On a typically sweltering day in southern Louisiana this past June, 50 volunteers, including preteens and grandparents, slogged through wet, thigh-high earth on Fourchon beach to plug 11,000 smooth cordgrass plants into a manmade mud platform. It was hot, dirty work, but they may have saved a beach, along with the least terns and endangered piping plovers that seek refuge there. The effort is part of a massive ecological project that rivals the $8 billion Everglades restoration now under way in Florida. The ambitious Louisiana plan, which would cost an estimated $14 billion, aims to restore and create almost a half-million acres of wetlands by 2050. A diverse alliance of scientists, state and federal agencies, energy executives, commercial-fishing groups, and environmental organizations support the campaign. Louisianans believe the modest 45 acres of marsh rebuilt on Fourchon beach in June will help save their state from sinking further into the Gulf of Mexico.
Time is running out. Low-lying Louisiana loses about a football-field-size chunk of land every half-hour, as invading salt water from the Gulf of Mexico licks away at the state's wounded marshes. In the past 50 years about 1,500 square milesan area larger than Rhode Islandhave been erased. While a nearly $2 billion, short-term restoration plan, to begin in 2006, was recently supported by the White House (Congressional approval is pending), Louisianans are going ahead with their own initiatives, including the $800,000 Fourchon restoration. "This project can be used as a model," says Mitchell Pitre, a landscape contractor who grew many of the plants for the restoration. "What really needs to be done, though, is huge."
The crisis began about 300 years ago when the French tried to control the Mississippi River and its periodic flooding by building levees. In 1928 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assumed responsibility for constructing and maintaining what has become more than 2,000 miles of walls, depriving the delta of the millions of acres of sediment and fresh water that kept it alive. Oil and gas development in the state has also sliced canals into the fragile ecosystem, accelerating the erosion. (About 18 percent of U.S. oil and 24 percent of U.S. natural gas is extracted from Louisiana.)
In coastal areas, where millions live, there is a palpable sense of urgency. "I really worry about the people in south Louisiana," says Brian Kendrick, a civil engineer who worked at Fourchon. Residents face potentially fatal floods when storms and hurricanes batter the coastline. Biologists also fret over the fate of the millions of migratory birds that depend on the nutrient-rich waters, grasses, mangrove forests, and cypress swamps of the disappearing wetlands. "It's a challenging time for both the birds and the environmental community," says Don Norman, a biologist and wildlife consultant, who grew up in Louisiana. Studies show that a $26 million structure that restores freshwater flow, built in southeast Louisiana in 1991, has been a boon to waterfowl, but the undertaking has also incited controversial legal battles with oyster fishers, who claim the restoration put them out of business.
"That's just the tip of the iceberg," says Shea Penland, a geologist at the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans, referring to other looming conflicts between the restoration plan's multiple stakeholders. "In some cases oil and gas infrastructures are going to have to be moved to allow restoration to take place," he says.
But the energy industry is also at risk. Due to rapid coastal erosion,
fuel pipes originally buried under the soil are now being exposed to open
tides, wind, storms, and corrosive salt water. "Ultimately,"
adds Penland, "they benefit from the restoration."
The residents of Tucson, Arizona, one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, are making a big investment in conservation. In May voters there overwhelmingly approved a $174.3 million bond measure to purchase and safeguard up to 190,000 acres of critical Sonoran Desert habitat, which more than 250 speciesincluding the pygmy owl, mountain lion, and desert tortoise (above)rely on for refuge.
"It's the first time [Pima] county has looked at protection of natural resources as the backbone of how we are going to grow," says Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, a diverse alliance of 41 community and environmental groups that promoted the initiative. "With 65 percent of all voters turning out in its favor, this bond's passage says a lot about the public's support of open space," adds Sonja Macys, executive director of Tucson Audubon, a leading member of the coalition.
That support is part of a national trend that has been building for 40 years. Green Acres, the nation's first public open-space bond, was approved in New Jersey in 1961. Through the 1970s and 1980s conservation ballot measures slowly gained momentum in heavily developed areas on the East Coast. By the mid-1990s widespread concerns about sprawl had triggered a new wave of open-space bids, particularly in the Southwest. In the past six years alone, voters have approved more than $26 billion nationwide to preserve space, farmland and ranchland, parks, and watersheds. These actions seek to counter the annual 2 to 3 million acres that have been lost to development over the past decade. "Unless urban sprawl comes to an end, I think open-space ballot measures are going to continue to grow," says Ernest Cook, director of conservation finance for the Trust for Public Land.
Indeed, this November residents of Utah, Florida, California, Tennessee,
and Rhode Island are slated to cast their votes on an additional $617
million for open-space protection. As ballot measures gain momentum nationwide,
they are also becoming more effective tools of conservation by focusing
in on an area's most critical habitats. The recent passage of Tucson's
open-space bondwhich marks the first phase of the Sonoran Desert
Conservation Plan, a comprehensive environmental-protection and planning
blueprint covering nearly 6 million acresis a prime example. "This
bond has set a precedent for all other communities in the Southwest in
terms of multispecies habitat-conservation plans," says Campbell.
"We are conserving the lands that most need protection to support
the greatest amount of species."
Frank Gill's reign as national Audubon's science director is ending after more than seven years, though he'll continue to serve as senior ornithologist. The popular and influential Gill has put Audubon back in the big leagues of ornithology, both in this country and abroad. Audubon recently caught up with him.
Question: What brought
you to birds in the first place?
Frank Graham Jr.
Pleasant Valley will soon be an even nicer place to live than its name would suggest. In June it became the first town in New York to acquire all its electricity from wind turbines, thus joining an increasing number of businesses, colleges, and townships nationwide that are switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. "We want to do our part to make the air cleaner and help the environment," says John McNair, the Republican town supervisor.
It's no small part. The electricity Pleasant Valley purchases from a wind farm outside Syracuse creates zero pollution. That means the juice powering the town's lights, office buildings, and ball fields will no longer be responsible for emitting the annual equivalent of 356,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, a main global warming gas.
Improved technology and rising demand have cut the price of wind power. (Acknowledging a growing controversy over potential harm to birds, Audubon New York just passed a resolution supporting "wind power as a clean, renewable source with few environmental impacts" but called for surveys in "high-risk areas" to mitigate mortality.) In Pleasant Valley, 90 miles north of New York City, the change will cost the town's 10,000 residents less than an extra $2 per year, per household, says McNair, who signed the agreement with Community Energy, a company that represents wind farms across the Northeast. So far 23 New York municipalitiesalong with dozens of universities, businesses, and government institutionshave signed on to buy the company's wind power.
It helps that George Pataki, New York's environmentally minded Republican governor, has pledged that by 2013 the state will get a quarter of its power from wind, solar, and other renewable resources. Health concerns are a key factor for wind converts. A new study from Abt Associates, a consulting firm, found that air pollution from power plants causes the premature deaths of 23,600 Americans each year, mostly from respiratory and cardiac ailments. The analysis also reported that hundreds of thousands more suffer from asthma attacks, heart problems, and respiratory diseases as a result of soot from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.
"People don't really know where their energy comes from, or what the impacts are," says McNair, urging other towns to follow Pleasant Valley's lead. "I feel like the more people who get involved, all of us will breathe cleaner air, and live a little longer."
Ornithology lost a pioneer and a legend in May with the passing of Alexander F. Skutch at his farm in the Costa Rican rainforest, a week short of his 100th birthday. A native of Baltimore, Skutch went to the tropics in the 1920s as a botanist to study the banana for the United Fruit Company. He soon fell in love with the astonishing birds, and studied them for the next 75 years. As a vegetarian and teetotaler, he needed little to live on. Skutch (right, with his wife, Pamela) rode through Central America on a horse, eventually making known in scientific papers and books the life histories of hundreds of neotropical birds. In 1941 he bought a farm, Los Cusingos, in southern Costa Rica, where he researched and wrote about birdsincluding several Audubon articles in the 1940sfor the rest of his life.
He was the first ornithologist to point out the phenomenon of "helpers at nests"usually relatives of parent birds that help with rearing their young. Skutch, who was also a student of philosophy and religions, ventured that human life is not purposeless. Rather, the moments of intense pleasure we experience in our encounters with nature may well justify our existence. In his life, and in the delightful Edwardian prose of more than two dozen books, Alexander Skutch taught several generations of naturalists how to care about the natural world.
Frank Graham Jr.
Paper or Plastic?
After Brett Walker found one of his radio-collared greater sage grouses in the Wyoming plains, he realized immediately something was wrong. "Her head was tipped over, and her wings were drooping," says Walker, a biologist at the University of Montana in Missoula. Fifteen minutes later the grouse was dead. Within a matter of days, 7 out of 11 radio-collared birds were found facedown in the dirt. Lab results later revealed they all died of the same cause: West Nile virus. The deaths were part of a wave of West Nile casualties that ravaged the West in 2003, killing 182 birds in Wyoming and more than a thousand throughout the Rocky Mountain states. (Some experts say the toll could be thousands of times higher.)
At first biologists were puzzled, because there aren't many mosquitoes (the carrier of West Nile) on the sere plains, at least not enough to explain the large number of sage grouse (above) and other birds being killed. Streams and ponds dry up in summer, and most water comes from wells, so there are few places for the insects to breed. Additionally, the interior West has been in a severe drought for the past six years.
Then Walker and other researchers considered that coal-bed methane drilling was booming across the parched Wyoming landscape. Like a sponge, underground coal beds hold a mixture of water and methane gas. Energy companies pump out the water, extract the gas, and leave huge amounts of water behind on the surface. As a result the treeless plains are now dotted with thousands of shimmering ponds the size of swimming pools. "Our hypothesis is that mosquitoes are being produced in the coal-bed methane developments," says Greg Johnson, an entomologist at Montana State University in Bozeman, who is studying the spread of mosquitoes in the region.
If this proves true, the problem is likely to worsen: 19,000 coal-bed methane wells have already been drilled in Wyoming, and 32,000 more are in the planning stages. Though the evidence is still inconclusivea study last year found no link between West Nile infections and coal-bed methane developmentsome aren't taking any chances. In June Wyoming's governor, Democrat David Freudenthal, called for a one-year moratorium on any new coal-bed methane drilling near sage grouse habitat. Moreover, because invasive species and development have significantly eroded the sage grouse's ecological territory, environmentalists are now lobbying for the bird to be listed as a federally protected endangered species.
© 2004 National Audubon Society
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