Heritage Under Seige

If you think that public lands will be accessible forever, or that they are somehow protected from rapacious exploitation, think again. Presidential decree and ongoing legislation aim to open once-protected lands to plunder with disastrous consequences for wildlife, water, and antiquities.

I’m not fond of hyperbole, and tend to avoid dramatic environmental pronouncements. But today, “plunder” and “disastrous” are understatement. Here are a few examples of legislation on the table or in planning. (See High Country News for more info on many of these.)

Trump has reduced two extraordinary National Monuments, both Utah BLM lands, by more than half. In Bears Ears, this means roads, drilling, waste disposal and open-pit mining without regard to important Ute and other tribes heritage, including burial sites, ancient art, and important hunting and gathering sites. Trivial? Consider the uproar if we proposed putting a road through Wallowa County’s Prairie Creek (pioneer) cemetery, or proposed drilling for oil at the Arlington National cemetery. Destruction of cultural and ancestral sites, and traditional food resources is no less traumatic for native peoples than for us, and much less justifiable.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southeastern Utah protects critical paleontological sites. Or at least it did. Now reduced by more than half, sites that contain an extraordinary record of Cretaceous dinosaurs and ecosystems, including many new species, and including the ONLY fossil biological crusts, are now open to drilling and open pit coal mining. Yes the dinosaurs here enjoyed some lush forests. Their remains are entombed with or near coal beds. These are not very thick coal beds, but they ARE coal bed$. Profit and Plunder are insidious partners, especially for an administration and culture that cares little for science of any stripe.

Ah, but that’s in far, far away Utah. We are different, you might think.


In December, (fittingly, on December 7, Pearl Harbor’s anniversary) Senator Steve Daines, R-Montana, introduced a bill onto the U.S. Senate floor that would eliminate wilderness protection from 358,500 acres of Montana wilderness study areas (WSA). The bill would release all these acres of National Forest which now have wilderness-level protection to normal USFS multiple use management — roads, logging, grazing, mining, etc. There is considerable support for expanding the number of USFS WSA’s included in the bill and making it a national-level act.

First they came for the study areas. Wilderness, everywhere, could be next.

In the 1920s and 30’s there were boats on Mirror Lake just below Eagle Cap. The high county is only now recovering from over-grazing, mostly by sheep. (And trying to recover from over-trampling by humans today.) There are photos of men on motorcycles at Glacier Peak and Eagle Cap. The list goes on.

There is no guarantee that wilderness will remain wilderness. Or that ecosystems, and all they provide, are safe from greedy exploitation.

IF you think that legislation has protected wilderness, ecosystems, and heritage, think again.

On the Threats to Public Lands

Eagle Cap Morning-8x11XIf the pen is mightier than the sword, it’s time to write in defense public lands.

The Trump Administration draws fixated attention for its prejudicial policies and pronouncements on human rights, immigration, and the economy.

But its most disastrous actions are its irreversible damage to our national treasures — public resources and public lands– in pursuit of private profit. Offshore drilling. Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to mineral and energy exploitation. Denial of climate change and the consequent increased greenhouse gas emissions. Withdrawal from the Paris Accord. Shrinking protection for life-sustaining ecosystems and waters, and the invaluable cultural heritage of public lands.

Given the success of the Bundy’s assault on federal management of rapacious grazing, and the ultra-conservative Right’s intention of privatizing public lands, restricted public access to USFS, BLM, and other federal lands is probably somewhere on a back-room table. And placing Federal lands in private hands is probably right next to it. Look for those to emerge in the second Trump administration.

We are an increasingly urban society. Few who live in New York City or Los Angeles, or for that matter, Beaverton or Gresham, ever venture far from pavement. Open “vacant” spaces, can seem mildly threatening. Useless. Superfluous. In fact, a drain on public coffers.

We have no visible, vocal public lands champion in public office, either. No Stewart Udall. No Teddy Roosevelt. No-one who comes to mind. Environmental organizations seem to have lost their clout. Environmental advocacy lies tepidly on the national back burner.

While we dither over immigration policy, real disasters to ecosystems, and to the future of public lands, are ongoing, a creeping plague that eviscerates the American future.

So: Each week, this column will examine issues and search for ways to engage American’s once more with their Public lands. Stay tuned.

Life, Post-Truth.

Like many Americans, I am finally crawling out from under the bed where I have been curled in fetal position ever since November 8th.  It’s dark and dusty under there, the dogs need to be fed, the cats are querulous, and with temperatures now dipping below freezing, I need to get a fire started in the wood stove.

In essence, it is time to get on with life.


Above: Three USFS ecologists at Buckhorn Overlook, Wallowa County, talk about the diverse ecosystems in the Northwest.

But life is going to be different, has to be different, under a Trump administration. There is palpable, legitimate concern for civil rights, freedom of speech, for the demonization and deportation of immigrants, legal and otherwise. For women’s dignity and rights. For a slide back into the 1950s or 1850s and beyond. For the dawn of a new McCarthyism, for the erosion of democracy, for screwed up trade deals and vanishing diplomacy, and a world teetering on the brink of global divisiveness and social unrest.

These are real dangers.  But in my mind they pale in comparison to the threats to ecosystems, endangered species, forest and grassland ecosystems, the newly wrought fragility of the oceans,  and above all, the climate.  Whether you are LGBT, Black, Latino, Muslim, or, for that matter, KKK, you cannot long survive, let alone thrive, on a planet where a new, leadership class of willful scofflaws views science with disdain. We need clean water. (Ask Detroit.) We need clean air, clean energy, and vibrant ecosystems.  we were moving in that direction, albeit slowly.

But the incoming administration will happily reverse all this. They invent their own “facts.” Climate change is a hoax. We live in a “post-truth” nation.  I fear that we face a Great Dismantling of public lands and ecosystem protections. Abolish the EPA. Roll back requirements for EIS , logging, and grazing plans on federal lands.  In fact, why have any federal lands at all? This administration could easily buy into the false Malheur Refuge/Bundy mantra that federal lands, whether USFS, BLM, Monuments or National Parks were unjustly taken from hard-working Americans and should be returned. Who needs the tax drain of the federal bureaucracies–the BLM, the USFS?  Perhaps this is extreme, but it was among my darkest fantasies  while sharing space with the dust bunnies beneath the bed.

Like many people (in fact, the majority of 2016 voters) I  am unsure of how to address these concerns.  But it would be a mistake to simply wait and then react to whatever anti-environmental actions may be forthcoming. I hope that someone out there is planning a campaign in support of ecosystems, of salmon, rivers, pileated woodpeckers, western bumblebees, of all the furred and feathered, shelled and scaled, winged and wonderful, creatures on the planet, and especially in America.  Put me in, coach.












Smiling at Horses

Scientists are finally beginning to catch up with cowboys.

Anyone with good sense who has been around horses knows that equines are careful, and expressive, observers of people.

Now, thanks to researchers at the University of Sussex in England, this is a carefully documented fact.

In 2015, Jen Ward and her colleagues enumerated the expressiveness of a horses face—noting that horses control their facial expressions by combining 17 distinct muscle groups—more than dogs (16) or chimpanzees (12) but fewer than humans (27).

Horses, of course, respond to our voices and tonality, to body language, and to gestures. But Amy Victoria Smith, of the University of Sussex’s Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group wanted to know whether horses recognize and respond to human facial expressions, independent of other emotive clue. If you smile at your horse, does he relax? If you frown, does he worry? Previous research demonstrated that dogs respond to human facial expressions. What about equines?

Smith and her colleagues selected 28 horses for their research—21 geldings and seven mares, ages 4-23 years—all from local riding stables. To eliminate factors such as human body language, odors, and sounds, they only showed horses life-sized pictures of either a smiling, happy human, or a very angry, unhappy one.

sn-horses_0.jpgThe horses responded to these two different images in two very different ways.

When viewing the angry face, most horses turned their head to the left, looking at the image with their left eye. Their heart rates rose. The happy face elicited either a first look, turning their heads to the right, and viewing the image with the right eye,

Their heart rates remained stable

Like dogs, horses seem to process negative stimuli and observations with the right side of their brains—which is wired to the left-side of the body—and more positive stimuli with the left side of their brains—which is wired to the body’s right side. Hence, when scrutinizing a frown or a menacing, angry face, they turn their head to the left so that the left eye gets a detailed, monocular view of the situation, and the right side of the brain can process the threat.

What are the practical implications of this research? They might include that it really does pay to simply smile at your horse. Perhaps more importantly, if he turns his head to look at something with his left eye, it’s likely a cause of anxiety. You might want to take a deeper seat. And smile.

To read the entire research papers:

Horse facial expressions: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/ournal.pone.0131738

Horses recognizing human expressions:


Return of the Bumblebee?

Bombus occidenatlis is back! And it’s living on Zumwalt Prairie.

Since the mid-1990s, the western bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis) declined from being one of the most common to one of the rarest bumblebee species in the Pacific Northwest. This large, plain-looking black and yellow pollinator has become so rare that it was recently petitioned for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listing as threatened or endangered—the first insect species ever petitioned for listing.

But recent surveys of bees by Paul Rhoades of the University of Idaho and, Sujaya Rao of Oregon State University found small but growing populations of this vanishing bee in widely separated locations—Zumwalt Prairie, the Washington Palouse and the Olympic Mountains.

western bumblebee.jpgThere are 40 species of bumblebee in the western U.S. These animals have large, furry bodies that allow them to fly and work in colder temperatures when other bees are inactive. They are the premier pollinators in alpine and arctic environments. Like honeybees, bumblebees are social insects that live in colonies headed by one queen who is the mother off all the bees in the colony. Colonies usually inhabit abandoned rodent burrows, and prefer open meadows and grassland landscapes.

Native bees and native pollinators are in decline across the globe. The reasons are unresolved, but likely include disease and competition with non-native and commercially introduced species—which are also in trouble. Rhoades suggests that PNW native bumblebee decline is related to competition and diseases related to introduction of non-native bees (Nosema bombi) to pollinate greenhouses in the early 1990s.

Only 2.4 percent of bumblebees collected on the Washington Palouse were the western bumblebee (Bombus occidenatlis) Still, the news that populations may be on the increase, however slight, is heartening. The western bumblebee is especially important because it is a general pollinator, serving wildflowers, fruit trees, and crops that include tomatoes and eggplants.

On Zumwalt, Rhoades and his colleagues documented the presence of the bee. It is a fragile population, constituting only 2% of the 200 bumblebees counted over the two years (2012 and 2014) of the study. In 2011, Sujaya Rao and colleagues from Oregon State University, collected 49 western bumblebees on Zumwalt—the highest number of this species found in one area since its population collapse in the 1990’s.

So this important wildflower pollinator, once-common and now rare, seems to persist on Zumwalt. Researchers note that undisturbed habitat is important to this bee. With its abundance of open space and native grasslands, Zumwalt should provide an inviting habitat for recovery for a native son.

To read the original papers:

Rao: https://www.conservationgateway.org/ConservationByGeography/NorthAmerica/UnitedStates/oregon/Documents/2011-Rao_et_al-NWSci.pdf


Rhoades: http://jinsectscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/16/1/20


Guide to Bumblebees: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/documents/BumbleBeeGuideWestern2012.pdf


The secret of a long life

There may be a cure for cancer lurking in the genes of an ancient fish.  At least, that’s the hope of University of Kentucky genetic biologist Jeremiah Smith.  With a $1.5 million-dollar, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, Smith is working to understand how the lamprey—a fish that is virtually unchanged in the last 450million years—can discard troublesome parts of its genome, and thus, seemingly escape cancers and other genetically-related disease.

Jeremiah Smith became a biologist because he fell in love with fossils.  On his parent’s South Dakota ranch, there were dinosaurs in the hills, fish in the prairie, and more life in the ancient rocks than anywhere else. While he liked everything biological, Smith, now a professor of biology at the University of Kentucky, understood that life has a long history, and that some species of fish, amphibians, and reptiles have remained unchanged for very long time.  That history, Smith noted, was expressed in each organism’s genetic code. And the longer in time that a species has persisted, the more its genome could tell us about its tricks for survival.

Pacific lamprey are among many species of lamprey that discard a portion of their genes as a way of avoiding disease.

Pacific lamprey are among many species of lamprey that discard a portion of their genes as a way of avoiding disease.

Two fish are the undisputed champions of species longevity: the coelacanth and the lamprey. Coelacanths– a lobe-finned fish ancestral to land animals–were thought to be extinct for at least 70 million years.  But in 1938, they were discovered in the ocean depths off East Africa.  Lamprey, an eel-like parasitic fish that lacks jaws, is even older. Lampreys have persisted for at least 450 million years virtually unchanged from their fossilized ancestors.

Smith began his career studying the coelacanth’s ancient genome. Coelacanths– a lobe-finned fish ancestral to land animals–were thought to be extinct for at least 70 million years.  But in 1938, they were discovered in the ocean depths off East Africa.  In 2013, Smith was part of the team that unraveled its genetic code. Surprisingly, results demonstrated that genes involved in immunity and nitrogen excretion were important in adapting to life on land, as well as the more anticipated development of  tail, ear, eye, brain and smell.

Jeremiah Smith and two graduate students are exploring the lamprey genome for clues to curing many human genetic diseases.

Jeremiah Smith and two graduate students are exploring the lamprey genome for clues to curing many human genetic diseases.

Then Smith turned his attention to an even more ancient fish—the lamprey. Smith is working to understand how the lamprey—a fish that is almost unchanged in the last 450 million years—can discard troublesome parts of its genome, and thus, seemingly escape cancers and other genetically-related disease. Decoded, this may contribute to prevention or cures for human cancers immune-system disorders, and other maladies..

Every cell in the human body contains the same DNA.  Lampreys harbor two different sets of DNA.  As embryos, they archive a complete set of genes in their reproductive cells, but then discard about 20% of the DNA from the cells that will become their body and tissues. These are genes that, if damaged or inaccurately reproduced as a cell grows or divides leave lamprey vulnerable to run-away cell division, or to inaccuracies in the cell’s genetic materials–resulting in probable cancer, aging, and other gene-related maladies. While these genes are essential to keep in the reproducive cells, having them in the rest of the body is a liability. “The fact that lamprey are getting rid of these genes suggest they know something we don’t.” Smith noted.

With a 1.5 million-dollar grant from the National Institute of Health, Smith will determine exactly what the discarded lamprey genes control, and, importantly, whether the human equivalent genes behave in the same way.  In the genes of an ancient fish, may lie secrets to curing and preventing much human disease.

And such a mechanism for preventing disease may explain why some species persist unchanged for so long. Another venerable animal, the hagfish, has been unchanged for at lease 500 million years, and may date to the original Cambrian explosion of life.  Like the lamprey, it discards a portion of its genes.  There is, says Smith, some evidence that perhaps the coelacanth does the same.  A valuable lesson, perhaps for leading an uncluttered life, right down to the very basics.

The Future according to the Class of 2017.

Lone treeXxxxwebIf you’ve ever wondered what life will be like in the year 2065, I have some ideas, fresh from the people (Whitman students) who will be guiding us there.
Based upon my observation that when riding a motorcycle, you go where you are looking, I asked the 18-20 year-olds in my Environmental Studies 120 class to write about the world in 2065. They gazed into their crystal balls. Here’s what they saw.
Although most of it is not a pretty picture, they think there’s hope.
IMG_1102Let’s begin with what we fear might be true: “The world is an environmental mess, spiraling downwards towards environmental disaster.” one paper began pessimistically. The issues of 2065 enumerated by students include sediment piling up behind dams, groundwater resources polluted by fracking, and an ocean bereft of life and replete with dead zones. “The world is full of talkers and not enough doers” observes one. Another student, who may have read too much Cormack McCarty in other classes, wrote “In the boy’s drawing, the sky was yellow, the tree was gray with no leaves, and when the teacher asked the boy why there were no birds in his drawing of the tree he responded that he had never seen one.” Then the student notes that this is NOT how she thinks 2065 will be, but how it is liable to be if we continue the way we are.
haboob approachesAMost of these college freshmen are more optimistic. “A move to more local styles of living will reduce future energy needs.” one predicted.. “Because we are focused on preserving many natural landscapes, I would like to think there will still be beautiful landscapes in 2065” said another. Other ideas include cars that derive energy from solar panels embedded in road surfaces, solar-powered trains that provide most of our cross-country transportation, and a world in which we “first-world” humans have learned to live simple lives that require few resources or energy (The Great Simplification.) Another student passed a law that forbade hydrocarbon production of use. One paper suggested, tongue –in-cheek, that with rising sea levels, Manhattan had become “the Venice of the Americas” with Miami following suit, (and filing suit over New York’s trademarked slogan.)
13 mt baker sunset 1BXWho knows whether any of this will happen. (I especially enjoy imagining Manhattan–as-Venice.) We do face daunting problems of climate change, resource depletion, and population growth. Taken at face value, the future looks gloomy. But the freshmen– people who will be elders in 2065–have different ideas. They envision solving global problems.
I know from experience that you go where you look. Or, put another way, by a voice from a different wisdom philosophy that I don’t often quote: “Believe it is possible to solve your problem. Tremendous things happen to the believer. Believe the answer will come. It will.” (Norman Vincent Peale.)