Tuesday, March 28, 2017

We All Drink Downstream

This was an original post published for Blue Ridge Outdoors on 3.28.17.


On the side of a can of Pisgah Brewing Company’s (excellent) Pisgah Pale Ale or Greybeard IPA is the quotation “We all drink downstream.” Though printed on the side of a beer can, this sentence captures the essence of the broader argument that living organisms are highly affected by activities upstream—and essentially all of us live downstream.

Let me get directly to the point of this post: Our nation’s waterways are once again under attack, an attack which began the afternoon of January 20, 2017, the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as President. His public statements in support of clean air and clean water contrast sharply with his executive actions and budget proposals. He said the following when addressing Congress on February 28, 2017: “My administration wants to work with members in both parties … to promote clean air and clean water.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. Trump quickly signed into law H.J.Res.38 “Disapproving the rule submitted by the Department of Interior known as the Stream Protection Rule,” submitted to him by Congress on February 16, 2017. The Stream Protection Rule, finalized in the waning days of the Obama Administration, made it nearly impossible for companies to legally remove mountaintops to remove coal, and then fill the once-pristine, adjacent headwater streams with “overburden.” This action was low-hanging-fruit for anti-environment, pro-business members of Congress and the President, as the rule was legally reviewable by Congress under the Congressional Review Act. The Stream Protection Rule is dead.

But Mr. Trump is not satisfied to stop there, as his administration has set its sights on the broader Clean Water Rule, which was finalized on June 29, 2015 under President Obama. The title of the President Trump’s executive order, signed the same day as the address to Congress, says much: “Presidential Executive Order on Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule.” This executive order directs the administrator of the EPA (climate-change denier Scott Pruitt) and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works (currently Douglas Lamont) to review and then rescind or revise the rule.

Mr. Pruitt and Mr. Lamont wasted no time in signaling their intent in the Federal Register. Their intention is to interpret “navigable waters,” a crucial phrase which appears in the landmark Clean Water Act of 1972, as narrowly as possible—in fact, consistent with the interpretation of uber-conservative Justice Scalia in the 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Rapanos vs. United States. Rapanos was argued many years after Michigan-based developer John Rapanos filled 22 acres of wetlands with sand to develop a mall, and he did not apply for a permit for this action, even though his consultant and state employees requested that he do so, claiming that the wetlands were far enough from “navigable waters” that he could do whatever he wanted.

The intention filed by Mr. Pruitt and Mr. Lamont in the Federal Register states “… the agencies will consider interpreting the term ‘navigable waters,’ as defined in the CWA in a manner consistent with the opinion of Justice Scalia in Rapanos.” Justice Scalia wrote this in his opinion on the case: “In applying the definition to “ephemeral streams,” “wet meadows,” storm sewers and culverts, “directional sheet flow during storm events,” drain tiles, man-made drainage ditches, and dry arroyos in the middle of the desert, the Corps has stretched the term “waters of the United States” beyond parody.” Parody, as in funny, an exaggeration. Justice Scalia thought it was humorous that one could consider all waters as connected and worthy of federal protection.
I could go on for pages with the details, but I will cut to the chase: After the 2006 Rapanos ruling, which did not clarify exactly which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act, the EPA began the years-long process of studying the science related to “connectivity of streams and wetlands to downstream waters,” the title of its 2015 report. It took four years to even finalize the report, owing to the extensive review by dozens of both governmental and non-governmental subject matter experts (a.k.a. scientists). Over 1,200 publications from the peer-reviewed journal literature were used in the writing of the report. Bottom line: The extensive study is scientifically-based, not whimsical. Next bottom line: Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Pruitt’s/Mr. Lamont’s intentions are whimsical, at least from a scientific perspective. In fact, Mr. Pruitt and Mr. Lamont write in the Federal Register “such a revised decision need not be based upon a change of facts of circumstances.” (emphasis mine)

The science report “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence” is almost 500 pages long, but the conclusions are clear—all streams, wetlands, and open waters of any kind, size, and frequency of flow are intimately “connected to downstream waters and strongly influence their function” and/or “provide physical, chemical, and biological functions that could affect the integrity of downstream waters.” The subsequent Clean Water Rule, then, defines “navigable waters” very broadly, given these unequivocal findings of professional scientists in the field (again, both governmental and non-governmental). [Read a summary of the “Connectivity” report here.]

Back to my opening line—We all drink downstream. Clean water is crucial to all living organisms. And clean water is paramount for the readers of this magazine to do all the wonderful activities we do outside. The incredible efforts of scientists, lawmakers, and federal employees have made universal (at least in the U.S.) clean water even more attainable, but these efforts are being undermined by an Administration hell-bent on moving the needle in the opposite direction, towards a handful of companies and landowners.

We don’t have to take this sitting down. The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers, under new leadership, will not effortlessly undo the Clean Water Rule, as it took years to create and will take years to undo, with long court battles undoubtedly forthcoming. But we can resist as individuals, too. A simple action is to do what Mr. Pruitt and Mr. Lamont state in the Federal Register: “For further information, contact …” Let’s ask for further information. Let’s unite, regardless of political leanings and affiliation, to demand an explanation as to why the current Administration desires, openly, to roll back environmental protections of waterways and those of us who live, drink, work, and play downstream.

Here are the contacts. Please take five minutes to make the call and send an email. And then send these along to all your friends. After all, we all drink downstream.

EPA: (202) 566-2428         email: CWAwaters@epa.gov
Asst. Secretary of the Army for Civil Works: (703) 695-4641                 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Life is Good--But Not for Everyone

This post appeared as original material for Blue Ridge Outdoors on Tuesday, March 21, 2017. Click here for original.

For at least a decade or so, I’ve taken an exception to the ubiquitous “Life is Good” logo seen on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and hats. Started in 1994 by two brothers, the Life is Good Company now has annual revenues in excess of $100 million. The utterance “Life is Good” contains a wonderful spirit of optimism, and I’m all for that. But every time I see the logo, I can’t help but to think about the person sitting in traffic beside the sticker-laden Audi, heading to a minimum wage job, struggling to make ends meet and hold his or her family together. Isn’t this akin to smacking that person in the face and saying, “Wake up. Take control of your life. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Life is good, man. What’s wrong with you?”

Of course life is good. Considering the alternative, most of us choose it. But I am a fairly well-educated white man with a good job, healthy family, health care, warm house, and food on the table every night. I live on a 300-acre campus, about 200 acres of it wooded with oaks, tulip poplars, and pine trees. Sure, life is good for me, and good to me, but that’s not so for billions of others on the planet. And at what expense does my “good life” come to the planet and to the throngs of people for whom life is not so good?

A standard exercise for teachers and students of environmental science is to enter data into any number of websites for calculating one’s ecological footprint. The one I used this year was created by the Earth Day Network. My results from the quiz I took today are shown below; these are very consistent with those I have received over the past few years. [Click here to calculate your footprint.]

The shocking figure in this analysis is shown top left: “If everyone lived like you, we’d need 4.9 Planet Earths to provide enough resources.” Many of my students come in even higher than this–6, 7, 8 Earths to sustain the lifestyle they live–as they often fly, live in rather large houses, and buy a lot of consumer products. In class, we kind of weakly joke about how high the numbers are, and then move on, not thinking too much about the profundity of the number very deeply.

Just look at the carbon emitted by the things I do and the resources I consume: 23.2 tons of CO2, which is just about the American average, but five times the world average. [Read this older but relevant article about why a homeless person in the U.S. has an ecological footprint double that of the world average.] Carbon emissions are the main culprit of global climate change (no matter what Scott Pruitt says), which is already creating dire consequences for people and ecosystems around the world. Consider drought in Africa, bleaching of the coral reefs, rising sea levels, etc. We cannot look the other way–the way we live comes at a price to society and the world.

During a recent workshop I ran for Asheville School students on Environmental Justice, I explored the EPA’s excellent software created for this purpose (https://www.epa.gov/ejscreen). I looked at the area immediately surrounding Duke Energy’s Lake Julian Power Station, located just south of Asheville. Zooming in on the area and picking just a quick set of search criteria reveals something that is both shocking and somewhat expected: The fine particles PM2.5 index in the adjacent neighborhood is between the 80th and 90th percentile (which means that these people are exposed to very high levels of fine particles, relative to other Americans), and at least 75% of the neighborhood is made up of minorities. (Some health effects of high exposure to fine particles include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; reduced lung function; irregular heartbeat; and asthma attacks.) The bottom line: Minorities are living in a more-polluted-than-ours neighborhood while we enjoy the coal-fired electricity to charge our cell phones.

So, yeah, life is good, if we don’t think too much about it. But if we do, we must recognize that life is a struggle for many people, and that our lifestyles do contribute to the problems others experience. One small step we can all take is to work conscientiously to lower our ecological footprint by, for example, driving less (or at least driving a fuel-efficient car), eating less red meat, and buying fewer consumer products. We can demand environmental protection of our state and federal governments. And, (the elephant in the room) we can join the movement that’s demanding that our federal government address global climate change by making real progress towards a carbon-free future, instead of kowtowing to fossil fuels behemoths. Join me and thousands of others for the Peoples’ Climate Marchon April 29.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Age of Loneliness

This post appeared as original material for Blue Ridge Outdoors on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Click here for original.

I am fortunate that I live and work in the same place, on the campus of Asheville School. One wonderful advantage is that I walk to work each day, usually with my oldest daughter, who attends school where I teach. However, one thing I miss is the commute time listening to podcasts.

On a recent drive to visit family in West Virginia, I listened to a podcast considering the various aspects of the Anthropocene, The Age of Man. Geologists are considering officially calling our present epoch “Anthropocene,” signaling a transition from the Holocene, but the new name has come with some reservations.

The convincing argument posed by the pro-Anthropocene camp is that humans have so significantly altered the earth’s natural biogeochemical cycles, that the geological record thousands or millions of years from now will show a definite “golden spike” beginning at around 1950 or so. That is, when geologists dig through the rock and rubble and ice to strata representing the current age, they will see strong evidence of our significant changes to the earth’s cycling of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and sulfur. For example, our burning of fossil fuels has increased atmospheric CO2 to over 400 parts per million, a level not reached in at least 800,000 years.

Exploring the effects of man on nature during the Anthropocene has already taken up many pages of other writers (e.g., Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, by Roy Scranton). I want to discuss a concept that I find even more frightening—the idea that we are rapidly approaching another epoch—the Ermocene, or The Age of Loneliness, an idea expressed by the eminent biologist and author E.O. Wilson in his most recent book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Dr. Wilson defines the Ermocene as a period when it’s just humans, our domesticated animals, and our croplands “all around the world as far as the eye can see.” No forests, no wild black bears, no elephants, no swampland, no wilderness.

Perhaps this sounds far-fetched now, especially given the hundreds of thousands of “protected” public lands we enjoy in the East. But taking a broader view, we know that approximately 25% of the world’s mammals are at risk of extinction (according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature), that nearly two-thirds of the world’s vertebrates have disappeared since 1970 (not extinctions, but sheer number of animals), that globally we cut down 15 billion trees every year, or 41 million trees every day! Even in the United States, forests move farther and farther away from us—the average distance from any point to a forest in America has increased by 14% since 1990. Consider: How many developments have you passed by in the past few weeks? New houses, strip malls, grocery stores? What happened to the trees that were there? Now, did you see that group of volunteers replacing those trees with new seedlings? (I thought not.) The point is that we continue to shrink and fragment habitat at an alarming rate, and this phenomenon is prominently responsible for our accelerating rate of biodiversity loss worldwide, especially in such crucial areas such as the rainforests of the Amazon and in Indonesia.

In the Southern Appalachians, we are blessed to live in an area of relatively high biodiversity; for example, it’s been said that Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosts the most biodiversity in all North America. However, even though our public lands are not seeing a rapid loss of forest cover and habitat, they still face significant threats—invasive species, climate change, and pollution form a cocktail of devastation for biodiversity.
And here we arrive at the crux of Wilson’s argument: Just how lonely will we feel when we are the only ones remaining, with no spring peepers to peep (amphibians are especially susceptible to forces of extinction), no Carolina wrens to serenade us at dawn, no towering oaks to shade us, purify our water, or exhale oxygen for us to breathe? Come to think of it, how lonely are we at times even now, when we are stuck in front of a screen or in traffic, or sitting in front of the television watching another press conference?

What can we do? First, we can do what readers of this magazine always do—go outside and cherish what we do have. We can take an active stance against the considerations in Washington, D.C. to pull out of global climate agreements, to provide big polluters and mountain top removers a free pass, to gut our Environmental Protection Agency, and to disavow proven science. We can plant trees, save our personal forests, and contribute to the many excellent conservation organizations in our region, such as Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. Finally, we can fight like hell to protect and restore our treasured forests, swamps, beaches, and rivers. Let us not enter The Age of Loneliness, but The Age of Regeneration.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A life without trees

I wish I had some great news to report from the environmental front, but there's not much. Sure, there have been some positive developments over the past few months, with some prominent Republicans finally "coming out" and acknowledging climate change and the role of humans in it. This could be a really big deal, as I wrote here. However, with Scott Pruitt's confirmation last week, and #45's initial budget proposal calling for a 25% or so cut to the E.P.A.'s annual budget, there's not been much to cheer. (I guess spending more on military than the seven countries below us is not enough.)

Here's even more bad news: We're losing our forests, here and abroad. An article I read in The Washington Post a few days ago reported that our rural forests are disappearing, with big chunks in what was once forest now being developed, destroyed by fire, or turned into farmland. The average distance from any point in America to a forest has increased by 14% (about 1/3 of a mile) since 1990.

To make matters worse, a New York Times feature article from this past weekend reported that deforestation is on the rise again in South America, Brazil and Bolivia in particular. Most of this forest clearing is being done for agriculture, such as for soybean production. This is really bad news, as the rainforest belt around the equator is literally the Earth's lifeline. Did you know that 25% of all the Earth's carbon stored in soil and plants is sequestered in Amazonia, and that approximately 30% of the world's biodiversity can be found there?

The earth is now home to approximately three trillion trees (3,000,000,000,000), but we have lost about 50% of the forests that were here since the time when human civilizations began, about 12,000 years ago. Finally, we cut down 15 billion trees every year.

Where does it end? A life without trees is no life at all. Trees grant us ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, water purification, prevention of soil erosion, noise suppression, wind suppression, and air purification, to name only a few. Humans who live near trees are less stressed and recover more quickly from illness when near trees. And a world with fewer trees is a world with fewer insects, birds, ants, etc.

We can all take actions to make a small difference, however:


1.  Join Arbor Day Foundation today. For as little as $10, you will receive ten small trees each year to plant on your property (or someone else's property). My Mom gave this membership to me several years ago, and I have planted dozens of trees on our property outside of Asheville. You also receive discounts on other trees you will want to buy during the year.

2.  Contribute to the campaign of Greenpeace International to halt deforestation.

3.  For those in the Asheville area, buy plants/trees/shrubs from Useful Plants Nursery to create an edible landscape. Here's another local organization where you can get great trees: Nutty Buddy Nurseries.

4.  Walk in the woods today (and tomorrow, and tomorrow) and savor the trees in your midst. Left alone, these trees will be here long after you and I are gone.