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.