Quantcast

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.

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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

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.

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.

Read More Show Less

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.

Read More Show Less

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.

Sponsored
Sponsored