Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Environmental Justice and hunting groups together? Why not!

These two groups are about as far from each other on a traditional political spectrum as can be, but the political spectrum is irrelevant to conservationism. First, a little background:

By "hunting groups", I mean to include those organizations whose original impetus for creation came from hunting. In my mind, this includes folks like The Wild Turkey Foundation, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, the California Waterfowl Association, etc. These groups are largely made up of older white males, people who care deeply about hunting as a tradition and the wild as a necessary component to humanity. These are people who often cradle baby chicks in their hands, understand animal husbandry as well as shooting, and think hard about a conservation ethic.

By "environmental justice groups", I mean to include those organizations whose original impetus for creation came from an outrage against pollution in their immediate communities. This includes groups like Citizens Against Waste, the Coalition for Clean Air, the Verde Group, the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, etc. These groups are largely made up of poor and disenfranchised folks who have organized out of a sense of outrage and a desire to protect their towns, neighborhoods, and children. These are people who see lung cancer rates in some places at 1,000 times the national average, folks with a quarter of their kids suffering from asthma, people who are literally fighting to keep other people's poop from being dumped on them.

Now, these two cliques, as radically different as they seem on the surface, share some remarkably deep traits. Both grew out of battles against huge businesses and business trends, fighting and beating major corporate interests. Both have a deep sense of conviction and an evangelical streak when it comes to their passion. And both serve large, more socially conservative constituents who enjoy the outdoors.

Hunting groups tend to forget just how radical were their ideas when first proposed: Huge tracts of land taken completely off the market, owned and managed by the government or quasi-governmental institutions and run by volunteers, not profit; species and entire habitats protected from hunting; water quality improvements forced on major companies. Many hunters can, with pride, talk about the conservation efforts of the hunting community and our conservation forefathers like TR and George Grinnell, but doing so means that we are proud to support government efforts that curbed business interests for the greater common good.

On the other hand, many EJ groups represent constituents who trend more socially conservative than the typical environmental policy analyst. EJ communities tend to be deeply religious, are usually one generation or less from the farm or the wilds, and carry a strong fishing and hunting tradition. Today, many folks who live in EJ communities can be found fishing local ditches for carp and bass, hunting the National Forest and BLM lands for deer, squirrel, and quail, and, increasingly, showing up at the local wildlife refuges for ducks and geese.

Now is a great time for these two communities to get into active conversations and cooperative arrangements, and two places where this seems a natural fit are in community/youth outreach, and work on public policy. Both groups are fighting to stay relevant to young people, and each group has something to offer the other - they both currently cater to very different people, yet these people could mesh well. Setting up information booths at each others' outreach events would be a great start, with each group bringing their strength: EJ groups, bring the kids, urban youth, and their parents, who know how to hunt and know the land; hunting groups, bring baby birds, bring recipes and sausages and video of ducks and deer. Heck, bring guns - people like to shoot guns, it's fun.

The political policy realm may be a bit trickier for these two groups, as they tend to fall on different sides of the political spectrum, but there are many common goals, and their political tendencies can result in some major victories. My recommendation? Work on a local public lands access issue or clean-up effort. These make for good media, and can bring together pretty diverse people for a common, and reachable, goal.

In our current economic climate, conservation efforts are going to take a hit, both at the public policy and individual levels. Cooperative efforts are vital at this point, and they are also vital in the long run. These two groups have important things to share, and their cooperation could take the establishment by surprise and by storm. It would be just in time.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Making Lemons out of Lemonade

I don't normally post about my hunting experiences, per se, but I thought I should mention that I've had about the driest hunting year of my entire life. Five (count 'em, five!) days in blinds over rice fields has led to two shovelers, one wigeon, and one mallard. I was only able to dove hunt for two hours or so, and took two doves. My deer hunting was a complete bust (with the exception of seeing a gopher grab a tall, slender grass stalk and suck it into the ground), my pheasant hunting for six hours yielded me zero birds. However, these numbers, though frustrating (especially since I'm hooked on Hank Shaw's blog, and now I'm always hungry) are not depressing or sad. But, I have had a more depressing season, and it's my human experiences that have been different.

My one chance at taking geese this year came crashing down with a great crescendo when a newbie in my blind thought he knew better than the more experienced of us, and jumped up early without being told by the caller (me), shooting at birds at least 80 yards out. If you have never tried calling in birds, it can be tough. If you have never been in a goose or duck blind, then please take this away: You do whatever the caller tells you to do (if she says to balance an empty shotgun shell on your head and dance a jig, do, and ask about it later), and, in every instance, in every case, every time, you wait for the caller to tell you to, "take 'em!" My other human events include a depressing hunt for planted birds, and coming upon some free, public land that had been trashed with washing machines and 12 gauge shells, but yesterday at Yolo Bypass takes the cake.

Upon walking into the office at the hunting entrance to Yolo, I asked about an afternoon hunt. The young attendant, disgracing his DFG uniform, talking while eating nuts and rarely taking his eyes off the basketball game, made a sideways remark to me that they don't allow any more hunters after 3. It was 3:15. His callousness, disrespect and indifference was completely unnerving. Though pretty mad at the apparently arbitrary and capricious rule (because he couldn't tell me why it was when I asked him about it), I'm beyond sanity about the treatment. The young man made no attempt to help out, to at least act apologetic or sympathetic, or to talk about the opportunity for future hunting there. When I asked about the pheasant hunting this year, his response (again, while wearing the DFG uniform): "It sucked A$$." As I started to talk about my one experience last year, he cut me off - "no, no, no. Last year it just sucked," (toss in mouthful of almonds, stare up at the TV), "this year it sucked A$$."

What a horrible experience.

One bright spot: One other man was getting crappy treatment, too. Justin, with Drake the giant german wirehaired pointer, was writing his name down for tomorrow's chances to get in, said we could try a spot just outside of town, and that I could follow him to it. I did, and had a nice walk with a new hunting bud. My ten-year old mutt, his 4-year old GWP, and us men had a good ending to a horrible afternoon. No birds, but a great view and a new place to walk.

As a community, to continue and pass on our traditions, we need more of the latter experiences and fewer of the former. The value of exposing new and returning hunters to a good human experience is not incalculable; it shows up in license and stamp sales, in excise taxes collected and revenue on fairly expensive gadgets and gear. It also shows up in numbers of people understanding, appreciating, and fighting to protect and promote habitat, wild lands and fair access. We as hunters need to insist upon getting respectful treatment, in trying our best to inculcate new hunters about the traditions and respect for those who have been there before, and to work for better hunting lands and better management and treatment of those lands.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On salmon

A striking image, and as my first attempt for a photograph for my blog, probably not the most uplifting one... but, wait. What you see here is a salmon on the Feather River in 2002, during one of the largest runs in the Sacramento river system's history. This powerful being was probably three years old, had been born in the Feather River, floated and dodged all the way out to the Pacific Ocean, to return and bring the nutrients it had gathered from the deep up to our land.

As a flyfisherman for kings and as a paddler, I've done a lot of contemplating about salmon. Biologists tell us that no tree in B.C. is free of their mark, as the bears and wolves and eagles and ravens and so many other creatures that consume enormous amounts then spread the wealth through the forests. The amount of sustenance that come as a tidal wave of beautiful bodies is near-to-unfathomable, and I've sat at the gravel bars on the Lower American and among the second-growth redwoods of Santa Cruz and wondered what our state must have looked like when we had the salmon and the bears. In a previous post, I've pondered the effects of wild pigs on our land, comparing them to bears that we've extirpated, but I know that they don't pull up the gifts of the ocean and carry them throughout the land, like Ursus horribilis did (for the bio. folks, I know that's the old name, I just prefer it).

About two weeks ago, then, I was attracted to a lecture by a geologist at the California State University, Sacramento. Professor Tim Horner has worked on salmon habitat research and restoration efforts on the American River for at least five years, and the insights he brings to the current salmon runs is fascinating and important for us all.

His general conclusion as to California's current salmon crisis is that food sources in the Pacific Ocean are either disappearing or fluctuating dramatically. As he pointed out, about 1% of the world's ocean habitat supports about half of all fish species, and most of this occurs in places where upwellings occur, like our own Monterey Bay. When he mentioned this, I immediately remembered that, as a Park Interpreter outside Santa Cruz, I experienced two summers without upwelling events, and the subsequent starving birds and shifts in the migratory patterns of different animal species. These occurred two years and three years ago, when the kings now returning to spawn should have been voraciously feeding.

However, Dr. Horner did talk extensively about current fish habitat and habits, and methods of restoration to help returning kings effectively spawn. He spoke of the increases in water exports (to Central and Southern California) from the Delta,and the shifts in tidal flow that they cause. And he spoke of the effects of dams and water management on the fishery. He had good, solid insights and data, and overall I was impressed with his presentation.

Two Sundays past, I stopped by the DFG hatchery at the base of Nimbus Dam on the American River, outside of Sacramento. The lady at the information desk told me that they had pulled just over 500 hen salmon and taken about 4 million eggs. For a comparison, they would have seen, I believe, about 30,000 hens by that time, about five years ago.

The next couple of years will be vital to returning salmon runs to our rivers. Initial numbers show that we expect an uptick in returning fish next year, but getting them out to sea in as large and genetically diverse numbers will be crucial to the long-term survival of the runs. For those of you who have stood hip-deep in waters, watching these giant forms swirl and lunge protecting their redds, smelling the rotting fish in the water, and watching the buzzards and crows feasting, you understand the power, emotion and reflection that these beings can arouse in us: noble sentiments and impulses, a greater understanding of the nature of sacrifice, a sincere awe. And if you haven't had this blessing, then head up to the hatchery at Nimbus Dam, or in Oroville on the Feather River. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

In honor of Patrick F. McManus

No, he didn't die. However, after 28 years at Outdoor Life magazine, he is being let go for budgetary reasons. The man is 75, and has recently published another book (he has many), so it's not the most horrible thing, but it is the end of an era. No longer will young boys be flipping through OL on a whim while Mom is shopping for groceries, and discover this man writing in the back of the magazine. Now, McManus is officially something we fans need to pass on as tradition, and I'd be hard-pressed to find a worthier one.

If it is possible to be one without ever meeting your pupil, McManus is a mentor of mine. Beyond my family's tolerance for my early love of hunting, McManus taught me about the outdoors, taught me to appreciate the outdoors as a thinking man.

So, in honor of Patrick McManus' storied career of stories, and (to make this an ethics and environment post) to follow the advice of Norman Maclean that, "agony and hilarity are both necessary for salvation", I officially make my first reader request: Take a moment to write something, or dredge up an older writing, that is just fun or funny. I got this inspiration after reading NorCal Cazadora's recent blog.

I'll get back to my serious, snooze-inducing commentary on the problems of our times soon, but first, here is my attempt at preparing some novice hunters for their first trip after wild chukar in Northeast California:


Lady & Gentlemen,

It is with great satisfaction & anticipation that I send forth this First Letter of the 1st Annual Upland Game Bird Safari. You have each been chosen to embark upon this journey due to your adventurous spirits, your genteel, civilized natures, your zeal for the hunt, and your skills with smoothbore and knife. The tangential fact that one of you happens to be married to me and the other two are now relatives has in no way influenced this invitation.

The following letter hopes to accomplish two tasks:
1) To inform you of the nature of Our Prey and Environs;
2) To provide a list of suggested gear and requirements of the local and state constabulary.

Our Prey:

Our Prey is as wily and powerful (pound-for-pound) as any you will ever encounter. The 'Ghost of the Rimrock' has outwitted, outrun, and outmanuevered many a breathless and frustrated hunter and dog. And we have no dog. We have Irma, a dog-shaped person who may or may not walk behind you while making noises.

Chukar utilize a variety of techniques to avoid capture. As a covey, they begin by 'chucking', a sound not unlike a soprano chicken, but much shorter in duration. The purpose of the 'chuck' is twofold: To increase the adrenaline level of potential predators, that they may use up this valuable asset before the pursuit; and to increase predators' anticipation and frustration, as the birds remain well-hid on the absolutely barren hillsides. It is deadly effective. Next, as the hunters approach, the birds run up very, very Large Hills, into the exposed rocks at the top (the
'Rimrock'). Once there, the covey feels safe, as only a Great Fool would dare scale such a precipice in pursuit of such tiny portions.

As one approaches the top of the Hill, it is advisable to listen carefully to one's own heartbeat, to identify any abnormal palpitations. This should not be difficult to do. In fact, it may be rather difficult to carry on normal conversations at this point, due to the incessant racket your heart insists on putting up in your eardrums. You will also find here a disconcerting lack of oxygen, due not only to the elevation of the Hill, but also the selfish nature of your compatriots, who will attempt to suck the atmosphere with impunity.

It is true that one may track chukar. Novices invariably express doubt as to this claim, contemplating the prey's tiny feet, but the degree of incline of the typical hill in chukar country decreases the proximity between the earth and one's eyes to a sufficient degree (see 'moleskin' in the equipment list).

Now, it is well believed that the birds always run to the top of the Hill. This is not the case. Typically, the birds will sit tight at the exact spot where one loses oneself in a dream of owning the passing jetliner, or in the curiosity borne of the leak in the oil pan caused by the boulder on the
drive in, or where one sets one’s gun down to wipe one’s brow (at this point in the climb, two hands are necessary to wipe one's brow). Thankfully, usually just a few carry out this heartless, brutal act ('a few' ranging from three birds to seventy).

Upon reaching the Top of the Hill, birds will issue forth from the Rimrock and associated brush at the rate of one every time you look away or stop paying attention, one every time you set your sights on the other one, and one when you stop to relieve yourself.

Chukar take to the air not unlike a jet-pack laden pheasant, achieving speeds only slightly past sound. They also jump with a noise similar to a small surface-to-surface missile. Upon regaining one's composure and picking up one’s shotgun, it is customary to shoot in the direction of the now-imagined bird, a gentleman's note to fellow hunters that you haven't hit anything.

Items of Interest:

Below you will find a list of suggested items for the trip and the hunt. If I have forgotten anything here you think I should bring, please inform me and I shall consider it.

Long-sleeved clothes (it very well may drop below freezing)
Short-sleeved clothes & sunscreen (it very well may reach 100 F)
Moleskin (while climbing hills, some hunters find this helps prevent scratched noses)
Shotgun (please do not forget this, it looks bad)
Heavy Game load or High Base sizes 9, 8, 71/2, 6, 5, 4, 3, & BB in the gauge of your gun
Upland Hunting Vest or lanyard for holding birds (hope springs eternal! Also, you may hold your sandwich and water bottles)
Seven (7) water bottles
Hunting license & Upland Game Bird Stamp (see note for shotgun above)
Approximately 25k Calories of foods high in fat and carbohydrates
Whiskey (antiseptic. Please bring at least 2 pints - there are many sharp rocks)
Knife (in case you slip on the hillside, it may be used as an anchor)
Binoculars (you will really want these, the place is gorgeous, and Big Country, and watching fellow hunters on opposing hillsides has its merits)
Camera (some fellow hunters may find themselves in compromising situations)
Chukar call (For fooling and annoying fellow hunters)

It will be a pleasure to hunt together.



Saturday, December 6, 2008

The heating climate around the, uh, heating climate

Back at this blog's first post, and in a few others, I've pointed out schisms in the conservation-environmental community. Now, the purpose of highlighting all the breaks in ideas, directions, and actions within our community is not to destroy us, nor is it to sell (you'll notice at this website that I'm not selling anything); the purpose is to illuminate the ethical reasons behind our positions and decisions, and to therefore make us stronger. If we can see where we disagree, we can, hopefully, weed out the bad ideas while increasing tolerances for each others' divergent views. At the same time, we can hopefully strengthen our defense of the wild. The ultimate goal here, then, is greater protection, and I follow a mantra when it comes to that goal, one I learned as a park interpreter: Through education, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.

With that in mind, let's turn to a a major conflict within the community, over how to curb carbon emissions. Last week in, of all places, Washington D.C., this conflict came to a head when a number of environmental justice groups took over the D.C. office of Environmental Defense (article here). Right now, there are two competing views on how to begin curbing carbon emissions, a "carbon tax", or cap, and the creation of a carbon market with caps, or "cap & trade."

This disagreement is primarily between the traditional environmental groups and the environmental justice groups. The former has, for the most part, come down in favor of a market, and the latter in favor of a cap with no market. Personally, I'm on the fence, and so I feel I can adequately provide the arguments for and against both concepts.

First, a quick description of cap & trade: Most simply put, it is the creation of a market for the sale of carbon and other greenhouse gasses (GHG's). Really, though, let's start with the goal, to cut GHG emissions from as many major sources as we can. Right now, people emit GHG's into the atmosphere willy-nilly, as a byproduct of combustion, and nobody wants to own these emissions. As you probably remember from your high school econ. class, all markets require scarcity, demand, and supply. Government creates the demand & scarcity by capping the total amount of GHG's allowed per year below current emissions, and then allowing the GHG's below the capped amount to be traded among emitters (hence the term 'allowances'). Over time, it is expected that government will continue lowering the amount of GHG's being traded, either by lowering the cap, or by buying up allowances in the market, effectively removing them from play. Being a market, it quickly gets more complicated from there, but that is the basic model.

Proponents of cap & trade argue that effective markets have been created to deal with other pollutants, notably SO2 (an acid rain component). They argue that the funds created through an initial sale of allowances (to kick-start the market) can be used by the government to mitigate climate change effects on areas that are hardest hit by climate change and/or the market (say, poor communities, habitat, the state of Florida). They also argue that, since CO2 is not a pollutant that hurts people locally, but is instead a global problem, then it doesn't matter where it gets capped, and so there will be no direct local pollution problem to worry about. Last, they argue that by allowing the market to function on a larger scale, then economies of scale, innovations, and money will drive down GHG emissions, while encouraging corporate buy-in, rather than causing foot-dragging and litigation to slow down emissions cuts.

Opponents argue that contrived markets are easy to game, that the market won't work quickly enough to actually curb GHG's, that compromises with industries for a market will probably exclude the initial sale of allowances, and that the market will affect poor communities the most in a number of ways. This last is the biggest concern of EJ groups, because companies with the worst pollution records operate in their communities, and the co-benefits of having to curb GHG emissions will almost certainly also cut other, more dangerous local emissions. For example, if you cut your CO2 emissions, you also usually cut your ozone emissions, and ozone is a cause of asthma attacks. 1 in 5 children in San Joaquin Valley have asthma, so you can see that communities in SJ Valley have a high stake in seeing these emissions cuts be local.

Instead, opponents argue for an across-the-board cap on carbon emissions through a GHG tax. Each emitter will have to account for their emissions, and if they run over their cap, then they must pay a cost-prohibitive tax for additional carbon. This would require all sources to account for and cut emissions.

Of course, major corporations would prefer nothing, but that is long gone, so they are pushing hard for a cap & trade market with free allowances to start, and to include many offsets, which are carbon trapping mechanisms, like forests, in their GHG totals. So, for example, a company may purchase some allowances, purchase some offssets, and cut whatever is left.

The legal grenade thrown into this? Last year, courts ordered the EPA to regulate carbon as a pollutant.

The incoming Obama Administration has a lot to work on.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A quick update

I've been neglectful of my blog in recent, uhm, weeks, as I've been busy with work. Last week, for example, I was in West Virginia at the National Conservation Training Center, or what I like to call my dream place as an eight-year-old. It is a gorgeous center, and one I'll write about soon.

Some things are coming fast down the pike: Climate change regulations are going to be enacted soon in California, raising a schism within the environmental community, separating some of the more well-known and pro cap-&-trade folks from the environmental justice groups.

The new administration at the federal level will bring some interesting and major changes, many of them related to the split between the hunting-conservation groups and the environmentalists, but more as a result of other politics bleeding into these conversations than of real differences in habitat management. Don't get me wrong, there are management distinctions, but they are much smaller than the divide that other politics (liberal vs. conservative) has created between these two groups, the largest being the 2nd Amendment. High Country News has a great opinion piece on why and how this issue should get moved out of politics. In the meantime, now is a great moment for the more traditional conservation groups and the environmental organizations to get together and fight for habitat protections, responsible access, and youth opportunities in the outdoors.

In the tiny circle of blogs I read, Phillip Loughlin over at HogBlog has a great piece on the concept of "fair" chase. Trust me, it will make you think long and hard - Phillip has a tendancy to do that. So does Holly Heyser at NorCalCazadora, whose last two blog entries, on the NRA radio show and Barack Obama and guns, are important pieces for people to read, regardless of political affiliation. Especially the Obama piece, unless you are particularly partial to cats.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Enviros? Conservationists? Tree-huggers? Killers?

I love the political realm, for the most part, though I also hate it. In fact, my fascination with it probably has nearly as much to do with the emotions it stirs as it does with my personal belief that we are all responsible in our democratic republic. But, one place that really bothers me about political 'discourse' is the prevelance of half-formed ideas, urges and reactionism that get rolled up and kneaded into little soundbites, or worse, labels.

People are labeling creatures, we are ordering creatures. We create boxes of meaning into which we place ideas about people and things. Then we attach words to these boxes, for ease of use. This is very helpful in remembering, for example, that a particular mushroom killed Joe-Bob, or that cars with the word "Hyundai" on them may not be solid purchase decisions. However, when it comes to labeling groups of people in the political realm, we can really step on our own feet and hinder good management decisions.

Let me be perfectly clear here: The number one threat to the environment right now is unfettered development. Were we to efficiently manage our future development, and re-configure existing development, we could:

1) Help to effectively mitigate greenhouse gasses;
2) Much more effectively protect habitat and wildlife corridors;
3) Improve the health of our people;
4) Provide more opportunities for healthy outdoor connectedness, and more of a sense of place.

I could go on, but those are the big four when it comes to our future.

So, why am I seemingly jumping from one topic to another? Because our current political climate has so polarized us on environmental issues that we cannot even speak in civilized tones about the environment, much less push effective legislation.

Hunters, think about it: What is the bigger deal, that you can't shoot a lead round in condor country, or that you can't shoot ANYTHING?
Nonhunters, think about this: Hunters killing deer in a forest managed mostly through their dollars, or no deer at all, because the forest is now a string of Kinkos, Targets, and ticky-tacks?

The political upheavals of the 1960's & 70's completed a great schism in the community of people who love nature. This schism has reached such heights, that now, when I write about these topics, I have to write convoluted sentences about the "environmental-conservation community", and probably stay away from words like "natural resources" or "movement". Even the words "environment" and "conservation" are loaded!

It's downright ridiculous.

Of the four major groups spawned by the first folks loving nature in the late 1800's, three of them can share in an honest attempt to rein in sprawl, protect valuable habitats and corridors, re-establish watersheds, wetlands and prairies, and any number of other important goals for places. These three groups are hunting organizations (like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, SCI, Pheasants Forever), conservation groups (like Defenders of Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy), and environmental groups (like the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity).

The fourth group, believe it or not, is another symptom of unfettered development. In our expanding suburbs, with no real rivers or wild places, there grew a group of people who 'love' nature. They often have had little or no contact with it, with particular places or creatures, because of where they live and how they were raised. They have no experiences with death and life, realities of our world. They only think of these things in the horrific. In this vacuum, fed by an honest longing for nature and the wild, but with no way of getting the genuine experience, the animal rights movement was born. Of course, I'm labeling, and I know that many animal rights' proponents have had many experiences with the wild, but for the most part, of the folks I've run across, most have come from urban or suburban environs, and may have worked in healing or rescuing animals, but haven't really seen a cat catch a bird, and do not understand that death must occur for even their continued survival.

If the three major groups who care about the environment and have experience with it could honestly engage young people by helping to curb sprawl and create living places where kids can respectfully experience the wild, then we can also help develop people with a true understanding, and therefore appreciation, of that wild. To do that, we don't need to put down our differences about other conservative/liberal ideas. We just need to meet and stick to the subject.

Where do you see connections that can be made?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

To support

If you've stuck around here, you've noticed that I've listed a few blogs that I like over on the left-hand side. One of those, NorCalCazadora is brilliantly written by a journalism professor at CSU, Sacramento, by the name of Holly A. Heyser. Her latest post is about a student who passed away too young.

I taught and substitute taught for seven years; teacher - student relationships often run deeper than either realize until moments like these. If you would like to help out, her blog offers the chance to donate to a scholarship program in Jamie Gonzales' name, the young woman who passed from us. Even if you can't help in that way right now, it helps to take a moment and think about (and pray, if that's in you) for those who mourn her passing.

Monday, October 13, 2008

My trip to the White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy

At the last minute I was able to attend the White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy, organized by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and in response to the President's Executive Order 13443. This order calls on federal agencies to, "facilitate the expansion and enhancement of hunting opportunities and the management of game species and their habitat..."

The event was spread over two evenings and two days, with fine dinners hosted by major conservation organizations. DU's evening was especially nice, due to the short film they kept re-playing, showing birds flying; I felt like a dog, mesmerized by the cupped wings and slightly rocking descent of two drakes and a hen, orange legs outstretched, putting on the brakes from sizzling through the air to drop down onto some decoys... okay, snap out of it.

One day was dedicated to "plenary sessions", based on a series of white papers prepared by a number of organizations and sent out to participating groups. These papers outlined ideas for achieving the goals of the Executive Order, and also provided the framework for conversations. I was disappointed by this method, as it really framed the questions, rather than opening up the floor to hear ideas from many different perspectives. Of course, folks jumped outside the boundaries when offering ideas or questions, which is always a good thing when you get a chance to talk to the government in a public forum.

Personally, I felt a bit disconcerted by the amount of emphasis on resource extraction, in particular for "biofuels", a controversial topic right now. But, I'm going to accentuate the positive here, and state that I found two points of focus on which groups from the entire spectrum of the conservation and environmental community can focus: Funding and youth involvement.

I defy you to talk to an involved hunter or angler for five minutes about conservation without hearing about how these folks contribute more dollars to the effort than any other group. It's stated so often (and I'm one to blame) within the community, that it starts to feel more like self-aggrandizement, however, so I propose we take it a bit more public. NorCalCazadora has mentioned some recent hunting-related news in some major publications lately. Perhaps we could build on this publicity by reminding the public of the importance of hunting/fishing dollars to conservation efforts, especially as they relate to the current economy?

In the meantime, environmental and conservation groups are looking to help out in funding. Many would love to see an additional funding source, like binoculars taxes, or making people buy duck stamps to access wildlife refuges. Many would love to see an uptick in the numbers of people hunting and fishing, thus buying more excise-taxed items and licenses. These are both areas where coalitions of groups who may not always see eye-to-eye could actually accomplish a shared goal.

The other idea where collaboration potential exists is in youth involvement. There is a movement afoot right now by the moniker, "No Child Left Inside." Folks see that kids these days aren't getting out, they aren't gaining a love and appreciation for a place, and they (and we) are suffering for it. This is just another symptom of unfettered suburban development, the single largest threat to the environment today, and it is one that needs to be addressed in a big way. Requiring the application of outdoors activities to particular curricula is one step, but in poor, urban schools, access to park lands is limited, and pollution is a big problem. We need to combine mandates with the funds and ability for schools to accomplish the goals we set.

Last year, the Sierra Club offered legislation to encourage outdoor education for young people. It didn't make it out of committee. Next year, why not get some kind of bill at the state level which offers outdoor education with an archery component, and possibly some fishing or hunting access? This could garner the necessary bipartisan support (no small task in California) for passage, and could be accomplished through cooperative efforts between groups like the Sierra Sportsmen, Ducks Unlimited, and the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance.

Which brings me to the best part of my trip to the conference: I was able to meet some great folks representing a wide array of organizations and interests. In particular, I got to meet a man I highly regard, Jim Posewitz of Orion, the Hunters' Institute. I recommend a trip to that website. I came away hopeful in our ability to gain hunters and anglers, to come up with wise resource and habitat management decisions, and to find some common ground and make some concerted moves toward the goal that all in the conservation and environmental community share: Protecting and preserving our common inheritance, and instilling in our children a love and passion for our places.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Roots of conservation

Well, my baby and I tried watching the debate last week (it's fun to hear a 21 month-old say McCain and Barack Obama), but wound up turning to the Family Feud on Ion Television, instead. What a waste of an opportunity for both candidates. First, they only agree to a format where they get about two minutes per talk, then they spend those two minutes spouting the same general rhetoric that you hear on their commercials and in their stump speeches. Big, fat waste of time.

But, one discussion really made me angry and frustrated, and made for fodder for this post. When asked about energy, and, even more directly, when asked about sacrifice, neither candidate spoke of the need for Americans to use less. In fact, the only time I've heard this idea promoted in the public sphere lately is from, of all places, a Chevron commercial. Local, state, federal, and Presidential candidates are all spouting the horrible line that we have to use all available methods and opportunities for meeting our demand for energy, including clean coal, nuclear, wind, drilling, blah, blah.

We have reached a strange time in our history, when sacrifice is no longer asked of us during times of trouble. What does it say about us that the people running for office feel that to ask us to sacrifice is a sure way to lose an election? Or, is it a sign of the financial times, that their major donors are absolutely wedded to the current economic conditions, and therefore require spending, even though we know that we are sitting on false values created by a bloated housing market? And, how does this relate to our ethical relationships to the environment?

The root of the word conservation is obvious, as are its implications. Believing that we can consume our way out of our financial and security problems is wrongheaded, and it's bad environmental policy. Under typical bad economic conditions, and in times of war, we are often asked to stock up and save things, to use less and hold onto valuable assets. Right now, for some reason, our candidates are not encouraging this behavior, and I am saddened by it. Many Americans like to sacrifice for the betterment of their country, they like to feel connected through actions, but being told to purchase another Chinese-made toy as your American duty is an empty gesture.

So I would like to simply suggest to folks that you use less. Hold onto some money, learn to can some food and get a garden going (for those of you in climates like California's). Perhaps walk down to a local pond or creek and catch some bluegill for dinner every week or so. Also, get to know your neighbors, so that you can help out in case they see some bad times. Call up the local government and get a free tree or two to plant. Take some short trips around to the local open areas near you, spend a little bit of money locally, and learn to appreciate your place. If you see something not quite right, let somebody know, or ask to fix it. Getting to know your environment while using less can go a long way to protecting it. Also, if you needed it, you get a good reason to catch some bluegill.

Friday, September 19, 2008

On the Precautionary Principle

On this blog I've talked about ethics mostly as lived, personal experiences. In fact, I've even gone so far as to say it directly here. And yet, over time, ethical codes of conduct, peoples' attempts to create stability through consistency while being moved by compassion or a sense of 'right', inform choices; indeed, it is probably the interplay between experiences and codes that ethics is most clear.

There is a very clear ethical principle being espoused by the Environmental Justice movement, one that, if I were to fall out of the sky as a completely alien being and were to hear for the first time I would more probably attribute to conservative views, but here we are. This is the Precautionary Principle. Wikipedia does the definition and history greater justice than I, so I won't cover it so much. This principle, shortly, says that if you don't know whether something will hurt you or not, then you don't allow it until it can be proven to be benign. Although new-sounding and high-falutin', mushroom eaters have been following this principle for many years.

The Environmental Justice community wants to relate this to the use of chemicals in their community, and they have good reason. A recent report I heard claims that fewer than 2% of the chemicals used today have been tested for their effects on humans.

What I would like to know is, why might this be a controversial principle? It seems reasonable to me, and it seems like conservatives and liberals alike can get behind a principle that says, in effect, to slow down and first do no harm. But, I don't always have my finger on the pulse of folks' beliefs, so here's your chance to chime in...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A post on my other blog

I recently started another blog, which originally was going to be my reviews of outdoor products, but will also be a warehouse of comments that don't fit here. I recently posted on the current financial crisis, so if you are interested in economics, you can read it here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

White House Conference on Wildlife

Does anybody know about this conference taking place in Reno, October 1st-3rd? I've just heard about it, and hope to attend.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What makes a non-native species invasive?

I frequent very few other blogs these days, and I will soon have a list up of the ones I think are the best. However, one stands out as a well-written blog that has offered a number of great thoughts (some of which I've shamelessly stolen and written about here). It's the Hog Blog, by Phillip Loughlin, an excellent writer and thinker.

A few posts back, Mr. Loughlin brought up the question as to whether or not wild hogs are "invasive." This article (read it here) brought back some thoughts I've had in the past over the idea surrounding the term, a controversy that brings ethical questions to the fore.

Throughout the country, people encourage non-native species. The gardener who buys a pack of chilly ladybugs or some tablets of Bacillus thuriengiensis (Bti) to kill mosquitos and other pests may very well be distributing non-native species. Birdfeeders often attract and feed many nonnatives, from house sparrows to Eastern tree squirrels. State conservation agencies like my California Dept. of Fish & Game introduce non-natives, like McCloud river rainbow trout and wild turkeys, with myriad effects.

Of course, the contrary is also true: Many folks in California obtain depredation permits to kill wild turkeys, due to the agricultural damage they may cause. Mr. Loughlin's blog mentioned the Missouri Dept. of Conservation requesting hunters kill wild hogs on sight, fearing damage they may wreak upon the ag. industry.

In my various careers & hobbies, I've come across some interesting fights over non-native species. Feral cats come to mind. Cats, just about the most common pet in the US, have a special place in the hearts of many. And yet, their ability to breed quickly and tolerate people and each other in very small, overlapping territories, added to their nearly perfect bird-killing design, mean that feral cats have a tremendously negative impact. Since they are not a game animal (and who would eat one, anyway?), and since they are so close to humans, emotionally, the fight over controlling them is tough.

Eucalyptus trees in Santa Cruz also help to illustrate the complexities of non-native species and the designation of "invasive." Two groups fight over eucalyptus in Santa Cruz, a group that is pro-native plant and completely against non-natives, and a pro-monarch group that sees the eucalyptus as providing needed winter fuel for the butterflies.

Other, bigger fights exist, too, like non-native deer species in National Parks, giant river reed as a biofuel, and the wild pigs. Taken together, however, one can develop some general ideas to help direct management decisions.

I start with a tangential thought related to Aldo Leopold's quotation that, "to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." What is the role, in its new environment, of the particular species in question? Does it replace, or more efficiently inhabit, the niche of an existing entity? Does it take on the role of an extirpated species? Does it create negative space or null space, effectively crowding out species and taking up habitat, without contributing to the system? I ask the ecosystem questions first, and leave out economic and other considerations until these are generally understood, as these relationships necessarily have economic consequences, as well, and their foundation should first be sound. If the species in question has a negative or null effect on the system, I'd advise against introduction, and for efficient removal.

Applying these questions, I think that pigs may be helpful to the California ecosystem. I don't think pigs create 'negative' space in the way that, say, giant river reed does (sucking up water, providing no canopy for birds, killing neighboring plants). Pigs harbor native bugs, and can be eaten by apex predators like coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions. I don't know if pigs are more efficiently replacing any native species. The local blacktail deer seem to be doing very well. In fact, California is experiencing a dearth of large animals, an ecologically recent phenomenon, especially in regions now inhabited by wild pigs, though not of their doing. And, we had a large animal that behaved very much like wild hogs, up until just over one hundred years ago: The California Golden bear. Grizzlies, though major predators, are also scavenging omnivores, like pigs. They turn over logs, uproot and dig, & eat all kinds of stuff. They basically disturb the earth wherever they go, an important component to many a healthy, functioning ecosystem, and one which only wild pigs, controlled fires, and black bears do now. Unfortunately, pigs don't bring in the needed energy and nutrients from the ocean like grizzlies did through the salmon, but what they are doing a keeping habitats in flux, turning over, aerating, fixing nitrogen, etc.

There may, of course, be downsides to pigs in the ecosystem, possibly as vectors of new diseases or pests, or the destruction of threatened species that bears would have left alone, but I don't have that information. Should those be the case, I'm prepared to change my mind. California has many ecosystems, so there is of course no 'one-size-fits-all', but for the most part, I think wild pigs here look to be alright. Turkeys, though, are a different story.

Please tell me what you think! What am I missing from my suggestions? What kind of scientific or ethical decisions have I lacked here? Comment and let me know.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Outdoor mentoring

Just a quick link to a website I found this morning, Outdoor Mentors, Inc. I don't really know anything about them, but their site says that they team up with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to provide mentoring for at-risk youth in a number of outdoor activities. It was started by the Kansas Dept. of Wildlife and Parks, but now includes 11 states. Unfortunately, California isn't one of those states, but if you are interested in seeing it here, or something like it, check out their website and then send me comments. Also, if you know of a program like that here in Northern California, definitely shoot me a comment. I'd love to plug it, and help out.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Calling out a disgusting comment, and then talking ethics

There exist many great websites about the outdoors. My interests and questions have led me to a number of hunting-related sites, where I find lively forums (fora?) filled with interested and interesting folks, most of whom are very mannerly and helpful. My tastes being more eclectic, I usually find myself in forums related to traditional archery (recurves, longbows, and selfbows) or subgauge shotguns (I shoot a 20 guage). However, two recurring themes stand out in these forums that I want to address - one directly related to hunting, but the other possibly a shared trait in other forums.

The first is the disgusting term, "sss" popping up with alarming frequency every time somebody talks about predators, in particular mountain lions in California. "sss" stands for, "shoot, shovel, shut up", which the person is suggesting someone do when they find a mountain lion. Currently, mounain lion hunting is illegal in California, and many hunters are upset about it, so when somebody posts a topic saying, "hey, I got a great picture of a mountain lion while deer hunting", somebody inevitably posts just those three letters in response. But, regardless of a person's position on this law, suggesting to another that they willingly break it in a web forum is inappropriate, ill-mannered, and unethical.

I have written a short piece alluding to laws and ethics on this blog; if you care to read it click here. I stopped visiting a couple of forums because of the prevalence of this practice, and I encourage hunters everywhere to consider, at least, the implications of suggesting illegal activity to someone who may be a minor and/or get caught in the act and pay a large fine or do jail time. In a future entry I'll attempt to cover the argument in the conservation community over the role of predators in our dramatically altered ecosystems, but for now I'm just going to stay on solid ground and condemn "sss" as a practice, and especially as a suggestion on web forums.

Considering this activity, and considering that the person receiving such "advice" may be a fifteen year-old with no other hunting role models, I'd like to consider ethical advice on forums in general. Of course, I love conversations about ethics (hence the blog). And very frequently people give their ethical views on many topics in the forums I frequent. Ideas like appropriate shooting distances, the nature of hunting preserves, and crossbows during archery season are all very important ethical topics about which many people disagree.

However, when somebody asks to hear others' ethics on a topic, even in the most mundane and calm way, the response is most frequently a defensive claim that ethics is personal, and people should stay out of folks' business. This claim then quickly gets caught up in other peoples' attempts to answer the question, and the ensuing conversation can get nasty. Two ideas come to mind when I come across these conversations: 1) Any of these people could be a child, and many reading it probably are; & 2) Do the people telling the questioner to butt out understand that they are making an ethical claim? The second bears explaining:

Statements with 'should' or 'ought' are ethical claims, in that they tell someone how to act. Telling a person that they should not interfere in anothers' ethical decisions is an ethical statement. The fact that this form of mannerly behavior is so deeply ingrained in our libertarianism does not separate it from ethics, it just makes it a predominant ethical claim, and one, therefore, easier to claim in public.

Granted, this ethical claim has helped make for an amazing, dynamic, diverse and wealthy country, especially when it goes hand-in-hand with our 1st Amendment rights. However, using it as a cudgel to bludgeon others' speech has its problems, not the least of which being the spirit of the 1st Amendment. In the context of web forums, I have a suggestion:

Remember that one of your readers is twelve years old, or fifteen, and forming their first views on hunting (or whatever your topic may be). Include in your description the idea that a person's ethics are individual and are to be respected, if you believe it. But, also include your ethics about hunting tactics, laws, and the like. If it were just you and this kid out in the field, would you do any less? Don't shortchange others' of your ethical perspective. You don't have to preach, though sometimes it'll sound preachy (I know), but in the end, the people who read it will take what they will.

Sure, this last advice is an ethical claim, but, as I'm not bound by relativism, I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Notes from the field

Last week I hunted a small parcel of land with my recurve bow and a wooden arrow. I moved slowly, knowing I've only got a 25-pace range, and I stopped quite a bit and sat, nervously, wondering if I should stay or move on a little more.

I found a good-looking spot next to a pine tree and dragged a couple of downed limbs to me for a makeshift blind. It took about twenty minutes, and just when I’d settled in, after scraping out a place for me to move a bit without crunching and snapping, I noticed first one, then another, then a third and more, very large ants crawling out of the forest duff, interested in this new creature. Was he tasty? Nutritious? Or merely a threat to be wiped out? I left, a bit frustrated that I'd spent a good chunk of the morning effectively playing in the dirt. But I also laughed at the notion of the hunter getting moved by, if not the smallest of creatures, still a tiny forest denizen.

I slowly worked my way down a familiar deer trail, remembering times I'd seen deer here while turkey hunting. They had always come from the East, they had always ratted me out to the turkeys (one doe in particular), and they had always been loud, advertising their presence like everything else out here in the hillside of corn flakes that is the California oak leaf in August.

Mule deer and blacktail stot: they jump on all fours when running from danger, a la' Pepe le Pew. This sound bears a striking resemblance to the kid-in-a-ball-pit antics of a grey squirrel through the fallen leaves when compounded by my over-reliance on my ears (I'm nearsighted). Towhees, too, make a scratching noise that, when first heard through the morning quiet, can sound just like a four-point buck. Needless to say, I get a tad twitchy when things start waking up. Add here the image of me hunched over the trail, following tracks and avoiding twigs, and you can safely throw out the imagined platonic form of some great square-shouldered, straight-backed hunter; I probably look more like an 80 year old with St. Vitus' dance.

Not to say that I'm dangerous, especially to my prey. I'd make a horrible second to the intrepid safari guide, as my first instinct isn't to pull my gun or draw my bow; usually I just make a grandiose head-swivel in the direction of the noise while the rest of my body stays stock-still. I get neck problems sometimes, but I've never drawn on an animal I didn't recognize by sight as legal.

I take that back. I did pull my gun up, once, after finding and following (it was the only way I could go) fresh, big mountain lion tracks for a couple of hours. Something came blowing through the brush straight at me, easily big enough to be a puma. I shouldered my rifle, but it was a doe that blasted through the bushes, about 8 feet away. She wheeled and took off when she saw me, and I never fired, which brings us back to why I wouldn't be good for a back-up gun on safari.

After finding and sitting for a spell in a couple of spots, I poked my way uphill into more open oaks, rimmed by a thick manzanita forest. I scratched out another spot (this time no ants) against an oak and, sheltered from the deer trail, I sat. Too comfortably. I didn't take the time to set up another blind, partly because it was well into daylight now, and partly because there weren't any downed limbs. I crossed my legs (bad), propped my back against the tree, and in a very short period of time, heard the unmistakable sounds of a deer, just over the ridge, and, of course, directly in front of me. I guess he hadn't been shown the perfectly good deer trail he was supposed to walk.

And it was a he. A tall, 3-point rack peeked over the ridge first, followed quickly by the rest of his lithe body. He wasn't a large-bodied buck, but he had a rack bigger than any deer I'd ever shot. Okay, that's cheating, I've only shot a doe in my illustrious hunting career, but still, he was nice. He proceeded to walk broadside to me, at about sixty paces, then a bit closer, and still a little bit closer, until he was inside of fifty. There he turned, and looked down the hill away from me, licked his side, and lay down. There, amidst the corn flakes and firecrackers that cover this forest floor, he slept.

Oh, he moved a bit from time to time, chewed his cud and twitched at some biting bug or bother. And he looked up, seemingly in my direction, a disconcerting number of times. Where he had chosen to lay was a perfect spot, and if I hadn't seen him come up, I'd have never seen him. His antlers looked exactly like lower branches, and his brown fur melted into the background.

Me? I couldn't move a muscle but more than an inch a minute, it felt. I was completely exposed. Over time, my left cheek (and not the one getting sunburned) slowly lost all feeling, then proceeded to complain about it. Occasionally I would shift a bit, especially when the wind would rise and rattle some leaves to cover my noise, but for the most part I remained alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, awed and very pained.

After about an hour and a half of this, I heard, again, sounds of deer approaching, from the same general direction as the buck had earlier arrived. The West, of course. Over the hill, closer to the deer trail, came two does and three bucks, one spike, two forks. There was no way I could stand, not with the three-point, who by now I'd noticed had three on one side and two on the other, right in front of me. So I watched the drama play out. The bucks were pretty dumb, loudly prancing and bouncing around, oblivious to all but one thing: The wary doe. I knew her, as she had ratted me out on many occasions while turkey hunting this hill. She’s large (bigger-bodied than the three-point), light tan with gigantic eyes and bigger ears. All the better to see and hear me, my dear. Deer. She moved across to near the three-by-two, then looked right at me, not through me, but right at me, and began a stilt-legged series of one steps, closer, closer. Closer.

Did I mention you aren't allowed to shoot does? At eight yards her nose finally caught scent of me (not hard to do, regrettably), and she snorted, stomped, and the end. Her herd shot over that hill right quick, though she stuck around for a bit. The three-by-two, he stood up, and stepped closer to me, too. Quickly inside twenty-five paces. I tried to draw the way I was sitting, but no way. He stayed. I rose, and started to draw, and he stotted over behind the manzanita, snorted, and stopped. I followed, slowly, my blood complaining as it rushed back into my legs, my heart pounding and my arms shaking from the adrenaline. But as I came closer, he left. Down a gully and up, and over into the manzanita forest, and gone.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Notes from the field

Though I did not get a deer today, I did have an enjoyable time, and like almost every other time I've ever gone out in the field, I had some interesting moments.

The first deer sighted this morning, although it was on private property, was a gigantic four-point buck, laying in an old apple orchard. In fact, I thought at first he was a broken apple tree trunk, but after passing him, I realized that those branches seemed a bit too symmetrical. I backed up , and sure enough, he was a great, big buck.

I hunted a small patch of little-known public land where I've seen pileated woodpeckers, deer, turkeys, quail, mountain lion tracks (again today), and many, many tree squirrels. Today I added a new animal to that list, as I came upon a grey fox resting in a gulley. He was real long, especially with his fluffy tail, and very pretty.

Getting the chance to get out and experience a particular place and all therein is an amazing and wonderful deal. Over time, in the same place, you get to really feel a part, and also may see things that few can notice.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Dr. Krasny's fine show

Perchance you were able to listen to Dr. Michael Krasny's radio show "Forum" a couple of weeks back, say, August 5th? No? Well, in the 10 o'clock hour the show covered "the future of hunting" for an hour, with guests from Ca. Fish & Game, the Orion Institute, and Born Free. Guess which guests were pro-hunting, and which were against. Well, after some incessant telephone calling, I was able to get in and say about a half a cent (my two cents, as you know, tend to be long-winded). I did get a follow-up question from Dr. Krasny, who I respect and admire, but I don't think it was his best question: He refers to a middle-school short story and subsequent Ice-T thriller. You can hear the radio show here; I'm at the very end, the last four minutes or so.

Well, the program was purported to be about the "ecology and ethics of hunting", in light of the opening of deer season the following Saturday. They didn't get the date for opening day of "deer season in California" exactly right, as it was just opening day of the A-zone rifle season, archery having opened a month earlier. Unfortunately, they didn't get to the ethics of hunting, either. This is where I was frustrated, and my call in was an attempt to bring a little bit of the ethical conversation back.

The two gentlemen who defended hunting, with Fish & Game and the Orion Institute, focused almost exclusively on two important contributions of hunting to conservation: 1) the creation of the conservation movement by hunters like Roosevelt, and 2) the continuing contribution of the lion's share of conservation dollars and volunteer time to habitat restoration and protection. The lawyer for Born Free, and to a bit of an extent, Dr. Krasny, focused on the personal act of killing something, and of human's effectively trespassing on wild land. At one point, the Born Free rep. says that wild animals should be left in the wild, and that people shouldn't be bothering them.

Needless to say, most of the time the folks just talked past each other. Animal rights folks called in and said that hunters were probably exhibiting psychological disorders, and that people should be leaving animals alone (I've got a blog on that here), and pro-hunting folks called in and said that hunters are the backbone of conservationism, and either they or the ones they know are very respectful of their game. Anti-hunters couldn't come up with an alternative to hunting as a revenue stream for real conservation measures, and pro-hunters shied away from the personal experience that includes killing something.

My call was to bring up the personal ethical implications of hunting vs. vegetarianism, and when I was asked by Dr. Krasny if I'd ever thought what it would be like to be the animal, I responded that everybody dies, and that the act of killing and taking responsibility for one's food and the sacrifices that requires can make a person more human. I'd hoped the whole show would look clearly at the ethics of hunting, at the nature of death and life and food and sacrifice, in addition to conservation and heritage and a true, real, and contemporary understanding of wildlife and the wild. I was disappointed, because everybody just went back to their safe corners, instead of really stepping out. But, I'm glad this topic was broached in a broader venue, I learned one sad statistic from it, that fewer than 1% of Californians hunt, and I re-learned an appreciation for Mr. Posewitz of the Orion Institute. He's a good guy.

Hunting this weekend

Well, I'm off for the wilds of the Sierra Nevada foothills, bowhunting after the elusive mule deer. As my Dad said, "it's no worse than growing corn."

I hunt with a recurve bow made by AIM/Samick. You may see the brand at the Olympics, but only if you spend 30 minutes delving into the bowels of the NBC website. If you do, check them out, because it is one of the most dramatic competitions you will see.

Anyway, my bow isn't of the caliber of the olympic ones, but it has given me the chance to take a deer for the first time in my life, two years ago. I switched to a recurve, and became a better hunter, because I slowed waaaay down, and listened more, and tried to hide myself much, much more. As I've said, I've since taken my first deer, and I've also seen the largest buck of my life, a moving, powerful experience that I'm sure to write about in the future.

I generally hunt with wooden arrows, cut-on-contact broadheads, and no sights. I hunt with a 25 pace shot restriction. For those of you who are interested in hunting, but have a problem with firearms, I recommend two things: 1) Go out shooting, with guns, with a person who has experience and also is nice enough to treat your unease with respect (I'll go, just ask); 2) go to a good archery shop (Jerry's Archery in Stockton and Wilderness Archery in Rocklin are two great ones) and ask to shoot a 30 lb. draw recurve or longbow at their range. Stay away from compound bows at first, unless you want to spend near to a grand and enjoy really techy gadgets. You can't hunt with a 30 lb. draw, but it will give you a good idea of the feel for a bow. If you like it, then shoot it for a few weeks, to build your back muscles (don't pull with your arms, but by squeezing your shoulder blades together), and then get a 45-55 lb. draw recurve or longbow. Shoot a few to get a feel for the one you like.

You can always ask questions here, or give comments on the nature of hunting and bowhunting.

On omnivory

If you are looking for a great, mindless Summer thriller to read before heading into Fall, don't pick up "The Omnivore's Dilemma". It's got mysteries, and gruesome killings, and racy scenes all right, but probably not in the sense you'd hope for a Summer book. However, I took it upon myself to read it, because it tackles the ethical implications of humans in relation to the environment in probably its most profound realm: what we eat.

Spending about a third of the book in industrial ag., organic ag., and hunting/gathering, Michael Pollan delves deeply into Americans' relationship with food, coming to many interesting and compelling conclusions about why and how we eat, and pointing a direction for eating better while maintaining a journalist's distance vis a vis moralizing, for the most part. In laying out his descriptions of current mainstream agricultural enterprises, he doesn't rely upon controversial chemical analyses to condemn them, but he does provide as bulletproof a condemnation as I've seen. He uses (gasp!) economics, and is so effective at explaining it that this book should be required reading in every economics class.
And I used to teach the stuff.

American (and world) agriculture is a vastly complicated, horribly designed system, with too many incentives for genetic hoarding, market manipulation, and artificial scarcity. Add to this mix political boundaries, and fully one fifth of the world goes hungry each night, though we grow enough for everybody. Pollan's book outlines just how we've settled into this industrialization of our food supply, including one of our most hideous creations, the industrial slaughterhouse. He focuses on the manipulation of corn as an industrial commodity rather than a food commodity, and how the largest ag. corporations have gotten past the "problem of the fixed stomach", that while people only eat a certain amount of calories per day and our population only increases about 1% per year, corporations typically need to show 5-8% annual growth in profits in order to stay in the market. Wanna know how it happens? Read the book.

But he spends equal portions of the book discussing organic agriculture, and the manipulation of this term as it applies to what he calls, "big organic". He compares this with locally grown foods such as one might find at farmers' markets or roadside stands, and spends a week at the Platonic version of this ideal, Polyface Farm. This place, owned by a conservative Christian, Bob Jones University graduate, "Mother Earth" magazine reader, shows a beautiful way to farm, working chickens, pigs, cattle, grass, and forest in an amazing orchestration. The farmer also constantly touches on a concept I have often considered in the ethical implications of places like slaughterhouses, and in my defense of hunting: The ability of an animal to get to be that animal. He talks about the pigness of a pig.

Last, Mr. Pollan tries hard to be a hunter/gatherer, and does a great job of it, in my opinion. He did get a bunch of help, including the ability to hunt for pigs on private property in Sonoma County (about which I am jealous), and hunting wild fungus, but the camaraderie, the relationship, the apprenticeship are equally important aspects of hunting. He toys with the philosophy behind vegetarianism, ultimately labeling animal rights a, "parochial, and urban..." ideology because of his getting to actually experience animals, and in killing them for his food. "It (animal rights) could only thrive in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world...", surely a stinging rebuke to people who consider themselves saviours of animalkind. Mr. Pollan seems to fall squarely into the land of people who abhor animal cruelty, and feel that killing and eating animals has helped them to more clearly comprehend the world's realities.

This is a wonderful book, well-organized and eye-opening. Michael Pollan delivers a fascinating expose' into what we put into our bodies every day, and how we interact with nature, every day.

If you've read it, or haven't and have questions, please comment!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Impacts on the Resource

I often get the chance to hear about issues facing visitation to our wilder lands. These conversations usually shake people into one of three groups, and such a polarizing effect tends to retard debate by eliminating the subtleties and complexities of the threats. What may help, in this case, is to get a real understanding of each group's sense of a place, and move beyond stereotyping and demonizing, to get to honest land management.

The three categories: 1) People who believe that the wild lands should be left alone; 2) people who believe that visitation should not be limited at all, and; 3) people who believe that access should be restricted for everybody but them. Of course, there are variations among people, and very few people hold strictly to one view, but the ensuing battles always bear the threat of regression into hostile camps, and these tend to be the camps. Let's consider the merits of each of these positions.

The first group usually has a serious love for the idea of wildness. These are typically the crunchy, gorp-munching neo-hippies, right? But, to take the extreme case, we all know it's wrong to eat the last puffin (and not just because they probably taste like rotten sardines). And we all know that we do impact natural resources by our physical presence, and sometimes the negative impacts of that presence may precipitate a total collapse. Also, people who believe this way about a place deeply feel a sense of inherent worth they know that place to contain. We do, too, or else why would we protect a place like Yosemite from resource extraction?

Next, consider those who want access to be unlimited, or nearly so. Though I'd be willing to guess those who read this blog are more likely to be turned off by this notion, we all use materials taken from these lands - wood, petroleum products, and mineral resources. But even on a smaller scale, removing resource extraction as a "visitation", and just considering visitors to, say, Yosemite National Park, we would be remiss to disallow visitation. The same sense of inherent beauty felt by the first group actually pulls this group in like a magnet. And, visiting beautiful places creates experiences that lead to a desire to protect them. As more and more people become urbanized, they visit these places less, and care about them less. In time, they won't want their money squandered on things they don't understand or care about.

People usually have a gut reaction to the last group. How can you feel so superior that only you should be allowed to visit a beautiful place?!? And yet, how many of us have a place or two where we go to get away from folks - a little backwoods spot, or little patch of overlooked land? How many of us would gladly tell people about this spot, and encourage them to visit, too? Belonging to a place is important for people. Knowing a beautiful place's nuances and little secrets, knowing how a place moves and lives over time, because of your time, is vital to humanity. People don't just visit sometimes; sometimes they belong, sometimes they are a part of the land, as much so as the other animals, the plants, and the soil. And just because they live next door to a place as gorgeous as Yosemite doesn't necessarily mean that they have to have their connection diminished by the masses come to buy their coffee mug.

All three groups fight because of the beauty and power of these special places. They also bring in other agendas (business, animal rights, etc.), which tends to cloud the proper choices, but hopefully, by honestly considering each perspective, we may come to some better management decisions.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Who'll feed the birds?

One great way to create a controversy is to bring up the idea of feeding wild animals. Signs have been posted in many parts of the country now to either discourage or prohibit people from feeding animals. At the same time, many folks are encouraged to do so at their own residences. Our family embodies this dichotomy, actively discouraging brewers blackbirds and Canada geese from begging at our picnics, while putting up seed feeders, nonnative flowers and sugar water for birds and bugs in our backyard.

So, which of our double standards should we do without? Actually, as I alluded to in a previous post, there is no double standard here. Backyard feeders are simply one small attempt to recreate a semblance of habitat, where once there stood sufficient resources for native birds and insects. Feeding those animals with the least compunction to cohabitate with humans, however, is rarely a re-creation of previously existing conditions.

That gaggle of gangsters hanging out at the local watering hole does not represent the natural condition of previous eons. Geese, for many thousands of years, have known to fear people, while still taking advantage of people's actions on the land. People, for thousands of years, have actively tried to eat geese, as well as to keep them out of our grain fields. However, in recent decades hunting bans in urban areas (a move I fully support) and the park movement (another great idea) have teamed up to create an entirely new phenomenon, and those animals who have succeeded due to their tolerance of humans have taken up residence, or have been planted by people to create a sense of wild or rural in the city. Cowbirds roam coast to coast, canada geese take up permanent residence at California fountains, and eastern gray squirrels happily steal from my walnut tree in the Central Valley. The conditions under which these animals had prospered in the past, taking advantage of new niches created by farmers and ranchers, has been greatly enhanced by eliminating the check that people had on these critters: namely, killing them.

In contrast, backyard bird feeders more often attempt to replace food and water sources for the bird species that had previously lived at the residence. As people become backyard bird feeders, they tend to look for the foods that are most appropriate to the local populations of lbb's, little brown birds, though most are nowhere near that drab. What they find are proprieters who often offer feed to most effectively mimic the native nutrients the birds would have found. They also find that, in order to attract many species, a person has to be quiet or largely absent from the space. These behaviors do not encourage tame behavior from the birds, but actually train the people to give space, and respect, to these tiny tufts of feathers.

Especially encouraging children to be quiet and see truly wild animals, rather than chucking cheese crackers at slightly menacing geese, can help to improve habitat, instill a proper respect and admiration for wildlife, and hopefully add something nice to look forward to at home. Also, you won't have to kick a goose.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What is Your Calculus of Death?

A harsh title to this post, I'm sure, but let's not beat around the bush: Things die that other things may live.

A few months ago I heard the Senior Vice President of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, talking on a radio show. He was on for the entire program, so I was able to hear a lot from him, about an hour, and I came away with an appreciation for his passion and love for living things. But, I was completely floored by his apparent inability to see the death that takes place in order for him to continue to live. He preached about the horrible industrial slaughterhouses (which are, indeed, horrible), and he talked up wearing pleather and latex instead of leather clothes. He talked about the health benefits of eating vegan.

The question that formed in my mind for this man became the title of this post.

By this question, I mean: How do you ethically calculate the deaths of creatures for your sustenance? PETA folks claim that killing animals for food is ethically wrong. But, why? In comparing meat-eating to plant-eating, what is the determining factor that makes one preferable to the other?

If the determining factor is the total number of dead animals, then I suggest that eating meat is the ethically preferable alternative. And, if the determining factor is the total biomass of dead animals, I again offer eating meat as the ethical alternative. In both cases, hunting is probably even the most ethical choice.

A person who lives on a vegan diet requires farming. Most farming in the US is done on a massive scale, with hundreds of thousands of acres allotted to a single crop. The ecological footprint of these enterprises is enormous, with the result a devastation of biodiversity. Merely harvesting a patch of wheat results in the deaths of countless birds, snakes, mice, voles, and other species. Many birds attempt to nest and raise young in wheat fields just prior to harvest. And even organic farms eradicate pests, or else they would not succeed as farms. Compare a vegan to a meat eater:

A person who eats a vegan meal requires that a swath of land be stripped of its native flora, tilled and planted with non-native vegetation. Then, pest deterrence and eradication must begin, through trapping, pesticide or other forms. Last, harvesting takes its toll. In the meantime, a person who eats a meal of grass-fed bison encourages the replacement of native flora and wildlife, thereby helping to restore natural watersheds, air quality, and therefore animal life. Killing the bison does not require mowing down countless other animals incidentally. Even more striking, a hunter who takes a deer in its native habitat, especially here in the West, is most efficiently converting the calories of the land into usable calories. Most native plants in the West are inedible to people, but many animals make do nicely, and by fitting into the existing system, we encourage positive impacts to it.

And the gentleman's suggestions to use fake leather or latex? I don't think he really considered the impact of latex farms on the biodiversity of rain forests, or of the petroleum drilling and carbon footprint of buying yet another plastic product.

We all make ethical decisions that involve death. Most of the time, we don't have to think about these decisions (like driving). However, when a person eats meat, and especially through hunting or fishing, they are more directly confronted with the truth of death in our existence. Hopefully, in time, this leads to better decisions, like choosing not to buy beef from those horrible slaughterhouses, and instead spending a little more and buying grass-fed, free range beef.

I eat meat. Also, I hunt and fish. Further, I believe that my hunting and fishing have a smaller negative impact on the environment, and a much, much larger positive impact, than if I had not ever hunted or fished. PETA folks find this behavior abhorrent, because it leads to the death of animals at the hands of people. But, as we've seen, even the most vegan lifestyle kills animals. Perhaps, instead of trying to eradicate death, we should understand its central role in our world, and try to make life better, to help perpetuate life and quality of life on the larger scale, while truthfully acknowledging the deaths that happen to make our lives possible.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Live the Country Life, with city style! (yeah, right)

There is a movement afoot to bring city-style, gated communities far out into the countryside. Companies manufacturing these places love to tout them as islands of amenities on a wild, verdant landscape. They also tend to get the support of private property interest groups, the argument being since these companies own the land, they should be able to do whatever they want. Don't buy these arguments, and definitely don't buy a house in one of these developments! New city-like development far from city infrastructure carries with it many costs for everybody in our state, including the costs of protecting new development from wildfires, storms and floods, and with providing ambulance services, police departments, supermarkets, roads, water, etc. These amenities destroy country life while costing more and putting more people in danger.

Oftentimes when a company builds a couple hundred homes on its own property out in the country, the adjacent land in the immediate future remains largely okay. If that were the end of that, the deals completely private, there'd be no complaint. But they aren't private. A couple hundred residences mean greater costs for all of us. These homes, built far from work and family, aren't sold to country folk (which is why they have to drive dozens of miles to work), and the realities of country life are hidden from these consumers. City folk expect all the amenities, like 911 service to have an ambulance at your door inside of 10 minutes, or perfect roads without potholes. They will of course expect all of us to foot the bill for fire suppression, while most of them won't know how or take the right steps to protect their own houses. They will insist on chain stores and convenient gas stations. They will cause traffic jams, thereby encouraging bigger roads and then bigger development. And they will suck water like there's no tomorrow.

They will try to bring the city with them to the country. When that happens, they either face the harsh reality of life far away from conveniences, or they no longer have country. In the meantime, we all have to pay more for construction and infrastructure, firefighting and air pollution.

Here's a twist: many of these places are billed as retirement homes, so as people age, they are sold the idea to move away from the assistance and conveniences they are going to need.

Country life is not easier than city life, it is often more difficult. Many country places don't have cities because they were hard to live on to begin with. Temperatures are often more extreme, power outages more frequent, water hazardous to drink, roads with farming or logging machinery. Storms and fires can isolate whole communities from the outside world. Simple events like grocery shopping, or having clothes mended, much less car and plumbing emergencies, have to be dealt with very differently. And driving takes up larger chunks of your time.

This trend to convince people that they can have city amenities with country charm is baloney, and if these places didn't have such an impact on other people, then one could just say 'caveat emptor' and leave it at that. But they do have a huge impact on all of us: from those of us who try to sustain a country life under attack from many sides, to those who eat food, use water, pay taxes, drive down streets and breathe.

Let cities deal with their problems first, before giving people the illusion of a cheaper alternative in the countryside. Don't be fooled: the costs are the same, they are just borne by different people under different circumstances. Let cities fix their infrastructures, improve their services, and provide places that are more charming, cleaner, and greener. Keep folks ignorant of the difficulties of country life out of life in the country. It's too expensive, and we all have to pay for them.

Monday, July 7, 2008


Many people worry about their carbon footprint, a fine worry, and one that hopefully turns to action. In recent days, the comment that urbanites emit less carbon than country folk has come up as a supposedly easily apparent observation. And, though I won't challenge this notion directly, I want to offer some observations that may throw into doubt this conclusion. I do this because we all have dirty feet, and because, by so completely denigrating country living, people avoid it, we lose a connection to soil and place, and in its place leave a fully mechanized industry of huge, corporate farming enterprises, and a huge chunk of our humanity.

First is the organization of our infrastructure. Transportation is the largest emitter of carbon in the United States, as Americans have developed an urban-oriented, individualistic, consumer-based infrastructure. This means that all roads lead to LA, or NY, or SF, and they are all roads, not railroads or canals. It also means that the places these roads lead to are not plazas, churches, or city halls. They are stores.

This layout means that many folks, whether city or country, have to drive to get to these places. Country folks, though they may have a longer drive into town, do not have as many stopping points, and they often arrive during off-peak traffic hours. This should at least lead to questions about the true transportation footprint of country vs. city living.

Other additions to the carbon footprint come as a result of our extensive, car-based urbanization. Croplands, designed to accommodate this urban focus, are almost exclusively monocultural, which means that they are grown as single, huge swaths of one plant. These crops are harvested, trucked to processing facilities typically dozens (or hundreds or thousands) of miles away, in cities. They are processed using tremendous amounts of energy, packaged to avoid spoilage or damage, using even more energy, and shipped, yet again, to stores in urban centers all over the country. This used to be the most efficient use of resources, but, as is seen in air pollution and fuel prices, the efficiency equation is rapidly changing. People in the cities do not, themselves, drive out to get food, they rely on these highly processed, heavily packaged units to get to them. Whose carbon footprint is this?

Granted, country folks eat this food, too, thereby adding to their carbon footprint. But, country folks have the benefit of easier access to local food, and they often take advantage of it. Few people in the countryside surrounding Sacramento buy tomatoes during the Summer. It is said that people in the country lock their doors only in July and August, so as to avoid yet another zucchini. Oftentimes, city people do not have the option of food grown in their backyards. They are forced to rely on a very dirty system.

Next, consider the city's physical structures: Miles of heat-absorbing and -emitting asphalt, concrete and plastics; asphalt-shingled roofs, open to the sun (because you have to cut your tree limbs over the house to get your insurance); water typically pumped from miles away (20% of California's energy goes to pumping water, and 2% goes to pumping water from the Delta to Central and Southern California); and millions of people forced to hit the road to escape these concrete jungles for recreation in the countryside.

If we had to alter our country's infrastructure to greatly diminish our carbon footprint, what might it look like? It's interesting to note, but the Jeffersonian fantasy, a nation of small, landed farmers looking out for their community, may ultimately be the best carbon choice, too. Even just small starts, like gardening to pick up a percentage of food costs, can cut down on carbon emissions.

These observations aren't meant to disregard the carbon footprint of country folks, or even to completely counter the claim that rural living is more carbon-intensive. We all, urban and rural, need to readjust our travels, meals, and entertainment. In the meantime, try to buck the carbon trend by buying locally grown food directly from farmers at farmers' markets, and, if you live out there or have a backyard, grow some of your own food. If you grow food for a living, make a larger percentage of your land available for local markets. And always remember, when you are doing your part to cut your carbon emissions, that the suburbanites are the real problem. Heh, heh.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What are "urban" and "rural", anyway?

Three minor events in my life conspired to get me to think about the nature of our geographic construction. In college, way back in the last century, I saw a 'possum. Later, still in college, I saw a coyote. Last, a few years ago I saw a show on PBS about a hawk, a show I thought was curious and at times very silly. What was so unusual about these events?

The first was in Fullerton, California. Walking home from school, this 'possum "runs" (if you can call it that) across the street, trips on the curb, then crawls into a very sparse shrub where it sits stock still and pretends I don't see it. I also pretended I didn't see it, and walked on home. The second event was at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. After a concert, looking for my car in the parking lot, a coyote trots by. The third was the famous (or infamous) PBS show, "Pale Male", about a red-tailed hawk that takes up residence in and around Central Park in New York City. I watched this show with a very skeptical eye, unable to believe that red-tailed hawks had never always lived wherever they durn well please.

Slowly, these events converged, and led me to an understanding:

There is no such thing as rural or urban.

Where is this line in reality? I posit that it does not exist. Start with the line itself. City limits are drawn and redrawn, lands annexed and assigned development titles (even for parks), but this means nothing in the real world. Large, ecologically diverse parks exist in the middle of cities (for the best example, take a boat trip down the Lower American River in Sacramento), but habitat occurs even in the most concrete of jungles. Raccoons, skunks, opossums and coyotes, sizeable mammals, live in the downtown sections of just about every major city in the country, as do countless birds, bats, and bugs. Roads slither in and out of cities, bringing urban effects far into the countryside and vice-versa. Nor does air quality stop at the city limit: Sequoia National Park has the worst air quality of any national park in the country. The same goes for water and soil pollution, as well.

Many wild songbirds are saved on their flights by folks in cities placing feed out where once the birds could have found forage habitat. Are these backyard havens urban, or rural? Many other birds die, their once fertile habitat now mile after mile of corn. This corn is grown for the city - is it rural or urban?

I watched the PBS special, loving the people who were passionate about those crazy birds. I was disappointed that it was about one bird, even though he'd had multiple mates and many children (where were all of these coming from or leaving to?) I laughed out loud when they showed a picture of a great horned owl during the introduction, but didn't consider it as "wild" as the hawk (the great-horned owl is known as the Tiger of the woods, and regularly eats skunks, as well as herons, egrets, and yes, the occasional red-tailed hawk). But mostly I was amazed that people didn't see these hawks until one nested on a high-rise next to Mary Tyler Moore. Every day I spend in every city I see raptors - redtails, red shoulders, coopers, kestrels. I've even seen Swainson's hawks and ospreys well within the designated border between the rural and wild places. I guess they didn't get the memo.

"Rural" and "Urban" don't exist. They help with some management decisions, but for the most part they give people a false sense of separation from place, and from reality.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Going out on a limb over ethics, and then onto large chunks of granite

I'm about to step in it, but I've got to lay it out. In academic ethical discourse, there exists an 800 lb. gorilla in the room, the little "r". Just as for some reason scientists are forced to pick sides in regards to religion, ethicists have to eventually deal with the little "r".

I'm talking about relativism.

And so, to get this right out in the open, let's be frank: The author of this blog is not a relativist in the ethical sense. Without going too deep, let's just say that part of it stems from some ethical conundrums that show themselves in a relativist ethical world, that part of it is faith, and that part of it is an understanding that humans share certain traits.

It's this last point that I'd like to focus on. In a conversation today with a colleague, we discussed the nature of great, beautiful natural places, and how an increased awareness of and even (gasp!) use of these places for recreation and leisure can lead to better protections for them. In this context, the following idea worked out:

Send a group of twenty children on a tour of Yosemite Valley, and, on average, the following will happen: Two will inevitably have a bad day, because they were having a bad day; sixteen will have a great time, get out of the classroom, get to see some beautiful things, meet a ranger, etc.; and two will be moved for all time, their lives will never be the same. These last two may go into activism, or become rangers or wardens or park planners or poets. But, they will be forever shaped by the beauty and power they experienced, witnessing the largest granite monolith in the world, or the most massive living things on earth, or the tallest waterfall in North America. They will be moved because we are all moved by these, else why would so many millions come from tens of thousands of miles away? We aren't moved because these things are American. We are moved because we all see something within the place. And whether we are Pakistani, Japanese or Californian, we all recognize something within these places, creatures, and events.

There is something universal in these experiences, something we as humans share. It is similar to what is recognized in great literature from civilizations long past. We all want to watch a beautiful sunset, or watch a whale take a breath. Whether these are universal because of a Creator, or are universal due to the similarity of our neural pathways and gene codes I will leave to another place. But there is no denying that they are shared by humanity.

From this shared set of feelings, ethics seeks to gain some footing. It's not usually solid ground, but still, it is often recognized, and it is often found in experiences with the wild. That's one great thing about visiting wild places. In leaving civilization, we often find our relationships with other people stronger, more visible, more pronounced. And we get to sense something that we understand is, without pretense or scharade, shared by humanity.