Fixing Stupid

How we can stop causing poaching, successes with speaking up, good nature news, and more from our abandoned house project

This week environmental author Bill McKibben wrote, “We’re acknowledging the stupidity of standard ways of doing business. So we should just stop. Right now, before any more damage is done.”

He was saying this about the planned clearcuts of old-growth timber in the crazy-wild Yaak Valley in northern Montana. But he could just as easily be referring to our fossil-fuel-centric politics, our perennial desire to put dirty factories in poor neighborhoods, or our unleashed capitalism, which puts maximum wealth before kindness to people and nature.

That we are finally acknowledging some of our stupidity, both on a broad and more personal scale, is exciting. Yay!

Stupidity might seem like an overly negative word. But I see it more as when I have been doing something one way my whole life, and then finally realize there is a way better way to do it. I don’t have to feel guilty that I’ve been doing it wrong. But if I insist on keeping my old ways, then that probably qualifies as stupid.

We could really fix our ills quickly if we were willing and able to reframe our thinking, and ditch some worn-out views and traditions (sadly, this seems exceedingly difficult for some people in Congress this week, but we’ll get into the climate deniers another time).

Change can be uncomfortable, because it requires acknowledging that we weren’t perfect. But that’s okay. We are allowed to update our ways of thinking. We can be elated that we finally figured out how to be better at something.

So today’s One Small Step is an easy one — something we can just stop. Right now.

But briefly, I want to go back to the Yaak for a sec. The last administration opened up enormous swaths of northern forests to logging, citing their motive as reducing forest fires. It’s important to know that is a complete lie. In some places, thinning forests of younger trees can help mitigate fires, but never does chopping down a 600-year-old tree or bulldozing into a primeval forest help prevent fire. Old subalpine fir and spruce forests like the Yaak can hold 80 percent more carbon in the soil than drier pine forests. Logging them releases that immense load of carbon, which makes the world hotter and drier, which leads to more fires. So, these sorts of charades are purely money driven, and it’s important to understand the nuances.

Here’s the Yaak: Steve and I were fortuante enough to vist those wilds last fall. It was a hard place to leave.

One Small Step — The Animal Trade & Wildlife Poaching

I know you’re probably thinking that poaching has nothing to do with you. Poachers are evil people who fin sharks and shoot rhinos.

Sorry, but we are all part of the problem. The U.S. is the second-largest importer of illegal wildlife, and plant poaching is a pretty big problem as well. Your coral-studded bracelet, that shell from the tropical tourist trap, those cute fur-lined boots, your ginseng plant, the tiny turtle in a tank, that sage smudge stick — it doesn’t matter how legit the vendor seemed to be, there is a good chance it was taken unethically from the wild, if not all-out poached. There’s a good chance that the ecosystem it was taken from is suffering because of it.

This is an easy fix. Don’t buy creatures. Alive or in pieces.

The pet trade is a major problem. Think tropical fish, coral, tortoises, frogs, parrots, songbirds, snakes, lizards, salamanders, and hedgehogs. Some come from breeders, not poachers, but international regulations cannot very well sort out who is lying. Even if the tag says “sustainable,” it’s nearly impossible to know if that’s true. Even if it is true, it doesn’t mean the animals themselves aren’t suffering.

Here’s a peek at the scale of the problem.

Fish & Invertebrates: 90 percent of tropical fish entering the U.S. each year are captured by squirting cyanide onto their coral reef home, and for some species, like blue tangs, 80 percent of captured fish die before they even get to the store. If you must have fish, try the Tank Watch app. (These fish are not tanked, just out and about at our old stomping grounds on Looe Key Reef.)

Coral: Whether it’s in jewelry or for the tank, most coral involves destruction of habitat. Around 1.5 million live stony corals and 4 million pounds of dead coral are imported into the U.S. each year. Around the world, 90 percent of reefs are missing high-value species. Worse yet, corals are often collected by dragging iron bars along the ocean floor, killing entire ecosystems. With global warming and pollution, coral is in enough trouble already. It doesn’t need this. In fact, I think tropical fish tanks are waiting for the right person to make this a movement. Any takers?

Jewelry, Crafts & Mementos: If it has shells, coral, or other sea creatures, see the paragraph above. Also, if you’re walking on the beach, try to leave the souvenir shells for the hermit crabs and the other creatures who depend on them.

Fur & Leather: Linings for boots and gloves, pompoms on hats, toys, and leather (especially exotic leather in tourist shops), come from animals that have likely either been poached or raised in pretty awful conditions. We’re talking animals like beaver, chinchillas, dogs, cats, foxes, minks, rabbits, raccoons, seals, bears, elephants, lizards, kangaroos, snakes, sharks, rays, and sea turtles.

Reptiles, Amphibians & Birds: geckos, chameleons, parrots, frogs… I don’t think I have to list them. At this point, you get the idea. Beyond devastating the natural ecosystems from which these species are disappearing at alarming rates, they also do harm in their new homes if they get into the wild. Think iguanas, lionfish, and pythons in Florida. Burmese pythons are considered endangered in their native southeast Asia, but thanks to people releasing their python pets when they no loner want them, 99.9 percent of small mammals are gone from the Everglades (in just a couple of decades). Talk about an ecosystem change.

Ivory: Just don’t. Buying ivory, as carvings, jewelry, tusks or anything else, drives the poaching of elephants. Biologists’ best guess is that elephants may be extinct within a decade. The market for this only exists because people choose to buy products with ivory.

This sucks. I’ve unknowingly contributed the the destruction of reefs, cruelty to animals, and downfall of ecosystems — just like the fashionable ladies of the 19th century did with their feather-plumed hats, which nearly wiped out the rainbow of egrets, the stoic great herons, and most other long-legged wading birds. Now, every time I walk by a shell store, the same kind of store I absolutely adored as a kid, all I can see is the the horrifying destruction of so many beautiful creatures and their habitats. If I see an ivory carving, I wonder if it’s from one of the 20,000 elephants poached every year, or from a hippo, walrus, or hornbill bird, who also get killed for ivory.

But, as McKibben said, we are finally acknowledging the stupidity of our standard ways of doing business. So we should just stop. Right now. That’s what a couple of high-society women at the turn of the last century did, when they found out that their fancy hat decorations were leading to mass slaughter of birds. They spread the word and caused a ruckus. People listened. Once they knew, few wanted to wear that burden (literally, wear it on their heads). It wasn’t long before demand for those products dried up, and protections came to be, like the Audubon Society and the Migratory Bird Act.

For more info on poaching problems, try these articles from National Geographic: article 1, article 2.

Nature News Roundup for the Week

So some TikTokers, Indigenous activists, & caribou walk into a bar… and end up sending 6.3 million letters to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urging them to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They accomplished this feat in just three weeks, giving the government more input than it has received during any other public comment period. The volume was so great that the USFWS was unable to process them all before the last administration ended, effectively blocking more damage. This is good news for the ANWR, but better news for finding new ways to get Indigenous voices heard. As activist Bernadette Demientieff told Yes! magazine, “To be honest, it’s not easy going into places, talking to people that will never understand how spiritually and culturally connected we are to our land, water, and to our animals. But I do it anyway. I try anyway.”

In another public pressure success story: Holloman Air Force Base will not start flying 10,000 fighter jet sorties a year over eight wilderness areas in New Mexico. Had they done so, they would have flown as low as 100 feet off the ground and discharged thousands of flares. What swayed this outcome was just thousands, not millions, of letters. It’s really encouraging that our voices count. It’s also encouraging for every species that lives in the world’s first designated wilderness, the Gila, plus the Aldo Leopold, Apache Kid, Withington, Bosque del Apache, Sierra de las Uvas, Broad Canyon, and Robledo wildernesses — and every human who likes to find peace there.

Steve and I sure did, last fall, when we camped out there and visited the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. I had a feeling there of being so connected to the place. Like I’d lived there, in some time gone by.

Bravo Biodiverse Barcelona: While people were in lockdown last spring, wildlife flourished in Spain’s normally tourist-swollen city. Flourished, as in 74 percent more butterflies, plus more birds and other insects. When people finally emerged again, instead of tidying up the place, they decided to keep it wild and are now in the process of replacing cement with greens and flowers, installing nesting towers for birds and bats, sneaking in some beehives and insect hotels.

“It’s not just having a park surrounded by asphalt, but introducing nature into the city,” Lorena Escuer told The Guardian. Escuer runs a natural pest control company and helps cities plant wildflowers at the base of trees, rather than metal grating. “People need re-educating. Their idea of a clean space is somewhere where there is no life, where the ecosystem is dead.”

It also about setting up self-sustainable green infrastructure all through the city. An example of a project in the works: planting a roof garden on an apartment building to provide a nesting place for birds and a nature-infusion for the building’s 200 residents. To irrigate it, they’ll collect rainwater in tanks and install solar to drive the pumps.

A New 60,000-pound Mammal: That’s right, there’s a 38-foot-long animal that we never knew about on our planet. A baleen whale washed up in the Everglades in 2019, and it looks to be a new species. Scientists named it Rice’s whale. It is exciting, but also unnerving, as the new species is already considered endangered.

Easy Citizen Science: Tracking animal, insect, and plant populations is really important for scientists, as it gives them an ongoing picture of nature’s health. Since there are only so many scientists, but a lot of people who like to look at bugs and weeds, the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society came up with iNaturalist, an app that lets us regulars report our findings to an international database.

Hmm… hey iNaturalist, can I report a milkweed with an invasive iguana?

News from the Homefront

For Steve and I, still gutting the walls on our house project, life has gotten a little easier out here on the range. This week the power company connected our temporary power pole. Electricity, however problematic it has been for the natural world thus far, sure changes the game for us humans. Now we are able to run a shop vac and power tools, but more importantly, the heater in the van (in which we live), which means we no longer need to pay to stay at the campground. But the campground was pretty picturesque, since it had hot springs that steamed at sunset.

About the electricity, while this valley is as rural as it gets, just down the road is the Alamosa Solar Generating Project, a power station that was the largest in the world of its kind (concentrator photovoltaics) when it was completed in 2012. It’s still the world’s third largest. I aim to find out if our power comes from there (I hope so), or if they export it to the big city.

We also have a new mammal to report. Sam the neighbor dog has taken us on as his project. He comes over every 20 minutes or so to inspect our progress, check for lunch leftovers, and try to coax us outside for a game of hide-and-chase. It usually works on all accounts.

A parting thought.

Speaking of bird feathers, photographer and National Wildlife Refuge Park Ranger Kristie Killam captured this snowy egret showing off his plumage in the magroves of Big Pine Key. Without those uppity hat ladies at the turn of the last century — and extraordinaraly devoted park rangers like Kristie — it is quite possible that snowy egrets, along with most other plumed wading birds, would be extinct. I wish I could post this photo bigger. It’s such a beautiful shot, and a testament to Kristie’s wildife photograpy patience and prowess.

That’s all for now. Have a great week and keep up the good! And if you like what you just read, one way to speak up for nature is to share it!

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