It could be a national treasure. But we need a plan. We can't just start throwing up “no trespassing” signs everywhere and angering the locals.
Turtle Crusader Nets Negative News 09.14.09
A few weeks back NBN got a call from Mark Grgurovic, a native of Andover, MA, who has assigned himself the ignominious task of protecting Blandings turtles. The name of this endangered species speaks volumes. There is little about it that isn’t bland outside of the bright yellow underside of its neck. Yet, for the past few years Grgurovic has managed to string together $25,000 bi-annual grants to help protect this animal from the expanding array a threats that have caused its numbers to plummet. Grgurovic was calling to see if NBN could work its old contact list and get some coverage of his latest grant. The only thing the groups that give these grants like more than the causes they are supporting, is newspaper coverage telling the world they are donating to these causes. Grgurovic knows this and while he would love to anonymously go about helping turtles, he feels compelled when he gets these grants to try and get some recognition for the good folks helping him along.
The one Boston Globe editor who was always good for a few inches of ink for such good causes, said he didn't have room and Grgurovic is now getting exposure through the Biodiversity News page of NBN. The reason we write about it here is not just for the $25,000 Grgurovic just got from the good folks over at Massachusetts Environmental Trust.
We want also to note that Grgurovic has parlayed these tiny grants he gets every year into a program that’s giving these turtles a tiny beachhead in a desperate battle. He’s cleared some land next to a large wet, wooded region of Georgetown, MA, that allows Blandings to lay their eggs without braving the car traffic that landed them on the state’s endangered species list. (The Boston Globe Photo above of Grgurovic was taken by photographer extraordinaire, Mark Wilson.)
In these economic times there’s no shortage of people who would think any turtle, let alone this Plain Jane, is worth spending $25,000 to save. Yet Grgurovic, a college graduate who has worked construction jobs to make ends meet, leads a pretty austere existence because of his love for these animals. More important, he’s succeeding in his efforts to save this turtle. Recruiting volunteers from local governments and organizations, Grgurovic’s Georgetown turtle grounds have grown from just a handful of nesting sites seven years back to 18 last year. It’s one of the state’s largest populations of Blandings turtles thanks largely to Grgurovic. To quote Grgurovic: “It’s a really good feeling to just create the nesting habitat and the turtles just show up.” Bravo Grgurovic! Sorry the New York Times wasn’t buying your story either.
Saving Fish Threatens Fishermen 08.31.10
As staunch opponents to the commercial fishing technique called bottom trawling, NBN was at first thrilled to see this Gloucester Times piece on the proposed closure of fish-rich waters nationwide to commercial fishing. The closure movement creates Marine Protection Areas within what are now Marine Sanctuaries, including the Stellwagen Bank off the New England coast, shown here. The draft legislation has great appeal for anyone who thinks the ocean floor plays an important role in the world’s marine ecosystems. Include among those folks most marine scientists and NBN.
Then we got to thinking: If they ban fishing on Stellwagen, that means no more fresh cod, halibut and haddock. By fresh, we don’t mean the stuff sitting on shaved ice at your local supermarket seafood counter. We mean the stuff sitting on shaved ice at out-of-the-way little markets with names like Bob Lobster, Dave’s Seafood or Alice’s. The fish at these places isn’t delivered the same day you see it on the shelves, it’s caught the same day you see it on the shelves. Caught by Mom-and-Pop commercial fishing commercial fishing operations called day boats that drag nets along the ocean floor in places like Stellwagen Bank. For any true seafood lover the difference between this “fresh” and the “fresh” found at the supermarket seafood section is night and day.
Sadly, as the Gloucester Times notes, Stellwagen Bank is a favorite fishing hole for day boats. These boats are already getting ruined by the new federal fishing policy called Catch Shares. Could the marine sanctuary legislation be the death knell for day boats? Isn’t there middle ground? Could parts of places like Stellwagen be permanently closed? The reduced catch will mean fewer day boats working the water and more expensive fish on our shelves. But it will ultimately lead to healthier oceans. This video is a trawler working what appears to be virgin ocean bottom off Australia.
Stellwagen bank, on the other hand, has been mowed down more times than the 18th hole at Augusta National. Trawlers have been working the ocean bottom in Stellwagen since the late 1880s. Imagine what Stellwagen could look like if the plants and rocks were left alone long enough to regenerate this kind of ecosystem off Australia. Couldn’t that restored section of Stellwagen then also be very helpful for fishermen still in business after all these regulations? It’s better than the endless search or an increasingly scarce resource that we have now.
We can’t leave this subject without making one more point. New England restaurants are famous for deep fried versions of these various bottom fish, available at seat-yourself, counter-serve operations like Lenny and Joes Fish Tale in Connecticut, shown here. By cutting back on service they sell this delicious fish for less than $20. These eateries are just as famous for serving huge portions of these fish to huge volumes of families. Go to Lenny and Joes on a summer Sunday afternoon. You can’t get into the place. For good reason. The fried cod melts in your mouth because, as they say on their menu, “Fish Tales buys only from day boats”. But before you leave Fish Tales try to notice the amount of fish that ends up in the trash. If the price of this fish was set to reflect both, the price paid to catch it and the ecological costs of the nets scraping the ocean bottom in places like Stellwagen Bank, it would cost $25 or $30 rather than the $19 charged now. You can be sure at those prices, a lot less fish will be ending up in the trash. We cannot continue to be so wasteful with such precious resources. If you’d like to read more about how wasteful we’ve been with Stellwagen Bank cod, haddock and halibut from an objective source, the Cape Cod Times had this piece recently.
Busy Beavers Bolster Biodiversity 08.24.10
Hiking along the AT in western Massachusetts last week, NBN came across this beaver dam. These things surely deserve nature's seven-wonders status. What you can't clearly see from the picture is, this roughly five-foot overgrown wall of mud and sticks stretches about 75 yards, and it flooded—at a guess—at least three acres. Let's do the math. Assuming the pond averages about six feet deep, that's about 250,000 cubic feet of water, at 62 pounds per. That's 15.5 million pounds of water, and this was a small pond. The dam is in the foreground. The beaver's den is in the background.
On the same hike we came across another pond with a cow moose wading up to her shoulders. (Not this one. Sorry, we lost the photo.) This was more like a beaver lake than a pond. It was easily seven or eight acres. More importantly, the dam the beavers built was not nearly as long, but twice as high. The beavers who built this were quite the engineers. They found an ideal location and apparently put in half the efforts that the beavers at the first impoundment put in. And they built a lake large enough for a moose to swim in. We walked past the base of this second dam with some concern. If it gave, we'd be gone. That's a lot of trust to put into an animal with a brain the size of a small lemon.
Now read this story headlined: "Beaver Dam Breaches, Floods Town." This is the damage done from another beaver dam that gave way not far from where we went hiking.These little fellas have been busy as beavers all over the Northeast. Building these little landmines that can wash out entire roadways and towns. Now read this story. And this story. The point we're struggling to make here is this: wildlife is great, in moderation. But when it starts to pose a threat to humans, we are going to be considerably less enamored with it. And as time goes on we're going to see more and more evidence of this animal explosion. We had an interesting conversation a few weeks back, which I fear has been discussed elsewhere on this website. It was with a senior biologist with Massachusetts' wildlife agency. He said the state's peregrine falcon population was soaring, PTP, because the number of these once endangered birds has passed a certain tipping point.
Is there any reason to think the same won't happen with the country's mountain lion population? Or Grizzly bears? It's already happening with wolves. These animal populations may struggle a little after reintroduction efforts. But nature adapts. It's nature's MO. The peregrine population struggled for years and now it's taking off, PTP. Beavers in the northeast have gone from cute little industrialists under state and federal protection to royal pain in the neck. Deer on Long Island have gone from cherished visitors to lotharios of landscaping. Yet, Massachusetts and Long island have resisted calls to expand hunting options for these interlopers.
Last year we applauded a group that was trapping feral cats and neutering them. We just spoke with folks from Pennsylvania who shelled out $300 to have just such a person so-treat feral cats that have run amok in their community. Now those cats, with their raison' detre enriching the soil in some PA landfill, will live out their lives to eventually freeze to death some night under our friend's porch. As wildlife continues its rebound, those more civilized among us will have to take a less sensitive stand on keeping these critters in line. We're not advocating animal cruelty, far from it. But we should be a little smarter about these things. Nobody has died walking past a beaver dam, yet. Mountain lions have yet to kill anyone in New England., but they've been snacking on joggers out west for a few years now. Animal control is going to become a much more serious science in the coming years. Perhaps a more pragmatic view of deer hunting on Long Island and beaver trapping in Massachusetts is in order.
Plastic or Mahogany?
Make Mine Plastic 07.20.10
In this issue’s search for silver linings we have a beauty coming out of the new-home construction downturn. This story says illegal lumber harvests in the Amazon and Indonesia are down 75 percent between 2000 and 2008. Seventy five percent! That’s 42 million acres of rain forest that have been protected and 1.2 billion tons of polluting emissions avoided over that period. If there was ever a group of people welcome to the world’s unemployment line it’s the jokers leveling rain forests so they can buy cheerios for their children. Worse still, are the people who build homes and coffins , from rainforest timber so they can buy XBoxs for their kids. According to this link the U.S. is second only to Japan in importing rainforest timber. Let’s not forget all those cows being raised on former rainforests just so the world can pound down Whoppers and Big Macs by the bushel. Warning! Personal anecdote approaching.
When covering the Village of Greenport, NY, for The Suffolk Times, I crossed swords occasionally with then Mayor David Kapell who, while prone to taking liberties with municipal law for the benefit of business partners, was an efficacious and well meaning individual. One area where the mayor was particularly willing to bend the law was the establishment of a 3.4-acre waterfront park in the heart of downtown. One of the things that struck me as out of character was the mayor’s insistence that the Brazilian hardwood Ipe be used for some 20,000 square feet of decking and boardwalks now gracing the park, shown here.
That insistence brought some low-tier volunteer from an unknown environmental group out from Manhattan to protest this plan at a few Village Board meetings. I milked the story for all it was worth until eventually the mayor vowed the Ipe would only come from sources certified sustainable and rainforest safe. In other words, the mayor wasn’t mowing down rainforests for the marginal esthetic improvement achieved using genuine hardwood over something like Trex which is made from recycled plastic. That sent the protester back to the city and me back to the Mean Streets of Greenport searching for new stories. Eventually, the Ipe decking turned out to be eight-inch planks, some 10-feet or longer. This was in the late 1990s. The sustainability movement was just catching on in earnest. I’ve often wondered where the Mayor got all that "sustainable" rainforest hardwood. It’s said Ipe is fast growing, making it a more suitable product for commercial production than other rainforest lumber. Still, any hard wood is going to take a lot longer to grow than soft woods. Even Christmas Trees take six years to mature. Was this supposedly sustainable Ipe used in the mayor’s park planted in the 1970s? The sustainability movement didn’t exist back then, and I know I never checked the labels when the the pallets of Ipe were delivered. The mayor always got his way. My coverage of his antics were little more than a speed bump. Back to the point.
As the brilliant biologist E.O Wilson said: “Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.” So why did the mayor insist on Ipe, and why does this country allow the importation of rainforest products like mahogany and rosewood when plastic composite products like Trex seem to be just as effective and about as expensive? Oh yeah, these plastic planks also find a home for all the plastic bottles our good friends at the International Bottled Water Association keep asking us to throw away for them. Let's hope demand for rainforest products continues to go down and the demand for recycled-plastic planking goes up.
The Why-for of Wild Population Swings 07.07.10
Thirty years ago, one of my favorite college teachers, Barbara Bentley, left me with a lesson that seems to be popping up a lot these days. A lesson that might be grossly oversimplified thusly: beware of wild jumps in wild animal populations, it means something's really wrong with the world. That lesson came back to me again while fluke fishing in New Jersey last week. We caught 37 fluke in four hours. Last year at the same time and place, with the same boat, fishermen, and bait we caught one fluke and about 75 sea robins. Is this just the natural life cycles of two species of fish, or does Bentley’s lesson play a role here?
These days it seems wild animal populations are fluctuating wildly everywhere around us. Cod fish stocks are sinking, white tail deer populations are bounding, burning bush is exploding and salt marsh grasses are vanishing. If this a trend, where does it end? More importantly, can science do anything about it? We’ll leave the former question for later. For the latter, it’s become clear man can and has fooled with Mother Nature with startling results in the last few decades. A grad student studying dramatic declines in Connecticut River herring schools told me a while back a resurgent striped bass population is one possible explanation. The bass have rebounded thanks to a wildly unpopular striped bass fishing ban 20 years ago that's repeatedly cited by science as proof regulations can make a real difference in fish populations.
For another example of man’s impact on wild animal populations, look at this video here. It shows just how bold the once skittish white tail deer have gotten as they’ve overrun urban environments where there’s abundant food and they can’t be shot. Look at wild populations swings of other plants and animals in the woods and waters around us, man seems to have had a hand in all of them. It makes you think that Darwinian evolution is no longer ruling the roost. Natural selection these days seems to favor survival of the species most able to adapt and exploit the random environmental conditions man foists on the world's ecosystems.
Stringent regulations on fluke catches in recent years no doubt played a role in our success in New Jersey last week. But is that all we can hope for from scientific intervention: boom and bust cycles that we have little control over? For example: as we struggle to keep the Asian carp out of Lake Superior will milfoil turn other lakes and ponds into swamps? Will we stop the northward creep of kudzu down south only to see burning bush take over the underbrush in our northern woodlands? Will the wooley adelgid wipe out Appalachian pine trees as we work to restore the American Chestnut?
Could government, private, and volunteer environmental restoration efforts end up sapping our resources tomorrow like health care saps our resources today? The answer to that last question is vastly more uncertain and will no doubt be framed in some part by global warming. If Global Warming theory holds up, it seems reasonable to assume that we'll see whole-sale extinctions of already struggling species. Such loses will no doubt leave room for stronger animals and plants to move into those empty niches with a vengeance, throwing our animal populations and ecosystems even farther out of kilter. If tides rise as quickly as recently forecast, salt marshes will get wiped out. Ditto for untold forests that will turn into deserts across the globe. For more specialized species, like the sea turtle shown here, that could be really bad news. In the fast-approaching, man-made survival-of-the-fittest sweepstakes, highly specialized creatures like turtles don’t even get tickets. How far will this damage go and how far back along the evolutionary timeline will it push us? Will it push us back to the days when algae ruled the world? Let’s hope not. This article suggests toxic algae blooms like one off the Pacific Northwest last December could have been responsible for mass extinctions millions of years ago. The Pacific bloom killed over 10,000 birds and sickened surfers last fall.
Will the wild swings in populations we're seeing today just kill off the world's most highly evolved species, like the polar bear and black rhino, leaving plenty of kudzu, carp and deer to sustain us. Or will there be an evolutionary domino effect that lands us back into a pre-cambrian period eating soy dogs with spirulina. Is there a tipping point? Certainly, if the Gulf loses its salt marshes and mangroves to the oil spill, it will cripple the offshore as well as inshore marine ecosystems. We’re getting into some pretty ugly questions here and watch out for anyone who says they have the answer. It would be nice to know Prof. Bentley's thoughts on this now.
Willy Loman's Gardening Tips 06.15.10
Meet my three tiger lilies, Moe, Larry and Curly. Don't they look great? That's because starting in early April, I spend a few minutes at lunchtime picking off these scarlet beetles that seem to only eat tiger lily leaves. For most professional men reaching the zenith of their earning years this may not sound a bit frivolous. Most men in comparable circumstance hire Manuel Labor's landscaping service and enjoy the flowers on weekends. Not me, I'm on a mission.
Here’s why. By most any measure these lilies are a divinely inspired creation. Such perfectly formed, brilliant-orange blossoms can only be an act of God, right? Now balance those beautiful lilies against these things pictured here. That little red beetle lays a nearly microscopic egg that develops into the ugliest little grub imaginable. These hideous little things then set about eating tiger lily leaves like popcorn. Worse, those little grubs cover themselves in their own feces to discourage neurotic gardeners from picking them off with their fingers. So you see, my lunchtime gardening breaks involve more than protecting my tiger lilies. This is a holy war. We all have a moral obligation in life to kill anything so foul that’s devoted to destroying anything so beautiful. Don’t we? Besides, it also kinda fun. These grubs pop in the most satisfying way. Kind of like killing a tick with a match.
Here’s why. By most any measure these lilies are a divinely inspired creation. Such perfectly formed, brilliant-orange blossoms can only be an act of God, right? Now balance those beautiful lilies against these things pictured here. That little red beetle lays a nearly microscopic egg that develops into the ugliest little grub imaginable. These hideous little things then set about eating tiger lily leaves like popcorn. Worse, those little bastards cover themselves in their own feces to discourage neurotic gardeners from picking them off with their fingers. So you see, my lunchtime gardening breaks involve more than protecting my tiger lilies. This is a holy war. We all have a moral obligation in life to kill anything so foul that’s devoted to destroying anything so beautiful. Don’t we? Besides, it also kinda fun. These grubs pop in the most satisfying way. Kind of likekilling a tickwith a match.
This year I intended to continue with my OCD pest control methods when my wife said she wanted to put down poison. I have to say, the prospect of these horrid little things writhing in agony from whatever biochemical havoc this stuff unleashes on its central nervous system sounded pretty appealing. But then, what about all the other beneficial creatures like earthworms that aerate the soil and the microbes that fix nitrogen and fertilize the soil? This slug-be-gone my wife picked up at Home Depot didn't sound all that discriminating. I was torn: Wiping out all those beneficial buggers to save the lilies from this evil menace was a tough call. So, I did what I always do in such situations. I said: “Sure honey, sounds like a good idea.”
But it isn't. First, the stuff she put down was some broad spectrum white powder that could have cleared the Halls of Congress faster than it went to work in my garden. It’s designed to permeate the entire garden ecosystem and provide two-months of protection. In fact, it did nothing to discourage the red beetles’ or their offspring from eating my lily leaves. I still ended up squishing feces-covered grubs underneath chips of cedar bark mulch before heading into the kitchen to make my lunch. Still, the garden does look great this year and perhaps there's some unknown pest that would have made it look less so as happened to our hostas last year when I put up more of a fight over putting down poison. But we have such a small garden. It's easy enough to just spend lunch staring at the underside of my plants, even if my neighbors are staring at me.
Which brings me to this week’s logical leap that I’d really like to think is common sense. Most flower gardens are pretty small, and people usually love to spend time in them. What if we devoted some of that time to picking unpleasant things like aphids, spittle bugs and black spot off our flowers. At first that may not seem a plausible method of pest control. That’s kind of how I felt when I first discovered those revolting feces-covered grubs making Moe, Larry and Curly look like they had leprosy. I sprayed the heck out of them. Next year, I was out on my knees killing the red beetle before they could do their business. Ever since the three stooges have never looked better. Now, when the lilies have bloomed, I move on to picking black spot off my roses. After that, it’s the black aphids munching on my rose of Sharon. It takes just a few minutes every day. I just have to remember to wash my hands before making lunch.
Aris Longa, Vita Brava, Scientia Infinito 06.01.10
When it comes to assessing the health of this country's woodlands, marine environment mavens like myself struggle. But anyone, with even a passing interest in plants, who spends the first week of May hiking 66 miles of Appalachian Trail in southwest Virginia, can't help but conclude: this nation has some gorgeous woods.
But are they healthy? That's a tougher question I planned on using this column on this hike to answer. Look anywhere overhead in this part of the country in mid-spring and you'll be treated to a light green wallpaper of spring tree growth yet to be baked into darker hues by summer's sun. Oak, ash, beech, birch, cherry, maple: it doesn't matter. They are all the exact same soothing color.
Meeting this overhead ocean of green somewhere near eye level are flowers popping out from all angles, particularly around your feet. Hiking through such big woods in such fine weather it seems a crime not to take in the views, but my eyes were transfixed on a six-foot circle surrounding my feet. There's no way to name all the species of flowers, harder still to photograph them. I tried mightily, which is partly why we only covered 66 miles instead of the 120 miles we'd originally planned.
Right at eye level rhododendron are in full bloom, while Mountain Laura are just getting started. Flame azaleas jump out like stop lights in the backdrop of lime-green leaves urging us on. But the real fireworks are going off underfoot. Fire pink, trout lilies, columbine, pink ladies slipper, jack in the pulpit, blueberry, wild blackberry, phlox, yellow iris, violets: and those are just the flowers I can name.
It seems every plant on the forest floor is calling attention to itself this time of year before being smothered by the canopy of leaves fast unfolding overhead. But what catches your eye more than the flowers is the number of different types of plants. If biodiversity is a barometer of an ecosystem's health, these forests are as healthy as any environment I'd ever seen. Which is amazing when you consider it's quite possible a lot of the plants and trees weren't here as recently as the mid-1800s.
Back then, the American Chestnut was calling the shots in forest ecosystems like these. The tree so dominated Appalachian woodlands that the prickly outer husk covered the forest floor ankle deep in some spots, according to one report I can't now locate. Which brings me to a point I wanted to make about these forests, but am now rethinking. The diversity of plants on the trail is so impressive it makes you think that maybe this country isn't the environmental calamity some folks—even yours truly on occasion—make it out to be. After writing for 15 years about the problems facing marine environments, the health of these woods was proof positive to me that, environmentally, a vast section of this country's in very good health.
But like all things in science, closer study produces more questions than conclusions and the issue of the American Chestnut now has me wondering: what is a healthy Appalachian forest environment? Despite the abundance and diversity of plants in these woods, can we really say they are healthy? We have no idea what Mother Nature had sculpted in these mountains in the millennium before Columbus came along. It's entirely possible many of these plants I was admiring are interlopers. Plants that, perhaps, shouldn't be there at all. So much for my theory that plant biodiversity is proof positive the Appalachian mountains are as healthy as ever.
So, how do I salvage this column and all this great art? Caution: Tangential Digression Approaching. If we can't draw conclusions about the health of such healthy looking woods, what can we safely say about any environmental science in this country. Should we even bother trying to draw conclusions? Here's where it gets political. It's tempting to use the impotence of science in such circumstances as a powerful argument against government funding for such science. Case in point: conservative critics cite $95,000 in Stimulus spending to study prehistoric pollen as reason to opposed the entire $780 billion spending plan which is laden with billions for some pretty esoteric scientific study. So many people are upset over the money being spent on what's considered silly science in the Stimulus package that there's an important point to make here.
Rather than spend money on Viking era pollen studies and bay scallop experiments, many folks are saying the Stimulus spending legislation should instead be tax cuts that will allow private industry to create more jobs. But, what sorts of jobs? Lumber jacks, coal miners? Maybe GM could add a few more shifts to its Hummer assembly lines. The reason we needed a Stimulus package is because our industrial output vastly exceeded our consumer wealth. What this country needs now is new technology. But, who is going to shell out for the expensive research and development for that new technology? Shell? GM? Duke Energy? U.S. Steel? At this point tax money for pollen studies is better than tax cuts for Weyerhaeuser. At least with the pollen studies we'll learn more about flowers and how healthy our forests are. And that's good for Weyerhaeuser and clueless hikers from the coast.
Of Oysters and Fantasies 04.05.10
After writing the column in Good News last Thursday about the '06 Set of oysters, I had a chance to do a little kayaking around the creek in front of my brother's house on New York's Long Island. Now, all I can think about is Fantasy Island. My fantasy island is on Long Island's East End before Europeans turned it into one massive duck farm. Rivers of duck poop quickly killed the eelgrass, seahorses, squid, grass shrimp, winter flounder, pipefish, moon snails, eel, blowfish, barnacles, surf crabs, scallops and oyster reefs that once populated East End waters. Intensive farming and population growth ever since have made sure they never came back.
I offer up the creek where I kayaked, shown here, for example. The creek bottom is comprised largely of a barren 15-acre mudflat surrounding on one side by nice homes and the other by a fruit farm. This is ideal oyster reef country, yet there isn’t a reef to be found. Matter of fact there aren't a lot of oysters either. You have lawns discharging fertilizer and weed killer into the east side of this creek and the farm discharging fertilizer, weed and pest killer into the west side of the creek. Then you have a marina discharging who-knows-what at the mouth of the creek. No wonder there are no oysters. But there could be.
Oyster reefs are essentially oysters that grew together into rock-hard islands of shells sitting in the surrounding mud and sand. In many ways they were like the coral reefs of today’s Caribbean. The reason they disappeared is early settlers in this country tore into them for food and to open the waterways to boats—oysters reefs are not conducive to boating. The settlers also polluted these waterways with every hing they didn’t want to toss into their own back yards, including the duck poop mentioned above. Now, thanks to ever tightening water pollution laws, it’s entirely possible these reefs would return if the oysters just had something to fix to. Last week we talked about the wonderful resurgence of oysters in this country but we left out what it could mean for this country. Places like the Peconics, the Jersey Shore, and Narragansette and Chesapeake bays could see significant improvements with the help of oyster reefs. It's possible eelgrass beds would return. That could mean all the other creatures mentioned above could also return. My Fantasy Island is underwater.
Piping Plover Problems 03.25.10
In NBN's tradition of oversimplification, hasty conclusion and alliteration we'd like to announce a solution to the pending, protracted piping plover protection programs soon to shut shorelines from Salisbury to Sandy Hook. These animals and other endangered shorebirds, like the common and roseate tern, nest on the ground. The plovers nest right on the beach, terns prefer slightly more grassy locations. Both a stone's thrown from the water line. The problem? Humans are kept far away from these such nesting sights, particularly plovers, for nearly nine weeks in late spring and early summer while raccoons, fox, crows and skunks are free to raid the nests for a fresh plover egg meal when ever the urge strikes them. And, they love to eat tern and plover eggs. So, long stretches of public beach are shut for longer periods of time during barefoot-in-the-sand season, while rodents, weasels and big black birds make the whole prohibition pointless, prompting pissed off people to prominently post pithy piping plover proclamations on their T-shirts and bumper stickers.
Now consider for a moment this piece about dumping dredge material in flood prone areas of a small southeastern Massachusetts island to create more tern nesting places. Then consider this piece on protests over plans to poison crows to protect piping plover on Cape Cod. (It says they could also ward off the birds, which are apparently the most egregious egg, eaters by ringing the nests with dead crow heads. Presumably these heads are taken from birds killed by West Nile Virus. Problem with the crow heads is that would attract racoons and skunks weasels.)
Why not get much more aggressive with using the dredge material to create more offshore nesting habitat? There are dredging projects going on constantly all over the country. Why couldn't that material be used to build offshore designated shore bird habitat. (For some reason the crows don't think to fly far from shore to hunt eggs. If they did there are few islands along the Atlantic Coast where they could have a feast.) Even sand bars could be built up into bird islands. Some dredging projects produce enormous amounts of sand. The Seawolf Homeport project in Connecticut generated almost 880,000 cubic meters of Thames River sediments that was shipped out and dumped into Long Island Sound.
That could filled have 352 Olympic sized swimming pools or built a nice little island habitat for some birds a little closer to shore. No dead crows, no crow heads, no angry four-wheelers taking out nesting sites. It worked pretty well in Dubai, according to this video above. As much as NBN likes to look out for endangered species, some of the beach closing, which are still about a month or two away, ask an awful lot of beach goers. Dozens, if not hundreds of miles of prime Atlantic Ocean beach will be closed until sometime in July and still the eggs are getting eaten. It's clearly a program that's in need of improvement. Warning: Personal anecdote approaching: I was doing a story for the Boston Globe on am island tern colony like this one, In southern New England which had about 1900 common terns and 750 roseates nesting on about one acre. I marvels that it wasn't overrun by curious people. Birds were everywhere and you could walk up and just pick a baby bird from its nest. It didn't take long to understand these birds weren't quite so defenseless: we taped wood paint stirring sticks to our hats to deflect bird pecking at our scalps. Worse, these birds weren't just dive bombing, they were dropping bombs, with startling accuracy. There's little so disgusting as a warm, watery bird turd landing on your neck and running down your back. I must have gotten hit about seven times. It wasn't that there were so many birds and we just happening to get hit. These little guys were taking aim and letting fly. I still have a notebook full of crap to prove it. Some piping-plover-taste-like-chicken types might say the notebook was full of another kind of crap, but we'll leave that for another day.
Natural Plant Programs Proliferate 03.08.10
Those preferring birds, bugs and other wild creatures to neon green lawns might want to follow the lead of New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services. They are holding a class March 20 on natural landscaping that promotes wildlife in your own back yard, shown here. If you live in Nevada it might not be worth the trip to the Granite State, but it's certainly worth looking for similar programs in your community. Googling native plants and Nevada we got plenty of cool links on native planting programs in the Silver State. Here's a link to a NH native planting book you might find interesting. More native plants means fewer invasive species and more biodiversity.
Sharking Silliness 01.11.10
In keeping with today’s theme of wasteful fishing practices, we have this Outdoor Life photo essay of fishermen and the monster sharks they've caught. Other than filling a few pages worth of OL copy space with free file footage, the essay seems to illustrate little more than man once again going to absurd expense to conquer nature. Before you curse me for belittling people just enjoying the great outdoors, you should know I've got a a few photos of my own. I'm looking at one now, pinned to my wall: a hairy arm (mine) reaching into the water to hand-feed a dead mackerel to a six-foot blue shark 20 miles south of Long Island, NY.
For years I loved shark fishing. But make no mistake, it's the most wasteful form of fishing this side of the rocket propelled grenade. Before going sharking, we’d “bait-up” at the marina: buying three, five-gallon tins of ground up moss bunkers (shown here); three flats of frozen butterfish and two flats of frozen mackerel. (A flat is four inches thick and about the size of a small coffee table.) By even conservative estimates, 1,000 or so dead fish were used to entice maybe three or four sharks to our hooks . Bottom line in shark fishing is: the more dead fish you throw over the side, the better your chances of catching something. It’s not fly fishing.
About the only thing the movie Jaws got right about sharks, is the thrill of fishing for them. And there was nothing like the feeling of returning home from a successful shark fishing trip: cruising past the packed restaurants lining Long Island’s Shinnecock Canal, wearing shades and drinking a beer, deliberately ignoring the people pointing at the 200 pound mako tied quite deliberately to the bow of the boat. There is no finer definition of cool. Unfortunately, there is no finer definition of wasteful, either.
The turning point for me on shark fishing was on a spear fishing trip with a buddy. In some ways spearfishing is the opposite of shark fishing. In spearfishing you become the shark: silent, deadly, efficient. Anyway, I was telling my spear fishing buddy about my latest sharking adventures, hoping to come off as tough as I knew this fellow was. With ease he spends a minute or more under 40 feet of surging currents with one lung of air and comes up with a 50-pound striped bass locked between his thumb and middle finger which were grotesquely anchored in the animal’s eye sockets. Kind of like what this fellow is doing with this mako pup he should never have been allowed to bring in the boat. Spear-fishing in deep, fast moving water is as dangerous a sport as there is and you have to be superhuman to do it as well as this fellow.
Anyway, after boasting to this fellow about the 700-pound tiger shark I’d caught a few weeks earlier, Superman deflates me completely by saying he didn’t really care for shark fishing, it was too wasteful. In the past, the sheer thrill of shark fishing always overrode my uneasiness over using so much bait and gas to experience it. I’m not sure how many more times I went sharking after that. It wasn’t a lot. It just wasn’t as much fun. Some forms of fun, the planet just can’t afford anymore.
Anyway, after boasting to this fellow about the 700-pound tiger shark I’d caught a few weeks earlier, Superman deflates me completely by saying he didn’t really care for shark fishing, it was too wasteful. In the past, the sheer thrill of shark fishing always overrode my uneasiness over using so much bait and gas to experience it. I’m not sure how many more times I went sharking after that. It wasn’t a lot. It just wasn’t as much fun. Some forms of fun, the planet just can’t afford anymore.
B-Movie Beast Barrage
Giant squid invading Hollywood? It may sound like a B-movie title but it's actually a headline for this ABC piece on giant red squid moving far north beyond its Mexico home range. As far north as Alaska. The cause? What else? Global warming. The piece is a tedious speculation on ocean oxygen and fertilizer levels fueling conditions favorable to an animal that certainly fuels the imagination. Even a shark attack sounds more pleasant than being sucked to death. Tens of millions of squid have met more gruesome deaths at the hands of man. How appropriate then these giants avenge the entire genus and start snacking on Sunshine State swimmers. Don't worry this one isn't real. It can't be. Can it?
If birds are more your style, how about giant swans biting the hands that feed them. The mute swan is about as beautiful a bird as ever earned a free lunch. And they are fearless. They will chase away anything that comes within 50 yard of their nests. And yet here we've got the folks in this video rehabilitating them. This is not a good idea. Mute swans are an invasive species. Marshes up and down the East Coast are being overrun by these things. Accordingly, populations of native ducks are disappearing. Not to mention how aggressive these animals can be.
Warning: Personal anecdote approaching! I was fishing with a buddy at the mouth of a very large creek on Long Island. As was usually the case with my buddy, the fishing was as much about having a few laughs as it was about catching food. I was minding my own business when this enormous drake swan with wife and five signets in tow, came across the creek, making a bee-line for me. I thought: he's looking for a handout. He was thinking: let's get rid of this clown with the fishing pole so I can make room for the wife and kids on this beautiful sandy beach.
As the drake came up on the beach, hissing up a storm, my buddy sneaked up behind me. Just as the bird—a 40-pound animal, easily—reached my feet, my buddy sent me sprawling to the ground. The thing came at me with both wings and a bad attitude. Fortunately, I survived and showed this bird who was really boss of the beach. But I couldn't help but think: what if I was a six-year-old. That animal had no fear what-so-ever of a potential adversary about four-times his size. I was thinner then. That animal's wings are strong enough to propel his 40-pound body through the air at about 25 mph. Imagine what they can do to a six-year-old's tibia. These birds are not to be trifled with and they are certainly not to rehabilitated. Just to drive the point home watch this video. It's slightly PG-rated, but reasonable enough by today's TV standards. Otherwise, it wouldn't be here.
The Struggles of the Unfittest 11.29.09
As an undergraduate pitting his future on a bachelors degree in animal behavior, I minored in studies that might actually have had some job prospects today: marine biology. One of my favorite teachers, Barbara Bentley, left me with one of the few lessons that survived 30 years of ensuing career chaos. A lesson that might be grossly oversimplified as such: beware of wild jumps in wild animal populations, it means something's really wrong with the world. Pictured here is a graph that pretty much represents the level of science in this argument you are hopefully about to read. The level of logic in the argument, you'll have to measure for yourself.These days wild population fluctuations are everywhere. Cod fish stocks are sinking, white tail deer are bounding, burning bush is exploding and salt marshes are vanishing. If this a trend, where does it end? More importantly, can science do anything about it? The latter answer is: there is a lot science can do. Man's fooling with Mother Nature has produced some startling results. A grad student studying dramatic declines in Connecticut River herring schools told me a resurgent striped bass population is one possible explanation. The bass have rebounded thanks to a wildly unpopular fishing ban 20 years ago that's repeatedly cited by science as proof regulations can make a real difference in the fish populations.
Look at wild populations swings of other plants and animals in the woods and waters around us. Man seems to have had a hand in all of them. There are no stable ecosystems. Evolution is no longer survival of the fittest. It's survival of fastest to adapt to the random mutations man exacts on the world's ecosystems. But, are we really the Lords of all we survey? How much control do we really have here?
The short term answer, as the striped bass story above suggests, is we have a lot control. We'll continue to see different animals have boom and bust years as science, government and altruistic organizations pull up one ecological sock as the other sags. We may keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes for a while, but will we stop the northward creep of our kudzu carpet? Will the burning bush be the only underbrush in our northern woodlands? Will Peconic Bay scallops ever return to Long Island's East End? Will the wooley adelgid wipe out the nation's pine trees? Will red tide continue its seasonal Russian roulette with Atlantic shellfish harvests? Will milfoil turn the nation's lakes and ponds into swamps? It depends on how much energy we can continue divert to these and hundreds of other local environmental endeavors across the country. Will environmental restoration sap our resources tomorrow, much like health care saps our resources today?
That's the long term answer and it's vastly more uncertain and will no doubt be cast by global warming. If the theory holds up, we'll see whole-sale extinctions of species. That leafy sea dragon on the cover today and the sea turtle shown here? Say good-by. In the fast-approaching, man-made survival-of-the-fittest sweepstakes, these creatures don't get tickets. If tides rise as quickly as recently forecast, salt marshes, those volcanoes of marine life and biodiversity, will get wiped out. Ditto for untold forests that will turn into deserts across the globe. How far will this damage go and how far back along the evolutionary timeline will it push us? This article suggests toxic algae blooms like one currently off the Pacific Northwest could have been responsible for mass extinctions millions of years ago.
The Pacific bloom has killed over 10,000 birds and sickened surfers this fall. Could the wild swings in populations we're seeing today swing equally out of control? Or will they just kill off the world's most evolved species, like the polar bear and black rhino, leaving plenty of kudzu, carp and deer to sustain us. Or will there be an evolutionary domino effect that lands us back into a pre-cambrian period eating soy dogs with spirulina. That's the question hardest to answer: how far does this damage go, how fragile are these ecosystems. There are a lot of important questions out there and watch out for anyone who says they have the answer. Still, it would be nice to know Prof. Bentley's thoughts on this.
GORILLAS IN OUR MIDST? 10.17.09
Biodiversity, sounds like, and often is, a lofty term thrown around at wine and cheese parties. You won't hear it much on scallop boats dragging the Sable Bank, or in Everglades limestone quarries or along the skidways of clear-cuts in Maine. Folks in this line of work see biodiversity first hand. They see fish stocks bounce back after government regulations. They know how a wetland or woodland grows back after it's been cleared for limestone or timber. But there's a lot these men-of-the-earth don't, or won't see, in the environments they work for a living. Biodiversity has taken it on the chin as result. We've got various pieces in NBN today that show that much of the world's biodiversity is going the way of the Dodo. With that great unknown, global warming, we'll probably see more animals go extinct. But there are signs that even rare and highly specialized species can adapt to this brave new world, in the wake of humans already doing so.
Just to drive the message home, we repeat this video from the 9.09.09 Mailbox. There is all manner of collateral damage here. However, if we're eating half our fish from farms, that's got to be putting a lot of the folks above out of business. Or better yet, putting them into a new business, fish farming. That's great news for marine biodiversity and there is more such news out there. Now expand the discussions to Florida's plan to expand limestone mining discussed in the EMailbox today, or the continued practice of mountain -top coal mining, or the relentless onslaught of road-runoff into our creeks and bays. Solutions here are a little harder to find than fish farming. There are many ways we take advantage of the resources around us that are devastating to biodiversity.
Take this story for example. It bemoans all the pollution from fish farms. It also points out that half the world's fish now comes from farms. That means a lot less pressure on wild fish which are much more destructive to catch than fish already in a net. Wild fish harvesters, particularly draggers, have been wreaking havoc on biodiversity. Take a look at this video of scallop dredgers. Then take a look at this video of a fish trawler.
If you've heard this all before, perhaps we can hit a little closer to home. A few years ago, I bought a house in an up-and-coming neighborhood on Long Island. The worst house in a nice neighborhood. Investment-wise I made a killing. I also likely killed a lot of little critters along the way. My back yard was a half-acre of woods surrounded mostly, by well landscaped properties. It was a wildlife refuge. As I squeegeed the leaves, branches and forest litter from my backyard with a backhoe one day, I knew a lot of increasingly rare animals in those parts were having their last day on earth. I also added about $50,000 to the value of my house. I tried to compromise, and left about half the back yard natural. The person who bought the place yanked out what I'd left behind and a neon green lawn stood where I used to overturn logs to find salamanders. Still, I look back and can't see how I would do it differently. It was an investment. The only way to get around that situation is to not put yourself in it. And I won't ever again. If anything, it will be the opposite. I will adapt, like commercial fishermen are adapting.
What's all this got to do with biodiversity? The world will turn without gorillas, seahorses, salamander, snail darters or spotted owls. But, if we give them just half a chance, these animals will fight back. They have considerably more interest in hanging around the planet than the hand-wringers or the fishermen have in keeping them here. So, be patient when piping plovers shut down your beach. Draggers should move into fish farming. Rather than fighting illegal logging in rainforests, fight to make it sustainable. Think twice before cutting down that oak killing the grass on your front lawn and read what we have today in NBN and take it with you to your next wine and cheese party.
Rare Cat Causes Commotion 12.16.09
In the survival-of-the-fittest sweepstakes, it looks like the amur leopard lost out, according to this release. The world's rarest cat has been recently photographed, giving hope to conservationists who moved in like a swat team to protect a family of these creatures found in the Russian Far East. It's hard to imagine such militarism needed to protect such rare cats from poachers. You'd think surrounding residents would care enough not to hunt them. Then again, it's just as puzzling to conceive of anyone happily shooting the last passenger pigeon, or eating the last dodo.