Prairie Parkway

South of the Indian Grass Prairie preserve section of the Katy Prairie Conservancy land, a steady stream of Northern Harriers fly northward, forty eight in total counted by birders within about an hour.  Like the jets that were named after them, these birds now seem symbolic of war – the current war between development and conservation raging west of town over a proposed section of road called 36A, or the “Prairie Parkway” – a proposed four lane highway to run from Freeport to Hempstead at 290, cutting through land protected by the KPC that preserves habitats for local flora and fauna.

map of 36A

This is not a new war; it’s just one battle of the same kind that has been played out since man first took to corralling nature, certainly burning more intensely since cities starting sprawling ever further over the land.  It’s not even that recent of a war.  The Prairie Parkway has been on the thoroughfare plan for Waller County since 1985, and TxDot approached the commissioners in 2007 about piggy-backing the Trans-Texas Corridor along the same path.  The Sierra Club was  investigating the proposed parkway sites as early as April 2010.  However, just two weeks ago,  the turnout at the Texas Master Naturalist Coastal Prairie Chapter’s January meeting was much larger than usual, due to concerned environmentally-minded citizens coming to get some questions answered.

The biggest question on everyone’s minds regarding 36A seems to be, why? Why does it have to go through one of the sections protected by the KPC, therefore most likely interfering with the protection of species such as the Northern Harriers that were roosting in this area, or the native plants such as blooming Spider Lily, Blue-eyed grass, Spiderwort, Indian paintbrush, Lyre-leaf sage, and many other flowers that grow in this area?  The environmentalists are concerned that building this highway through the area will lead to the direct destruction of hundreds of acres of prairie and agricultural land as well as important prairie pothole and riparian wetlands.  The developers insist that this road will provide an important transportation shortcut from the Port of Houston to outlying areas, reducing the Fort Hood route from Port Arthur from 460 to 246 miles alone.  It would provide an important evacuation route for those along the coastline to make their way north, and help Waller County rise up in quality of life and tax base.

The environmental groups ask why the route cannot instead direct traffic over the new Section E of the Grand Parkway (99), or along 362, and the planners insist that there is a need to provide a new route, and not displace those who already use those previously existing routes.  Also, it would slow down the traffic moving northward from Brazoria County to have to shift over to these other roads, and just extending 36 from Waller County upwards would keep this traffic flow efficient.  Some in opposition to this route suspect that the real motive is to develop infrastructure to later build houses and strip malls along this route to support the tax base.

The engineers charged with planning this route also stress that the route would be built using Low-Impact Development (LID) techniques, such as creating a large number of smaller, cascading wet ponds to better slow down rain water and create a more natural green space, paving the roads with porous asphalt to slow rain water’s progress, as well as filter out its pollutants, and planting native fauna along the thoroughfare.  They could plan to  divert animal traffic by thick hedges and tunnels that run under the roadway for animals like deer to cross.  Utilizing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process – the seven-step process that’s required to build a public highway like 36A – the coalition wants to include environmental advocacy groups early on, so they have taken the interests of the Sierra Club and Katy Prairie Conservancy into account at a much earlier stage than what is typical.

The funding for this project is not yet complete.  The Prairie Parkway Advocacy Group is advocating for the project and trying to get people organized to press for funding.  They maintain that they are recognizing not just current needs, but future needs as well, placing their sights ten years or more into the future.  By 2050, the Greater West Houston area (Harris-Ft Bend-Waller Counties) is projected to have over one million new residents, and transportation in and out of these areas will be imperative for quality of life.

The question is how to maintain the balance between the needs of the people and the needs of nature.  If there is a formula for this, we might have forgotten it.  Last week, birding reports from the suggested route counted a thousand snow geese and over three hundred cranes.  Ducks, hawks, bald eagles, caracara, long-billed curlews and short eared owls all call this area home.   Biologists suggested that 50,000 acres were needed to maintain habitat for the native wildlife, so the 19,000 acres obtained by KPC is less than half of this recommendation.  How much will be lost to these transportation needs is not known right now.

I haven’t seen a source yet that indicates when the next open forum conversation will happen about this proposed route, or what are the next steps that will be taken.  I will be watching, though, and will let readers know if there is an opportunity to share our opinions on the matter.  Meanwhile, I propose we continue to develop those opinions, whether or not we have opportunity to share them.  I, for one, don’t want to lose this vital wildlife resource we have practically in our own backyard.

Environmental Issues: Keystone XL

There’s been some talk about the Keystone pipeline, and I have been thinking about it some more since the recent train oil spill in Quebec.  I think there is some misinformation out there about the addition to the Keystone Pipeline.

I was going to write a big long story about it to clarify the facts, but I like this version better than anything I would write about it, so you can check it out if you want.

These are my opinions on it right now:

1)  I am not thrilled with the “eminent domain” issues.  It concerns me that land can just be grabbed from private citizens for “the greater good” of putting a pipeline in that not everyone wants.

2) Ultimately having quicker access to the refineries is not going to bring down the price at the pump for gasoline.  Oil goes to a great number of things, gasoline only being a small part of that.

3) The oil that will be flowing in the pipeline is not “American” oil, we don’t have rights to it.  It is Canadian oil, being sold to China.  They are paying us for the ease of transportation and right of way.

4) It will provide 20,000 more jobs, for the short term.  There will be a small amount of long-term jobs added to the US economy as a result, mostly down in Texas refineries.  This is good for Houston, so I won’t complain.

5) The “tar-sands” issue is a little tricky.  I have worries about environmental effects.  The pipeline addition will add 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere during its 50-year lifespan.  However, if the pipeline doesn’t go through, it’s not like it will stop the production or flow of this “tar-sands” oil.  There is already approval and movement towards a pipeline being built running east to west in Canada.  They don’t need us, necessarily – the oil will still get refined, this way or that way.  Or, if the oil cannot be refined, it would be replaced in the world market by oil from Venezuela, which is even “dirtier”, but who, as a country, is not as friendly with the US.

6) I worry about the safety of the pipelines long-term, about spills and leaks into the ecosystem.  However, leaks and spills can come from trucks and trains carrying the oil from one place to another, just as well as (if not more often) than it can come from a defect in a pipeline carrying it from one place to another.

7) I think the solution eventually is for us to kick the oil habit, but that is not going to happen over the this generation, or the next.  We have a long way to go before we can become independent of oil as an energy source.

Here is a map of the proposed new route.  The current Keystone Pipeline is the purple solid line.  The dotted blue is the Keystone XL proposed route, and the yellow and brown are the additional paths to be added later.


Right now the government has postponed making a decision on this until 2014.  I am not actually that hopeful that the environmentalists will win, although they are my “dog in this fight”.  The environmentalists won before, with Nixon and the Trans-Atlantic pipeline in Alaska, in 1970-1972, but Nixon and the governmental seat found a way to get around them and build that darn pipeline anyway.  That is probably what will happen again.  We’ll see as this momentum continues to build.

I haven’t had much to write about/felt like writing on here lately.  We’ve been busy at home with kids and school and sports.  Hopefully soon I will have some more outdoor adventures to write about.

Proyecto Titi: Saving the Cotton Top Tamarins Through Sustainable Practices

I just returned from a primatology conference in Puerto Rico, and of all the lectures I attended, my favorite one was one that had little to do with my day-to-day work, but shared some fascinating information that I want to share with you. Okay, so here is the deal: my favorite animals are dogs, horses, and monkeys, and of all the monkey species, my very favorite is the Cotton Top Tamarin. Of course I love my long-tails, but if I could work with any monkey species ever, I would pick these adorable, flashy little moppets over any other. I really love the idea that there is a group out there, Proyecto Titi, that is trying to save these little guys, and are doing it in a really smart way. Tamarin_Cottontop_1
Proyecto Tití is essentially conservation program that combines field research, education initiatives and community programs to make the conservation of natural resources economically feasible for local communities in Colombia, which is where the cotton top tamarin is trying to hold out against extinction pressures. The program is designed to provide useful information to assist in the long-term preservation of the cotton-top tamarin and to develop local community advocates to promote conservation efforts in Colombia.
In the talk I listened to, they discussed the efforts to first make a census of how many members of the species were left in this ecological range. Based on the methodology they came up with, it was estimated that there were about 7,500 of these guys left in the wild in 2005 or so. This low number, and the pressures placed upon the remaining members by deforestation practices and habitat destruction, led to a 2008 classification as Endangered animals.
Proyecto Titi as a group was smart enough to realize that they could not just go into Colombia and start telling the people they have to save the monkeys. They had to figure out the reasons why the habitat was being destroyed, and work on reduction and replacement behaviors. They also had to integrate saving the monkeys into the culture of the this area.
They accomplished those tasks in some of these ways:
Bindes: One of the reasons for deforestation in the area is that the local people are still cooking their food over open fires. An average family of five burns 15 logs a day for cooking of meals. The conservation group was looking for alternatives, and realized that some families were using termite mounds as bindes, which is essentially a way to retain the heat and reduce the amount of firewood that needs to be used to cook. It is time consuming to find termite mounds for everyone, but the group realized they could craft bindes from clay that acted in the same manner. This was able to reduce the amount of firewood needed by families to 5 logs a day.
Eco-mochillas: twenty years ago or so, there was no plastic in the environment of these little tamarins, but nowadays, it is a huge problem. There is no waste management in this area of the world. Trash is either thrown to the roadside, or burned. Plastic was accumulating in all areas, including the cotton top tamarins home range, further reducing the ability of the forest to survive. Mochillas are traditional bags made in Colombia. The conservation group had an idea and shared it with the local people, and it has taken off. What they do now is gather the plastic bags that are littering the environment, and then re-use them to create eco-mochillas; essentially, a purse crocheted from these plastic bags. Each bag is made from about 100-120 plastic bags.
These bags are created now by a women’s cooperative called ASOARTESANAS that the conservation group helped organize. These women are pretty amazing! They decided they wanted to have a building dedicated to making these bags, and for community education on protection of the monkeys. After a year and a half of saving money, they were able to buy a parcel of land to put the building on, and then the Proyecto Titi group helped erect the building they wanted – the first two-story building in the local town. This women’s cooperative was also recognized globally for their efforts in 2012 by winning the United Nations Equator Prize, which is a highly competitive award, with over 800 nominations from 113 countries. You can view and purchase their products here.
Community involvement and education: the conservation group has done an incredible job integrating their message into the local community. This has taken many forms over the years, but some of the neat things that they do include providing a textbook to 7-9 grade students that includes messages about conservation, sustainable practices, and the uniqueness of the Colombia habitat, particularly related to the cotton top. School children rarely have textbooks in this area, so this book is particularly treasured. Students who show a strong interest and leadership skills are then encouraged to be in a “Titi group”. These groups organize for various projects and some of the students go on to purse further advanced training in conservation biology, and come back to work for the group or support their aims. Also over the years, the group has organized a drive to exchange sling shots (used to hunt and capture animals for the pet trade) for a stuffed cotton top tamarin toy, created a National Holiday – August 15, the Day of the Cotton Top Tamarin, created a dance that is shared among the culture called the Cotton Top Tamarin Dance (to raise awareness), created and distributed posters and pamphlets, created a curriculum for high school students that involves teaching sustainable agricultural practices that preserve habitat, and initiated a “Waters of the World” conference that was designed to share international knowledge regarding water quality. There is a more complicated story involving that last one, and you can read more here about that and many of those efforts if you  are interested.

cotton top tamarin

I was really excited to hear this story, about how a group who was interested in saving one really neat kind of primate ended up changing communities for the better, empowering women, and inspiring children  to take better care of the earth around them to allow it to continue to thrive for generations to come. Plus, I am happy that because of the efforts of Proyecto Titi, the fascinating cotton top tamarins will have a place to call home not just now, but in the future to come.

Environmental Issues: PCBs and Industrial Effects

On my way home from work today, I was thinking about what I consider to be the key environmental issues of our times.  Part of this thought process was stemming from a conversation J and I were having the other day about why he seems to have changed his mind about wanting to produce his own heir.  He wondered out loud why anyone would want to bring a child into this world when the upcoming next couple of generations might suffer from what we foresee as a climatic disaster.

Later on, I was reading a theory by a professor who published his vision of his future, which referenced humanity huddled in ice caves in a mere generation or two from now, as the rest of the earth will have become inhabitable due to climate change.  It also doesn’t help these “doom and gloom” prophecies that I am currently (still) reading Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us”.  In order for Weisman to explain how the world would fare if humans were suddenly gone, he has to explain how we got to where we are in the first place, which includes not just humanity’s impact on the earth, but how the earth evolved before and during us.  Weisman is very meticulous in his research, but he also expouses a worst-case scenario that gives a sense of urgency and dramatic results should we continue with our current paths.

Anyway, I am sure none of us are oblivious to the fact that climate change is a major environmental issue we are currently facing.  Ever since Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” and the seventies ushered in a growing environmental awareness, we have been taking notice of the changes that are occurring around us.  I am aware that some people out there do not believe that climate change or global warming is a real thing, and if you are one of those, I invite you to have a discussion where we try to see each other’s side of that. I think the grey area in this though is  – what are the current impacts, what is our role in this, and what can we do about it?

We made some strides when the EPA elected to ban the use of PCBs in 1979.  I was reading, though, that even though the levels of PCBs in temperate zones have fallen to pre-industrial levels, they are finding that these PCBs were still in the environment; just moved to a different location.  The artic air caused PCBs to take rest in the colder regions of earth, and now they are finding high levels of this toxin in the milk of Laplander and Inuit mothers, in the body of puffins, in the fat stores of fish and seals.  This molecular movement is due to the effect of global warming and greenhouse gases.  To date, about 200 hazardous compounds originating from industrialized regions have been found in the bodies of Artic people (source)

There is a whole host of literature I stumbled upon recently that implicates PCBs in reduced spermatogenesis in marine mammals, in changes in gender expression and sexuality in human beings, in reduced reproductive rates across the board and increased infection rates due to decreased immunity levels.  There is a possible link between these PCBs and a higher rate of hermaphroditic polar bears.  Also, in addition to the melting of our polar ice caps, polar bears are having to swim huge long distances to reach land masses to find food.  If the polar bear does not adapt quickly (grow fins? webbed feet?), they could be become endangered (currently their status is “threatened”).

But PCBs are not the only factors in changing our air quality, which is in turn affecting our environment.  Dioxins, which are by-products of residential wood-burning, fires, municipal waste incineration, and steel reclamation are also part of the sea of toxins we are introducing.  You might have heard recently about Sheryl Crow stating that her breast cancer was caused by drinking out of water bottles left in the car. There is an urban legend going around that re-using plastic water bottles, especially after they have been heated, causes dioxin buildup and therefore, cancer to those who drink it (Snopes says there is little truth to this).  Other culprits to our air quality include PAHs and mercury emissions.  Climate change related weather events can spread these heavy molecules into all phases of our environment.

Basically, what is happening is that there is a natural cycle of rising temperatures, which would then usher in a new ice age and yet change the landscape of the earth in specific ways that would cause change in ecosystems and organisms that live on it.  However, this natural cycle is happening faster than it has before, at least to our knowledge, and there is a large body of evidence that shows that industrialization plays a role.  As global temperatures continue to rise, and sea levels rise due to the melting of the ice caps, we will see a decreased ability to raise food to provide for not only our species, but other species on earth.  Parts of the world currently in use for farming will be become lost to desertification. Imagine the American Southwest the new Sahara.

It is this future that J doesn’t want to place his personal future generations into.  I do wonder what kind of world my children will inherit; I spoke of this before.  I keep telling my kids that I believe that the next world war will be over water rights, and some believe this water crisis (which is related to global warming) will occur within the next few generations.  Basic things here; the ability to find water, food, and resources could be rapidly declining due to the effects of industrial revolution.  I have a lot more I wanted to talk about, but this is already I am sure longer than the typical person’s blog attention span, so: to be continued.

But I wanted to leave you, reader, with one last thought:  when I was doing some reading into who was or will be the last prophet (because I was longing for God and wishing He would send another, or the Last, prophet down to us – or wondering why it has been so long since we have had one), I stumbled across this idea that is a little out in left field, but worth contemplating.  A random Wikipedia author suggests that perhaps the Last Prophet is not a person, but the Earth itself, and how well we take care of it might be the defining lesson for humanity.  If you were approaching Earth as a Prophet, what would it be teaching you – and what do you have to offer it in return?03248_morningdew_1920x1200