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Archive for the ‘Ag and Natural Resources’ Category

Cheatgrass near Gardiner, MT in 1964
Image Credit: National Park Service

There’s an interesting article in the NY Times on biological controls being tested on cheatgrass – one of which is a fungus with the striking moniker, Black Fingers of Death. Labeled the “country’s most invasive plant species,” cheatgrass covers perhaps as much as 60 million acres, with a concentration in the Intermountain West region.

“Cheatgrass is a very insidious kind of biotic virus,” said Stephen Pyne, a Western fire historian at Arizona State University. “It takes over and rewrites the operating system. Because it grows earlier, it can burn earlier,” then in its regrowth “drive off all the other competitors. That makes for a complete overthrow of the system.”

It is the association with fire that is significant, resulting in millions of dollars being invested in research to eradicate it. The article raises an interesting point. Research may result in new, effective treatments, but then industry would need to take up the mission. Markets would determine if the new treatments make it into production. If demand stems solely from the federal government, Westerners may be shaking their fists at cheatgrass for another 100 years.

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From Al Gore’s blogging gig, an image of the future – and the present. Interesting to compare it to this map – especially the blue swath through Tennessee and Mississippi. The Northeast and these two southern states look like future “best bets.”

1,000 counties in 26 states declared as disaster areas

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Like the SUNY-ESF research to cool Downtown Syracuse with water from Lake Ontario, the project discussed in the local newspaper, excerpted below, is another promising step on the route to a sustainable energy future, led by my own college.

Syracuse, NY — Farmers in Oswego County beginning next week will be able to sign up to grow willows as part of a renewable energy fuel project.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing $4.3 million to be paid to Central and Northern New York farmers to grow willow to burn to make electricity. The project is a collaboration of the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry and the ReEnergy Co.

SUNY-ESF, which has been studying using willows as a renewable energy source since 1986, will offer an outreach program to educate local government officials, agricultural leaders, farmers and landowners about the opportunity to grow willow. ReEnergy operates plants that use biomass and waste residues to produce thermal and electric energy.

And, in another part of the article, Tim Volk describes the production and harvesting conditions for willow.

Volk said the willow will be grown on 3,500 acres of marginal farmland that is considered poor for other crops. He said willow grows well in wet soils and is pretty tolerant of adverse weather condition.

The first harvest of willow takes place four years after it is planted. It then is harvested again every three years, Volk said, adding it is an easy crop to grow and requires very little management.

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Justin Gillis, of the NY Times Green blog, is encouraging readers to watch the PBS 3-part documentary titled, EARTH: The Operators’ Manual, which is being broadcast by stations across the country this week. The part that caught my attention is where Gillis says that the series is not gloomy!

The host of the miniseries is Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Penn State with a gift for talking about his field in terms that ordinary people can understand. The basic idea is to lay out the problem of climate change in the first episode and then talk about how to fix it in the others.

Several points distinguish this documentary series, created with financial support from the National Science Foundation, from others on the subject. For starters, it is not gloomy! While Dr. Alley certainly conveys the sobering facts about rising emissions of carbon dioxide and what it could mean for the planet, he does it with a light touch and from interesting locales rather than beating people over the head with portents of doom.

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Defining what is a “native” species and what is not is more controversial than many people think. An unusual New York Times op-doc called “Hi! I’m a Nutria” examines the question. A few choice lines: “When do we get to draw a line on who’s a native? 10 years? 100 years? 30,000 years?”  And  “I’m here now. You’re here now. Let’s just be friends!” The video cannot be imbedded, so follow the link above.

Hi! I'm a nutria

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Last summer, a post in this blog posed the question “how do you handle the constant stream of discouraging environmental information?” Shortly afterwards, I saw an article in Grist titled, “Do environmentalists need shrinks?  Apparently, I am not the only one thinking about this issue – although I suggested that designers are natural optimists (feel free to disagree) and less likely to be consumed by the pervasive environmental negativity. Now there is an article in New Scientist that boldly states “Ecologists Should Look on the Bright Side.” Is this even possible? (Colleagues at SUNY-ESF, what do you think?)

A key graph, also the introduction, states:

It’s hard to spend your working life charting the demise of the things you love. Ask an ecologist why they chose that career, and you will often hear a tale about being mad about animals as a kid. These days, they are more likely to spend their days modelling how quickly their favourite species will disappear. As Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC puts it: “My whole generation spent our lives writing obituaries of nature.”

As someone who once had a job writing obituaries for beautiful places (called environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impacts statements (EISs), I know how that feels!

Even so, conservationists are starting to worry that their message is counterproductive. In a 2010 editorial in BioScience (vol 60, p 626), Ronald Swaisgood and James Sheppard of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research wrote: “We contend that there is a continuing culture of hopelessness among conservation biologists… that will influence our ability to mobilize conservation action among the general public.”

What do you do when you hear bad news all the time? Turn it off. Pessimism leaves little room for action.

What’s at stake is more than what makes the best message, it’s what makes the best conservation strategy. Chronicling demise offers little guidance. But if we tell stories about positive outcomes and share details of how they are achieved, the likelihood that they will be replicated will increase. Hope engenders conservation success, and success breeds more success.

Fuel creative responses to what is, yes, a bad situation by giving people a reason to think that there is hope. This is a message that is especially important for young people. My children are growing up in a world where they are told that the planet is dying (and that somehow they are charged with saving it). Even if they watch a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic, there is a little voice in their heads telling them that the oceans are dying. What an oppressive thought! We have to preserve the sense of awe, wonder, and love of the Earth if we are going to motivate people to act on its behalf. IMHO.

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Images of the starling murmuration do indeed suggest the massive flocks of passenger pigeons that once darkened the skies on this continent. It is estimated that one out of every four birds in the Eastern U.S. was a passenger pigeon before unregulated hunting decimated their numbers. The last passenger pigeon died in 1914. Aldo Leopold provides a poignant account of the demise of the species in the essay, “On a Monument to a Pigeon,” found in the classic book, A Sand County Almanac.

We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.

Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.

There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all.   (more…)

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