March 16, 2006

Sometimes Extinction is Forever

DodoRemember that thing about the ivory-billed woodpecker -- alive in the swamps of Arkansas -- not extinct after all? Well, maybe not so much.

In a new article in the journal Science, renown bird expert David Allen Sibley says that the evidence is insufficient and that the famous video of the bird is actually the rather common pileated woodpecker. Sibley joins Kenn Kaufman and a number of other bird experts in his assessment. In the surprisingly fractious world of birders, I'm sure the debate is far from over, but I'm ready to conclude that the ivory-billed has gone the way of the dodo.

When I blogged about the rediscovery last spring, I quoted a NY Times article on the importance of bread-and-butter conservation. The author argued, "The reason for the astonishing re-emergence of a mysterious bird is as mundane as can be. It is habitat preservation, achieved by hard, tedious work, like lobbying, legislating and fund-raising."

That point is worth remembering. Habitat preservation is not usually the sexiest environmental work there is. There's no technological silver bullet that promises to save the day. And it's aligned against some of the most powerful forces of our times, like road-building and suburban sprawl. But when we don't do it -- when we don't put safety first in our land-use decisions -- we rob ourselves (and our children) of the natural beauty and diversity that we inherited.

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March 01, 2006

Beetle Battle

Beetle_trees_3From the Washington Post, an article worth reading on a subject that's depressingly well-known to Canadians, but probably unfamiliar to most Americans: the mountain pine beetle outbreak devastating forests in British Columbia. The damage has been colossal:

Surveys show the beetle has infested 21 million acres and killed 411 million cubic feet of trees -- double the annual take by all the loggers in Canada. In seven years or sooner, the Forest Service predicts, that kill will nearly triple and 80 percent of the pines in the central British Columbia forest will be dead.

Meanwhile, the beetle is moving eastward. It has breached the natural wall of the Rocky Mountains in places, threatening the tourist treasures of national forest near Banff, Alberta, and is within striking distance of the vast Northern Boreal Forest that reaches to the eastern seaboard.

Foresters and researchers agree that the principle culprit is global warming (because warmer winters, even by a few degrees, have not been severe enough to kill the native beetle and supress its now-exponential population growth). So the pine beetle infestation is worrisome, not only for the severe ecological impacts, but also because it appears to be an early sign of the devastation to be wrought by a warming atmosphere.

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February 08, 2006

Canada's Great Bear Park? Not Exactly.

The world is celebrating an announcement in Vancouver on Tuesday that the government of British Columbia finally signed on to a new vision for a region of the province nicknamed the Great Bear Rainforest--a vast, nearly roadless forest of cedar and hemlock stretching along the coast from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska.

A Google News search that night turned up 137 stories published around the world about the announcement, including a front-page piece in the Washington Post (Huge Canadian Park Is Born of Compromise), and an AP story (Canada Unveils Park to Protect Grizzlies), which was reprinted nearly everywhere from Seattle to Fort Worth.

This new phase of land-use planning is about a lot more than a big park for bears. The media who reported it as such should be corrected.

The agreement announced by B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell -- and built by First Nations who live in this area­­, environmentalists and logging company representatives,--is being called "A New Vision for Coastal B.C." That's not just P.R.--it really is a vision, a new way of thinking about and creating conservation that was a decade in the making.

In fact, contrary to some of the more romantic news reports, environmentalists and native leaders working on the Great Bear haven’t seen a U-Lock, or even a bullhorn, in at least half a decade. Instead, they’ve logged thousands of hours under fluorescent lights in stale meetings rooms at airport hotels and YMCAs, far from the tall trees and leaping salmon. They got to know people they didn't necessary like at first--mid-level bureaucrats, loggers, big-box retail executives. In doing so, everyone involved changed their thinking about the forest, their communities and the coastal economy.

Listen to CBC News for some good interviews with key negotiators (see the bottom of this page), or reporter Clifford Krauss' audio commentary on the New York Times' web site for a clearer picture of what happened.

At the core of the new accord is a vision of sustainability that fosters stong communities and healthy, lasting prosperity grounded in this unique place. This is not a traditional park.

The entire region will be "zoned" into three tiers of special management areas. More than a third of the region—the "Protected Areas" and "Biodiversity Areas"--will see no commercial logging. However, mining is allowed in the Biodiversity Areas. Tourism is OK too.

The final two-thirds of the region will be open to logging under another plan, called ecosystem-based management, which is still being hammered out by the stakeholders for implementation in 2009. (It's not over.)

What's more, some 25 First Nations living in this region, in communities like Hartley Bay, Klemtu and Bella Bella, will share management authority with the province. They'll have access to the Protected Areas for traditional and cultural use--that's not the case with parkland. They can fish, harvest cedar for carving totems or other cultural activities, and worship at their sacred sites, for instance. It's a way of thinking about people and place with a long-term vision for sustaining both.

Not everyone is pleased with the new Great Bear Agreement. Many B.C. environmentalists have criticized the environmental groups who negotiated the deal for remaining involved in the negotiations after the planning tables rejected the recommendations of a blue-ribbon team of conservation biologists. These scientists, who conducted their studies as part of the planning process, concluded that upwards of 70% of the region should remain free from industrial development to maintain healthy populations of large carnivores like grizzlies and coastal wolf packs. The end result was much less, and some say sufficient wildlife corridors are lacking.

Of course, what logging will look like under the esoteric term "ecosystem-based management" remains to be seen.

The key to the deal still rests on a gamble. The environmentalists' winning strategy was a huge $120 million "conservation financing" campaign. In less than five years, they managed to raise $30 million, with the assistance of private foundations, to fund budding entrepreneurs in native communities that agree to embrace sustainability- micro-businesses like eco-tourism, certified forest products and shellfish aquaculture. They double-dared both the province and the feds to match that number. The B.C. Liberals agreed to do so yesterday.

The newest complication is the recent federal election. Canada now has a Conservative prime minister from the oil fields of Alberta--not exactly a man envisioning sustainability. The immediate step forward is brokering a commitment from Ottawa.

Well, most British Columbians would never believe that a premier of this province would ever thank Greenpeace--known widely as the "Enemies of B.C." in the 1990s. He did this week. Perhaps Stephen Harper is next.

(Full disclosure:  Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck worked on the Great Bear Rainforest campaign from 2001-2003. She's now Tidepool's editor.)

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November 08, 2005

The Urban Jungle

I'm a day late on this, but the Seattle P-I had an interesting series on Seattle's ailing urban forests. The principal threat is the rapid spread of invasive species, which essentially throttle standing trees and smother healthy new growth:

"At first glance, the most prolific tree-killers seem pleasant enough, aesthetically speaking -- a splash of green on a bare tree trunk, a burst of pretty flowers on the ground. But tendrils of ivy, morning glory and clematis quickly spread up into the tree canopies, starving the trees by cloaking their leaves and blocking photosynthesis. Their weight breaks branches and bends tree tops, stunting growth. Blackberry thickets smother ferns and saplings."

Folks at the Seattle Urban Nature Project, along with scores of other groups, are in the frontlines of the battle against the aliens. Without their dedication, the city's forests and parks would likely succumb to the greedy monoculture of ivy and blackberry that is already in evidence nearly everywhere. So as a nature-loving city-dweller I'm happy about the much-needed efforts to restore the ecology closest to us.

But the more I read, the more the series also raised some interesting questions--for me, anyway--about how we treat conservation priorities. How do we sort out competing environmental goods, such as increasing urban density and preserving an urban forest canopy? Is urban ecology really the best use of our resources?

Now obviously, it's a good thing to restore the forests and natural areas within our cities. And it's also a good thing to protect and restore natural areas on the urban fringe as well as in more remote locations. But given the sad fact that we have scarce resources to devote to conservation, is urban ecological restoration really our best option?

The analytical part of me says no. I'd argue that we can get more ecosystem bang for our buck by investing in natural areas that are in less dire need of assistance--areas that are capable of supporting a more diverse array of biota. It's futile to pour money into the heavily degraded Duwamish River, for example, when we can protect and repair less-damaged waterways like the Cedar or the Snohomish. Similarly, I wonder whether the price tag of saving Seattle's city park forests--an estimated $48 million over 20 years--couldn't be better spent saving and restoring forests in, say, east King County that are threatened by sprawl. Those forests, while not pristine, could be treated to replicate old-forest conditions that can support a variety of species, including some endangered ones.

But the rest of me says yes. City nature matters.

Urban ecology may not be the best possible investment for regional biodiversity, but that doesn't make it a waste of resources. While Seattle's urban forests will likely never support spotted owls, they can and do support people. Hospitalized patients recover faster when they can see trees. In inner-city neighborhoods, academic studies show that children learn better and are less likely to become involved in crime if they are exposed to plants and trees. Nature in the city may even foster social capital.

Most people experience nature primarily in city parks and public beaches, not on backcountry trails in national parks and forests. That's especially true for children, the elderly, lower-income folks, and people without cars. And that experience of nature has a powerful psychological, even spiritual, effect on people. It's so powerful, I'd argue, that it's very difficult to put a price tag on it.

Chum If you don't believe me, and you live in Seattle, I've got a challenge for you: Later this November see if you can find the chum salmon running up Piper's Creek in Carkeek Park. When I visited twice last year, the natural phenomena of the salmon run, even in a tiny urban creek, was clearly transformative for us fish-watchers, and we were legion. An astonishing array of people stood for hours in the rain, cheering on the fish--literally cheering for them--as they struggled up over the stream's little barriers. There's no doubt that the Northwest's salmon constituency swelled greatly that day. And equally, I don't doubt that we watchers were immeasurably better off for it.

And the benefits of urban ecology are not all anthropocentric. Even if urban ecological restoration is not the best non-human biodiversity investment available, it still winds up being a plus in nature's scales. Native bird, fish, and plant diversity all flourish when we remove invasive species.

Lincoln_park_1 Finally, there are also plenty of economic arguments in favor of urban forests. These are not my main reasons for wanting to restore city forests, but they are instrumentally useful for convincing skeptics that there's value in city ecology.

Trees may be good for business by increasing worker productivity and boosting retail profits. Plus, there are tangible services that urban forests and trees provide--services that we can quantify in dollars and cents. As the P-I article describes it:

When it rains, trees capture some of the water and help it soak into the ground slowly, controlling erosion and stemming the flow of dirty stormwater rushing off driveways and roads into Puget Sound.

If the city were to lose its urban forests, it would cost more than $220 million in new stormwater-treatment facilities and drainage systems, according to an environmental group's analysis.

City officials say the costs would be higher, possibly topping $1 billion.

Three years ago, researchers with the University of California-Davis and the U.S. Forest Service released a study that put a price tag on the benefits of urban trees in the Northwest.

Considering all of the good that trees provide -- such as reduced energy costs because of shade and protection from wind, less pollution and higher property values -- a small residential tree netted a $12 annual benefit, while a large tree was worth $53.

So, while $48 million to restore Seattle's park forests is certainly more than I can scrounge up in loose change from my couch, it seems like a darn good investment in the health of the city. And when you consider the benefits, both tangible and intangible, that urban nature brings to our lives, it's a steal.

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Biofuels Bonanza

Three stories around Cascadia mark the spread of biofuels: biomass for heating schools, biodiesel for heating homes, and a new cross-border biodiesel project for trucks.

Brush fires in the school
The AP recently reported on a Forest Service program, Fuels for Schools, that sends the slashed brush and limbs from forest thinning to heat schools in several states including Idaho and Montana. Replacing oil furnaces, biofuels reduce cost, air pollution, and dependence on foreign oil. I'm all for finding new uses for waste products. But is this really a good idea?

We keep hearing that decades of fire suppression have built up dangerous amounts of fire-prone underbrush in the region's forests. That's probably right. Still, it's not too implausible that thinning could get out of hand, leading to a different sort of ecological imbalance. Rampant thinning may also remove soil nutrients that forests needs to thrive.  And, as we've seen with Oregon's and Washington's school funding, using wood to heat schools could create perverse incentives to thin excessively in order to give schools cheaper heat.

Still, on a limited scale, Fuels for Schools' proven benefits likely outweigh the uncertain costs.

Biodiesel for your home
The Seattle PI reports that local biodiesel fans can now put "powered by biodiesel" bumper stickers on their homes. Two Seattle companies are offering 10 to 30 percent biodiesel heating oil. As expected, it doesn't save you money and hasn't been completely proven not to damage regular furnaces, but the companies say customers are very interested.

Cross-border biodiesel
A new cross-border biodiesel project called Bio-49 Degrees will replace some of the diesel in Puget Sound Energy and BC Hydro utility trucks with biodiesel from waste vegetable oil. Much of the biodiesel will be processed and distributed by students learning the trade at two technical colleges in Bellingham and Burnaby. The cross-border collaborative is another example of governments realizing that environmental issues follow bio-geographic, not political boundaries. Air quality in Bellingham, for instance, is affected more by Vancouver than by Seattle.

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November 03, 2005

Rules of the Roadless

Following Oregon's lead, Washington's governor asked the federal government to reinstate protection for all of Washington's roadless areas (those areas that are untouched by roads but are outside the formal protection of national parks or wilderness areas).

Here's the backstory: Bush administration policies devolved protection of those roadless areas to individual national forests, which resulted in roughly 700,000 acres in Washington losing protection. Rather than submitting a new (time-consuming, expensive, and completely redundant) analysis arguing for protecting those lands, Gregoire wants the feds to simply return to its former policy of protecting them--a policy that was based on exhaustive research and public input.

The US Department of Agriculture, which houses the Forest Service, is almost certain to reject Governor Gregoire's proposal, as it did Kulongoski's last week. That could set the stage for Washington joining Oregon, California, and New Mexico in suing the federal government over the burdensome requirements of getting roadless areas--already inventoried, studied, and approved--the protection they deserve.

It's rather sad turn when states have to sue the federal government to protect the public's resources. And protecting those roadless areas is important--they're havens for endangered species, not to mention important vestiges of our heritage, nature left intact and untrammeled. Washington has a lot at stake with Gregoire's proposal-- the 700,000 acres of roadless areas at risk is roughly 3 times the size of Mount Rainier National Park.

UPDATE 11/4/05: The Salem Statesman Journal reports on the Bush administration's rejection of Kulongoski's proposal.


In a similar vein, a great rant on paying for public lands access by Seattle Times columnist Ron Judd. Here's a sample:

A visit to Mount Rainier National Park is not a ring tone, a movie rental, or any other expendable entertainment commodity. For many people, it's a birthright...


UPDATE 11/9/05: A no-holds-barred editorial from the Daily Astorian on the selective use of states' rights to promote resource extraction, but not conservation. Here's a sample:

Once again showing that it supports states’ rights only so long as state leaders adhere to the activist Republican agenda of using national assets to enhance corporate profits, the Bush administration rejected Kulongoski’s petition to keep logging and mining out of undeveloped areas.

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October 31, 2005

FSC for the Feds?

The US Forest Service is finally going to look into the merits of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for a small number of forests, including the Fremont National Forest in southern Oregon. Continued cutting on federal land, even under FSC standards, is not exactly popular with many conservationists. But the reality nowadays is that federal-land logging is likely to increase because of the Healthy Forests Initiative and, especially, slick new administrative procedures that may reduce environmental and endangered species' reviews. So FSC labelling could be a golden opportunity for conservationists to endorse something positive.

Getting the Forest Service to comply with FSC standards wouldn't be the big conservation victory that many greens have long sought--it won't stop cutting in national forests--but it would be an honorable compromise. FSC would guarantee careful reviews and monitoring that are fundamental to any good conservation planning. That is, the label could perhaps offset the increasingly weak review standards performed by federal agencies.

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October 19, 2005

Lewis & Clark Go Digital

Journal Lewis & Clark's contact with the natural world just entered the digital age. Courtesy of Oregon State University, their natural history findings are mapped, archived, clickable, and zoom-able. Thomas Jefferson would be so envious.

A complete day-by-day map of Lewis and Clark's route across the western United States allows users to chart their progress from St. Louis to the Pacific and back. More importantly, each day's record includes a count of the wildlife they saw, animals they killed, human settlements they encountered, and even the vegetation that they passed through.

200 years ago yesteday, for example, on the Columbia, just below the mouth of the Walla Walla River, they recorded 40 dog kills (I presume this means they killed 40 dogs?), saw grouse, and also saw occupied lodges, but found no wood except for small willows.

Even today, the Corps of Discovery's journals are an important resource for biologists establishing the historical abundance and distribution of wildlife. They can also be an important reference point for understanding the current conditions of our natural heritage. Today, for instance, sage grouse no longer inhabit the regions of Washington where Lewis recorded them "in great abundance."

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October 18, 2005

The Uncertain Future of BC's Forests

From British Columbia, more evidence of the danger of hitching an economy to resource extraction and commodity exports. As the Vancouver Sun explains today, the BC forest industry is bearing the brunt of a "perfect storm." A rising Canadian dollar, higher energy prices, and the ongoing softwood lumber dispute with the United States are combining to cripple the forest industry.

Not surprisingly, the industry wants relief from the government in the form of tax credits and write-offs. But how much more coddled can BC forest companies get?

As Will Horter, executive director of the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative, recently opined in the Tyee, Canadian logging companies are already paying ridiculously low fees to cut on crown land. In fact, in seven forest districts, more than half of the cut logs were paid for by just 25 cent stumpage fees. Not only is that a bad deal for government coffers, which could reasonably extract much more revenue from public timber sales, but the low stumpage fees are a big contributor to the softwood trade wars that result in tariffs at the US border. Raising the stumpage fees might resolve the softwood dispute, generate more revenue, and put a fair price on public forest resources to boot.

Of course, even that optimistic scenario would still leave the industry coping with the trade effects of a strong Canadian dollar and high energy prices. But future high energy prices are likely unavoidable. And the fact that the forest industry is susceptible to high prices is just more evidence of its fundamental weakness. In fact, the Canadian economy is already among the most energy intensive in the world. (That is, it takes more energy to produce a dollar of wealth in Canada than almost any place else in the world, including the United States.) Continuing to rely on energy intensive industries like the forest sector for jobs, revenue, and economic growth is probably a recipe for disaster.

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October 17, 2005

"Five Finger Discount" in National Forests

The ugly flip side to the US Forest Service's budgetary inability to prepare old-growth timber sales: the agency's finances are so anemic that it can't prevent thievery of other forest products.

Now admittedly, the harvest of mosses, mushrooms, and huckleberries doesn't have the aesthetic impact of clearcut logging. But even so, the biological capital in our national forests' is being drawn down unsustainably by collectors both commercial and private. What's especially annoying is the echo of the bad old days of rampant cutting on federal land: The common storehouses of the country's natural heritage, national forests, are once again being pilfered for profit.

A good article today in the Oregonian, with special attention to the Siuslaw and Gifford Pinchot National Forests.

UPDATE: Also, today on ENN, a first-rate article on the sociology and economy that surrounds the harvest of non-timber forest products.

UPDATE 10/20/05: A federal judge just ordered the Forest Service to re-open national forests to non-timber harvesting activities, such as mushroom collecting and Christmas tree cutting. The Oregonian has the coverage.

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