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The Lake that Left Town

One of California’s largest lakes is receding, causing the town around it to dwindle. Is climate change to blame?

Val Aubrey parked her boat trailer on the shore of Eagle Lake, in northeastern California. She walked to an overlook where a sign warned against swimming and diving. “This” — she opened her arms wide — “used to be the marina.”

photo of Eagle Lakephoto by Don BarretEagle lake has fallen 15 feet since 1999. What used to be the waterfront is now a meadow. 

Down below, docks sat among nettles and thistles growing on what used to be the lakebed. The boat ramp led to sunbaked dirt, and squirrels skittered across the concrete.

“They put a tombstone right in the middle of it,” said Aubrey, pointing into the undergrowth. Sure enough, a small Halloween decoration had been erected in the former harbor.

One of the largest natural lakes in the state, Eagle Lake is a shock of blue amid a tawny, isolated upland. But it has fallen around 15 feet since 1999, a decline thought to have been exacerbated by climate change.

The main lakeside community of Spalding, a 30-minute drive north of the marina, is dotted with “for sale” signs, and its tidy streets are empty. The waterfront is now a meadow, and the lake has receded to a thin strip in the distance, like an alluring mirage.

There are no longer any restaurants, and the general store is shuttered. Adding to the air of misfortune, dozens of the wells that supply residents with water have gone dry, necessitating deeper ones.

The hardships facing the lake stand in contrast to its reputation as a fishery. According to the outdoors writer Tom Stienstra, “It was among the most prized lakes in America.”

Its main attraction is the indigenous Eagle Lake rainbow trout, whose salmon-colored meat is said to be uncommonly delicious. Anglers continue to land big, healthy fish. But half as many of them are visiting, in part because only one boat ramp on the entire, 13-mile-long lake is still operational.

“Gimme water, lord,” said Aubrey, a 56-year-old with a sea-dog vibe and a cigarette crackle in her voice. “I think that’s the thought of everyone round here.”

In the shadow of the disused marina, she backed her trailer down the ramp and into the glassy shallows as chub minnows darted away. There was a thump as the wheels dropped onto the mud at the end, a sign of how close the structure is to being unusable. Aubrey undid some clips, and her 19-footer, Dream Catcher, floated onto …more

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A Refuge in the Mountains

Great Smoky Mountain National Park creates space for wildness, adventure, and imagination

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

When I think of the Smoky Mountains, I think of refuge.

I grew up in the foothills, on a tributary of the French Broad River in Tennessee, in an old farming community. My great-grandmother grew up on the other side of the river a hundred years before me.  It’s a fertile valley. Before her, the Cherokee farmed the river plains here, too — it has been a tamed and cultivated land far back into history. Though we had woods and wild critters and briars and space to roam, and the coyotes howled and owls hoo-hoo-ed at night, it was also a land of cleared fields and pastures, crops planted in rows. A land of fences, property lines, and NO TRESPASSING signs. A land of boundaries, barbed wire snagging the pants.

In the distance, the mountains stood. The sight of them snagged my mind. Blue, shrouded in the “smoky” mist that gives them their name; it was as if they were floating.

photo of Great Smoky Mountain National Parkphoto by Matthew PaulsonThe Smoky Mountains are named for the blue mist that often surrounds them.

Wholeness, no fences, stretching for a half million acres — as a child, I sensed that it would take a lifetime to walk those mountains, to get to know every nook and cranny, ridge and valley. The Smokies were a refuge for my dreams of freedom, of unimpeded rambling, adventure, and of the faraway that was contained within the nearby, a refuge for magic, for wildness, for the imagination.

Wilderness is like that. It seems to have more space and time within it, which means a different experience of being on Earth can be had. It opens up alternate realities. Early on, then, I understood the value and importance of our public lands: refuge for the wild inside us, for the possibility of remembering this planet’s essential nature, a reminder of how the time-space continuum could be bent, or occupied in other ways. A sanctuary for an against-the-grain narrative, some other story that doesn’t emphasize linear “progress” but rather circular time, continually transforming and transformative. The richness of quiet and rotting logs. Refuge for a different value system.

The Smokies also provide refuge for the ancient trees — the park contains the largest stand of old-growths east of the Mississippi and the largest block of virgin red spruce …more

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Long-Studied Alaskan Wolf Pack May Be Dead After Years of Aggressive Hunting

East Fork wolf pack, found near Denali, was first researched in the 1930s

The world’s longest-studied wolf pack may have been wiped out, wildlife officials fear amid an escalating battle between federal and state authorities in Alaska over the aggressive hunting of predators such as wolves and bears.

photo of Denali Wolfphoto by Denali National Park and PreserveThe East Fork wolf pack, the longest-studied in the world, may have been wiped out.

The East Fork wolf pack, found near Denali, North America’s tallest mountain, was first researched in the 1930s and provided the first detailed accounts of wolf behavior and ecology. But years of hunting, trapping and habitat disturbance reduced numbers to just one known female, a male and two pups earlier this year. It’s now believed all may have perished.

Bridget Borg, a biologist at the National Park Service, said that the body of the radio collared male wolf was seen at a hunting camp and there appears to be no sign of the female nor pups.

“We investigated a den site after,” Borg told Alaska Public Media. “There was clear evidence it was not being used as evidenced by vegetation that was growing around the entrance to the den site.”

Three of the four pack members fitted with tracking collars have now been killed by hunters in the past year. The possible demise of the entire pack, which was once a common sight for visitors entering Denali, also America’s largest national park, is likely to heighten criticism of Alaska’s intensive hunting of its largest predators.

On Friday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that hunters will not be allowed to conduct “predator control” in Alaska’s vast national refuges unless there are exceptional circumstances. National wildlife refuges span more than 73 million acres of Alaska, including the 20 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — the largest land-based protected area in the US.

The move prohibits controversial practices such as the killing of bear cubs or their mothers, bear baiting and the targeting of wolves and coyotes during the spring and summer denning season. The shooting of bears from a plane or helicopter will also be restricted. However, subsistence hunting by indigenous communities will still be allowed.

Alaska reinforced the trapping and shooting of predator animals after the Republican senator Frank Murkowski was elected as governor in 2002.

His successors, including Sarah Palin, have all supported a policy of “intensive management” that removes wolves and bears …more

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India’s First Fully-Organic State Faces Many Challenges to Maintaining its Status

It’s too early to hail Sikkim’s transition to chemicals-free agriculture an outright success, say observers

Sikkim, the picturesque northeastern Indian state in the eastern Himalayas, announced in January that it had transitioned completely to organic agriculture — the first state in the South Asian nation to do so.

photo of Sikkim Farmphoto by Amol HatwarSikkim's shift to organic agriculture was helped by the fact that it has far less cultivable land compared to other agricultural states in India.

The process of shifting to organic agriculture was initiated by the state government 13 years ago when it launched the Sikkim Organic Mission. Sikkim had a leg up in this regard, given that farmers in this difficult terrain were already pursuing traditional farming with minimal use of chemical fertilizers and the fact that the state has far less cultivable land — about 76,000 acres — compared to other agricultural states in India. Taking the required measures to get certified as organic farmers was a logical step for Sikkim’s farmers, state officials say.

“It was a matter of patience, but thankfully we ultimately achieved the status of 100 per cent organic farming with the completion of organic certification of all agricultural land in Sikkim,” says Dr. S. Anbalagan, the executive director of Sikkim Organic Mission.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the news  saying: “If the experiment succeeds, farmers in other places will follow it on their own. Farmers may not be influenced by any amount of lectures by scientists; for them, seeing is believing.”     


But does this euphoria match the ground reality in Sikkim? Many agricultural experts say that a lot more needs to be done before agriculutral practices in this mountain state can be held up as a role model for the rest of India where rampant use of pesticides and fertilizers has become a serious issue. While Sikkim deserves to be commended for deciding to go organic, the effort hasn’t paid much attention to production side of things, says G. V. Ramanjaneyulu, agricultural scientist with the Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture,

Sikkim, he points out, has long been a food-deficient state. Existing food production there meets only 30 percent of the local population’s dietary needs. The rest has to be imported from neighboring states.

Rajeswari Sarala Raina, senior scientist at the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies agrees. In making plans for organic agriculture, the leaders in Sikkim seem to have avoided discussions on two major issues — food self-sufficiency and nutritious food for all Sikkimese, she says.

“For a state to …more

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Going Zero Waste

A family in France produces just 11 pounds of trash per person every year

The Poirier family, who lives near Nantes, consists of a mom, a dad, three kids, a cat and... very little trash. Claire, Emmanuel, Matthias, Elsa and Jade generate eleven pounds of waste per head each year. This is almost 50 times less than what ends up in the garbage cans of the average Frenchman!

Photo of Zero Waste familyPhoto by Bastamag Claire Poirier shops with her own containers and tote bags.

Everything began six years ago. “Back then, our income plummeted,” Claire tells us. “My husband was laid off and then found a job that paid only a third of what he’d made before. I decided to take parental leave to take care of our two daughters.” For a family that was not used to tracking their expenditures, it was an adjustment. First, the Poiriers turned to the lowest-price items at supermarkets and discount stores, but that did not work well for them. “We found that canned food was of poor quality, the products were too fatty,” Claire remembers.

Eating well for less

“So we thought about it and decided to try something different. We are lucky to live in the countryside, in a village that had a local farmers’ association that sells organic produce at a reasonable price. We liked the fact that we were supporting a local farmer.”

As the Poiriers switched to local and organic produce, their community imposed a new tax designed to reduce household waste. “You pay by volume,” Claire explains. “This got us thinking about the waste we generate.” In order not to exceed twelve 48-gallon bins (180-liter bins) annually, the cheapest garbage pick-up option offered by the community, the family reorganized their house a little bit. “To optimize our triage, we put the compost bin underneath the sink and arranged the trash cans to make them more accessible so that we could really sort each trash item.”

Shopping with Mason jars and tote bags Claire and her little team dropped down to 44 pounds of waste per head annually, while the national average amounts to over 500 pounds of trash! But the young woman was determined to do even better. She did some research and stumbled upon a book by Béa Johnson, Zero Waste Home. The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste! In this book, a Frenchwoman living in the United States with her family tells how she managed to significantly reduce her everyday trash. Today, the annual waste of …more

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SeaWorld Drops Lawsuit Against CA Coastal Commission Over Breeding Ban

Move spells an end to captive orca breeding in California

Last week SeaWorld dropped a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission that challenged the agency’s right to impose a ban on breeding killer whales in exchange for approving the expansion of SeaWorld San Diego’s orca tank.

photo of SeaWorldphoto by Tammy LoSeaWorld has dropped a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission challenging the agency's right to impose a ban on breeding orcas.

SeaWorld has since dropped the expansion plan, and in March it had announced that it would no longer breed its captive orcas in any of its three parks in the US. But for some reason it had persisted with the lawsuit, until July 27, when it asked the court to dismiss the case at the last minute before the court could approve Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project’s (IMMP) motion to intervene in the case.

SeaWorld’s CEO Joel Manby stated that the move by the Coastal Commission to ban breeding captive orcas was the point at which he made the decision to end breeding voluntarily in all SeaWorld parks. SeaWorld owns 24 orcas — the largest number of orcas held captive by any outfit in the world. Given that the marine mammal theme park has already agreed to end using dolphins and orcas captured in the wild, this announcement means that once the captive orcas at SeaWorld are no longer around — probably over the next 30 years or so — it will no longer have any captive orcas.

“This finally closes the chapter on captive orca breeding in California,” Coastal Commission Vice Chair Dayna Bochco told The Los Angeles Times. (Bocho was the one who had proposed the breeding ban precondition.)

SeaWorld has faced mounting public pressure in recent years, especially since the 2013 release of Blackfish, a popular documentary criticizing SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas. The film sparked public outrage, led to a precipitous drop in attendance, and affected company profits.

SeaWorld has also faced several lawsuits, including one developed by IMMP, arguing that it has misled the public about the health and wellbeing of captive orcas. 

While the company’s withdrawal of the lawsuit against the Coastal Commission is welcome news, it should be made clear that SeaWorld’s announcement of an end to breeding orcas does not go far enough. 

There are two major weaknesses in SeaWorld’s actions: One is that SeaWorld will continue to hold its 24 captive orcas, including young ones, in small concrete tanks for the rest of their lives. 

IMMP, marine mammal …more

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A Park That Makes Room for Wildlife, Farms, and Cities

Canada’s Rouge National Urban Park embraces a diversity of landscapes

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

A valley with 10,000 years of human history is evolving into Canada’s first national urban park, with urban being the operative word. Rouge National Urban Park (RNUP), which was established in 2015 and spans 79 square kilometers — 22 times the size of New York’s Central Park — is spreading its roots in Canada’s largest and most culturally diverse metropolitan area, the Greater Toronto Area, making it one of the largest urban parks in the world. 

The park includes a wide diversity of landscapes, including land in Toronto, Markham, and Pickering, and some 75 working farms. Twenty percent of Canadians live within an hour’s drive from the park.

Environmentalists had been pushing for the establishment of the park for decades in order to protect the Rouge River Valley ecosystem, which lies within Canada’s endangered Carolinian Life Zone and is home to fragile forest and wetland areas, and more than 1,700 species of plants and animals. The river and valley ecosystem, which is encircled by more than 100 square kilometers of publicly owned Greenbelt lands, lies right next to one of Canada's most-urbanized areas.

photo of Rouge parkphoto by Michael SwanRNUP is Canada's first urban national park.

Human presence in this ecosystem dates back tens of thousands of years, beginning with aboriginal hunters and farmers, explorers, traders, surveyors, and finally European settlers. More than 1,360 archaeological and heritage sites located within the watershed as well as historical accounts reveal the watershed area is rich in heritage value.

The rich environmental and cultural significance of Rouge Valley made it a prime candidate for protection. But due to its unique make-up, the process of establishing the park has been tricky and has, in some instances, pit environmentalists against farmers.

To accommodate a variety of land uses, Parks Canada, the country’s national parks agency, has recognized three distinct areas within the park – park areas, agricultural areas, and infrastructure and built assets – and uses a different management approach for each.

Many in the environmental community have raised concerns about the level of ecological protections in the Rouge, pointing out that environmental protections in the urban park are weaker than in other Canadian national parks, and that as a result, RNUP fails to meet the international definition of a protected area.

In June this year, however, the Canadian government proposed amendments to the …more

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