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."

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 07, 2005

Wolf Numbers Up Again

Wolves04Wolf populations are continuing to grow in the northern US Rocky Mountains. New wolf census data shows a steadily rising population, especially in Idaho where remote habitat-rich wilderness is ideal for expanding wolf numbers. After being extirpated in the early 20th century, wolves were reintroduced into central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s. (A few wolves had also begun re-colonizing Montana.)

I'm always inspired simply by the raw data of wolf recovery, especially because the returning wolves have frequently acted as agents of ecological restoration. So when wolf populations are expanding rapidly, their ripple effect on ecosystems is even more positive. The return of the wolf--happening much faster than even the most Pollyanna wolf-lovers predicted--reminds me that, at least in some instances, we still have a chance to repair the harm that we've done to wild places.

Here's the state-by-state breakdown.


Read the full story in today's Idaho Statesman.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 06, 2005

Poor Reasoning

The US federal poverty line is not a good measure of real life poverty. Most researchers agree that the standard method of computing poverty is outdated, overly simplistic, and probably drastically undercounts the number of poor. (Here's a quick summary from Dan Staley; here's the longer version of the same story.) Still, despite its glaring flaws, the poverty rate remains the most widely reported gauge of how many poor people there are.

Enter a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The report develops a more meaningful poverty rate--they call it a "basic family budget." EPI adjusts for geographic differences in prices--a huge oversight in the federal poverty calcuations--and makes realistic but frugal cost estimates for housing, food, transportation, child care, health care, other necessities, and taxes. Based on these costs, EPI calculates how much money families need to earn just to get by (assuming they don't save money, go on vacation, or even have renter's insurance). 

You can play with EPI's handy calculator to get a sense of what their basic family budget is like. A family of 2 parents and 2 children in the Seattle metro area, for instance, needs to earn $45,516 to make ends meet. On the other hand, a family of 1 parent and 1 child in rural Idaho needs just $26,988 per year.

EPI's report gives an entirely different sense of poverty--and not just because the numbers are much, much higher.

According to the Census Bureau, for example, Idaho has the lowest poverty in the three Northwest states (WA, OR, ID), with just 9.9 percent. But EPI's more detailed and accurate assessment of economic conditions, makes Idaho by far the worst with fully 37.5 percent of people living in families without enough money for a basic budget. 

So not only is Idaho's "true" poverty situation 3 to 4 times worse than federal estimate suggests, it's skewed with relation to its nearest neighbors. What's the explanation here? Does Idaho have a smaller share of very poor people (below the federal poverty line), but a larger share of people who can't really make ends meet? Or is there something else going on?

Whatever the explanation, I find the comparison troubling, partly because poverty rates are often used to allocate scarce resources.

Washington, on the other hand, has an undistinguished poverty rate for the Northwest, but boasts the smallest share of people unable to earn a basic family budget (see table below). Could this have something to do with Washington's most-generous-in-the-nation minimum wage?

Here's a fuller account of federal poverty rates compared to basic family budgets in the Northwest.

Federal poverty rate, 2004

Percent below basic family budget



















United States



Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (12)

August 25, 2005

Flame On!

Dumb headline (unless you're a Fantastic Four fan), but a serious subject.  A new chemical analysis, being released today by California EPA scientists at an international scientific conference in Toronto, shows that 30 percent of Northwest moms tested in NEW's 2004 toxics study had higher levels of the toxic flame retardants PBDEs in their bodies than of well-known chemical threats PCBs.  This study is a follow-up to the PBDE study of Northwest women that we did last year.

The study provides pretty unambiguous evidence that PBDEs have emerged as a major toxic menace.  And it suggests that, if recent trends continue, PBDEs could soon overtake PCBs as the most dominant "organohalogen" pollutant in people's bodies.

And an interesting -- and probably significant -- side note to the study was that there was no correlation between PCB and PBDE levels.  This suggests that they may get into people's bodies through different pathways.  At this point, the principle source of PCB contamination in people is food, particularly fish.  For PBDEs, nobody is sure; but a recent exposure modeling study from Canada suggests that ordinary housedust, containing minute quantities of PBDEs sloughed off from furniture and the like, may be the principle route of exposure in people. (More here.)

Some context is in order.  PBDEs are fire retardants that are added to furniture foams, industrial fabrics, consumer electronics, and a number of other products.  They're pretty good at preventing fires. But in recent years, scientists have noticed an alarming rise in the concentration of PBDEs in peoples bodies -- in their blood, in fatty tissues, and in breast milk alike.  Concentrations of the compounds appeared to be doubling every two to five years.  Ecologists have found similar rises in marine sediments and wildlife.  As it turns out, PBDEs didn't stay put in consumer products; minute quantities would leach out into the environment and ultimately wind up sequestered in living things, including people.

At the same time that this rapid rise was detected, new evidence was uncovered that PBDEs may have similar health effects as their close chemical cousins, the PCBs.  Tests on laboratory animals showed that a dose of PBDEs during a critical phase of early development could cause memory deficitis and behavioral aberrations -- effects very similar to those caused by PCBs.  The two chemicals may actually work together, either additively or synergistically, to cause harm.

Last year, Northwest Environment Watch commissioned an analysis of 40 breastmilk samples from Northwest moms, 10 each from Washington, Oregon, BC, and Montana.  The study found that the moms had among the highest median PBDE levels on record.  (Yoiks!) 

The problem isn't breastmilk per se; we tested breastmilk just because it was the most convenient way to get a biological sample that's high in fat, since PBDEs adhere to fat.  As far as I know, every epidemiological study that has looked at the issue has concluded that, except in extremely rare cases of PCB poisoning, breastfeeding is by far the best and healthiest choice for infants.  The major risk of PCBs appears to be during fetal development; and the benefits of breastfeeding may actually mitigate the potential harms caused by PCB or PBDE exposure in utero.  So, seriously, if you're a nursing mom, keep breastfeeding.  Please.  Really.

The bottom line of this study is that, even though PCB levels are still higher than PBDE levels, we may soon be approaching a point at which PBDEs are more of a concern than PCBs.  And from this I draw 3 lessons.  First, we should be paying close attention to PBDE levels in the coming years, to see whether PBDE levels continue to rise in people.  Second, we should be looking at ways of removing PBDE-laden products from people's homes. 

And third, we need to learn our lesson about the risks posed by untested chemicals.  In retrospect, it should have been obvious that PBDEs posed some risk -- their chemical structure is very similar to that of PCBs, dioxin and DDT.  So that alone should have triggered some elementary testing requirements before the compounds were used widely commerce.  But it didn't.  At some point, we've got to learn the lesson, and take steps to make sure this sort of chemical fiasco -- releasing potentially harzardous compounds without adequate testing -- doesn't keep happening again and again and again.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (2)

August 23, 2005

Obesity Grows

Obesity rates are growing in every state but Oregon, according to a new report by Trust for America's Health based on data from the CDC. (Read the Seattle Times article here.) While Oregonians can be proud of their accomplishment last year, they are not the trimmest state in the country, nor in the Northwest.

Interestingly, every Northwest state has lower rates of obesity than the national average. Montana residents are least likely to be obese; Alaskans are most likely. As Jessica pointed out recently, it's worth paying attention to obesity trends, not only because of their health consequences, but because it can absorb a lot of money.

Here's the skinny on obesity in the Northwest states...

Percent of state residents who are obese, 2004

Percent of residents who are obese, 2004













United States


Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (1)

July 28, 2005

Do Kids Count in Cascadia?

Kidcity Things are looking up for Cascadia’s kids. Well some things. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Book, released yesterday, teen birth rates in the Northwest states have steadily declined since 2000, and regional rates of infant mortality, and child and teen deaths are all down from 1990. But child poverty is up.

In the report’s 10 measures of child well-being, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington fared better than average for the country overall, ranking 18th, 16th, and 14th, respectively. Montana slipped to number 34 this year.

But for Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, the number of children living in poverty is up from 2000–2003 and is above the national average, perhaps reflecting some of the economic woes the Northwest has seen in recent years. In Oregon, 41 percent of all kids in the state live in low-income families. Oregon and Washington tied at 36th nationally in the percentage of children who live in families in which no parent has full-time, year-round employment.

Childhood poverty and parental unemployment can be factors in a host of other problems from lower school performance to higher crime rates and teenage pregnancy. Tracking trends such as child poverty and the teen birthrate--in projects like Kids Count and NEW's Cascadia Scorecard--helps raise awareness of the issues, the first step to creating change.

As a next step, the Northwest could make reducing child poverty a major goal for the decade ahead by implementing policies that emphasize personal responsibility while giving working families a way to develop assets that appreciate, not just income (see p. 12 in NEw's report, Population Reprieve). For example, government matching funds for low-income families who save for college or put money away for a down payment on a home.

P.S. The incredibly useful Kids Count website lets you compare trends regionally and by year, create charts, and download the raw data. Check it out.

Posted by Leigh Sims | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 27, 2005

Something Wildlife

Wildlife_chart_lg_1 If you've been following Eric's pieces on sage-grouse, goats, wolves, orcas, salmon, caribou, and other Northwest critters, you may have gathered that NEW is doing research on wildlife in Cascadia--and what it tells us about the health of our natural heritage.

In fact, as we described in a Cascadia Scorecard News article this week, NEW is introducing a wildlife index as part of the Cascadia Scorecard project. The index tracks population counts of five key indicator species--gray wolves, woodland caribou, greater sage-grouse, orcas, and Chinook salmon--and will be released in complete form in Cascadia Scorecard 2006.

As research is completed, we will post articles, maps, and charts from the index both on the wildlife pages of our website and in the wildlife section of our weblog.

The index will measure population counts because they are the most basic assessment of a species' prospects and may reveal how the larger ecosystems that sustain the species are functioning. We're comparing current numbers to historical levels (see chart above); and we'll depict habitat loss through maps that track species’ current and historic ranges. The index may also help identify the policies that are most effective in protecting these species. Here's a bit on each of the five:

  • Gray wolves in Idaho and Montana. Wolves--reintroduced in the mid-1990s--are flourishing and helping to re-balance their native landscapes by, for instance, pressuring the elk herds that formerly browsed on streamside saplings. This, in turn, improves beaver and trout habitat.
  • Woodland caribou of the Selkirk Mountains, a remote region in northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and southern British Columbia. They are the last remaining caribou to visit the continental US and their continued existence hinges on repairing fragmented landscapes, such as forest clearcuts.
  • Greater sage-grouse in Oregon are sensitive to alterations in the vast “sagebrush sea” of the inland Northwest, including ranching, fencing, and invasive species.
  • Chinook salmon returning as adults to the Bonneville Dam, the lowest dam on the Columbia River. These mighty fish are a proxy for the Northwest’s once-prolific salmon runs and for the health of the vast river system that binds British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
  • Southern resident orcas that inhabit the inland seas of Washington and British Columbia. For much of the last century, these orcas were under siege. Now, although they are still in jeopardy, conservation efforts have paid off.

We'd love to hear feedback on the index as we develop it, so please add your comments below.

Posted by Elisa Murray | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 12, 2005

Man Himself is a Visitor

In recent months, the Bush administration's undoing of roadless area protection--by devolving the authority for them to the states--has generated a renewed burst of concern over the fate of the last unprotected wilderness-quality lands in the US.

Wilderness protection is, at least arguably, no longer center stage for most environmental organizations. Nevertheless, land (and water) protection remains critically important for the continued existence of countless species and, I'd argue, for human sanity. It also has a strong intuitive appeal: you can see the results on a map (here's one of my all-time favorites). Plus there's something deeply satisfying about drawing boundaries around a chunk of the earth, however small, and saying, "there, that's protected for good. Whatever else we do, we won't screw up that piece."

I was reminded again today of the importance of wilderness conservation--and also of the power of good biography--by an excellent article in the Los Angeles Times (free registration req'd) profiling storied conservationist and architect of the federal wilderness act, Stewart Udall. I wish I encountered more good story-telling like this about conservation successes and the people involved with them.

Udall, now 95, is nothing if not a compelling writer. Here's a sample:

We need to preserve places where nature can maintain her own balance, set her own pace. These natural places, completely untouched by the hands, the machines, the tools of man, are absolutely essential as laboratories of life — yardsticks against which to measure our efforts to improve the environment, as well as our dismal successes in destroying it.

It's hard to read Udall and not suspect that something is completely different today.

In fact, in today's Idaho Statesman, a cri de coeur to protect Idaho's roadless areas. Reading the column (it's good) I was reminded that today's arguments for conservation often rely heavily on economics--establishing the market value of ecosystem services and recreation, for instance. By contrast, in Udall's era, the arguments were primarily spiritual and nature-centric.

Has the conservation movement has lost its "soul" and perhaps thereby its gut-level appeal to people? Or were conservationists of Udall's era simply not able to develop economic arguments, and so relied on whatever reasoning they could conjure?

Post-script: By coincidence there's a newly proposed wilderness area in Montana. As the Missoulian reports, the wilderness is the longtime dream of a Montana rancher and geologist, Winton Wedeymeyer. Another good chance for biography, I suspect.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 07, 2005

A New Chapter in an Old History

This summer marks the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's arrival in the Pacific Northwest. The expedition is storied, but almost exclusively by white historians. Enter a new book with a new perspective on the expedition and its consequences for the native peoples they encountered, The Salish People and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Here's a portion of the book description:

For the first time, a Native American community offers an in-depth examination of the events and historical significance of their encounter with the Lewis and Clark expedition... What makes The Salish People and the Lewis and Clark Expedition a startling departure from previous accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition is how it depicts the arrival of non-Indians—not as the beginning of history, but as another chapter in a long tribal history. Much of this book focuses on the ancient cultural landscape and history that had already shaped the region for millennia before the arrival of Lewis and Clark. 

In the same vein, the Bellingham Weekly has an excellent article by one "Alan Durning" on the sesquicentennial of the Washington treaties of 1855. An earlier version of his article appeared in this blog.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 07, 2005

BC's Resource (In)dependence II

In January 2005, we published a piece by guest contributor and University of Montana economist Thomas Michael Power that took issue with a report by BC research center Urban Futures on the importance of natural resource exports to the province's economy. Power disagreed with Urban Futures' position, arguing that true economic development has little to do with exports and everything to do with creating a web of local economic relationships.

A lively debate over the role of natural resource exports has ensued. In May, Urban Futures responded to Power's piece with a report titled "An Introduction to Regional Economic Analysis" (pdf). Power then clarified his position with this most-recent piece, "Thinking About the Regional Economy" (pdf).

Here are a few excerpts from Power's rebuttal:

There are two alternative paths open to us to protect our access for the full range of goods and services we desire. We can expand exports so that we can increase our imports or we can develop locally-oriented activities that efficiently displace some of those imports. If we are successful at the latter, our dependence on exports declines.

For a half-century economists have been puzzling over the fact that some of the most successful and dynamic economies are found in nations with very limited natural resource endowments while some of the economies that have very rich natural resource endowments are mired in persistent poverty. Empirical analysis of worldwide economic development patterns repeatedly has revealed that substantial natural resource endowments are associated with depressed economic development. . . .

The function of exports is to fund imports, not to fund internal economic activities. Schools and health clinics can be operated through the very normal specialization and division of labor that takes place within communities. The baker, butcher, and carpenter indirectly support the teacher, doctor, and preacher. Currency that does not enter into foreign trade can facilitate that complex specialization and exchange. It does not rely on exports. . . .

In making the case for the importance of exports in supporting the American economy, Urban Futures points to the apparently insatiable appetite of Americans for fossil fuels imported from other countries, an appetite that has to be paid for with American exports. But, again, the wrong lesson is drawn. There is no economic law that dictates the extent of America’s addiction to oil and natural gas. . . . Public policy could dramatically reduce our dependence on energy imports and reduce their export cost. That would simultaneously reduce the environmental and military cost too. To the extent that only efficiency measures and renewable resources that were cost effective (when all costs were taken into account) were pursued, Americans would enjoy the same standard of living with dramatically reduced dependence on imports and exports. The point is that the degree of dependence on imports is partially a matter of public policy choice, partly a matter of how the local economy develops, and partly a matter of what our buying habits are. All of these are malleable, not things dictated by economic law.

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