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I currently have the privilege of working for the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Amongst the many conservation principles for which the organization stands, I admire most their over-arching management goal. The Audubon Society manages their properties for wild habitat over recreational use. Many parts of Audubon properties have no trail system, especially when there is the presence of rare or endangered species habitat. While recreation is considered a part of the mission, it is not a primary focus when acquiring property, or deciding how to manage it.

 

Properties are prioritized for acquisition based on conservation value. This means biodiversity, productivity, presence of rare or endangered species, proximity to riparian habitat or other contiguous habitat are given primacy. Trails are built to encourage access to nature and to facilitate environmental education, but also to direct human impacts to more acceptable parts of the property.

 

This ensures that human access to sensitive habitats is limited, in order to prevent disturbing areas of concern.

 

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I was recently allowed to take a walk through one such area. It was on the furthest reach of the property, where there were no trails. An area with calcareous ledges, which provide soil nutrients not found in many places.

 

I would describe the habitat as Rich Northern Hardwood Forest. The soil is damp and rich, and sugar maple, ash and hemlock are dominant trees. Besides the occasional invasive barberry, the understory was largely dominated by stinging nettle, wood fern and blue cohosh. There was a patch of ginger close to the ledges. In the wetter areas sensitive fern would dominate, with a smattering of baneberry. The deep woods provided ample cover for a singing veery, and the understory hid wood frogs along the wet ground.

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We came to this area in search of a particular plant, of which only two known specimens exist on the property. The plant is endangered, largely due to over-harvesting from human “foragers.” To compound manners, the plant takes years to come to maturity, and seeds often take years to germinate. As people have harvested wild populations of this plant, it has gone from rare to endangered in many states, only making it more valuable.

 

Wild Ginseng is a delicate looking plant. It is easy to overlook in a crowded understory. The stem is thin and the leaves radiate outward in a palmate manner. A stem with a gentle tuft of white flowers extends above the leaves. It is easy to confuse for sarsaparilla. In over an hour of scouring the ferns and nettles, we found only two specimens. There may well be more hidden in plan sight, but soon they may be gone.

 

Finding the plant was an exciting moment, filled with second guess and doubt. “Could this really be it?” We were careful not to disturb the area, and left a different way than we came. A quiet excitement filled my heart, getting to see something few people ever do… and one day may not at.

 

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Ginseng reminds us how the scarcity of something can create a self-perpetuating market failure. As it becomes more rare, it becomes more valuable, leading to people picking it with greater frequency. Without sensible regulation and enforcement of those regulations, this beautiful plant may be gone. Even as the FDA has determined the perceived benefits of using ginseng to be mythological.

 

Much in the same way people pick morels under the false belief that picking them enhances their population, people have over picked ginseng with little consideration of the ecological consequence. It is vitally important to leave what we find, especially if it is beautiful or useful. Otherwise, we may be compelled to live our lives without.

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I started as a seasonal Property Assistant at the Massachusetts Audubon Society on May 2nd.

5.2.2018: Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox, Ma – Clear, 64 degrees, breezy.

Birds:

  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Louisiana Waterthrush
  • Pine Warbler
  • Red-Wing Blackbird
  • Mallard
  • Black-Capped Chickadee
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Winter Wren
  • Tree Swallow

Mammals:

  • Gray Squirrel
  • Red Squirrel
  • Black Squirrel
  • Chipmunk

Plants:

  • Skunk Cabbage
  • Maples are blossoming
  • Willow catkins are out
  • Eurasian Honeysuckle and Multi-flora Rose are leafing out.
  • Red Trillium has flowered
  • Trout Lily has flowered

 

5.9.2018: Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox, Ma – Clear, 67 degrees, light breeze.

Birds:

  • American Redstart
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Wood Thrush heard singing
  • Ovenbird
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Blue-headed Vireo heard singing
  • Red-eyed Vireo heard singing
  • Scarlet Tanager heard singing
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Black and White Warbler heard singing
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak

 

Mammals:

  • Grey, Red and Black Squirrel
  • Chipmunk

 

Plants:

  • Bloodroot (flower already past)
  • Sensitive Fern
  • Bellwort

 

5.10.2018: Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox, Massachusetts – Clear, 64 degrees, light breeze.

 

Birds:

  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Yellow Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Common Yellow-throat
  • Black-capped Chickadees
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Chipping Sparrow

 

Reptiles:

  • 8 Painted Turtles observed basking along Pike’s Pond.

 

Mammals:

  • Gray Squirrel
  • Chipmunk

 

Plants:

  • Sensitive Fern
  • Trout Lily
  • Northern Lady Fern
  • Canada Mayflower Rosettes
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Solomon’s Seal
  • Red Trillium
  • Bloodroot
  • Violets

 

Field Notes

Upon recently returning to New England, I have once again begun the task of documenting the spring. Both my fascination with botany and ornithology have returned with the spring, and I am determined to collect my field notes here, for any interested parties. I am both attempting to gain a better understanding of phenology, as well as entire ecosystems, rather than just collecting and finding names for various species. I am hoping to develop a more holistic understanding of the word around me, rather than the superficial understanding I have had in years past. These field notes, I hope, will lay that groundwork.

 

 

4.28.2018: Mountain Meadow, Williamstown, Ma – Overcast, 54 degrees, light breeze.

Observations:

 

  • Red-tailed Hawk in a red maple tree, on the edge of the meadow.
  • Cardinal heard calling.
  • Invasive plants leafing out first: Multi-flora Rose, Eurasian Bush Honeysuckle, Garlic Mustard.
  • Male and female Bluebirds observed in the meadow.
  • Northern Red Oaks have buds. Some are starting to break.
  • Chickadess heard calling.
  • Red-tailed Hawk hunting an unobservable mammal along the hedgerow.
  • Buds on Sugar Maples and American Beeches.
  • Chipmunk and Black-capped Chickadees observed in the woods.
  • American Crow observed.
  • Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker observed, working a maple that had been girdled by bittersweet.
  • Some maples have blossoms – Striped Maple blossoms opening.
  • First ephemeral flowers observed near the height of land. Hepatica.
  • Grey Squirrels observed.
  • Song Sparrow heard.
  • Spring Peepers heard.
  • Observations cut short by rain. Animals appear to increase activity in advance of deteriorating weather conditions.
  • Northern Flicker, American Goldfinch and Downy Woodpecker all observed in the field shortly before the rain picks up.

 

This concludes the field notes from my first outing of the spring. There have been several since, which will be updated as I have time. Since April I have observed over 65 species of birds, most on Mass Audubon properties in the Berkshires. Many phenological observations have been recorded in this time too. It has been a strange and late spring. Late snow has delayed many wildflower observations, and the trees have only recently greened up all the way. These observations are important to make, especially given that climate change has caused many of these observations to occur earlier in recent years. Will a harsh and late spring have effects on species diversity and health going forward? This will be an important question to find answers to, since many species have been adapting to earlier and milder springs.

While working on the Appalachian Trail, I realized that many of the campsites used year in and year out by Thru-hikers are growing in size and degree of impact. Yet, many of the organizations tasked with monitoring campsites keep records in paper form and have no tangible concept of the way impacts are adding up.

In the video above, I used ArcMap to enter in a hypothetical centerpoint for a campsite. I then compile polygons, representing monitoring trips. Ideally, this data would be collected in such a way as to contain monitoring metrics in the attribute table, so the symbology can be classified by the severity of impact.

The video shows how one campsite grows over time. Typically, however, campsites don’t exist in isolation. This technique can be expanded to show multiple campsites bleeding into each other.

The area data can be compiled in either excel or R, and used as an input to a linear regression analysis. This can be used to project, that if impacts continue at the current rate, they would result in campsites over ever increasing size, until you wind up with giant camping areas.

By finding trouble spots on the trail and analyzing them over a five year period, enough data can be compiled to extrapolate useful modelling, which can help inform better management decisions.

Currently management decisions are being made without data to show whether they are working or not. Anecdotally, the impacts appear to get worse every year. Management and monitoring need to go hand in hand. When a decision is made, the impacts of that decision need to be monitored and that data needs to inform future decisions. Otherwise, we cannot be said to be making rational decisions.

In order to successfully conserve land, you must first understand what you are trying to conserve and why. Land Trusts typically spell out, in their mission statements, what their goals are. It is often better to be narrow, in this regard, than to try and “drink from a firehose.” There are, after all, many lands out there that need to be conserved, and not enough resources to conserve them. On the organizational level, this fact is most magnified.

 

In order to be successful, conservation organizations must be thoughtful about each step of the process. For instance, what grants should be applied for, will they build capacities for the organization’s mission or stretch the organization thin with new requirements. It is rare that a grant will cover an entire program. Often there is thee requirement that the organization receiving the money match it with a certain amount of their own fund-raising capacity. Grants come with requirements, so organizations do better to find grants with requirements they can easily meet, without building new capacities.

 

This is why it is important to define, as specifically as possible, what a conservation organization wishes to conserve. Many Land Trusts conserve land as wildlands, and others conserve agricultural land. It is more difficult to try and do both well. Many organizations that conserve wildlands, conserve forests, riparian zones, different types of wetlands, etc. Even in this regard, a degree of specificity is important. When trying to decide whether a particular tract is work putting resources into conserving, it helps to use Overlays. If any organization decides to preserve forested land, it can favor forested lands that are near other protected lands, in order to expand the conserved landscape. It may choose the favor those near riparian zones or wetlands. It may choose the favor those with endangered species habitat or certain soil types. All of these aspects can be represented spatially, and GIS can be used to better construct an effective overlay.

 

It is important to identify a geographic region of importance. In this case, I have identified South Whitehall Township as an important area, because of its low percentage of total lands being conserved. (An organization can choose to value areas with a high level of conserved land instead). Since I have chosen South Whitehall, all the other layers will be clipped to focus on just South Whitehall.

 

Overlay Map2

Percent of Land Conserved

 

Lets say an organizations wish to favor forested properties, near protected lands, riparian zones and wetlands, with a presence of endangered species. One can make a model, taking land use layers, protected lands layers, riparian and wetlands layers and endangered species habitat layers. Each of these can be used to create a buffer (how close to the object should the protected land be). Again, this is derived by deciding how much certain layers should be valued. After making buffers, these can be merged into a single layer and joined to a tax parcel map. The join will maintain the geometry of the conservation layers, and tell you which properties are intersected by the conservation buffers, and thus a high priority for conservation. The output, in the example of South Whitehall Township, near Allentown, Pennsylvania, would look like this:

Overlay Map

The Green shows properties of potentially high conservation value.

 

(Wrote this in December as a environmental writing sample)

 

The EPA To Regulate Asbestos and Other Toxic Chemicals

 

The EPA has released a list of ten chemicals to be regulated under a new amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act.

 

By Glenn Nelson

 

On June 22, 2016, President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act into law. The new law amends the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), and will require the EPA to evaluate existing chemicals with “clear and enforceable deadlines,” according to an agency press release. The law aims for “increased public transparency,” while holding the chemicals to “new risk-based safety standards.”

On November 29, the EPA released a statement listing the first ten chemicals to be evaluated under the new law. These chemicals include asbestos, dioxane, and carbon tetrachloride, amongst other common chemicals.

Asbestos is perhaps the most commonly known chemical on the list and has already been classified as a known carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Asbestos is associated with mesothelioma, lung cancer and other health problems. According to the National Institute of Health, disturbing asbestos products can release fibers into the air, which can become trapped in the lungs for long durations.

In the past asbestos was commonly used by the building industry for insulation, fireproofing, roofing and sound absorption. In 1989 the EPA banned all new uses of asbestos, however uses predating the ban were not regulated. Despite there being no effective ban on asbestos, there has been a significant decline in consumer use.

The EPA chose the first ten chemicals from a list of 90. The chemicals were selected for evaluation on the basis of potential hazard, and the likelihood of public exposure. The EPA will be choosing additional chemicals to evaluate and must have 20 chemical risk evaluations ongoing by 2019. At least half of the chemicals evaluated by the EPA must come from the TSCA Work Plan, until the list of 90 chemicals has been exhausted.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-toxic-substances-control-act

 

https://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/evaluating-risk-existing-chemicals-under-tsca#chemical%20selection

 

https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-names-first-chemicals-review-under-new-tsca-legislation

 

https://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/frank-r-lautenberg-chemical-safety-21st-century-act

 

https://www.epa.gov/chemicals-under-tsca

 

https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet

 

 

 

 

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For the past six months I have been working on a “sustainable,” organic sugar bush. In that time I have seen a number of impacts, which seem like a necessary consequence of our activities, that certainly appear to impact the landscape. However, the industry maintains that when tapping is done right, the impact to the trees should be negligible and the woods should be preserved. In fact, one of the aspects my company brags about, is that the woods have been preserved from logging and development. While clearing the woods for logging or development may be more obviously impactful, there are still aspects of the process which should be more deeply investigated before we can call the industry sustainable.

 

The first (and probably most noticeable) impact which should be examined is the use of plastic piping to convey the sap down the mountain. Best practices suggest that the 5/16″ lateral lines be replaced every five years, drop lines every three to five years and one inch branches every ten to fifteen years. The plastic can sometimes be melted down and reused, but it is uncommon to see recycling of these materials on a large scale as of yet. Considering that we’ve used tens of thousands of feet of one inch piping and possibly hundreds of thousands of feet of 5/16″ lateral line, we are certainly creating untold tons of plastic waste, every few years. The University of Vermont claims that as many as 88 tons of maple tubing are replaced in the Vermont woods, per year, as of 2009. This number is surely higher by now, given that there are many more large producers taking up residence in the state. UVM then predicted that sugarmakers would make progress in recycling in the years to follow, and they have, but to what degree is not yet clear, and there is certainly still a large amount of waste being produced.

 

Waste is not the only question raised, when we consider sustainability in this industry. There is also the question of tree health. The industry claims that when tapped properly, sugaring should have no negative impact to the health of the tree, or at least negligible impact. Producers have been using smaller tap sizes to reduce the amount of dead transport wood created in the tree, but they have also started using vacuum systems to create a pressure differential, tricking trees into thinking their is higher atmospheric pressure, and thus that it is an appropriate time for sap to run. The impacts of vacuum are still an open question, as far as how trees are impacted. On a basic level, the vacuum has allowed syrup producers to collect more sap per tap. This alone should be a red flag. Trees use the sap we wish to collect to build new structures each spring. This includes the leaves needed to photosynthesize and reproductive organs. The greater the sap we succeed in pulling from the tree, the less it has for itself. While research done by UVM would suggest that there are no known impacts, it seems obvious that there must be at least some detrimental effects, and that perhaps we just aren’t seeing them yet.

 

Furthermore, there is the open question as to whether the scarring is expanded by draining more of the tree’s transport wood. In experiments conducted by UVM, the trees subjected vacuum did not show statistically significant impacts, compared to those tapped with gravity. I would consider the results of the 2007 study to be inconclusive and requiring further investigation. I would hypothesize that trees subjected to multiple years of 25″ Hg of vacuum would show advanced scarring, compared to gravity taps of the same size, but there is no available data yet.

 

Finally, sugar bushes fragment habitat, in woodlands considered by the companies tapping maple trees to be “conserved.” The larger the sugarbush, the more infrastructure and development is necessary to get the sap out. First roads are needed to make the installation possible. Second, branches are often cleared of brush to make the installation of one inch pipe and main lines easier. The installation of tubing further fragments the woods. Many involved in the installation of sugaring infrastructure anecdotally claim the impacts on wildlife to be negligible, but this seems highly unlikely. The use of noisy machinery like chainsaws and ATVs disturb wildlife and often chase them from the immediate area. The infrastructure installation fragments the areas where animals need contiguous habitat to range.

 

Study has been done on how sugarbush management compares with biodiversity management standards. However, there seems to be an open research question in verifying whether the practices in use are, in fact, impacting habitat. Simply using observed control species-area relationships vs. experimental species area relationships on sugarbushes could help to answer this question.

 

While the industry continues to claim it is operating in an environmentally sustainable manner, I feel there are many open research questions that need to be resolved before we can use the term sustainable. My hope is that research institutions like UVM will continue to investigate these questions, and that best practices can be improved within the industry. It will take cooperation between the private industry, research institution and governmental regulatory agencies to advance the cause of sustainability.