Selection cutting: Panacea or damage in disguise?

Selection cutting: Panacea or damage in disguise?

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 10/26/17

t’s not difficult to convey the environmental impacts of clear-cut logging; just look at the big, ugly bald patches of scarred earth after a clear-cut and you get it. But too often, an alternative to clear-cutting — known as selection logging — is offered as a panacea. Wow, it looks so much better than a clear-cut, especially when you’re looking at photos taken by timber companies doing the logging.

But if you get down into the weeds, so to speak, as forest scientists do, you start finding that selection logging also has problems…they’re just not as visible. One of the biggest problems of selection logging is the ground disturbance from the haul roads and skid trails cut into the forest to take the trees out.

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Plastic pollution now found in drinking water all over the world

Plastic pollution now found in drinking water all over the world

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 9/14/17

Sometimes reading a science article can be downright scary. On September 5, I read a piece in the Guardian, “Plastic fibers found in tap water around the world, study reveals.” U.S. scientific researchers analyzed tap water samples from more than a dozen nations for an investigation by Orb Media (orbmedia.org), a non-profit journalism group. The Orb study, entitled “Invisibles: The plastics inside us,” concluded that billions of people on five continents are drinking water contaminated by plastic micro-particles.

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California state parks do more than provide public recreation

California state parks do more than provide public recreation

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 8/17/17

Have you noticed all the mountain bikes strapped on cars traveling over Highway 17, especially on weekends? Demand for biking and other forms of recreation in the public spaces of Santa Cruz County is steadily increasing and much of that demand is coming from “over the hill” in the San Francisco Bay Area. Apparently, people increasingly need to escape from the stress of living in Silicon Valley.

At the same time, California State Parks has cut way back on acquiring new parklands in Santa Cruz County and throughout the state, following a complete reorganization of state parks beginning in 2013.

As demand steadily increases for recreation, sometimes people forget that state parks — as well as county and city parks and other public spaces — were originally set aside to do more than provide trails for public recreation. They were also established as natural areas to preserve habitat for other lifeforms and to ensure that natural processes — part of our planet’s life support system — function properly.

 

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Is wilderness real? Is it worth restoring?

Is wilderness real? Is it worth restoring?

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

posted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 7/27/2017

One evening last fall I nearly had a panic attack as I read the now famous 2003 article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” by Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher at the University of Oxford. Bostrom’s theory has convinced many physicists and futuristic thinkers like Elon Musk that the natural world — the Universe — is actually a computer simulation created by some advanced post-human civilization. I’m not exactly a sci-fi aficionado and I had to force myself to watch “The Matrix,” but Bostrom made a strong, logical argument that for a brief moment shook my life-long belief that nature is the baseline for everything else that exists.

As an environmentalist, I’ve always held to the notion held by deep ecologists that wild nature, as it evolved through the eons, needs to be preserved as the foundation for life on the planet. Wilderness areas (Earth’s least disturbed places) are a priceless storehouse of our planet’s biodiversity. We need to protect wilderness — or else humans, along with other species that we share the planet with — will perish.

 

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Travel pastime provides clues to the state of the world

Travel pastime provides clues to the state of the world

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 6/15/17

While traveling around the world during the past two years, I reported in this column about many disturbing environmental issues that I encountered. I had to find ways to keep myself amused during this sometimes depressing investigation of air and water pollution, deforestation, overfishing, sea level rise, ocean acidification, garbage dumps, poaching, erosion, and habitat destruction, etc.

Keeping lists turned out to be a simple and entertaining way to pass the time. I kept lists of people I met, foods I ate, wines and beers I drank. But the most interesting list I kept was what I called the “Ubiquitous List.” Things I entered on this list had seemingly nothing in common except that they kept popping up everywhere I traveled. As soon as I noticed something in one country that I had previously noticed in another, I’d add it to the list ... and I didn’t bother listing the most obvious things like people, buildings and cars.

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Crete: A beekeeper’s story

 Crete: A beekeeper’s story

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

It’s May 4 — the height of spring in Crete, the largest Greek island. Crete is laid out like a ribbon across the southern Mediterranean Sea. Because of good rains last winter, wildflowers are in full bloom across lush green plateaus that stretch beneath the snow-capped peaks of Crete’s three picturesque mountain ranges.

Much of Crete’s landscape is underlain with karst limestone. Some 1,700 species of wildflowers — one tenth of which are found nowhere else on earth — thrive here on these limestone soils

Over the eons, water has carved out Crete’s limestone mountains to form spectacular deep gorges and caves. That morning, my friend Georgia and I set out to explore one of these gorges. We drove her Citroen rental car from the coastal city of Rethymno up into the Psiloritis mountains to find St. Anthony’s Gorge.

Along the twisting mountain road, as we gawked at the spectacular wildflower bloom, we spotted clusters of beehive boxes in the traffic turnouts. The bees must be having a field day.

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Synthetic clothing crisis: Microfibers mucking up our oceans

Synthetic clothing crisis: Microfibers mucking up our oceans

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel April 20, 2017

Those warm, cuddly fleece jackets and quick-dry synthetic fabrics that fill so many of our closets now have created a big problem for the world’s oceans. Every time they get washed, clothes made from synthetic fabric shed thousands of tiny microfibers. Carried along with dirty wash water to the sewer and on to the wastewater treatment plant, many microfibers are so small they pass right through wastewater filters and are carried all the way out to our bays and oceans.

Tiny microfibers have turned into an enormous problem. In 2011, British ecologist Mark Anthony Browne published research describing the discovery of microfibers—mostly synthetic polyester and acrylic—on beaches worldwide, but most highly concentrated near wastewater disposal sites. Suspecting that these microfibers came from laundered clothing, Browne filtered the water used to wash a single fleece jacket and retrieved 1,900 fibers.

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Super Bloom: On the hunt for wildflowers in Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree

Super Bloom: On the hunt for wildflowers in Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree

by Betsy Herbert, features@santacruzsentinel.com

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 03/30/17

It was March 14. For weeks California State Park botanists had been predicting a “super bloom” of wildflowers — the best in twenty years — to peak across southern California deserts sometime in the middle of March, and the best would be in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, east of San Diego. After record winter rains, Anza-Borrego was already experiencing 80 to 90 degree temperatures — perfect conditions for a super bloom. I’ve lived in California most of my life and missed these gorgeous blooms in the past. This time I was determined to witness the show.

I set out in my hybrid SUV from Santa Cruz to hike and photograph in Anza-Borrego and then head northeast to Joshua Tree National Park, where I could expect to see those signature Joshua trees in full bloom.

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Conservation group’s winning strategy to protect island communities

Conservation group’s winning strategy to protect island communities

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 3/16/2017

Seacology, a Berkeley-based non-profit, got its start in 1990 when the island of Samoa’s government ordered the remote village of Falealupo to either build a new school house or lose its state-funded teachers. Desperate to continue their children’s educations, the cash-strapped community saw only one way out: Sell the logging rights to the 30,000-acre ancestral rainforest surrounding the village.

It just so happened that Dr. Paul Cox, an American ethnobotanist, was conducting field research in that same rainforest when he learned of the villagers’ dilemma. Shortly afterwards, Cox made a proposal to Falealupo’s leaders: If he could raise the money to build the new school, would the village agree to forever protect its surrounding forest?

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Cuba natural areas: From rainforests to desert islands

 Cuba natural areas: From rainforests to desert islands

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 2/24/17

Turkey vultures soar above in clear blue skies as I write from a hotel lobby on one of the 2,500 islands in the Jardines del Rey Archipelago off the north coast of Cuba. It’s day 13 of a 16-day tour focused on Cuba’s natural areas.

Our small group has been waiting here four hours to check in. Hotels in Cuba — even those billed as “four star” — seem completely overwhelmed by the booming influx of tourists from all over the world. Plumbing often leaks, Wi-Fi is sporadic at best, lights flicker, toilet seats are commonly missing, and towel racks dangle from the walls. But never mind, the music is infectious, the beer and rum flow freely, and the Cuban people are relaxed and friendly.

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Cotoni-Coast Dairies — The long path to monument status

Cotoni-Coast Dairies — The long path to monument status

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 01/19/2017

Who could imagine that the Cotoni-Coast Dairies property — once proposed by PG&E as the site of a nuclear power plant — would eventually become a national monument? But it’s true. On Jan. 12, President Barack Obama granted national monument status to this 5,875-acre property on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast.

Unquestionably, this iconic landscape is truly worthy of monument status ... for its scenic beauty and natural resources and as a tribute to the dramatic history of the land and the people who have dedicated themselves to protecting it.

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When the going gets tough, local high school kids get going

When the going gets tough, local high school kids get going

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 12/15/2016

When a colleague telephoned the other day, I asked him how he was doing. “In and out of depression,” he said. He’s not usually down in the dumps, but I understood. He’s a scientist. He’s deeply concerned about things like climate change, drought, sea-level rise and mass extinctions. The planet’s future is looking downright scary right now, especially as climate-change deniers assume power in Washington.

I’ve been wondering how aspiring young scientists are coping with this gloomy situation. That’s why I attended the San Lorenzo Valley High School’s Environmental Conference last night, hosted by science students Julianna Manseau, Kate Ussat and Haile Davis. Jane Orbuch, an acclaimed science teacher at the high school, sponsored the conference. But, she insisted, “The girls organized the whole thing — from setting up speakers, getting permissions, publicizing, and working with school personnel — it was entirely their gig.”

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Full STEAM ahead: Artist creating a business to return art to schools

Full STEAM ahead: Artist creating a business to return art to schools

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 11/17/2016

What would happen if our nation’s schools embraced the teaching of art to enhance student understanding of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects? According to local artist and entrepreneur Ed Martinez, integrating hands-on art projects into the widely accepted STEM curriculum would result in nothing short of an educational paradigm shift.

“Decades ago art was isolated from the academic environment. That made it easy to eliminate the arts from the curriculum, and that’s what we have now,” Martinez says.

“Many kids are lost along the way because their curiosity is not stimulated by book learning alone. When hands-on art projects are added to the STEM curriculum, students begin to recognize and tap their own genius,” he adds.

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Playground art: More than meets the eye

Playground art: More than meets the eye

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 10/19/2015

Just weeks before the start of October rains, art teacher Sue Friedland engaged 35 young students in painting a 25-by-36 foot map of the United States in the middle of their asphalt playground at Our Lady of Angels School in Burlingame. They are now embellishing the map with paintings of all the state flowers. But this is not graffiti!

“This project teaches children some basic geography and nature observation skills,” said Friedland, “and they learn to work together.”

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Calling all earthlings: Planet at the crossroads

Calling all earthlings: Planet at the crossroads

I spent the past 10 days in Honolulu with some 9,500 conservationists from 192 countries, attending the IUCN Worldwide Conservation Congress, “the most important conference going on in the world today, but most people don’t know about it,” according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

“We tend to think that the biggest threat is ISIS or interest rates ... amazing that we don’t think about the state of our biosphere,” Friedman added.

Conference attendees didn’t need any convincing. The 2016 conference theme “Planet at the Crossroads” highlighted the urgent need to change humankind’s path toward irreversible climate change and unprecedented species extinction.

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Trees can talk — can humans learn to hear them?

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 8/19/2016

I just watched a brilliant TED Talk by Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, explaining how trees talk to each other through vast underground networks of roots and fungus filaments called mycorrhizae. Simard explains that while trees don’t have brains or vocal chords, they communicate through these biological networks to — among other things — recognize and nurture their offspring and share resources with other trees in distress.

“It might remind you of a sort of intelligence,” she says.

A walk through the redwoods at Big Basin Redwoods State Park can be a peaceful part of the day. (Dan Coyro -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

A walk through the redwoods at Big Basin Redwoods State Park can be a peaceful part of the day. (Dan Coyro -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

She describes her 30 years of experiments in forests of the Pacific Northwest — research demonstrating that Douglas fir and paper birch trees communicate through these natural networks. These two symbiotic tree species help each other out by nutrient sharing during different times of the year.

In another experiment, she mapped forest underground networks to show how the biggest, busiest nodes cluster under the big “mother trees,” which send carbon and other nutrients through the network to their offspring trees.

Scientists have known about the fungus/plant root relationship since 1885, when the King of Prussia commissioned A. B. Frank to investigate cultivating truffles. While Frank didn’t succeed, he described the presence of mycorrhizae and coined the word, which means fungus-root.

Today, mycorrhizal networks are recognized as the modus operandi of more than 85 percent of plants in nature, including Sequoia sempervirens and other plants in the redwood forest ecosystem.

Since the 1990s, scientists have recognized that these vast mycorrhizal networks are fundamental to building soils and sustaining healthy forests. Mycorrhizal networks increase the supply of nutrients to trees and understory plants, provide protection from parasites and nematodes, stimulate tree growth, facilitate water uptake and increase carbon sequestration in soils.

At first I wasn’t convinced by Simard that trees talk. As a longtime forest protection advocate, I used to wear a button saying, “If trees could scream ... ,” alluding to the fact that trees can’t speak for themselves in the face of human onslaught. Simard made me do a double take. Maybe trees can talk, but we simply aren’t listening.

As author Michael Pollan said in the New Yorker in 2013, “Plants speak in a chemical vocabulary we can’t directly perceive or comprehend,” and the conversation takes place through these natural networks.

Pollan’s article summarizes an ongoing scientific debate, in which many scientists balk at the concept that plants possess intelligence, historically assumed to be the exclusive domain of the animal kingdom. The argument goes something like this: Animals have neurons and brains, which are the seat of intelligence. Since plants don’t have neurons or brains, they can’t be intelligent.

Pollan’s article summarizes an ongoing scientific debate, in which many scientists balk at the concept that plants possess intelligence, historically assumed to be the exclusive domain of the animal kingdom. The argument goes something like this: Animals have neurons and brains, which are the seat of intelligence. Since plants don’t have neurons or brains, they can’t be intelligent.

Other scientists argue that it depends on how one defines intelligence, a longstanding topic of philosophical debate. Advocates of plant intelligence like Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso define intelligence as “the ability to solve problems.” Given that definition, it seems undeniable to me that trees possess intelligence. Simard and other scientists have shown that trees communicate.

Is there something the trees are trying to tell us?

Simard implies that humans should listen carefully to what the trees are saying, particularly the intensively clear-cut forests of the Pacific Northwest, where she has done her research. Forests are complex systems with interconnected networks that allow trees to communicate, making the forest resilient.

But the forest is still vulnerable to things like bark beetles, high-grade logging and clear-cut logging. All these things destroy the hub trees, which, Simard says, can be seen as rivets in an airplane. Remove one or two and the plane still flies, “but if you take out one too many, or maybe that one holding on the wings, and the whole system collapses.”

Betsy Herbert is an environmental writer who recently returned from a yearlong trip around the world. She serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. You can read her articles and travel blog at www.betsyherbert.com.

 

Travel in a rapidly changing world

 Travel in a rapidly changing world

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 07/14/2016

I extensively planned my year-long trip around the world, but considering today’s quickly changing environmental and political conditions, I still expected — and got — the unexpected. A few examples:

On April 30, 2015, I abruptly left beautiful Jasper National Park, heading for the nearest international airport — in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. After a death in my family I needed to fly back to California.

 

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Back in Santa Cruz remembering Rob Menzies

Back in Santa Cruz remembering Rob Menzies

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 6/13/16

As my plane descended over the California coast into San Jose on Easter Sunday, the hills were emerald green. When I had left a year ago to begin my trip around the world, the hills were dusty and brown.

Now, driving over Highway 17 in my rental car back home to Santa Cruz, I was thrilled to see Lexington Reservoir apparently full, another welcome sight, since it was bone dry a year ago.

After a year on the road, I was excited about re-connecting with friends. I’d been staying in touch through my travel blog and email, but it’s just not enough!

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Earth Matters: Hope for those literally in the dumps

Earth Matters: Hope for those literally in the dumps

by Betsy Herbert

posted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 5/19/16

During the past 12 months I’ve traveled through 36 countries, but it wasn’t until the last leg of my trip in Guatemala City that I encountered a place like Zone 3, infamous as the site of the Guatemala City Garbage Dump, the largest landfill in Central America.

In 2009 the Council on Hemispheric Affairs reported that 30,000 squatters lived around the 40-acre Guatemala City Garbage Dump. An estimated 7,000 of them are known as guajeros, or trash-pickers, and they depend solely on what they can glean from the dump to make a living. But in the process of scavenging, they are constantly subjected to toxic chemicals, disease and filth.

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A glimpse of Galápagos life before man intervened

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 4/28/16

The author next to a Galapagos giant tortoise in the wild on Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

The author next to a Galapagos giant tortoise in the wild on Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

In month 10 of my yearlong trip around the world, I flew from Quito, Ecuador, 600 miles west to the tiny Pacific island of Baltra in the Galápagos Islands. From Baltra, I took a spectacular cruise on a 75-foot catamaran, exploring six of the islands.

On this eight-day voyage, I was thrilled by the unique natural beauty of this volcanic archipelago. I also learned about some egregious human impacts that have taken a big toll here and the extraordinary efforts underway to reverse them.

The Galápagos, of course, are famed as the site of Charles Darwin’s epic 1835 journey on Captain Robert Fitzroy’s HMS Beagle. The strange wildlife endemic to this place — most notably Galapágos finches and giant tortoises — started Darwin’s wheels turning about natural selection and led to his eventual publication of “The Origin of Species.”

My longtime fascination with the Galápagos is shared with some 150,000 tourists who visit each year. Since 1959, most of the entire land mass of the Galápagos Islands was designated as a national park and as a World Heritage Site protected area. So, tourism is regulated, especially extended cruises, where trips to each island are professionally guided and well-coordinated.

Most of the islands still seem pristine and are incredibly beautiful. We hiked across huge spreads of black Pahoe-Hoe lava dotted with cacti. We got up close to some of the rarest birds in the world, including red-footed boobies, Galápagos finches and flightless cormorants. We plodded alongside huge Galápagos giant tortoises and land iguanas in the wild.

A marine iguana on Isla Santiago, Galapagos Islands.

A marine iguana on Isla Santiago, Galapagos Islands.

We snorkeled with sea lions, penguins, and Pacific green turtles and walked among hundreds of marine iguanas piled up on the beach like stacks of pancakes.

But, as our guide carefully explained, the monumental efforts now in place to conserve biodiversity on the Galápagos got a late start.

When the first Europeans landed in the Galápagos in 1535, there were no humans living there. The islands’ remoteness, inhospitable terrain and scarcity of water would have made permanent settlement very difficult indeed.

In the 1700s, the Galápagos became a frequent port for whalers, because of the islands’ proximity to prime sperm whale habitat.

In the 1800s, whalers aggressively sought out the slow-moving Galápagos giant tortoise as a food source. Because these reptiles can survive for months without food or water, they could be easily be kept alive on board ship before ending up in the stew pot.

Whalers took more than 100,000 giant tortoises from the islands. As tortoise populations plummeted, whalers looked for a new food source. They released a few goats to one of the islands, intending to return periodically to hunt them.

But the goats, without any natural predators, quickly reached a population of 100,000 that devastated the island’s native flora needed by the tortoises — another step down the path to extinction.

Similar stories have played out throughout the Galápagos with goats, dogs, pigs — and lately, a fly maggot — all continuously being imported by people and wreaking havoc on native ecosystems.

In 1959, when the Galápagos Islands was declared a World Heritage site, UNESCO partnered with the Charles Darwin Foundation to fund research, conservation, and education strategies to protect endemic species of the islands.

Since then, the Galápagos Islands have attracted top conservation scientists and witnessed some of the most extraordinary invasive species eradication projects anywhere. For example, Project Isabela, overseen by Galápagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation, has eradicated feral goats and pigs from Santiago and Isabela islands.

While tourist dollars help fund conservation efforts, tourists also unwittingly import new invasive species every year. If you go, be prepared to have your baggage inspected!

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is taking a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.