Ecosystem health

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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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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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.

 

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.

Flying like a bird to support forest restoration

by Betsy Herbert

Earth Matters column, published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 01/22/16

 Contributed This zip-wire tour aims to educate visitors on the disappearing birds of New Zealand.

Contributed This zip-wire tour aims to educate visitors on the disappearing birds of New Zealand.

Up 120 feet in the forest canopy last week, I launched off a platform surrounding a towering 1,000-year-old kauri tree in Dansey Forest, Roturua, New Zealand. Holding onto my harness straps, I pushed off with my feet, surrendered my weight to the zipline, and went flying 720 feet through the treetops. About halfway through the flight, I let go of the harness, leaned back and spread out my arms. Exhilarating!

I had a little help of course. I was part of a group of 10 zipliners led by guides Scott and Kathy, locals employed by nonprofit Rotorua Canopy Tours.

During our three-hour adventure, we whizzed over .75 miles of ziplines, traversed three swinging bridges, and hung out on five tree platforms, all the while learning about the plight of New Zealand’s native birds and the group’s ongoing efforts to help them survive. By the time the tour ended, I was glad to know that a portion of my ticket price would be invested in supporting these efforts.

Kathy explained that 51 bird species endemic to New Zealand including the moa and other flightless birds are now extinct, while many other species are in decline. Because New Zealand birds evolved in isolation when there were no existing land mammals to prey on them, they never developed natural defenses needed to fend off introduced mammals.

While humans hunted the moa and other large birds, the nail in the coffin for many extinct bird species was the introduction of exotic mammals such as the possum, rat and stoat (a type of weasel). Fur traders introduced the possum because of its value in pelts, the rat came into New Zealand as a stowaway on ships, and the stoat was introduced in hopes that it would prey on rabbits, which were themselves introduced earlier with prolifically tragic results.

Some of the favorite foods of the possum are the new growth on New Zealand’s native trees and the eggs of its native birds. There are now some 30 million possums in New Zealand, so their impact is astounding.

The rat also likes to eat native birds, as well as the seeds and fruits of the native trees, inhibiting their ability to propagate. Perhaps worst of all is the stoat; once introduced to New Zealand, the stoat lost its taste for rabbits and instead took to preying on native birds, especially the kiwi, New Zealand’s national icon.

As all of these exotic mammals were being introduced, New Zealand’s native forests were being decimated by logging and slowly replaced with introduced tree species like Monterey pine, which is now the country’s leading commercial timber tree. As native forests were replaced with exotic tree plantations or converted to farmland, the habitat of New Zealand’s native birds took a huge hit.

What could be done to turn this around? The founders of Rotorua Canopy Tours, James Fitzgerald and Andrew Blackford, decided to create a successful eco-tourism business to support the active trapping and killing of possums, rats and stoats on this 1,235 acre Dansey Forest to bring back native bird populations. The group joined into a partnership with the New Zealand Department of Conservation, which owns the land.

Their efforts have paid off. After testing different kinds of traps, the company now has installed more than 1,000 instant kill and humane traps in the forest. To date, 10 percent of the Dansey Forest is free from these exotic predators. Zipliners can now hear the birdsongs of the native North Island robin, the tomtit, tui, and the kaka, which are returning to the forest.

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

Thailand’s efforts to help endangered Asian elephant

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel November 19, 2015

 Elephants are bathed at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, outside the city of Chang Mai in Thailand. Photo by Betsy Herbert, 2015

Elephants are bathed at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, outside the city of Chang Mai in Thailand. Photo by Betsy Herbert, 2015

After camping among wild African elephants in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, last September, I greatly anticipated visiting wild Asian elephants in Thailand this month. But when I arrived, I found that finding wild elephants in this country is a little tricky.

Like their larger African cousins, Asian elephants are a highly endangered species. According to the the American Museum of Natural History, hundreds of thousands of elephants roamed Asia until only about 100 years ago. Today, they have been wiped out from large areas of India, Southeast Asia and China, leaving fewer than 50,000.

I found three great places to visit Asian elephants in northern Thailand, all about an hour’s drive from the city of Chang Mai. Trouble is, the elephants in these places are not exactly wild. That’s because 95 percent of Thailand’s elephants are living in captivity, and nobody really knows how many wild elephants are left.

A friend and I drove to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in the densely forested hills near Lampang. The TECC is a government-sponsored elephant camp that houses more than 50 Asian elephants (including six of the Thai Royal family’s white elephants). TECC seeks to educate tourists about the plight of elephants and to raise money for their conservation.

We watched the elephants bathe and frolic with their trainers in the creek flowing through the TECC grounds — truly a highlight of this trip!

After bathing, about a dozen elephants were led to a ring where they performed before an audience of some 200 tourists. They bowed as they were introduced one by one and did some cute tricks like removing the hats of their trainers. Later on, the elephants demonstrated how in the past, they were used to drag enormous logs out of the forest and stack them with their trunks. Elephants are no longer used by the timber industry because the Thai government banned logging in natural forests throughout the country in 1989.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the timber industry greatly increased logging of native teak and other tropical hardwoods in Thailand for export. Loggers began capturing and training large numbers of wild elephants to haul and stack logs. At the same time, this extensive logging destroyed much of the elephants’ natural forest habitat.

In 1988, Thailand experienced its worst flooding in 300 years, due to unsustainable logging and extensive forest clearing to create more agricultural land. So, in 1989 the Thai government banned logging in all natural forests in the country.

This ban put loggers as well as elephants out of work. Maybe not such a bad thing if the elephants could return to their natural habitats, but there was no place left for them to go.

In 1997, the Thai government founded the Thailand Elephant Conservation Center to help care for these “unemployed” elephants. The center advocates using elephants in tourism to provide income to care for them. Tourists can pay to ride the elephants after they pay to watch them perform.

Another organization, the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is operated as a nonprofit to provide a natural sanctuary to treat and protect elephants from the sometimes harsh treatment in tourism as well as logging. They seek to re-introduce rescued elephants into the wild.

 Yes, elephant prosthetics are important as many Asian elephants have been injured by landminds.

Yes, elephant prosthetics are important as many Asian elephants have been injured by landminds.

Finally, the Thai Elephant Hospital, sponsored by Friends of the Asian Elephant, rescues and treats injured elephants. When we visited, we were introduced to Motala, a 50-year-old female elephant who was badly injured, like many others, by a land mine as she was working in the forest. The hospital manufactures prosthetic devices to fit these elephants like Motala to enable them to walk.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. Read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website (www.betsyherbert.com).

 

Bhutan: Where environment is key to ‘Gross National Happiness’

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters column

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 10/22/15

 Bhutan opened its doors to tourism only 40 years ago, and it still requires every tourist to be part of a certified tour group. The government of Bhutan wants to avoid the environmental degradation that Nepal has suffered over the past 50 years due to tourism.

Bhutan opened its doors to tourism only 40 years ago, and it still requires every tourist to be part of a certified tour group. The government of Bhutan wants to avoid the environmental degradation that Nepal has suffered over the past 50 years due to tourism.

As our flight ascended above the thick blanket of smog over Kolkata on the east coast of India, I was excited to be heading north to the remote country of Bhutan, known for its ancient monasteries, multi-colored prayer flags and spectacular scenery.

In just 45 minutes, we would be making one of the world’s most thrilling descents into Bhutan’s international airport, nestled in the Paro Valley between soaring Himalayan peaks.

For years I had wanted to visit Bhutan because its government officially measures national progress by the “Gross National Happiness” of its people. This term was coined in 1971 by the king of Bhutan, but the concept has increasingly drawn global attention.

Unlike other indicators of national progress, Gross National Happiness is a scientifically constructed index that ascribes equal importance to noneconomic aspects of people’s well-being, such as education, health, environmental protection and cultural preservation. The concept is rooted in Bhutan’s history. According to the legal code of Bhutan, dated 1729, “If the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.”

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a primarily Buddhist country whose population is around 770,000 (about 1/18th the size of the city of Kolkata). Tiny Bhutan is surrounded on three sides by India (population approaching 1.3 billion), while China (population 1.4 billion) borders it to the north.

After we made a flawless landing at the Paro airport we approached the main terminal, which at first it looked like a temple with its curved tiled roof, colorful hand-painted timber-framed windows and whitewashed walls.

As our small tour group made its way through immigration, we met our Bhutanese tour guide named Chen, who would — with grace and humor — treat us to some unforgettable experiences in Bhutan for the next week.

Bhutan, now a constitutional monarchy, opened its doors to tourism only 40 years ago, and it still requires every tourist to be part of a certified tour group. Chen said the government of Bhutan wants to avoid the environmental degradation that Nepal has suffered over the past 50 years due to tourism.

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index gives the natural world a central place in the making of public policy, and environmental protection is a core guiding principle in Bhutan’s constitution. As a result, Bhutan has pledged to remain carbon neutral. In 2015, Bhutan is a carbon sink, meaning it stores more carbon than it emits. This is partly because the country has pledged to keep at least 60 percent of its land forested. Currently, more than 70 percent is forested. Bhutan has banned export logging, so that most of its big trees remain standing in the forests, where they sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

 Bhutan’s happiness index is rooted in the country’s history. According to the legal code of Bhutan, dated 1729, ‘If the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.’

Bhutan’s happiness index is rooted in the country’s history. According to the legal code of Bhutan, dated 1729, ‘If the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.’

Still, Bhutan faces environmental challenges. Hydropower and tourism are Bhutan’s largest industries. The abundant water supply from glacial fed rivers from the steep slopes of the Himalayas create huge hydropower potential.

According to one source, (www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/328-5) some 24,000 megawatts of hydropower could be feasibly realized in Bhutan, though only about 1,360 MW have been developed to date. Most of these hydropower projects have been financed by India, which takes delivery of most of the electricity produced.

It's unclear how much Bhutan can develop its hydropower potential without causing significant harm to its river ecosystems. No doubt this issue could present a serious challenge to Bhutan’s commitment to environmental protection. During my visit, I photographed one large sign in a local village that expressed concern about the demise of the rare white-bellied heron as a result of hydropower development.

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

 

 

Saying goodbye to the West

Saying goodbye to the West

Last week, after stacking my furniture into a 10-by-15-foot storage unit, leasing my house and selling my car, I felt foot-loose and finally ready for some serious travel. But before embarking on my year-long trip around the world, I wanted to pay goodbye visits to friends scattered throughout the West.

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Redwood Champions Amid Drought and Climate Change

Redwood Champions Amid  Drought and Climate Change

by Betsy Herbert, Ph.D.

published in the Mountain Echo, newsletter of the Sempervirens Fund, Fall 2014

Redwoods are extraordinary. The more we learn about them, the more extraordinary they prove to be. We’ve known for a long time that California’s coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the world’s tallest trees and among the longest-living. Scientists are now confirming that redwoods play an important role in the local water cycle and in achieving a healthy, stable climate.

By meticulously measuring redwoods, scientists are determining how fast they’re growing, storing carbon and capturing fog, and how they are responding to climate change. For example, a team of scientists is working on the “Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative” (RCCI), with support from Sempervirens Fund, to quantify how accelerating climate change is affecting California’s redwoods.

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Stranger than fiction: The Anthropocene is upon us

Stranger than fiction: The Anthropocene is upon us

Last weekend, I was one of hundreds attending the international conference, Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, at UC Santa Cruz. The primary question driving the conference was "How can humans and other species coexist on the planet?" I came away, I think, with a better understanding of how humans, as brainy as we claim to be, have managed to get ourselves and other Earth inhabitants in such a pickle — with climate change, mass extinction, and accumulation of pesticides in our food and water systems.

I also came away believing that we must acknowledge how we got into this mess before we can make the changes in old ways of thinking and interacting with the world — changes needed to reverse the trend.

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New monument hugs California coast

New monument hugs California coast

The 1,665-acre Pt. Arena-Stornetta public lands on the Mendocino County coast has become the first portion of the California Coastal National Monument to offer public access.

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Joshua Tree sojourn sheds light on desert solar controversy

Joshua Tree sojourn sheds light on desert solar controversy

Last December I drove south to Joshua Tree National Park to hang out with friends in the desert. I hadn't visited the area for decades, so I didn't anticipate the major sprawl around the desert town of Yucca Valley on Highway 62 leading to the park -- housing developments, a Walmart, a Home Depot, and other big-box stores.
To avoid the Yucca Valley sprawl, my friends rented a little house between 29 Palms and the town of Joshua Tree, just outside the park boundary. From our house, we could walk up the road a few hundred feet and venture into the park's vast stretches of red rock formations, punctuated with iconic Joshua trees, yuccas, and barrel cacti. Beautiful!
Looking across miles of big sky and expansive desert sands, I observed what appeared to be a strangely irregular, large blue lake. I asked my friend, "Is that a lake in the middle of the desert or is it a mirage?"

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