Friday, April 21, 2017

Why I Am Marching for Science

I am not one who attends marches.  I was not raised in a family of protest or social activism. Rather, my parents leaned conservative, both in their political positions as well as in their predilection to respect authority, be cautious of change, and work within the system.  I was a boy scout.

I was also raised to enjoy, and understand, nature.  We had a bird book by the breakfast table so we could identify unusual visitors to our feeder.  I took many classes at the local nature center in astronomy, flowers, birds, and, my favorite, insects.  We took family vacations to state and national parks, and we always signed up for the interpretive programs.  I grew up canoeing the Au Sable and Shiawasseee Rivers.

Being a conservative and a student of nature were never in conflict for me.  Later, as I took courses in environmental studies, I came to appreciate the long history of Republican support for nature.  As a teen, I read about Teddy Roosevelt and I met Bill Milliken; both are among my heroes.  And even as environmental policy has become more partisan in recent years, the basic facts of nature--the science--has always been a non-political touchstone.

The Nature Conservancy's work starts with science, and for that reason it has been the environmental organization that has received the longest and largest of my financial support, going back to 1983.  For over a decade now, I have also had the honor to serve as a trustee of the Michigan Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.  I have seen first hand how science grounds, guides, and challenges the conservation work of this international organization.  More than 600 actual living scientists are employed by The Nature Conservancy to understand and protect nature near and far.

For instance, The Nature Conservancy works in the Saginaw Bay watershed to help farmers put in place agricultural practices to reduce polluted run-off and make streams, and the fish who live in them, healthier.  A new computer mapping tool allows in-the-field technicians to determine the precise water quality benefits of certain agricultural practices on specific farm fields. The science is complicated, the tool is not. Crop advisors, conservation district staff, and Nature Conservancy scientists can use their tablet or laptop computer to quickly and easily give real-time advice to farmers. To see other examples of how The Nature Conservancy beneficially uses science, read this account from Hugh Possingham, their chief scientist.

The Nature Conservancy has worked hard to stay out of the political fray. Science has been their antidote to, and their defense against, partisan efforts to use conservation causes for political gains. A reliance on facts, research, and the best collective knowledge can help avoid, or at least limit, partisan arguments.  Sound science can often form the basis for common agreement among those with differing views.

Two other values of The Nature Conservancy align with their commitment to science: being non-confrontational and pragmatic. A scientific approach to conservation puts the focus on practical solutions that are most likely to achieve a conservation outcome, not necessarily the one that will gain the most political or popular praise. Likewise, confrontation, lawsuits, and public criticism are not likely to lead to the compromises often necessary to address complex environmental challenges.

Science is under attack, unfortunately, and that diminishes the ability of well-meaning conservationists to do their best, non-partisan work.  The challenges we face as communities, nations, or the world as a whole have become much more complex and difficult in the last few decades.  For instance, water pollution sources used to be easily identified by finding a pipe and then cleaning up the source.  Now, pollution flows from the land from a thousand different sources: excess fertilizer in fields, toxic run-off from parking lots, herbicides overused on a lawn. Figuring out the many sources, their relative pollution contributions, and--most importantly--how to clean them up, is now a complicated science exercise.

As scientists work to understand our modern pollution problems, sometimes the answers they come to are not certain, or are difficult to explain, or challenge long-held notions about how human society operates. And, as our environmental challenges become more severe, the responses necessary to solve them demand more from us in financial resources, changes in how we live, or completely new approaches to long-standing business practices.  Sometimes, rather than face these difficult policy or moral choices, public and private leaders have chosen to criticize or challenge the science instead.

Often a challenge to the science presented is a good thing.  It is the long-standing practice of scientists to critique each others' work, just as lawyers present the best side of their arguments before a judge.  The debate can identify mistakes, lead to new knowledge, or help create alternative solutions. However, in the last few years the science, and the scientists themselves, have come under attack.  Our best and brightest thinkers at our most prestigious institutions--universities, research centers, and organizations like The Nature Conservancy--have had their hard-earned knowledge ignored, dismissed, or trashed.  Even worse, the commitment, honesty, and good character of the scientists I know have been criticized.

I am joining the Science March in my state Capitol because I want to re-establish science as the bedrock of non-political, bi-partisan conservation efforts.  Sadly, many of the special interests that feel threatened by our difficult environmental challenges have aligned themselves with the Republican party, and the attacks the have fomented from a few Republican politicians pain me. Democrats have their own biases and flaws, but the abandonment of science by the majority party leaves me little option but to stand up in the public square and speak up for science-based conservation.

Some will criticize scientists for engaging in public speech this way, and a few years ago I would have agreed with them.  However, science has been too quiet, or ineffective in communicating through traditional means, or purposefully ignored.  A public protest should not be the only way science seeks to re-establish its voice, but it is a way to start.  The issues we face are too serious for science to be silent.

So, I will be there on Earth Day, an event that began as a "teach-in" in 1970, doing what I can to speak up for science, to provide testimony for the conservation solutions we gain from science, and to support the many smart and committed men and women who use science to tackle the serious environmental problems that threaten the ecosystems that sustain us.

I invite you too to stand for Nature and make the pledge to support science.



The March for Science in Lansing is at the State Capitol from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday April 22



To learn more about the March for Science in Washington DC and/or find a March near you go to www.marchforscience.com


Friday, March 17, 2017

Conservation Success Stories


I have taken up a new, positive social media practice and every Friday I am posting a conservation success story on my Facebook page.  Unfortunately, environmental protection has come under attack the last few years.  These stories are a reminder of what can be accomplished when creative and committed people apply on science, economics, and sound policy to conserve the natural world.

These are links to the success stories I have highlighted this year.

May 12 The DeVries Nature Conservancy was established over a decade ago as the legacy of Jack and Fran DeVries. The 135 acres along the Shiawassee River provide over 4 miles of trail and lots of ready opportunity for the exploration of nature. Get outside and take in wildflowers, abundant birds, and the children's playscape.  See a schedule of events and learn more here http://devriesnature.org

May 5 This week's conservation success story comes from the Great Lakes of Africa, where scientists from Michigan are--this week--working with colleagues from several nations to share their knowledge to help protect natural resources while providing development opportunities. Read more about The Great Lakes of Africa conference https://www.greatlakesofafrica.org/#  

For several years, The Nature Conservancy has been working in several villages on the shores of Lake Tanganyika https://www.nature.org/.../wherewework/tuungane-project.xml

April 29 A bi-partisan initiative to fight climate change is this week's conservation success story. Thirty-four members of congress (17 Rep. and 17 Dem.) have formed the Climate Solutions Caucus, another sign of the diverse, common sense responses to climate change supported by most Americans. I am looking forward to a Michigan legislator joining this group soon. Read more here

April 22 "Why I Am Marching for Science" my thoughts and blogpost on the March for Science and The Nature Conservancy

April 14 This week's success story highlights the work of the the US Geological Survey, one of several government science agencies that provides the knowledge and research necessary for conservation success. Among other important tasks, the USGS manages gauging stations that provide data on stream flow; in the case of the Shiawassee River they have collected data for 86 years at Owosso.  John Wesley Powell, second director of USGS, first explored the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. https://en.wikipedia.org/wi…/United_States_Geological_Survey

April 7 Lake Onondaga teaches us much about clean water.  Fifty years ago, many bodies of water, including the Shiawassee were quite polluted.  The successful efforts to restore lakes and rivers has been long and expensive; we cannot afford to go backward. https://ensia.com/voices/onondaga-protect-environment/

March 31 The Final Floor highlights sustainable forestry in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  Wood harvested in The Nature Conservancy's Two-Hearted Forest Reserve was used to construct the basketball floor used in this year's Final Four NCAA championship game.  Read more here. 

March 24 Sandhill Cranes have made an amazing comeback in Michigan and the rest of the Midwest thanks to restrictions on hunting and habitat preservation.  Read more here. 

March 17 The Clean Air Act has been one of our nation's most significant conservation success stories.  The changes in automobile technology and the fuel economy standards have not only been essential in improving public health, they have also reduced carbon emissions and spurred engineering advances in Michigan's automobile industry.   Mark Tercek has a clear and strong summary.

March 10 The Big Two Hearted River  in Michigan's UP has been improved thanks to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.  Many bridges, culverts, and other road-stream crossings throughout the watershed were upgraded to reduce erosion and facilitate fish passage.  Read more here

March 3  "Piper" is the short animated movie that won an Oscar, and appropriate for this World Wildlife Day.   It features sanderlings, the small sandpipers found on both coasts.  Read an account here of how Pixar folks became birdwatchers to make the movie; a short clip of the movie is included.

February 24  "The Accidentals," a relatively new band formed by three young people from Traverse City, performs a benefit concert on March 25 in Owosso.  They have had a big hit with their song "Michigan and Again." Read an interview here about their environmental roots and connection to the Great Lakes.

February 17   The Sage Grouse is the largest grouse in North America.  It is endangered, but not officially so.  Rather, there is a bold and comprehensive effort underway to protect its habitat in the western US.  This protects other plants and animals and the cowboy (and cowgirl) way of life. The Endangered Species Act spurred this effort, but the partnership of government agencies with local people helps ensure success.  Read more, and find many links, here.   Read here to learn "Five Things You Need to Know About the Greater Sage Grouse and the Endangered Species Act."

February 10  Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, Georgia was unknown to me until a birding trip I made there with an old friend recently.  It has everything: diverse habitats, interesting cultural history, and good birding.  There's now a move to make it a National Park, something the local community strongly supports because it would boost the local economy.  Read more here.

February 3 The Saginaw Bay RCPP effort of the Nature Conservancy is an innovative effort to use science and work with farmers, crop advisers, and others to reduce polluted runoff.  Read more and watch a video here.

January 27 Lake Erie Watersnake is a conservation success story because one person learned a lot of natural history (i.e. science) and then became inspired to take action.  Read more here.

January 20  Theodore Roosevelt is a conservation success story from history. Teddy was raised as a birdwatcher and naturalist, was redeemed from depression by a stint on a ranch in North Dakota (now a national park that bears his name), and, as President, passed the law to establish National Monuments, set aside national bird sanctuaries and created the US Forest Service.  Read some his still timely thoughts about conservation here.

January 13   Lake Ontario, the last (or first) of the Great Lakes is the site of a conservation success. A new management plan based on natural systems will restore 64,000 acres of wetlands and improve the health of the lake.  This, like many conservation efforts, requires good science and a solid governmental agency to balance both environmental and economic needs.  Read more here.

January 6  You can be a conservation success story.  Don't despair, take action, says Jon Foley, the smart engaging director of the California Academy of Sciences.  He offers easy, straightforward device on what you can do to meet global challenges.  Read more, and see some nice photos, here.

December 30  The Endangered Species Act was signed into law this week 10 years ago.  Here are 10 conservation success stories of animals saved by this federal legislation.

December 23   President Obama carried through on the bi-partisan tradition of all the Presidents back to Teddy Roosevelt.  All of them, Republican and Democrat have established national parks and national monuments.  Read more and watch a video here that recaps President Obama's legacy.

December 16  Sparks of Hope, 2016  There were many conservation success stories last year.  Read here about 12 signs of progress as reported by The Nature Conservancy.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Obama's Final Words on Climate Change






“Without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible. ...

Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, doubled our renewable energy, and led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet. But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change; they’ll be busy dealing with its effects: environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.

Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations; it betrays the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.”

-- President Barack Obama, January 10, 2017 

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