I'm looking up at the final ascent to Angels Landing in Utah's Zion National Park, trying to work up my courage to scale the Dr. Seuss–like series of sheer climbs and even sheerer drops, the canyon 1,500 feet below me on either side. My biggest fear isn't a misstep—though the highly eroded trail is coated with slippery dust—but being bumped by one of the thick crowd of hikers impatiently waiting their turn at each knife-edge passing.
Turns out I'm not the only one worried about the risks posed by crowds and erosion to Zion's famed peaks and canyons. Concerns about visitor health and safety have become so acute that the National Park Service has unveiled a proposed management action plan that includes such draconian measures as limiting the number of visitors in Zion Canyon at any one time and requiring permits for the most popular hikes.
Do you love the great outdoors? Add these 10 hikes to your #BucketList! http://t.co/UmfpwzuRuj @EcoWatch http://t.co/effkNfAQz2— Rainforest Alliance (@Rainforest Alliance)1424067317.0
"It doesn't take many people to wear sandstone back down into sand and we've seen a surge in degradation due to people disrespecting the fragile ecosystem," said Alyssa Baltrus, chief of interpretation and visitor services for Zion National Park. Among the biggest problems is "social trailing"—people making their own bypass trails when popular routes get too crowded—and cars pulling off the road into non-designated parking areas.
Zion's overcrowding crisis has been a long time coming; visitor numbers have risen year over year for decades. But for the past six years, it's been one boom year after another, with 2015 seeing a jump of more than 450,000 visitors during 2014 to a record 3.7 million. Although visitor numbers for 2016 aren't in yet, the expectation is that they'll top 4 million.
Best piece yet on Trump's Interior pick, Zinke @EcoWatch https://t.co/Pj4JYW44g1— Robert F. Kennedy Jr (@Robert F. Kennedy Jr)1481919367.0
While Zion used to be popular primarily from late spring to early fall, those seasons now extend further each year. For instance, take March, traditionally quiet because of cold and snow. This year, March visitation jumped 112 percent during 2015.
If you've been to Zion in recent years, you know the result. Parking lots fill up by 8:30 a.m., with street parking extending farther and farther back down the highway through the highly congested town of Springdale and beyond. While there's a well-run shuttle system designed to handle the overflow, the buses also fill up, with long wait times to get on and people packed together, like the subway at rush hour. Even once visitors disperse among the various park highlights, the crush of people snapping selfies at must-see spots such as the Emerald Pools can be oppressive.
The most common subject of complaints from visitors? "Other visitors," said Baltrus. Some of the most vociferous griping has been about Angels Landing and the Narrows, a spectacular hike up a slot canyon, much of which takes place while wading knee-deep in the Virgin River.
Permits are required for the 16-mile "top down" hike, but anyone can venture up the lower five-mile stretch of the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava—and they do; it's common during the high season to slosh your way upriver behind large (and often loud) groups in matching gear rented from local outfitters.
This #Pipeline Would Cut Through America's Most Celebrated Hiking Trail https://t.co/vpXWZuzDDA @Wilderness @NWF @CenterForBioDiv @NRDC— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1481998853.0
To deal with the problems, the park service has taken a series of actions over the years, from closing Zion Canyon to cars and instituting the shuttle system to adding portable toilets in the parking lots, scheduling extra end-of-day buses and expanding overflow parking.
But those are stopgap measures at best. Some strategies resulted in additional unforeseen problems. For example, in an effort to stop Angels Landing hikers from availing themselves of the natural facilities, the park service installed evaporative toilets at Scout Lookout, the final rest stop. But it miscalculated the need.
"Because of the increase in use at Scout's Lookout, the toilets quickly fill with liquid and stop effectively evaporating waste," said Baltrus. That waste must be removed by helicopter, which proved much harder to do than planned. The result: roped-off Porta-Johns reeking a few feet from picnickers. "Over the past two years, we have been asking visitors to use the restrooms at the bottom of the trail instead and only use the ones at Scout's Lookout for emergencies, but our efforts have not been very successful," she said.
In other words, the real problem remains the sheer number of people in what is a relatively small park and for that, the only solution is visitor limits. The National Park Service seems to be serious about taking what could be a first-ever step.
"A key component of this proposed action would be to directly manage visitor use levels in the park through establishment of visitor capacities," reads the Visitor Use Management Plan newsletter. "Visitor capacities, which could vary by season and/or specific areas of the park, would be established, along with implementation techniques that would directly manage the amount and time of visitor access."
More specifically, the Visitor Use Management Plan includes options such as:
- Using a timed-entry system to access the shuttle system to regulate the flow of visitors up the canyon throughout the day.
- Instituting an online advance reservation system for visitor passes.
- Requiring reservations for all campsites and eliminating the remaining first-come, first-served sites.
- Redesigning the south entrance area to prevent traffic jams, including adding a kiosk station and an express lane for those who prepaid.
- Streamlining the process to come into the canyon on foot or with a bicycle.
- Constructing a multimodal trail to encourage visitors to walk between major canyon attractions rather than take the shuttle.
- Exploring technology to prepay entrance fees prior to arrival and an automated gate pass system to facilitate entrance.
In other words, so much for spontaneity; you'll need to plan ahead if you want to see the glories of Zion Canyon between May and October.
It's not just in the canyon that crowds are a problem. Ask anyone who's sat in the snaking line of cars waiting to check out the window views from the historic Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. Every summer the lines get longer, in large part because of the need to stop two-way traffic to allow oversize vehicles like RVs to pass. One option on the table is to add an automated traffic signal; another is to restrict passage of oversize vehicles to certain times of day.
Needless to say, the more draconian options are being met with resounding no's, at least in some quarters. But regular visitors hope the changes will bring back their beloved Zion of the past. In Springfield, where residents are trapped from getting into and out of town at some times of day, change is long overdue.
The initial public comment period closed on Nov. 23 and now the difficult work of deciding among the various possible scenarios begins. But not to worry if you haven't had your say yet. In the spring, the National Park Service will unveil its recommendations and then invite further comments.
"The potential actions are all possibilities that came from the initial community meetings and they're there to generate further discussion and to inspire people to think of other ideas," said Baltrus. "The more input and ideas we get at this point in the process, the better the alternatives will be."
Got your own idea for how to save Zion from being loved to death? Get ready to speak up.
Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
By Sarah McColl
I was on a bright, brisk winter walk recently in my Brooklyn neighborhood when I saw a folksy hand-painted sign lashed to a chain-link fence: "Organic Christmas trees." It was like learning I'd been singing the wrong Bon Jovi lyrics for 20 years, another recent revelation. My Christmas tree needs to be organic too?
Or does it?
The answer is a little nuanced, but the short version is yes.
"As with food, local and organic is best," The Nature Conservancy advises for your tree choice. Conventionally grown Christmas trees present the same problems as the "Dirty Dozen," the Environmental Working Group's annual list of pesticide-tainted produce: To keep trees looking lush, Christmas tree farms use chemical sprays to control pests and farmers use the pesticide Roundup to control weeds.
"A lot of stuff growers are using can't be used in the home anymore and you can't wash a tree off like a tomato," said John Kepner, the project director at Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit group in Washington.
But we also don't eat Christmas trees and no studies have been conducted to see if the boughs still have pesticides on them at the time of harvest. By the time the tree stands in your living room, pesticides shouldn't be a cause of concern, according to Chal Landgren, a Christmas tree specialist at Oregon State University, who said the amount of residue at that point is minimal.
Pesticides inside the Yule log may not be an issue, but toxins trickling into the watershed where the trees are grown is another story. In Oregon, the nation's leading Christmas tree producer, more than 6 million trees are harvested every year; most of those farms are concentrated along the Clackamas River watershed. Since 2005, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has monitored pesticide levels and found many to be exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency benchmarks, including at least two used by the Christmas tree industry. It's one reason Landgren helped develop the Socially & Environmentally Responsible Farm program to help teach growers how to reduce chemical use.
"It's better for the environment for the tree to be grown without pesticides," said Adam Parke, who sells organically grown Christmas trees from his Vermont farm in Brooklyn during the holidays and whose sign I saw on my walk. "It's better for the health of the growers and the people around them, and it's better for you not to bring something into your living room that has been coated with pesticides over the several years of its life. Everyone wins."
The Nature Conservancy advises looking for trees native to your region and to check farmers markets for local dealers. But a local, organic Christmas tree may be tough to find. Only 1 percent of the 33 million live Christmas trees sold each year are organic, according to Oregon State University's extension service. In that case, you're better off buying a locally farmed tree than a SERF-approved one shipped from Oregon.
Or make an outing of it and chop an always organic wild tree. Many of the public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are open to tree cutting—all you need is a $5 or $10 permit—and selective thinning is good for the health of the forest ecosystem. There's no worry of deforestation by saw-wielding Charlie Brown types yet: Only 2 percent of Christmas trees are wild-chopped. Turning it into a group outing will help reduce the carbon footprint of the jingle bell jaunt.What about a living Christmas tree that can be planted in the new year? Parke said this is only a good option for those who have the time to keep the tree healthy while it's in the house; most of them die shortly after the holidays because pine trees don't thrive in the arid, overheated environment of a house or apartment.
"Remember, though, that cut trees are farmed," he said. "They're a renewable resource like any other vegetable you use."
Every expert agrees on one thing: Don't buy a fake. (Although the reusable wooden trees available on Etsy seem a noble enough choice). The tinsel-y, oil-based plastic trees available at drugstores can't be recycled and don't decompose once chucked—a tale more befitting the saddest Radiohead song ever written than a jolly rendition of "O Christmas Tree." That's hardly befitting the spirit of the season.
Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
Embracing solar power means reducing both your reliance on traditional utility companies and your environmental footprint, but the high upfront cost of solar panels can be a big deterrent for some homeowners.
If you're considering solar, you may have questions like: How much does it cost to install a solar energy system? What are some of the factors that can impact pricing? What else should home- and business owners know about going solar? In this article, we'll touch on each of these important topics, with the goal of helping you make a fully informed, financially responsible decision about solar energy.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
How Much Do Solar Panels Cost to Install?
To begin with, let's take a look at the basic price range for solar panel installation. According to the most recent U.S. Solar Market Insight report, in the first quarter of 2021, the national average price of a residential solar system was $2.94 per watt, which would mean a 5 kWh system would cost $14,700 and a 10 kWh system would cost $29,400.
The exact price you'll pay for solar panels will depend on a number of factors, including your geographic location, the size of your home and more.
Now, you might rightly wonder: What exactly are you paying for? The solar panels themselves usually make up just about a quarter of the total cost. Remaining expenses include labor, maintenance and additional parts and components (such as inverters).
What Factors Determine Solar Pricing?
As mentioned, there are a few key things that can lead to variation in solar system installation costs. Analyzing these can help you determine whether solar panels are worth it for your home. Let's take a look at them in greater detail.
Your Electrical Needs
The solar panels themselves will be rated for a particular wattage, which reflects the amount of energy they can absorb for storage and ultimately for power generation. You will actually pay according to wattage, which means that the greater your household energy needs, the more you'll have to spend to get the correct number of solar panels.
So, how do you determine how much energy you need for your home? The best way to figure this out is through a consultation with a solar installer. (We recommend shopping smart by requesting free consultations with two or three top solar companies in your area.)
Your installer will evaluate your home energy needs based on total square footage, the number of people who live in your home, the number of appliances and power-draining devices that you have connected and more. It can then recommend the ideal solar panel system size to accommodate your energy usage.
Type of Panels and Other Components
Variation in manufacturing can also affect the cost of solar panels. There are three basic types of solar panels, two of which are commonly used residentially: monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. Of these two, monocrystalline options tend to be more energy-efficient and thus may provide you with greater savings in the long run. They are also a bit pricier on the front end. With that said, homeowners with a smaller roof surface area may benefit from getting the most efficient solar panels, even if the initial cost is a bit steeper.
Other components you'll need to purchase include inverters, wiring, charge controllers, mounts and more. The quality of these materials can affect your total solar system cost. For example, if you spring for the best solar batteries, they may add a few thousand dollars to your investment.
Another factor that can have a big impact on solar pricing? Your geographic area. Solar installation tends to be most cost-effective in parts of the country that get a lot of sun exposure, and thus a lot of photovoltaic light. This basically means that solar panels can operate more efficiently, and in many cases means that fewer total panels are needed. Those who live in states like California, Florida and Arizona — or really any areas of the Sun Belt or Southwest — will likely get the most out of their home solar power systems.
Both state and federal governments have established incentive programs to encourage homeowners to buy solar panels. There is currently a 26% federal solar tax credit, called an Investment Tax Credit (ITC), available for homeowners who install residential solar panels between 2020 and 2022. It is scheduled to reduce to 22% in 2023 and may not be extended thereafter.
Local incentives vary by state, but most of the best solar panel installers will help you identify and apply for these programs so you don't miss out on savings.
There are plenty of other factors that can impact solar panel installation costs. Different vendors are going to offer different levels of customization, expertise and consumer protections (including guarantees and warranties). The bottom line? It is wise to shop around a bit, determine the average cost of solar panels in your area and evaluate the value of services offered by a few solar installation companies.
Solar Panel Price Vs. Return on Investment
Clearly, your upfront solar panel installation cost may be a little steep. Now, let's look at the flipside: How much money will you actually save? And will your energy savings be enough to offset the initial cost of your solar energy system?
It is not unreasonable to think that you can cut your monthly utility bills by as much as 75% or more by switching to solar energy. Of course, the specific dollar amount will depend on where you live, the size of your home and the number of people in your household.
One way to look at it: The average household energy bill is somewhere between $100 and $200 monthly. It would probably take about 15 years for your energy savings to cancel out the cost of solar panel installation. In other words, within a decade and a half or so, your solar system might pay for itself. Factor in savings from tax rebates and other incentives, and most solar systems pay for themselves in closer to seven or eight years.
Note that most solar energy companies offer free solar calculators, which help you arrive at a ballpark for monthly energy savings. While these calculators are imprecise, they can certainly give you a general sense of the financial benefits you will experience when you convert to solar energy.
Free Quote: See How Much You Can Save on Solar Panels
Fill out this 30-second form to get a quote from one of the best solar energy companies in your area. You could save up to $2,500 each year on your electric bills and receive tax rebates.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Cost of Solar Panels
As you continue to weigh the pros and cons of solar energy, it's natural to have a few questions. The best way to resolve these is really to set up a solar consultation with a local expert, but in the meantime, here are a few general answers to some of the most common solar inquiries.
How much will it cost to maintain my solar energy system?
In general, solar systems are designed to run smoothly for decades without requiring any maintenance or upkeep. As such, you should not really need to factor maintenance into the equation for the first 20 years or so after you install your system. (And most solar companies will offer you warranties and guarantees to give peace of mind on this front.)
How will solar energy impact my property values?
Many homeowners want to know how going solar will impact the value of their homes. Going solar increases property values. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy has reported buyers are willing to pay an average premium of about $15,000 for a home with a solar panel system. With that said, you are only going to see your property values go up if you own your solar system outright, as opposed to leasing it.
How can I finance the cost of solar panels?
Different solar installers may offer different financing plans, allowing consumers some flexibility. With that said, there are three basic options for paying for your solar energy system:
- Purchase your solar energy system outright (that is, pay in cash).
- Take out a solar loan to purchase the system, then pay it back with interest.
- Lease your system; you will pay less month-to-month but won't actually own the system yourself.
Which is better, buying or leasing my solar system?
It all depends on your motivation for going solar. If you want to maximize long-term savings and increase the value of your home, then purchasing your solar system is usually best. However, if you just want a low-maintenance way to reduce monthly energy costs and practice environmental stewardship, then leasing might be a better option. Also note that leasing can be a good option for those who do not plan on being in their home for exceptionally long.
How can I be sure my roof will accommodate a solar system?
If your roof faces south, has ample space and has little to no shade cover, it should work just fine. Even roofs that are not optimal can still be utilized with a few tweaks and adjustments. Your solar energy consultant will advise you on whether your home is a good fit for solar energy.
How long will my solar energy system last?
Solar systems are designed to be exceptionally durable. With just the most basic upkeep, most solar energy systems should continue to work and produce power for anywhere from 25 to 35 years.
Make the Best Choice About Solar Energy
Solar energy is not right for every homeowner, nor for every home. With that said, many homeowners will find that the initial cost of solar panels is more than offset by the long-term, recurring energy savings. Make sure you factor in cost, energy needs, tax incentives, home value and more as you seek to make a fully informed decision about whether to embrace solar power.
By David Kirby
There's no doubt that melting sea ice in Hudson Bay is threatening endangered polar bears, but it might also be harmful to beluga whales, seals, narwhals and other marine mammals, scientists are warning.
Melting ice caused by climate change is carving huge swaths of open water for longer periods of time, providing Atlantic killer whales more access to the bay and its rich stocks of prey.
"There has been an increase in the duration of open water by about 35 percent in the last 10 to 15 years and killer whales can now come into the bay with little to hamper them as they move around," said David Barber, the Canada research chair in Arctic system science at the University of Manitoba.
The open-water period in Hudson Bay used to last about two months each year, Barber said, but that has been extended to three months today "and we're on our way to four, five, and six months—and it will keep increasing as climate change starts to have more and more impact in the arctic."
Barber spoke by phone from Winnipeg, where he is attending ArcticNet 2016, a weeklong conference of some 800 Canadian scientists studying physical and biological systems in the Arctic, largely driven by changes in the ice cover.
Killer whales have historically avoided areas with ice because their large dorsal fins get caught underneath before their blowholes can breathe through fractures, Barber said. But ice-adapted whales, such a belugas and narwhals, have much smaller dorsal fins and can breathe though little cracks in the ice.
Longer periods of ice coverage have always afforded protection for those animals, until weather patterns started shifting.
"If ice is in the area for long periods of time, it limits how far the killer whales can come in and how long they stay there," Barber said.
In addition to climate change, freshwater entering the bay from two hydroelectric dams that generate power in the winter may be contributing to ice loss, he said.
Each summer, thousands of belugas migrate from the Hudson Strait on the eastern side of the bay to shallow estuaries on the western shore to feed and mate. The status of the western bay population, estimated at about 57,000 or 35 percent of the world's total, was upgraded to "Special Concern" in 2004 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, because of potential threats from shipping and hydroelectric development.
Reported sightings of killer whales, especially in the western part of the bay, have skyrocketed in recent decades, although there are no precise figures on how many more orcas are now entering the huge waterway each season.
Kristin Westdal, a marine biologist for the Pew Charitable Trusts' Oceans North Canada, along with two colleagues, began interviewing hundreds of Inuit elders and hunters in 2006 about the historical presence of killer whales in the bay.
"They are a relatively new predator," Westdal said. "Reports of sightings started in the 1950s or '60s, and there's not much history prior to that."
The frequency of sightings has also increased. "Historically it was every few years and now it's every year, fairly consistently," Westdal said, adding that some of the increase in sightings might be owing to faster and larger boats that can transverse extensive stretches of the bay.
Reports of killer whales preying on belugas are also coming in.
Westdal said a large number of belugas that had been tagged at Seal River were subsequently attacked by a killer whale pod.
"The belugas were in a tight cluster at the river's mouth, and after the event they spread out along the coastline quite a ways north and then came back to their original habitat," Westdal said.
"So they're using quite a bit more of their range than we might have thought, which is important when looking at marine conservation in the region," she said. "Their core habitat is not necessarily enough to protect that species [as] this points to potential changes in distribution should killer whale attacks continue to increase."
How much of a threat do the roving orcas pose to belugas?
"It's a difficult question to answer because the population is so large," Westdal said. "If there's any effect, it's going to be something we see in the long run. Still, a pod of 10 to 12 killer whales can do a lot of damage; they can certainly take down quite a few belugas. Over time, I think we're going see some kind of changes in population and distribution."
Westdal said there should be a similar impact on seals and narwhals.
Melting sea ice in the bay may be a boon to orcas, but it can also be hazardous. In 2013, a killer whale pod was trapped when a sudden freeze turned the open water into ice.
"Orcas are brilliant, but they don't carry calendars," said Shari Tarantino, president of the Seattle-based Orca Conservancy. "As long as there is no ice building up and food to eat, they will stay in the bay longer than they should."
Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
People don't usually think about the destruction of rainforests while washing their hands, applying lipstick or doing laundry. But thanks to high demand for products containing palm oil, which is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree, consumers are inadvertently contributing to deforestation.
Companies in countries such as Indonesia burn or chop down forests to make way for palm oil plantations. The result is severe habitat loss for orangutans and other endangered creatures. Land loss to meet the high demand for palm oil also threatens indigenous tribes because of reduced hunting area. How ubiquitous is palm oil? Here are seven everyday items that contain it.
The bubbles and lather produced when you wash your hands with a bar of soap make you feel like you're getting clean, but the foaming effect is actually a result of palm oil. Palm oil produces sodium lauryl sulfate, which creates the mass of small bubbles often produced by soap.
Photo credit: iStock
Similar to the lather of soap, the foam produced when you brush your teeth with toothpaste is from the palm oil derivative sodium lauryl sulfate. As you brush, the friction causes the chemical's molecules to rub up against and cleanse your teeth.
Photo credit: iStock
Palm oil acts as a natural emulsifier that prevents the separation of oil and water in moisturizers and cosmetic products such as foundation, lipstick and mascara.
Photo credit: iStock
Manufacturers use palm oil, commonly labeled as sodium sulfate, to create a uniform density in the detergent. Want to know if your detergent contains palm oil? Look for a label marked "palm oil free" to find out.
Photo credit: iStock
Almost half of all packaged food products—including cookies, instant noodles, and pizza—contain palm oil. Used to add a creamy taste and a consistent texture, palm oil can be found on ingredient lists as vitamin A palmitate and palm kernel oil. In the United States, palm oil is required to be included on food labels regardless of whether it is blended with other oils. Countries such as Australia and China allow "vegetable oil" as a label substitute.
Photo credit: iStock
Body Wash and Shampoo
Palm oil contains tocotrienol, a member of the vitamin E family. Rich in antioxidants, it removes dirt and oil from skin, making it a common ingredient in body wash and shampoo. A majority of shampoos also contain palm oil as a moisturizer. Conscientious shoppers should avoid products containing ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulfate and palmolein.
Photo credit: iStock
The debate over whether butter or margarine is worse for your health has raged for decades, but spreading processed imitation butter may not be the smartest decision if you're trying to avoid palm oil. Palm oil is solid at room temperature and naturally free of trans fats, making it a common ingredient in margarine. Its cheap cost has led to its increased use in developing countries such as India and China.
Photo credit: iStock
Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
By Jason Best
Consumers seeking to satisfy their salty snack cravings sans genetically modified ingredients may soon have to get savvier about scouting out chips and other products made without the use of GMO potatoes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture formally approved two new types of genetically engineered potatoes.iStock
This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture formally approved two new types of genetically engineered potatoes, both of which were developed by Simplot, the Idaho-based spud giant. (A third GMO variety was previously approved by the department). Now, pending what amounts to a fairly cursory review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the company expects all three GMO strains to be available to farmers for planting next spring.
It's hardly an exaggeration to say that over the past two decades, the agriculture industry in the U.S. has wholeheartedly embraced GMO crops with gusto. Almost all of the soy and corn grown in the U.S.—upwards of 90 percent for both crops—is genetically modified. Same goes for canola. More than half of sugar beets are also grown from GMO seeds.
The same cannot be said for potatoes. Indeed, field tests of an early GMO potato variety sparked one of the first protests against the technology back in the late 1980s and the industry remained largely GMO-free. It was just last year that the potato industry began planting a GMO variety on a commercial scale, a cultivar also developed by Simplot and named White Russet.
The three new varieties—Ranger Russet, Atlantic and Russet Burbank—all follow that first generation in that they are designed to minimize bruising and black spots, as well as reduce the amount of a chemical that is potentially carcinogenic that develops when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures. The trio of 2.0 cultivars have also been engineered to resist the pathogen that causes late blight, the disease that led to the great Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century and for "enhanced cold storage," a trait that may be of particular interest to potato chip makers, according to The Associated Press.
"We obviously are very proud of these," a Simplot spokesperson told the AP. The company says it only used genes from other potatoes to create its GMO varieties, such as a gene from an Argentine potato that yields a natural defense to blight.
As agro-tech companies have done since the dawn of the GMO revolution, Simplot is touting a promise that its GMO spuds will allow farmers to dramatically reduce the amount of chemical pesticides they're forced to spray—in this case, by up to 45 percent. Maybe so. But there are signs that public skepticism against such claims is growing ever more widespread, like the fact that the damning results of a New York Times investigation published last weekend under the not-so-subtle headline Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops shot to the top of the newspaper's list of most-emailed articles.
New York Times Takes Critical Look at False Promise of GMOs https://t.co/ojJKF4jtiR @TrueFoodNow @justlabelit— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1477965307.0
The Times takes to task two of the biotech industry's dominant claims about the need for GMO crops: First, that genetic modification is essential if we're going to grow enough food to feed the planet's burgeoning population, and second, that by engineering crops to resist common pests while withstanding application of herbicides, those crops would in turn require fewer dangerous chemical inputs.
Well, it's been 20 years since Monsanto and other companies rolled out their first GMO crops on a wide scale. So how has it all worked out? The Times compared crop yields and agrochemical use in Canada and the U.S.—where, as mentioned, GMO crops are widely grown—with those in Western Europe, where greater public hostility toward the technology led to many GMO crops being banned. The investigation found farmers in North America seem to have "gained no discernible advantage in yields" through their adoption of genetically engineered crops. Yet herbicide use among U.S. farmers has risen by 21 percent; in France it has fallen by 36 percent. Although use of insecticides and fungicides has indeed dropped by a third in the U.S., it has fallen by more than double that rate in France.
New Report Busts Myth That GMOs Needed to 'Feed the World' via @EcoWatch https://t.co/kDNE9Y69Eb— Mark Hyman, M.D. (@Mark Hyman, M.D.)1475682738.0
As you might expect, the biotech industry strongly disputes the Times analysis, saying it relies on "cherry-picked data." Yet even Matin Qaim—an independent academic at the University of Göttingen in Germany whose work Monsanto and other companies often cite to buttress their claims—offered an assessment that wasn't exactly aligned with the industry's PR spin: "I don't consider this to be the miracle type of technology that we couldn't live without," he told the Times.
Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
By Sarah McColl
Much has been written about the JetBlue business class menu designed by Brad Farmerie, the executive chef of New York's Saxon + Parole. "I'm in love!" one blogger gushed over the in-flight meals, which are a departure from the usual airline fare: a deviled egg with house-made sambal, bison meatloaf with blueberry quinoa or grilled avocado salad with salsa verde.
Even in coach and in the airport terminal, JetBlue brings more to the tray table than those (damn tasty) blue corn chips. There is, for example, a flourishing farm growing potatoes, kale, dill and oregano outside Terminal 5 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
"Just because you booked an airline ticket doesn't mean you have a deep love of concrete," said Sophia Mendelsohn, JetBlue's head of sustainability, referring to the formerly gray expanse of concrete the airline's passengers used to look out at while sitting in Terminal 5—the area JetBlue "greenified" with the farm.
JFK reduces food miles after JetBlue open a farm in it's airport! 5000 crates of herbs & veggies ready for take off! https://t.co/hqAeYtlncd— Treebox Ltd (@Treebox Ltd)1471081811.0
Her newest project operates under a similar ethos: "Just because you bought an airline ticket doesn't mean you want to eat junk food," she added. Or forget your social principles.
JetBlue is known for serving products from small, local New York food companies, such as Blue Marble Ice Cream and Brooklyn Roasting Company Coffee. Instead of hopefuls trying to get on board by cold calling the airline and sending samples, companies can apply to JetBlue's BlueBud business-mentoring program. The airline shares lessons it has learned over 18 years in social responsibility, sustainability and marketing. The program also looks at the challenges of serving food at 30,000 feet. Cabin pressure, altitude and dry air zap about 30 percent of our tasting powers. Then there's the tiny galley "kitchen." Farmerie fights against palate atrophy with vinegars, spices and Maldon sea salt and against space constraints with dry ice and sous vide cooking. BlueBud asks food companies to consider how their recipes might need to be adapted or the packaging changed to work in-flight.
"We'll walk you through how we look at food," Mendelsohn said, adding that there are plans to expand the program.
Hot Bread Kitchen was the first BlueBud participant. The company's bakers-in-training program helps prepare women for better-paying jobs in the culinary industry, while its retail arm sells breads from around the world, including nan-e qandi, heritage corn tortillas and naan. Hot Bread Kitchen's challah is now served in JetBlue's French toast.
At the end of the summer, Bronx Hot Sauce became the next small business invited into JetBlue's culinary world and the partnership has the potential to lift up people tending community gardens in the Bronx.
A new urban garden begins in the #bronx at 1380 University. Look out 2017 #urbanfarming #g… https://t.co/H048uSArny https://t.co/TKBWOSDGer— bronxhotsauce (@bronxhotsauce)1472503991.0
John A. Crotty, a Bronx Hot Sauce founder, works as an affordable housing developer by day. Through his work in the Bronx and the conversations he has had with people there, Crotty was struck with the way they told "the Bronx story."
"Everyone talked about the past and the present and nobody talked about the future," he said in a New York accent. "Why does nobody talk about tomorrow? I thought that was pretty shitty."
Crotty and his partners began to undertake projects in their buildings in the Bronx to inspire future thinking. There were education initiatives, arts programs and creative writing classes—but a vacant lot was what captured Crotty's imagination.
"It was such a shithole, for lack of a better term," he said. "There's garbage everywhere. It's awful. I said, 'This would be a spectacular place for a garden, right?'"
That garden planted the seeds for Bronx Hot Sauce. Since 2014, the business has distributed free serrano pepper seedlings to any interested community garden. At the end of the season, growers can sell the mature crop back to Bronx Hot Sauce for $4 a pound. This year, more than 40 gardens grew peppers for the hot sauce and Crotty said about one ton of peppers will be purchased from the community.
As Bronx Hot Sauce fans out from fancy little food shops in the city to tristate-area grocery stores—from Whole Foods to the JetBlue University cafeteria to a pop-up store in JFK's Terminal 5—Crotty thinks it can help people in the borough tell a new story in the future tense.
"When the people who work in the gardens—especially the younger people—see their product in big-time stores, it takes them out of the neighborhood they're in and puts them on a way bigger platform," he said. "It expands their universe very quickly." Even the sky is no limit.
Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
Myth, tradition, inspiration, culture, religion and many other aspects of human life are written into the rings of history within a tree's trunk. Trees would do just fine if humans ceased to exist—but humans would most definitely not survive without trees. They reduce carbon dioxide while producing oxygen, moderate ecosystems, prevent erosion, and provide shelter, building materials, energy and even nutrition. They are simply amazing.
In partnership with NBCUniversal's Green is Universal program and the Arbor Day Foundation, we bring you a breathtaking (or rather, breath-giving) tree gallery. When you share this gallery and use #ShareATree, you're helping the Arbor Day Foundation plant real trees. For every 25,000 shares, NBCUniversal will donate $5,000 to the Arbor Day Foundation, up to $25,000.
Share this awesome gallery and make our planet a little greener.
This showstopping tree looks like it was painted by a graffiti artist, but its bold colors are derived from the natural shedding of bark. Layers of bark peel away at different times of the year, revealing undertones ranging from bright green to orange. These beauties can be found all over the world but mainly in the South Pacific in tree plantations, where the eucalyptus' pulpwood is used to make paper. The tree grows six feet wide and more than a hundred feet tall and it's photogenic, to boot.
Photo credit: Libero
The Tree of Life
Because of trees' nearly innumerable benefits, people throughout time have attributed greater meaning to them. A common motif in various cultures and religions is that of the Tree of Life. Depending on where you look, the Tree of Life offers the threshold between life and death (Egypt), grants immortality once every 3,000 years (China) or supports and connects the underworld, the earth and the stars (Mesoamerica).
The Tree of Life pictured here is found in the middle of a desert in Bahrain, miles from any other living organism or source of water. It is a 400-year-old mesquite, whose roots can grow to more than 160 feet, making it resilient in arid climates. While some like to think it is the tree of good and evil mentioned in the Bible, locals attribute other spiritual powers to it and have their own occult practices surrounding it.
Whatever the case may be, astounding trees like this cause legends to flourish and attract visitors from around the world to catch a glimpse of their leafy awesomeness.
Photo credit: Wikimedia
Ever heard of the Buddha? Yeah, well, this fig tree in Bodh Gaya, India, is believed to be the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment approximately 2,500 years ago. According to Buddhist texts, right after the Buddha achieved enlightenment, he gazed up at the tree in gratitude with unblinking eyes for an entire week. Talk about a staring contest.
Even during the lifetime of the Buddha the Bodhi Tree was seen as a sacred shrine by King Asoka, who held a festival every year in its honor. However, his queen was what some would call "the jealous type" and had it killed by Mandu thorns. But the Bodhi Tree had the last laugh when it regrew in the same spot and had a magnificent temple built next to it. Even today, the tree is the most important of four Buddhist pilgrimage sites.
Photo: Ken Wieand / Flickr
Depending on your age, you may think of Robin Hood as a dastardly fox, a witty Cary Elwes or a pouty Russell Crowe. But the locals of Edwinstone, in the heart of the Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, England, don't really care what your image of him is. Robin Hood has been an important folk figure to them since the medieval period, long before movies were invented.
Some records portray him as a farmer, while others identify him as a wealthy man whose lands were wrongfully taken from him, forcing him to become an outlaw. Whatever Robin Hood's origins, the Major Oak tree is fabled to be the shelter in which he and his Merry Men slept after a long day's work of "stealing from the rich and giving to the poor."
Photo credit: Philip Wallbank / Geograph
While it may look like Baobab trees are shaped into their odd forms by imaginative horticulturists, the only hand of manipulation here is evolution. These large trees can grow up to 50 feet tall and are the natural equivalent of water towers. The trees are native to arid regions such as mainland Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Madagascar and Australia and have been used in dry seasons for the water supplies stored in hollows in the trees. The white powder in their seed pods can be used as food and their leaves have medicinal purposes.
Photo credit: iStock
What possible connection could a tree in the capital city of Sierra Leone have to the American Revolutionary War? Well, just as the Americans won independence from Great Britain, a group of African American slaves won their freedom by fighting for the British during the war.
Legend has it that the newly freed slaves landed on the shore, walked up to the giant tree and circled around it, giving thanks for their deliverance to a free land. On March 11, 1792, they founded Freetown and today it is the capital city of Sierra Leone. The Cotton Tree stands directly in front of Freetown's Supreme Court building.
Photo credit: Christian Trede / Wikimedia
Anne Frank Tree
This horse chestnut in Amsterdam provided a glimmer of beauty to Anne Frank when she needed it most. In The Diary of a Young Girl, Frank's book about the time she and her family spent hiding from the Nazis during World War II, she describes the tree:
"Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs. From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy."
The iconic tree was blown down by high winds during a storm on Aug. 23, 2010, but it missed the historic annex in which Frank and her family stayed.
Photo credit: Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect
Methuselah is like the estranged grandfather that no one in your family talks about. It is the oldest known living tree on the planet, but its location will not be revealed.
This is because an older tree, nicknamed Prometheus, was accidentally cut down in 1964. At 4,843 years old, the bristlecone pine is worth protecting, even if it means anonymity.
Photo credit: Rick Goldwasser / Flickr
El Árbol del Tule
With a bit of imagination, animals, goblins and monsters can be seen trapped in this tree's gnarly trunk, and although the trunk has the look of multiple trees fused together, it is just one amazing tree. El Árbol del Tule or the Tree of Tule, towers over Santa María del Tule, a small church in Oaxaca, Mexico. The massive Montezuma cypress may be the biggest—as in widest—tree on the planet. The circumference of the trunk spans 170 feet and the tree weighs more than 500 tons. At approximately 2,000 years old (legend has it that it was planted by an Aztec storm god), this massive tree is among the eldest in the world.
Photo credit: Cezzie901 / Flickr
Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
By Liz Dwyer
What's served up in college cafeterias became a hot topic this summer thanks to an episode of writer Malcolm Gladwell's podcast Revisionist History. In July, Gladwell argued that some schools are spending big bucks putting fancy food on the menu—think lobster bakes and venison—instead of offering financial aid to low-income students. But another trend in campus dining halls that Gladwell might want to take a look at in a future episode is one that could hold down college food costs: vegan meal options.
Meat- and dairy-free menu items have become one of the hottest things on college cafeteria menus.Colorado Mountain College
According to a survey released Tuesday by peta2, the youth division of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), meat- and dairy-free menu items have become one of the hottest things on college cafeteria menus.
The organization surveyed nearly 1,500 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. and found that 62 percent of schools serve vegan menu items on a daily basis, up from 28 percent in 2014. The survey also found that about 9 percent of schools—private institutions like American University in Washington, DC and public state schools like the University of California, San Diego—have entirely vegan dining stations.
The vegan revolution isn't just happening on the coasts. The 36,000-student University of North Texas has had a 300-seat all-vegan dining facility since 2011. After the school installed the vegan dining hall, "meal-plan sales rose by 20 percent while operating costs remained comparable," according to peta2.
Animal products "are among the most expensive items when it comes to wholesale food costs because of the massive amount of water and grains required in order to produce them," Ben Williamson, senior international media director for PETA, wrote in an email to TakePart.
A study published in the September 2015 edition of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition found that people who go vegetarian spend an average of $750 less on groceries than folks who follow federal dietary recommendations. Colleges that replace meat and dairy menu items with plant-based offerings are likely seeing similar per-student savings.
A desire to save money isn't the only reason schools are moving to meat-free meals.
"Research shows that millennials are three times more likely to be vegetarian than Gen Xers and 12 times more likely than baby boomers, because eating vegan food is directly tied to helping combat world hunger, cruelty to animals, environmental degradation and other issues that millennials consider to be crucial," Williamson wrote.
Many "students have made it clear they understand the health benefits of vegan food, along with its lower impact on the environment," Brian McCarthy, a chef at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said.
College student drops out after school denies request to opt out of 'unhealthy' meal plan via @EcoWatch https://t.co/8XWxl3D6P4— Friends of the Earth (Action) (@Friends of the Earth (Action))1471987870.0
The environmental implications of these students ditching meat are significant: A 2014 Oxford University study found that the average meat eater has an environmental footprint of 15.82 pounds of CO2 per day, whereas a vegan has a footprint of 6.4 pounds of CO2.
"Vegan food has now reached the mainstream in even the most rural parts of the country, which is a testament to the rapid decline of the meat, dairy and egg industries," Williamson wrote. "Students at the University of Montana, for example, can always get a hearty meal at the vegan dining station on campus, and Oklahoma City University offers a dining station that's both vegan and raw, despite being in the heart of the 'beef belt.' "
Per-capita meat consumption in the U.S. jumped 5 percent in 2015, the biggest increase since the 1970s, but Williamson believes college students will stick with a vegan lifestyle after graduation—a shift made easier by food companies and restaurants.
"While college campuses are often the incubators of emerging trends, the progress doesn't end there: After students graduate, they'll be entering a world where major brands such as Chipotle, Ben & Jerry's and even White Castle now advertise vegan options front and center," he wrote.
As for those schools that still believe a vegan option is a sad-looking salad bar, peta2 has a "Veganize Your Dining Hall" campaign pack, which gives students resources for lobbying their schools to adopt more robust vegan-friendly menus.
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
By Willy Blackmore
Much of what remains of the once vast American prairie can be found in the rolling Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma. There, the rocky soils managed to halt the plows of pioneering farmers who were pushed West by manifest destiny, on the hunt for new land to turn over and farm.
Prairie in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, is in the mixed grasslands region.Wing-Chi Poon
There was once more than 170 million acres of tallgrass prairie in North America, a grassland ecosystem that blanketed the Midwest—from Texas all the way up into Canada and extending from Kansas to Indiana. Today, just 4 percent of the landscape that defined the middle of the country persists. Even the deep topsoil—created by roots that reached farther down into the dirt than the head-high blades of big bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass—that made prairie states into agricultural powerhouses is dwindling.
Not far from a stretch of land where a swath of native prairie still grows, and about an hour-and-a-half's drive from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, sits the Land Institute of Salina, Kansas. The sustainable agriculture nonprofit and research center has for decades been working on a project that could revert the more than 200 million acres of U.S. land on which corn, soy, and wheat are grown into something resembling the prairie those crops helped displace.
Wes Jackson, who founded the institute in 1976, had a simple enough idea: Instead of growing staples as annuals, planted and harvested every year, why not develop perennials like the wild grasses found in the prairie into food crops? Not only would such a crop only need to be planted once, but its roots would hold down topsoil, capture carbon, and require fewer chemical inputs and water. If multiple perennial crops were planted together, they could sustain each other much like a wild ecosystem does, requiring little in the way of "farming" as we think of it.
NOAA: Carbon Dioxide Levels ‘Exploded’ in 2015, Highest Seen Since End of Ice Age https://t.co/KSL5LzHHos (via @EcoWatch)— Sierra Club (@Sierra Club)1457717722.0
It's a notion that has inspired generations of food-loving environmentalists—from Wendell Berry, a friend of Jackson's, to contemporaries like Mark Bittman and the founders of San Francisco's climate-focused restaurant The Perennial. While that speaks partly to the appeal of the idea, it also highlights the slow nature of the work: The institute has spent decades domesticating and improving plants like intermediate wheatgrass, a distant cousin of modern wheat that grows wild in Europe and Asia, and slowly bulking up the kernels from just a few milligrams into the double-digit range, creeping closer to modern wheat.
When the Land Institute was opened, Jackson said that it would take between 50 and 100 years to develop a perennial polyculture, in which many long-lived food crops could be grown in symbiosis. In 2012, Jackson told The New York Times that kernza, as the grain the Land Institute developed from intermediate wheatgrass is known, might be released to "farmers working with ecologists and agronomists" in eight or nine years.
But two years ago, the Land Institute quietly passed a significant milestone: A small co-op in northwestern Minnesota planted 50 acres of kernza for commercial production, followed by another 75 acres that will be harvested for the first time next summer. On Monday, Patagonia Provisions released the first-ever retail product made with the grain the company calls a "superwheat": a beer called Long Root Ale.
Launched in 2014, the outdoor gear company's food division is an extension of its long-standing conservation work, as Birgit Cameron, Patagonia Provisions' director, explained.
A Solution Under Our Feet: How Regenerative Organic Agriculture Can Save the Planet http://t.co/GfgSnL7pcd @ecowatch http://t.co/86u59sGZmX— Food Tank (@Food Tank)1420801512.0
For the company to make a food product, it has to have a "really deep reason for being," according to Cameron, and one that often goes beyond a designation like "organic" or other familiar sustainability measures. The precooked, shelf-stable sockeye salmon Patagonia Provisions sells, for example, is caught in reef nets off Washington State's Lummis Island—a sustainable practice used for centuries by Native American tribes and supported by the company "so we can have salmon for the future." Patagonia's bison jerky "is about saving the prairie," Cameron said, and is made from the meat of buffalo that graze on 50,000 acres of restored grasslands.
World's Biggest Sockeye Run Shut Down as Wild Pacific #Salmon Fight for Survival https://t.co/bbphbmkZQq #SalmonFishing @DavidSuzuki— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1474475513.0
Similarly, Long Root Ale, made by Portland, Oregon–based Hopworks Urban Brewery, "has a tremendously deep story and an incredible reason for being," Cameron explained. "It will tell the story of the Land Institute and their efforts" to reform—if not reinvent—agriculture.
That story starts with the Land Institute's perennial wheat. With its extensive root system, kernza "uses less than half the amount of water an annual, tilled-type cereal grain would use—60 percent less water," said Christian Ettinger, the founder and brewmaster at Hopworks, a certified B Corp. "It has tremendous benefit, and a hell of a lot less carbon is emitted. It's like mowing a lawn instead of tilling a soil and starting all over again." As the back of the can says, "you don't get carbon credits, but it's a damn good beer."
Chad Brigman / Patagonia Provisions Facebook
The beer—a light and flowery pale ale without the acid edge of a West Coast–style IPA—is made with a small amount of unmalted kernza. But the 15 percent addition of the wheat lends what Ettinger described as a spicy, nutty finish to the pale ale that he said is reminiscent of rye. (Some of the 5,000 pounds of grain Hopsworks used comes from the commercial co-op farms, and the rest was harvested from research institutions like the University of Minnesota.)
While he had never heard of kernza before Patagonia called Hopworks about the project last June, Ettinger wants to experiment with it more and is eager to find out what kind of flavors it might express as a malted grain that can be used as the main component of a beer. While Long Root may not be a full expression of the grain, like a bread or pasta product made from 100 percent kernza, it's a milestone nonetheless—and a conversation starter, spurred by a pint of beer, 5.5 percent alcohol by volume.
The romantic vision of Jackson remaking agriculture as a reflection of the native landscape of his home state may factor into those conversations, but the smaller details are compelling too.
"We're hoping that kernza in the marketplace helps draw people to an understanding of perennial grains," said Scott Allegrucci, senior developer and communications officer at the Land Institute. He imagined the questions beer lovers might ask: "I didn't even know grains aren't perennial—what's an annual? What's the difference; why does it matter? Oh, natural systems agriculture, what's that? Perennial polyculture? Why does that matter?"
"It starts there," he said.
Kernza hitting the market for the first time is, as Allegrucci said, a significant landmark. But work on the grain is by no means complete.
"It won't move out of the research arena anytime soon," he said. "It's still a work in progress."
Over the next decade, the institute will continue to work on improving kernza, hopefully increasing the kernel to about half that annual wheat. Breeders are also working on developing a semi-dwarf variety of kernza that's shorter than the chest-high plants and another line that farmers could graze livestock on—indeterminate wheatgrass is regularly grown as a forage crop—and still "produce harvestable, economically viable grain yield for farmers," he explained.
The 50 or so grass-seed farmers in the RL Growers Cooperative who are growing kernza in Minnesota have a guarantee that Patagonia will buy whatever the fields produce, which reduces risk. That has helped free up Richard Magnusson, who is both the president of RL Growers and a member, to be more simply curious about the crop and its potential.
"I think the thing that's interesting is this is the kind of wheat where it was in biblical times. None of the crops that we used for food now look like they did originally," he said.
Kernza, which forms sod like Kentucky bluegrass and other varieties used in landscaping, is familiar to him as a grass-seed farmer—but no one is making flour out of the tiny seeds of cool-season turfgrasses RL Growers produce for a living.
"We're really at the early stages with this," Magnusson said of kernza. "It's got some potential, and obviously the genetic improvements will keep coming and get us closer to a viable crop."
The 175 acres planted in Minnesota are being grown organically, and they haven't "sodded" yet, forming a mat of grass between rows, but Magnusson is impressed with its deep roots. He suspects it will be both cold hardy and drought tolerant—so much so that in a place where too much water is more often the problem, he envisions putting kernza plantings on the drier plots that he and other RL members farm.
Kernza farmer holding prairie grass with long roots.Jim Richardson
Kernza's commercial footprint in northwestern Minnesota is minuscule compared with the tens of thousands of acres of grass seed—the region's major crop—that are grown there today. But Magnusson noted that his industry started with two or three acres of Kentucky bluegrass planted as a research trial in the 1950s.
"It isn't the first time something like this has started on a small scale," he said. "You don't go from zero to 30,000 [acres] in one year. Hopefully this grows into tens of thousands of acres at some point."
Grasses define tallgrass prairie both in name and in biodiversity: The landscape is composed of as many as 60 grass species that account for 80 percent of the foliage. But there's a reason why vast sprays of wildflowers blaze across the Flint Hills every summer. The prairie is considered one of the most diverse and complicated ecosystems in the world—right up there with the Amazonian rainforest. Any farming system that aspires to replicate it cannot start and end with one plant species.
"A perennial monoculture, say, of kernza would be an improvement" over commercial, annual wheat production, Allegrucci said. "But it's not near where we need to get or where we want to get. It's the polyculture bit that delivers the huge long-term ecological benefits in terms of climate and water quality and soil erosion too."
Thanks to the progress that's been made on kernza, the grain has become nearly synonymous with the Land Institute—and that could become evermore the case with Long Root available in stores and other kernza products from Patagonia and others to follow. But as Allegrucci said, "the Land Institute is more than kernza."
"We're not tweaking a system of agriculture; we're displacing it," he explained. Not the Land Institute on its own, but the growing network of farmers, students, researchers, chefs, and plant breeders engaged with the work.
"It's like cribbing the Green Revolution for natural systems agriculture. It's doing the Green Revolution green. And that's not just going to be a set of plants or a set of gene tweaks—however fascinating or productive as they are. We're talking about re-envisioning what agriculture means to us as a people. And we can't do that on our own—but we're kind of trying to provide the hardware for it."
That hardware will take the form of other crops developed by the Land Institute: grains, pulses, and oilseed, generally speaking, which account for fully three-quarters of the world's caloric intake, as Allegrucci noted. Not only do those crops—whether wild prairie sunflowers domesticated for oilseed production or perennialized sorghum and rice—need to be bred and improved, but work needs to be done to determine how they can successfully be grown in concert.
"How do we develop systems where this plant can grow with other plants," Allegrucci asked, "where they can provide services to one and another?" Pulses can fertilize grains by fixing nitrogen in the soil; the deep roots of grains can help hold soil moisture for more shallow-rooted crops. When that kind of agriculture ecosystem is viable for commercial production like kernza is just beginning to be, "that's where the real perennial benefits come in."
How the World's Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change https://t.co/jKNuiVMEnW @ClimateDesk @worldresources— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1467839411.0
But getting kernza out to farmers like Richard Magnusson, and products like Long Root into stores, is a significant step in that direction, even if a truly prairie-like farm is still decades away.
"We can't just stay in Salina and continue breeding obscure crop plants that people haven't yet heard of and all of a sudden bust out a commodity economy," Allegrucci said.
But, like Magnusson, he and others at the Land Institute hope that those 175 acres of kernza grow exponentially—and that countless acres of prairie-like farms someday follow.
Reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
For decades, coal-fired power dominated the U.S. energy supply—and was a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.
But a combination of factors including cheap natural gas, stronger pollution controls, increasing investment in renewable power and improved energy efficiency have pushed coal's share of the energy market down to 33 percent and with it the carbon-intensive fuel's share of the nation's greenhouse pollution.
Natural-gas-fired power equaled coal's 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon pollution in 2015, according to the report, while natural gas use was 81 percent higher than coal's.
As a result, this year will be the first when CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants drop below those from natural gas, according to a new analysis from the federal Energy Information Agency (EIA).
Natural-gas-fired power equaled coal's 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon pollution in 2015, according to the report, while natural gas use was 81 percent higher than coal's. The EIA estimates that natural gas' share of energy-related CO2 will exceed that of still-declining coal by about 10 percent this year.
CO2 emissions are the leading driver of global warming and make up 81 percent of the nation's known 6.8 billion metric tons of annual greenhouse gas pollution, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). About 50 percent of those emissions come from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and power industrial facilities.
"Coal has been declining fairly steadily since around 2007," said Doug Vine, senior energy fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a climate and energy think tank. "Some of the initial declines were a result of the Great Recession. But in the middle of the recession was when we began to experience the large natural gas boom."
Natural Gas Emissions to Surpass Coal for First Time in 44 Years via @EcoWatch https://t.co/9AjKtps98t #fracking— Green Bean (@Green Bean)1471570204.0
A 2012 EPA regulation sharply reducing legal levels of mercury, arsenic and other toxic pollutants from smokestacks has also pushed utilities to invest in alternatives to coal-fired power, Vine said.
While environmentalists have long advocated an end to coal-fired power for the sake of both the climate and public health, some say that increasing reliance on natural gas is the wrong energy strategy.
"The report is a reminder that, as I say, there's good news and bad news about natural gas," said David Hawkins, the director of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "The good news is gas has half the carbon of coal and the bad news is gas has half the carbon of coal."
To avoid catastrophic climate change, "we have to move our society to a zero-emission economy, in a period of time that is less than the eligibility date for Social Security of kids being born today," he added. "It makes sense to keep using the existing natural gas power plants to keep backing out of coal, but we have to invest in new zero-emissions energy sources like wind, solar and efficiency" rather than continuing to spend billions of dollars on new natural gas infrastructure.
The primary ingredient of natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas about four times more powerful at trapping heat than CO2. Methane accounts for 11 percent of known U.S. greenhouse emissions, according to the EPA. But leaks from natural gas and oil production infrastructure, leading sources of methane pollution, are not included in that figure.
Just one recent incident, the massive natural gas leak at California's Aliso Canyon storage field between October 2015 and February 2016, added the equivalent of around 4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
A recent NASA study determined that around 250 methane leaks from natural gas and oil facilities, spread across 1,200-square-miles of the Four Corners area, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet, were the sources of a 2,500-square-mile cloud of methane hanging over the region.
"There is a lot of uncertainty about how much methane is leaking and from where. I've seen estimates from 1 to 9 percent of total production escaping," said Jeff Deyette, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It doesn't take much methane to leak before it becomes on par worse than coal from a total emissions standpoint. That's another risk factor of utilities continuing to switch from coal to natural gas and policy makers pushing for more use of natural gas."
Both NRDC and Union of Concerned Scientists advocate stronger regulations to control methane leaks. But "gas prices are so cheap right now, that the industry isn't investing in the technologies to capture and close up those leaks," Deyette said.
Vine agreed that given the importance of keeping global temperature increases under 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit—the goal set by the Paris climate agreement—reliance on natural gas for energy would not be a good long-term strategy for the U.S. "Natural gas can be thought of as a complementary component to wind and solar while those resources continue to expand," because "most of the natural gas electricity-generating technologies can be ramped up and down flexibly."
He also saw a role for U.S. sales of natural gas to industrializing economies seeking to lower their own greenhouse gas emissions. "It allows us to export a lower-emitting fuel to places like China and India," Vine said. "It can help some developing countries by offering them alternatives to coal, a higher-emitting fossil fuel."
"Developing countries have plenty of renewable energy potential," Deyette countered. "We're not trying to put landlines through all of Africa, right? We're using cell phone technology. In the same vein, we don't want to swap one fossil fuel out for another when we have the capacity to leapfrog to totally renewable technologies in those countries."
"We should be exporting renewable energy, grid integration and battery technologies as a country," he said. "That should be our priority."
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
By Todd Woody
Mark Harris banks the Cessna 182 over the blue expanse of Humboldt Bay and flies toward the redwood-studded hills beyond, to the now-quiet battlefields of the California timber wars. It's a flashback moment. Twenty-one years ago, Harris, then a ponytailed young attorney, took me, then a long-haired young reporter, up in Thumper, as he affectionately calls the 59-year-old prop plane, for an aerial view of the civil war raging in Humboldt County.
In the forests below, activists from the radical environmental group Earth First!—"No compromise in defense of Mother Earth"—were fighting a long and brutal battle to save the planet's largest groves of ancient redwood trees left in private ownership from a timber company determined to cut down every last one of them. Harris represented these "forest defenders"—who blockaded logging roads and chained themselves to chain saws—as well as their compatriots, who battled in the courts to stop the clear-cutting of trees that sprouted when Julius Caesar ruled the Roman Empire.
The redwood forests of Humboldt County, California, have endured 150 years of logging.Mary Grace McKernan
On this bright and sunny March day in 2016, I can see the victories and defeats etched in the landscape framed by the snowcapped Trinity Alps. Vast tracts of stump-covered hillsides abut soaring stands of redwoods.
"Look, there's Owl Creek," said Harris over the din of the four-seater's engine. In 1995, he helped win a landmark court victory that blocked the Pacific Lumber Company from logging the grove of old-growth redwoods that is home to a rare and rarely seen seabird called the marbled murrelet. Then on our right appears the Headwaters Grove. From a thousand feet up, the 3,000 acres of densely packed, 2,000-year-old, 300-feet-tall trees appear as an island amid the clear-cuts, looking like nothing so much as gargantuan marijuana buds.
The Headwaters, which harbors northern spotted owls, Pacific fishers, Humboldt martens, coho salmon and other endangered wildlife, is Humboldt County's Gettysburg, a battleground where thousands of activists risked arrest, pepper spray and the wrath of angry loggers to protect a primeval world from Charles Hurwitz, a Texas corporate raider whose Maxxam Corporation took over Pacific Lumber in 1986 and began clear-cutting the ancient trees, each one worth as much as $150,000. In 1999, the federal and state governments paid Hurwitz $480 million to acquire the grove and the surrounding Headwaters Forest. Pacific Lumber went bankrupt eight years later, its assets scooped up by the Humboldt Redwood Company, which pledged to log sustainably and not harvest old-growth trees. The timber wars were, at long last, over.
Another fight for the forests, though, is just beginning.
We shadow the Eel River, swollen from El Niño rains, as it meanders past the county's last sawmill and then head into SoHum, as locals call southern Humboldt. Flying toward the Pacific Ocean, we pass over redwood-covered hills pockmarked by dozens of clearings hacked from the forest. This land is zoned for timber production, but loggers didn't cut down those trees. In just about every clearing, long white cylinder-shaped structures appear, resembling, some say, rolling papers. It's an apt observation. The buildings are greenhouses and inside, marijuana plants are grown for Humboldt County's multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.
Seen from the air are eight marijuana growing operations hacked from the redwood forests of Humboldt County.Mary Grace McKernan
With California poised to fully legalize marijuana, a "green rush" has hit Humboldt as outsiders—Bulgarians, Laotians, Texans—flood into the county and set up industrial-scale marijuana farms. The environmental impact from more than 4,000 pot "gardens" is ravaging the redwood ecosystem that Humboldt environmentalists have spent decades fighting to save and restore. And not just in Humboldt. The marijuana boom in the two other pot-growing counties that form California's Emerald Triangle threatens a wide swath of the state's woodlands. Like forests worldwide endangered by development, Humboldt County's redwoods absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide, making them crucial to the fight against climate change.
Full Coverage: Fight for the Forests
"The single biggest threat to our environment right now has been unregulated cannabis," said Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, a grassroots group that spearheaded the effort to protect the Headwaters and its wildlife. "In the last 20 years we've seen a massive exponential growth in cannabis production in the hills of Humboldt County and we've seen really devastating environmental effects."
Growers have fragmented forests by cutting trees to build greenhouses and roads on steep hillsides, choking creeks home to endangered salmon with sediment, fertilizers and pesticides and sucking streams dry during a record drought to irrigate marijuana crops. Once-still forests echo with the racket of hundreds of diesel generators. Rat poison and other toxic chemicals used by some growers to protect their plants are killing rare wildlife like the Pacific fisher.
"It's just been really sad, actually, really sad to see what's happened to the environment and a lot of work people have put into restoration efforts, to see those things unravel because people continue to bulldoze hillsides for clearings to grow more cannabis," DeLapp said.
In a community where there long has been a very thin green line between environmentalists and marijuana growers, DeLapp, 35, is leading a campaign to regulate an out-of-control industry. She's getting help from unlikely allies: a timber company and a group of marijuana farmers determined to create a truly green and sustainable cash crop.
Hiding in the Hills
Pot has been grown in these hills since the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s and early '70s brought hippies to Humboldt, a sparsely populated 4,052-square-mile rural county in Northern California. That a remote region known as the Lost Coast would become a haven for marijuana growers was no accident. "Humboldt County may not be the best place to grow marijuana from an environmental standpoint, but it's the best place to hide growing cannabis," noted DeLapp.
For decades, it was mostly grown by locals like Stephen Dillon, who comes from a fourth-generation Humboldt logging family that arrived in the county by schooner in the 1880s. His grandfather worked in the mills until he died, but when the timber wars erupted, Dillon sided with Earth First! after a foray into the Headwaters Grove in 1991. It was the year after "Redwood Summer," the first of a decade of mass protests against logging that would bring thousands of demonstrators and celebrities such as Bonnie Raitt and Woody Harrelson to Humboldt County.
"We could barely penetrate it," Dillon said of the Headwaters. "All we could do is find an old growth tree, walk along it, jump down into 20 feet of ferns, find another one, walk along it. There's nothing like it in the world. Jurassic Park is the closest you can describe." Dodging Pacific Lumber security guards, Dillon and his buddies found a way out of the forest. "We walked to the edge of Headwaters, then tried to get across a clear-cut. It was just like death and destruction outside the grove."
Still in college, with a new baby, he began to grow marijuana while attending Earth First! rallies. "We were taught by the old hippies to grow under the shade of the trees," said Dillon, a sandy-haired 43-year-old sporting a goatee. "It really dovetailed with the Earth First! activist scene—they're both really antiestablishment; they're both in direct contact with nature in the woods, being free and working."
"Back then, it was the old hippies and the Vietnam vets who pretty much controlled the whole marijuana scene," he said. "They supported the volunteer fire departments, built the community centers." At environmental groups like EPIC, veteran activists tell stories, perhaps apocryphal, of bags of cash and weed appearing on office doorsteps to fund their good works.
"This was back in the day when weed was very expensive—$4,000 a pound," said Dillon. "A family could get by on 20, 30, 40 pounds a year and be happy." Today, prices have dropped below $2,000 a pound and as farmers grow more marijuana to make up the shortfall, the environmental impact grows too.
Mom-and-pop backyard pot gardens got bigger after 1996 when California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medical use. After spending decades trying to eradicate marijuana in Humboldt County, the state started treating the business as quasi-legal, at least if growers were supplying the medical marijuana market. People like Dillon came out of the woods and started growing pot in greenhouses. "I was the first greenhouse in my valley since the '80s," he said. "Now I'd say there are over 200. Mine are the smaller ones."
"New people came and got money signs in their eyes," added Dillon, executive director of the Humboldt Sun Growers Guild, a cooperative of local farmers who promote organic, sustainably grown marijuana. "They were like, 'Screw that hippie down the road—he's a wuss. Let's throw up five of these things in a row.' A lot of the new people coming in have absolutely no understanding of the creeks and the roads and the ecosystem they're in."
Video: Up in Smoke: Humboldt County's Green Rush
Ironically, the decline of the timber industry helped spur the rise of an environmentally destructive marijuana industry. As the sawmills closed, out-of-work loggers began growing pot, while Humboldt's old logging families began to sell off their timberlands to outsiders who would subdivide the property and sell to other marijuana growers. "The old-timers are up against a rock and a hard place as they've got taxes to pay on their land but it's not economically feasible for them to log it anymore," Dillon said. "So they sell and the only person sitting on the other side of the table is a pot grower with a lot of cash."
I'm talking to Dillon not on his farm but at the "Marijuana Investor Summit" in San Francisco. The March event at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square has attracted 1,300 attendees paying $750 a pop and Dillon has come to see what the future holds. The hotel reeks of weed, but the conversations of the suits sitting around us are about money and market share.
"These guys are literally stockbrokers and hedge fund people, trying to figure out how to get into the business," said Dillon, uncharacteristically attired in a sports jacket and a button-down shirt, glancing over his shoulder. "They have no regard for the environment, the culture, the land, the communities involved. They have absolutely no stake in any of those things. It's all about the money."
By any measure, enormous sums of money are flowing through Humboldt County, such as the $500,000 police officers found stashed in a false compartment in a 61-year-old Humboldt man's pickup truck during a routine traffic stop in Utah.
"He obviously had just transported marijuana from Humboldt to that state and was on his way back—the scent of marijuana was very strong," said Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey, noting that his office typically seizes $1 million to $2 million in cash a year from growers. When Humboldt sheriff's deputies subsequently raided the man's home in a remote corner of the county, they found 1,200 pot plants growing in five greenhouses, along with 230 pounds of dried marijuana.
Few signs remain of the timber industry, which in the 1950s employed half the Humboldt County workforce. Signs of the cannabis culture, though, are everywhere, from the highway billboard advertising a sale on gigantic inflatable water tanks favored by growers for irrigating their crops to the plaque in my hotel room advising, "For your comfort this is designated a non-smoking/non-medical Prop 215/non-pet friendly room." Conversations inevitably turn to drug-related topics. The next-door neighbor busted in Missouri for transporting marijuana. The young eastern European women arrested working at a grow operation. The barrel-chested, tattooed Bulgarian guy spotted in the hills carrying an AK-47 and talking on a satellite phone.
"The Bulgarian grows are horrendous!" wrote a commenter on Redheaded Blackbelt, a local news blog that reports on all things cannabis. "You said the 'B' word," another commenter replied. "They are taking over this county, buying land all over. Seems like every time I go to the mountain store the guy in front of me is wearing a track suit and speaking Eastern European."
Signs of the environmental devastation wrought by renegade cannabis cultivation, though, are largely out of sight. When I contact a local environmentalist to see if he can show me the damage, I get a curt reply: "You are aware that these are not friendly hills to drive around in, right?" Residents of those hills who have witnessed firsthand the destruction of streams and forests aren't eager to talk to the media, he said, mentioning a friend who is "afraid of winding up in a ditch, leaving his kids without a dad."
I'll hear the phrase "Snitches get stitches" more than once while I'm in Humboldt.
Heeding the warning, I decide the safe bet is to report from 1,000 feet up aboard Thumper with a guide familiar with the terrain. Since the timber wars, Mark Harris, a surfer turned attorney and now a youthful 54, has developed a thriving legal practice representing local marijuana farmers and groups like the Humboldt Sun Growers Guild.
As we fly toward SoHum's marijuana belt, we pass the last paved road we'll see, deserted but for a flatbed truck stacked with soil and fertilizer. "During growing season you'll see those trucks running back and forth all day long," said Harris, throttling back the engine to slow the plane as the photographer with me pushes open a window, sticks her head out and starts shooting the greenhouses sitting on patches of dirt carved from the redwood forest. "I'm surprised no one down there has called me yet saying, 'Hey Mark, is that you up there?' " he said, chuckling and glancing at his iPhone. Often, he said, the sight of a low-flying plane triggers alarm below as growers spread the word through the hills of a possible incursion by law enforcement. To avoid freaking growers out, Harris often posts a notice on the Redheaded Blackbelt blog that he'll be doing a flyover.
Attorney and pilot Mark Harris sits at the helm of his Cessna before takeoff. Mary Grace McKernan
Visible through the trees is a network of narrow dirt roads that snake through the redwoods to greenhouses. Some are old logging roads from the 1940s that growers have reopened; others they built themselves. Either way, the poor construction means that come the winter rains they erode, washing sediment into streams where endangered coho and chinook salmon spawn. Something catches Harris' eye and he swings over three greenhouses sitting on clearings that had been hacked from a hillside above a muddy creek. Redwoods have been cut down for two other grow sites just yards from the water. "In some watersheds you see a 100, 200 of these," said Scott Bauer, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife who went on 40 raids of marijuana grow operations last year. "So you see forest fragmentation; you see road building that's atrocious."
In places like the nearby Salmon Creek, he said, the state has spent millions of dollars decommissioning old timber roads while residents have worked to restore watersheds left damaged and devoid of salmon by decades of industrial logging. Then came the green rush. "There's hundreds of grow sites in there," said Bauer. "You go out there today and the creek runs chocolate. It's just puking sediment and you used to didn't see that. I saw chinook spawning there in 2009 and I've been back a number of times and it's just running like mud. Even if the salmon are spawning, you can imagine that survival isn't that great."
We fly over another clearing in the forest that is being prepared for the upcoming growing season. The metal frame of a greenhouse sits next to an empty inflatable water storage tank the size of a suburban swimming pool. Supersize versions of the water bladders you take camping, the tanks can hold 5,000 gallons and weigh 42,000 pounds when full. "If the grow site hasn't been properly graded, the tanks can get loose," said Harris. "They go crashing down the hill taking out trees until they hit the creek."
That some pot farmers are using such tanks to store water collected in the rainy season is a positive sign, given the devastation caused by the pumping of streams and creeks during the dry summer months to irrigate thirsty marijuana plants. A 2015 study coauthored by Bauer found that in the summer, growers were diverting as much as 100 percent of the water from some Humboldt County streams, including Salmon Creek.
That is jeopardizing the survival of salmon across the region, according to Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, an environmental group involved in the recovery of Humboldt County's watersheds. Take China Creek, a coho spawning stream that's a tributary of bigger creeks that flow to the ocean. "Ten years ago we had coho in China Creek," said Greacen, a ponytailed 51-year-old who formerly served as executive director of EPIC. "Now we have lost them completely because someone built a dam at the top of the creek and cut off the flow of water. When the wardens showed up, all they found was dead fish."
More commonly, he notes, a group of growers will fire up their diesel generators at the same time and pump dry a pool where salmon are swimming. The water will percolate back into the creek when they turn off their pumps, but the pool only has to be dry for a minute for the fish to die. "It's a death by a thousand cuts," said Greacen. "In the timber-wars era, we could take you to these massive clear-cuts and the impact on the forest was obvious for anyone to see. Now it's not the greenhouse itself or the pot plants themselves that are the harm, but it's the land use associated with it and the cumulative impact of hundreds of these grow sites."
What we can't see from the air are the animals dying in the forests from rat poison and other toxic chemicals some growers use to protect their plants. The threat has become so dire that when the federal government proposed listing the Pacific fisher as a threatened species, it cited cannabis cultivation as a risk to the mammal's survival.
Death by Cannabis
Seven years ago, wildlife ecologist Mourad Gabriel was a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, where he tracked the behavior of a group of radio-collared fishers, elusive cat-size carnivores that resemble wolverines, only cuter. Fishers, whose numbers have fallen as low as 500 in Northern California, prefer the same mix of old-growth forest and riparian habitat favored by the northern spotted owl—and, increasingly, outlaw marijuana growers.
After a radio-collared fisher was found dead in a remote forest in 2009, an autopsy revealed it had died from poisoning by a rodenticide commonly used on illegal grow sites to kill rats and other animals that like to eat sugar-laden young pot plants and that fishers prey on in turn. As the green rush brought more of these "trespass grows" into state and national forests and parks and onto private timberlands, the fisher death toll rose. In a 2012 study, Gabriel and his colleagues found that 79 percent of 58 fishers they examined had been exposed to rodenticides, four had died and a nursing female had passed the poison on to her offspring. By late last year, the death rate from poisoning hit 18 percent of the radio-collared population.
Wildlife ecologist Mourad Gabriel. Mary Grace McKernan
Gabriel began to accompany law enforcement officers on raids of grow sites, finding anywhere from five to 120 pounds of rodenticides—some banned in the U.S.—spread around every one. "You can feel the death in the air," he told me as we walked along the Mad River, which borders a forest that is prime Humboldt County fisher habitat. There's also a marijuana grow site nearby. "They were intentionally and maliciously poisoning wildlife, putting out rodenticides in tuna cans. As little as an eighth or a sixteenth of a teaspoon of some of these poisons can kill an American black bear. Three ounces of another will kill one-and-a-half spotted owls."
Last year, two endangered northern spotted owls found near grow sites had rodenticides in their system, as did 80 percent of barred owls that had been culled to stop them from competing with their endangered cousin. The federal government in the 1990s put much of the Pacific Northwest off-limits to logging and has spent millions of dollars to save the spotted owl. Gabriel also came across dead bears, foxes, birds and vultures near marijuana grow sites last year. Each tested positive for rodenticides and other poisons. Also at risk is the Humboldt marten, a weasel-like carnivore that lives in old-growth redwood forests and that was thought extinct until a camera trap captured a photo of one in 1996. The marten and the spotted owl hunt the same prey as fishers.
"Think of all the folks who were galvanized to protect the Headwaters and the unique ecosystem that supports this wildlife," said Gabriel, who is executive director of the nonprofit Integral Ecology Research Center in Blue Lake, a hamlet of 1,200 people east of Eureka. "It doesn't matter how good-quality the habitat is if you have these new threats from marijuana grow sites."
At one site, growers had strung a line of fishing hooks baited with hot dogs laced with methomyl, an extremely toxic pesticide. Gabriel discovered a dead two-year-old male fisher 30 feet from the camp, poisoned meat lodged in its esophagus. The pesticide had killed the fisher before it could swallow the hot dog. "I'm disheartened. It's heartbreaking," says Gabriel, who had just returned from conducting an autopsy on yet another fisher. Cause of death: rodenticide.
It has also gotten personal. Some marijuana growers apparently were not happy when Gabriel's 2012 study attracted widespread media attention. People threatened Gabriel at the supermarket and the gas station, he said. His office was broken into. He woke one morning to find one of his Labradors writhing in agony. An autopsy would show that the dog had been poisoned with the same rodenticide Gabriel had linked to fisher deaths. "The harassment has dissipated, but it still goes on," he said. "I let law enforcement handle it."
Headwaters Forest Reserve
Old-growth redwood trees in the Headwaters Forest Reserve in Humboldt County, California, can reach heights of 300 feet or more. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
Humboldt County's Last Sawmill
The decline of the timber industry in Humboldt Country, California, has left only one operating mill, owned by the Humboldt Redwood Company. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
This 1,000-year-old redwood tree in the Headwaters Forest Reserve in Humboldt County, California, bears a slash of blue paint that once marked it for the sawmill. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
Ancient Redwood trees like these in the Headwaters Forest Reserve in Humboldt County, California, continue growing and absorbing carbon dioxide even after 1,000 years. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
Greenhouses in Humboldt County, California, where marijuana is grown, sit on a clearing carved from a grove of trees. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
Sitting on a Fallen Giant
Local Kristi Wrigley (left) and Julie Clark, a Headwaters Forest Reserve park ranger, perch on a redwood tree that has fallen across the trail in the Headwaters. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
Growing Marijuana Responsibly
A marijuana farm uses a storage pond to irrigate plants rather than draw water from depleted creeks that are home to endangered salmon. Photo credit: Mary Grace McKernan
The environmental threat from cannabis cultivation hit too close to home last year. A hunter, Gabriel shot a quail in Humboldt County and prepared the bird for his family for dinner. After the bird was eaten, a thought struck him. "I saved some meat and said to myself that if we're getting material from the same areas as grow sites, I should have it tested." The lab results showed that the meat was contaminated with a highly lethal rodenticide, the same poison Gabriel routinely found at marijuana grow sites. How the bird became contaminated is unknown, but to Gabriel it's a worrying sign that such poisons are spreading through the food chain.
"What does that mean for the local indigenous people who are almost 100 percent dependent on hunting for game species like deer and salmon?" he asked, referring to the nearby Hoopa community. "I would have never thought that if I hunted a wild animal out in a remote forest that I would have to have it tested for toxicants."
Gabriel estimates that only a fraction of trespass grow sites are detected. "There may be 10,000 to 20,000 sites that still need to be cleaned up," he said. "With the 300 to 500 grow sites law enforcement eradicates each year, you could just see the numbers just piling and piling up. What we worry about is that wildlife and their habitat are slowly drowning in these toxicants that will be in the environment for decades to come."
The Sustainable Solution
Mention rodenticides and Stephen Dillon just shakes his head. "I've never bought rat poison over 26 years of growing," he said. "We would set rat traps and tie them to trees and the foxes and bobcats would come by every night and clean the traps for us."
In 2014, Dillon and other local longtime marijuana farmers formed the Humboldt Sun Growers Guild as fears grew that the outsiders setting up industrial marijuana operations were destroying the environment and undermining the Humboldt cannabis economy, much as the unsustainable logging of the 1990s doomed the timber industry. The idea: If local growers banded together, they could use their collective market power to create a brand, True Humboldt, that would sell only organic, sustainably raised marijuana. In other words, the Whole Foods of pot. "True Humboldt cannabis is raised the good, old-fashioned way: under the California sun ... We believe in sustainability, organic cultivation techniques and conservation of water," reads a brochure from the group.
The Humboldt Sun Growers Guild growers then did something unthinkable for people who spent decades dodging government helicopters sent to eradicate their crops and throw them in jail: They asked the county to regulate their industry, setting standards for land, water, pesticide and energy use as well as banning the conversion of timber lands for marijuana farms.
"We're trying to prevent another extractive industry from rising and prevent another boom/bust cycle like fishing and logging," said Harris, the group's attorney. "Humboldt County cannot endure another couple of years of drought conditions with the level of resource extraction going on with these industrial-scale marijuana grows. It's horrible."
Humboldt County's back-to-the-landers helped form EPIC in 1977 in part to fight the government's spraying of marijuana crops with highly toxic herbicides. Now the environmental group has joined the fight to force marijuana farmers to stop using poisons and comply with environmental regulations. In October 2015, nearly 20 years after the legalization of medical marijuana, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law legislation that authorized counties to regulate marijuana cultivation. Humboldt County's board of supervisors in January approved the state's first ordinance to license marijuana farming, giving growers until the end of the year to register and obtain permits that govern their use of water, energy and rodenticides.
"Cannabis has been a completely unregulated industry in California," said DeLapp, EPIC's executive director. "If farmers agree to store water and other best practices, they don't have to hide in the woods and we can get them out of the deepest areas that impact wildlife."
She found a seemingly surprising ally in the Humboldt Redwood Company when timber executives company joined forces with their erstwhile antagonists to push for protections of timberlands from growers. In 2012, company security officers stumbled across a campsite and found more than 5,500 marijuana plants growing on Humboldt Redwood timberland. Last July, sheriff's deputies cut down 270 pot plants, some as tall as seven feet, on company property. Job requirements for Humboldt Redwood security officers include "planning of eradication activities and prosecution of people cultivating marijuana on company property," according to an advertisement.
Compliance with the ordinance will take cash. A lot of it. Outlaw growers are unlikely to seek permits and spend the money to repair roads, build water storage and take other environmental precautions, promoters of the ordinance acknowledge. Still, said Dillon, regulation of cannabis cultivation could free up law enforcement to focus on the worst offenders. "I'm not a big advocate of the government after spending my whole life in the pot wars, but there are people who are destroying the environment that need to be held accountable," he said. "For True Humboldt it's about protecting the small and mid-range farmer and creating a viable industry that's going to pass all the environmental scrutiny it needs to. We welcome environmental regulation."
During the flyover, Harris points out greenhouses built on land that has been properly graded and supplied by ponds that store water collected during the winter rains so depleted creeks aren't tapped in the hot, dry summers. "People are trying to do the right thing," he said. "We need to make that the norm."
Restoring the Redwoods
The high stakes for the redwood ecosystem are driven home when I visit the 7,500-acre Headwaters Forest Reserve, which includes the Headwaters Grove and which was nearly lost to another unsustainable industry. Park ranger Julie Clark and David LaFever, Headwaters' forest ecologist, lead me down the Salmon Creek trail through a fern-covered woodland of redwood, Douglas fir, and red alder. Seventeen years ago, when Pacific Lumber turned over Headwaters to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Clark recalls, this was a wasteland, the old-growth redwoods leveled to make room for logging roads. BLM hired a Pacific Lumber worker who helped build those roads to remove them, taking out 100,000 dump trucks' worth of sediment. The trees aren't the only thing that has returned. "A mountain lion's been here," said LaFever, bending down to examine an unmistakable paw print and scat peppered with the white bones of some creature. Farther up the trail, Clark points to a tree etched with long claw marks. "That's from a black bear." Sometimes she'll find an anchovy on the forest floor, dropped by a marbled murrelet as the seabird returns from the ocean with dinner for its chick nesting high on a mossy branch of an old-growth redwood.
As the trail starts to climb, the air cools and we enter a grove of redwoods soaring to heights of 300 feet amid newly flowering trillium, a delicate white plant with yellow stamens that blossoms but a few weeks a year in the shade of the 1,000-year-old trees. Nearly all the redwoods bear a slash of bright-blue paint that once marked them for the sawmill. "Either Pacific Lumber didn't make it this far or the company got tied up in litigation, but for whatever reason these trees survived until the Headwaters deal," said LaFever, standing next to what Clark calls the "family tree," a giant amid giants with three trunks sprouting from one root system.
Environmental activist Rob DiPerna stands in front of a 1,000-year-old redwood in the Headwaters Forest Reserve. The blue paint once marked it for the sawmill. Mary Grace McKernan
With us is Rob DiPerna, EPIC's forest and wildlife advocate. In the late '90s, DiPerna was an Earth First! activist, infiltrating these forests and lugging sacks of concrete to build barricades on logging roads and sitting in old-growth redwoods to prevent loggers from cutting them down. "We were trying to do anything we could to keep the trees standing," said DiPerna, 45, whose nearly waist-length hair shows a hint of gray. "To be in the forest under the cover of darkness, trying to avoid loggers, cops and security—it affects the individual more profoundly than people realize."
"The sobering part of it for me standing here is to realize that there isn't much old-growth redwood left, and the fact that these trees are still here is an actual miracle," he said as he strains to see the top of the family tree.
When we reach a ridgeline, we can see the core Headwaters Grove across a clear-cut valley that is regenerating. The grove is off-limits to the public to protect its unique ecosystem and wildlife. Along a path to the Headwaters visitor center is a grove of 50 redwood seedlings planted last year and "dedicated to the visionaries and activists who dedicated countless days, months, and years to protect the Headwaters Forest Reserve," according to a plaque. It feels a bit like a memorial to a long-ago struggle, but to DiPerna and other activists, the fight goes on. The government only acquired 7,500 acres of the 60,000 that activists wanted protected, and DiPerna continues to work to limit the impact of ongoing logging and restore a damaged ecosystem. Nor are the timber wars over for people like Kristi Wrigley, whose family settled on the Elk River in the 1880s outside what is now the Headwaters Forest Reserve. After Pacific Lumber's timber harvesting increased 10-fold in the 1980s, the Elk River began to regularly flood her property as a result of the dirt washed into the stream from the hills where logging continues to this day. "I no longer can farm my apple farm that's been in my family for generations," Wrigley said as we stand on the banks of the south fork of the Elk River, the water muddy with sediment. "We've already had five floods this year and it's only March."
For Scott Greacen, the environmental activist, the green rush is so dangerous because it threatens to push to the point of no return forests devastated by industrial logging. There is, he said, a far more critical use of redwood forests in an era of accelerating climate change: "My deepest hope for the redwood region is that we come to our senses as a society quick enough to say that the highest and best use for this landscape is putting carbon back in the bowels of these big fat organisms that are incredibly good at accumulating it."
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
Oregon may have a reputation for rainy weather, but the outlook for the renewable energy there is definitely sunny.
Earlier this year the state passed legislation that requires utilities to stop generating electricity from coal by 2030. At the time, one of Oregon's two main energy utilities, Pacific Power, predicted that the switch to renewables would come with a fairly high cost, hitting customers with a rate increase of 0.8 percent per year through 2030. That's a cumulative increase of about 12 percent over the next 14 years.
The cost savings come not only from solar energy's increasing efficiency and falling prices for the technology output but from the volume of development.Oregon Department of Transportation
Since then, however, things have changed. After the legislation passed, Pacific Power put out a request for bids for renewable energy projects and developers came back with prices much lower than expected.
How low? Try 0.1 percent through the year 2028. That's not per year, like the previous estimate. It's the projected rate increase for the entire time period.
That amounts to a 10-cent rate increase for every current $100 in electricity costs.
What happened? "When we did our initial analysis of this, we didn't have the latest prices from the markets," said Pacific Power spokesperson Ry Schwark. "We went out in the market and found that there is such an amount of renewable energy coming online in the next couple of years that we were basically able to move our coal-free compliance date up two years to 2028," without much of a rate impact on consumers, he said.
Schwark said the company is preparing contracts with 12 new renewable energy projects—including 11 big solar farms and one wind array—that will come online over the next year and a half. Ten of those sites are in Oregon. (Pacific Power also does business in Washington state and California, although most of its customers are in rural Oregon).
The cost savings come not only from solar energy's increasing efficiency and falling prices for the technology output but from the volume of development. "There are such an amount of renewables coming online across the network that we can get really competitive prices," Schwark said.
Schwark declined to comment on how much Pacific Power will spend to acquire the renewable energy, but data provided by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) showed how much more affordable solar has become over the past few years. "We've seen reported power purchase agreement prices for utilities to buy power from new utility-scale solar projects on the order of $40 to $50 per megawatt hour, which is competitive with electricity generated from existing coal and natural gas plants," said Alex Hobson, a spokesperson for the Washington, DC–based trade group.
"At these prices and as utilities grow more comfortable with the operating characteristics of solar plants, solar will make up an increasingly large share of America's energy portfolio," Hobson said. That's already happening: SEIA's list of major solar projects catalogs more than 3,300 megawatts' worth of utility-scale solar projects that are under construction across the U.S. Another 53,000 megawatts' worth of projects are in development.
Schwark said this is just the first step and that Pacific Power expects to make additional renewable acquisitions as prices continue to fall. That will be necessary, because the coal-free regulations in Oregon also require the state to obtain 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2040. "There are more things we'll need to do over the next 20 years to meet that, but as an initial step this is quite a positive one," he said.
John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion and other publications.
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.