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How to Revive the Great Mississippi river

A Survival Guide for the Pl anet

Published by the Natural Resources Defense Council

An artist imagined this tryst, but scientists have observed actual offspring of grizzly-polar bear interbreeding.

Arctic Fever

Strange things are happening as sea ice melts and old boundaries dissolve, tearing at ancient strands of one of the planet’s most fragile food webs.

spring 2011 w w

Yellowstone’s Intrepid Pilot: A man, A plane, A Mission For the love of birds: a daughter’s tale Waterless USA: A Preview of 2030


Onearth magazine

volume 33 number 1 spring 2011


38 The Plane Truth

d e pa r tm ents cover story


by George Black

High above the Rockies, pilot Bruce Gordon shows scientists, students, advocates, and politicians the beauty of the land—and how to protect it.

A time machine in eastern Tennessee takes climate scientists into the future. Plus, a Louisiana biologist kick-starts a fashion trend.

Q&A It was military research that gave us the Internet. Now Jackalyne Pfannenstiel believes that the Navy can show us the path to a clean-energy future.

46 Thirsty Nation

by Carl DeTorres and James Bronzan

We have too little water, and much of what we do have is in the wrong places. Creating a “virtual river” can provide some of the solutions we need.

24 the synthesist

48 Free the

26 Living Green

by David Gessner

Even trailer homes and power lines cannot interfere with the profound solace of birding.

by Alan Burdick

Nanotechnology shines a light on zooplankton, and what may be the world’s largest migration.


The loss of Louisiana’s wetlands calls for a new approach that moves beyond our obsession with straight lines and respects, as well, Nature’s own engineering prowess.

by Laura Wright

This Alaskan husky lives with its owners on a remote stretch of tundra near Kotzebue, in Alaska’s far north, where hunting is vital to survival and to a culture threatened by melting sea ice.

poe tr y

14 Bringing in the May/ Maybe Not

Arctic Fever

by William Greenway

by Bruce Barcott

57 After the Snows

An outpost on the Chukchi Sea, north of the Arctic Circle,

by Elton Glaser

onearth online visit

corey arnold

8 From the Editor 14 Letters 17 FRONTLINES

Take a tour of Kotzebue, Alaska, and hear Bruce Barcott, author of our cover story, discuss how climate change is also changing its culture at

reveals how swiftly a world of seemingly eternal ice and wild bounty can change in a warming climate. Bound

54 reviews

Two memoirs take on the literary challenge of saying something new about our western lands.

64 open space

by Jane Brox In our overlit world, can we rediscover the wonder—and the loneliness—of the ancient night sky?

i ns i d e n r dc

10 view from nrdc

together in a fragile food web dependent on diminishing

by Frances Beinecke

sea ice, Inuit people, polar bears, ringed seals, Arctic cod,

12 eye on washington

and even tiny crustaceans must now struggle to adapt.

by Bob Deans

58 dispatches

Cover: Photo-illustration for OnEarth by Tia Magallon.

Greening China’s textile mills, an NRDC founder’s advice, and more.


onearth 1


A Giant Step Towards A Smaller Footprint

BPA-Free, 100% recycled and 100% recyclable, our Eco•Guard™ packaging reuses existing materials and reduces our bottle carbon footprint by 92%. Our best-selling multivitamins deliver the nutrient potencies important for long-term health in a base of superfood extracts plus enzymes and probiotics. And our donations help at-risk populations worldwide. Making a difference for the health of people, pets and planet.

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n a t u r a l r e s o u r ce s d e f en s e c o u nc i l Editor-in-Chief Executive Editor

George Black

Douglas S. Barasch Managing Editor

Janet Gold

Senior Editor Laura Wright Editorial Assistant Megan M. Teixeira Art Director gail Ghezzi Photo Editor Meghan Hurley Poetry Editor Copy Editors Research Interns

Brian Swann David Gunderson, Elise Marton Emily Elert, Genevra Pittman Rose Eveleth, Lauren F. Friedman

Contributing Editors Bruce Barcott, Rick Bass, Michael Behar,

Alan Burdick, Craig Canine, Tim Folger, David Gessner, Edward Hoagland, Sharon Levy, Bill McKibben, Mar y Oliver, Sharman Apt Russell, Elizabeth Royte, Alex Shoumatoff, Bruce Stutz

Online Editors Scott Dodd, Laura Wright Community Editors Emily Gertz, Ben Jervey Online Production Dave Levitan, Auden Shim, William Tam creative consultant Special Projects Advertising Director publisher Deputy Publisher Editorial Board Ex Officio Founder

J.-C. Suarès Francesca Koe Larr y Guerra Phil Gutis David Parker Wendy Gordon, Chair Robert Bourque, Chris Calwell, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, Nathanael Greene, Henr y Henderson, Roland Hwang, Sara Levinson, Josephine A. Merck, Cullen Murphy, David Pettit, Lisa Suatoni, Patricia F. Sullivan, Frederick A. Terry Jr. Frances Beinecke, Peter Lehner, Linda Lopez, Jack Murray, Wesley P. Warren John H. Adams

Generous support for Onearth is provided by Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund The Josephine Patterson Albright Fund for Feature Reporting The Vervane Foundation The Larsen Fund The Sunflower Foundation

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onearth is a quarterly magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. It is open to diverse points of view; the opinions expressed by contributors and the editors are their own and not necessarily those of NRDC.

About N RDC

NRDC is a national nonprofit organization with 1.3 million members and online activists, and a staff of lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists. NRDC’s mission is to safeguard the earth: its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.

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onearth (issn 1537-4246) (volume 33, number 1) is published quarterly by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 40 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011, and printed by The Lane Press, South Burlington, Vermont. Newsstand circulation through Disticor Magazine Distribution Services; info@disticor. com. Copyright 2011 by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. Periodical postage paid at New York and at additional mailing offices. NRDC Membership dues $15 annually. onearth is available to all members of NRDC upon request. Library subscription $8, one year; $15, two years; $22, three years. Single copies $5. To e-mail a change of address: postmaster: Send address changes to onearth, 40 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011.

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spring 2011

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No Gasoline Required?

If you’ve ever given serious thought to who killed the electric car, you’ll be glad to know it’s been reborn. With concerns about gas mileage and greenhouse gas emissions finally taking hold in Detroit, the e-car is back in more forms than ever: sports cars, minivans, roadsters, and sedans. A veteran car correspondent takes one out for a spin and tells us how they are helping U.S. automakers get back on their feet.

Meet the Change Makers

In boardrooms and city halls across the country, high-powered, visionary leaders are embracing clean energy while creating new jobs. In a series of success stories, we interview top executives and officials about their efforts to alter the environmental landscape locally, nationally, and globally.

George Black Goes to the Edge


OnEarth’s executive editor has chronicled civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in Bangladesh. In his new Web column, The Edge, he explores how climate forces are remaking our world and whether we can restrain our insatiable demand for energy.

4p h o t o s

Share your best nature photography with us. We’ll publish our favorite shot in the pages of the magazine [see this issue’s pick on p. 61].

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& video

Farming Grows Up


Mass E-Waste

How will a world with limited resources feed an exploding population? Designers are offering ideas for “vertical farms” in the heart of cities. See how agriculture could look in the future:

Got a balloon, a digital camera, and an environmental problem to solve? The Grassroots Mapping movement gives us all a chance to be high-tech researchers. Follow a project in the heart of Brooklyn:

Old computers, cell phones, and other electronics are adding tons of toxic metals to landfills. In New York City, stores that sell these products are also helping to get rid of them. Watch:


onearth 5

contributors carl DEtorres (“Thirsty Nation,” p. 46) is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. His maps and infographics appear in such publications as Time, Wired, the New York Times, Business Week, Travel + Leisure, and Fortune. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, Danielle, and son, Hugo. GEORGE steinmetz (“The Plane Truth,” p. 38) is a geophysicist-turned-photographer whose work appears regularly in National Geographic. In 2006 the National Science Foundation awarded him a grant to document the work of scientists studying Antarctic volcanoes. Now he’s into photographing deserts from his paraglider.

James gerstenzang (“Naval Intelligence,” p. 20) has reported from all 50 states and at least 75 countries. After covering politics for the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press for almost 40 years, the former newswriter is now editorial director for the Safe Climate Campaign, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting global warming. our paper and printing onearth is committed to environmentally sound publishing practices. Our text stock contains a minimum of 30 percent postconsumer waste and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that the world’s forests are sustainably managed. Our cover stock contains a minimum of 10 percent postconsumer waste.

steinmetz: Catherine Converse; brox: luc demers; gerstenzang: JEFF GOLDMAN

Jane brox (“Star Light, Star Bright,” p. 64) is an author and essayist whose fourth book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was named one of Time magazine’s Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2010. Her work has appeared in the Best American Essays series and the Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Zen and the art of NO


Photo: Russ Roca

editor’s letter


A grand tour of OUR changing landscapes

D ouglas S . barasch

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jeff Weiner

n this issue’s tour of far-flung destinations, you can observe dramatic changes unfolding in real time. In our cover story, contributing editor BRUCE BARCOTT explores Kotzebue, Alaska, and its environs, which border the Chukchi Sea, north of the Arctic Circle. Change has come with alarming speed for all the residents of the Arctic—from microscopic algae to polar bears and humans—because all depend on the integrity of sea ice, which is rapidly diminishing. From scientists, Inuit elders, and local officials, Barcott learns firsthand how the shifting climate is triggering a cascade of effects within one of the world’s most delicate food webs. As one biologist tells him, “What we’re doing with climate change is carrying out a long-term scientific experiment at continental scale.” Precisely understanding the early results of this unintentional experiment may be our best hope of altering its ultimate outcome. Our executive editor, GEORGE BLACK, examines change from a different perspective—a couple of thousand feet above the Yellowstone ecosystem, which he surveys from a Cessna 210 piloted by the intrepid activist and conservationist Bruce Gordon. The whitebark pine forests of Montana and Wyoming, whose energy-rich nuts provide a crucial food source to grizzly bears, are disappearing with almost incomprehensible speed as the mountain pine beetle climbs to ever higher elevations in response to a warming climate. Gordon’s flying skills, coupled with advanced mapping technologies, have allowed scientists to accurately assess the extent of this damage for the first time. Similarly, his aerial surveys of the natural gas drilling rigs and infrastructure metastasizing across the Wyoming wilderness will arm local advocates with the data they need to protect this unique landscape before it’s too late. Contributing editor DAVID GESSNER takes us on another journey, this time by boat through the bayous of Louisiana, where he observes changes that have been unfolding over decades. The massive reengineering of the Mississippi River has deprived the once-lush delta of the river’s sediments and nutrients. Crisscrossed by man-made canals, these diminished wetlands have left the entire landscape vulnerable not only to exploding oil rigs but also to Mother Nature’s hurricanes and floods. Gessner’s river guide, the local outfitter and unlikely activist Ryan Lambert, contemplates how to undo the damage—starting with the Mississippi’s restoration—while Gessner reflects on an equally necessary change in our outlook. Our senior editor, LAURA WRIGHT, explores mysteries closer at hand: near her childhood home in upstate New York and outside the window of her Brooklyn home, distinctly different landscapes, each of which offers revelations and inspiration. On a bird-watching trip, she and her mother pause in yards and clearings, near parking lots, and beside steel bridges, to count goldfinches, nuthatches, and cardinals in a grand, if patchwork, ecosystem. Ecosystem may be a somewhat bloodless scientific term, but it is one that comes to resplendent life in the hands of our authors, who examine the fabric of life one gossamer thread at a time. If truth-seeking and love of place are sufficient to save these irreplaceable landscapes, then there is abundant evidence for such hope of salvation in our current issue.

Photo: Nature’s Greatest Defender - Courtesy of The Really Interesting Picture Company / © George Schaller

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very American deserves and expects cleaner air.

The Clean Air Act has helped meet that expectation for 40 years. Yet some lawmakers have launched an all-out assault on this fundamental protection for our health. They are trying to prevent the EPA from updating standards for such toxins as mercury and arsenic and for the greenhouse-gas pollutant carbon dioxide; their efforts, if they succeed, would take our country back to a darker time when we all breathed dirtier air. Most of us have loved ones whose quality of life is diminished—or even endangered—by breathing dirty air. My son-in-law is one of 24 million Americans living with asthma, a condition made worse by air pollution. Several of my family members suffer from heart disease, and I had breast cancer; the risks for both of these diseases can be elevated by air pollutants. I remember traveling to Los Angeles in the 1970s, when the air hit unhealthy levels of pollution more than 200 days a year. That number dropped to 28 days by 2004. In the 1970s, nearly 90 percent of American children had blood-lead levels higher than the Centers for Disease Control deemed safe. Today, only 2 percent of children do. The Clean Air Act led to those improvements by phasing out lead in gasoline and reducing air pollution in cities. And because the law sparked innovations—from catalytic converters for tailpipes to scrubbers for smokestacks—these advances came at a relatively small cost. Still, the work of the Clean Air Act is not done. Hundreds of power plants still lack modern pollution controls, and our nation has not yet enacted limits on carbon dioxide emissions. Pollution from coal-fired power plants alone led to approximately 13,000 premature deaths in 2010. Americans want the government to take care of this unfinished business. A recent poll found that 82 percent of Americans support the work of the EPA, in general, and 73 percent support the agency’s effort to reduce CO2 emissions, in particular. People know that if the government won’t make our air safer, polluters will not do it themselves. We need the EPA to be a line of defense for our families against deep-pocketed industries. NRDC has fought to preserve the Clean Air Act in the past, and we will do so again now, but we need your help. To stay informed and find out how to take action to preserve the Clean Air Act, follow us on Facebook or to go to NRDC’s blog to read the latest expert analysis from our staff.

franc E s beinecke , P r e s i d e n t

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nrdc in the news “‘There are systematic problems in the industry that need to be addressed,’ said Frances Beinecke, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the [president’s] spill commission, speaking to Time earlier. ‘We’re going to need much more aggressive action by industry and by the Interior Department.’”—From “Spill Report: Will the BP Disaster Reduce the Risk of Deepwater Drilling?,” Time, January 11, 2011

“‘BANNING OR DELAYING the EPA...would be nothing less than a dream come true for industries that would put profits ahead of our health and too many House members seem willing to do just that,’ said Franz Matzner, a legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.”—From “GreenhouseGas Rules Targeted by Lawmakers,” Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2011

“‘FDA’S APPROACH HAS BEEN to focus on the known carcinogens in the oil and to test specifically for them,’ said Gina Solomon, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. ‘We share the concern that the FDA may be looking too narrowly, and in fact, there are some important PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] that the FDA isn’t looking for, so they may be missing some of the carcinogens.’”—From “Panel Challenges Gulf Seafood Safety All-Clear,” NBC Los Angeles, December 27, 2010

Matt Greenslade/


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Photo Š Tim Fitzharris



eye on washington

by bob deans

How we get to the truth Accident at Three Mile Island, assembled by Jimmy Carter needed to know what caused the BP in 1979 after a critical loss of coolant caused a meltdown in oil disaster and how we might keep part of the nuclear core at the Pennsylvania power plant. something like that from happen- The commission recommended sweeping changes in the ing again, he did what presidents nuclear power industry, stronger safeguards to protect the stretching back to George Wash- public, and reforms in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ington have done when confronted (NRC). In response, the industry created the Institute for with a vexing challenge: he named Nuclear Power Operations to set safety standards, audit plants, and hold utility companies accountable by grading an independent commission. From the Whiskey Rebellion of their performance. The NRC was reorganized to be more 1794 to last year’s BP blowout, crisis and controversy have effective, and Congress strengthened protections to guard prompted presidents to seek sage counsel from trusted against future nuclear accidents. What were the keys to its success? First, the public unexperts. How much difference these commissions make depends on why they are formed, who is appointed to them, derstood the crisis, and this spurred politicians to act. Second, the commission was seen as bipartisan, so its and what they report once their work is done. Presidents sometimes impanel a commission to build motivations and advice were credible. Finally, its recomsupport for a specific agenda, but the tactic seldom works. mendations were specific. The work of the BP panel The President’s Commission met these same standards of to Strengthen Social Security From the Whiskey Rebellion success, says Jordan Tama, didn’t win many converts to of 1794 to last year’s BP blowout, a research fellow with the George W. Bush’s hopes for crisis and controversy have prompted Center for Congressional and privatizing the national retirepresidents to seek sage counsel Presidential Studies: “It’s a biment insurance program.  partisan commission that was Commissions meant to from trusted experts. unanimous, its recommendadeflect criticism rarely work out either. After Ohio National Guard troops shot and tions were specific, and, as a result, its proposals can provide killed four students during an antiwar protest at Kent State a focal point for debate in Congress.” The oil spill commission’s recommendations are strikingly University in 1970, President Richard Nixon hoped to get cover from his Commission on Campus Unrest. The panel, similar to the findings of the Three Mile Island commission. though, largely blamed the administration for national divi- They call for changes in attitude and oversight on the part sions that were, it said, “as deep as any since the Civil War.” of the industry itself, stronger safeguards from Congress, Some presidential commissions have, however, helped to a reorganization of the government oversight agency, and guide the country toward needed change in the face of great administration action to ensure that regulators have the tools opportunity, challenge, or risk. The National Commission they need to enforce the law. As with presidential panels daton Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, or the 9/11 ing to the dawn of the Republic, the oil spill commission can Commission, formed by President Bush and Congress found show us where we need to go. It’s up to the rest of us, working flaws in the way our government dealt with terrorist threats together—the oil industry, the Congress, the administration, and recommended substantial change, including the creation all of us—to take the good work this commission has done of the office of director of national intelligence to integrate and act on its recommendations. the work of 16 separate U.S. intelligence-gathering agencies. The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Hori- Bob Deans is NRDC’s associate director of communications. His zon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (which included NRDC 30-year career as a journalist included stints as chief Asia corresponPresident Frances Beinecke) had a modern precedent dent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as a White House reporter, in function and task: the President’s Commission on the and as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

1 2 onearth S P RIN G 2 0 1 1

illustration by bruce morser

When Barack Obama

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by a handful of corporations aided by U.S. policymakers. —VICKI BERGLUND Kalamazoo, Michigan

THE PERU I KNOW I lived and worked in some of the areas described in “Life and Death in a Dry Land,” by George Black (Winter 2011), while serving in the Peace Corps from 1962 to 1964. I returned in 1970 (after the earthquake) and again in 2008. I found the article profoundly interesting, and when combined with the increase in population in those areas that I saw for myself over the years, it all rings a very loud alarm bell indeed. posted online by John O’Brien

REALLY, DR. WILSON? I found your interview with E. O. Wilson in “The Human Factor,” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Winter 2011), fascinating. I was brought up short, however, by the following: “[Future] agriculture has to be based on…genetically modified crops that can produce high yields without sucking up the world’s remaining groundwater.” Then comes Wilson’s next thought: “At the same time, we’ve got to save what’s left—biological diversity.” An interesting juxtaposition, since agriculture itself has lost biological diversity. Thousands of food plants, including many drought-resistant varieties, have been eliminated or made scarce all around the world

1 4 onearth spri n g 2 0 1 1

Kolbert’s interview with E. O. Wilson was marred by an error. Wilson most certainly did not create “more or less singlehandedly” a “whole new field of inquiry: sociobiology.” I recall a dozen or so major researchers in anthropology, primatology, behavioral biology, and psychology who were actively creating this field prior to the publication of Wilson’s Sociobiology, in 1975. The approach emerged inevitably from growing concern for selection above the level of the individual and the recognition of genetic inheritance of behavioral patterns. —JEFFREY M. DICKEMANN Richmond, California

POOR VISION “Roadmap to the Future,” by Daniel Grushkin and Gary Hovland (Winter 2011), does a disservice by not emphasizing walking and bicycling. High-tech limited-access roadways (elevated in your depiction) and motor vehicle dependence (where’s the coal plant?) are neither a healthy vision nor likely to be much more than a fantasy. posted online by David D.

CONNECTING THE DOTS In “A Hidden Cost of Farming” (Winter 2011), Daniel Grushkin writes about the danger of running

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out of phosphorus fertilizer. You ought to get him in touch with Sasha Kramer, whose work on using human waste as fertilizer you showcased a few pages later in “The Virtues of Human Waste,” by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman. Human

waste (preferably well composted) has been used as a fertilizer for thousands of years in China, so we know it works. And you don’t even have to mine it. —LOUISE QUIGLEY Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Bringing in the May/Maybe Not It’s spring in northeast Ohio, where the year is nine months of anticipation followed by three months of disappointment. April here is not the cruelest month, just crueler than March. We’re the grayest place in the country, every year battle Buffalo and win, our SAD sadder than theirs, nanny nanny boo-hoo. The dogwoods try to bloom, but would walk like Burnham Wood to Birmingham if they could. Once a preacher showed me how their blossoms form an Easter cross, little daubs of blood on the four limbs. Yes, love is almost in the air—in virgins slogging around a flaccid maypole, the scent of lilacs gone looking for an ear to dab behind, the ocher drift of sooty pollen— but so is parting, another sort of beginning, I guess, like the weather today, what the British, that dark and dripping race, call mizzle, almost invisible, until you step ankle deep into May’s fecundity of mud, and see the garnered drizzle dropping tears from every bud. —B y W i l l i a m G r een way

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spring 2011

scienc e b u sines s nat u r e techno l o g y c u l t u r e po l itics

Get Your Power to Go Jason Halpern’s parents


Inside this enclosure, scientists simulate the conditions of 2111.


Photograph by chad greene; photo imaging by

Even the best computer models can go only so far. In Tennessee, researchers are running climate change in fast-forward to test predictions about the future.


b y stephen or nes

t’s a cold day to visit the future. The road that leads there is an

unassuming gravel path that winds through the wooded hills of eastern Tennessee near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where Manhattan Project scientists helped develop the atomic bomb more than half a century ago. Past fenced-in fields and groves of tall trees, a strange, silvery structure appears in a grassy clearing. “Right here it’s 2011,” says Stan Wullschleger, a plant biologist and 20-year veteran of environmental projects at Oak Ridge. “But you walk through that door and you’re 100 years in the future.” Ducking his head, Wullschleger steps into an octagonal chamber nearly 40 feet across and 26 feet tall. The walls are made of the sort of plastic panels used in commercial greenhouses. It’s warm inside. Electrical wires jut from the ground and connect to an array of gadgets and gauges that precisely monitor and control conditions in what appears to be merely a plot of tall grass. Only this is no ordinary plot of grass. This is one of the world’s most advanced laboratories for studying the climatic conditions of tomorstephen ornes is a science writer whose work has appeared in Discover and New Scientist. He lives in Nashville.

own a vineyard. Seven years ago, they wanted to install solar panels to power one of their buildings, but they couldn’t: the roof was heavily shaded and the fields around the buildings were reserved for planting. Halpern was just in high school at the time, but he believed the cause was not lost. “Farmers already harvest solar energy,” he says. “They just do it with plants.” Now 23, Halpern believes he has a solution: the PowerFlower, a solar device that resembles a five-foot-tall metal flower. The device relies on concentrated photovoltaic technology (CPV): in this case, the mirrored “petals” focus the sun’s rays onto a rod that is covered with tiny solar cells. CPV has been used successfully in large-scale industrial installations, but it can also be scaled down and made portable. During the day, the PowerFlower can be connected to irrigation pumps, lights, electrical fencing, or other equipment. The unit is light enough to be hauled away on a hand truck, which may also make it useful for war zones and disaster areas. Halpern and his partner, Patrick Murphy, say the device may cost between $5,000 and $10,000. Hook up three in a row and you’ve got enough juice to run an irrigation system. —lauren f. friedman

spring 2011

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1 8 onearth

spring 2011

speed, a measurement needed to maintain air temperature. Heaters are adjusted frequently to simulate daily and seasonal temperature fluctuations. Devices on the ground measure carbon dioxide escaping from the soil, which is warmed, in this case, by dozens of vertical heat pipes buried throughout the enclosure, to a depth of nearly 10 feet. “The reality is that in the future, the deep soils will warm too,” Hanson says. “We’ve developed a technique to allow us to heat this portion of the ecosystem.” Even though SPRUCE is still in its test phase, it has already begun to reveal new information about the role that soil organisms play in determining local and regional carbon dioxide concentrations. As the soil warms, subterranean

Don’t Touch Those Seals Biologist Alejandro

Acevedo-Gutiérrez usually studies marine mammal behavior, but lately he’s been watching other creatures: human tourists. While on sabbatical in New Zealand, the Western Washington University scientist monitored visitors to a popular waterfall where groups of fur seal pups rest and play. Overenthusiastic tourists often get too close to the seals, try to touch them, or throw food or objects to encourage them to play and move about. As the seal pups flee, they are sometimes injured or, worse, trampled to death. But when AcevedoGutiérrez’s research assistant, his wife, sat on a nearby rock wearing an official-looking orange vest, the number of pestering groups of tourists dropped from 38 percent to 13 percent, even though she didn’t tell them what to do. Nature tourism is on the rise in many parts of the world, and that’s a good thing if it encourages conservation and educates people. But increased human traffic and development also take their toll on the animals. Posting regulations to prevent harassment doesn’t always make a difference, Acevedo-Gutiérrez says, but the presence of an onlooker seems to trigger people’s consciences, compelling them to do the right thing. —mara grunbaum

Paul souders/corbis

The SPRUCE team will set up shop in 2013 in northern Minnesota, where 24 identical chambers will be assembled in the Marcell Experimental Forest, which is managed by the U.S. Forest row. The discoveries made here Ser vice. Over the course of a will help scientists refine global decade, the researchers will use and regional climate models and SPRUCE to simulate various predictions—such as those used warming scenarios, and they hope by the Intergovernmental Panel the responses they witness—in on Climate Change (IPCC)—and plants, animals, and other organeventually inform the policies that isms—will both illuminate how will allow us to mitigate and adapt the ecosystem will evolve and to environmental change. Given expose previously unknown phethe impor tance of all of this, nomena that play a major but hidWullschleger and his colleagues den role in the ecosystem. have built special elevated walkUltimately, SPRUCE may help ways to avoid crushing their study to reveal what even the most adsubjects: the grass, of course, and vanced climate models are missthe delicate soil-based ecosystem ing: the unexpected responses that lies beneath. that often occur in a complex and As time machines go, this one chaotic system. Whereas climate is less Dr. Who than souped-up models allow weather station. r esear chers Thermometers to predict and other meaAs the soil warms, subterranean roots, future condisuring devices fungi, and bacteria become more tions based on are everywhere, active, their respiration rates increase, past obser vasuspended and carbon dioxide emissions rise. tions, SPRUCE overhead and chambers almounted on low researchmetal poles, capturing key bits of informa- roots, fungi, and bacteria become ers to test those predictions, tion about the ways in which the more active, their respiration teasing out the underlying ecosystem is responding to the rates increase, and carbon diox- causes for a particular observation. That’s what makes SPRUCE artificially warm conditions. In ide emissons rise. the past, scientists have tried to In early 2009, Hanson and his valuable, explains Werner Kurz, study how plants and animals colleagues used a similar cham- a senior scientist at Natural will react to climate change by ber to test how this might play Resources Canada and a lead pumping carbon dioxide into out in 2100, when the average author on four publications a bell jar or wrapping potted global temperature is predicted commissioned by the IPCC on plants in plastic and turning up to be 4 degrees warmer than it is forestry and land use. The panel is planning to issue the thermostat. But those small, today. In the late spring, carbon artificial environments miss too dioxide spiked and continued to its fifth report in 2014, which many of the natural variables in climb. By midyear, the heated means data from the Marcell a real-life forest, such as wind plot was producing more than Experimental Forest won’t be and rainfall. This endeavor puts twice as much carbon dioxide available in time. But the sixth those variables back in the mix, as the control plot. Hanson says report is likely to include these explains Paul Hanson, a forest the results indicate that “there’s a data, says the ecologist Yiqi Luo, ecophysiologist at Oak Ridge deep soil carbon source that past an IPCC contributing author who and principal investigator on the studies haven’t manipulated in studies how ecosystems regulate project, called SPRUCE, which the way future climates would.” carbon dioxide. In his lab at the stands for Spruce and Peatland To figure out what that source is, University of Oklahoma, Luo and Responses Under Climatic and the scientists will need to exam- his team fuse data from global Environmental Change. ine root respiration and the ac- change experiments into larger The chamber’s open top elimi- tivity of resident microbes more models, and he says projects like nates the need for simulated rain- closely, combining such work SPRUCE are “urgently needed” fall, and anemometers track wind with their study of soil warming. to verify their work.


Ask questions, get answers. And it’s all free.


Announcing a new community and social network where bird enthusiasts, beginning birders and experts alike can share their experiences. Post your pictures and videos, learn from leading ornithologists and help protect our natural bird habitat. is a joint effort of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Cornell Laboratory.



We’ve already tested an F/A-18 fighter on a 50-50 blend of jet fuel and biofuel. We flew it on Earth Day, and it went Mach 1.6 and tested beautifully.

Why is the Navy farther along on this than the other services?

great green fleet

Jackalyne Pfannenstiel sees clean energy as key to national security.

naval intelligence Military research and development has often inspired breakthroughs in civilian technology. Can the U.S. Navy now launch us into the post–fossil fuel era? When Jackalyne Pfannenstiel

took office last March as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment, something was missing from her résumé: experience with the military. But five years as chairwoman of the California an interview with Energy Commission and 20 years with jackalyne pfannenstiel the Pacific Gas and Electric Company by James Gerstenzang more than made up for that gap. As Pfannenstiel tells James Gerstenzang, her mission includes overseeing Navy and Marine Corps bases around the world, compliance with environmental standards, and efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and to find alternative energy sources to power everything from jet fighters and warships to computers and communications gear at forward operating bases in Afghanistan. For inspiration, she need only look at the wall behind her desk. There hangs a portrait of a three-masted nineteenth-century warship, its sails full, powered by nothing but the wind. What has the transition been like from the civilian sector to the military?

Technically, energy is energy, but from a cultural standpoint it’s a different world, because the needs here are different. People are much 2 0 onearth

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Navy Secretar y [Ray] Mabus recognized ver y early on the strategic importance of energy and our dependence on it from a military point of view—and so much of it is imported. Our job is to defend the country. So how do we reduce the risk that’s involved in importing so much of this critical resource? We also use a huge amount of energy in theater, in military operations. And that makes us vulnerable, both in terms of cost and in the risk to fuel convoys. So getting ourselves off imported energy is both a tactical and a strategic priority. How are the folks in uniform responding to these changes?

These people are creative. I don’t think they necessarily care what fuels go in their machines, but they love being part of getting things done differently. It doesn’t matter whether they believe in being green or whether they believe in climate change, but they do understand the strategic issues around fuel and our dependence on imported fuel. The operational people in both the Navy and the Marines are off the charts with some of the stuff they’re doing in actual wartime operations. The Marines have these experimental forward operating bases in Afghanistan where they’re putting together solar panels that power the air-conditioning for their tents and the desalination packages for clean water. They’ve also asked manufacturers to come to Quantico and show what they have to

offer. And then they pick the best technologies and six months later they’re using them in Afghanistan.

What’s happening on bases in the United States?

The goal is to reduce fossil energy use by 50 percent by 2020 and to cut the petroleum we use

nrdc enlists judith albert

Executive director of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) in NRDC’s New York office How do the Navy’s energy goals complement the efforts of the business and environmental communities? The Navy may be the single best economic catalyst to advance clean energy technology. Advanced biofuel companies need demand to bring their technologies to scale. The Navy has the necessary purchasing power, and as production increases, costs decrease. These technologies have been developed privately, at times with early-stage financing from the Department of Energy; the Navy’s rigorous performance standards will take them to the next level of sophistication. To read more about E2’s work with the Navy, visit

left: photograph for onearth by danuta oftinowski; right: illustration by eddie guy; jesse grant/getty images

more interested in energy because it’s so directly tied to our mission.

in our non-tactical fleet by the same amount by 2015. You’ll be seeing a lot of electric vehicles on our bases; they’re a very good fit. The Navy and Marines have almost 100 bases. Some are tiny recruiting stations and others are enormous, like Norfolk. They have housing, some retail, lots of offices, industrial sections—and they use energy in much the same ways a community or town would. Energy efficiency is our first step. It’s the cheapest alternative, and everybody realizes that. So we’re introducing more-efficient lighting, windows, insulation—all the things that give more bang for the buck from the existing energy supply. We are also putting in a lot of solar and wind and geothermal and looking at waste energy.

for aircraft, we’ve already tested an F/A-18 fighter on a 50-50 blend of jet fuel and biofuel. We call that plane the Green Hornet. We flew it on Earth Day and it went Mach 1.6 and tested beautifully. So we showed that these very elaborate machines can run just fine on biofuels, with no deterioration in performance.

our bases there, and Hawaiian Electric. We are not looking at any one specific crop. We want to be open-minded as long as it’s a sustainable crop—which means taking into account the whole lifecycle cost, including the carbon emissions involved in production.

What’s involved in supplying the biofuel crops you need?

We’re looking at four things: what fuels to use, how they work in our existing platforms, how to get cost down to a price point that is competitive, and how to scale up to the quantities you ultimately are going to need. So far our tests have just

We have a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Agriculture, and there’s a group working on biofuels in Hawaii that includes the USDA,

What are the practical considerations in expanding biofuel use?

Even so, bases are only a small part of your total energy use.

We want all our ships and aircraft to run on non-fossil fuels. Of course the subs and the carriers are already nuclear. We just tested an experimental riverine command boat on an algae-blend biofuel, and it ran fine. We’re going to be testing different categories of ships over the next year. As

I think biofuels are a great example of the benefits we could achieve here. Commercial aviation dwarfs us in terms of fuel use. What we can do is test out the technologies and the fuels. You know that if it works in an F/A-18, it’s going to work in other platforms.

Definitely. The airline industry needs to be able to find alternative fuels, and the European Union will be setting some tighter restrictions. The industry is running on pretty thin margins. They don’t have a lot of flexibility in testing out different fuels. And so if we can push that alternative fuel technology forward, and maybe get some of the developers through that valley of death in their financing and get some really credible products, everybody benefits.

These are all the kinds of things we pushed for in the California Energy Commission. But the Navy just came out with a new building standard for energy efficiency that’s ahead of California’s. I thought California had the most aggressive building standards in the country, but I’m told that our new standards are 30 percent more stringent.

You’ve talked about building a Great Green Fleet by 2016.

How could these developments translate into the civilian world? In the past, research by the military has often had a long-term impact on civilian technologies.

Are you talking to the private sector directly about this?

How does all this compare with the standards in California?

Yes, if you had a little pie chart you would see that about 94 percent of our energy use is operational or tactical; only about 6 percent is on bases. But Secretary Mabus has the same goal for these areas as he does for bases.

been using bathtub-size quantities, but clearly we need alternatives that can be scaled up quickly. If we want to sail a Great Green Fleet by 2016, we have to be testing these fuels in local operations by 2012.

Are you getting any pushback from other parts of the fuel industry?

hangin’ in camptown


anger Shelton Johnson noticed a problem at

Yosemite National Park: less than 2 percent of visitors are black. So he made it his mission to change that by harnessing the power of celebrity. Last year he helped persuade Oprah Winfrey to come to Yosemite, and she devoted two episodes of her show to her trip. Soon after, rangers noted an increase in the number of middle-aged black visitors. Johnson thinks getting, say, Snoop Dogg into the park would have the same effect on a younger generation. “Snoop Dogg is a patriarch of rap music, and he has great influence on young black culture. If he were to write a lyric about his trip, it would be an incredible pull,” Johnson says. We’ll let Snoop figure out what rhymes with camping. —michael easter

Not yet, although I would expect there will be an ethanol group that will want us to use corn-based ethanol and a coal group that will want us to use coal-to-liquids. Just from the point of view of its performance characteristics, corn-based ethanol won’t work in our ships and planes. As for coal-to-liquids, because of our desire to have sustainable alternative fuels, that won’t fit into our program either. How about on Capitol Hill?

Our plans have been very well received. It’s because we’re basing our arguments not on climate change but on national security.

spring 2011

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Scrubbing The Waters

righteous fur

Nutria pelts are used for hats and decorative trim.

if ya can’t beat ’em, wear ’em One Louisiana biologist grew tired of watching the nutria, an invasive swamp rat, eat away at his state’s coastal wetlands. His solution: start a fashion trend.


By Barry Yeoman

hat’s the nutria-bikini-

clad cello player who provided the ambient music,” says Michael Massimi, the invasivespecies coordinator at the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP). The nutria is a large, whiskery rodent, and Massimi, smartphone in hand, is showing photos he took at a rather unusual fashion show. He describes the evening’s highlight: “A tall, buxom woman comes out in a robe with a nutria lining. She walks to the end of the catwalk and drops the robe, and she’s wearing a nutria teddy that’s completely backless.” “You didn’t get a picture?” asks Massimi’s boss, Kerry St. Pé. Of course Massimi has a picture. There’s a serious dimension to this outrageous show, dubbed Nutria-palooza! and held in November at New Orleans’s Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The nutria was originally imported from South

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America to Louisiana in the 1930s for its fur. Shortly thereafter, some of the animals escaped—or were released—from captivity and started devouring the state’s coastal wetlands. Nutrias, which reproduce quickly, eat freshwater marsh vegetation down to its roots. “They’re the termites of our coastal wetlands,” Massimi says. “This is an existential issue. The marsh ain’t big enough for the two of us.” Nutrias also eat young cypress trees in Louisiana’s swamps and burrow into hurricane-protection levees, destabilizing them. Trapping kept populations in check until the 1980s, when fur lost its cachet and the price of pelts plummeted. In a 1999 aerial survey, more than 100,000 acres of Louisiana wetlands showed telltale signs of nutria damage. In 2002 the state put a bounty on nutria tails, which is now at $5 a tail. That spurred an increase in hunting, allowing the wetlands to regenerate and reducing the damaged area to fewer than 8,500 acres. During the 2009–10

years, it has become clear that wastewater treatment facilities are not up to the task of removing some of the nasty things that end up there. Pharmaceuticals from health-care facilities and hormones from human waste are among the sources of one particularly troubling contaminant: estrogen, the female sex hormone. Fish with both male and female sex organs have turned up in estrogencontaminated waterways, and studies have found that drinking water containing the hormone may affect sperm count in human males. At the University of Cincinnati, environmental engineer Makram Suidan and his team designed an experiment to see if some of the natural microbes in wastewater could be used to reduce hormone levels. They mixed up a batch of simulated sludge—selecting substitutes for common elements such as street runoff, vegetable and plant matter, human feces, and kitchen waste—and added estrogen and other hormones. But before they could introduce microbes to the mix, they noticed that estrogen was disappearing. In the end, they found that it was the vegetable matter that had eliminated nearly 80 percent of the dissolved estrogen in the simulated sludge. Although the scientists aren’t yet sure what the precise mode of action is, their results suggest that treatment processes could be adapted to eliminate estrogenic compounds, protecting wildlife and human health. —genevra pittman

left: photograph for onearth by stacy kranitz; opposite bottom: Jason deCaires Taylor (; top: elwood smith

over the past several

season, the state paid $2.2 million for 446,000 tails. But most of the carcasses get discarded. There has been little demand for the fur, and the meat has even less appeal, despite efforts to promote dishes like smoked nutria and andouille sausage gumbo. That’s where Massimi comes in. BTNEP, one of 28 estuary programs established by Congress under the Clean Water Act, is charged with helping to preserve 6,600 square miles of Lousiana’s coastal wetlands, including the estuar y, which the program calls “the fastest-disappearing land mass in the world.” These wetlands, which protect the state from hurricane damage and provide much of the nation’s energy and seafood, are vanishing at a

rate of 25 square miles a year. A couple of years ago, Massimi met Cree McCree, a New Orleans designer who was putting together a fashion show featuring materials harvested from coastal Louisiana. As McCree recalls, “Michael said, ‘Why don’t you throw some nutria into the mix?’ ” He scored her a handful of pelts and a basket of nutria teeth to create jewelry. In 2009 his organization awarded her a $4,500 grant to launch her Righteous Fur project. Since then McCree has designed nutria hats and other accessories. Two events at a New Orleans theater included screenings of a documentary about the rodent and talks with Massimi and a traditional skinner and dealer. In November, McCree and

Massimi made their first foray outside Louisiana, taking Nutriapalooza! to a Brooklyn art space. Due in part to Massimi’s efforts, some high-end designers, including Oscar de la Renta and Billy Reid, have started incorporating nutria into their collections. Massimi has even noticed an evolution toward “utilitarian pieces” like iPad covers. Massimi knows there’s a paradox in developing a nutria fur market. “If you’re trying to rid it from the environment, then isn’t your business plan to go out of business?” he asks. “We’re defeating the purpose if there’s an economic incentive for people to, say, farm nutria. That’s absolutely not what we want to do. But, frankly, that’s a problem I would love to have.”

please swim near the art There are 400 “people” marooned off the coast of Cancún, Mexico, fastened to the seafloor

nearly 30 feet below the surface of the azure water. They’re the creation of Jason deCaires Taylor, a sculptor who hopes that this expansive undersea gallery will attract some of the 750,000 tourists who visit the national marine park each year, steering them away from vulnerable natural reefs. The life-size sculptures are made of cement that is pH-balanced to encourage the growth of coral, thus creating artificial reefs and an ever-changing exhibit worthy of its name: The Silent Evolution.

A Dog’s Nose Knows William McShea has been

stalking the moon bear in China’s Sichuan Province for nine years. The moon, or Asiatic, bear is threatened by poaching and deforestation, and populations are isolated in reserves throughout the region as well as in captivity. McShea, a zoologist at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, and graduate student Karl Malcolm have a simple question: how stressed out are these bears? As it turns out, finding a bear’s scat is almost as good, data-wise, as finding the bear, with the added benefit of not bothering the bear. Chemical analyses of feces can detect the presence of hormones that reveal an animal’s stress level. McShea and Malcolm had been combing the forest floor for bear excrement in earnest, but it was not until they met a dog named Wicket that their bear-tracking shifted into high gear. Dogs, they learned, can locate a specific animal’s droppings with virtually 100 percent accuracy. McShea called Working Dogs for Conservation for help; Wicket and his trainer, Aimee Hurt, responded. They found bear excrement in “totally different places,” McShea says. Preliminary analyses indicate that bears in captivity are the most perturbed, but there are significant variations in stress levels among bears living in different reserves. The next step: pinpoint the culprit. —rose eveleth

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shine a little light


very day, like clockwork, what may

be the world’s largest animal migration unfolds around the globe. The migrants aren’t wildebeests, or whales, or monarch butterflies. Rather, they’re zooplankton—tiny copepods, miniature jellyfish, and seafaring larvae, trillions upon trillions of them—and their journey is vertical. By night they swim up, by day they swim down—a few feet in the smallest ponds, or as far as 500 yards in the open sea, a distance hundreds of thousands of times longer than their tiny bodies. A human would have to row a boat 500 miles to breakfast each day (then row home again) to appreciate this epic journey. The diel, or daily, migration is one of the greatest movements of biomass on the planet and is critical to aquatic food webs. Yet biologists barely understand it. Larger animals can be electronically tagged, then tracked with satellites; through the motions of one, the motivations of the crowd can be deciphered. Not so with zooplankton: how do you mark one without sinking it, slowing it, altering its behavior? Studies have revealed that zooplankton likely migrate upward for food and downward to escape predators and ultraviolet radiation. But little is known about the relative importance of these factors or what other factors might be involved, much less how this migration could be altered by environmental change. “We have been stopped for so many years by not being able to follow small things,” laments Lars-Anders Hansson, a freshwater ecologist at Lund University in Sweden. Compared with larger ani-

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by alan burdick

mals, “we know so little about them, but they are equally important.” Now Hansson and his team think they’ve hit upon the right technology for the job. In recent years, biomedical researchers have embraced the use of engineered nanoparticles called quantum dots, or q-dots. Made of cadmium selenide and other semiconductor materials, q-dots fluoresce brightly when hit with certain wavelengths of light, like molecule-size flashlights. Hansson’s colleagues in the chemistry department found a way to get q-dots to adhere to amino acids on the carapace of zooplankton. Bathe some animals briefly in a drop of solution containing q-dots and voilà: the q-dots stick by the thousands, “like small bulbs,” Hansson says. Being minuscule, the q-dots don’t hinder an individual’s motion, nor do they appear to interfere with reproduction or survival rates. Scientific movies are made of this. In the lab, Hansson’s team dressed specimens of Daphnia magna, a common water flea, in q-dots, then let them migrate up and down in glass containers. From time to time a light-emitting diode (of a wavelength that the animals couldn’t see) was shone onto the jars; the Daphnia lit up in the darkness. Caught on video, their travels recall those of will-o’-the-wisps—ghostly, with vague intent. Although barely out of the box, the technology promises to answer fine-scale questions about the diel migrants and what global environmental change may portend. To start, do zooplankton move differently when predatory fish are nearby? Do they actively search for food? One might then ask how these movements may change as seawater becomes more acidic and parts of the ocean grow warmer. Q-dots also offer a way to better understand how zooplankton respond to ultraviolet radiation. Some zooplankton turn red when exposed to UV; this is the organism’s natural defense against DNA damage, but it also provides scientists with a handy way to gauge an animal’s exposure level. Q-dots enable researchers to tag groups of exposed and unexposed zooplankton to compare their behavior and begin to tease out the extent to which UV light drives their migration. The goal, Hansson says, is to “disentangle the mechanisms behind why these massive movements occur.” That knowledge might soon be put to use, he adds: as the planet’s ozone layer thins and UV exposure becomes more intense, changes in the diel migration could alter food webs in heretofore unexpected ways. “We’ve opened a kind of door for really looking at the big issues with small animals,” he says. “It’s a huge leap forward.” What nanotracking offers is a fundamental change in perspective. We’re accustomed to thinking of the world’s zooplankton (if we think of them at all) as a mindless plural, like microscopic lemmings. Now, Hansson notes, “we can look at them as individuals.” Of course, scientists already know a great deal about their biology from studying them under the microscope. But it’s another matter to consider them, one by one, as creatures of volition. As fellow voyagers. This knowledge is potentially overwhelming. Are we prepared to know trillions of copepods on a first-name basis? But it is helpfully sobering, even inspiring, to know that so many work so hard each day to get so far, and how, and why. Alan Burdick, a contributing editor and regular columnist for OnEarth, is the author of Out of Eden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

illustration by jesse lefkowitz/loud cloud

the synthesist

how i found solace among the birds


Laura Wright

t was 7:23 on the morning

of January 2 as my mother and I drove across the Hudson River

in upstate New York, just a few miles north of Troy. On the far side of the span, a man stood hunched over a large spotting scope mounted on a tripod, his gaze fixed on the ice-covered water. Gulls circled above in the steel-gray sky. Up ahead, a plastic owl perched on the roof of a 2 6 onearth

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green SUV quickly quelled any fear that we might not find our group before our departure time—7:30 sharp. My mother and I had signed up to take part in the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. For the past 111 years, local chapters of the society have gathered bird enthusiasts and nature lovers to tally all the birds in their respective regions. It’s the world’s longest-running wildlife census, and each year, for several weeks during the holiday season, tens of thousands of citizen scientists break out their binoculars to participate. Although this was the 61st year for the Troy count, it was the first for us, and we didn’t want to be late. We took a parking spot on the far side of the Hannaford supermarket, grabbed our hats and gloves, and hopped out to meet our companions for the day. In addition to the guy at the scope, there were three others, all standing in silence, staring up at the sky. It started to rain. “Hello. I’ll explain that in a bit,” Larry Alden said, breaking the silence and gesturing toward the plastic owl. After this brief but friendly greeting, he went back to staring at the sky. Nearby, a large crow’s roost was emptying out. These birds circle around scavenging for food all day, so their morning exodus was our best chance to count them. For the rest of the day we’d ignore any crows that crossed our path, so as not to double count and skew our results. Alden, our leader for the day, is Audubon’s official compiler for this region. As with every count, we were to cover a 7.5-mile radius and tally every bird we identified by sight or by song. Alden has been covering this territory for more than a decade, and he had plotted out something of a scavenger hunt for us. We’d make dozens of stops at choice bits of bird habitat near backyard feeders, on brushy riverbanks, in protected ravines, and among silent stands of pine. Before we split into two groups to drive to the first of our designated lookouts, my mother and I went over to see what Steve Chorvas, Alden’s friend and a longtime birder, had spotted through his scope. “Two wood ducks,” Chorvas said, reporting the news of his sighting for us newcomers. Wood ducks were a significant find this time of year; ordinarily they’d have passed through by now, gone south for the winter. Alden speculated that, despite all the snow, the winter had not been cold enough for the river to freeze over completely, so some birds may have risked remaining in the area to avoid a long migration. Just south of the bridge, I spotted two ducklike birds. “Mergs,” Alden said. He explained that they were indeed a type of duck—common mergansers—but south of the bridge was not our territory. My sense of accomplishment fizzled. Turning back to our turf, he pointed to a group of gulls sitting on floating ice. They all looked the same to my untrained eye, but Alden said that one was a great black-back, marked by large patches of black feathers on its otherwise white body; two were ring-billed gulls, with narrow black bands around their pointy beaks; and the last was a herring gull, fatter and with a gray rather than a black back. I jotted notes and tried to remember the differences. I’d sold my mother on the bird count idea fairly easily. When my siblings and I were kids growing up near Albany, she often turned to the outdoors as a place to find peace—or perhaps to make peace—with

illustration by michael sloan

living green

four high-energy children. She’d take us on quests to spot turtles and that suggested we’d have a laugh about this later. We made note of beavers at the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center or retrace a few other birds—cardinal (1), Carolina wren (1), red-tailed hawk the steps of the Mohawk on the Indian Ladder Trail at John Boyd (1), plus lots of chickadees and sparrows—and hurried back to the Thacher State Park, from which we could look out across the Hudson car. We would be following Alden, and he was just about ready to go. Valley and, on a clear day, glimpse the Adirondacks and Vermont’s As the day unfolded, our two-car caravan wove its way through comGreen Mountains in the distance. We’d fill our shoes with sand tramp- munities of small, down-at-the-heels single-family homes, hunting for ing through the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, each of us hoping to see quiet thickets along the river’s edge and the wooded fringes of dormant a Karner blue butterfly, an endangered species most readily identified cornfields. The others in the group took turns riding with us novices. by the male’s vivid violet wings, which span barely an inch. While gazing out the window looking for birds, Chorvas noted that I’m not sure when we began to realize that our wild places were not he was seeing more empty bird feeders this year, perhaps a sign of so vast and untamed, but certainly by the time I was 10 I knew that tough economic times. We pulled onto a dead-end road and stopped my friend Mandy’s church sat on the far side of the pine bush where in front of a power transformer surrounded by scrubby underbrush. the butterflies lived, and therefore those woods could not really go Alden got out of his car and slung a beat-up Fisher Price cassette on forever. As time passed and we player (on permanent loan from his grew older, gymnastics practice daughter) over his shoulder. He hit and soccer games allowed less a button, and the song of a screech Suddenly birds appeared from time for our nature quests. But owl began to warble from the everywhere: nuthatches, cardinals, even as the years ticked by, the speaker. Suddenly birds appeared bluebirds, goldfinches. They were view from our kitchen table offered from everywhere: nuthatches, spara steady lens into the natural world rows, cardinals, bluebirds, goldmobbing us, our leader explained. and, with it, solace. Each spring, finches, downy woodpeckers. They when a familiar species returned to were mobbing us, Alden explained. our backyard bird feeder, my mother made a note in the small journal Alerted to the presence of a predator, the birds flock to the scene en she kept tucked away in a kitchen drawer. masse, perching in open view and stealing from their would-be stalker Now in my thirties (and my mother a sprightly 60), I latched on to the ability to carry out a surprise attack. the idea that we might revive our nature quests with a renewed sense My mother and I stood there, awestruck. Mobbing was new to us, of purpose. My interest in this birding trip was in part to put nature and the idea that you might invite this gathering using a child’s tape to use as the stress-relieving, mind-cleansing tonic that it had been player was even stranger. But the collective action of birds of so many for my mother when I was a child; after an incredibly long and trying species drawn out from places we couldn’t see was magical, as they year, I felt I needed it. We could have planned to take a hike, as we called to one another and made fussy noises as if to say, “We see you, sometimes do, but the bird count was something we would have to you bully. You won’t get us today.” follow through on—we had told Alden we’d be there. A couple of stops later, we paused above a small ravine—ideal I live in New York City now, and I had driven upstate the night before bird habitat, Alden told us. There was shelter (bushes, trees), our adventure. I hoped we’d see an eagle, I told my mother eagerly water (a small creek), and plenty of food (sumac, bittersweet). A over dinner, whereupon she told me she knew how to identify eagles. dog barked in the yard of a house a few hundred feet away, and a In addition to their large size and white head, they have feathery cuffs power line ran through this “perfect” slice of nature. It struck me around their legs, “like pajama pants,” she said, laughing and lifting that we had not fully considered that this bird count would take her arms as if to pull a tiny pair of trousers onto an imaginary eagle. us not into “the wild,” but through a patchwork of scrappy places But as we stood on the cold steel bridge, our giddy sense of antici- like this. Alden had warned us that we’d need to cover a fair bit of pation began to give way to a feeling of uncertainty. The reality was ground, but to be furiously hopping in and out of the car all day, that our leader was standing at the back of a mostly empty grocery driving from place to place, was oddly fitting: it reminded me that store parking lot, looking rather eccentric as he pulled the plastic owl I didn’t need to try quite so hard or travel so far to seek out nature. off the roof of his SUV. My mother shot me a familiar look, the one It is under my nose all the time, even in New York City. As I stood among rundown ranch homes with dogs chained in their yards, the fragmented aspect of it all seemed to matter rather little. I didn’t SHORT TA K E see the downtrodden outskirts of Troy; I saw the ideal habitat that Alden saw, and the forgiving nature of the birds that lived in these chopped-up swaths of brush and water. A week after the count, Alden e-mailed the group with the results Last year, NRDC and the cornell lab of of the tally. I called my mother. “Did you get Larry’s e-mail?” she Ornithology launched, a site where exclaimed. “Who would have thought there were 15,000 birds in Troy! On one day!” Indeed, I thought. birders share photos and stories from the field and stay The next morning, standing in the kitchen of the home my husband current on opportunities to help protect birds and their and I had just acquired in Brooklyn, I noticed for the first time that habitats. This spring, check out the site’s nest-cam feature the previous owners had left a bird feeder behind. It was bolted into (yes, that’s a hidden camera in a nest box), which will the brick on the back of the house, visible from both the kitchen and the dining room. I smiled to myself and looked around, wondering go live just in time to catch the hottest action of the year. where I might stash my new birding journal.



Peep on Birds

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in the far north of alaska, the fragile food web that supports polar bears and humans alike may be starting to unravel By Bruce barcott

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photographs by corey arnold

call of the wild On this remote stretch of tundra, Alaskan husky sled dogs are vital to local subsistence hunters.

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n a Saturday morning in late

November in Kotzebue, Alaska, a village 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle, two Inupiat men nursed cups of coffee at the Bayside Inn. They stared out a window at Kotzebue Sound, an arm of the Chukchi Sea at the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean. Outside it was 35 degrees and raining. “Too warm,” said one of the men. His companion let a long silence pass. Then he nodded. “Too much rain,” he said. Indeed. In Kotzebue, November temperatures normally

The thawing of the far north is one of the signal ecological events of our time. Global temperatures rose an average of 1.18 degrees Fahrenheit from 1905 to 2005, but that increase wasn’t evenly distributed. The Arctic took the brunt of it, warming nearly twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Since 1980, winter sea ice in the Arctic has lost almost half its thickness. In Kotzebue, the mean winter temperature has climbed more than 6 degrees in the past 50 years. Permafrost is thawing in patches all over the Arctic. “What we’re doing with climate change,” says Brendan Kelly, a former University of Alaska biologist who is now deputy director of the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Sciences Division, “is carrying

The 3,200 residents of kotzebue are acutely aware that ice and snow are to the arctic what soil and rain are to the temperate latitudes hover in the single digits. But these aren’t normal times. This is the time of “the changes”—a term used by Caleb Pungowiyi, former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and one of Kotzebue’s most respected elders, when talking about the effects of climate change in the Alaskan Arctic. “Some events like this happen occasionally,” Pungowiyi told me as we sat looking out at the rain. “But for something to happen that’s this warm, in November, for a number of days—these kinds of temperatures are not normal. We should be down in the teens and minus temperatures this time of year.” A few days of rainy weather isn’t climate, but it is a powerful data point. You get enough warm, rainy days like this, and pretty soon they add up. This is how climate change happens in the far north: one warm rainy day at a time.

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out a long-term scientific experiment at continental scale.” To get a sense of how that experiment is unfolding, it’s helpful to take a look at one of the most fundamental acts of life: eating, the passage of energy from one living organism to another. Predators and prey form a food chain, plant to insect to rodent to carnivore to apex predator. Those chains interlock to form webs. “To protect Nature,” the conservation biologist Stuart Pimm wrote in his seminal book Food Webs, “we must have some understanding of her complexities, for which the food web is the basic description.” Basic is an apt word. Many Arctic organisms are extremophiles— let it snow By non-Arctic standards, this looks like the aftermath of a major blizzard. But to the worried residents of Kotzebue it’s just the opposite.

specialists adapted to thrive at temperatures so low they would kill most other species. It’s a club with few members. Species diversity is low, so Arctic food webs are simple. And in the age of climate change, simple is not a good thing to be. “The more complicated and interconnected the food web, the less damage you can expect if one or two species are lost,” explains Deborah Bronk, a biological oceanographer and specialist in nutrient cycling at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William & Mary. “In these very simple food chains, if you lose one species you can really mess up the whole thing.” Complexity yields resilience. Without resilience, there’s risk of a crash. Scientists who study trophic cascades, in which the loss of a single species sets off a reaction throughout the food web, report that this sort of crash generally happens in low-diversity ecosystems, where one or a few species exert great influence. That describes the Arctic marine and coastal food web. During the past few years a number of disturbing reports from the Arctic have appeared in scientific journals. Increasingly acidic seawater may be affecting the ability of crustaceans to form their shells. Warmerwater fish are invading waters traditionally inhabited by cold-water fish. More seal pupping dens are collapsing because of earlier springs and diminished snow cover. Starving polar bears have been seen scavenging berries, grass, moss, and goose eggs. As ice disappears, walrus colonies are increasingly hauling out on land, where polar bears—also on land because of the lack of ice—have been observed attacking them. Humans, a big part of the Arctic food web, are experiencing impacts as well. Their hunting seasons are changing, their travel routes becoming more dangerous and unpredictable. The resilience of the Arctic food web is now being tested. To paraphrase Brendan Kelly: In an ecosystem perfectly adapted to sea ice, snowfall, and permafrost, what happens when those elements begin to disappear? Kotzebue seemed like a good place to find out. Its 3,200 residents— almost three-quarters of them Inupiat—aren’t mere observers. As Caleb Pungowiyi told me, people in Kotzebue are acutely aware that ice and snow are to the Arctic what soil and rain are to the temperate latitudes. “We depend on ice freezing up in the fall and the snow accumulating on top of it in fall and early winter” for everything to work, he said. “But now we’re seeing a lot less of both.”

illustration by bruce morser

It all depends on ice Standing in the rain on Kotzebue’s Front Street, a gravel boulevard that curves along the shore, Pungowiyi surveyed Kotzebue Sound. The frozen expanse usually buzzed with snowmobiles. On that day it was silent. “Ice should be a lot thicker,” he said. “Most folks would be out ice fishing for cod and smelt here on the bay.” What worried Pungowiyi, though, was the action within the ice itself. Arctic sea ice is a living platform. “When the ice forms, it sustains many things in its own food web,” he explained. “It harbors nutrients and microscopic things. There’s food in there for tiny organisms and little animals. Krill graze on the ice. The ice becomes a critical part of the productivity of the Arctic Ocean.” What makes that possible are brine channels, networks of needle-thin cracks and tubes that allow hundreds of species of bacteria, fungi, and other single- and multicelled organisms to thrive within the ice. Even during the full darkness of the Arctic winter, bacteria survive by feeding


the human footprint

lisa speer Director of NRDC’s international oceans program and an expert on the conservation and management of marine biodiversity

Bruce Barcott talks about the impact of melting sea ice on the Arctic food web. But there are also major implications for human activity in the Arctic. The disappearance of the ice is opening up the Arctic to expanded fishing, offshore oil and gas development, and shipping, which bring with them the risk of accidents, spills, invasive species, pollution, underwater noise, and impacts related to the construction and operation of pipelines, tanker terminals, and processing facilities. The problem is that the existing fabric of international governance of the Arctic was developed at a time when the cold and ice severely limited human activity. The surge of new activity has exposed the weakness of the current regime and the need for much more robust international arrangements. The Aspen Institute just released a blueprint for managing the Arctic, and a whole section of the report of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill is devoted to drilling in the Arctic. How do you assess the main risks? In contrast to the Gulf, many areas of the Arctic lack accurate charts, vessel routing systems, and accident response capability. Roads, ports, airports, and communications facilities are completely lacking along vast stretches of the Russian, Canadian, and Greenlandic coastlines. Even with additional infrastructure, the cold temperatures, sea ice, raging storms, and winter darkness would make containment and cleanup of a spill extremely difficult, if not impossible. And a spill in one nation’s waters could easily affect those of others. Arctic fisheries have been another big concern for NRDC. There is also no international management regime in place in much of the Arctic to control new industrial fishing, which has devastated fish stocks and ecosystems in virtually every other ocean on the planet. Arctic fish and marine creatures tend to be especially slow-growing and extremely vulnerable to overfishing and habitat impacts from trawling and other destructive types of fishing. The United States recently took a proactive step by closing its Arctic waters to commercial fishing pending a better scientific understanding of the region’s ecology and fish stocks and the impacts of climate change. But fish swim in the waters of many countries as well as the high seas, so that initiative could be seriously undercut by fishing on shared stocks outside of U.S. waters.

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on specks of waste from algae and other organic material trapped in the ice. Sea ice nurtures such a varied menagerie that astrobiologists study it to see how extraterrestrial life might survive in extreme environments. The real action happens in spring, when the reemergence of daylight triggers a bloom of ice algae, which begins as a thin web and can grow into 10-foot-long strands that sway like curtains from the underside of the ice. If ice is the soil of the polar sea, ice algae are its most important plant—the organic machine that converts the sun’s energy into food. The ice algae fuel explosive growth among tiny zooplankton, which feed on them. Larger zooplankton like amphipods, pteropods, copepods, and krill all feed on the algae and the smaller zooplankton. At this lower level of the food web, the shrinking summer ice pack is beginning to change things, but not in the way you might expect. Winter sea ice still forms, but ever later in the season, and come spring the algae strands still grow. What’s changing is the chemistry of the sea itself. In particular, ocean acidification is making it more difficult for shelled plankton to form their shells. Scientists have long believed that sea ice acts like a giant pool cover, limiting the Arctic Ocean’s uptake of atmospheric CO 2. Although some researchers question that assumption, it’s true that as summer ice cover has retreated, Arctic waters have become more acidic. And the process is going to accelerate, because cold water takes up CO2 more readily than warmer water. That’s bad news for creatures like shelled pteropods, an abundant and critical food source in the Arctic, because as the ocean acidifies, it becomes more difficult for them to grow their shells. On the pH scale of 0 to 14, neutral is 7—pure freshwater. Zero is like battery acid. Most seawater is somewhere around 8, slightly alkaline. Pteropods, pea-size mollusks known as “sea butterflies,” grow their shells by absorbing aragonite. But as seawater acidifies, it becomes undersaturated in calcite and aragonite, forms of calcium carbonate vital to shell formation. Several years ago, Victoria Fabry, an oceanographer at California State University at San Marcos, noticed that if you drop pteropods in extremely acidified seawater, their shells would begin to dissolve. In 2008, Steeve Comeau, a researcher with France’s Laboratoire d’Océanographie de Villefranche, scooped up some Arctic Ocean pteropods off the coast of Svalbard, Norway. He maintained a control group at the natural water pH of 8.09 and kept a second group in seawater lowered to 7.78, a level of acidity that climate models predict will occur in parts of the Arctic Ocean by 2029. Over six hours, both groups continued to grow their shells—but the pteropods in the more acidic water grew 28 percent more slowly. The year 2029 may seem remote, but as climate change continues to speed up, long-range predictions have a way of becoming short range. For example, a paper published in March 2009 by scientists at the University of Berne, Switzerland, predicted that aragonite undersaturation would start turning up in Arctic surface waters around the year 2016. But just eight months later, Canadian researchers announced that it was already happening. They had discovered mildly acidified seawater—strong enough to cause concern for pteropods—in the summer of 2008 in the Arctic Ocean above the Canadian archipelago. That acidified seawater shows up only during summer, when the ocean north of Canada is ice free. But climate modelers predict that aragonite undersaturation will become more widespread. As more of the Arctic Ocean becomes ice free in summer, more acidic seawater 3 2 onearth

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may make it harder and harder for some of the most critical feedstocks of the Arctic ecosystem to form the shells that keep them alive.

the amazing blood of the arctic cod The Arctic Ocean is so cold that only a handful of fish and marine mammals can survive there. Subsurface temperatures range from 37.4 degrees Fahrenheit on a warm summer day to 28.76 degrees, the freezing point of seawater. In those extreme conditions, one fish species in the center of the Arctic food web is uniquely equipped to thrive: the Arctic cod. A slender and smaller cousin of the Pacific and Atlantic cod, the Arctic cod is often seen near the underside of the ice, feeding on pteropods, copepods, krill, worms, and small fish. It uses cracks and

seams in the ice much as tropical fish use a coral reef: as a refuge from predators. Its survival in these heat-sapping waters depends on two things: blood and fat. Arctic cod blood is a biological marvel. The fish survives thanks to a special protein that acts as an antifreeze, preventing the blood from crystallizing at temperatures below freezing. As for the fat, it is hard to overstate its importance to the health of the entire Arctic food web. Pound for pound, Arctic cod contain nearly twice the energy of groundfish like pollock, which thrive in the subarctic region of the North Pacific. For animals in the Arctic, where every calorie is dearly earned and spent, that’s a massive bang for the buck. The Bering Strait acts as the border between the Pacific and the Arctic Ocean. But man-made distinctions mean little in the biological world. What really separates Arctic from subarctic species is the Bering Sea cold pool, a tongue of near-freezing seawater that constantly expands and recedes south from the strait. During warmer summer months, some subarctic species like pollock and flounder can move into Arctic waters, but the winter cold pool eventually drives them back south. Since the early 1980s, though, the cold pool has been in retreat. Rising air temperatures and the shrinking ice pack have pushed warmer waters more than 140 miles north of the cold pool’s midcentury baseline. At least 23 species in the Bering Sea have marched

today’s specials Top left, moose taco filling simmers on Alex Whiting’s stove. Top right, a hunter’s freezer is stocked with caribou steaks, beluga flipper, salmon, and whitefish. Bottom left, seal oil is a local delicacy. Bottom right, James McClellan tucks in to a hearty

Map by baker vail

dinner of seal meat.

north, following the warming water. Pollock and arrowtooth flounder migrated 30 miles north. Arctic cod retreated, unable to compete with larger subarctic species. Not all the news is bad, however. Arctic cod represent a most critical nexus point in the Arctic food web, and their place in the ecosystem has so far been well protected by both human and natural systems. In the past four years, the cold pool has regained some of its lost ground (possibly because of a shift in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, an El Niño–like pattern of climate variability), but over the long term, fisheries scientists expect the cold pool to continue its northward retreat. There is a limit, though. “Above a certain latitude it still gets dark and cold enough in winter for seasonal ice to form, and that creates the cold pool,” says Franz Mueter, a University of Alaska fisheries biologist who studies the state’s Arctic and subarctic marine systems. “It’s going to be a long time before you see the full yearround expansion of Bering Sea groundfish into the Arctic.” Also in the Arctic cod’s favor: a fishing ban. To prevent a free-for-all in newly ice-free waters, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2009 banned all large-scale commercial fishing in American territorial waters above the Bering Strait. Perhaps most important, the ban covers not just fish but “all other forms of marine animals and plant life.” That may forestall the kind of trouble now brewing in the waters around Antarctica, where a fast-growing industrial krill fishery (it’s sold as food for farmed salmon and pressed into oil for omega-3 supplements) threatens the base of the food chain in the southern ocean. Krill are less abundant in the Arctic, but the growing demand for the crustaceans could lead krill processors to turn their eyes to northern waters. “Fishermen are frontiersmen,” said Caleb Pungowiyi, who was among those who fought for the ban. “They want to expand their territory. Before you allow any industrialized fisheries in the Arctic, you need

to know the science on the stocks, how they can be sustainably fished.” The ban isn’t written in stone. It’s designed to prohibit fishing until biologists can get a better handle on the Arctic Ocean. But for now at least the Arctic cod—and the creatures it eats—won’t have to dodge any trawl nets.

why the Seals need snow To follow the web to the next trophic level—seals—I hopped a plane to Fairbanks, about 400 miles east of Kotzebue, and met with Brendan Kelly at the University of Alaska. Kelly has been studying Arctic pinnipeds (seals and walrus) for more than 30 years. I caught up to him in a forest of white spruce at the edge of the campus, where he was training one of his seal-sniffing Labradors. Every spring Kelly uses a team of dogs to locate ringed seal pupping dens, which are hidden in snow caves on sea ice. “Nachiq!” he called out, using the Iñupiaq word for ringed seal. “Find the nachiq.” A young Lab bounded through the trees, trying to pick up the scent of a seal flipper Kelly had hidden. The dog found the flipper and presented the slobbery treasure to the professor. “See these growth rings?” Kelly said, pointing to faint stripes on the inch-long flipper claws. “They indicate this seal was…let’s see… five, six…seven years old!” Ringed seals are small, as seals go, but they are the most numerous and widely distributed pinnipeds in the Arctic. They’re one of the few animals whose range extends from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, in the spring 2011

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how the food chain works sea ice provides habitat for a diverse community of ICE Algae, like these diatoms and flagellates (A). The brine channels (B) in which the algae make their home are networks of tiny capillaries formed as dense, salty water makes its way through small spaces between the ice crystals. The algae support a variety of zooplankton (C), including crustaceans called amphipods (foreground), which graze on the bottom of the ice, and open-water sea butterflies (rear), which thrive on the algal blooms that form when the

ice melts in spring, sometimes growing into long, hanging strands. ARCTIC COD (D) feed on the zooplankton, and the RINGED SEAL (E) feeds in turn on both the cod and the zooplankton, especially copepods and nematodes. Ringed seals maintain holes in the ice (F), to which they return several times a day to breathe, and build small dens on the ice (G), which provide safety and warmth to their newborn pups. The apex predator in the Arctic food web, the POLAR BEAR (H), relies almost exclusively on ringed, bearded, and spotted seals for food.

the lairs and exposes the pups to North Pacific, all the way to the extreme cold and predators like North Pole. They eat just about polar bears, Arctic foxes, and even anything in the water column— ravens. With their powerful sense worms to pteropods and krill—but of smell, polar bears can sniff out they prefer fish like Arctic cod. intact lairs, too, but it takes time The ringed seal’s numerical and for them to dig through the snow, territorial success can be chalked giving pups a chance to escape. In up to those sharp, tough claws. years when lack of snow cover has “They use them to maintain breathforced ringed seals to raise pups ing holes in the ice,” Kelly told in the open, nearly every pup has me. During autumn and winter, been eaten. a ringed seal will maintain six or A large portion of the Alaskan more breathing holes, sometimes Arctic snowfall comes in late auvisiting them several times a day tumn, in November and Decemto poke and scratch away the ice. ber storms. When snow falls on Ringed seals can claw through ice, it sticks and accumulates. ice, but they can’t create ice. Or But during a warm autumn, it snow. Two weeks after we spoke, falls on open water. the National Oceanic and AtmoNearly an inch of rain fell on spheric Administration (NOAA) fetch that pinniped Scientist Brendan Kelly’s black lab, Cooper, is an Kotzebue during my five-day visit. proposed listing both ringed seals expert at sniffing out seal pupping dens that are concealed in the snow. Instead of falling as 10 inches of and bearded seals as threatened under the Endangered Species Act—a proposal based in large part snow, that precipitation was all lost as water. Worse, the warm air and rain upon Kelly’s research. The two species would be the first after the polar melted three feet of existing snowpack, leaving a net loss of nearly four bear to be listed as a direct result of global warming. NOAA, which is feet—that much less snow for pupping lairs six months from now. Come responsible for threatened and endangered marine species, is expected spring, that weather anomaly could be a death sentence for a seal pup. to make its final decision on the listing later this year. How did the ringed seal go from healthy and abundant to threatened, the bears’ race against time seemingly overnight? Loss of sea ice, of course—but also loss of snow. Ringed seals and other ice-associated pinnipeds aren’t merely the polar Ice is important to ringed seals because they almost never come bear’s prey. They’re its raison d’être. Fossil and DNA records suggest ashore. They use sea ice for resting, molting, escaping killer whales, that the white bears began diverging from brown bears around 200,000 and nursing their young. “The seal’s situation with ice is kind of analo- years ago. “Some brown bear populations figured out that all these


polar bears subsist almost entirely on seals. no other food comes close to providing the amount of fat they need to survive the extreme cold. gous to a large population of fish in a lake,” Kelly explained. “Start draining the lake, and at any given point the fish may remain numerous. But so long as the lake continues to drain, you reasonably would have to conclude that the fish are threatened. “It would be unwise to wait until the fish were in low numbers to conclude that further draining was a serious conservation concern,” he added. The surprise with seals is how reliant they are on snow cover. In early spring, a pregnant ringed seal will hollow out a snow cave around one of her breathing holes. “They can haul up onto the ice and still remain completely encapsulated in the snow,” Kelly said. Ringed seals give birth and nurse their pups in these cozy subnivean—that is, under snow—lairs. Outside it can be a killing 60 or 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, but in the lair it’s a comfortable 23 degrees above. Of course, carving out a snow cave requires deep snow. “And that,” said Brendan Kelly, “is the problem.” Arctic snow cover in June—when seal pups still need the protection of their lairs—is about half what it was 45 years ago. Rain and warmer temperatures in the spring bring an earlier snowmelt, which destroys

little sausages were available out there on the ice,” said Kelly, “and with their powerful noses, the bears could easily smell out the seals.” Brown bears, especially the North American grizzly subspecies, are famously omnivorous. Their food web ranges from roots and berries to salmon and deer. Diet largely determines their size. The Kodiak subspecies is the largest—they rival polar bears in size—because Kodiaks consume massive amounts of southwestern Alaska’s proteinand fat-rich salmon. Polar bears, by contrast, subsist almost entirely on Arctic ice seals, chiefly ringed and bearded seals. No other food comes close to providing the amounts of fat the bear needs to survive the Arctic’s extreme cold. “To a polar bear, seals are giant fat pills swimming around out there,” says Steven Amstrup, a former U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist who is now the chief scientist for Polar Bears International. Amstrup has been studying the Alaskan population for more than 30 years. The Department of the Interior relied heavily on his research when it conferred threatened status on the bear in May 2008. Amstrup has predicted that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could disappear by 2050 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb at their current rate. spring 2011

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If polar bears evolved from brown bears, and brown bears thrive in a land-based food web, it’s natural to wonder whether polar bears could adapt by expanding their diet. Researchers have, over the years, recorded a number of instances of gastronomic experimentation by these innately curious creatures. They have been seen feeding on white whales, narwhals, walrus, little auks, Brent geese, thick-billed murres, and ptarmigan. Biologists in Svalbard, the Arctic archipelago north of Norway, have reported polar bears stalking and killing reindeer. During late autumn, when the bears of Canada’s Hudson Bay gather near the water’s edge in Churchill, Manitoba, to await freeze-up, they’ve been observed eating berries, grass, moss, lichen, and marine algae. Canadian researchers recently reported that in the springtime the Hudson Bay bears are increasingly raiding eggs and chicks from the nests of snow geese and thick-billed murre. The polar bear’s food web may be expanding, but experts like Amstrup see the bear’s behavior as an expression of desperation, the equivalent of a polar explorer eating his shoes. Fat is the key. Even if skinnier, less insulated polar bears were to survive, reproductive rates would plummet. Female polar bears only bear cubs when their bodies have sufficient fat stores; when the fat’s not there, the bear’s body reabsorbs the embryo. Looking for the polar bear to survive by expanding its food web, Amstrup concluded, was a fool’s gambit. “We just don’t see any evidence that suggests there’s any prey on land that’s abundant enough to support polar bears in anything like their current population,” he says. Could polar bears adapt through interbreeding? Reports of polar

The human habitat Back in Kotzebue, water ran off roofs as if poured from pitchers. The warm rain made the sea ice so dangerous that the town’s radio station, KOTZ, broadcast a public warning. “We have a matter of life and death with the thin ice,” the announcer said. At the Nullagvik Hotel, a once-proud establishment frayed with rough use, William Berikoff waited for a bush pilot to take him home to Noatak, a village across the sound and up a recently unfrozen river. He had come across the ice a few days earlier on his snowmobile. Now, like many, he was stranded. “Nobody’s going anywhere,” he told me. “Ice is too soft. Hit a weak spot and ptuu,” he said, his hand tracing the arc of a snowmobile sinking to the seafloor. I walked down Kotzebue’s slushy Front Street to Alex and Siikauraq Whiting’s house, a modern rambler with an Arctic Cat snowmobile parked out front. Alex is the environmental specialist for the Kotzebue tribal government. His wife is the mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough, a county-level municipality that encompasses an area the size of Indiana. For more than a decade, Alex has been both using modern scientific tools and tapping the memories of elders to mark the effects of climate change in the Arctic. “Come on in,” Alex said. “I’m cooking some moose stew for lunch.” He stirred the stew while Siikauraq finished up a phone call. “This is where the food web meets the pot,” Alex said, lifting a spoon to his lips. People in Kotzebue are extreme locavores. More than two-thirds of their diet comes from the Arctic Ocean and the frozen tundra. The

we sat through the afternoon, eating celery dipped in seal oil. its gamey tang reminds you it came from a wild creature raised on fish. bear–grizzly hybrids obtained from hunters in the Canadian Arctic have raised questions about a possible increase in interspecies breeding driven by climate change. A recent article by Kelly in Nature highlighted confirmed reports of two “grolar bears.” One was a second-generation hybrid, which indicates that the cross-species bears can survive and reproduce. “The rapid disappearance of the Arctic ice cap is removing the barrier that’s kept a number of species isolated from each other for at least 10,000 years,” Kelly told me. Pinnipeds, he believes, are especially strong candidates for hybridization, because many species have a similar number of chromosomes. “By melting the seasonal ice cap,” he said, “we’re speeding up evolution.” Does that leave a way out for the polar bear? They are spending more time ashore, after all, where they’re likely to encounter brown bears. Prior to the mid-1990s, more than 60 percent of the Beaufort Sea population of polar bears along Alaska’s northern rim denned on sea ice. Now about the same proportion den on land. Both Amstrup and Kelly say that scenario is unlikely. “Polar bears will starve long before they’re flooded by grizzly genes,” Amstrup told me. “People often talk about species adapting to climate change,” Kelly added. “But the kind of adaptation that’s necessary is a change toward genes that fit the new climatic environment better than the old genes. Individuals don’t adapt genetically. Populations do. That requires generations, which requires time. Bears, seals, whales—these are long-lived animals. They need centuries to adapt. But we’re talking about losing the Arctic summer sea ice in a matter of a few decades. So the time for adaptive response may not be there.” 3 6 onearth

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average Kotzebue household harvests 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of wild meat, fish, and eggs every year. That represents more than one million pounds of biomass. “Caribou and moose, those are our beef,” Siikauraq told me. “This moose that Alex harvested, we’ve got 400 pounds of it in our freezer. It’s what we use in tacos, hamburgers, and spaghetti sauce.” Alex set a bowl of moose stew before me. It tasted like mild venison. “Our traditional foods are a big part of our culture and identity,” Siikauraq said. “Our elders, when they are sick, they don’t want microwaved pizza. They want fish broth. They want food from the land and sea. I feel it myself. The other day I was desperate for seal oil, my body just craved it. It’s not just food. It’s a medicine for your soul.” “Seal oil?” I said. “You should try it,” she said, putting some frozen white fat on the stove to melt. Alex hadn’t hunted seal in a while, so her supply came from a friend. A lot of food gets distributed like that in the Arctic. John Chase, a colleague of Alex’s, often hunts caribou. “Sometimes I’ll trade the meat for herring eggs or halibut,” he told me one day, “but mostly I give it away to the elderly folks.” The subsistence harvest isn’t just about culture. Economics plays a big part. Shipping costs are so prohibitive that a gallon of milk costs $9.79 at the AC Value Center on Bison Street. Most families, like the Whitings, fill their freezers with wild caribou, moose, and seal meat. The warming of the Arctic, especially the late freeze-up of sea ice, hasn’t cut humans out of the food web. But it has warped things. Seal hunters, who work from skiffs, now have a longer autumn season.

The late freeze-up means ice fishers miss the big smelt run in early autumn. On Kotzebue Sound, incomplete freezing can allow storm winds to push loose ice on top of other ice, causing it to stack and refreeze into piles similar to pressure ridges. That makes travel by snowmobile and dog team rougher and riskier. In native villages like Kivalina and Point Hope, just up the coast from Kotzebue, people use ice cellars (root cellars dug into the permafrost) to store frozen whalemeat and muktuk (whale blubber). Now those staple foods are beginning to turn rancid as the permafrost thaws. Locals can either forgo the food or invest in chest freezers. But diesel-generated electricity costs 50 cents per kilowatt hour—about four times what most people pay in the Lower 48. The ice cellars are—well, were—free.

the most fragile web In The Diversity of Life, E. O. Wilson described the removal of a single bird species from a temperate marsh as a way of illustrating the resilience of a complex food web. “That food chain is broken, but the ecosystem remains intact, more or less,” he wrote. “The reason is that each species in the chain is linked to additional chains.” The larger web can absorb the loss of a single link. That may not be so true in the Arctic. The world’s most biodiverse temperate and tropical forests can contain 10,000 to 45,000 species of vascular plants. In the Arctic, there are about 2,200. In Central America, there are more than 2,800 species of non-fish vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians). In the Arctic, there are 322. Nearly an entire trophic level—seals—is dependent on ice, so if the ice goes away, so do the seals. Polar bears depend on three species of seal for survival. That’s it. There is not a lot of redundancy built into the system. Much of what we know about food webs comes from the study of past top-down interruptions. In the American West, ranchers and farmers extirpated the gray wolf, resulting in a boom in deer and elk populations, which in turn changed vegetation patterns across the landscape.

off to work With the thermometer reading minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, Alex Whiting dons a sealskin cap for the morning ride to his office in Kotzebue.

What we’re seeing now is something new. Near the top of the Arctic food web, polar bears and ice seals are facing dire pressures from humans, but not from hunters with rifles. Our industrial gases are undermining the top of the food web by destroying habitat, melting the sea ice and thinning the snow cover. That results in few direct hits, of course. Some adult bears starve, but mostly it’s an invisible decimation of the next generation. Skinny polar bears don’t produce cubs. Ringed seal pups without snow cover get eaten. At the bottom of the food web, where species populations are usually checked more by food supply than by predation, the pulse of change is faint but ominous and steadily quickening. The base of the Arctic cod’s food supply—pteropods and other plankton—are finding it more difficult all the time to create shells from seawater. At a certain point, pteropod larvae may be unable to form them at all, and then they will simply wither and die. Whether other plankton, more adaptable to acidified seawater, are able to take their place in the food web remains to be seen. In Kotzebue today, all that’s visible to the naked eye is the rain. Incessant, warm, dreary rain. It came down in a light spatter as the Whitings and I sat through the afternoon, talking and eating celery dipped in seal oil. Thicker and more buttery than olive oil, it has a gamey tang that reminds you it came from a wild creature raised on fish. It hits the body like a shot of pure fat. In the Arctic a shot of pure fat is a shot of energy, of survival. We finished off the seal oil. Daylight bled out of the sky and the rain continued to fall, melting more snow with each passing minute. OnEarth contributing editor Bruce Barcott is a former Guggenheim fellow and the author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw (Random House). spring 2011

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air and water Gordon’s Cessna comes in low over western Wyoming’s sinuous New Fork River

BY george black

P h o t o g r a p h s b Y GEORGE STE I N M ET Z

THE PLANE TRUTH pilot bruce gordon demonstrates the art of “conservation flying”

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rom the cockpit of Bruce Gordon’s the public good, either by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land six-seater Cessna 210, it’s clear that the natural Management. These federal agencies are charged with guaranteeing world abhors human geometry. Flying a couple the “multiple use” of the vast acreage they administer—on the one of thousand feet above northwestern Wyoming’s hand, grazing, logging, and mineral extraction and, on the other, recrugged Absaroka Range, Gordon took one hand off reation, aesthetic enjoyment, and wildlife protection. Gordon wants his the controls to make the point, tracing with a finger passengers to think hard about how all these uses, especially in unique the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, a few miles to the north. places like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, can be most intelligently On the map it’s a straight line, but the aerial view offers nothing but a balanced. He hardly needs to say that this is not now the case. snarl of peaks and pinnacles, rivers twisting through emerald valleys, and the shimmering expanse of Yellowstone Lake, whose shape one ordon is in his mid-sixties. he has a stocky, nineteenth-century explorer compared to “the broad hand of an honathletic build and short gray hair. Born in Chicago, he est German, who has had his forefinger and the two adjoining shot grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey. When I first met off at the second joint, while fighting for glory and Emperor William.” him, his demeanor put me in mind of the actor Harvey Yet the mapmakers and politicians of that era divided up the land Keitel (without the menace); the second time it was more suggestive with protractors and compasses, cutting the plains into quarter sections, of Bruce Willis (without the smirk). slicing Wyoming into a perfect rectangle, and demarcating three sides As a young man, he never dreamed of becoming a pilot. He went of the national park with straight lines of administrative convenience. to Ithaca College in New York on a baseball and soccer scholarship Our aerial view laid bare the natural logic of the landscape, showing that and studied business administration, and it was there that his environthe limits of the park define mental instincts began to no more than an arbitrary stir. “It must have been all chunk of what we now call the forests around Ithaca,” the Greater Yellowstone he told me. “Nature got Ecosystem—barely oneinto my soul.” Then what eighth, in fact, of its 30,000 he calls “the Vietnam thing” square miles. turned him into an activist. The park’s creators fretIn 1966, after graduation, ted that speculators would Gordon went to Hollywood fence in the geysers and with notions of working as charge admission, wrecka stuntman at Universal ing the place as others had Studios. The following year wrecked Niagara Falls. he took part in the march on Since that time we have the Pentagon. But by then multiplied our wrecking the draft had caught up with techniques; the view from him. “I was selected to go the Cessna discloses highto Vietnam three times,” ways, sprawling resort he said, “but it never hapcommunities, labyrinthine wild blue yondeR: Gordon knows that early takeoff is essential in the Rockies if he is pened. In the end they sent forest roads, natural gas to avoid the late morning storms that can make low-altitude flying a hazardous affair. me to Germany, and I was fields, and pine forests dyassigned to intelligence.” ing from climate change. With each change in altitude and angle, Within a year, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he was the perspective shifts, and so do perceptions—of the intersecting working on plans for nuclear retaliation. They were confusing times. components of the ecosystem, the beauty of the land, the threats it When he was released from the service he tried finance for a faces, and, by extension, the strategies that are needed to protect it. while. But after a year and a half on Wall Street he packed up a Gordon owns a company called EcoFlight, based in Aspen, Colorado, ’56 Volkswagen and headed for San Francisco with $200 in his pocket. and dedicated to strengthening those perceptions in his passengers. Along the way he stopped off in Aspen, met a woman, had dinner with On any given day these may include politicians, businesspeople, tribal her, and stayed. It was more for the skiing than to put down roots, leaders, reporters, scientists, and schoolchildren. He calls it “conserva- which would not at that time have been in character. tion flying.” Much of it is done in the Northern Rockies, but you may With the help of the Veterans Administration, he took flying lesalso spot his Cessna over Anasazi ruins in New Mexico, flying through sons and qualified as a commercial pilot. He considered a career in the brown haze drifting up from the Four Corners coal-fired power mountain search and rescue and wondered about Alaska. He went plant; above the giant Carlin open-pit gold mine in Nevada (to show climbing in the Himalayas and the Chilean Andes. In 1980 he joined Alaskan visitors what they can expect from the proposed Pebble Mine forces with a fellow pilot named Michael Stewart, who had formed a in Bristol Bay); or over the short-grass prairie of Colorado’s Piñon company called LightHawk with the novel idea of placing his skills Canyon, which the army proposes to convert into training grounds. at the disposal of the environmental movement. His closest friend Most of these lands are publicly owned and managed, in theory, for was the singer John Denver, another avid pilot-conservationist.


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National Parks National Forests er Riv

of the forest had suffered some impact from beetles,” Logan said. “But I knew that was ludicrous. The Bush adminise tration needed a success story for the Endangered Species Act, and the grizzly was chosen as the poster child.” The data that Logan compiled from MONTANA his work in Idaho had come from the far WYOMING more accurate Quickbird, a commercial Yellowstone National Park satellite that gave him resolution down to three meters per pixel. “The problem,” Logan said, “is that it’s much more Yellowstone Lake expensive than Landsat, and it’s only switched on when you pay for it.” Grand Teton When Logan retired, he and WillNational Park cox decided to “ground truth” the Gros Ventre Range satellite evidence with a 10-day hike he first time I flew Jackson in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. with Gordon was in July 2009, Logan invited a friend from Utah to join as part of a survey of the condithem—“a hell of a GIS [geographic tion of greater Yellowstone’s an Pinedale ge information systems] expert” named whitebark pine forests. Whitebark is a Pinedale Wally Macfarlane. Now they had both hardy species that grows at altitudes Gas Field the worm’s-eye view of the problem above 8,500 feet; its nuts are a critical and the view from 400 miles up. Only food source for grizzly bears. But both Jonah Gas Field one thing was missing, and in retrotree and bear were in deep trouble. 0 40 spect it seems obvious. “We were walkThe threat had been clear for at least miles ing through all this dead whitebark,” a decade to a Forest Service entomoloMacfarlane told me, “when suddenly gist named Jesse Logan, a garrulous, hyperkinetic 66-year-old who retired from the service four years ago someone said, ‘I wonder what this would look like from a plane.’” So Willcox called Gordon, whom she had known since his LightHawk and doesn’t seem to miss it much, perhaps because his bosses never seemed convinced of the value of his work. Logan’s field research days. “Bruce jumped right aboard,” Macfarlane said. “His attitude was, in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range had produced striking insights into the ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s not worry about the money.’” As it happened, the relationship between the “ghost forests” he saw there, rising tem- funding for a full aerial survey did materialize—and part of it, mirabile peratures, and the consequent northward movement of the northern dictu, came from the U.S. Forest Service, which had acknowledged pine beetle, which was killing the trees in vast numbers. But he saw by this time that the forests were indeed in dire straits. the service’s interest in forests as being driven largely by the timber industry, and whitebark is not a commercial species. “They said my Hooked up with the survey on its second day. work was conceptually interesting but I should spend my time on Macfarlane sat up front with Gordon while Willcox and I squeezed something more important,” he told me sardonically, when we met in behind with two student interns, each equipped with a for dinner near his home in Montana’s Paradise Valley. Nikon D5000 camera that would precisely record the GPS locaAs Logan’s retirement approached, his work came to the attention tion of every one of the hundreds of aerial photographs that Macfarlane of Louisa Willcox, a senior wildlife advocate at the Natural Resources would instruct them to take that day at fixed intervals. Logan and a Defense Council, who was gearing up for a fight with the Bush admin- friend in Wyoming had devised a numerical scale to record the health istration over the imminent removal of the Yellowstone grizzly from of each segment of forest: one meant unbroken green; five was red; six the endangered species list. If its main winter food source was at risk, was all gray. In 10 days the team would fly more than 5,000 miles and this was a powerful new argument for the bear’s continued protection. accumulate more than 6,000 images, each individually coded, which “So I got in touch with Jesse,” she told me, “and said, ‘What if we do would then be superimposed on a master Google Earth map covering a predictive study of whitebark pine in the Yellowstone ecosystem?’” every square mile of the Yellowstone ecosystem. The Forest Service had already carried out its own aerial inspecIt wasn’t easy to talk on the plane, with the wind and engine tions and interpretations of Landsat satellite data, but Landsat, which noise. Our headsets crackled with exchanges between the Jackson, dates back to 1972, does not provide images with the level of detail Wyoming, tower and the private Learjets and Citations whizzing that Logan wanted. With a resolution of 30 meters per pixel, it allows in and out and once, unnervingly close, a United Airlines flight takfor only the coarsest distinction between living and dead forest. If a ing off for Chicago. “Whitebark is easy to distinguish,” Macfarlane clump of gray trees is surrounded by green undergrowth, for example, shouted to me, pointing down at a large stand of trees on the slopes Landsat will read the green. “The Forest Service said 16 percent above the Snake River. “From the air, it looks like broccoli. It has a

Absar oka Range

y co s

o un stem b

Yel low sto n


(Denver died in 1997 at the controls of his own experimental light aircraft; the last song he wrote was called “Yellowstone, Coming Home.”) Shortly after Denver died, Gordon parted ways with LightHawk and started EcoFlight, preferring to be his own boss. He runs the company with his famously efficient South African fiancée, Jane Pargiter (whom he met on a ski gondola) and a skeleton office staff. Three other pilots are on call. Aspen is a fashionable place, but Gordon and Pargiter live simply in a small cabin, with few material possessions other than the Cessna.

R er Riv nd Wi


Wyoming Range


G re


er Riv

map by joe lemonnier


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much larger crown than other pines. That’s important for the health of the watersheds, because its branches retain snow much later into the spring.” As we headed out over the Red Hills of the Gros Ventre Range, named for the tribe that once followed this valley on its way to the buffalo grounds, he called a number for each photograph. Lots of threes, a few three-point-fives, sometimes a four. “How can you tell that the dead trees aren’t the result of fire?” I shouted back. “That’s easy,” Macfarlane replied. “The signature is different. With beetle mortality, all the small material remains on the tree. You don’t see that with fire.” When we approached the sheer rock pinnacles of the Absarokas, we began to see huge swaths of red and gray, and the numbers climbed the scale: “Four-point-five, five, four, five, four-point-five.” He shook his head grimly.


got together with Gordon and MacFarlane again a year later, almost to the day. The survey had been completed, the results analyzed, and a final report was to be published in a week. The Cessna had a spiffy new paint job, with stripes of green and gold. To ward off the dawn chill, Gordon was wearing a black windbreaker embroidered on the back with a golden eagle. He looked tired, a little stressed. He said he’d been flying every day for two months, with only a brief respite for some late-spring snowstorms. But he agreed to take us up again to see whether the forest had changed significantly in the past year. Early takeoff is essential in the Rockies to avoid the rough weather 4 2 onearth

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on the edge: Against the majestic backdrop of the Tetons, dead and dying whitebark pine defines a ridgeline in Wyoming’s Gros Ventre Range.

that often arrives in the middle of the day. It looked clear this morning, but appearances can be deceptive. We made a couple of passes along the face of the Tetons, then headed east, roughly following the previous year’s flight lines. The turbulence started over the Wind River Range and was much worse by the time we reached the Absarokas. “I’m not seeing much red, only gray,” Macfarlane said, peering down at the pockets of whitebark growing on the steep slopes. Gordon said he didn’t much like the weather, but he would try taking us in for a closer look. He banked the Cessna in a series of steep, tight 180-degree turns, flying parallel to the rock face at the minimum safe speed of about 80 knots—drop below that and the aircraft will stall. Wicked bursts of wind shear rocked the plane, which suddenly seemed very small. I’d always wondered whether those little patches you stick behind your ear to prevent air sickness really work. For two of the four passengers, the evidence was that they don’t. Even Gordon’s knuckles looked white on the controls. When we landed safely at Jackson, he took me aside and said, “I hoped you wouldn’t notice, but the stall warning went off up there.” I blanched. I hadn’t. “Don’t you ever get scared doing this?” I asked. “Only before I take off and after I land,” he said. “But yeah, as a pilot I’m always stressed by the weather here.” Macfarlane clambered out of the plane, shaking his head. “All the bright red trees we saw a year ago have turned gray,” he said.

All the stuff that I counted as a four is now a five.” The Forest Service’s Landsat images had said 16 percent of the forest was diseased; the naked eye, the airborne camera, GIS, and Google Earth showed that fully 82 percent of the whitebark in the ecosystem had suffered medium to high mortality. Only 5 percent was completely free of insect activity. It was much more devastating, and the damage more permanent, than the 1988 Yellowstone fires, Macfarlane said, and those had dominated the media for weeks. “As a nation we’ve tried so hard to protect our national parks and wilderness areas, and then we’re hit by something of this magnitude. And without Bruce, no one would even know about it.”

illustration by bruce morser


asked Gordon one day to tell me the worst thing he had ever seen in his 30 years of conservation flying. He said, “Well, I have a vision of a copper smelter I saw one time down in Mexico, before they put the scrubbers on. But what’s worse is when I fly around here and I can’t go for 30 minutes in any direction without seeing a huge oil and gas development.” He views this as the transcendent threat to the West. “It began under Clinton,” he said, “but with Bush and Cheney it became a mission to put drilling above any other use of public lands.” I would get a dramatic sense of the problem, he said, if we spent a couple of days in Pinedale, Wyoming. When companies discover a promising reserve of natural gas, they call it a “gas play,” and Sublette County in western Wyoming is a gas play of epic proportions. Only Texas has more natural gas than Wyoming, and almost half of the estimated 55 trillion cubic feet of gas in the state is right here in the Green River Basin, on land that is mainly owned by the federal government. Most of it is “tight gas,” trapped in dense sandstone formations, and extracting it means smashing open the rock through a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which was pioneered by Halliburton. The complicating factor is that the upper Green River, which bites into the southern edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, holds large populations of mule deer and pronghorn antelope, as critical in their way to the integrity of the system as the whitebark pine and the grizzly bear. The winter forage provided by the high desert sagebrush is essential to their survival. Pronghorn that summer in Grand Teton National Park migrate south as far as Wyoming’s Red Desert, almost 200 miles—the longest known big-game migration in the Lower 48. There was still an hour of daylight left when I got to Pinedale, so I drove a few miles south of town and turned off onto a freshly graded dirt road to take a look at the new drilling area on a mesa known as the Pinedale Anticline. (An anticline is a dome formed when rock is forced by geologic pressures into a convex shape.) The posted speed limit was 35, but that seemed to make little impression on the 18-wheelers and Halliburton pickups that barreled past me, spraying gravel. A solitary pronghorn was grazing by the perimeter fence of Rig 320, which was painted in cheerful reds and blues. A sign on the fence said it was operated by Patterson-UTI Energy, of Houston. The air had the rotten-eggs stink of hydrogen sulfide, much like the geysers in the national park. Deep wells like these—and in Wyoming they have been drilled as deep as 30,000 feet, as far down as the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf—are more likely to produce “sour gas,” meaning gas with high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide.

nrdc the magic of technology

matthew m c kinzie Senior scientist working with both the nuclear and the lands and wildlife programs in NRDC’s Washington, D.C. office.

What were your earliest experiences of using advanced technologies in your work at NRDC? What drew me to NRDC was the work that Tom Cochran had done in the struggle to rid the world of nuclear weapons. I came to work for him after doing my Ph.D. in experimental nuclear physics. In 1998 he proposed that we recreate the nuclear war plan of the United States on my computer. I thought it was a tall order to model how thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons were targeting Russia and what the consequences would be of a thermonuclear exchange. But then I sat down with Murray Feshbach, the famous demographer who was the first to really see the cracks in Soviet society, and with his help I got access to the best data on Russia’s population and infrastructure. Then I traveled to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California for a personal tutorial on computer predictions of nuclear fallout from the world’s leading expert, who was a Nevada Test Site veteran. The technology that we used to pull the project together—which made headlines in the Washington Post and Newsweek and was profiled on CNN—was called Geographic Information Systems—GIS for short. What is GIS exactly? GIS stores two different types of information in a database— geographic features and attributes (for example, the number of people who live in a particular ZIP code or the voltage of an electrical transmission line)—and displays them on a dynamic map. What that means is that you can visualize and analyze your data to see patterns in complexity and find specific answers to important questions. How have you used GIS since the nuclear war plan project? I use GIS and satellite imagery in a lot of my work at NRDC: fighting oil and gas exploration in the Rocky Mountain wilderness; understanding the impacts of large-scale renewable energy development in the West; mapping the public health impacts of climate change; and communicating the risks of the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists. With the advent of Google Earth in 2005, which made terabytes of information available to millions of people, I realized that the combination of GIS and satellite imagery had matured to become a powerful, accessible tool for both environmental and arms-control advocates.

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ordon and I met in the hotel lobby at 5:00 a.m. the next day, clutching Styrofoam cups of bad coffee (part of the “complimentary continental breakfast”), and we reached the airstrip at first light. While he did his preflight checks, I strolled over to chat with a young woman who was climbing into another small aircraft nearby. I asked her what she was doing up so early, and she told me she was studying female elk for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, using radio telemetry to track their birthing patterns through vaginal implant transmitters. An aging pickup came to a stop nearby, and two people got out. The driver was Linda Baker, a former middle-school teacher, librarian, and sometime Forest Service employee who heads the Upper Green River Alliance in Pinedale and has worked with Gordon for the past eight years. Her passenger was Wally Macfarlane. Baker was interested in using GIS in her work, and he had agreed to spend an extra day in Pinedale to help her figure out how it might advance her goals, like protecting air and water quality and diminishing the threat that gas drilling poses to wildlife. I suddenly appreciated the larger logic of Gordon’s work. His Cessna was not only an observation platform but also a point of convergence, where individuals came together to pool their skills and insights, as they had in the whitebark pine project, with Gordon providing the seating and the view. Watching him interact with his passengers on earlier flights, I had been struck by a paradox. He obviously didn’t suffer fools gladly, and on one occasion I’d seen him get in the face of someone who didn’t seem fully to appreciate the dangers of low-altitude flying in the Rockies. But generally, when he started out on a day’s flying, he was pretty quiet, almost deferential to his companions. Once, when we were stretching our legs at a refueling stop at the tiny airstrip in Dubois, Wyoming, he’d turned to me and said, “I’m not an expert, you know. I fly with the experts. I’m just a passenger up there.” I mentioned this later to Baker. “Yes,” she said, “Bruce does have that toughness—maybe it’s a New York thing—but he holds it in reserve. I think of him as a latent Type A personality. He’s always very considerate of the folks he flies with and their opinions, because they actually live here. “Safety is his paramount concern,” she added. “It’s a tough business.” (She should know; she took flying lessons herself once and had a special fondness for loops and barrel rolls.) “So many things can go wrong in an instant,” she went on. “There’s no safety net. Lots of people die here in plane crashes in the mountains.” Not that I needed much convincing after our wild ride in the Absarokas. The air was sharp and clear as the Cessna rose into the dawn sky, the way you expect it to be in Wyoming. But Baker said I shouldn’t be fooled. Because of the gas fields, ozone levels were often a serious concern. “It gets as bad here as Denver,” Gordon agreed. Interestingly, the first alarms were sounded by a local 14-year-old named Tracey McCarty, who had done a project on ozone for her school science fair. “She used a very simple method that she picked up off the Internet—placing gas-sensitive paper downwind of the wells,” Baker said. “Her results contradicted the data that the state was using, and she took her findings to the press. Even at 14 she was amazing, totally fearless in front of the cameras.” McCarty’s work was instrumental in the state’s decision to install new monitoring equipment on the anticline that will predict ozone levels more accurately. 4 4 onearth

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the new west: These drill rigs are an early foretaste of the industrial infrastructure that will soon carpet the sagebrush flats of the Pinedale Anticline.

Impressed by McCarty’s efforts, Gordon took her up in the Cessna to see the gas fields from the air. Working with students is one of his passions; every summer he takes groups of kids on what he calls the Flight Across America, a program he set up in John Denver’s memory. “I spent so many years flying politicians around,” he told me, “and they were a real mixed bag. One time I was flying Tom Foley, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and he fell asleep in the plane. So I thought, how do you really effect change? And I figured young adults were the key.” “As a kid, you need to know what’s acceptable and what’s not,” Baker said later. “When kids are around an adult mentor like Bruce, who speaks openly about conservation and makes it seem like it’s nothing unusual, they can develop a conservation ethic that will last a lifetime.” This was doubly necessary in a place like Pinedale, Baker added, where being an environmentalist can be a thankless task. The Wyoming oil and gas industry is phenomenally lucrative, generating as much as $4 billion a year. Some operators turn a 100 percent profit on their investments. Some of that wealth stays in town, and although oil and gas brings in more than money—the list would include crystal meth, transients, domestic violence, and unaffordable housing—it’s tough in the current economic climate to criticize an industry that can pay a high-school graduate $50,000 or more a year for working on the rigs.

high desert landscape. Yet the anticline is still in the early stages of development. The Jonah field, starting 32 miles south of Pinedale, beyond the rim of the mesa, suggests what the anticline will look like 10 or 20 years from now. Jonah was discovered in 1975, and in 1988 the Bureau of Land Management authorized “full-field development.” Three hundred wells would probably be enough, the operators said; certainly no more than 500. And they would be spaced at a maximum density of one well per 80 acres. But 1,250 more wells were added in 2003, with the density increased to one every 16 acres. “We call it Jonah creep,” Baker said. “Son of Jonah, Jonah 2, Jonah 3, and now it’s the anticline,” where the gas reserves are even greater. The whole purpose of the bureau was supposedly to manage these public lands for multiple use, she went on indignantly. But what other use was possible once you had “full-field development”?



he Cessna worked its way back and forth across the anticline. To the north, framed by the Wyoming, Gros Ventre, and Wind River ranges, the meandering New Fork and Green rivers converged until they formed the migratory bottleneck known as Trappers Point. “You really see the interlocking quality of the landscape from up here,” Gordon said over my headset. “You see how the wildlife corridors are getting constricted by development.” It was clear from the topography that the migration paths in and out of the Yellowstone ecosystem cut straight across the sagebrush flats of the anticline. Baker pointed out the features that attract the animals in winter, when the winds off the mountains keep the mesa clear of snow. Mule deer shelter in the breaks and hollows. Sage grouse choose spots on the open ground for their leks (the word is of Swedish origin)—mating areas where the males come to dance and strut for their female audience. Sage grouse may be locally extinct on the mesa within a decade, Baker said gloomily. The mule deer population has already declined by 60 percent. The pronghorn, which can sprint out of harm’s way at close to 60 miles per hour, is less sensitive to direct human contact. But it needs lots of space, and here on the anticline, its range is increasingly fragmented by the spiderweb of drill pads, access roads, pipelines, pumping stations, processing plants, storage facilities, and the dark and unsightly pits used to store fracking chemicals and wastewater. Paint them red, paint them blue, the drill rigs are a blight on the

hen we touched down again in Pinedale, a pair of corporate jets were disgorging men with wheelies, rig workers who commute back and forth between the gas fields and company headquarters in Denver and Salt Lake, Houston and Calgary. We climbed into Baker’s pickup and drove to a funky café on Pinedale’s main drag, where we ordered a gargantuan breakfast of cholesterol and lots of coffee. Macfarlane and Baker sat down to discuss how she could use GIS to document the impact of fracking chemicals on drinking water. “We’ve identified 88 contaminated groundwater wells,” she told him, “and I want to put together a map that shows the proximity of the injection wells to the contaminated water wells and tags them with a clickable history of each one.” “GIS is ideal for that,” Macfarlane said. “It’s actually a pretty straightforward technology. You’ll be able to show the interaction between different layers of information and detect patterns that are not otherwise visible. Think of it as a spreadsheet on steroids.” “The role of science has expanded so much since I started flying,” Gordon said, as we listened to their conversation. “I have GPS and automated weather reports, and satellite capability is very affordable, so you can make much better judgments in the air. Sometimes I’ll take along a videographer, and we’ll post a virtual tour on our Web site, so people can essentially fly with us and join the debate in the cockpit. You have instant access to all this data. It throws open the doors of perception.” He was in a reflective mood now, the passenger among experts. “I look at my life as a series of incredible pieces of good fortune,” he said, the special rewards being to know people like Baker and Macfarlane, Willcox and Logan, and to be the means of bringing them together. He had also learned pragmatism along the way, he said. “I used to be a black-and-white guy about wilderness. But now I’ve realized you have to sit down at the table and talk. I’m not against oil and gas, not personally and not as a conservationist. It just has to be done properly, without destroying places like Yellowstone that are central to our heritage.” Baker agreed. “The prosperity it’s brought is undeniable. But what we’re looking for is a reasonable balance. Stagger development over time. Don’t develop new areas until old ones have been exhausted. Minimize the impact on wildlife. Wait, be patient—and keep away from the special places.” George Black is the executive editor of OnEarth. His next book, Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in the fall. spring 2011

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Thirsty Nation

Making rational use of the world’s scarce supplies of freshwater is one of the major challenges of the twenty-first century. Here in the United States, three separate dilemmas confront us: the amount of water we use, the speed with which our population is growing, and the severity of the impact of climate change. In places like Florida, the arid Southwest, and the agricultural heartland, all three of these pressures will coincide to alarming effect. Fortunately there are also solutions: a creative mix of efficiency, technology, and altered consumption habits that is sometimes likened to the creation of a “virtual river.”

Total Water Use by Sector Thermoelectric 40%

Irrigation 36%

Public Supply 14%

lower Colorado Basin Problem Too Little Water

The lower Colorado Basin, which covers parts of four states, provides water to at least 25 million people. Already, the total amount of water withdrawn from the Colorado River system exceeds the amount flowing in; storage in the Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs makes up the difference—for now. But this mismatch of supply and demand is expected to increase as regional population continues to grow. Climate change will likely decrease the snowpack in the Rockies, and more water will be lost as a result of higher temperatures.

Solution Smarter Cities

About a third of the water withdrawn from the Colorado River is used in urban areas, where rationing and efficiency regulations can have a powerful effect: Los Angeles (which gets part of its supply from the Colorado) has kept water usage stable for the past 25 years and has a plan in place to maintain usage at its current level for another 25. While the Colorado’s water is “renewable,” in the sense that it is refreshed each year, only reducing demand to match supply will ultimately make this region’s water sustainable.

Other 10%

Projected Percent Change in Population 2000–2030

Daily Water Use per Person In Gallons (2000)













Ogallala Aquifer Problem Ancient Water

The huge Ogallala aquifer is the heart and soul of agriculture on the Great Plains, allowing crops to be grown where rainfall is inadequate. The aquifer also provides drinking water to nearly all of the region’s people. But it is “fossil water,” deposited in the porous rock over thousands of years. Recharge from rainwater puts an average of less than an inch of water back into the aquifer each year, and far more water is withdrawn. In some areas of Kansas and Texas, the water level in the aquifer has declined more than 150 feet since 1950.

Solution Modern Farming

Only radical changes in land use can make the aquifer sustainable. Most management so far has sought only to limit the rate at which the aquifer is depleted. More efficient methods of center-pivot irrigation are already in wide use, but other techniques such as underground drip irrigation would offer greater savings. The areas that rely on the Ogallala are expected to face some of the harshest effects of climate change, and preserving the aquifer in the long term will most likely also require a shift toward less water-intensive crops.


Salty Water

b y carl D e Torre s and ja m e s B ro n z a n

More people depend on groundwater in Florida than in any other state, and with population projected to increase by 79 percent from 2000 to 2030, pressure on aquifers will continue to grow. While aquifers away from the coast are drawn down by excess withdrawal (potentially causing wells to run dry), Florida faces a different problem. When groundwater is withdrawn faster than it is recharged by rainwater from above, saltwater begins to seep in, fouling wells and further limiting the supply of freshwater. Coastal populations, especially in South Florida, are particularly vulnerable to saltwater intrusion.



Florida’s water future depends on a diverse mix of efficiency measures. In 2006, wastewater recycling saved 663 million gallons of water a day to be used for irrigation and industry—which over the course of a year would save more than 10 percent of the state’s total use of freshwater. Additional reuse of treated wastewater will reduce demands on potable water supplies. Small projects can have big effects: one golf course in Miami Beach, for example, planted a grass that tolerates brackish irrigation water from ponds on the course, saving more than 260 million gallons of potable water a year.

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drowned world: Barataria Bay, at the mouth of the Mississippi, was once mile upon mile of thriving wetlands.

FREE the MISSISSIPPI There are no straight lines in nature, but our insistence on drawing them has ruined Louisiana’s precious wetlands By David Gessner

One day last July,

At the moment, though, we

a group of us were in an

were focused not on the

open boat racing across

oil but on Ryan Lambert,

Barataria Bay, south

the captain of the boat and

of new orleans, about

proprietor of Cajun Fish-

100 miles northwest of

ing Adventures, a big man

where bp’s Macondo well

who in turn was focused

had started gushing oil

on the miles of open water

three months before.

spread out in front of us.

Oil wasn’t hard to find;

“Look at my GPS,” he said.

later that afternoon we

“It still shows all this as

would discover our own

land. Not long ago this

dead pelicans and see the

was 6.3 miles of grass. Now

necrotic fringe of the

I can point my boat right

b u r n e d - l oo k i n g m a r s h

over those 6.3 miles and

where the oil first hit.

never see a blade.”


Photographs by Erika Larsen

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Lambert pulled up to a spot where wooden posts thrust up out of of the canals, superimposed on the wild marsh like a grid. I thought back to how, as a kid, I loved to go to the beach to play on the water. As we approached, dozens of huge, black-and-white frigate birds lifted off them. I had never seen that many frigate birds outside the small sandbar islands that revealed themselves at low tide and how, of Central America. They rose in slow motion, beautiful and gawkily when the tide started to come back in, I would aid the rising waters by digging lines across the sandbars with my heel, creating canals for elegant, as Lambert cut the boat’s engine. As we drifted, he explained that the posts were not just perches the incoming tide to run through. I would often dig about a dozen of for the birds but a kind of grave marker for a bayou camp. “Locals these lines, flooding the sandbar islands before their time. Something would come here—right here,” he said, “and they would fish and they similar was going on here on an enormous scale. would trap and hunt and they would have crab boils and shrimp boils and they would walk out their back door and hunt ducks. And now and I had met just over 24 hours look—there’s not a blade of grass for miles.” earlier, when I pulled into the It was true; we might have been in the middle of a lake. In every hunting and fishing lodge he owns in Buras, Louisiana. The lodge direction we could see places where land used to be and where we now was half empty, which seemed odd given that I’d seen several saw only clouds reflected in the water. In the distance, small strands No Vacancy signs on the way down from New Orleans. of marsh islands barely kept their heads above the tide, just the hair “I’m the only lodge around that isn’t booked up,” Lambert said. “The of grasses showing. In spots we’d passed earlier you could see dead rest of them are filled with BP workers. But I’d rather meet interesting trees going under. people than whore myself out to BP.” “This is not something that is hapWhich was why he was taking out o doubt he had spent pening over centuries,” Lambert continpeople like me and the other folks who a career regaling his ued. “Just a few years ago I could look had come down for the day to crowd out for miles here and just see grass. onto his boat. Also aboard were a racustomers with fish stories Now it’s all underwater. Whatever the dio personality known as “the Ocean from that very spot. he was reason—sea level rise from warming, Doctor” and an NBC cameraman who the land sinking in part because of oil trailed him like a pilot fish. Two of us part nature boy, part showextraction—it really doesn’t matter. on the boat were professors who lecman, part arm-twister. The point is that it’s happening.” tured for a living, but we were learnI knew the seas were rising, but ing that we had nothing on the boat’s before I came to Louisiana I hadn’t captain. Lambert, it turned out, was not known that the seafloor was sinking, just a man with energy and passion. He through a process called subsidence. was also a man with a cause. Sediment dumped by the Mississippi As we bobbed on the water he talked River weighs down the floor of the movingly about the loss of animal Gulf, causing it literally to sink. And habitat, the loss of human culture and as the land sinks, saltwater invades, livelihoods that have accompanied the killing cypresses and other plants that disappearance of the marshes, which help stitch the wetlands together. Louihad made this one of the most biologisiana’s erosion rate is the worst in the cally productive estuaries in the world. country, with the equivalent of 60 footThe shrinking of the marshes also ball fields of wetlands being lost every meant a diminished defense against day. Which means that if you stand the spilled oil. The barrier islands in one place long enough, you might and outer marshes have always been actually see it turn from land to water. the frontlines of defense against hurAmong the things killing the wetlands are straight lines. Nature, ricanes, and now they were the frontlines against the oil, keeping it of course, isn’t very fond of straight lines, and creeks always used from working its way into the heart of the wetlands. A second defense, to wind sinuously through the grasses, replenishing the wetlands Lambert explained, was the Mississippi itself, which had done more with sediment. But humans long ago decided that winding was not a than its part to keep the oil at bay, its massive outward flow pushgood way to travel. They dredged straight canals, shunting sediment ing back against the Gulf’s inward surge. “The river protects these and nutrients out to sea. Other straight lines here show the paths of marshes, and it’s also what made them,” he told us. “It’s what made the tens of thousands of miles of pipeline that traverse the wetlands, Louisiana—the sediment it brought here, the nutrients that helped carrying oil and gas from offshore rigs to shore and unintentionally grow these wetlands.” The river would still be doing this if it were ushering saltwater deeper into the marsh. not hemmed in by the levees, he told us. “What we have to do is That morning I had been lucky enough to get up in a helicopter and redistribute,” he said. see from the air the same bay we were now floating on. Flying directly He didn’t mean the wealth. He meant the water. “Free the Missisover these wetlands, you could see the straight pipelines crosscut- sippi,” it turned out, was Lambert’s rallying cry. He was not talking ting the marsh, as well as the rectangular holes of water, called key- about radical freedom here, since without the levee his lodge would be holes, where oil rigs used to be. You could also see the straight lines underwater. What he was really looking for was a series of diversions,


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map by BAKER VAIL; illustration by bruce morser


so the river could feed the marsh at various points rather than dump all it had to offer in one great slug out in the Gulf. “All we have to do is let the river go through these marshes like it did for eons of time, when it built Louisiana,” he said. “We could start slow, maybe one diversion channel, but that would be sufficient to bring in the freshwater and to grow the freshwater aquatics and to keep the saltwater at bay and start to rebuild Louisiana.” From the helicopter I had seen the Mississippi from above. The river is corralled by its levee, segregated from the marshes and forced to wind down to the Gulf without once interacting with the wetlands around it. The sight was shocking: the great freshwater torrent running home toward salt. The bayou world of marsh grasses and creeks and straight, man-made canals was one thing, but the great, brown, snaking Mississippi, carrying its sediments out to sea, looked like a whole other ecosystem laid on top of it. From the air, you could almost see geology at work, see how the Mississippi had dumped its nutrients for millions of years and how the land had spread southward from the Delta, extending itself in miles and miles of watery grasslands, which in turn became a spawning ground for young fish and home to oysters and shrimp and millions of birds. Green jigsaw pieces of grass fit with blue pieces of water while a river ran through this already watery world. In Lambert’s vision the river would spread out more naturally, like a watery hand, feeding the marshes with the nutrients it gathers during its powerful crawl from Minnesota down through the country’s middle and finally to the Gulf. Of course, far from being “natural,” his proposal would require a massive engineering project on the scale of building the levee itself. But it would be engineering toward a different end, toward releasing the river, to an extent, and letting it do what it once did naturally. “It is such a beautiful solution, and it doesn’t just solve the problem of massive erosion,” Lambert continued. “It protects us from hurricanes and oil and it tackles the problem of the dead zone in the Gulf. Right now we have a dead zone the size of New Jersey where the Mississippi dumps all the crap from a thousand farms—the manure and fertilizers and insecticides—along with the nutrients. This creates algae blooms

nrdc the gulf’s untold stories

rocky kistner Communications associate in NRDC’s Washington, D.C., office. After the BP oil spill, NRDC opened a Gulf Resource Center in Buras, Louisiana, Ryan Lambert’s hometown. What are some of the main concerns of the people you’ve met there? People are still angry with BP and the government for running a confusing and at times slipshod cleanup operation and for not providing full employment and compensation to everyone impacted by the blowout. The financial pressures are mounting on those whose claims were denied. There were times when fishermen had to rely on neighbors to buy them gas for their trucks and boats and to deliver food to those who had none. Many residents have health concerns about the effects of the oil, and medical attention in parts of the bayou is severely lacking. Most fishermen are just trying to make it through the winter, praying that spring brings a normal fishing and shrimping season. But a lot of them aren’t very optimistic. Fishermen have been living side by side with the oil and gas industry for decades. Have their feelings about it changed? One of the great disconnects for me when I arrived last May was how fishermen could live comfortably in the midst of the maze of oil and gas platforms and pipelines in the Gulf. For many locals, the BP blowout was a wake-up call to the dangers. Support for the industry remains strong, but there is a growing skepticism about its real value and a concern about its impact. People used to put up with small spills all the time. Now some are questioning whether the industry is worth it. Many fishermen support the findings of the presidential commission on the spill, including the recommendation for tighter safety measures. A few are even talking about shutting down the industry and moving to clean energy, which was unheard of before the disaster. Are the rest of us getting the full story about what’s happening in the Gulf today? Most Americans are still unaware of the environmental damage and financial and health stresses. Thanks to the massive PR campaigns by BP and local governments to attract visitors to the Gulf, many people think everything is back to normal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Underwater oil is still washing onto the beaches and into the marshes from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle. Fortunately, through our Gulf Resource Center we’ve been able to get national media attention via our blogs and our StoryCorps partnership with Bridge the Gulf, a local storytelling initiative. But the story is far from over.

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I loved

and removes the oxygen and kills sea life, too. But if this same nutriLambert’s description of the way energy ent- and fertilizer-rich water runs into the marshes, the result will be shimmers off the marsh in waves. I also completely different. Everybody says, ‘We got to stop the nutrients; love the way it shimmers off the most motivated and driven people. we got to stop the fertilizers,’ but you know, we really don’t. All the The words hope and hopelessness get batted about a lot during environwetland plant life will use the nutrients, filtering the leftover fertilizer, mental debates, although sometimes I’m not sure how useful they are. and when it comes out the other end it will be pristine, crystal-clear Certainly hope is good if it acts as fuel for action. Beautiful places, even water. If we let the river run through there like it’s supposed to, we this degraded place in this degraded time, tend to fill me with hope. But will be using those nutrients while also cleaning up the dead zone. I am also energized by obsessed people, those who manage to unite We think we’re smarter than Mother Nature, but we’re not. We can a wild personal energy, an energy beyond reason, with a love of what sometimes outsmart her for a lifetime or two, but she’s coming to they have found here on earth. I find it reassuring to run into these get us eventually, and she’s coming back to haunt us right now.” people, and it makes me happy, even in the face of a larger hopelessI thought of an interview I had heard a national newsman con- ness, to know that if we are going down, at least we’ll go down fighting. duct with a New Orleans scientist. The I believe our best hope lies in worknews guy kept talking about the oil ing with nature, just as we must work s a kid, i would often dig spill—the action, the adventure, the with human nature, and that does not about a dozen of these disaster!—but the scientist insisted on mean sitting in a field and picking talking about the Mississippi, which daisies. It does not mean denying selflines, flooding the sandbar he did until the newsman finally got interest either. Self-interest, rather than islands before their time. fed up and ended the interview. Likebeing evil, contains as much energy as wise, a lot of people from around the anything else on earth. What is a more something similar was going country were mystified last summer glorious fuel, capable of getting more on here on a massive scale. when Louisianans, upon being asked done? I think of a lunch I had a couple about the oil, started talking about eroof years ago on Cape Cod, Massachusion, the Mississippi Delta, the river. setts, with Jim Gordon, president of “That’s because the loss of the wetCape Wind, who had fought for almost lands connects to so many things,” a decade to put a wind farm out in NanLambert explained when I brought tucket Sound. When he first made the this up. “People talk about greenproposal I reacted with outrage, like house gases and the danger of losing many other Cape Codders. It couldn’t forests. But think about what losing happen here, not in this beautiful place. these wetlands means. Think how But my thinking evolved, and at lunch much oxygen they produce. These that day I nodded when Gordon pulled marshes are like prairies, so rich in out his iPod and showed me that, algrasses, and they produce so much though it felt calm, the winds on the oxygen that you can almost see it sound were blowing strongly enough pulsing off the marsh. I imagine it to provide Cape Codders with around shimmering off in waves, the way a 67 percent of our electrical needs, even fire does.” during the crowded summer. It was a bravura performance, obviously practiced but also pas“The environment is changing with or without Cape Wind,” he said. sionate, delivered from the soapbox of the seat behind the boat’s “This region is one of the most susceptible to sea-level rise. Already console. Lambert, I’d noticed, was not a big gesticulator. For all you’ve got insurance companies pulling out from houses within a halfhis intensity, he kept relatively still, hands on the steering wheel. mile of shore. You’ve got more intense storms, beaches eroding. And No doubt he had spent a career regaling his customers with fish as the population doubles, where is our energy going to come from? It stories from that very spot. He was part nature boy, part showman, would be nice if it were a choice between Cape Wind and nothing. But it part arm-twister, and we, floating in the middle of the bay, were a isn’t. It’s either gas and coal or us. We need to make some hard choices.” captive audience. I liked Gordon, and I liked him even more when he admitted his “A whole world is going away in front of our eyes,” he said. “I used motives were not pure. to see deer and bear and bobcat out here when I was hunting and “My opponents say, ‘He just wants to make money.’ And I do want fishing. Now I see raccoons and otters clinging to little spits of grass to make money,” he said. “I want to show that it’s not just coal-driven that aren’t big enough to sustain life. It took eons of time to build or oil-driven power plants that make money. Alternative energy can this land, and it will take time to build it back. But if we don’t start make money.” right now, my grandchild will never see what I’ve seen and what I held on to that conversation during those dark times in the my ancestors saw. Both the land and the way of life will be gone.” Gulf, because last April, just nine days after the oil started gushing, Lambert started the boat up again. He seemed to be done for the Department of the Interior approved Gordon’s project, the first the moment. The rest of us looked at one another and squelched offshore wind farm in the country. our urge to applaud. Perhaps I can better explain what I am talking about by using an


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example of what I am not talking about. Not long ago I watched a film voice in difficult times, but we sometimes make the mistake of thinking of a lecture by Jeremy Jackson, the renowned coral reef ecologist, it is the only one we need. It is not. We also need a voice that is wild, describing the current and future state of our oceans. The news was inspired, simultaneously guided by but somehow beyond mere reason. bleak: corals are gone, fish are gone, algae blooms are everywhere, Through that other voice we merge with the world beyond us, a world and the floor of the continental shelves now looks bare and flattened, that does not believe in straight lines. This is not a New Age sentiment. ruined by trawling, which kills the very grounds where future fish It is rather a very old one, one we need to get back to. The trouble is that will be born. Jackson’s talk was an apocalyptic tour de force, and you we seem hell-bent on destroying the only thing that might hold a clue could see people in the audience nodding even as their hearts and to an alternative way for us to be. And that thing we are destroying is hope sank. Then, after delivering his funeral oration for 20 minutes a natural machine of such complexity that it makes our most powerful or so, he concluded: “The thing we really need to fix is ourselves. It’s computers look like children’s toys. not about the fish, it’s not about pollution, it’s not about the climate In recent years we have lost a clear-cut definition of what it means to change. It’s about us, and our greed, and our need for growth.” be an environmentalist, and that is not a bad thing. We have entered It sounded familiar: we need to a time in which developers can be the change something basic about ourgood guys; many environmental orgahis does not mean selves. I think Jackson is probably nizations, in fact, lined up behind Jim that we should deny right about the fate of the oceans; after Gordon’s efforts to bring wind power all, he has spent his life studying the to Cape Cod. I like the fact that things our engineers entirely; subject. But I think he is dead wrong have become muddied and complicated. we should just suggest about human nature. I would argue that I like that at the moment two of my fawhile he was busy staring down at sea vorite environmentalists are a businessthat they work with the urchins through his microscope, he did man from Boston and a conservative world and not against it. not keep quite such careful notes on the Louisiana fishing guide, both driven as species he is part of. much by self-interest as by their desire “We humans are an elsewhere,” said to save the planet. Maybe they are the my old friend and mentor, the poet poster children of a new, hard-nosed and essayist Reg Saner. The natural environmentalism that sees how wind human state is that of hunger. We are and water can coincide with profit. always reaching, grasping, wanting to Or maybe it is time for the word be somewhere other than where we environmentalism to go away altoare. It is not my role to stand apart from gether. Maybe the word needs to be this and say, “No, it is bad to reach and knocked over and shattered. Whatever grasp.” That is as foolish as it is inefwe call the shards that are left, it is not fective. A better question is how to a time to think in terms of black and use this desire and the unimaginable white, good and bad. Black and white energy it unleashes. Is it possible to is what led to the checkerboard grid change the objects we grasp for? To that covers the Mississippi Delta, slicrefine and revise what we mean by ing and sinking the wetlands. What we “more” and “better”? need is creative thinking, thinking that The question is not “How do we change human nature?” The ques- really takes the world into account—what my father called “the real tion is “How do we use human nature?”—just as we ask how to use the world,” though his meaning was the opposite of mine. The real world tides and the winds and the rivers. The environmentalism of rationalists is the one that has been here for millennia, not the industrial model makes me uneasy, for it seems to hint at the perfectibility of man. I do that has been stamped upon us over the past 100 years. not believe that humans are perfectible, or even very rational. We are a We need to unleash our imaginations, wedding them to good science tribe with restless minds. We move and we shake and we need fuel to and engineering and working with the world. This is not a conservative do it. For most of us there is no greater punishment than sitting still, and liberal issue. It is a practical one. How will we next fuel our tribe? What and faced with our current crises, we are not going to turn ourselves juice will make us go? Do we keep pumping what is basically a dry hole suddenly into Zen monks. Instead, maybe we can take some of this and, in the meantime, take risks that will destroy not just ecosystems and restlessness and energy and put it to better use. Maybe we can nudge habitats and animals but also human culture? Do we do this in the name it in new directions or, better yet, divert it toward older, deeper chan- of sucking the last drops out of an old well, in an old way? Or do we start nels where it used to run. Maybe as we do this, we can be guided not doing now what we will have to do soon enough: looking for a new one? just by the desire for ease but also by the older ideas of sacrifice, of renewed work and growth and wildness. Maybe we can move beyond Milkweed Editions will publish two books this year by contributing editor an engineer’s dream of straight lines. David Gessner, both of which grew out of assignments for OnEarth. The first, This does not mean we should deny our engineers entirely; we should My Green Manifesto, began life as “Riding the Wild Charles” (Winter 2007), just suggest that they work with the world and not against it. We all while the second, The Tarball Chronicles, tells the story of Gessner’s travels have an engineer’s voice inside us: calm, rational, logical. We need that in the Gulf last summer for the magazine and


spring 2011

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the turquoise ledge: a Memoir

bird cloud

BY leslie marmon silko

Scribner, 235 pp., $26

By Annie Proulx

Vintage, 319 pp., $25.95

Looking homeward


Two authors strive to find new meaning, and metaphors, in the modern West by laura pritchett

he virtues of being home, staying home, knowing home.

Landscape and place, and the vast emotional terrain they contain. This is welltrodden ground out here in the West, where books are expected to extol the virtues of physical space. Name five books set in the West in which place isn’t paramount. To be fair, we residents of the West are daily influenced—and in part defined— by space, mountains, sky, terrain, weather, and nature. As the staple of western literature, the gun-toting cowboy has been replaced by the sensitive observer; the new myth we operate under is that contemporary westerners give our attention to landscape, shadows, silences. We chase cows and find rare rocks. We are more at home in our solitude than we are with people. This holds especially true for western women, who are expected to get tough—to “cowboy up,” as the bumper stickers on pickups proclaim—and look out for the integrity of our landscapes. Such is certainly the case with writers of the stature of Annie Proulx and Leslie Marmon Silko, whose new memoirs implicitly inquire into what it means to be a denizen of the contemporary West. The question is, can they accomplish the writer’s difficult task of recognizing well-worn tropes and simultaneously transcending them? What can they say about place that hasn’t already been said? Both of these writers seem well equipped to answer that question, since both are known for their cliché-busting writing—Silko’s breakout novel, Ceremony, and Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain,” to cite just two examples. So when these women turn from fiction to memoir and offer up some-

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thing new (Silko’s first book in 10 years; Proulx’s first work of nonfiction in more than 20), the reader is predisposed to expect something as new and grand as the western skies. Both start at home. Silko’s book is structured around the near-daily walks she takes from her house through the arroyos of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Via these wanderings, we come to see her view of the wildlife, plants, weather, and, most of all, rocks—particularly the fragments that originate in a “turquoise ledge” in the Tucson Mountains. Her finds are as varied as her narrative, which is made up of minuets of personal story and struggle, bits of complex family heritage, and forays into her spiritual life. The Turquoise Ledge shows us a woman richly comfortable in her world of young rattlesnakes and billowing clouds.


Proulx’s book is structured not around walks from her home but around the building of it. In what might be called a foolhardy act, she bought 640 acres next to the North Platte River in Wyoming. On this remote acreage, which she named “Bird Cloud,” she hoped to build her dream home. What she finds (to no one’s surprise, except perhaps her own) is the chaos and disappointment that house-building generally creates. Yet the experience offers her a chance to know the place. “I became more intensely aware of the seasons, animal movements, plant behavior,” she says, which is fortunate for the reader, as she takes us on her encounters with eagles, elk, antelope, and, yes, stones. Both writers are solitary women, alone in their domiciles, but both are comfortable in this state; neither breathes a word about seeking a companion or wishing for a partner. Both are chroniclers of their particular culture and time and place. Above all, both are naturalists by instinct and experience—and herein lie the greatest rewards of both books. Silko, for example, rambles into a wonderful discussion of the process by which turquoise is created (it doesn’t originate in the earth, as many precious stones do, but forms when chemical reactions take place during the weathering of surface minerals). The highlight of Proulx’s work comes as she climbs around on a cliff with shelves separated by steep colluvium deposits and discovers relics of the Late Archaic period in a “vein of glistening dark chert . . . everywhere were thousands of flakes and larger fractured chunks, discarded small cutting tools and hammerstones.” We come to know a place through these specifics and the relationships among them. Silko and Proulx share the same foundation: rocks, arrowheads, trees, birds, rattlesnakes, clouds, and the way all of these interact. And that detail allows us to see the larger

scope of the West with new clarity. In their ways of looking at home, these two women are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Silko regards rocks and creatures as friends; Proulx is a calculating, distant, and unsentimental observer. Silko is a lyric poet; Proulx’s writing is razor sharp. Silko is at home in her place; Proulx is not so sure (she eventually declares her new house uninhabitable in winter). Silko is gentle to the point of sentimentality; Proulx describes herself as “bossy, impatient, reclusively shy, short-tempered, singleminded.” Such comparisons are not always helpful, but reading these memoirs side by side reminds us that the ways to inhabit place are as varied as the stars. In the end, both authors avoid the biggest pitfall of all—the temptation to mythologize and romanticize the western landscape. The key is their honesty and frankness, most evident in their unflinching assessment of the myriad threats. No room for dreamy nostalgia there. Proulx writes of the ravages of the mountain pine beetle, noting that “most of the lodgepole forests of Colorado and southern Wyoming are now standing dead.” She finds it astonishing (and I agree) that so many people outside the West have no idea of this; it “remains something of a millions-of-acres secret.” Silko worries too—about the lack of water, the dire effects of atomic bomb tests and uranium mining. She feels the “suffering and distress of so many living beings” and the “anxious angry energy” it creates. Both books say to us: please see the beauty of this place, become mesmerized by it, be aware of the dangers. Perhaps none of this is entirely new. Home is a loaded concept, and breaking myths is a tough chore. And yet I can think of women writers who have shown me a West that I didn’t know, with insights that take my breath away. Alexandra Fuller does that in her

depiction of Wyoming’s gas-field culture in The Legend of Colton H. Bryant. So does the Montana writer Judy Blunt in her book of essays, Breaking Clean. Or Louise Erdrich with her depictions of Ojibwa communities in North Dakota in her novel Four Souls. But Silko and Proulx, these two solitary, rock-finding female Thoreaus of the West, give it a good stab, and if nothing else, they offer fine evocations of place that become meditations on the importance of home, even if (or especially if) that home ultimately makes us feel small and the scope of our importance minuscule. “Walking on the land or digging in the fine soil,” writes Proulx, “I am intensely aware that time quivers slightly, changes occurring in imperceptible and minute ways.. . . Yet the tiny shifts in everything—cell replication, the rain of dust motes, lengthening hair, wind-pushed rocks—press inexorably on and on.” And perhaps that is enough. ----------------------------------------------------------Laura Pritchett’s five books include the prizewinning novel Sky Bridge (Milkweed Editions).

stolen world A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery BY jennie erin smith Crown, 322 pp., $25

“Natural history had

always been an outsourced business,” writes Jennie Erin Smith in her deft new book, Stolen World. “Someone had to fill the

cabinets of curiosity, to steal the world from the world and bring it back, or no one would believe it.” In the Old World, collecting was sometimes a conduit to establishment science (think Alfred Russel Wallace or Henry Bates). But in the New World, collecting more often fed Barnumstyle shows that blended science and entertainment: the story of an acquisition often mattered more than the specimen itself. This maxim propels Stolen World, which chronicles the exploits of a dying breed—not snakes, but the leather-skinned, gum boot–wearing, reptiles-inthe-socks smugglers who bring them home. Smith’s story begins in the mid-1960s, when little thought was given to regulating the wild animal trade that supplied research labs, carnivals, game farms, pet stores, and zoos, which were just starting to expand their reptile houses. Things changed in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the federal government tightened the Lacey Act, which limits animal imports; passed the Endangered Species Act; and signed on to CITES, a treaty that lists species around the world whose trade is banned or restricted. These limits didn’t hamper Smith’s protagonists, the audacious reptile traders Hank Molt and his nemesis, Tommy Crutchfield; instead, they inspired greater creativity. As kids, Crutchfield and Molt loved snakes. But as the years pass, their passion morphs into obsession. Often working to swindle each other out of rare and beautiful creatures, the pair habitually lie, steal, cheat, assault, forge, harass, and intimidate. Molt hangs out with prostitutes, frequents strip clubs, and drinks way too much. In his wake, he leaves unpaid bills, compromised evidence, and shattered relationships. He commits mail, credit-card, and customs fraud. Success enriches


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Crutchfield, but the congenitally inept Molt makes one bad decision after another. A made-forthe-movies character, he admits, “We were all knowingly involved in criminal activities. Our senses of guilt and stuff were quite diminished compared to normal people.” Smith briskly covers the legal and social history of the snake

trade, including how reptiles became a commodity divorced from science and zoos. And she shows us how smugglers actually work—the false-bottomed trunks, doctored permits, and faked credentials. She also touches upon the trade’s environmental impact. Yes, the ransacking of a nation’s natural heritage—and the endless parade of creatures starved, battered, frozen, baked, and smothered while in transit—is morally reprehensible. But rep-

tile smugglers dealt only in small quantities of valuable animals, Smith writes, while the legal reptile trade, which stocks huge chains like Petco and PetSmart, had the potential to wipe out entire populations. Even so, she notes depressingly, “reptile smuggling was an environmental pinprick next to the carnage wrought daily by mining, logging, and conversion of wilderness to farmland.” Stolen World is almost all plot, delivered fast and hilariously

s p o t l i g h t

Planet Arctic

By Wayne Lynch, Firefly Books, $40 Many of the extraordinary species that inhabit the Arctic—from polar bears to the more obscure purple saxifrage, a hearty plant that can trap warm air in its tiny crevices—demonstrate unique strategies that allow them to thrive in extreme conditions. Although less celebrated than more familiar charismatic megafauna, there exist individual Arctic lichens that have clung to life for thousands of years. In a laboratory test, this orange jewel lichen was subjected to temperatures as low as minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit—and survived. This particular variety of lichen thrives on exposed rocky ridges, in a nitrogen-rich environment created by the droppings of generations of owls, eagles, falcons, and hawks. Photographer Wayne Lynch, who begins this stunning volume with the confession that he is “addicted to the Arctic,” flew in a helicopter over Ellesmere Island, hundreds of miles north of the Canadian mainland and separated by a narrow strait from northern Greenland, in search of gyrfalcon nests. He found their locations simply by looking for these bright orange splotches on the rocks.

deadpan, without a great deal of reflection. Smith’s characters bounce from scheme to scheme, each with his own defense. Dealers in legal exotics claim their animals inspire hobbyists to pursue work in science and conservation; captive breeders say their trade is biologically neutral (unless, that is, animals escape—or are dumped—and then prey on rare natives). And then there are the zoos, some of which used to sponsor dealers’ collecting trips. As public opinion turned against the importation of rare or endangered species, zoos distanced themselves from smugglers. But some still dealt with them covertly (giving smugglers “surplus animals,” for example), even while applauding stricter wildlife laws. And why not? Contraband intercepted at airports was frequently handed over to nearby zoos. Stolen World makes a convincing case that “the romance of the snake” is stronger than any threat of incarceration or of retaliation at the hands of traders cheated out of specimens or cash. Over and again, Molt and Crutchfield—broke, indicted, in poor health—head into the bush after suckering another wealthy snake enthusiast. A lot of Smith’s material seems too good to check, and Molt is clearly an unreliable narrator. Still, in a world where zookeepers lubricate the work of smugglers, and vice versa, and smugglers claim they’re actually rescuing wild animals from becoming bush meat, it’s almost refreshing to hear Molt admit that while reptiles themselves are cool, the drama of procuring them is way cooler. Both he and Crutchfield did time—in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively—for violating federal laws, but neither has, to date, quit the viper trade. —elizabeth royte

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the docks BY bill sharpsteen University of California Press, 310 pp., $27.50

Illustration by blair thornley

When does a box itself

tell us as much as what is inside it? Writer and photographer Bill Sharpsteen set out to answer that question, devoting years to exploring the combined ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The result is The Docks, a virtually encyclopedic look at the booming but paradoxically hermetic life of the nation’s largest seaport. Why should we care about what happens there? Because, as Sharpsteen explains, what goes on inside the fenced, patrolled perimeter provides fascinating insights into the global forces transforming our society, economy, and environment. The ports occupy a vast, 10,700-acre industrial landscape of piers, ships, cranes, railroads, warehouses, water highways, and seas of asphalt covered by rows of newly imported cars and stacks of “cans,” metal shipping containers in which the seaborne cargo of the world is transported. Like the Los Angeles metropolis that sprawls across this semiarid region, the ports, by conventional logic, shouldn’t exist. Unlike its competitors, San Diego and San Francisco, Los Angeles has no natural harbor. A century ago, the area was a shallow bay with a small fishing community. But through what Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, has called

the “Bismarckian municipal will” of the region’s political leaders, breakwaters, massive fill islands, and railroad links transformed the sleepy harbor into a leviathan that now handles 40 percent of U.S. seaborne cargo and 70 percent of U.S. imports from Asia. Once unloaded, the cans move on trains and trucks to huge distribution centers elsewhere in the Los Angeles Basin. Half of the cargo is swallowed there by a consumer market of around 20 million people; the rest streams out to additional distribution centers in Kansas City, Dallas, and Chicago, and from there to points east and north. Across the country, 3.3 million jobs depend in part on the Los Angeles/Long Beach ports. Sharpsteen employs a biological metaphor: the ports are like a heart pumping goods into the body of the continent through major rail and highway arteries, ending in the vessels and capillaries of city and suburban streets. They look from the air like “an industrial vascular system whose disruption would cause an economic heart attack for the country.” Yet people in the communities that border the ports—the Los Angeles neighborhoods of San Pedro and Wilmington and Long Beach’s West Side—worry not about metaphorical disease in the national economy but about real ones in their bodies and those of their children. Many call this the Diesel Death Zone, enveloped as it is in a cloud of fumes and soot spewed out by the ships, which burn cheap “bunker fuel” containing up to 3,000 times as much sulfur as conventional diesel, and by the fleets of trucks, locomotives, and cargo-handling vehicles that swarm around them. Added to this are emissions from the hundreds of acres of refineries, tank farms, and pipelines in and around the ports, making the area the largest source of pollution in Southern California. The most insidious threat comes

from particulates, especially those called ultrafines—invisible and so tiny that they can pass through cell membranes, lodging in tissues and potentially leading to cancer. Children, whose lungs are still developing until the age of 17, are nearly five times more likely to have impaired lung function in areas with high particulate counts, such as those adjacent to freeways—and ports. While Sharpsteen chronicles all this, he also reports on the progress being made in replacing dirty trucks with cleaner models and in cutting emissions from ships—the result of a successful lawsuit filed in 2001 by NRDC and the Coalition for Clean Air. Like ultrafines, much of what is revealed in The Docks is difficult to see from outside. Sharpsteen was initially denied access to the ports, but his persistence paid off with intimate portraits of many of the people who make them tick: longshoremen, independent truckers, ship pilots, tugboat captains, coastguardsmen, shippers, port executives, union officials, and community activists who have fought port expansion and pollution for decades.

The sum is a fine-grained view of how the world’s trade is kept flowing, with goods once made in America now imported from abroad (chiefly Asia), courtesy of lower labor costs and looser environmental regulation. What Sharpsteen also reveals is the true cost of those cheap goods—paid by the environment; by the health of people in the manufacturing countries and in communities here that share space with the goods movement industry; and by the wider dislocations that have come from offshoring so much of our own economy. As much as the shoes, TVs, and computers inside the boxes, it is the chain of engines and hands that moves them that tells the real, important story of the docks. —wade graham

nrdc ports David Pettit director of NRDC’s Southern California Air Program, reports regularly on the Los Angeles/Long Beach ports at dpettit/

After the Snows I’m not in love with The spring trees, limbs of the pear and apple Still thin, and the first shy buds Barely there, pink and pale— Victoriana of the wan nudes. Late April makes the bluebell rise, And the hyacinth, a sweet Cluster of curls Reeling the cool air, though it cannot Stir my sullen blood. But you, when the ice slides From thick to thaw, and the noon sun Softens all the torments of this earth, you Bring me back by one touch Of your forgiving hand. —B y E lt on G l a ser


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Dispatches news and views from the natural resources defense council

Made in China Workers labor in a textile factory in Humen, located in the province of Guangdong.

the fashion industry gets a makeover


A new initiative aims to clean up China’s textile factories, which endanger public health and the environment n a scene typical of many chinese textile

mills, steam and water leak from pipes overhead and along the floor, forming puddles underfoot. Piles of fabric leach toxic dyes. Bags of chemical powder lie broken open, spilling their contents. Locals say they know which colors are in fashion from season to season by observing the hue of nearby rivers. The country’s 50,000 textile mills produce about half of the world’s clothing—$150 billion worth each year—as well as fabric for everything from bedspreads to car seats. The industry also happens to be one of China’s biggest polluters. All together, Chinese mills emit up to three billion tons of soot each year burning coal to heat water that’s used to dye and finish fabric. Processing just one ton of fabric requires as much as 200 tons of water, which is then discharged— contaminated with dye and formaldehyde—to an often inadequate

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water-treatment plant and then into the surrounding environment. All this mess caught the attention of Linda Greer, the director of NRDC’s public health program, and Susan Egan Keane, an NRDC senior environmental analyst, who consulted data on China’s most polluting industries. This led to their discovery that textile manufacturing topped the list and, eventually, to the creation of the Responsible Sourcing Initiative, which works with Chinese factory owners to clean up pollution and waste in textile mills. The program is part of NRDC’s broader Clean by Design project, which aims to curb pollution throughout the global supply chain of the design and fashion industry. Greer and Keane recruited major U.S. corporations seeking to green their operations: Walmart, Levi Strauss, H&M, Nike, and Gap all signed on to the initiative. With the aid of these companies as well as the Jiangsu Academy of Environmental Science and NRDC’s own

Beijing office, the team was able to gain access to two dozen Chinese mills. Greer, Keane, and NRDC China program associate Zixin Lin set out to identify the biggest sources of waste and pollution. “Certain problems are very obvious visually,” Greer says— outdated equipment used to mix dyes and match colors, for example, and dark plumes of soot billowing out of smokestacks. NRDC then chose five typical mills for full-scale audits, identifying each step where improvements could save water, energy, and money as well as cut down on pollution. Those audits, Greer says, revealed some of the “lowhanging fruit”—problems that could be solved most easily by the mills and yield large environmental and economic benefits. Simple recommendations included repairing leaking pipes; reusing water that is normally dumped out after minimal use; and insulating pipes that carry steam, reducing heat loss and, in turn, coal use. The Redbud Textile Mill in Jiangsu was one of the five audited mills. A supplier to Walmart, Redbud was a notoriously wasteful and polluting mill, Greer says,

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left: Patrick zachmann/magnum photos; right: Courtesy of robert ayres

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Natural Resources Defense Council 40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011

until it spent $72,000 to upgrade its equipment based on the NRDC recommendations. Now it saves more than 10 times that amount each year by using 740 fewer tons of water and 9.4 fewer tons of coal per day. For mills like Redbud that have a lot of room for efficiency improvements, “the solutions are going to be enormously profitable,” Greer explains. The Redbud example demonstrates to other operators of polluting factories that they have a lot to gain by making a few upgrades and adjustments. NRDC has moved into the next phase of the project, in which it will train factory owners to implement its recommendations. Each of NRDC’s multinational corporate partners is identifying several key mills in its supply chain where the changes can be made. The companies have also agreed to consider environmental practices when deciding where to buy their textiles, providing an incentive for mills to clean up. “In China they have a lot of really good environmental laws on the books,” Keane says. “What they don’t have is a lot of resources to actually implement and manage the enforcement of those laws.” The corporations will enforce good practices in a way that the government can’t afford to do, she adds. Kindley Walsh-Lawlor, the vice president of social and environmental responsibility at Gap, points out that when companies join together they have more sway over the environmental practices of mills they buy from than each would have alone. NRDC envisions that textile mill owners themselves will spread the message of energy and cost efficiency to other mills in China and beyond. “Our real hope,” Keane says, “is that once we document the benefits of these practices, they will take on their own life as people see the value in good environmental performance.”

—genevra pittman

Helping to clear the air


ichard Ayres, one

of the “Yale four” who founded NRDC, was co-director of the organization’s clean air program for 21 years. Although he is now head of the Ayres Law Group, which represents companies seeking to protect the environment, he still maintains strong ties to NRDC as a member of its board of trustees. He recently spoke with OnEarth about the past, present, and future of air-quality legislation. What is the most significant legislation you’ve been involved in? I would point to the 1977 and 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. The first established the principle that the pristine air quality of places like the Southwest must be protected. Then in 1990 Congress enacted an effective cap-and-trade program to control acid rain that has cut national emissions of sulfur oxides by about 65 percent. Finally, I would point to the global warming bill, even though it didn’t pass last year. I was very involved in that on behalf of several clients, including Honeywell, which makes refrigerant gases and supported legislation to require phasing out high-GWP [global warming potential] refrigerants. Unfortunately we didn’t succeed on that one—yet. We will. How does your experience with the Clean Air Act compare with the work you’re now doing in China? It’s very different. China’s air pollution problems are much worse than ours ever were, and efforts to control pollution are at a much earlier stage—more like it was here in the 1970s. And in the United States we knew that we could go to court, and we could work in Congress and with federal agencies. In China things are much more closed, so it has taken a great deal of creativity on the part of NRDC’s China program to find ways to reach the people in power—and they do now have the ear of some of the key people making environmental policy there. You helped found NRDC 40 years ago. What do you think is NRDC’s responsibility during the next 40 years? As the developing world seeks a decent standard of living, it will have to do so in a way that is very different from the way we in the West have developed. That means, for example, it is imperative to develop energy technologies that don’t threaten the quality of our air, water, and land. How do we support the EPA and its clean-air regulatory authority in the face of attacks by many in Congress to diminish that authority? We have seen this before. When President Reagan came into office there was a period in which the White House was attacking environmental laws—the Clean Air Act, in particular. But President Reagan ran into the fact that a large majority of the American people see the Clean Air Act as insufficiently strong. Ultimately the laws were strengthened, not weakened. Today those in charge of the House of Representatives are extremely hostile to environmental laws, but history teaches me that we’ll make it through this attack, too. Americans want government to protect their health and the quality of their air, land, and water.


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The World Moves Forward on Climate

On December 11, 2010, the Cancún Agreements were finalized at the United Nations climate-change conference in Mexico. Developed and developing nations made a commitment to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases and to be more transparent in the process, marking a significant step toward implementation of the climate accord reached in 2009 in Copenhagen.

Countries will now have to look each other in the eye and say, “I did X, Y, and Z and here is proof.” If a country hasn’t made the progress it needs to, there is now a formal way to shine a spotlight on those shortcomings. After all, we can’t curb global warming if countries aren’t really taking action to cut their pollution.

This reflects a degree of consensus missing last year, when a handful of smaller countries blocked any formal recognition of emission-reduction commitments and brought the negotiation process to its knees. Mexico’s skillful diplomacy achieved a consensus that was not reachable a year ago.

Jake Schmidt Climate Center, DC

David Doniger Climate Center, DC

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The Cancún Agreements were possible because the global community was able to make progress on transparency, a delicate and sensitive issue that had previously been a stumbling block. It was the developing world—in particular, India—that demonstrated real leadership and put the U.N. process back on track.

The biennial updates will detail actions taken to reduce emissions and address climate change. For developed countries, that includes financial and technological support for developing countries. This will help improve implementation while boosting international cooperation and trust.

Shravya Reddy International, NY

Alvin Lin Climate and Energy, Beijing

Going Batty A mysterious fungus has

infected more than a million bats in the United States. Nobody knows where it came from, how it kills, or how to stop it from killing entire colonies of bats. White-nose syndrome, named for the color of the fungus and where it grows on infected bats, was first discovered in late 2008 in a cave in New York State. Since then it has spread north into Canada, south to Tennessee, and west to Oklahoma. Officials in fungus-free states want to learn how to prevent the spread of the disease. Unfortunately, “we don’t have enough information about an actual disease to have management recommendations,” says Sylvia Fallon, a senior scientist at NRDC, who works on the issue. Losing more than a million bats could be devastating. Just a single brown bat—the species hardest hit so far—can eat up to 3,000 insects in one night. As more bats die, some researchers predict, insect populations will boom, and farmers will have to expand their use of pesticides. Given the stakes, Fallon says, scientists urgently need additional funds for further research. Last year, with the help of senators Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, white-nose syndrome research received $1.6 million in federal support. But this year, no money has come through. NRDC is working with a coalition of wildlife experts and cavers to increase awareness and support for whitenose research. —rose eveleth

left: clinton brandhagen (Schmidt); above: marvin moriarty/USFWS

Framework ies to the UN rt Pa e th ledging that ence of ,] [a]cknow [The Confer ge an Ch e at emissions of on Clim ical global Convention or and st hi of d countries share pe t lo es ve rg de la e in th ated ke the lead gases origin ies must ta rt greenhouse Pa y tr un rse effects oped co and the adve that...devel ge an emisch e g climat economy-wide ed fi ti an in combatin of qu by Parties… takes note implemented thereof... be to s et ion targ ke nasion reduct ies will ta rt Pa y tr un co at developing ons...aimed Agrees that gation acti ti mi e to at ve ri ti prop issions rela tionally ap s ation in em vi .[and] take de .. a 20 g 20 in in s on achiev si s usual” emis tion action “business as riate mitiga op s as pr ie ap rt Pa ly onal country] g in op note of nati el ev ented by [d to be implem by them... communicated al bmit bienni ould also su sh een.. gr s. al ie on tr coun s of nati te da up Developing ng ni s for rts, contai uct a proces nd co ] update repo nd [a ennial ventories... alysis of bi an d an house gas in s on s...and l consultati nical expert ch te by internationa is rough analys views... sharing of ve ti ta li ci through a fa


SWITCHBOARD:// Online news analysis

Michigan has among the highest unemployment rates in the United States, and its economy is struggling to recover from the decline of the American auto industry. But as Henry Henderson, the director of NRDC’s Midwest program, points out, Michigan is also a prime example of how energy efficiency can help revitalize a state’s economy. Henderson looks at recent statements made by Fred Upton, the new chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and explains how Upton’s opposition to a climate bill and clean energy doesn’t line up with the lessons learned in his own state. The facts in Michigan are these: energy efficiency is making huge impacts on lowering electricity demand; renewables are generating a growing percentage of the state’s electricity; and these initiatives are creating jobs. By using energy more wisely, the state has offset tens of thousands of tons of dangerous pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and mercury, and millions of tons of climate-changing CO2 by not building unnecessary facilities.

In 2008 the Michigan legislature passed a law requiring utilities to help consumers reduce energy use. The Michigan Public Service Commission reports that the resulting efficiency efforts are actually beating expectations by up to 137 percent... Conservation projects in two government buildings alone saved taxpayers nearly $250,000 on their gas and electric bills last year. Regulators also recently announced that the state is on track to meet a goal of generating 10 percent of its energy from renewables. The state’s future electricity demand can be completely addressed through at least wind, harnessing excess heat from energy production, biomass, and other renewables. Moreover, energy-efficiency investments alone can save Michiganders $3 billion in electricity costs over the next 20 years. Whether you agree with the climate science or not, everyone can agree that reducing the air and water pollution that accompanies coal-fired power plants—as well as eliminating wasted energy—is unambiguously good.

show us your nature

HERE’S TO THE LADIES Terri Chapman, an administrator at Warner Brothers Studios, had always heard that ladybugs were lucky, so on Earth Day last year she released seven containers of them into her rose garden in Burbank, California, to control aphids naturally. The ladybugs quickly found this sunflower, not yet in bloom, and settled in.

Cleaner Diesel nrdc kicked off its dump

Dirty Diesels Campaign in 1995, when most New York City buses still left noxious plumes of exhaust in their wakes. Since then the organization has been instrumental in the creation of the EPA’s regulatory program for diesel engines and in promoting “clean diesel” technology, which reduces toxic emissions by 90 percent or more. NRDC’s latest victory came in January, when President Obama signed the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act of 2010 (DERA), extending a 2005 program that was about to expire. DERA authorizes $500 million in grants and loans to replace or upgrade old, dirty diesel engines, which still power more than 11 million vehicles in the United States. Soot from these old trucks, buses, and construction machines is 100 times more toxic than gasoline exhaust and has been linked to lung cancer, asthma emergencies, and heart disease. “Because these engines are in every city, right at breathing level, the health impact is huge,” says Rich Kassel, director of NRDC’s clean fuels and vehicles project. “But this is solvable.” With additional funds from state and local governments, DERA will create sustainable, long-term cleanup programs. And because each dollar that is invested in the federal program saves between $13 and $28 in health-care costs, DERA enjoys strong bipartisan support. “In a decade when it’s been hard to move the ball forward on many environmental issues on the Hill,” Kassel says, “this has been an important bipartisan success story.” —lauren F. friedman


onearth 6 1


who we are

what we do

people around. “I thought journalism was a ticket to see the world,” Chen says. He was right. As a White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and later Bloomberg News, and as the first elected minority president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Chen was a frequent passenger on Air Force One. (How frequent? “I lost count,” he admits.) Today he is back at NRDC, working to keep the Obama administration on task. Chen spent most of his career at the Los Angeles Times. He left in

Perino called to ask, “What are you going to say when the president talks about environment and energy? You were the number-one attack dog.” Chen took it as “a shot across the bow, but also as real validation.” Along with the pointed comments from Bolton, Perino’s remark “illustrated how important the work of NRDC is: we were on the radar screen of two of the closest advisers to the president.” After three years with Bloomberg News, Chen returned to NRDC, reprising his role as the organization’s federal commu-

TRUTH IN POLITICS Ed Chen knows his way around D.C. as well as any reporter on the Hill.

SENDING A MESSAGE A former White House correspondent keeps our government accountable on the environment


B e n C a r mic h a e l

n February 2007, Josh Bolton, then chief of

staff to President George W. Bush, sat Ed Chen down in his office for a chat. “You’ve been kicking our ass for a year,” he said, jabbing his forefinger at Chen. Chen was a White House reporter at the time—the senior correspondent for Bloomberg News—and had just returned to journalism after 10 months as NRDC’s federal communications director. His encounter with Bolton was telling: NRDC’s aggressive advocacy had rattled the White House. For Chen, the chance to wake up each morning and wonder, “What do I want to ask the president of the United States today?” was exceptionally improbable. Born in China, Chen didn’t immigrate to the United States until the age of 10. Though he spoke no English, he was determined to be a journalist in his adoptive country. His grandfather was head of China’s Central News Agency and always had interesting

6 2 onearth

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2006, after 26 years, motivated in part by worries about the decline of print journalism. But he was also keen to work on behalf of his environmental concerns, which began to emerge during the 1970s when he covered the contamination of livestock feed—and ultimately the food supply of Michigan and surrounding states—for the Detroit News. “I wanted to see what it was like to be an advocate, to get off the fence, where all journalists must station themselves,” he explains. He was hired by NRDC to be its first federal communications director at a time when the organization was sharply critical of Bush’s policies. In his new role, Chen shaped messages to government officials and to the public. But less than a year later he returned to the White House press corps as a correspondent for Bloomberg News, eager to cover the 2008 presidential election. In his first week back, White House Press Secretary Dana

nications director and crafting messages to a new White House. Last summer, when attempts to pass comprehensive climate legislation fell apart in the Senate, “the ground shifted under us,” Chen says. The Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases fell under attack. Chen gathered with NRDC’s climate experts to strategize. President Obama was planning a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, so on the day of his arrival, NRDC placed a two-page ad in the Vineyard Gazette: “Welcome to Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. President. Help us stop the attacks on the Clean Air Act.” The ad made the next day’s headlines and was mentioned prominently in Politico’s Playbook, Washington’s most-read daily tip sheet. A few days later, Chen bumped into a senior White House aide. The White House had noticed too, he said. This time the message was appreciated.

left: photograph for onearth by danuta oftinowski; right: MIKE COOPER/MEDIA AFFILIATES

The first elected minority president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Chen was a frequent passenger on Air Force One.

for Nature Jonathan Marshall develOPED

his love of the outdoors hiking and camping in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. But this passion also ran in his blood: his father, James, helped found NRDC; his mother, Lenore, helped found the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy; and Bob Marshall, his uncle, helped establish the Wilderness Society. During his tenure as editor and publisher of Arizona’s Scottsdale Daily Progress, from 1963 to 1986, Jonathan, who died in 2008, championed the preservation of open space and the development of parks and bike paths. With his wife, Maxine Besser Marshall, he created the Marshall Fund, whose projects included the preservation of the Go John Trail north of Phoenix and the establishment of a butterfly pavilion at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. The couple supported NRDC campaigns for 30 years, and this continues today: in planning their estate, the Marshalls left a bequest to NRDC establishing the Jonathan and Maxine Marshall Fund for Environmental Journalism, which helps support the work of OnEarth.

If you would like information

about how to include NRDC in your estate plans, please contact Michelle Quinones, Senior Gift Planning Specialist, at 212-727-4552 or at

NRDC Board of Trustees

John H. Adams Founding Director, NRDC; Chair, Open Space Institute

Arjun Gupta Founder and Managing Partner, Telesoft Partners

Daniel R. Tishman Chair; Vice Chairman, AECOM Technology Corp.; Chair and CEO, Tishman Construction Corp. of New York

Richard E. Ayres The Ayres Law Group

Van Jones Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Senior Policy Advisor, Green for All

Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr. Chair Emeritus; Chief Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice; Senior Counsel, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, L.L.P.

Susan Crown Principal, Henry Crown and Company; executive, foundation chairman, community activist

Adam Albright Vice Chair; private investor; environmentalist

Leonardo DiCaprio Actor; environmentalist

Patricia Bauman Vice Chair; Co-director, Bauman Foundation Robert J. Fisher Vice Chair; Director, Gap, Inc. Alan Horn Vice Chair; President and COO, Warner Bros. Joy Covey Treasurer; President, Beagle Foundation

honorary trustees Dean Abrahamson, M.D., Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota Robert O. Blake U.S. Ambassador (retired) Henry R. Breck Partner, Heronetta Management.,L.P.

Anna Scott Carter Consultant, NRDC; environmentalist

Laurie P. David Producer; activist

John E. Echohawk Executive Director, Native American Rights Fund Bob Epstein Co-founder, Sybase, Inc.; Co-founder, Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2); Organizer and Director, New Resource Bank

Philip B. Korsant Managing Member, Korsant Partners, L.L.C. Nicole Lederer Co-founder, Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) Michael Lynton Chairman and CEO, Sony Pictures Entertainment Shelly B. Malkin Landscape painter; conservationist Josephine A. Merck Artist; Founder, Ocean View Foundation Mary Moran NRDC Global Leadership Council Member

Michel Gelobter, Ph.D. Founder/CEO, Cooler, Inc.

Peter A. Morton Chairman/Founder, 510 Development Corp.

Joan K. Davidson Former Parks Commissioner, N.Y. State; President Emerita, The J.M. Kaplan Fund

Ruben Kraiem Partner, Covington and Burling, L.L.P

Sylvia Earle, Ph.D. Chair, Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, Inc. James B. Frankel Attorney; conservationist Hamilton F. Kean Attorney; conservationist Charles E. Koob Partner, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, L.L.P.

Wendy K. Neu Senior Vice President, Hugo Neu Corp.; grassroots community organizer and activist Frederica Perera, Ph.D. Professor, Columbia University; Director, Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health Robert Redford Actor; director; conservationist Laurance Rockefeller Conservationist Jonathan F. P. Rose President, Jonathan Rose Companies, L.L.C. Thomas W. Roush, M.D. Private investor; environmental activist Philip T. Ruegger, III Chairman, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, L.L.P; Chairman of the Board of Henry Street Settlement House Christine H. Russell, Ph.D. Environmentalist; foundation director

William H. Schlesinger President, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies Wendy Kirby Schmidt President, The Schmidt Family Foundation; Founder, The 11th Hour Project James Gustave Speth Professor of Law, Vermont Law School; Distinguished Senior Fellow, Demos Max Stone Managing Director, D.E. Shaw & Co., L.P. James Taylor Singer/songwriter Gerald Torres Bryant Smith Chair, University of Texas Law School Elizabeth Wiatt Environmentalist; Founder, Leadership Council George M. Woodwell, Ph.D. Founder, Woods Hole Research Center

Nathaniel P. Reed Businessman; conservationist

Frederick A. Terry, Jr. Senior Counsel, Sullivan & Cromwell

Burks B. Lapham Chair, Concern, Inc.

Cruz Reynoso Professor of law, UC Davis

Thomas A. Troyer Member, Caplin & Drysdale

Maya Lin Artist/designer

John R. Robinson Attorney

Michael A. McIntosh, Sr. President, The McIntosh Foundation

John Sheehan United Steelworkers of America (retired)

Kirby Walker Independent film/ video producer

Daniel Pauly Director, Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia

David Sive Sive, Paget & Riesel, P.C. (retired)

NRDC Staff president Frances Beinecke eXECUTIVE Director Peter H. Lehner PROGRAM STAFF: Wesley Warren, director; Action Fund: Heather TaylorMiesle, director; Matthew Howes, Corry McKee; Air & Energy: Dale Bryk, director; Ann Alexander, Christina Angelides, Evelyn Arevalo, Jamy Bacchus, Max Baumhefner, Kaid Benfield, Drew Bennett, Terry Black, Uchenna Bright, Pierre Bull, Ralph Cavanagh, Allison Clements, Brandi Colander, Lisa Copland, Donna DeCostanzo, Pierre Delforge, Natisha Demko, Amanda Eaken, Kristin Eberhard, Lara Ettenson, Deborah Faulkner, Shannon Fisk, Rishi Garg, David Goldstein, Nathanael Greene, Ashok Gupta, Justin Horner, Noah Horowitz, Roland Hwang, Alexander Jackson, Richard Kassel, Kit Kennedy, Elizabeth Landeros, Noah Long, Daniel Lorch, Deron Lovaas, Luis Martinez, Sierra Martinez, Peter Miller, Simon Mui, Colin O’Brien, Colin Peppard, James Presswood, Marissa Ramirez, Robin Roy, Laura E. Sanchez, Thomas Singer, Brian Siu, Rebecca Stanfield, Luke Tonachel, John Walke, Sharianne Walker, Margaret Waltner, Devra Wang, Sheryl Warzecha, Samantha Wilt; Center for Market Innovation: Peter Malik, director; Judith Albert, Christine Chang, Diane Doucette, Greg Hale, Thomas Hayes, Philip Henderson, Jennifer Henry, Radhika Khosla, Kevin Levy, Yerina Mugica, Carlin Rosengarten, Douglass Sims, Cai Steger, Samir Succar, Alisa Valderrama, Starla Yeh; China: Barbara Finamore, director; Michael Davidson, Hoober Hu, Jie Gao, Ruidong Jin, Hyoung Mi Kim, Yang Li, Yuqi Li, Alvin Lin, Zixin Lin, Mingming Liu, Jingjing Qian, Jun Tian, Alex Wang, Yaling Wang, Christine Xu, Xiaoli Yan, Chenxi Yang, Mona Yew, Anne Zhang, Xiya Zhang, Yao Zheng; Climate Center: Daniel Lashof, director; Radha Adhar, Peter Altman, Jamie Consuegra, David Doniger, Jennifer Emerson, Franz Matzner, Meleah Geertsma, David Hawkins, Antonia Herzog, Laurie Johnson, George Peridas, Theo Spencer, John Steelman, Lucy SwiechLaFlamme; Government Affairs: David Goldston, director; Richie Ackerman, Lisa Catapano, Kellie Cutrer, Apolinar Gonzales, Andrea Martin, Ann Notthoff, Genevieve Parshalle, Victoria Rome, Scott Slesinger, Melissa Waage, Lauren Zingarelli; Health: Linda Greer, director; Diane Bailey, Dana Gunders, Sarah Janssen, Jonathan Kaplan, Avinash Kar, Susan Keane, Kim Knowlton, David Lennett, Daniel Rosenberg, Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, Jennifer Sass, Gina Solomon, Suzanne Vyborney, Monique Waples, Mae Wu; International: Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director; Heather Allen, Carlota Arias, Elizabeth Barratt-Brown, Carolina Herrera, Anjali Jaiswal, Amanda Maxwell, Shravya Reddy, Jacob Scherr, Jake Schmidt, Elizabeth Shope; Land: Sharon Buccino, director; Janet Barwick, Charles Clusen, Sylvia Fallon, Debbie Hammel, Nathaniel Lawrence, Amy Mall, Bobby McEnaney, Helen O’Shea, Rebecca Riley, Justin Sherman, Matthew Skoglund, Johanna Wald, Andrew Wetzler, Louisa Willcox, Craig Dylan Wyatt, Sami Yassa, Carl Zichella; Litigation: Mitch Bernard, director; Irina Petrova, corporate counsel; Joshua Berman, Aaron Colangelo, Selena Kyle, Ben Longstreth, Nancy Marks, Andres Restrepo, Lucia Roibal, Aaron Schaer, Joya Sonnenfeldt, Jennifer Sorenson, Michael Wall, Vivian Wang, Bettina Wells; Midwest Regional: Henry L. Henderson, director; Amrita Batra, Thomas Cmar, Jennifer Daly, Melissa Lupo, Nicholas Magrisso, Dylan Sullivan; Nuclear: Christopher Paine, director; Thomas B. Cochran, Geoffrey Fettus,

Matt McKinzie, Jonathan McLaughlin, Robert S. Norris; Oceans: Lisa Speer, director; Jonathan Alexander, Seth Atkinson, Alison Chase, Sarah Chasis, Karen Garrison, Marisa Kaminski, Lawrence Levine, Leila Monroe, Regan Nelson, David Newman, Bradford Sewell, Lisa Suatoni, Marina Zaiats; Science Center: Brianna Mordick, Nathan Sandwick; Urban East: Mark Izeman, director; Johanna Dyer, Jessica Esposito, Eric Goldstein, Allen Hershkowitz, Darby Hoover, Albert Huang, Richard Schrader, Kate Sinding, Elinor Tarlow; Urban West: Joel Reynolds, director; Gregory Gould, Lizzeth Henao, Michael Jasny, Taryn Kiekow, Melissa Lin Perrella, Adriano Martinez, Damon Nagami, David Pettit, Lindsi Seegmiller, Gopi Shah, Zak Smith, Jessica Wall, Morgan Wyenn; Water: David Beckman, director; Jon Devine, Steven Fleischli, Noah Garrison, Andy Gupta, Rebecca Hammer, Karen Hobbs, Carol James, Michelle Mehta, Barry Nelson, Douglas Obegi, Edward Osann, Katherine Poole, Monty Schmitt; COMMUNICATIONS Phil Gutis, director; Cathryn Bales, Ynés Cabral, Anthony Clark, Robert Deans, Rachel Fried, Alba Garzon, Lisa Goffredi, Sherry Goldberg, Courtney Hamilton, Elizabeth Heyd, Daniel Hinerfeld, Serena Ingre, Francesca Koe, Jessica Lass, Kathryn McGrath, Joshua Mogerman, Jennifer Powers, Adrianna Quintero-Somaini, Kimberly Ranney, Auden Shim, Katherine Slusark, Suzanne Struglinski, William Tam, Lisa Whiteman; onearth Douglas S. Barasch, editor-in-chief; George Black, Scott Dodd, Janet Gold, Megan M. Teixeira, Laura Wright; DEVELOPMENT  John Murray, director; Gina A. Abramo, Coretta Anderson, Jean Bowman, Spencer Campbell, John Cavanagh, Jennifer Chapin, Elizabeth Corr, Justin Courter, Maria DeRiggi, Caitlin Driscoll, Sarah Edwards-Schmidt, Travis Eisenbise, Robert Ferguson, Katherine Gibson, Nancy Golden, Shari Greenblatt, Courtney Gross, Alexander Hague, Ashley Honeysett, Rita Itwaru, Patrick Kiely, Ying Li, Nancy Metzger, Kelly McGonigle, Elizabeth McNulty, Peter Meysenburg, Emily Moyer, Michelle Mulia-Howell, Emily O’Neill, Shaniqua Outlaw, Matthew Perrin, Caroline Pronovost, Michelle Quinones, Lynne Shevlin, Missy Toney, Tammy Tran, Julie Truax, Steve Van Landingham, Catherine Vega, Nicole Verhoff, Desrene Walton, Marian Weber, Marianna Weis, Joyce Wong; Membership: Linda Lopez, director; Darlene Davis, Lillian Fernandez, Amy Greer, Alex Hernandez, Katharine Houston, Jordan Kessler, Jennifer Lam, Adrianne Prettyman, Gina Trujillo, Marie Weinmann, Joyce Yeung; FINANCE AND OPERATIONS Judith Keefer, director; Finance: Hiawatha Barno, Annette Canela, Dorothy Clune, Jeff Cruz, Kathy Eason, Debby Fuentes, James Hands, Sharon Hargrove, Lauretta Hoffler, Eunice JeanPaul, Alex Liu, Shih-Chang Lu, Apurva Muchhala, Vivek Nadarajah; Administration: Jackie Albarran, Sasha Alleyne, Sonah Allie, Umar AlUqdah, Brian Anderson, Sarah Brailey, Larisa Bravette, Anita Brennan, Willa Bugnon, Angela Calderon, William Christie, Tianya Coachman, Matthew Cohen, Genie Colbert, Lasans Crawford, Angeliki Ebbesen, Leslie Edmond, Matthew Eisenson, Mimose Elie, Mercedes Falber, Sevi Glekas, Brian Gourley, Molly Greenwood, Anthony Guerrero, Sung Hwang, Brian James, Rodrigo Jaramillo, Leslie Jones, Valerie Keane, Vera Korol, Rene Leni, Shelly Lyser, Felicia Marcus, Marisa McFarlane, Malia Palakiko, Leonard Patterson, Penny Primo, Ann Roach, Roseann Rock, Stephanie Sandor, Robyn Spencer, Milagro Suarez, Vivek Varughese, Bradley Wells.

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onearth 6 3

open space star light, star bright people had almost no way to take cover from the night—no more about the island where I once lived, and the remote than a smoky fire or a lone candle that at its best also smoked, and house on a dirt road where I spent two winters stank, and lit only a meal, a face, a hand? Not much to do after a while more than 25 years ago. I’m not sure anymore but talk on in the dark, and then sleep. Now I live in the heart of a modest town, so, like most people in how long the ferry ride from the mainland was, or when the scallop season started. I’ve lost the this country, I don’t see many stars anymore, and the sky between names of acquaintances. But the one thing I’ll them isn’t really dark. The streetlights outside my windows are so never forget is the night sky above my home those winter nights, bright I can wander through my house without turning on a lamp. I see illuminated windows in every which I anticipated as I drove out of direction; the neighborhood forms town with its bright clusters of shop its own constellation of far, near, windows and then outdistanced the bright, dim, upstairs, downstairs, last of the streetlights. which carries its own kind of beauty. Beyond their glare the road narWhen I walk through the streets at rowed and the human lights grew night I notice the moon above the more and more sparse until, when I windows and street lamps, and can turned down my rutted road, my own sometimes spy a planet or a major headlights were all I had to orient me constellation—Orion, Cassiopeia— in the dark. Once I arrived home and more easily than I ever could before. turned them off, I often couldn’t see The sparse stars feel familiar, part my hand in front of my face, certainly of the neighborhood, although they not when the moon was down. I always seem much farther away than they was aware of the phases of the moon did on the island, and I never feel then. There would be more stars than the pressure of them. dark, just as Chekhov once wrote—so Sometimes I try to imagine the night many stars one could not have put a finsky I once knew shining above the ger in between them—and they seemed town, as if starlight and human light close enough to reach up and touch. could coexist with equal strength. But Even so, I didn’t have to look skyward even if that were possible, I don’t supto feel their presence. I sensed their pose the night sky would conjure the weight—that’s the only way I can detumult of feeling that rose up within me scribe it—a kind of pressure bearing I found it almost impossible to all those years ago. Abundant artificial down on me. stand and ponder the stars for long, light creates a different kind of night As much as I tried, I found it almost for as beautiful as they were, they for the human spirit, one in which it’s impossible to stand and ponder them also made me apprehensive a simple thing to travel through the for long, for as beautiful as they were, dark, and which can be full of leisure they also made me apprehensive. Part of that may have been my own young solitary self in that remote or as full of direction as day. As the dusk draws down, I merely have corner. It may have been the cold and the wind. All I know is that to flick a switch to continue with my work, and I only have to look out I encountered those stars each time with mixed feelings of awe the window to feel the company of others doing the same. The star-struck sky belongs to a spare world, unbounded and and loneliness, and often I hastened to feel for my keys and then the lock on the door. Once I moved inside, I saw to everything without distraction, where it’s never a simple thing to take cover that would cut me off from the outer night—the lights, the fire, the from the night, where every attempt to do so is small and selfradio, supper—the small tasks that people turn to so as to make conscious. Perhaps it’s age and experience that make it so, or the rarity of it, but when I chance to see such a sky now—atop a themselves at home. Still, the feeling I had beneath the stars lingered long into the mountain, along a deserted stretch of coast—it feels like a privilege evening. How must it have been for so much of human time when as I fall through the years toward ancient time. a m b e g innin g to f o r g e t t h in g s

6 4 onearth S P R I N G 2 0 1 1

illustration by david cutler


BY Jane brox

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OnEarth Spring 2011  

Strange Days in the Arctic, by Bruce Barcott

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