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Climate-Smart Conservation in the San Francisco Bay

Integrating climate science into marsh restoration and conservation efforts

Its pre-dawn and the gate to the Oro Loma marsh in San Leandro, California is locked. On the metal latch hangs a necklace of about ten U-locks, which grant scientists and land managers access to the marsh. I have the key to one of the locks and am here this morning to collect data on birds in the ecologically restored tidal marshes that lie beyond the gate as an intern biologist with Point Blue Conservation Science.

Photo of Don Edwards MarshPhoto by JKehoe_Photos A marsh in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The sun has risen, and I stand motionless at my first survey point, watching and listening for birds. North of here, San Francisco looks like a ghost-city in the fog, only the tops of the tallest buildings visible and wavering in the light. My surveys are focused on species of birds that tend to indicate healthy marsh habitat in the Bay Area, including song sparrows, marsh wrens, and the endangered Ridgway’s Rail. Land that was described to me by one biologist as being mostly mud flats in the mid-1990s is now teeming with marsh vegetation and birds. The data I am collecting today will help assess what changes have occurred here since restoration work began, part of Point Blue’s long-term study of marsh birds in San Francisco Bay.

Thought to have once covered nearly 200,000 acres, San Francisco's tidal marshes saw a drastic decrease in area during the late nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century due to dredging, infilling, and diking. Beginning with the amendment of the Clean Water Act in 1972, development of wetlands in the San Francisco Bay mostly ceased. Since then, a host of organizations have been working to restore ecological function through tidal marsh restoration at the landscape scale. The 365 acres of marshes at Oro Loma were restored in 1997 by breaching the levee that had held back tidal water of the San Francisco Bay. It is one wetlands restoration project among many in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is currently under the transformative gaze of conservation organizations interested in restoring ecological function of the San Francisco estuary at the landscape scale.

Unfortunately, despite restoration efforts, sea level rise caused by climate change is an emerging threat …more

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The Comeback of the Atlantic Great White Shark

Along with rising numbers, sharks are enjoying improved public perception along the US Atlantic Coast

Beachgoers in Cape Cod made headlines this year by taking action that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago and rushing to the aid of several stranded great white sharks. Their efforts, which saved one of the three sharks that washed ashore this year, indicate not only that the species has made a dramatic comeback in the Northern Atlantic, but also that popular attitudes toward these predators have changed drastically in recent years.  Once seen as mindless killing machines, great white sharks are now increasingly understood as a key facet of the ocean's ecosystem.

Photo of Great White SharkPhoto by Elias Levy Public outreach efforts along the Atlantic Coast have helped improve public attitudes toward sharks.

In the late 1970s, great white sharks experienced an unprecedented onslaught of negative publicity. With the 1976 release of the film Jaws, the public became terrified of entering the water, lest they encounter a "rogue" great white that would habitually target humans. Both the Jaws novel, released in 1974, and the film were inspired by Victor Coppleson’s 1958 book Shark Attack, which advanced the theory that once a predatory animal like a great white shark tasted human blood, it would be inclined to strike at the same prey again. This theory has since been widely discredited

The myth of the blood-thirsty great white proved dangerous for the sharks. Already in demand for their fins and jaws, anglers also began to target white sharks as trophies, which further decimated the species in the Northern Atlantic. Though research on great whites is scarce, by the 1980s the Atlantic population had declined to an estimated 27 percent of its 1961 size.

In 1997 the great white shark became a federally protected species in the Atlantic, which meant commercial and recreational harvest were prohibited in the region. This marked a turnaround for the species. According to NOAA, the number of great whites in the Atlantic is now at 69 percent of its 1961 population size, a significant increase from the 1980s. Thanks to one of the world's largest seal colonies, located at Monomoy Island, a global great white hotspot has also developed around Cape Cod. 

The growth of the Atlantic population has stimulated shark research in the region, as well as education and outreach efforts …more

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EPA Slow to Halt Use of Toxic Pesticide Endosulfan

Subject to a gradual phase-out rather than an outright ban, "DDT's cousin" is still being used in the United States

On a cool November day in 2009, farmworker Jovita Alfau was transplanting hibiscus as she’d been instructed in a section of Power Bloom Farms and Growers nursery in Homestead, Florida. 

Photo of Farmworkers harvesting cabbagePhoto by Bob Jagendorf Farmworkers harvesting cabbage.

As she began pulling up the seedlings from the pots, she began to “feel dizzy and weak, experienced numbness in her mouth and vomited,” according to a complaint she would later file against her employer in federal district court in southern Florida. 

Alfau had no idea why she was feeling so ill, but lawyers from the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project representing her in a lawsuit learned through deposition that the area of the nursery where the hibiscus grew had been sprayed with the pesticide endosulfan less than 24 hours earlier, according to the lawsuit. Her employer allegedly failed to warn her about the required elapse time before it was safe to enter. Alfau had been wearing no protective gear. 

Alfau alleges in the lawsuit that there were times when the applicators sprayed the nursery even while she and her fellow farmworkers were tending the plants. 

The nursery denied wrongdoing, but settled with the then 43-year-old single mother of three in 2012 for $100,000. Asked by New America Media recently whether his nursery was still using endosulfan, Power Bloom president Steve Power said he had no comment.

It was pesticide poisonings like Alfau’s, as well as years of pressure from a broad coalition of environmentalists, health care advocates, farmworkers, and scientists, that many believe were responsible for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement of a six-year phase-out of the pesticide in 2010.  

The federal agency negotiated an agreement with the compound’s sole manufacturer, Makhteshim Agan, based in Israel at the time, to stop using the pesticide crop-by-crop. 

In an email justifying the gradual phase-out, the agency said that it needed to give growers “time to research and adopt lower risk alternatives,” especially for crops with limited choices. 

The EPA acknowledged that even though it had not fully addressed all of the ecological and human health risk concerns regarding endosulfan, it had taken a number of mitigation measures to make its use safer. 

Environmentalists and advocates were upset. Eight years after the federal agency said on its own website that endosulfan “can …more

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It’s Time to Phase Out Potent Greenhouse Gases in Our Air Conditioning Units

Chemicals in cooling and refrigeration systems can have a far greater climate impact than carbon dioxide

Our planet’s fragile ozone layer is on a path toward full restoration by about 2050. But there’s a hitch: the success has hinged largely on replacing ozone-depleting substances with hydrofluorocarbon (HFCs) – chemicals we now know are highly damaging to the environment. It is time to reduce these pollutants.

Photo of Air Conditioning Units NYCPhoto by Pierre HFCs are greenhouse gases that can be hundreds or thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide in damaging our climate system.

Air conditioning, refrigeration, and insulation often contain factory-made HFCs. They are greenhouse gases that can be hundreds or thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide in damaging our climate system, yet their global use is rapidly increasing every year.

It was the 1987 Montreal Protocol, one of the most successful environmental treaties in history, which led to HFCs replacing ozone-destroying pollutants. On November 1, at the international meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol in Dubai, the United States will make a powerful case for better management of HFC pollution worldwide. Because of the importance of taking aggressive action on these chemicals to achieve global climate goals, I will be leading the United States delegation at that meeting. 

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan pledges to reduce HFC emissions both at home and through international leadership; and the United States is delivering on that promise. Over the past year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has completed four separate actions that both expand the list of safer alternatives to HFCs and prohibit them from certain uses in the refrigeration, air conditioning, foam, and aerosol sectors where safer alternatives such as hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), hydrocarbons and lower-polluting blends are available.

We’ve issued proposals that will take us even further down the road to reducing these pollutants. And the US Department of Defense is leading by example through installation of next-generation technologies that rely on carbon dioxide refrigerant instead of HFCs in parts of its fleet and military bases.

America’s private sector is also stepping up. In 2014, and again this month, more than 20 business leaders made commitments to reduce HFC use and emissions by incorporating climate-friendly technologies into their air conditioners, refrigerators, foams and other products. Innovative technologies and new HFC alternatives are making this progress possible. 

Commitments already made by the US …more

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What If Exxon Had Told the Truth About Climate Change?

If the oil giant had vouched for climate change science 25 years ago, there is no way we would have wasted decades in fruitless argument

Like all proper scandals, the #Exxonknew revelations have begun to spin off new dramas and lines of inquiry. Presidential candidates have begun to call for Department of Justice investigations, and company spokesmen have begun to dig themselves deeper into the inevitable holes as they try to excuse the inexcusable.

Photo of Climate ProtestPhoto by Takver Exxon made a conscious decision to adopt what a company public affairs officer called “the Exxon position.”

(Worst idea: attack Pulitzer prize-winning reporters as “anti-oil and gas activists.”)

As the latest expose installment from those hopeless radicals at the Los Angeles Times clearly shows, Exxon made a conscious decision to adopt what a company public affairs officer called “the Exxon position.” It was simple: “Emphasize the uncertainty.” Even though they knew there was none.

Someone else will have to decide if that deceit was technically illegal. Perhaps the rich and powerful have been drafting the laws for so long that Exxon will skate; I confess my confidence that the richest company in American history can be brought to justice is slight.

But quite aside from those questions about the future, let’s take a moment and just think about the past. About what might have happened differently if, in August of 1988, the “Exxon position” had been “tell the truth.”

That was a few months after NASA scientist James Hansen had told Congress the planet was heating and humans were the cause; it was amid the hottest American summer recorded to that point, with the Mississippi running so low that barges were stranded and the heat so bad that corn was withering in the fields. Imagine, amid all that, Exxon scientists had simply said: “Everything we know says Hansen is right; the planet’s in serious trouble.”

No one would, at that point, have blamed Exxon for causing the trouble — instead it would have been hailed for its forthrightness. It could have begun the task of finding alternatives to hydrocarbons, and the world could have done the same thing. This would not have been an easy job: the world was utterly dependent on coal, gas and oil. But it would have become our planet’s single-minded …more

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How Green are Oregon’s Forest Management Practices?

New documentary takes aim at clear-cutting and herbicide use on private forest lands

“Come out to Rockaway Beach and walk into Jetty Creek and you’ll feel that sense of outrage,” says Kate Taylor who lives in this small northern Oregon coastal town where she and her boyfriend run a fishing and travel guide business. Shortly after they’d settled into their new home there, the couple received a notice saying their water didn’t meet US Environmental Protection Agency water quality standards. Why? Because its source, the Jetty Creek watershed – water that runs off the steep forest slopes above the town – has been 80 percent clearcut and repeatedly sprayed with herbicides. The water requires extensive treatment and that has resulted in toxic levels of decontamination byproducts. 

Photo of LandslidePhoto by Shane Anderson The Jetty Creek watershed has been 80 percent clearcut.

Taylor spoke at a screening of Behind the Emerald Curtain, a new documentary film by the Oregon-based conservation group Pacific Rivers . The film – filled with footage of clearcuts and aerial spraying – takes aim at the Oregon Forest Practices Act, the state law that regulates logging on private lands. “For a lot of people that’s kind of an obscure policy,” explained Pacific Rivers executive director John Kober at a screening of the film in Portland, Oregon last week. But, he says, the policy has allowed clear-cutting and herbicide spraying in Jetty Creek’s forests and on private forest lands up as well as down the Oregon coast and around the state.

“The whole message here is that our forests need to protect water resources in a more functional way,” said Kober. “We will let you judge [from the film] whether they do or not. We would argue that they do not.”

Since the 1990s, when the Northwest Forest Plan – that governs timber harvest on federal land in Oregon – went into effect, private forestland has become increasingly important to timber companies operating in Oregon. While commercial logging on Oregon’s extensive federal forestlands has dropped by about 90 percent in the past two decades, the level of timber harvest on private lands has remained remarkably steady. It now accounts for more than 75 percent of all logging activity in Oregon.

Behind the Emerald Curtain focuses on Oregon’s coastal forests — like those above Rockaway Beach — where trees …more

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Protecting the Sacred Land and Water of the Everglades

In Conversation: Houston R. Cypress (Yahalétke)

Houston R. Cypress is an environmental activist and multimedia artist from southern Florida. He is a member of the Otter Clan of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida and lives on the Misccosukee reservation adjacent to Everglades National Park, the southernmost reservation in the US and the largest residential community affiliated with the park. He co-founded the Love the Everglades Movement, a nonprofit that works to restore the Everglades ecosystem, and runs Otter Vision production company. Cypress, whose name is Yahalétke in the Miccosukee language, is fighting now to prevent the construction of a new bicycle trail along the park's border due to both environmental and cultural concerns. A leader in the Universalist spiritual organization Medicine Signs, he says, "universalism permeates all that I do."

The Houston Cypress Photo courtesy of Houston Cypress Houston Cypress is a member of the Otter Clan
of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

What was it like to grow up inside the Everglades, the wildest place in Florida?

The name that we have in the Miccosukee language for the particular area where I grew up, and which I still call home, is Kahayatle. I like to translate it poetically as “shimmering waters,” or word for word, “the light in the water.” Or, as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas poetically describes it in here influential 1947 book on the Everglades, as the “river of grass.”

Growing up there as a kid, it was just a place to play! We would get dirty in the mud. We’d climb up trees and fall down. Our favorite thing to do as kids was to make trails. And we would chase snakes around, and watch the armadillos crawl around. Every now and then you'd see an otter peek its head out from behind some bushes. It was a place of play. A place of fun. That's how I grew up; in the bushes.

There are also tree islands out there that we would visit for gardening purposes, or that we would visit with our uncle or grandpa to collect medicinal plants, or maybe to hunt for deer, or ducks, or fish. We would visit these tree islands as resting places or to camp out. Those islands have been a refuge for my community throughout history. That's where people have died, and more importantly, …more

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