Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ageism in the Natural Resource World - Let's All Discriminate!

Talk to the Hand - because your generation's input does not matter
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There are a lot of things happening right now in the world of environmental policy - especially at home, here in the Chesapeake Bay. Some of them are great - the passage of new water quality laws, enforcement of existing environmental laws, and the restructuring of funding for voluntary habitat restoration projects.  As a "guild" (I guess you could call us), we are getting more effective at what we do.  However, some comments that I've heard in meetings, along with some interesting blog posts at Women in Wetlands and a Blog that shall not be named (that focuses on Chesapeake Bay policy issues from the perspective of those who have been at it for 30+ years) really have me thinking.........at a time in which singleness of purpose (cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, the USA's last significant wild commercial fishery) is absolutely critical, we, including myself, are wasting time with divisive thoughts, processes, protocols, and plain old verbal comments that seek to exclude other biologists, engineers, farmers, lawmakers, etc. solely based on how many years they have been working at it. 
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I suspect that you're thinking, "this post is about revering the elder statesmen and women of the natural resource field, and not discriminating against the aging boomer generation."  And yes, this is partially about that.
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Interesting thing is, age discrimination cuts both ways.  In the first five (post-masters degree) years of my career, I, like many other practicioners, was subjected to comments like, "Aren't you too young to be doing this?" and "Please just leave and tell them to send someone a little older to the next meeting."  And of course, "What are you, 19? Phhht (rolls eyes)." For the last seven years, it's been more of a sigh of relief, "Thank God you are older than you sound," and "How long have you been doing this, son? (10 years) Oh, OK then."   Over the years, I've mentored and trained a few dozen young biologists, and I've watched them go through this ridiculous hazing as well - honestly it does seem like the young women get it worse than the young men.  As a supervisor, I've had to delicately field the question - and a hundred similar to it - "Why can't you send someone older, you know, more experienced.....(name) is just too young to understand the complexity of this project."  The accurate (rarely given) answer is typically, "You aren't paying us enough to send an older biologist."
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Here's the problem with this - what I perceive as an industry-wide (if not society-wide) discrimination against young, highly engaged, highly talented, well-trained professionals - who will pick up the torch in 5, 10, 15 years and carry on with our work - and the work of the generation currently in the midst of retiring?  Don't we - at minimum - have the obligation to mentor and shepherd these professionals in a way that will allow them to carry on our work - and improve on it - and see that it's turned into something more significant?  Let me make the key distinction between "the world of ecologists" and "pop culture."  In our pop culture, youth is everything.  Youth is a convenient excuse.  Youth is a reason to prop up someone who is less talented than they physically appear.  Youth is something that can be sold. 
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This does not transfer into algorithms about sea level rise, migratory bird populations, or nitrogen in the water.  Scientists bristle when their doctoral students casually talk about "the results from Alaska in 1972" because that student wasn't there - didn't have to endure "Alaska 72". Senior policy wonks are enraged when a 24 year old lobbyist says "passage of the Clean Water Act" and yawns while he's saying it.  Restoration "gurus" get downright murderous when told by a 25-year old restoration hotshot, "Yeah, this 1200 acre wetland is OK - I woulda done it differently."  I mean, in all cases, can you blame them?
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So, are young people "just like this," or is there anything in this career field that has fomented their attitudes about the generation preparing to retire?
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I'm not a psychologist, but I would guess "both." In most areas of the country, you can just look around outdoors and see that for wildlife, water, and outdoor recreation, the last 40 years have generally been a failure.  I mean.........look at it.  This is currently having some carry-over into professional attitudes - I've heard it myself.  As the years pass, and Baby Boomers in public agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations continue to hold off on retirement, there is a dangerous (and tempting) sentiment building in the environmental community.  A sentiment that "they didn't get it done."  Or "they have had 30 years to do this - NOW they want to make a change?" And "wow, he's stuck in 1971."  I would be lying if I said that I have never made comments like that.
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A couple things about that. 
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First, the evidence of failure is far more obvious than evidence of the many successes of the Boomers in the environmental field.   And since we're talking science, "obviousness" has about zero to do with truth.   The Baby Boomers oversaw passage - and some level of enforcement - of laws ranging from the Endangered Species Act to the Clean Water Act to CERCLA (Superfund).  And thousands more Federal, state, and local laws.  Due to funding, lawsuits, and failure to enforce, these huge successes have largely been partial and in many ways, swallowed up by "failures" that were unpredictable and in many cases, direct reactions (by polluters, poachers, etc) to the legislative successes!
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Second, as we dally around one of a dozen "anniversaries" of the early American conservation movement, it's incredibly easy to look at the research, writings, and accomplishments of the Teddy Roosevelt/Aldo Leopold/Ding Darling clique and say, "THEY got it - not like the Boomers!"  Many of their worst sins, greatest errors, and embarassing follies have been omitted or deeply buried over time because they are not seen as particularly germane to the topic of their vast successes. Their failures continue to be viewed as a distraction, instead of being used as a lesson for the future.  If only the Baby Boomers were to be afforded such leeway! 
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Here's the problem with all of this - and the reason for this post.  When you automatically assume that a person, whether a TU volunteer, a research scientist, or a wildlife technician, cannot contribute significantly because they are too young or too old, you are giving yourself a luxury you do not actually have.  In the environmental field, when you form a committee, a task group, or "The Group of 56" or whatever else, the language that follows should absolutely NOT be "Senior Specialists that aim to solve this problem," or "Young Professionals who pledge to look at this in a new, unbiased way." 
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Our natural heritage, as well as our recreational heritage and the economic value of our natural resources, are simply too precious to allow any of us to isolate ourselves into age-based cadres.  If you are a leader of a group who is actively doing so, I strongly encourage you to reach out - if only informally - and ask some representatives from the excluded group - "are we missing something?"
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Carrying on in the way we have for the last 10 (or 100?) years in this field is going to lead to two things: the incredible loss of institutional knowledge possessed by soon-to-be-retirees, and the incredible, avoidable, and inexcusable alienation and disengagement of the next generation of environmental volunteer and professional leaders.
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Just something to think about.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Eastern Shore Goose Pit Hunting for Dummies - 10 Tips

Nice goose pit from coldwateroutfitters.com - must be nice to live without termites!
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Disclaimer: this post is meant purely as a set of "helpful hints" of what to expect for first-time pit hunters who expect to be invited to a pit hunt as a guest, or to pay a guide to take them on a pit hunt for ducks and/or geese. Some of you will have more (or better) advice and I'm sure that the newbie readers who see this post would love to hear where you agree or disagree. Please comment! Also note, of course, that all hunting and/or shooting are inherently dangerous activities that too-often result in personal injury or death.  If you are unsure of anything, call the game wardens or state police for further clarification.  
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So, you've been invited to a "pit" hunt.  It's not really unique to the eastern shore, but it's common here in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast of the United States.  Why do people hunt ducks and geese out of sunken pits? Traditionally, geese are hunted from stationary (or semi-stationary) blinds.  These have strategic and comfort advantages and disadvantages, as do layout blinds - a very separate topic! But back to goose pits.
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In the Mid-Atlantic, pits are concrete or plastic and sunk into the ground to be level with a crop field or pasture.  They are highly effective in flat, large fields with little cover to disguise a layout blind or other concealment (poor places to put a blind).   Pits have limitations too, but for the purpose of this post, let's assume that your guide or landowning buddy has not over-shot their fields, and their pits are well camoflauged. Please talk to the landowner and/or guide about safety & legal issues, and the like, as you would prior to any hunt or shoot.
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What I really want to tell you about is how the hunting experience is different in a pit.  The sights and sounds are distinctive.  Let's start with the sights.  Hunting in a pit can be extremely challenging from the standpoint of being able to see what's going on in the air and in the field.  It's very, very difficult to look for far-off geese while calling to closing geese, trying to watch the closing geese, and getting one's gun ready to shoot.  My first bit of advice is to try pit hunting with at least one other person who is calling and shooting. The addition of guns and shooters, however, automatically adds a safety risk (due to the challenge of pit hunting), so take that into account as well.


Here's the sunrise, with only my head and shoulders out of the pit.  The camo lid you see has to be pulled back down over the opening I'm standing in.  The view from this standpoint is great, but as soon as birds appear, you have to slink back down into the pit, and your vision becomes very marginal.  As  you look up through tiny windows in the pit lids, geese will look like this:

photo from pfranson.blogspot.com
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So since I'm discussing eyesight, let's talk about shooting out of a pit.  While nowhere near as challenging as some shots out of layout blinds, pit shooting can be quite difficult because when you pop up the lid, gun in hand, you may have no idea where the birds are (that your buddy just called the shot on, as they passed to his left).   Your shot will then be anything from 5 yards, directly overhead, to 40 yards out, rising on the wind and retreating from the side of the pit to the rear of the pit.  You will have about 2 seconds to raise the lid, identify a target, and shoot. That's worth spending some extra time before your hunt at the skeet range.  Trust me. Know all of your safety protocols and resolve any & all uncertainties that you or other shooters may have about "swing through," "zones," and anything else safety-related.
OK - well let's formally get into it - 10 easy tips for your first goose pit hunt.  And if you interpret these as "things that ST has screwed up over the last 20 years," you are mostly correct.


1. That's concrete.  Gunfire surrounded by concrete is LOUD. Consider hearing protection. Particularly the kind with a low-volume mic/amplifier to help you hear all the geese you cannot see first (i.e. most of them).  
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2.  Know where in the field (and which field) the goose pit is before you go.  5am in a muddy field and freezing rain is no time to try and find it. Yeah, this should actually be Tip #1.  It's that important. You'll know if you don't follow it!
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3. Pursuant to #2, know how you are going to get your gear (and yourself) from your truck to the goose pit.  Hopefully your guide or landowner buddy have figured this out already, but it's worth asking (i.e. do you need chestwaders or your ATV). Very useful information if you were counting on driving the minivan instead of the truck that day.
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4. Pursuant to #3, know of any landmarks within gun range, from farm roads to pumps and pipes, to irrigation rigs to barns.  You literally may walk past them, over them, or under them on the way in, and not know it.
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5.  Photo below - keep your calls warm.  Ignoring all other goose calling ettiquette, let's assume you, the guest, will be calling geese.  Since the goose pit is underground, the temperature at 5am will be the temperature at 12pm.  It will be cold and dank.  I know you have an awesome lanyard with 40 bands on it.  Keep the call in your hand or inner pocket.  If you don't call for 40 minutes and then blow on a cold call, well, everyone will laugh at least.


6. Pursuant to #5, wear layers, and they do not need to be camo.  Brown or black are fine - you do not need camo EVERYTHING to pit hunt.  You will need to shed layers to help place anywhere from 4 dozen to 12 dozen goose decoys, plus any field duck decoys.  But then you'll spend long periods sitting on a bucket or bench in a concrete or plastic pit in the dark.  
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7. Going from dark & sitting to bright & shooting overhead is tough.  Don't push the envelope on shot distance. And of course, be comfortable with your weapon, choke, and load.



8. A pet peeve (pic above) - don't walk or drive too heavily around the goose pit.  You think that geese can't see these tire tracks from the air? This is especially important if there has been snow. 


9.  Take a book - one you actually want to read.  Likely scenarios for goose hunting in general include the following: a) nearly everyone limits out early, whole group stays for 3 hours so the last hunter has a chance to kill his or her last bird; or b) the birds don't get off the roost until 930, 10am, or 11am.....and yet, you're in the pit by 6am.  And I mean a REAL book.  If you spend the morning on your iPhone, you may feel as if you didn't spend the morning outdoors at all.

Pit hunting results, December 2009.
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10.  Take your time hunting and enjoy your time afield.  These can be gear-intensive hunts and if you promised to be at work by 12pm, you may have to pick up decoys by 10am, before the geese even fly.  Take extra time to be safe and don't hesitate to pass on a shot if there is any chance of a breach in safety practices.

I hope you have a safe and successful hunt! Stop back by and let me know!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry Christmas!


We've set our Christmas tree up this way for the past few years.  Can you tell what's different about it this year? No, he didn't manage to quite topple it.  But we will need a new plan for next Christmas! We have the blessing of having all of Hank's grandparents in town (at different times) this week to celebrate with us. 


This year, we have joined the seditious cult of Elmo.  At this moment, Hank throttled Elmo onto the floor as soon as he realized that he was about to be photographed hugging Elmo. Oh well. Hank has three toddler rocking chairs - all are at least 60 years old,  including the one in which he's sitting in these pictures.  One is about 100 years old.  He loves to sit (and stand) in all three.


Football's on.


Eventually, Hank went to bed and our guests left.  Wife & I enjoyed a bottle of Delirium Noel, which is 10% ABV (and you can't really taste the alcohol).  Merry Christmas & good night all!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tough Goose Hunt, Great Day

That's the moon, not the sun.  Ouch!
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As things are not generally going amazingly right now, I jumped on an opportunity to take a full day off and spend about half of it out on the farm.  I've really felt half-connected for the last few weeks, and missing what would have been 3 solid days of quality hunting did not help that. So it really didn't phase me that on this day there was a full moon, not a cloud in the sky, a lunar freakin' eclipse, ice on all the rivers, not a new flight of ducks or geese for the last 3 weeks, predicted high temps around 33 degrees, and predicted 25mph winds out of the NW.  I can't explain it - when you're an outdoors maniac, sometimes you just have to go. So I went. 
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The moon was as bright as it could be - I could tell that geese were probably feeding all night under moonlight (leaving them fat and unmotivated come daybreak). When I got to the farm (moon still blazing in the sky), this was confirmed - fresh goose poop in the soybean field surrounding the goose pit.  The other thing that was confirmed was that the ground was frozen solid, so the decoy setup I had planned (2 dozen full body and 4 dozen silhouettes) was a no go.

The "skeleton" of the decoy setup as the moon blares down!
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I drove back up to the barn and grabbed another 2 dozen fullbody goose decoys and hauled them back out into the field.  I used almost all "feeders" because with this cold weather, the geese are definitely feeding.  The pit faces northwest (soybeans in front, tall weeds behind), so with a northwest wind, I set up about 3 dozen decoys to the south of the pit, and 1 dozen to the north of the pit.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten a lesson I learned almost a year ago to the day, hunting in an identical wind in that same goose pit. 

Looking southeast, behind the goose pit
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With the creek and the river both covered in thick sheets of ice, and with the substantial goose migration still (apparently) in limbo due to our frigid temperatures from PA to GA, the farm is just not holding the usual number of geese.  I'm talking less than 10% of the normal number.  Sunrise came and went with no geese calling from the roost. 
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I settled into the pit and finished reading Steinbeck's The Moon is Down, an anti-Nazi novel (commissioned by the CIA's predecessor - OSS) that was smuggled into Europe in the early 1940s and reprinted in maybe a dozen languages as resistance propaganda.  Steinbeck won the Medal of Honor for it, and some of the writing is pertinent to today's world.  Some lines like "the flies have conquered the flypaper" and "after they have killed me, promise me the debt will be paid."........"It will - in full" and "it is impossible to break the spirit of man permanently." Good stuff, especially sitting by yourself in a freezing ass goose pit.
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Even though the lack of geese was pretty lame, it was really, really great to sit there and listen to the wind for a few hours. I got to thinking about how great it is to be alive, and how amazing it is that I've accomplished what I have, without losing much more than I have over the years. Truly blessed.
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Around 9:30, the geese started moving.  A few off the roost.  A few just finishing their overnight feedings (thanks again, full moon!), a few just moving around because it was cold and they have to keep eating.  It was hard to watch for birds, call to them, and see how they were reacting to the calling from the pit - the view is tough.  The stiff wind gave the birds plenty of time to look at every little detail in the decoy spread.
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I mentioned a lesson I forgot.  Oh yeah.  That would be that in a NW wind, the geese will ultimately want to land into the wind (no surprise there) to the north of the northernmost decoys.  My northernmost decoys terminated about 35 yards from the pit.  Geese were trying to put down about 5 yards past that, to my side.  It was just physically impossible to get the lid of the pit up and put a solid gun barrel on them, landing in the wind, at that distance to your side. When they stopped coming in, I hurriedly gathered up the northern group of decoys and bunched them up with the southern group (hoping they would now land in front of the pit), ending up with this group:
                  
That is a whole lot of sunlight! The field is planted in barley - the geese have eaten it all.
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As I finished up, three geese came in low and straight at me.  They pulled up with only about 20 yards to spare (as I stood there, head down).  Luckily my gun was in the goose pit, so it was pointless.  Hopped back in the pit and a few minutes later, another three birds came around like the first few flocks had been.  After circling and calling back several times, I heard them set their wings over the pit, and I popped up to shoot just as one goose dropped from about 50' to 10' about 30 yards out. 
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At this point it's worth mentioning that I brought my old Remington 870 on this hunt.  For no real reason - I've shot it once in the last two years.  It's killed a lot of ducks and geese.  The gun is fine.  Unfortunately the stock is about 5" longer than my Browning Gold and 3" longer than my Mossberg 935, so when I brought the gun to my shoulder, I never got it cleanly mounted and I took a poor shot.   Thinking, like an idiot, that I was shooting one of my semi-autos (which I shoot with 99 times out of 100), I did not cycle the shell and just stood there furiously tapping the trigger, watching the goose slowly elevate, hit the wind, and accelerate. 

That was the only shot I had that morning.  And I didn't care.  There was no one to show off for or be embarassed in front of - and it's not like I missed 10 geese (which I have probably done before).  It was great to sit there and enjoy the wind, the solitude, watch the bald eagles hunt rabbits, and think about all the things I have this year.  2010 has been a really challenging one, and yet there I was, taking a day off from a great job to go hunting on a great farm, looking forward to spending the rest of the week with my wife and son.  
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Things ain't so bad.

Monday, December 20, 2010

This Was Supposed to be a Hunting Report


This photograph is an artistic statement meant to symbolize the vastness of my reserves of cash, hunting days, paid time off, and sanity.  It also represents our home heating situation from about December 1 to December 16th.  What is it really? Well, if you must know, it's where this guy used to live in my basement.


That's right - a state of the art (when it was built & installed in 1945) home boiler that could be fueled with either coal or fuel oil. Whoo-wee! Any of you who have recently shopped for a new water heater, boiler, furnace, or heat pump in the last several years have learned about "percent efficiency" - how much of the fuel and electricity that go into the heating system actually heat your house?  You also know that products on the market these days are most likely to be 80, 90, even 92 or 93 percent efficient.  That's a good product, and not so bad for the environment.  Our boiler? About 40 percent efficient.  More than half of the $1000 - $2000 per year we spent on fuel oil (plus electricity to run it) went directly up the chimney.
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The furnace was one of the few things that had not been replaced or updated when we bought our home in 2004.  Like most things of that magnitude, we kept putting it off.  We occasionally checked replacement costs and found that we were looking at a $5,000 to $10,000 project.  Especially given the two inch thick layer of white pasty material which coated the house's original boiler.  Have a closer look:


Ladies and gents, that is asbestos.  Many of us under the age of 40 (me too) have never seen asbestos, except occasionally as very thin pipe insulation in old schools and apartment buildings.  But this here, this is a lot of asbestos.  The state of Maryland is pretty particular about how and where you dispose of it. And doing it right costs a lot of money.
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So back to reality.  We returned from near-perfect weather in southwest Florida to find temperatures in the 20s in Maryland.  Many of you all have been experiencing this - a very strange southern shift to the jet stream which is just punishing us with a continental polar high pressure cell.  The weather has been normal - for the period between January 20 and February 10.  The dry, cold, cloudless conditions have made it difficult to plan what I'd consider to be a "high percentage" hunt.
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To keep this post readably short, I'll just say that a combination of impossible factors, including this relentless cold, pushed us to request bids for a new heating system .....ASAP.  Bid process = losing 1.5 paid days off at work (during hunting season).  Once we selected a contractor, I lost a half-day of work (and a canceled goose hunt on opening day, on a snowy, foggy morning!!!!) to the initial contractor visit (sawing off the pipes to the furnace, draining the water out of the system), and then another half-day of work (and another canceled goose hunt) for the asbestos abatement crew to show up and get the old burner out.


After creating a tent-like scene like that part of E.T. with the medical unit, one guy in full haz-mat gear carried out the asbestos.  Wow - so glad that was in my basement for 6 years.


Eventually, this MMA style dude started carting out the "clean" portions of the old boiler/furnace.  What they left was the empty space in the first photo.  18 hours later, the contractor showed up to install our new 83% efficient gas boiler.  It's tiny! But for the first time in 2 very cold weeks, we have heat. And for the first time ever, I feel better about our choice of power source.



So yeah, in a way it's a thing of beauty, but just like all the soot in that picture (there's plenty spread throughout the whole house), it's come at a tremendous cost.  I don't even feel motivated to go hunt.  I've had enough cold for awhile.  I don't think I can stand the frustration of having (literally) all my gear in the truck again, just to have a hunt canceled for home repair reasons, again.  This has been a very expensive year for home ownership, and right now there's just no option for spending money on fun stuff, gear, or fun (non-family type) trips we'd like to do.  It's hard not to wake up with these burdens and feel like you are just recently on your own again - no road map and no money.

I hope that the next time you hear from me, I will have written of a beautiful sunrise and birds in the air.  Keep warm everybody!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

You Don't Have to be a Biologist to Make a Difference - Ding Darling and the Duck Stamp


At some point, it's hard to talk about the philosophical "drainage wars" in the United States - let alone Florida - without invoking editorial cartoonist and legendary conservationist Ding Darling.  A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Ding was pre-eminent among early 20th Century Americans in his concern about the legacy of human land use. It's important to remember that in that era, environmental costs or impacts were generally not considered when planning a highway, city, or even a state park.  Like nearly all conservationists of the era, he was an avid hunter and angler. The cartoon above, from Ding's 1944 article "The Story of the Ground Water Table" parodies the Army Corps of Engineers' desire to drain as much American acreage as possible for agriculture and suburban expansion in the south, midwest, and west.  The caption, "Our Engineers Plan Water Uses for Everything Except Nature's Objectives" tells you everything you need to know about what was a pretty unpopular opinion at the time. Ding Darling was ruthless in his exhumation of poor human assumptions about land use - and water use.

Even fellow conservationists found Darling to be a persistent cynic - politicians considered him to be a gigantic pest. In fact, Franklin D. Roosevelt finally had enough in 1934 and appointed Darling as the chief of the new "Bureau of Biological Survey" in 1934. Ding - hardly a biologist but obviously a well-known artist - conceived the Federal Waterfowl Stamp (Duck Stamp) program and actually painted the first design, released in August, 1934. It was an additive tax for the hunters of migratory birds - largely supported by bird hunters.  Ding even purchased Stamp #1 and signed it for his own hunting use.  It sold recently on the internet and I saw this picture for the first time:

Ding Darling, owner of Federal Waterfowl Stamp Year 1, #1, and designer of said stamp.

Like many good acts in government, the Duck Stamp Program merely enabled the US Government to do what they had promised to do when it passed an earlier law - specifically, when Herbert Hoover signed the North American Migratory Bird Treaty Act into policy in 1929 - to set aside money to protect and restore habitat for migratory birds in the United States.  The 1929 act did not provide any funding to actually accomplish that.  The Duck Stamp was America's first attempt to do so - to mandate conservation fees to users who are not on-site at a specific National Park or Wildlife Refuge.  Was there a protest by birdwatchers or kayak manufacturers or hunters?

In 1934, the US Government sold about 600,000 of the $1 stamps according to USFWS data.  In 1945, over 1.5 million stamps were sold (still $1).  Meanwhile, in 1940,  Ding's little Bureau of Biological Survey received a new name and a Federal promotion as the US Fish and Wildlife Service.   The program hit its zenith around 1972, with nearly 2.5 million stamps sold (the price was increased to $3 per stamp).  Nowadays, about 1.5 million stamps are sold per year at $15 a piece. Over this time, over $670 million has been raised specifically for the purpose of migratory bird habitat protection and restoration.
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You are probably asking, "But how much of it was wasted?" Two percent.  That's right. 98% of Federal Waterfowl Stamp funds are used directly on the ground to build habitat for ducks, geese, swans, snipe, and other migratory birds.   Given the general ineffectiveness of so many other Federal programs, this is astonishing.  Even compare it to your favorite migratory bird nonprofit - Ducks Unlimited (88%), Delta Waterfowl (70% - not good), Quail Unlimited (83%), Waterfowl USA (does not participate in rating), or California Waterfowl Association (70% - ouch). Wow.  98% looks pretty good all of a sudden. And all this, from the mind of a cartoonist who probably never had more than a introductory biology course in college.
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There are a lot of great lessons here, including "buy a duck stamp," and "buy a second duck stamp for conservation."  But the most important one, perhaps, is that you needn't be the smartest biologist or even possess a high-value MBA in nonprofit management to make a meaningful contribution.  Don't let anyone, especially the older generations, tell you that it cannot be done.  It's more than "there's room at the table."  No.  We must have you at the table.  We need leaders for tomorrow to save habitat for wildlife and for people.  We need a thousand, or ten thousand, Ding Darlings.  Will you be one?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Getting to Know the Everglades, Part IV: Restoring the Everglades

Left - Historic Flow. Center - Present Flow. Right - Proposed "Restored" Flow
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In parts one, two, and three, as well as "The Real South Florida part one and part two, I've written quite a bit about human alterations to this part of the world.  I showed the above graphic (well, the left two panels) in a prior post, showing the actual damage to south Florida's natural hydrology.  Come to find out, the water management system (i.e. drain it all!) devised in 1890 does not meet human needs of 2010.  And of course, the ecosystem continues to suffer.  From 1948 to 2000, water usage and wetland drainage and fill were generally guided by the multi-agency Central & South Florida Project.  Its primary goals were to make sure that human needs for freshwater were met (and relatively sustainable) in south Florida.  By all accounts, it was successful at that purpose.   The cost was billions of dollars, a nearly ruined south Florida ecosystem, and a sudden realization that the whole operation was not as sustainable as they once hoped.
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So back to the diagram above.   A new Everglades Management Plan, called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), was conceived and completed as a "re-study" of the original 1948 study, to re-assess the human and ecosystem needs for water in South Florida.  It was implemented into law in 2000 as the Water Resources Development Act, which proposes to direct 80% of available freshwater toward wildlife and ecosystem uses (I'm fairly sure this includes outdoor recreation - just a hunch) and only 20% toward urban needs and agriculture.  While this has extensive ramifications for South Florida, it's worth mentioning that the 1948 goals were devoted to providing 100% of available freshwater to human uses, including outdoor recreation, urban water supply, and agriculture.  Any unneeded water would be summarily dumped out of the canal system into the coastal bays to minimize any flood risk.  .
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The next key question is: how do you get water moving through the Everglades - a place that is barely above sea level and has less than 1% grade across several dozen miles?  And now that all those canals are built and good water is being sent out to sea, how do you stop it? The answer lies in the fact that south Florida is only level on the surface.  
Image courtesy of USGS
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Imagine the above cross-section as south (left) to north (right).  You can kind of envision this pattern by looking at the first map in this post, which shows water generally moving south.  The canal systems built throughout south Florida were cut through coral rock when needed, and dredged through sand when needed.  Throughout the system, water control structures were established to divert any needed water for human use.  So how do we start with the restoration? Blow up the control structures!
Kissimmee River Structure #65B demolished, 2000 (image: Wikipedia). Original source: likely Dykon Blasting
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Well, all you eco-anarchists out there, prepare to be disappointed..........among CERP's 200 key projects for Everglades Restoration are several dozen new water control structures.  The hope is that our understanding of hydrology in 2010 (or 2000) is vastly superior to our knowledge in 1948.  "Hope" being the key word.  Water control structures can be used to replicate natural flooding and damming patterns (temporal and spatial) in nature, which generally lead to higher quality habitat.  

New water control structure, courtesy of Ducks Unlimited
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The words "can" and "hope" can together be pretty promising or pretty worrying, depending on your level of suspicion of government agencies.  In fact, several environmental groups are very worried that the new water control structures will not be monitored adequately to ensure that a full 80% of freshwater goes back to wildlife habitat areas. Ultimately, these structures are controlled by people and/or computers that are programmed by people.  People are responsive to politics and budgets.  These are the inherent issues with water control structures.
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But concrete and pipes aren't the only way that CERP proposes to heal the Everglades - and thank God for that.  Someone, at some point, realized that since the canals are not serving doing their intended purpose (to drain the Everglades for development), perhaps the wetlands and rivers that existed historically should be restored.  Novel concept.  One of CERP's first major "re-do's" was the "undoing" of the Kissimmee River Canal.  It was a significant undertaking.
Left: Restored Kissimmee Flow. Right: Straightened Kissimmee Channel (recently filled)
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There are a set of prevailing theories used by restoration ecologists (like myself) who advocate the filling of man-made canals.  First, the removal of the canal will (by default) cause water to flow more slowly through the area.  Second, this means that historic wetland habitats will be "recharged" by the more readily available water.  Third, this also means that groundwater aquifers are much more likely to be recharged by the water that flows through the area.  More groundwater means that less surface water will have to be pumped out for human use. So what about the thousands of smaller canals?
Picayune Stand Restoration (Canal Filling) - Image courtesy of Florida State Parks
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Yup.  They can be filled in, too.  Again, the theory is that water will arrive at these spots and then not be able to drain, which will cause historic wetlands to regenerate, since water should more evenly flow across the surface of the Everglades.  Any ecologist knows it's "not that simple" and that in reality, the habitat that appears "post filling" will not resemble what naturally occured 100 years ago.  While that is highly valid and important to mention, it's also worthwhile to mention that when it comes to water conservation, any wetland is more valuable than a drained wetland.  And what of this water gently, beautifully flowing across the Everglades?  What about the roadways and railways, now critical Florida infrastructure, which run across the 'Glades?  Yes - we have arrived at a momentously great and awful monument to Everglades restoration - the bridging of the Tamiami Trail.


Proposed Tamiami Bridge - Artist's Rendition
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The briding of the Tamiami Trail - a project currently mired somewhere between litigation and full-scale construction, has become an important symbol - of what becomes feasible when we realize how important it is to care for our water, and a symbol of how good intentions can be poorly timed and even wasteful.
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The goal of this project is to forever remove the "damming" effect that elevated causeways and roadways can have when water is attempting to sheetflow across a landscape.  Project planners know that this project will be critical to have in place once the major wetland restoration projects in the CERP are completed in 2025 or 2030.  However, this is an extremely expensive undertaking (the bridge itself) and given the current state of the American economy, there are some valid concerns that for the meantime, this is a "bridge to nowhere."  It's literally not needed.  Not right now.  Of course, when you have a list of 200 "key" projects, that logic could be applied to nearly any one project due to the fact that they are all, somehow, interrelated.
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In a lot of ways, this is pretty symbolic of the Everglades Restoration effort to date.  Money is being spent.  Incremental improvements are being made.  But it's highly questionable whether anyone in politics, industry, agriculture, or environmentalist or tribal organizations has the fortitude to stick it out and deal with the pricetag, which obviously is in the billions of dollars range already.   And this is truly a "sum of its parts" effort - if it's not completed, somehow, some day, we can all be certain that no one (except the status quo) will have won.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Adventures that Choose You

Hank, Unafraid
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I am still working through the bulk of Florida posts I'd like to share with you all.  It's a huge amount of material.  In the meantime, we've been back in Maryland for about 10 days and things are nearly out of control.  Last friday, the actual busiest day of my work year, came and went with only the tiniest of glitches.  It was overwhelming but okay.  Roan, our 14.5 year old lab-Chessie mix, is having a tough time.  It's been building and we've not been able to dedicate the time towards really comforting him. We made the decision to cancel our travel plans to the mountains for Christmas because we didn't think Roan would necessarily pull through at a kennel for 5, 6, 7 days.  And right now, with an extremely active 14-month old boy and the resultant lack of disposable time and cash, we can't afford any more crises.
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Which is exactly why our furnace finally fell apart.  It's been (I imagine) the coldest December on record here in the Mid-Atlantic - hunters are starting to panic that migrating birds will overshoot the Chesapeake Bay!  Our furnace, which is a coal boiler (1946) retrofitted for fuel oil around 1965, and at some point coated in a 2" thick foam of asbestos, has given up.  It's been in the 20s, and we don't have central heat right now.
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Amazingly, we were able to line up a loan for a new furnace ($6K - $10K total price), but now our time is being spent with the loan paperwork, numerous HVAC contractors with all different kind of systems to propose for installation, and most of whom claim, "Allmalife I been doin' this.  And here's the only way you can do it." Which is followed by a description of how they do their work.  Convenient.
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In the middle of this, I thank God that duck and goose season have been out.  I'm only half joking.  My brothers have been getting out and have been killing birds, which in some ways makes me feel better.  Weird.  But I also thank God for some good quality time I've had to spend with my wife and our son.  It seems like Hank goes faster and faster and faster every day, and some days, I don't even know what to do for him, because for 60 or 90 minutes at a time, it seems like he can do it all for himself.  Of course, then he poops himself or locks himself in a room by accident, and the illusion is over.
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I guess my most pertinent thought is that I always imagined that parenthood would involve trying to protect my child from the things he or she was scared of, challenged by, or things that had intimidated him or her.  Now that I'm doing it, it's painful some days to know so strongly in my heart that my job is to protect that little boy from all of the things that he is not afraid of.  Things he knows he can conquer.  Like concrete stairs, walking in the street, pit bulls, and walking down the beach into the roaring surf. 
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It is going to be an interesting 20+ years.  Which is probably how long it will take me to pay for the next furnace.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Beautiful Invaders of the Everglades

Midas Cichlid, from kidsfishing.org
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So based on my last post (really, last several posts), I think that we can agree that Florida's land and water have changed a lot in the last 120 years.  I mentioned how Florida's human population tripled in the 1960s, and then quadrupled again between 1970 and 2010.  And with all these people moving south and learning about Florida's amazing flora and fauna, you might think that they would revere, or at least enjoy, Florida's wildlife for what it was.  You'd be wrong.  Especially in South Florida.
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South Florida's wide open spaces, lax animal breeding regulations, and tropical climate have become a disastrous combination of factors for the plants and animals who originally evolved to survive in those swampes, marshes, prairies, and forests.  They've been replaced -in many cases, quite intentionally - by more attractive, more aggressive species from China, South America, and even Africa.  There are hundreds of species of animals released intentionally by importers, breeders, and pet owners who had no business living in the Everglades.  In most areas of North America, the majority of these imported critters would die within the first hard winter. South Florida has no, or few, harsh winters.  The survivors multiply and begin competing with the natives for food and habitat. 
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A great example is the Midas Cichlid, shown above. A native of Central American lakes, the Midas Cichlid was discovered in drainage canals on the edge of the Everglades in the 1980s, according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission. These three pound fish are aggressive and compete with native freshwater fish for food. In fact, Midas Cichlids and Oscars (below) became so prolific and had such damage on juvenile sportfish that the FWC introduced another invasive species, peacock bass, to control the spread of the first two. 

The Oscar - A Freshwater Aquarium Classic and an Everglades Nuisance
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You have probably seen an Oscar.  There's a logical progession with (household) aquarium owners, especially college-age aquarium owners.  In an effort to witness more and more displays of fish behavior (instead of casually swimming around), the freshwater fish enthusiast gradually buys more and more aggressive fish.  One of the culminations of this scale is the Oscar, a South American cichlid.  I was shocked to see Oscars swimming among the alligators in the canals of the Everglades! How did they become wild and invasive? Well, that's the thing about Oscars.  They get really, really big and mean.  And then their owners release them.  As I mentioned, this is not a problem in northern states because cold water will obviously kill them.  The canal water in the Everglades will not. 
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I'm sad to say that it's not just fish who have invaded the Everglades.  Other beautiful, awful animals have arrived.

Veiled chameleon
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This beautiful lizard, the veiled chameleon, is an absolute menace to South Florida's birds.  Why? Florida birds are not evolutionarily equipped to recognize and avoid this native of Saudi Arabia.........and this lizard is insatiable. A collection of them was released on a rural vacant lot in Southwest Florida in the last several years, and while hundreds of chameleons have been collected in the area, FWC suspects that many more have moved into the surrounding savannah habitat on the west side of the Everglades. Not good.  Which brings us to the king of Everglades invaders:

Burmese Python - USFWS
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If you watch "Python Wars" on the National Geographic Explorer channel, then you already know all of this....sorry!  During 1992's Hurricane Andrew, several south Florida reptile breeders lost their facilities to wind and flooding.  Over time, most of the bizarre amphibians and reptiles were found, dead or alive.  Among the missing for nearly a decade....the Burmese Python, Ball Python, and Nile Monitor Lizard.  Big freakin' reptiles.  In 2000, two Burmese were captured.  In 2001, three were captured.  Since 2007, at least 250 per year have been captured in the Everglades.  These snakes are wreaking havoc on Everglades birds, and reproduce prolifically.
Ranger and burmese python - NPS

A lot of people are asking why the National Park Service has been so slow to mobilize resources to control these species, especially the Burmese Python. I don't have an answer for that question, and since I wasn't in Florida to be a part of that process, I can't even accurately state why things happened the way the did, at the speed they did.  The fact is, these species and dozens of others (including plants) are now part of the Everglades ecosystem.  In many cases, there's just no going back.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Getting to Know the Everglades, Part II - Drain It!


Map by Florida Division of Forestry
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It's December. Rain and snow are descending upon much of the United States.  And yet the bulk of Florida - notably - the flooded, swampy Everglades - are in a drought.  How is that possible? 
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I thought that answering this question next would tell you as much about the Everglades as it told me, as I started looking into it a few months ago.  We've all heard stories about how Florida (and the Everglades) is full of drained swamps. And that old anecdote about "I've got some swampland in Florida to sell you."  And we'll get into all of that in this post.  But let's start with a little diagram that shows how the surface water hydrology, which greatly affects soil saturation, and thus, drought, has been altered in the last 130 years.  The map on the left shows the 25 million-year old drainage pattern through south Florida.  The map on the right shows how south Florida currently drains.

You don't have to be a hydrologist - and I'm not - to know that this scale of alteration is likely to cause problems that range from soil salinization to sinkholes to sedimentation. And of course, lots of drought.  Asking "how did it get this way" should really be phrased as "Who did this, and why?"  The answer is not complicated, but is still pretty unbelievable, and it should be no surprise that it wasn't done by the first people who came to south Florida.

Big Cypress Seminole Reservation
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While there's a surprisingly exhaustive history (and diverse list) of prehistoric peoples in south Florida over the last 15,000 years, a dominant group was the Calusa Indians.  Their diet was heavily based on the small game (fish, turtles, birds) so prevalent in the 'Glades.  Both the Calusa and Tequesta people were basically eradicated by 1750, thanks to the Spanish colonists.  The Seminole arrived in the Everglades in the mid-1800s, after being gradually chased south through Florida by the expansionist American government.   The Seminole and a related group, the Miccosukee, both acquired Federal recognition in the late 1900s and both have Reservation lands in the Everglades.
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In the meantime, however, the Everglades' first serious threat, the railroad, had arrived.
One of Flagler's many rail bridges through south Florida
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Henry Flagler, known as the "Father of Miami," was a business partner of Rockefeller's. In 1885, Flagler began investing in property and hotels on the east coast of Florida, which lacked a dependable transportation system.  Enter the Flagler Railroad, later the Florida East Coast Railroad, which was completed down to West Palm Beach in 1895, to Miami in 1896 (where he was given tens of thousands of acres of swampland in exchange for completing the railroad), and to Key West (as the Florida Overseas Railroad) in 1912. Why Key West?  The Panama Canal had been under construction since 1904.  Key West was the last deepwater port en route.  To achieve this frankly amazing vision of transportation, Florida ponied up cheap (and sometimes free) land to entice Flagler and his partners.  Of course, they saw it - especially the marshes surrounding West Palm and Miami - as an easy investment.  So they tried to drain it. 


Swamps are drained by canals built to pull seasonal high water out to sea.  The soil and coral rock from the canals was used to build elevated roadways and railroad beds

Now, all that Flagler (who passed away in 1913), and eventually his proteges, had to do was market the land to Americans who had never seen Florida.  From 1919 to 1925, land barons marketed the drained swamps and marshes as "tropical paradise" that was "almost too easy to farm."  The land was free to farmers, and the farmers came.   These same land barons published manuals and brochures on how to do it!

Farming must be easy!
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Everyone was getting something.  Farmers were getting free or nearly-free land.  Towns and the state of Florida were getting taxes and municipal income from real estate purchased and other taxes (regardless of a property's true worth to farming, development, or any other use).  The shipping magnates were making millions of dollars exporting raw goods from Florida, and "life's creature comforts" to new Floridians.  What could go wrong?

Cartoon from Florida State Archives, 1916
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As many development schemes before it and after it have done, Florida's 1920s boom of swamp-draining, swamp-filling, deforestation, and urban sprawl eventually outgrew the human infrastructure it needed to survive.  Shipping costs rose dramatically in 1925, hurricanes blasted south Florida in 1926 and 1928, and the bottom fell out of the stock market in 1929.  Surely, farming and suburban sprawl in south Florida were dead. Right?


Sugar cane farming in drained wetlands next to Lake Okechobee
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You see, during the Great Depression, price supports were put in place for American-grown sugar and many other crops.  In the case of most other crops, these subsidies were eventually abandoned, or modernized into Farm/Food Safety Bills in Congress.  Florida's sugar industry, still retains the basic structure of their Federal subsidy from the 1930s.  Let me lay this out for you.  The sugar farmers (including "farmers" like US Sugar, who owns a whopping 187,000 acres of sugar cane) get price support through tariffs on imported sugar.  In many cases, they also did not pay much or any money for their land, receive Federal subsidies for irrigation, and receive Federal and state assistance to keep the land - historic wetlands - drained for agricultural purposes. 
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There's a plan in place to restore much of this acreage to wetlands, but of course the sugar companies want the state of Florida to pay them to leave - to the tune of $5,000 per acre.  The entire industry buyout would be about $2.5 billion.  And to make sure that these deals stand, the sugar industry has spent $32 million on lobbying and political contributions in the last 20 years.  It's almost like they know they've been getting something for free - at the expense of south Florida's wetlands.   But I would be lying if I said that artificially inflated commodity prices have been the only great menace to the Everglades and its water supply since the Great Depression.  Development came back.  Big time.  


Beautiful suburban sprawl like this resulted from massive flood control projects like the Herbert Hoover Dike (completed 1937), which kept water from leaving Lake Okechobee and entering the Everglades, and the Southern Florida Flood Control project, which constructed over 1,200 miles of wetland drainage canals in the 1960s, the result of which can be seen in the drainage map near the top of this post.  Florida's population quadrupled in the 1960s.  Isn't that an amazing figure? It has tripled again since then.  While the demand for housing in much of Florida is currently waning, it will increase again.  What kind of decisions will be made about the value of the Everglades and the marginal lands that surround it?  I hope that history is not an indicator. 
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Despite all of these problems and massive alterations to the Everglades' drainage, vegetation, and ecosystem, help is slowly arriving.  And you'd be surprised what it looks like:


More on that next time.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Getting to Know the Everglades, Part I

View of a non-Everglades cypress swamp from TreePittsburgh.com
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Sometimes, it's hard to explain your own - or my own (the topic here) - ignorance.  Recently, re: Florida, I tried to explain it here and here.  Let's discuss it some more!
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I am a wetland biologist, a hunter, and a fisherman.  I know more about swamps, bogs, glades, and marshes than most people, and sadly, many wetland biologists, will ever know.  I love wetlands, and I've studied them diligently.  So why in the hell did I think that the Everglades would look like the big cypress swamps elsewhere in the Southeast (thinking of the Dismal Swamp and Okefenokee)?  When my father in-law recently took me to see the Everglades, where he grew up hunting, I already envisioned writing some blog posts entitled "The Real Everglades."  Come to find out, I know so little about the place and its ecology, history, and people, that I can't comment accurately on the "real Everglades."  Humbling but very exciting.  So what do the "Real Everglades" look like, at least? Here's one fairly representative view:
Southern edge of the sawgrass prairie, looking (south) into the northern edge of the Mangroves
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Hope you're getting a good laugh at the difference between that photo and the photo of the cypress swamp. Here's a NASA infrared image of the region's vegetation. Obviously that's the Gulf of Mexico to the southwest, and Lake Okechobee to the north.  The bright green signatures (not in the water) are trees. The pinkish-white is concrete, asphalt, gravel, or roofs. Squares are obviously farms. The rest of the vegetation is either dry or wet scrub or prairie. Lots - I mean lots - of wide open space. To my credit, there was historically a gigantic cypress swamp, between Lake Okefenokee and West Palm Beach on the east coast.  Obviously, this has mostly been destroyed and filled, however, a nice sized chunk of real cypress swamp still exists in JW Corbett WMA.  I hope to see it one day!


It is truly a massive area, primarily under control by the National Park Service in two holdings: Everglades National Park (established in 1947) and Big Cypress National Preserve, established in 1974. Additional state wildlife management areas and state forests skirt the Federal properties.  Such massive Federal holdings have not come without controversy, which I'll discuss in a later post.  For now, let's take a very basic look at the lay of the land (and water), mainly from north to south.


To the north and west of the Everglades, and trickling down into Big Cypress, you cannot escape the Pine Savannah / Cabbage Palm Savannah habitats.  These habitats are fire-prone and dry during the summer and fall, and I suspect have been the primary victims of suburban sprawl in Southwest Florida (due to iffy protection as marginal wetlands).  Where the underground is allowed to burn or is intentionally burned, as it is in Myakka State Forest (north and west of the 'Glades, technically), enormous habitat value for quail and other ground-nesting birds exist.  I imagine that unburned savannah probably creates equally great habitat for reptiles.  The picture above is very much what South Florida looked like in 1900.


Let's get this out of the way.  Yes, there are alligators.  Yes, we saw a lot of them.  Yes, they are much bigger than they are in coastal NC, SC, and GA.


As you move south (and lower in grade) into Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades proper, you can see actual cypress trees.  Again, note (with humor) how this picture differs from the picture at the beginning of this post (my mental image of the Everglades).   Cypress, oak, and pine trees generally only exist on elevated sand strands and islands called hammocks or hummocks, depending on where you're from and who taught you wetland ecology.  I envision them as sand bars or clay strands resulting from the natural drainage of the Everglades leading up to the last ice age.  But my record of guesses and visions on the Everglades has been really poor so far - so please don't take my word for it until I can do a little more reading!

A slough within the sawgrass prairie, or "glade"
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Finally - the namesake (the Glade) of the Everglades - a large treeless wetland surrounded by trees.  There are a variety of prairie types, featuring different soils, hydrology, and vegetation, and I'm just starting to learn them.  The most famous of them all, although I don't yet know if it's the most dominant in the Everglades, is the Sawgrass Prairie. Sawgrass is actually not a grass at all, but is a wetland sedge with pretty nasty blades on it.  The wet prairie is an amazingly valuable habitat to wintering migratory birds. 


These are the first sandhill cranes I have ever seen in the wild - we floated past in an airboat.  I'm not sure whether it's the commonly hunted sandhill crane, or the highly endangered Florida sandhill crane.  Regardless, a huge treat!  We also saw ridiculous numbers of shorebirds, incomprehensible numbers of wading birds, quite a few teal, and some coots and mottled ducks.  All feeding in the wet prairie.  As we move south, the bands of cypress trees give way to entirely wet prairie and sloughs (where the turtles, fish, alligators, and wading birds hang out), and some of those sloughs actually begin showing drainage features to the south (others are connected via drainage canals to the east and west - a separate topic!).  Since the Everglades are already so close to sea level, it's not long before you can see the northern edge of tidal influence....and the mangroves.

I have dreamed about kayaking and fishing the Florida mangroves for years.  It (for a change) was just as I imagined it.  Although it was a bit shallower than I imagined!  There are three species of mangrove trees in Florida - red (dominant), white, and black.  They are very, very aggressive plants and tend to choke out man-made waterways. As a result, this habitat has been about the most successful at restoring itself once it has been left alone.  As you can see from the satellite image, it's not long (in miles) before the mangroves become salty and then give way altogether to the shallow reefs of the Gulf of Mexico.
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I hope this is the beginning of some exciting exploration in South Florida, and I can honestly say that, whatever you think about the Everglades, you can't even imagine it from your couch.  Go see it.