Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Desert: Stark, Subtle and Sublime

Personal Footprint
I have lived in a semi-arid region all my life.  Southern California, with it's Mediterranean climate, has softened my appreciation of a true desert landscape; though, I will always have a special place in my heart for the Joshua Trees of the Mojave Desert.  My time spent in this desert from Joshua Tree National Park, to family gatherings in Palmdale and Yucca Valley since I was a child, are priceless.  However, despite my frequent interactions with this unique ecosystem, I'm not sure I've ever had a decent understanding of the desert landscape.  After living here in Boulder City, Nevada and working with the National Park Service at Lake Mead, I can say that the desert is not only one of the most unappreciated ecosystems but also a mystery that I don't think I will ever fully understand.  

Lake Mead National Recreational Area sits at the junction of three massive desert systems in this country, the Sonoran Desert, the Great Basin Desert and the Mojave Desert.  My job has opened my eyes to a beauty that can only be described as stark, subtle and sublime.  What can appear as a barren wasteland is simply a treasure trove of fascinating organisms and geological processes that await those only willing to look a little closer.   
As a resource management intern, the job I was hired to do was more data analyst and data management position.  To my pleasant surprise, however, my work has also included some valuable time in the field.  Thus I have been able to better acquaint myself with my new home.  Federal background checks take a while to go through, thus, for the first full month I was able to venture out with almost everyone in our division.  I've hiked through winding slot canyons in Grapevine Canyon looking for invasive species, trekked up at Red Rock to set up sound monitoring equipment, transplanted delicate seedlings of native plants for future mitigation and boated out on a lake as clear as glass to download data from weather stations.  My plant identification skills have certainly grown and with spring on the horizon I eagerly await the return of the annual wildflowers in the park. 
My favorite days in the field have to be when I went out with members of the Cultural department; they handle historical and archaeological sites in the park.  This was a new experience for me as I did not know that there was an entire department devoted to this.  The Lake Mead area was (and is still) home to Native Americans whose ancestors roamed these canyons, mountains and washes.  Getting to be near Spirit Mountain a place very sacred to some of the tribes in the area was a special experience and I hope to visit and climb the mountain in the future as it supports some beautiful plant life in the spring.  Along with the guidance of the Cultural employees, I learned how to survey an archaeological site and identify and record some of the artifacts that we found there. I was thrilled to be able to draw a partial arrowhead in the field for documentation purposes.  As part of my job...getting to draw!  This sounds silly, but it really opened my eyes to another way artistic skills could be used in my field.  

The best day came when we went out to document Rock Art at a sight.  I could not believe how easily you could overlook these ancient canvases on the rocks as some are in varying stages of natural weathering.  This was personally an awe inspiring moment for me.  Just to see the work of these ancient artists, people who may have felt the need to leave a mark, write a message, let their creativity out or tell a story.  People like me. No one knows why they did it or what these petroglyphs mean for sure, but it doesn't matter.  Centuries later, this art survives.  As part of the documentation we used net grids thrown over the rocks to draw roughly to scale the art on our own grid paper.  There was a process and method to this and I had to be careful not go overboard as far as shading goes. But there I was, drawing in the field for a full day, standing where they stood. It was bliss. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

There Really is Something in the Water

Personal Footprint ~ Summer 2011
American Conservation Experience
Bureau of Land Management 
Atwell Island Invasive Species Management Intern

It seems my time out in Alpaugh
California passed by much too quickly.  When I received word that I had been accepted and packed my car to drive up to central California, I was nervous.  Not only was this my first job in the "real world" but I didn’t know quite what to expect from my fellow interns or the work environment.  What ended up happening was that I made some new friends I will keep for life and grew in more ways than I could possibly imagine

As Invasive Species Management Interns our primary goal was to ride the BLM's wetland restoration project of the irksome exotic species that posed the greatest risk to the native species on the project.  We dealt with five-hooked bassia primarily which could grow so thick that it simply out competed the other plants for space and light. We were able to clear the primary wetland of this menace as well as the channel that brings water to that wetland.  This was important because if the seeds were allowed direct access into the water, all our work on the first wetland would be lost.  We also helped remove the invasive tamarisk from the wetland. This plant not only sucks up nutrients but actually
affects the salinity of the surrounding soil making it hard for anything else to grow.  Once fully established a chainsaw and herbicide is required (the NPS has an entire crew dedicated to this here at Lake Mead).  Thankfully we were nipping the saplings in the bud before they could reach that point. The most interesting part of our stay was assisting the BLM in starting a grazing study to determine optimal habitat requirements for the kangaroo rats and several lizard species.  We set and baited traps but also got to assist in the data collection.  This study will have big implications later on down the line but it was nice to be a part of the study at the beginning. 

As I said before I grew so much during this internship.  The work was challenging physically but I rose to the occasion and grew stronger and healthier.  
I mean, eight hours of manual labor in the sweltering sun ought to help you develop some muscle, not to mention quite a few battle scars.  From talking to the senior researchers and staff I also gained the confidence that I could fit in, converse and thrive alongside experts in the field.  We asked a lot of questions and it was nice to learn so much about restoration ecology, the wetland ecosystem and all the species that live there.  I gained valuable skills and experience that is so important in the conservation field.  A lot of my learning and growth also came from my fellow interns.  We had a remarkable team and the four of us bonded almost instantaneously.  These are people I can always contact as part of a personal and professional network. 

Working with a government agency like the BLM was definitely interesting.  It was great to see the inner working of the agency but sometimes frustrating to hear about all the paperwork and bureaucracy that comes along with the government
, it was a valuable insight however and the specific workers I got to interact with on a closer level, especially the project director, were wonderful, hardworking and intelligent.  It was great to see how they handled themselves and amazing to hear how much they cared about a project that might not make sense to many people on the outside looking in. 

Speaking of  being “on the outside looking in” my time in Alpaugh had me so unwired from the rest of the world, that it actually felt funny to come back to an area with internet service and working cell reception.   We lived in a BLM owned home called the White House where our closest neighbors, entire field lengths away, were legalized pot growers.  We were told not to go to the town of Alpuagh alone during the day and not at all at night.  Our water was not potable due to trace levels of arsenic (Yes we still showered in it. It’s a metal. Yes, it can be absorbed by the skin and boiling it will only concentrate it).  Don’t worry, we looked up the consequences of this and only got mildly bewildered when our water started smelling of sulfur as well (gaseous…).  Due being utterly cut off from the world, the interns and I found ways to pass the time.  We were also never short on random topics to talk about.   I completed a long overdue oil painting for my friend as well as plenty of reading.  An overnight beach camping trip to Grover/Pismo Beach occurred (bonfire, marshmallows and way too many confederate flags being flown by the other campers/ATV drivers) and many happy game and movie nights.  I was even nick-named “Swamplette” due to the fact that always ended up the muddiest and dirtiest at the end of a day’s work.  What can I say? 

My favorite parts about Alpaugh?  Getting to see the vibrant painted sun rise over the wetlands, especially with the Black Neck Stills and Egrets in the ponds and the glowing multicolored sunsets giving way to a star filled sky that was so crisp and clear.  I could go on about Alpuagh, the inside-jokes and the job itself.  But, I find myself in a new location with a new ecosystem and a new neighborhood that I have been getting to know.  I hope to share more about Lake Mead and about my new role with the National Park Service soon enough. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Enough Hot Air, Just Clean Air

As the L.A. Times editorial aptly states in Today's editorial, any notion that environmental regulations have caused this current meltdown of our economy is utterly ridiculous. The anti-environmental riders sitting in limbo as congress works hard to deal with the debt-ceiling aftermath are an slap in the face to this country's environmental history and the long hard road we have traveled to ensure cleaner air, water and standards of living for all the people of this country.

Gutting the EPA and various groundbreaking environmental memorandums and acts, some of which have been in place in the 1970s, is not going to fix our current problems. Some people, especially certain members of congress, are so blinded by their frustration and bias that they don't stop and think about the consequences of living in a polluted and unsafe environment. Some acts like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts are historic benchmarks that this country should be proud of. But, it seems in order to appreciate what these regulations do for the quality of life of the people in the country, you have to be in an area of risk or have an appreciation for areas of pristine beauty. Anyone from Los Angeles old enough to remember the years before Air Quality control will tell you what a vital difference it has made for the entire Los Angeles basin and the health quality of those who live there. The National Park System is often considered one of America's best ideas, they are precious jewels of remaining natural beauty that future generations can enjoy again and again. However, those in favor of these current riders would have particulate matter pumped into the air by deregulating industry and strip mining near Grand Canyon National Park, a sight that draws thousands of tourists every year featuring the Colorado River that provides water for one of the nation's largest cities.

How cozy and comfortable must a person be to believe that Environmental Regulations do not provide an essential service to the citizens of this country. Anyone who has studied environmental ethics, or follows environmental issues in their communities and states, knows that the middle and lower classes are often the ones who struggle the most with the outfall of environmental problems. Yet these are the people that certain members of congress are willing to throw under the bus in more ways than one. These are the workers that want jobs, but who also want to ensure the health and safety of their children.

Enough beating around the bush. Enough lobbying from those with deep pockets, pockets that apparently can't afford to pay for workers and the regulations to maintain clean air and water for those workers. Don't try and undo the historic decisions that have helped so many people long before any of our current problems occurred. We all know the causes of this downturn, there are real problems that need to be addressed.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough, Fred Upton Gives Up

Having grown up in a district that is "a poster child for why we need the EPA" it would seem natural that Michigan Rep. Fred Upton would have environmental consciousness close to his heart. As of late, however, it seems that his mindset has been poisoned. Poisoned, not by the toxins that seep into the Kalamazoo River which is one of the most polluted areas in the country, not by the chemicals and sewage that are destroying the great lakes including Lake Michigan and not by the smokestacks that are reducing the health quality of his district's people, but simply…too much TEA. Upton is just the latest example of the growing trend among seasoned GOP politicians: survival of the biggest sell-out. More than ever the American public needs to speak out about it.

The dilemma is that Upton is a smart man. He gets it. Having nearly lost an election to a tea party candidate, he knows that survival means convincing his party that he is on their side. Given his environmental consciousness, conservatives were not thrilled when he took leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Thus, instead of standing up against the prevalent “you vs. me” mentality that is crippling this country’s government, Upton has turned his back on everything he once stood for; laughing in the face of his own embattled district and state. Thus, in a complete about-face, as the L.A. Times reports, we've watched as Upton has helped or in many cases spearheaded the way for anti-environment measures. From obstructing and hindering the EPA's authority over greenhouse gases to campaigning against a nationwide rule that would have factories install scrubbers to curb airborne mercury output (a rule that is already implemented in his own state), Upton has made his case and Republican leaders and big industry tycoons have taken notice.
As a model that perhaps being Republican doesn't necessarily mean overlooking environmental standards and public health, he now stands for just one thing, money. It’s hypocrisy at its best. But, at the end of the day these politicians are just scared individuals scrambling to keep their jobs. The tea party has deemed the EPA a public enemy and has made it clear: if you aren’t with them, you are against them. There is no room for compromise. However, why should this be the case? There should be a way that politicians such as Upton should be able to hold true to the causes that affect the people they represent. There is no room for selfishness. With such a drastic shift in mentality that is clearly influenced by the fear instigated by a single vocal source why aren’t more American’s crying foul? We shouldn’t sit idly and watch as some of our most powerful tools protecting our air, water and land are stripped away.
If the politicians are so easily swayed by such a boisterous force, perhaps those getting cast aside should start voicing their own opinions even louder. Fear isn’t necessary, just a unified and strong voice. Upton may have won their approval and may be ready to fight any attempts by the Obama administration to sell their environmental goals. But let’s be sure he doesn't expect a warm homecoming. Now is the time to voice your opinion. It’s time to clean up the mess.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Short Term over Long Term: Oil Backed Prop 23 Might Actually Pass

Sometime last year a young man came up to me with a clip board asking for my John Hancock for a collection of random propositions. Flipping through, I noticed Proposition 23, deceptively titled "The California Jobs Initiative", which would delay implementation of California's landmark legislation, to reduce carbon emissions and get large polluting corporations to clean up their act, until unemployment drops to 5.5%.

I thought to myself, "those sneaky bastards!" What a cunning way to trick Californians into believing that this was a good long term investment. Politely, I handed the clip board back to the young man, secure in the fact that most Californian's had enough sense to know that the long term benefits of investing in green technology, being at the forefront of ground breaking legislation that could bring in bright new businesses and having good health for themselves and their environment would ultimately outweigh the costs of a few jobs lost. Jobs that, I might add, would be lost solely due to the fact that these oil companies refuse to shell out some of their billions in revenue to keep jobs while also complying with regulations to protect the people they are supposed to be serving.

Prop 23, I thought, would pass when hell freezes over.

Let me tell you, it's starting to feel a bit chilly in Southern California.

Today I took a moment to read through the comments on the recent L.A. Times column that quite bluntly slaps down Texas oil giants Valero and Tesoro which are funneling millions to see that Prop 23 passes as well as the billionaire Koch Brothers who have already proven that they can debunk other legislation (mostly environmental) by "quietly giving more than a hundred million dollars to right-wing causes."

The language and the ferociousness of the less than intelligent responses blew my mind out of the water. Not only that, but the overwhelming majority of people seemed to be taking up for the deliberately cunning antics of the Oil Companies and the Billionaire brothers. Comments like "who cares about the environment what about my job?" and "all these regulations are going to force companies out of California" were rampant (don't even get me started on the global warming is not real or the environmental concerns are some psycho religion front).

Number one, the very fact that we are allowing these companies to pollute our minds seems that we have officially lost the campaign to get them to stop polluting our homes and our bodies. Number two, how dare these companies spend millions even billions on campaigns against legislation that protects us simply because it would ultimately be cheaper than complying with the codes while protecting the jobs simultaneously. No one seemed to realize that while some jobs may be lost, other brighter opportunities would arise to fill the void left by the corrupt and self fulfilling companies. When everyone bands together to tell them that enough is enough, they will finally have no where else to go. Their greed won't allow themselves to wither away, we can be sure of that. Something is so very wrong with this business practice and the system that allows it work time and time again.

I used to have faith that California was proud of our environmental legislation and was ready to step up and reaffirm its image as the potential home of a new economy."

Hopefully come November, that faith will rise up to meet the challenge of a tough money greased opposition.