By Kelly Kizer Whitt
Relief from the heat of summer and long days baking in the sun is on its way. The Northern Hemisphere's fall equinox occurs on Sept. 22 at 6:54 P.M. PDT. The harvest moon—the full moon that comes closest to the equinox—is just two nights later, on Sept. 24 at 7:53 P.M. PDT. On this date, the moon is in the constellation Pisces.
As you admire the full harvest moon, turn your gaze higher in the sky to find a circle, square and distant galaxy. The round shape close to the full moon is the Circlet of Pisces, part of the constellation of the fish. Above the Circlet and spanning a much larger swath of sky is the Great Square of Pegasus. The constellation of Pegasus rises in the east in September, with the asterism (grouping of stars) set more on end like a diamond. Imagine a large baseball diamond in the sky, with home plate nearest to the horizon. The star marking third base, Alpheratz, is actually not part of the constellation Pegasus but part of neighboring Andromeda.
While you're gazing at Alpheratz, measure 15 degrees to the left of the star to reach the Andromeda Galaxy. An easy way to do this is to stretch your arm out and create a fist, then extend and spread out your pinkie and index fingers (rock on). The distance between these fingers should mark about 15 degrees of sky and get you in the vicinity of Andromeda. You'll probably need binoculars to see it. Now that you know where to find Andromeda, try again on a moonless night and away from artificial sources of light. You may even be able to find it without optical aid.
Four Bright Planets
This month, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are arrayed across the sky from west to southeast. On Sept. 1, Venus is quite close to the star Spica in Virgo, and the pair can be found near the horizon soon after sunset. Venus is the easiest to find because it's so much brighter than all the other points of light in the sky, but it sets shortly after the sun. A crescent moon is wide of Venus on Sept. 11 and then above Venus on Sept. 12.
On Sept. 13, the slowly growing crescent moon is close to Jupiter in the constellation Libra. The somewhat bright star closest to Jupiter is Zubenelgenubi. By Sept. 17, the moon has evolved to slightly more than half full and hop-scotched over Saturn, which is not far from the center of the galaxy. When you look toward Saturn, you are looking toward the heart of the Milky Way.
Lastly, the moon meets up with Mars on Sept. 19 in Capricornus. Mars is coming down from its "high" of opposition when it was particularly bright. The Red Planet will start September brighter than Jupiter but dim steadily until Jupiter once again surpasses it.
With all the bright planetary targets in September, there's one planet that's a fun challenge to try to find. Neptune reaches opposition on Sept. 7 at magnitude 7.8. You'll need optical aid to see it. Because it's so dim, it's difficult to distinguish from background stars. The best time to see Neptune is not necessarily opposition but whenever a brighter planet skims past it so you can focus your binoculars or telescope on the easy-to-find planet and then spot Neptune popping up in the background. You'll have to wait until December for just such a close encounter between Neptune and Mars.
Comet Giacobini-Zinner Nears Naked-Eye Visibility
You might get to see a comet without optical aid in September. Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner might reach naked-eye visibility around Sept. 10 in dark-sky locations. Start during the first couple days of the month by looking near the bright star Capella in Auriga, found in the northeastern sky after dark. Capella should be easy to find because it's the brightest star rising in this region of sky.
With binoculars, search for the comet by sweeping the area near Capella and looking for a hazy, diffuse area of light that stands apart from the pinpricks of stars. The comet won't stay near Capella for long, however. Each night it dives closer to the horizon, so you'll have to stay up later as September wears on to be sure the comet has risen and is visible.
By Sept. 19, the comet is positioned between the constellations of Gemini the Twins and Orion. (The comet will be a wide left of Orion's reddish shoulder star Betelgeuse.) By the end of September, the comet is nearing Sirius in the constellation Canis Major. Giacobini-Zinner will complete a large loop around the Greater Dog over the coming months as it slows its progress through the sky and dims until it's out of the reach of most backyard telescopes.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Jim Motavalli
The future of the auto industry is increasingly likely to be electric—although you wouldn't necessarily know that from sales numbers. Just under 200,000 plug-in cars were sold in the United States last year (out of a new-car market of 17.25 million). In California, cars with plugs made up 4.6 percent of the new-car market in 2017, while nationwide the number increased only slightly, to 1.16 percent of total auto sales. But 2018 is shaping up to be better, with 36 percent higher EV sales in the first four months than in the same period the previous year.
Elsewhere, meanwhile, EV sales are booming. Last year China's EV sales were more than three times those of the United States, accounting for nearly half of all plug-in vehicles purchased worldwide. In tiny Norway, thanks to great incentives, more than half of all new-car registrations in 2017 were either hybrid or battery electric.
The United States has a chance to catch up. Amid a welcome proliferation of EV models, the general trend is that most new cars will be offered with a plug-in variant. The consumer today has a lot of good EV choices that are much cleaner than conventional vehicles, even factoring in emissions from the electricity used to charge them. Both range and performance are improving as prices come down. If electric cars can travel 300 miles on a charge—as do some versions of the Tesla Model S and upcoming cars from Volkswagen and Porsche—then the old shibboleth of range anxiety may no longer apply.
Here are six noteworthy 2018 models, both full battery electric and plug-in hybrid. It's important to point out that all these cars come with federal incentives of up to $7,500. Many states offer further financial subsidies as well as perks such as priority parking and single-passenger privileges in HOV lanes. All prices stated below are base prices, without federal and state incentives or destination charges (the cost of shipping the car from manufacturer to dealer).
Toyota Prius Prime
The Prime is a big step up from the first Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid. Based on this model's 25 miles of battery-only range, it will save the average commuter $561 a year in fueling costs, compared with driving the average car. With savings like that, the quirky styling will grow on you. Base price: $27,300. The $33,300 advanced package includes a tablet-like screen and a full range of infotainment and safety technology.
Kia Niro Plug-in-Hybrid
The standard Niro arrived last year, but it's the plug-in hybrid version that has my attention—not least because it offers 26 miles of electric travel (and up to 560 miles of total range) via its 8.9-kilowatt-hour battery pack. The subcompact SUV pairs its electric motor with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. There's a really useful cargo capacity of up to 54 cubic feet, and five adults can ride comfortably. Base price: $27,900.
With 238 miles on a charge of its 60-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, the 200-horsepower Bolt pioneered the affordable long-distance EV. "The Bolt is my third electric vehicle, but the first one that allows me to completely forget about range," a California Bolt driver told me. (A downside of the big battery is a long full-charge time—9.5 hours at 240 volts/32 amps—although drivers rarely start charging on "empty.") The Bolt is futuristic inside and out, handles well, and is very fast off the mark—zero to 60 in less than seven seconds. It has essentially the same value proposition as the Tesla Model 3 but without the long wait. Base price: $37,495.
The Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivan is outstanding in its field—but it's the only one in that field. The minivan remains more practical than most SUVs for transporting families and cargo, but it suffers from an unfortunate image problem in a market that celebrates sexier formats. Chrysler is to be commended for taking a leap of faith. The front-drive Pacifica will accommodate seven passengers and has 32 cubic feet of cargo room. The third row of seats can be fully stored in the floor with the press of a button. The Pacifica is rated at the equivalent of 84 miles per gallon in combined driving, or 32 mpg with just its 3.6-liter Atkinson-cycle V6. But it has more than 30 miles of electric-only range, and its 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery charges in just two hours on 240-volt power. Base price: $39,995.
Tesla Model 3
If you can get your hands on one, the Tesla Model 3 EV sedan is worth the effort. With similar performance to the vaunted Model S in a more compact package, it's a technological marvel and (compared with other Teslas) something of a bargain—which is why more than 400,000 people are on the list to buy one. Tesla's production line is having teething problems; if you sign up now, the wait will be up to 12 months. The Model 3 is hugely fun to drive and boasts a very futuristic dashboard. Forget instruments—all the functions are on a touch screen that can be updated remotely. Most buyers will opt for the long-range battery, which gives 310 miles on a charge. (In fact, that's the only option in early production.) Base price: $35,000; with long-range battery, $49,000. (Disclosure: Tesla CEO Elon Musk is a major donor to the Sierra Club.)
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Electric Vehicles Initiative (sc.org/evguide).
This article appeared in the September/October 2018 edition with the headline "A 2018 Buyer's Guide for Cars with Plugs."
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
As consumers become more aware of issues like ocean plastics and overflowing landfills, many are looking for ways to cut down on their environmental footprints. An easy way to make your home more sustainable is to switch from heavy-duty plastic trash can liners to biodegradable garbage bags. While they aren't a perfect solution, they have a few key advantages over their traditional counterparts.
Whether you're looking for tall kitchen trash bags or a smaller option to line your countertop compost bin, in this article, we'll review five of the best biodegradable garbage bags on the market today.
Our Picks for the Top Biodegradable Garbage Bags
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. Learn more about our review methodology here. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn a commission.
- Best Overall: UNNI ASTM D6400 100% Compostable Trash Bags
- Best Bulk Buy: Reli. BioGrade 13 Gallon Trash Bags
- Best Small Bags: BioBag Compostable Countertop Food Scrap Bags
- Best Biodegradable Kitchen Bags: Hippo Sak Plant-Based Tall Kitchen Bags
- Best for Fast Decomposition: STOUT by Envision EcoSafe Compostable Bags
Why Switch to Biodegradable Garbage Bags?
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, a plastic bag takes 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill. And when bags do decompose, they can leach toxins and microplastics into the environment. It's difficult to completely abandon plastic, but we can take simple steps toward reducing our environmental footprints by switching to products such as biodegradable garbage bags.
Although compostable and biodegradable plastics take longer to break down in a landfill than they would in an open environment, they can still be more eco-friendly than using traditional plastic bags. Below are some reasons you may consider replacing your plastic trash bags with more eco-friendly alternatives:
- Biodegradable bags produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions over their lifetime because the plants they're made from (often corn or sugarcane) absorb carbon while growing. This offsets the carbon they produce when breaking down. One study even found that switching to corn-based bioplastics could cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by up to 25%.
- Biodegradable and compostable trash bags break down up to 1,000 times faster than regular garbage bags in the right environments. Biodegradable bags start their decomposition process when exposed to moisture or organisms such as bacteria and fungi. Compostable bags break down at a faster rate than conventional bags as well, but they usually require high heat to break down, so they should be disposed of at commercial composting facilities.
- Compostable bags will break down fully and will not turn into microplastics like traditional plastics and the bioplastics in some biodegradable plastic bags will.
There are also some downsides to bioplastics. For example, they require more land, water and pesticides to grow the crops that are turned into the bioplastics. They can also be much more expensive and can release methane if not exposed to enough oxygen during the decomposition process. However, most modern landfills in the U.S. are air-locked to prevent these and other harmful gasses from entering the atmosphere.
Considering both sides of the coin, is it worth switching to biodegradable garbage bags? According to Kartik Chandran, a professor in the Earth and Environmental Engineering Department at Columbia University, compared to traditional plastics, "bioplastics are a significant improvement." But the choice is ultimately up to you.
Of course, the most sustainable option would be to produce less waste in the first place, tossing your garbage in a bin without a liner and washing the bin after you dump your loose trash. Composting food scraps is another way to reduce your landfill contribution whether you're in a house or an apartment.
5 Best Biodegradable Trash Bags
If you decide to purchase biodegradable trash bags, it's important to note that not all biodegradable trash bags actually break down within a reasonable amount of time. Depending on its material, the claim that a bag is biodegradable can be little more than greenwashing.
In order to provide you with sustainable recommendations, when choosing the top biodegradable garbage bags, we looked at factors including:
- Composition: What materials go into the bags themselves? Are they plant-based? Do they have Environmental Products, Inc. (EPI) chemical additives to accelerate plastic degradation?
- Certifications: Are the bags certified to American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards for composting and biodegrading?
- Decomposition rate: How long does each company's bags take to decompose? (This can range from six months to over a year, depending on the brand.)
- Durability: Do the bags have the same strength as traditional trash bags? Or do they tear or leak easily?
- Packaging: Do the products have compact and recyclable packaging?
- Customer satisfaction: Are customers satisfied with the products? (We look at verified reviews as well as have conducted our own independent reviews on select products).
Best Overall: UNNI ASTM D6400 100% Compostable Trash Bags
UNNI garbage bags are our best overall choice because they are 100% biodegradable and compostable. The eco-friendly bags are also certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute and OK Compost Home and are BPA-free. They are made entirely from corn starch and other plant starches and contain no polyethylene. Within 180 days, the bags will degrade into organic compounds such as CO2 and O2. The brand also makes drawstring waste bags and small trash bags for home composting and pet waste.
Customer Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars with over 4,400 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: These compostable trash bags come in plenty of sizes and styles, so whether you need to dispose of dog poop or food scraps, you can find an eco-friendly bag from UNNI.
Best Bulk Buy: Reli. BioGrade 13 Gallon Trash Bags
Trusted for over 30 years, the bright green Reli. biodegradable garbage bags are designed for ease of use and durability. They have a star-sealed bottom to prevent breakage and are made with a high-density blend of plant-based materials and EPI chemical additives. The company sells compostable bags as well for those who have access to a composting facility, and the 13-gallon bags come in a compact cardboard box that can be recycled.
Customer Rating: 4.4 out of 5 stars with over 250 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: These biodegradable trash bags are eco-certified to ASTM D6954 standards and include EPI additives to ensure a faster degradation process. You can also lower your carbon footprint even more by buying in bulk and purchasing an 800-count package for $50.
Best Small Bags: BioBag Compostable Countertop Food Scrap Bags
BioBag Compostable Countertop Food Scrap Bags are made up of a bioplastic resin blend called Mater-Bi®, which uses non-genetically modified plant-based substances like corn starch and a variety of biodegradable/compostable polymers. BioBags has made a commitment to use as many renewable resources in its products, and its bags are manufactured in the U.S. with resin sourced from Italy. They are stored in a small cardboard package that can be recycled after use.
Customer Rating: 4.7 out of 5 stars with over 3,200 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: These small bags are extremely versatile and can be used for small waste needs all around the home. BioBag's products are certified compostable and biodegradable according to European standard EN 13432, U.S. standards ASTM D6400 and OK Compost Home, and Australian standard AS 4736.
Best Biodegradable Kitchen Bags: Hippo Sak Plant-Based Tall Kitchen Bags
Hippo Sak tall kitchen bags are made in the USA from at least 88% plant-based materials such as sugarcane rather than fossil fuels. These white trash bags are extremely durable with a slightly thicker layer on the bottom to prevent breakage. The kitchen bags also have large handles that make them easy to grip, pick up and replace without the fear of tearing. They are packaged in a small cardboard box with a large tab that makes it easy to pull individual bags out.
Customer Rating: 4.9 out of 5 stars with over 5,700 Amazon ratingsWhy Buy: Hippo Sak garbage bags are USDA Certified Biobased Products, are completely recyclable and are BPA-free. They have an extremely high satisfaction rate and have been said by buyers to be extremely durable.
Best for Fast Decomposition: STOUT by Envision EcoSafe Compostable Bags
The STOUT by Envision EcoSafe Compostable Bags are specifically designed for collecting organic waste. Even though the average decomposition rate for biodegradable and compostable bags can range from six months to a year in an open environment, STOUT bags are said to decompose in 10 to 45 days and biodegrade in a maximum of six months in commercial composting facilities. Much like the other brands, these garbage bags come in compact cardboard packaging for easy recycling. A star seal on the bottom of the bag makes it possible to carry more weight without leaking or ripping.
Customer Rating: 4.7 out of 5 stars with over 500 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: These fast-decomposing bags are made in the U.S. by blind or visually impaired citizens. They're also USCC and BPI certified and meet the requirements of ASTM D6400.
Frequently Asked Questions: Biodegradable Trash Bags
Which garbage bags are biodegradable?
Garbage bags made from bioplastics or other plant-based starches and materials are considered biodegradable. Bioplastics are a mixture of organic materials that mimic the properties of traditional petroleum-based plastics. Some bioplastics include additives to speed up the deterioration process. Some bioplastics are so complex that they aren't considered biodegradable anymore. This is why it is important to make sure your products are not only composed of plant material, but are also certified biodegradable.
Are biodegradable bags better than plastic?
Biodegradable garbage bags produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional plastic bags. However, it takes more land, water and pesticides to grow the plant materials the bags are made from. Overall, researchers have stated that biodegradable bags are better, but they don't break down significantly faster in landfills.
How long do biodegradable bags take to decompose?
The range for the decomposition of biodegradable bags is different for each brand. Some state that it only takes 180 days for decomposition, while for others it may be up to a year and a half. It also depends on the environment the bag is in — in a commercial composting facility or at home in an open environment, decomposition will be significantly faster than in an air-locked landfill. Generally, no matter the time it takes for biodegradable garbage bags to decompose, it takes traditional garbage bags longer.
By David Gessner
I am sitting near the top of the eastern ear, or rather the eastern earlobe, of Bears Ears, the redock buttes that give our most controversial national monument its name. From up here I can look back on my starting point, the meadow far below and two miles north where a big white tent marks the social center for the reunion of five Native American tribes during the fourth annual Bears Ears Summer Gathering. Hundreds of Indigenous people, environmental organizers, and members of the media like me make up the first meeting of this sort since President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced, last December, that they were going to reduce Bears Ears by 85 percent.
Although this July celebration is taking place legally on public land—land that is still, despite the reduction of a million acres around it, a national monument—the event hasn't exactly been greeted with open arms by the local white ranchers. In fact, as one young Navajo man put it earlier, it feels a little like we are under siege.
"You look like an environmentalist. Get back in your truck!" This was the greeting one of my fellow celebrants got from one area resident when he stopped to check how deep his back tire had sunk in the muck. Other cars had been tailgated as they made the drive to the celebration. Someone moved the signs for the event so that many of the attendees—and the porta-potties—ended up in the wrong place. The ribbon that marked the pull-off for the road to the gathering was stolen. The Native American organizers responded by placing volunteers on the roads at each turn to make sure guests weren't being misled. Not long ago a private plane buzzed low over our campsite.
"You can tell how special a place is by how many people try to keep you away from it," Navajo elder Jonah Yellowman told me soon after I arrived. I saw what he meant during my hike up here. After lunch these matching buttes looked like an open invitation, and since we were on monument land, I assumed I could walk directly toward them. But barbed-wire fences and grazing cows cut off most of the access, siphoning me to the single point where I could open a gate, scramble up a gully to the public road, and finally get to the base of the eastern butte. Then I climbed to the spot where I sit now. But even then the fence followed me. In a strange marriage of redrock and barbed wire, of public and private, the fence continues right up to where the rock turns vertical, a place no cow could climb.
It feels odd to be fenced in on land that even Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke admit is still a national monument. Public lands are said to belong to all of us, but hiking here, I have experienced the anxiety of the intruder. Looking out at hundreds of miles of land and a half-full moon through an opening in a fence, I am in a fought-over spot in this fought-over landscape in our fought-over country. Maybe this place embodies our world right now. All the battles between red and blue, future and past, are being fought right here, at this point where redrock meets barbed wire and where Native peoples celebrate while white ranchers resentfully prowl the outskirts.
On the hike back, I think of a statistic I recently read: Over a third of the land in the contiguous United States is pasture land, with a quarter of that being land leased by the government, and that almost all of that land serves the cow. I am very careful to reattach the wire loop that secures the gate that leads back to the meadow. Just last week saw the beginning of the trial of environmental activist Rose Chilcoat and her husband, Mark Franklin, in what some of us are choosing to call Gate-gate. Chilcoat was a former director of the environmental group the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and she and her husband are accused of closing a gate on a rancher's property that denied his cows access to a watering hole. This is just the sort of battle that makes San Juan County seem both uniquely quirky and a microcosm for the rest of the country. Here the wars never stop raging between environmentalists and those who resent federal intrusion, and between Native people and locals.
But who are the real locals? Over 50 percent of the residents of San Juan County are Indigenous people and, if the recent primary election is any indicator, two out of the three San Juan County commissioner seats could go to Navajos. Meanwhile "local" Zane Odell, one of the most vociferous opponents of Bears Ears, is actually a Colorado resident. As for the land I am now walking through, it was once the childhood romping grounds of the great Navajo chief Manuelito. He used Bears Ears in the 1860s to hide out from the U.S. Army but then gave himself up to join his people and care for the children and elderly during the Long Walk, the forced eviction and march of Navajos to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. And the Navajos are not alone in seeing this land as a homeland. The Ute traditional territory encompasses Bears Ears, and the Ancestral Puebloan people, including the Hopis and Zunis, don't have to look hard to see clear evidence that this was once their home. That evidence still inhabits the landscape in the form of the plentiful ancient dwellings and artifacts.
"Chief Manuelito wanted peace, but he was ready to fight," Kenneth Maryboy, a Navajo member who is the current Democratic nominee for one of the three county commissioner seats, is now telling a few dozen of us who are gathered under the huge tent. "Manuelito said, 'There is a day when my enemy is going to kill me. But I'm not going to go quietly. Trees and rocks will be ripped up around me. I will take many with me before I go.'"
Perhaps Maryboy is in a fighting mood, having just won the primary for a commissioner seat over Rebecca Benally, who stood next to Trump when he announced the Bears Ears reduction in Salt Lake City last February.
Maryboy's words are inspiring, but they are one of the few aggressive notes during the weekend gathering. The theme of this year's celebration is "Bears Ears Is Healing" and that seems to be happening. A couple hundred of us are camping here, and it's the most social camping I've ever done. Each morning a color guard made up of veterans raises the U.S. flag. We then greet the sunset near the Bear Totem Pole that was carved and brought here as a gift of goodwill and support from the Lummi Nation of Washington State. Then everyone goes in search of coffee in the kitchen tent. All three days, the weather is perfect, and violet morning light plays off of Bears Ears, with its rich, almost edible, red-orange colors shining out from below the green of ponderosa and piñon pines. Mountain bluebirds and cliff swallows shoot from tree to tree in the meadow below the ears.
William Greyeyes, the board chairman of the Utah Diné Bikéyah and one of the original leaders in the struggle to establish Bears Ears, tells me that the lack of local hospitality is nothing new.
"This has happened in past years too," he says. "We just ignored them and re-established our path and kept going forward. That's the only way to do it. These are public lands, federal public lands. It's open to everybody. And they are welcome to put forward a proposal to the United States government. Just as we did."
And so the weekend continues peacefully, including prayer, medicinal plant walks, programs for kids, the dedication of the bear totem, a 5K run, and more mutton than I have ever eaten in my life. By the end of the second day, the anger from the locals has died down and the mood of the gathering is buoyant. Speakers remind us of what was gained, what still is, and what might be again. Of possibilities, not loss.
On Saturday night, the final night of the gathering, I decide to pack it in early after a delicious dinner of bison and beans. Too tired for any more interviews, I stumble back to my tent. But then, lying there, I hear the music. And then a voice over the microphone. The voice belongs to Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, the former councilwoman for the Ute Mountain Ute on the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Lopez-Whiteskunk was the first person to tell me the Bears Ears story, back in January, and soon I am climbing out of my sleeping bag and heading back to the big white tent. Lopez-Whiteskunk, dressed in traditional Ute clothing, is dancing to music played by her father and other family members. Her granddaughters, also in traditional dress, sit on the stage and whisper to each other. I join along with everyone else in the final dance, a great snaking circle that turns inward on itself and tightens until we are one great, knotted ball. The dance ends in laughter and applause.
After the dancing, Lopez-Whiteskunk talks to the crowd. Her theme is how to deal with Trump's assault on Bears Ears, and the aggressive opposition the tribes face.
"This is not new for us," she says calmly. "We are used to this. We will adapt."
She reminds us of what has already been accomplished.
"We did it. Yes, they are trying to take it away. But we did it. Remember that."
I like her calm. It soothes. But I also remember Kenneth Maryboy's sterner message.
Taken together, they sound something like this:
We talk, we plan, we teach, we learn, we celebrate, we dance. We try to heal.
But, if necessary, we fight. Like Manuelito, we won't go quietly.
We will fight, and trees and rocks will be ripped up around us . . .
By Katie O'Reilly
In the 12 years since Sierra began highlighting the best environmental practices of colleges and universities, the competition to be the ecofriendliest in all of academia has gotten fierce. This year, we received a record 269 responses from qualified institutions, which now include Canadian schools and community colleges. Our annual Cool Schools Rankings assess colleges' performance in everything from what they teach to how they obtain their electricity to their sources of cafeteria food and how they manage their water. Please join Sierra in congratulating the very green—and diverse—schools that are mastering the art and science of campus sustainability.
20. Cornell University — Score 74.47 | Ithaca, New York
ANABEL'S GROCERY IS A STUDENT-RUN INITIATIVE DESIGNED TO COMBAT FOOD INSECURITY ON THE CORNELL CAMPUS, PROVIDING LOW-COST GROCERIES TO STUDENTS.CORNELL UNIVERSITY
Last year, Cornell launched Anabel's Grocery, a student-run food supply providing low-cost access to local, organic, and culturally inclusive foods. It also broke ground on the Sustainable Landscapes Trail, designed to highlight 14 campus spots that showcase Cornell's commitment to natural lands management (think rainwater capture stations, pollinator plants, and permaculture plots). Since 2008, this Ivy has reduced campus emissions by 36 percent and cooling energy by 86 percent, largely through proprietary innovations such as Lake Source Cooling—running a pump from one of upstate New York's nearby deep lakes to pipe cold water through campus. The Touchdowns are now experimenting with Earth Source Heat, a new system that involves drilling into the earth's upper crust and piping thermal heat through the often-chilly campus.
19. Loyola Marymount University — Score 74.74 | Los Angeles, California
LOYOLA'S OFFICE OF SUSTAINABILITY AND STUDENTS DESIGNED AND BUILT A SOLAR GOLF CART. LOYOLA MARYMOUNT UNIVERSITY
Not only has LMU operated a self-funded recycling plant since 1990, but it also won Los Angeles's inaugural "RecycLA" platinum award this year, thus becoming a model for the rest of the city. LMU was also the first university to sign onto the Lonely Whale Foundation's pledge to purge plastic straws. "The Cycling Lion," a shipping container turned bicycle hub, offers a recycled bike shop and bike-share program. The Lions are on track to divert all food waste by the end of 2019, thanks to a campus-wide food waste disposal and awareness program and a robust composting program. Students also work within a nearby underserved neighborhood to boost awareness of composting, provide food waste options, and develop a community garden.
18. University of Dayton — Score 74.93 | Dayton, Ohio
UD'S FIRST GREEN ROOF ON THE KENNEDY UNION PATIO, THE CULMINATION OF YEARS OF WORK BY STUDENTS, FACULTY, AND STAFF IN MANY AREAS ACROSS CAMPUS.BRUCE DAMONTE
The first Catholic university in the nation to divest from fossil fuel companies also has an Energy Team composed of students who work with campus facilities departments to perform energy and lighting audits. The team proposes and implements conservation projects, the funding for which often comes from UD's green revolving fund, which pays for itself through energy and other environmental savings. UD boasts low-flow showerheads and 1.3-and-counting megawatts of solar. Students living in university-owned campus houses receive feedback on their energy usage (their "energy GPAs"). Dayton Flyers can study environmental biology, pursue master's degrees in renewable and clean energy, and work the earth at nearby Lincoln Hill Garden, an urban farm and community green space the school established with community partners
17. Lewis & Clark College — Score 75.05 | Portland, Oregon
LEWIS & CLARK STUDENTS PARTICIPATE IN NUMEROUS MODES OF ACTIVE TRANSIT, INCLUDING BIKING, WALKING, TAKING THE BUS, AND CARPOOLING. LEWIS & CLARK COLLEGE
In the past year, Lewis & Clark has committed to selling off its fossil fuel investments, passed a policy to phase out all single-use plastics, and launched a "Hot Topics" series through which speakers come to campus to discuss issues such as environmental justice, biodiversity, and socially responsible investing. The school's Farm to Fork Initiative mandates that campus dining spend 20 percent of its funding on food sourced from small, local farms and producers, and the campus, which runs into two watersheds, recently re-upped its Salmon Safe designation. Lewis & Clark students can study ecopsychology and natural resources law, and take classes in the political economy of food. When they're not in class, many are involved with extracurricular pursuits including the beekeeping club, bike co-op, and garden collective.
16. University of Oregon — Score 75.42 | Eugene, Oregon
ALLAN PRICE SCIENCE COMMONS IS ONE OF THE SCHOOL'S NEWEST LEED GOLD-CERTIFIED BUILDINGS.UNIVERSITY OF OREGON
A year and a half ago, student activists pressured the University of Oregon to renew its climate action plan. As a result, the school has already reinsulated 16 miles' worth of campus steam and condensate pipes, thus reducing at least 54 metric tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions. The Ducks' new-and-improved climate plan is also funding environmental economists' research into internal carbon taxes that U of O, and perhaps eventually other institutions, could implement. The university is currently installing a shipping container outfitted with LED lights wherein students can experiment with the latest in indoor agriculture and recently received a grant to integrate sustainability courses with the work of area municipalities and nonprofits—meaning students will be working to solve real-world energy and transportation issues. Through "rEV Up Eugene," the University of Oregon hosts free community workshops about electric vehicles.
15. Oregon State University — Score 75.82 | Corvallis, Oregon
OSU STAFF MOVE MATERIALS DURING THE MOVE OUT DONATION DRIVE, WHICH IN 2018 COLLECTED OVER 32,300 POUNDS OF REUSABLE MATERIAL.OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY
Oregon State's trustees are in the process of developing a plan to divest a portion of its funding from fossil fuels and to diversify its portfolio of carbon-free funds. Meanwhile, students are enrolling in programs such as "humanitarian engineering," "sustainable agroforestry," and "sustainable cemeteries management." The consumption-wary Beavers have a textbook loan program in place as well as an "OSUsed" store and cap-and-gown return program. OSU dorms employ Eco-Reps, who educate residents on green lifestyle practices, and the school works with local food distributors, caterers, and restaurants to divert food waste to its campus food pantry.
14. Chatham University — Score: 76.09 | Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
EDEN HALL CAMPUS.CHATHAM UNIVERSITY
No matter their major, every undergrad at Chatham must take sustainability courses, and most undergrads, grad students, and MBAs pursue degrees in sustainability or food studies. This year, Chatham is launching a new program to help prepare nursing students and other future health professionals for climate-change-induced public health threats. Thanks to its solar thermal greenhouse and "work-and-pick" garden, Chatham produces enough food to help supply its dining hall. Many students recently banded together to present a divestment proposal. Good news: Chatham's Board of Trustees is likely to approve it by October.
13. Santa Clara University — Score 76.13 | Santa Clara, California
SCU'S CENTER FOR SUSTAINABILITY HOSTS A "WASTE CHARACTERIZATION" ALMOST EVERY QUARTER FOR STAFF, FACULTY, AND STUDENTS. SANTA CLARA UNIVERSITY
Nine out of 10 students attending the "Jesuit University in Silicon Valley" engage in community-based learning for course credit. A food justice outreach program, for instance, works within marginalized neighborhoods to bolster community gardens and helps elementary students to develop urban gardens. Thanks to a deal wherein faculty can receive stipends to integrate eco- and/or social justice-oriented curricula into their syllabi, 93 percent of Santa Clara departments offer sustainability courses. The Broncos are currently working to reduce their food waste by 20 percent by 2025 and to increase the use of the school garden's on-site composting center.
12. American University — Score 76.53 | Washington, DC
AMERICAN UNIVERSITY EMPHASIZES THE IMPORTANCE OF ALTERNATE TRANSPORTATION DURING ITS ANNUAL TRANSPORTATION FAIR. HERE, A STUDENT SUSTAINABILITY EDUCATOR DEMONSTRATES HOW TO PUT A BIKE ON THE FRONT OF A BUS. AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
American University achieved carbon neutrality last spring (two years ahead of schedule) with help from its seven on-campus solar arrays, several off-site arrays, and a unique portfolio of carbon credit purchases. At home in DC, the Eagles plant trees to offset commuting emissions; at the school's study-abroad hub in Kenya, AU provides communities with efficient cookstoves to help offset students' air travel. Through AU's film program, many students create and showcase environmental documentaries. The school recently acquired a Virginia farm in hopes of offering students opportunities to study sustainable agriculture while developing farm-to-table cafeteria menus.
11. Sterling College — Score 76.86 | Craftsbury Common, Vermont
STERLING COLLEGE STUDENTS PREP SEED POTATOES FOR PLANTING WHILE A CLASS PREPARES A HUGELKULTURE BED, A PERMACULTURE TECHNIQUE FOR MAKING A RAISED BED (BACKGROUND). STERLING COLLEGE
At Sterling, where most students labor on farms and forestlands in exchange for tuition (and produce upwards of 30 percent of food served on campus), the focus is on how best to steward working landscapes. So it's fitting that students are putting Wendell Berry's writing to work through a new partnership with the Berry Center, located in the author-activist's native Henry County, Kentucky. Each semester, students have opportunities to go south and help cultivate a different landscape. Meanwhile, Sterling faculty is developing curricula for Kentuckians seeking to implement holistic and sustainable farm plans. Back in Vermont, students are learning the craft of woodworking using ecologically harvested timber at Sterling's new Rural Arts Center.
10. Middlebury College — Score 76.99 | Middlebury, Vermont
THE KNOLL, MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE'S GARDEN, IS HOME TO VEGETABLE AND FLOWER PRODUCTION, AN OUTDOOR OVEN, RESEARCH, MINDFULNESS TRAINING, AND MORE. MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE
After reaching its carbon neutrality goal in December 2016, the overachievers of Middlebury were hungry for more. In January, the Panthers broke ground on a Sustainability Solutions Lab designed to source students' most innovative ideas—for ways the school could source 100 percent renewable power by 2028, for instance—and to teach them how to seek support, calculate risks, and navigate the administrative challenges of effecting change. This year, Middlebury conducted an ecological assessment of its 6,000+ acres of forestland to account for flora and fauna as well as the lands' cultural/anthropological value and recreational and aesthetic bona fides.
9. California State University, Chico — Score 78.00 | Chico, California
ANGELICA RODRIGUEZ COLLECTS WATER SAMPLES FOR HER CHICO STEM CONNECTIONS COLLABORATIVE SUMMER RESEARCH PROJECT. JASON HALLEY
One of 12 founding signatories of 2007's American Colleges & Universities Climate Commitment, Chico State has since reduced its emissions by more than a third, constructed seven (and counting) LEED-certified buildings, and initiated an Eco Resident Certification for dorm dwellers who live lightly. Through 14 courses, Chico State's Resilient Cities Initiative has involved students in assessing the community's transportation infrastructure, urban tree cover, and luminescence, with the goal of making recommendations—such as solar roadways and expanded bike lanes—to government planners. For the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, students and faculty partner with farmers in California's Sacramento Valley to research tilling practices, methane capture and other means of sequestering carbon.
8. Seattle University — Score 78.410 | Seattle, Washington
SEATTLE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS AND STAFF SORT ONE DAY'S WORTH OF TRASH AT THE ANNUAL GARBOLOGY EVENT. SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Seattle U students put the fossil fuel divestment challenge to their administration six years ago and never piped down. As a result, the trustees are on track to approve divestment this fall. The very edible campus has been pesticide-free since 1979, and its 50-acre urban wildlife sanctuary is designed to attract birds with lush, native flora. Every other year, the Redhawks host an environmental justice summit, which this year will ignite student and faculty activism around restoring the nearby Duwamish River, Washington's most industrialized waterway. Seattle U is working to become carbon negative by 2020.
7. University of Massachusetts, Amherst — Score 79.076 | Amherst, Massachusetts
NEARLY 45 TONS OF PRODUCE ARE GROWN ANNUALLY ON THE STUDENT FARM. UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS, AMHERST
The home of New England's largest campus solar installation is synthesizing its 400-plus environment-related courses into a new School of Earth and Sustainability, which will make eco-oriented resources, opportunities, and faculty more accessible while promoting collaboration across departments. All students and faculty can apply for support from the Sustainability Innovation and Engagement Fund. The fund helps underwrite an annual New2You back-to-school sale of recycled dorm wares, a student-run sustainable vineyard, and an organic CSA program.
6. Dickinson College — Score 80.676 | Carlisle, Pennsylvania
STUDENTS INVOLVED IN THE HIVE BUILD AND IMPROVE NATIVE BEE HABITATS ON AND OFF CAMPUS. DICKINSON COLLEGE
This past year, Dickinson not only broke ground on a new LEED Platinum–certified dorm but also launched a Residential Life Sustainability Program. Students attend sessions on sustainable cooking and shopping, water and energy conservation, and transportation. Dickinson also launched a beekeeping cooperative, modeled after its seven-year-old campus bike co-op, that has students tending pollinator gardens and crafting balms, soaps, and candles that they gift to the larger community. Thanks to a three-megawatt solar array that went online in August, Dickinson is on track to meet its 2020 carbon-neutrality goal.
5. Arizona State University — Score 81.043 | Tempe, Arizona
ASU AND LOCAL UTILITY VOLUNTEERS PLANT TREES IN PHOENIX FOR CARBON OFFSETS.ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY
Even with a record 100,000-plus students enrolling this fall, ASU keeps getting cooler by the year. There are incentives for athletic teams to earn Sustainable Sports Certifications and for research units to become official Green Labs. ASU just approved a carbon-neutral policy for new buildings as well as a novel Carbon Project fund that will be supported by contributions to offset faculty and student air travel. The Carbon Project will pay for programs such as planting trees in the low-income heat islands of sprawling Phoenix, planting an on-campus "carbon sink" forest, and electrifying the university's car fleet.
4. Colorado State University — Score 81.22 | Fort Collins, Colorado
CSU WAS DESIGNATED A PLATINUM-LEVEL BICYCLE FRIENDLY UNIVERSITY BY THE LEAGUE OF AMERICAN BICYCLISTS. COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY
Colorado State offers more than 800 sustainability-related courses. This year, the Rams got a new football stadium, and students rallied to assemble a zero-waste team of volunteers tasked with schooling sports fans on what's recyclable, compostable, and landfill bound. Thanks to students' activism, the university also adopted a fair-trade-preferable purchasing policy: Unlike most state universities, which are required to take the lowest bid, CSU now will weigh environmental and labor factors in all buying decisions.
3. University of Connecticut — Score 81.765 | Storrs, Connecticut
THE HUSKY MASCOT DECKED OUT FOR WOMEN'S BASKETBALL GREEN GAME DAY. UNIVERSITY OF CONNECTICUT
The only university to attain Green Restaurant Certification for all eight of its dining halls, UConn offers food that is 47 percent organic or locally sourced, and all food waste gets hauled to an anaerobic digester. It's part of the Huskies' plan to become carbon neutral by 2050 and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, from a 2007 baseline, by 2020. But UConn's greenness isn't merely top-down. The largest extracurricular club is the Eco Huskies: students who sort trash at games, perform green audits on campus, and operate a recycling patrol and a clothing swap.
2. University of New Hampshire — Score 84.3029 | Durham, New Hampshire
UNH STUDENTS REMOVE INVASIVE BUCKTHORN ON CAMPUS.UNIVERSITY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
The home of the nation's oldest endowed sustainability office embeds ecology into nearly all of its academic offerings. UNH has the very first eco-gastronomy major as well as a dual major that allows students to study sustainability through the context of, say, economics or Spanish. The Wildcats, who made an impressive 18-spot leap in our rankings this year, pipe methane from a landfill to campus, thus supplying 85 percent of campus energy needs. Considering UNH's on-campus Amtrak stop, organic dairy farm, and food-waste-reduction system through which water is extracted from dining hall leftovers to be recycled before the food waste gets composted, eco-stewardship is clearly integral to the school's ethos.
1. (TIE) University of California, Irvine — Score: 714.66 | Irvine, California
KATHERINE MACKEY (TOP), CLARE BOOTHE LUCE ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF EARTH SYSTEM SCIENCE, CONSULTS WITH DOCTORAL RESEARCHER RAISHA LOVINDEER. STEVE ZYLIUS / UCI
In its ninth year among Sierra's 10 coolest colleges, UCI leapt seven spots—thanks in part to net-zero-emission housing construction and a pioneering power-to-gas hydrogen-pipeline injection project in which solar power generated on campus is converted into hydrogen and inserted into the Anteaters' gas supply, creating a partially decarbonizing effect. Last year, undergrads in the College of Sustainability compiled a climate-friendly cookbook, and other students developed a program to encourage broader bicycle use.
1. (TIE) Green Mountain College — Score: 745.80 | Poultney, Vermont
GREEN MOUNTAIN COLLEGE STUDENTS WORKING ON RIVERINE FLOODPLAIN FOREST RESTORATION PLANT AN AMERICAN ELM ALONG VERMONT'S POULTNEY RIVER. GREEN MOUNTAIN COLLEGE
The second college in the nation to reach carbon neutrality is aggressively working toward a new goal of powering its campus solely via renewable energy by 2020—with help from a student-initiated biomass facility and the purchase of carbon offsets from a landfill-gas-capture project. GMC has also tweaked its eco-centric core curriculum to better account for economic and environmental justice issues. New practicums have students examining the nexus of hunger, food, and homelessness in New York City and decorating the campus with a series of "What Is Social Sustainability?" posters.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Aaron Teasdale
"There's snow up here, I promise," I assure my son Jonah, as we grunt up a south-facing mountainside in Glacier National Park in July. A mountain goat cocks its head as if to say, "What kind of crazy people hike up bare mountains in ski boots?" He's not the only one to wonder what in the name of Bode Miller we're doing up here with ski gear.
Our day began at Logan Pass, the high point of the park's famed Going to the Sun Road, where plows work for months to carve a byway through walls of deep snow. By July that snow has melted into a predictable patchwork, and even on the highest summits the south slopes are bare. As Jonah and I set out from the parking area on skis, tourists raise their phones to take pictures of the spectacle while children from warmer climes throw snowballs.
An hour later the crowds are far behind us as our snow patches run out and we arrive at the foot of a south-facing mountainside and remove our skis. A bare-chested man with a vigorous hiking stride looks up the daunting pitch above us. Our plan to ascend it, he opines, "sounds like a lot of work."
Despite my confident response to Mr. Bare Chest, I'm secretly worried. There's a fine line between passing on your love of the mountains to your kids and alienating them by pushing them too far. Jonah is 15 and a high school athlete. He can handle this. I hope.
But so far he's a bit morose in that dispiriting way particular to teenagers, so I offer him the option of turning around and doing something easier in the tourist zone. To my pleasant surprise he opts for the bigger, much more challenging adventure. So we lash our skis to our packs, find one of Glacier's many informal climber's trails, and begin our climb into the world of mountain goats and summer snow.
Hours later we gain a knife ridge at 8,000 feet. Sharp peaks laced with waterfalls spear the sky in every direction. The northern side of the mountain drops steeply into a sheltered alpine bowl harboring a thick snowpack. "Told ya we'd get to snow!" I exclaim to Jonah—who is focused on trying to communicate telepathically with the mountain goats lounging on the snowfield.
Below us stretches a beautiful, wild ski run of 1,000 vertical feet. Its high alpine fastness makes it virtually unreachable in winter, but its shady northern aspect in a sheltered cirque preserves it for a fine run in July. We strap on helmets and click into our skis. The slope is steep enough that only the beginning is visible before it plummets away out of sight.
I tell Jonah to follow my line closely, as there are rock bands, small crevasses and other hazards to avoid. After I take a couple turns to test the snow, which has an amenable surface perfectly softened by the day's sun, I tell him to drop in behind me. He's on my old skis, which are a bit long, but he carves his way down the mountainside like he's been doing it all his life. Which is probably because he has.
His father is what you could call a skiing addict. Nothing mainlines joy for me like the wild poetry of gliding down snowy mountainsides, and I've tried to instill proper values in my two sons. If it snows more than six inches, abandoning school for a ski day is optional; more than 10 inches and it's mandatory.
But it wasn't until well into adulthood that I realized you needn't put skis away when winter ends. It started with May. I figured out that even by that late date, snow sticks to high mountains and provides stable glissè opportunities on steep slopes that would be too perilous in avalanche-prone mid-winter. From there, it was only a matter of time until I found myself skiing in the first days of June, when most people are gardening. But making the jump to true summer skiing took a bit longer because, well, snow is harder to find in summer.
Then a friend who's a backcountry skiing guide showed me the hidden side of Glacier's Logan Pass and began inviting me on adventures into remote places that involved fording creeks with skis on our backs and other alpine shenanigans. As you might imagine, we were always the only people back there. Which was all I needed. Wilderness exploration with glorious ski runs far from madding crowds? Sold.
Soon I was exploring the Northern Rockies' other hotbed of summer skiing, the Beartooth Mountains on the Wyoming-Montana border. I heard stories of people doing the same in the Cascades, Rocky Mountain National Park, and California's Mount Shasta. Many of them are part of an ever-growing tribe of year-round skiers—calendar-obsessed souls who've vowed to ski at least once in every month of the year. I now have multiple friends who've been doing so for over 10 years. From them I've learned of the ever-more esoteric locales they use for August and September runs, shadowy creases and perennial snowfields hanging in alpine basins. I'm not quite there yet—I'm loathe to let things like calendars and clocks dictate my agenda. But I no longer think they're crazy. Summer skiing, it seems now, is little more than a day hike in the mountains with a more elegant route back down.
Jonah is all smiles as we fill our water bladders from a snowmelt creek at the bottom of our first run. From there we have another big climb up a steep slope of loose rock. Again I'm worried it might break his effervescent spirit. But letting him choose our climbing route and lead the way imbues him with newfound energy. Although we've been clambering around for at least six hours, he moves up the rough terrain with enthusiasm and we chatter cheerfully without pause.
It's a perfect example of what happens when you bring kids into the wilderness: Removed from civilization's coddling hands, young people perk up, sensing they have only themselves and their companions to rely on. Give them responsibility and that sense of wild agency crystalizes and before you know it, you've got an adventurer on your hands. At least that's what it felt like watching Jonah scramble up that mountainside as if the mountain goats had passed on to him some secret caprine wisdom.
We high-five at the top where the world opens up again. Logan Pass sprawls below us, tourists marching in a line like ants up the snow-covered boardwalk. There's another long ski run at our feet and more tourists will stop and point and take pictures as we carve our way down it, marveling at the crazy people skiing in mid-July. I marvel, too, as I watch Jonah gleefully and even expertly soar down the mountain below me. It's then that I realize that I've been wrong to think that nothing brings me joy like skiing. I now know that nothing brings me joy like watching my son ski a wild mountainside—and then plunging down behind him.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Alison Cagle
Call it the "People's Climate March, Part III." On Saturday, Sept. 8, thousands of people are expected to converge on the streets of San Francisco to demand that government leaders commit to ending all new fossil fuel projects and accelerating the move toward renewable energy. The march is part of a global campaign calling for environmental justice and a "just transition" to renewable energy that protects workers and frontline communities. Satellite events will happen across the U.S. and around the world, including Indonesia, Turkey, Nigeria and the United Kingdom, among other places.
"We're making sure that politicians see what diverse climate leadership must look like, to successfully serve the entire population of people who are actually affected by climate change," Antonio Díaz, organizational director for People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Justice (PODER), said at an Aug. 8 press conference announcing the upcoming march. Representatives from labor unions, environmental justice groups, faith alliances, and immigrant rights organizations gathered in front of San Francisco's Ferry Building to deliver an unequivocal message: Climate justice cannot wait for a new administration in Washington, DC. Climate-related disasters are becoming the new normal, they said, and political solutions for adapting to them must include the protecting the communities most affected by disasters.
In comparison to previous Peoples Climate Marches in 2014 and 2017, a heightened sense of urgency surrounds the upcoming mobilization. The first People's Climate March took place in New York City in September 2014, on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly meetings, and marked something of a coming out party for the global climate justice movement: There were demonstrations in 162 countries, and the presence of some 400,000 people on the streets of Manhattan blew away organizers' expectations. The following year was full of heady expectations. Pope Francis published his landmark encyclical on the moral obligation of protecting communities from climate change, "Laudato Si" (Latin for "Praised Be," from a prayer by the pope's namesake, the patron saint of ecology). In December 2015, leaders from around the world signed the Paris climate agreement, a historic pledge to coordinate efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "It was an exciting time for all of us," said Nana Firman, director of Muslim Outreach at GreenFaith, which has participated in all three marches, "to see leaders and communities around the world put their voices together [to say] that this is not just a political issue, but a moral and ethical issue."
By 2017, the political landscape had shifted—and not for the best. Newly inaugurated President Trump had signed an executive order rescinding the moratorium on coal mining on federal lands, and then-Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt was busy systematically trying to dismantle environmental protections at an alarming rate. On Trump's 100th day in office, tens of thousands of demonstrators united in Washington, DC for the second Peoples Climate March, to send a message to the White House and congressional leaders that any attempts to retreat from action on climate would meet stiff resistance.
Next month's march will take place under even more difficult circumstances. Even as global climate change is becoming impossible to ignore, Trump administration officials continue to deny basic climate science while enacting policies that are blatantly influenced by fossil fuel interests. The situation is grim for environmental protection: the White House has announced its intention to abandon the Paris climate agreement, the acting EPA administrator is a former coal industry lobbyist, and the Interior Secretary has opened millions of of acres of public land for oil and gas extraction.
The upcoming march is a direct response to California Gov. Jerry Brown's highly anticipated Global Climate Action Summit, which begins in San Francisco on Sept. 12 and will draw government officials, civil society representatives, and business executives from around the world. (Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a major donor to the Sierra Club, is one of the co-chairs of the summit.) The march is part hello-welcome and part political challenge as protest organizers call on Gove Brown to prohibit any new oil and gas extraction and fossil fuel infrastructure in California. Organizers are asking the outgoing governor to "set a global precedent" by phasing out oil and gas production and moving toward "a fair and equitable transition that protects workers [and] communities." Many of the environmental justice groups organizing the march have long been opposed to other Brown environmental policies such as California's greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program, which they say allows industry handouts on emissions permits while harming communities of color.
"Governor Brown's summit is a continuation of the market-based schemes that actually result in increased local pollution and emissions," said Gladys Limon, executive director of California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA). "While they purport to address the collective problems of climate change and reduce emissions in the aggregate, they continue the unconscionable practice of using [frontline communities] as sacrifices."
A key demand of the September march is for governments to create climate resilience strategies that protect frontline communities located in areas that can be disproportionately affected by climate change and yet are often without resources to rebuild after unprecedented natural disasters. Annie Dobbs-Kramer, organizer for voter engagement at North Bay Organizing Project, was shocked by the connection between limited disaster relief and communities of color, low income, and immigrant families during the Northern California wildfires of 2017. "It was really apparent how climate change-related disasters create climate refugees," Dobbs-Kramer said. "The same people who get systematically exploited on a daily basis [become] even more so during climate disasters. It was appalling to see that." Families with English as a second language had little way of knowing where to obtain basic necessities, or how to find evacuee centers; low income residents were dependent on dwindling financial services, often from nonprofit organizations instead of municipal disaster funds. "[Climate change] is crystallizing the separation between the haves and have-nots," Dobbs-Kramer said.
March organizers argue that climate policies that make concessions to fossil fuel industries in the interest of long-term gains are ultimately ineffective, if the communities who are most exposed to climate change suffer in the short-term. "We will be … in solidarity with communities across the state and around the world," said Limon of CEJA, "to challenge and expose the flawed solutions that elected officials and industry have developed. Instead we will raise our voices for community-led solutions."
The organizers of the march have a blunt message for elected officials: "See you in the streets."
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Alison Cagle
When was the last time you looked around your kitchen or bathroom for chemicals that are toxic to your health? In many households, those chemicals don't just come in the form of liquid products like pesticides or bleach. They often can be found in the most common items lying around, like frying pans used to cook up a morning egg, or in that popcorn bag heating up in the microwave. That's because a class of highly toxic, long-lasting chemicals called perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has become ubiquitous in American products.
PFAS have been used in American households since the 1950s, when it was first marketed in Teflon cookware by DuPont. Today, PFAS are added not just to nonstick pans, but also water-resistant clothing, grease-repelling fast food wrappers, stain-proof carpets, and other products. Its unusual resistance to degradation is what makes PFAS so damaging to human health and the environment: decades of study has shown that accumulation of PFAS in the bloodstream can cause various cancers and birth defects. Yet the Trump administration is reluctant to make the dangers of PFAS, and its common use, widely known to the American public.
In January, the Trump administration tried to suppress a report about PFAS that was conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (a division of the EPA)—the latest instance of the administration's predilection for scientific censorship. An internal aid stated that public knowledge of PFAS toxicity and its use in consumer goods would create "a public relations disaster." Six months later in June, the ATSDR released the report, which conclusively links PFAS to a host of harmful side effects and recommends lowering the EPA's current non-enforceable risk level to 12 parts per trillion, down from 70 ppt (about the size of a drop of water in an Olympic pool).
The report links PFAS exposure to liver toxicity, immune disruption, and developmental problems. In court cases against chemical manufacturers, plaintiffs and medical studies have also linked PFAS in drinking water to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, pancreatic cancer, and birth defects. "It's an unusual list of chemical effects," says Sonya Lunder, Senior Toxics Policy Advisor at Sierra Club. "It's hard to tie that all together—it's affecting multiple parts of the body in different ways."
Exposure to PFAS isn't only limited to household products, and its presence in drinking water has led to intense litigation. Thousands of people who live near manufacturing plants owned by companies such as 3M and DuPont have reported water toxicity levels exponentially higher than the EPA limit, often sourced from storm runoff that seeps from chemical plants into the ground—or, from illegal dumping directly into rivers and creeks. In the absence of federal regulation, numerous states have sued chemical manufacturers that produce PFAS for damages to public health and the environment. Minnesota filed a lawsuit in January against Wolverine World Wide, to recoup the cost of PFAS cleanups and municipal water installations for contaminated wells. In February, North Carolina sued Chemours, a spinoff of DuPont, for failing to take action after rainwater runoff mixed with GenX, Chemours' special group of PFAS used in Gore Tex clothing, and contaminated the Cape Fear River. In that same month, Ohio sued DuPont and Chemours for contaminating waterways with PFAS used to make Teflon, and for withholding knowledge of PFAS' dangerous side effects to the public.
These lawsuits are not without precedent, and some have already been successful. In 2017, DuPont settled a class action lawsuit in West Virginia for $671 million dollars, in reparations for 3,550 personal injury cases in the state over contaminated water and cancerous side effects. In February of this year, 3M settled a lawsuit with the state of Minnesota for $850 million, after eight years of litigation over PFAS that had leached into public drinking water as a result of making Scotchguard.
Despite these cases and the evidence they present, PFAS remains unregulated, and the path to controlling its production faces a troubling obstacle. The U.S. Department of Defense uses PFAS as a critical component in firefighting foam at military bases throughout the country, where it's used to put out jet fuel explosions and in demonstrations for Navy training exercises. Compounding this, the cost of waterway cleanups and carbon filtration in contaminated cities would net an estimated $2 billion—all on the Department of Defense's budget. To protect its relationship as a supplier for the DoD (and defend against the massive litigation in West Virginia), in 2001 the chemical industry created theFire Fighting Foam Coalition, a lobbying alliance of chemical manufacturers and distributors. The FFFC has spent years making persuasive presentations to the EPA and the military, arguing that PFAS are not only nonhazardous, but necessary for domestic security.
Today, 99% of Americans are predicted to have PFAS in their bloodstream, where it is passed on to newborn babies. The Environmental Working Group estimates that more than 1,500 drinking water systems across the country, serving at least 110 million people, are contaminated with PFAS.
The solution to PFAS regulation should not hinge on the outcome of case-by-case litigation. As high as DuPont's $671 million settlement with West Virginia sounds, it was a drop in the bucket compared to the company's $79.5 billion revenue for the year of 2017. Regulating PFAS by individual chemical, and not class, is also untenable: GenX was created by DuPont directly in response to the EPA banning production of PFOA, the main chemical in Teflon; the new class is just different enough from PFOA to escape regulation, but with all the same side effects. "PFAS has to be regulated as a group; we can't just ban one or two chemicals, and watch the industry shift to another similar one," says Lunder. "We need to stop all unnecessary uses of these chemicals in new products. It's not for [city and state] water districts to go bankrupt cleaning up the water[of contaminated regions]."
One step to fighting PFAS production is to raise awareness in communities where chemical manufacturing plants are, and to ensure that the public has legal representation to fight back— and demand that elected officials prevent chemical companies from producing it in their state. Sierra Club is working with environmental lawyers and county officials in North Carolina, Colorado, and other states where PFAS are produced, with the aim of ensuring that every affected citizen is aware of and armed against the toxic secret living in their environment.
"We are taking the veil of secrecy off this," says Lunder. "Facilities need to be reporting their PFAS use and emissions into the environment. Pollution is profitable, but [with the] price tag of these cleanups, it's not viable."
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Kelly Kizer Whitt
August is the time to sit back, relax and enjoy the free show overhead.
The Perseid meteor shower is one of the most prolific annual meteor showers and the only one that occurs in the summer. The Perseids can produce up to 100 meteors an hour at their peak, which is around Aug. 11/12. Skies will be nice and dark thanks to a new moon on Aug. 11, which will make it easier to see even the faintest streaks. Find a location away from trees, buildings and light pollution, and look up to catch the fast-moving meteors as they burn up upon contact with our atmosphere. These meteors come from the Great Comet of 1862, Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle.
Parade of Planets
A sky full of planets continues to entertain us in August. The brightest and closest planet, Venus, drops low in the west and sets not long after sunset. Jupiter trails behind Venus in the southwest, setting four hours after sunset at the beginning of the month and disappearing more quickly by the end. Venus mingles with the moon on Aug. 13 and 14, and Jupiter gets a visit from the moon on Aug. 16 and 17.
Saturn is low in the south, floating before the stars of the Milky Way. The Ringed Planet lies in Sagittarius, close to some stunning star clusters and nebulae. The moon will come into the picture on Aug. 20, brightening the Milky Way environs, so try a couple days before or after this date if you want to hunt down deep-sky delights near Saturn.
Mars reached opposition in late July, one of its closest approaches to Earth in a number of years. The bright, reddish-orange color of the planet should still be unmistakable in the south-southeast. A planet-wide dust storm has been extinguishing our view of features of the Red Planet, but during calmer weather it's possible to spy white wisps of polar caps and clouds on the Martian planet through backyard telescopes. The moon passes Mars on Aug. 22 and 23, and it hits full phase on Aug. 26 at 4:56 a.m. PDT. August's full moon is sometimes called the Sturgeon Moon.
Double Transit on Jupiter
Get out your telescope or binoculars on Aug. 23 to catch the double shadow transit on Jupiter. The timing of the event will depend on your location, so start looking after it gets dark to see if the eclipse is already in progress or about to begin. The dark shadows of Io and Europa will pass in front of Jupiter over the course of more than an hour. The first shadow to enter onto Jupiter is Io's, while the one that tags behind is Europa's. Look for the four Galilean moons arrayed out to one side of the planet. Callisto is farthest away with Ganymede near it. Close in to Jupiter are Europa and then Io, which is the closest of all. If you are able to watch early enough, you'll get to see Europa and then Io appear off the limb of the planet after they have passed in front of Jupiter.
A partial solar eclipse is on tap for August, but it can only be seen from northern Asia and Europe. The next eclipse that will be visible to viewers in the U.S. is a total lunar eclipse in January.
Chance at a Comet
It's 4 a.m. in early August and you can't sleep. What to do? Grab a pair of binoculars, go outside before the sun rises, and find the northeastern horizon. Look to see if the constellation Gemini has emerged above the horizon yet (actual time of rising depends on your location). If you aren't familiar with Gemini and its bright "twin" stars, look for the better-known constellation of Orion rising in the east and then scan the horizon to the left (north) until you see the bright pair of stars, one above the other. From August 4 to 6, a brightening comet known as C/2017 S3 PanSTARRS will be traveling between the top star, Castor, to the bottom star, Pollux. If the comet increases in brightness as predicted, you won't even need the binoculars to see it.
The comet will stay close to the horizon, reaching perihelion on Aug. 15, when it should be at its brightest. However, a surprise outburst in July, which gave it a quick brightening and greenish hue, may have knocked the stuffing out of its August showing. Unfortunately, mid-August is also when the comet is closest to the horizon and the rising sun, which might wash out your view. But if you're awake, it's worth taking a look. Perhaps it will have another surge as it gets to within just .21 AU from the sun, a final hurrah, before it most likely disintegrates.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Jonathan Hahn
In 1991, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District launched a Spare the Air program to keep residents in the San Francisco Bay Area informed of high ozone-level days, when air is smoggy and exposure to poor air quality poses health risks. Now, the air district might need to update its alert system for something other than just ozone: antibiotic-resistant genes (ARGs).
A team of researchers from the U.S., China, South Korea, Switzerland, and France examined air samples from nearly two dozen cities, including San Francisco, Paris, Warsaw, Zurich, Beijing, Brisbane, and Seoul. They discovered airborne concentrations of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in each of the cities at varying levels, produced by concentrated animal feeding operations, hospitals, wastewater treatment plants and other sources.
Their findings indicate that antibiotic-resistant genes can spread from one bacterium to another, and that this bacteria has the ability not only to travel through the air, but to travel across continents, even across the globe—exposing millions of people to antibiotic-resistant genes whether they live in proximity to those sources or not.
"Common everyday human activities such as car traffic can kick up the bacteria and make them airborne," Dr. Maosheng Yao, a collaborating author of the study, Global Survey of Antibiotic Resistance Genes in Air, and professor of environmental sciences and engineering at Peking University, told Sierra. "Natural winds can also suspend these biologicals into the air."
For wastewater treatment, there is an aeration process that can make biologicals airborne. They are prevalent in areas where human consumption of antibiotics is widespread, such as in hospitals, or where agricultural practices rely heavily on the use of antibiotics.
San Francisco topped the list of the cities with the highest readings of antibiotic-resistant genes in the air.
"We used a novel protocol to get enough air samples from different world cities," Yao told Sierra. "That way we could tell where there were significant differences in levels of ARGs."
The report was published July 25 in Environmental Science & Technology.
Air quality indexes that evaluate how safe the air is to breathe focus on ozone, particulate matter (PM) such as the noxious pollutants emitted from power plants, carbon monoxide and other factors. Those indexes do not include information about antibiotic-resistant genes.
Yet a growing body of research increasingly points to pharmaceutically-polluted environments in cities worldwide, not just involving water or soil pollution, but air pollution as well. According to the new report, airborne pathogens in hospital environments have been found to be multidrug-resistant; indoor air samples taken in communities near animal-farming operations, where the use of antibiotics on animals is widespread, have been found to be rife with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
For the latest study, Yao and collaborating researchers profiled 30 known genes that are resistant to common antibiotics, including tetracyclines and amingoglycosides, and examined air samples in 19 cities in 13 countries, each with different climate zones. To get their results, researchers employed an automobile air conditioning filter method to collect samples.
Beijing was found to have the highest complex mix of ARGs, with up to 18 different subtypes detected in the air. The most commonly detected antibiotic-resistant genes in all 19 cities were those with a resistance to β-lactams and quinolone antibiotics, with the highest prevalence found in San Francisco, which Yao speculated could indicate heavy use of antibiotics in hospitals there without the proper systems in place to control for airborne emission. The most powerful antibiotics on the market, which are supposed to be reserved for only the most serious medical cases, were detected in six of the 19 cities.
One of the most surprising discoveries from the study, Yao said, was the low level of ARGs in Hong Kong, possibly attributable to that city's high humidity level.
Infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria including gonorrhea and MRSA pose a significant public health risk, with growing fears of the rise of so-called "super bugs." Public health warnings such as from the CDC often focus on the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, providing guidance on the most appropriate practice for prescribing and consuming those drugs.
These sources, however, provide little to no guidance around the possibility of exposure to antibiotic-resistant genes in the air.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Jason Mark
Normally, a writer writes to reach an audience. But what I'm about to tell you, I want you to keep just between us, OK? Whatever you do, don't email this article to your friends, don't share it on Facebook, and please don't post it on Twitter. Because I'm going to let you in on one of the San Francisco Bay Area's best-kept backpacking secrets, and I want to keep it that way.
The place I'm going to tell you about is big enough, and still wild enough, to accommodate a week-long backpacking trip. It's a landscape that's textbook California savanna—a terrain of mammoth black oak and valley oak that, in the springtime, explodes into wildflower fireworks. And—best of all—it's a place that you can get to in a relatively painless two-hour drive from San Francisco or Oakland.
I'm talking about Henry Coe State Park, the largest state park in Northern California. At 88,000 acres, it's about 25 percent larger than Point Reyes National Seashore, but it hosts a tiny fraction of the estimated 2.5 million visitors who travel to the national seashore every year. It's also stupid-close to the mish-mash of freeway mazes and sprawl that make up most of the Bay Area. As the crow flies, the park is a scant 35 miles from the Apple headquarters in Cupertino.
All of which makes Henry Coe the perfect escape. Once you get there, you'll feel far away—even if you're still close to home.
I should say that if you're the kind of backpacker who hungers for epic alpine vistas or the sharp beauty of the desert, you may at first be disappointed by Henry Coe. There's little grandeur there. No big peaks or stunning buttes, no rough rivers or knock-you-on-your-ass tall trees. It's a place of subtle charms. With its broad sweeps of tall grass and swooning oak trees, Henry Coe feels like it's ripped from a John Steinbeck novel, the epitome of Old California. The place is merely pretty—but after weeks stuck in the city or the 'burbs, pretty is more than enough.
At a good half mile above sea level, this northernmost outpost of the Diablo Range has a lushness unusual for Californian savanna. Gray pines are scattered among all of the oak trees. There are ponderosa, including a few giants that seem like they've been transplanted from the kneecaps of the Sierra Nevada. Coyote Creek, one of the park's main arteries, manages to flow even through the dusty days of August and September.
Then there are the flowers—my God, the flowers. My field guide, Wildflowers of Henry Coe State Park, features 67 species. If you time your visit for late winter or spring, you'll be gobsmacked by the chaos of colors: blue lupine, pink and red paintbursh, football field lengths of orange poppy, crimson columbine, yellow fiddlenecks arching their heads above the grasses like herds of giraffe. There's purple everywhere: purple owl's clover, purple shooting stars (two different types), purple clarkia.
You've got a good chance of seeing some wildlife. Henry Coe's usual critters are common: deer and coyotes, flocks of turkeys zigzagging through the understory. If you behave yourself (that is, if you're practiced at being still) you might catch something more elusive. Once, I spotted a red fox, jumping through the beam of my head lamp. On another trip, I came across a bobcat, right in the middle of the trail. During a New Year's solo trip, I saw a feral hog above Coit Lake. It was the size and color of a wine barrel, tearing up a hillside with the speed of an NFL linebacker.
If you really want to play with solitude, Henry Coe will demand some work. Anything within a day's hike of the visitor center at Coe Ranch is reliably busy with day-trippers, crews of college backpackers, and mountain bikers a'shredding. (Many of the park's trails are old ranch roads, broad and with a brutal grade, which makes them popular with the two-wheelers.) But if you go farther afield, it gets lonely quick enough. Few folks make it out to the Orestimba Wilderness, a 22,000-acre state wilderness punctuated by the impressive chert outcropping of the "Rooster Comb," where miles-long groves of blue oak cast their candelabra arms skyward. I doubt more than a dozen people a year make it to the old corral below Bear Spring.
Did I mention that if you live in the Bay Area, Henry Coe is ridiculously easy to get to? The proximity is the point. Often as not, the backyard beats the bucket list destination. I've backpacked through Henry Coe nearly 10 times, and its lack of pretension has grown on me. At this point, it seems like an old friend.
I'd encourage you to start planning your route. Just remember: You didn't hear this from me.
Follow in the Writer's Footsteps
Where: Henry Coe State Park. Take California Highway 101 to the city of Morgan Hill and exit at East Dunne Avenue. Follow Dunne Avenue eastward, and follow the park signs up into the hills.
Best Time to Visit: Spring is the most popular season for visiting Henry Coe, on account of the explosions of wildflowers. If you want to beat the crowds, consider visiting in winter, when the grasses are typically green and lush and the temperatures still relatively mild. The park can be punishingly hot and dry in the summer, and water difficult to come by.
Backcountry Hack: Each spring, the park hosts what it calls "Backcountry Wilderness Weekend," when park staff and volunteers from the Pine Ridge Association organize a shuttle system along the old ranching roads to establish a temporary trailhead on the east side of the park, affording hikers and equestrians easy access to the Orestimba Wilderness. Downside: The typically quite-far reaches of the park become packed with people. Upside: It's a good way for families to get to places like the Rooster Comb, which requires at least two days of hard trekking to reach.
Bring Your Fishing Pole: If you're an angler, consider bringing your pole. There's good fishing—bass, crappie and sunfish—at Coit Lake and Mississippi Lake. But both lakes are fringed with thick stands of tule reeds, so getting to a good place to cast requires some bushwhacking.
Pro-tip—Brave the Narrows: Many backpackers or hikers seeking to get from the park headquarters to the eastern side of the park will avoid the narrow gulch of Coyote Creek marked on the map as "The Narrows" and will instead take the punishing ranching roads up and over the ridges. But if you're a half-experienced trekker, you should brave the Narrows (unless it's after a big rain). Between Poverty Flat Campground and China Hole you'll be rewarded with a sycamore-strung single-track free of mountain bikers. In the spring, the pools between China Hole and Los Cruceros are often filled with various species of duck.
More Information: The Pine Ridge Association website offers more detailed visitor information than the official park site.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Stacey McKenna
I'm sitting on a ridge at 9,000 feet, overlooking the world's largest alpine valley. The mid-June sun drops behind a nearby cliff band and the clouds shift, leaving errant rays of light shimmering in the passing agricultural vehicles' dust trails. Behind me, a fence blocks access to a yawning hole—the entrance to the decades-defunct Orient iron mine—from which tens of thousands of bats should start emerging any minute now.
I love being in the humbling expanse of the San Luis Valley. Its conservation-focused ethos gives me hope at a time when optimism often feels foolish. Tucked into the western foothills of southern Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountain range since 2001, the nonprofit Orient Land Trust has labored to preserve this valley's pieces of human history, push for sustainable farming, and protect habitat for several species of animals, including the massive colony of bats that take over the abandoned Orient Mine each summer.
"What is that smell?" asked my husband Mike, approaching my perch from a patch of scrub oaks. I look around, shrug. Then, the ammonia hit my nostrils.
Scott, our guide for the night—and an amateur biologist and volunteer with the OLT—quickly pipes in, explaining that that the odor, which is reminiscent of a pit toilet and comes in waves over the next hour or so, is simply guano. In preparation for the night's hunt, bats void their bladders and bowels before taking flight. Any minute now, Scott said they should start the flight out, so I lean back, watch the sky turn pink and wait, listening to chirps of swooping swallows, yips of distant coyotes, and the excited chatter of 23 human strangers, all here for the same show.
It starts suddenly: A stream of Brazilian free-tail bats (pictured, right, courtesy of iStock/the4js) splits the sky above my head. And as people's voices fall away, the only sound left is the river of wings. Throughout the night, they'll dine on moths, beetles, and other insects that inhabit the valley's agricultural wetlands and nearby hot springs. The critters weigh roughly half an ounce and have wingspans averaging 13 inches. Since this particular roost is composed mostly of males who have temporarily separated from larger colonies of females, most of whom are busy lactating and rearing their newborn pups, it's considered a bachelor colony. Females give birth in June, and since males don't help raise their young, they typically split off during this period. The Orient Mine bachelors' counterpart maternity colony summers further south, in New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns
In fact, The Orient Mine hosts not only the largest bachelor colony of Brazilian free-tail bats in North America (interestingly, bachelor colonies are typically much smaller, numbering in the hundreds or low thousands), but also the highest in terms of elevation. The migratory mammals have been spending summers here since at least the 1960s. They usually arrive from Mexico in mid-June and return south via Carlsbad Caverns by the end of September, but this year's exceptionally dry, relatively warm winter brought them early, and in unofficial but unprecedentedly high numbers.
As soon as we left our camper in Moffat, Colorado's Valley View Hot Springs and set out on the trail that climbs 700 feet to the Orient Mine, Mike and I began noticing plenty of evidence of the region's chronic aridity and acute drought—the valley saw less than half its usual snowfall this winter, and the Rio Grande is running at 20 percent of its 120-year average. Early summer in the San Luis Valley is usually wildflower season, but the only visible blooms, pale yellow ones, unfurled from the prickly pear cacti at my ankles. As we hiked, the rain clouds we saw streaking black over the valley provided a guessing game: Were they scattered thunderstorms? Or (more likely) signs of virga, a form of precipitation that reaches toward but never quite touches the earth?
About a third of the way into the hour-long hike, the main trail veered right and massive piles of rust-colored tailings came into view. From 1880 until its closing in 1932, the Orient Mine produced two million tons of limonite and supported more than 400 people. Cutting through the piñon-juniper forest, smaller paths lead to old foundations and rusted barrels—the ruins of Orient Town.
The bats were first recorded in the Orient Mine about 35 years after extraction operations ceased. Ever since, they've been roosting throughout the small caverns that shoot off from the main cave, where temperatures stay consistently cool and the labyrinth provides shelter from potential predators. The bats' nightly hunts, coupled with the valley's dry climate and bitter winters, reduce the need here for agricultural pesticides.
According to OLT Executive Director Doug Bishop, the 2,200-acres it protects are home to common Colorado wildlife such as weasels, elk, and pronghorn, as well as two threatened species of fish—the Rio Grande Chub and the Rio Grande Sucker. Near the hot springs, the humidity and warm waters create a microclimate that supports a rare mountain orchid, a hot springs endemic snail, and one of Colorado's few populations of fireflies. The organization encourages responsible stewardship of this fragile, high desert environment. Beyond teaching visitors about the bats at Orient Mine, they operate the cabins and campground at Valley View Hot Springs using hydroelectric power, and lead educational hikes and programs at Everson Ranch—a nearby historic homestead where the OLT runs sustainable agricultural and green energy projects.
As the light fades, the bats become harder to see, but I still know when they pass. Their wings move through the air like a whip when they buzz my head. It's difficult to know exactly how many leave the roost on a given night, but estimates put this colony between 100,000 and 250,000 individuals, depending on the month and year.
The bats flow from the cave for 45 minutes, almost twice as long as they will later on in the summer, as the season peters out. At first, they follow one another's echo-location, forming a tight ribbon that zooms toward the valley floor. As their numbers thin from about 100 bats per second to 40, the stream widens and they begin moving independently. "[When there are fewer bats] it's easier for them to hear the moths, so they can follow them instead of each other," said Scott. "That's why they seem more erratic."
At 9:14 pm, as suddenly as the out flight began, it's over. We pack up and don headlamps for the 1.5-mile hike back to the Valley View Hot Springs campground. Stars emerge, bright pinpricks in the inky moonless sky. After leaving our bags at the campsite, Mike and I wind through the woods to take a final soak in the hot springs, tracing steamy streams lit by fireflies that wink along their banks. As I sink into the warm water, constellations shimmer on its glassy surface, and I feel the air shudder as a bat wings past my ear.
Follow in the Writer's Footsteps
Where: The Orient Land Trust in Moffat, Colorado
Getting There: It is roughly 200 miles (about a 3.5 hour drive) from Denver to the Orient Land Trust and Valley View Hot Springs Welcome Center. From there, the hike is approximately 1.5 to 2 miles, with a 700- to 800-foot elevation gain. I recommend the free guided hikes OLT offers nightly throughout the summer (weather permitting). Valley View Hot Springs is well equipped as a home base for the hike, with cabins as well as campsites for RVs, campers and tents, but it fills up early.
Best Time to Visit: mid-June through September
Fees: The hike is free. Overnights at Valley View range from $10 per night to $75 per night, plus a $30-per-person soaking fee.
What to Wear: OLT and Valley View are clothing-optional (this goes for the hike up to Orient Mine, too). However, Colorado weather can be mercurial, and temperatures drop quickly after dark, especially at 9,000 feet, so whether you choose to wear clothes or not, bring layers for rain and warmth, plenty of sunscreen, a hat, and a headlamp for the return hike.
Respecting the Wildlife: To avoid disturbing the bats during their out flight, don't use flash for videos or photography, keep your movements calm and quiet, and speak in low voices, or not at all.
For More on Bats: Check out Sierra's most recent slideshow featuring various bat species that were photographed by veteran biologist and photographer Merlin Tuttle.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Sara Novak
You can't protect an animal that you don't know exists. Tapanuli orangutans, for example, are found only in the Tapanuli region of Sumatra; they were only identified as a species last year, when scientists found them to be genetically different from other Bornean and Sumatran orangutans. With just 800 left, this newly discovered species is the most critically endangered ape.
It's hard to believe that with only seven great ape species on the planet—Tapanuli, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos—a species could have gone undiscovered until 2017. But, in fact, new research shows that many mammals still fly under the radar.
The olinguito, a carnivorous member of the raccoon family, wasn't discovered in Colombia and Ecuador until 2013. The Burrunan dolphin was found in the waters off Australia in 2011. In a new study published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, Molly Fisher and other researchers at the University of Georgia used a predictive model to conclude that 303 mammals have yet to be discovered.
Most of these unknown mammals, the researchers found, are likely in tropical regions of the world, many of which are threatened with habitat destruction. This makes discovering them a race against time before they go extinct. "If a species goes extinct before we discover it, how can we know what went wrong? If we lose a species without knowing it existed, we lose a lot of information," said Fisher.
Fisher said that she chose to study mammals because they are the most charismatic of terrestrial species, and therefore more likely to be protected. But less glamorous creatures, like plants and arthropods, are disappearing at even faster rates than mammals, which is worrying to scientists.
"We're concerned about why extinction rates are on the rise," said Fisher. "We're losing a lot of biodiversity, most of which exists in our remaining forests in places like the Amazon." Some researchers now talk about "biological annihilation," citing cascading extinctions, dwindling population sizes, and range shrinkages among vertebrate species.
Sumatran Orangutan Conservation ProgrammeMaxime Aliaga
Fisher and her team employed scientific modeling to measure discovery and extinction rates. Without direct interaction, however, it's impossible to know whether a species has disappeared completely or just hasn't been seen in a while. This occurred recently with the Guadalupe fur seal, a species found in California and Mexico that was rediscovered after years of suspected extinction.
The model used by the University of Georgia researchers is similar to one used to predict the remaining unknown number of plant species in 2011. It was constructed by counting the total number of species discovered and described by scientists from 1760 through 2010 by five year increments. "The model utilizes a statistical technique called 'maximum likelihood,' which allows scientists to approximate the total number of species that are likely to have existed in order to produce the number of descriptions actually recorded by taxonomists, scientists who classify new species," said Fisher.
As the number of such scientists has increased, so has the number of classifications accounted for in the model. The researchers also noted "taxonomic efficiency" or how good scientists are at discovering new species. Like the Tapanuli orangutan, many species once thought to be identical are, upon closer inspection, found to be genetically distinct. Dr. Michael Krützen from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Zurich was part of the team that helped discover the Tapanuli using genomic analyses from orangutan samples. He said that Tapanuli orangutans differ significantly, most notably in tooth and skull shape, from those outside the region, because their populations had been disconnected for at least 20,000 years. But with so few of them left, it's easy to see why the species wasn't discovered until recently.
Fisher and her team approximate that 5,860 mammal species currently exist. She was surprised to find that Europe and Asia had a significant number of undiscovered mammals. The model showed that 10 percent of species in this part of the world have yet to be discovered, possibly because many are located in lightly populated Siberian regions.
7 Amazing New Fish Species Discovered in 2017 https://t.co/bgbUq28XEM @wwwfoecouk @GreenpeaceUK— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1514888706.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA magazine.