Thursday, April 28, 2005

Illinois Armadillos?

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We’ve grown accustomed to the alarms raised when a new species of animal makes its way into Illinois, and in most cases with good reason. Creatures like the Asian longhorned beetle and the Bighead carp wreak havoc on ecosystems and threaten our economy. But there’s a newcomer to the southern part of our state that seems to be stirring up more curiosity than eradication plans--the nine-banded armadillo.

Nine-banded armadillos are the most numerous and widely distributed of the twenty species of armadillos that exist today, and the only kind that inhabit the United States. They are native to South and Central America, but they’ve been expanding their range for at least the past hundred and fifty years. They were first reported north of the Rio Grande in Texas in 1849 and have steadily spread north and east from there. During the early part of the twentieth century, another population of armadillos was established in Florida when they were brought there by people and released. That population also spread rapidly and converged with the Texas population in northern Florida and southern Georgia in the 1970s. Armadillos now also occupy parts of South Carolina, much of Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, southern Kansas, Arkansas, western Tennessee, and southern Missouri. Individuals have even been reported as far north as Nebraska.

Will Illinois be added to the list of states that armadillos call home? People have reported seeing them here since the 1970s, but a flurry of sightings in recent years has prompted Joyce Hofmann and colleagues at the Illinois Natural History Survey to look into the issue.

With support from the Illinois Wildlife Preservation fund, they surveyed 135 people familiar with the animal life of southern Illinois and solicited reports of armadillo sightings by birderwatchers. Respondents reported 76 different armadillo records from 22 counties between 1999 and 2003, mostly in the western half of southern Illinois. There were also reports in 2004 from seven additional counties.

How armadillos arrive in Illinois is an open question. They might be brought by people and released, as they were in Florida. Or they might come as stowaways in cargo on barges, trains, or trucks. Or they might arrive on their own power walking across bridges, or--unlikely though it may be--even somehow crossing the Mississippi river.

Although we know that armadillos can get to Illinois, we don’t yet know whether or how well they might become established here. Cold will eventually stop their spread north, since they can’t hibernate and depend for food on insects and other creatures they find by digging in the earth. Where the ground stays frozen for too many days in a row during winter they are unable to dig for food and can’t survive. The current prediction for their northern limit is a line that runs across the state about a third of the way up from the bottom.

Whether or not armadillos become Illinois residents, they are fascinating for their many quirks.

When they are startled, armadillos may jump four feet into the air, and they are surprisingly fast for such ungainly looking creatures.

Armadillos don’t float naturally, so they cross small bodies of water by walking across the bottom, like divers wearing weights. When they must swim, they can make themselves buoyant by gulping air to partially inflate their intestines.

Armadillos typically give birth to identical quadruplets every year, and they can delay pregnancy at the earliest stages to ensure that young will not be born until weather conditions are favorable.

And of course, armadillos are the only North American mammals that grow their own armor.

If you happen to see an armadillo in Illinois, make a note of the date and location and contact the Illinois Natural History Survey. You’ll be contributing detail to a unique ecological success story.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Earth Day and the Importance of Activism

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Tomorrow will mark the 35th anniversary of the first Earth Day, the day in 1970 that twenty million Americans came out to move environmental issues to the top of the national agenda. The depth and complexity of the environmental challenges we face today are no less sobering, but it’s important to remember that those challenges are not all the same because we have made some important gains since that first Earth Day. As we look to the future, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that people in east central Illinois have participated in and benefited from environmental activism.

Have you visited Busey Woods in Urbana recently? When you are there next, take time to remember that this fifty-nine-acre remnant of what was once a ten square-mile forest was slated for development as an industrial park in the 1960s. Before that, it was used as a dumping ground for the rubble of buildings cleared to make way for Lincoln Square Mall. Had concerned citizens not come together to fight for its preservation, there would be no Busey Woods today. Now part of the Urbana Park district, the woods continues to provide a haven for wildlife and a nearby retreat for urban dwellers. It is also home to numerous programs conducted by the Park District that provide schoolchildren an important connection with the natural world.

Have you enjoyed the sight of woodland wildflowers blooming in the bottomland forest at the U of I’s Robert Allerton Park near Monticello this spring? Do you hike, bike, hunt, fish, or canoe on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River? As with Busey Woods, but on a much larger scale, those places were also preserved for recreation and for ecological values by the direct action of concerned citizens and the political leaders who came to share their perspective.

Even now, the environment of east central Illinois continues to benefit from the involvement of active citizens. With prompting from a variety of groups, the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation district has begun to restore sixty-seven acres of wetlands adjacent to the Salt Fork River near St. Joseph. In addition, the Soil and Water Conservation District has worked in cooperation with the Barnhart family to re-establish a tract of tallgrass prairie on Old Church Road east of Urbana, similar to the one developed by the Champaign County Audubon Society and the Urbana Park District at Meadowbrook Park. The Urbana Park District also has its own wetland restoration project underway adjacent to the Saline Branch on Perkins Road.

Of course gains in habitat protection and restoration are part of a larger picture; locally and nationally we continue to benefit from hard won legislation like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. And we should take heart from the fact that environmental values affect the way individuals and institutions make decisions about how they use energy and other resources.

None of this is to say there’s smooth sailing ahead. But as we confront urban sprawl and our dependence on harmful chemicals, as we face the threats posed by invasive species and global warming we do well to keep in mind that environmental activism can and does make a difference.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Urbana's Ecological Construction Laboratory

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When most of us think about saving energy in our homes, we think about turning down the thermostat a few degrees in the winter, and maybe adding some insulation or better sealing windows and doors against drafts. Such measures really can help to cut power bills and keep indoor air temperatures comfortable. But they allow for only incremental reductions in the amount of energy a typical house requires.

To reduce energy use in homes and other buildings more dramatically, we really need to start at the planning stage. If we do that, says German-born Urbana architect Katrin Klingenberg, it’s possible to construct a single-family home that uses ninety percent less energy than that used by a house built to conventional standards. It is Klingenberg’s goal to see housing that meets this higher standard become the norm in the American Midwest.

In spring of 2002, Klingenberg and her husband Nicolas Smith located in Urbana intending to build such an energy-efficient home together. When Smith’s life was tragically cut short, Klingenberg decided to follow through on the dream they had shared, and build the house that Smith had designed. She also established the Ecological Construction Laboratory, or E-colab, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing, implementing, and fostering the widespread adoption of highly energy-efficient and sustainable construction techniques.

The remarkable energy-efficiency of the house that Klingenberg built and now lives in is achieved by use of a design and construction techniques based on two simple objectives: minimizing thermal losses, and maximizing thermal gains.

Thermal losses are minimized by sealing the home completely against air leaks, and super-insulating the walls, floor, and ceilings, so that they prevent the transfer of heat up to three times as well as typical new construction.

Thermal gains are maximized by grabbing all of the free natural heating and cooling available. The house’s southern exposure is made up almost entirely of triple-pane windows, so that in winter, when the sun tracks low in the sky, the floor is warmed during the day and then slowly releases heat overnight. Klingenberg’s house also uses a highly efficient air exchanger for ventilation, which provides a constant flow of air from the outside with minimal loss of heating or cooling. Air coming into the exchanger is also conditioned by passing through an “earth tube,” a hundred-foot-long loop of plastic pipe buried six feet below the ground, where the temperature is a constant fifty-five degrees. Klingenberg’s house has no furnace; at the coldest times of year a heating element similar to the one in your hairdryer provides all the supplemental warming that’s needed.

Are you curious about the extra investment required to build a house that’s so energy-efficient it doesn’t need a furnace? Klingenberg estimates that her house cost roughly ten percent above the price of conventional construction, an amount that can be recovered in five years or so of energy savings. Once that initial investment is recouped, all of that money not spent on energy is money in the bank.

The idea behind Ecolab’s current project, a four-bedroom house to be built this year with financial assistance from the City of Urbana, is to extend the benefits of living in a super-energy-efficient home to a low-income family, and to demonstrate that such construction is viable right now, not in some distant future.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Toward a More Sustainable Home Landscape

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For many of us, the return of bright green to the landscape in spring triggers an urge to get out and grow something, and often that something is turf grass, the lawn. It’s probably not news to you that conventional lawn care has a significant negative impact on the environment. But the issue seems worth revisiting at this time of year, which seems so favorable to renewal and change.

Before I talk about what’s wrong with the conventional lawn, I should emphasize that I like turf in my yard. My children play wiffleball and run around there. I play wiffleball and run around there. We have picnics, we wash the car, we catch up with the neighbors, we hang out laundry now and then. I even like the way grass looks.

But to have some grass does not require any of us to participate in the ongoing environmental degradation associated with conventional lawn care. According to the US EPA Americans spend twenty-five billion dollars a year on lawn care. Residential lawns and gardens are doused with eighty million pounds of chemical pesticides and seventy million tons of fertilizers each year, with far reaching environmental impacts. Some portion of our fertilizer runs off into local streams degrading those waters by promoting algae growth, and eventually contributing to water quality problems as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. In the yard itself, the insecticides used to fight pests typically kill all bugs, not just the ones we mean to target, and they pose health risks to those who apply them as well as children and pets who come into contact with them. Excessive lawn watering also represents a misuse of fresh water, already a scarce resource in some parts of the U.S., and one that we’re just beginning to value properly in the Midwest.

I mean to outline here some of the changes individuals can make toward creating a more sustainable home landscape, but for particulars let me also encourage you to explore the resources linked to this piece on the Environmental Almanac website.

For high impact change, nothing beats cutting down on the amount of your yard kept as turf. Most of us tend more grass area than we need, or even want, out of inertia. Our yards are covered in grass when we get them, and we’re not highly motivated to change. But if we make the initial investment of time and energy to replace part of a lawn with native perennials, we liberate ourselves from some part of lawn care forever, and benefit the environment at the same time.

We can also cut down on the environmental impact associated with our yards by some basic changes in our practices: Watering less frequently but more deeply, mowing to a height of three inches rather than scalping the lawn, using organic alternatives to the ubiquitous commercial products--dry compost for fertilizer, or corn gluten as a weed preventer, for example.

A lawn managed according to sustainable principles may not meet the aesthetic standard set by pictures advertising conventional lawn care products. But it can serve our needs and contribute to the long-term health of our environment.