fieldnotes

 

National Parks
Sonoran Storm

By day Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southwestern Arizona is an awe-inspiring delight to the average park visitor, especially in spring and summer, when seasonal rains turn the desert floor lush with leafy shrubs and bright yellow and purple flowers. After dark, however, the 312,000-acre, federally protected wilderness, which shares a 30-mile border with Mexico, is transformed into a mini war zone. Outfitted with night-vision goggles and AR-15 assault rifles, park rangers chase armed drug smugglers and hordes of desperate, job-seeking illegal migrants, most of them from Central America and Mexico, who use the park's rugged mountain passes as prime routes into the United States. During the past four years an increasing amount of illegal traffic into the park (and into neighboring Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which borders Mexico for 56 miles) has scarred the Sonoran Desert landscape with tons of trash, spooked endangered species, including the Sonoran pronghorn, and cut more than 150 miles of new roads into sensitive backcountry habitat.

"A lot of them get funneled through here," says National Park Service biologist Ami Pate, referring to a mountain pass we've climbed to in the Puerto Blanco Mountains, several hundred feet above the desert valley. It shows. Abandoned backpacks, blankets, and countless empty plastic water jugs and tin food cans are strewn everywhere amid the rocks and creosote bushes. Extra clothing (to protect against freezing nighttime temperatures) lies in abandoned heaps. Random socks and sweatshirts are draped over teddy bear cholla and organ pipe cactus, the park's namesake. According to Pate, the spot is a known "staging area," one of many in the park used by the estimated 100 to 1,000 people who every night jump a barbed wire fence (left over from cattle-ranching days) at the Mexican border. They then embark on a dangerous two- or three-day trek through the remote mountain and desert terrain to a highway outside the park, where most are picked up by waiting vans heading to Tucson or Phoenix. (Last year 250 illegal migrants died in the scorching Arizona desert while making the journey.)

Illegal crossers are streaming through the porous borders of other public areas of the Southwest as well, including Arizona's Coronado National Monument. Crushed plant life and mounds of garbage there tell the same story. Park officials attribute the recent spike in illegal traffic to a crackdown at the urban border hubs in California and Texas, which has diverted migrants to more remote crossing points in the Arizona desert, many bordered by private ranches and parklands. Currently, the authorities are building a 5-foot-high, 30-mile-long barrier in Organ Pipe and another fence 2 miles long in Coronado, along their respective borders with Mexico, to cut down on the illegal vehicle traffic responsible for some of the greatest environmental damage. In addition, the U.S. Border Patrol is stepping up its enforcement in the besieged parks, with increased manpower, unmanned aerial vehicles, and electronic ground sensors.

But environmentalists and even many park staffers like Pate believe the problem is too widespread and too rooted in larger social and economic causes to be solved by a beefed-up law-enforcement presence. "In recent years this issue has been framed as 'the migrants are destroying the environment,' " says Jenny Neeley, Southwest associate for Defenders of Wildlife. "But what has been lost in this discussion is why the migrants are there in the first place. It's a shallow solution to say we need more border patrol. They're flooding these areas with new agents, but that's only going to push people further into the desert and wild areas."

—Keith Kloor


Innovation
Waterlogged

For the past century and a half, hydroelectric power has been a boon to the modern world. At the same time more than 45,000 major dams worldwide have buried large swaths of forests, many of them old growth, under water. Now eco-entrepreneur Chris Godsall, founder of Victoria, British Columbia–based Triton Logging, has invented a new tool, called the Sawfish, to recover the trapped timber. Godsall says his invention, a chainsaw-slinging, robotic logging submarine capable of cutting trees 700 feet below the surface, will ease the pressure on earth's remaining forests.

The yellow, boxy Sawfish is controlled by joysticks from the surface, where "the operator is basically playing a video game," says Godsall, who holds a master's degree in Responsibility and Business Practice from the University of Bath, in England. The robot locates a tree with sonar, clamps itself to the soon-to-be stump with a large grapple, bolts on the reusable air bag, and cuts the tree with a hydraulic saw. It then sends the "rediscovered" timber floating to the surface. (The water actually helps preserve trees because it lacks sufficient oxygen to break down the wood.) The hydraulic saw uses vegetable oil to prevent petro-pollution, and the Sawfish can cut up to 36 trees in a single dive—a great improvement over more dangerous and dirtier methods, such as sending down human divers or ripping trees out with chains, which disturbs the lakebed and clouds the water.

Some conservationists caution that underwater forestry should not detract from sustainable forestry on land. "Underwater wood is not renewable," says Ralph Ridder, who studies forests for the World Resources Institute. "It's a onetime harvest, not a long-term, viable source of timber."

But Panama's recent venture offers at least short-term hope. Recently several groups there asked Triton to help them log trees submerged under 166-square-mile Gatun Lake, which was created during construction of the Panama Canal (see "The Route to Prosperity"). For every tree reclaimed from the lake, Panama wants to preserve a tree on the land. "Our goal now is to deliver these Sawfish to every corner of the world, and start to see this industry take off," says Godsall, who estimates that there are more than 200 million trees standing at the bottoms of reservoirs and lakes around the world. "We're not going to solve the world's conservation problems," he admits. "But our technology is a viable way to rebalance the equation so remaining forests can regrow."

—Dan Porras

 


Q&A
A Must-Read

 

Daniel Cooper, director of bird conservation for Audubon California, is the author of a new 286-page book, Important Bird Areas of California. Three years in the making and drawing on hundreds of hours of contributions from dozens of advisers, this seminal work covers 150 IBAs. Not only is it doing a brisk business through various nature stores, but 10 of the state's chapters have placed bulk orders. Audubon recently spoke with Cooper.

Question: Why should the rest of the country care about California IBAs?
Answer: California is the most biodiverse state in the United States. We're a storehouse of the nation's richness in plant and animal life. Our wetlands, coastal waters, and grasslands are truly "south for the winter" for many of the birds that folks in the northern United States and Midwest see in the summer, so we must be good stewards of these species while they're here.

Q: Are there any surprise threats?
A: Crop change. Many birds take advantage of conditions created by agriculture—alfalfa, for instance, or the simulated marshes in rice fields. But clearing the land for vineyards dramatically changes the habitat for birds—for the worse.

Q: Do you see your book as being a kind of "Guide to Important Birding Areas"?
A: Not really. Lots of great birding spots aren't that important for birds. You may have a big backyard bird list, but that doesn't mean your backyard's an IBA. And a little trailer park in the desert may host thousands of migrating warblers, but the birds aren't there long, and maybe they would be better off stopping at some natural oasis.

Q: Do you have readers besides professionals?
A: I hope the book mobilizes Audubon chapter people as stewards, getting them into the field more often as monitors—maybe recording the songs and calls of the rarer species we need to know more about.

Q: What's your favorite IBA?
A: There are IBAs that I didn't know a thing about until this project, and now I can't wait to check out as I drive up and down the state. One of these is Lone Willow Slough, in the far corner of Madera County west of Fresno, which features original Central Valley floor grassland, nesting Swainson's hawks, and white-faced ibises flying in and out of a sea of bulrushes. These are the kinds of places we need to work to protect.

Important Bird Areas of California is available for $19.99, plus $5 shipping and handling, from Audubon California, 87 North Raymond Avenue, Suite 700, Pasadena, CA 91103.

—Frank Graham Jr.


Science
Distortion

The current administration may not be the first to politicize science, but it is the first to receive a bad scientific report card signed by more than 60 prominent scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates. The scientists—in a formal statement—charged the White House with suppressing or ignoring findings on everything from global warming to mercury contamination of fish. Last year, for example, White House advisers deleted sections from an Environmental Protection Agency report that linked rising greenhouse-gas emissions to the use of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil. Additionally, they inserted a discredited temperature study, funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute, that cast doubt on recent warming trends.

"This is a question of manipulation of scientific information," said Nobel laureate Philip W. Anderson, a physicist at Princeton University and one of the signatories. "Nixon may have fired his science adviser, but he didn't tinker with scientific reports." Marvin Goldberger, a former president of the California Institute of Technology and an adviser to three previous U.S. presidents on science issues, said he "has never seen such a distortion of scientific input" at the highest levels of government.

The scientists' statement was accompanied by a 38-page report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group that also accuses the Bush administration of "distorting and censoring scientific findings that contradict its policies."

"I can assure you that this is an administration that makes decisions based on the best available science," said President Bush's spokesperson Scott McClellan. To read the Union of Concerned Scientists report, log on to www.ucsusa.org.

—Dan Porras


Chapter Spotlight
Luck Be a Lady's Slipper

 

Hickory Hollow's escape from bulldozers offers an upbeat tale of a community on Virginia's Northern Neck acting in harmony to save its rural way of life. Among the beneficiaries are the rare Kentucky yellow lady's slipper and countless neotropical migrants that find a haven in the spring among the tract's forests, ravines, and swamps.

"Hickory Hollow, near the town of Kilmarnock, was the site of the Lancaster County poor farm in the 19th century," says Tom Teeples (above), a retired computer specialist who twice served as president of Northern Neck Audubon. "By the 1960s, when the farm was long gone, the county sold off a lot of the lumber. But Henry Bashore, a state forester, recognized the potential of the 254 remaining acres as a natural area." He and volunteers restored much of it and developed trails.

Birders here have since recorded more than 70 species, among them prothonotary warblers and yellow-breasted chats. Botanists from the College of William and Mary have long done research here, identifying hundreds of plants, including at least nine kinds of orchids.

But in 1999 Bashore alerted the chapter that the county supervisors planned to turn Hickory Hollow into an industrial park. He, Teeples, and other chapter members met with the supervisors. Ann Messick, a longtime chapter member, formed Friends of Hickory Hollow. By word of mouth, newspaper articles, and placards they rallied support.

The chapter learned the property contained the Kentucky yellow lady’s slipper, found only in a few places on earth. "No one knew of its existence here," Messick says. "In fact, several plants that don't exist elsewhere in the region are here. Some are disjuncts, like the false hellbore growing beside skunk cabbage in the swamp—usually it's found at higher elevations. There's an incredible diversity of plants, on the order of 500 species."

When 300 protesters crowded a public meeting, arguing the plan would change the community itself, the supervisors backed down. Using part of a $600,000 bequest left 20 years earlier by James and Millicent Faye, charter members of Northern Neck Audubon, the chapter secured matching funds from the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation. In 2000 it bought Hickory Hollow outright for $320,000. Messick is glad the supervisors felt the pressure. "They assured us they would put in a pond with ducks on it," she says. "We said that wasn't what we had in mind."

—Frank Graham Jr.


Marine Life
Jewels of the Deep

In the summer of 2002, biologist Jon Heifetz lay on his belly in the observation port of a cramped two-man Delta submarine, drifting 1,000 feet down through the Aleutian Islands' cold, inky waters. Once the Delta reached the bottom and the lights flicked on, Heifetz was dazzled by a tableau bursting with color and life. "One hundred percent of the seafloor was covered in corals in deep reds and green hues, sponges in yellow shades," he says. Heifetz and a group of five scientists who also went down in two-partner sub teams were so awed that one of the scientists, Robert Stone, dubbed the five areas within the 40-mile-wide, 175-mile-long trajectory the Coral Gardens of the Aleutians.

Heifetz, a fishery research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is one of only a handful of people ever to see the Coral Gardens of the Aleutians, which are thought to contain the highest diversity and abundance of deep-sea corals in the world. Discovery of the gardens and other millennia-old formations like them has triggered a battle over the protection of deep-sea corals in the Gulf of Alaska.

When a 2000 court order forced the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to reconsider the way fish habitat is identified and protected, coral advocates hoped vast swaths of deep-sea formations would be protected from fishing gear. Worldwide, bottom trawl fishing is recognized as the most pressing threat to deep-sea corals. Last February more than 1,300 scientists, including such luminaries as Edward O. Wilson and Sylvia Earle, called for a moratorium on bottom trawling in international waters in order to protect deep-sea corals.

But Alaska's billion-dollar commercial-fishing industry balked at increased regulation, and a draft of the NMFS proposal, released last January, stated the agency preferred to impose no new restrictions on destructive fishing practices.

More than 33,000 public comments—the most ever received by the agency—poured into the NMFS offices in the next 90 days, most asking for the protection of more coral areas, including the Coral Gardens, that scientists, conservation groups, and some fishermen had designated "habitat of particular concern." A final decision is expected in June 2005.

"According to the [federal] guidelines, you really have to make a connection to commercial fish and sustainability of fisheries in order to warrant protection as essential habitat. But that's almost separate from the inherent value of these places," Heifetz says. "They're unique and fragile environments. Simply as a living marine resource, they should be offered some protection."

—Jeff Hull

 



© 2004 National Audubon Society
 

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Inside Job

The northwestern crow, which lives on the Pacific coast from Alaska to Oregon, is a thief, stealing food found by others of its kind. But researchers have discovered that the crow alters its behavior depending on whether or not the bird it’s robbing is a relative. The northwestern crow forages in bird colonies on ocean beaches, inshore islands, river mouths, and coastal villages for stranded fish, clams, crabs, and eggs. Psychologist Renee Robinette Ha and biologist James Ha of the University of Washington report the birds are aggressive when stealing from unrelated crows (they actually land on them) but that they use a deceptively passive strategy when the intended victim is kin. "They'll walk up to or sidle next to the [related] bird with the food," says Renee Ha. The family shakedown is believed to be the first time such a behavior pattern has been observed in any bird species.

Les Line


Snowbirds

Like American seniors who flock to Florida each winter, aging birds in the United Kingdom could be benefiting from a milder climate. A recent
report by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) showed that bird banders have been capturing an unusually high number of individuals that are setting new longevity records for their species. Among the notable old-timers: an oystercatcher recaptured 35 years after it was first banded; a 29-year-old Leach's petrel that broke the age record for its species by almost 8 years; and a 22-year-old whooper swan that broke its species record by 7 years. Global warming, it seems, could be helping these older birds hang on. According to BTO biologist Graham Appleton, during the past several years there have been fewer periods of the kind of freezing winter weather that could cut off the birds' access to food.

—Jen Uscher

 

Sonic Boom

In 1997 excited colleagues phoned Ted Cranford, a biology professor at San Diego State University, to tell him they had frozen the head of a dead sperm whale that had washed ashore in central
California. The biologist drove that night to the Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake to use the Navy’s giant X-ray CT scanner—the only instrument Cranford could find that was big enough to scan a whale's head. What the scans revealed, for the first time, were the details of the immense bioacoustical machine in the sperm whale’s nose that is capable of pro-ducing the loudest biosonar sound on earth. Since then, Cranford has found the noise may be used to, among other things, locate and subdue prey. Some have compared the sound to the noise of a jet taking off, but Cranford resists that description: The jet’s noise is broadcast widely, he says. Sperm whale sound is different; it's concentrated into a narrow beam. "It's not like the sound fills the space around it," says Cranford, but "if you're standing nearby, it's going to knock the paint off your forehead."

—Michael Tennesen

 

Quick-Tongued

Ever watch a chameleon catch a fly? It can launch its sticky tongue more than one and a half times the length of its body, snatch an insect, and return it to its mouth in less than a quarter of a second. The acceleration in this trajectory
has been the subject of speculation for more than 100 years. Scientists originally attributed the jetlike catapult to blood or air rushing into the tongue. Later they decided it was the product of an accelerator muscle wrapped around the mid-tongue that possessed perhaps the fastest twitch in the animal kingdom. But last year, when Jurriaan H. de Groot and Johan L. van Leeuwen, two biologists in the Netherlands, trained a high-speed (500 frames per second) X-ray camera on the tongue, they pinpointed the real mechanism. It seems that the chameleon's tongue contains a set of up to nine tubular connective sleeves that slide along one another like the segments of an extended telescope. Those sleeves are loaded into the chameleon's mouth like a spring and, when released, make quick work of flies

—Michael Tennesen


A Case for Bad Breath

Garlic repels not only vampires and members of the opposite sex but apparently birds, too. In preliminary findings published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers found
that the more garlic they added to the bowls of caged European starlings, the less the birds ate. "They just didn't like it," says garlic expert Eric Block, a professor of chemistry at the University of Albany. Garlic products, Block says, can be used as a natural, nontoxic bird repellent, keeping birds away from valuable crops and sensitive areas like airport runways. Co-researcher Arla Hile, a bird behavioral ecologist and a visiting scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, videotaped one bird as it ate food laced with garlic and reported that it reacted in much the same way humans do when they eat hot peppers.

—Dan Porras


Invisible Ink

Desktop paper recycling has hit offices in Japan, thanks to a carbon-free ink and a portable eraser machine developed by Toshiba. The "e-blue" ink, which can be used in printers and ink pens, disappears when
subjected to the 284-degree-Fahrenheit heat of the erasing machine, which can clear 400 to 500 letter-size pages in less than three hours. Paper printed with e-blue ink can be reused until it falls apart; this can cut down on paper waste significantly. If the technology proves popular in Japan, where paper makes up 40 percent of total office trash, Toshiba will market it in the United States. In this country, New York City's Council on the Environment estimates that, despite office recycling programs, enough paper is thrown away each year to build a 12-foot wall stretching from New York to Los Angeles.

—Dan Porras



Power Stink

Garbage pits may become gold mines with the help of the Plasma Converter, a futuristic contraption that turns ordinary trash and hazardous waste into valuable, clean fuels like hydrogen. A stream of energy three times hotter than the surface of the sun breaks garbage down into basic atomic elements in the Converter, which can handle up to 100 tons of liquid and solid waste per day. The machine's Connecticut-based creator, Startech Environmental Corporation, claims it produces clean-burning gases that can then be converted into electricity. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States turns out 214 tons of hazardous waste every year. The Plasma Converter virtually vaporizes toxic refuse such as asbestos, contaminated soils, and old computers, which are otherwise difficult and expensive to dispose of. This machine could take recycling to a whole new (atomic) level.

—Dan Porras


Dry-Cleaning Ducks

In the past, birds caught in oil spills like the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska were cleaned with liquid detergent, a time-consuming process that is stressful for the birds. Now it’s possible to spray oil-covered
birds with a fine (nontoxic) iron dust and then use powerful magnets to strip away the sludge, scientists at Victoria University in Melbourne,
Australia, have concluded. This method removed up to 98 percent of contaminants from dead mallard ducks and little penguins, reports John Orbell, one of the researchers. (The testing has not yet been done on live birds; researchers want to be 100 percent sure it's not harmful.) He notes that the iron powder is also better for the environment than phosphate-based detergents, which cause water pollution and can spur toxic algal blooms.

—Rebecca Clarren

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