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The Strange, Sere Bones of An Ancient Landscape

Images of and reflections on the dry landscape and living history of the Panoche Hills

Interstate 5, running down the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, California cuts a dividing line between the flat valley floor and dry hills rising to the west. Passengers in thousands of cars and trucks, seemingly desperate to pass by as quickly as possible on the highway to Los Angeles, can look east over a landscape of huge fields and orchards.  On a clear day, when the wind sweeps away the valley's omnipresent dust, you can see the Sierras. 

photo of a landscapephotos by David BaconClick or tap this photo to see more…

To the west, though, the land is hidden behind a succession of eroded ridges. Beyond them rises the strange, sere landscape of the Panoche and Griswold Hills. 

Today California is dry, in the throes of a four-year drought. Even in more "normal" times in the past, however, these hills were as dry as the rest of the state is now. You can feel it, reaching down and crumbling the soil in your hands. It is a dryness that perhaps predicts what we will soon see elsewhere.

This is grazing land. Narrow blacktop roads snake up from the valley floor past old barns and fences. The cattle have worn grooves and paths that meander horizontally across worn hillsides. Some are covered in stubble, while others have no remnants of grass at all. Then, cutting down across their face are the old watercourses. Now they're dry, but their dramatic vertical sides testify to the power of the flash floods that, in a rare heavy rain, carry away the rocks and thin soil.

photo of a cylindrical structure in a landscape

The San Joaquin Valley floor to the east is largely made up of the sediment washed down Panoche Creek and its tributaries. On the creek bottom, trees and a few isolated homes are patches of green in a brown vista that stretches for miles. But everything here speaks of the lack of water. 

A small field of grapevines or berries, now dry, is a memory of some effort to seek out an income beyond a ranch's animals. A fence line stretches up into hills bleached blindingly white. Another fence, like those in Mexico's Sonora desert, is a barrier …more

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The Truth Behind That “Crappy” Cup of Coffee

Civet cats caged and force-fed in large numbers to feed the world’s growing demand for kopi luwak

I saw my first civet cat on the last day of my holiday in Bali, Indonesia. It was tethered to a wooden tabletop outside of an upscale coffee shop, squinting at the afternoon sun as it struggled to sleep. Tourists swarmed around the animal, poking its fur and snapping photos. It didn’t take much to see that this civet cat was scared, and very stressed.

photo of a caged civetWorld Animal ProtectionA caged civet cat at a "Luwak" coffee farm in Sumatra, Indonesia. World Animal Protection carried out an investigation on the practice of civet farming to make coffee in 2011.

When I approached the coffee shop owner to express my disgust at the animal’s treatment, he brushed me off. Then the owner thrust a pamphlet into my hands about “kopi luwak,” the type of coffee he sold inside the shop. “This is how we make our living,” he said, gesturing to the civet cat on the table.

As I came to learn, kopi luwak is a specialty coffee made from beans that have passed through the digestive tracks of civet cats, or “luwaks” in the Indonesian language. Despite it repulsive origins, coffee aficionados claim that kopi luwak has an extraordinary taste resembling chocolate or caramel. This translates to an extraordinary cost: a cup of kopi luwak can sell for $30 to $100 in the United States. But what many people don’t realize is that kopi luwak is produced at an even higher cost to civets.

a civet being fed coffee cherriesWorld Animal ProtectionA caged civet cat at a "Luwak" coffee farm is fed coffee cherries in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Many traders and cafes sell the coffee as sourced in the jungle from the droppings of wild, free-roaming civets. However, undercover investigations by animal rights activists and journalists have shown that in many cases, the animals are held captive in cages where they are force-feed coffee cherries to keep up with the growing demand for kopi luwak.

Civets are shy, nocturnal creatures, which find being held in tiny cages is incredibly stressful. Ashley Fruno of PETA Asia-Pacific explains that video footage has shown caged civet cats exhibiting neurotic behavior, such as spinning, head-bobbing, and pacing. “This shows that the animals are going …more

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Scarlet Macaws Fly Free Again in Mexico’s Wilds

Scientists and an amusement park work together to reintroduce an iconic bird in the rainforests of Chiapas and Veracruz

Mexico is one of the top ten countries in the world in terms of bird diversity, but poverty, crime, and corruption can make it a difficult place for conservationists to work. In the remnant rainforests of Veracruz and Chiapas, however, the restoration of an iconic tropical bird that had all but vanished from the country provides reason for hope: Nearly extirpated from Mexico’s forests for decades, scarlet macaws are once again filling the canopy with their raucous calls.

Two scarlet macaws Photo by Eric Carlson/FlickrWild scarlet macaw populations in Mexico have plummeted to 2 percent of their historic numbers due to deforestation and rising human encorachment of their forest habitats.

The scarlet macaw’s range extends from southern Mexico through Central America to much of northern South America. While the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List categorizes this brilliantly hued bird as a species of “Least Concern” because it remains fairly common in many parts of its range, in Mexico it has suffered severe population declines.

 Threatened by capture for the pet trade as well as habitat loss due the region’s rising human population and the clearing of rainforest for cattle pastures, the scarlet macaw’s range in Mexico is now only 2 percent of what it was historically. As of 2013, only about 250 wild scarlet macaws were estimated to remain in the country and the Mexican government has classified it as endangered.

Now, a bold reintroduction project spearheaded by a group of scientists and their unlikely partner: an amusement park, is seeking to reverse the decline of wild scarlet macaw populations in Mexico.

Xcaret Ecopark is a Disney-esque theme park located on Mexico’s Caribbean coast that has been breeding a captive population of macaws for over two decades. In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized it for having the most macaws born in captivity in one year. The park’s record-breaking breeding program is now providing birds that can be released back into Mexico’s remaining rainforests.

Of course, reintroducing macaws back into the wild is not as simple as driving a truckload of birds from the amusement park out into the middle of the woods and letting them go. Before the first macaw can ever be released, a long list of questions must be answered to determine whether the project …more

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White-Nose Syndrome Continues to Kill Bat Populations Across North America

Efforts to get the most threatened bat species listed as endangered fail

Near the border of New Jersey and New York, a small bat tucked in its wings and hung from the eave of a forest cabin. The mammal was taking a well-deserved rest during the daylight hours, awaiting the sun’s dip below the horizon in order to hunt the plentiful insects that nighttime promises. These animals, sometimes instilling fear and reminders of Bram Stoker’s creation, are dying in record numbers across the United States. This little bat, barely the size of a baseball, was hanging upside down and simultaneously hanging on for its species’ survival.

close up of hands holding a bat with it's wing stretched outPhoto courtesy of Florida Fish and WildlifeA Florida Fish and Wildlife biologist inspects a bat for WNS. Recent research shows that the fungal disease has caused extensive local extinctions of bat populations.

The fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) has been wreaking havoc in the United States for almost a decade, ever since it was “accidentally transported here by humans” from Eurasia, according to Bat Conservation International’s official website. Currently, WNS can be found in 26 states and five Canadian provinces. Three other states have confirmed evidence of the fungus, known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans. The exact number of dead bats is unknown, but thousands became millions some time ago.

“We’re still learning an awful lot about the fungus and the disease, and how it may manifest itself differently in different species,” said Katie Gillies, director of the U.S./Canada Imperiled Species Program for Bat Conservation International. “So we are seeing very significant declines in some species, particularly the northern long-eared bat, the little brown bat and the tri-colored bat. And we’re seeing more variable declines but differences in how the disease impacts species … like the Indiana bat and the big brown bat.”

Gillies called Pseudogymnoascus destructans a cave-loving fungus that needs cold, moist environments to grow. Caves in the Northeast are perfect locations; however, WNS is so pervasive that it has dipped as far south as Alabama and Mississippi and as far west as Oklahoma.

Bat Conservation International describes the fungus as being able to invade the skin of the bats. Both their hydration and hibernation cycles are disrupted, and eventually they produce the characteristic white marks on the face and wings that give the disease its namesake. …more

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A Thousand Turtles

Notes on a Blanding’s turtle reintroduction project in the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge

Biologist Jared Green stands at the edge of a swamp on a picture perfect summer day, and scans the forest of drowned trees and duckweed-covered water that stretches out in front of him.

He dials a frequency on the radio receiver he’s holding and wades into the foot deep water. His rubber chest waders keep him dry and protect him from mud, and submerged logs and branches.

photo of a man walking through a swamp holding an antennaDon Lyman photoBiologist Jared Green, holding a radio tracking antenna and receiver, wades through a swamp at
Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, searching for turtle #3776.

He’s looking for turtle 3776, a juvenile Blanding’s turtle released two years ago at the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge as part of a Blanding’s turtle introduction project. The 2,230-acre refuge is located about 20 miles west of Boston in the towns of Sudbury, Stow, Maynard and Hudson, Massachusetts.

Green spots a turtle basking on a log, but he says it’s a painted turtle, not a Blanding’s. Adult Blanding’s turtles have dark, high-domed shells about six to nine inches long, and bright yellow throats that help biologists differentiate them from other turtles.

“All these downed logs provide good cover,” Green says. He pauses and slowly sweeps a large radio antenna back and forth in front of him and listens.  The receiver makes a steady beeping noise.“I think she’s over here,“ Green says, pointing to a spot in the water about 100 feet away.

A semi-aquatic species, the Blanding’s turtle  hibernates underwater, burrowing itself in the muddy bottom of water bodies from late fall through early spring when it returns to land to nest or move from one body of water to another. Habitat fragmentation and road mortality (as a nomadic species, the turtle will wander and cross roads to get from one body of water to another) have severely depleted this shy North American turtle’s numbers throughout much of its range. It is listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List and in some US states, and as either threatened or endangered throughout Canada. While it has no federal protection in the United States.

A graduate student in wildlife management at the University of Georgia, Green and his fellow biologists from …more

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After the Frack: Hydraulic Fracturing’s Intense Thirst

Water withdrawals and siltation create havoc on aquatic ecosystems

Ever since Josh Fox’s documentary film Gasland startled viewers with its scenes of flammable tap water, concerns about groundwater contamination have fueled the community-level opposition to hydraulic fracturing. While water contamination continues to be a serious concern when it comes to fracking, a slew of scientific and government reports published in recent years points to perhaps a more immediate environmental threat: unsustainable groundwater and surface water withdrawals.

graphic map depicting the USA and sources of fracking waterImage: CeresSee the full map, zoomable map here.

Scientists have long understood that fracking comes with a range of environmental risks. A 2014 study appearing in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry concluded that the closer an ecosystem is to a fracking site, “the higher the risk of that ecosystem being impacted by the operation.” The scientists further confirmed that oil and gas field infrastructure also uses significant amounts of water.  “These operations may result in increased erosion and sedimentation,” the study stated, as well as “increased risk to aquatic ecosystems from chemical spills or runoff, habitat fragmentation, loss of stream riparian zones, altered biogeochemical cycling, and reduction of available surface and hyporheic water volumes because of withdrawal-induced lowering of local groundwater levels.”

In addition to habitat fragmentation and the risk of pollution, diminished flows in rivers and streams are one of the concerns that researchers outline in a study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. One of the study’s authors, Kimberly Terrell told Earth Island Journal that freshwater withdrawal and stream siltation from fracking activities has lasting effects on aquatic ecosystems. “In the shale areas in the eastern US there is tremendous aquatic diversity,” Terrell says. “However, only 21 percent of streams are healthy. The vast majority are not in good biological condition. On top of that, we have drained over 50 percent of our wetlands in the US.”

As early as 2009, the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG) at the University of Texas at Austin was already noticing an increase in water use for hydraulic fracturing in the Barnet Shale.  Researchers concluded that hydraulic fracturing used an average of 2,400 gallons of water per foot of drilled hole, which equaled an average of 3 million gallons per …more

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Environmental Activists Continue to Face Interrogations at US-Canada Border

Members of Deep Green Resistance denied entry to Canada on the way to a Chris Hedges’ lecture

Three members of the radical environmental organization Deep Green Resistance and two other individuals were detained for more than seven hours at the Peace Arch border crossing between Washington State and British Columbia on their way to Vancouver to attend a talk by author and activist Chris Hedges last Friday, September 25. They were questioned about the organizations they were involved in, their political affiliations, and their contacts in Canada before being turned away by Canadian border agents. Upon re-entering the United States they were then subjected to another round of questioning by US border agents. The car they were traveling in as well as their personal computers were searched.

Peace Arch and Trafficphoto by Greg Dunlap, on FlickrThe Peace Arch border crossing between British Columbia, Canada and Washington, USA

The interrogation comes on the heels of an FBI inquiry into Deep Green Resistance last fall in which more than a dozen members of the group were contacted and questioned by FBI agents. Several months later the group’s lawyer, Larry Hildes, was stopped at the same border crossing and asked specifically about one of his clients, Deanna Meyer, also a Deep Green Resistance member. During the 2014 visits, FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents showed up at members’ places of work, their homes, and contacted family members to find out more about the group. Meyer, who lives in Colorado, was asked by a DHS agent if she’d be interested in “forming a liaison.” The agent told her he wanted to, “head off any injuries or killing of people that could happen by people you know.” Two of the members detained at the border on Friday were also contacted by the FBI last fall.

Since Hildes was last held up at the Peace Arch border crossing in June he filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. In August he received a letter from the DHS saying the agency “can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information.”

It’s not only Deep Green Resistance members who have had trouble getting across the border. Environmental activists who were part of a campaign in Texas opposing  the Keystone XL pipeline …more

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