Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Monday, October 31, 2005

PERC moves

Well, at least Dominic's Parker study on conservation easments has moved. Apparently PERC has moved some things on its site around. To read the paper, try I confess I still haven't gotten too far into it, but here's the synopsis provided by the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Public funding mechanisms that encourage full accountability and transparency while also providing trusts with flexibility to use their discretion have the best potential, says Parker. This could be done by:
-Increasing oversight of the easement appraisal process; the nonprofit Land Trust Alliance has proposed an accreditation system that would certify land trusts who want to receive donated conservation easements and certified land trusts would use accredited appraisers.
-Replace federal tax breaks with a competitive grant program that requires trusts to raise matching funds from private sources and local government; ideally, 75 percent or more of the total cost of the conservation easement would be paid by the recipient organization.

Friday, October 28, 2005

PERC's take on Conservation Easements

PERC has released its comprehensive look at the use of Conservation Easements by Land Trusts. The study by Dominic Parker is available as a free download. I don't have enough time before work this morning to give you a synopsis, but hope to get into it later. Thanks to the eagle-eyed Mr. Bryce for the tip.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A fine, fine year

I think I could have scripted a slightly better ending to the Astro's first ever World Series... but even with the sweep it was still a magical year. On the upside, I should get some more sleep over the next few days.... Bring back day games!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hil

There have been a few tidbits put out about the Land Trust Rally.... and the ones I have seen have been very positive. A letter posted on the landtrust listserv about the discussion with the IRS commissioner and staffers. The upshot... the IRS is no longer "out to get" trusts, and understands that conservation easements are not just tax scams. It appears the intensive education efforts by both trusts AND the IRS have paid off. Both sides now understand what the other is trying to do, and both are now working towards a common goal. That's a big positive.
Another good insight comes from Dan Barringer over at Crow's Nest Preserve for his notes on the Rally. Particular thanks for the link to the keynote address by William Cronan, who is the Frederick Jackson Turner
& Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Cronan also focuses on the idea of working toward a common goal, Cronan talks about the idea that land trusts protect more than just the wild places of the world..
"But today I want to argue that the natural places we protect need also to be described and understood as cultural landscapes. In the United States , we typically arrange these along a continuum as follows:
City > Suburb > Working Landscapes > Wilderness
One of the reasons I'm proud to be on the board of the Trust for Public Land is TPL's great insight, which it embodies as well as any organization I know, that if we fail to protect nature in all of these cultural landscapes, we will fail to protect nature in any of them. TPL has always had the wisdom to recognize that none of these is more important than any of the others. It seems to me that this insight is shared by the land trust movement in general, and expresses one of our most important core values.
Why do I say this? Because the protection of nature is a cultural project, not just a biological one.Whether we protect deep wilderness or an inner city community garden, from a human cultural point of view we are protecting a human symbol of nature. These symbols are crucial in reminding us of the nature that is all around of us, crucial in reconnecting us to the natural world, crucial in helping us raise children to care for the world that sustains us all.
And let's not forget: these cultural landscapes, from wilderness through working landscapes to the inner city, are equally crucial to sustaining the national political consensus that protecting land and environment is among our most vital commitments as a nation.
So what I want to offer you as we prepare to depart is that land trusts are in the business not just of conserving lands, not just of protecting ecosystems and ecological services, not just of preserving biodiversity...but of conserving the human values those lands embody.
These values are the reason why our society has created technical tools like conservation easements and special tax treatments for agricultural and undeveloped lands: we have declared a public commitment to the public good that is served by such tools.

Cronan quotes John Winthrop's Puritan idea of America as the "Citty upon a Hill" to argue what a community united in God and common purpose can achieve. And Cronan stresses that it is only by being united that we can achieve our common goal.
"Why is it important for all of us involved in land conservation to remember that the work we do is about affirming core American values?
I have many answers to this question, but today I will simply point to the troubling loss of bipartisanship that has come to characterize our national political life vis-à-vis conservation and environmental protection since the heady days of the 1970s when it seemed that everyone was eager to call themselves an "environmentalist." By some measures, the percentage of Americans who willingly attach that label to themselves has dropped below 20%, even though a very large majority of Americans still say that they strongly support environmental protection.
For most of the twentieth century, both of our national political parties, Democrats and Republicans alike, strongly supported conservation and environmental protection, albeit with different emphases and different policy strategies. Most of our greatest conservation achievements, from the founding of the national parks to the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act to the flood of legislation that now provides most of our legal framework for environmental protection at the national level, was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
We too often forget that most of our key federal statutes for environmental protection date from the Nixon Administration, and were passed with large majorities because of fierce competition between a Republican White House and a Democratic Congress over which was more committed to environmental protection.
That competition essentially came to an end in the 1980s, and the consequences have not been good for the environment, for our national politics, or for our core values as a nation.
The history of these changes is far too complicated for me to narrate today, but I can easily summarize one obvious cause.
The late twentieth century saw a conservative reaction against the state in defense of American ideas of liberty.
It is vital to remember that this American suspicion of state power goes back to the Revolution itself, which was anti-statist and libertarian in many important ways. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights both reflect deep anxieties about the potential tyranny of state power.
The conservative reaction against environmentalism in 1980s arguably flowed from this source. It represented not a failure to love the land, but a fear that the environmental laws and regulations of the 1970s at least potentially represented a new form of state tyranny.
The collapse of bipartisan support for environmentalism (which to my mind is among the greatest losses to our national politics in the past quarter century) was primarily a reaction not against nature, not against the environment, not against the American land, but against centralized government power and its feared abuse.
I do not intend to take a position today regarding the conservative reaction against state power as expressed in environmental law, nor do I want to criticize the Republican Party for moving away from its longstanding tradition of environmental protection.
Instead, I want to express regret that the two parties no longer compete nearly as much as they once did over their commitment to environmental protection.
We all suffer from this change in our politics.
In my view, it is little short of a national disaster for the environment to look as if it is somehow a one-party issue.
It is also very far indeed from being an accurate reflection of core American values: all Americans love their land.

We do love our land, and we all want a bright future. Working together is the only way to get there.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

It is a bad, bad virus

I've been distracted here at Nature Noted in recent weeks. First, baseball is taking up much more of my time than normal (Go Astros) but I've also been morbidly fascinated by the growing concern over Avian Flu. One of the wonderful things we're blessed with here in Memphis is the presence of St. Jude Children's Hospital. The main mission of the hospital is to treat childhood cancer. But it is also a top-flight research center, complete with Nobel Prize winners. It also happens that one of the top influenza experts in the world is here as well, Dr. Robert Webster. Earlier this week, Webster held a news conference here, that frankly, scared the bejesus out of me.
Webster has been studying the influenza virus for the past 30 years. He and his team at St. Jude have developed a vaccine against the H5N1 virus that can be used in birds, but so far, not in humans. Webster speaks in a slow, measured British accent, and says completely frightening things very matter of factly. Such as....

-Avian flu is coming. It's not a matter of if, but when.
-This strain of the virus has a 50% mortality rate.
-It will probably first show up in Alaska and then the West Coast, carried by wild ducks. And if does mutate to humans, it will be as near as your closest international airport.
-The United States is absolutely not prepared for this.
-Everyone should be prepared to stay inside, in a personal quarantine for as long as seven months.

Webster is watching the mutations in the virus, currently in Asia, with alarm...
"But I am very, very concerned it will achieve the last few mutations that will allow it to spread from human to human," Webster said. "This is the worst influenza virus I have ever encountered."
Webster, who has studied flu viruses for decades, also directs the World Health Organization's U.S. Collaborating Center, which focuses on the ecology of animal flu viruses.
Webster noted that unlike most flu viruses, this one kills the ducks that normally serve as its host. It also has killed tigers and cats that were fed chickens carrying the virus. And, while most flu viruses will give ferrets the sniffles, this virus spreads to their brains, causing paralysis and death.
"It is very scary. It is a bad, bad virus."

His advice on personal quarantine only underscores his concern. He says everyone should have enough supplies to stay inside for at least a month, possibly longer. He also advises getting a flu shot.
The flu shot will reduce someone's disease risk now and chances of sparking the next pandemic.
One pandemic scenario involves the bird flu virus picking up the genetic information it needs to spread easily in humans through the chance infection of someone who is also infected with a human flu virus.
Webster said getting a flu shot means "you have less chance to be the mixing vessel.
"All my staff have been vaccinated.

Since the news conference, my wife and I have talked about scenarios. It would be easy enough to pull our daughter out of school, and Robin's painting business can go on hold. But I'd still need to go to work. Do I quarantine myself in a different part of the house from the girls, stock up on masks and germ fighting soap, and hope for the best? Scary stuff.
When encountering the new and scary, the first think I do is read up on it.
I'm in the middle of the excellent The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry. You'll learn not only about the deadly pandemic of 1918, but also how influenza jumps from animals to humans, why it can be so deadly or so mild, and how it mutates. You'll also learn about the history of modern american medicine and why Woodrow Wilson's way of waging war spread the 1918 strain around the world.
My advice... learn what you can, and be vigilant. If we're lucky, this one won't mutate, and this will be just another one of those scares like swine flu back in the '70's. But if it does come, you'll want to be as ready as you possibly can.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Astros in the World Series

I'm usually an optimist by nature. Except when it comes to sports. When you grow up as a Houston Astros fan, you're used to seeing defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. When Albert Pujols hit the homerun the other night, I just knew it was all over. My wife had much more faith than I did tonight. She just knew they were going to win. I just knew I was in for another heartbreak. I love it when she's right.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Rally side trip

Dan Barringer is in Madison for the LTA rally, but he is taking a sidetrip to visit one of the shrines of the land trust movement, Aldo Leopold's Wisconsin farm that was the setting for "A Sand County Almanac". It's a nice trip.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Land Trust or Tour Guide?

Is it education or influence peddling? Legitimate lobbying or buying a vote? The Nature Conservancy and a Connecticut Congresswoman are catching flak for a trip to Ecuador. The Hartford Courant is reporting on the reaction to the news that TNC paid for a jaunt to the Galapagos Islands to check out the Conservancy's work there. So what's the big deal?
The Nature Conservancy, which gets millions of dollars in federal money to help fund its conservation projects, spent $17,900 to send Rep. Nancy L. Johnson and her husband to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands to observe its work.
The nonprofit group spent $4,400 on lodging, $1,200 for meals and $12,300 in transportation expenses for the couple's trip, which began May 28 and ended June 5.
Johnson said the excursion was highly productive and typical of others she has taken throughout her 22-year House career. "I pick knowledge-based trips. I ask myself whether this is a subject I need to know about," she said, "and whether I'll be a better congressman if I know more........

Johnson's trip also sparked criticism from Washington watchdogs. William Allison, editor-at-large at Washington's Center for Public Integrity, which studies congressional travel, had questions about the Nature Conservancy's sponsorship.
He asked why an agency that relies on money from the U.S. Agency for International Development, or AID, would take Johnson and three other House members on such a trip.
"I know money is fungible, but the Nature Conservancy gets federal money, so the question is whether taxpayer money is funneled through them for lobbying," Allison said.
Jim Petterson, Nature Conservancy spokesman, said no government funds are used for the trips. "There's a very bright line we don't cross," he said.
The Nature Conservancy, which gets about $42 million in federal government grants per year, spent a total of $64,227 on the trips of the members - Johnson and Reps. John M. Spratt, D-S.C., Sam Johnson, R-Texas, and Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., - and their spouses.
Asked why Johnson's husband, Ted, came along at Nature Conservancy expense, Petterson said that the trip came during a 10-day Memorial Day congressional recess.
"In order to get folks to see such far-flung places that matter so much in terms of conservation, you need to give them time to spend time with their families," he said.

Aw, that's sweet. The Nature Conservancy, working to keep Congressional Families together. Ok, that's a little harsh. Actually Johnson did get to see what TNC is doing in Ecuador.
Johnson and her companions flew to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and from there went to the Condor Bioreserve project outside the city. The 5.4-million-acre site, home to the endangered Andean condor, spectacled bear and mountain tapir, is the source of much of Quito's drinking water, and efforts are underway to protect its parklands.
The Nature Conservancy's Parks in Peril program helps the project and gets between $5 million and $7 million in AID funds per year. The program's funding authority will expire in the next fiscal year.
Johnson said she found that the Nature Conservancy brings together local people in a way the U.S. government cannot. "They can develop relationships with indigenous people," the congresswoman said, "and they use employees who are Ecuadorian, people deeply knowledgeable about preservation and conservation."

There's no doubt TNC is a major enterprise, and one that relies on tax dollars to fund its big budget projects. And we all know the way Washington works. So, I guess no one should be surprised that big players like TNC play the game. Still, it's sad that the game has to be played at all.

The Land Trust Alliance begins its annual Rally in Madison, WI this weekend. I can't make it up, but I'll be interested to hear how it goes. Next year the Rally is in Nashville, so hopefully I can make it over. If you have stories, please share!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Supreme Court Wades In

The Associated Press is reporting the Supreme Court has agreed to consider restricting the government's ability to regulate wetlands.

In one of three cases that will be argued at the court next year, a Michigan man, John A. Rapanos, was convicted of violating the Clean Water Act for filling his wetlands with sand to make the land ready for development. He also lost a civil suit, which is at issue in his appeal.
In a second case, justices will decide if the Army Corps of Engineers had the authority to restrict the development of a condominium in MacComb County, Mich. The government contends the work could pollute Lake St. Clair, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Erie.
Justices also agreed to hear a third case involving the same law, the 1972 Clean Water Act. It was filed by the owner of hydroelectric dam projects in Maine which provide electricity for the company's paper mill. Lawyers for S.D. Warren Co. argue that the company should not be required to get permits for some of its
The cases are Rapanos v. United States, 04-1034, Carabell v. Army Corps of Engineers, 04-1384, and S.D. Warren Co. v. ME Board of Environmental Protection, 04-1527.

This will be the first big environmental test of the Roberts' court.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Astros Win!

Forgive the aside, but I'm still in shock. I've been a Houston Astros' fan since I was nine. I went to games in the dome, even the last game. My wife and I even had season tickets at Enron (yes you can boo) field. Our seats were in the outfield Crawford boxes, about five rows from where Chris Burke's homerun in the 18th inning landed today. I still can not believe they actually won. From the Phillies in '80, to the Mets in '86, to a series of Braves' teams, the Astros have always managed to break my heart. They probably still will. But today.... oh, my. What a game!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Signs of Hope

With all the bad news recently, I thought it might be nice to highlight a couple of positive developments. First, let's travel to an unlikely place for a nature blog.... The Vatican. While fights over homosexuality and celibacy are getting the headlines, a gathering of the world's Roman Catholic bishops is also looking closely at how respect for the environment is integral to being a Catholic. According to John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter, bishops from the developing world are pushing for linking the Eucharist with ecology.
“Climactic change presents a serious threat to world peace. It is an authentic ‘sign of the times’ that demands of us an ‘ecological conversion,’” said Archbishop Pedro Ricardo Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru, on Oct. 4.
“The church has a huge responsibility in this spiritual field,” said Barreto Jimeno, a Jesuit.
“As ‘fruit of the earth’, the bread and the wine represent the creation which is entrusted to us by our Creator,” Barreto Jimeno said. “For that reason the Eucharist has a direct relationship with the life and hope of humanity and must be a constant concern for the church and a sign of Eucharistic authenticity.”
“[In] the Archdiocese of Huancayo, the air, the ground and the basin of the river Mantaro are seriously affected by contamination,” he said. “The Eucharist commits us to working so that the bread and wine be fruit of ‘a fertile, pure and uncontaminated land.’”
Bishop Gabriel Peñate Rodríguez, Apostolic Vicar of Izabal in Guatemala, made much the same argument in his Oct. 5 intervention.
“Guatemala is a country menaced by mineral exploitation,” Peñate Rodríguez said.
“Many licenses have been granted in this field to companies from developed countries who do not guarantee the care of the environment, and show no respect for the rights of the indigenous communities; and that are not fair in the distribution of profits, from which they leave hardly one per cent in form of royalties.”
Using much the same language as his fellow Latin American Barreto Jimeno, Peñate Rodríguez issued a plea: “We also hope that the bread that is converted in the body of the Lord and the wine which is converted into his blood may be fruit of a fertile, pure and uncontaminated land,” he said.

For those of you a little fuzzy on the meaning of Eucharist in the Catholic sense, this is a big deal. Catholics (as you might guess, I'm one) believe that bread and wine becomes literally the body and blood of Christ during the Consecration of the Mass. (known as Transubstantiation.) It's a central part of being a Catholic. So linking care for the environment to the Eucharist means that Church leaders understand the seriousness of the challenge ahead of us.
By the way, I realize that more than a few environmentalists (maybe most) don't consider themselves to be religious. Many people reading this might think the previous paragraph is just so much mumbo jumbo. That's fine. Just because I believe in it doesn't mean you have to, too. But the import is this. In recent months, there has been much discussion about broadening the base of active environmentalists. Now leaders of the world's largest religious denomination have announced they want to join the fight. Just a guess, but I'd say this is a pretty good opportunity to find common ground with a whole bunch of folks.
From the Religious to the Secular
And there's been an interesting back and forth recently over at DailyKos with Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. Again, for the uninitiated, Daily Kos is an influential Democratic blog, one that Dave Roberts over at Gristmill has lamented doesn't pay enough attention to environmental matters. Gov. Schweitzer recently proposed that making synthetic fuels from coal could be an answer to the country's energy future. One Daily Kos blogger took issue with the plan, saying that the Governor was understating the environmental cost of the conversion.
Now, Schweitzer, in what is becoming a very smart political tactic, is talking back directly to the bloggers with a strong, direct defense of his plan. It's worth reading, and the proposal is pretty interesting.
Okay, there you have it. Where else are you going to learn about the ins and outs of both the Eucharist and synthetic fuel all in one place?!

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Indian Land Trust

Something interesting is going on with the Oneida Indian Nation and a big chunk of land in New York State. I don't fully understand all the ins and outs (but that's never stopped me before), so if someone else is more informed on this, please chime in. According to an article in the Oneida (NY) Dispatch the Oneida tribe has applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to place 17,000 acres of tribal owned land into a land trust. The tribe's application means the Federal Government is now giving local officials 30 days for their comments on the deal. The local folks apparently are none too pleased, because that would take the land off the local tax rolls.
Nation officials issued a statement saying they are following the direction of the United States Supreme Court's decision in the Oneida Indian Nation of the State of New York vs. the City of Sherrill case earlier this year, which advised them to apply to put their land into trust.
"The Nation is pleased the process is moving forward because it will resolve a number of issues in dispute with the counties and the State," the statement read.
(Madison County Board of Supervisors Chairman Rocco ) DiVeronica said he was surprised at how fast the Nation applied for the trust, because he received indications that it would be a much slower process. He added that he also wants to know why the acreage is so large on the application
"The question would be: Do they need all that land for 600 to 700 Native Americans to support their tribe?" DiVeronica said.

So what's so interesting about this? As I read it, the Oneida tribe used to live in this part of New York State (Hence the name of the town and the paper.) But as with most Indian tribes, they were forced out of their traditional lands into smaller and smaller pieces of land farther and farther west. Those who left signed papers giving up their claims to their land. So the tribe split into a community in Canada, one in Wisconsin, and one in New York. But then, one day, Indian tribal gaming arrived. And so did lots and lots of money. Now the Oneidas are trying to buy up the traditional lands they left behind in the early 1800's. But the Supreme Court Ruling apparently (and I could be wrong on this one) means that they can't buy up new land, and then declare it to be tribal land, free of local jurisdictions. So, they're trying the next best thing. Make it a land trust, and stop paying taxes to those local jurisdictions.
But it's not just the local non-Indian officials who are upset. Apparently, the move by the Wisconsin tribal members has New York Oneida's angry too, who see it as a land grab. There's a terrific series of reports on the Oneidas in the Wisconsin Post-Crescent. The Oneidas have become a gaming powerhouse, and have proposed a controversial casino in Pueblo, Colorado. The Pueblo Chieftain has also done a series on the tribe's expanding fortunes and reach. (Funny how all these Indian names suddenly mean something again.)
And you can tell there must be a lot of money involved, because now Congress wants to get involved. Republican Rep. Richard Pombo, who chairs the House Committee on Resources, which maintains jurisdiction over Native American issues, has announced he plans to bring a resolution to local communities and Indian tribes. Stay tuned.

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