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Is Zion National Park Being Loved to Death?

By Melanie Haiken

I'm looking up at the final ascent to Angels Landing in Utah's Zion National Park, trying to work up my courage to scale the Dr. Seuss–like series of sheer climbs and even sheerer drops, the canyon 1,500 feet below me on either side. My biggest fear isn't a misstep—though the highly eroded trail is coated with slippery dust—but being bumped by one of the thick crowd of hikers impatiently waiting their turn at each knife-edge passing.

Turns out I'm not the only one worried about the risks posed by crowds and erosion to Zion's famed peaks and canyons. Concerns about visitor health and safety have become so acute that the National Park Service has unveiled a proposed management action plan that includes such draconian measures as limiting the number of visitors in Zion Canyon at any one time and requiring permits for the most popular hikes.

"It doesn't take many people to wear sandstone back down into sand and we've seen a surge in degradation due to people disrespecting the fragile ecosystem," said Alyssa Baltrus, chief of interpretation and visitor services for Zion National Park. Among the biggest problems is "social trailing"—people making their own bypass trails when popular routes get too crowded—and cars pulling off the road into non-designated parking areas.

Zion's overcrowding crisis has been a long time coming; visitor numbers have risen year over year for decades. But for the past six years, it's been one boom year after another, with 2015 seeing a jump of more than 450,000 visitors during 2014 to a record 3.7 million. Although visitor numbers for 2016 aren't in yet, the expectation is that they'll top 4 million.

While Zion used to be popular primarily from late spring to early fall, those seasons now extend further each year. For instance, take March, traditionally quiet because of cold and snow. This year, March visitation jumped 112 percent during 2015.

If you've been to Zion in recent years, you know the result. Parking lots fill up by 8:30 a.m., with street parking extending farther and farther back down the highway through the highly congested town of Springdale and beyond. While there's a well-run shuttle system designed to handle the overflow, the buses also fill up, with long wait times to get on and people packed together, like the subway at rush hour. Even once visitors disperse among the various park highlights, the crush of people snapping selfies at must-see spots such as the Emerald Pools can be oppressive.

The most common subject of complaints from visitors? "Other visitors," said Baltrus. Some of the most vociferous griping has been about Angels Landing and the Narrows, a spectacular hike up a slot canyon, much of which takes place while wading knee-deep in the Virgin River.

Permits are required for the 16-mile "top down" hike, but anyone can venture up the lower five-mile stretch of the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava—and they do; it's common during the high season to slosh your way upriver behind large (and often loud) groups in matching gear rented from local outfitters.

To deal with the problems, the park service has taken a series of actions over the years, from closing Zion Canyon to cars and instituting the shuttle system to adding portable toilets in the parking lots, scheduling extra end-of-day buses and expanding overflow parking.

But those are stopgap measures at best. Some strategies resulted in additional unforeseen problems. For example, in an effort to stop Angels Landing hikers from availing themselves of the natural facilities, the park service installed evaporative toilets at Scout Lookout, the final rest stop. But it miscalculated the need.

"Because of the increase in use at Scout's Lookout, the toilets quickly fill with liquid and stop effectively evaporating waste," said Baltrus. That waste must be removed by helicopter, which proved much harder to do than planned. The result: roped-off Porta-Johns reeking a few feet from picnickers. "Over the past two years, we have been asking visitors to use the restrooms at the bottom of the trail instead and only use the ones at Scout's Lookout for emergencies, but our efforts have not been very successful," she said.

In other words, the real problem remains the sheer number of people in what is a relatively small park and for that, the only solution is visitor limits. The National Park Service seems to be serious about taking what could be a first-ever step.

"A key component of this proposed action would be to directly manage visitor use levels in the park through establishment of visitor capacities," reads the Visitor Use Management Plan newsletter. "Visitor capacities, which could vary by season and/or specific areas of the park, would be established, along with implementation techniques that would directly manage the amount and time of visitor access."

More specifically, the Visitor Use Management Plan includes options such as:

  • Using a timed-entry system to access the shuttle system to regulate the flow of visitors up the canyon throughout the day.
  • Instituting an online advance reservation system for visitor passes.
  • Requiring reservations for all campsites and eliminating the remaining first-come, first-served sites.
  • Redesigning the south entrance area to prevent traffic jams, including adding a kiosk station and an express lane for those who prepaid.
  • Streamlining the process to come into the canyon on foot or with a bicycle.
  • Constructing a multimodal trail to encourage visitors to walk between major canyon attractions rather than take the shuttle.
  • Exploring technology to prepay entrance fees prior to arrival and an automated gate pass system to facilitate entrance.

In other words, so much for spontaneity; you'll need to plan ahead if you want to see the glories of Zion Canyon between May and October.

It's not just in the canyon that crowds are a problem. Ask anyone who's sat in the snaking line of cars waiting to check out the window views from the historic Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. Every summer the lines get longer, in large part because of the need to stop two-way traffic to allow oversize vehicles like RVs to pass. One option on the table is to add an automated traffic signal; another is to restrict passage of oversize vehicles to certain times of day.

Needless to say, the more draconian options are being met with resounding no's, at least in some quarters. But regular visitors hope the changes will bring back their beloved Zion of the past. In Springfield, where residents are trapped from getting into and out of town at some times of day, change is long overdue.

The initial public comment period closed on Nov. 23 and now the difficult work of deciding among the various possible scenarios begins. But not to worry if you haven't had your say yet. In the spring, the National Park Service will unveil its recommendations and then invite further comments.

"The potential actions are all possibilities that came from the initial community meetings and they're there to generate further discussion and to inspire people to think of other ideas," said Baltrus. "The more input and ideas we get at this point in the process, the better the alternatives will be."

Got your own idea for how to save Zion from being loved to death? Get ready to speak up.

Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.

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Should I Buy an Organic Christmas Tree?

By Sarah McColl

I was on a bright, brisk winter walk recently in my Brooklyn neighborhood when I saw a folksy hand-painted sign lashed to a chain-link fence: "Organic Christmas trees." It was like learning I'd been singing the wrong Bon Jovi lyrics for 20 years, another recent revelation. My Christmas tree needs to be organic too?

Or does it?

The answer is a little nuanced, but the short version is yes.

"As with food, local and organic is best," The Nature Conservancy advises for your tree choice. Conventionally grown Christmas trees present the same problems as the "Dirty Dozen," the Environmental Working Group's annual list of pesticide-tainted produce: To keep trees looking lush, Christmas tree farms use chemical sprays to control pests and farmers use the pesticide Roundup to control weeds.

"A lot of stuff growers are using can't be used in the home anymore and you can't wash a tree off like a tomato," said John Kepner, the project director at Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit group in Washington.

But we also don't eat Christmas trees and no studies have been conducted to see if the boughs still have pesticides on them at the time of harvest. By the time the tree stands in your living room, pesticides shouldn't be a cause of concern, according to Chal Landgren, a Christmas tree specialist at Oregon State University, who said the amount of residue at that point is minimal.

Pesticides inside the Yule log may not be an issue, but toxins trickling into the watershed where the trees are grown is another story. In Oregon, the nation's leading Christmas tree producer, more than 6 million trees are harvested every year; most of those farms are concentrated along the Clackamas River watershed. Since 2005, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has monitored pesticide levels and found many to be exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency benchmarks, including at least two used by the Christmas tree industry. It's one reason Landgren helped develop the Socially & Environmentally Responsible Farm program to help teach growers how to reduce chemical use.

"It's better for the environment for the tree to be grown without pesticides," said Adam Parke, who sells organically grown Christmas trees from his Vermont farm in Brooklyn during the holidays and whose sign I saw on my walk. "It's better for the health of the growers and the people around them, and it's better for you not to bring something into your living room that has been coated with pesticides over the several years of its life. Everyone wins."

The Nature Conservancy advises looking for trees native to your region and to check farmers markets for local dealers. But a local, organic Christmas tree may be tough to find. Only 1 percent of the 33 million live Christmas trees sold each year are organic, according to Oregon State University's extension service. In that case, you're better off buying a locally farmed tree than a SERF-approved one shipped from Oregon.

Or make an outing of it and chop an always organic wild tree. Many of the public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are open to tree cutting—all you need is a $5 or $10 permit—and selective thinning is good for the health of the forest ecosystem. There's no worry of deforestation by saw-wielding Charlie Brown types yet: Only 2 percent of Christmas trees are wild-chopped. Turning it into a group outing will help reduce the carbon footprint of the jingle bell jaunt.What about a living Christmas tree that can be planted in the new year? Parke said this is only a good option for those who have the time to keep the tree healthy while it's in the house; most of them die shortly after the holidays because pine trees don't thrive in the arid, overheated environment of a house or apartment.

"Remember, though, that cut trees are farmed," he said. "They're a renewable resource like any other vegetable you use."

Every expert agrees on one thing: Don't buy a fake. (Although the reusable wooden trees available on Etsy seem a noble enough choice). The tinsel-y, oil-based plastic trees available at drugstores can't be recycled and don't decompose once chucked—a tale more befitting the saddest Radiohead song ever written than a jolly rendition of "O Christmas Tree." That's hardly befitting the spirit of the season.

Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.

Climate

Meet the Arctic’s New Top Predator ... Killer Whales

By David Kirby

There's no doubt that melting sea ice in Hudson Bay is threatening endangered polar bears, but it might also be harmful to beluga whales, seals, narwhals and other marine mammals, scientists are warning.

The reason? Melting ice caused by climate change is carving huge swaths of open water for longer periods of time, providing Atlantic killer whales more access to the bay and its rich stocks of prey.

Melting ice caused by climate change is carving huge swaths of open water for longer periods of time, providing Atlantic killer whales more access to the bay and its rich stocks of prey.

"There has been an increase in the duration of open water by about 35 percent in the last 10 to 15 years and killer whales can now come into the bay with little to hamper them as they move around," said David Barber, the Canada research chair in Arctic system science at the University of Manitoba.

The open-water period in Hudson Bay used to last about two months each year, Barber said, but that has been extended to three months today "and we're on our way to four, five, and six months—and it will keep increasing as climate change starts to have more and more impact in the arctic."

Barber spoke by phone from Winnipeg, where he is attending ArcticNet 2016, a weeklong conference of some 800 Canadian scientists studying physical and biological systems in the Arctic, largely driven by changes in the ice cover.

Killer whales have historically avoided areas with ice because their large dorsal fins get caught underneath before their blowholes can breathe through fractures, Barber said. But ice-adapted whales, such a belugas and narwhals, have much smaller dorsal fins and can breathe though little cracks in the ice.

Longer periods of ice coverage have always afforded protection for those animals, until weather patterns started shifting.

"If ice is in the area for long periods of time, it limits how far the killer whales can come in and how long they stay there," Barber said.

In addition to climate change, freshwater entering the bay from two hydroelectric dams that generate power in the winter may be contributing to ice loss, he said.

Each summer, thousands of belugas migrate from the Hudson Strait on the eastern side of the bay to shallow estuaries on the western shore to feed and mate. The status of the western bay population, estimated at about 57,000 or 35 percent of the world's total, was upgraded to "Special Concern" in 2004 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, because of potential threats from shipping and hydroelectric development.

Reported sightings of killer whales, especially in the western part of the bay, have skyrocketed in recent decades, although there are no precise figures on how many more orcas are now entering the huge waterway each season.

Kristin Westdal, a marine biologist for the Pew Charitable Trusts' Oceans North Canada, along with two colleagues, began interviewing hundreds of Inuit elders and hunters in 2006 about the historical presence of killer whales in the bay.

"They are a relatively new predator," Westdal said. "Reports of sightings started in the 1950s or '60s, and there's not much history prior to that."

The frequency of sightings has also increased. "Historically it was every few years and now it's every year, fairly consistently," Westdal said, adding that some of the increase in sightings might be owing to faster and larger boats that can transverse extensive stretches of the bay.

Reports of killer whales preying on belugas are also coming in.

Westdal said a large number of belugas that had been tagged at Seal River were subsequently attacked by a killer whale pod.

"The belugas were in a tight cluster at the river's mouth, and after the event they spread out along the coastline quite a ways north and then came back to their original habitat," Westdal said.

"So they're using quite a bit more of their range than we might have thought, which is important when looking at marine conservation in the region," she said. "Their core habitat is not necessarily enough to protect that species [as] this points to potential changes in distribution should killer whale attacks continue to increase."

How much of a threat do the roving orcas pose to belugas?

"It's a difficult question to answer because the population is so large," Westdal said. "If there's any effect, it's going to be something we see in the long run. Still, a pod of 10 to 12 killer whales can do a lot of damage; they can certainly take down quite a few belugas. Over time, I think we're going see some kind of changes in population and distribution."

Westdal said there should be a similar impact on seals and narwhals.

Melting sea ice in the bay may be a boon to orcas, but it can also be hazardous. In 2013, a killer whale pod was trapped when a sudden freeze turned the open water into ice.

"Orcas are brilliant, but they don't carry calendars," said Shari Tarantino, president of the Seattle-based Orca Conservancy. "As long as there is no ice building up and food to eat, they will stay in the bay longer than they should."

Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.

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7 Ways You Contribute to Rainforest Destruction on a Daily Basis

By Sophia Lepore

People don't usually think about the destruction of rainforests while washing their hands, applying lipstick or doing laundry. But thanks to high demand for products containing palm oil, which is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree, consumers are inadvertently contributing to deforestation.

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Food

USDA Approves 2 New Varieties of GMO Potatoes

By Jason Best

Consumers seeking to satisfy their salty snack cravings sans genetically modified ingredients may soon have to get savvier about scouting out chips and other products made without the use of GMO potatoes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture formally approved two new types of genetically engineered potatoes.iStock

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture formally approved two new types of genetically engineered potatoes, both of which were developed by Simplot, the Idaho-based spud giant. (A third GMO variety was previously approved by the department). Now, pending what amounts to a fairly cursory review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the company expects all three GMO strains to be available to farmers for planting next spring.

It's hardly an exaggeration to say that over the past two decades, the agriculture industry in the U.S. has wholeheartedly embraced GMO crops with gusto. Almost all of the soy and corn grown in the U.S.—upwards of 90 percent for both crops—is genetically modified. Same goes for canola. More than half of sugar beets are also grown from GMO seeds.

The same cannot be said for potatoes. Indeed, field tests of an early GMO potato variety sparked one of the first protests against the technology back in the late 1980s and the industry remained largely GMO-free. It was just last year that the potato industry began planting a GMO variety on a commercial scale, a cultivar also developed by Simplot and named White Russet.

The three new varieties—Ranger Russet, Atlantic and Russet Burbank—all follow that first generation in that they are designed to minimize bruising and black spots, as well as reduce the amount of a chemical that is potentially carcinogenic that develops when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures. The trio of 2.0 cultivars have also been engineered to resist the pathogen that causes late blight, the disease that led to the great Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century and for "enhanced cold storage," a trait that may be of particular interest to potato chip makers, according to The Associated Press.

"We obviously are very proud of these," a Simplot spokesperson told the AP. The company says it only used genes from other potatoes to create its GMO varieties, such as a gene from an Argentine potato that yields a natural defense to blight.

As agro-tech companies have done since the dawn of the GMO revolution, Simplot is touting a promise that its GMO spuds will allow farmers to dramatically reduce the amount of chemical pesticides they're forced to spray—in this case, by up to 45 percent. Maybe so. But there are signs that public skepticism against such claims is growing ever more widespread, like the fact that the damning results of a New York Times investigation published last weekend under the not-so-subtle headline Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops shot to the top of the newspaper's list of most-emailed articles.

The Times takes to task two of the biotech industry's dominant claims about the need for GMO crops: First, that genetic modification is essential if we're going to grow enough food to feed the planet's burgeoning population, and second, that by engineering crops to resist common pests while withstanding application of herbicides, those crops would in turn require fewer dangerous chemical inputs.

Well, it's been 20 years since Monsanto and other companies rolled out their first GMO crops on a wide scale. So how has it all worked out? The Times compared crop yields and agrochemical use in Canada and the U.S.—where, as mentioned, GMO crops are widely grown—with those in Western Europe, where greater public hostility toward the technology led to many GMO crops being banned. The investigation found farmers in North America seem to have "gained no discernible advantage in yields" through their adoption of genetically engineered crops. Yet herbicide use among U.S. farmers has risen by 21 percent; in France it has fallen by 36 percent. Although use of insecticides and fungicides has indeed dropped by a third in the U.S., it has fallen by more than double that rate in France.

As you might expect, the biotech industry strongly disputes the Times analysis, saying it relies on "cherry-picked data." Yet even Matin Qaim—an independent academic at the University of Göttingen in Germany whose work Monsanto and other companies often cite to buttress their claims—offered an assessment that wasn't exactly aligned with the industry's PR spin: "I don't consider this to be the miracle type of technology that we couldn't live without," he told the Times.

Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.

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Airline Takes Local Food Revolution to the Skies

By Sarah McColl

Much has been written about the JetBlue business class menu designed by Brad Farmerie, the executive chef of New York's Saxon + Parole. "I'm in love!" one blogger gushed over the in-flight meals, which are a departure from the usual airline fare: a deviled egg with house-made sambal, bison meatloaf with blueberry quinoa or grilled avocado salad with salsa verde.

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Climate

10 of the World's Most Incredible Trees

Myth, tradition, inspiration, culture, religion and many other aspects of human life are written into the rings of history within a tree's trunk. Trees would do just fine if humans ceased to exist—but humans would most definitely not survive without trees. They reduce carbon dioxide while producing oxygen, moderate ecosystems, prevent erosion, and provide shelter, building materials, energy and even nutrition. They are simply amazing.

In partnership with NBCUniversal's Green is Universal program and the Arbor Day Foundation, we bring you a breathtaking (or rather, breath-giving) tree gallery. When you share this gallery and use #ShareATree, you're helping the Arbor Day Foundation plant real trees. For every 25,000 shares, NBCUniversal will donate $5,000 to the Arbor Day Foundation, up to $25,000.

Share this awesome gallery and make our planet a little greener.

Rainbow Eucalyptus

The Tree of Life

Bodhi Tree

Major Oak

Baobab

Cotton Tree

Anne Frank Tree

Methuselah

El Árbol del Tule


Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.

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Food

Vegan Food Goes Mainstream at U.S. Colleges

By Liz Dwyer

What's served up in college cafeterias became a hot topic this summer thanks to an episode of writer Malcolm Gladwell's podcast Revisionist History. In July, Gladwell argued that some schools are spending big bucks putting fancy food on the menu—think lobster bakes and venison—instead of offering financial aid to low-income students. But another trend in campus dining halls that Gladwell might want to take a look at in a future episode is one that could hold down college food costs: vegan meal options.

Meat- and dairy-free menu items have become one of the hottest things on college cafeteria menus.Colorado Mountain College

According to a survey released Tuesday by peta2, the youth division of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), meat- and dairy-free menu items have become one of the hottest things on college cafeteria menus.

The organization surveyed nearly 1,500 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. and found that 62 percent of schools serve vegan menu items on a daily basis, up from 28 percent in 2014. The survey also found that about 9 percent of schools—private institutions like American University in Washington, DC and public state schools like the University of California, San Diego—have entirely vegan dining stations.

The vegan revolution isn't just happening on the coasts. The 36,000-student University of North Texas has had a 300-seat all-vegan dining facility since 2011. After the school installed the vegan dining hall, "meal-plan sales rose by 20 percent while operating costs remained comparable," according to peta2.

Animal products "are among the most expensive items when it comes to wholesale food costs because of the massive amount of water and grains required in order to produce them," Ben Williamson, senior international media director for PETA, wrote in an email to TakePart.

A study published in the September 2015 edition of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition found that people who go vegetarian spend an average of $750 less on groceries than folks who follow federal dietary recommendations. Colleges that replace meat and dairy menu items with plant-based offerings are likely seeing similar per-student savings.

A desire to save money isn't the only reason schools are moving to meat-free meals.

"Research shows that millennials are three times more likely to be vegetarian than Gen Xers and 12 times more likely than baby boomers, because eating vegan food is directly tied to helping combat world hunger, cruelty to animals, environmental degradation and other issues that millennials consider to be crucial," Williamson wrote.

Many "students have made it clear they understand the health benefits of vegan food, along with its lower impact on the environment," Brian McCarthy, a chef at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said.

The environmental implications of these students ditching meat are significant: A 2014 Oxford University study found that the average meat eater has an environmental footprint of 15.82 pounds of CO2 per day, whereas a vegan has a footprint of 6.4 pounds of CO2.

"Vegan food has now reached the mainstream in even the most rural parts of the country, which is a testament to the rapid decline of the meat, dairy and egg industries," Williamson wrote. "Students at the University of Montana, for example, can always get a hearty meal at the vegan dining station on campus, and Oklahoma City University offers a dining station that's both vegan and raw, despite being in the heart of the 'beef belt.' "

Per-capita meat consumption in the U.S. jumped 5 percent in 2015, the biggest increase since the 1970s, but Williamson believes college students will stick with a vegan lifestyle after graduation—a shift made easier by food companies and restaurants.

"While college campuses are often the incubators of emerging trends, the progress doesn't end there: After students graduate, they'll be entering a world where major brands such as Chipotle, Ben & Jerry's and even White Castle now advertise vegan options front and center," he wrote.

As for those schools that still believe a vegan option is a sad-looking salad bar, peta2 has a "Veganize Your Dining Hall" campaign pack, which gives students resources for lobbying their schools to adopt more robust vegan-friendly menus.

This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.

Food

Can This New Organic Beer Made With 'Superwheat' Save the Planet?

By Willy Blackmore

Much of what remains of the once vast American prairie can be found in the rolling Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma. There, the rocky soils managed to halt the plows of pioneering farmers who were pushed West by manifest destiny, on the hunt for new land to turn over and farm.

Prairie in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, is in the mixed grasslands region.Wing-Chi Poon

There was once more than 170 million acres of tallgrass prairie in North America, a grassland ecosystem that blanketed the Midwest—from Texas all the way up into Canada and extending from Kansas to Indiana. Today, just 4 percent of the landscape that defined the middle of the country persists. Even the deep topsoil—created by roots that reached farther down into the dirt than the head-high blades of big bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass—that made prairie states into agricultural powerhouses is dwindling.

Not far from a stretch of land where a swath of native prairie still grows, and about an hour-and-a-half's drive from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, sits the Land Institute of Salina, Kansas. The sustainable agriculture nonprofit and research center has for decades been working on a project that could revert the more than 200 million acres of U.S. land on which corn, soy, and wheat are grown into something resembling the prairie those crops helped displace.

Wes Jackson, who founded the institute in 1976, had a simple enough idea: Instead of growing staples as annuals, planted and harvested every year, why not develop perennials like the wild grasses found in the prairie into food crops? Not only would such a crop only need to be planted once, but its roots would hold down topsoil, capture carbon, and require fewer chemical inputs and water. If multiple perennial crops were planted together, they could sustain each other much like a wild ecosystem does, requiring little in the way of "farming" as we think of it.

It's a notion that has inspired generations of food-loving environmentalists—from Wendell Berry, a friend of Jackson's, to contemporaries like Mark Bittman and the founders of San Francisco's climate-focused restaurant The Perennial. While that speaks partly to the appeal of the idea, it also highlights the slow nature of the work: The institute has spent decades domesticating and improving plants like intermediate wheatgrass, a distant cousin of modern wheat that grows wild in Europe and Asia, and slowly bulking up the kernels from just a few milligrams into the double-digit range, creeping closer to modern wheat.

When the Land Institute was opened, Jackson said that it would take between 50 and 100 years to develop a perennial polyculture, in which many long-lived food crops could be grown in symbiosis. In 2012, Jackson told The New York Times that kernza, as the grain the Land Institute developed from intermediate wheatgrass is known, might be released to "farmers working with ecologists and agronomists" in eight or nine years.

But two years ago, the Land Institute quietly passed a significant milestone: A small co-op in northwestern Minnesota planted 50 acres of kernza for commercial production, followed by another 75 acres that will be harvested for the first time next summer. On Monday, Patagonia Provisions released the first-ever retail product made with the grain the company calls a "superwheat": a beer called Long Root Ale.

•••

Launched in 2014, the outdoor gear company's food division is an extension of its long-standing conservation work, as Birgit Cameron, Patagonia Provisions' director, explained.

"Since agriculture, as it relates to food, is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, we couldn't stay away from this issue," she said.

For the company to make a food product, it has to have a "really deep reason for being," according to Cameron, and one that often goes beyond a designation like "organic" or other familiar sustainability measures. The precooked, shelf-stable sockeye salmon Patagonia Provisions sells, for example, is caught in reef nets off Washington State's Lummis Island—a sustainable practice used for centuries by Native American tribes and supported by the company "so we can have salmon for the future." Patagonia's bison jerky "is about saving the prairie," Cameron said, and is made from the meat of buffalo that graze on 50,000 acres of restored grasslands.

Similarly, Long Root Ale, made by Portland, Oregon–based Hopworks Urban Brewery, "has a tremendously deep story and an incredible reason for being," Cameron explained. "It will tell the story of the Land Institute and their efforts" to reform—if not reinvent—agriculture.

That story starts with the Land Institute's perennial wheat. With its extensive root system, kernza "uses less than half the amount of water an annual, tilled-type cereal grain would use—60 percent less water," said Christian Ettinger, the founder and brewmaster at Hopworks, a certified B Corp. "It has tremendous benefit, and a hell of a lot less carbon is emitted. It's like mowing a lawn instead of tilling a soil and starting all over again." As the back of the can says, "you don't get carbon credits, but it's a damn good beer."

Chad Brigman / Patagonia Provisions Facebook

The beer—a light and flowery pale ale without the acid edge of a West Coast–style IPA—is made with a small amount of unmalted kernza. But the 15 percent addition of the wheat lends what Ettinger described as a spicy, nutty finish to the pale ale that he said is reminiscent of rye. (Some of the 5,000 pounds of grain Hopsworks used comes from the commercial co-op farms, and the rest was harvested from research institutions like the University of Minnesota.)

While he had never heard of kernza before Patagonia called Hopworks about the project last June, Ettinger wants to experiment with it more and is eager to find out what kind of flavors it might express as a malted grain that can be used as the main component of a beer. While Long Root may not be a full expression of the grain, like a bread or pasta product made from 100 percent kernza, it's a milestone nonetheless—and a conversation starter, spurred by a pint of beer, 5.5 percent alcohol by volume.

The romantic vision of Jackson remaking agriculture as a reflection of the native landscape of his home state may factor into those conversations, but the smaller details are compelling too.

"We're hoping that kernza in the marketplace helps draw people to an understanding of perennial grains," said Scott Allegrucci, senior developer and communications officer at the Land Institute. He imagined the questions beer lovers might ask: "I didn't even know grains aren't perennial—what's an annual? What's the difference; why does it matter? Oh, natural systems agriculture, what's that? Perennial polyculture? Why does that matter?"

"It starts there," he said.

•••

Kernza hitting the market for the first time is, as Allegrucci said, a significant landmark. But work on the grain is by no means complete.

"It won't move out of the research arena anytime soon," he said. "It's still a work in progress."

Over the next decade, the institute will continue to work on improving kernza, hopefully increasing the kernel to about half that annual wheat. Breeders are also working on developing a semi-dwarf variety of kernza that's shorter than the chest-high plants and another line that farmers could graze livestock on—indeterminate wheatgrass is regularly grown as a forage crop—and still "produce harvestable, economically viable grain yield for farmers," he explained.

The 50 or so grass-seed farmers in the RL Growers Cooperative who are growing kernza in Minnesota have a guarantee that Patagonia will buy whatever the fields produce, which reduces risk. That has helped free up Richard Magnusson, who is both the president of RL Growers and a member, to be more simply curious about the crop and its potential.

"I think the thing that's interesting is this is the kind of wheat where it was in biblical times. None of the crops that we used for food now look like they did originally," he said.

Kernza, which forms sod like Kentucky bluegrass and other varieties used in landscaping, is familiar to him as a grass-seed farmer—but no one is making flour out of the tiny seeds of cool-season turfgrasses RL Growers produce for a living.

"We're really at the early stages with this," Magnusson said of kernza. "It's got some potential, and obviously the genetic improvements will keep coming and get us closer to a viable crop."

The 175 acres planted in Minnesota are being grown organically, and they haven't "sodded" yet, forming a mat of grass between rows, but Magnusson is impressed with its deep roots. He suspects it will be both cold hardy and drought tolerant—so much so that in a place where too much water is more often the problem, he envisions putting kernza plantings on the drier plots that he and other RL members farm.

Kernza farmer holding prairie grass with long roots.Jim Richardson

Kernza's commercial footprint in northwestern Minnesota is minuscule compared with the tens of thousands of acres of grass seed—the region's major crop—that are grown there today. But Magnusson noted that his industry started with two or three acres of Kentucky bluegrass planted as a research trial in the 1950s.

"It isn't the first time something like this has started on a small scale," he said. "You don't go from zero to 30,000 [acres] in one year. Hopefully this grows into tens of thousands of acres at some point."

•••

Grasses define tallgrass prairie both in name and in biodiversity: The landscape is composed of as many as 60 grass species that account for 80 percent of the foliage. But there's a reason why vast sprays of wildflowers blaze across the Flint Hills every summer. The prairie is considered one of the most diverse and complicated ecosystems in the world—right up there with the Amazonian rainforest. Any farming system that aspires to replicate it cannot start and end with one plant species.

"A perennial monoculture, say, of kernza would be an improvement" over commercial, annual wheat production, Allegrucci said. "But it's not near where we need to get or where we want to get. It's the polyculture bit that delivers the huge long-term ecological benefits in terms of climate and water quality and soil erosion too."

Thanks to the progress that's been made on kernza, the grain has become nearly synonymous with the Land Institute—and that could become evermore the case with Long Root available in stores and other kernza products from Patagonia and others to follow. But as Allegrucci said, "the Land Institute is more than kernza."

KernzaPatagonia Provisions

"We're not tweaking a system of agriculture; we're displacing it," he explained. Not the Land Institute on its own, but the growing network of farmers, students, researchers, chefs, and plant breeders engaged with the work.

"It's like cribbing the Green Revolution for natural systems agriculture. It's doing the Green Revolution green. And that's not just going to be a set of plants or a set of gene tweaks—however fascinating or productive as they are. We're talking about re-envisioning what agriculture means to us as a people. And we can't do that on our own—but we're kind of trying to provide the hardware for it."

That hardware will take the form of other crops­ developed by the Land Institute: grains, pulses, and oilseed, generally speaking, which account for fully three-quarters of the world's caloric intake, as Allegrucci noted. Not only do those crops—whether wild prairie sunflowers domesticated for oilseed production or perennialized sorghum and rice—need to be bred and improved, but work needs to be done to determine how they can successfully be grown in concert.

"How do we develop systems where this plant can grow with other plants," Allegrucci asked, "where they can provide services to one and another?" Pulses can fertilize grains by fixing nitrogen in the soil; the deep roots of grains can help hold soil moisture for more shallow-rooted crops. When that kind of agriculture ecosystem is viable for commercial production like kernza is just beginning to be, "that's where the real perennial benefits come in."

But getting kernza out to farmers like Richard Magnusson, and products like Long Root into stores, is a significant step in that direction, even if a truly prairie-like farm is still decades away.

"We can't just stay in Salina and continue breeding obscure crop plants that people haven't yet heard of and all of a sudden bust out a commodity economy," Allegrucci said.

But, like Magnusson, he and others at the Land Institute hope that those 175 acres of kernza grow exponentially—and that countless acres of prairie-like farms someday follow.

Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.

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