Archive for the 'Environment' Category

Consider Human Inhabitants When Creating Nature Reserves

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

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Last summer a big game hunter from Minnesota shot Cecil, a famous male lion, in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean officials didn’t press charges against Cecil’s killer.

Many people in this country were outraged that such a rare and beautiful beast had been murdered. The response in Africa was different, however. For us a lion—especially a noble and handsome male—symbolizes freedom and wildness. In Africa, however, a lion means danger.

We live in a protected bubble from which most predators have been excluded. It is true that occasionally a mountain lion will injure or kill a human, but fortunately that is a very rare, newsworthy incident. Black bears are also responsible for a few injuries and rare deaths here in Colorado. The real killer is not a predator but the sweet, innocent herbivore—deer.

Biologist E. O. Wilson has recently written a book advocating that half of the planet become a nature reserve. He wrote: “…I propose that only by committing half of the planet’s surface to nature can we hope to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it.”

I grieve for the loss of biological diversity (biodiversity). Although we cannot know exactly, it is estimated that species of plants and animals are going extinct at 1000 times the normal rate; we are in the 6th mass extinction. There have been five prior mass extinctions, the last one being about 65 million years ago when a huge meteor hit off the coast of Mexico. The resulting explosion changed the climate for centuries, killing off dinosaurs. What is different about the current mass extinction is that it is caused by a single species—ours.

Each species has evolved strategies to maximize reproduction, to gather nutrients efficiently and to ward off other species that imperil it. We are no different, except we have been so amazingly successful. Sadly, our success endangers nonhuman species—and probably ourselves, since our livelihood depends on the web of life.

I have a problem with those who are “prolife”. Our human success is causing the extinction of other animals and plants. By preventing women from access to family planning and safe abortion services, the people who claim to be “prolife” are actually destroying the biodiversity that makes our planet habitable.

Although I haven’t read Wilson’s “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life”, its premise troubles me. Yes, it is important to do what we can to protect other species. Yes, the major cause of loss of species is loss of habitat. Yes, preserves (both terrestrial and marine) have shown their value in preserving biodiversity. The Center for Biological Diversity has a brilliant record of protecting endangered species by preserving habitat.

Turning half the Earth into preserves would slow the loss of biodiversity. But what about the people who currently live on that land—many of whom live in overcrowded, developing countries? what would happen to them?

We had the good fortune to visit the Ranthambhore preserve in India where we observed a Bengal tiger in the wild. We also heard about people who were forced off that land and repatriated to a nearby village. They now make their living by making and selling souvenirs to tourists. This model would not work for half of Earth’s surface, however. Where could all those people settle?

This conundrum is one of the plotlines of “The Hungry Tide” by Amitav Ghosh. This wonderful novel takes place in the Sundarbans, the deltas of four major rivers where they empty into the Bay of Bengal. Thousands of squatters settled on Marichjhanpi Island, an Indian animal refuge, in1979. Piya, a protagonist, biologist and protector of animals, is distressed when settlers kill a man-eating tiger. Forest Guards moved in and destroyed the settlement—and the settlers. Thousands of people were killed in this genocide. Although this sounds incredible, it is based on history.

Thanks to the foresight of Americans a century ago, we have the National Park Service, one of the agencies that take care of our public lands. We should be proud that 14% of our land is currently protected. Costa Rica may have the highest percentage of land preserved for nonhuman use at 25%. It is important to preserve what we have and to continue to protect more wilderness, parks, forests and roadless areas for our enjoyment, and especially for the benefit of other species. However, it is important to keep human rights in mind when considering making new protected areas. Voluntary family planning will help achieve that goal by decreasing population pressure.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2016

Woodman, Spare that Tree

Monday, December 28th, 2015

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                       Woodman, spare that tree!

                           Touch not a single bough!

                        In youth it sheltered me,

                             And I’ll protect it now.

                                                George Pope Morris

 

Twelve years ago at this time we had just returned from Costa Rica to celebrate Christmas at home. Close to where we had stayed we watched the beginning of a new building going up, using steel instead of wood.

In this country with vast forests and where all steel is imported, why wouldn’t they use wood? I was told that it was to preserve the trees. When I asked what the building was going to be, I was told… but you need to read to the end of this column to find out!

There is an estimate that humans have cut down or damaged three quarters of the forests that existed before we became the dominant animal on the planet. Costa Rica is no exception; Ticos had cut down large portions of its forests. Fortunately, thanks to that country’s exceptionally good conservation policies and good luck, second growth forests now cover about a seventh of the country’s land area.

We rented a cozy cabin for most of the 3 months that we lived in Monteverde. Perhaps its best quality was its location, bordering the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest. Trees in this area had been cut down for agriculture, and more recently they were allowed to regrow. The land was bought with donations from all over the world. Most impressively, the movement to preserve and rehabilitate this land was started by Swedish elementary school children.

Trees are pretty amazing. In addition to being attractive and fun to climb, they provide shade and purify air and water. They are also part of the carbon cycle, as many kids can tell you. Using sunlight for energy, they suck out carbon dioxide from the air, synthesize cellulose and release oxygen. If that wood burns, the CO2 is returned to the atmosphere. If a tree is allowed to slowly decompose, some of its carbon joins the soil and increases its fertility.

All trees are not created equal, however. In a natural forest there are many different species of trees, plus undergrowth, all filling different ecological niches. On the other hand, a tree monoculture, especially if treated with lots of chemicals, is a poor substitute for a natural forest.

Shade-grown coffee is an example of a good compromise between agricultural production and good ecology. Trees shade the coffee bushes as well as providing homes for many beneficial animals. Hungry birds gobble up harmful insects on the coffee bushes, for example.

Part of the reason we selected Monteverde, Costa Rica as the place to spend a sabbatical was the Quaker connection. Several Quaker families chose to live in the only country in the world that did not have a military force; they founded Monteverde in 1951. They bought a large amount of land very inexpensively, and preserved much of it to insure the purity of their water supply. This uncut, undeveloped cloud forest has become a haven for plants and animals—and for the biologists who study them.

Brazil, in stark contrast to Costa Rica, has been unable to control devastation of its Amazon rainforest. Called the “lungs of the planet”, the Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and is key for the planet’s health. In 2014 the destruction (by harvesting tropical wood and clearing for cattle and other agriculture) has increased by 16%. An area larger than Delaware was cut down in just one year!

Palm oil production is big business in some Asian countries. Often grown in huge plantations, in Indonesia alone the land devoted to palm oil monoculture is almost as large as Connecticut. The native forest is often burned to prepare for the land for planting oil palms, causing terrible air quality. Sadly, this has lead to the destruction of habitat for orangutans and tigers, among other creatures.

What can we do to spare tropical trees? Avoid buying products made with exotic woods. Eat less beef—you’ll be healthier, too! When possible, pass up foods that contain tropical oils such as palm oil.

We visited Monteverde about a year after the sabbatical and found a group of people outside that little building built with steel instead of wood. Most of them were kids, since school had just let out, and they all looked happy—for a good reason. The shop was selling locally made ice cream! Indeed, Monteverde has some of the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted—coffee is my favorite flavor.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2015

River Spill was a Signal to End Business as Usual

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

3 kayakers on Animas

Our Animas River received a serious insult recently. Fortunately the river seems to be recovering, but we cannot predict what the long-term effects will be.

Contractors working for the United States Environmental Protection Agency recently released a huge amount of toxic water and tailings from the Gold King Mine. The water spilled into the Animas River, originally named “el rio de las animas perdidas” or the “river of lost souls”.

It wasn’t long before the finger pointing started. The EPA was blamed not only for the spill but also for the long delay in notifying our community. To the EPA’s credit, they are taking responsibility for the accident and for monitoring its environmental effects. There is also talk of compensating the businesses for their loss of revenue.

I am impressed that the EPA’s chief, Gina McCarthy, came to Durango to take command of the event. This is so different from the way the chief executive of BP reacted during the Deepwater Horizon disaster. While his well was polluting the Gulf of Mexico, Tony Hayward went to a sailboat race.

I know little about mining and mine remediation, but I have had plenty of home maintenance projects go awry. I can understand how the contractors working for the EPA could make the mistake that resulted in this tragedy. Fortunately the EPA is accepting responsibility, but I’ll bet that they will be careful in hiring those same contractors again!

The laws that govern hard-rock mining were written over 140 years ago, when the west was wilder and the number of people of European descent was small. Mining claims were inexpensive and easily available. The laws allowed mining with little concern for environmental protection or for remediation. This has lead to hundreds of mines such as Gold King where the value was extracted and the shaft abandoned. Water continues to flow through many of these mines, picking up silt and poisonous metals, as it has for decades. Before the deluge on August 5th up to 250 gallons of contaminated water poured out of the Gold King every minute—that’s 360,000 gallons every day! The flow has increased significantly since the dam was broken.

Folks have been concerned about pollution from the mines in Silverton for years, but insufficient remediation has been done. Being inundated by an estimated 3 million gallons of sickly orange water at one time has finally brought attention to the problem. Unfortunately, it includes international attention that puts southwest Colorado in a bad light.

This is an opportunity for those who believe that the government is too big and has too much power to be critical of the EPA. Many politicians have want to abolish it. We should be wary of their efforts to use this spill as an excuse. That doesn’t make much sense to me, however. If we didn’t have any laws that controlled mining, the Animas would run orange every day!

I think that this catastrophe (to use the word the Herald chose for its headline) will finally motivate cleanup of the Silverton mines. Even more important is to prevent future hard-rock mining problems by changing the ancient mining laws. Furthermore, this spill should motivate legislators to pass “good Samaritan” laws to protect people who work to clean up the mines from liability if things go wrong.

But maybe there is a broader lesson to be learned from the Gold King misfortune. Let me ask a couple of questions: what are we doing now that will result in Gold King-like problems in the future? Are companies charging enough to pay for cleanup that will be required in the future? I think you know what my answers will be.

Let’s look at electricity. Much of our power is generated using coal; indeed, we have two coal-fired power plants just across the border in New Mexico. Testing the mud at the bottom of Narraguinnep Reservoir north of Cortez showed low levels of mercury until about the 1970 stratum, when those plants started up. We are advised against eating fish that are caught there, a consequence of mercury from the power plants. A neurotoxin, mercury is especially bad for the most vulnerable—developing fetuses and the young. Yet the coal companies are trying to reduce the price they pay to the government for coal mined on federal land and they fight public safety regulations.

Climate change is much worse than the mercury problem since it affects all of life. Future generations may never recover from the damage we are causing with anthropogenic climate change.

            © Richard Grossman MD, 2015

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.