Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Won't be missing 2005

What a year. Hurricanes, War, Global Warming, Pestilence, and now Jon's bailing on The Uneasy Chair. I'm so glad 2005 is heading out the door. I only hope and pray that 2006 is a happier year for everyone.
For many, including my family, 2005 will always be the year of Katrina. The world will be broken down into life before and after the storm. On the human scale, I expect that there will be fewer people living along the gulf coast in 2006. Many of the evacuees just have nothing to return to. I wait to see if this truly will be one of those seminal events that forces all of us to reevaluate how we live with nature, how we protect ourselves, and how we respond to the needs of our neighbors. I fear Katrina will be a harbinger of other, greater challenges we will face from a changing environment.
The Year of Land Trust Reform
2005 will also be a landmark year for land trusts. Under heavy pressure from the Senate Finance Committee, trusts have begun down the road of greater accountability and toward more organizational professionalization. In April, the Finance Committee began its hearings on conservation easements and whether the program had suffered such abuse that it should be shut down. Thankfully, the answer was no. And for that, I credit the effort by the LTA and all of its members to convice the Senate that legitimate trusts want reform. The LTA's accreditation plan and other suggestions accomplished the purpose of providing a roadmap toward greater accountability. (Here's the synopsis I posted explaining the proposed changes.) But those changes may also spell the end for small, local trusts that won't have the resources to comply with the requirements. That sparked a heartfelt debate over the future of the Land Trust Movement. I do think it's inevitable that we will see more land trust bankruptcies as all of this shakes out.
The Year of Alternate Media
2005 has also been the year of the explosion in alternate media. From blogs to Ipods, choices abound. It's been a nervous time for folks like me, who pay the mortgage by working in Mainstream Media. Blogging is fun, but except for a select few it is not a money making proposition. But as in all revolutions, it's both a frightening and exhilarating time. Just by playing around with this little blog I've learned so much about the world that frankly I wouldn't know if I stuck to my normal diet of newspapers, magazines and television. I've also had the chance to meet some fascinating folks in cyber space. I really will miss reading Jon Christensen each day, although he promises not to completely disappear from the scene. Jon's nordic cousin Tom Andersen not only keeps us updated on the latest LNG terminal news but also his hobnobbing with all sorts of critters on Long Island. (My blog's still worth more than yours, Tom!)
Finally, I've met some even more far flung folks, learning about life above the Arctic Circle. Seriously, have you looked to see how far north Arctic Bay really is?.
To those of you who take a few minutes out of your day to check in here, thanks. I hope you've learned a few thing, and that you'll keep stopping by in the new year. Happy 2006 everyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Merry Christmas to All

We're off to Texas for Christmas. If you're still looking for gift ideas, check out The Uneasy Chair for an end of the year list of great book suggestions. I'm sticking with my book suggestion of the year 1491 by Charles Mann. I guarantee you won't look at the natural history of the Americas in the same way again.
In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah and a joyous whatever else you and yours may celebrate.

Preserved But Not Protected

Preserved, but not protected. That's the title of a new report from the Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality (warning, it's a big file). The report outlines the problem of keeping preserved land in its intended state. There's a press release here, as well as a good synopsis in New Times Live. Among the problems...
"The report contains some blatant examples of abuse. One man cut 131 trees down in a state park to improve the view from his nearby home. In Redding, the problem was the opposite, said Mary Ann Guitar, president of the Redding Land Trust, which owns about 1,500 acres.
"We had someone going onto our land planting trees because they didn't like the view they had," she said.
A survey of 78 land trusts in the state showed that the majority of them have seen their lands abused in some way. That often puts the trust land managers, whether volunteers or paid staff, in a tough position.
"We're often trying to protect a piece of property in a town, where maintaining good relationships with people is important," said Hunter Brawley, the manager of the Naromi Land Trust in Sherman, which owns about 800 acres and has conservation easements on another 300 acres. "So you can't take a confrontational approach."
Not every trust has seen such abuse. Bill Montgomery, president of the Swampfield Land Trust in Danbury said it's not had serious problems on its 131 acres.

Another recurring theme is abuse by some ATV riders.
The damage done by people driving all-terrain vehicles takes up a major part of the report.
"Use of ATVs on public and private preserved land is commonplace and it is virtually all illegal," the report says.
"ATVs are catastrophic," said White.
Both White and Brawley said one of the main problems for land trusts is that they often own property that abuts utility line rights-of-way. ATV riders start out on the utility roads, then veer off into the woods.
At the 654-acre Tarrywile Park in Danbury, there's been severe damage to some park trails by ATV riders, said Sandra Moy, the park's director. That forced the city to pass an ordinance banning them on city land she said.
"In the last couple of years, we've had much less ATV damage here," she said. "It may simply be the kids who were coming over here grew up and stopped riding ATVs."

The report also makes several recommendations to help toughen enforcement of existing laws.
"including changing state laws to penalize violators the true cost of the damage they cause. It urges the state Attorney General's office to pursue these cases with much more vigor, and also urges the state to establish a strict "No Encroachment" policy and then enforce it.
The report also urged the General Assembly to increase funding to the state DEP so that it can hire more conservation officers.
DEP spokesman Dennis Schain said the agency now has 24 non-marine conservation officers to patrol all state-owned land. When the boating season ends, Schain said, the 31 marine officers can help out with the patrols.
But the council said that in 1992, the DEP had 32 non-marine officers, which, even then, was considered inadequate to the job. At the very least, Wagener said the General Assembly should aim to getting back to that 1992 level.
"In the short run, that's probably not going to happen," he said. "But it should be the state's goal to get there within the next two or three years."

It should be noted the report deals with problems both on land owned by trusts and the state. Hiring more conservation officers won't help much with the problems on land owned by trusts.
This is a reminder to all in the land trust movement that just accumulating property doesn't do much good, if the money for monitoring and maintaining it isn't there as well.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Willacy's Lunacy

A few more details on Willacy County's (TX) plans to condemn a TNC nature preserve on South Padre Island so the county can have a ferry landing to boost tourism. You might ask, how did we get to the point that the county leaders feel that eminent domain was their only option? The apparent answer is that the county leaders are so utterly incompetent, they have bungled every other option.
An earlier article in the San Antonio Express News has a good timeline on the entire mess. Apparently, this county leaders have been kicking this idea around for years.... but despite having plenty of time to think about it, they haven't exactly worked out the details.
According to the article ...
The county and the local navigation district had intermittent discussions with the Nature Conservancy in 2003 and 2004 about the ferry plan, but (TNC state director Carter) Smith said details were sparse.
"There were some fairly elementary questions we asked and just never received any kind of response," Smith said. "Like how many bathrooms and where would they be placed, and who would accompany people from the ferry landing to the beach?"
The failure to come to an agreement was one of the many issues that prompted the Texas General Land Office in February to terminate a $700,000 grant earmarked for the project.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration awarded Willacy County the money in 2002. But the state Land Office, which administered the money, decided there were too many outstanding issues with the project.
The Land Office cited many reasons for terminating the grant. Chief among them, the amphibious vehicle the county suggested using was authorized by the Coast Guard to go no more than 1,000 feet offshore — well short of the nearly 10 miles needed for the craft to make it to the proposed landing area, Land Office spokesman Jim Suydam said.
Other reasons included the county's lack of a business plan and inability to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
"They mentioned the idea of obtaining the land through condemnation, but NOAA doesn't approve projects through land condemnation," Suydam added. "And condemnation of land to avoid conservation restrictions would also raise some serious reservations from NOAA."

So the county can't even figure out how many bathrooms it would need. It doesn't have the right kind of ferry. It can't come up with a plan that the funding agency can agree to. It has no way to meet federal ADA standards. It doesn't even have a basic business plan. So despite all of that, the county attorney still wants to go to court and forcibly seize 1,500 acres of private property? Uh, well, sure.
County Attorney Juan Angel Guerra said the issue boils down to providing beach access for the residents of his county. And while he admits the project probably won't require all 1,548 acres, he said the commission decided to target the whole preserve, at least initially, "to show them that we are serious about getting access to that part of the county."
They may be incompetent, but at least they're serious. One has to hope that the county leaders will soon come to their senses. Or that if they do go to court, the judge will throw them out on their greedy keisters. But it really is chilling that we could get to this point. One more argument for restricting eminent domain.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Boreal Alternative

While Congress fights over opening ANWR to oil drilling, a coalition of environmentalists, Indian groups and big business are presenting an alternative vision of how to responsibly develop the Canadian Arctic.
A press release out yesterday lays out the latest step in the Canadian Boreal Initiative, an effort to protect 1.4 billion (yes, Billion) acres of the north country.
A leading Canadian investment firm and the world's largest nonprofit conservation organization are endorsing a national
vision that balances protection of ecological and cultural values with responsible economic development across Canada's 1.4 billion acre Boreal forest region, the Canadian Boreal Initiative announced today.
Known as the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, the vision calls for protection of at least 50 percent of Canada's Boreal region and world-class sustainable development practices on the remaining landscape. Today's new signatories - the Ethical Funds Company, Canada's original and largest manager of socially responsible mutual funds and The Nature Conservancy - join the 11 other leading conservation organizations, First Nations, and forestry and energy companies that launched the Framework. Since its launch two years ago, the Framework has been increasingly attracting the attention of Canadian decision-makers, as well as the North American marketplace.

The Ethical Funds is working on lending policies that support the goals of biodiversity protection. The Nature Conservancy is going to be lending its expertise" in science and land use planning, as well as its significant relationships with key industry partners."
So what exactly is the vision? An editorial originally published in USA Today lays it out.
"A sharply focused organization known as the Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI) has emerged as a top-level player in shaping the future of the Mackenzie basin and the course of development across Canada's boreal region - at 1.4 billion acres stretching across the northern brow of the continent, one of the largest contiguous forestlands in the world. Working closely with all the various interests, led by respected conservationists and scientists and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts (a major U.S. public charity that promotes environmental conservation), the CBI has fostered a plan as wide as the boreal landscape itself.
Titled the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, this charter calls for preserving at least 50% of the entire boreal in perpetuity and ensuring ecologically sound, sustainable development of the rest. Instead of preservationists and developers waging an endless series of pitched battles where there are only victories and defeats, the traditional opponents are cooperating as environmental stewards, in conjunction with local and national government agencies. The Mackenzie basin, teetering on the edge of massive change, is a key testing ground that the CBI hopes will supply a workable vision for development across Canada.
The framework's signers agree that Canada's boreal is far more than a convenient, big-box store of raw materials. In fact, the boreal's primary value might well be environmental. It's one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, in essence a massive air filter that pulls billions of tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locks it into the peaty soil. And, to make the point more concrete that Canadians and Americans share that same air and have a highly vested interest in that fact, consider that more than 325 American bird species, as many as 3 billion birds in all, migrate to the boreal to feed and raise their young each spring. Up to 17% of the birds at backyard feeders in the lower 48 states and 38% of waterfowl are equally Canadian. Without the boreal, they wouldn't exist.

The Boreal Initiative is interesting because it may offer a template for the use of other wild areas around the world, including the U.S. It will be worth watching to see how this development plan develops.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Nature Preserve Facing Condemnation

In what is being called an unprecedented action, a county in Texas has begun condemnation proceedings against an entire nature preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy on South Padre Island. The issue is over a plan to open a ferry service between the mainland and the island in an attempt to foster tourism. TNC has owned the 1,500 acre preserve on the island for five years, and wants to maintain the pristine condition of the wilderness area. Willacy County officials see the wild island as a tourist draw, and need a 3 to 5 acre site on the island for a ferry landing. Without the site, no state money would be available for the service. So after a stalemate, the county is pulling out its big option, eminent domain.
According to the Houston Chronicle TNC's state director is outraged.
''They're proposing to condemn an entire nature preserve, which is without precedent in this state," said Carter Smith, the group's state director. ''It's alarming, especially for all of us who care about protecting the barrier island and the Laguna Madre."
''I'm not aware of any instance in the Nature Conservancy's 40-year history in Texas in which a local government has attempted to condemn a nature preserve," Smith said. ''We will be fighting this vigorously."

"Conservancy officials said that in the past, they and county officials discussed access to the preserve, which lines the south side of the Port Mansfield channel.
But county officials then would provide few details of their plans, Carter said.
Carter called the threatened condemnation ''a real assault on the sanctity of private property rights and private land conservation in this state."
County leaders said there is no intent to offer any Conservancy land for private development, which would violate a new state law that placed restrictions on land condemnation by Texas governmental bodies.
Gov. Rick Perry allowed the Texas eminent domain legislation to be added to a special legislative session this summer. Perry's decision came after a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Connecticut case that upheld a city's authority to condemn private homes and then sell the property to commercial developers as part of an effort to increase jobs and expand the city's tax base.
Willacy officials say they only want access to the nearby island by water so that local residents, schoolchildren and winter tourists who don't own boats can visit the undeveloped beaches."

So why does the county want to access to this section of the island? Because the rest of the island is owned by the Federal Government as part of the South Padre National Seashore, and the county's plan has already been shot down by the Interior department.
"Earlier this year, officials with the Padre Island National Seashore, which owns the land on the north side of the Port Mansfield channel, rejected the county's request to unload ferry passengers on parkland.
The 1,500-acre island preserve is part of a 24,500-acre tract the Nature Conservancy purchased for $7.5 million from a Houston firm, after plans for a large-scale residential and marina development on the site failed. The conservation group sold, at below its cost, the majority of the island acreage to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand an existing federal wildlife refuge.
The proposed condemnation has angered environmental groups along the coast.
"They (Willacy County) shouldn't take over a private sanctuary," said Patricia Suter, chair of the Coastal Bend Chapter of the Sierra Club. ''They're trying to take too much."

This story should send a shudder down the spine of anyone who supports land trusts and the job they do. Or anyone who thinks that private property should remain private. This is wrong on so many levels, and I can only hope that Willacy County leaders will soon realize just how wrong this is.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Woodpecker Part Deux

The hunt for the elusive Ivory Billed Woodpecker is underway again across the Mississippi River from here. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has sent out a press release announcing that the birdwatchers are back... and this year it's not going to be the secret mission it has been until last year's successful sighting.
With the arrival of volunteer searchers, the 2005-2006 Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project is now fully staffed and going full steam ahead. The current field season continues through April, 2006. The search is being led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, The Nature Conservancy, and Audubon Arkansas, with the support and cooperation of other members the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team.
"This is an exciting opportunity to better document the existence and learn more about this magnificent bird," said Sam D.
Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Now that the leaves have fallen, conditions are much improved for seeing and hearing the birds. Finding birds is a critical part of the recovery process and we're hoping for some exciting news."
Twenty-two search team leaders, coordinators, supervisors, andfield technicians have been working in eastern Arkansas since November 1. More than 100 volunteers will now be joining the search, and will be deployed in groups of 14 for two week periods through the remainder of the field season. The goal is to find an ivory-bill roost hole or nesthole and get additional video documentation of the bird or birds-all in the hope of learning more about the species to bring the ivory-bill back from near-extinction.
"Since the ivory- bill's rediscovery, The Nature Conservancyhas acquired for protection some 18,500 acres of critical habitat andworked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add 1,440 acres to the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge - where the bird was firstspotted," said Scott Simon, director of The Nature Conservancy's Arkansas chapter. "The more data gathered about the number and location of ivory bills living in Arkansas , the more we can do to protect this fragile habitat and make sure this incredible bird survives forgenerations to come. Because of the great cooperation of many agencies
and organizations focusing on habitat conservation, we have a chance to recover the ivory bill."

And according to the press release, the Big Woods of Eastern Arkansas isn't the only place that may be seeing flocks of Ivory Billed Birdwatchers this winter...
Searches in Arkansas are planned for White River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Cache River NWR, Dagmar Wildlife Management Area (WMA), Black Swamp WMA, Wattensaw WMA, and Benson Creek Natural Area. Other teams are starting to organize scouting trips to follow-up on Ivory-billed woodpecker sightings from across the southern United States
in the former range of the bird. This may involve work in South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Texas, but will depend on a review of what is believed to be the best habitat, along with credible recent sightings.
Searchers will use traditional tools, such as binoculars and digital cameras, as well as high-tech methods that include Autonomous Recording Units (ARUs), sophisticated sound-analysis software, time-lapse video
systems, and remote cameras. Human searchers will make their way through the bayous by canoe and on foot, looking for promising tree cavities. They will also be conducting transect searches with the aid of GPS units. At other times they will be sitting quietly in blinds, observing. Scouts will be looking for suitable ivory-bill habitat, assisted by NASA satellite photos that will help them focus on promising areas more quickly.
"The volunteers are vital to the search effort," says Dr. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "Without
them there's no way we could scour such a large area for ivory-bills. These folks are field biologists and avid birders-all of them giving up their time to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime recovery project."

So birders, that sounds like an open invitation to come on down and sit in a cold, wet swamp and test your wits against our most elusive neighbor.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Adding Pictures

I'm just back from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and armed with my (and my wife's) early Christmas gift... I will attempt to begin the next revolution in Nature Noted world history..... pictures! Yes I know I'm behind the rest of the world on this technology stuff... but a step at a time.
The pictures here are various shots of what used to be downtown Bay St. Louis. The destroyed buildings are all along Beach road... at least what used to be Beach road.

The final shot is of one of the encouraging signs of life... the railroad bridge across the Bay of St. Louis is almost ready for trains. If only the transportation department in charge of fixing the highway bridge moved with as much urgency as CSX.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Oaks of Memory

The human toll of Hurricane Katrina has been well documented.... althought I fear that most Americans have moved on and aren't aware of just how slowly the reconstruction is taking. But there are glimmers of hope. One is the effort to save one of the coast's most treasured landmarks... the live oak. The Live Oak Rescue Mission is trying to save the beauties.
The Live Oak Rescue Mission is a joint venture between the Land Trust for Mississippi Coastal Plain, The Home Depot Foundation and many other state and federal agencies.
The goal is to nurture the centuries-old trees back to health by replacing the soil Katrina took away and applying a hefty dose of water, mulch and care.
"You'll find many people's memories of life here are tied into these trees," Land Trust Executive Director Judy Steckler said. "They have a huge emotional value for people in this community."
Volunteers began site restoration Nov. 29 along Beach Boulevard in Pascagoula, and have since restored more than 300 trees from Pascagoula to Ocean Springs.
Steckler says an estimated 200 more Live oaks still need restoration across the Coast. The entire project is scheduled for completion within two weeks.
The Home Depot Foundation is funding the majority of the project in cooperation with Land Trust and the U.S. Forest Service. The foundation has already donated more than $2 million for recovery efforts, on top of the $10 million The Home Depot has donated.

The Live Oaks are truly landmarks for the coast, and symbols of stability which are sorely needed now.
After my mom died, my cousins pitched in to buy the naming rights for her on one of the beautiful oaks on the property of the Episcopal church in Bay St. Louis. I have a picture of my daughter standing next to the tree, with the name of the grandmother she never met above her. The little tag on the tree is gone now, the church is washed away as well. All that is left is the slab and the oaks. Among them, mom's tree. Like the memories, the oaks live on.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Skywalk to Nowhere

Have you heard about the Grand Canyon Skywalk? It's a project by the Hualapai Nation of Arizona to create a new tourist destination at the Grand Canyon. Nature Noted reader Peggy Hall is not impressed. And you probably won't be either after you read about Peggy's experience checking out Grand Canyon West. Thanks for sharing, Peggy.

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