America’s national park system is the most familiar component of our vast estate of federal public lands: forests and grasslands, wildlife refuges, millions of acres of rangelands. These landscapes all add up to more than a fourth of the U.S. national dirt. Earth Week 2017 finds the survival of their natural systems increasingly vulnerable, politically and biologically.
The plan long promoted by conservation biologists and environmentalists, and seriously contemplated by the federal government in the recent past, was to move toward connecting these lands to help ensure their protection from industrial exploitation and development pressures, and to enable species to adapt and migrate in the face of quickly arriving climate change.
But a powerful, well-funded political movement is pushing in the other direction: to atomize federal public lands, hand them over to the states, and privatize them. My book Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change details this conflict, its origins, and its political and ideological supporters, from ranchers to billionaires. The Trump administration has been both equivocal and non-vocal on this issue so far — hard to prophesy how this map will look on Earth Week 2018, and beyond.
With Grand Canyon National Park as the foreground example, we can also see the biological threats to the future of public lands: recurring waves of imported invasive species that disrupt ecosystems, a lengthening list of endangered species whose populations steadily diminish and, especially, climate change. These factors are already transforming public lands, including Grand Canyon.
Fortunately, natural scientists and their allies spend whole careers on research and field work to mitigate these losses and plan for a radically different climatic future. Their work, too, is embattled. Many of them will celebrate Earth Day around the U.S. this weekend by taking part in a March for Science. For public lands and for science both, we’ll see what direction the coming year takes…
Stephen Nash is the author of award-winning books on science and the environment, and his reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BioScience, Archaeology, and The New Republic. He is Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond
California’s world-famous coastline is integral to the state’s economy, to residents’ sense of well-being, and to the California Dream, but only since the 1970s has a groundswell of support emerged to protect this prized resource from spoliation. Alarm over rapid change along the coast, including its deterioration from residential and commercial development, disappearing wetlands, new marinas, and the proposed freeways and nuclear plants, catalyzed the people who had come to know the coast as the geographic “soul” of California. In 1976, the state legislature passed the Coastal Act to make permanent the California Coastal Commission, an agency created out of a ballot initiative passed four years earlier. The Coastal Commission’s efforts to guide sustainable coastal land use and increase coastal access have prompted support and appreciation from many Californians, as well as emulation from coastal governments around the country and the world. But there has also been pushback and resistance from the California industries, government officials, and private citizens who believe the Coastal Act gave the state agency too much power to regulate private property.
My book explores how locals in Big Sur (an exceptionally beautiful 75-mile stretch of California’s central coast) have worked alongside county and state officials to seek a balance between the priorities of preservation and property rights. Built into the parameters of Big Sur’s well-preserved scenery is an unusual conviction that preservation and habitation can be mutually supportive endeavors. In part this has been achieved because Monterey County and Big Sur residents began in the mid twentieth century to pioneer open-space planning, conservation easements, intergovernmental collaboration and citizen activism, and transfer development credits to accommodate the needs of Big Sur’s natural and human communities. But Big Sur’s unique status also derives from the mystique created by iconic writers such as Robinson Jeffers and Henry Miller who used their talents to showcase this unusual meeting of beauty and culture. Today, the name ‘Big Sur’ conjures up images of a place uniquely Californian, carved out of the geologic and cultural forces of which the state has a disproportionate share. While Big Sur’s well-preserved vistas and minimal development embody the Coastal Act’s mission, its high-end real estate and vacation homes reflect the steep social costs associated with preservation.
Big Sur, like any landscape, is not static; shifting economic realities and perceptions of nature’s worth can alter the place. Ansel Adams acknowledged this in 1980 when he unsuccessfully campaigned for a federal seashore. However, if the integrity of Big Sur’s Coastal Commission-approved land use plan is maintained, including the protection of Highway 1 as a two-lane road, minimal change will come to the built environment. But it is not so much the physical boundaries (though these are formidable) that prevent overdevelopment in Big Sur, as the social boundaries erected to preserve something unique along the California coast. Considerable momentum backs the commitment to Big Sur’s wild and storied land, and the status of both of these elements will continue to reveal a good deal about Californians’ relationship to their beloved coast.
Shelley Alden Brooks teaches Twentieth-Century U.S., California, and Environmental History at the University of California, Davis. She also works for the California History-Social Science Project and serves on the statewide Environmental Literacy Steering Committee.
Endangered Science: The Regulation of Research by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts Etienne Benson (Vol. 42, No. 1, February 2012) The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act have been cornerstones of federal wildlife conservation policy in the United States since their enactment in the early 1970s. Although there was relatively little controversy over the need for or nature of these permit procedures during the debates leading up to the enactment of the laws, they became the source of concern on the part of many zoologists, biologists, and ecologists as soon as federal agencies began to implement them.
In the wake of California’s recent drought, Kathleen Brenzel of Sunset Magazine caught up with UC Press author Lynn Ingram for a question and answer session about water scarcity, our next steps, and other important points from The West Without Water. Merging climate and paleoclimate research from a wide variety of sources, the book documents the tumultuous climate of the American West over twenty millennia, telling tales of past droughts, deluges, and predictions about the impacts of future climate change on water resources.
“Q: Your book mentions 1976-77 as the driest single year in recorded history of the West, when precipitation levels dropped to less than half the average level throughout the state, when increased use of ground water for agriculture and cities caused a precipitous drop in the water table throughout the state, and when some of the highest regions of the Sierra Nevada lost three-fourths of their trees. How do you think the current drought stacks up?
A: “We’re calling 2015 the fourth year of drought. But the last 15 years have shown below average precipitation. Our snowpack is only at 6 per cent of normal; it was 25 per cent in 1976. We’re worse off now.”
“Q: In your book, you say that “humans have moved into the deserts, floodplains, and deltas of the West, exacting a high cost to the natural environment;” that “there is not enough water to reliably meet all desired uses and needs;” and that “a more sustainable water future in the West would include linking urban growth with water supply and availability.” What’s the most important lesson we can take from all of this?
A: “We took water for granted in the 20th century. We all need to think of water as an increasingly scarce and precious resource. There must be things that individuals and society can do to increase our resilience during future water shortages.”
Beyond the obvious scholarship that goes into any UC Press book—research, writing, and editing—are challenges that even sophisticated readers and reviewers may remain happily unaware of. In this multi-part Behind the Scenes series, we throw light on the hurdles UC Press authors face in bringing their work to the public. From field work logistics in foreign countries, to the regulatory snags of evolving public policy, to the unique concerns that scholars of human subjects face, learn about the lengths to which authors go to present their scholarship to the public.
Fixing the ESA
The US Endangered Species Act protects over 2,000 species. Only 10 species have gone extinct after they were listed. On the other hand, only 25 species have been “de-listed” (meaning they’ve recovered enough to be considered safe from extinction).
Between those two statistics lie myriad perspectives on how well the ESA has performed since its ground-breaking inception over 40 years ago.
Josh Donlan, editor of the just-published Proactive Strategies for Protecting Species, has corralled unlikely bedfellows—private landowners, conservationists, government agencies, NGOs, scientists, academics, and developers—into sharing divergent viewpoints on how best to improve the ESA—that it’s outdated is the one point on which they all agree. (The ESA hasn’t been updated in 25 years, and litigation robs resources earmarked for species conservation.) He also debuts a pragmatic new approach to best conserve species headed toward extinction … helping as they speed toward the falls, rather than triaging after they’ve plunged over.
Anthony D. Barnosky is a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, a curator at the Museum of Paleontology, and a research paleoecologist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has spent three decades conducting research related to past planetary changes, and what they mean for forecasting the changes Planet Earth faces in the next few decades.
The author of books, numerous scientific publications, op-eds, and blog posts, Barnosky speaks regularly about climate change, extinction, and environmental tipping points in a variety of public and academic venues.
For a scientist who’s considered an expert in the dynamics of mass extinctions, Anthony Barnosky is a surprisingly upbeat guy. He brings that same attitude to his newest book, Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth, which eschews doom-and-gloom soapboxing for can-do approaches to pulling us back from the brink of a Sixth Mass Extinction.
Given the scope of the book’s subtitle, it’s not surprising that UC Press calls Dodging Extinction “nothing less than a guidebook for saving the planet.” First, what IS a mass extinction?
Mass extinction means that at least three out of every four species you are familiar with die out. Forever. Extinction of that magnitude has happened only five times in the past 540 million years, most recently 66 million years ago, when the last big dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid strike.
Calibrating current extinction from previous epochs is vital, says Barnosky, especially as we confront the current state of biodiversity: in the last 40 years we have killed a staggering half of all wildlife on earth—and more than 20,000 species are “at risk.” The accelerated rates of extinctions, says Barnosky, far exceed those in the fossil record, “before people got into the act.” From climate change to food production, human behaviors are triggering vast, incalculable losses, but it’s a negative feedback loop that can be rejiggered to halt declines without great sacrifice to creature comforts, and it’s a story he wants everyone to know.
Lay readers will be happy to know that Barnosky writes in an engaging style, summarizing terms “you might have learned (and forgotten) in high-school biology” so that non-specialists understand what’s at stake. He takes readers into the trenches—both past and present—to share the story of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Through his book, invited lectures around the world, and most recently in the Smithsonian Channel documentary Mass Extinction: Life on the Brink (which also features UC Berkeley’s Walter Alvarez), Barnosky explains that the “tipping point” comes down to one question: “How do we provide for the needs of people while still providing for the needs of other species?”
As Barnosky lays out the sobering facts about past epochs, the recent (human-inflected) past, and our current conundrum, he says continuing on our trajectory, regardless of what we now know, is equivalent to “being a train operator and seeing a school bus stalled on the tracks way off in the distance, knowing you can stop in time if you pull the brake lever hard now, but deciding what the heck, let’s not bother.”
That might sound like a fatalistic analogy but Barnosky, a self-described realist and optimist, is confident about our ability to change things:
We know how to save species when we put our minds to it. That’s one thing that is very hopeful going into the future… We know the underlying drivers of what’s causing all these extinctions, and we know ways to fix that, too. We have to also think about that very big picture as well as the specific ways to save certain species and ecosystems …
Grandson of a coal miner, son of a butcher, and himself a coal geologist-turned paleontologist, Barnosky says wryly, “fossil fuels have been very good to me.” He doesn’t demonize industries, policy-makers, or our current un-checked proclivities, but he is clear-eyed about where we need to go: “We are at a crossroads.”
The good news, Barnosky declares, is that we have the technology to address our problems. Change is possible in such diverse but interrelated arenas as power (energy), food (agricultural land use, yield efficiency), and money (the economics of habitat destruction, and integrating the full valuation of all ecosystem services into the global economy).
One of Barnosky’s many strengths is offering cogent solutions to seemingly intractable issues such as, say, how to feed 10 billion people without further harming biodiversity. The short answer is:
1. Improve the efficiencies of the yields in places we already have under cultivation—in environmentally sustainable ways.
2. Convert all of the croplands that are now used to grow feed for cattle, pigs, etc. and put those into production for growing crops that people would eat directly. (“We would increase the number of calories available to the world by 50% to 70%. That’s enough to feed a couple more billion people.”)
3. Stop wasting food. (Barnosky calls this “incredibly obvious,” noting that in developed countries, “we waste about 30% of what we grow.”)
Wary of the hard science and statistics behind these accessible sound bites? No need. Barnosky’s deep erudition is tempered by both humor and a journalistic writing style that includes lively drive-by introductions to such diverse topics as the “Cretaceous Barbeque” the Goldilocks Principle, and “de-extincting” passenger pigeons. (Is re-creating the latter equivalent to what “Dr. Frankenstein attempted to do with the leftover parts of dead people?”)
After you’ve absorbed Barnosky’s data and arguments, what’s next?
Awareness is the first step. As Barnosky reminds students, when he was their age, 300 million across the world were connected via land-lines, now more than 3.5 billion humans (over half the human population) are connected via the internet, smart phones, and social media. Because the first step is communicating these issues, connected Millennials are especially well situated to tackle the first of Barnosky’s Top 10:
Top 10 Ways You Can Help Avoid the Sixth Mass Extinction
Spread the word that the extinction crisis is real.
Reduce your carbon footprint.
Buy products from companies committed to using sustainably produced palm oil in their products.
Eat fish only from healthy fisheries.
Eat less meat.
Never, ever buy anything made from ivory—or from any other product derived from threatened species.
Become a citizen scientist.
Vote for and support leaders who recognize the importance of switching from a fossil-fuel energy system to a carbon-neutral one, who see the necessity of growing crops more efficiently, whose economic agenda includes valuing nature, and who promote women’s rights to education and healthcare.
Don’t give up.
As one of his chapter titles states: It’s Not Too Late (Yet).
Today, 40 years after the first Earth Day, the planet faces new challenges. The earth and the oceans are warming, leading to concerns about floods and droughts, extinction, and mosquito-borne diseases. Chemicals pollute land, water, and air, threatening health and habitats; invasive species wreak havoc on delicate ecosystems; and human population and consumption are straining the world’s resources.
“Many of us don’t have a lot of connection to nature in our day-to-day life, but…many resources we rely on—whether clean water or fish from the ocean—are being threatened at a scale we might not have realized”, said Atlas of Global Conservation editor Jennifer Molnar in a National Geographic interview.
But with new challenges come new opportunities for conservation. Reforestation of depleted areas can reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, customs regulations have had some success in preventing species invasions, and habitat restoration can help heal floundering ecosystems. Millions of square kilometers of once-threatened land is now protected, and individual and community conservation efforts add up to have a global impact.
Today we have the technology to view our entire planet with satellites, and to gather and synthesize masses of data that were once too much to grasp. Scientists at the Nature Conservancy used these tools to create The Atlas of Global Conservation, a complete guide to the state of our planet. Published today in honor of Earth Day, the Atlas gives a snapshot of the natural world—where habitats are most depleted and which species are on the edge of extinction, and where there are still vast grasslands and forests that need protection.
The Atlas also connects our everyday actions with the world’s ecosystems, showing how our choices at the grocery store or how we get to work affect the future of our planet. We know that our combined actions have the power to damage the earth, but we also have the power—and the responsibility—to find solutions.
Last year, David and Janet Carle traveled the United States along the 38th parallel, investigating water issues from the Chesapeake to California for their upcoming book.
Yesterday, the Carles embarked on the European leg of their worldwide journey, beginning at Sao Miguel Island in the Azores archipelago, then on to the wetlands of Portugal. They’ll look at Spain’s efforts to use renewable energy to power desalination plants, help with the annual survey of migrating raptors in Sicily, visit sea turtle habitats and Lake Trichonis in Greece, and explore Turkey’s salt lakes and dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They’ll chronicle their travels on their blog, Parallel Universe: 38° North, and we’ll be cross-posting their updates here.
On April 13, 2010, we fly from San Francisco, via Boston, then direct to Sao Miguel Island in the Azores, to continue exploring the “water line” along the 38th parallel…Read More
Preparing to cross Europe; News about Korea
With less than a month until we leave for Europe, we have been finalizing flight plans between countries, making rental car arrangements, and are very pleased that experts on water and environmental issues have agreed to meet with us in Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey…Read More