For the Conservation Curious

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Trees do so Much April 9, 2014

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized — newdomino @ 1:15 PM
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Trees are terrific! Can anyone argue with that? Well, I guess I should add a caveat to my statement, “MOST trees are terrific!” There are invasive tree species out there that are the bane of many people’s existence, including mine, like Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Norway maple (Acer platanoides), Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) and Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), to name just a few. And some trees are more terrific than others. Trees native to your specific area are generally better than non-natives, although if you live in an urban area you may need some non-invasive, non-native trees to withstand road salt, the urban heat island effect and the other tough growing conditions found in urban areas. Trees like Goldenraintree (Koelreuteria paniculata), Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulate) and Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrate) will grow well under tough conditions, yet not grow uncontrollably like an invasive.

Spring is a great time to plant trees, but you need to make sure you’re planting them in the proper site, with the proper techniques. Check out the TreeVitalize program website to learn all about proper tree selection, siting, installation and maintenance – http://www.treevitalize.net. Plus, if you live in certain parts of Pennsylvania you can download a coupon to save $15 off the purchase of a tree at participating nurseries. Municipalities and non-profits can even apply for grants to help defray costs on bulk tree plantings.

redbud_paul wray
(Photo of Eastern Redbud by Paul Wray, Iowa State U., http://www.forestryimages.org)

I live in a city center, surrounded by a lot of pavement. In such situations adding tree canopy cover is essential. Trees provide us with cleaner air and cleaner water, shade to lower heating bills and make sitting outside on a hot day more enjoyable, and aesthetic beauty. There was already a Japanese maple in my backyard when I purchased my home, but I added a native Eastern redbud tree too. It has grown a lot over the last three years, even given the poor quality city “soil” and is just plain beautiful in the spring with its pinkish-purple flowers. The flowering dogwood in front of my house provides food for the squirrels (they love to eat the fruits, sometimes to my chagrin) and blocks some prying eyes from being able to look into my living room window. Trees do so much for us!

 

Human – Animal Interface April 4, 2014

Sometimes the people most passionate about wildlife conservation are accused of not caring about the human element that lives side by side with the animals in question. Critics say that these conservationists would rather have the people lose their homes and way of life, rather than negatively impact a species and its habitat. Yet rarely is it that black and white.

Yes, in many cases a species comes under threat because of the actions of people. Indigenous people hunting rare animals for bush meat, villagers killing animals that threaten their livestock or agricultural fields, poachers hunting animals for traditional medicine, farmers withdrawing too much water from a river… the list goes on and on.

Many times conservationists do come into a country from abroad, with the plight of an endangered animal in the forefront of their mind. But if they don’t take into consideration the views, lifestyles and concerns of the surrounding populace, their efforts are almost certainly doomed to fail. The conservationists will leave that country at some point; the locals will remain. They can either be allies in the conservation effort or undermine it every step of the way. A heavy hand is not always the most effective means to get your way.

Conservationists need to think about the reasons behind the threat and ways to deal with those reasons. Why are villagers relying so heavily on bush meat? Are they having a difficult time raising their own livestock? Are they too far away from other villagers where they can buy and trade food goods? Is it a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation? Once these problems are identified the conservationist should work with some of the well-respected locals to create solutions that both aid the people and the animals. Can someone come in to teach them animal husbandry techniques? Can they focus their hunting on more common, non-threatened species? Can they find hand-made goods that would be marketable for trade with other local villages?

The solutions won’t always be easy but they will be more effective in the long-term than when a conservationist comes in laying blame and accusations at the locals’ feet without offering realistic ways for the people to live in harmony with the natural world. There will always be a balancing act between people and all other animals and plants on the planet. We have the brain power and strength to dominate the natural world, bending it to our will, but we also have the resourcefulness and creativity needed to get what we need from the planet without destroying it for all other life forms. We just need to be willing to use that creativity for the greater good.

 

Sustainability Makes Sense for All March 12, 2014

Sometimes I am amazed by how controversial a seemingly harmless word can be to certain people. I understand why some people don’t like the terms “climate change” and “global warming” – they have become highly politicized and the actual events behind the terminology threatened people’s comfortable way of life. Even I have become annoyed by the abuse and misuse of those terms in the media. But I cannot fathom why the term “sustainability” has such a negative connotation in various quarters of the population. Lately I have had to defend the importance of this term, so I thought I’d blog about it here.

I first came across the negative perception of sustainability in reference to the Agenda 21 movement. Agenda 21 is itself a non-binding, voluntary action plan of the United Nations in regard to sustainable development. However, groups of right-wing and libertarian organizations have used Agenda 21 as an example of the UN’s desire to take over the world. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution opposing Agenda 21 and their party has stated that “We strongly reject the UN Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty.” Numerous states have passed (or are drafting) legislation barring government participation in the Agenda. The Tea Party calls Agenda 21 a conspiracy by the UN to deprive people of their property rights.

That’s a lot to put on the imaginary shoulders of a non-binding, voluntary document!

I have only read portions of Agenda 21 so I’m not going to defend the document here. What I will do is discuss why even if someone is opposed to the tenets of that document they can and should support sustainability. A compilation of the definitions for “sustainable” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary equate to something that can be used now but still be around for future generations to enjoy. When we practice sustainability we are ensuring that our future generations are not harmed by our actions of today. To me, that seems like a non-partisan ideal.

Through my job I promote sustainable landscape design and management for anyone who deals with land – municipalities, schools, homeowners, business owners, etc. The goal of the program is to show people how they can save money and improve human health and quality of life by rethinking how they deal with the natural world. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate saving money. And you don’t have to be a doctor to appreciate better health. Anyone can find benefits from sustainability.

I do believe that there is a limit to growth. If we sacrifice the environment and natural resources for ever-increasing economic growth we will reach a point where it all crashes. I don’t believe anyone would want that or have something to gain from it. So if we start to incorporate sustainability into our daily lives we can continue to have enjoyable experiences without dooming future generations. And in the end we may even save some money to put toward things we’ll really enjoy (like vacations and better benefits for employees) while enhancing the aesthetics of our communities.

So when you think of the term sustainability, think of a town where kids walk to school, getting enough exercise to cut the obesity rate dramatically: a town where small businesses thrive, where tree-lined streets clean our air and shade us during the hot summers. A sustainable community is one that will survive the ups and downs of the market, find new ways to compete in the global marketplace and attract new residents because of its desirable homes and businesses. Sounds like a place I’d like to live in!

 

Conservation Easements Make Dollars and Sense March 6, 2014

What happens if you own a beautiful, pristine piece of land on the fringe of a city and can no longer afford to keep it? The developers come knocking on your door, looking to turn your 100 acres of woods and meadows into 10, 10-acre home plots. You sign the dotted line, hand over the deed and in come the bulldozers and other heavy machinery, ready to cut down many, if not all, trees and grade the land so it’s as flat as a table top. Once that happens, it’s too late to bring back the habitat.

However, there is another alternative for landowners who want to protect their land but make money off it in the process. It’s called a conservation easement. A conservation easement, as defined by the Land Trust Alliance, is “a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows landowners to continue to own and use their land, and they can also sell it or pass it on to heirs.”

Yes, that’s right – the landowner still owns the land and can continue to live on it – but certain rights are removed, such as development rights. A land trust may approach a landowner or vice versa. The land trust pays a reduced price to the landowner to place the conservation easement on the property. The easement remains on the land in perpetuity – i.e. forever. The easement will contain detailed information about what can and can’t take place on the property. Usually the construction of additional buildings is restricted and there are management guidelines for how to make sure the habitat stays healthy. The land trust is in charge of at least yearly monitoring visits to make sure the landowner isn’t violating the easement. If a violation is found, they will work with the landowner to correct the violation or take them to court as a last resort.

Conservation easements can be very flexible though, so major violations that require legal action are not an everyday occurrence. They are very beneficial to the landowner because easements can provide tax deductions and drastically reduce estate taxes when the land is passed on to the next generation. The land trusts benefit by knowing that they are protecting land from being developed. The environment benefits because good habitat remains as-is, particularly in areas of high development pressure, where conservation easements make the most sense. It’s a win-win-win situation.

If you are a landowner considering a conservation easement on your property, where do you begin? Locate your nearest land trust or conservancy and talk to them about it. They will probably want to visit your property to see if it meets their criteria. Your state conservation agency may also be able to assist in connecting you to the right people. Check out the Land Trust Alliance website at www.landtrustalliance.org.

 

Mighty Mammals February 28, 2014

Over the past week or so I have watched a fascinating BBC documentary series called “The Life of Mammals,” thanks to my Netflix subscription. I was a zoology major in college so I like to think that I know a lot about the world’s animals… and maybe I do, compared to the average person on the street. But this series has shown me that there are so many weird and wonderful mammals out there that I couldn’t possibly know them all. From the cute numbat in Australia that looks like a striped squirrel with one of the longest tongues I’ve ever seen, to the wide variety of antelope on the African savannahs, the world’s mammals are amazing.

So I thought I would highlight a few of the interesting Pennsylvania mammal species here. While they may not be as unique as the egg laying echidna or duck-billed platypus, they have their own special features that make them just as important.

Water shrew – The BBC show actually featured this tiny creature in the episode on insect eaters. What makes the water shrew so interesting are its fur and feet. The fur is so densely packed that it is water-proof. That’s good because the water shrew hunts for insect prey underwater. When the water shrew dives air bubbles are trapped in its fur, helping it stay buoyant. As soon as it leaves the water all it takes are a few shakes to get the water out of its fur. The feet are partially webbed and have special hairs on the ankles, aiding the water shrew in swimming. Talk about an animal perfectly adapted for its lifestyle!

Porcupine – Everyone knows that porcupines have “needles” that can hurt you if you get to close to them, but did you know that those quills are modified hairs? And porcupines cannot shoot those quills at you… you must touch them in order for them to come loose. A porcupine can have over 30,000 of them! The name “porcupine” is Latin for “quill pig” – quite an apt name. Porcupines have an appetite for wood, usually, but have been known to eat plastic and metal too. Our state park and forest staff have had to replace many signs and structures across the state thanks to porcupine damage!

Flying squirrels – Did you know that Pennsylvania is home to not one but two flying squirrel species? We have both Northern and Southern flying squirrels. Where their territories overlap, the more aggressive southern one may bully the northern one and steal their home. How rude! Flying squirrels can’t actually fly, but they use the large flap of skin between their front and hind legs as a sort of hang-glider, launching them from trees for as far as 150 feet. Few people see flying squirrels as they are small and nocturnal, but I was lucky enough to see one on a dying sugar maple in my parents’ front yard many years ago. Perhaps it was nesting inside the rotting tree? It was a sight of a lifetime, that’s for sure!

my flying squirrel
Drawing by Jessica Sprajcar

Pennsylvania is home to just over 60 species of mammals, although many of those are very rare or uncommon. And did you know that Pennsylvania was once home to wolverines, badgers, lynx, mountain lions, wolves, moose and bison? Unfortunately all those mammals are now extirpated from the state, but perhaps one day we will see them again? Deer, beaver and river otters are all mammal reintroduction success stories to gain hope from.

 

Winter Floods are no Joke February 21, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 12:45 PM
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Will the snow ever go away? That’s what a lot of people are thinking these days. In the ten years I have lived in the Harrisburg area I have never seen so much snow accumulate over one winter. Sure, we had a February blizzard or two in years past, but nothing like the piles of snow and ice that dominate the urban landscape right now.

I think people’s biggest concerns right now are: Where all this snow and ice is going to go once it melts. Will it cause significant flooding downstream? And what will happen to the rock salt, cinders and gravel that is now trapped in the ice, leftover from over-zealous public works staff?
Those are reasonable concerns that I will try to explain here.

According to a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine by Joseph Stromberg, on average the U.S. uses 137 pounds of salt per person each year to keep roads and sidewalks free of ice – that’s 22 million tons! His article goes on to say the following:

“A group of scientists that tracked salt levels from 1952 to 1998 in the Mohawk River in Upstate New York, for instance, found that concentrations of sodium and chloride increased by 130 and 243 percent, respectively, with road salting the primary reason as the surround area became more developed. More recently, a study of a stream in southeastern New York State that was monitored from 1986 to 2005 found a similar pattern, with significant annual increases and road salting to blame for an estimated 91 percent of sodium chloride in the watershed.”

That can’t be good for the environment, and it’s not. Scientific studies have shown that the chloride in rock salt negatively impacts amphibians, fish, plants and other aquatic organisms. The salt can dehydrate trees, particularly those in urban areas along sidewalks and parking lots. Plus the dried salt may attract deer to roadsides (they lick it for its nutrients), creating more traffic hazards. Occasionally the salt may enter drinking water wells too, although that is very rare.

What can be done to improve this situation? Municipalities are beginning to try out new combinations of salt and gravel, salt and water, salt and sugar beet juice, and even salt with cheese brine. Whatever works, especially if it’s safer for everyone. They are also varying the timing of salting. If you put down salt prior to a storm, rather than during or after, it is much more effective and less likely to wash away with the melting snow and ice.

But this doesn’t get to the heart of the matter – the sheer magnitude of the snow and where it will end up when it melts. That’s a trickier issue. If our days warm gradually, the snow and ice should be able to melt slow enough to be absorbed into the ground and carried off by streams and rivers without causing major flood events. However, if we have numerous warm, sunny days in a row, possibly followed up with rain, that could spell trouble. If you live in an area that experiences periodic flooding, make sure you have an emergency plan, just in case.

Building our homes and businesses in floodplains is never a good idea, but people like to live with a view of water, so there’s no way around it. All we can do is be prepared, design those structures with flooding in mind, and stay as safe as possible. Be careful out there, everyone!

 

Nature is Your Valentine February 14, 2014

This week’s blog is inspired by a quote from Thomas Jefferson. The past president once said, “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” I think this is very appropriate for today’s date – Valentine’s Day. On this love it or hate it holiday, many people are thinking about something they want – love. Whether you’re in a relationship or not, love plays a very important role in your life.

Valentine’s Day centers on romantic love, but I want to focus this blog post on a different form of love. I want to write about a love of nature. Think about all that nature provides for us: the oxygen we breathe, the clean (we hope) water we drink, the food we eat, the raw materials for the products we buy and use on a daily basis. Without a healthy, productive natural world we would be limited severely in what we consume and how we thrive. Yet how many people think about nature and say to themselves, “I love nature?” Perhaps more people should!

Jefferson said we must be willing to do something we’ve never done before in order to get what we want. If we want nature to love us, by providing us with abundant natural resources and healthy environments that improve human health, we need to do something new. We need to pay more attention to nature, listen to what it is saying to us, and treat it with more respect. Just as you would treat your significant other, nature deserves the best too.

What does that mean? Nature is talking to us, even though it doesn’t have a voice. It tries to converse with us through freak weather events, species’ extinctions and temperature extremes. If only we would be more open to listening. So on this Valentine’s Day, instead of buying a dozen pesticide covered, imported roses or a box of corn syrup-filled candies, make a point to open your ears and eyes to nature. It is a Valentine that is worthy of your love, and one who will return it ten-fold to you if you’re willing to try something “you’ve never done” before.

 

 
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