For the Conservation Curious

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Clear Cuts Can be Clearly Good October 16, 2014

I’ve been working on a few outreach publications related to forestry and timber harvesting lately, and it makes me think about the myriad people who have a negative reaction when they think of cutting trees. Some people are opposed absolutely to any form of timber harvesting, while others are against certain practices like “clear cutting.” I don’t come from a forestry background, so I can sympathize with them. There was a time when I believed all clear cuts were horrible and that too many trees were being cut down, but with a bit of knowledge my opinion has changed. Perhaps I can persuade you to see clear cuts in a different light, as well.

But before I begin on the merits of (some) clear cuts I want to make absolutely clear that there can be very bad clear cuts if they are done improperly or on certain sites. A lot of thought needs to go into any timber cut BEFORE any action is taken on the ground, not during or after. It essential that a properly trained, professional forester does the work. They know that once the trees are removed there will be adequate regeneration of trees from either seeds in the ground or seeds blown in from the surrounding trees. They know that there aren’t too many deer that could impede that regeneration by eating all the saplings, or too many invasive plants that could come into the clear cut and dominate the area. They know how to prevent soil erosion by using proper best management practices for their haul and skid roads and leaving a buffer of trees along streams and rivers. Only then can a clear cut be sustainable.

If a clear cut is done correctly, many good things can come from it. There are a variety of animal species that benefit from the openings made by a clear cut, as well as from the young growth forest that comes up later (more than 200 species, in fact). Endangered golden winged warbler, chestnut sided warbler, grouse, bear, and eastern box turtle are just a small sampling. The abundant sunlight that is created with a clear cut allows sun-loving tree species like pines, aspens, black cherry and sassafras a better chance to grow and thrive. They can’t compete well with tall oaks and maples in a mature, intact forest.

(Photo: Connecticut DEP)

Clear cuts might not be attractive, and certainly, compared to a mature forest in all its fall glory they’re not. But the forest that grows up in its place will be healthier and just as magnificent. All it takes is a bit of patience and understanding to see it for what it is… healthy habitat in the making.

Want to learn more about clear cuts and other silvicultural practices? Just Google the term and look for reputable source from state bureaus of forestry. There’s a wealth of information out there.

 

When is Human-Wildlife Interaction too Much? October 10, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 11:58 AM
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On the National Geographic website today I saw a post about a shark photo that has gone viral – it was taken by a school teacher, Amanda Brewer, in a cage off the coast of South Africa. The story asks whether or not these close encounters are dangerous for the sharks. Will they start to associate the smell of bait fish with humans, thus becoming less fearful of us and perhaps more aggressive? Will our actions change the natural behavior of a species? And if it happens with sharks, does it happen in other circumstances too, like when tourists swim with dolphins or manatees, or in areas with frequent whale watching boat tours?

Photo credit – Amanda Brewer

That made me wonder… can we be so interested in seeing and learning about a species that we ultimately cause its demise? I’ve heard stories about people loving an area until it’s ruined – a popular hiking trail through a forest can become so degraded by too many people using it that the reason why people came there in the first place is destroyed. It’s easier to envision a specific location becoming degraded, but think about the behavior of an animal in a zoo. I can recall trips to the Pittsburgh Zoo in the early 80s, when the bears and other large animals were still behind bars and visitors would feed them popcorn and other junk food. Those animals no longer acted like their wild counterparts… they would pace back in forth in front of the bars, or sit up and beg for scraps. Unfortunately there are still non AZA-accredited “zoos” in the U.S. that look like that (I’ll be nice and not name names… at least in this post).

That is a very confined scenario, with thousands of human-animal interactions, so looking at it from a nature standpoint isn’t a one-to-one correlation, but I think there could be some parallels. People flock to certain places in Florida to swim with manatees. If you do a quick Google search you’ll find many companies there that offer the opportunity. The list of rules shown below is from the VisitFlorida website. How likely do you think people are to obey all these rules, or do some visitors bend them? Manatees are gentle, slow moving mammals. If they become habituated to the presence of humans the worst thing that will happen to them – and it’s bad, no lie – is that they could have more collisions with boats, possibly resulting in their injury or death. But if a great white shark becomes habituated to people, the tables are turned… it may be us that are at greater threat of death.

I love manatees, dolphins and even sharks. I love pretty much any animal I can think of, although some more than others certainly. But I can love them at a distance. If I’m going to see a manatee in the wild than I expect it to act that way, wild. The same goes for any wild creature. Let’s not love a species so much that it becomes unnatural. We have our domesticated animals for that.

 

Green Czech Republic October 3, 2014

On Tuesday I received some excellent news… I was selected as the team leader for the Rotary District 7390 Group Study Exchange trip to the Czech Republic and Slovakia this coming spring. I’ll lead four communications and journalism professionals on a one-month educational visit to these two countries, visiting Rotary Clubs and cultural sites along the way. I went on a similar trip, as a team member, to Germany five years ago and it was a life-changing experience. I know this will be similar, although more challenging with the added responsibilities as leader, but I’m looking forward to it all.

In honor of this upcoming adventure, I wanted to blog a bit about the environmental and conservation-related aspects of the Czech Republic. I ran across some of this information as I prepared for my interview, and have added further information that I found since then:
• According to the Czech Republic’s environmental agency, the Czech people ranks sixth in the European Union in packaging recycling and are the leaders in the EU for reusing materials from new products and energy generation (a whopping 68%!!).

• They have six UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, which are areas of the country set aside for natural resource management. There are more than 600 reserves in 119 countries across the globe.

• Unlike our country, they have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and ratified the Kyoto Protocol, committing their country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and acting against climate change.
• They are above the EU average for the number of acres of organic farms in the country (10.5% of their total ag lands).
• More than 71 percent of the forests in the Czech Republic are certified as sustainably managed.

Not everything is rosy in terms of the environment there. No country is perfect. They deal with air and water pollution from industry, habitat loss and impacts to species, and other issues, but those are common to just about every developed nation. But they are trying hard to clean up sins of the past and move into a more sustainable future.

Of course there is so much about the Czech Republic that I am excited to see. Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and since it wasn’t bombed during WWII, much of the old architecture remains intact. In Germany I saw a lot of restored churches, castles and other buildings… now I’ll get to see the real deal. Plus the Czech Republic is the birthplace of pilsner beer, so I won’t go thirsty while I’m there. My trip is still many, many months away, so my excitement will continue to blossom. Na shledanou (goodbye in Czech)!

 

Why I Live Downtown and Maybe You Should Too! September 16, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 12:45 PM
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“Downtowns are dying out,” wrote one journalist. A day or two later I read, “Downtown populations are growing quickly, far outpacing more rural areas.” Well which is it, and should we care?

While I love the outdoors and the calm serenity of country life, I am a city girl at heart. There are two main reasons, and they are interconnected – walkability and amenities. I walk to work, to bars and restaurants, along the river trail for exercise and stress relief, to the corner store or farmer’s market for a few grocery items. I can walk almost anywhere for my typical daily needs. My city has museums, sports teams, parks, theaters, festivals and other amenities that keep life fun and interesting. You really could find something to do within walking distance to keep you occupied each weekend.

(Photo: Harrisburg, PA Source – Wikimedia)

You can’t say that about suburbia. There, if you don’t have a car, you’re stuck watching TV as your main form of entertainment, unless you can access public transportation, which let’s face it, in this country is subpar. Suburbanites (and I was one when I first moved to this area, not to mention for most of my life… not knowing which neighborhoods in the city were safe and which ones weren’t) tend to eat at chain restaurants and shop at big box retailers. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that – after all I am a fan of Target – but I just think the suburban way of life is somewhat limiting.

Living in the city, especially if that’s also where you work, is very environmentally-friendly. My carbon footprint is pretty small – not only do I drive very infrequently, using little gasoline, but city residences, like mine, tend to be on the smaller side so I use less electricity to heat, cool and illuminate my place. I have no lawn, so I don’t use any gasoline to maintain my back “yard” (really a brick patio with native plants along the outside). Sure I have to sacrifice my desire for a bit more land to grow a veggie garden (although I know plenty of people who do so in raised beds and containers, or rent community garden plots) but that’s something I’m willing to give up for all the benefits of city living.

More people, especially the younger generations, are seeing cities in a new light. They like the convenience and culture of it. Plus in many developing nations, cities are the only place where there are jobs and a potential way out of poverty, so people flock there en mass. So cities worldwide are growing, even if some of the ones here in the U.S. are showing a decline – think Detroit, for starters. But even in Detroit, where the vacant land seems to outnumber the number of occupied houses in many neighborhoods, large companies are moving back and promising a better future for the Motor City.

(Photo: Detroit, Source – CNN)

What keeps people in the U.S. from considering a move downtown? I can think of many reasons related to my own city… higher property taxes, poor schools, the perception of crime, the desire to have huge houses with sprawling lawns, etc. and I’m sure they’re the same for a majority of cities in the U.S. And many of those reasons are valid. Yes, my taxes are higher than most of my suburban counterparts but I save a lot of money on gas, parking fees, and other commuting costs, making it a wash. The public schools in cities do tend to underperform their more rural counterparts, but there are options for those living in the city with kids. There is crime everywhere, including the suburbs, so I don’t hold that as a valid excuse. I’ve lived in this city nine years and yes, my apartment was broken into once, but the house I grew up in, in the suburbs, was burglarized also, so again it’s a wash for me. Of course anywhere you have more people the chances of crime happening increase, so it’s a numbers game more than a location game, in my opinion.

Ok, that’s enough ranting about how much I enjoy living in a city and why I think you should too. I’m not asking you to up and move tomorrow, but if ever you find yourself really sick of your commute, or you’re relocating for a new job or to be closer to your grandkids, consider city living. I think you’ll like it.

 

Flying Squirrels do Exist in PA September 8, 2014

I would like to share with you some information about a fascinating creature: the flying squirrel. I was lucky enough to see one of these small, grey mammals a handful of years ago. It was late and I was standing outside my parent’s house, when all of a sudden I saw a streak across the night sky as something landed on the large, old sugar maple in front of me. I looked up and saw what I thought to be a flying squirrel, but at the time I didn’t know that we had flying squirrels in Pennsylvania. I did a Google check the next day to make sure my eyes didn’t deceive me. Yes, in fact I had seen a flying squirrel!

There are two species of flying squirrels in Pennsylvania – the northern and southern squirrels. I saw most likely a southern squirrel, as they are the more common of the two. Both species are nocturnal, meaning they only come out at night. That’s one of the main reasons most people have never seen one, and why only my active social life at the time granted me the opportunity to see one. The squirrels spend the night eating lichens, moss, fungi and other goodies, gliding from tree to tree (they don’t really fly… bats are the only mammals that can do that) at average distances of 20 to 40 feet.

Both species are a light brown color on top, with a whitish belly. It is very difficult to tell the two species apart. The northern squirrels are slightly larger, but when one is gliding quickly past you in the dark of night, chances are you won’t get a good enough look to determine its species type. Southern squirrels are generalists in their habitat preference, living in suburban areas as well as wilder areas, while the northern species, rare in Pennsylvania, prefers remote coniferous forests.

And as you might know, Pennsylvania’s confer forests are facing a serious, invasive threat – the hemlock wooly adelgid. This tiny insect attacks our state tree, the eastern hemlock, and has killed thousands of them across the state. When the hemlocks die, the northern flying squirrel loses a home. As hardwood trees move in to fill the vacant niche, so too come the southern squirrels, which carry a parasite that is lethal to the northern squirrels.

All is not bleak, though, for the northern squirrels. Researcher Carolyn Mahan from Penn State received funding from the Wild Resource Conservation Fund and Game Commission to study reforest areas of the state with red spruce, a conifer tree that the northern squirrels seem to like. Hopefully through these efforts the northern flying squirrel will be able to hang out and perhaps even thrive in Pennsylvania, able to withstand the unintended bad habits of their southern cousins.

I hope so. Not only would I like to check-off the northern flying squirrel from my mammal life list, but it’s just good to know that the efforts of dedicated people can postively impact the survival of species.

 

Would You Eat an Insect to Save the Planet? August 27, 2014

In my last two blog posts I discussed eating a diet more closely attuned to vegetables and fruits, rather than meat. In the U.S., where fruits and veggies are plentiful (unless you live in an urban food desert, of course), it’s easy to live a vegetarian lifestyle. However, what are people to do in places where droughts, expensive fertilizers and lack of viable seeds make growing their foods a challenge? How can they obtain enough protein for their family members when raising livestock is a privilege of the more affluent?

If the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has its way, those people will eat more insects. And perhaps we in the U.S. will follow suit?

In 2013, the FAO published a report, “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security”. In the report they estimate that at least two billion people worldwide make insects part of their regular diet. Eating insects, known as entomophagy, is practiced from Australia to Africa to Asia, but tends to skip places like Europe and North America, aside from novelty snack items like cricket lollipops. Are we missing out on a diverse and tasty source of protein? The report notes that 1,900 different kinds of insects have been documented as being edible, from caterpillars to grasshoppers to flies and ants.

The FAO wants more people to eat more insects for a variety of reasons, but the underlying reason is this – the population continues to grow and unless we find new ways to feed people, more and more people will go hungry. Eating insects is a way to fill those hunger gaps. Insects are an inexpensive source of protein that doesn’t come with the high cholesterol, fats and other harmful substances that meat may have. If insects were grown on farms like other livestock, the environmental impacts would be much lower than those animals. The greenhouse gas emissions from insect rearing are lower, the waste generated is less damaging, the inputs needed to feed the insects are much fewer, and they can be raised on a much smaller scale than animals like cows, thus reducing the amount of land converted.

Yet how can we get past the “gross factor”? If eating insects is to take off in any way in the developed world, that is a significant hurdle to jump. Insects are viewed as creepy and dirty. They are a pest of our foods, not a food themselves. The report does address what they call the “disgust factor” and ways to overcome it. They believe that the opposition to eating insects stems in large part from the western view that eating insects is a desperate act of the very hungry, not a conscious decision of people to eat well. They note that arthropods like lobster and shrimp were once seen as “poor man’s food” in the West, but now are sought after. I’d like to point out that spiders are arthropods… so really, are we that far away from eating insects if we eat relatives of spiders?

I ate a couple meal worms once in a chili. I don’t think I chewed them, and I tried not to think too hard about what they were as they went down. It was a novelty act; something done so I could say I did it. Would I eat insects on a regular basis, given that there are so many other choices of things to eat? I’m not sure. I appreciate the fact that they are more environmentally-friendly than other sources of protein. I like that they are lower on the food chain, so they are healthier for me and don’t raise the moral guilt issues as much as I get from eating fish. But I think they would have to be highly disguised in order for me to eat them with any enjoyment. For instance, there is a product called cricket flour, made from ground up crickets. If that was added to a brownie, that might be ok, but could I eat a fried cricket, legs and all, doubtful!

If you’ve eaten insects and enjoyed it, let us know. What was it and how was it prepared? Were you on vacation overseas or somewhere in the U.S.? I’m curious to know your impressions. Thanks!

To read the full FAO report, go to http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm.

 

Environmental Benefits of a Vegetarian Lifestyle August 22, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 11:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In my last blog post I talked about the origins of my vegetarianism. Now I’d like to discuss why I think everyone should embrace the vegetarian lifestyle for at least a portion of every week, if not every day. Not only will it help your health (assuming you don’t eat pizza and French fries like I did in college practically every day) but it will help the environment. How so?

The average consumption of meat in the U.S. is eight ounces a day, which is twice the average of the rest of the world. That equals 200 pounds of meat per person per year. The meat and dairy-based diets that we have in the U.S. are very resource intensive; and it’s not just a problem in the U.S. In places like Brazil, where they consume a lot of beef, it is estimated that 1,250 acres of rainforest were cut down in just a five-month period to create grazing land for cattle. If that continues unabated for a year that’s at least 3,000 acres lost and most likely unrecoverable. Nearly 20 percent of the land across the world (not counting that covered with ice) is used for the growing of livestock.

So eating meat uses up a lot of land that could otherwise be used for wildlife habitat, growing vegetables and fruit for the ever-expanding world population, setting aside parks for recreation, and a whole host of other, better things. But it’s not just land conversion that’s a problem with the meat industry. According to an article in the New York Times on January 27, 2008 by Mark Bittman:

“To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.”

So the raising of livestock is a very energy intensive industry. It also has a huge impact on water resources. According to an article in the Cornell Chronicle on August 7, 1997, animal agriculture is one of the biggest consumers of water in the U.S.:

Grain-fed beef production takes 100,000 liters (26,417 gallons) of water for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of food. Raising broiler chickens takes 3,500 liters of water to make a kilogram of meat. In comparison, soybean production uses 2,000 liters for kilogram of food produced; rice, 1,912; wheat, 900; and potatoes, 500 liters.

With the droughts that have been ever-present these last few years in the Western and Southern United States, where many of our grain-fed cattle are raised, this will continue to be a major issue as reservoirs and groundwater reserves dwindle.

David Pimentel, an ecology professor at Cornell University, said that the U.S. could feed 800 million people with the grain that we instead feed to our livestock. A wholesale switchover would never happen, but imagine if we converted even a fraction of the soybean and corn fields to growing other vegetables and fruits instead? But with the current manner in which the federal government provides subsidies to large scale farmers that grow corn and soybeans, and not to small scale veggie farmers, that is unlikely to happen any time soon. That will be fuel for a future blog post…

In the meantime, please allow me to introduce you to the Meatless Monday movement. Meatless Monday began in 2003, launched by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In May, 2009, Ghent, Belgium, became the first non-U.S. city to go meatless. Shortly thereafter, Paul McCartney introduced the U.K. to Meat-Free Mondays. Meatless Monday is now active in 34 countries. The website, http://www.meatlessmonday.com, has a wide variety of tasty recipes to prove to you that eating vegetarian dishes can be just as enjoyable and filling as one with meat in it. Check it out and let me know what you think.

And for those times when you know you’re going to eat meat, consider eating as efficiently as possible. What I mean by that is choosing animals that are better at converting their food to flesh. Pimentel found broiler chickens to be the most efficient, and beef, the least. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle production requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1. Other ratios range from 14:1 for milk protein to 17:1 for pork and 26:1 for eggs. And of course if you select locally raised animals, especially grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, a deer that you hunted yourself, etc., you will have a lower carbon footprint than if you choose a steak from a feedlot in Colorado.

Many people ask me, “Don’t you worry about not getting enough protein?” No, I don’t. I know that I can get enough protein from the veggies and legumes I eat, and the studies agree. According to Mark Bittman’s article, the average American consumes close to 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government’s recommended allowance (which others suggest is larger than it needs to be). Out of that total, 75 grams come from animal protein. We could easily live off 30 grams of protein a day, with all or most of that coming from plant sources. So giving up meat for Meatless Monday won’t leave you feeling tired or sluggish. Not to worry.

So what are you waiting for? Give it a go! The planet, the animals and I will give you a big round of applause.

 

 
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