Environmental education

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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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.

 

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.

Cutting-edge research in a tropical paradise

by Betsy Herbert

"Earth Matters," published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 02/18/16

  Undergraduate researchers from California work at the UC Berkeley Gump Research Station in Moorea, French Polynesia. Betsy Herbert — Contributed   In month nine of my yearlong trip around the world, I decided to hang out on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia during the offseason. What a great way to experience this tropical paradise and to appreciate the scientific research underway here!  I began my stay by going for a group swim in a crystalline turquoise lagoon alongside 4-foot sting rays and black-tipped reef sharks. While the sharks were not at all aggressive, the rays seemed downright affectionate, sliding against our bodies and peering at us from strangely human-looking eyes.  My beach bungalow at the laid-back Kaveka Hotel was an idyllic retreat with “Bali Hai” views of Cooks Bay and the coral reef that separates it from the Pacific Ocean. Directly across the bay, I could see UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station, the hub of scientific inquiry that has helped to make Moorea the most studied island in the world.  In 1975, Richard B. Gump, the original owner of San Francisco’s premier gift store, donated the land on Moorea to UC Berkeley to establish the research center, with the goal of analyzing the island as a model ecosystem to understand how global changes are affecting it over time.  Frank Murphy, associate director of Gump Research Station, said Moorea makes an exceptional natural laboratory. The island is small enough (about twice the size of Manhattan) to enable scientists to construct an inventory of all of the non-microbial species known to be living there. The Moorea Biocode project was designed to accomplish this feat and is the first of its kind.  Envisioned by the center’s director, Neil Davies, Moorea Biocode enlisted researchers from 2008-2010 to ascend jagged peaks, slog through tropical forests and dive among coral reefs to sample the entire spectrum of Moorea’s animal and plant life. The end result will be a library of genetic markers and physical identifiers for every species of plant, animal and fungi on the island — and this library will be available to the public.  The coral reefs and lagoons that surround the island of Moorea have been of particular interest to “swarms of scientists who come here every year,” says Murphy, as part of the Moorea Coral Reef Long-term Ecological Research project. Though coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, worldwide almost 20 percent have been lost and another 35 percent could be lost by 2050.  These scientists have been monitoring and recording data about Moorea’s coral reefs for more than 15 years.  “This approach has considerable potential in better understanding how global climate change will affect reef corals, and we are working toward developing modeling approaches to achieve this outcome,” according to Peter Edmunds, a researcher from Cal State Hayward.  Another exciting project envisioned by Davies is the making of a digital model of the entire Moorea ecosystem, including its biological, physical and human cultural aspects. Named “Moorea IDEA,” for Island Digital Ecosystem Avatar, the end product would be an online 3-D model. Scientists and others could pose questions online, and the model would simulate how different impacts might affect the entire ecosystem.  I asked Murphy if people on Moorea were worried about sea-level rise, as a result of global warming.  “We’re in better shape than lots of places,” he said. “If worse came to worse and everything crashed, we could almost be self-sufficient.”  That’s because Moorea has tall mountains and considerable arable land. Other places, such as in the Motu archipelago, Murphy posits, “will be underwater in 60 years, because the atolls don’t have any high ground. A whole history of culture will be going underwater.”   Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.    

Undergraduate researchers from California work at the UC Berkeley Gump Research Station in Moorea, French Polynesia. Betsy Herbert — Contributed

In month nine of my yearlong trip around the world, I decided to hang out on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia during the offseason. What a great way to experience this tropical paradise and to appreciate the scientific research underway here!

I began my stay by going for a group swim in a crystalline turquoise lagoon alongside 4-foot sting rays and black-tipped reef sharks. While the sharks were not at all aggressive, the rays seemed downright affectionate, sliding against our bodies and peering at us from strangely human-looking eyes.

My beach bungalow at the laid-back Kaveka Hotel was an idyllic retreat with “Bali Hai” views of Cooks Bay and the coral reef that separates it from the Pacific Ocean. Directly across the bay, I could see UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station, the hub of scientific inquiry that has helped to make Moorea the most studied island in the world.

In 1975, Richard B. Gump, the original owner of San Francisco’s premier gift store, donated the land on Moorea to UC Berkeley to establish the research center, with the goal of analyzing the island as a model ecosystem to understand how global changes are affecting it over time.

Frank Murphy, associate director of Gump Research Station, said Moorea makes an exceptional natural laboratory. The island is small enough (about twice the size of Manhattan) to enable scientists to construct an inventory of all of the non-microbial species known to be living there. The Moorea Biocode project was designed to accomplish this feat and is the first of its kind.

Envisioned by the center’s director, Neil Davies, Moorea Biocode enlisted researchers from 2008-2010 to ascend jagged peaks, slog through tropical forests and dive among coral reefs to sample the entire spectrum of Moorea’s animal and plant life. The end result will be a library of genetic markers and physical identifiers for every species of plant, animal and fungi on the island — and this library will be available to the public.

The coral reefs and lagoons that surround the island of Moorea have been of particular interest to “swarms of scientists who come here every year,” says Murphy, as part of the Moorea Coral Reef Long-term Ecological Research project. Though coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, worldwide almost 20 percent have been lost and another 35 percent could be lost by 2050.

These scientists have been monitoring and recording data about Moorea’s coral reefs for more than 15 years.

“This approach has considerable potential in better understanding how global climate change will affect reef corals, and we are working toward developing modeling approaches to achieve this outcome,” according to Peter Edmunds, a researcher from Cal State Hayward.

Another exciting project envisioned by Davies is the making of a digital model of the entire Moorea ecosystem, including its biological, physical and human cultural aspects. Named “Moorea IDEA,” for Island Digital Ecosystem Avatar, the end product would be an online 3-D model. Scientists and others could pose questions online, and the model would simulate how different impacts might affect the entire ecosystem.

I asked Murphy if people on Moorea were worried about sea-level rise, as a result of global warming.

“We’re in better shape than lots of places,” he said. “If worse came to worse and everything crashed, we could almost be self-sufficient.”

That’s because Moorea has tall mountains and considerable arable land. Other places, such as in the Motu archipelago, Murphy posits, “will be underwater in 60 years, because the atolls don’t have any high ground. A whole history of culture will be going underwater.”

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer on 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.

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.

 

 

Enjoying and protecting wild Croatia

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 06/20/2015

Last week I left the beautiful old city of Dubrovnik, saying goodbye to Croatia and to the 17 other hikers, bikers and kayakers I met during our two-week Sierra Club International outing, “Jewels of Croatia: Forests, Rivers and Islands.”

 The famous Plitvice National Park draws more than a million visitors a year.

The famous Plitvice National Park draws more than a million visitors a year.

Starting in the capital city of Zagreb, our group, led by two Croatian guides, would travel by van roughly north to south, stopping to experience the country’s vastly different landscapes. We would hike through alpine meadows of the Velebit Mountains, cycle through valleys graced with small towns and vineyards, kayak on crystalline rivers, and sail to some of the 1,200 islands along the coast of the Adriatic Sea.

Before we left Zagreb, a scientist named Mate Zec briefed us about the natural areas we were about to see. Zec is employed by Association Biom, a nonprofit based in Zagreb and affiliated with Birdlife International, a nonprofit that manages 6,000 natural areas in 47 countries.

Croatia is about the size of West Virginia. Some 25 percent of its land is arable farmland and about 40 percent is forested. Fifty percent of Croatia’s landmass is limestone karst. Riddled with caves and underground cavities, limestone karst stores and exudes enormous amounts of water in the form of abundant rivers and waterfalls. Croatia’s coastal areas have a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and hot and dry summers, while its mountains, the Dinaric Alps, have cold winters and hot summers.

 Karstic limestone in the Velebit Mountains show signs of long-ago erosion.

Karstic limestone in the Velebit Mountains show signs of long-ago erosion.

These different climates and landscapes have produced remarkable biodiversity in Croatia. The network of subterranean limestone caves host species of plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. Croatia’s forests and grasslands are home to many different species including brown bears, wolves and lynxes. But many of these species, especially the native lynx, are threatened.

According to Association Biom, 8.5 percent of Croatia’s land is designated as some type of protected area. There are both national parks and regional “nature parks,” which are managed differently. Admission tickets to the more popular parks provide an important source of income for park management. The famous Plitvice National Park, for example, draws more than a million visitors a year.

Tourism accounts for about 15 percent of Croatia’s GDP. Croatia’s population of 4.5 million has an average per capita income of $17,800. So, income from tourism is especially important.

But tourism can also create problems for natural areas. For example, Zec explains that a few “rich parks” with high numbers of tourists have no daily limits to the number of visitors. Later, when our group visited Plitvice National Park, we found that even prior to peak season, we had to move single-file along the trails, reminiscent of U.S. national parks like Yosemite at peak season.

Zec said that park management varies greatly throughout Croatia due to political influence. The result is that parks throughout the country have different levels of habitat protection, policies and investments in research.

Land-protection policies may be changing in Croatia, though, since Croatia joined the European Union (EU) in 2013. That’s because the EU has relatively high standards for protection of natural areas and endangered species that member countries must address.

Zec identified some threats to Croatia’s biodiversity on land outside of protected areas. These include increased development along the coast for tourism and increased construction of wind and hydro-power plants. While alternative energy projects help combat climate change, wind farms can spell death for migratory birds and dams can impact freshwater ecosystems.

Learning about Croatia’s natural areas enhanced our ensuing adventure. As we kayaked the wild rivers of Croatia and sailed the turquoise Adriatic Sea, we were newly inspired to help protect these natural gifts.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. She is on an around-the-world adventure, during which she will be filing monthly reports on environmental and sustainability issues she encounters. Contact her through her website, www.betsyherbert.com.




Learning about Croatia’s natural areas enhanced our ensuing adventure. As we kayaked the wild rivers of Croatia and sailed the turquoise Adriatic Sea, we were newly inspired to help protect these natural gifts.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. She is on an around-the-world adventure, during which she will be filing monthly reports on environmental and sustainability issues she encounters. Contact her through her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

Watershed education: Growing big ideas with small grants

Watershed education: Growing big ideas with small grants

When the San Lorenzo Valley Water District initiated its watershed education grant program in 2003, it was not without controversy. Was it appropriate for a public agency to use public funds for watershed education?

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Santa Cruz scientist initiates global effort to Save the Frogs!

Santa Cruz scientist initiates global effort to Save the Frogs!

Ecologist Kerry Kriger -- founder and director of the nonprofit Save the Frogs! -- is leading an international campaign to reverse the unprecedented and worldwide decline of frogs and other amphibians including toads, newts and salamanders.

"Frogs and other amphibians are the most threatened group of animals on the planet," said Kriger, who believes the trend can be reversed if people get involved and take action.

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Beyond Machu Picchu: A Peruvian adventure in ecotourism

Beyond Machu Picchu: A Peruvian adventure in ecotourism

I returned last weekend from a memorable three-week tour of Peru, including a visit to Machu Picchu. With nearly 1 million visitors a year, Machu Picchu, an ancient Incan city nestled high in the cliffs of the Peruvian Andes, is one of the most acclaimed archeological sites in the world. Its sophisticated stone masonry and agriculture terraces are truly a sight to behold ... so much so that Machu Picchu is now listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the world's 100 most endangered sites. Will all these visitors love Machu Picchu to death?

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