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Can Uplifting Stories Get People to Care More about Nature?

Storytelling project showcases the rediscovery of species thought to be long extinct

Nature doesn’t make the news often these days. When it does, the story usually revolves around wildlife on the brink, record-setting climate extremes or ruined landscapes. However, that is not the whole story. There is also good news, but it often receives little attention.

photo of Pinocchio anole lizard Photo by Javier Ábalos Alvarez, Flickr The Pinocchio anole lizard was first described in Ecuador in 1953, then believed to have become extinct until it was rediscovered in 2005.

It is easy to see how bleak accounts of the state of the planet can overwhelm people and make them feel hopeless. What is the point of even trying if the world is going down the drain anyway?

To muster public and political support on a scale that matches our environmental challenges, research shows that negative messaging is not the most effective way forward. As a conservation scientist and social marketer, I believe that to make the environment a mainstream concern, conservation discussions should focus less on difficulties. Instead we should highlight the growing list of examples where conservation efforts have benefited species, ecosystems and people living alongside them.

The power of positive messages

This question is not new. Professionals in many fields have to consider how to frame their messages to maximize their impact. For example, public health agencies can make positive recommendations that emphasize benefits of being disease-free, or use negative messages that focus on the consequences of disease. A 2008 meta-analysis of 60 health communication studies concluded that messages focused on loss were less likely to be effective than positive messages.

Another study examined ads designed to persuade income support recipients to report their incomes. It concluded that messages focused on fear, shame or guilt could generate emotional backlash, in which people rationalized decisions to protect themselves from feeling ashamed of their behavior. This approach also caused emotional saturation that led people to “switch off” from the message because of its negativity.

Environmental advocates also confront this challenge. Much discussion has centered on the issue of climate change, where a number of scholars and advocates assert that doom-and-gloom messaging has not been effective. Yet until recently, we have not asked the same question about how we frame nature conservation.

Lost and found species

Today a growing number of scholars and activists are working to create a positive vision for protecting wildlife and wild places. One key effort started in 2014 with …more

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Prairie Chickens Reunite a Nebraska Ranch Family

Bird-watching tours help preserve vital habitat while supplementing family income

Life in the Nebraska Sandhills offers a remoteness not often found in the Lower 48. For Sandhill ranchers, the closest traffic signal can be 50 miles away. Their first-grader may ride the bus ninety minutes to school — one way. Six or eight-player football is common because there are more cows than kids, and getting groceries can take a full day.

But for Sarah Sortum (nee Switzer) the Sandhill prairies are home. And after graduating from university and starting a family in northern Colorado, by 2006 she wanted to move back to the family cattle ranch. Sortum wanted her kids to share her connection to the land.

photo of greater prairie chickenPhoto by Greg Kramos/USFWSThe greater prairie chicken, which is native to the mid-western US and faces threats from habitat loss and fragmentation, has helped reunite the Switzer family in the Nebraska Sanhills.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t just pack up and move home: The 12,000-acre Switzer ranch could not support her parents, her brother’s family, and her own. Sortum’s brother Adam made his move back to the ranch in 2000, starting Calamus Outfitters to generate income for his family. He converted a vacant home to a lodge, initially focusing on attracting hunters. He expanded to offer activities for outdoor enthusiasts, like floating and paddling down the Calamus River, which runs through the ranch.

A decade ago, while watching a sunset, a guest commented to Sortum’s brother and his parents how wonderful the ranch was, but added that it would be great if they had prairie chickens, and even better if they had sharp-tailed grouse. That simple comment changed the direction of the Switzer ranch and provided a way for Sortum to bring her family home.

The Switzers did in fact have greater prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse on their land.  It just hadn’t occurred to the family that the birds would be an attraction. The guest told them people would pay to see them, though the family was doubtful.

But eager to return home, Sortum and her family decided to link their future to bird-watching tourism. Convincing her parents to add bird tours to a cattle ranch wasn’t hard. “They wanted us to come back so bad, they were willing to think out of the box. It was a leap of faith for all of us. We were really nervous,” recalls Sortum.

In 2007, Calamus Outfitters offered its first prairie chicken tours of leks or booming grounds — mating …more

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Trump Aides Postpone Meeting as Clashes Over Paris Climate Deal Continue

President promises decision on US involvement before G7 summit, but the debate reveals deep divisions within his core team

Donald Trump’s advisers have postponed another meeting on whether the US should remain in the Paris climate agreement, amid growing nervousness from businesses and other countries over a potential withdrawal.

photo of Donald Trump and IvankaPhoto by NASA HQ PHOTO, Flickr There are deep divisions within the Trump administration about whether the US should remain in the Paris climate agreement.

A gathering of Trump’s top advisers was set to take place on Tuesday but has been postponed due to scheduling conflicts, as the administration attempts to come to a decision on the international climate deal.

The unusually public internal debate over the future of the deal has shown deep divisions within Trump’s administration as to whether to ditch the pact, which was struck in 2015 when nearly 200 nations agreed to curb their greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate change.

Trump, who promised to “cancel” the agreement during the presidential election campaign, has said there will be a “big decision” on the accord ahead of a G7 meeting of nations later this month in Sicily. The president is reportedly leaning towards exiting the agreement, although he may still decide to downgrade America’s involvement rather than end it completely.

Different factions in Trump’s orbit have clashed over whether the US should pull out. Steve Bannon, Trump’s top strategist, favors withdrawal, as does Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, who has called it a “bad business deal for this country.” Rick Perry, the energy secretary, said last month “we probably need to renegotiate” the agreement.

Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and Trump’s family members and advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, are understood to favor remaining in the deal. Ivanka Trump is set to meet separately with Pruitt on Tuesday to discuss the Paris pact and according to AP has been handed the task of reviewing US climate policy.

Discussions have become somewhat bogged in a legal debate over whether the US could downgrade its emissions reduction goals. Barack Obama’s administration set a target of a 26-28 percent reduction in emissions by 2025, based in 2005 levels.

The Paris agreement states “a party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition.” Pro-exit elements in the administration have argued that this text would make it hard to cut the US’s emissions reduction target …more

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Is Your Tap Water Safe to Drink?

One in four Americans is drinking water that doesn’t meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards, new report finds

Many Americans drink water straight from the tap. But maybe it’s time to rethink doing that. Our drinking water supply may not be as safe was we think. A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found nearly 77 million Americans are served by community water systems that had one or more violations under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015.

photo of water glassPhoto by Larry Vincent Research by the NRDC estimates that 77 million Americans are served by water systems that had at least one Safe Water Drinking Act violation in 2015.

The report estimates that 19.5 million Americans get sick each year from drinking water contaminated with pathogens. Estimates of “cancers, reproductive and neurological diseases, or other serious chronic health problems caused by contaminated tap water” remain unknown. (Read our special Teflon’s Toxic Legacy, to learn more about how contaminated water can pose serious health issues and even death.)

The top 12 states with the most violations were (in alphabetical order) — Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.

The Safe Drinking Water Act mandates that water providers follow certain protocols to test drinking water and report the results to their customers, state government, and the US Environmental Protection Agency. But violations of the Act are rampant across the country, and the EPA does not have the resources to properly address these violations.

Violations fall largely in two categories. Health-based violations — which occur when there is a failure to properly treat water for pathogens and other contaminants; and reporting violations — when water providers fail to monitor and test drinking water quality, neglect to follow proper water testing protocols, or don’t report results to their customers, the state, and the EPA. The NRDC report found an average of eight in ten health-based violations faced no formal action from the EPA, and only 13.1 percent of reporting violations were investigated by the EPA, and of those, only 3 percent received penalties.

This suggests a culture where violations go largely underreported and unpunished, leaving Americans extremely vulnerable. With EPA funding set to drop to its lowest levels ever under a budget proposed by the Trump administration, the agency may soon have even less bandwidth to properly address these violations.

Additionally, under the Act, the EPA is required to classify contaminants — defined as “any physical, chemical, biological, or …more

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Injured Birds of Prey Find a Caring Home in Kenya

Rehabilitation center lends a helping hand to owls and eagles, raises awareness about oft-overlooked raptors

In 2003, a barn own with a severely damaged wing was brought to the attention of Sarah Higgins, an environmentalist living by Lake Naivasha in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. The owl had been brought to the vet but the wing did not heal correctly, which meant the bird could not be returned to the wild. So she built an owlery in her garden and named the owl Fulstop. Thus began the Naivasha Owl Center, one of only two places in Kenya that rehabilitate sick and injured birds of prey. Today, the Center is licensed for avian care by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the government agency that manages the country’s wildlife, and Higgins is an honorary KWS warden.

photo of Klamath MountainsPhoto courtesy of Naivasha Owl Centre Falconry techniques are used to rehabilitate raptors at the Naivasha Owl Centre, one of only two such centers in Kenya that treat birds of prey.

Birds come to the center after sustaining injuries in the wild or because of harmful interactions in populated areas. Three young spotted eagle owls — called Snap, Crackle, and Plop — were rescued after being swept out of their nest on a quarry wall during a rain storm and tumbling down. Two of them sustained broken wings, but all three are now healed. They make clicking sounds of warning if you come too close.

Garfunkel is a Lappet-faced vulture that ate poisoned meat intended for lions suspected of killing cattle. He recovered from the poisoning, but had also been bitten in the wing by a jackal at the same carcass and is still healing. An African fish eagle named Baringo was rescued near Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley and transported to the center by KWS staff, who are not equipped to give specialized avian care.

And it’s not all raptors. At the moment, the center is also caring for a migratory white stork and a rather aggressive pelican that lost a wing to a powerline.

From its early days with just the one owlery, the center can now house 65 birds. There’s also an onsite hospital with an operating theater and recovery room. When birds are brought in, they receive veterinary care, proper feeding, and rehabilitation training to prepare them for a return to the wild.

Basic falconry techniques are used to exercise the birds and build up their flight muscles. On the day of my visit I found a falconer wearing a large yellow glove and training …more

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Perspective Changes Everything

Klamath film transports viewers to parts of the mountains inaccessible by road or trail

The Klamath Mountains are a complicated area of uplifted, folded, mashed, and twisted rocks in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Because the mountains are large and rugged, they’ve thwarted even the greatest explorers. Jed Smith, the famous mountain man, avoided the area. The complexity of the mountains’ form, however, has rewards. Biological diversity in the Klamath is outstanding, and the whole region, about twelve million acres in total, has been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

photo of Klamath MountainsPhoto courtesy of Klamath Siskiyou Film Aaron Moffatt's film takes viewers to difficult-to-reach parts of the Klamath Mountains, making a strong case for preserving this stunning region.

Unfortunately, the mountains have also been victim to excessive exploitation. The US Forest Service went about logging and mining the region for decades, as if timber represented the region’s only value. The federal agency built roads that slid into creeks and loaded logging trucks with trees nearly a thousand years old. Mining operations in the 1800s gutted mountainsides and left huge piles of rubble in rivers and creeks. 

Largescale mining and logging projects persist in the region to this day. The US Forest Service continues to pursue massive timber sales in the Klamath National Forest. Just this year the USFS has proposed to log thousands of acres that burned in a wildfire last summer. This happens almost every year. Mining interests have for years suggested the development of a huge, yet ultra-marginal chrome deposit that would degrade rare wildlife and plant habitat and pollute crystal clear rivers.

Thankfully, efforts to save old growth dependent species, especially the spotted owl, have kept about three million acres of the Klamath from being raided for timber and gold, though these unspoiled areas of the Klamath Mountains are difficult to visit. The mountains tend to be either largely modified from their original state, destroyed and trivialized and contaminated, or wild and roadless — almost inaccessible.

It is the virtually untouched parts of the area that Aaron Moffatt’s film, Klamath, are all about: a stunning place, a land without time, a roadless region that is still intact. For three-and-a-half years, Moffatt carried camera gear to almost unreachable locations in the mountains, recording hundreds of hours of video that were later edited down to a one hour film. He used drones and a variety of robotic devices in the filming, insisting that the three dimensional nature of the space was essential to the production. Most of the …more

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Getting Smarter About Rain

How the San Francisco Bay Area can put rainwater to good use and improve drought resilience

This year, the Bay Area has been deluged with rain. After years of severe drought, we’re not complaining. However, the downpour has had side effects. Creeks, roads, and neighborhoods flooded. Sewage overflows caused major spills in local communities. Billions of gallons of rainwater washed off polluted surfaces, and moved heavy loads of trash, oil, and other contaminants into San Francisco Bay.

photo of rain on the SF BayPhoto by Brandon Doran>By getting smarter about rainwater, the Bay Area can take advantage of wet years to increase resilience to future drought.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Bay Area can get smarter about rain, and put it to good use. And rainy seasons can help make the Bay Area more resilient to future drought. What’s needed is a shift towards thoughtful conservation and collective planning: big actions by cities combined with small actions by us as individuals and families.

There are a variety of big actions to start planning for and implementing now. When re-paving streets and gutters, cities can use permeable materials that allow rainwater to soak into the ground. Paved surfaces can be re-envisioned to create parks and green space that absorb rainwater. The water will be filtered as it percolates through the soil, which can remove some pollutants. Eventually, the water will re-charge local aquifers — nature’s underground water storage tanks. In the dry season or during drought, communities can tap into those aquifers, further purify the water, and use if needed.

Cities can also use retention basins to collect rainwater and direct it to the ground. Instead of storm drains and pipes infiltrating and overwhelming sewage pipes, or carrying polluted water to San Francisco Bay, they can re-charge local aquifers.

Big projects like these can be costly. But planning for them now will cost far less than other ideas currently being touted as the solutions to California’s water needs, such as the proposed twin tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that would divert water from the Sacramento River to the Central Valley and southern California. Plus, rainwater capture helps prevent flooding and increases California’s fresh water supply. The tunnels won’t do either.

And the rain that falls here can provide a lot of water. According to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and TreePeople, if the Los Angeles-San Diego area and the San Francisco Bay Area captured their rain and recharged local aquifers, California could increase water supplies …more

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