Category Archives: Conservation

Working with Nature in Sonoma County

Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of discussion in the conservation community about ecosystem services.  It’s a pretty abstract concept that is being brought to life at the Benziger Family Winery in the Sonoma Valley.

The winery is one of a small handful of Biodynamic producers in the world. It’s basically an organic winery that takes it one step further by farming with the rhythm of the  both the sun and the moon.  The result is a tasty glass of wine that is also good for the land.

Almost everything that makes up the wine in your glass comes directly from the earth in this beautiful corner of the valley. Soil fertility is maintained through cover crops and composting the clippings from the vines.  All the water used on-site is filtered through a series of ponds that clean it up before recharging it into the groundwater. Insect gardens located throughout the property attract beneficial bugs that keep invaders at bay.  Bird boxes help keep rodents at bay. Even the aging process takes place in a series of caves dug into the hillside that keep the casks cool as they age.

To be clear, this is not a natural ecosystem. But it is much closer to working with nature than most farms and vineyards.

While a conventional winery uses fertilizers, pesticides, wastewater treatment, and an air conditioning system. The Benziger winery uses nature to perform the same functions.  It’s a great example of ecosystem services at work and shows how working with nature lessens our impact on nature.

Attracting bats and birds keeps pests at bay
Attracting bats and birds keeps pests at bay
Beneficial bugs do the work of pesticides
Beneficial bugs do the work of pesticides
Deep fertile soil is replenished with compost and cover crops
Deep fertile soil is replenished with compost and cover crops
Cool wine caves save on the cooling bill
Cool wine caves save on the cooling bill



What would you give up for an endangered Crane?

Sometimes conservation can get a little abstract. The primary drivers of loss are often things we don’t personally do — I have never personally cut down the rainforest, or poached a rhinoceros horn. But once in a while I come across a story that makes the abstract very real and personal.

This great PodCast from RadioLab did just that.

Simple question. Would you be willing to give up your bird feeder to save a critically endangered Whooping Crane? Pretty easy, “yes.” What if watching birds around the feeder was the only way your husband of 50+ years was brought back from the dark recesses of Alzheimer’s disease? Not so easy.

Some form of this question gets asked and answered about 7 billion times each day. The net result, human population continues to soar while one by one species around us go extinct.

Embed from Getty Images

Is anything for ever?

In the world of conservation, we’re used to the mantra that our victories are temporary while our losses are for ever.  I was surprised therefore to hear Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club,  talk about some permanent conservation wins.

He and I were guests at the Santa Monica Green Book Awards earlier this week. We’d been invited to have a conversation about the legacy of John Muir while others listened in.  In his opening remarks, Michael discussed the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. It’s a great campaign — seeking to move the United States away from coal to renewable energy sources by the end of the next decade – skipping natural gas where possible. Visionary stuff. And they are making progress – largely because economics are on their side.

As he said, every coal plant that is closed is a permanent win. I agree, but I am less optimistic that it means the coal will just sit in the ground undisturbed forever. After all, forever is a long time.  I believe history has shown us that we need groups like the Sierra Club and Heal the Bay to be vigilant against the next threat that the ingenuity of mankind concocts.

Take a small example here in Southern California. Heal the Bay secured a huge win when the state directed power plants in Southern California to move away from “once-through cooling” to a closed cycle system. That means less sea-water sucked in and less disruption of marine life. Roll the clock forward a few years and those very same locations are now the subject of a vigorous debate about desalination of seawater — not only would it suck in water, but it would leave brine, and use massive amounts of energy.  We’re advocating that the state adopt strong policies to protect against this.

For me, the same goes for coal. Yes, it’s a win to close down a coal-fired power plant and open up a new wind farm. But I also know some ingenuous person will be thinking up new ways to make money off that coal, while the environment be damned. I’m confident that the Sierra Club and others will be ready to take that battle on should the time come. Right Michael?

In conversation with Michael Brune about the legacy of John Muir.
In conversation with Michael Brune about the legacy of John Muir.

146 votes

Do you know 146 people? That was the margin by which Measure AA passed in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This open space initiative will raise  $300 million to build trails, protect open space and protect the scenic beauty of the San Mateo coast.  It needed 66.7% and got 66.9% Talk about close!

It’s also a great reminder that your vote does count. That is, if you vote.   I just don’t understand why turn-out is so low. In Los Angeles County it was 20% in this weeks election. Ok, the ballot was long and complex and in most cases it was a primary election. But you can vote at home over a glass of wine. What’s not to like about that.

vote 2

16 years, 1 dairy, and a village

It’s an old cliche to say that some things are worth waiting for. But it can also be true.

One of the first projects I worked on when I first joined Save the Redwoods League was the acquisition of the Coast Dairies property.  In 1998 it was one of the largest private unprotected coastal properties on the  west coast of the United States. Seven miles of coast line and about 5,500 acres.  All that an hours drive from Silicon Valley. Redwood canyons gave way to grasslands and ultimately the coast. The raised coastal bluffs were a favorite with naturalists. The beaches with naturists, but that’s another story.

My colleague, Kate Anderton, then general counsel of Save the Redwoods, had negotiated the purchase of the land for a cool $44.5 million. The lions share of the funding came from the Packard Foundation. David Packard had died in 1996 and his foundation had seen an influx of assets making the deal possible. The deal was done and late in 1998, Save the Redwoods League assigned its option to the Trust for Public Lands to exercise the option and get the land into public ownership for permanent protection. Countless public meetings, extensive negotiations, and the odd IRS tax-letter ruling and the land is finally in the public estate.

So why did it take 16 years?

People love to argue about land. Coast Dairies was no exception. It had been a dairy. It was almost a nuclear power plant. And then 139 trophy home sites. But now it belongs to all of us when the Bureau of Land Management took title to much of the property earlier this week. (State Parks took title to the beaches a number of years ago, but the vast majority of the property remained in limbo)

I have a lot of respect for TPL for staying the course. Managing land is never easy. Land is a precious resource and fine minds can differ as to its future use. Bring that debate into the public forum and add in a healthy dose of politics and that’s where 16 years come in.

In the course of 16 years we have had 4 Governors and 3 Presidents. We’ve had an economic boom, and bust. And countless local officials.  Every change required re-education and a reminder as to what was at stake. What has been constant is the beauty of the land and the possibility it holds as an undeveloped part of California.

Of course, this is not the end. The drum beat has started to get the land designated as a National Monument. We have two years with the current administration to get the President to take that step. Then it’s back to educating the next crew. Time to finish the job.

Will the bag ban change the way people think about waste?

Packaging litters the street
Packaging litters the street

Yesterday, I was stopped at a traffic light in Vernon having just left the press conference to announce the bill to ban single use plastic bags.  I’ll admit that my eye was drawn to the “adult store” in the middle of the strip mall in this heavily industrial neighborhood surrounded by train tracks. Looking right, I watched as a man left the store. In the thirty nine steps it took him to walk from the front door to his car door he first removed his purchase and crumpled up the brown bag it had been in. The bag hit the floor. Next came the first layer of plastic packaging. It too hit the deck. Then another layer. He popped his purchase in his pocket and jumped in his car and left. Leaving a trail of trash in his wake.

The bag, albeit a paper one, had been used for its intended purpose for maybe 10 seconds.

It wasn’t like the bag and wrappers he dropped were the only litter around. In fact the neighborhood had trash everywhere. Perhaps the sight of trash blowing around gave him the sense that adding one more piece really doesn’t matter? I’ll never know because the light turned green and we both left.

One of the unstated goals of banning bags is to make people think before they discard something they just payed for. Watching the wrappers hit the deck, it struck me that we can spend years working to change state law, but ultimately the state can only take it so far. It’s really about changing behavior. And that’s much harder than passing new legislation.



Going local

Looking back at High Branthwaites
You can’t grow strawberries here

My mother is pretty tech savvy. She reads my blog and can follow a twitter post, but when it comes to commenting she prefers to send an email. Her recent email  has me thinking. She’d been reading my blog about looking to local water supplies as a way of dealing with California’s water crisis. Her comment was that even in sleepy Sedbergh,  northern England, they are using untreated water from the fell to flush public toilets. But her other comment — that  almost every home in Victorian England harvested rainwater — had me thinking.

To me it was another case of returning to a more local, decentralized approach.   Take three examples.

  • The power grid is changing as consumers become micro-power generators and roof-tops become solar plants;
  • Back-yards, medians, and vacant urban land are being turned into  farms while  orchards are springing up in the heart of our neighborhoods;
  • And of course, we’re capturing, storing and using water that falls on our properties to flush toilets and water yards.

All this is happening at the same time that political power and decision making is being shifted closer to the people. As Washington and Westminster face partisan gridlock, political power and decision making are being devolved to regions.  That’s where the action is: closer to the people who see the results.

All this is good, as far as it goes. But it risks fostering disparity as some regions soar, while others are left behind.

Again, to paraphrase my mother (she’s quite smart). “It’s all well and good for you in California to bask in local organic food. But if you live in northern Britain where winters are long and summers short and wet, you’d soon get tired of eating potatoes.”

I think the challenge ahead is to encourage and support local innovation and specialization, while maintaining the best of the centralized approach. When we’re able to do that, regions will thrive and the state and nation as a whole will flourish. After all, as tasty as my local organic potato is, it’s nice to eat the occasional juicy strawberry. Even if you live in northern Britain.

It’s eco-friendly, right?

But is it green?
But is it green?

I was in Traders Joe this evening and excited to find a cheap eco-friendly wine. Actually a magnum in a bag. It’s like boxed wine without cutting down the trees! And from Hopland!! Sonoma wine country, and a place I know well from my trips up the Redwood Highway.  What could be better: (almost) local wine in a light-weight container?  It has all of the taste and none of the waste. Right? But hold on. The wine in the bag was grown and produced in France.

Now I am totally confused. What’s better for the environment? Local wine in a heavy glass bottle that likely only gets used once and is grown in a vineyard cut into the forest in a region where groundwater is being depleted? Or wine shipped in bulk from France and packaged and sold in a resealable bag? And when I say better, what do I mean? Carbon footprint? Water footprint? Taste?


Of course I could give up wine and just drink water. But around here that’s a proprietary blend of depleted groundwater, the Colorado RIver, the northern Sierra and the Owens Valley. Now I am totally confused. Guess I will stick to water and wine, and the occasional Scotch. — it’s footprint is another story altogether.

What’s your eco-poison?

Hyperion – they don’t come bigger than this!

Hyperion. To some the legendary father of the sun, the moon and the dawn. To some, the tallest tree in the world.  To the millions who live in Los Angeles, it’s the sewage treatment plant at the end of the pipe. And to me, it will forever be a place that brings two parts of my life together.

Mayor Garcetti opens a new education center at Hyperion
Mayor Garcetti opens a new education center at Hyperion

On September 16th 2006 I schlepped Steve Sillet’s crossbow through the woods as he set out to document this record-breaking redwood for the first time. Until that point no-one really knew how tall the tree was. Steve’s work documented it as a record-breaker at 379.1 feet tall (that’s 115.55 meters). What was remarkable about the tree is that it narrowly escaped being cut down before being protected in Redwood National Park in 1978. I clearly remember being sat in that remote grove as Steve and his team went about their painstaking work. It was a magical place. So quiet and remote with beautiful trees all around.

Roll the clock forward a few years and on September 16th 2013, I found myself sat out by the beach under a hot sun with Hyperion — the municipal sewage plant for LA at my back. It was my first day on the job at Heal the Bay and I had come to where it all started. I was part of the crowd of city officials, environmentalists, and citizens come to watch the new Mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, dedicate a brand new education center at what I learned is the second largest septic plant in the United States.

Back in 1985 a group of concerned citizens were tired off the endless pollution pouring into Santa Monica bay, killing fish and sickening people. Organized by Dorothy Green, they founded Heal the Bay, which for 28 years has worked tirelessly for clean beaches and water in Southern California.  Their first fight was to stop untreated wastewater from Hyperion being dumped into the bay. They won that battle and many more since then.

Today, the greatest threats to our coastal waters and watersheds, and to all of us – both human and animal – that rely on the ocean for pleasure, income or sustenance, come from urban and stormwater runoff, plastic pollution, and the ever-increasing stresses to our marine environment from over-fishing and climate change.  Together, these threaten to impair the bay and ocean just as untreated wastewater from Hyperion did all those years ago. Unfortunately the solutions are no longer as simple as as a new septic plant. They require us to be thinking and working throughout the watershed and at policies at both the local and state-wide level.

When I need inspiration,  I will return to this day and to Hyperion that brought so many threads together. From the towering redwood to the sewage treatment plant. At their core both are a story of how people stood up to protect places they care about and in the process changed the course of history.

Muir Woods

As the world turns

As a geographer and long-time GIS user, I have used removed sensing imagery for decades.  I just love looking at remotely sensed images of the world — especially when you can compare how things have changed with time. Various satellites have been collecting this data for decades — and while much of it is public available it can be a pain to assemble tile after tile of data and massage it until you have something presentable.

Fortunately, at a Bay Area Open Space Council meeting this morning, a Google Earth product manager showed me that there is an easier way. It’s called Google Earth Engine. They’ve collected terabytes of Landsat imagery and spent two million hours developing a seamless image map for the Earth that can take you back to 1984 (that’s when Frankie was encouraging us to “Relax” and Cyndi Lauper was having “fun’.)

I took a quick look at some places I know well. First, it’s an era that spans the timber wars centered around the Headwaters Forest Reserve. Scroll time forward and you can watch the mosaic of cuts getting closer and closer to what is now a remarkable upland ancient redwood forest protected by BLM.

HRSP Earth Engine
Landuse changes around Headwaters Reserve (clink for live slideshow)

I then got curious if you could similarly see changes in and around Santa Monica and southern California over the same period. Here the changes on the surface are subtler. Look carefully you can see development in the mountains as hillsides give way to large areas of bare soil and then homes. And perhaps I am imagining it, but it looks to me that some of the parks along the river channels are starting to green up!

Santa Monica City and Bay in Earth Engine (click for slideshow)
Santa Monica City and Bay in Earth Engine (click for slideshow)

It’s pretty exciting to have this level of data at our fingertips now. And it just keeps getting better and more powerful with multi-spectral data coming along that will enable us to move beyond looking at pictures of change, to conducting sophisticated analysis — all right in our browser.

Why don’t you jump on the Earth Explorer website and see how places you care about have changed — either for the worse, or just perhaps for the better? Let me know what you discover!


[p.s. couldn’t figure out how to embed the Google maps directly in this post…..sorry!]