Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Where the wild things are

Cool little story in the New York Times this morning on a mapping project to show where the truly wild places are now. It comes with a popup map of the continental U.S. showing the few places left here.
The work was compiled by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Center for International Earth Science Information at Columbia. Their websites have similar maps for the entire world. As you might guess, the truly wild places tend to be a little on the hot or cold side. Think Canada, Siberia and the Sahara.
In the U.S., four of the most "untouched by human hands" areas are....
-The Jarbridge Wilderness of Nevada
-The Central Idaho Wilderness
-The Endless Mountains and Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania (yes, Pennsylvania)
-and, the Texas Grasslands along the Gulf Coast.

The best way to clean

Follow me here, I really do have a theme today.....
The first involves nature's way of clearing the woods.... fire. The Washington Post takes a look at the debate over whether to suppress or encourage wildfires. We've gone from putting out every fire to what's being called "a culture of fire" in the wild. Is the pendelum swinging too wildly? Or just beginning to swing?
The second comes from a long (trust me, really long) debate that's been going on over on the land trust listserv over whether it's okay to get rid of poison ivy, and if it is, what's the best way to do it? (The consensus seems to be, it's okay in areas where people will come in contact with it. And Round-up works, but paint it on the leaves, don't just spray.) That lead to a debate on the effects of pesticides in general, and Round-up in particular. This reprint from Le Monde raises some interesting questions about Round-up. I've used it around the house as a weed killer, and can attest to its effectiveness. But now with the rise of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's), Round-up may have side effects that haven't been foreseen. Check out the articles and debate amongst yourselves....
See, I told you I had a theme.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Scouting the Sierras

A couple of items of note from the western horizon....
California officials may be close to deciding on a home for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. At least the folks in Auburn, CA hope so. The Auburn Journal reports the headquarters of the conservancy, and the jobs that come with it, may be headed there. The conservancy board wants a location below the snowline.
The new focus may push cities with snowfall, such as Truckee, out of the running. But Colfax, Placerville and Nevada City, three heavy contenders, are still hoping to capture the headquarters.
The conservancy is currently holding a series of six sub-regional meetings. Meetings have been held in Bishop and Susanville, while a third is scheduled for today in Sonora.
Three other meetings will be held at as-yet-undetermined sites. One is scheduled for Sept. 15 in the central region, which includes Placer County.
Crawford Tuttle, deputy secretary for external affairs for the California Resources Agency, said the selection of a headquarters would likely not be made until an executive officer is chosen. That will be the subject of a September board meeting.

Conservation fund started
A fund has been started to honor the memory of one of the driving forces behind the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. The fund honors Dennis Machida, who was executive officer of the California Tahoe Conservancy. The Tahoe Daily Tribune reports..
Machida's widow, Kathie Wong, said they hope to fund projects which need small grants in the range of $500 to $2,000.
They are particularly interested in projects that take advantage of existing community resources and volunteer efforts, as well as environmental education projects.
They will consider proposals from both individuals and groups and from within or outside the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Machida had been the executive officer of the conservancy since 1985. He suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 58 while attending a climate research conference in Montana.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Sagebrush Solution

NY Times' columnist John Tierney is giving a thumbs up to the Grand Canyon Trust and a thumbs down to the Interior Department. Tierney highlights efforts by the Trust to work with ranchers to buy Bureau of Land Management grazing permits from the ranchers in sensitive areas, allowing the ranchers to buy permits in areas that are easier to reach. The ranchers like it, but local leaders and some in the Interior Department aren't so sure it's a good idea.

Turning brownfields green

The executive director of the Long Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy is moving on to try some different.
Here's how Newsday puts it.....
Paul Rabinovich resigned last week as executive director of the Long Island chapter of the Nature Conservancy, but what struck us most was where he's going, not where he's been: to start a real estate company focused on redeveloping brownfields and other sites that could revitalize downtowns.
"I have always been aware in doing this work that while the Nature Conservancy works on one side of that sprawl equation - saving the land before it can be developed - there is another side that I think is equally a strong remedy for sprawling development, and that is to redevelop our downtown areas," Rabinovich told us shortly after he resigned.
For Rabinovich - who spent 11 years at the Nature Conservancy, the last six as its executive director - the move is a return to his roots. His new company, TerraCycle, will be affiliated with the family real estate business founded by his mother. But he's also getting in on what may be the next great movement in real estate: recycling and revitalizing land.
"There are a lot of existing real estate companies that are realizing that there is an untapped market," said Sarah Lansdale, executive director of the nonprofit group Sustainable Long Island, which is putting together a survey of the local brownfields industry. "There are some new national real estate developers that are specifically focused on brownfields redevelopment, some are trying to break into Long Island."
Rabinovich plans offices in Philadelphia - home of the family business - Montclair, N.J., and probably on the East End. About his decision to leave, he said, "It's just the right time personally, but I also think that we need to open a new frontier for environmental action. If we're actually going to have a chance of getting through the next generation on Long Island with a healthy environment, a part of that has to be developing attractive vibrant, affordable downtown areas. ... I'm equally driven by the promise of that as I am by the challenge."

Thursday, July 21, 2005

They say Elvis is dead too.....

Well, the party poopers are doing their thing on the discovery of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker down I-40 from Memphis in the Big Woods. The Uneasy Chair and Sphere have all the links you'd ever want. It'll be interesting to see how this one plays out... but as we know here in Memphis, just because they say Elvis isn't around, it doesn't mean that thousands of fans won't show up here every August anyway. I say let the Lord God Bird live!
The Creepiest Sound You'll Hear Today
Want to hear the sound of the earth splitting apart? That's what you'll hear on this mp3 link from Columbia University. This is how the Earth Institute at Columbia puts it..
When the sea floor off the coast of Sumatra split on the morning of December 26, 2004, it took days to measure the full extent of the rupture. Recently, researchers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory analyzed recordings of the underwater sound produced by the magnitude 9.3 earthquake. Their unique approach enabled them to track the rupture as it moved along the Sumatra-Andaman Fault, raising the possibility that scientists could one day use the method to track underwater earthquakes in near real time and opening new avenues in seismologic research
It takes a few seconds to hear anything, but when it gets going, you'll hear the power of the earth. Truly awsome.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Hither and Yon

A few things that might be of note....
Fellow Kelley Comet Robert Bryce has an article in Slate that puts some numbers to the idea that ethanol is even more of a boondoggle than opponents had thought. Robert, who is now the Managing Editor of World Energy Monthly Review puts it this way..
David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.
The two scientists calculated all the fuel inputs for ethanol production—from the diesel fuel for the tractor planting the corn, to the fertilizer put in the field, to the energy needed at the processing plant—and found that ethanol is a net energy-loser. According to their calculations, ethanol contains about 76,000 BTUs per gallon, but producing that ethanol from corn takes about 98,000 BTUs. For comparison, a gallon of gasoline contains about 116,000 BTUs per gallon. But making that gallon of gas—from drilling the well, to transportation, through refining—requires around 22,000 BTUs.
In addition to their findings on corn, they determined that making ethanol from switch grass requires 50 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol yields, wood biomass 57 percent more, and sunflowers 118 percent more. The best yield comes from soybeans, but they, too, are a net loser, requiring 27 percent more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced. (Neither Pimentel nor Patzek have taken money from the oil or refining industries.) In other words, more ethanol production will increase America's total energy consumption, not decrease it.

The article notes that we would make more of an impact on cutting oil consumption by funneling those billions in ethanol subsidies into solar powar and more fuel efficient cars.
International Paper to restructure
IP has announced a big restructuring that may mean the corporate headquarters could be moving here to Memphis. And it also could mean selling off 6.8 million acres of forest land. IP is currently one of the largest landowners(pdf) in North America, and has been a big proponent of sustainable forestry. Let's hope if the company sells the land, the buyers will want to continue that practice.

Monday, July 18, 2005

TNC says ease up on GOCO

The Colorado state director of The Nature Conservancy is coming to the defense of GOCO (Great Outdoors Colorado). As noted here earlier this month, some legislators have been criticizing GOCO for relying on easements, and not buying land outright. The debate is over whether the original vote that set up GOCO was sold as a land buying mechanism, and whether the current board has a bias against the state holding property. In an op-ed column in Sunday's Rocky Mountain News, Charles Bedford says the criticisms are way off base.
"Starting in 2003, GOCO initiated a rigorous public process that focused state and local agencies and nonprofits on identifying conservation needs and opportunities. Following this call for strategic vision and proposals, they opted not to borrow against Colorado's future. Instead, the organization found creative opportunities to preserve more than 80,000 acres with current resources and without borrowing. GOCO still has the option to bond, but in our mind, GOCO's strategy was bold as well as fiscally responsible.
In the interest of full disclosure, Mr. Bedford probably should have noted that TNC and GOCO have collaborated on projects. But the argument he makes is on the money.

Friday, July 15, 2005

The IRS wants to hear from you...or does it?

The IRS is seeking comments on conservation easements, but it seems to be stacking the deck by the way it asks the questions. The request for comment is straight from the "when did you stop beating your wife?" school of questionaires.
"The IRS would like to hear from members of the public that have questions or comments about abusive transactions involving charitable contributions of easements."
Not, The IRS would like to hear your comments on the conservation easement deduction.... it focuses on abuses.
"In recognition of our need to preserve our heritage, Congress allowed an income tax deduction for owners of significant property who give up certain rights of ownership to preserve their land or buildings for future generations.
The IRS has seen abuses of this tax provision that compromise the policy Congress intended to promote. We have seen taxpayers, often encouraged by promoters and armed with questionable appraisals, take inappropriately large deductions for easements. In some cases, taxpayers claim deductions when they are not entitled to any deduction at all (for example, when taxpayers fail to comply with the law and regulations governing deductions for contributions of conservation easements)."

Want to learn more? The only additional information listed is the Testimony of Steven T. Miller on the Tax Code and Land Conservation or for a different point of view, how about Improper conservation easements (speech by Steven T. Miller)? And who is the impartial Steven T. Miller? He's the IRS Commissioner, Tax Exempt and Government Entities. Well, he'll make sure conservation easements get a positive hearing, won't he? Or if you want to hear from someone besides Mr. Miller, you can check out the news release announcing "dirty dozen" tax scams, including contributions of historic facade easements)
No stacking the deck on this one! Hey IRS, why not include some of the congressional testimony from the land trust leaders? Would that be too balanced?

The Fire Next Time

Did anyone else out there catch P.O.V's documentary "The Fire Next Time" on PBS this week? It was a completely disturbing movie, and an eye opener for me. Here's the synopsis along with other sidebar stories. The film documented two years in the Flathead Valley of Montana, watching the level of animosity grow between "environmentalists" and "loggers". I use quotation marks, because those descriptions don't really do justice to the groups, or the people caught in between. The film also looked at the role talk radio is playing in stirring up things.
I left the film with great admiration for the public officials who were willing to be verbally pummelled without lashing back, without trying to find scapegoats of their own. They were just doing their best to do their jobs. Trying to make the Flathead Valley a place where their children could grow up in peace, and prosper.
So much is going on there. Jobs vs. environment. Class warfare. Intolerance. The world of black and white and no shades of gray in between. Tom Friedman in the NY Times recently wrote about a big change going on in another, even angrier part of the world. In looking at Israel's decision to close Jewish settlements in Gaza, he noted the rise of what he called "the resurgent center". How Israelis have finally gotten sick of the extremism of both sides, and are saying enough is enough. They've decided that eternal conflict is just no way to live.
There's a lesson in there for all of us, from the streets of Memphis to the forests of the Flathead Valley. Tone down the rhetoric. Calm down the emotions. Find the middle ground. It's time for cooler heads to prevail.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Pigs and Perpetuity

The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service are free to keep killing wild pigs on California's Santa Cruz Island. A federal judge declined to stop the practice, which is designed to save a fox native to the island, by wiping out the non-native pigs. As much of a ruckus as this has raised, the program does seem to be achieving its aims. The population of fox pups has hit a record high.
-Another controversy on the other side of the country.... A Rhode Island school district has reached a tentative deal with The Nature Conservancy to build a new elementary school on a 13 acre parcel of land that was originally purchased as "open space".
The Westerly Sun says some are troubled by the decision. The land was originally purchased with $400,000 from TNC and $556,500 in taxpayer money from "open space" bonds. Now the school district wants to to pay $200,000 to TNC.
"In exchange for those funds, the conservancy will agree to let Charlestown use a 13-acre "envelope" of land at the front of the site, along Route 2, to build a new elementary school. And Charlestown will grant the conservancy an easement through that 13-acre parcel.
The council's decision to site a school on an open-space parcel, and to invest further open-space bond funding to develop it for a municipal use, may be considered controversial, just as a town council proposal to fund a portion of the new police station project with open space funds was hotly contested earlier in the year.
Councilor Kate Waterman, a long-time advocate of conservation issues, voted in opposition Monday to her fellow member's choice of site and investment of further funding.
"I guess you can say I'm doing it again, voting on principal and not on practicality. But this (land) was originally purchased for open space purposes. I'm not sure the voters would agree that allowing a municipal use on the site was what they had in mind."
"I cannot help but think that going in this direction is a real danger," said Waterman.
But council President Deborah Carney said the town was lucky that, following successful negotiations with the Conservancy, the parcel ended up as a possible site for the new school. "There's not a lot of properties out there any more with a "big chunk" of land like this," said Carney."

I'm with Ms. Waterman on this one. While it's a good deal for TNC, it seems to be counter to voters original intent. Open space is meant to stay open space. First its a school, then a 'low impact" housing development. Next will be a shopping mall that enhances the tax base. Again, it goes back to the meaning of perpetuity. Does that mean forever, or just until our needs change. If that's the case, what's the point of having a land trust at all?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Want a ranch of your own?

New West has an article on a New Mexico rancher who faces a dilemma. B.W. Cox wants to keep his 30,000 acre Montosa ranch around for future generations, but the immediate future has no interest in ranching. Cox has placed the entire ranch under a conservation easement, and the provisions allow for selling five to seven 640 acre homesites. But there's a catch...
B.W.’s land was appraised at millions of dollars. With the easement, the appraisal is nearly half (still in the millions), but the land stays as it is, in perpetuity, B.W.’s children have a lesser inheritance tax burden, and five very lucky people will get to live here, in some of the most striking country in the world, next door to an elk preserve and the national forest, under the hawks, among the coyotes and cinnamon bears and in the shade of the ponderosas.
The homes are carefully mapped into the landscape, to preserve the open space, the views, archeological sites, elk habitat, and B.W.’s grazing land. His cows will continue to run on the open spaces, and you can’t fence any of your lot except the ten-acre homesite. The rest remains open. Houses need to be modest. There are night sky restrictions. The covenants are carefully written.
But for the whole thing to work, they’ve got to sell the lots. The partners don’t stand to make a dime, after you factor in the legal costs, the real estate agent’s commission and so forth, but for B.W.’s kids, and for the land, they need buyers.

Takers, anyone? Check out the entire article at New West.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Conservation by Invitation

The White House is having a national conference on conservation.... but it's an invitation only affair. The White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation will be held in St. Louis on August 29, 30 & 31st. It's a shame it's not open to a wider audience, because the agenda looks interesting. Participants will look at case studies ranging from urban efforts to rural. Even if you are not an invited participant, you can add a case study that could be added to the agenda. Go to Cooperative Conservation America. The stated reason for the conference is a Presidential Executive Order which directs Federal agencies that oversee environmental and natural resource policies and programs to promote cooperative conservation in full partnership". There's no indication on who has been invited, but the exhibitor's page promises that this historically significant conference offers exhibitors an opportunity to engage with key decision makers in organizations throughout the country. Designed as an invitation only conference to bring together the leaders in environmental conservation policy, this conference is sure to bring value to both the attendees and exhibitors. Since 1908 this is only the fourth time in America’s history that the White House has held an environmental conference. Conference attendees will be making suggestions for the advancement of cooperative conservation. Sounds like quite the deal.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Lost Woodpeckers & other oddities

Update time on the Mid-South's(that's what we TV types call the Greater Memphis area) most famous elusive celebrity since Elvis. An independent radio team has put together a fun story for NPR's All Things Considered on the Ivory Billed Woodpecker hype going on in Brinkley, Arkansas. You can get to the story on NPR, and as an added bonus there's even a song about the woodpecker!
If you've been getting any updates from The Nature Conservancy you know that TNC is using the discovery of the woodpecker as a major fundraising tool. Our local alternative weekly, the Memphis Flyer has a good article (it won't be online until this weekend) out this week on why TNC deserves a good deal of the credit for the discovery.... describing how TNC Arkansas state director Nancy DeLamar spent six years working to preserve the area the bird was found in, and even coming up with the name for the area, the "Big Woods" (which the article notes is a lot better than the previously proposed White River-lower Arkansas River megasite). But one detail I didn't know was that before TNC even had a state office in Arkansas, a coalition of environmentalists and local duck hunters were able to stop a Corps of Engineers plan that would have drained the swamp. Working together, they saved a bird they didn't even know existed.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Libertarian View

A discussion has sprung up at Coyote Blog on some of the recent problems at the Nature Conservancy highlighted here. The post and comments are worth checking out. Thanks for the plug!

Buying Colorado

One of the nation's largest land trust funding organizations, GOCO, which stands for Great Outdoors Colorado, is catching flak for relying primarily on easements as it spends the proceeds from the state lottery. The Rocky Mountain News reports that one state legislator says the board which controls GOCO is spending its money on easements because it has an aversion to acquiring land that would be publicly owned.
"They have broken faith with the voters by de-emphasizing acquisition of land," said state Sen. Dan Grossman, D-Denver. "They don't like the idea of the state holding title to land. If you're not acquiring land, there's no reason to use bonding."
GOCO officials dispute Grossman's characterization. They say they have preserved thousands of acres in the past year and GOCO still will have the capacity to issue bonds in the future. ....."We went through a tremendous amount of work to take care of the most urgent needs in the state," GOCO executive director John Swartout said. "In the Laramie foothills, we were able to buy 50,000 acres (with) cash. We preserved our ability to use that bond funding if we need it."................
"When the voters passed GOCO, they thought it was for the acquisition of land," said state Rep. Tom Plant, D-Nederland. "That's the way it was presented. The people felt they were acquiring land for public use and preservation. Conservations easements can take a number of forms, many of which completely exclude the public."
Grossman said that a preference for conservation easements reflects a hostility toward the public ownership of land on the part of many -GOCO board members, who are appointed by the governor.
"They'd rather see conservation easements," Grossman said. "It reflects the philosophy of the administration."
But Dan Hopkins, spokesman for Gov. Bill Owens, said that Owens has never opposed the purchase of land.
"GOCO has acquired a fair amount of open space during the governor's tenure," Hopkins said. "The governor leaves those decisions to the GOCO board."
Swartout said that GOCO is simply trying to preserve as much land as it can and that using conservation easements makes sense. Paying for a conservation easement is much cheaper than buying property, and Swartout says that much more land can be protected from development that way. He doesn't disguise his annoyance at the criticism of GOCO.
"These politicians are sitting in Denver, making speeches, and we're using the tools that work to preserve land in this state," he said. "Sometimes it's fee title (land purchase), and sometimes it's conservation easements."

No one disputes that GOCO is spending money. Now it may actually know what it has spent all those lotto dollars on. The Rocky also reports GOCO will spend $200,000 to fund a mapping project by Colorado State University's Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory to build a comprehensive map of all the lands now being preserved.
In all, 27 cities and nine counties in Colorado have some kind of open space acquisition program. There are also dozens of land trusts working around the state. They arrange for ranchers and farmers to sell off the development rights to their land, known as "conservation easements." They can keep working the land, and the public can enjoy the wide-open vistas that for many people define Colorado"
The project is expected to take two years.

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