Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Vision for the Great Lakes

Recently, I was invited to speak to a gathering of trustees from The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The representatives from TNC chapters throughout the Great Lakes met in Buffalo October 4-6, 2016. These are my slightly modified remarks.

Forty years ago I was lost in a distant part of the Great Lakes ecosystem.  I was somewhere in the Canadian Bush north of Sault Ste Marie.  I was on a three-week long canoe trip with my summer Y camp with 10 boys who were trying to cross from some lakes and streams in the Mississagi watershed, part of Lake Huron, to the Montreal River in the Lake Superior watershed. We were about a week into the trip, and it had been a competition of paddling prowess.  As you might expect from a group of testosterone-driven teenagers, we showed off with who could portage a canoe--solo--the furthest, who could carry the most duluth packs at once, and even who could make the most paddle strokes without stopping.  
But that changed somewhere north of Farewell Lake.  We had arrived the day before after a long paddle in the rain, and it was hard to find any dry ground around the swampy lake to make a camp.  We slept in wet tents, woke up to a cold, grey morning and set off on what we knew to be the longest portage of the trip.  As usual, several of us charged ahead and waded through muskeg of mud and water, found ways around fallen trees, and looked for faded blazes.  But then what we thought to be the trail disappeared into a beaver pond, and all around us were tightly packed saplings that made carrying a canoe solo an impossible task.  Disoriented and discouraged by the rain, we knew not our location, our route, or our destination. Packs were hurled to the ground, epithets were sworn; blame was assigned.
But then we regrouped, and one of our counselors--a seminary student from Ohio--got us organized.  We consulted maps and compasses, a few people scouted various routes, we made some initial decisions about directions, paired up to pull the canoes forward, and helped each other make our way to an alder-choked stream flowing toward Lake Superior.  And somewhere on that watershed divide, we changed from a group of boys flexing their muscles, to a team of young adults who learned to rely on one another and achieve goals together.
Where are We? with our effort to restore the whole system of the Great Lakes.  We have lots of seasoned and powerful paddlers:  seven chapters of The Nature Conservancy, state and provincial agencies with strong regulatory powers, the financial resources of two countries, several multi-party international bodies, and countless non-governmental organizations and other partners.  But, with all of that power, are we making progress commensurate with the skills we have?   Is our destination--our purpose--clear to everyone?  Do we even really know where we are on this journey?  How do we measure progress? Who should be doing what?  Are we each carrying our own canoe, or is there a more effective way to employ our abilities?
This is our task the next two days: for all of us to share the knowledge we bring, to fully understand a whole system strategies for the Great Lakes, and talk about how we can work together to ensure the health of the Great Lakes as a well managed ecosystem with twenty percent of the world's freshwater, upon which all life depends.  
The Nature Conservancy in the Great Lakes. We are not new to this.  TNC has been working in the Great Lakes, across state borders, since 1993. Our work has evolved: we first launched the Great Lakes Biodiversity Data System in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy of Canada. We then conducted ecoregional planning at the Great Lakes scale. Over the years, TNC has added tools to its work chest—going from straightforward land deals, to great big, very complex real estate deals, to taking on huge problems that affect the entire Great Lakes, like water management through the Great Lakes Compact.  
TNC in the Great Lakes is a shining example of our organization’s evolution from sites to systems, from properties to policies.  To accomplish this growth, we have come together as chapters and trustees several times.  Two years ago we met in Chicago; in 2011 we met in Dearborn.  We held our first summit on Mackinac Island in 2008.  We have accomplished much in our work, but we still face the challenges of working at scale, of coordinating chapters and aligning with partners, and of finding solutions for both nature and people. .
The Great Lakes are at risk, and as we heard from Jerry Dennis, we are under appreciated; The Great Lakes "is a place so large that it's overlooked, so familiar that it's invisible, so beloved that it's despised, so precious that we're intent upon ransacking it." The challenges we face are many:
  • habitat has been lost, water quality degraded at an unprecedented level due to unsustainable use of lands and water, and our unique biodiversity has been diminished
  • These environmental challenges threaten the culture, history, and our outdoor way of life here in the Great Lakes; our communities are at risk
  • If our natural systems are not healthy, we won’t be healthy.  The 40 million people of this region depend on the Great Lakes ecosystem for drinking water and economic vitality.  And as we have learned in Flint, a failure to manage our environmental and economic systems, can have devastating impacts on nature and human systems.

We know that the challenges we face in the Great Lakes do not exist in isolation.  We know first hand that we have to reach across not only state boundaries, but also international ones. We also know that issues we wrestle with -- fresh water, sustainable agriculture, balancing of economy and environment, to name a few -- are topics of global importance.  We will have the chance at this conference  to reflect on how our work can be of value in other places--like the Great Lakes in Africa-- and how the lessons learned there by TNC can inform our work here.

The Great Lakes are a global asset.  Taken together, the Great Lakes of North American and the Great Lakes of Africa represent over half the surface fresh water in the world. We have both a special responsibility and an extraordinary opportunity to address some of the planet’s biggest challenges.  In this place and at this time we can develop, pilot, prove, and then deploy powerful conservation strategies of global significance.
  • The Great Lakes make up the largest freshwater system on earth, and to protect it we need to develop state of the art agricultural practices, we need to come up with urban runoff solutions at scale, and we need to learn how to reconnect the most important rivers and streams in a watershed.    And The Nature Conservancy is putting boots on the ground to do these things.
  • The Great Lakes sustains a $4 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry and to protect it  we need bring together world-class research and our best minds, we need to restore native species and the natural spawning systems upon which they depend, and we need to build an international system to detect and prevent invasive species.  And, TNC is on the ground--and in the water--with this effort too.
  • The  Great Lakes economy--the 3rd largest in the world if it were a nation--was built on, and relies on--our natural resources: forests, farms, and, most of all, water.   We need to understand and fully value our natural capital. We need to employ practices sound in both science and economy. We need to pilot innovative finance solutions to rebuild our cities, which are the pride of our past and the answer to a sustainable future. And TNC is here already with these strategies.

  • And, the Great Lakes ecosystem is uniquely diverse with more than 3500 species of plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else on earth (like the Kirtland’s Warbler).              We need to identify and protect the inter-related parts of this system:  the rivers and lake, forests and fields, and coasts and wetlands.  We have the responsibility to conserve this natural system, and the privilege to protect some of the most beautiful places on the planet.   And this is the legacy of TNC.
The Nature Conservancy envisions a world where the diversity of life thrives and people act to conserve nature for its own sake, and for its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives. This is our vision for the Great Lakes: a thriving natural system, well managed, with its citizens fully engaged in conserving nature.
How we do our work.  The Nature Conservancy starts with the best science.  They develop practical, outcome based solutions to our most pressing conservation challenges. They of course protect key lands and waters, and they transform how those lands and water are used through policy work with both the public and private sectors.  TNC is always pragmatic and seeks to leverage economic forces to expand the impact of its strategies.  They don’t do this work alone: they partner with many conservation organizations, governments and businesses to develop effective conservation solutions that are at the scale and pace that a system of this size merits.  And TNC helps inspire the leadership necessary to make change and safeguard the freshwater treasure that is the Great Lakes.
Let’s turn to five specific strategies. While TNC concentrates now on a few strategies, they are pursuing other priorities as well.  And we will continue to scan the landscape to look for other pressing issues where we can make a difference.  For instance, the question of the transport of oil through the Great Lakes via pipelines, and the related energy issues, is now a topic of wide attention.   The Nature Conservancy has never been static in its work, and it must continue to evolve in its thinking, purposes, and approaches to conservation.  
  1. Aquatic invasive species have fundamentally altered the food webs of the Great Lakes, and are the Conservancy’s top regional priority.  Exotic species have invaded every level of the food web, and when combined with other stressors like pollution and climate change, can have an even greater impact on the native fishery and outdoor recreation. TNC is working with others to monitor for new invasions, to manage populations of existing invasive species to limit their spread, and to create consistent state, provincial, and federal policies across the Great Lakes Basin.
  2. Native fish: Lake herring and whitefish were once prolific in the Great Lakes. Their populations have been affected by overfishing, pollution and invasive species. TNC is working with state and federal agencies, anglers, and the academic community to restore a more diverse fishery by gathering data to understand population declines, restoring habitat, removing invasive predators, and reintroducing native fish.
  3. Agriculture: on the one hand, the rich soils and productive farms of the Great Lakes provide us, the nation, and the world with  food. On the other hand, our changes to the landscape to facilitate farming degrade water quality, by tiling and draining to change the natural movement of water, and by inadvertently adding fertilizer and sediment to our waterways through runoff. TNC is working with the agricultural community—from farmers up the supply chain to agribusiness--to develop science-based, targeted, outcome based  incentives and programs that to both  improve water quality and flow in Great Lakes agricultural watersheds, and model how to achieve a higher return on investment for both agribusiness and the U.S. Farm Bill.
  4. Connectivity: Thousands of dams and poorly designed road culverts block streams and disconnect tributaries from larger bodies of water. As a result, native fish populations have declined, water quality has worsened, and our natural systems don’t work right. TNC is working with partners to map barriers and remove the most damaging dams and culverts from our waterways, and to influence policies to direct limited resources to best restore river connections across the basin.
  5. Blue Accounting is the tool to tie all this work together.  Every day, leaders across the Great Lakes basin make strategic decisions intended to enhance the quality and sustainability of this natural system. However, there is an information gap between the decisions these leaders make and the results of the programs they influence. We lack shared goals around issues and a process to measure the combined effects of the many programs and efforts across the basin. TNC and the Great Lakes Commission have partnered, with cornerstone support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, to develop Blue Accounting. This tool brings together stakeholders to collaborate on their work, helps set region-wide goals, integrates many existing data sources to track progress more efficiently and transforms the way information is shared via an online platform.
TNC has some bold aspirations. They have added the expertise and built the capacity to deliver on these strategies.  They are some strong paddlers working on protecting and restoring the Great Lakes.  But are the right people paired up in the right canoes?  Do we have a clear sight of the path we are on, or have lost our ways amongst small trees?  Do we know where we are, and whether we are making progress?   Do we have a team, and a strategy to deploy our best talent and leaders across borders to  solve problems?
TNC trustees and other volunteer leaders play a vital role. They give perspective to our work, help us look up from the portage trail and see a bigger picture.  They are the scouts that might help us find a better way, or help us avoid delay or danger.  They certainly play a role by encouraging those who do the hard work, cheering us on.  Your support--financial and otherwise--help us lift the load, enabling more work to be accomplished.  You help us build partnerships, acting as translators when we meet those in other tribes:  business, academia, government.   
Sunset on Lake Erie with Buffalo in the background
Collaboration is the new watchword of conservation. I recently heard a government official reflect that conservation used to be about one agency implementing one law with one goal. The complexity and seriousness of our conservation challenges now demand a broader, more inclusive approach. The Great Lakes are, in the words of Jerry Dennis, an "amazing, messy, contradictory" ecosystem, and to save them we will need four things:
  1. A vision broad enough to take in the special, massive place that is the Great Lakes and it's many parts and players;
  2. A strategy, or strategies, that tackle several parts of the problems at the same time, as well as build on the assets and opportunities we have in the Great Lakes;
  3. Collaboration between the many organizations, agencies, and governments that are all committed to a healthy, well-managed future for the Great Lakes.
  4. A way to measure our progress towards our goals, track the outcomes of our work and create accountability for meeting our goals.
There is an African saying that applies to our work:

To learn more about TNC's work on the Great Lakes of North America, go here
To learn more about TNC's work on Lake Tanganyika, go here

Thank you to the staff and trustees of Central and Western New York Chapter of The Nature Conservancy for their hospitality.

Thank you to Mary Jean Huston and the other expert staff of The Nature Conservancy for their input to these remarks.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Ten Great Lakes "Celebrities" on Twitter

Recently, a Michigan newspaper ran a feature on ten Michigan celebrities who are active on Twitter.  I clicked through the photos and found no one I wanted to follow, which made me think about how I use and value Twitter.  Then I thought about some of the real celebrities who tweet about Michigan and the Great Lakes.

I find Twitter a very useful source of information on environmental issues, which sadly are not well covered by either old-school media or their on-line manifestations.  Spending 30 minutes a day, or sometimes twice a day, checking in on several key accounts keep me up to date on the science, policy, and advocacy news of the Great Lakes. Most of all I like it for the ability to connect with colleagues and others who share my work.

I also like Twitter for the real-time access it gives me to breaking news, resources on new places I am visiting, and as a communication tool during common events.  Finally, several groups like The Nature Conservancy now hold scheduled twitter chats that allow for a virtual meeting and real conversation among far-flung experts.

There are of course official accounts worth following that give you the latest official announcements from government agencies, university research programs, and nonprofit organizations.  But there are several "celebrities" that I follow because I appreciate their insights, shared wisdom, useful referrals, and occasional humor. Most of them I have not met in person, another unique aspect of Twitter, but I feel like I know them from shared interests, comments and re-tweets with them.

Here are my Top Ten "celebrities" (in no particular order) who are  based in the Great Lakes, active on Twitter, and who have something worth sharing. I would encourage you to follow them on Twitter.

Howard Meyerson @HMeyerson is a Grand-Rapides based writer who shares lots of good stories about outdoor adventures on water and land.  I appreciate his regular contributions to Michigan Audubon and his posts and writing on wildlife and conservation.

Solomon David @SolomonRDavid is an aquatic ecologist with the US Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center with a research interest in the native fish of the Great Lakes and an affinity for alligator gar.  He willingly shares his knowledge and his photography of aquatic species.

Matt Herbert @Etheostomatt has an interesting handle that contains the scientific name for the genus of darter, a common but sometimes under-appreiciated genus of fish. The name reflects his expertise and interests.  He posts good research links as well as reports from his Great Lakes work with The Nature Conservancy.

Lisa Borre @Lisa_Borre writes for the National Geographic about lakes worldwide and has a particularly affinity for the Great Lakes. Her tweets help keep my perspective more global.

Kevin Joyce @Swampman419 has great insights into issues around Lake Erie and related topics of clean water, fisheries, and climate change.  He is active with the Black Swamp Conservancy in northwest Ohio.

Neil Hawkins @NeilCHawkins is Chief Sustainability Office for Dow Chemical in Midland and has lots to share about green business practices, water from a local and global perspective, climate change, and theater and culture.

Brian Bienkowski @BrianBienkowski serves as an editor for Environmental Health News and has written several powerful pieces on pollution, environmental justice, and climate change.  Plus he shares some of his outdoor adventures.

Kimberly Hill Knott @KimGrnPolicy is one of several Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice and provides an urban perspective on climate change, energy use, and air and water pollution.

Michelle Carr @mchlecarr of Chicago is the State Director for The Nature Conservancy in Illinois and tweets about the Great Lakes, asian carp, and natural environments in big cities.

Larry Neilsen @PawPawLarry is the village manager of Paw Paw in southwest Michigan and shares links and insights on community development and other quality of life issues related to the environment.  I appreciate his small town perspective.

Of course, I have undoubtedly overlooked some worthy folks, so please accept my apologies.  This is just a start of a list, so if you have others to suggest, let me know.  Either through a comment here, or with a tweet to me at @Tom4TNC

Perhaps at a future time, I will share some of my favorite official Twitter accounts that relate to Michigan and the Great Lakes, but one of the best things about Twitter is that gives a personal platform for real people to share their thoughts.  It reminds me of sitting around in college reading the newspaper and textbooks and having people say, "hey did you see this?"   What did you observe lately?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

National Parks Turn 100

How do we become conservationists?  Through the love of a place, a place in nature, a place special to us.  Often that place is a national park.  For Terry Tempest Williams, Grand Teton National Park captured her first. "I am of this place," she writes in The Hour of Land, a new collection of essays that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the United States National Park System.  She writes about 12 places protected by this federal agency, but her book is much more than a travelogue.  Rather it launches us on an expedition in search of the present value of wilderness, the elusive truth of history, and the relevancy America's parks in the 21st century.  I am glad I went on the trip with her.

History.  The National Park Service was created by an act of Congress on August 25, 1916 with the purpose "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."  There were national parks before then.  As Williams notes, "America's national parks were a vision seen through the horrors of war," when Abraham Lincoln took action to protect Yosemite Valley in 1864.  Yellowstone was the first official national park, created in 1872, and Mackinac Island became the second national park in 1875 (in 1895 it was given to the State of Michigan to establish its first state park).

The creation of the National Park Service organized the administration of national parks and affiliated places within the Interior Department and led to a boom in their creation and development.  There are now over 400 units within the national park system.  In Michigan, we find Isle Royale National Park, established in 1940, Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshores, Keweenaw National Historic Park, and River Raisin National Battlefield Park, established in 2009.

Why Parks?  The first, and perhaps foremost, rationale for a system of parks is to preserve natural treasures and special ecological systems. But the designation of a park invites its "enjoyment" by people.  How to allow such uses without damaging what makes the park special has been a challenge for the national parks since their creation. This balance--between the protection of nature from human harm and the promotion  of nature for human benefit--has transcended park management policies and now goes to larger, painful realities of energy resources and climate change that must engage us all.
Effigy Mounds National Monument

Who should benefit from our parks also poses complex problems, and several of Williams essays raise difficult questions and promising trends. The shameful appropriation of land from the Blackfeet tribe to create Glacier National Park, and the disrespect of native american burial grounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument, were histories I had never read. I was encouraged by stories about the recent engagement of native peoples in the management of several parks, the creation of Cesar Chavez National Monument, and the proposal to create Bear Ears National Monument to protect sacred tribal sites in southern Utah.

Williams proposes that our national parks can play an important role in reflecting our full, diverse history as Americans.  Her essay on Gettysburg National Military Park forces us to look at the difficult parts of our history, noting that it was not until 1998 that slavery became part of the historical interpretation and explanation of civil war sites.  "Perhaps this is what our national parks hold for us: stories, of who we have been and who we might become--a reminder that as human beings our histories harbor both darkness and light."

Creating Parks as a Democratic Act.  On my first visits to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks as a youth I reveled in the official entrance signs, the uniformed rangers, and the interpretive maps. All of it gave a message to me that parks evolved from the natural landscape, were willingly
set aside from wilderness, and universally celebrated in their establishment.  Of course, the truth is messier, and Williams gives detailed histories of the efforts, the fights and the subterfuge to create Grand Teton, Acadia, and other national parks.  "It takes tenacity, a shared vision by citizens, and generational patience" to establish a national park.

National Parks symbolize the best of American democracy, not only in their wide accessibility, but also in their creation.  While the story of a land-grabbing federal government is a popular one, Williams gives testimony that many parks result from the combined efforts of inspiring visionaries, committed communities, effective nonprofits, and persistent citizens.  We get the parks we earn, and the efforts have never been easy or singular in their organization.

I serve as a volunteer leader for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and I am proud of the role this organization has played for decades in park creation. Working with diverse stakeholders, scientists, and donors over several decades, TNC has helped provide land for new parks, aided expansions, and created buffers around threatened parks.  In total, TNC has acquired 650,000 acres of natural areas that are now protected in national parks from Hawaii to North Carolina and Washington to Texas (read "10 Park Partnerships").  In Michigan, TNC's "Big Deal" in 2005 included the protection of 30,000 acres of buffer along 31 miles of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. (read my post "The UP: Use it, Don't Lose It")

"Circles of Reverence."  Our national parks are part of our national history, our national landscape, and our national politics.  Terry Tempest Williams addresses all of these issues--along with a few important and personal digressions--in her emotional collection of essays.  But she starts and ends the book with the love of family and friends, which are all situated in particular places.  My experience of national parks, like that of Williams, was first of family vacations.  Trips to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and the Yellowstone-Grand Teton pair of parks remain bright memories that I have subsequently recreated with my own children. "Family is a place, and my family is located here," writes Williams.

Capitol Reef National Park
A trip to nature temporarily suspends the distractions that pull families apart, and time together in national parks have helped tie our family together.  As with Williams, the red rock country of Utah in particular has become part of who I am. My wife-to-be and I spent a memorable week exploring the back country of Canyonlands National Park, "the most beautiful place on earth." Orderville Canyon in Zion National Park held us and led us on epic adventure with friends.  And the deep wilderness of Escalante and Capitol Reef provided my family with a trip of the lifetime, twice. We found there the beauty of a dark, silent sky; the revelation of ancient cultures in hidden pottery and preserved hand prints; a profound understanding of geology from the foundations of the earth on display; and the demonstration of the life and power of water.

Our national parks not only explain to us who we are as a nation and as a family, they put us into what Williams calls a "circle of reverence."  We need these circles as escapes from a world grown increasingly mad, as places of re-creation where we can recover our best selves, and as spiritual touchpoints, or what a minister of mine called the "thin places."  Acadia National Park is such a place for Williams, and while on the ocean shore she is reminded of "why these places of pilgrimage matter.  They matter to me because in the long view, I do not."

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Galapagos: Garden or Wild Place?

"The wildlife is so tame," said several people on my recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, and the point seems inarguable as a brown pelican landed next to me on the beach.  The exotic blue-footed, red-footed, and Nazca boobies were oblivious to our tour of their home. Snorkeling in the off-shore waters floated us next to playful sea lions and above peaceful sea turtles. We kept the two meter distance our national park guides requested, but amongst fish, birds, and iguanas unperturbed to our presence, I could not help but think of Eden.

Like the long-lost garden, the Galapagos existed in my mythical geography long before I located these volcanic islands on a map.  My early education in biology was wrapped up in thoughts of British explorers and National Geographic photographers, and learning about evolution put Charles Darwin and his expedition to the Galapagos in the forefront of my imagination.  Now, when the place was tangible, and so were the animals, my thoughts were not about history, but rather about the future of wildlife and the relationship humanity has to nature.

Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos in 1835, primarily to study its geology and with hopes of witnessing an active volcano.  Instead, he was astonished by the wildlife and the notes from his five week tour are filled with descriptions of iguanas that swim into the sea, tortoises large enough to carry a person, and the twenty-six bird species new to him and found nowhere else in the world, including mockingbirds that vary from island to island.  This experience so influenced him that he spent the next next two decades puzzling through how different animals and plants come to be in specific places, a thought process that led to the publication of the "Origin of Species" and the theoretical framework of evolution.

For me, visiting the Galapagos was a pilgrimage. Walking the same lava shore that Darwin explored 180 years ago, reading his descriptions of marine iguanas that seem contemporary, and identifying several of the finches that bear his name, would have made my trip profound enough.  Even more, as a sometimes birder, I cannot recall ever adding 24 new species to my life list in one week.   And what birds: not only the famous boobies, but I also sighted the world's only nocturnal gull (the swallow-tailed), the flightless cormorant, several storm-petrels, and a Galapagos flycatcher that almost perched on my hat.  Finally, to swim in the water with a penguin zipping by was beyond heaven.

Animals and Humans have had a difficult relationship and coming up close to so many species has me thinking hard about our shared existence.  The animals in the Galapagos are "tame" in the sense that they are accustomed to human visitors.  However, their docile behavior is inbred, the result of
evolving for generations in an environment without predators.  Take the flightless cormorant, which like other cormorant species is a superb diver and swimmer.  However, the bird has no need to fly in escape from a predator and over generations it's wings have become appendages useless for flight.

"Ecological naivete" is the term David Quamen ("The Song of the Dodo") uses to describe animals that have evolved without a need for defensive behaviors.  Sanderlings, the small shore birds that move in coordinated groups on the beach in North Carolina, are solitary creatures in the Galapagos as they do not need one another for protection.  The fierce appearance of the iguanas is all about competition between males for breeding privileges, not to scare off non-existent predators.  The Nazca boobies don't really build nests, but just incubate their eggs on bare rock and soil.  The animals are truly defenseless.

To be in a place where animals are so approachable is both joyous and a bit unsettling. On the one hand, a romantic notion comes to me of humans and animals living harmoniously in nature.  But as ingrained as Genesis may be in my psyche, this does not seem quite right. I remind myself that these are wild, not domestic, creatures.  My son recalled the difficult lesson of Timothy Treadwell, the subject of the movie "Grizzly Man" that recounts his false, and fatal, quest to bridge the gap we have with wild animals.

Tortoise Extinction is the dark spot on the history of humans in the Galapagos. Well before humans arrived, one of the most fascinating evolutionary tales is how reptiles became the dominant herbivore of these island ecosystems.  The giant tortoise can grow to be several hundred pounds and in a lifespan of more than 100 years these beasts travel about disrupting the landscape, moving plant
seeds through their slow digestive systems, and causing cacti and other plants to evolve in response.  Sadly, the tortoise also became a prime food objective of seamen, whalers, and other explorers; hundreds of thousands were slaughtered and several species on some islands became extinct.  It is perhaps not surprising that while tortoises cannot easily move away from humans, they hiss and threaten visitors who approach to closely.

Humanity is now redeeming itself with the giant tortoises, and the full scientific skill of researchers and the generosity of conservationists has enabled both the preservation of threatened tortoises, the restoration of their habitats through the removal of invasive goats, the repopulation of islands, and DNA-driven efforts to restore subspecies of tortoises once though extinct.  The Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island offers a fascinating insight into this caretaker effort.

Island Ecology becomes the primary subject of any natural investigation of the Galapagos. The clue that got Darwin thinking about evolution was the brag from the Islands' Governor that he could tell the island of origin of any tortoise merely by looking at the shape of its shell.  This led to the conclusion that each subspecies of tortoise evolved uniquely on each island.  Later work also identified the evolutionary differences in beaks of 14 species of Darwin Finches.  The lessons learned here continue to teach conservationists about the importance of biodiversity in habitats throughout the world.

More recent environmental challenges of the islands are a case study of the importance of sustainability in larger ecosystems and the planet as a whole.  In 2007, the World Heritage Center of the United Nations listed the Galapagos as a natural site in danger.  Work with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has resulted in the removal of this listing, and the Galapagos have taken concrete steps to ensure an environmentally healthy future.  However, the issues of concern that remain foremost are issues that all us most wrestle with as well:
  1. Invasive species threaten biodiversity and the ecological integrity of the islands.  Now the Ecuadorian government works to keep out non-native plants and animals and conservation groups have restored ecosystems.  Maintaining environmental health requires constant vigilance and intervention.
  2. Population growth and the associated pressures for land, water, and energy use could undermine the healthy functioning of the ecosystem.  After a period of rapid immigration to the island, controls were put in place.  Like most of the world, accommodating more humans in any given place is a challenge yet to be fully solved.
  3. Sustainable economy that can provide support to residents without extracting too much from natural resources is a universal balancing act. In the Galapagos, the economy is built on tourism, so limits are sought on the number and location of visitors.  All tourists contribute $100 per visit to support the islands, but that fee needs to be increased and more of the funds directed to environmental protection, supporting alternative energy sources, preserving water, and undergirding the local community.
We watch closely how Ecuador, Galapagos residents, conservation groups, and tourists come to terms with building a sustainable community with the wildlife, natural wonders, finite resources, and island geography of the place.  Our interest is not only in the Galapagos as a unique and delicate resource, but also as a laboratory for the rest of us.  While we may not think so, we all too live on an island.

Garden or Wilderness? This question came to me as I toured the beautiful Jardin Botanico in Quito before our trip to the Galapagos.  It is typical for a botanical garden, with a carefully curated collection of plants representing the many different ecosystems in Ecuador.  The flowers were stunning, and I was particularly taken with the several hummingbird species that circulated among the blooms.  It is a protected garden, and not a wilderness.  However, if we think about nature as both tended and wild, would we be able to draw a bright line between what is a garden and what is not?  

The Galapagos look and feel wild, especially the 96 percent of the islands that are unoccupied by human settlement.  But as you learn more, you realize that the vegetation is being altered--for the good--by removing invasive goats and controlling certain plants.  In some places volcanic soil has been brought in to aid the egg-laying efforts of land iguanas.  And tortoises exist in some places only because of the significant intervention of humans to re-introduce the species.  One can rightly argue that these gardening activities only seek to offset the negative impacts of earlier human actions, but they are interventions nonetheless. 

Where then is the wilderness on the Galapagos?  Perhaps at sea, where hammerhead sharks sneak in from the deep, and orcas and dolphins swim free between the islands.  But as we know, the oceans are not free from a human imprint either: whole species have been decimated, plastic is omnipresent, and now the temperature and acidity of the oceans are rising as we burn fossil fuels.  If wilderness is an ecosystem untrammeled by humanity, then there is no true wilderness anymore.

There are, however, wild places and wild animals.  The Galapagos is both wild and a garden.  For me, encountering animals that are wildly tame, that is innately defenseless,  puts the challenge of our age literally before me.  We have the power to respect these creatures, and leave them untouched.  We also have the power to capture, control, or even destroy the animals we meet.  However, we also have the power to help, tend, and care for the nature before us.  In the Galapagos, and increasingly elsewhere, we are using our power to not only practice restraint, but also to be stewards of nature.  

Our tour was with Ecoventura, which works with a number of tour operators, and I would recommend it highly.

To learn more about the islands' environment, I would recommend "The Galapagos: A Natural History" by Henry Nichols.  Another book I read through the trip was David Quamen's "Song of the Dodo" which is quite relevant in thinking about the implications of island biogeography.

To help protect the Galapagos, you can donate through the Galapagos Conservancy which encompasses the Charles Darwin Foundation and works with a number of local, international, and governmental agencies.

If you have the opportunity to visit mainland Ecuador, I would recommend spending several hours in the Jardin Botanico de Quito

Thanks Anna, Abbie, and Gus for being part of the trip; photographs by Anna Owens

Monday, October 12, 2015

Mr. Cook Goes to Washington

I believe that natural places have the power to heal our dis-ease with life and to restore our perspective on what really matters.  Places are why I started this blog.  Recently I found myself in a strange, disorienting place: Washington DC.  And rather than walking a pine-needle path, I was wearing out my shoes on the hard floors of the Philip Hart Senate Office Building and other government buildings. Our Capitol no longer stands in much regard, as many of us are frustrated with the scandals, partisan bickering, and inaction that seems to define the American democracy in the early 21st century.  Is there a cure?  Perhaps place, and a common identification with nature, offers a beneficial treatment to our dysfunction.

My family's 1971 visit to Congressman Charles Chamberlain

This trip to Washington was not my first trip.  When I was a boy, my family took me on the obligatory tour and I still carry with me a youthful, and perhaps naive, view of the seat of our government. Call me romantic, but I am moved by the statues and memorial to our founding fathers, the grand buildings of white marble, and the flags of every state on frequent display.  Like being in nature, I feel ennobled amongst ceremonial architecture and am often awed by the history around me.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was the cause that took me back to the Capitol, and I was there on behalf of The Nature Conservancy to seek re-authorization of this legislation that has done so much to preserve and protect places across our country, all without costing taxpayers anything.  The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) recycles the proceeds of oil and gas leases on federal offshore lands to fund the purchase of land for public use.  Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently called it a "brilliant piece of legislation" for the work it has done saving natural places.  Sadly, the legal authority for this 50 year-old law recently lapsed, victim to dysfunction in Congress.

In Michigan, LWCF has provided the majority of funding for our two National Lakeshores, Sleeping Bear and Pictured Rocks, but the funds go well beyond national parks.  The $322 million in LWCF funds directed to the Great Lake State have gone to places as diverse as Huron National Forest, the Brighton State Recreation Area, Lake Lansing Park, River Raisin National Battlefield, and the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.

The bi-partisan, long-standing support for the LWCF may be because these funds go to develop trails, provide hunting and fishing opportunities, save historical sites, aid the timber industry, provide neighborhood recreation, and preserve some of our most beautiful and ecologically important natural areas.  These are distinct and valued natural places, and many people--of all backgrounds and all political parties--cherish these places.  

The Power of Place should not be underestimated, and I saw it on display in the troubled halls of Congress. Our Senator, Gary Peters, has a room dedicated to Isle Royale, Michigan's oldest National Park, and we conversed over maps and photos. Visitors to Congressman Dan Benishek's office are
greeted by posters of classic "big letter" postcards from the places in his northern Michigan District.  Congressman Dan Kildee spoke passionately about the City of Flint and the necessity of protecting the water upon which all depend.  Every office has some photo of a beautiful place in Michigan. And staffers from all 11 offices (four Democratic, and seven Republican) we visited recounted some affection for their hometown park, favorite hiking place, or family vacation home.  

The love for place transcends party, and it seemed to me that many of those who work in the Capitol were eager to talk about the out-of-doors rather than the election of the next Speaker of the House.  I know that there are significant policy questions about  the role of the federal government, the regulatory machinery operated by bureaucracies to protect our environment, and the cost of all of this, but I was pleasantly surprised to find so much support for protecting places using LWCF.  

Now we just need to help all our members of Congress escape the rules debates, the personality contests, the media moments, and the other boxes that have entrapped them.  Be sure to contact your legislator and ask them to permanently renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund. If we can accomplish this, perhaps our elected representatives can discover anew the affection for place on display in their offices.  Perhaps they will discover that conservation is not a partisan issue.  Perhaps they will discover the benefits of working together.  

Staff from The Nature Conservancy join me in meeting with my Congressman, John Moolenaar, who has signed a letter of support for passage of the Land and Water Conservation Fund
Nature in our Nation's Capitol.  Washington is not such a bad place, despite what you read in the paper.  The people there love nature. And one morning some of use even discovered some nature close by.  Staff and trustees from The Nature Conservancy headed out early from out hotel near the National Mall with binoculars in hand, and as the sun rose we saw mockingbirds and blue-jays in the mature and towering trees around the Capitol, hundreds of chimney swifts agitating the sky overhead, in the reflecting pools there was a ruddy duck along with mallards and ring-billed gulls, and in the bushes outside the National Arboretum, we had a most uncommon sighting of a common yellow-throat.  In all, we identified 24 species of birds, proving that nature can thrive everywhere, even in Congress.

Use your outside voice; go here to have The Nature Conservancy help you take action

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Three Things Anyone--including you--Can Do to Help the Environment

David Brower
Somedays I feel like the task is too great, the struggle too demanding. A report about new--or decades old--toxins in the air and water; the count of 180 invasive species in the Great Lakes; the latest disturbing data on a warming planet; or just one more patch of litter along my favorite river; all of it can get me down.  And when I look to our leaders for solutions, I see partisan squabbling, or a newspaper devoid of any story at all about the environment.  "And what can one person do anyway?" I ask myself.  Perhaps I'll just have a beer and turn on the hockey game. Then I thought some more, and my internal optimist reminded me of three things anyone--and everyone--can do.  None of them are difficult.  So, have hope and take action to:  1) Engage locally; 2) Join up (inter)nationally; and 3) Make contact.

1.  Engage Locally.  We all live in a place, and most of us have made some connection to nature there. Celebrate that place, and take steps to get out in it, and care for it. I came of age along the Shiawassee River, and I am fortunate to live again in its watershed.  It's not a trout stream, most of its landscape has been logged, farmed, or otherwise developed, and it's suffered some abuse and neglect.  Still, it harbors an amazing diversity of plant and animal life, it has a special beauty that changes with the seasons, the water is clear and clean most of the time, and it's the natural feature most accessible to where I live.

I feel an affinity for the natural place that defines my home, and I act on this natural connection by belonging to the Friends of the Shiawassee River.  It's like hundreds of other small, place-based conservation groups, and my membership and my volunteer efforts make a difference.  My guess is that giving a little bit of your treasure and time for a group active in your home place would be a big help too.

More than 100 volunteers come out for an annual river clean-up
Conservation change begins with environmental awareness, and this often proceeds from a connection to a specific piece of nature.  If we strengthen place-based organizations, they can help increase the number of earth-minded citizens.  Sometimes this is easier with iconic natural landmarks.  As we travel, we often search out the local non-profit that works to protect the resource, the region, or the park, we have come to appreciate.  Join; they always appreciate the support, and its nice to get a newsletter or email a few months later that reminds you of your outdoor adventure.

One tip: add a little bit extra to your donation to groups that have programming for children.  As numerous surveys and personal anecdotes reveal, many of the adults working now, as either professionals or volunteers, to save nature were engaged in the out-of-doors as youth.  For me it was Fernwood in southwest Michigan.  So, your contribution to a nature center, summer camp, or other education program might be an investment in a future conservation leader.

2. Join an (inter)national organization.  Local groups help connect people to nature, but it's the "big green" environmental groups that currently are leading the conservation charge.  I was starting my teens when the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act were adopted, so I grew up expecting the federal government to be the leader in protecting the environment.  That is no longer the case, as big government has succumbed to over-reach and a loss of support.  Perhaps just as well, as the solution to many of our environmental challenges cannot be solved by regulations.  Rather, they require innovative solutions that bring together many stakeholders.

Non-governmental organizations (NGO) are much more nimble, purposeful, and creative than federal or even state entities in tackling complex issues like preserving privately-owned open space, reducing water pollution that comes from farms and cities, engaging indigenous populations that live near endangered species, mobilizing citizen scientists to identify pollution sources, or working with large corporations to promote sustainability programs.  They also often provide the policy ideas and political leadership to reform or support the governmental programs that are still necessary to make significant and lasting change.

As independent as they are, the work of any nonprofit is extended by the number of members and the amount of supporters who sign-on to their efforts. I choose to support The Nature Conservancy because they are driven by science, are pragmatic, and work both in my landscape as well as around the globe.  But the wonderful thing about green NGOs is that they come from many diverse perspectives and take a variety of approaches to solving environmental challenges.  Some work quietly to protect hunting and fishing habitat; others are confrontational and bring our attention to new or severe problems; some care about beautiful animals in exotic locations; or they work hard to protect the health of disenfranchised people at home or abroad.  Put your name behind the one that appeals to your values, your politics, or your model of change.

One tip:  Join more than one organization. In the early 1980s, I had the chance to hear David Brower speak.  He had been the controversial head of the Sierra Club in the 1960s and then had gone on to start the Friends of the Earth and the League of Conservation Voters.  A questioner tried to entice him to name the "best" environmental group by asking him which group to join.  I still remember his answer.  "Join as many as you can" he said, noting that the more supporters each group had, the more powerful they would be as an advocacy group.  I took his advice, and last year when receiving the Oak Leaf Award from The Nature Conservancy, they noted that my involvement had begun in 1983 with a $10 membership.

3.  Make Contact with your legislator, at any level. David Brower was the personification of the environmental activist, and led several efforts to pass environmental protection efforts.  But his work was bi-partisan, and he did not act alone.  Earth Day, first held in 1971, was evidence of the wide-spread, grass-roots conservation efforts of the day.  Yes, there were "radicals" involved, but there were also bird-watchers, scientists, anglers, campers, gardeners, and representatives of all political points of view.  Richard Nixon signed into law the Clean Water Act, and numerous Republican legislators and Governors, starting with Theodore Roosevelt, have been advocates for land preservation and other environmental advances.

President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite National Park
Sadly, green issues have become too partisan in recent years, both because of politically-correct Democrats and anti-science Republicans.  This is not good for either party, and certainly not good for the cause of conservation.  We need to re-build an advocacy for the environment that is not captive to campaign spending, political commentators, or party organizing.  Perhaps the best way we--as individuals--can do this is to take a non-partisan stand on environmental issue we care about.

Again, it does not matter what moves you:  loss of the rainforest in Indonesia, protection of the Great Lakes from asian carp, additions to a national park, mercury in our air or water, or any number of other issues.  If you join an environmental group, they will likely alert you to important governmental issues, or you can research a topic on the internet.  But send an email, or write, or say something in person.  Too many of our legislators both at the state and federal level don't think voters care about environmental issues; communication from their constituents will convince them otherwise.

One tip:  make your message to an elected representative both personal and relevant to the geography you share.  Hitting "send" on a pre-packaged email can be helpful, but not as powerful as a message that contains your specific experience.  Tell your representative about your kayak trip or fishing success as you ask them to protect clean water.  Recount your meaningful family camping trip as you advocate for more funding for parks.  Nature is central to our lives, and we need our advocacy to come from that deep part of ourselves that connects to place.

Beer and Hockey.  The three steps outlined above are not difficult.  We live in places, our online era makes it easy to find conservation groups, and our legislators really do want to hear from real constituents.  If more of us took these three actions, we could re-awaken an era of environmental activism  that would genuinely reflect where we live, what we do, and what we know.  It really doesn't take much time or effort.  And we don't have to give up beer and hockey.  It turns out the Natural Resources Defense Council (another effective NGO) has partnered with about 50 breweries in a "Clean Water, Great Beer" campaign, and the National Hockey League has launched NHL Green to fight climate change.  Both of these are part of growing corporate sustainability efforts and are symbols of how business is now also among the vanguard of environmental protections efforts.  If we all do our part . . . .

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Biking Through Nature, Past and Present: The Natchez Trace

Like plants and animals which adapt to their environment over time, how we travel has also evolved in response to changing circumstances.   I recently learned this first-hand on a spring bike trip in Mississippi.

The Natchez Trace is an ancient route that angles northeast from the lower Mississippi River to the rich farmlands of central Tennessee.  Historically, native Americans followed the paths, or traces, created by bison who wandered from the plains to salt licks in the Appalachians.  With European exploration and settlement, these footpaths consolidated into an important transportation route.  In the early 19th century, before the development of steamboats, Kentuckians and others would float farm goods down the Ohio and Mississippi River for sale, along with the wood used to make their flatboats.  They would return home, with their proceeds, on foot along the Natchez Trace.

The use of the Trace diversified with the War of 1812, as some of Andrew Jackson's troops travelled overland on foot to face the British in New Orleans.  Through its early history the trail served traders and innkeepers, preachers and proselytizers, and highwaymen and criminals.  By the end of the 19th century, the trail fell into disuse as first steamboats and then railroads became the preferred transportation system of the region.

The National Park Service helped revive the Natchez Trace as a Parkway in the 1930s, after a long campaign by history advocates, road boosters, and local congressmen.  The road was a Civilian Conservation Corps project to help move the South out of the depression, but World War II, limits on federal appropriations, and the rise of the interstate highway system delayed its completion, with the final segments not built until 2005

Today, the Natchez Trace Parkway runs for 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to just outside Nashville, Tennessee. The National Park Service maintains a number of historic sites, campgrounds, and visitor centers along its route.  Designed for leisurely driving, the speed limit is set at 50 miles per hour, access points are limited, and commercial truck traffic is prohibited.  It makes for one of the nicest bicycle trips I have ever taken on a road designed for automobile transportation.  And on the one occasion of an equipment failure beyond our abilities to repair, a Park Service ranger soon arrived to lend assistance.

Bicycling in Nature is a special way to experience the out-of-doors.  One travels faster than by walking, but still the environment is fully present in sight, sound, and smell (read more here about my thoughts on the environmental joys and spiritual benefits of biking).  The Natchez Trace in April was warm, the trees were leafing out, and the dogwood were in bloom.  Reptiles came out of hibernation, and snakes and turtles were on the move; we helped some, but sadly not all, cross the pavement.

Because of its development as a Parkway, the amount of structures on the route is quite limited and we enjoyed peaceful pedals through mature hardwood forests, took in park-like open spaces, and enjoyed a short walk through a flooded cypress and tupelo forest.  The regulated traffic and considerate drivers made it a pleasant trip, except for the morning we rode in a heavy rain.  There are quiet pull-offs with historical and natural interpretative signs, but being initially designed for motor traffic, the length between water and bathroom facilities is a bit longer than ideal for this two-wheeled traveller.

The Towns and History of Mississippi are linked by the Trace, and we enjoyed staying in bed & breakfast facilities in Natchez (where we started), Port Gibson, Kosciusko, and Houston (just south of Tupelo).  These evening stops gave us a first hand look at the beautiful mansions of the past, as well as the economic struggles of the present, neither of which are visible on the Parkway.  In suburban Jackson, we stayed the night in new town Ridgeland, where recently developed bike trails made negotiating modern traffic a bit easier (except for a scary traffic circle where the designated bike lane disappeared).  A shuttle service facilitated the trip, and we only had to carry a few clothes, some snacks for lunch, and water.  All in all, the trip was just the right combination of natural attractions and human comforts.

Parkways are a short branch on the evolutionary tree of transportation.  The first parkway, a term which now applies to any landscaped thoroughfare, predates automobiles.  Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park, developed a parkway in the late 19th century in Brooklyn to segregate pedestrians, bicyclists, and horse carriages from one another as well as create a tree-lined linkage between public parks.  In 1908, William K. Vanderbilt, an early automobile enthusiast, constructed a limited access parkway with overpasses on Long Island that was conducive both to pleasure trips and auto races (until they were banned following several fatal accidents).  Portions of both of these early parkways still exist, and have in places now been converted to bicycle trails.

Parkways enjoyed their greatest popularity in the 1920s and 1930s as an urban planning tool and as a forced marriage between cars and parks.  However, after World War II, the increased speed and popularity of automobiles, the rise in commercial traffic, and the development of the freeway ended the segregation of cars and trucks.  Pedestrians and bicycle were either banished or forgotten as a transportation mode for several decades.

Fortunately, bicycling has enjoyed a resurgence in the last few years as Americans become more conscious of their own health and the health of the environment.  The use of bikes for both recreation and utilitarian transportation has been aided by the repaving of old railroad right-of-ways and by the creation of bike lanes on urban streets.  We were pleased to discover a rails-to-trails conversion on our trip:  The 44-mile Tanglefoot Trail with a terminus in Houston, Mississsippi.  These segregated bikeways are now the safest and most enjoyable ways to experience nature on a bicycle, but the Natchez Parkway offers a wonderful trip through history and a wonderful experience in the evolution of transportation.

If you go:  
Start your planning with the help of the National Park Service and the Natchez Trace Compact

We are able to book bed & breakfast lodging, and get helpful tips from

The entertaining and helpful Karla Brown provided our shuttle service

Great bike repair is available in Ridgeland, Mississippi at The Bike Crossing (thank you!)

If you are looking for good Rails-to-Trails for biking throughout the US, go to TrailLink

A word on safety: the traffic was light and drivers considerate on our trip, but there is always the danger of drivers who are inattentive due to sleepiness, substance abuse, or in-car distractions.  We wore highly visible colors, had reflective equipment and outfitted our bikes with bright flashing lights in front and back.

Thank you to the kind people of Mississippi for their hospitality, the staff of the National Park Service for their help, and Anna for the photos