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Copyrighting Nature

An artist uses her creativity to fight the construction of natural gas pipelines

In June 2015, ecological artist Aviva Rahmani installed an unusual work of art in a forest in Peekskill, New York. She and several dozen volunteers used non-toxic paint to create blue sine waves, the symbol for sound waves, on trees that stood in the pathway of a proposed natural gas pipeline. It would pass within 105 feet of the Indian Point nuclear power plant and carry the fuel under the Hudson River to within 30 feet of New York City. Each painted tree signified a different note. When strung together, they became the overture of a symphonic score by Rahmani named Blued Trees.

Photo by Jack Baran.Volunteers painting one of several 1/3 mile Blued Trees measures, in Rensselaer County, New York.

“When I looked at [maps of] the proposed pipeline, the first thing I thought of was musical lines,” Rahmani says. “I’ve had a great interest in music my whole life.” The 70-year-old, however, hoped that her creation—installed on private land with the owner's permission—would do more than just expose people to her art. She and a group of anti-fracking activists thought they could fight the future pipeline’s very existence. They hoped that by copyrighting the work, they might legally supersede the ability of Spectra Energy to take the land by eminent domain law (which allows the U.S. government to acquire private land for projects that benefit the public) and install the pipeline.

Rahmani and the other activists are opposed to fracking for the potential environmental impacts such as methane leaks, earthquakes, and groundwater contamination. They want the U.S. government to move away from fossil fuels and invest instead in clean and sustainable energy such as wind and solar power. “I have been intensely frustrated by the lack of regulatory programs against fossil fuel companies and the creeping horror of climate change,” Rahmani says when asked why she decided to join the activists.

Photographer: Aviva Rahmani The Algonquin (AIM) pipeline that was the subject of the Blued Trees Symphony Overture was conceptualized as iterated measures of the score from the Blue Mountain Reservation to the infrastructure for the Indian Point nuclear facility, indicated in red to the left of the image, within 105’ of the pipeline.

The Seed of an Idea

The copyright idea came …more

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Defending Mongolia’s Growing National Park System

A visit with Tumursukh Jal, director of one of the largest protected areas in northern Asia

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valleyA few months ago, when Mongolian national park director Tumursukh Jal was on an official visit to the Grand Canyon, one of his hosts asked a simple question: “How many national parks do you guys have there in your home country?” When Tumursukh mentioned there were 99 of them, his US colleagues seemed a bit nonplussed. “That many, really?”

Sensitive to his audience’s surprise, Tumursukh* went on to say: “Well, it seems to me that, when you Americans think of national parks, you normally conjure up a picture of one of your own amazing areas, like Yellowstone or Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon here. But you know, my friends, the rest of the world is catching up with you. Before long, we’ll have just as many national parks in Mongolia as you do here.”

Although it might take a few decades for Mongolia to surpass the United States in the sheer number of its national parks, in one way it already has outstripped America. The Mongolian parks now cover nearly seventy million acres, or almost one fifth of the entire country. By comparison, all the American national parks and monuments put together protect only 14 percent of US lands. And unlike America, where the pace of change is slower, there are new parks being created virtually every year in Mongolia. (Read more about the need for new national parks in the United States in the Journal feature “Room for More.”)

photo of Darhad Valley, MongoliaPhoto by Kerik Kouklis, courtesy of the Mongol Ecology CenterThe Darhad Valley, located in the Ulaan Taiga parks that Tumursukh manages.

The issue that worries Tumursukh is not that Mongolia lacks enough national parks. Instead, there is almost too much territory to protect – and certainly not enough park rangers and other resources to do the job correctly. This seems to be a problem facing many of the former Soviet bloc countries. Over the last 25 years, countries like Mongolia and Russia have been creating new parks at near-record rates. But now they need to catch up, and recruit qualified rangers and train them for the rigorous work of managing these parks. And to do this, they often need to reach out for advice …more

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Park Service Weighs Whether to Boost Dwindling Isle Royale Wolf Numbers

Isolated population, down to three wolves, strained by rising temperatures and inbreeding

In the late 1940s, Isle Royale’s moose population, which swam to the island decades earlier, welcomed some new visitors: a group of gray wolves. The wolves had walked to the Michigan island from Canada, crossing Lake Superior in the winter when the water was frozen and establishing Isle Royale as their new home. The wolf population grew over the next several years, preying on moose and mating both internally and with new wolves who crossed the ice bridge during the winter. 

photo of Gray WolfPhoto by John & Karen Hollingsworth/USFWSOnly three wolves remain in Isle Royale National Park.

Now the wolf population is in trouble, and wildlife managers in Isle Royale National Park, a designated wilderness area, face a tough decision: Repopulate the island’s dwindling wolf population, or allow the species to go extinct on the isolated island?

Managers have a plentiful source of information about the wolves at their fingertips. In 1958, researchers launched a 10-year study to monitor the predation habits of wolves and the wolf-moose relationship on the island. The project, which includes an annual survey of the wolf population, was extended past the 10-year mark, and continues to this day as the longest running predator-prey system study in the world. 

At its high point in the early 1980s, the Isle Royale wolf population numbered above 50 wolves, then leveled out at about 22 wolves. But in 2008, wolf numbers began to irreparably decline, and this year, the population dropped to an all-time low of only three wolves due primarily to complications from inbreeding and weather changes.

Rising global temperatures have prevented ice bridges from forming between Isle Royale and Canada — they’ve only formed twice in the past 16 years — so the wolves are stuck on the island to inbreed and the population is becoming unhealthier by the year. Wolves can’t walk over the ice to find healthy mates to breed with, and healthy wolves can’t come to the island.

Wolves are the top predator on the island, and historically, they have helped control moose numbers, saving the remote Isle Royale environment from ruin. With the wolf population down, there’s little to stop the moose from wildly overpopulating the island — which is exactly what’s happening. The number …more

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Tackling Lake Erie’s Toxic Algae Blooms

US and Canada working together to reduce summer phosphorous levels in the smallest Great Lake

As summer gets into full swing, the people of Toledo, Ohio, begin what has become a disturbing annual ritual —- the wait for a toxic algae bloom to erupt across Lake Erie. This year, however, the anticipation may be mixed with hope, as state and federal officials take on this persistent problem.  

photo of Lake Erie Toxic AlgaePhoto by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research LaboratoryA satellite image of the 2015 Lake Erie algae bloom.

The harmful blooms have a notorious history. In 2011, toxic algae in the open waters of Lake Erie’s Western Basin were 50 times higher than the World Health Organization limit for safe body contact. That same year, levels were 1,200 times higher than the limit for safe drinking water, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In August 2014, toxic algae shuttered the Toledo, Ohio drinking water treatment plant for several days, leading to advisories against the use of tap water in the city. The bloom also led to warnings for Pelee Island, Ontario residents not to use lake water. In total, more than 500,000 people were impacted. And the summer of 2015 produced the largest algae bloom in Lake Erie in 100 years. While it didn’t reach earlier toxicity levels, the bloom covered 300 square miles.

Lake Erie is the 12th largest lake on the planet and provides drinking water source for 11 million people. It’s the smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes. Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario all border Erie’s Western Basin, which is particularly vulnerable to toxic blooms. While algae are a natural presence in fresh water systems, large harmful outbreaks are linked to excessive levels of phosphorus in the lake waters. Coming into contact with the toxic algae, or swallowing algae-laden water, can cause rashes, vomiting, numbness, and difficulty breathing, among other symptoms. The toxic algae threaten not only drinking water, but rob oxygen from the waters creating dead zones where fish are unable to survive.

The algae problem begins when phosphorus enters the Erie watershed, primarily through agriculture fertilizer and manure runoff. Watersheds contributing to the problem include Canada’s Thames River and Leamington tributaries. In the United States, the Maumee River Basin with its 6,500-mile watershed is the largest phosphorus contributor.

Harmful Lake Erie blooms have been on the increase over the last …more

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Air Pollution May Affect Children’s Mental Health

Study finds increased psychiatric disorders among kids living in areas with higher vehicle emissions

Add one more to the long list of harms caused by air pollution — mental health problems in children.

A new study by researchers from Umeå University in Sweden warns that prolonged exposure to polluted air, especially air containing particulates from vehicle emissions, may affect brain and cognitive development in children and adolescents.

young boys playing on the streetPhoto by Jaume Escofet Researchers found that the risk of psychiatric disorders increased in areas where the ambient air had even a slightly higher concentration of nitrogen dioxide.

The study, based on a survey of medical prescriptions given to more than half a million Swedish children, found that the risk of psychiatric disorders increased in areas where the ambient air contained even a slightly higher concentration of nitrogen dioxide — a harmful gaseous compound emitted by vehicles. 

“There may be a link between exposure to air pollution and dispensed medications for certain psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents even at the relatively low levels of air pollution in the study regions,” the researchers noted.

For their study, the researchers collated data on prescriptions for a broad range of psychiatric disorders — including sedative medications, sleeping pills, and antipsychotic medications — given to children and adolescents below the age of 18 in Sweden’s four major counties, Stockholm, Västra Götaland, Skåne and Västerbotten over a period of three and a half years, from 2007 to 2010. 

They then compared this data to concentrations of particulate matter and nitrous dioxide found in each neighborhood and found that air pollution increased the risk of children and adolescents being given medication for at least one psychiatric disorder. 

They found that the risk of children suffering from such disorders increased by 9 percent with every 10 microgram per cubic meter rise in the concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the ambient air. And the risk remained the same even when socio-economic and demographic factors were taken into account. 

"The results can mean that a decreased concentration of air pollution, first and foremost traffic-related air pollution, may reduce psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents," lead researcher Anna Oudin, from Umeå University’s Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine, said in a statement. 

Air pollution, which the …more

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Environmental Justice Activists in Alabama Fight $30 Million Defamation Lawsuit

ACLU cites First Amendment, files for dismissal of suit that has ‘chilling effect’ on free speech

Free speech is enshrined in the American ethos. It is a core principle of the Constitution, protected by the First Amendment, and has been defended for centuries in the courts. In Uniontown, Alabama, however, a group of concerned citizens-turned-environmental justice activists are facing a challenge to their basic right to speech, for the simple act of speaking out against the disposal of millions of tons of coal ash in a local landfill.  

photo of Esther CalhounPhoto courtesy of ACLUEsther Calhoun is one of four Uniontown residents being sued for expressing concerns about a local landfill.

In April, Green Group Holdings and Howling Coyote, owners of the Arrowhead Landfill, sued four Uniontown residents for defamation. The residents — Esther Calhoun, Benjamin Eaton, Mary Schaeffer, and Ellis Long — are members of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Social Justice, an environmental justice citizens’ group that has organized against the waste disposal facility. The group is concerned about health and environmental impacts associated with the coal ash disposal at the site, including arsenic contamination. (Following a massive coal ash spill at a Tennessee landfill in 2008, some 4 million tons of spilled ash were transported across state lines to the Uniontown dump site.)

The $30 million suit alleges libel against the four activists for their role in running the Black Belt Citizens Facebook page. Facebook comments cited in Green Groups’ complaint include statements like “[The landfill has] affected our everyday life,” “It’s another impact of slavery,” and “We should all have the right to clean air and clean water.” Calhoun and Eaton were also sued for slander for public statements made on radio and television.

“I was blown away,” says Eaton, vice president of Black Belt Citizens and one of the activists named in the lawsuit, referring to when he first learned of the case. “How can you be [sued for defamation] when all of these things are going on in your community, and you are speaking out against the problems? That is beyond the things that make sense to me.”

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that it is meritless and a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP suit. As the ACLU put it in their brief: “None of the …more

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Down to 60: Scientists Contemplate Risky Captive Breeding for Endangered Vaquita

As the panda porpoise plunges toward extinction, scientists have a tough decision to make

Today, there are approximately 7.3 billion people on the planet — and only 60 vaquitas. The vaquita has seen its population drop by 92 percent in less than 20 years in Mexico’s Gulf of California as the tiny porpoises suffocate to death one-by-one in gillnets. Now, scientists with the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) are cautiously moving forward on a once unthinkable option: captive breeding.

photo of VaquitaPhoto by SEMARNATScientists are considering a once unthinkable option: captive breeding of vaquitas.

“We have no idea whether it is feasible to find, capture and maintain vaquitas in captivity much less whether they will reproduce,” said Barbara Taylor, one of the world’s foremost experts on the vaquita with NOAA. “The uncertainties are large.”

Captive breeding of vaquita, if it ever happens, would be a last-ditch and incredibly risky action, according to scientists. The world’s smallest porpoise and cetacean, vaquita (Phocoena sinus) are shy and retiring with eye patches that have led them to be described fondly as the ‘pandas of the sea.’ These rarely-seen porpoises also have the smallest range of any cetacean, only inhabiting about 2,300 square kilometers of marine waters in Mexico.

Until now scientists have been more than willing to leave them in their home waters, even as they watched the population plummet over two decades. This is because it’s quite possible that any captured vaquitas would perish quickly outside of their habitat. And even if they don’t, trying to get a pair of vaquita to mate and produce a healthy calf under captive conditions would likely require lots of trial and error — and there aren’t many vaquita left to bargain with.

But after a survey in December, scientists realized that the situation had become “so dire that all conservation options need to be considered,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, the chair of CIRVA and a vaquita expert.

In addition, porpoise husbandry and capture rates have improved to a point where vaquitas just might stand a chance in captivity, according to Taylor. Such facts helped push a number of members of CIRVA to recommend beginning research on what a captive program might look like.

One idea is that captive breeding wouldn’t have to occur in an aquarium facility.
Christopher J. Gervais, who currently heads the …more

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