Vanishing Natural Areas

If it seems to you that there are fewer forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other natural places than there were a few years ago, you would be right. And if you think there is a lot more areas in need of restoration, then you would also be right—and distressingly so.

A report issued last year describes the situation: “The United States is quietly losing its remaining forests, grasslands, deserts, and natural places at a blistering pace. Every 30 seconds, a football field worth of America’s natural areas disappears to roads, houses, pipelines, and other development.1”, according to a report issued in August 2019 by the Center for American Progress (CAP).

You can do the math to calculate how many acres of natural areas have been lost since the report came out, but you better be sitting down while you run the numbers.

The estimate is based upon a report that the Center for American Progress (CAP) commission from a non-profit group of scientists, the Conservation Science Partners (CSP)

“The scientific team at CSP found that human activities are causing the persistent and rapid loss of America’s natural areas. The human footprint in the continental United States grew by more than 24 million acres from 2001 to 2017—equivalent to the loss of roughly a football field worth of natural area every 30 seconds. The South and Midwest experienced the steepest losses of natural area in this period; the footprints of cities, farms, roads, power plants, and other human development in these two regions grew to cover 47 percent and 59 percent of all land area, respectively. If national trends continue, a South Dakota-sized expanse of forests, wetlands, and wild places in the continental United States will disappear by 2050.6.”

This is an alarming report
Think about the conclusions for a minute. The US has lost not just 24 million acres, and counting, but also the biodiversity that the land nurtured; the ecosystems services of the lost prairies, wetlands, and woodlands; the birds and other wildlife that inhabited the former natural area; the cushion against climate disruption provided by the vast carbon sinks of prairies and forests; the environmental protections protections against flooding and contaminants provided by wetlands.

Possibly the worst and most regrettable consequences are that we are loosing not only our natural heritage, but also the raw materials of restoration—the land and flora and fauna we work with. And with these losses goes the the potential for restoring the destroyed natural areas. As restorationists, we all know how difficult and nearly impossible it is to restore an acre of land under the best of circumstances. Can you imagine the magnitude of the task without the natural ingredients or reference systems?

30 X 30 Proposal
The CAP-commissioned study has spurred the organization to support a plan to encourage the United States to set aside and protect 30 percent of its lands and waters by 2030. The plan is called 30X30 and is based upon a Senate resolution (30 X 30 Resolution to Save Nature) introduced on October 22, 2019 by U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). The resolution is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Warren (D-Mass.). Note that several current 2020 presidential candidates (Bennet, Booker, Harris, and Warren) co-sponsored the bill.

Sen. Bennet said in support of the proposal: “We can’t address climate change without focusing on conservation,” said Bennet. “Committing to conserving 30 percent of America’s land and oceans by 2030 is exactly the kind of ambitious strategy we need to protect our wildlife and lands, and tackle this urgent crisis. Setting an aggressive, tangible conservation and climate goal has been a long-standing priority of mine, and I could not have asked for a better partner to advance this legislation. That’s why I am thrilled to be leading this resolution with Senator Udall today.”

The press release from Sen. Udall’s office announcing the 30 X 30 Proposal can be found here.

The Center for American Progress report offers eight guiding principles that should be employed in support of the 30 X 30 effort. Featured prominently is ecological restoration.

  1. “The restoration of degraded lands and coasts will be critical to achieving 30X30. Logging, mining, development, and other activities have left many ecosystems in a degraded state. For example, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that between 65 million and 82 million acres of national forest lands require restoration, and the amount of necessary restoration on other public and private lands is certainly much higher.32 On the coasts, much restoration work such as salt marsh and dune restoration is caught in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ $98 billion backlog of unfunded projects.33 Restoration work is essential to bolstering both the quantity and quality of protected lands in the United States.”

Lots of Conservation and Restoration To Do In the Midwest
You can see in the chart above that the United States midwest region has suffered the greatest loss of natural areas in the country: 7.7 million acres, or 59.4% of the total land area in the region. This means that as restorationists we have plenty of work to do. We need to pick up the pace of restoration–we need to restore more acres faster.

These lose of 24 million acres, and counting means, that as conservationists, we need to begin purchasing, setting aside, or otherwise preserving natural areas before they are destroyed. Any open, green area, has great potential and importance; no area is too small or too degraded to be set aside as open space. If this conservation-first approach means that we can’t do the quality and quantity of restoration that we are accustomed to right away, then so be it. But at least the land will be set aside in safe hands until we have the time and resources to get down to restoration.

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Some Winter Scenes from the Springs

The snow is deep. The lake is iced over. The springs flow on.

Stevens Spring is barely a trickle but the warmth of the ground water and its radiant heat seems to be enough to keep the immediate stream channel free of snow.

Stevens Pond, mostly frozen but for where the spring flow enters.

Down at the springs this afternoon, all was quiet, except for the bubbling and trickle of spring flow and the territorial calls of the northern cardinals, who have just begun to sing in the early morning. I heard the neighborhood cardinal for the first time this winter at just before 8am this morning. The timing of the cardinal’s song tracts the lengthening days, with the chorus starting earlier each day.

It seems the cardinal is the first to call each morning, followed by the black-capped chicadee and then the American robin. No robins were seen this afternoon but I suspect they are across Lake Wingra at the Arboretum’s Big Spring with the abundant berry supply on buckthorn trees.

Whitetail deer tracks

Raccoons, and whitetail deer–along with squirrels, rabbits, and the rare possum–frequent the springs area because of the abundant food, shelter, and freshwater supply. I did not see any deer this afternoon but their tracks were everywhere, leading from the springs to the conifers in the nearby horticultural garden, and then on to residential gardens with their lush plantings of evergreens in the Nakoma neighborhood.

Springs are embedded in complex ecosystems, comprised of various plant community types. Above we see a cattail marsh, open water, shrub carr, ( a type of shrub meadow), lowland floodplain forest; nearby is sedge meadow, fen, and Lake Wingra itself.

The springs with their up-welling groundwater, coming from some deep, unknown and unknowable place, are themselves magical. Beyond that, the environment of the springs is a keyhole view into the past; perhaps the nearest we can approach to an imagining of what the undisturbed landscape looked like and how it functioned. An irreplaceable resource.

Posted in Cattails, Nakoma Neighborhood, Springs | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Gorham Springs of Lake Wingra (aka Duck Pond Springs)

Gorham Springs (akaThe Duck Pond) University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. Photo by Stephen B. Glass

A natural flowing spring is both an event and a precise location.  A spring is an upwelling of groundwater and also the physical spot on the Earth’s surface where the sometimes ancient groundwater—a message from the past—meets the modern-day world.

A spring is an historic artifact in the landscapes’ memory bank;  a spot where one can catch a fleeting glimpse the undisturbed past—the primordial Earth—as it rushes out into the transformed world. 

One such spot in the Lake Wingra Watershed is the set of five springs, or springlets, located in the University of Wisconsin Madison Arboretum, at the bend in Nakoma Road south of the intersection where Nakoma Road and Odana Road become Monroe Street  (Noland, 1950) This set of springs has been known over the years as Gorham Spring, Spring Trail Pond, or the Duck Pond Spring.

This location may be familiar to long-time Madison residents as being across Nakoma Road from the old Spring Grove Tavern (now a private residence), a stop on an original stage coach line.  The tavern provided lodging and refreshments for travelers before they made the final, day-long trip into downtown Madison.

The Hydrology

The springs emerge from beneath a rock outcrop and flow into a widened area known as the Duck Pond (because of the year-round resident population of mallards) then over a small dam into Gorham Creek and through the West Marsh and into Lake Wingra.

The Lake Wingra springs have long been studied by hydrologists and the set of springs are thus known by the designations of various researchers as: 1) Sp 2a in the 1983 report by Pennequin and Anderson (1981) on The Groundwater Budget of Lake Wingra, Dane County, Wisconsin”, and 2) as Dn 6 Sp (Dane County Spring #6 in the 1975 report on the “Hydrology of the Lake Wingra Basin, Dane County, Wisconsin” by Oakes, Hendrickson, and Zuehls.

The history of the Lake Wingra Watershed, and it’s springs in particular, is recorded in an early history of the Arboretum (Sachse, 1975) and in W.E.Noland’s 1950 study of the “Hydrography, Fish, and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra.”


A non-migratory population of the common mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) has resided at the Duck Pond for many years, taking advantage of the warm spring water that keeps the Duck Pond open year round. Year-round residence of the mallards is encouraged also by area neighbors—especially one particular residence on Spring Trail Road—that believe they are doing the ducks a favor by providing food.  This feeding practice at the top of Spring Trail Road has led to the deaths by vehicle of numerous mallards as they cross busy Nakoma Road on foot; using a slow waddle instead of flight to get to the spread corn. The mallard parade across Nakoma Road also causes periodic rush-hour “duck jams” as traffic comes to a stop to allow the birds to get safely to the other side.

Other common, year-round resident bird species include species that frequent urban areas such as Northern Cardinal, Black-capped Chicadee, Kingfisher, White-breasted nuthatch, and Downy, and Hairy woodpeckers.

Social & Cultural History

According to Nancy Sachse (1974, page 47-48) early historian of the Arboretum, 

“The Mandan Realty Company had created Spring Trail Park from 1.5 acres which included one of the best natural springs.  The steam was widened to form a duck pond and Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to design stone wall and entrance for this area as well as for the old Spring Grove Tavern, which remained (now a private residence) across Nakoma Road.”

Sachse (1965) goes on to recount how this original park plus 30 acres of adjoining marsh became one of the first parcels to become part of the Arboretum.  The donation made possible by the Madison Realty Company, whose president, Judge Edmund Ray Stevens sat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Another member of the court, according to Sachse, was one Paul E. Stark, a Madison realtor and member of the Arboretum Advisory Committee.

The Lost Henderson Farm

An interpretive sign in the UW-Madison Arboretum explaining the story of the Henderson Farm and the murders of Walter and Allen Henderson. Sign is at the T5 Trail intersection in the NE corner of the Grady Tract.

Among Madison’s prominent citizens were many African American families who began moving from the southern U.S.  to Dane County and Madison as early as the 1850’s (Simms 2018).  Newly-arrived African Americans were small-business people, cooks, cleaners, barbers, and farmers.

Notley Henderson was part of the northward migration after the Civil War.  Henderson  moved from Kentucky in the late 1960’s (Simms, 2018).  Henderson worked as a farm hand and in the late 1880’s had earned enough money to marry Martha and buy a farmstead.  Henderson’s land was located on the northern portion of what is now the current Grady Tract of the UW-Madison Arboretum but was at the time on the southern outskirts of the Arboretum.   The Arboretum has installed an interpretive sign near the site of the Henderson farm.

Unfortunately, Notley Henderson’s son Allen and Allen’s son Walter were both shot and killed on March 5, 1927 by one Charles Nelson (according to both Simms (2018) and Arboretum research and interpretive materials.).  Walter’s body was found in a section of woods along Nakoma Road;  Allen Henderson was next and was shot at his farm. 

Charles Nelson, “a former mental patient and son of a local real estate developer, shot himself when approached by officials.” (Simms, 2018)  

The Henderson’s, unable to support themselves, lost their farm soon after the murders and moved into downtown Madison (Simms, 2018).

The Mystery of the Henderson Murders

The double-murder of the Hendersons is related to the springs only in so far as the body of Walter Henderson was tossed into the woods along Nakoma Road, at an unknown spot that was probably not too far from the Duck Pond Springs.

There are several unanswered questions about the Henderson murders.  One,  where exactly, was the Henderson body dumped?  Two, why was the body hauled three to four miles up Seminole Highway and Nakoma Road to dump it in a wooded area along Nakoma Road?   

I don’t know the answer to the second question but one possible answer to the first is somewhere near the springs and most likely the Duck Pond Springs.

This is just speculation but is a reasonable guess because Nakoma Road is not a long street; there are not many wooded lots along it; and an easily-accessibly spot with a wooded area, would have been the Duck Pond Springs—close to the road and all that.


Noland, W.E. 1950. The Hydrography, Fish, and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra. Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letters, Madison, WI.

Oakes, E.L., G.E. Hendrickson, and E.E.Zuehls, Hudrology of the Lake Wingra Basin, Dane County, WI., U.S. Geological Survey, Madison, WI.

Pennequin, D.F. and M.P. Anderson. 1981. The Groundwater Budget of Lake Wingra, Dane County, Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Water Resources Center. Madison, WI

Sachse, Nancy.  1965.  A Thousand Ages.  Board of Regents of The University of Wisconsin.

Simms. Muriel.  2018.  Settlin’, Stories of Madison’s Early African American Families.  Wisconsin Historical Press.  Madison, WI

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The Council Spring and Dancing Sands Springs

Remnants of A Former World

One of my favorite spring locations in the Lake Wingra watershed is the Council Spring, and the nearby Dancing Sands Spring on the north shore of Lake Wingra, above the Ho-Nee-Um pond in the UW-Madison Arboretum.  

This is where I go to reconnect with the Lake Wingra Watershed, to visualize what it used to be, and to imagine how the Native Americans interacted with and cared for their home. This spot has a long history of human habitation and by closely reading the landscape, one can notice the additions: the Ho-Nee-Um Pond dredged in the late 1930’s, the storm sewer pipes emptying into the pond, and the council ring itself.

The subtractions include the effigy mound complex that once overlooked Lake Wingra from where Wingra School now sits, and the springs that have dried up or been built over.

The Council Spring, flowing south towards Lake Wingra.

The Council Ring and its Springs

Located south and east of Arbor Drive and Monroe Street, the Council Spring flows out from the base of a rock outcrop just below the Kenneth Jensen Wheeler Council Ring.  Nearby, just to the south west is Dancing Sands Spring (aka Ho-Nee-Um Spring).  As the name suggests this spring emerges directly onto the surface through a bed of marl and sand, causing the sand to appear to dance as it flows towards the lake, as it has done for millennia.  The two springs, which merge and flow into Ho-Nee-Um Pond before they enter the lake, are known collectively as Marston, Topp, or Lime Kiln Spring (Noland, 1950).   

The Council Spring and Dancing Sands Springs, are also known, more scientifically, as Spring #6 in the recent statewide survey of springs in Wisconsin by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.  Click here for the survey results.

The famed landscape architect Jen Jensen designed and built the council ring—for “intimate and reflective gatherings” (Birmingham, 2010)—to serve as a memorial for Jensen’s grandson, a landscape architect student at the UW who died on the eve of his graduation (Sache, 1965).

The Kenneth Jensen Wheeler Council Ring perched above the Council Spring. One of the large open-grown oaks that shaded the council ring recently topped in a storm.

The Council Spring flows magically to the surface from underneath the Council Ring, emerging from a crack in a rock outcrop which seems to be part of the Council Ring itself. Standing in the center of the Council Ring, one can almost hear and feel the upwelling groundwater beneath ones’ feet.

Like most springs, the Council Spring has a flow rate that varies throughout the year. Flow rates in gallons per minutes that were measured a few years ago show a range from 82 gallons per minutes to high of 512 gallons per minute. The nearby Dancing Sands Spring had flow rates at the same time of from 16 to 90 gallons per minute.Lake Wingra Hydrology

These are just two of the 13 or so Lake Wingra springs that remain from the over 30 that existed at the time of European settlement.  Lake Wingra was, at the time of European contact, a spring-fed lake with a year-round fairly-constant flow of clear, cold, hard water.  This spring-flow  provided the lake with the majority of its water; the remaining water coming from direct precipitation  (rain and snow) and some overland flow.  This was its hydrology; that is, the amount, timing, and duration of water flow.

Today, the hydrologic situation has been reversed, with Lake Wingra receiving only about one-third of its water from springs, the rest of its water coming from rainfall, snowmelt, and stormwater that enters the lake through the storm drains that ring its perimeter.  Or, as Noland said: the lake receives “an irregular flow of  . . . rain water containing the dissolved and suspended dirt and oil of city streets” (Noland, 1950.). However, the list of pollutants entering Lake Wingra and the other Madison lakes today is much longer and more toxic than in Noland’s day.  The contaminants include a variety of heavy metals, petroleum products, and herbicides and pesticides.

Like most springs, the Council Spring has a flow rate that varies throughout the year. Flow rates in gallons per minutes that were measured a few years ago show a range from 82 gallons per minutes to high of 512 gallons per minute. The nearby Dancing Sands Spring had flow rates at the same time of from 16 to 90 gallons per minute.

Lake of Sacred Springs

In addition to the large number of natural springs around Lake Wingra, the watershed also was home to a huge number of Native American effigy and burial mounds (Birmingham, 2010) which were chiefly associated with the springs, making the area unique in the world for its co-occurance  of springs and nearby effigy mounds.  Birmingham (2010) in his excellent book “Spirits of Earth, The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes (2010) describes Lake Wingra The Lake of Sacred Springs.” 

(Each of Madison’s four lakes, Mendota, Monona, Kegonsa, and Waubesa has their own mound groupings which are discussed by Birmingham but here we are just focused on the Wingra groupings.)

Like the springs, many effigy mounds were destroyed by European settlers, so the best remaining example of the mound/spring association is found in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum,  which preserves the Lake Forest #1 mound group in Wingra Woods atop a glacial moraine, and the associated West Spring, Big Spring, and White Clay Spring below near the lakeshore.

The former Wingra Mound Grouping, high above the Council and Dancing Sands Springs, where now sits the Wingra School on Monroe Street, once illustrated the close connection between springs and effigy mound groups (Birmingham, 2010).

Another former mound group once graced a section of the current Monroe Street business district where the University of Wisconsin Press has its offices.

Remnants of other mound groups can today be found at Forest Hill Cemetery, the Edgewood College Campus, Vilas Circle Park, with its Bear Mound, and in Vilas Park itself.

The springs are special, sacred, and quiet places. Most are protected on public land and those are being well cared for. They are worth a visit, especially in winter when, sometimes on a very cold morning, the steam from the warm ground water wafts across the snowy landscape.

The Council Spring flowing towards Lake Wingra.


Birmingham, Robert A.  2010.  Spirits of Earth, the effigy mound landscape of Madison and the four lakes.  University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, WI.

Noland, Wayland E. 1950. The Hydrography, Fish, and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra. Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Letters. Madison, WI.

Sachse, Nancy D.  1965.  A Thousand Ages,  Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI.

Posted in Council Spring, Effigy Mounds, Four Lakes Region, Jens Jensen, Lake Wingra Watershed, Springs | Leave a comment

Season's Greetings and Happy New Year

May your Holidays be Merry and your New Year Bright

Scarlet ibis with Great Egret at Caroni Swamp, a Ramsar Wetland in Trinidad and Tobago.

Thanks for your readership and see you all next year.

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PFAS Compounds Found in Rainfall in Eastern United States

In the news this week are two items about PFAS, the ubiquitous, and forever compounds, of which there are an estimated 4730.

Encouraging News

First, in Wisconsin, the Madison Fire Department announced that it has ceased using fluorinated foam fire fighting chemicals that contain PFAS, substituting them with two PFAS-free compounds. This, according to a story by Chris Hubbuch in the December 17th Wisconsin State Journal.

The Madison Fire Department said that it had found two alternative fire fighting foams verified as PFAS-free by an independent lab and that it has “contracted with a licensed disposal company to destroy its existing stock of fluorinated foam” according to Lt. Michael Anderson of the Madison Fire Department.

One should applaud the Madison Fire Department for this safety and public health initiative, which may be the first of its kind by a fire department in Wisconsin. After all as one Madison fire fighter said, they live here too and drink the water and breath the same air as the rest of us.

However, one can, at the same time, be skeptical that the overall PFAS/PFOS contamination problem has been solved. Estimates are that there are more than 4,700 variants on the PFAS theme, most of which have not been tested for human health affects. This according to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and its SUMMARY REPORT ON UPDATING THE OECD 2007 LIST OF PER- AND POLYFLUOROALKYL SUBSTANCES (PFASs). Therefore, there is no guarantee that the two PFAS-free alternatives chosen by the Madison Fire Department will also be free of negative environmental and public health impacts.

Discouraging News

Also from Madison comes some very disconcerting news about PFAS compounds. It is known that PFAS have been found in lakes, rivers, drinking water and groundwater reserves. Until now we though rainfall was safe. Now, PFAS compounds have been found, at high levels in rainfall in the Eastern United States, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the National Atmospheric Deposition Program (NADP). The results were announced in a recent study reported in The Guardian

The research team led by Martin Shafer looked for 36 different PFAS compounds in 37 rainfall samples for a week at 30 different sites, primarily along the East Coast but also in Alabama and Washington. They found at least one of the 36 different compounds being studied in each of the 37 samples. Click here for The Guardian story.

Quoted from The Guardian story:

“Shafer says he suspects PFAS chemicals are entering rainwater through a variety of avenues, like direct industrial emissions and evaporation from PFAS-laden fire-fighting foams. Still, “there’s a dearth of knowledge about what’s supporting the atmospheric concentrations and ultimately deposition of PFAS”, he says.”

From a personal perspective, the presence of PFAS compounds in the air, rainfall, groundwater, drinking water, lakes and streams is frightening and presents a clear and present danger for human health and that of the environment in which we live

Posted in Fire fighting foam, fluorinated foam, Groundwater, Madison Fire Department, PFAS compounds, PFAS/PFOS in rainfall | Leave a comment

Will Citizens of the World Act in Time to Save Ourselves and the Planet from Global Climate Emergency?

Because the world’s political leaders—for the most part—have abdicated their responsibility to reduce global carbon emissions, it is up to average citizens to demand actions.  As individuals, and as a collective political force, it is time for each of us to take steps in our personal and political lives to lead the way.

Look at what is happening in the United States.  The administration has pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accord;  Bolsonaro in Brazil has opened the door to increased cutting and burning of the Amazon rainforest;  the air pollution in India has rendered that country uninhabitable; Australia is on fire and is drying out.  The Arctic ice sheets are melting at an alarming rate.  None of these are good signs for the future of the world.

Here at home in the U.S. the trump administration has rolled  back one environmental protection after another.   The White House wants to open us vast new acreage to oil and gas drilling, at the same time it puts the squeeze on endangered species such as the sage grouse.

From is the report that across the US States thousands of environmental protection jobs eliminated since 2008. Click here for the report.

How should citizens respond to the global climate and environmental crisis?

With alarm. Immediately.  With conviction, determination, and a sense of purpose.  

For starters, get off of fossil fuels.  Let the un-mined coal and un-pumped oil stay in the ground.  Leave the car at home.  Walk, take the bus or ride a bike.

We all will need to pitch in.  We are talking about what it will take to save the Earth.  Restoration ecologists (more about this later) need to step up.  We know how to take bold action.   And, we know how to restore ecosystems that will thrive into the future. 

In the words of former Secretary of State John Kerry, “we should not be spectators in shaping our own future, or the world’s.” (NYT 12.10.19).  Kerry believes that there is still time to act—say within the next 11 years—to get off of fossil fuels and to achieve a  cleaner, green energy system.

Here are a couple of examples of positive action that each of us can support. One is the 30 X 30 initiative that proposes that 30% of the planet be protected and restored by 2030.

Or Elizabeth Warren’s Blue New Deal, her plan to address ocean conservation and boost offshore wind energy.

State of the Climate Emergency

Wait no longer, it has arrived.

Time is running out.

“Our world is on fire. The arsonists are in charge.  Liberals propose to tinker and return to a past that is gone for good.  The future belongs to the bold.”   Naomi Kline: Tweet on 12.09.19.

Australia is experiencing an unprecedented drought and a wildfire season like no other.  The Sydney Opera House and the waterfront skyline hidden is a haze of smoke that stretches for miles up the coast. The air quality is so bad that it is unhealthy to breath.  Drought has hit The Outback especially hard, with rivers, and watering holes drying up and drinking water in short supply.

Amazon Also on Fire

The Brazilian Amazon has experienced a rapid increase in deforestation—a 30% increase over last year and the highest rate since 2008.  Nearly 4000 square miles have been cut and burned to clear the land or soybeans and beef cattle since Jair Bolsonaro became president.

Experts predict that when 25-30% of the Amazon rainforest is lost, it will reach a tipping point and will begin to self-destruct and convert to savanna; right now estimates are that 17% of the forest is gone.  It may have already reached that tipping point.  We will know for sure only when it is too late.

The new climate math: the numbers just keep getting more frightening. 

From Bill McKibbin and YaleEnvironment 360 comes this warning: 

Click here for the new math.

“First: 11,000, as in the number of scientists who just signed a manifesto that declares the world’s people face “untold suffering due to the climate crisis” unless there are major transformations to global society. “We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” the manifesto, released earlier this month, states. “To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.”

Climate Tipping Points

Ecologists have identified a list of nine ecological or climate “tipping points”  in   A tipping point is that state beyond which there is no return to the former “normal” condition.  “These tipping points can form a cascade, with each one triggering others, creating an irreversible shift to a hotter world. A new study suggests that changes to ocean circulation could be the driver of such a cascade.” (Yale Environment 360)

Coral Reefs—Large Scale Die-offs

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is another global tipping point.  The reef is dying—almost one-half is already dead, lost since 1985—as ocean waters warm,  the waters acidify, and pollution increases.

How Should Ecological Restoration Respond to the global climate crisis?

It is going to take more than the excellent and routine work that restoration ecologists have done for 80+ years.  We are loosing ground: for every acre restored, many thousands of acres are clear cut, burned, built over or otherwise degraded. Ecological restoration will be necessary—but it is not sufficient—to  save the Earth.  In the words of John Kerry, “we should not be spectators in shaping our own future, or the world’s.” (NYT 12.10.19).  Kerry believes that there is still time to act—say within the next 11 years—to get off of fossil fuels and to achieve a  cleaner, green energy system.

The effort to save the Earth the effort will require many, global restoration plans that focus on social, cultural, and environmental justice, as well as on restoring prairies and savannas.  

Despite many thousands of restoration projects over since the first restoration projects in Australia and the US in 1934—and the hundreds of thousands of hectares conserved, and restored, it has not been enough.  For every hectare we restore and protect, the agricultural/industrial complex destroys another 1000.   They are clear cut, bulldozed, and burned.  We are going backwards.

Last year, The American Farmland Trust estimated that between 1992 and 2012 the United States lost 31 million acres of farmland to so-called “development”—something that is more accurately called destruction.   Remember, that this lost farmland also represents the lost opportunity of potential restoration projects.

Diversity on the Restoration Team is Needed

A diversity of skills, outlooks, socio-economic status, and ethnicity is needed.

Restoration ecologists must recruit others to join our team.  The team needs people with skills as community organizers, social workers, and humanitarians.  The restoration team can use social service workers, local office holders, and natural history teachers; as well as philosophers, police officers, and construction workers.

We must stop being (mostly) silent witnesses and paralyzed bystanders to our self-inflicted crimes against Earth, its climate, humanity and civilization, the results of which will be our own demise.

We must become active participants in our own salvation by stopping the causes of climate disruption; mitigating the impacts; and reversing the disruption of climate change.  Rather than being paralyzed bystanders we must take charge of our own fate.

That is to say, we must continue to be restoration ecologists who work to heal the world’s  physical wounds, and repair damage to its biological systems.  Beyond that we must join with other Earth inhabitants, and global citizens who strive to end human rights violations, work to lift people out of poverty, act to stem climate change, and put a stop to war and suffering.  It’s all part of the same problem.  

Restoration ecologists assume that many parts and processes of the Earth are damaged, destroyed or missing.  As a result, The Earth’s natural capital (the total accumulation of the goods and services provided by global ecosystems) is diminished, to the detriment of the well-being of the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants.  

“One assumption that drives restoration ecology is that many parts and processes of the Earth are damaged, destroyed, or missing.  As a result, the Earth’s natural capital (the total accumulation of goods and services provided by global ecosystems) is diminished, to the detriment of the well-being of the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants.  Restorationists assume that solutions exist to repair the damage to ecosystems and their value to the world.  Restorationists (and I am one) also assume that people have some capacity for caring for the planet and repairing damaged parts of the Earth’s systems, thereby at least stabilizing the natural capital.” Page 22 Howell, Harrington, and Glass 2011.

Up to this point restoration ecologists have confined our attention to the air, land, and water.  We can no longer be bystanders to what is happening to our fellow citizens.

As long as people are suffering and there are human rights abuses (look at the immigrant children in cages along the US Southern border, for example), the Earth itself will continue to be misused.  Repairing the Earth and mending social and cultural systems are all part of the same mission. We can no longer deny what is happening to the Earth and to ourselves.  The restoration job is too large, the time too short, and the stakes too high for any of us to relax and let our neighbors do the caring for the earth and its people.  We must each of us get busy with the healing and mending.  

We must all become not only citizens of the Earth, but also those who work to save it.  This is to say, I will no longer be a bystander in the face of global climate disruption and 
will do everything I can to care for the planet and repair and reverse the damage.   The need is that urgent.

We must assume—as restoration ecologists do—that solutions exist to repair the damage to ecosystems (and the Earth itself) and their value to the world and that humans have some capacity for caring for the planet and repairing the damage that our activities have caused.  We must assume that there are solutions to repair the social and cultural fabric.

If not, will we continue to be collaborators, or facilitators—in the destruction of the Earth by human activities and climate change?

That is to say, do we want to pitch in to help stave off the coming climate change catastrophe or do we twiddle our thumbs as society has done for the past 50 years?

How can we continue to stand idly by and watch as the climate is disrupted, ice sheets melt, sea levels rise, droughts increase, and people move mass migrations to find a habitable ?  

How can we continue to ignore the fact that immigrant children are separated from their parents and caged in Texas?

How can we sit by and allow the NRA to prevent any meaningful gun safety legislation while our fellow citizens are slaughtered by our fellow citizens as they go about their daily lives?

If we take no action—either as individuals or through collective political activity—then we are being complicit bystanders to an actual assault on the Earth in the form of climate change; species extinctions, destruction of entire ecosystems, and an increase in human suffering.  

These are disruptions of which we are the cause.  They are assaults on the Earth’s people in the form of human rights abuses, continued racism and slavery, and destruction of a healthy environment.

We must cease our predatory relationship with the only home we will ever know.

There is no Planet B.

Posted in Brazilian Amazon, climate change, Climate Change Impacts, Global climate emergency, Restoration ecology, Social Justice | 2 Comments

Recent News About Water

Here are a few recent news items about drinking water, the midwestern floods of Spring 2019, and a legislative proposal (in Wisconsin) to promote hydrological restoration.

The Water Access Gap Across the United States

From the group comes a report that at least 2 million Americans still don’t have running water or a toilet. This is an astounding fact that reveals a great inequality in access to basic services such as: safe drinking water; a tap, toilet, and shower in the home, and a system for removing and treating waste water.

Together with the U.S. Water Alliance , DigDeep has taken on the task of Closing the Water Access Gap in the U.S. You can read their report and national action plant here.

Too Much Water is Just as Bad as Not Enough

The Spring 2019 floods in Madison, WI

Such is the case with the Midwestern floods of Spring 2019 in which more than one million acres flooded in five Midwestern states. Many of the flooded acres were cropland which went unplanted, resulting in many billions of dollars in lost crops and damage. Some crop fields are either full of weeds or still under water and with the already high water table, the prospects for spring 2020 don’t look good.

Read more about the Spring 2019 floods here in a story from Our Daily Planet.

Hydrological Restoration

A natural spring in Wisconsin. “Council Spring” below the Kenneth Jensen Wheeler Council Ring on the north side of Lake Wingra. Photo by Stephen B. Glass.

The hydrological regime of an area refers to the amount, duration, and timing of water availability and how it flows and moves over, under, or around a piece of land. Basically, hydrology is the land’s “natural capacity to manage water.”

When there is discussion of an ecological restoration project, it usually has to do with restoring the plants and animals to a prairie, savanna, or woodland. Even when wetland restoration–especially of the wetland mitigation type– is planned, rarely is much thought given to the water itself or the project site’s hydrological regime.

A bill (LRB 4892/1) recently introduced into the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate aims to change that practice and to open up restoration possibilities by encouraging hydrological restoration. The Wisconsin Wetlands Association, which helped craft and strongly supports the bill, says that the bill, if enacted into legislation, would ” . . . reduce flood risks and damages, improve water quality, and benefit fish & wildlife habitat.”

For more information on the bill click here.


Posted in Council Spring, Ecological restoration, Freshwater resources, Groundwater, Restoration ecology, Springs, Stream restoration, Wetlands Alert!, Wisconsin Wetlands Association | Tagged | Leave a comment

Brazilian Amazon Burns at an Accelerating Rate

A 30% increase in forest cover loss over last year

Here Is Some of What Is Being Lost

A report from Brazil’s National Institute for Space research (NYT 11.19.19) tells us that the Brazilian Amazon lost 3,768 square miles of forest cover in the period from August 2018 through July 2019. This is a 30% increase in forest destruction over the year before. See the Brazilian report here.

For more on the topic of deforestation in the Amazon see below for citations from Yale Environment 360.

The area of the Amazon, or Amazonia, or the Amazon Rainforest, covers over 2 million square miles in nine countries. In addition to Brazil, Peru, and Columbia which contain major portions of Amazonia, lesser amounts of forest are found in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.

Clearing and Burning

Much of the forest destruction is because of illegal forest clearing and burning. There was a brief decrease in illegal forest clearing and burning between 2004-2008 which saw deforestation decrease by 80% (Bird Life Magazine Oct-Dec. 2019, p 22-23). But now, forest clearing and burning is on the rise again. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research detected 74,000 fires between Jan 1 and August 20, 2019–an 84% increase from 2018 and the most since 2010. (Bird Life Magazine, Oct-Dec. 2019, p 24.)

This is heartbreaking, on many levels. But is especially poignant for one of the lucky few, like myself, that have set foot in the Amazon rainforest and know from firsthand experience what is at stake.

Forest destruction of the Amazon, “the lungs of the world”–so called because it stores carbon and releases huge amounts of oxygen into the atmosphere–is not only bad news for the forest itself–which experts say is suffering “irreparable harm”–but also to the Earth’s climate as more and more carbon is released into the atmosphere from the fires ravaging the rainforest. The Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service estimates that 228 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent were released from the Brazilian Amazon during the first eight months of 2019.

Eyewitness In, and Above, the Rainforest

Standing above the rainforest canopy on an observation tower in the early morning one can actually see the forest breathing, as in the photo below in the Cristalino Reserve in the southern Brazilian Amazon in northern Mato Grosso.

Also being lost as the forest is clear-cut and burned, is the rich biodiversity of plants and animals for which the Amazon provides habitat.

We may never have a full accounting–if ever, a full tally will only be known in the mid and long-term– of the species whose numbers are reduced as their forest habitat burns. It is likely that some may even go extinct.

I have been very fortunate to see, albeit a tiny portion, of untouched southern Amazon tropical forest in the State of Mato Grosso. I know of a small bit of what is likely to be lost. I would like to share, with you, some of my images of the birds, animals, and forest types that are at risk elsewhere in Brazil and throughout Amazonia.

I have seen this destruction first hand during a trip to Brazil a few years ago. We stayed at a private reserve and eco-lodge in the southern Brazilian Amazon. From the tiny airport in Alta Floresta, the regional agricultural center, we drove north for an hour or more, through mile after mile of range-land and crop fields that our guide told us was, just 30 years ago, primary undisturbed rainforest.

Brazilian State of Mato Grosso

The Brazilian State of Mato Grosso is one of the areas of Amazonia most heavily impacted by cutting and burning of the rainforest. The cleared land is used to raise cattle for export to the US market, or grow soybeans for use in thousands of consumer food products.

The Cristalino RPPN (Private National Heritage Reserve) reserve protects over 28,000 acres (44 square miles) of the Amazon. It is a refuge for endangered species such as the jaguar, bush dog, puma, giant anteater and sloth and is home to more than seven species of monkey, including the endemic white-whiskered spider monkey, a symbol of the Cristalino State Park. Other forest dwellers include the giant armadillo, giant otter and many species of butterfly and frog. The refuge protects 586 bird species, 5% of the world’s estimated 10.000 species. A third of all Brazilian birds – of a total of 1,800 species, including the harpy eagle, wrens, macaws, parrots and toucans – can be seen in and around the reserve.

The Cristalino reserve is unlikely to be destroyed–at least in the foreseeable future–and its species and habitats are safe, for now. Meaning that the species and scenes shown below are probably going to not be directly harmed, but possibly impacted by increasing isolation, and decreasing home ranges as surrounding rainforest is cut and burned.

The tiger heron was one of the 250 species of birds we saw while at the Cristalino Lodge–barely 30% of the 856 species known to inhabit the reserve.

The species in Cristalino are representative of the biodiversity found elsewhere in the Amazon. These species faces habitat loss, population decline, and possible extinction as humans continue to destroy the rainforest. For example, elsewhere in the Cristalino region, the Globally vulnerable Golden Parakeet (Guaraba guarouba) is feared to be at risk when fires overlap with its range.

Rainforest along the Rio Cristalino in Mato Grosso Brazil.

My birdwatching party and I spent six days at Cristalino, rising at 4am for breakfast at 4:30, we would hit the trail at 5 am to be in the best position possible for birdwatching by sunrise at 6 am. The above image was taken on just such a morning. After a long boat ride up the Rio Cristalino, we hiked up the Hill Trail to the bluff-top above the river to await sunrise and the flights of the scarlet macaws up the river valley.

Enroute up the Rio Cristalino to the Hill Trail.

The Rio Cristalino itself was one of the best bird-watching spots. As we motored slowly, and silently up the river, our guides pointed out many new and unusual bird species. Here are a couple more that we saw.

The Capped heron (Pilherodius pileatus).
Razor-billed Curassow (Mitu tuberosum)
Sunset along the Rio Crustulano.

What we saw during our days at Cristilano was a stark contrast with the soybean fields and cattle pastures in the former rainforest just outside the Cristilano boundary. The devastation sadly reminded me of what the American agricultural and cattle industry has done to the great midwestern prairie landscape: a sea of grass and prairie flowers replaced with vast croplands and dairy farms in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and other prairie states. Left in the wake of the plow and cow is poisoned water, degraded soil, and a threadbare social and cultural fabric.

The Brazilians are following in our destructive footsteps. One can only hope–for the sake of the Earth–that they wake up in time and also take up the creative action of ecological restoration–the disciplined initiated in the Midwest as a response to agricultural-caused degradation of the land.s

Further Reading on the subject from Yale Environment 360

Amazon Watch: What Happens When the Forest Disappears? by Fred Pearce.

Rivers in the Sky: How Deforestation is Affecting Global Water Cycles, by Fred Pearce.

Will Deforestation and Warming Push the Amazon to a Tipping Point? by Fen Montaigne.

Posted in Amazonia in flames, Brazilian Amazon, diminishment of the Earth | Leave a comment

PFAS Chemicals in Bloodstream of 99% of All Americans

PFAS, (polyfluoalkyl chemicals), called the forever chemical because they do not break down are everywhere and in the bodies of 99% of all Americans according to a January 2019 study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported in Our Daily Planet (11.20.19).

In an earlier report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) PFAS compounds may be in the drinking water of up to 110 million Americans.

PFAS are an environmental threat to our ground and surface waters and our drinking water, thus making the chemicals a human health hazard.

Yes, despite these alarming facts, the Trump administration has threatened to veto any congressional action on these ‘forever chemicals.’ House hearings on action to address PFAS use and exposure began yesterday in Washington. Here is a link to part of the congressional hearing.

PFAS are used in many consumer products, included carpets, couches, and food packaging; this, in addition to their use in foam firefighting retardant.

To learn more about this environmental threat and human health hazard go to this link from Our Daily Planet.

Posted in Restoration ecology | 2 Comments