Tuesday, December 29, 2009


-"Think like a mountain" Aldo Leopold

"Blue mountains endlessly walking" -- Tao

2009 marks the 100th anniversary of Aldo Leopold's tenure in the southwest, a stay that resulted in the invention of Wilderness, the formulation of a Land Ethic to treat that land as a value in itself and the realization, in "the dying green fire eyes of a wolf" that nonhuman nature might have purpose beyond us. This past year I, too, have been privileged to walk the southwest on the government's dime, but the dying green light I saw was not that of a wolf but of our biosphere. I look down from the mountains and into the future and see shadows, flames, and an end to innocence.

When Leopold encountered the Southwest, he was struck by the contrast of unspoiled wilderness and massive ecological degradation caused by cattle grazing and drought in the 1880's. His ecological awakening engendered a search for the causes of the anthropogenic changes he observed in the beautiful and fragile Southwestern ecosystems. Today, I am confronted by a second wave of anthropogenic changes. Instead of sifting the dust after the event, I am one of the cattle, raising dust, drying rivers. My first reaction was to try to stop or reverse these changes, and I spent two years pulling on that lever, knee deep in mud, with all my strength, determination, stamina and desperation. That era is over now, and this year, with help from my new girlfriend, Alexandra, I have moved past denial and anger to accept the changes that are taking place. My job now is to watch those changes, with the SW on the vanguard, and tell the story of this place, the weather-vane of the world.

My favorite places to hang a hammock are burned in stand-replacement forest fires, the pinyon nuts are harder to come by amongst the blight, and.. While it may be tempting to read the end of the world in these portents, the fact is that the world will go on, weirder and wilder than before. To those who would resist, or rest comfortably, or postpone, I say: Change is Coming. Change is the only constant. What we take to be ordinary is, in fact, extraordinary. But I also came to accept, through my studies of paleoecology and climatology, that no normal ever existed.

I met farmers who are outpacing the state to privatize water, who are resisting privatizing water, who have ranched and lived a way of life for 100 years and whose families probably will for another 100. Ranchers who are distrustful of the government and environmental groups, who love environmental groups but build their houses on the river's active floodplain, who watch tv to fall asleep, who realize the impact of their shopping at walmart to global justice and poverty, and who are, perhaps, more ineluctably tied to thieir cultural practices and our shared economy than they are to the land.

I've looked down on the glowing jewel cities sitting tethered and throbbing from tall mountains and thought about their future and my own. As a human it can be difficult to think of humans as a force of nature like the wind and the sun, but as a scientist the evidence is clear. More people live in large cities and interconnected suburbia than on farms and ranches, and more people are alive today than ever before. Where people live in high concentrations they have completely transformed ecosystems from grasslands or forests into asphalt, houses, and watered trees. To survive from one meal to the next, to make the water run from the faucet, heat, light, all require vast subsidies from the country, which is systematically transformed (though still not to the same degree as the city) to pump services from afar into the city.

Therefore, we create environments that are constantly disturbed, and increasingly homogeneous. Another term for the anthropocene would be the homogocene, when everything is mixed up so much that place ceases to matter. The same species will be found everywhere, the same structures of concrete, metal, plastic, glass, symbols, Virtual.

Disturbance will continue to reset the clock on ecosystems, making oldgrowth ecosystems increasingly rare. Instead, we will become even more accustomed to bland, early-successional weedy eocsystems adapted to high (human) disturbance. I have walked the gradient from unimpacted ecosystems to totally impacted human ecosystems, and the changes are systematic and predictable. Usually, the ecosystem becomes more weedy or barren, and eventually entirely nonfunctional. However, even at the extreme cities can support some species of wildlife, and perform some ecosystem functions, depending on how they are built. Cities are not inherently cancerous on the surface of the earth, although they are metastatizing.

The ecological role of humans, tho, is not as organizers of energy, or even to change functioning ecosystems to nonfunctional ones, but, rather, as "seed dispersers and agents of disturbance (change)". Thus the ecologist diagnoses the humans.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Americans throw away more food than most people consume

According to a paper by Kevin Hall et al in PLoS, Americans waste about 1,400 Calories a day, about as much as is needed to feed an average adult in much of the world. They arrived at this figure by calculating the total number of food calories produced on farmland in America (plus imports, minus exports) and compared this to the total calories consumed by Americans. Although we Americans are doing our best to consume large amounts of food, we still end up throwing away or otherwise wasting enough food every day to feed another person.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dying Forests

“For as long as people have been looking at such things, we have never had the series of attacks on forest health all occurring at the same time that we are currently experiencing,” said Alex Woods, a forest pathologist in British Columbia. San Diego News Story: Drought, Beetles Killing Forests 10/25/08

Even this wide-reaching chart apparently doesn't have room to show SAD (Sudden Aspen Death) nor the Southwestern Pinyon Pine Die-Off. The title of the paper in PNAS (2005) by Dr. Breshears et al sums it up: "Regional vegetation die-off in response to global-change-type drought."

In Colorado, spruce beetles have killed entire forests around North Park. Throughout the central Rockies, approximately 2.5 million acres have been or are being destroyed.

White Pine is also dying throughout the West, and although those maps are still being drawn, the outlook isn't good: "We're watching the collapse of an ecosystem in less than a decade. " A view of part of the forest mapped above:

From New Mexico Work
Some possible causes. One proposed solution.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Anthropogenic Climate Change

click map for animation
I don't usually like to state opinions without understanding the facts. So, for climate change science, I've long counted myself a skeptic; yes, even after Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth. Because a great deal of my professional work revolves around ecology and ecosystem science, I have kept up to date on the science of climate change, and recently have begun looking deeper. I found a number of sincere climate change skeptics. I read their arguments, and then searched for and found rebuttals in science papers, books, and websites. While my research will continue to be ongoing, I am forced to conclude that the evidence for human-caused climate change is compelling. Action to stop business-as-usual fossil fuel use is urgently necessary.

Interestingly, I've also concluded that climate change skeptics are actually a boon to climate scientists. Their consistent questioning helps bring attention, interest, and even intrigue to discourse that might otherwise tend toward dry fact. And their analyses provide ready-made hypotheses to test for young graduate students. However, after considering their claims and scientist's responses, I can not doubt that the best available science indicates humans are modifying a continually changing climate at unprecedented rates. The climate is warming, and more and more of that change is attributable to humans.

However persuasive the evidence may be, it can also be overwhelmingly complex; the important point to remember is that we are having a significant effect on the environment. But you don't need 10,000+ dedicated and careful scientists to tell you that. Climate change skeptics start from a disbelief that humans could modify something as large as the entire Earth ecosystem. But look around you. Odds are, your entire environment is human-made. And it doesn't stop there. From airplane flights or Google maps we see human civilization spilling out over vast swathes of the landscape. Even in areas that are not paved over, the trained ecologist sees omnipresent invasive species, erosion, and pollution. In many parts of the world, natural areas have been completely transformed by human activity.

My favorite climate change objection raises the possibility of bias in temperature readings taken from areas that have recently urbanized. This "urban heat island" effect is a known source of bias and is corrected for in long-term temperature trends. However, it is becoming more difficult to find locations unaffected by urban heat islands effects as urban areas increase in size and coalesce into megacities. This, at least, is incontrovertible fact: we are seeing a complete transformation of the surface of the earth. Indeed, 2008 was the first year that more people lived in cities than in rural areas.

The good news is that although our impact on the environment is significant, and growing, it is largely based on cumulative effect: in any given year, we are not really that far from a sustainable society. Ending coal power and then using clean energy to power our transportation networks could do it. However, the first step is to stop building new coal power plants. If not for the critical build-up of heavy metals pollutants in the food chain, or the respiratory health of people who live near coal plants, or the massive ecological devastation of mountaintop removal and open-pit mines, than for the entire health and fate of the planet.
click image for fire animation
Of course, it will take far more to learn to live and coexist with the natural world and its constantly evolving cycles and processes (flood, fire). It would be a tragedy, however, if we listen to the science skeptics at the expense of the skeptical scientists, and continue on our present unnecessary experiment with global warming. Even if all of our theories are wrong, that should only motivate us more strongly to stop playing God with the Earth. We need to slow down and give nature time to adapt to our sickly civilization, or, better, we need to slow down and adapt our civilization to the healing Earth.

I have read the papers and considered the arguments and believe that we must act. Business-as-usual imposes an unacceptable risk of catastrophic consequences. There should always be time for doubt and discussion, but not while we and China continue to build coal power plants.

In-depth scientific information on climate change.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Ecotourism in Mexico

Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, Jalisco,

Thick-billed parrot preserves on Ejido...(mentioned in Wildlands Connections)