Tag Archives: conservation

Floods force us to confront returning land to nature

I’ve just returned from two wet weeks in northern England visiting my family for the holidays. Let’s just say it was wet. Very wet.

Over the last few weeks, England has suffered historic floods with no end in sight. The evening news showed town centers such as Kendal, Carlisle, Appleby, Leeds, and Manchester inundaded.   Talking with the old farmers around Sedbergh who have lived on the land for decades, they cannot recall the rivers being so high, or in flood for so long. Their memory is born out by the sight of medieval bridges that have seen centuries of water flow under their arches being washed away. And of course, it’s born out by the rainfall gauges that are recording record totals day after day, week after week.

We ventured out onto the fell in one storm and could see the fields come alive with traces of rivers and streams where none normally existed. Every drop of rain fell on saturated ground creating sheet flow across the fields until it found or created a channel to rush onward to the rivers which quickly rose to fill their banks.  For a few hours, Sedbergh was cut off as the main road flooded and in Kendal the river broke its banks and flooded the homes yet again.

But despite all of this, Sedbergh was spared the floods. Why?

Sedbergh is a small market town set in the northern part of the Yorkshire Dales. And while the river flooded a few holiday caravans, the town was spared because of where it’s located.  The town itself has grown nestled along the base of the Howgill fells, set back from the river. My hunch is this happy accident is a result of open land being maintained along the river because it’s largely owned by two schools – Sedbergh School (founded in 1545) and the local state school, Settlebeck. Rather than develop the land, it’s been maintained as estate land and sports fields.  Not only does it provide a great place to walk or kick a ball about, or raise a few sheep, but it’s a natural source of flood protection that needs little in the way of maintenance.

We need to do what we can to protect open space that provides flood protection where it exists – it’s simply crazy to continue to issue building permits for land we know will flood. But the recent floods in Britain also force us to think the previously unthinkable — to recreate openspace where it once existed.  The alternative is to further harden our cities at vast expense, with the inevitable consquence that when the concrete fails the impact will be catastrophic.

A long-time friend was visiting for New Year with his family. He’s an actuary working for one of the UK’s largest insurace companies. While he doesn’t work in the property market, he’s come to the same conclusion from a financial risk perspective. Namely that it’s time to have a serious conversation about managing retreat and giving back a little of our developed footprint to nature.  It’s going to be a hard conversation – but after some homes have flooded three-times in a month, it’s a conversation we desperately need to have.

And with record floods in the southern USA, sea level encroaching on Miami Beach during high tides, and El Nino poised to slam into California, it’s a conversation needed around the world.

[An interactive 3D model of Sedbergh and it’s projected flood zones was developed by Garsdale Design and can be viewed online here.]

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FLOODED SPORTS FIELD AT SEDBERGH PRIMARY SCHOOL
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THE RIVER RAWTHEY LAPS OVER ITS BANKS, SEDBERGH, UK

 

When sustainability is not enough.

Sustainable. Barely a day goes by without hearing something about “sustainability.” The City of Los Angeles has a Chief Sustainability Officer. Most large corporations have a sustainability plan. And goods from furniture to wine tout their sustainability credits.

But is it enough? I don’t think so. At it’s simplest, sustainability means meeting today’s needs without compromising those of the future. Sounds like a good thing to strive for. Trouble is, we have been borrowing from the future for generations and at some point we need to pay it back and leave the world better than we found it. I believe we’re past that point.

A quick example. If you were given a lump- sum of cash to invest and live of the interest for the rest of your life how would you feel? Pretty fortunate if you were given $10 million. You could live a rich life on $500,000 a year. If you were given $100,000 you’d be scraping by on about $5,000 a year.  You’d struggle to keep healthy and fit at that level and life would likely be short and brutal.

Well, the same is happening with the natural capital of our planet. Every year we are borrowing from the future to sustain our standard and way of living. It’s time to start paying back. To move from the goal of having a a sustainable society to one that is regenerative.

This is starting to happen in pockets around the world. In the redwoods, groups like the Mendocino Redwoods Company are rebuilding the productive capacity of the forests even while they manage them for timber today.  In places, these forests used to have in excess of 200,000 board feet an acre. Today, many have less than 5,000. Sustained yield on a forest with 5,000 board feet an acre is insignificant compared to the potential of these forests.

In the ocean, Marine Protected Areas are being established to restore the productive capacity of the ocean.  In these set-aside zones, there are more fish, they are larger, and more fecund. They also stray and rebuild the fish stocks of the rest of the ocean.

We need to multiply these efforts around the world. With more than half of the world living in cities, these efforts are going to have to come to cities as well. Rather than striving for a sustainable city, we need a regenerative city.  One that is striving to leave the world a better place.

Do you have any examples of cities adopting bold goals that go beyond sustainability? I’d love to hear from you!

Black perch congregate in MPA off Catalina Island (Heal the Bay)
Black perch congregate in MPA off Catalina Island (Heal the Bay)
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks

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.

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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.

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Last call at the oasis: or are we screwed?

last-call-at-the-oasisI don’t normally go in for depressing documentaries. But when the local art house is showing a documentary on water around the world (“Last Call at the Oasis“) followed by a  panel discussion with some of my friends and board members at Heal the Bay, I will make an exception.

Moving stories from Las Vegas, Midland Texas, Australia, Israel and right here in California painted a pretty grim picture of our water woes around the world. Pesticides are bleeding endocrine disruptors into water, turning male frogs into females. Kids are getting lesions from swimming in water polluted with fraking chemicals.   The aquifer below the great central valley is being bled dry from unregulated wells. Mix in the disruption of climate change and you have a depressing narrative. As one of the scientists summed up: “we’re screwed.”

But amid the doom and gloom there are glimmers of hope. Some in the film and some shared by the panelists.  For years I have been hearing about water wars. Turns out its a fallacy. A social scientist had studied wars over the past 50 years and found that water had actually brought warring sides together even as conflict raged. And think we’ll never be drinking recycled water? Think again. Singapore already meets 30 percent of its potable needs through cleverly branded “new” water.   Turns out recycled water is more regulated and safer than bottler water. The answer? Put “new” water in bottles and sell it as “porcelain springs” with a slick campaign!

When it got down to it, a lot of this is about local communities coming together to stand up for their local water sources and solve problems in their neighborhoods, communities, cities and states. Take Santa Monica, as an example. Tired of waiting for the state or federal government to clean up ground water contaminated with M.T.B.E. and other noxious chemicals,  it took matters into its own hands and sued the oil companies responsible for the pollution. The result? $250 million to clean up local groundwater. Local water supplies in Santa Monica have shot from zero percent to 72 percent in a few short years.

We need to take that approach at every level. And we can’t wait for it to happen to us. We just need to get it done.

Our cities and state can start to invest in local water today. By cleaning up ground-water. Capturing stormwater to recharge our aquifers and irrigate our lawns and golf courses. And recycling more waste water — as David Nahai said, “it’s only waste water if we chose to waste it.” 

And on a personal level, we can work to reduce our water footprint by installing low-flow fixtures. Capturing rain in rain barrels. Installing simple and cheap grey water systems to re-use water from your washing machine to water the yard. And turning off our sprinklers when it rains. Speaking of which, I turned mine off this morning as the rain started to fall. Did you?

Heal the Bay Board members Mark Gold (left) and David Nahai (center) discuss water with meteorologist Josh Rubenstein.
Heal the Bay Board members Mark Gold (left) and David Nahai (center) discuss water with meteorologist Josh Rubenstein.

What did $150 million buy in 2003? And was it worth it?

Hikers enjoy Ahmanson Ranch

The early 2000’s were heady days for land conservation. The state was flush with funds from voter-approved bond funds, and despite a hot real estate market competed for and secured protection for some remarkable pieces of property.  At the time I was working in northern California protecting redwoods. Save the Redwoods League had just protected the 25,000-acre Mill Creek property at a cost of $60 million. It seemed like a lot of money at the time, but I remember hearing of two transactions in Southern California that together cost the better part of $300 million. Wow, I thought. How could anything be worth  that much?

Well, this past saturday I finally stepped foot on one of these. The former Ahmanson Ranch (now the “Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve” — a natty name, I know). In 1998, Washington Mutual acquired the Ahmanson Ranch company and set about developing a self-contained city complete with two PGA golf courses located in the rapidly urbanizing San Fernando valley. The proposal set off a firestorm of local opposition. Locals hated the thought of all the additional traffic, AND the loss of local open space that was valued by both them and the critters that called the 3,000 acre ranch home.

What ensued was a text-book campaign that ultimately led to the ranches protection as parkland for all to enjoy. But before it could succeed, it had to go beyond a local issue to an issue of regional and state-wide importance. And that’s where Heal the Bay came in.

It was the first time that Heal the Bay had played a leading role in opposing a private development — one located many miles from the coast to boot.  The nexus was water quality in Santa Monica Bay and the impact that unchecked development would have on the headwaters of Malibu Creek.  Heal the Bay scientists mapped red legged frog habitat, assessed downstream water quality, and mobilized regional and state-wide support for what until that time had been a local issue. Ultimately the stars came into alignment and the recent passage of voter approved park and water bonds provided the funding to halt the development and create public park land.

Governor Gray Davis, politician Fran Pavely, and direct Rob Reiner announced the deal back in 2003. This weekend they were reunited to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the acquisition.

Ahmanson Ranch 090

Yes, $150 million was a lot at the time. But it truly was an investment in the future. Not only does Ahmanson Ranch protect water quality each and every day, it also provides a much needed green sanctuary in the heart of suburbia for the residents of the valley and beyond.

It’s safe to say, that without the dogged and persistent engagement of Heal the Bay to transform a local issue to a state-wide campaign, the land today would be just another subdivision and place to play golf (two rounds). And as we know, subdivisions and gold courses don’t help water quality. Quite the reverse. Society as a whole ends up paying the costs to clean up the runoff they create.

I no longer look at the $150 million as an expenditure. It really was an investment in protecting open space that has a direct return in terms of enhanced property values, forgone costs of water pollution clean-up, and the intangible values of providing people open space to recreate in. Thank you Heal the Bay!

p.s. I just read about the latest Lear Jet.  For its $600 million plus price tag you could buy 4 ranches. at 2003 prices. That said, you and three friends could get anywhere in the world quickly and comfortably. I will let you decide which is the better long-term investment.

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!]

What’s up with Archangel?

This tiny seed contains the genetic code to grow a new coast redwood
This tiny seed contains the genetic code to grow a new coast redwood

David Milarch is at it again: evangelizing about the need to clone super trees to save the world from climate change. This time he has taken his message across the atlantic and touched down in Britain. According to an article in the Observer, he’s backed by Richard Branson,  the founder of the Eden project, and is even meeting with Prince Charles’ forestry advisors. I hope these luminaries see Mr. Milarch and his Archangel project for what it is: a distraction from the real issues facing forests around the world.

Mr. Milarch came and met with me a number of years ago while I was running Save the Redwoods League. His offer was simple: join him in saving the redwoods through cloning.  As an aside, he went on to say if we didn’t join him he’d make the League irrelevant as he would be the savior of the redwoods.  Despite the fact I don’t like veiled threats, I listened and we talked. Then as now, I had concerns about his approach and ultimately  declined to join his project.

Since then, Archangel has been racing to clone super trees that plant in groves around the world. They theorize that because these champion trees have survived for so long they are our best bet to reforest the Earth and soak up all the excess carbon dioxide we continue to emit.  For me, that is taking the science a step too far.  Forest conservation and management have an important role to play in the fight against climate change. But putting all our eggs in the cloning basket is just too risky. Clones are, by definition, genetically identical. A disease that takes out one will take out them all. And just because an individual tree has survived what nature has thrown at if for the past 1,000 years doesn’t mean its best adapted for the novel conditions coming in the next 100 years, let alone next 1,000 years.  Much better to protect the rich genetic diversity of all forests, rather than focus on a few superlatives.

12 people stand on the Fieldbrook stump with room to spare
12 people stand on the Fieldbrook stump with room to spare

Without a doubt Archangel has done some interesting work. Take the example of the Fieldbrook stump. Perhaps the largest redwood ever to live, and now a decaying stump in farmland near Arcata California. Archangel has resurrected this tree and plans to plant clonal copies around the world. It would be a talking point to have a copy in your garden for sure! The cloning work itself is interesting, but by no means ground-breaking — gardeners have been cloning plants and trees with cuttings for centuries after all.

So by all means support the work of Mr. Millarch and Archangel, but please don’t lose sight of what it really is:  Creating museum copies of a small handful of nature’s wonders. If you really want to help the Earth’s forests and battle climate change there are much better places to invest your money.

Read my previous post on cloning here: http://wp.me/p2V0ap-8Q

Places I love: Calaveras Big Trees State Park

160 years ago The Mammoth Tree was felled. It was heard — around the world. The shock of its felling helped spark the conservation movement in America and indeed around the world. It’s one of my favorite places to be — it’s beautiful in every season and has such a great story to share with us even today. You can read more in Leo Hickman’s piece in the Guardian.