Washington Spring 2011

Spring has arrived in Washington, although it was cool yesterday and today and we had a dusting of snow a couple days ago. But the cherry trees are blooming and robins are out in flocks. I didn’t know robins came in flocks. Here we have some pictures.

Spreading Good Forestry

Humans have affected the environment for many years.  Europe’s beech forests grow mostly on areas that were once cleared by Neolithic farmers. Native Americans’ fires created the beautiful and productive “natural” ecosystems that greeted the Jamestown settlers. Pockets of extremely fertile soils in the Amazon, called terra preta  (black soil), were created by humans.  The surrounding soils are often very poor and do not retain much carbon in the soils of retain water.  Naturalists have long recognized the crucial role tree islands  play in in enriching the wetland ecosystem and providing habitat for animals like birds and panthers in the Everglades.  Archeologists recently discovered that many of the islands started as ancient garbage dumps.   The garbage heaps gave trees fertile places to root.   As the water levels rose over the centuries and flooded the surrounding land, the action of the trees drawing up water and nutrients stabilized the islands and made them what they are.

Human activity in nature can be harmful.  But it can also be beneficial.  Natural systems are living, changing and renewable.   There is not a finite amount of nature that we “use up”.  We live in a living and renewing system, always have and always will. 

Our forests in America are healthy and getting healthier with good management.  The Global Forest Resources Assessment  is not as optimistic about forests in South America or Asia, but our history, there offers reason for hope in the long run.  American forests were in poor shape a century ago.  One of the great American ecological success stories of the Twentieth Century was the return of healthy forests. Our American Tree Farm System  (ATFS) was developed in 1941 as part of this success story.  Since then, some of the first tree farms have been harvested, often clear cut in the case of southern pine, three of four times and have never been better.   ATFS certifies more than 25 million acres of privately owned forestland managed by over 90,000 family forest landowners committed to excellence in forest stewardship, with wood certified from harvest to final user by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).   

Good management practices and certifications are spreading to places where forest conservation has been viewed with less enthusiasm.  When people understand the long-term benefits of good forest management, they get less interested in short term exploitation.  And when governments support landowners with strong property rights protections and sensible laws, a virtuous circle begins to coalesce, as it did in the United States.  Today only around 10% of the wood sold globally comes from certified forests, but this is growing.  The largest certification international network is PEFC, currently comprising thirty-five independent national forest certification programs with 510 million certified acres.  ATFS is in the PEFC family.  Among the countries with PEFC certified forests are Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Spain Brazil and Malaysia.  
We human are blessed with intelligence that gives us the ability to contemplate the natural system.  This also endows us with the ability and the responsibility to made good choices, ones that sustain our environment for ourselves, our children and for other living things. We can do it.

Owls, Hawks & Falcons

Alex and I attended a lecture at Smithsonian about raptors.  Hawks and other raptors were in serious trouble into the 1970s, when they were being killed by hunting and poisonings of the environment.  But today all significant species have come back and are now very common throughout the U.S.  Hawks have taken care of lots of the pigeon, squirrel and rabbit problems in Washington and other big cities.  I had noticed that there were fewer pigeons around lately.

I learned a few things I didn’t know.  For example, the tufts on the heads of owls are not ears.  Owls’ ears are placed unevenly on their heads, with one lower on the head than the other. When owls move their heads in circles, what they are doing is listening differentially to identify the source and distance of objects. When owls go after prey, they are more often using their sense of hearing than sight. The speakers said that the owl can pinpoint a prey a hundred yards away by sound alone.

A few other facts – You can tell falcons from hawks by the shape of their wings.  Hawks have rounded wings, while falcon wings are pointed. Great horned owls have no sense of smell, so they are one of the only birds to regularly prey on skunks. The speaker said that great horned owls usually stink on ice as a result.  Hawks have phenomenal vision, but they kind of zoom in on prey and do not see things not in their target zone. This is why they sometimes get hit by cars as they go after something near a road.

One of the most interesting things about the lecture came from the demographics of the audience.  The room was packed with at least a hundred people.  When one of the speakers asked how many people had heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh (from ancient Mesopotamia; it mentioned falcons) dozens of hands went up.  This is not something that most people know about.  On the other hand, when the speaker asked how many people in the audience were hunters, nobody raised a hand.  I might have paid no attention, but I know so many hunters and down in the south everybody hunts.  Washington does not really represent America.   I have been hunting a couple times, but I am such a bad shot that I never got anything.  Alex went hunting rabbits with the club and achieved similar results.  We didn’t raise our hands either for Gilgamesh (which we have both read) or hunting, so I suppose the sample was not exactly fair, but still in the main it is interesting.

Spring Training

Spring is arriving in Washington and with it the bike weather. I have been taking a roundabout way to and from FSI.  I have been riding my bike down to FSI, which is a nice morning ride that takes around 45 minutes.  But I don’t like to ride home, since the wind is usually against me and it is more uphill. So I go the other way at the end of the day, back down to Washington all the way to SW, where I can go to Gold’s Gym & catch the Metro on the way home after 7pm. It is a longer way around and more total miles than a return trip home, but it is nicer. I go a little out of the way past Jefferson onto the start of Haines Point.  But it is worth the trip to see Washington at this time of the year. 

The cherry blossoms will be out soon, but in the meantime I was watching some of the Metro trains crossing the river and the airplane coming from Reagan National.

Sometimes Too Much, but Never Enough

I attended the Washington Energy Seminar at the Department of Energy over the last three days.  We had three days of talks about fossil fuels, alternatives, nuclear and conservation. It was one of the better seminars that I have attended. I wrote us some notes and will put them in later posts, but as an introduction I have to assert my belief that we do not have an energy problem that can be solved by technology, conservation or anything else. Our energy use is based on our collective and individual preferences and the options available. 

We are constrained in our use of energy almost entirely by its cost. Everything else is just commentary.  As energy becomes more plentiful, we find new uses for it.  A recent study shows that over three centuries individuals have spent about the same amount of money (relative to time and income) over all those years.  In centuries past, we got a lot less for our earnings; put another way, we had to work a lot more for everything.  In terms of light provided, candles, manufactured in the old ways, was a lot more expensive than our modern light bulbs.  People in the old days were very careful with candles.  As artificial light became cheaper, people started to find new places where it was “needed.”   More recently, we see that when cars become more fuel efficient, people drive more.  

Most of us seem to have some kind of mental accounting that tells us how much we should spend on various things. For example, we might think that $25 a week is a good amount to pay for gas.  When gas gets more expensive per gallon, we find ways to use less.  When it gets cheaper, we find reasons to drive more. The behavior change doesn’t come immediately, but it is quick. Economists call this the rebound effect. It can swamp improvements that merely conserve.  (It also, BTW, helps explain why we don’t always feel better off when we are objectively better off.)

The perhaps unwelcome but very simple lesson is that price matters. If the price of gas goes up, people seek out alternatives or cars with better mileage. If the efficiency of cars goes up w/o a price rise, people drive more to make up for it.

The big reason we have trouble conserving energy is that the human habit of mental accounting plays directly into the weaknesses and biases of our politicians, who love to pass new rules that promise cost-free solutions. I have been interested in energy and environmental issues since I was in HS, forty years ago. As long as I can remember, politicians have promised to end the energy “crises” with all sorts of calls for research, standards and breakthroughs.  Actually, whatever happened worked. U.S energy use per unit of GDP (energy intensity) has declined by about 1.7% a year for the last 60 years, better than the world average.  We have all the energy we need, but we will never have enough “affordable” energy.

The picture up top is the Department of Energy, taken from the Smithsonian Garden. It is one of those 1960s buildings. It looks better in the picture than it does in real life. I don’t much care for the concrete buildings. I prefer the nicer old brick.  The next photo is from the same spot just looking the other way. Notice it is almost spring time. It will take only one warm or two days to get the magnolias to flower.

Machines, Construction, Biking, Boots & Cetera

Biking to work again

Studying at FSI has the advantage of being closer, so I can push the biking season a bit.  It has been a little cooler than average this year so far, but pleasant enough on some days to make the trip enjoyable. I don’t like his hitting the strong west winds in springtime. They get a little more languid in summer and the leaves on the trees block some of the wind. Above & Below are parts of the trail in Falls Church. It will look better when the leaves come on in a few weeks. The W&OD bike trail is a nice park. Narrow, but very long.

Best boots ever

My Marine boots are still doing service and don’t seem to be wearing out. I wore them every day for a year in Iraq, walking on some pretty rough surfaces and they have been great in my forestry since. My only complaint is that they are not waterproof. Of course, who can complain that boots designed for a place where it almost never rains may let water in?

Construction on Gallows Road

Our neighborhood is changing; I think improving. Above is the new building on Gallows. It is mostly wood framed and going up really fast. 

Road Work

I liked to watch construction when I was a kid and I still do. But now big machines do most of the work and everything is a lot cleaner. This machine (above & below) pulls up the asphalt, grinds it up and drops it in the truck w/o even slowing down.


I got back to Washington the other day. Now that I don’t work there everyday, I miss it. Above is the White House. They were having some kind of ceremony. Below is a statue in front of the Old Executive Office Building and the Washington Monument.

A Great Schism

Some people don’t like to make the distinction between conservation & preservation.  It is true that they overlap. Conservation is the one with the Teddy Roosevelt tradition. Conservationists indeed aim to preserve nature, but also recognize the special place humans will always have in it. Hunters are often great conservations, so are foresters and even loggers. These guys are rarely welcome at a meeting of true preservationists. Preservationists on the other hand can count among their ranks deep environmentalists, who sometimes believe that earth would be better off w/o humans, and animal rights activists, who sometimes put the “rights” of the beasts above the needs of humans.  

Deep environmentalism has all the attractions of a religion. Its strongest adherents resemble puritans in many ways, but there is no redemption for them or the human race. Of course, this is an extreme view held by fringe people, but the pure preservationist ideal infects many in the environmental movement & even more casual adherents often see preservation as the true religion. 

I am agnostic about this, but I don’t believe in intelligent design. That means that there is nothing humans can do that will “destroy” nature because “nature” is only a human concept. In the billions of year of earth history before human consciousness developed, plants and animals lived and died w/o consequence.  When MOST of the world’s species died out at the end of the Paleozoic era, it didn’t make a bit of difference. The disappearance of the dinosaurs was mourned by nobody until the modern kids found out about the great extinction and called it a tragedy.

I was happy to read the most recent Nature Conservancy Magazine. In an article entitled, “Beyond Man vs. Nature”, the Conservancy’s chief scientist explains that biodiversity and/or simple preservation should not be top goals. “The ultimate goal,” he says, “is better management of nature for human benefit.”  Follow the links if you want the details.  Suffice to say, everything in the article makes sense to me. 

Of course, there are places we choose to preserve mostly untouched.  I have visited the Grand Canyon four times. It still fills me with awe. We should preserve the Grand Canyon for future generations.  Let me modify that.  We should conserve the place. I enjoyed the Canyon by walking to the bottom on trails carved out by human hands.  I drove up there on roads build by men and machines. W/o those human improvements, the Canyon would be as inaccessible to me as the mountains of the moon and as meaningful as some great canyon that might exist on Venus or Mars.

We are humans.  We can understand the world only with our human intelligence and perceptions.  What gives nature meaning and what allows us to get meaning from nature is the interaction of us with it.  An old epistemological conundrum asks, “If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?”  It is an insoluble problem unless you add more detail. If you are talking about the sound waves that our human ears interpret as sound, a tree falling in the woods certainly does this. But a sound also requires interpretation.  If nobody is there to hear it, all we have is physical phenomenon. 

My guess is that preservationists would generally say it makes a sound, even if nobody hears it.  A conservationist like me might be a little more human-centric and say that it does not. For me, sixty million years of dinosaur history had no meaning until it was discovered by human consciousness.

I have written on many occasions that sustainable and natural are overlapping contexts, but they are not the same and that sustainable, in both natural and human influenced system doesn’t mean something that last forever. Nothing lasts forever. Sustainable just means a system that goes a long time adapting to continuous change. A good conservation strategy strives for a healthy human population interacting with a healthy environment. We don’t have to keep our human hands off, in fact we probably should not leave very much of anything untouched. Human interaction does not always profane nature; the interaction done right can ennoble both. 

Conservation is a higher order activity compared with mere preservation, which is an abdication of responsibility in the guise of wisdom.  Conservation demands that you apply intelligence and ecological factors to sustaining a system that works for man and beast. We humans live in this world. If/when there is a world w/o us, it really doesn’t matter anymore. As long as we are here, however, it is our job to do things right.