Thursday, June 29, 2006

Introducing East Central Illinois Master Naturalist

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Have you ever found yourself wishing you had a better understanding of the wildlife and natural systems of east central Illinois? Have you wondered about how you might get involved in conservation work as a volunteer?

A program beginning this Fall, East Central Illinois Master Naturalist, may be just the ticket for you.

Sponsored cooperatively by University of Illinois Extension, the Urbana Park District, and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, the Master Naturalist Program is designed to educate and train a corps of volunteers to provide support for the conservation, management, and interpretation of our natural resources. As its name suggests, the Master Naturalist program is modeled on Extension’s much loved Master Gardener’s program.

You need not have a college degree or years of experience to participate in the Master Naturalist program. You do need to have a sincere desire to learn about the natural world, and some interest in and capacity for sharing your knowledge with others.

More of a challenge, perhaps, you need to be able to make time for the classwork, volunteering and on-going training required for Master Naturalist certification.

Classes for the Master Naturalist program will typically be offered one day a week over a two month period, and they will be led by expert educators from around the region. For the inaugural session, which will begin on September 5th of this year, classes will be held on Tuesdays from 9 am to 4 pm.

Class instruction is designed to provide Master Naturalists with a framework for understanding the natural world and how people fit into it. Class topics will include reptiles and amphibians, insects, birds, mammals, and aquatic life. Participants will also learn how the components of various ecosystems—prairies, forests, and wetlands, for example—function together, and how human activities past and present have affected those systems.

Fall training for the Master Naturalist program will also include three Saturday field trips to natural areas around the region.

After completing their initial training, participants will have the opportunity to assist local conservation organizations in any number of ways, depending on their interests and capabilities. As a Master Naturalist volunteer you might find yourself collecting seeds from native plants with the Grand Prairie Friends, leading a nature hike for schoolchildren at Busey Woods in Urbana, or helping restore the Point Pleasant wetland at the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve. Or you might write newsletter articles and help with outreach and education at a local non-profit group.

You can learn more about the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist program by contacting University of Illinois Extension’s Champaign County office. Applications for Fall 2006 training are available via their website or by phone [217-333-7672], and are being accepted through July 25th.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Appreciating Turkey Vultures

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If you watch the sky as you travel by car in warm weather, you’re likely to see soaring birds from time to time, even if you don’t count yourself a birder.In our part of the country, most of the large soaring birds you’ll see are turkey vultures, which you can recognize from a long way off without binoculars or a field guide.

Turkey vultures in flight are identified by their large size—they have a six-foot wingspan—their blackish color above and below, and their manner of flight. Turkey vultures hold their wings in a shallow dihedral, or “v” shape, and constantly tilt back and forth. They are so skilled at using rising currents of warm air for lift that you’ll rarely see a turkey vulture flap its wings, even if you watch and wait for it to do so.

A group of turkey vultures circling together is called a kettle. A kettle may form as vultures come together to take advantage of an updraft for gaining altitude, or as they scan the countryside looking for food. It is not, by any means, a sure sign that something below has died.

Turkey vultures are very well equipped to search for food on the wing. They have excellent vision, which is not uncommon in birds, as well as an extraordinary sense of smell, which is. A turkey vulture’s sense of smell allows it to locate carrion even when it is concealed from above by a forest canopy.

Turkey vultures are not at all picky about which animals they eat, as long as they are dead. A turkey vulture’s diet may include anything from dead domestic livestock to roadkilled animals like skunks, raccoons and deer, or even turtles and snakes. This is not to say that turkey vultures have no preferences, as they have been shown to select recently dead animals over more decayed food when given a choice. Turkey vultures also eat varying amounts plant material, presumably more when carrion is scarce.

If you happen to see a turkey vulture close up, you’re likely to notice its red, featherless head. In this feature, as well as its bulky, brownish-black profile, the turkey vulture resembles the wild turkey, which is where it gets its name. Being bald allows the turkey vulture to poke its head right into a carcass and not wind up capturing little bits of its meal in hard-to-clean feathers.

Couple the turkey vulture’s bald head with its cast-iron digestive system, and you’ve got a very effective processor of carrion.

Now, I realize that you might be inclined to leave off contemplating turkey vultures as they soar in the sky, half a mile away. But I think looking at them more closely really can foster a deeper appreciation for the diversity and complexity of life. After all, without turkey vultures and other decomposers, life as we know it simply wouldn’t be possible.

I’d like to take a moment today to thank one of the people who came up with the idea for Environmental Almanac and then worked to make it a reality, Walt Robinson. Over the past two years Walt has generously provided story ideas, background information, intellectual guidance and constructive criticism. For whatever has worked well on Environmental Almanac, Walt deserves some of the credit. Thanks, Walt.

Turkey Vultures on the Web:

The Turkey Vulture Society

Turkey Vulture entry on Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds"

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Recycling On and Around the UIUC Campus

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This story begins with plastic soda bottles.

When Debbie Oberg came to work as a secretary for the Environmental Council last December, she found there wasn’t anyplace on our floor to recycle them. Rather than schlep the bottles down to the container two floors below, or put them into the regular trashcan and just hope they didn’t end up in a landfill, Debbie got on the phone to the recycling center at the U of I. Within a week the mailroom of the Environmental Council had its very own container to collect plastic bottles and cans for recycling.

Getting the new container was easy because the UIUC campus is home to an exceptionally well-run recycling program, which is part of the larger effort to reduce waste on campus. The program was begun in the late 1980s in response to a petition by the group Students for Environmental Concerns, and it’s coordinated by Tim Hoss, who has been at the helm from the beginning.

Following the trail of the bottles and cans now collected at the Environmental Council, I checked in with Tim recently about the state of recycling on campus.

We met at the Material Recover Facility west of the Assembly Hall Parking lot. All waste generated on campus passes through this facility, which exists to make sure materials that don’t belong in a landfill don’t wind up there.

Some recyclable materials, such as our plastic bottles and cans, need only minimal sorting before they are ready to be compacted, baled, and shipped out to reprocessors. Other materials, recyclables that are mixed in with regular trash, have to be picked out by hand as waste moves through the facility on a conveyor line.

Now, if you work on campus, you may wonder why you should bother to keep recyclable material separate from the trash, since the trash gets sorted anyway.

Here’s why. When you separate recyclables yourself, you ensure that they don’t end up in the landfill, and you save the effort and expense of pulling those materials out.

Waste generated at the U of I for the year 2004, excluding material from demolition and construction, was about ten thousand tons. About half of that--five thousand tons--was recycled. That’s five thousand tons of material that’s not taking up space in a landfill; five thousand tons of material made available for the manufacture of new products; five thousand tons of material that the university was able to sell, instead paying to have it buried.

These are the kind of facts that make recycling coordinator Tim Hoss enthusiastic about his work, and assure individuals like Debbie Oberg that their efforts to make a difference are worthwhile.

You may have noticed that I haven’t given any specific answers to the questions that inevitably arise when the subject of recycling comes up—questions like whether your yogurt container should go in the trash or the recycling bin. Radio just isn’t a good medium for that discussion. But if you can get to the Environmental Almanac website, you’ll find links to sites that will answer those questions.

Recycling on the UIUC Campus
Waste Transfer & Recycling page, with links to information about acceptable materials and a tour of the Material Transfer Facility

City of Champaign
Curbside and Drop-off with link to tips for disposing of other materials.

City of Urbana
Recycling Program with lots of information about recycling


The UIUC group Students for Environmental Concerns collects nonrechargeable household batteries (and others) at two locations: The University of Illinois YMCA and Allen Hall. Other drop off locations are planned for the Illini Union.

Rechargeable batteries, from phones, tools, etc. can be recycled through the stores that sell products containing them. See
Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation for details.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Appreciation for Indiana’s Shades and Turkey Run State Parks

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My family and I took advantage of the perfect weather last weekend to get out for an overnight camping trip at Shades State Park in western Indiana. We were attracted to Shades because it resembles nearby Turkey Run State Park in its natural features, but gets a bit less traffic. If you’ve never been to Shades or Turkey Run, this is a great time of year to visit there.

Like Turkey Run, Shades is situated on Sugar Creek, which is actually more of a mid-sized river, and an attraction in its own right. Our getaway didn’t include a float trip, but many other people were on the river last weekend. There are a number of outfitters that run canoe and kayak trips on Sugar Creek, so you don’t have to haul your own boat to enjoy it. The river is quite clean and sports a healthy population of smallmouth bass.

Both Shades and Turkey Run parks feature deep, sandstone canyons that were carved by torrents of meltwater from retreating glaciers. As you wind your way along a small stream at the bottom of a shady canyon there, it’s easy to forget that you haven’t really left the flatlands. Lush ferns dot the canyon floor, and carpets of moss cling to the damp cliff surfaces. Even as summer begins to heat up, cool breezes slip down the canyon walls to make hiking more comfortable.

The trails at Shades include wooden staircases for getting down to the canyon floor and back up. As you climb, it’s easy to appreciate the immensity of the trees surrounding you. Some parts of the forest at Shades and Turkey Run were never logged, and others haven’t been disturbed for a century or more. Many of the giants there--tulip trees, American beeches, and various oaks--reach heights of more than a hundred feet.

You’d like to think a forest that has survived the past two hundred years in the Midwest has outlived the greatest threats it will ever face. But that’s not necessarily so.

At state parks in Indiana and throughout the Midwest, natural resource managers are doing everything they can to persuade campers not to transport firewood from one locale to another. Their goal is to prevent the spread of the emerald ash borer, a beetle from Asia that arrived in Michigan by way of shipping crates in 2002. This insect is an extremely serious pest, with the potential to wipe out America’s ash trees altogether. The leading cause of emerald ash borer expansion is the movement of infested firewood. You can do your part to stop the spread of emerald ash borer and other forest pests by not bringing firewood from home when you camp, but buying it when you reach your destination.

But wait. This is supposed to be a commentary on the attractions of Indiana’s Shades and Turkey Run State Parks, not a lecture on invasive species. And I haven’t even begun to mention the wildlife my family saw there last weekend.

Maybe that’s something you’ll just have to check out for yourself.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Environmental Costs of Local Ethanol Plant

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The Champaign County Board recently adopted a zoning amendment that clears the way for ethanol production in areas of the county designated for heavy industry. In the amendment the board made a couple of concessions on environmental concerns raised by the Champaign and Urbana city councils, stipulating protections against odor coming from ethanol plants and requiring that they monitor their impact on groundwater supplies.

Even so, I wonder if this isn’t a case where short-term gains are being privileged over long-term interests, where benefits enjoyed by the present generation are obtained by way of risks imposed on generations to follow.

The short-term, local gains represented by an ethanol plant are fairly simple to quantify. It might employ thirty to thirty-five people; it will generate a certain increase in tax revenue; and its presence might raise the price local producers get for a bushel of corn by ten to fifteen cents.

Accounting for the total costs of such a project is more complex, especially if it includes not just money that will be spent by the ethanol producer, but also the environmental impacts borne by the community as a whole.

From a broad perspective, it’s worth remembering that corn-based ethanol isn’t really “renewable” in the way marketers imply that it is. Large quantities of fossil fuel are used to grow corn, including the natural gas used produce nitrogen fertilizer and the fuel used to run farm equipment. Still more fossil fuel is then used to power the ethanol production process. Indeed, whether the system as a whole generates more energy than it consumes is still open to debate. In any case, even under the rosiest scenario only a fraction of the energy available in a given quantity of ethanol can realistically be labeled “renewable.” The rest is, in effect, repackaged fossil fuel.

Locally, the most noticeable negative impacts of ethanol production would be the odor generated by a plant, and the increased traffic associated with it.

The more important concern, however, is the enormous quantity of water that ethanol production uses. The facility proposed near Champaign would pump more than a million and a half gallons a day from the Mahomet Aquifer, one of east central Illinois’ most valuable natural resources. That’s an increase of nearly ten percent over the total currently used by Champaign, Urbana, and nearby communities combined.

Can the aquifer continue to meet other needs in the face of such an increase in demand? The answer to that is probably yes, but the issue is complicated. Scientists are still working out the how quickly the Mahomet Aquifer is recharged, and that rate and the mechanisms for recharge vary from one part of the aquifer to another.

Increased pumping might also entail other risks to the aquifer, including the chance for it to become contaminated with surface water pollutants, and the possibility of mobilizing naturally occurring arsenic within it.

If it should turn out that the Mahomet Aquifer recharges more slowly than we think it does, or our activities wind up degrading the quality of its water, future generations would surely regret that we were using it for dubious industrial purposes.

Thanks to Walt Robinson from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences for Assistance with today’s program.

For more information about the Mahomet Aquifer check out the website for the Mahomet Aquifer Consortium.