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An American Park

Shenandoah National Park pairs the crucial protection of wilderness with an ugly and undemocratic genesis

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

Shenandoah National Park in north-central Virginia, a rocky forested nearly 200,000-acre elongated portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was named after the adjacent Shenandoah Valley, which itself is named for the northbound river that joins the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry and whose name is generally thought to mean “Daughter of the Stars” in a forgotten Native American language.

The park’s northern border is just 75 miles from the creeping sprawl of Washington, DC. It feels a world away, notwithstanding the geographic proximity of these disparate entities. Yet it’s rumored that, despite the typically dense humidity and heightening levels of smog arising from the varicose network of urban, suburban, and exurban roadways that creep ever southward, a visitor with binoculars can look eastward, while standing directly at the interpretation signpost at the Hogwallow Flats overlook (milepost 14; in the park’s North District), and under certain conditions may witness a uniquely, gratifyingly American spectacle.

If it’s a very clear, wintery day with low humidity, and if in the mid- to late morning you look directly at the point of confluence of a slight gap between the distant ridges, and if the trees directly below the overlook have not yet grown tall enough to obstruct the view, and if you are determined enough to endure the hazy atmospheric fluctuations and the unending interruptions of stop-photo-go vehicular tourists, you may be rewarded with a vision that perfectly illustrates this centennial year of the US National Park Service.

photo of Shenandoah National ParkPhoto by Shenandoah National ParkShenandoah's northern border is just 75 miles from Washington, DC.

Among the Virginia pines and white oaks clinging to the side of the northward ridge, you may glimpse, across the park, across the farms and fields to the north, across the mindless suburban moonscape of highways and shopping centers, gated communities and soulless apartment complexes, the stoic, silent strength of the Washington Monument, its encircling flags rippling shadows across its marble and granite obelisk.

Viewing this archetypal architectural form — the sculpted echo of a pharaonic ego, still the world’s tallest stone structure and our central commemoration of a man who, if he had so desired, could have been a king — from within a thicket of hardwood forest, wind curling through bare limbs, is a wonderful collision of worlds; a purely American juxtaposition of the splendors of classical human civilization with the …more

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Land Grabs Continue to Destroy Uganda’s Forests

Wealthy and elite individuals with strong political and economic ties main drivers of deforestation

Uganda is considered one of the most beautiful countries in the African continent because of its diverse ecosystems that include natural forests, savanna woodlands, wetlands, lakes and rivers. Early European explorers branded it the “Pearl of Africa.” Much of Uganda lies on the African plateau between 900-1,500 meters above sea level. Its tropical highland forests are divided in three distinct geographical zones, characterized by rainfall regimes — the eastern rim of the Western Rift Valley in the west, the broad belt around the northwestern shores of Lake Victoria, and the spectacular mountains in the east.

view of forested hills partly cleared and turned into farmland Photo by Rod Waddington Uganda is home to some of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in Africa, but the country's rich natural heritage is under severe threat due to a massive loss in forest cover.

Given its location in a zone between the drier East African savannas and the more moist West African rain forests, as well as its high altitude ranges, the country is home to some of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in Africa. It reportedly has more species of primates than any other country in the world. According to the Convention of Biological Diversity, the country’s forests harbor at least 7.5 percent of the world’s known mammal species, 10.2 percent of our bird species, and 6.8 percent of the world’s birds.

But now the country’s rich natural heritage is under severe threat due to a massive loss in forest cover, a loss that’s increased at a very high rate in recent years.

In the past century, Uganda’s forests have been under severe pressure mainly from the expansion of agricultural land as a result of a growing population, increasing demand for charcoal and fuel, unchecked logging and weak legal protections and even weaker enforcement of the forest protection laws. According to the country’s 2012 National State of the Environment report, Uganda's forest area is being lost at a rate of 1.8 percent per year. In total, between 1990 and 2010, this east African country lost 31 percent of its forest cover — a decline from 5 million hectares to 3.6 million hectares between 1990 and 2010. Some parts of the country — such as Mayuge, Wakiso, Mubende, Mitayana, Kibaale, and Buikwe — are losing their forest cover at higher rates than others.

Apart from the usual causes of deforestation cited above, there has been growing evidence that forest land grabbing by …more

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Tidal Power Project Makes Waves in Canada

Plan to install giant turbines in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy has fishermen, environmentalists concerned

“I am a fisherman,” Darren Porter said. “It’s not only what I do, but who I am.” He is big and burly. In a bar fight, I would gladly have him in front of me clearing the way. He operates a weir fishery in Nova Scotia’s Minas Basin, on the southeast side of the Bay of Fundy. The bay has the highest tides and strongest currents in the world, which now presents a problem for Porter. The power industry wants to install giant turbines in the passage to Minas Basin, maybe more than one hundred of them, to harvest the wealth of Nova Scotia’s tides, generating megawatts of energy along with enormous profits. The turbines look like giant food processors, standing five stories high.

photo of fishing boat in Bay of FundyPhoto by Shawn HarquailA fishing weir in the Bay of Fundy. Plans to install giant turbines in the Minas Passage, on the southeast side of the bay, have local fishermen concerned.

The Bay of Fundy is at the end of the Gulf of Maine, bordered by the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. When the tide flows into the outer bay, 160 billion tons of water rush in at a speed of one to two meters per second. Where the bay narrows to squeeze through the five-and-a-half kilometer wide Minas Passage, 14 billion tons of seawater accelerate to five meters per second.

For Porter, every tide is either, “Christmas, or a slap in the face,” as he puts it, depending on how many fish it brings in. When I visited the weir with him in June, he eyeballed all the birds gathered around his weir, then lit his pipe and said in a broad accent, “We got fish in there today.”

Porter’s weir is a type of fish trap that takes advantage of the tides. The design is ancient, used by the First Nation people of Nova Scotia well before Europeans colonized the region. There used to be a weir every mile along the coast, maybe a couple hundred of them in total. Now there are only six.

The weir Porter uses has two wings that are each 1000 feet long. The weir is covered by netting to guide the fish into the trap section where the two wings come together. At high tide, it is covered by 40 feet of water. When the tide goes out, the weir goes to work, trapping fish behind the …more

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New Documentary Investigates Nuclear Power from New York to Fukushima

A Conversation with Indian Point Director Ivy Meeropol

Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest that the “past is prologue.” In an irony of history, a filmmaker whose grandparents were so-called “atomic spies, and the only American civilians electrocuted by the US government during the Cold War, is now trying to shutdown a nuclear power plant in New York.

photo of Ivy Meeropol Photo Courtesy of Indian Point Film Production, LLC

Ivy Meeropol is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for espionage on June 19, 1953 for allegedly passing A-bomb secrets to the Soviets. She is the daughter of Michael Meeropol, who — after his parents’ death — was adopted by songwriter Abel Meeropol, composer of the 1936 anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” famously sung by Billie Holiday and the pro-integration song “The House I live In.”

Ivy Meeropol previously directed 2004’s Heir to an Execution, an extremely personal HBO film that examined the case of the Rosenbergs, whose contentious electrocution took place at New York’s Sing Sing prison — only 10 miles from the nuclear Indian Point Energy Center. The Brooklyn-born, Massachusetts-raised Meeropol’s absorbing, incisive, new documentary Indian Point investigates this 1960s-built nuclear power facility, which sits just 35 miles north of New York City and is currently working to relicense two of its reactors. It also probes the 2012 ousting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman, Gregory Jaczko, who was accused of bullying and intimidating employees, plus the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, triggered by a 2011 earthquake and tidal wave that caused meltdowns and the release of radioactive isotopes at the Japanese nuclear power plant.

The writer/director skillfully interweaves these three strands into a cohesive, comprehensive 94-minute tapestry exploring the controversial nuclear industry. In doing so, she evenhandedly interviews employees and executives of Entergy Corporation, which operates Indian Point, as well as activists opposing it. Her rare access enabled the intrepid filmmaker to enter both the Fukushima and New York facilities, allowing unusual insight into the inner workings, and politics, of the plants.

Like a cinematic sleuth, Meeropol doggedly pursued the different threads of the saga. If Woodward and Bernstein “followed the money” during Watergate, Meeropol followed the radiation, so to speak. In a balanced yet bold, unflinching way, Meeropol proves once again in Indian Point that the personal is political, and reveals that controversies swirling around nuclear power are anything but a tempest in a teapot.

Why did you decide to make a documentary about Indian Point?

Today I live probably 15 miles …more

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A Spot by the Water

How the people of Kyiv are revitalizing the Lybid River, and reclaiming public space in their city

Early in 2016, three young locals kayaked down the small river Lybid. Nothing would be uncommon about this were it not for the fact that long stretches of the water flowed underground. With this action, Maksym Mramonov, Dmytro Nechvolod, and Artem Zavarzin wanted to draw attention to the countless ecological and infrastructural problems of the river.

photo of a kayak in a narrow, urban channel Photo: © Lybid Ye, Creative-Commons-Lizenz BY-NC-ND Once upon a time, the Lybid was navigable: First kayak ride on the Lybid in early 2016

The three young men started their tour in the heart of the city. Their first discoveries were sobering: large sections of the vegetation along the embankment were littered with trash. In some places they found polluted snow, as well as industrial and household waste that had been thrown into the river. The kayakers repeatedly came across tires that had found their final resting place in the Lybid.

The woeful tale of the Lybid

The 17 kilometer-long Lybid is the right tributary of the Dnipro river. The Lybid flows through numerous inner city neighborhoods of Kyiv before emptying into the Dnipro. In the 1930s the marshy embankments of the Lybid were considered breeding grounds for Malaria, which is why the Soviet city government decided to construct a network of underground canals. As a result, the river was soon forgotten.

photo of a kayak in a narrow concrete channelPhoto: © Lybid Ye, Creative-Commons-Lizenz BY-NC-ND Nature in concrete: Second kayak ride in May 2016

Today the Lybid’s main cause of complaint is sewage. Sediment deposits, accumulations of radioactive nuclides and heavy metals, as well as illicitly disposed of household sewage have contributed significantly to the pollution of the river.

This type of littering is a thorn in the side of environmental activists. In the last 15 years, many housing developments sprang up in Kyiv, some of which are not connected to the citywide canalization system. Unfiltered household sewage continues to make its way into the feeders of the Lybid via unauthorized pipes. Although some of these pipes have been dismantled by now, the larger ones — with a diameter of half a meter — are not so easily removed and therefore remain until today.

The Lybid’s drainage basin covers across approximately 40 percent of Kyiv’s surface area to the right of the Dnipro. All the sewage there flows into the subterranean canals and thereby into the river.

Mobilize the community, …more

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The Ironies of Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park

Diverse marine life, rich history, and international relations all come together in one of America’s most isolated parks

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

We are not staying overnight, but we have packed for a multitude of contingencies. In my backpack I have sunscreen, aspirin, two disposable underwater cameras, lip balm, zinc oxide, crackers, and bottles of water for the boat trip. I have a change of clothes, a bathing suit, a towel, and a cheap, drugstore mask and snorkel combo. This is my first visit to Dry Tortugas National Park. The sun is strong — August in the Florida Keys strong — and unforgiving. It is impossible to imagine living on this far and nearly-forgotten military outpost, much less being imprisoned here. The water surrounding the islands is nearly as cruel as the heat. Hundreds of jellyfish float menacingly in the shallow water along the shore.

Irony hangs heavy in the air, just like the ever-present humidity, at Dry Tortugas. The name alone — “Dry Turtles” in English — speaks to the duality of the place, pointing to the lack of naturally occurring fresh water on the park’s seven sandy keys. In addition to the keys, the 100-square mile park includes a large marine preserve, and many of Dry Tortugas’s treasures are submerged: two centuries of shipwrecks and miles of coral at the end of the reef formation that makes up the Florida Keys. Above ground, thousands of nesting pairs of birds call the Tortugas home, along with an American crocodile, swept in during a hurricane. Five species of sea turtle, all listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, swim in the waters of Dry Tortugas, and the park is the most active turtle nesting site in the Florida keys.

photo of dry tortugas national parkPhoto by Jenni KonradDry Tortugas National Park encompasses seven sandy keys and a large marine reserve.

Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most remote of all the national parks. Seventy miles off the coast of Key West, it is accessible to visitors either by ferryboat or seaplane, options that offer a tradeoff between cost and speed. The boat trip is an hour and a half journey. Passage on the Yankee Freedom II is $175 for an adult, round-trip. The seaplane trip is almost twice the price, but takes just forty-minutes. No one ends up at the Dry Tortugas by accident.

The Tortugas have long been an important spot along the shipping channel that bisects …more

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Saving the Sri Lankan Elephant

Elephants are revered in this island nation, but that doesn’t prevent them from being abused

Since the times of kings and kingdoms, elephants have been a mark of prestige and nobility in Sri Lanka. As far back as 600 BCE, wars were waged and won and kingdoms reclaimed, seated upon elephants. Over the centuries, elephants have inherited a place of reverence in the collective mindset of Sri Lankans and the prestige that comes with owning an elephant has trickled down to the present day. Elephants continue to be featured in religious and cultural festivals in Sri Lanka today. But this traditional reverence of elephants doesn’t prevent the endangered species from being abused.

elephants dressed up in bright costumes in a processionPhoto by Amila TennakoonSri Lankan Elephants continue to be featured in religious and cultural festivals like the Buddhist cultural pageant perahera. Ironically, it is the regard bestowed upon them that has in part resulted in the elephant’s lifelong distress in captivity.

Ironically, it is the regard bestowed upon the elephant that has in part resulted in the animal’s lifelong distress in captivity.

The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is the largest of three Asian elephant sub species. Its dark skin and patches of depigmentation on its ears, face, trunk and belly, sets it apart from its two Asian relatives. Once found throughout the island nation that lies below the Indian peninsula, these elephants are now being confined to increasingly smaller areas as development activities clear forests and disrupt their ancient migratory routes.  The island’s elephant population has dropped by almost 65 percent since the turn of the nineteenth century.

However, Sri Lanka still has a relatively healthy population of wild elephants. The latest census in 2011 recorded 6,000 elephants in the wild and approximately 120 in captivity. Wild elephants are protected under the country’s Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, and killing one carries the death penalty. The capture of wild elephants was banned in the late 1970s and in order to deter this practice, all existing captive elephants must be registered with the Department of Wildlife Conservation and their owners are required to have a license to hold them in their keep.

Despite these measures, elephants in Sri Lanka, both in the wild and in captivity are subject to abuse due to a variety of reasons including sketchy adherence to laws and regulations, and the continuance of old traditions.

The highlight of the Sri Lankan Buddhist cultural pageant called perahera that pays homage to  the Buddha, is the sight of a magnificent tusker draped in …more

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