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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®

E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Why are wetlands so important to preserve? -- Patricia Mancuso, Erie, PA

Wetlands include swamps, marshes, bogs, riverbanks, mangroves, floodplains, rice fields—and anywhere else, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that saturation with water is the dominant factor determining the nature of soil development and the types of plant and animal communities there. They are widespread in every country and on every continent except Antarctica. If all the world’s wetlands were put together, they would take up an area one-third larger than the United States.

Environmentalists, biologists and others concerned about the health of the planet and its inhabitants recognize the key role wetlands play in life on Earth. The EPA points out that, besides containing a disproportionately high number of plant and animal species compared to other land forms, wetlands serve a variety of ecological services including feeding downstream waters, trapping floodwaters, recharging groundwater supplies, removing pollution and providing fish and wildlife habitat. Wetlands can also be key drivers of local economies, given their importance to agriculture, recreation and fishing.

According to Wetlands International, a global non-profit dedicated to the conservation and restoration of wetlands around the world, wetlands are on the “front-line” as development pressures increase everywhere. “Wetlands are vulnerable to over-exploitation due to their abundance of fish, fuel and water,” reports the group, which works on the ground in 18 countries to educate the public and policymakers about the health of local wetlands and to advocate for better policies. “When they are viewed as unproductive or marginal lands, wetlands are targeted for drainage and conversion.”

“The rate of loss and deterioration of wetlands is accelerating in all regions of the world,” the group adds. “The pressure on wetlands is likely to intensify in the coming decades due to increased global demand for land and water, as well as climate change.”

The widespread expansion of development in the U.S. in recent decades has brought the issue of wetlands loss to the forefront of debates on zoning and land use planning. One of the key and underlying issues is concern about endangered species: More than a third of species on the U.S. Endangered Species List live only in wetlands and almost half use them at some time during their lifecycles.

While the issue lingers on in municipal planning meetings around the country, the federal government does what it can to protect wetlands. It does so through regulations spelled out in the Clean Water Act, which include providing tax incentives for selling or giving wetlands to land trusts or other conservation groups, via cooperative efforts with state and local entities, and by acquiring wetlands outright to add acreage to public lands systems. And several states have passed laws to regulate activities in wetlands, and many municipalities include wetlands conservation in their development permitting and zoning processes.

Readers can do their part by staying current on local zoning laws, keeping an eye on local wetlands and speaking up if something looks amiss. Potential problems are much easier to resolve early on than after damage is done, so speaking up soon can often lead to more successful and less contentious outcomes.


CONTACTS: EPA Wetlands, water.epa.gov/type/wetlands/; Wetlands International, www.wetlands.org.


EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the “All One Ocean” campaign? --Bill O’Neill, Los Angeles, CA

All One Ocean is a non-profit campaign launched in 2010 by long-time author, activist and organizer Hallie Austen Iglehart with the goal of reducing the amount of plastic and other trash that ends up in the ocean where it compromises the health of marine wildlife and ecosystems. Iglehart was incensed to learn that a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles die each year from ingesting plastic in the water column—and created All One Ocean to do something about it.

Contrary to popular myth that most ocean pollution is oil spilled from ships, most of it is land-based litter. “The most dangerous litter is our throw-away plastic because of its longevity and capacity to increase in toxicity, eventually returning to the human food chain in a more lethal form,” reports Iglehart.

“Much of our plastic ends up in the ocean in giant collections of trash called gyres, created by circular ocean currents,” she adds. “They trap debris for decades where it continues to break into ever smaller, more toxic pieces, never fully biodegrading.” Of particular concern to Iglehart is the fact that much of this carelessly discarded plastic winds up in the bellies of marine life, contaminating not just ocean ecosystems but in some cases the very seafood on our dinner plates.

The main project of All One Ocean is the creation and maintenance of permanent, community supported Beach Clean Up Stations, which are essentially boxes containing reusable bags for beach visitors to use in picking up trash during their time on the sand and in the surf. The idea is to empty any garbage into a trash can somewhere (so it can find its way to a landfill instead of out into the ocean) and then ideally return the bag empty to the box. Each clean-up station also provides a sign with information on the extent of the problem and other ways individuals can help. The idea, according to Iglehart, is to provide “a simple, doable way for people to have fun cleaning up trash as they enjoy their beach activities.”

“The Beach Clean Up Station is a practical way to insure that clean up is happening everyday on all our beaches,” says Iglehart. “Like ‘adopt a highway’ campaigns, Beach Clean Up Stations create community around care for and education about these clean up hubs.”

She would like to see Beach Clean Up Stations in place at coastal and even freshwater beaches all around the world, but for now the group is starting out in Northern California. The first one was put in place at Limantour Beach at the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County there, with several following at other San Francisco Bay area beaches. Iglehart hopes the campaign will encourage people to reconsider their consumption of single use plastics, since the production and distribution of such items contributes not just to the demise of the oceans but also to increased global warming.

Unlike many environmental issues that seem beyond our control, cleaning up beaches is something anyone can do and indeed every little bit helps. “Every tiny piece of human trash picked up,” Iglehart reminds us, “is one less toxin in someone’s stomach.”

CONTACT: All One Ocean, www.alloneocean.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Why was the Colorado River named the most endangered river of 2013?

-- Missy Perkins, Jenkintown, PA

American Rivers, a leading non-profit dedicated to the conservation of rivers and riparian corridors across the U.S., recently unveiled its annual list of the nation’s most endangered rivers. The mighty Colorado earned the #1 spot, thanks mostly to outdated water management practices in the face of growing demand and persistent drought. “This year’s America’s Most Endangered Rivers report underscores the problems that arise for communities and the environment when we drain too much water out of rivers,” says American Rivers’ president Bob Irvin. “The Colorado River...is so over-tapped that it dries up to a trickle before reaching the sea.”

Indeed, 36 million of us drink water from the Colorado. The river responsible for cutting the Grand Canyon irrigates nearly four million acres of farmland where some 15 percent of the nation’s crops are grown. But according to American Rivers, over-allocation and drought have placed significant stress on water supplies and river health—and another summer drought is on the way. A 2013 study by the federal Bureau of Reclamation finds that there isn’t enough water in the Colorado to meet current demands and that the flow will be as much as 30 percent less by 2050 due to climate change. That reduced flow threatens not only endangered fish and wildlife but also the river system’s $26 billion recreation economy.

“We simply cannot continue with status quo water management,” says Irvin. “It is time for stakeholders across the Colorado Basin to come together around solutions to ensure reliable water supplies and a healthy river for future generations.” American Rivers has gathered dozens of community groups and other partners together to urge Congress to allot significant funds for river clean-up, state-of-the-art water conservation techniques in cities and on farms, and water sharing mechanisms that allow communities to adapt to warmer temperatures and more erratic precipitation as global warming takes effect.

Individuals can do their part by conserving water and spreading the word among friends and neighbors. Another way to help is to send a letter to Congress via American Rivers’ website outlining why instituting better water management practices up and down the Colorado is important to all Americans. Meanwhile, National Geographic’s Change the Course campaign challenges everyday Americans to pledge to shrink their “water footprint.” For every pledge received, corporate sponsors donate funds that partnering orgnizations then use for ecological restoration and other projects that return water to the river.

The Colorado is far from the only U.S. river in trouble. The runner-up on American Rivers’ 2013 list is Georgia’s Flint River, where excessive agricultural and municipal demands are taking too much water out. The story is similar for several other rivers on the list: Texas’ San Saba, Wisconsin’s Little Plover, and the Catawba in North and South Carolina. “The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates,” reports the group. “Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.” The group hopes that all the attention it is showering on the Colorado this year will help turn it into another American conservation success story.

CONTACTS: American Rivers, www.americanrivers.org; Change the Course, www.changethecourse.us.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that, despite the popularity of organic foods, clothing and other products, organic agriculture is still only practiced on a tiny percentage of land worldwide. What’s getting in the way? -- Larry McFarlane, Boston, MA

Organic production may still represent only a small fraction of agricultural sales in the U.S. and worldwide, but it as been growing rapidly over the last two decades. According to the latest global census of farming practices, the area of land certified as organic makes up less than one percent of global agricultural land—but it has grown more than threefold since 1999, with upwards of 37 million hectares of land worldwide now under organic cultivation. The Organic Trade Association forecasts steady growth of nine percent or more annually for organic agriculture in the foreseeable future.


But despite this growth, no one expects organic agriculture to top conventional techniques any time soon. The biggest hurdle for organics is the added cost of sustainable practices. “The cost of organic food is higher than that of conventional food because the organic price tag more closely reflects the true cost of growing the food,” reports the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). “The intensive management and labor used in organic production are frequently (though not always) more expensive than the chemicals routinely used on conventional farms.” However, there is evidence that if the indirect costs of conventional food production—such as the impact on public health of chemicals released into our air and water—were factored in, non-organic foods would cost the same or as much as organic foods.

Other problems for organic foods include changing perceptions about just how much healthier they are than non-organics. “Many devotees of organic foods purchase them in order to avoid exposure to harmful levels of pesticides,” writes Henry I. Miller in Forbes. “But that’s a poor rationale: Non-organic fruits and vegetables had more pesticide residue, to be sure, but more than 99 percent of the time the levels were below the permissible, very conservative safety limits set by regulators—limits that are established by the Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the Food and Drug Administration.”

He adds that just because a farm is organic doesn’t mean the food it produces will be free of potentially toxic elements. While organic standards may preclude the use of synthetic inputs, organic farms often utilize so-called “natural” pesticides and what Miller calls “pathogen-laden animal excreta as fertilizer” that can also end up making consumers sick and have been linked to cancers and other serious illnesses (like their synthetic counterparts). Miller believes that as more consumers become aware of these problems, the percentage of the agriculture market taken up by organics will begin to shrink.

Another challenge facing the organic sector is a shortage of organic raw materials such as grain, sugar and livestock feed. Without a steady supply of these basics, organic farmers can’t harvest enough products to make their businesses viable. Meanwhile, competition from food marketed as “locally grown” or “natural” is also cutting into organic’s slice of the overall agriculture pie.

Organic agriculture is sure to keep growing for years to come. And even if the health benefits of eating organic aren’t significant, the environmental advantages of organic agriculture—which are, of course, also public health advantages—make the practice well worth supporting.


CONTACTS: Organic Trade Association, www.ota.com; OFRF, www.ofrf.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that pet cats prey on lots of birds and other "neighborhood" wildlife, but isn't it cruel to force felines to live indoors only? And isn’t human encroachment the real issue for bird populations, not a few opportunistic cats? -- Jason Braunstein, Laos, NM

While it is true that habitat loss as a result of human encroachment is a primary threat to birds and wildlife of all kinds, outdoor cats are no doubt exacerbating the loss of biodiversity as their numbers swell and they carry on their instinctual business of hunting.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Peter Marra estimates that outdoor cats in the United States, counting both pets and feral animals, kill up to 3.7 billion birds each year—along with up to 20 billion other small mammals. Researchers estimate that roughly 114 million cats live in the contiguous U.S., 84 million of them pets and the rest feral—and that as many as 70 percent of pet cats spend some time roaming outside and hunting.

“Cats are a nonnative species,” reminds Marra, adding that they often target native species and can transform places that would normally harbor many young birds into “sinks that drain birds from neighboring populations.” As a result of this ongoing predation, many environmentalists and animal lovers think cats should stay inside. “The big message is responsible pet ownership,” Marra says. He acknowledges that feral cats may be the bigger problem, but pet cats still catch as many as two billion wild animals a year.

The non-profit American Humane Association reports that there are several ways to keep indoor cats happy even though they are restricted from chasing and hunting wildlife. Getting Fluffy a companion (another cat or even a dog) is a good way to provide an outlet for play. Likewise, interactive toys, scratching posts, cat perches and other amenities—check with any well-stocked local pet store—can make the indoor environment a stimulating yet safe one for housebound cats and should serve to prevent stir-crazy behavior.

Meanwhile, another non-profit, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), adds another reason why cat owners might want to think about restricting their pet’s territory to inside: Research shows that indoor cats live significantly longer lives than their free-roaming counterparts. “Life for outdoor cats is risky,” reports the group. “They can get hit by cars; attacked by dogs, other cats, coyotes or wildlife; contract fatal diseases, such as rabies, feline distemper, or feline immunodeficiency virus; get lost, stolen, or poisoned; or suffer during severe weather conditions.”

But the fact that feral cat populations have gotten so large in recent years makes the problem that much more vexing. Researchers concede that efforts to catch and either neuter or euthanize feral cats have proven ineffective given their booming populations, leaving cat owners wondering whether jeopardizing Fluffy's mental health for the sake of saving a few birds is really even worthwhile.

CONTACTS: Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/; American Humane Association, www.americanhumane.org; American Bird Conservancy, www.abcbirds.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that there has been an increase in uranium mining in the U.S. due to a renewed interest in nuclear energy? What are the health and environmental ramifications of this?

-- Paul Raffman, New Bedford, MA

The big boom for American uranium mining was in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the U.S. remained the world’s leading producer of the radioactive element for many years until 1980 when U.S. production fell off dramatically due to dropping uranium prices as other countries stepped up mining of their own sources. Today American miners turn out only about 10 percent of what they were producing in 1980.

But that may all change as several deep-pocketed mining interests have turned up the heat on lawmakers to allow them to explore and open up new sources of uranium across the American West and elsewhere. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council reports that the timing is no coincidence since the program that has been supplying a large portion of U.S. uranium needs in recent years—Russia’s surplus weapons uranium stockpile—is ending this year. This restriction of supply is predicted to drive prices up. Mining interests are pushing hard to open up promising sites to their drills while keeping many existing uranium mining sites open but inactive in hopes they get the green light to ramp up extraction.

The dark sides of uranium mining are well documented by now, though workers in the industry during its heyday had no idea how hazardous the element would be. Indeed, uranium miners have experienced high rates of cancer, heart disease and birth defects. Stronger regulations have since been put in place to protect mine workers, but increased cancer rates still remain an issue for current and former mine workers.

As for risk to the public, uranium mining releases radon from the ground into the atmosphere, thus posing a slight risk to surrounding populations. Radon and other pollutants can also make their way into streams, springs and other bodies of water and can contaminate drinking water in surrounding communities. According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), uncontrolled releases as a result of natural disasters like floods, fires or earthquakes can also be an issue for those around uranium mines, with even a single minor incident potentially leading to dramatic and lasting effects.

In addition to its direct human health impacts, uranium mining can jeopardize the health of ecosystems. Radioactive materials can pollute air, water and the soils near a mine. And the waste products produced from uranium mining, known as tailings, remain potentially hazardous for thousands of years and must be disposed of in specially designed, hugely expensive disposal sites. No one can be sure how effective these disposal sites will be after hundreds of years or longer. Meanwhile, decommissioning uranium mining and disposal facilities to make affected areas safe for other activities remains overwhelming; the process can take centuries, is expensive and can be dangerous for workers and the surrounding environment.

The issues surrounding uranium mining underscore the importance of developing cleaner, greener sources of energy. But even though the 2011 tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster in Japan should have served as a wake-up call regarding the dangers of nuclear energy, many of politicians and policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere still push for the expansion of nuclear power—and increased uranium mining. Nuclear may not have the carbon footprint problem of fossil fuels, but it is clearly not the answer to our energy woes.

CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org/nuclear/files/uranium-mining-report.pdf; NAS, www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13266&page=123.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the gist of President Obama’s new plan to tackle global warming and how does the green community feel about what the White House is proposing? -- Bill Kemp, Seattle WA

In what’s being billed as the greatest environmental initiative of his presidency, Barack Obama announced on June 25, 2013 that his administration is instituting stringent mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions by power plants, factories and other industrial sources. These sources combined account for roughly 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions across the U.S. The goal is to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions nationally by four percent below 1990 levels within the next seven years.

The new policy also directs the Department of Interior to approve enough renewable energy projects on public lands to power six million homes by 2020 and offers up $8 billion in loan guarantees for energy efficiency and advanced fossil fuel projects. And while Obama helped shepherd in a doubling of gas mileage standards for automobiles, SUVs and pickups during his first term, he is now calling for much more stringent standards for heavy duty truck models introduced in 2018 and after.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the Environmental Protection Agency—part of the executive branch under the White House—can regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act just like it does soot, lead and other types of air pollution, Obama’s new plan does not need Congressional approval, although Congress will certainly play a role in determining just how the emissions cuts are implemented.

“We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and arsenic and sulfur in our air and water,” says Obama. “But power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into our air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.”

Most environmentalists are happy that Obama is finally committing to decisive action to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. “This is the change Americans have been waiting for on climate,” says the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune. “President Obama is finally putting action behind his words.” “It’s clearly time to act,” Gene Karpinski of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) adds, “and [Obama is] setting out a bold, ambitious, comprehensive plan for what he can do without needing to rely upon Congress.”

But other greens aren’t so bullish on the new strategy. The Center for Biological Diversity, a leading non-profit committed to species protection, calls Obama’s plan “modest” and warns that it falls short by failing to set a nationwide pollution cap for carbon dioxide. “We’re happy to see the president finally addressing climate change, but the plain truth is that what he’s proposing isn’t big enough, and doesn’t move fast enough, to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis,” says Bill Snape, the center’s Senior Counsel, adding that the plan wouldn’t be enough “to avert catastrophic temperature rises.”

Likewise, Saleemul Huq of the International Institute for Environment and Development points out that the climate problem “has become much bigger while the U.S. was ignoring it” and that what Obama is proposing now is too little too late.

CONTACTS: Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org; LCV, www.lcv.org; Center for Biological Diversity, www.biologicaldiversity.org; International Institute for Environment and Development, www.iied.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


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