Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Air Resources Board is poised to make a bad decision... help them see the light!

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Contact the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and tell them to vote down the current cap & trade proposal before them tomorrow. 

I haven't written on cap & trade in quite a while, but here's a quick run-down of my views: 

1)  Carbon pricing must be collected by the government - giving away carbon 'credits' is tantamount to allowing companies to tax consumers for the companies' pollution;

2)  Carbon offsets are too costly to monitor and too easy to get around - if you don't trust that California can pay for adequate monitoring of its carbon offset projects, do you really believe Brazil or Chiapas can?;

3)  Cap & trade can work, but only if it is fairly expensive, and only if the revenues are given back mostly to the people via a direct rebate, and the rest only used to mitigate or adapt to climate change.

(If you are interested in my more extensive writings on the topic, click here, here, here, and/or here.)

Keeping in mind that there is no such thing as a "carbon market" - it isn't a good or service with any consumption value, and any scarcity of carbon will be contrived by the government - it is easy to remember that any attempt to put a price on carbon emissions will be a tax of some sort.  This is not bad!  Taxes are not always bad!  However, they are bad if they are allowed to be collected by private parties, and the latest proposal, by giving away carbon credits to the companies and industries that pollute the most, will do exactly that. 

In addition, the forest rules in the latest proposal will most likely provide incentives for timber companies to clear-cut, and they will definitely subsidize wood products in California, with the subsidies, again, being paid by consumers directly to the companies that pollute the most (those getting the free credits).  Look for California oil companies to start buying a lot more wooden chairs and tables than you'd think they'd need.  Also look out for giant chair bonfires at your local refinery...

This is a bad proposal, and its complexity makes it ripe for gaming.  It is also probably going to be so cheap that it will do very little to curb actual carbon emissions, with the result being a nominal tax on consumers given directly to polluting companies.  What an interesting way to save our planet!

For more information, start with this article at California Watch; to contact CARB about the cap & trade proposal, click here.

A voice for High Country News

© 2010 Joshua Stark

If you live in the Western United States, then you must subscribe to High Country News.  If you romanticize the West for its grand expanses and wildness, then you, too, should be a subscriber to HCN.

If you've never heard of High Country News, check out their website.  They are a great paper,  with thorough expose's on any number of issues impacting the Western U.S., & with some excellent commentary, to boot.

This morning, for example, I read an opinion piece by Ben Long, a Wyoming hunter decrying the widespread acceptance of poaching wolves in his community.  After expressing his disgust with local gun rafflers alluding to poaching while marketing their raffles, he makes absolutely clear that poaching is a sick attitude that does nothing to promote hunting or the rule of law.  Mr. Long makes an especially good point about the rule of law and its value in protecting our hunting heritage and wildlife. A couple years ago, I, too, wrote a bit about the "sss" to which he refers.  I'll add to Mr. Long's piece and say that hunters, as the public face of gun owners and the power this infers, have an even greater responsibility to promote and follow the rule of law. 

If you clicked to read the HCN opinion piece, and you are not a subscriber to HCN, you cannot read the entire article.  Usually, I'm a bit miffed when that happens to me, but HCN isn't a gigantic paper with loads of pop-up ads to make up for our cheap asses.  In fact, the first thing you should notice is that the website is a .org, because they are a nonprofit organization.  They pay for their work through subscriptions (gasp!) and donations, and they do good work.

I'm not affiliated with HCN, (though I'd love it!), I just think they do good and valuable work.  If you are interested in the West, then do yourself a favor and subscribe.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

4-H does that? Great!

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Though I grew up rural, I never got into 4-H.  We didn't have land, and we were never an animal-husbandry type family.

As an adult, however, I've become very interested in the agrarian life, and how it can apply to my own condition (if you are interested in reading about my semi-urban homesteading attempts, please read my other blog, Agrarianista).  Most recently, I applied for (and I believe, subsequently did not get) a position with the Sacramento County 4-H.

I was interested in all the work they've done providing experiences to young people, and in researching today's 4-H, I was very impressed with the types of activities and roles they offer kids from pre-school through high school.  4-H focuses on getting kids to "learn by doing", a model for teaching that is dear to my heart, and also an effective pedagogy.  Today, 4-H works to get to urban youth as well as rural kids, with programs that give children the opportunity to practice environmental sciences and sleep out under the stars, as well as learn agricultural and homesteading skills.

Of course, I am especially impressed with the 4-H Shooting Sports category.  I've been interested in getting young people involved in shooting, but without the politics associated with the groups who offer such services, and 4-H offers just that:  the opportunity to teach kids how to shoot and how to interact with the outdoors (both the wild and the farmland), while giving them the breathing room to enjoy the experiences.

If you are interested in passing on your knowledge about the wild, about farming and food, about the interconnectedness of the urban, rural, and wild places, then contact your local 4-H and volunteer today.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

California okays methyl iodide

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Yesterday, the State gave the final approval to methyl iodide, despite the opposition of dozens of scientists, and more than a few legislators. 

Back in June, I posted a piece using the methyl bromide-to-iodide controversy as a great example of "internalizing externalities".  In the case of this switch, it seems ridiculous to me that we should replace one chemical because of its impacts on the ozone layer with a chemical that stays closer to home, thus raising serious cancer (and other) risks. 

As reports, State officials are reassuring the public by claiming that this fumigant will only be applied by specialists, and the soil will be covered by an impermeable tarp... must I point out how much more awful that makes the product sound?  What a way to reassure!

And this reassurance illustrates, yet again, just how we structure our ag. policies to favor huge, monocropping companies.  How many mom-&-pop small farms will be willing or able to tap strawberries when the big companies are able to increase yield/lower prices by paying for "specialists"?  The burdens to entry into the strawberry market are thus ratcheted up, leaving it safer for oligopoly. 

Again, in the wrong direction with our agriculture.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Women's rights, food justice and security - from the social to the individual and back

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Two great articles out last week, speaking to different issues around the ethics of food, got me to thinking about the nexus of hunting, food security, and women's rights.

First, this article at Grist on the implications of a whitewashed food justice movement.  The author is honest, thoughtful, and far better at her craft than I.  Definitely read it.  Two weeks back, I posted a piece on how the environmental movement (which, in my mind, includes 'food justice' folks) hamstrings itself through apprenticeship programs, subsequently passing on its expertise and influence to a disproportionately wealthy group of individuals, and creating difficult burdens to entry for those who cannot afford to work for free.  Natasha Bowens, the author of the piece at Grist, talks about this from a different perspective, and also shows just how one group is trying to break the homogeneity. 

Next, I wanted to get a little more traffic over to Ms. Winfrey's site, to help out as I can... O Magazine has a wonderful article on hunting for the Thanksgiving turkey.  Although the category is "women and hunting", the author (Kimberly Hiss) doesn't wax political about it - I wouldn't care if she did, it's a great subject, and she is an amazing writer - she writes about hunting and shooting a bird for Thanksgiving, and this act's personal and family implications.  She does allude to the strange, new pressures she received when she began hunting, and also the beauty and sense of fulfillment she gets by providing food through hunting, and her subtlety is wonderful.  Being thoughtful and considerate, she really lets the reader join her.

Ms. Hiss might not have considered her's a piece on food justice or food security, but I do.  When she talks about her bird's diet vs. those packaged in stores and when she describes the hunt, she alludes to important aspects of food security.  Food security means, at its most basic level, the ability to safely provide healthy food, now and in the future, for you and your family.  For some of us, this is solely an economic problem, but for many, food security addresses the quality of food (a healthy variety) and the physical act of acquisition (keeping out of harm's way when getting it) as much as it does the ability to pay for it when it is available.

Many parts of our country are effectively food deserts, communities with no walking access to anything other than the local liquor store.  In these places (as in almost everywhere on Earth), women are most often responsible for providing food for the family, and yet, the physical act of trying to get healthy food often puts them in harm's way.   The empowerment that comes from effectively and efficiently wielding a gun (or a bow) to provide for one's family is profound; it strikes the very core of both food and security.

Which is why I read with happiness this piece by Holly Heyser, the Nor Cal Cazadora (another writer of the fist caliber), on the numbers of women hunting.  As she points out, women hunt at a much higher rate in the West than in other parts of the country.  This core of hunters and what they represent, if I may be allowed the latitude, can have a global impact on the role and empowerment of women.

Hunting embodies empowerment.  Taking the life of an animal to provide sustenance is one of the three or four most basic things a human really needs in order to survive, and honing those skills requires controlling and mastering a powerful force.  Guns are powerful, they equalize people like few other things - and this empowerment can mean so much more in the hands of women.

Now, I'm no trigger-happy gun fanatic, nor am I a violent person, a condition of my religion.  What I am, as my Momma raised me, is as much a feminist as a man can be.  And I'm not naive when it comes to understanding and recognizing power as choice and the ability to defend and provide for oneself, especially at the personal level, and especially as that relates to women in the World.  In my household, I'll make darned sure that my daughter and son can shoot, of course, and also catch, garden, forage and cook good food.  On the social level, I recognize that access to these basic skills is vital to equality. 

As I thought more about this issue, I remembered a piece by Scott Simon of National Public Radio.  When he learned of the possibility for peace talks with the Taliban, he reminded his listeners about Afghanistan under their rule, as he had reported from there for quite a while in the early 2000's.  In particular, he talked about watching the first soccer game in Kabul after the Taliban were run out, where a British commando took off her beret to call to a friend, and the crowd erupted in cheers.  Soon after, and every few minutes during the game, a woman would stand up in the crowd and remove her veil.

Yes, this may feel like a tangent, but I think you know where I'm going.  There in Afghanistan, one empowered woman expressed that power without even thinking about it, and helped other women to see themselves as powerful.  Around the world, U.N. forces with women soldiers empower local women who've suffered as slaves for untold millennia, just by being there.  I don't pretend that all these women are automatically freed, but changes do happen because of these experiences.  Here in the Western U.S., where women first took the right of suffrage in the U.S., it is important to remember, make conscious and plain and pass down, this power.

Hunting necessarily taps and hones that power.  Increasing food security for communities and individuals by developing local means to produce food also empowers individuals.  From Holly, Ms. Bowens and Ms. Hiss all the way to those women in Afghanistan who stood up in that stadium and dared to show their society that they have faces, these expressions of power shake our very foundations in the best possible way.  Thank you.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

That Time Josh called that coot with his speck call & the shell fell out of Kevin's gun...

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I love the Fall.  "The sound of gunfire, off in the distance (I'm gettin' used to it now")... because, when I'm hunting, that's oftentimes the only way I hear gunfire. 

Many people worry about the physical act of hunting, because guns are so dangerous.  Well, let me put that worry to bed right now: Go hunting with me, and the only worry you'll have about your gun is how it's making your arms sore from lugging it all over Kingdom Come.  In fact, you might even start asking yourself why you even bothered to bring a gun in the first place. 

I'm known in my hunting circles as a "cooler" (look it up, yourself), a condition that grows in magnitude whenever I go hunting with my cousin.  Our hunts together have been described as Epic, as in, "Wow.  I've never, in my entire life, had as bad a hunt as with you two - and I doubt I ever could again." 

If you've ever heard a hunting story of our adventures together, you know that they always start with the line, "that was the time that" followed by a title fitting of the greatest thing to happen on that particular hunt.

"That time we shot that speck";
"That time we shot that dove";
"That time we heard those woodies about 15 yards from us, but never got a shot";
"That time we emptied a box of shells to bring down that bufflehead";
"That time we saw those pileated woodpeckers";
(Contrary to the ramblings of one Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, there never was, "that time we almost heard those geese," that's just hurtful.)

For clarification's sake, those aren't special hunts - we didn't shoot a record-winning dove.  We shot a dove.

So, though I often talk about the ethics and importance of hunting, I just wanted to be clear with you, the reader(s, I hope).  I wouldn't want any illusions as to any prowess out there. 

A typical mid-Winter day duck hunting with me.  75 and clear, with no breeze...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Parks get short shrift (and myopic suggestions for management)

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Here, I'd like to add a small voice in support of parks, and explain, via a couple of poor ideas I've found in the media, some real threats faced by parks.

First, this op-ed in the High Country News really irked me.  Mr. Pace makes a good point about the need for the environmental community to provide Californians with bigger ideas, but he does it by trying to shoehorn the loss of Proposition 21 into his analysis. 

I worked a short stint in California State Parks, and I worked over four years in environmental advocacy at the California state level, and believe me, Mr. Pace's characterization of California State Parks as the environmentalists "pet agency" is simply wrong, and damaging. 

First, most state parks are historical sites.  Second, the California Dept. of Parks and Recreation has had to get its budget through the general fund, while environmental groups sought fees and fines to fund other agencies with a more direct environmental bent (like CARB, DFG, air pollution control districts, etc.)  If State Parks is a pet agency, it's the runt, sucking hind teat - and Californians sadly illustrated that notion last week.
Then, A few days back, I came upon this Environmental Economics post on National Park visitor fees by Professor Whitehead.  It's an interesting, short question about determining the most efficient visitor fee level for the National Parks.  Unfortunately, it also perfectly illustrates a couple of common misperceptions about park visitation and management.

First, national parks are not overcrowded.  Like Mr. Pace's mistake, Prof. Whitehead taps the notion of a few, iconic parks, ignoring the vast majority of the 392 park units, and ignoring the seasonality of visitation.  But, even during their peak visitor seasons, those iconic parks are not overcrowded.  Instead, their crowds occasionally need more efficient in-park management.

The reality is that park visitation has lagged in the past decade, and managers are rightly worried about this lag. 

You see, the mission of the National Park Service is twofold:  To preserve, for future generations, those places we've found to be important to our natural and cultural history, and to provide for the recreation and enjoyment of Americans at these places.  This, plus the truth of the NPS budget (that revenues don't come from visitor fees, but from the Federal Government), means that Professor Whitehead's simple view of parks fits the mistaken perception of the public, but it does not fit the real threats to parks, nor does it fit the mission of the National Park Service.

The professor assumes that parks are overcrowded, that entrance fees = budget revenues, and that park fees are the most efficient way to manage for crowds.  All three are mistaken.

Simply put, parks need visitors who love them.  Park managers understand that they need many visitors to all have a great time.  In California, state parks have come up against this reality, and they find themselves in a vicious circle.  They can pretend that their visitor fees pay their bills, and set entrance fees to optimize their revenues from fees, but in doing so they will alienate themselves from the constituency that really pays the bills - the California resident.  In a short time, they will lose popularity in the public's view, and will therefore lose their budget.  Park advocates and managers, therefore, rightly decided to take the idea of visitation and Californians' responsibility to our cultural and ecological heritage, directly to the People.  Sadly, that vicious circle had already taken its political toll.

Using visitor entrance fees to manage for crowding in park units can exacerbate that political reality.  If fees are raised to "manage" (i.e., discourage) crowds, crowds won't come.  If crowds don't come, parks won't get high priority in budget determinations. 

Higher visitor fees are the wrong way to manage for crowds.  Sadly, many economists can only talk in visitor fees, and therefore must make some seriously constraining assumptions when trying to "help".  Also sadly, many park systems are realizing that, among their problems, the fee structure has politically alienated them. 

I wish I had a suggestion for this dire problem many park systems now face.  If you have any, bring 'em.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

History and responsibility, and hope

© 2010 Joshua Stark

If you are expecting some reflection on yesterday's election, it ain't happening here.  I'll gladly give my opinion if people want to read it, but not unless there is some email outpouring lamenting the dearth of talking-head spinmeisters.  The only thing I will say is that I completely and totally gave up on the federal government doing anything for climate change in 2009, and I'll keep my focus on California and regional attempts to do right by their people, considering the latest changes in federal vs. state government. 

But this post is another reflection from reading "A Sand County Almanac." No politics.  This is about history, and more specifically, the importance of knowing history and acknowledging and reflecting on our good and bad past deeds.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to sit on a panel at the BlogHer Food '10 Conference (for my take on that great event, read here).  During my short time at the conference, I had a number of fascinating conversations with people well versed in all things culinary.  One of these conversations involved hunting snipe (Gallinago gallinago), which included the typical snipe-hunting conversation - five minutes of swearing up-and-down that they do, in fact, exist (hence, the link on the name).

Then the conversation moved to the notion that the snipe is the last of the legally huntable shorebird game species (okay, there's timberdoodles, but if I mention them, then nobody will believe any of these exist).  Someone showed surprise that shorebirds had been eaten at all, the concept being so foreign, and the cultural knowledge of these supposed delicacies having been removed by law decades ago.

But shorebirds were heavily hunted by Americans for many, many years.  The end of shorebirds appearing on menus and in cookbooks happened because of the efficiency of the market hunter and the flocking nature of most shorebirds, coupled with a new-found awareness that we must protect our wilds, lest we lose them all.

This morning, then, when I read 'May' in Aldo Leopold's wonderful work, I was reminded just how close we came to losing so many birds.  Leopold writes,

"There was a time in the early 1900's when Wisconsin farms nearly lost their immemorial timepiece, when May pastures greened in silence, and August nights brought no whistled reminder of impending fall.  Universal gunpowder, plus the lure of plover-on-toast for post-Victorian banquets, had taken too great a toll.  The belated protection of the federal migratory bird laws came just in time." 

One hundred years ago, the demand for plovers was so great among households and restaurants that market hunters nearly ended them all.  

And the same is true for many, many species.  Egret feathers no longer adorn hats.  Buffalo tongue and wild grouse are no longer on the table as regular fare or ingredients.  Most sadly, there is no longer a popular pigeon pie, because that great biological phenomenon, the passenger pigeon, was shot, netted, and clubbed out of existence. 

Thank goodness for the wisdom, if belated as Leopold put it, of legislators who thought past mere economic efficiency, and looked at the value of things from other perspectives.  

Maybe this is a political post, then.  Perhaps I'm still hoping for that human trait to make a comeback, and for our leaders to note the value of our wild places, the value of what we put in our bodies, the values that we teach our children.  I can hope that our leaders will look past their political affiliations from time to time, and recognize the need for us to directly manage and protect our wilds.  We've done it before.  

Maybe I haven't totally given up hope.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The ethical conundrum that is the apprenticeship

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I am unemployed.  Of course, that means much anxiety about the future and the present, although I don't have to worry nearly as much as many others, my family and friends being who they are (wonderful).  But still, it's been hard.

The past few years I've attempted to switch professions, from teaching high school to something that involved the outdoors more, because it overwhelmed me one day that I need to be outside more, and I need to be involved in the outside.

But, few outdoors-oriented jobs are currently open to me, because my educational background is in social science, and many outdoors jobs require biology or "related fields".  In fact, I'm confident in my environmental science knowledge, but without papers, I can rarely get even an interview.

And so, for about five seconds, I considered the option of apprenticeships, in order to get my foot in the door.  I went to California FarmLink's (a great organization, by the way) section on apprenticeship options, and found one close by.  However, when I read the position description, I felt like I'd been hit in the stomach:  Five months, 40-65 hours of work per week, for $300 per month. 

A familiar rant welled up inside me.

I'm not from the movement that spawned environmentalism, 'back-to-the-land'-ism, urban farming and the like.  Namely, I'm not from the urban & suburban upper-middle and upper class white community.  We were not poor by any means, but to quote a famous song, "I was born in a small town."  The landscape was riddled with conservationists, but not one bona fide environmentalist that I can remember. 

Every Summer, then, to help get through college, I worked in agriculture - every pear packing shed on the Delta and in Ukiah.  I did every job in the shed except pack, eventually getting a great gig as a USDA/CDFA fruit grader, 50+ hours per week at its best, for a decent wage.

There was never any option about taking a Summer off and touring Europe.  There was never an option for a free apprenticeship to get a foot in the door at some company or industry.  I needed to help cover my college expenses as much as I could, and so part-time work during the Semester, and work with overtime during the Summer was the only way. 

Today, many in the environmental movement are derided by others as "limousine liberals", folks out of touch with real America.  I'm not so harsh a judge, because I share most of their goals.  But I know that there is a kernel to that truth, and a large part of that image comes from the way in which the industry (because it is an industry, too) chooses its employees. 

People taking this road must often sacrifice, not just time, but financially to a level below a living wage.  This may feel like one is only choosing the true followers of these ideas, but in reality it is only choosing for those who can support themselves by other means, as well.  Typically, this is a young, single person with family to provide for tuition, room and board, and health insurance.  Other options are spouses with enough time for both to work, but one making enough money to cover the basics (health, mortgage, insurance), leaving the other free to pursue a more altruistic profession, or the single and wealthy individual, or the retiree looking to help out.  All of these are fine people, and do great work.

But what this method excludes are myriad voices - passions and perspectives that would make the environmental movement the complete system it needs to be in order to effectively reach its goals.  Poor folks who need employer-based insurance, single parents who want to dedicate their vocation to a calling, college kids who need a living wage during the Summer in order to cover exorbitant tuition rates, families who want to be a part of the solution, who want to advocate and who have talents and skills to contribute, but who cannot live on less than minimum wage.  These people bring different perspectives about what the wild means to them, and these people can often more effectively talk to those people living in similar circumstances. 

So I am frustrated with the apprenticeships and entry-level positions offered in the nonprofit, environmental world.  I understand the difficulties often faced by fickle funding, but I'm much more frustrated at being "offered" positions that cannot provide my family an honest living, and I'm a tad offended that they would expect me to continue to impoverish my family for The Cause. 

A great friend (and nonprofit veteran) once quoted me Confucius during a conversation about this.  She said, "that which is expensive is not expensive, and that which is cheap is not cheap."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Quick thought from the Each One Teach One idea

© 2010 Joshua Stark

In responding to NorCal Cazadora in my previous post, in occurred to me that we could help solve the chicken-and-egg conundrum about hunters and environmentalists.

Oftentimes when I'm attending an environmental advocacy conference, I come across one or two people who would love to try fishing and/or hunting, but who don't know how to start.  I often also come across open-minded hunters who absolutely love having new folks to show hunting.  I propose, then, a Take an Environmentalist Hunting Day, and I mean that in the sincerest sense.

Many hunters believe that environmentalists and animal rights people are one and the same, but they are not.  In fact, I don't even consider animal rights advocacy part of the environmental movement (with a couple of notable exceptions, of course), although I must admit that the fact that many members of nonprofit environmental groups also tend to be knee-jerk members of animal rights groups, which clouds the situation.

Many environmentalists believe that hunters today are paramilitary members who spend part of each year in a compound in Idaho and worry about the New World Order.  However, they carry a romantic notion of the act of hunting, because they have grafted themselves to the Tree of Conservation, whose trunk is T.R. and Thomas Seton, and whose roots are their romantic notions of subsistence hunters and pre-Columbian folks in North America.  They know that deep within their love of the wild exists a need to be the wild, to be a part of it in the most natural way possible, through getting some of their sustenance from it.  They may salve that empty part of their hearts by telling their conscious selves that this is a New Era, and that hunting, today, doesn't have the same spirit and heart, but many long for the experience.

What happens, then, when we introduce enthusiastic environmentalists with the likes of Holly at NorCal Cazadora, Hank at Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, Phillip at the Hog Blog, or Tovar Cerulli?  And there are many, many more like them, ready to share their love for hunting and what it provides, physically, mentally, emotionally, and in some cases, spiritually.

Hunters, if you are so inclined, I recommend you seek out some of your more environmentalist acquaintances, talk up the beauty and experience of intimately knowing your habitats and gaining sustenance from them, and see what happens.  You may end up with a new hunting partner, and helping to re-engage two artificially separated communities.  But if it doesn't even go that far, I doubt you'll be disappointed in the conversation and the shared feelings about those things to which we all feel connected.

Addendum:  If you are interested in hunting or fishing, but have never done so and don't know where or how to start, please shoot me an email, and I will do my darndest to find a hunter in your area who will give you more information, and may even want to meet you and help show you the ropes. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Aldo Leopold, & why I don't see a difference between my hunting and environmentalism

© 2010 Joshua Stark

This morning, I read some of Aldo Leopold's, "A Sand County Almanac" to my son (he is one month old).  If you are interested in understanding just why I cannot comprehend how hunters and fishermen don't consider themselves as brothers and sisters to environmentalists, or indeed, environmentalists, themselves, then please read the first three paragraphs of Mr. Leopold's foreword.

The spirit conveyed in this work, so beautifully put in those first paragraphs, lays bare the reasons that many of us hunt and fish. 

The only thing separating us into different communities are other politics, and that is a crying shame. 


Friday, October 8, 2010

Water Politics and Physics

© 2010 Joshua Stark.

Okay, so with little exception, the California debates for governor and senator ran their courses as expected.  And for all the listening I did, I only found one environmental reference worthy of note, but not in a good way.

I'm sure you've all heard that Meg Whitman employed a woman to work in her house for 9 years, and it turns out that the woman didn't have her papers in order to work here.  I'll brush past that, except to say, "duh!"  I think it's obvious that wealthy people hire undocumented housekeepers as a status symbol. 

But on to the environmental comment.  In the first Whitman-Brown debate, Ms. Whitman stepped into a time-honored tradition in California politics:  offering the promise of more water.

That's right, Meg Whitman promised more water.

I believe it was about two-thirds through the debate, when one of the moderators brought up the Peripheral Canal.  Ms. Whitman took it and ran with it right in the direction I knew she'd go.  She said that the Central Valley's current economic woes were due to the overzealous environmental regulations (or some such thing), and that the peripheral canal was a perfect example of a jobs-building, environmental savior.  Then, she contracted something, a condition I've heard called "diarrhea of the mouth", in which she couldn't stop herself from explaining the benefits of this grand scheme.  She worked herself up into such a state that she had to finish where she did, as horrific as I'm sure it had become in her head.  She ended by claiming that the peripheral canal would provide more water for the environment and more water for agriculture. 

I can imagine the little voice in her head, "okay, you've made a great point about jobs (although it isn't true, and the poor Central Valley will always be a feudal state), so wrap it up.  Okay, bring it in bring it home... wait, wrap it up!  Arrghh!  Stop talking!  No, don't promise them more wa... well, crap."

Ms. Whitman is surely smart enough to realize that a new river bed, no matter how it is designed, will only provide the water that runs from its sources, and cannot provide any new water.  Ms. Whitman has got to be cognizant of the fact that weather and climate determine precipitation, and that one concrete conveyance cannot do one thing to increase our rainfall and snow pack. 

It would have been one thing to say that the Central Valley needs the jobs that more water provides.  I'd have slammed it, but at least it is within the realm of physics.  But to promise a magical transformation?  Pretty bad, pretty amateurish, and perfectly, politically, Californian.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fear mongering and non sequitors from a couple of pro-Big Ag liberals

© 2010 Joshua Stark

A Grist blogger slams Ezra Klein at the Washington Post over a snippet in support of industrial agriculture.  Klein "argues", in two paragraphs, that we'll have to keep agriculture industrial, and he quotes a man saying the same thing... well, in fact, half of "his" piece is the quotation.  The good news?  If that's the best he can get in support of big ag., then we don't have much to worry about in the arena of reason. 

The quotation claims that farming benefits from economies of scale, like steel manufacture, so we should keep it industrial, and even make it super-industrial.  Klein tries to add to this excruciating generalization by noting that no other enterprise that has gone industrial has ever gone back, and he does so in a remarkably juvenile fashion, I might add.   We can comfortably ignore Klein's little "addition" because there is no argument in there.  It's so silly, in fact, it's actually quite shocking.

However, the gentleman being quoted, Mr. Raynor from the Observer, attempts some semblance of a conversation on a serious topic that involves the lives of billions of people.

Mr. Raynor believes that the U.K. is on the verge of food shortages of such a level as to cause riots.  His description of the British food supply goes a long way toward proving how silly that sounds, but he sticks to it - it is the gist of his opening line, after all. 

In light of the cheap, perfect-looking foods Brits have come to expect, Mr. Raynor argues, the only way they will avoid Mozambique-like riots over food is to build a big mega-dairy...?

From there, he gets even more lost.

First, Mr. Raynor makes an across-the-board claim about agriculture, taking an extraordinarily diverse concept and treating it as if it is one product in one market.  His belief that "agriculture" always and everywhere benefits from economies of scale illustrates his ignorance of both agriculture and economics.

Mr. Raynor fails to realize, for example, that economies of scale in agriculture most often come from lax environmental regulation, extraordinarily cheap labor, poor animal treatment, and/or subsidies.  Mr. Raynor spends much time considering the British apple market, probably because they are an iconic English crop, but he gives no example of how big ag. can save British apple production.  Would he be willing to allow DDT, labor at a pound or so per day, and tax breaks in order to save apples?  I think he would argue that these measures wouldn't save British farming, and he would be 100% right.

And if Mr. Raynor is worried about the status quo, he must surely realize that the status quo includes big ag. for most of his food supply right now, anyway.  Those imported apples he hates?  They get there only through a few, gigantic corporations.  Instead of vilifying the apples, he should be praising their availability to the skies. 

Since he couldn't provide an industrial ag. solution for the problem he outlined, he picked up another one:  dairy.  I don't know the specifics of the dairy industry in England, and from Mr. Raynor's quick description, neither does he.  I've spent some time debunking the "farmers don't get profits from sick animals" claim, so I won't do that here, but the fact that he uses this as his argument in favor of a mega-dairy says a lot about how much he really knows about food production facilities.

His last point, the inference that organic and sustainable farming practices can only be enjoyed by the wealthy, actually undermines his first point, that Brits have put themselves in a pickle by demanding produce at half of what they've previously paid (and will even burn buildings and kill people if they have to go back). 

Mr. Raynor's bias of omission is also startlingly revealing:  No mention of the impact of oligopoly on food markets, which often exacerbate scarcity and jeopardize food security to maximize profits - the very crises he hopes to avert by concentrating food production in the hands of a few people and places.  He needs to consider the past 25 years of price gouging and collusion that major corporate agriculture enterprises have committed, and study the recent foodborne disease outbreaks originating from huge, centralized production facilities, before he goes waving the Big Ag Flag in public.

To me, though, his biggest offense is that he compares Mozambique with England to give a frightening picture of a possible English future.  This is just wrong, and maybe immoral.  Mozambique's GDP per capita in 2008 was roughly $440.  Ten years ago, it was below $200, which means that Mozambique has been slowly improving, and that people remember times worse than when they averaged four hundred bucks per person.  This, alone, should explain the reaction of Mozambicans in light of a 30% hike in bread prices, and  it should make startlingly clear just why it is so wrong to compare Mozambique to England.  What do Londoners pay for bread, two pounds?  If it rose 100%, there would be no riots.  If it rose 500%, there would be sternly-written letters to MP's, replete with apologies for doing so, but there would be no riots. 

Mr. Raynor points out that Brits are paying half of what they paid for food 20 years ago, from about 20% to about 10% of their incomes.  If prices rose 100% for all foods, not just bread, they'd just be back where they were twenty years ago.

Mr. Raynor makes no serious claims for supporting big ag.; he obviously is not familiar with scientific studies that point to organic and sustainable smaller ag. producing higher yields and more sustainable business models without the need for exploitation of the resource or of humans; he ignores the market impacts of oligopoly that come with big ag.; he completely misses the problems associated with food security when production is centralized; and he tries to scare people in England into thinking that they may start killing each other over the price of bread.

I don't buy it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Must... avoid... cliché... can't resist... must try... ah, heck: A rose by any other name will still cause obesity

© 2010 Joshua Stark

How can a person resist the ease of title-writing via cliché when the topic makes it so horribly easy?  BlogHer reports that the makers of high fructose corn syrup want to officially change its name to "corn sugar". 

The author of that report, Rita Arens, took the topic further at her personal blog, and it's well worth reading.

As Ms. Arens points out, for those already into these issues, a name change won't make a difference.  But in my humble opinion, the name change will have a detrimental effect on the public's buying habits.  In general, marketing works. It works so well that we've decided, socially, to develop our media streams solely on the back of the revenue generated through marketing.

Specifically for this product, "high fructose corn syrup" is not very sweet sounding, because you have to get through three un-sweet words before you get to syrup.  Additionally, the term has become one word, really, and a social inertia has been building against it.  By changing the name to something vaguely nutritious in our society (corn) and something sweet that has already well stood the forces aligned against it (sugar), and is even a term of endearment, hfcs producers hope to distance themselves from the social opposition that has taken hold against the term.  They are betting that A) a typical consumer won't read labels and stay up on the news; and B) the association with "sugar" will diminish the social stigma.

But, the purpose of hfcs, just like marketing, is a means to maintain market share.  Marketing differentiates between products, building resistance to competition in the marketplace.  High fructose corn syrup is a very expensive endeavor to begin, with huge up-front cost in materials and labor, making it difficult for competitors to enter the market.  Unfortunately, these ways of increasing barriers to entrance create scarcity in food markets to create profitability among a few, gigantic corporations.  This trumped-up scarcity for a necessity is a bad way to build a market and a horrible way to distribute food.  In fact, creating scarcity completely contradicts the purpose of economics.

The Basic Economic Problem, the only reason for the existence of the field of study, is scarcity.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The science of choice, bovine flatulance edition

© 2010 Joshua Stark

...and I don't mean it like, "The Breakfast of Champions."

Economics is often called the science of choice (which is also why it's called the "dismal science"), because an economist spends her time thinking about everything you could have done with that $1.25 you spent on the King Sized Snickers you bought at the corner liquor store (the Standup Economist has a simply genius take on this when translating Mankiw's Ten Principles of Economics).

It's interesting, because economics looks at the choices we make with an eye toward improving efficiencies, but efficiencies come in many shapes and sizes, and increasing one efficiency may, in fact, create a less efficient outcome for something else.  Take California cow farts, for example.

That's right.  KQED posted a snippet about methane digesters at two huge dairies in the Central Valley, and the problems they are having getting them up and running.  In it, they talk about the farmers' troubles with lowering their pollution.  You see, methane is a greenhouse gas, but burning it causes a local pollutant known as NOx.  It just so happens that the air quality district in which these dairies operate is almost constantly far beyond the legal limit for its local, human-health-destroying pollutants.  For some perspective, note that one in five children in the Central Valley has asthma.

Unfortunately, KQED decided to place this in its "ClimateWatch" series, and not its, "OhMyLordOurIndustriesAreKillingOurChildren" series, where the "efficiencies" argument might be considered in a different light.  However, they did, and they talked about how these farmers, in trying to do a good, unselfish deed, were coming up against the heartless and cold steel wall of bureaucracy.  Why, one poor farmer has had to spend $200k for one pollution control device!

But, what the report does not do is compare the costs of containment to a number of other factors.  For example, how much was saved in medical costs for asthma attacks?  I'm no doctor, but I'm guessing that a couple hundred grand is chump change.  Also, how much of these farmers' energy costs were offset by generating their own power, even after the added pollution-control measures?  How much ag. production from neighboring farms was saved, since pollution is responsible for probably a 15% reduction in plant productivity from dimming the Sun in the Valley? 

And, if they'd saved that money, how many additional cows could they have bought, thus increasing their pollution contribution?

Economics uses money because it is a convenient way to measure relative efficiencies, but it isn't the only way, nor is efficiency the only thing to worry about.  For example, how many children were spared a painful, frightening and life-threatening asthma attack?  How many parents were spared the horror of rushing a child, who simply cannot breathe, to the hospital?  We can put these savings into dollar amounts, but that would cheapen it in a bad way, now wouldn't it?

I will tell you right now that these farmers did not fund methane digesters simply because they believe that global warming is partly their fault, just like we consumers don't all put solar panels up on our houses or run out and buy an electric car just to save the planet.  They ran the numbers, and the energy saving they'll get from doing it in-house pays off.  Plus they may get carbon offsets in the near future.  Plus they help do their part to save the planet.  Plus they have the ability to cover the up-front costs of conversion, and the risk of doing something fairly new.

I commend these farmers for taking a step out unfamiliar territory, and I'm especially glad that John Fiscalini at Fiscalini Farms put in that pollution control device.  That's great work.  I'm also very happy with the work of regulators telling folks that they have to control their NOx pollution in a place with the worst air quality in the entire country.  I'm not so happy with KQED losing the heart of this story by contriving an angle to shoehorn it into their ClimateWatch series.

Economics, in getting us to consider our choices, is a great boon to society.  But remember that these choices go beyond the over-simplified monetary quantities.  Our choices have real impacts.

And, when you click over to the KQED piece, please note the convolutions the editor had to go through to get to use, "cut it", in the title of a piece on cow farts.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Working with what we've got

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Even with the funding near-crisis which we've reached, our land management and land protection agencies still do some pretty fine work.  If you read Outdoor California, for example, you'll notice the great stories of game wardens out catching poachers, drug dealers, and other nefarious sorts - and remember, at every stop of hunters, the warden knows the person is armed.

Also, consider the wonderful job Phillip at the Hog Blog describes being done at a beautiful valley in Northwestern California.  It would appear the Forest Service is rehabilitating a land devastated by a catastrophic wildfire.  That is some hard work, and takes a lot of effort, planning, and achievement.

For those who don't know, a catastrophic wildfire is a largely unnatural event in California ecology.  Due to the high level of forest fuels from too much fire suppression over the past 150 years, coupled with a forest floor full of non-native invasive plants that burn hotter and into the soil, catastrophic fires destroy native plants, seeds, and soil biology, leaving rock and lifeless dirt in its place, to be re-populated by even more non-native, invasive plants.  To bring back these lands, planners and managers must take many factors into consideration, which in California is even more complicated than other places - we have more microclimates, and therefore more plant varieties.  In fact, we have more plant varieties than all other states.  Combined.

So please consider this great work.  Here's my tip of the hat to the wonderful, hard-working men and women of our public lands management.  Thank you.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Funding issues in the environment

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Phillip Loughlin always does a bang-up job of hitting some nacent idea between my brain cells and getting it out.  This time, a commenter on one of the Hog Blogger's condor posts knocked me in the temple, and out popped a notion that had been stewing in my unconscious for quite some time.

The commenter made a common, innocuous claim:  That condor preservation costs about $74k per bird.  He also alluded to the notion that this was extravagant.  I've heard this claim before, and though I don't know it's a fact, I'm willing to believe it is true right now, because condors have had such a small population for so long.

Where it took me was deep in my head, into the realm of funding for our natural resources and habitats.  I've had more than a few dealings with funding, and I've come to two conclusions:  If we don't step up, as a society, and start paying for effective research and management of our natural resources, somebody will... or, won't... but either way, it won't always be good.

I've dealt with land managers who've argued that lower visitation means "fewer boots on the habitat", while still decrying the loss of money for good protections.  I've dealt with it as a visitor, finding garbage cans and pit toilets overflowing and filthy.  I've dealt directly, as a park employee, with trying to make a living in a 3/4 time position in a place where the median price for a house was $425,000.  And I've dealt with it as an advocate in the legislative realm, where many have looked for every possible way to fund our public resources management, only to find themselves having to compete for shrinking dollars with fire, police, health, and education. 

Two very bad things seem to be happening, and both are exacerbated by our current economic crisis.

First, we've just flat-out stopped funding government (or "our" as I like to call it) management of public resources.  We've cut park staff, rangers, and facilities for public use.  California has the lowest number of per capita game wardens:  200 wardens for a population over 38 million, with more than 800 miles of marine coastline in a state 158706 square miles in size, 2407 of those inland waterways (about 500 sq. mi. more than all of Delaware).  And for yet another year, our state will probably furlough 10% of their work hours

Second, in their desperation, many advocates are turning to a new form of funding in order to take care of our public places:  Private contributions.  But, private money comes with some serious issues.  When people give huge chunks of money to help purchase lands, there is always the conversation about how the place will be managed.  This is understandable, but the government has always gained some leverage, during those conversations, by saying that it will be paying for management, and therefore it will have to determine management in a public fashion.  But when private money goes into implementing management plans, the pressure to manage for those who provide the funding grows exponentially.

This second move brings with it some sad potential for public management of public lands for private benefit.  I am sure there are many benevolent and wealthy folks out there willing to give up millions of dollars with no desire for getting special treatment when it comes to managing our public lands, but we cannot merely trust in the good nature of these folks.

The bottom line is that, cliche' though it may be, public lands are our lands, and if we are going to keep them well for all of us and for our future, then we cannot shirk our duties to protect them.  Nor can we give over those duties to a small minority of people to manage, in the hopes that they will still think about the public's needs and wishes.

One way to help step up is by buying duck stamps, even if you don't hunt.  Also, involve yourself in the public management process by commenting on proposed rules and rule changes.  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that any federal government action that may impact the environment must go through a public process.  California has a wonderful law like that, too (CEQA) - and other states may have other public-input requirements. 

It's always important to give whatever volunteer time you can, and it's always important to donate to worthy causes.  But don't forget that the United States is special and worth protecting only because of its democratic republican principles of a government of, by, and for the people.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Watch out for radioactive pigs from space! (and truffles)

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Except for the space part, the title is true if you live or plan to visit East Germany (and probably huge parts of Eastern Europe and Russia), and you also plan to eat wild boar or certain mushrooms, then you might be interested in this article in the Spiegel (via the Hog Blog).

25 years after Chernobyl, German hunters are still killing contaminated hogs, and the German Government is required to reimburse them for it, last year to the tune of over a half-million dollars.

The article points out, among other things, that the pigs are probably still being contaminated because they feed on certain mushrooms, including truffles, that still concentrate the contaminants.  And, they are finding some pigs contaminated at rates over 11 times the allowed about of radioactivity.

I also thought this might be interesting for people who are on the fence about subsidizing nuclear as an energy option.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A quick note

I'm still around, just trying to get through life and times.

Some big things have happened that I've just not had the time to post here:

The federal climate legislation died (who'd a thunk it?), & President Obama ponders next steps;

A panel finally gave a number for the amount of flow the California Delta needs for its ecosystem functions (much less than is already flowing), and a State Senate Select Committee is meeting to talk about it next week;

The Western Climate Initiative posted its cap & trade proposal;

& the Center for Biological Diversity and allies have just petitioned the EPA to consider the impacts of lead ammunition on wildlife.

I'm sure I'll post my thoughts on these issues... in a bit.

In the mean time, do any of you have any issues you think I should cover?  Think about the nexus of ethics and the environment.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Successful Outing - Young 'uns in the field.

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Yesterday afternoon, we came home from a 3 1/2 day camping trip into the Sierra Nevada.

It'd be nice to say that we hiked back 20 miles or so into some roadless area where we lived off the land, picked berries and tubers, killed the great Hart, caught fish, or some such thing.  The truth is, however, that we drove up to the last vacant site in a campground of 80 spots, amid hundreds of people and next to a reservoir.  But I do not apologize.

My plans always start bigger than they wind up (ask any number of my hunting and fishing companions), and this trip proved no exception.  We were expecting upwards of 20 people to join us for a few days of hiking, berry-picking, perhaps crawdadding, and definitely fishing, fishing, and fishing.  But slowly, people backed out, all for very good reasons, of course, and we were down to two days of 5 1/2 of us, and two days with three more folks.

The days were hot, too: I'm sure we broke 100 on at least one of them.  And the neighbors were up pretty late and up pretty early.  And the reservoir was full of motor boats and jet skis.

But not in our neck of the woods.  Where we landed, we had a wonderful little inlet that had a few people, but almost zero encounters with fast boaters.  We launched our kayak and canoe, toted around a blow-up turtle (as opposed to an exploding turtle), and splashed in the water the first day. 

The evening of the second day, my nephew and I took to the woods stumpshooting.  For those of you who aren't lucky enough to use a bow and arrow, stumpshooting is when you walk through the forest, slowly and quietly (or not so slowly and a little bit loud, but not screaming and running), and sneak up on and shoot wily critters like pinecones and sticks.  Stumps can break arrows, so we don't really shoot at those... I'm guessing the term was coined by wealthier folks than we.

We walked, and talked, and watched the stream higher than I'd ever seen it in July.  We vowed we'd return the next day with the whole family.  We also had a run-in with a hawk of some kind (it kills me that I don't know what kind of hawk it was) chasing a baby bird, the momma screaming and right on its heels.  The three of them went careening through the woods, and we had to duck to avoid being hit - the hawk barely banked to its left, the baby bird to its right.  They flew on through the forest, but since we almost instantly heard no more screaming from the momma bird, we figured the baby had gotten away.  While neither of us could help feeling relieved, I also explained to my nephew that the hawk may be trying to feed its own little ones.  He responded, after some thought, that "it's both good and bad."

The next day, we all trekked back to the stream and swam it.  There was a fast current in the middle of a fine pool, and my nephew swam it bravely, (which means with trepidation, but doing it anyway because he felt he should, not because we goaded him - we aren't like that).  Other family arrived, and we had a great time at the pool.  At one point, a niece fell in the water (she was okay), and our 11-year old dog, Irma, jumped in to save her - a remarkable feat, since she absolutely detests swimming, and the water was cold.  If you've never owned a dog, I might venture to say that you've never known pure, unconditional love.

The berries weren't ripe.  We didn't drop a crawdad trap.  We fished maybe ten minutes, tops.  No rabbits for the pot.  Deer season was a month away.  And yet, this was one of the greatest camping trips I've ever had.  Loving family was there, there were adventures aplenty, the food was great, and I got to watch my 3-year old daughter show little fear of anything other than boats and band-aids.  She climbed up and down rocks all day, she watched bugs, she asked about bird calls (a red-breasted nuthatch).

What an amazing time. 

If you ever get a chance to get out with kids into the woods, even if they are a little crowded with other folks, do it - for them, and for you.

And now, I'll leave you with a little video I took on a tree next to our campsite.  I think it's fitting with the theme:

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Last weekend's hunt, and thoughts on archery hunting

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I had an absolutely amazing time on my bowhunt with Phillip and Cat.  No game was bagged, but something in me clicked, in a good way.

Archery hunting tends to do that to me.  It makes me calm, it helps me move more deliberately and understand that serenity goes a long way in life.

When a person moves when archery hunting, they are trying to get in close, without being recognized.  Many people automatically anthropomorphize creatures, but when one hunts with a bow, even the most basic human assumption - that sight is the most important sense - has to go out the window.  At least, it does when you hunt pigs or deer.
When bowhunting, the wind is more important than cover.  Sound, too, becomes very important.

And so, one pokes slowly through the forest, using game trails and old roads, and always checking the wind patterns.  Especially when there is no persistent breeze, winds can be tricky.

I consider myself fairly astute at reading the wind, for which I credit my nearsightedness.  When I was young, I went a few years without knowing I needed glasses.  I was quiet and shy, and I also got good grades, so it just never really came up until I was about to get my driver's license.  However, I walked outdoors constantly, but came to rely more and more upon my understanding of the wind, especially in regards to how it moved sounds, but also smells.  (I also greatly enjoyed tracking, because tracks were close and thus more visible than, say, sunlight through the ear of a cottontail.) 

Luckily for me, then, I've a decent ability to read the wind, a downright invaluable asset when bowhunting.  Rifle hunters need to know the wind, too, but usually only if it is moving big, or if they are still-hunting, or hunting heavy cover; but for a bowhunter, there is much more to it.  My most recent trip provides a prime example:

This last weekend, I had the absolute privilege and joy to stalk wild hogs.  In particular, after stumbling (a little more literally than I'd have liked) upon a wallow on a creek, I decided... well, my calves decided to sit a bit, because I knew it had been used recently (I could smell pigs there - isn't that cool?).  The Sun was setting, and I knew I had maybe 20 minutes of light left.

The creek was nestled between two steep, dry hills that rose a few hundred feet on either side.  They were very steep in some places, impassable in others, and covered in varying degrees of deep, dark wood, oak park habitat, and grassy open spots.  The grass was golden and dry, the ground baked by the California Sun, making bushwhacking too noisy a prospect.  But, a road paralleled the creek.

After "hearing" something up-creek a bit, I slowly walked around a small bend.  I realized almost simultaneously that the noise had come from the water, and that, 100 yards distant, browsing calmly between two oak trees and out in the grass, moseyed a sow, a boar, and six piglets.  I froze.

Now, if this had been a story with a rifle, I would have had the picture of the pig at the end of this story, right?  But with my recurve, I was just beginning a stalk, and I had 70 yards to go.

Thanks to my nearsightedness, when I stopped moving I immediately knew the bad news.  The back of my arms and neck, the exposed parts of my body, were colder than the front.  The wind was slowly wafting from me to my prey.  With little light left, I knew I couldn't hike up the hill and back down to them, so I attempted to close the distance a little quicker than normal.  Using the cover of the creek berm, I moseyed, myself, toward them.

Crap!  I walked up onto another wallow, and I immediately knew that's where they were headed, and if I'd stayed put, they might have walked right up to me.

I made about 30 yards before the boar caught wind of me.  A little snuffling snort, and all of them stood stock still, wound up tight, and ready to run.  Then they did run, back into the deep, dark wood, and into my memories forever.

They never once saw me, of that I'm sure - and the creek's gurgle ensured that they never heard me, either.  All it took was the familiarity of my smell (my wife will laugh at that one) for them to know, as surely as I would know if I'd seen a man with a gun stalking me, that they needed to leave, and fast.

Archery hunting hones a lot of lessons that regular hunting teaches, including the human need to move slowly and deliberately through the wild, the need to understand how you influence the world, and the vital lesson that things happen that you cannot control, and that accepting them and putting yourself out there are more important.

Getting out there also reminded me that I love and thrive on just being there.  I saw a tiny owl, I saw bandtail pigeons ripping through the air.  I saw quail, and had the hooey scared out of my twice by a lovesick grouse and his beautiful, brown mate.  Twice.  I stalked a jackrabbit and was showed equal shock and an instant of stark terror when a horrifying pig-squeal rose up from the canyon below us.  I realized that no successful North American mammal predator has a green coat.  And I spent a great time with two great, new friends - laughing, joking, eating and drinking, recounting tales, and sharing a sad moment (read Phillip's piece on that one).

So, when I got home and started poking around a few sites looking for archery and bowhunting legends and lore, and I stumbled upon this amazing video, I won't feel shame to say it brought tears to my eyes. Please take a couple of minutes to hear the last question of the last interview given by Fred Bear.  You won't be disappointed.

Friday, July 9, 2010

I'm off after the great Hart

© 2010 Joshua Stark

In a few hours, I'm on the road to meet up with Phillip from the Hog Blog, and pursue both blacktail deer and wild pigs. 

The last deer I took, a beautiful, tiny, blacktail doe during the late season archery hunt in Monterey County, happened while my wife was pregnant with our now three-year-old daughter.  I was elated that my daughter was made out of the coast blacktail, and I've told her that her whole life (she's also made out of the wild rainbow surfperch and rainbow trout of the Sierra).

This year, we are expecting another baby, a boy, some time in September or early October.  Of course, I again hope to bring home venison and pork.

However, even if I come home with only life-sustaining stories with what I know will be a wonderful, powerful time, I am still lucky.  From my relatively new community of blogging friends, my baby is already made from coast blacktail and wild boar.  For, we were invited to Hank and Holly's Big Fat Greek Party back in Spring, where they served up wild sausages I believe were made from Maximus.  Later, they also provided me with venison stew meat, and chunks of Trinity River steelhead.

It sounds fru-fru hippie, I know, but it isn't that in my mind.  In my mind, places are very important, and places include the animals and plants that have thrived there for hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of years.  And though my family doesn't have the ancestral connections to this most beautiful of places, I have still thought myself a Californian, in love with the myriad habitats and climates, and the wonders they hold.  This is why I have taken off for the wilds my whole life.  This is why I hunt. 

And knowing that my children's synapses were formed from this place, that they have been nourished, if only a little, from these amazing lands, makes me very happy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Archery season! Archery season!

© Joshua Stark 2010

It's time, again.  The seasons roll around, and although my life has changed dramatically the past couple of years, and continues to do so, the seasons still roll around.  What season is it now?  Well...

I read many hunting blogs and magazines this time of year, and I also break out two very important books, one by Fred Bear and one by Chuck Adams.  Both of these books were given to me when I was a high-schooler, and I've read them and re-read them almost every year since.  They are books about archery, and about bow hunting, in particular.

Archery is my favorite hunting season in California.  I know that sounds weird, because I read about how horrified people get at the prospect of hunting in 100+ degree weather, but that has always been my experience.

I didn't grow up in a hunting culture, and so I've rarely been successful at big game.  Four years ago, then, when I bought a recurve bow and decided to pare down my gadgetry and gear for archery, I was very surprised to take a doe with it.  Archery, and in particular "traditional" archery, had taught me valuable lessons.

I've blogged about archery gear over at my Lands on the Margin blog, if you are interested.  I hunt with a cheap, 55 lb. draw recurve I named Versorger (German for "bringer" or "provider"... basically, a caterer) that pinches my fingers bad and stacks like a beast (stacking is bad, if you don't know archery).  But it has provided, and I shoot fair-to-middlin' with it.  What I do when I hunt with it is hunt better.

In archery season you at least see bucks sometimes.  In California, with very few exceptions, you can only shoot forked-horn or bigger deer (for you over-compensating whitetail hunters, that would be a "three pointer" or bigger), and for many years I thought the notion of deer with antlers was a myth perpetuated by the Dept. of Fish & Game to sell tags.  But in archery season, buck sightings are more common, probably because the hunters are quiet, unlike during rifle season, when shots occasionally roll across the canyons and valleys, and many, many more people take to the "field" (meaning, drive up and down logging roads).

Archery, itself has a great quality about it: it is a deeper brush with our connections to the wild.  I enjoy shooting guns, for sure, but every aspect of archery provides me with a deeper meaning.  The symmetry of the bow, the speed of the arrow, the finality of the shot, the ultimate reliance on one shot, and the need to get closer all appeal to me.

Ethically, I have the same problem with archery season that I do with most people who think they can shoot past 100 yds.:  Many people don't practice enough, and when they are in the field, they aren't honest with themselves about the range and opportunity of shots.

Some animal rights people are concerned with the wounding danger of arrows, but they haven't had enough experience with a bow, either.  Poorly shot arrows do wound game animals, and that is a shame.  However, an arrow-wounded animal that gets away has a much better chance of surviving and thriving than does an animal wounded by a gun.  Arrows kill by slicing clean, often passing completely through.  Guns kill by opening holes, too, but also by shock.  A gun hits with a blunt force.  An arrow, as Chuck Adams states, has less kinetic energy than the smallest pistol, a .22 short.  Yet, with an arrow, a person can kill bison. 

Archery also teaches one how to hone skills, not just acquire them.  Everything about archery, from the actual honing of the broadhead to the need to improve tracking skills, read the wind, and know your prey, thrives on betterment.  Above all, archery rewards accuracy, and it can be practiced in a relatively small space. 

This year, I hope not to put down the bow with the end of archery deer season.  California has an early season archery quail hunt in August, and I hope to get up into the mountains after them.  I also hope to get family out with bows for stump-shooting after pinecones and the like.  It's a great sport just by itself, and it teaches a lot without preaching.  Something I could learn...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lead bans in California

© Joshua Stark 2010

Phillip at the Hog Blog beat me to it, but I wanted to note here that the proposed lead ammunition ban in California wildlife areas was killed in committee.  I don't expect this decision to be paraded around by opponents as another example of wise leadership on the part of our legislature, but it should.
That's right, I said that the folks who were opposed to this ban need to acknowledge, vocally and in public, that this decision was a good, wise decision.  Then, they need to take it a step further, and offer a bill that would provide for research on these properties, research that looks for any and all impacts from potential pollutants, including lead, but also other pollutants.  It's time to judo-flip this puppy, lock arms with other members of the environmental and EJ communities, and say, "hey, there is a concern for pollutants on our lands.  We worry, because we love the wild, and we also eat the wild.  We want healthy places for our land and for our children."

Now is the time to step up with some solid language.  I propose the bill language include general research into airborne, soil, and water pollutants with a focus on identifying the toxins and determining their vectors into the habitat.  I also propose that findings be reported by five years' time.  Last, I propose that the research consider each wildlife area individually, that it not be lumped into some general statements.

We are a huge state with many climates, dozens of microclimates, many different watersheds, and a huge diversity of industries.  We also have a gigantic population that is highly urbanized.  All of these factors weigh in on the various pollutants with which we live.

Seriously, this could be the impetus for bringing together those who care about our environment, whether for hunting, for its own sake, or for the pollutants that harm our own neighborhoods.

Editorial note:  I did support the lead ban in condor country, but opposed the proposed lead ban in all wildlife areas.  I also no longer shoot lead at all when hunting, because I have a pregnant wife and a three-year-old daughter.  We need solid science to show that a lead ammunition ban would, indeed, positively impact my wild places, and where this comes to light, I do support lead bans.  But, where it is determined that it is not causing a problem, I do not support a ban.

The sorrowful pessimist in me says that other politics (namely, the grip of huge industries on our political sphere) will keep our groups from organizing on this issue.  But, I try to remain hopeful, and if anyone is interesting in helping out, please let me know.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bad article on feedlots, with a twist

© 2010 Joshua Stark

A few days back, I came across an online article in the tweet-stream written by a self-described vegetarian, about CAFO's (confined animal feeding operations).  This might not sound very strange, as vegetarians often write about CAFO's.  But the catch was this: the article was going to be in favor of them.  This, I had to read.
After reading it, I'm sorry I spent so much of my time on it.

Basically, it boils down to this:  This article is nothing more than a fluff piece for CAFO's.  In fact, it is so fluffy, I'm willing to say that I seriously doubt the author's authenticity.  The piece is riddled with misrepresentations, flawed logic, and the typical arguments couched in a "wow! as a VEGETARIAN I never knew that!" style of writing.

First off, I'll admit that I am confused about the author, because his "favorite" t-shirt was a bust image of a woman's t-shirt (on a woman) that read, "have you hugged a vegetarian today?"  Also, though the blog author is, "Ryan Andrews", the introduction was obviously written by somebody else, and that, coupled with the objectifying shot of the woman's headless torso make for a discombobulated opening.  But, on to the actual reporting.

The claims of this article are extraordinarily polished - by which I mean that they have been worked and worked to avoid, as much as possible, actually false claims, while trying really hard to address specific concerns voiced by people who actually care about animals.

For example:  "You see, very few people in the nutrition world are ever allowed to visit feedlots.  In fact, some of my favorite authors have written entire books about feedlots without ever being granted permission to see one in person."

I'm sure this is technically true.  I mean, what logical person owning private property would willingly let in people who are looking to destroy their industry?  However, quick search engine searches, or searches on YouTube, easily offer video footage of animal cruelty within actual feedlots.  There is a difference between being granted permission and getting inside. Yet, the author's claim here is meant to give his article a credibility that other "favorite authors" (who?) shouldn't have, without actually calling anybody out.

Another example:  "So if Steve’s (the feedlot owner) is a “family farm,” what’s a “factory farm”?  Well, the term “factory farm” isn’t actually used in the agricultural community.  So, in essence, it’s slang that was coined by skeptics of the cattle industry."

First, note the two "so's" sandwiching a "well" - creating that shucky-darn down-homey feel, trying to hide an industry mantra, that there is no real factory farm, and that farming is still a family enterprise at its heart, with the hope that people will automatically equate "family" with local, good, simple, humble.

But there is something more insidious in this claim.  I, for one, have heard many in the agriculture community use the term "factory farm".  Organic and small farmers serving multiple products largely to their own communities often refer to their subsidized, promoted, competition as factories.  And of course, if you eat, you are a member of the ag. community.  And don't even get me started on what constitutes a "farm" (multiple products) vs. a "ranch" (one product).  It's bad enough to perpetuate the illusion that there is an ag. industry that doesn't include its customers, but trying to separate organic and multi-cropping farms from the agriculture community is downright wrong.

I could really spend an entire post pointing out these little, weasley wordings.  But there are some actual claims made by this PR piece that don't stand up to scrutiny, even after all the polishing, and it's those I'd like to really address.

I'll start with the CAFO definition.  The author claims that the EPA says a CAFO are places that, "congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland."  But, this is the definition of an "AFO", not the definition of a CAFO.  According to the EPA, a CAFO is defined by its pollution contribution, a criterion which Magnum (the feedlot in the article) meets.  Pretty interesting omission, that one.

 Another one has to do with the author's "surprise" at the diets of feedlot cows:  "Wait, wait.  What about all those reports of sick cows being stuffed with corn?  Well, folks, at Magnum anyway, there’s no such thing as an “all grain” cattle diet.  In fact, the diet of the cattle at Magnum never exceeds 50% corn.  And often, it’s much, much less."

This statistical claim is so out of context that it is rendered beyond useless, it is actually misleading.  The simple, unanswered question is:  What amount of corn in a cow's diet is bad for it?  The author doesn't know, or doesn't say; but by showing shock at the grass in the cows' diets (what does he think all those alfalfa fields are for?), he misleads the reader into believing that he does know, and that the percentages used by Magnum are good for cows.

Michael Pollan claims that 15-30% of feedlot cows show abcessed livers, which more reasonably leads one to believe that the diet is not good for cows.  Also, fat marbling in muscle is a fairly unnatural phenomenon in nature, so one can reasonably assume that whatever is being fed to feedlot cows is doing unnatural things to their bodies.

Next:  "Growth-promoting hormones are used in feedlot cattle as it (sic) increases efficiency. These are naturally occurring hormones that are regularly metabolized by the body.  Most cattle don’t get antibiotics. And if they do, they need it. Further, they won’t be sent to slaughter until 21 days after antibiotic administration, since it takes that long for the antibiotic to clear the system."

Okay, I'm sick to death of this argument.  Do you know what else is naturally occurring?  Puffer fish poison.  Cyanides.  Hell, petroleum is naturally occurring.  And when a body metabolizes it, what happens to it?  Does it completely disappear, doing nothing?  Another bias of omission.  Also, the last sentence is at least misleading, and probably false.  The folks at Magnum have to give a waiting period for cows on antibiotics, per USDA regulations.  We don't really know if it takes 21 days to clear the system, but we definitely do know that this isn't the reason the folks at Magnum wait 21 days. 

And another:  "According to Magnum, organic feed doesn’t seem to increase meat quality or safety.  Research doesn’t really support the idea either.  But, organic feed does allow consumers another option (i.e. organic meat vs. non-organic meat).  And organic farming practices may have some benefits for the planet." 

Holy cow!  Really??!!!  It's hard to address this one, because it's a whopper.  "Quality" is subjective, and many folks who raise grass-fed beef get the smelly end of that stick, because USDA quality criteria include fat where it shouldn't be.  The "another option" claim is a way to give lip-service to an industry the author doesn't necessarily want to offend (other cattle ranchers).  That last sentence just... it just... well, I'm sure you know how that last sentence makes me feel. 

And that was just the bump-set for this spike:  "Sure, some folks think grass-fed, free-range is better.  But, as any good PN reader can attest, it’s a heckuva lot more expensive.  And, at the end of the day, Magnum is competing for the protein food dollar. Mainstream America is currently buying conventionally fed meat from cattle, so, feedlots keep producing it.

"It’s also important to know that if we continue to eat 200+ pounds of meat per person per year in the U.S., grass-fed isn’t really an option.  There’s not enough land."

Of course, the first real reference to consumers is derogatory.  The hapless, helpless little beef industry buffeted by the market and insatiable appetites must, simply must provide what is demanded.  As an economics-minded person, I'm always sickened by the hide-behind-the-demand defense, because it pretends that profits don't exist, that wealth doesn't exist.  Also, the economist in me immediately asks, "why is grass-fed more expensive?" and the answer is apparent:  The big CAFO ag. industry is heavily subsidized, in its feed, in its water deliveries, in its pollution, in its energy consumption, even.  So, we are paying more for meat, we are just paying for it socially, through taxes and social costs associated with its production.

And I've already blogged about how untrue the land claim is regarding grass-fed vs. feedlot cows. 

And on to animal welfare:  "...Magnum wants the cattle to be clean and comfortable.

"I know, I know, I can see my animal welfare comrades shaking their heads – - but think about it. From a profit standpoint, if animals aren’t comfortable, they aren’t going to eat. If they don’t eat, they don’t grow. If they don’t grow, they won’t be much use to the dude wanting to buy a big steak."

I have thought about it, and the consequentialist ethic here regarding cleanliness is wrong.  Magnum doesn't want cattle to be clean.  They want carcasses to be clean.  Magnum doesn't want animals to be comfortable, they want them to be fat.  To be fat, they need to eat, not be comfortable.  Comfort does not always equal eating well, and discomfort does not always equal eating poorly.  One does not have to follow the other.

Plus, "comrades?"  Can you say, "subliminal message?"  No Commie inference there, I'm sure.

And on "waste" at Magnum:  "Magnum recently started composting manure and mortalities (i.e. cattle that don’t make it). It’s gotten more expensive to send deceased cattle to processing plants that manufacture pet foods, so this was the next best option.

"Plus it’s more sustainable.  And the cattle don’t end up standing around in piles of their own feces.  Whew!"

Did I miss something?  Is dog food made out of cow poop?  A sneaky little semantic sleight-of-hand there, moving from all its waste to just its "mortalities".  The last sentence there makes one think that Magnum has folks just standing around behind cows, waiting for them to poop.  But wait!  What was the author's first thought upon arrival?  "“Oh, god, the smell.”"  Now, go to your local county fair, and smell a cow.  Don't smell just the barn they've been standing in, but really smell a cow.  They smell like cows, not cow poop!  Cows, like other animals, only smell bad when something is wrong.  He should have trusted his nose, it always knows.

I could spend an entire post on his "conclusions."  But I won't.  His conclusions, based on such faulty information, cannot lead anywhere good.  Of course, he never touches the notion of animals having worth in and of themselves, or our responsibility toward allowing them to live like they should.  Nor does he address the fact that pollutants in a CAFO are actually additive in a grass-fed environment, and that farmers can reap greater output with fewer inputs, over the long run, with grass-fed beef.  Nor does he address the health concerns of the people working in industries that support this CAFO (like the folks who have to deal with the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in the fields that feed these cows). 

Please, food folks, stop passing this article along as some kind of new and improved way of looking at CAFO's.  It's bad reporting, it's bad writing... it's, it's just bad.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Connections and connectedness

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Last week, at an environmentalist convention (I live a very unorthodox life, I'll tell ya), I had a typical lunchtime conversation that I thought you all might be interested in.
I attend many environmental get-togethers - conventions, seminars, "summits", annual meetings, those sorts of things - and almost inevitably, at lunchtime, I find myself sitting at one of those large, round tables in a convention hall of some big hotel.  The food is almost always the same, and oddly enough, is just like everybody else's conventions:  Hotel-catered lunch meats, but with a slightly more robust veggie section, to give the vegetarians something.  Most environmentalists, even here in Northern California, are not vegetarians.

Anyhoo, I find myself sitting at a large table, and the conversation always goes to food and where it comes from (odd, that...).  At some point, I give my philosophy (that animals should get to live as they were intended to live, wild when wild, and that we should take responsibility for the lives that sustain us).  Then I tell the folks that I hunt.

Every time I have done this, one or two people at the table begin talking in hushed tones:  "I've always been interested in hunting.  I've never had the chance (oh, I shot my friend's uncle's gun when I was a teenager), and it has always appealed to me as an idea."  They are truly excited, they are looking me straight in the eye, leaning across the table, no longer eating.  I can see their eyes focusing on something else sometimes, even, somewhere else.  They have that spirit within them, but they've never had a conversation with it, and now they see that it isn't just a little, dirty secret, it isn't just some vague blood-bespattered notion without a word to give it a beginning within their hearts, it isn't some voyeuristic vision which they can only feed by watching Shark Week.  It is alive, it is a part of them, and it is shared.  It has an ethic, even.

So we talk, mostly questions asked of me, and always in hushed tones.

What do you hunt?  Do you eat what you kill?

Where do you go?

What do you need/use?  How do you learn?

Well, this week, I offered to take a fellow out to the shooting range, and he bit.  Next week some time, then, I'll be teaching a man how to shoot, as well as just showing him around the American River parkway and fishing with him (he's fished in the past, and wants to start again).

Interestingly enough, a couple of times I've mentioned my hunting to get a rile out of somebody, but it has never come.  The people who have dedicated their lives to environmental action, who have chosen livelihoods to complement their passions, have never once been offended by my statements at lunch, including every vegetarian I have ever spoken to at an enviro. get-together.  There is an honest respect for and understanding of ecology, food webs, habitats, etc., and there is also a deep desire within the community to connect with the land.  Many of these folks were compelled to become biologists, ecologists, guides, because of a need to be in the wild, to know it deeply and respectfully.  I am always happy to find myself in their company, happy to be among folks who so deeply love the wild for what it is.