What Do Poor Immigrants and Endangered Plants and Animals Have in Common?

The Trump admin wants to get rid of them because it considers both groups disposable, and economic burdens to the U.S.

Their futures were put at increased risk by proposed Federal rules changes that would weaken protections and support.

On Monday (8/12.19) the Trump administration proposed rules changes that would target poor, but legal, immigrants with a new wealth test that would deny them permanent status Green Cards if they were deemed unable to support themselves and would become a financial burden to taxpayers. In a second–and philosophically-related–move, the administration proposed changes to rules that would, if implemented, significantly weaken protections afforded the nation’s at- risk plants and animals under the nation’s Endangered Species Act. The proposed rules changes would no longer allow climate change to be cited as a reason for protecting the country’s threatened and endangered plants and animals, while allowing economic cost/benefit analysis to be part of the determination as to whether a threatened or endangered species should receive protection.

These administrative moves yesterday are based upon an implicit set of assumptions about objects (individuals, races, countries, plants, and animals), and how they should be valued and treated. Those in charge act on these assumption to devalue and dismiss, and then to justify abuse, mistreatment, forcing into poverty and then elimination. The assumptions mark a well-traveled road to devaluation and subjugation. This is the playbook used by the administration:

  1. In the first step up the ladder of assumptions, an actor/decision maker declares themselves is in charge of the situation (immigration, environmental regulation, for example) and assumes authority/superiority over the subject.
  2. The next assumption is that all individuals, species, etc are the same and that they play no unique role in society or ecosystems; make no meaningful contributions. In this view there is by definition no distinction between categories. This is an especially dangerous assumption when applied to individuals and groups of people and between species and sub-species or closely-related species. In this view, there is no real meaningful distinction between the House wren and the Carolina wren, or between the polar bear, the brown bear, or the black bear.
  3. The actor/decision maker, now having decided that there is no distinction or meaningful difference between individuals declares that those acted upon have little or no value.
  4. Then, having declaring someone or something of no value or of no distinguishing characteristics (immigrants from Mexico or Polar bears, the next leap is to declare that these people, or plants and animals, or natural resources will not be missed if reduced or eliminated.
  5. And, in fact, the continued presence or abundance of an item with no value is an economic burden to the country and to its way of life. And, we should not be forced to continue to defend and protect something of no value, especially if it makes things more expensive and costs us jobs.
  6. Now, we have reached the top of the ladder of assumptions. The logical and patriotic thing to do then is to eliminate the obstacles.

These assumptions are false, or course but despite their absurd nature, it is a quick and easy climb up this ladder for some folks. It has become habitual, and instinctive. This way of thinking has become so ingrained in our way of life that we don’t even notice it; in fact, it is not a climb up the ladder at all but rather a leap to the top.

As you read the news in the next few days, weeks, or months see how often you can detect this playbook in action. And, think about this statement from the Fourth National Climate Assessment (2018) regarding the impacts of climate change on the Midwest. It says.

” The ecosystems of the Midwest support a diverse array of native species and provide people with essential services such as water purification, flood control, resource provision, crop pollination, and recreational opportunities. Species and ecosystems, including the important freshwater resources of the Great Lakes, are typically most at risk when climate change stressors, like temperature increases, interact with land-use change, habitat loss, pollution, nutrient inputs, and nonnative invasive species. Restoration of natural systems, increases in the use of green infrastructure, and targeted conservation efforts, especially of wetland systems, can help protect people and nature from climate change impacts.”

Posted in climate change, Climate Change Impacts, Endangered Species Act, Immigrants | Leave a comment

The Art of Mending The Earth

Is an art and poetry exhibit opening Thursday, July 11th, 5-7 pm at the The Riverside Park branch of the Urban Ecology Center at 1500 E. Park Place, Milwaukee 53211, (414) 964-8505.

This is an exhibit that should be of interest to anyone who practices the discipline of ecological restoration. There will be refreshments, good company, and the artists will speak informally at 6 pm. Show runs July – September 2019. 

Contact the Urban Ecology Center here for more information. A description of the artists’ works are described below. The artists not only paint and write about ecological restoration but also practice it in the field.

Ney Tait Fraser: Ney’s very large, personal paintings of close-up wildflowers will cover the gallery’s walls. And this exhibit is also an opportunity to consider and discuss the nature of Art. Ney says, “In a world already smothered by objects, perhaps it is time to start making living, conceptual art that mends the web of life. Small creatures such as birds, butterflies and spiders could be given habitat with indigenous plants.” Over a period of several decades, Ney has improved Big Bay/Buckley Park by removing invasive plants, and she says, “This landscape is now a living, conceptual piece that sustains wildlife…. Loss of pollinators is one the most import issues of our time. Instead of making more interior decoration, Art [as native plant landscapes] could address this problem.” Because of the influence of local natural landscaping hero Lorrie Otto, Ney wrote and illustrated a book called Mending the Earth in Milwaukee which includes sixteen stories of extraordinary, pioneer gardeners who created mini Edens by replacing lawn and exotic plants with native plants. Ney’s book is for sale at Outpost Natural Foods to benefit Teens Growing Greens (also at Woodland Pattern, Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, Wehr Nature Center, Riveredge Nature Center), and you can have yours signed by the author.

Poet Terimarie Degree: Terimarie grew up with both parents serving in the US Navy. This afforded the opportunity to live everywhere from southern California to unique locales such as the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Those experiences birthed an appreciation for nature. Her nature poetry is a combination of reflecting on the beauty found in the natural world and also the role people have to care for it. Her poems will be on display with Ney Tait Fraser’s work and will  kick off the opening reception with a poetry reading. Terimarie has a number of poems published online as well as work in four books: Permeable to the Year (2017), The Third Eye (2017), Where I Want to Live (2018) and Secret Words Volume 4 (2019). Her work was recently on display as part of the Swan Day MKE gallery show, “Water: Reflection, Ritual & Resource” at Urban Ecology Center, Menomonee Valley.

Posted in Restoration ecology, Urban restoration ecology | Tagged | 1 Comment

Happy Birthday Aldo

The "Shack" and Aldo's Prairie at The Aldo Leopold Foundation

The “Shack” at the Aldo Leopold Foundation near Barabo, Wisconsin.

January 11, 2019, Madison, WI–On this date in 1887 Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa.

Because of that event not so long ago, today is a day of celebration, and remembrance for the fans, friends and family of Aldo Leopold.  Today is also a time for reflection on Leopold’s message and for a consideration of how far society has come–if at all–towards fulfilling his dream of living the land ethic, his call for a moral responsibility to treat the natural world with love and respect, rather than as a commodity.

Leopold is revered here in Wisconsin, as well as his home state of Iowa, and around the world.  Leopold is renowned for his landmark book “A Sand County Almanac”; remembered as a founding father of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum; and widely regarded as the “father of wildlife ecology and the United States Wilderness system . . .” (The Aldo Leopold Foundation)

The "Shack" and Aldo's Prairie at The Aldo Leopold Foundation

Aldo Leopold’s Prairie adjacent to Leopold’s Shack at the Aldo Leopold Foundation near Barabo, Wisconsin.

One thing we can do to celebrate Aldo’s birthday and life’s work is to re-read A Sand County Almanac, or visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation, or hike in the Arboretum, as we think about how he urged humanity to care for the Earth.


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Restoration Ecology in Wisconsin: Selected Photo Highlights from 2018

Below are a few photos from some of the restoration ecology projects that I tracked in 2018.  I have found that restoration ecology is a forward-looking, multifaceted discipline that has deep roots in the past and a future-oriented perspective.   It is plenty challenging and lots of fun and hard work.  I have also learned that the scale of restoration ecology projects vary from a few hectares to thousands of hectares, and include wetland, aquatic, and terrestrial systems that are conducted by private individuals, conservation groups, neighborhood associations, and government agencies.


Field trip to a restoration site near Stevens Point, Wisconsin during the 10th Annual Meeting of the Midwest Great Lakes Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration.  The conference, and field trip, went on as scheduled despite the late April snowstorm.



Post-conference social  (SER-MWGL 10th Annual Meeting) in Stevens Point, Wisconsin in April, 2018.


Prescribed management burn of a neighborhood prairie planting along the SW Commuter Bike Path in Madison, WI.  Prairie planted and managed by the Westmorland Neighborhood Association.

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On a tour with the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin of prairie restorations at the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

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Prescribed management burn of a private prairie restoration in the Town of Dunkirk, Wisconsin.

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The professional burn crew that conducted the prescribed burn in the Town of Dunkirk photo above.

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A prescribed management prairie/savanna burn conducted on the UW-Madison Arboretum’s Grady Tract by the Arboretum’s professional and certified burn crew.




A pollinator/butterfly garden in the shadow of a pedestrian/bicycle overpass near the Beltline Highway.  The garden was planted and is maintained by the Crawford-Marlborough-Nakoma Neighborhood Association.


The Empire-Sauk Chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts, like many organizations, collects a lot of prairie seed each year for use in its restorations.


And some of those seeds about to be scattered as an over-seeding into a hillside restoration. Yes, it was cold, but this afternoon was the perfect time to get seed sown so that, during the winter freezing and thaw cycle, the seed can work its way to the soil surface and be ready to germinate in the spring.    



 Seeds being evenly distributed among the planting crew on a recent late-fall Sunday afternoon.

This has been a very small sampling of the totality of restoration ecology that is practiced in Wisconsin.  The extent of restoration ecology in Wisconsin–and elsewhere in the United States and around the world–means that there is likely a restoration project nearby you.  To find one close by, go exploring and discover how you can be involved and contribute in the coming year.  Your help is needed and will be greatly appreciated.



Posted in Community-based restoration, Ecological restoration, Midwest Great Lakes Chapter, Nakoma Neighborhood, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, Prairie plants, Prairie restoration, Prescribed fire, Restoration ecology, Restoration in Madison Wisconsin, SER MWGL, Society for Ecological Restoration, SW Bike Path, The Aldo Leopold Foundation, The Prairie Enthusiasts, Westmorland Neighborhood Association | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Reading the Landscape


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Reading The Landscape

by Steve Glass


The advancing urban glacier is shaping our terrain.

Pausing in the prairie of Shoveler’s Sink,

at this spot on the Green Bay Lobe,

I hear the clamor of its westward surges,

driven by worldly anxiety, confusion, and urges.

The modern-day Ice Age has produced a mess,

It is not a glacier of snow, ice, and glacial till,

rather, an advancing sheet of urban fill.


Atop the Driftless Edge,

in the shadow of Blue Mounds’ ancient landscape

its approach can be seen and sensed.

Here at the eco-tone of past, present, and future,

change and disruption have arrived.

Our rising emissions

signal society’s omissions.

The present has become a foreign country.


The relentless and inexorable march of

roads, houses, and malls,

The urban fill of commercial and industrial drumlins.

The moraines of brick, glass and steel.

Instead of kettles holes, we have storm water ponds,

brimming with toxic slurry from urban sheet flow,

spilling off the outwash plain of parking lots.


Along the Johnstown Moraine, at Timber Lane.

what the glacier of urban encroachment has wrought,  one can see now:

It wore down the remnant landscape,

first laid waste by the plow and cow,

scoured the aboriginal soils of their ancient life,

and sealed their fate with asphalt, and oil.


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At the leading edge of this relentless human expansion,

episodic and inexorable in force,

lie frayed communities—civic and biotic—

stressed and torn,

connective tissues ripped.

It advances unevenly,

spreading inequality.


Abandoned barns and farmhouses in the shadow of apartment complexes,

slowly decay.

Sadly, they await their turn under the glacier of urban sprawl.

It will soon arrive,

of this civic officials are in thrawl.

Strip malls, mega churches, and hobby farms on a 5-acre lot,

fill every seemingly “empty” spot.

Injury to this former native landscape emphasized with insult

and irony.

by hi-tech startups on Silicon Prairie Drive.

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Sprawling trophy houses–unlike glacial erratics of old–

Squat malignantly on ridge tops.

Erasing—in a spasm of obliviousness—the bluestems and shooting stars.

Evicting—in a cloud of indifference—the former tenants: the Bobolink, the meadowlark,

and the meadow hawk (dragonfly, as you know).


The glacier of blindness

lubricated with ignorance

replacing, for the sake of the City,

Bio-diversity with simplicity.

Not only the -diversity part

But also the –bio part: life in sheer quantity and complexity.

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The glacier of urban encroachment and transformation

wiping out every last old field, prairie patch, and vernal pool,

perforating the landscape, fragmenting it, and isolating us.

Gone are Emily’s clovers and bees.

Leaving behind,

suburban ghost forests of childless trees.




Posted in Climate Change Impacts, Human impacts on restorations, Reading the Landscape, Restoration ecology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Fourth National Climate Assessment Is Packed With Info for Restorationists

The U.S. federal government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment speaks to the value of ecological restoration as an important adaptive strategy to help deal with current and anticipated future effects of global climate change.

The federal government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment  (NCA4) , released just after Thanksgiving, not only issues a loud alarm call about current and future global climate disruption effects across the United States, but also provides a detailed guide to the many ways that society can—and must—plan for and adapt.   The report enlists conservationists, natural area managers, farmers, and engineers, among many others in attempting to meet the challenges of climate disruption.

Important Restoration Planning Tool

The report is essential reading for restoration ecologists and others who engage in conversation and land management, for at least four reasons.  First, the NCA4 documents the ways in which ecosystems, ecosystem services, and biodiversity have already been, and will likely be, impacted by climate change; secondly, the report provides a template for the many ways that the country (and world) will have to adapt; thirdly, the report provides examples  and case studies in which these adaptation strategies have been implemented and fourthly, provides an analysis of ways in which these adaptation strategies can be modified, enhanced, and expanded ecosystems.  These are all things we need to take into account when writing our restoration plans.

Regional Reports

In addition to the National Topic Chapters, the NCA4 document will be of particular interest to those of us who life and work in the Great Lakes region because of the extensive and detailed regional report on the Midwest which includes sections on agriculture, forestry, biodiversity and ecosystems, human health, transportation and infrastructure and community vulnerability and adaptation, plus an extensive focus on the Great Lakes.

Each topic chapter features a Key Message (KM). For example, Key Message 3 Biodiversity and Ecosystems, says:

“The ecosystems of the Midwest support a diverse array of native species and provide people with essential services such as water purification, flood control, resource provision, crop pollination, and recreational opportunities. Species and ecosystems, including the important freshwater resources of the Great Lakes, are typically most at risk when climate stressors, like temperature increases, interact with land-use change, habitat loss, pollution, nutrient inputs, and nonnative invasive species. Restoration of natural systems, increases in the use of green infrastructure, and targeted conservation efforts, especially of wetland systems, can help protect people and nature from climate change impacts.”

Using a Restoration Approach to Help

The report cites ways that, using a restoration or adaptive management approach, can provide some effective and efficient protection against  some effects of climate change.  The report cites as examples,  prescribed management burns to reduce fuel loads and promote ecosystem health and protecting and creating pollinator habitat as ways to make natural and agricultural systems more resilient.

Case Studies

NCA4 spotlights several Midwestern adaptive initiatives that restorationists in the region may be familiar with and can certainly be proud of and take inspiration from.  These include:

Integrating strips of native prairie vegetation into row crops has been shown to reduce sediment and nutrient loss from fields, as well as improve biodiversity and the delivery of ecosystem services, as has been done by faculty and students at Iowa State University.
Menominee Tribal Enterprises (Wisconsin) staff create opportunity from adversity by replanting a forest opening caused by oak wilt disease with a diverse array of tree and understory plant species that are expected to fare better under future climate conditions.
Solar carports recently installed on the campus of Michigan State University.
Several Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee, WI have begun to restore streams to their natural condition so that they can safely carry away more water during heavy rains.

Posted in climate change, Ecological restoration, Restoration ecology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

How Should Ecological Restoration Practitioners Incorporate Climate Change Predictions Into Work Plans?


What are the future opportunities and challenges for restoration in the age of climate change?

Indicators of a changing global climate include increases in the frequency and severity of extreme events such as precipitation, flooding, and drought, and a more variable climate. But these factors signal global changes; they cannot tell you what to expect where you work. You will have to develop a monitoring checklist of events that are relevant to your geographic area.

Pay attention to local weather patterns and especially to extreme events, such as drought, storms, and flooding, for potential impacts on species distributions. Many of us have seen these extreme events already in 2018: exceptional amount of rain, and hurricanes such as the storm that devastated the Carolinas and then Hurricane Michael that devastated the Florida Panhandle in September. Changed drought pat- terns are likely to result in some species mortality or increases in fire frequency or severity.

Changed flooding patterns may result in shifts in species distributions because of mortality, and a consequent influx of new species. Look downstream to low-lying areas and wetlands that are likely to be impacted first by extreme precipitation events because they are the ultimate recipient of floodwaters.

Coastal wetlands will also be vulnerable to potentially rising sea levels. If you work in a coastal system, SER (2009) warns that rising sea levels could result in the loss or alteration of intertidal zones and the intrusion of salt water into freshwater systems.

Rely on the monitoring protocols of your pest species management plan to alert you to new intruders. Continually monitor the effectiveness of your management activities for changes in the reliability of your tools and approaches; for example, are your usual pest species control strategies and tactics not working as they once die?

Unexpected management results (such as decreased effectiveness of a traditionally effective tool) could indicate the need for a management “tune-up” to check the suitability of management procedures (given the current biotic and abiotic situation) and the assumptions behind your procedures.

Hand pollination of Prairie White-Fringed Orchid 2014-07-17DSC_3106July 17, 2014STEPHENBGLASS

Prairie White-Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), a Federally Threatened species, that is Endangered in Wisconsin, is a species, whose populations ecological restorationists are already managing to maintain and enhance through such activities as hand-pollination, shown above.

The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) sees an important role for restoration in managing to maintain and enhance rare species in response to climate change. The possible responses by species to one of the potential effects of climate change—global warming—range from migrating to suitable habitat at higher elevations, to expanding their geographic ranges to higher latitudes, to moving inland, away from coastal areas likely to be inundated by increases in sea levels set in motion by the melting of polar ice. SER recommends that restoration ecology can respond by “increasing habitat area and reconnecting fragmented landscapes” (SER 2009). Other SER recommendations for rare species management include restoring coastal wetlands to increase habitat diversity, managing rare species outside of their historic ranges, and reducing fire and fuel loads in fire-prone ecosystems to avoid possibly devastating fires.




Posted in climate change, climate change predictions for Wisconsin, Ecological restoration, Restoration ecology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Before It’s Too Late, Are We Going to Do Anything About Climate Change?


Storm clouds on the horizon.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) issued on Monday October 8, 2018 its most recent, and alarming report on the predicted effects of climate change.   The panel’s conclusions are stark; its recommendations for corrective action are urgent.  In summary, the IPCC report—which is a scream for help, a siren call, and a fire alarm all rolled into one–says that the people of Earth have just 12 years (repeat: 12 years) to reduce carbon emission enough to keep the globe’s temperature from rising more and 1.5C, a temperature increase that would lead to catastrophic environmental breakdown.

The reports authors said that  “ urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target, which is affordable and feasible although it lies at the most ambitious end of the Paris agreement pledge to keep temperatures between 1.5C and 2C.

Given the seriousness of the situation and the need for immediate action, the questions are: will the world’s leaders acknowledge the need; do they have he political will to take action; and are they able to take the necessary steps to save the Earth,  Even if the answers to all three questions are yes—a somewhat doubtful assumption—it is still, and ultimately, up to each of us as citizens of the world, and as restoration ecologists, to do what we as individuals have control over.

Collective Action

Staying at, or below, a 1.5C temperature increase means zero fossil fuels (350.org).  But, until society stops using coal, and oil, there are things each of us can do to help reduce the effects of climate change. Here are some simple, common sense actions that each of us can take, as we go about our daily lives, that will reduce carbon emissions.

If everyone pitches in to change their behavior in ways that reduce carbon emissions, this large collective action might just keep the global temperature rise at 1.5C.  As Bill McKibbon of 350.org argues, through collective, action groups of citizens can urge leaders to adopt such practices as city-wide renewal energy programs and shifts away from fossil fuels.

 Eat less meat—especially beef

Or eat none at all, and that includes dairy. Avoiding or reducing your use of meat and dairy is the single most effective way to reduce your impact on the planet, this according to a new report.


“The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.”   By some estimates, beef and dairy production accounts for nearly 15% of global carbon emissions.

The global consumption of farm commodities, such as soy beans and beef, accounted for nearly one fourth (25%) of global deforestation between 2001 and 2015, according to a story in the New York Times (10.18.18)

Insulate Homes

Better insulated homes and offices use less energy, and thus produce fewer carbon emissions.

Install Solar Panels

Alternative energy sources are the big hope for staying below 1.5C temperature, for the same reasons that we insulate homes and office buildings: lower energy consumption and fewer carbon emissions.

Walk or Take the Bus

When you need to move around, avoid or reduce your use of automobiles.  Instead of driving, walk, use a bicycle, or take public transit to your destination. If you must have a car, get a hybrid, or, better yet, an electrical vehicle.  If you have a gas-powered car, for goodness sake, do not put ethanol-based fuels in the tank.  Instead use ethanol-free gas. Ethanol is reputed to be environmentally-friendly but the truth is far from it.  Ethanol-based gas gets fewer miles per gallon and produces more pollutants than gasoline without ethanol.  Gas without added ethanol costs more but has less impact on the atmosphere because it gets better gas mileage, and produces fewer pollutants.

Ethanol, in addition to its impacts on air quality and its contribution to climate change,  has negative impacts on land use.  Ethanol comes from corn grown in the US Midwest (Iowa, for example).  Corn production requires gasoline,  meaning that gas is used to produce gas.  ( There is something fundamentally wrong and crazy about that practice.) The land given over to increased agricultural production, so more corn can be grown to produce ethanol, also has negative impacts: fallow land is plowed up, releasing stored carbon, not to mention the loss of native habitats and natural areas.

Challenges and Opportunities

The land given over to agriculture (or taken out of production to reduce impacts on the climate) can provide both opportunities or challenges for ecological restoration.  Next Time:  What are the future opportunities and challenges for restoration in the age of climate change.


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Pope Farm Conservancy: Where Agriculture and Ecological Restoration Work Together for Sustainable Land Use

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Pope Farm Conservancy looking north towards Blackhawk Road from the ridge top in the northeast corner of the property.  Notice the prairie plantings on either side of the mowed grassy path.

Pope Farm Conservancy is owned by the Town of Middleton, Wisconsin, near Madison in Dane County, Wisconsin.  It is a working farm and ecological restoration project on the eastern edge of the Driftless Area (un-glaciated portion) of southwestern Wisconsin.  In 2018, in addition to seven row crops, the Conservancy also grows prairie and other native plant communities among six different restoration projects.

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At the bottom of the same slope shown above, looking south.  Hard to believe,  because of the lack of erosion and bare soil, but this is actually a storm water channel for the Pope Farm Conservancy.

Pope Farm Conservancy seems to me to be a model of sustainable and land use in general and of wise agriculture land use, in particular.  It is one of the few exemplary cases, that I know of,  in which agriculture and ecological restoration co-exist in harmony and work toward their mutual benefit on the same piece of land.

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The 1938 CCC Spillway leading into the storm water channel shown in the photo above.  The Civilian Conservation Corps, from the Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin Camp, built this spillway 80 years ago.  It is still functioning and intact.

One point of emphasis for the Pope Farm Conservancy is preventing soil loss through wind and water erosion.  The 1938 CCC Spillway is the centerpiece of this land use philosophy and is a model of storm water management best practices.

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The terrain is steep.  The 105 acre Pope Farm Conservancy sits atop three recessional moraines and straddles the point where three different watersheds come together.  Looking south across the agricultural fields.

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View of the surroundings from the top of the recessional moraines.

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Pope Farm Conservancy invites visitors and provides 7 miles of hiking trails. To learn more about Pope Farm Conservancy, click here.

Posted in Ecological restoration, Pope Farm Conservancy, Restoration ecology, Stormwater best management practices | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Shake the Lake. Contaminate the Lake.

Fireworks displays, like Madison’s “Shake the Lake” are spectacular.  But, what chemicals are in fireworks?  How might they impact our air, land, and water?

This Saturday June 23, 2018 from 5-11 pm Madison, WI will stage its annual fireworks festival.  This year, as is has for the past several years, Madison’s fireworks organizers will have the pyrotechnics launched from a barge in the middle of Lake Monona.  This setting provides for easy viewing for those near and far.  Observers can watch from the nearby Monona Terrace, the Capitol Square, or from parks and residences around Lake Monona.

Previously known as Rhythm and Booms, the Madison fireworks festivals have had several different sponsoring groups and bounced around various land-based locations: Elver Park on the west side, Warner Park on the north side and, for the past few years, this annual display of patriotism has been staged on Lake Monona (one of the City’s four lakes) and hence is known as “Shake the Lake”.

The fireworks show is usually held just before the July 4th holiday so as to not compete with the many small community fireworks shows in the Dane County area.   “Shake the Lake” is sponsored by a variety of organizations:  Festival Foods, Madison Mallards (a minor league baseball team), one winery, seven breweries and/or brew pubs, a dentistry service, ands Group Health Cooperative, among others.

“Shake the Lake” is an afternoon-into-evening  event with food vendors, music, and a human cannonball launched into Lake Monona, all culminating with the fireworks show.

Ecological Condition of Madison’s Lakes

Madison justifiably takes pride in its five major lakes. They are a matter of civic pride. The City straddles a narrow isthmus between two of these lakes:  Lake Monona and the larger Lake Mendota.  The other lakes are Waubesa, Wingra, and Kegonsa.  The lakes provide Madison with a beautiful setting with lots of recreational opportunities such as running, biking, boating and swimming.

But over the past dozen years, or so, Madison lakes have been suffering from blue-green algae blooms, largely due to storm water runoff from homes, commercial properties, roads, and farms. This runoff is loaded with sediment and nutrients, especially phosphorous.  Cyanobacteria blooms can release toxins that are harmful to people and pets.  Already in the spring of 2018 several Madison beaches have been temporarily closed because of cyanobacteria blooms.  If you want to learn more about blue-green algae, click here to view a primer from the Clean Lakes Alliance.

The Madison lakes also suffer from infestations of Zebra mussels, and spiny waterless, invaders that are wreaking havoc with lake ecology.

Chemical Constituents of Fireworks

What chemicals are found in fireworks?  According to the evidence, quire a few contaminates that we don’t want in our air, land, or water.

According to a legal brief filed on behalf of the San Diego, California Water Quality board in 2011 (https://ecocerf.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/water-and-air-quality-summary-and-exhibits.pdf )

filed as part of its federal storm water permit application:

typical constituents . . . “include, but are not limited to, aluminum, antimony, barium, carbon, calcium, chlorine, cesium, copper, iron, potassium, lithium, magnesium, oxidizers including nitrates, chlorates and perchlorates, phosphorus, sodium sulfur, strontium, titanium, and zinc. The chemical constituents burn at high temperatures when the firework is detonated which promotes incineration. The chemical constituents within the fireworks are scattered by the burst charge which separates them from the fireworks casing and internal shell components. A firework combustion residue is produced in the form of smoke, airborne particulates, chemical pollutants, and debris including paper, cardboard, wires and fuses. This combustion residue can fall into surface waters. In addition un-ignited pyrotechnic material including duds and misfires can also fall into surface waters. The receiving water fallout area affected by the fireworks residue can vary depending on wind speed and direction, size of the shells, the angle of mortar placement, the type and height of firework explosions and other environmental factors. Once the fireworks residue enters a water body it can be transported to waters and shorelines outside the fallout area due to wind shear and tidal effects.”

The report continues:

“…discharges from the public display of fireworks contain pollutants that have a potential to cause excursions of applicable water and sediment quality objectives.”  In other words public displays of fireworks could cause the municipality to be in violation of its storm water permit.

The concern about the environmental impacts of fireworks is a concern also in New Hampshire where a 2018 report (https://www.des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/pip/factsheets/bb/documents/bb-60.pdf) that concludes:

“Fireworks contain chemicals that can be harmful to humans and aquatic life. Research suggests that the potential exists for short-term elevated concentrations of these chemicals in surface water, groundwater and the air immediately following larger commercial fireworks displays. At this time, there is no information available about the potential negative impact of consumer-grade fireworks displays on surface waters. However, it is reasonable to expect that a small but unknown amount of contaminants reach the surface water. Best management practices offer solutions to minimize these potential impacts.”



The major concern about fireworks is perchlorate, Perchlorate is an inorganic anion thatis used in solid rocket propellants, fireworks, munitions, signal flares, etc.  Studies have shown that perchlorate is a thyroid disrupter and contaminates the surface and groundwater in the vicinity of fireworks displays. (M. R. Sijimol, Mahesh Mohan, 2014)

Perchlorate is consider such an environmental threat that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a fact sheet about perchlorate (click here for the fact sheet.)


Apparently–despite these known concerns–little consideration was given the potential environmental impacts of fireworks displays on Madison’s lakes to exacerbate or contribute new problems to Madison’s already beleaguered lakes.

The chemical components in fireworks are not harmless and may have long term consequences for human health and environmental quality.

Fireworks displays are exciting and spectacular but this is a short-term thrill with long-term environmental consequences.

Curiously, and significantly–because they are charged with protecting the Madison environment and promoting the common civic good–the  Madison Water Utility and the City of Madison are co-sponsors of “Shake the Lake”, an event that seems at odds with environmental protection.

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