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The Right Climate for Learning

Climate change education, and mitigation, in our national parks

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valleyNational Park Service Ranger Brian Ettling queues up his presentation on climate change with the familiar notes of the 1966 film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Ettling, who has served as a seasonal ranger at Crater Lake National Park for 23 years, began developing his talk in 2010.

Like many national parks, Oregon’s Crater Lake is showing the impacts of climate change. Average snowpack has declined by 140 inches, more than 11 feet, since the 1930s. Warmer temperatures have compromised populations of pika, a small mammal that prefers rocky alpine slopes, and favored beetle populations that have killed many iconic whitebark pines that grow on Crater Lake’s rim. Even the clear, deep water of the lake may be threatened, as increased water temperatures may fuel algae blooms.

When communicating these grim facts, Ettling has learned to include a healthy dose of humor. That’s where the characters from the Clint Eastwood classic come in. Ettling calls the pure beauty of Crater Lake “The Good,” the negative impacts of climate change on pikas “The Bad,” and the destruction caused by pine bark beetles “The Ugly.”

Photo courtesy of National Park Service Wildflowers in Crater Lake National Park, where rangers offer climate change presentaitons.

“I firmly believe that if people are laughing with me, they are more likely to listen to a controversial subject like climate change,” says Ettling.

Though he developed his ranger program for Crater Lake, Ettling first confronted the issue in a very real way while a seasonal ranger at Everglades National Park in Florida. Faced with more frequent and violent storms and the threat of sea level rise, Everglades National Park is on the front lines of climate change, and the park’s interpretive staff were among the first in the NPS to proactively educate visitors on the topic.

In 2010, under the leadership of Director Jonathan Jarvis, NPS launched its formal Climate Change Response Program. One of its four directives is to incorporate climate change education throughout the park system.

The first step toward implementing this directive is to educate NPS staff. The NPS has developed training tools to this end, including webinars and a climate change communication toolkit offered through Earth to Sky, a partnership between NASA, NPS, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Seasoned rangers like Ettling have also shared tips for effective communication during conventions and …more

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Rare Leopards Released into Russian Reserve Threatened by a Ski Resort

Three endangered Persian leopard cubs are intended to reintroduce the species to the Sochi area

Three Persian leopard cubs have been released into the Sochi area of Russia’s western Caucasus, a day after UNESCO threatened to deem the area a “world heritage site in danger” because of a planned ski resort expansion.

Photo by Anton Agarkov, WWF-Russia Persian leopards once roamed across the Caucasus mountains.

Persian leopards once prowled across the Caucasus mountains in great numbers but poaching, poisoning and human encroachment wiped out the species in Russia, in the early 20th century.

The new reintroduction plan was intended to lay the foundation for a new population of the charismatic big cats, which are now thought to number less than 500 across central Asia.

But conservationists say that a recent vote in the Russian parliament to weaken environmental protections, and allow new ski trail constructions in Sochi, will cut off a vital corridor to Turkmenistan for the free-roaming animals.

Igor Chestin, the CEO of WWF Russia said: “We had hoped to release these very special leopards into a secure environment. Instead they will enter the unknown. The future of the western Caucasus is hanging in the balance.”

At a conference in Istanbul on Thursday, the world conservation body, UNESCO, warned that the Russian parliament’s vote could have “negative impacts” on the Persian leopards’ reintroduction.

Construction of large-scale infrastructure on the site could lead to its being placed on the list of world heritage sites in danger, the committee agreed. But it declined to do so immediately, despite pleas from conservationists.

WWF Russia says it wants the International Olympic Committee to be more proactive in pressuring Russia to honor environmental promises made at the time of the 2014 winter games in Sochi.

At the time, Russia pledged to expand two protection areas around the world heritage site. Last week however, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, signed off an amendment to allow new ski constructions within the site itself.

The original groundbreaking plan to bring the endangered leopard species back from the dead envisaged 100 big cats returning to the region’s forests and mountains.

These would have followed traditional migratory routes to mate with female cats in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. If the ski resorts are built as planned though, no more than 30-40 big cats will establish themselves in the western Caucasus, Chestin said.

“The development of ski resorts will destroy the connectivity of the protected area between the central and western Caucasus where leopards are still occasionally …more

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How Butterfly Farmers Are Safeguarding the Forest in Kenya

Community-based conservation project helps transform former loggers into forest advocates

An innovative community-based conservation project that was started more than 20 years ago near the Kenyan coast is paying off. Former illegal loggers are now embracing butterfly rearing as a conservation model, earning money from their butterfly enterprises while safeguarding Kenya’s forest ecosystems.

photo of Orange Dog Butterfly KenyaPhoto by Shever, on flickrIn Kenya, former illegal loggers are earning money by breeding butterflies.

Coastal forests in East Africa once stretched from southern Somalia, through Kenya and Tanzania, and all the way south to Mozambique. However, these forestlands have long suffered from deforestation. Now, Kenya’s Arabuko Sokoke forest, which encompasses 42,000 hectares and is protected as a national forest reserve, represents the largest remaining block of coastal forest in the region.

Arabuko Sokoke is a treasure trove of endemic plants and animals, and is home to some of the most endangered species globally. More than 230 bird species live in the forest, among them rare species including the Clarke’s weaver bird, Pemba sunbird, and Sokoke scops owl. Endangered mammals like the African golden cat, the African elephant, Ader’s duiker, and bushy tailed Mongoose also live in the forest, as do 200 different butterfly species.

But the communities living around the forest have traditionally relied on it for their livelihood. From felling trees for sale to using timber for personal use, the communities for years played cat and mouse with the Kenyan government, which imposed a countrywide ban on logging in all public forests in 1999. Local conservationists, concerned about the impacts of illegal logging on this essential forest habitat, came up with an idea of creating nature based businesses like butterfly farming that would allow surrounding communities to transition to being forest protectors.

“We were losing the forest at a very fast rate,” said Shariff Mwandawiro a local community leader who was among the first butterfly farmers and who conducts conservation trainings in the community. “Dozens of trucks would be packed right inside the forest every day. The sounds of power saws and falling trees never stopped. We had to look for a way to stop it. But it had to be more rewarding to the communities than what they were currently getting.”

In 1993, with funding from the United Nations Development Programme, Kipepeo butterfly project was launched. (Kipepeo is Swahili for butterfly). The program involves introducing and training local communities in butterfly farming, monitoring activities to ensure sustainability of operations, and coordinating sales.

“We wanted the …more

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The Young and the Restless

The story of two giant otters in Peru’s Manu National Park

Cocha Otorongo, Manu National Park, Peru, 1993, 5:15 am. The otters stir in their den. A series of soft cooing sounds, followed by the characteristic “Let’s go” hum, indicates the family is ready to start the day. A moment later, Isla’s parents emerge. Together they visit the nearby latrine, their broad, flattened tails held high, before thoroughly spreading their scat. The circling movements of their forepaws and simultaneous shuffling of their hind legs combine in a comical scent-marking dance. Next, three-year old Isla appears at the entrance of the den. Unlike her parents, she pauses only briefly on the latrine, and is followed in rapid succession by her siblings, all of whom eagerly rush into the water. Their father does the work for them, waddling once more over the latrine to mix their scat. He is the last to leave the den site. The group sets off along the shoreline, just as a gossamer mist lifts from the surface of the water.

Photo by Frank Hajek A giant otter with a fish in Manu National Park.

Cocha Cashu, Manu National Park, Peru, 1993, 5:40 am. Dedo awakens. He will not hunt on the lake today. For a while now he has been feeling restless; the urge is upon him to find a mate and raise cubs of his own, in his own territory. It is the end of the dry season, water levels are at their lowest, and fish are readily accessible. After two carefree years with his family, the time has come to leave the only home he’s known. He slips out of the hollow amongst the tree roots where he has spent the night and enters the water. As he heads toward the far end of the lake, he sees his family. They are fishing along the shore and don’t notice him. He swims past them quietly and purposefully, and without looking back, enters the channel that will lead him to the Manu River.

Between 1999 and 2006, my husband, Frank, and I spent many months in the lush rainforests of southeastern Peru, monitoring and helping to protect populations of the endangered and charismatic giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) as part of a long-term and ongoing conservation program initiated by the Frankfurt Zoological Society in 1991. This is the story of Isla and Dedo, two young otters inhabiting the jewel that is Manu National Park, whose life histories became as familiar to us as the lives of favorite characters in a television …more

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In Canada, Oil Sands Workers Are Building a Greener Energy Sector

Worker-led initiative trains tradespeople in renewable energy to join help them join bourgeoning industry

Over the six years that Lliam Hildebrand worked in Alberta’s oil sands, he regularly broached a subject around the lunch table that he expected to be taboo: renewable energy. But Hildebrand, a journeyman welder and steel fabricator based in Victoria, British Columbia, found that the topic was front of mind for many workers, himself included.

artwork depicting a hard-hat worker and wind turbines© Picture (Licence CC BY-SA): Iron & EarthA dream scenario.

”I’ve always been environmentally minded, and always had a bit of a personal struggle with working in the oil sands and the contributions to climate change,” Hildebrand says. ”I found in the conversations I was having with the tradespeople up there, it was a shared experience… they’re interested in innovation and technology and they care about the future of the planet for their children.”

Hildebrand previously worked at a steel fabricating shop in Victoria, B.C., building pressure vessels for the oil sands and ship loaders for coal terminals. Later, he watched the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth while working on a windfarm weather station at the shop. He realized that tradespeople could play a key role in building renewable energy infrastructure. ”I started on a path to try and figure out how to make these things work in sync with each other,” he says.

His lunchtime conversations, combined with the atmosphere in Alberta – falling oil prices have led to massive job losses, while the provincial government has introduced a new climate policy – then encouraged Hildebrand to act.

He formally launched Iron & Earth, a worker-led initiative aiming to train tradespeople in renewable energy, in March 2016. Oil and gas workers have transferable skills, the organization posits, and they want to be part of building a greener energy industry in Canada. So why not help them get supplemental training to join this bourgeoning industry?

”It’s about time Canada starts diversifying our energy grid,” says Hildebrand, now executive director of Iron & Earth. ”We can build products we’re proud of and contribute to preventing global warming – and provide greater economic security and energy stability in Canada.”

A shared vision

The organization is led by Hildebrand and four directors – all tradespeople – who have worked or are working in Alberta. More than 450 members from various trades have joined Iron & Earth and expressed interest in training programs, including boilermakers, electricians, pipe fitters, ironworkers and labourers.

© Photo (Licence CC BY-SA): Iron & Earthmore

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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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