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