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.