Thursday, April 25, 2013

Earth Week a time to engage in political action

Earth Week a time to engage in political action

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When Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin put out the call for observance of the first Earth Day 43 years ago, he did so on the premise that awareness—especially among young people—would lead to action.
He wrote, “I am convinced that all we need to do to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster is to present the facts clearly and dramatically.”

So, Earth Day was conceived as a “teach-in,” and as a teach-in, it was intended to communicate knowledge that would lead to political action. And it did. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act all provide testament to that.

But while those laws and other policy changes that followed the first Earth Day surely have had good effects, they have not turned the larger tide of environmental destruction. What’s more, over the past four decades we’ve proven to be more capable of understanding our environmental plight than fixing it.

Knowing what’s wrong isn’t enough.

If you’re listening to this commentary, you probably already know that humans are extinguishing other species before we even name them. And you know our children are born “pre-polluted” with chemicals whose complex effects on human systems are little understood. And you know our methods of “resource” extraction are creating scars that will mar the planet for generations. And you have easy access to the wide range of scientific evidence that climate change will disrupt civilization in ways you’d rather not even think about. To top things off, you also know that voluntary, individual “green” efforts are sufficient to solve none of these problems.

Why bring all of this up during Earth Week 2013?

Not to dissuade you from taking part in the feel-good activities that now seem to dominate observances of the occasion, but to encourage you to participate with an eye toward political action.

For example, it feels good to spend some time picking up trash along the banks of a stream. Doing so gives you the opportunity to socialize with other people who share with you an appreciation for the natural world, and when you’re finished, you can see the change you’ve made. But picking up litter benefits a stream in a pretty limited way. So if you celebrate Earth Day by participating in a cleanup, how about also letting your voice be heard in the political process that determines the long-term health of our waterways?

On a local level, that may mean attending meetings of a village or county board to speak up for the public interest in clean water for people and wildlife. (There seems to be no shortage of opportunity for this sort of action in east central Illinois in the near future.) But the long-term health of waterways is affected even more by policies enacted at state and national levels, where it’s very difficult for individuals to be heard.

Your best bet for affecting policy at the state and national levels is to seek out and support the groups that advocate for the public interest there. Fortunately, we have no shortage of those in east central Illinois, either: Prairie Rivers Network, Sierra Club and Faith in Place to name three. That, to me, is the best way to ensure the good will and optimism that have come to be associated with Earth Day can bring about the kind of change that really matters.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Savvy cycling liberates bicyclists, promotes harmony among roadway users

Savvy cycling liberates bicyclists, promotes harmony among roadway users

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Does the warming weather awaken in you the desire to ride a bike—maybe even use one to get work some day? Then why not do it?

Bicycling can help you feel whole and connected. If you use a bike to get around, you may be able to stop worrying about how to fit exercise into your routine, since exercise becomes part of your routine. The same goes for spending a reasonable amount of time outdoors. When you’re bicycling and you cross paths with a friend or neighbor, you can take a moment to catch up, rather than waving at each other through the windshield of a car.

Nor do you have car windows or engine sounds or the noise of the radio to interfere with what really matters at this time of year, which is the calls and songs of birds, of course! What better way to track spring migration than by making mental notes about what you hear as you ride? And if your route takes you by a natural area, even in an urban setting, you can easily slow down for a look around.

For some people, the economic benefits of cycling can be significant, too. What better way to pass a station offering gas at $3.70-a-gallon than on a vehicle that uses none? And hang tags? We don’t need no stinkin’ hang tags. Parking meters, either.

In the past I’ve mentioned efforts underway on the UI campus and in Champaign and Urbana to facilitate bicycling through changes to infrastructure, including bike lanes and other pavement marking. But I would also encourage you to explore a more liberated approach to cycling, one that enables you to travel where you want to go safely and easily using existing roadways.

A friend of mine, Gary Cziko, offers a free, one-evening introduction to this approach called “Cycling Savvy,” which he will next teach on the UI campus on Thursday, April 25, from 6:30 to 9:30 pm in the Natural Resources Building, Room 101, 615 E. Peabody Drive, Champaign. (The course is free and open to the public, Click here to register.)

According to Cziko, those who stand to benefit from the course include any adult interested in cycling on public roads—especially people who see cycling in traffic as intimidating—and even high-schoolers as young as fifteen. Cycling Savvy also provides a useful perspective for law enforcement personnel, traffic planners and even motorists, since roadways work best for everyone when engineering, enforcement and education all align.

[Photo: Virginia Uhlig rides on Lincoln Avenue over I-74 as part of a Cycling Savvy course last summer. By Gary Cziko.]

There are three main components of Cycling Savvy. The first is devoted to changing some of the pervasive, mistaken beliefs people hold about how they should behave on a bicycle. Chief among these is the notion that roads are for motorists and bicyclists are safest when they stay out of the way. (They’re definitely not.)

The second component of the course educates participants about the causes of crashes. Some types of crashes—which participants learn to prevent—are so predictable they even have colorful names, including “right hook,” “left cross” and “dooring.”

The third part of the course is devoted to problem solving, helping participants work through how to anticipate and avoid awkward situations, such as getting stuck in a turn lane as they approach an intersection.

According to Cziko, and as I’ve found in my own experience, the keys to happy cycling are being visible and predictable. Add to these clear communication of your intentions, and you’ve got a recipe for harmony among all roadway users.

Cycling Savvy is free and open to the public. You can register for here:

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Two ways to fight invasive plants

Two ways to fight invasive plants

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What’s wrong with garlic mustard? Ask Marilyn Leger, and she’ll tell you that no plant is bad, but that garlic mustard is one of many plants that can produce bad effects when people establish them in the wrong place. And natural areas in Illinois are definitely the wrong place for garlic mustard.

Garlic mustard was brought to North America by European immigrants in the 1860s as a culinary herb, but by the late twentieth century it proved to be one of the worst plants ever introduced in the northeast and Midwest. Left alone, garlic mustard crowds out native plants, which can lead to any number of bad effects, from depriving insects and the animals that eat them of an important food source, to depriving birds of the cover they need for nesting, and more.

Leger is co chair of the Invasive Plant Task Force, a committee of the east central Illinois Master Naturalist Program. The task force also works toward change in the policies and behaviors that promote the spread of invasive plants, and combats invasive plants through direct action.

Currently, it is conducting the third annual Great Garlic Mustard Hunt, a weeks-long series of opportunities for volunteers to help control garlic mustard in natural areas by pulling the plants. (It’s important to do that in the spring, while the ground is soft and before they go to seed.)

[Photo by Marilyn Leger. Past Great Garlic Mustard Hunt participants, left to right: John McWilliams, Nathan Hudson, Eileen Borgia, Mike Daab, Cindy Strehlow, Susan Campbell. At Homer Lake Forest Preserve.]

Last year’s hunt involved more than 150 participants, who together removed more than seven tons of garlic mustard from sites including Allerton Park near Monticello, Meadowbrook Park in Urbana and the Homer Lake Forest Preserve.

Unfortunately, pulling garlic mustard is a rearguard action. It is nearly impossible eradicate weedy plants once they become invasive, despite the good will and hard work of dedicated volunteers. The most effective way to fight the establishment of invasive, exotic plants is through effective regulation at the state and national levels.

For thoughts on that, I turned to Fran Harty, who is currently a director of special projects with the Nature Conservancy Illinois. In a former role with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Harty was among those who in the 1980s helped call attention to the widespread problems caused by purposeful introductions of exotic species in the state, and developed strategies for dealing with them.

For intentional introductions such as landscaping plants or biofuels, which are planted widely, Harty suggests that the cost of early detection, eradication, and control of invasive exotic species be “taken off the shoulders of the taxpayer and placed where it belongs, with the purveyor.”

His sense of a business model that would work best in the case of intentional introductions is for the purveyor to pay to the state an up front, irrevocable  “environmental insurance bond” as a cost of doing business. Money generated by these bonds would go into a “biosecurity” fund, which would be invested and used to pay the costs associated with monitoring and handling the consequences of widespread introductions that go awry.

Harty reasons that purveyors who want to introduce exotic species would be highly selective in their decisions about what plants to try if they were required to pay a significant amount up front, say $500,000 per species. If a $500,000 bond seems high, Harty points out, consider that it represents miniscule percentage of the $7.7 billion U.S. taxpayers spend every year to control invasive species.

Click below for more information about the Great Garlic Mustard Hunt:

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Spring break, EA style

Spring break, EA style

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My family had the opportunity to get away to the Florida Gulf Coast over spring break, where we enjoyed great company, perfect camping weather and time on the beach. Of course, I also took advantage of the opportunity to do some wildlife photography, and to follow up on my curiosity about some of the critters we saw.

Hiking alone one afternoon on a sandy trail through pine scrub, I spied something brown moving in the vegetation ahead. My first hopeful thought was, “bobcat!” because park personnel said visitors had seen one recently. Alas, as I got closer I could see my animal was too small to be a bobcat, and it was shambling along with its nose in the sand. Just an armadillo.

[Photos by author.]

Armadillos are something of a nuisance at the campground where we stay because of the way they root around at night, but I’ve never seen one out during the daytime before. To my great fortune, the one I came upon turned and crossed the path in front of me, and I had my camera ready.

Why are there armadillos in Florida?

Up until the mid nineteenth century, when they began an expansion of their range that continues to the present day, armadillos were not found north of the Rio Grande. That expansion would have gotten them to Florida on their own by now, but they got a jump-start in the state when some were released from a small zoo in the 1920s. Armadillos now currently occupy all suitable habitat in the Sunshine State.

On a different walk in the same area, our group came across a box turtle. The subspecies found there, Gulf Coast box turtle, is the largest among North American box turtles, and its shell tends to be dark. The turtle we found was blackened, though. 


Prescribed burns are used to manage sand pine scrub in Florida, for the same reasons they’re used to manage natural areas in the Midwest. They keep invasive plants in check and promote ecosystem health in various other ways. To judge by the marks on its shell, our turtle had not only traveled through a recently burned area, it had survived being caught in the fire.

According to John Roe, a professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke who studies the impact of prescribed burns on box turtles, they can grow new tissue to replace shell that’s damaged by fire or other mishaps. But scientists still have much to learn how well individual turtles survive prescribed burns and how burns affect turtle populations.

Among the animals I most enjoy seeing in Florida are the birds, especially herons and egrets. They’re big, they’re beautiful and they stand stock still for long periods of time—what more could a photographer ask for? My favorites are snowy egrets, which are more compact than some of their cousins. In addition to their small size and all-white plumage, snowies are distinguished by their yellow feet, “golden slippers” in the phrasing of some guidebooks.

For me, snowy egrets represent hope. Their numbers were reduced to dangerous lows by the beginning of the twentieth century, thanks to demand for their feathers to decorate hats. It would have been awful to lose them, and it could have happened.

But some people called attention to the stupidity of that path. And they organized. And in response to the pressure they brought to bear, congress enacted legislation to protect our collective interest in the preservation of these and other migratory birds in the U.S. Sometimes, when we really need to, we do get things right.