Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ecological Footprint Analysis: Stepping Toward Sustainability

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Ecological footprint analysis is a tool for measuring the impact of human activity on the earth. It was developed in the mid-1990s, and it has been taken up around the world by researchers who are interested in the issue of sustainability. Ecological footprint analysis tells us how much biologically productive land is required to support an individual or population based on the resources they consume and the waste they generate. This allows us to explore a key aspect of sustainability: how well are we living within the means of nature?

For all of the time humans lived on earth up until the 1980s, our collective footprint remained within the area that the earth could afford us. But since then, we have overstepped our bounds by an increasing amount every year.

The most recent annual calculations published by the World Wildlife Fund (See WWF's Living Planet Report) indicate that the current global average ecological footprint stands at about 5.4 acres per person. That may not sound like a lot, but in fact it’s nearly 25% more than nature can provide on a continuous basis. We’re able get that extra 25% for now by depleting stocks of natural resources that have accrued over millions of years.

Ecological footprint analysis also provides information about the relative impacts created by people living in different countries. The United States, which is second only to the United Arab Emirates in this regard, has a per-capita ecological footprint of 24 acres per person. That’s about 4 times the global average, and about 5 times what the earth can support on a continuous basis. If all the people alive on earth today had access to an American standard of living we would need 5 planets to support us.

Now, you may hear that and think, whoa, too much—somebody else is going to have to figure that one out.

But the cool thing about ecological footprint analysis is the way it can be used by individuals and communities who are interested in moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle. It helps you see which of your choices have the most significant impacts on the earth, and enables you to track your progress as you make adjustments in the way you do things.

You can measure your own ecological footprint using the web-based calculator at

When I took the quiz I came out with a footprint of 20 acres. That’s way over the 4.5 acres available per person as a global average. But it’s not so far over the available biologically productive land in the United States, which is about 12 acres per capita. So, rather than despairing because no change I make can reduce my footprint to the average that the earth as a whole will support, I’m aiming to reduce my footprint to what the land of the U.S. can support. In other words, I want to go from 20-acre footprint to a 12.

That’s still a substantial task, but one that’s do-able over time, and really worth engaging. By reducing our own ecological footprints, we bring ourselves into a more equitable relationship to the other people with whom we share the earth, now, and in the future.

Thanks to Rumi Shammin, a soon-to-be Ph.D. in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the U of I for help with today’s show.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Appreciating Illinois Coyotes

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Click to listen to IDNR's recording of a coyote howl.

Do you think you can name the largest native predator that currently lives and breeds in Illinois? I bet you can. It’s a member of the dog family, larger than a fox, but smaller than a wolf—that’s right, the coyote.

As you spot a coyote trotting away through a field of corn stubble you may feel like you’re looking at somebody’s dog heading home, and indeed coyotes are related to domestic dogs closely enough to interbreed with them. But unlike a dog, the coyote points its bushy tail to the ground as it runs. When it casts a wary look back to gauge your intentions, you see a wild predator that inhabited central Illinois long before cornfields came to dominate the landscape.

The lines of the coyote’s face and head further distinguish it from a domestic dog. They curve and taper into a long, narrow snout, which forms the bottom point of a triangle that’s completed by its tall, alert ears. The coyote’s fur—a mix of cream, yellow, tan, brown and gray, tipped with black—helps it remain unnoticed in the many varied habitats it occupies. And it occupies just about every habitat available in Illinois, from the streets of Chicago in the north to the Shawnee National Forest in the south. Standing at about two feet tall and weighing around 30 pounds, the coyote is just small enough to get away with living among humans.

The coyote’s success is also attributable to its flexible eating habits. Rabbits, mice, and other small mammals make up the bulk of the diet for coyotes in the Midwest. But coyotes are opportunistic. Depending on circumstances, they will eat road-killed deer or deer fawns, insects, reptiles and amphibians, grass, fruits and berries, rats, or unlucky house pets. One key to coexisting with coyotes is keeping small pets and pet food indoors overnight, when coyotes are most active.

A coyote on the move may cruise along at speeds of 20 to 30 miles an hour, which is why one that seems to be just trotting away from you is out of sight so fast. And for short bursts coyotes can hit 40 miles an hour or more. If need be they can also leap a distance of 14 feet, and they’re capable swimmers, as well.

Coyotes mate in late winter or early spring, so the weeks to come afford better-than-usual opportunities for seeing them out and about. Coyote pups are born in litters of four to nine sometime in April or May, and both mother and father care for them. The pups remain with their parents learning the skills they need to survive until late summer or fall, when they disperse to begin life on their own. The bonds between coyote pairs are strong, and they may mate together over many years.

As social animals, coyotes are great communicators, expressing themselves through the sorts of facial movements and body positions that are familiar to dog owners. They also keep track of one another by means of howls, yips, and barks—at least 11distinct vocalizations. The coyote’s latin name, Canis latrans, translates as “barking dog.”

For some people, the coyote’s howl will always be an emblem of nighttime in the desert west. But you need not travel far from an urban center to hear that howl as an Illinois sound, too.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Enjoying River Bend Forest Preserve

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Snowshoeing? Nope. Cross country skiing? Forget it. Ice skating? Only indoors. If you’re going to enjoy the outdoors this winter it looks like taking a walk may be your best bet. Perhaps a hike at the River Bend Forest Preserve in south Mahomet is in order. River Bend is one of four sites maintained by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, and the most recent addition to the suite. The River Bend property was acquired through a deal that combined a generous private donation of land with a purchase made possible by a state grant. It was formally opened to the public in June of 2006.

About half of the 275-acre River Bend site is occupied by two lakes, which are actually excavations created by decades of gravel mining. Because no streams flow into or out of them, both lakes at River Bend are remarkably clear and free of pollutants. The smaller of the two, Shadow Lake, is designed to accommodate floodwater from the Sangamon River, which forms the northern border of the preserve. But the larger one, Sunset Lake, is pristine, fed strictly by groundwater. I haven’t fished them myself, but I’ve been told they contain healthy populations of good-sized crappie, a claim I mean to test come spring.

The lakes at River Bend are quite deep compared to most other local water bodies—up to 50 feet—which makes them late to freeze over—that is, in years when things do freeze over. The fact that they remain open into the winter makes them especially attractive to migrating waterfowl. Back in December, three trumpeter swans headed south spent a few days there. Other migrating or wintering birds you might see using the lakes at River Bend include diving ducks, grebes, osprey, and even bald eagles.

Forest Preserve District director of natural resources Dan Olson is quick to point out that the anglers and boaters who use Sunset Lake have an important role to play in keeping it clean and free from the aquatic invaders that are doing so much damage to other waters in the state. By following the special regulations for the site, which include no boats with motors and no live bait except for worms, the public can help to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities for recreation there that we do.

In addition to its lakes, River Bend includes a two-and-a-half mile corridor along the Sangamon River, where Olson and his staff are working to reestablish the native floodplain forest. There, 90 acres have been planted with a variety of oaks, hickories, and other trees, as well as an assortment of native shrubs. One grove of trees near the main entrance to the site is dedicated as a memorial to those who were killed in the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

A combination of multi-use trails and paths designated for hiking provides access to the land features of River Bend. Interpretive signs along the trails direct the visitor’s attention to highlights and provide information about the plants and animals you might see there.

The Champaign County Forest Preserve District should be applauded for its ecologically sensitive approach in the developments that facilitate public use of River Bend. It features roads and trails made from recycled asphalt, parking lots that minimize water pollution by directing stormwater into wetland swales, and landscaping that showcases native trees and shrubs.

Whether or not winter ever settles in this year, River Bend offers great opportunity to get outside.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Pre-empted by National Programming

Happy new year! Environmental Almanac will not air today due to National Public Radio's coverage of the new congress. Tune in next week for the first installment of 2007.