Wednesday, December 23, 2009

dangerous beauty

Just before the power went out, I spent an hour tromping around documenting the snow fall. Notice how much snow is on the telephone and power lines!

This is the most snow we gotten since we've lived in eastern Kentucky (now 13 years). And its the second major snow before Christmas -- a highly unusual occurrence. For those in the know, this is just another example of the weather weirding that results form over all global warming. Here's the explanation:

The unprecedented melting of arctic sea ice the past two summers has undoubtedly had a significant impact on the early winter weather over the Northern Hemisphere. Several modeling studies presented at the December AGU meeting showed that sea ice melt on this scale is capable of injecting enough heat into the atmosphere to result in a major shift in the jet stream. Dr. Overland [Jim Overland of NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory] remarked that the early cold winter over North America this winter, and the exceptionally cold and snowy early winter in China last winter, were likely related to arctic sea ice loss. The sea ice loss induced a strong poleward flow of warm air over eastern Siberia, and a return flow of cold air from the Pole developed to compensate. Thus regions on either side of eastern Siberia--China and North America--have gotten unusually cold and snowy winters as a result. Source: Dr. Jeff Masters' WunderBlog

Not all signs of global warming are warmer days, instead what we see are important shifts and changes in the weather patterns.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

seeing beauty versus photographing it

I live in a beautiful place. There is certainly some ugliness -- mostly in the form of strip-mines, but also a lot of litter on the road sides -- but overall this is a beautiful place. Hills and mountains close in around the narrow valleys and hollers, where communities form like Christmas lights strung along the creeks and streams, and narrow ribbons of asphalt thread among the houses.

Every day, as I drive to and from work, or go out to run errands and go shopping, I see beautiful, inspiring scenes that make my heart sing with joy. Yet when I contemplate photographing this beauty I run up against rarely discussed, yet nonetheless existing "rules" about what makes a beautiful photograph.

For example, electrical wires, light poles, transformers, and other such things are not suppose to "mar" a beautiful photograph of nature. Yet, almost every view I have of the mountains, forest and sky has such things within it. Over the last several years, as I've done more and more photography, I've thought a lot about this.

The human eye in daily life, looks past things like wires and poles, street lights and traffic, and is inspired by the natural landscape beyond them. In our minds we edit out these things, they do not distract us from the view. But the literal eye of the camera locks these trappings of modern industrial society into view, creating images that do not conform to social conventions of natural beauty.

Some man-made objects are acceptable in nature photographs -- the older the better! Old barns, old fences (at least wooden ones), old houses, antique cars (not your old rusted clunker on cinder blocks), old wagons, old tools hand tools (not old rusting mining equipment!). But the kinds of man-made structures (untidy utility poles, trailers and double-wides, pick-up trucks, gas stations and Dollar General Stores) that often end up in one's view around here don't qualify as acceptable backdrops or foregrounds for nature photography.

The biggest problem with this disparity between people's daily experience of nature, and social standards for natural beauty as represented by nature photography, is that it can lead to degradation of the environment. Places like this are often viewed by those with the power to make such decisions as not beautiful or scenic enough to be worth saving.

Between 1976 and 1982 as I did the research for my masters thesis and doctoral dissertation in the nearby mountains of southwest Virginia, I observed a distressing scenario unfold. The United States Forest Service was developing the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and had selected the theme "Rural Americana" for their development. To achieve the idyllic rural vistas that the Forest Service desired for tourists, they decided it was necessary to obliterate several existing rural communities, such as Fairwood, condemning property through eminent domain and bull-dozing homes and outbuildings. Real rural Americans were "rural" enough for the Forest Service.

It is this type of mindset that also leads decision-makers to say, "what's one more strip-mine?" in eastern Kentucky? How can it matter to anyone whether yet another mountain top gets denuded of forest and turned into rubble. But it does matter.

I live in a beautiful place -- for now.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Friends of Coal

There is a sociologically and politically interesting phenomenon sweeping the coal fields of Kentucky (similar things are happening is West Virginia) called the Friends of Coal.

Friends of Coal is the brainchild of a coal industry organization Kentucky Coal [note the nearly identical websites]. The Kentucky Coal Association central membership is coal companies and associate members comprised of businesses related to coal mining such as engineering firms, equipment firms, (even law firms) and individuals employed in the coal mining and related industries.

Friends of coal began as an exercise in what political pundits call "AstroTurfing" -- industry sponsored and supported activity posing as grassroots organizing -- but it has become a genuinely popular organization garnering membership, support and funding from thousands of Kentuckians from all walks of life. This may be a political first, a popular movement in support of a particular industry, not by its workers, but by a wide cross section of individuals and families living within the communities where an industry operates.

Not only does one see the bumper stickers, window stickers, yard signs, pins and t-shirts declaring "Friends of Coal" in eastern Kentucky. But most intriguingly, the Friends of Coal organization proposed a special issue Kentucky license plate (see photo at top taken at a stop light in Letcher County), which has been wildly successful and can be seen on cars (and especially trucks) everywhere in eastern Kentucky.

This may be the first time in the United States that an industry actively engaged in whole series of major political battles (over the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, mountain top removal, and fly ash storage) has been able to get the general public to voluntarily help fund their public relations battle through a official state sponsored tax (license plate fees). Usually industries have to use their own monies (albeit coming from customers) for legitimation advertising and activities.

The average person in eastern Kentucky who sports a "Friends of Coal" sticker or license plate views supporting "the coal industry" as identical to supporting "coal miners." A view which flies in the face of the very long record of industry abuses of the health and safety of miners, and successful efforts to undermine unionization of coal mining.

Supporters of Friends of Coal fear that new environmental regulations will bring a sudden and abrupt end to all coal employment in the mountains. They lack awareness that the coal industry has done quite well on its own to cut coal mining employment despite many decades of special treatment and tax advantages from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Employment in coal in Kentucky has dropped by two-thirds from a high of about 48,000 in 1981 to 17,893 in 2006. [graphic from MACED based on data from].

Friday, September 18, 2009


This morning I fired up the tractor, hitched the trailer to it, tossed in the chainsaw, and headed out into the forest. I went to a section containing a lot of downwood -- trees that have fallen of their own accord or that I have cut down because they're dead. They were all small Douglas Firs log, averaging eight inches in diameter. I cut them up into pieces weighing fourty to eighty pounds and then piled them into the trailer. It was hard work; even thought the air temperature was about 60ºF, I was soon sweating profusely. It was also rather dirty work, hauling those log segments around. They don't fall conveniently close to the tractor trail so each one has to be carried 50 to 100 feet to the trailer. When I was done, I drove back to the woodpile and heaved the logs onto the ground. I'll cut them into firewood-sized pieces (18" long) later.

Why do I subject myself to this labor? Primarily for exercise. I've long felt that there's too much artificiality in our lives, and that applies to our exercise. Most people get their exercise on "exercise machines". The very concept seems silly to me. Our bodies were built to DO things, not sit on exercise machines. Such machines concentrate effort on a specific set of muscles. That's stupid; it's like developing your touch-typing skills so that your left hand can type 100 words per minute while your right hand can type only 20 words per minute. It won't do you any good if your biceps outlive your trapezoid muscles. It's your whole body that needs to be healthy, not just a few selected parts.

I've held this belief for many years. While still a teenager, I advocated the "TV dinner that fights back". The concept was that eating is a primal activity, something involving our entire bodies. We shouldn't sit down at a table with napkins and delicately nibble our meal with tiny bites. No, when the meal is cooked, it should leap out of the oven snarling and we should have to chase it all over the house, finally pinning it down and dispatching it with a bite behind the neck. Then we should rip and tear great gobbets of food from the body of our artificial critter, wolfing them down with a possessive growl. THAT's what I call a proper meal.

The same thing goes for exercise. These namby-pamby people esconced in exercise machines, pumping their legs or their arms in mindless repetition, are losing out on the fundamentals of exercise. It's not a matter of merely contracting and relaxing muscles. It requires the entire body and mind to be unified in a single process. Dancing is good exercise. Sports are good exercise. Rote exercise is no more effective than rote learning.

That's why I head out into the woods and fight with logs. It's tough work, but it exercises my entire being. I have to think, move, act, and work. It's not neat work; I trip or stumble, drop things, scratch myself (my wife wonders why my hands, arms, and legs always bear scratches or cuts) and curse occasionally. There's always the chance of serious injury if I'm not careful -- but that's part of the process, too: thinking ahead, planning how to approach tasks in a safe manner. I'm all alone out there in the forest. There's nobody to call 911 if I break a leg. I just have to crawl home in such a case, and I don't like that idea. So I think as I move, something users of exercise machines don't do.

There's more to it, though. There's something about working in the forest, about being there among the trees, and working to improve the forest's health. One doesn't see the effects anytime soon, so it's mostly an appreciation built cognitively. It's constructive labor of the best kind. Sure, I could be writing essays for the Internet or helping people in other ways, but this, this is solid, undeniable betterment of the world.

There are other reasons as well. These forest floors have evolved to adapt to fire. In the natural setting, fire sweeps through the forest floor every thirty to fifty years, clearing out all the deadwood. We humans have blocked that process, so the deadwood builds up such densities that, when a fire does manage to slip past our guard, it explodes to monster size, feeding on a century's worth of accumulated fuel. To prevent that, we must manually cull the fuel, removing the biggest chunks and stomping down the slash (bits of branches and other small stuff) so that it rots faster during the rainy season.

A third reason for all this work is to provide fuel for my fireplace. Now, plain old fireplaces are actually energy wasters: they pull in so much cold air from the outside that their net effect is to cool a house. However, my fireplace has a big iron insert with two fans blowing air over it, and a high chimney that is exposed to the interior of the house. Its overall effect is to heat the house substantially. In winter, once I get the fireplace going, the electric heat pump turns on only to redistribute air around the house. I estimate this saves us about $1000 in electricity each year. Of course, to get that savings I probably invest several hundred hours of work, meaning that my labor is earning me only a few dollars per hour. But saving money is a tertiary goal. My primary goal is healthy exercise; fire safety is the second goal and saving money is the third goal.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Summer Reading, Part 1

Each Fall Semester I teach a course, SOC260 Population, Resources and Change, that examines the interrelationships between human societies and the environment, focusing on modern industrial societies. Consequently each summer, I try to read a couple of new (to me) books on the general topic of the environment and society. This summer I thought I would post reviews of books as I finish them -- with the thought that this might prompt me to finish more! The first book I will discuss is The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by Brian Fagan, Bloomsbury Press, 2008.

Let me begin by saying that The Great Warming has lots of fascinating information about the interplay between climate and society, drawing upon research on dozens of societies on eight continents across thousands of years of human history. It is well researched, entertaining and lively and worth reading. Each of the stories shows the importance of climate in both the making and the breaking of humans societies. However, the book does not live up to its title, nor does it deliver on the basic premise set forth in its preface.

Fagan's thesis, as set out in the preface, is that the "Medieval Warm Period" was a global warming event affecting the entire planet, and that the primary lesson to be drawn from this global event was that global warming (even when it is on a lesser scale than the anthropogenic warming of the present day), creates devastating drought across much of the world.

The term "Medieval Warm Period" refers to the higher than average temperatures, documented by several forms of temperature proxy research, in Europe between approximately 800 AD to 1300 AD. Proxy methods for establishing past temperature regimes include: ice cores, deep sea an lake sediment cores, coral records, and tree rings. Through out the book, Fagan refers to the period between 800-1300 AD as either the "Medieval Warm Period" or more generally as the "warm centuries;" but when he gets down to the specifics the regional temperature proxy information he presents often indicates prolonged centuries of colder climate for regions such as Eurasia, the Sahara/Sahel in Africa, the Andes of South America, and the middle and south Pacific.

We know, in the present day, that an overall warming of the earth, is consistent with the occasion pattern of cooling in specific regions. Not every location on earth, experiences a constant, upward warming pattern. Present day climate change research emphasizes statistical averages and the global pattern while recognizing local variation. Fagan does not produce sufficient evidence to support a claim that the overall earth's temperature rose during the period 800-1300 AD, only that some widespread regions experienced warming and that equally wide spread regions experienced cooling. Perhaps that evidence exists, but it was not presented in this book.

Moreover, although Fagan's primary aim is to show the connection between warmer climate and drought, many of the examples of drought come from regions where temperatures were cooler, or where there are no proxy measures of temperature available, only measures of rainfall. For example, drought in the Sahara/Sahel during the 800-1300 AD period is primarily related to cooler temperatures. Cooler temperatures over the Pacific during these centuries is also associated with drought on the west coast of California, and in the South American Andes.

Other examples of drought come from regions such as India where both warming and cooling occurred in different regions, and even shifted from time period to time period as the oscillation between El Nino/La Nina shifted the timing and location of the monsoons. With China, Fagan's evidence of warming comes from eastern China, while the evidence of drought comes from Huguangyan in south China where lake cores indicated cooler climate (during the early part of the target period) and the northern Tibetan highlands (during the latter part of the target period).

If one ignores Fagan's attempt to build a grand argument about global warming, much can be learned in this book about the importance of climate, and especially the impact of flood and drought, in the course of human history from the specific evidence about particular societies.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Reforestation in a dry environment

My East Coast colleagues don't have to worry much about reforestation; leave the land alone and it will reforest itself naturally. You might want to select what is allowed to come up, and perhaps plant species that you prefer, but even then it's usually "plant and forget".

Out here in the West, it's much more difficult. In the first place, you seldom get natural reforestation, at least not at anything approaching an acceptable time. The rough rule of thumb in the West is that it takes about a thousand years for a devastated patch of land to return to its aboriginal state. Of course, that time period depends crucially on the amount of rain. In the rainy Pacific Northwest, regeneration can complete in about a hundred years; in the Nevada desert, it can take millennia. In my environment, we get about 22 inches of rain per year, which is pretty good by West Coast standards but still well below the 50 inches that is common on the East Coast and the 42 inches that is typical for Eugene, Oregon, just 200 miles north of us.

When an area of forest is cleared, the recovery is carried out in a sequence. First come the manzanita, a scrub brush that burns hot in fires. A few oaks, madrones, douglas first, and ponderosa pines will eventually sprout in the soil and grow slowly (because they're underneath the faster-growing manzanita). After several decades some of these will start overtopping the manzanita, enabling them to grow somewhat faster. They'll also spread more seeds and acorns, restarting the process. However, the manzanita has deep roots and is long-lived, so once it has been established, it can take centuries for it to die out so that the forest reaches its climax stage.

The best way to accelerate this process is to plant seedlings and clear the immediate area. Usually, however, we don't bother clearing -- we just plant the seedlings in areas that have sunlight. There are enough openings to make this a viable strategy.

Before you can plant seedlings, you have to obtain them, and that's a problem. We used to have a state nursery in Oregon that sold seedlings of all kinds. The Ponderosa Pines that we use ran about $0.70 apiece in quantities of one hundred. But the commercial nurseries complained bitterly about the competition from the government, so the state government closed the state nursery. When I asked around at the local nurseries, the price of Ponderosa Pines was around $4.00 apiece. There's definitely something fishy here. Moreover, I couldn't get Ponderosa Pines suited to my altitude.

So I took a different tack this last planting season (December-January). I harvested some of the numerous seedlings that volunteer all over my land and replanted them in new locations. To do this, I just dug around the seedling with a shovel and then lifted a shovel-sized hunk of soil containing the seedling and its roots. Then I carried the seedling to its new already-dug hole and planted it there. This might seem like a simple enough task, but it's a lot rougher when you're carrying a ten pound hunk of soil 600 feet to its new home -- and doing it over and over with dozens of seedlings. But I was determined, and I got a bit more than 40 seedlings planted this last January.

Now, however, comes the real test: keeping them alive through the summer. There's no rain at all from June through November, and this is the period when trees die. Seedlings are especially vulnerable because their roots have not set properly; it takes a full year for the roots to re-establish themselves after replanting.

If you want to water trees, you just use a hose, right? Well, yes, but it's a bit different. It's about 800 feet from the closest water tap to the furthest seedling. That's a long, long way. We have enough hose to handle the problem -- over the years we have acquired lots of hose. The problem is that the furthest seedling is a good deal higher than the tap, and between the pressure loss and the resistance of 800 feet of hose, I get very little flow: perhaps 1 gallon every five minutes. With 40 seedlings to water, you can see the problem.

Fortunately, a solution was at hand: crank up the well pump that feeds the tap. I went to work and cranked it up to about 40 psi (standard household water pressure is about 30 to 25 psi -- but we're on a well and we keep the pressure down around 25 psi to save electricity. With a cranked-up pump, I could get about a gallon a minute.

There are still problems: if I water in the afternoon, the water in the hose is scalding hot (from all that inadvertent solar water heating) and would surely kill the seedlings, so I must either throw away all the water in the hose (perhaps 10 gallons, which takes a while) in order to reach the cooler water, or water at other times of the day.

And then there's hose management. When you're maneuvering hundreds of feet of hose, you spend a lot of effort just moving it around. I use a system in which the hoses are laid out along the general line of trees, but disconnected. I connect each hose in turn as I work my way further out. On the next watering run, I disconnect hoses as I move closer to the tap.

One other trick: I plant my seedlings in deep holes; the seedling ends up about eight inches below the ground surface. Why? Three reasons: first, it provides a small amount of shade for the seedling part of the day, which reduces its water requirements. Second, it gives the seedling access to deeper soil, which holds water longer. And third, the pit holds two or three gallons of water that will soak straight down.

If I do everything right, I might get 90% survival rate. If I underestimate the water needs of the seedlings, that might easily go down to 50% survival rate. And if I don't water at all, the survival rate will be less than 10%. If I get the seedlings through this summer, then I can leave them to nature and they'll sit quiescent for two or three years, getting their root systems big enough to handle growth. Sometime around the fourth or fifth year after planting, they'll start growing vigorously.

That's what it takes to reforest land in southern Oregon. It's a lot of work, and I can only handle maybe a hundred trees per year -- and that's only if I devote a lot of time to the task. And my land could probably hold another thousand trees easily.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gimme shelter

Category: Places for Cover
Required points: 2
Suggested sources: Wooded Area • Bramble Patch • Ground Cover • Rock Pile or Wall • Cave • Roosting Box • Dense Shrubs or Thicket • Evergreens • Brush or Log Pile • Burrow • Meadow or Prairie • Water Garden or Pond

The Places for Cover credit requires a little explanation to differentiate it from the Places to Raise Young credit (to be described in a future post). National Wildlife Federation describes the cover credit:

Wildlife need places to hide to feel safe from people, predators, and inclement weather. Native vegetation is a perfect cover for terrestrial wildlife. Shrubs, thickets and brush piles provide great hiding places within their bushy leaves and thorns.

Bat box: Bat boxes are rather like bird nesting or roosting boxes, only entry is through the bottom. A typical bat box also includes some parallel interior walls. Bats don't need much personal space, but they do need a surface to cling to. I picked-up my bat box, ready-made at Lowe's, for about $20. Installation was a matter of a stepladder, a cordless drill to bore a pilot hole and start the screws, and fifteen minutes of my time. My then 12-month-old son was enthralled by this process.
Alas, no bats have yet taken-up residence in my bat box. In fact, I haven't been certain that I've seen a single bat all season. What troubles me is that I don't think that this is simply a matter of probability and the fact that getting my son ready for bed means that I spend less time outside in the evening than I used to. I'm concerned that this is indicative of white nose syndrome, the fungal plague that is apparently decimating Eastern bat populations. It seems that there just aren't any bats around.

Evergreen trees: Since I like to exploit some of the features that were already in my yard before I started gearing-up my habitat, I'm leaning on the two (likely exotic) evergreen trees that crowd the west wall of my home for one of my Cover points. Evergreens provide a place for birds to roost and evade predators, year-round.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

trying to be a good environmental citizen

Twelve and a half years ago our region suffered a destructive mid-winter snow and ice storm that knocked out power to a wide area for three days. It was our first winter in our house and our only alternative source of heat was an open fire place. It kept us from freezing, but it was a very unpleasant three days. So early the next fall we invested in a large size kerosene heater and a five gallon drum of kerosene.

However, we did not have another winter time power outage until this year, which lasted two days, but they were unseasonably warm days despite being in February, and we only needed the fireplace in the evening to take off the chill. So here we are twelve years later with five gallons of kerosene which have taken on moisture and gone bad, and cannot be safely burned in our kerosene heater.

I started calling all over our county trying to find someone who would accept kerosene for environmentally sound disposal. Everyone was very quick to say "no" -- some even vehemently, including the major distributor of kerosene in the area. I got discouraged and stopped searching for a while.

Last week, I decided to try the web, and ended up with Kentucky's state department of hazardous waste. I sent an e-mail, and got a quick response telling me that they would refer me to the regional hazardous waste office. Two days later, I got an informative e-mail from the regional office. The regional official said that "most" places that accept used motor oil will also accept kerosene, and he provided me a list with phone numbers of four or five locations within 40 miles of my home that accepted motor oil. I called all of them and each of them said, in no uncertain terms "NO," they only accept used motor oil, and would not accept kerosene.

One person I talked to suggested that I use the kerosene up by burning brush on my property. [First I don't have that much brush, and second we try to leave brush in place to provide habitat for wild critters.]

Back, by e-mail, to my regional office. The response was quick and informative -- kerosene can be disposed of in a properly contained landfill, but only after it is "solidified" by mixing it with something like kitty litter, and leaving it open to the air to evaporate. Only when it is totally dry can you dispose of it, and only in properly lined and sealed landfill. Since I am not yet certain we have one of those, I'm still not certain whether I will be able to dispose of my ancient and contaminated kerosene.

The point of my narrative is this: how can citizens be the solution and act in environmentally responsible ways with toxic wastes if there is no one within any reasonable travel distance who will accept those wastes? I now have at least a smidgen more sympathy for the local oil distribution company that has just been stacking old diesel fuel tanks on an empty lot -- with the not too unexpected outcome of leakage into the regional water supply.

Friday, May 29, 2009

fiscal crisis and higher education

I recently spent 10 days in California. My visit coincided with the special election on ballot initiatives intended to generate new revenues -- these initiatives were soundly trounced by voters (except for the one to prohibit raises for legislators in years with a deficit). The failure of the ballot initiatives was followed by many public pronouncements about the cuts that would have to follow.

The causes of California's fiscal crisis is multi-faceted and stems from circumstances both unique to California and its political culture and from the broader economic recession that has impacted all the states. This is not an attempt to analyze those causes, or even sketch a few of them. It's a comment on narrow aspect of California's budget that caught my eye while I was there.

While I was perusing a local SF Bay Area newspaper, I saw an advertisement encouraging students to enroll for summer classes at a local community college. It was a fairly typical assortment of general education and technical courses being offered. What caught my eye was the "fee" -- not tuition -- charged. The cost to students was $20 (yes, twenty) per credit hour.

Do not get me wrong, as a community college professor, I'm an ardent supporter of access to higher education for all interested in pursuing it. Maintaining reasonable tuition costs at community colleges is an important part of enhancing educational access. Some would say that Kentucky's Community and Technical College's $125 per credit hour (for Fall 2009) is pushing the upper end of the envelop, but that is far lower than tuition at Kentucky's four year colleges and Universities.

My point -- California could easily double their $20 per unit fee and still fall at among the nation's cheapest tuition for community colleges. Low income students in California could obtain Pell Grants to offset the increased fees. California's 110 community colleges enroll more than 2.5 million students most of whom are part-time, or 1 million full-time equivalent students. That's 1 million times a full-time load of 12 credit hours multiplied by and extra $20 per credit hour, which would create an additional $240 million in revenue. That could go a long, long way to prevent cutbacks in courses and enrollments currently proposed as the means to deal with the state's financial crisis.

How good is college access if college are cutting back on offerings, and projecting that thousands of students will be unable to obtain the courses they want, or in some cases find any courses in which to enroll?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Putting the rain to work

Category: Water sources
Required points: 1
Suggested sources: Birdbath, Lake, Stream, Seasonal Pool, Ocean, Water Garden/Pond, River, Butterfly Puddling Area, Rain Garden, Spring

My little lot is not blessed with a pond, a stream, a spring, or beachfront, so it's necessary to add a built element to meet NWF's water requirement. I've no interest in attracting mosquitos, so birdbaths and similar standing-water features are off the table. A water-feature that wouldn't attract mosquitos required a little thought.
A few years ago I was on a backpacking trip as part of a literature class (think Thoreau, Emerson, Ed Abbey, Gretel Ehrlich, Linda Hogan, Annie Dillard, &c), when I had the most remarkable encounter with butterflies. Eight of us, or so, were hiking part of the C&O Canal Towpath near Harpers Ferry. It was the first week of July. It was hot. It was humid.
We stopped on a sandy, shaded bank of the Potomac to have lunch. Just beyond the shade, where the lean river had receded to expose a large patch of mud, hundreds of little white butterflies were mulling around on the ground. After a moment, they noticed us and swarmed us. They landed all over our clothing, unfurling their curly butterfly tongues.
The butterflies were cabbage whites, and the reason for their interest in us was salt- more or less the same reason they had been mining the river bank. As it happens, butterflies need to ingest minerals and salts that they can't get out of plants. Instead, they seek it out in exposed mud, bird guano, and even dried sweat.
We can give butterflies a hand by creating a feature that offers them the salts or minerals they need. One of the simplest ways to do this is to create a butterfly puddle by burying a bucket or other impervious container in the ground, up to its rim, and filling it with soil. When it rains, the soil in the container becomes saturated quickly, and the impervious walls keep the water in place. Since the container is ultimately full of mud, rather than standing water, mosquitos can't lay their eggs in it. Any overflow recedes into the surrounding soil fairly quickly.
In keeping with the goal of a self-maintaining system, I buried a rectangular 2-gallon plastic tub at the place where my downspout empties into my yard. I added little pea-gravel to the hole I surgically dug, so that it'll be easier to move the tub if adjustments are necessary. Most of the soil went directly back into the plastic container (where it will provide the minerals the butterflies are after), while the small amount of excess soil (and a few annelid worms) have found a new home in my composter. Now, every time it rains even a little, the puddle is recharged, and the impervious tub keeps the little patch muddy for a few days.
The plastic tub was an extraneous denizen of my basement, so I'll call its cost $1, since that's about what I'd expect to pay for such a thing at a yard sale. To buy a new one would be a few dollars more, though a variety of disposible plastic containers (read "free") or containers made from more benign materials would do the trick.
Again, if the rain ever stops when I'm at home, I'll update this with a picture from my own yard. For now, enjoy these puddling swallowtails, courtesy of Western Kentucky University.

Friday, May 8, 2009

It's for the birds (and butterflies, and preying mantis, and squash bees, and chipmunks...)

Category: Food sources
Required points: 3
Suggested sources: Seeds from a plant, Berries, Nectar, Foliage/Twigs, Nuts, Fruits, Sap, Pollen, Suet, Bird Feeder, Squirrel Feeder, Hummingbird Feeder, Butterfly Feeder

The National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program begins with food sources, no doubt because this is the first thing most people think about when considering ways to support wildlife.
For my part, I prefer systems that require little outside intervention. Rather than committing to constantly correcting or maintaining something, I prefer to create something that naturally does what it’s intended to do. I also dislike wasting things, even those things I could replace with something that’s a little more environmentally-friendly. With that in mind, this is how I’ve solved the food problem:
Eastern purple coneflower and gloriosa: These native flowers are well-suited to local soil, moisture, and water conditions and provide a food source for some smaller birds (notably goldfinches) and a couple of butterfly species. They stop flowering and producing seed in the fall, when the migratory birds start to leave. I also happen to like the way they look and appreciate the fact that they don’t require much attention.
Planted from organic heirloom seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, these collectively cost me about $9.
Some kind of exotic honeysuckle: They’re not native trees, but they’re mature and they bear berries that several bird species eat. They were already here when I bought the place, so they incur no added costs to meet the certification requirement.
Traditional seed feeder: This is an exception to my low-maintenance principle. As much as I like to restore natural systems and let nature do its thing, I’m cognizant of the fact that many of my neighbors aren’t doing this. I feel motivated to pick-up a little of the slack. Also, I plan to participate in Cornell’s winter bird census for my young son’s benefit, which means I’ll need a feeder anyway. More on that in the fall.
I picked-up my feeder for about $20 from Lowe’s, but one can find them at local hardware stores, wild-bird centers, garden centers, craft stores, &c. If you have some scrap wood sitting around, it’s also fairly easy to make one. Plans are available at your local library and all over the Web. If you have more time than I did this spring, I encourage you to buy local, or build one yourself.
Worth noting, I’ve also designated a corner of my backyard as a wild area. I’ve pulled out some exotic plants and transplanted a healthy Canada thistle that the birds introduced earlier into my front yard. I will remain vigilant about exotic plants (my neighbors seem to have lost some decisive battles in the War on Kudzu), but will generally let nature take its course there. I expect to see some pokeweed, more thistle, and perhaps some coneflower or gloriosa that the birds carry from elsewhere in my yard.
I’ll update this post with some pictures, if it ever stops raining.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Take a hike (and fix-up a trail)

National Trails Day is just over a month away. On Saturday, June 6, organizations all over the country will be working to build and maintain hiking and biking trails, and trail shelters along the way. Scout troupes, conservation groups, state and local governments, the National Park Service, and hiking clubs are looking for individuals and groups interested in serving their communities.
As someone who has volunteered with this sort of work in the past, I can tell you that it's tough but rewarding. Perhaps the most important outcome of doing this is the sense of ownership that trail stewards develop as a result of taking brief responsibility for a piece of land that lots of people enjoy. Jones Mountain Cabin, in the wilds of Shenandoah National Park, seems like an old friend after that long weekend of cleaning out the fireplace, replacing the railings on the front porch, and maintaining the hand tools. There was a lot of hiking, eating, drinking 50 degree spring water, and playing music too, that June weekend. (This image more likely pictures October.)
Many trail clubs and other organizations leading Trail Service Day events accept volunteers with no experience. And (unlike the 2.5 day event I mentioned), most of these service events simply run from the morning to around lunchtime. However, if you have serious landscaping or construction experience, some groups also have projects for those looking for something more involved.
If you're interested in pitching-in, the American Hiking Society offers an event finder:

Image: Jones Mountain Cabin, Shenandoah National Park, VA, shamelessly ripped-off from some hiker's flickr page

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Where the wild things are

Among the commitments and self-appointed tasks that have kept me away from the blog over the last few weeks has been making some changes to the Dunhill home. While I’ve undertaken a variety of green upgrades and renovations since Mrs. and I moved-in back in the fall of 2006, wildlife issues have been especially on my mind this spring.
The ways people have built and developed cities, suburbs, agricultural lands, and mine lands, particularly over the last century or so, can be very disruptive to plant and animal life. Even if we ignore any possible responsibility to care for nonhuman species for their own sake, these species provide important benefits to people. Native birds, for instance, are important for replanting native trees, which support communities of other plants and animals, which collectively contribute to clean water that people depend on. For a simpler example, houses with mature trees and flowers around them have higher average sale prices and spend fewer days on the market.
The National Wildlife Federation has a great program to encourage people to make their homes more wildlife-friendly. The Certified Wildlife Habitats program provides guidance on how to reduce negative impacts and realize positive impacts on wildlife. To become certified, participants need points in five areas: Food sources, water sources, places for cover, places to raise young, and sustainable gardening.
Most of my solutions are driven at least in part by the amount of time I have to devote to this project. Between family, work, school, and community commitments, I generally have to sacrifice on cost in order to actually get these things done. However, many of these solutions can be accomplished at little or no cost if you have the time and the inclination. I’ll let you know how I’m faring and how I’m solving each of the issues outlined in the certification program.

Image sources:
National Wildlife Federation
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Earth Month irony

Here it is April, Earth Month, and this blogger has been silent for weeks. What gives? No, E.R. Dunhill has not been afflicted by white-nose syndrome as a result of installing a bat-box (just so there’s no confusion, that’s a joke, not an actual risk to people), nor have I fallen into my new composter.
Like a lot of committed environmentalists, I’ve just been über busy. I’ve been up to my beard in getting ready for an Earth Day event, developing and delivering a Sunday school class on green ministry, writing a term paper (on oxidative enhancement of bioremediation, using Oxygen Release Compound, since you asked), and taking some steps toward getting my yard set-up as a wildlife habitat. Now that the light at the end of the tunnel is coming into view, I’ll have an opportunity to take a breather and blog a little about some these activities. (And yes, Honey, I'll plant the herbs and vegetables.)
For the moment, I’d like to wish everyone a happy and productive Earth Month. Keep at it- we’re in this together.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Time for Nukes

I was given extensive schooling on the issues related to nuclear power back in the 1970s. I was delivering an educational program about energy for the University of California. It was funded by the local utility, but they knew that they needed the credibility of the University for it to have any value, so they took a hands-off approach. The training program itself was organized by a strongly pro-nuclear group, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, based in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, home of major nuclear facilities. Fortunately, the University of California knows how to handle such situations, and I was protected from pressure from ORAU. There was only one confrontation: a speaker from the utility that suffered the Brown's Ferry cable tray fire refused to answer my questions about the peak core temperature, and I pressed him hard to produce the number. Afterwards, my ORAU hosts sat me down for a little "attitude adjustment" session. It was ended by a call to my boss, who hearing both sides and figuring out what was happening, instructed me over the phone to look abashed and embarrassed and say "Yessir" many times. He then told my tormentors that he had set me straight and that they should allow me to contemplate the seriousness of his instructions. When I returned to Davis, he congratulated me for standing up to them.

Anyway, all of this serves to justify my claim of being objective AND knowledgeable about the nuclear power issue. I got the opportunity to talk to some of the top people in government and industry, to visit a number of power plants of every type (I'm one of the small number of people who've actually been inside the containment structure at Diablo Canyon, as well as going inside oil burners, the geothermal facility at The Geysers, two coal burners, and several coal mines). I also benefited from the fact that the Davis campus of the University of California, where I worked, was designated one of the technical repositories of all the energy-related technical materials produced by the Federal government, so I had direct access to every technical report on everything.

So when I claim that anti-nuclear fears are baseless, I know what I'm talking about. The arguments against nuclear power are bullshit. For example, the canard about waste disposal -- that issue was settled thirty years ago with the release of the API report on radioactive waste disposal. Since then we have gathered mountains of data on actual performance of the test sites, and the data has supported all the conclusions drawn thirty years ago. There have been no surprises, no disappointments. If you read the anti-nuclear propaganda closely, you'll discover that they don't claim that rad waste disposal is technically impossible; they claim only that there is no operational rad waste disposal site in the country. And why isn't there a site? Because they've whipped up the fears of citizens so that NIMBY factors, not rational decision-making, control the policy. Basically, their argument boils down to the statement that people are too irrationally frightened by rad waste disposal to permit it.

Safety factors are an even more egregious canard. People point to the Chernobyl accident as an example of how dangerous nuclear plants are. What they don't point out is that the graphite reactors at Chernobyl were never seriously considered in any of the Western nations because they bristle with safety problems. Worse, Chernobyl had no containment structure. Western reactors are kept inside huge concrete and steel domes with walls ten feet thick. The Chernobyl reactors were inside a flimsy building that offered no resistance to the release of radiation.

What about the Three Mile Island accident of 1979? That was, if anything, a demonstration of the effectiveness of the overall safety designs. There were multiple failures in that accident: maintenance failures, equipment failures, and operator mistakes. The reactor itself was reduced to intensely radioactive slag. Even so, the containment structure held. There were several releases of radioactive gases, but intense monitoring of the air and the soil in the immediate aftermath of the accident, as well as the health of the nearby population, has demonstrated that there were no statistically significant effects. Indeed, one calculation showed that the greatest threat to public health was the flight of people away from the accident; there were some automobile accidents attributable to the heavy traffic, and a few deaths. 

Compare all this with the lengthy track record of nuclear power over the last 30 years. The French get 80% of their electricity from nuclear, and they have never had a single significant accident. The Japanese get a smaller share, and they've had a few minor coolant spills, but nothing serious. And in this country, in the thirty years since Three Mile Island, we've had enormous amounts of electricity generation and no serious problems. The anti-nuclear doomsayers have been proven wrong. The technology works safely.

By the way, there were two substantial arguments against nuclear power in the 1970s: capital intensity and proliferation. The capital intensity argument observed that a big nuclear program would sponge up lots of capital, driving up interest rates for the entire economy. This argument is no longer significant; although at this grim time for the economy, there's no free capital, in general the economy now is large enough to capitalize lots of reactor construction. 

The proliferation argument was the most serious, but nowadays the cat is out of the bag. Short-term geopolitical advantage has at every point trumped long-term anti-proliferation discipline, and time and again the anti-proliferation rules have been bent to keep friendly nations on our side. When even a podunk nation like North Korea can build nukes, we have to admit that our anti-proliferation efforts have failed. 

Countering all this is the increasingly desperate situation arising from global warming. It is no longer a mere desideratum that we limit carbon releases; it is now an imperative. And we continue to build new coal plants in this country. Every nuclear plant that we build saves us from building a coal plant. The choice is not between nuclear and solar or between nuclear and wind; it's between nuclear and coal. Yes, we want to build as much wind and solar power as we can; but we're still going to be building coal plants and anything we can do to reduce that building program is to our benefit.

Lastly, we must not forget that the supply of fuel for nuclear power is nearly infinite. All the studies show that even one-pass fuel cycle has plenty of fuel to work with, and if we employ some fuel-reprocessing technologies, we can increase the effective supply of fuel by an order of magnitude. Beyond this beckons the seductive possibility of breeding fuel. A peculiarity of nuclear technology is that it is possible to breed more fuel than you burn while operating a power reactor. In other words, a nuclear power plant can be designed to create more fuel than it consumes -- LOTS more fuel.  This is the technology that opens of up the possibility of near-infinite supplies of nuclear power. 

There is a catch, of course: the technology originally conceived for doing this -- the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor, or LMFBR -- is completely unacceptable in terms of safety. The first big prototype, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor project, was killed by the Carter Administration, and everybody now agrees that it was the right decision. Using liquid sodium a as coolant is not a good idea, because sodium bursts into flame in the presence of oxygen. Imagine what would happen if the coolant in your car engine would burn if there were a leak. Not a happy thought, that.

Fortunately, there are some new reactor designs that, while not as efficient as an LMFBR, are still capable of breeding fuel, and can do so safely. We'll need to put them through lots of testing before building a bunch of them, but they could extend the life of nuclear power -- and completely eliminate the need for fossil fuels -- by mid-century. Don't you think that eliminating our dependence upon fossil fuels would be an excellent goal to reach?

So let's put aside the irrational fears and consider nuclear power as an alternative to coal. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The future of farming?

Our modern day methods of producing food in advanced industrialized nations like the United States, require inputs of 10 calories of fossil fuel for every 1 calorie of food we produce. This is not only highly inefficient, but it is unsustainable given the contribution that fossil fuel use makes to climate change, and the expectation that sometime in the next five to 30 years that the production of fossil fuels will peak and then decline steadily, creating shortages and pushing prices far higher than their 2008 peaks.

Google Video has made available full-length documentaries through video streaming. The video below by Rebecca Hosking for the BBC's Natural World series, explores the question of what may happen to farming and our food supply in the future and what alternatives exist to fossil fuel based agriculture.

"Wildlife film maker Rebecca Hosking investigates how to transform her family's farm in Devon into a low energy farm for the future, and discovers that nature holds the key." BBC - Natural World

How many roads must the US economy walk down?

Various news outlets are reporting on a couple of major stories in wind power today. Australia's AGL Energy has signed a deal with Suzlon Energy (an Indian firm) to buy about a quarter of a billion dollars with of wind turbines, while Germany's Wetfeet Offshore Windenergy GmBH is buying over nine hundred million dollars worth of new turbines from the French Areva SA. This raises some questions that I'll but to the reader:
Why aren't these high-value engineering and manufacturing contracts being awarded to US firms? Does domestic energy policy impact the US's ability to respond successfully to contracts of this nature? What's required of entreprenneurs, big business, utilities, and governments to make the US more competitive in the global energy industry? How many times are we going to retread this path (energy crises, missed opportunities to exploit a new energy market, or both)?

Image source: Department of Environment, Government of Maharashtra, India

Friday, March 20, 2009

It's like watching MacGyver work

It's not really. It's a brick. Or, it's a jar, or something else that displaces water. You've no doubt heard it before, and many readers are already doing it. However, for those who have never encountered this eons-old water conservation measure:
You can convert just about any existing toilet into a low-flow unit without ever getting your hands dirty*. Booting-up your computer probably takes longer than this will.
Simply take the lid off the tank, and place a brick, a concrete paver, or a clean jar (filled with water and tightly closed), and put the lid back onto the tank. Done.
Now, every time the tank refills, the brick (or whatever you've used) will displace some water. The result is that every time the toilet is flushed, it uses that much less water. Depending upon your home's usage and how much water you can effectively displace, this can easily save gallons every week. For reference, it you use a spent 20 oz soda bottle to displace water, that translates to about a 10% savings for many units.
This saves you and your community water and energy. Keep in mind that in virtually every US home, all of the water entering the house is potable water. That means that it has been thoroughly treated to the point of being safe to drink. And, of course, it must be pumped (both treating the water and moving it require energy) before it gets to every fixture in the house, even if that fixture is only used for washing clothes, spraying-off a lawn mower, or flushing a toilet. You're paying for drinking water for all of those uses. And, of course all of that wastewater has to be treated after it leaves your home. You pay for that, too.
Save some water, save some money.

*Author's note: Since this post specifically names bricks (which are often dusty or dirty) and jars (which have to be thoroughly cleaned), E.R. Dunhill's statement that you will never get your hands dirty is probably patently untrue. Also, the author would have written the usual emphatic Be the solution in this post, but as quick as the actual recommendation is, it seemed like a waste of time. Nuts. I've just written it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It’s kind of like ZipCar for books

Remember libraries? They’re like book stores, only you don’t pay for the books, and no one minds if you just sit around and read without taking anything home. (Remember book stores? They're like, but with other people.)
Libraries are regaining their relevance, after an inevitable ebb. With so many regional and local economies suffering, free opportunities for recreation and no-cost access to information to hone skills and find jobs are important. While it may not be immediately obivous, they’re a great place to interact with real, live people. (Take that, Internet!) Libraries also offer the benefits of group ownership: I can read the book, my neighbor can read the book, my wife can read the book, and some guy named Doug can read the book- but as if by magic, it’s still just one book. It’s only manufactured once, but it’s used many times by many different people. What a creative, thrifty, and environmentally-friendly idea. It seems like something Benjamin Franklin would have dreamed up.
My local library happens to be adjacent to a few local stores, several restaurants, and (my personal favorite) an ice cream shop, all of which surround a courtyard with benches, tables, grassy areas, a fountain, and a little pavilion for performances. There’s even a movie theater and a coffee shop nearby. People meet, interact, support local businesses, read, and borrow books, all in a central place that’s about a five-minute walk from the local Metro station. It’s a wonderful and natural synthesis of public and private space, one I’d love to see replicated more.
Whether or not your local branch is as hip as mine, a library is a great way to build community, learn, and save money with minimal impact on the environment. Be the solution

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Clean coal: Holding the wolf by his ears

I've written in the past about objections to the use of coal for generating electricity. Its mining, its use, and its disposal all have significant negative implications for human and environmental health. I've also written about why "clean coal" is a poor option for generating electricity in the United States. However, I write now in defense of research (and ultimately commercialization) of clean coal technologies.
The US has a wealth of options for generating electricity through technologies that can be used to phase-out coal. With an economy that, even while struggling continues to support a high standard of living and is central to the global economy and to new technology, we have the means to do this. I like to think we also have the will to innovate and do things better.
This is not true everywhere, though. China and India, two economies surging to a degree never before witnessed, are coal-rich and are wanting for electricity. China's coal, in particular, is high in sulfur, which results in smog and acid precipitation. And, of course, burning any coal introduces carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As these economies snowball, they will continue to demand energy at an accelerating pace. Coal is available to them now and into the future, and it is accessible by means of established, lower-capital technologies.
Coal is unhealthy. Coal is dangerous. But, coal is available. The result is that while the US forges ahead with more sustainable technologies for producing energy, we have to recognize that others will use renewable energy sources to supplement, rather than supplant coal.
This at once creates a need and an opportunity for the US. The need is clear: Pollution doesn't stay put. Many people outside of India and China (including Americans and others who impact US economic and military security) will suffer the ill effects of nations who prioritize old-fashioned means of economic development over long-term needs and human and environmental health. Coal is a mess that we have to deal with, whether we contribute to the mess or not.
The opportunity is equally clear: There is a massive potential market for clean-coal technologies in the developing world. If US scientists and engineers innovate, and US firms commercialize this innovation, this will create US jobs and US wealth.
"Clean coal" remains a misnomer. Coal, in general remains a poor fuel choice in the long run for a number of reasons. However, the real-world strategy to pollution control and prevention must recognize that others will use coal.

Image source: National Archives and Records Administration, ARC Identifier 556411

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A hurried, half-considered question to the reader

There's been a great deal written about Ponzi schemes over the last few weeks, as the case against Mr. Madoff (and potentially others) unfolds. In very brief (for those unfamiliar with Mr. Ponzi's legacy), this scheme is fraud in which a financial advisor collects money from investors, does little or nothing with it (and probably spends a lot of it), and pretends to be making a killing. The financial advisor touts his fake success to attract new investors who add new money to the scheme, thereby creating the illusion that it's actually making money. Investors believe that they'd be stupid to take their money out of a "fund" that's making so much money, so they simply keep reinvesting.
The party eventually runs out when the criminal advisor dashes-off with the money, or it becomes painfully evident that the "fund" is insolvent.
So that brings me to my hastily concocted questions to the reader:
Is a growth-only economy just a giant Ponzi scheme? Is a mindset that falsely pits economic well-being against environmental and human health a Ponzi scheme? Is reliance on increasing consumption of finite resources to run the economy a Ponzi scheme? Would a sustainable economy right the books?

Friday, March 6, 2009

The best thing since sliced bread, or Car trouble revisited

Zipcar has proved its mettle sooner than I’d anticipated. Late Sunday I learned that the following evening I’d need to attend a city council meeting and to potentially speak about an environmental award. My wife had a longstanding commitment at the school where she teaches, also on Monday.
The complications:
1. Both meetings started at the same time, which also happens to be when our son goes to bed.
2. Our son is teething, which makes him exceedingly disinclined to go to sleep.
3. We just got rid of one of our cars. The plan was that we’d sign up for ZipCar, but I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
4. We didn’t know this at the time, but our son was also exceedingly disinclined to go to sleep because he was coming down with the stomach flu.
There was no way I could get the ZipCard in time, but I figured that since I had a few free minutes at lunch, I’d at least go to the web site and set up an account, so it would be available for the next mini-crisis. I spent about five minutes filling out forms on the website.
Bang. Twenty minutes later, I had my ZipCard in hand. In less time than it takes to have a fast food meal, I had the power to grab a car all over (and around) DC, and several other cities should the notion take me. As it turns out, you can pick up your card from a ZipCar office moments after filling out the online forms. (You can also get the card mailed to you, but where’s the fun in that?) The entire face-to-face piece of the transaction took about two and a half minutes.
So, I got on the web, reserved my car, picked it up from the Metro station after work, did the meeting, and was back home with Junior before you can say, “Bob’s your uncle”. I got where I needed to be in a hurry, did so in a fuel-efficient vehicle, and I’m not making car payments. ZipCar’s a winner.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Green is the new purple

I apologize upfront for the bad joke about liturgical colors. (Sadly, I still think it’s funny.) But, it does make the point that some of the traditions of Lent blend naturally (and spiritually) with ideas for green ministry.
Many of us have known people who adopt a Lenten discipline, and some of us do this ourselves. (In brief, some Christian traditions enjoin adherents to fast, take a holiday from certain vices, or add structured reading or prayers to their daily routines during the 40 days of Lent.) Among other things, this practice is intended to exchange people’s focus on worldy things for a focus on God’s grace and the reasons we need it.
This year, I plan to participate in this tradition for the first time. However, rather than the age-old practice of giving up meat (that seems like cheating, since I’m a vegetarian), or a more contemporary discipline like parting with chocolate or TV, I plan to observe Lent by giving up disposable cups and bottles, and anything made of Styrofoam. I don’t use much of these, but I get lazy sometimes, and I think there’s a legitimate sacrifce in going from few to none.
This may at first seem a little odd, but it fits the bill for a good Lenten discipline. These are conveniences I can forgo to remind me to reflect on the coming Crucifixion and Resurrection, some of the most important principles of my religion, and arguably the most important points on the liturgical calendar. In this sense, my green discipline is no different from the traditional ones. But at the same time, this helps me to be a good steward of the natural environment and a good neighbor by producing less trash.
Some other ideas for green Lenten disciplines include:
Drink tap water instead of bottled
Adopt meat-free days each week, or go vegetarian until Easter
Abstain from driving one day per week
Avoid buying new goods (with the exception of food and other essentials)
Or serve the community directly by collecting trash and recyclables once a week at a local park or roadside

The possibilities are endless. If you’re interested in doing something green for Lent, but none of these ideas strike a chord, feel free to ask me about others.

Image source: Wikipedia

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Clear cutting recovery

Today's lesson is an exercise in recovery of a forest from clearcutting. In the summer of 2001 the land adjoining my land on the east was harvested by the landower (a lumber company). They clearcut some areas and left a few other areas more lightly cut. But they did take out everything bigger than 8 inches in diameter, and most of the small trees were destroyed during the logging. All of this left the land pretty much wiped out. Now, the laws in Oregon require that seedlings be planted after harvesting the lumber, and they even specify the density required -- I think it's a hundred seedlings per acre. 

The photo shows what the land looks like after eight years of recovery. You're looking down a slope. In the distance you can see uncut forest (not virgin forest, but it hasn't been logged for some decades now). There's an edge of thin-timber forest about a hundred yards downslope; apparently the loggers decided to leave that section unharvested so as not to disturb the existing trees. On the right is a large bushy pair of madrones; the original trees were cut down and thrown away, but the trees have returned from the roots and will outpace anything else. In the foreground you can see two Douglas Fir seedlings. However, I do not believe that these are the results of any reforesting efforts on the part of the timber company, because where I have seen planted seedlings, they are all Ponderosa Pine, a tree better suited to the kind of dry slopes that the timber company has created. 

Oh, and that cactus-like thing on the left is just a big weed. 

I walked around the property looking for some good photos but these were the best I could get. That's because the loggers worked a patchwork, completely destroying about 70% of the land, but leaving about 30% in patches containing mostly younger trees. This 30% will provide some seeding for the rest of the land. And it also makes it impossible to convey the extent of the damage in a single ground-level photo. 

Here are some general conclusions:

1. After eight years, the land has shown very little recovery. There are a goodly number of seedlings scattered about, but they're all less than 12 inches high, and even they average perhaps ten seedlings per acre.
2. There has been some growth of undesirable species, such as madrone and manzanita. I estimate that, 30 years from now, at least 30% of the land will be covered by madrone and manzanita.
3. Although the loggers burned a considerable amount of slash, about 1% of the land is covered by uncleared heavy slash that impedes the growth of new trees.
4. These guys did NOT plant 100 seedlings per acre. We walked the land immediately after they left, and we saw perhaps 20 seedlings per acre. Moreover, at least half of the new seedlings are volunteers, not the results of their own planting. Thus, the results of their reforestation yielded about five trees per acre. A mature forest in this area will have about 400 trees per acre.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I own several Van Gogh paintings, some dinosaur skeletons, and Abe Lincoln’s hat - And so do you

See something da Vinci painted. Study the bones of an eons-old giant, armored fish. Honor the memory and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Marvel at bizarre Soviet space capsules. And, leave your money at home.
Like archives (which I wrote about some time ago), museums offer opportunities for people to make use of common wealth, to learn, and to interact with each other. By sharing artifacts and works of art with other members of our community, we enjoy their benefits without having to personally bear the costs for their protection and care. (How do you clean a stuffed chimpanzee in a space suit, anyway?) This public ownership and use is also a means for creating and building value without making more stuff that will just be thrown away.
For those who want to learn more about the natural environment, its histories, and the ways that other people (past and present) perceive and relate to it, many museums have much to offer. Aside from obvious option of natural history museums, many art museums and galleries offer exhibits on landscapes or nature photography, while history museums frequently tell stories of the reciprocal influence between people and nature.
For those living in the DC area, these treasures are offered to the public virtually every day, free of charge at the Smithsonian Museums and at the National Gallery of Art. For anyone in the area interested in an outlandishly cheap* way to be the solution there are some great environment-related exhibits going on now:

Freer + Sackler Galleries:
Winslow Homer: Four Views of Nature

National Air and Space Museum:
Looking at Earth
Earth Today: A Digital View of Our Planet

National Gallery of Art:
Oceans, Rivers, and Skies: Ansel Adams, Robert Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz

National Museum of Natural History:
Dig It! The Secrets of Soil
Orchids through Darwin’s Eyes
The Sant Ocean Hall

Smithsonian American Art Museum:
Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke
George Catlin's Indian Gallery
1934: A New Deal for Artists

And, if you’re not in the area to make the trip downtown, many of these exhibits and all of these museums have online collections and exhibitions.

*The museums are free, but you’ll probably want a Metrorail fare card to get to and from the Mall. And, remember to pack a lunch to keep costs down.

Image source: Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Sunday, February 8, 2009

solving the fiscal crisis in Kentucky

Kentucky, like 44 other states, is facing a fiscal crisis. Revenue coming from taxes and fees is not enough to cover budgeted expenditures. By law Kentucky cannot do what most people do when faced with this situation which is borrow money. While this is probably a good thing, it means that Kentucky’s legislators have only two choices: cut spending or increase revenue.

Not every penny spent by Kentucky's state government is essential. Governments are run by people, and people sometimes spend money on things we don’t absolutely need. When’s the last time you bought a candy bar or a soda? We all buy things we want that aren't really necessary -- sometimes things that are even bad for us. But state governments -- Kentucky's included -- like us, spends most of its money on essentials, and budget cuts would hurt the essentials.

One of those essentials is education which accounts for nearly forty percent of total Kentucky state spending. Kentucky lags behind much of the U.S. in many areas of education already. In 2004, while less than 15 percent of people over 25 in the country as a whole had not graduated from high school (or gotten a GED), more than 18 percent in Kentucky has failed to attain that important milestone. The gap in college attendance is even greater. In the U.S. as a whole about 28 percent received bachelors degrees or higher, while in Kentucky only 21 percent had done so. Education is clearly not an area that can tolerate cuts if Kentucky wants to compete with other states and other countries for businesses and jobs.

Another essential area is transportation that commands nine percent of the annual budget in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This has to cover all aspects of transportation from road, bridge and airport construction to maintenance and repair and snow removal. Most people would certainly consider the criminal justice system -- law enforcement, courts, prisons and probation to be essential expenditures, another five percent of the total budget.

Most people are aware of the role of state governments in education, transportation and criminal justice, but they often unaware of other essential state expenditures. Another kind of essential is the state funds given to communities for water and sewer, equipment and training for fire and rescue, flood control and stream improvement, water safety testing, and infectious disease control. If residents of Kentucky were to go to their local fiscal court, town or city council, and ask, I'm sure they'd learn that their local governments depend heavily on funds from Frankfort to provide services and infrastructure necessary for safety, security and health in local communities.

Most people often do not think about the fact that state funded licensing boards to insure the quality of service people we depend upon daily – doctors, nurses, dentists, counselors, barbers, hairdressers, pharmacists, engineers and many others. The news stories about salmonella in peanut butter illustrate what can go wrong when a state (in this case Georgia) does not spend enough on adequate safety testing and enforcement of food safety standards.

The real solution to the crisis is to raise revenues, by raising taxes. In the short run this probably means raising taxes on tobacco products. Kentucky under taxes cigarettes compared to most of the states surrounding it. The increased cost would not only raise revenue, but would encourage more people to quit. But it is a tax that hits low income people harder than others. In the long run the overall structure of taxes in Kentucky needs to be modernized. More tax money has to come from those with the ability to pay more, both in taxes on luxury and business services, reinstating the inheritance tax, and more progressive income tax that raises, slightly, the percentage paid by those with the highest incomes, such as proposed in both Kentucky HB 223 and HB 257.

Currently, Kentucky income tax is essentially a flat tax of 6 percent on all incomes over $8,000. HB223 proposes that individuals (NOT families) with incomes over $75,000 pay an extra 1% (7% instead of 6%) only on the proportion of income that exceeds $75,000 up to $90,000, and individuals with incomes in excess of $90,000 pay an extra 2% (8% instead of 6%) only on the portion of income that exceeds $90,000. In Kentucky all earners pay tax individually even if married -- married couples file separately but on the same tax form. This bill would NOT affect families with incomes of more than $75,000 as long as each individual person's income was less than $75,000. Indeed, families with two earners each making $74,000 (a family income of $150,000) would not be affected by this bill. An individual with an income of $100,000 would pay an extra 1% on the $15,000 between $75,000 and $90,000 (that's an extra $150 dollars), and an extra 2% on the $10,000 between $90,000 and $100,000 (that's an extra $200 for a total of $350 dollars more than they would be paying under the current tax system).

This does not seem like an unreasonable cost given all the benefits and services that we all gain from state government. When people think about who benefits from state spending they almost exclusively focus on the poor. But affluent people benefit as much or more from government spending. Affluent people travel more making more use of highways and especially airports, they make more use of libraries and parks, more likely to go boating on Kentucky lakes. Even if the affluent do not make direct use of public schools, colleges and universities (although a high percentage do), if they are business owners or managers their success in business depends upon subordinates and workers educated in public schools.

The irony is that even the benefits that people identify as "going" to poor people, actually go to middle class and affluent people. Take Medicaid. Poor people do benefit from having a medical card. They receive medical services and medicines that can save their life and keep them healthy. But the poor do not get any money from Medicaid -- the money goes to hospitals, doctors, home health companies, and pharmaceutical companies -- in other words to middle class, affluent and even to rich people (stockholders and executives in medical and pharmaceutical corporations). The majority of money spent on social services doesn't go to poor people, it goes to middle class social workers, therapists, psychologists and other people with graduate educations. It pays the fees, their salaries and their health insurance and pension payments of these middle class workers.

The more affluent you are the more your lifestyle and your economic position depends upon publicly funded resources. So what not pay a (very) small premium for those benefits?

Friday, February 6, 2009

On the providence of car-trouble

It’s been a long time coming. My wife and I bought a used Pontiac Aztek years ago. We needed something to get me to and from the office, and it had to be a suitable weekend ride for our rambunctious basenji hounds. The vehicle fit our need and our young married-couple budget. From the beginning, the vehicle’s fuel economy didn’t set well with me. But, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and we weren’t the first owners, so I felt good about reusing an existing vehicle.
Alas, dear Aztek is about to join the departed. After this problem with the air conditioning a couple of years ago, that problem with the alternator last year, and a recent bout of overheating on a weekend trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains that ultimately resulted in a blown main gasket, it just doesn’t make sense to get it fixed.
With one of our two cars on its way out, I started considering my options: Hybrids, small conventional cars, and fuel-efficient diesel cars. I was wearing the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” blinders.
What I realized later the same day that I started researching new cars is that my family doesn’t actually need two cars. Our home is within walking distance of shops, restaurants, several parks and playgrounds, a library, and a movie theater. Moreover, we walk past (or through) a Metro station on the way to these places, where we can catch Metrorail, Amtrak, and MARC trains and Metro and Ride-on buses. And, we can pick-up a Zipcar there.
On the latter option, I find myself playing the proverbial kind in the candy store. For those unfamiliar with this grand idea, Zipcar is an updated take on renting cars. It’s also an Internet-age version of the WWII institution of car-sharing clubs, which began to help communities to conserve fuel. With a conventional rental car one goes to a rental office, fills out a bunch of forms, and gets the car for a daily rate. With Zipcar, the driver signs up for an account (once) online, and from the web can reserve a car at an hourly or daily rate. Zipcars are available all over the place- places like Metro stations, shopping centers, town centers, &c.
The benefits to the economy of my household and to the environment are several. First, I’m not adopting a car payment for a vehicle that will mostly sit in my driveway. Nor am I paying to maintain or insure said sedentary vehicle. Instead, I’m paying a comparatively miniscule amount to effectively own a tiny share of a car (a fleet of cars, really) with a large group of people. This allows me to have a second car on the rare occasion that I need one, but I'm not saddled with its expenses when I don’t.
The environment wins, too. Again, I will share a car with other people. The significant amount of energy and raw materials that go into producing the vehicle are spread out across a group. Most of the Zipcars are also small, fuel-efficient cars, with a goodly number of hybrids among them. And since the performance of the vehicles factors into their profitability, the company has a vested interest in keeping them well-tuned.
So, my wife and I are interpreting the end of our car as a blessing. Rather than complaining about environmental problems and going on with business as usual, we’re taking this opportunity to go from two cars to one. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Image sources:
National Archives and Records Administration. ARC Identifier: 516143

Monday, February 2, 2009

Trapped in Trade-offs

One of the most interesting aspects of environmental economics is the complexity of the tradeoffs involved. In most political questions, the issues are more black-and-white than grey; you seldom encounter highly-nuanced, intellectually even-handed discussions of issues such as Iraq, torture, abortion, and domestic spying. But with environmental issues, trade-offs abound. For example, we now have broad agreement that our dependence upon fossil fuels must be reduced. Yet, one of our good means of doing so, nuclear power, raises issues of its own. So we discuss, debate, and never seem able to come to a settled conclusion.

I'd like to offer a micro-version of this problem: fire safety versus carbon sequestration. I am steward to 40 acres of forest land. The land has been much abused in the past; logging goes back at least a hundred years, and it has been seriously logged at least twice in the last twenty years. Fortunately, in neither case was the land clearcut; the owners left behind a goodly number of trees. In some cases this was only because the trees in question were unmarketable. Ponderosa Pines are subject to a process by which the trunk divides in twain twenty or thirty feet up; such trees, called schoolmarms, are unusable. We have a nice collection of schoolmarms on our land; they're the only big trees remaining. Some Douglas Firs undergo a related process that makes their trunks uneven; this also saves them from the chainsaw, and again, we have a nice collection of such trees. I've also planted thousands (I do not exaggerate) of seedlings, mostly Ponderosa Pine, but also some Douglas Fir. They're slowly growing in the areas denuded in times past.

But my problem concerns the handling of excess wood. There's lots of this. Twenty years ago an owner had horses, who chewed the bark on any oak tree less than eight inches in diameter. In many cases, the horses ringed the oak, killing it. In some cases, the horse couldn't get all the way around the tree, and a portion of the cambium was preserved, permitting the tree to survive and now, to recover. But these trees have their growth curtailed by the loss of cambium, and will always be structurally weak due to the exposed heartwood. In any case, I have at least a hundred dead oak trees on the land. It is a testament to the strength of oak that only about ten or twenty have fallen; the others are still standing 15 or 20 years after their deaths.

There are also plenty of dead firs. We had a bad drought about eight years ago. The firs started dying then, and the dying continued for about four years -- in the life of trees, everything happens slowly. Most of these trees were just a little too small to harvest during the logging 15 to 20 years ago, then grew to become the next generation of big trees, but died before that could happen. Hence we have a shortage of large trees on the land. 

The Doug Firs don't remain standing as long as the oaks. Their root systems are shallow and their soft wood rots quickly. Every year about a dozen dead trees come down. I generate even more deadwood by my thinning efforts, and I also clear out the lower dead branches on the softwoods. All of this generates maybe 20 tons of dead wood every year.

If I want to do my bit for global warming, I should just leave all that deadwood in place. It sequesters carbon, keeping it bound up in the wood for decades. Eventually it will return to the atmosphere, but I can delay that process in a number of ways. If I leave the tree standing, it will last the longest, because it will remain dry. If it falls to the ground, then the soil moisture will accelerate its decay. Once a tree is on the ground, I could drag it off, cut it up, and burn it. And there's plenty of slash -- the piles of dead branches and small trees that I build when I cut up dead trees or thin sections.

But there's another factor to consider: fire safety. If a forest fire swings through this area, it could do enormous damage to the whole forest, as well as my house. Fire safety demands a number of practices:

1. Clear out all the thickets, pile everything into slash piles, and burn the slash piles in the winter.
2. Cut down all dead trees and burn the wood as firewood.
3. Thin the forest into something more like an open woodland rather then a dense forest.

But all three of these practices conflict with goal of carbon sequestration. If I want to sequester carbon, I should leave the dead trees standing so that they'll hold the carbon as long as possible. Moreover, slash piles provide cover for small animals; burning a slash pile kills its resident population. Thickets provide cover for deer; dense brush is necessary for small birds.

The trade-offs, as you can see, are almost impossible to balance. I have nevertheless struck a balance of sorts:

1. I leave dead oak untouched. Whether it's standing or fallen, it's best to just leave it in place. Why? Because it holds the maximum amount of carbon (it's dense); it holds onto that carbon longer (because it rots very slowly); and it poses the least fire danger (because it also burns slowly).
2. I haul off about half of the softwood for firewood. The firewood heats my house (I have a fireplace insert whose blowers I have augmented with boosters), so there's some overall benefit from burning the firewood. I leave the down wood in place where it wouldn't contribute much to the temperature of a fire or where the soil needs some more nutrients. 
3. I throw some of the slash into the creek bed. This slows water flow in the creek, reducing erosion. The creek is too deep in some places; the slash will help fix this. Also, the slash in the creek will rot faster because of the increased moisture, putting more nutrients into the water and supporting (I think) a larger insect population, which in turn will provide a larger base to the food chain.
4. I just can't bring myself to burn the slash piles, even though in a fire, slash piles are very bad news. The fire penetrates the interstices of the slash pile and burns very hot, throwing out large numbers of hot sparks that advance the fire quickly. You don't fight forest fires by putting them out; instead, you keep them cool so that they affect only the ground cover and move slowly. Slash piles burn hot. My hope is that the slash piles will slowly compact, collect loess, and solidify enough before a fire comes through to make them less dangerous. After all, forest fires are rare; the last one to come through my valley was in the 1930s.

Those are my own trade-offs. But I'll never be sure that I've hit the right balance. If a fire hits sooner rather than later, the land will burn hotter and I'll end up losing more forest and maybe even the house -- and the larger fire will dump even more carbon into the atmosphere than would have been dumped had I burned the slash piles now. It's all a calculated risk.