Bear meat and longleaf planting

Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you. The guys at Reedy Creek got the bear. They cooked it up and invited me to try some.

I thought I had tasted bear before, but since I could not remember anything about it maybe it is a synthetic memory. Anyway, this time I have it documented.

For the record, bear tastes a lot like beef, maybe with a touch of pork. Of course, a lot depends on how it is prepared. They slow cooked it. I enjoyed the meat and even more ambiance. Alex got to come too. It was good to have him back and the hunt club is the center of a real community. I sold them six acres for their clubhouse, so I feel that I had some part in, was at least present at the creation.

Besides learning what bear tastes like, I learned a few things about soybean and tobacco farming. One distressing development is that fire ants have evidently arrive in Virginia. There are multiple theories as to how they arrived. Most popular and plausible are the they arrived on harvesting equipment or that they are following pipeline construction, also carried on equipment.

Speaking of theories, there was some discussion about how there got to be so many bears around Brunswick County. Until about ten years ago, nobody could remember ever seeing a bear in Brunswick. They suddenly are ubiquitous. Some people think that bears are being captured in other places and released to the “wilds” of southern Virginia.

Natural increase and migration could explain it too. Bears have long been common in the mountains. They are legendary along the Appalachian Trails. Power lines and pipelines create corridors. Wildlife in general can wander along these and cover significant distances. Once established, they are experience something like exponential growth. In these cases, you sometimes do not notice something until they become “suddenly” ubiquitous.

There is an old children’s story about lily pads covering a pond. Their numbers grow exponentially for 30 days until they completely cover the pond, but nobody notices until day 28, when they cover about a quarter of the pond.

My first picture shows the bear ribs cooking. Next is Exit 104, with my new go to gas station, Flying J. Gas has dropped down to $1.85. I think this is the lowest I have seen at Exit 105. After that is tree planting. Took advantage of being on the farms to plant some trees. It was a big advantage having Alex too. He planted many more than I did. The penultimate picture is the plug planting tool and last is last light looking at our trees from the hunt club.

Wildfire & forestry – the long view

Wildfire is interesting, and images are compelling – brave men and women fighting an implacable foe, exciting machines and aircraft deployed in battle, human anguish, then resilience and rebuilding. What a narrative!

Most of what we “know” is wrong
Yet, almost everything the media reports on wildfires and most of what people understand about them is wrong and harmful, starting with the basic battle metaphor and language of war. In fairness, by the time wildfires reach fire-fighting stage, we are at war and losing a battle means loss of life and property.

But fire is not an enemy. Fire is natural.  Massive destruction comes from human choices, although not conscious human design; nobody is to blame.  A system emerges when people make logical and good individual decisions that taken together and over time produce bad outcomes.  We do not address emergent problems well.  We prefer a culprit or policy to blame. We hate it that nothing we can demand politicians do immediately will immediately solve the problem. Politicians dislike solutions that produce good only after the next elections.  It is encouraging, however, that we can do things today that – over time – will produce a resilient system and improve lives.

Don’t mimic nature; use its principles
We cannot mimic nature. Humans are here to stay. We can try to understand and use natural principles to inform human-natural interaction.  I like to start by looking at success rather than scrutinizing failure. Some places manage fire well.  We do a decent job in Virginia, but the real superstar is Florida.  Fires are not prevented. That is impossible. But they are managed, and prescribed fires have kept forests healthy and robust for generations.

Fuel burns, but we have choices about where, when and how
How about places with less rain and tougher topography? For hundreds of years, the Ancestral Pueblo lived successfully in mountainous, arid and fire-prone forests of the Southwest.  We cannot copy their lifestyles, but what were principles that kept them safe?  Put simply, they removed combustible materials by frequent surface fires, that burned brush but left large trees, and by using firewood. This latter factor is so obvious that it is easy not to see it.

Anybody who has fed a campfire or wood stove knows that they consume prodigious amounts of wood. You need a big stack of wood to keep a small cabin warm on a cold night and a surprisingly big fire just to make a pot of coffee. Consider all this heat and that all this fuel has been removed from the forest. What burns in a fireplace, stove or campfire can’t burn in a forest fire.

The principle is that fuel burns, but we have choices about where, when and how.  Responsible harvests to remove biomass are one key to forest health, and good fires that burn on the surface but not in the tree-tops are another. They will not stop all bad fires but will produce a system we can live with – over time.

Another year in the forest (2018)

Busiest year so far in my forests.  I am getting to do lots more of the things I want to do and the work is starting to be the way I hoped it would be.  I spend a lot of time out standing in my fields and I keep on thinking of the Aldo Leopold essay “Axe in Hand,” about how we affect the landscape and thereby change the future – do, reflect on what you have done & change what you do based on what you learn.  Good advice on the land and for life.  I read that essay decades ago, but really took it to heart a couple years ago when I got to lead a discussion group at Aldo Leopold Center.  Leopold said that it was not enough to read about land ethics, but rather to live it and to learn from interactions with the land. You and your land metaphorically cooperate in writing a land ethic.  My land has been teaching me a lot. I only wish I could express it more directly. I don’t have the words.  I wish I could phrase it for even myself.  The best I can do is tell about the year in the forest.  Maybe in the telling, it will better be understood.

A big difference about acting in nature versus acting in among our fellow humans is that nature does not accept excuses.  You cannot complain or demand special treatment.  Nature cuts you no slack. I identify as a robust young man.  Nature constantly reminds me that it does not care what I think.  When I go out to plant trees or cut vines, I cannot say I should be able to do more than I can do.

Ecology is all about – only about – relationships

Since I am talking here about my interaction with my forests, I include thinking that I might do far away from my land.  You can reflect about the land without having your boots on it. My year in the forest started far away from Virginia.  Chrissy & I visited ancient settlements in New Mexico where we learned more about how the ancestral Pueblo had managed fire in the ponderosa pine and juniper forests in those montane forests.  I have been studying the Ancestral Pueblo for a while.  I want to know more about them because they are intrinsically interesting, but I also want to know more about how they lived sustainably on fire-prone landscapes for more than 500 years. I thought about what we could learn from their experience in general and how I could specifically apply some of their insights to my land in Virginia. The environments are different but some of the principles are the same.  Ponderosa pine ecosystem have a fire regime analogous to longleaf pine.

Using tree rings, scientists have mapped the changing climate and conditions in the Southwest with precision going back more than 400 years and make decent estimates farther back.

The tree rings tell a story of wet and dry years and fires that go with them.  Not surprisingly, fires are more common in dry years, but fire scars indicate that centuries ago fires were frequent but not very hot. The record of the area around the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico experienced frequent low-intensity burns until around 1680. After that, fires become less frequent but hotter. This fire regime persists until just before 1900, when fires are almost gone, until the serious upsurge a few decades ago. What happened? Spanish and then American settlers moved in and changed the fire regimes.
References – Fires Bigger Than Ever

 Learning from Native American fire practices

The Pueblo had a yearly routine that served to periodically burn the landscape in patches and to remove much of the denser flammable material.  In the summer, they spread out over the landscape to hunt and cultivate small food patches.  Fires escaped from campfires and sometimes they set fires to improve hunting.

I could not learn if they specifically did this, but I learned that other native groups set fires in the fall when they left the forest. These fires burned along the ground until extinguished by the snows of winter.  In the winter, the Pueblo retired to their centralized settlements. A big part of what we would today call “fuel reduction” in the forest came from the use of firewood for cooking and heating. It takes a lot of wood to keep warm in the winter. None of that wood consumed in that way remained in the forest to stoke hot and destructive forest fires.  I think this wood consumption may be one of the missing links in how we manage for fire today.  Even if we do periodic burning, if we do so w/o removing some of the dense fuel, the fire will persist too long and kill the trees.  We can use this principle by removing some timber from the lands – another ecological argument for sustainable harvests.
References – A study of history at Bandelier National Monument

Exchanging lessons from ponderosa to longleaf and back again

I loved the ponderosa pine ecology even before I encountered it physically.  I knew it from my studies.  It is similar in its fire regime to southern pine and longleaf and the ponderosa pine ecology was a kind of inspiration for my land management this year. I know that we cannot and should not try to reproduce one ecology on a different one, but the general lessons were the same for both.  Pine trees should be widely spaced.  The forest is more than the trees and so we should look to the total ecology, and fire was the arbiter, even if in thinning I was doing my part to set up the future diversity.  Unlike Aldo Leopold, I did not actually have an axe in my own hand, but I was going to make the management work.

A side note on ponderosa pine – it is a simply wonderful ecology, beautiful to look at, productive for wildlife and it even smells good.  Ponderosa pine have a kind of vanilla-pine smell.  If you were blindfolded and dropping in a ponderosa pine forest, you might be able to tell where you were standing just by the smell.  Ponderosa are a common montane species on Sky Islands.

Don’t mimic nature; find & use nature’s principles

My goal is not to restore pre-settlement ecology. Restoration is not possible and probably not desirable. So much has changed and nature is never settled. Embrace the impermanence.   A diverse ecosystem that respects and uses natural principles but does not merely mimic nature, that is what I want on my land and what I hope to learn from my land. When talking to people generally, I often use words like “restore.” People like the idea of restoration. I do too, but I know restoration is not an option. We have too many changes in Virginia, too many invasive plants and too much human interaction ever to restore what was once here. Beyond that, there would be no way to know what you should restore. Even with precise (and impossible to obtain) information about what was here and how everything was connected, in what year was everything exactly the way it should be?

The answer is never. Nature is never finished. Virginia of 1608 is different from but not better than the Virginia of 2018 or how it was during the last ice age or when dinosaurs roamed Our beloved longleaf pine ecosystem began its development on coastal plain exposed by much lower sea levels during the last ice age and “invaded” this land as its home range disappeared under the rising seas.

All we can do is move forward using the principles in an iterative way, trying something, learning something and then trying again with the profound understanding that this too is passing, and knowing that much you get from being in nature is being in nature.  It is the action and the reward.

As in Leopold’s formulation – do, reflect and then do again at a better level of understanding.  The landscape that greeted English settlers at Jamestown in 1607 was appropriate to the time.  What I want to restore is not that, but rather my task is to try to determine what is appropriate today and for the next generation, since the trees will live in a changed future landscape.  We give the native plants and relationships the benefit of the doubt.  They are presumed most appropriate until more information is available.  Some relationships have changed, however, well beyond out capacity to restore, so we try what will work today.  Native is not always better.  Who can say what it even means to be native these days.  If the environment is profoundly changed, what was native to that longitude and latitude may no longer have native virtue.

News from the various units

We thinned 45 acres on the Brodnax place in 2017. The trees are widely space, about 50 basal area, as opposed to the 80-100 BA normal for commercial pine forests in the Southeast.  The plan, in cooperation to NRCS, is to burn around 15 acres every year – a patch burn strategy to create a mosaic habitat that scientists tell us was common in pre-settlement Virginia.  This allows wildlife to move out of the way of the fire while it is burning and then take advantage of the difference between the burned and unburned forest when the fire is gone.

We burned in May – a patch burn of around fifteen acres. The fire got a little hot in a few places and killed about two dozen trees.  I mourned their loss, but we can move on.  I decided to leave the dead trees standing to provide snags for wildlife.
Planting the longleaf plugs

I planted longleaf pine under those dead trees.  It should be sunny enough for the longleaf to thrive and I hope that the longleaf roots will have an easier time if they can follow the softer underground paths as the dead loblolly roots decay. This method it follows the natural principle under which longleaf would seed in after a fire. We planted in December. Longleaf should be planted in winter. Longleaf in a natural system start to grow in winter.  Taking advantage of winter rains and generally wetter soil, they get a little head start over other vegetation after a fire, and they need it.  Loblolly immediately start growing up, growing above the competition.  Longleaf spend their first couple years sending down deep roots, growing down first.  This gives them an advantage later in adapting to drought or fire, but they can lose the race toward the sun before they get a chance to grow up.  One of my tasks over the next years will be to “cheat” to help the longleaf.

Larry Walker and the McAden Hunt Club planted pollinator habitat along the roads.  These should reseed themselves next season and some of the seeds will spread into the open forest, including into the areas with the killed pines.  Nature is resilient, and we can help it being even more so.
Low survival rates from the 2016 planting

Survival rates for the 2016 longleaf on Brodnax were disappointing.  I checked them out in December and found them very thin on the ground.  I speculate that they were planted too late in season.  They were not in the ground until late March and it didn’t rain much in the weeks after.  Since I did not have the time or muscle to plant several thousand trees, I decided to do the easy thing.  I planted around 500 longleaf near the roads and paths.  Natural loblolly and some shortleaf will fill in the blank areas.  Loblolly pines are prolific seed producers.  In a natural system, they seed into disturbed areas and quickly establish a pine forests as an early step in natural succession. This is what I have and I will end up with a mixed pine forests, but with rather more longleaf (I hope) than anything else. I got the new longleaf from Bodenhamer in North Carolina and started planting some that same day. So, they were fresh. It was the right season and a rainy day, so they should survive well. I figure that if I am going to plant a limited number of trees, I may as well plant where it is easiest to do and easiest to tend later.  I will be able to walk on the paths to spray or just look in on them.  Beyond that, the paths will be sunnier.

There is an implied criticism when people say, “you are always looking for the easy way to do things.”  Who the heck looks for the hard way.  Reminds me of the odd saying that “you always find your keys in the last place you look.”  Well … who keeps on looking after they have found them? I took the easy way with my pines and the success will be better for it.  At least I think so.

Planting was both hard and rewarding. I have enjoyed being out in the fields, but my progress is slow. I am planting one every five steps.  I am planting plugs and I have a plug planter.  It is like one of those bulb planters on a stick. It pulls out a plug just a little bigger than the plug we plant. The plugs remind me of carrots. I have been punching the hole and them rotating the planter so that it creates a circle of bare ground. I hope the works.  Will see next year.

Contemporary accounts of the burning are included here & here.

Diamond Grove/Chrissy’s Pond
I had planned to thin this unit in 2019, but I think now I will delay until 2020.   The trees at that time will be 17-years-old.  My current plan is to thin to 50 basal area. I think that I am going to make that my signature on my land.  I will clear cut an area of about five acres near Genito Creek.  It is very we there. The pine trees are not growing as well as elsewhere on the land.  I think I will replant with bald cypress, better adapted to that micro-environment.  If we do experience global warming, these trees will be well-adapted.  Bald cypress occurs naturally in Virginia. There are lots of them in the southeast part of the state and nearer to my land along the Nottoway River, maybe 50 miles away, so I think I will call them native.
The McAden Dairy Hunt Club planted pollinator habitat & warm season grasses on the food plots this year. Seeds were expensive, but we got an NRCS grant to help defray the cost. I believe these will become self-sustaining. They will be well-established by 2020 and can spread into the sunny woods when we do the thinning.

There has not been much work to do on this unit, although I have found work to do. I mostly pull vines and try to thin out the invading hardwoods. I am not sure how much good this does, but it gives me a chance to get into the woods with something to do.
The Diamond Grove place is still my favorite.  It is a little more diverse than the others in terms of topography, streams and steam management zones, but I think I like it best because it was my first piece of land and I have watched the trees grow for going on thirteen years now.

BTW – there is no pond on the Chrissy’s Pond place. I had considered making one, so the name is aspirational.  I call it Diamond Grove when describing it to others, since nobody would know what I was talking about if I called it Chrissy’s Pond.


This was the unit with the most activity in 2018. We thinned to 50 basal area and made clearings of ¼ acre in every acre. The plan is to plant longleaf in the clearings and under some of the thin loblolly. This year I got around 2800 longleaf from Bodenhamer and we did a planting day.  The kids did the planting and managed to get around 1700 in the ground.  I plan to go down in the next few weeks and get the rest in the ground.  I am glad that the kids are involved. I hope this will strengthen their ties and love of the land.  Mariza wrote a nice blog post about her experience.  I think they had a good time and bonded a little more with the land.  I want them to experience some of the joy I feel in the forests. In some ways, their experience will be even richer, since they will have more time to see the changes and developments.

It is a little selfish, but I hope that when they are walking on the land decades hence that they will sometimes remember me, “and all my grave will warmer, sweeter be.”
Department of Forestry was going to burn the cutovers, making it easier to plant and manage, but it has been way too wet this year.  They did make some planting grooves that knocked down the brush and made it easier for the kids.  We will need to burn every 2-4 years going forward.  I think we will do it closer to the 4 years interval.  That seems sufficient to keep the hardwoods and loblolly out of the longleaf and it burns out the litter enough.  Longleaf are fire adapted, but the fire does not leave all of them unharmed. Anyway, I will observe and try to learn.

Forestry and looking for meaning in life
I cannot remember a time when I did not feel balanced & connected while being in forests. I consider myself a resilient person. I can bounce back from most setbacks, but only because I find peace in grove of trees or a patch of prairie.  W/o this refuge, I do not think I would last very long.
But it is not getting away from civilization and the city that matters.  It is getting to, getting to a place where I feel connected. Getting to a place where I can look into the book of life, even if I cannot understand the writing. I take comfort in knowing that so much is unknowable but still feeling a part of it. Interaction with my land over the course of years or decades takes this to a higher level. I enjoy and appreciate the “untouched” land, untracked wilderness, and in some places I enthusiastically support the idea embodied in the signs the says, “Leave only footprints and take only pictures.”  But not always.

Humans of nature and wandering in nature
I do not hold with the idea that humans and nature are separate or should be kept apart. There are places humans should touch and places that I personally should touch and change.

I have been wandering forests my entire adult life, most of my adolescence and some of my childhood. I learned to identify the trees, soil types, & topography, and doing that gives me great joy. I love forests, but my thinking about ecosystems has changed. I used to like to wander lonely as a cloud. I didn’t want to see the signs of human “damage,” and that is the word I used for any human activity in the forests.  Of course, I implicitly made exception for paths and markers.  In retrospect, I see that as a little hypocritical.

You cannot step twice into the same forest
These were feelings of a young man with more passion for the natural world than experience with it, and maybe I could indulge those passions because I knew I would get my wish. It was an abdication of responsibility.  Look what THEY have done to my natural world.  If they would just let nature decide, everything would go back into balance.
I am different now. To be fair to my young self, I was acting on information that has since been overtaken by events. Scientific understanding of ecology has changed.  Back in those old days I learned about the balance in nature, the climax conditions where all nature was inexorably headed absent the damage by human.  We now know more about nature’s ephemeral, even effervescence qualities, its impermanence and dynamism.  Each moment in the forest’s life (and our own) is unique to be appreciated for what it is. A small alteration may grow into a great change that everybody sees or maybe you won’t perceive it at all, but (paraphrasing Heraclitus) you cannot step twice into the same forest. That is what I love now. But more than that, I came to understand that I don’t really like wilderness in the sense of land without humans.

There was plenty of the human-free planet in the countless eons before man evolved and there will be plenty more after we are gone. Will “time” stop when nobody, no human, remains to count the minutes, hours and years? It might sound arrogant to say that humanity is the measure of nature, but it is even more arrogant and downright ignorant for any humans to say that they can understand nature in any non-human way. Raw nature is nasty, cold and incompressible. No human can respect nature in its natural state and it really doesn’t matter if we do or do not.  Nothing the human race can do will add or detract from nature in the big sense.

Far beyond our small ability to add or detract
If we managed what we arrogantly believe and self-indulgently fear (but couldn’t really do) – if we destroyed the entire surface of the Earth, would that make any difference to a nature that encompasses a universe and worlds without end, billions of years of time and billions of light-years of space? Is there anything any of us, or all of us collectively could do that will make a difference a billion years hence?

It would make a difference to humans in the here and now.  That is why we care.  We can add or detract from the human experience and interpretation of nature and this is where the meaning is to be found. I am happy to see signs of “good” human intervention and sometimes even the results of a bad intervention healed. More than a century ago, a great man-made catastrophe transformed Northern Wisconsin. The great Peshtigo fire burned everything from the middle of the state to Lake Michigan. You can still see the signs in the type of vegetation and soils. We now call it old growth, but it results directly from inadvertent “bad” human intervention. The people living now benefit from this tragedy.  Most of them are unaware.

You can start down the path w/o seeing the end
I have long since given up trying figure the meaning OF life.  I leave such speculation to the guys with the 50-pound brains, observing that if any of them have figured it out that they have not informed the rest of us.  I have faith that meaning exists.  I am sure of that, but it is not within human remit to understand this intellectually.  We just are not up to the task. But we are not without options.

Meaning IN life – I think finding or at least seeking meaning in life is in our reach, and I believe I have found the path, even if I cannot see the ultimate destination. For me meaning in life comes from my connection with nature.  I don’t know what part I play in the great scheme, but I know I am in the right place.

Leopold Landscapes

Aldo Leopold is a kind of patron saint for me. I was introduced to his writing when I was in 12th grade. Also important, I grew up near and in Leopold landscapes.

Aldo Leopold got so much right. But in revering Leopold, we are honoring so much more than one man. His genius was to combine his own ideas with those of others and with natural trends. He understood that land ethic is written on the land, by a combination of human choices and natural principle. All of those who work on the land write their own sentences or chapters in combination with the nature on their land. It is a beautiful process, edifying to humanity. The linked article is about ecological restoration. Ecological restoration is not possible. We can use natural principles to regenerate.

From the article – “Ecological restoration, land health, resilience – they are all nouns and as such imply a definitive end-state. Rightly, one could assume we advocate for something both known and achievable. It’s neither. Ecologist Frank Egler said, “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, but more complex than we can think.” Worse than being accused of longing for the past is being perceived as fixated on a singular expectation that’s nebulous at best and unattainable at worst. This isn’t just academic mire, but it amounts to a fundamental breakdown in communication. How will we ever democratize our ideas among the billions?

“Ecology is all about – or really only about – relationships.”

We grow in relation to the land we work, with each interaction. The land provides the lessons, but reading them requires effort and it requires time.

From the article – “Sometimes recognizing what’s best for the land community is difficult. Our management planning revealed the obvious course correction wasn’t limited by our tools so much as ourselves. More often than we’d like to admit it, probably in more arenas than we’d like to admit, our personal sensibilities, insecurities, and aesthetics heavily influence our thinking. Certainly, not everything in nature is intended to be beautiful to us or to abide by our rationale. Ecologists, of all people, know the importance of dynamic systems in nature, and yet directing such dramatic change as a major timber harvest exposed a threshold of emotions.”

Family planting

Chrissy and the kids were down to do some planting. The day was okay, not as warm or sunny as we would like but not very cold. A good day to plant trees.

They got around 1700 in the ground before it got dark. It was hard work, but I think everybody got some good memories. We all stayed overnight in South Hill Fairfied Inn. and had supper at South Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

I stole a couple pictures from Marisa’s post, the planters and boomer. Chrissy tended the fire and Boomer, as you see in the second picture. Third picture shows the boxes of pine waiting to be put in. Last are hunting dogs. The local guys were running their dogs to hunt deer. Bear hunters were out yesterday. They got three bear so far this year. Until about ten years ago, there were no bear around here. Now they have moved in and there are lots of them. The dogs do not pay much attention to people. They are friendly but disinterested.

December longleaf planting

I spent the day planting longleaf. Professional crews can six trees a minute. I worked all day and managed around 400, or about one per minute. I am a little worried that we will not get them all in the ground. Kids are coming tomorrow to help, but they will not arrive until 10am and it will get dark at 5pm. We have to plant 2000 trees.

On the plus side, they will have an easier time. The Virginia Dept of Forestry made furrows for me, so the kids can just walk down the rows, punch the hole and plant. It will be faster than my Neanderthal method. We had hoped to burn, but snow couple days ago left conditions too wet. The furrows may be easier to plant, although ecologically the fire would be better. Probably will not be able to burn until 2020 now. The little longleaf will need to get rooted.

My goal in the tree planting goes beyond just getting the trees in the ground. I am hoping that everyone will get closer to the land and have fun with each other. Kids will plant only a total of around 4 acres. Their acres will be the ones easier to see, so they can watch their trees grow for the next ten, twenty or more years. I will get the professional crews to do planting on most of the farm.

My first picture shows the Virginia DoF dozer that was making furrows. Next is one the longleaf I planted. Notice that there is a circle around the pine. I do that with the tool to clear a little space. that takes more time, which helps account for my slower progress. It did not matter much in that particular place, but I think it makes a difference in places with more competition. I hope I am doing a good job. I may not know for a season. The professionals do not always do better. One reason I have to plant on Brodnax is that survival was poor. I think that they planted too late. They were not in the ground until late March. Winter is the time. Ecologically, longleaf need a head start. During the winter with its cool weather and rain, the longleaf will spread its roots. That is the theory, at least.
The thing I love about forestry is what also what makes me so nervous. I am never sure what will happen. Nature, weather and luck get to vote on my outcomes.

Availability bias

The price of gas is dropping like a rock. Some people say that it goes up faster than it comes down. That is not the experience of the past few days. The price has been dropping as I have been driving. Of course, I try to get gas at the cheapest places, so my pictures are biased.

All day today the sun and the clouds fought for dominance of the sky. When the clouds came in, it poured rain and then the sun came out, only to be followed again by clouds and rain.

It was also an interesting study in availability bias. I describe the sun-cloud-rain sequence, but I have pictures of the sun because it was too hard and uncomfortable to take pictures in the rain. Given time, the sunny-day/cheap gas narrative would come to dominate, since pictures seem more authentic than words.

This bias is often used offensively by manipulative media. You tell the story accurately, but show the picture of one part of the story.

I first recall this during the Reagan years, when economic news was good you would get a factual report that included lots of people still suffering. The pictures you remembered.
There is an informative case of this working the other way. Leslie Stahl wanted to do a hit piece on Reagan, contrasting his positive upbeat style with the suffering that remained. The words were negative, but the story was illustrated with a positive, smiling Ronald Reagan. Reagan praised the piece, which annoyed Stahl. He pointed out to her that nobody really heard her words, but they did see his pictures.

My notes from “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict & Cooperation

My notes from “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict & Cooperation
I attended the above conference on November 28.  Below are notes.
Water is critical. It grows our food, generates our energy, and ensures our prosperity. To address the challenges that stand in the way of building healthy, prosperous, and peaceful communities, we must first tackle the challenge of water insecurity. As the Wilson Center celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Environmental Change and Security Program marks water’s central role in our work at a special event highlighting innovative approaches to water, health, and security.

A rapidly changing climate and shifting demographics means the future of water resource management may not look like the past:
    What is the new face of water conflicts?
    Where are the opportunities to secure access to water and create more resilient communities?
    How can we protect our oceans from pollution and conflict?
    What are governments doing to elevate the importance of water security?
Join us on November 28th as we take stock on the 1st year of the 1st U.S. Global Water Strategy; explore new research and practice on water, peace, and conflict; and highlight the centrality of water to global prosperity.
Lauren Risi, Project Director, Environmental Change & Security Program, Wilson Center opened “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict, and Cooperation” to an overflow crowd.  Every seat in the main auditorium was taken and others watched the video stream in an overflow room.  She introduced Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center, who emphasized the importance and complexity of water management, referencing experience in her home state of California.

James Peters, Deputy Assistant Administrator and Acting Global Water Coordinator, Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3), U.S. Agency for International Development
Keynote speaker James Peters, Deputy Assistant Administrator and Acting Global Water Coordinator, Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3), U.S. Agency for International Development talked about the problems we face today in water management but compared it to the situation fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, he pointed out, we didn’t even have data on water.  We have come a long way.
Clean water is an ideal entry point for development, since it not only provides concrete health benefits but also is an organizing principle.  Mr. Peters talked about South Korea. Fifty years ago, South Korea was as poor as poor countries of Africa when they decided to provide clean water to everybody.   Korea is now among the world’s rich countries.  Korea went from aid recipient to self-sufficient to itself an aid donor.  This is as it should be. The purpose of aid is not charity but rather to bring recipient countries up. Partnerships not charity makes everyone better off.
Mr. Peters also talked about the Global Water Strategy published last year and its four interconnected strategic objectives:

  • Increasing sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation  services, and  the adoption of key hygiene behaviors;
  • Encouraging the sound management and protection of freshwater resources;
  • Promoting cooperation on shared waters; and,
  • Strengthening water-sector governance, financing, and institutions.

Aaron Salzberg
Next up was Aaron Salzberg, from State.  He covered some of the same ground and gave some figures about how lack of access to clean water impedes development, saying that GDP of some countries could be cut by as much as 6% if water issues remain unaddressed.  Water issues also lead to tensions among states, but Salzberg pointed out that actual conflicts among nations based on water are not common.  This goes against speculations and fears of “water wars.”
John Matthews, Lead and Co-Founder, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation
John Matthews, Lead and Co-Founder, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation finished the keynotes.  Infrastructure, he said, is meant to last decades or even centuries. Unfortunately, they are often built with ephemeral political or short-term analysis in mind.  He mentioned the Kariba Dam that straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.  It was already obsolete when it was completed in 1977, and since has gotten worse. It just is not designed for condition.  He compared this to the Dujiangyan water project in China that has been working since around 256 BC. The difference is that the Dujiangyan project took cultural and natural ecology into account and was robust to change.
You need not leave the USA to see problems of planning gone wrong.  A classic example is the Colorado River. Decisions about water allocation were made with data from only a few years and those years were usually wet.  This means that more than 100% of the usual flow of the Colorado was allocated.  The problem we face now is that the past may be less useful in predicting the future, given rapidly changing climate.
We also need to change how we plan large projects in general.  The paradigm of the past was engineering dominant and top-town.  Experts determined what to do and where to do it and then executed around that one thing.  Today we need to take into account many more stakeholders, as well as factors like demography, urbanization, climate change and change in general.  We build infrastructure today for a world of tomorrow that might be very different.  Beyond that, the infrastructure itself is likely to be a catalyst for change.  Consider again the Colorado River and how the Hoover Dam played an instrumental role in how the whole region developed.
I was reminded of the old saying that yesterday’s solution is today’s problem.  This argues for a more incremental decision-making strategy, rather than betting the farm on one throw of the dice.  Adjusting might be more useful than a perfect plan.
Mr. Matthews talked about Climate Risk Informed Decision Analysis (CRIDA) and the importance of nature-based solutions – green infrastructure.   We build infrastructure to last centuries.  It might be a good idea at least to try to think some ways ahead.
Raging Waters: The New Face of Water Conflicts
The program went right into the first panel featuring:  Syed Imran Ali, Fellow in Global Health & Humanitarianism, Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, York University; Richard Matthew, Director, Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, University of California, Irvine; Scott Moore, Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, University of Pennsylvania; Janani Vivekananda, Senior Advisor, adelphi and Moderator: Cynthia Brady, Senior Conflict and Peacebuilding Advisor, Center for Resilience, U.S. Agency for International Development.

Scott Moore started off with some myths about water.  The good news is that some of the bad news, or at least the bad projections, is wrong.  There was a lot of concern that water would lead to international conflicts. It has not.  In fact, water scarcity has been more likely to lead to cooperation. The exception is at the subnational level, especially when water access is tied to identity politics, but even this is much less than was feared in the 1990s.
Next up was Richard Mathew (not to be confused with John Matthews above), who talked about how bigger and better data analysis was changing how we can deal with uncertainty.  Number crunching that used to take days (if it could be done at all) can now be completed in minutes.  The practical effect has been that more scenarios can be run and presented to decision makers.  (I am old enough to have done regression analysis by hand and recall that once you did one, you made it fit if at all possible, rather than try alternate scenarios.) It also permits the melding of local knowledge with information developed by experts. Another big advance is the capacity for visualization.  We can make maps accurate to a few feet featuring simulations.  For example. It is possible to show which streets even what part of a street will be flooded in particular scenarios.

These have been making a difference.  A picture is worth 1000 words. When people can see the situation, they can more easily be moved take appropriate action.  Mr. Mathew is convinced that this information is saving big money and avoiding lots of suffering, but it is hard to prove a negative.  A disaster avoided cannot as easily be counted as the damage of one suffered.

Syed Imran Ali followed. He also talked about the need to know more than immediately meets the eye and talked about a nice, dry field where authorities set up a refugee camp during the dry season.  They did not think to ask what the local name meant.  It meant “swamp” and when the rainy season came, that it what it became.  You have to look at the whole system over time.

Last up was Janani Vivekananda. She used the case of Lake Chad to illustrate the need to get the narrative right.  Lake Chad is a big lake in the Sahara Desert.  The narrative is that it is shrinking due to climate change and there are expensive plans to pipe water from the Congo River basin. But this narrative is wrong. Lake Chad is currently EXPANDING.  It will shrink again.  The natural behavior of the lake is to expands and contract with the rains.  The challenge is variability. People have adapted to it by varying their activities.  They fish in the rainy season and then farm was the lake retreats.  The exposed silt is excellent farmland.

A problem here is weak property rights. In many cases, the “records” of property are in the head of some old people, sometimes only one old person. Since all men are mortal, this record is mortal too.  The system could be very robust, but the property rights problem remains.  The local famers could use dykes, as the Dutch do to create polders, but this investment will not be made if property rights are so weak.

Oceans of Cooperation
A panel on the oceans came after lunch and featured: Rebecca Karnak, Senior Director, Global Public Policy, Dell; Roger Pulwarty, Senior Scientist, NOAA; Mike Sfraga, Director, Global Sustainability and Resilience Program and Polar Institute, Wilson Center; Deirdre Warner-Kramer, Acting Deputy Director, Office of Marine Conservation, U.S. Department of State and Moderator: Sherri Goodman, Senior Fellow, Wilson Center.

Mike Sfraga started off with his “Seven Cs” about the Artic Ocean.  He admitted that this was a gimmick but said that it got attention much better.  The Seven are climate, commodities, commerce, connectivity, communities, competition & cooperation.  Climate change is radically changing the Artic Ocean.  A new ocean has been created, with all that entails. So far, there has been decent cooperation among the parties adjacent to the Artic Ocean.  Most are friendly, but even the Russians are cooperating. It is one of the few areas where they cooperate about anything.  However, this might not last as the riches of the new sea become more apparent and available.

Mr. Sfraga lives in Alaska and he talked about his personal experience with global warming.  He has seen whole villages inundated by rising water (or sinking land) or impoverished by changing in animal migration patterns.  This will be messy.
Deirdre Warner-Kramer talked about fisheries. It is hard to regulate fishing, since the seas are big and the reach of authorities small.  However, fish need to be landed at a port somewhere and at the ports fish catch can be checked.  Among the leaders in regulating fishing are small island nations (They have reframed themselves at “large ocean nations.)  that have a lot of their national territory at sea. Maybe the best is Iceland.  Unfortunately, this cannot be easily scaled.

Roger Pulwarty gave a very lively and amusing presentation.  He said that the subject was serious, but we need not be. He talked about the need to plan iteratively as a way to adapt to an uncertain world. He quoted Ruth Bader Ginsberg who said that any change that is sustainable is incremental.  He also cautioned against letting yourself be rushed into bad decisions with the quip, “hurry, the lemmings are gaining on us.”
The Future of Water Peace
 It was worth it to stay for the last panel of the day, featuring: Ken Conca, Professor of International Affairs, American University; Melissa Ho, Vice President, Fresh Water, World Wildlife Fund; John Parker, Deputy Director, Sustainable Water Partnership (Tetra Tech), and Aaron Wolf, Professor of Geography, Oregon State University with Moderator: Geoff Dabelko, Senior Advisor, Environmental Change & Security Program, Wilson Center; Professor and Director of Environmental Studies, Ohio University
Ken Conca said that he could not predict the future but would speculate that the future will mean more water storage, more recycling of water and more thinking about flooding.  All these things are challenging for engineering and social standpoints. Storage, for example, means more reservoirs. Recycling runs into the “yuk factor,” since we are using sewage. We overclean our water now.  Of course, drinking water needs be drinking water clean, but there is no useful purpose to super-clean water used to flush toilets or water the grass.  There is a lot of resistance to using these.
Mr. Conca also talked about how making decisions needs to adapt. We need to get away from the idea that we have a fixed goal, an end state, but rather see projects as evolving and emerging. Flexibility is more important. For a long time, the economics of scale have been dominant.  We built big. Maybe flexibility is overtaking this, and it might be better to do smaller projects and learn.  It is a kind of portfolio theory and similar – to extend the financial analogy – to buying stocks over a long period to mitigate risk.  Similarly, we should not get too enamored with any one solution.  The great promises of the past have usually turned out to work only in limited space.  Lots of diversity trumps the big solution.
It is also better not to concentrate power. It is tempting to want to use big power to make big breakthrough, but this is more a triumph of imagination over intelligence.  Our messy system of consultation and overlapping authority produces more robust results in the long run. More ideas are proposed and vetted.
Melissa Ho gave case studies from Africa and from the Pantanal in South America.  The need is for landscape level solutions. She also advocated green infrastructure.  John Parker recounted the case study of the Mara River basin in Kenya and Tanzania.
Aaron Wolf was both encouraging and cautionary.  Like some others, he pointed out that the dire prediction of water wars did not come to pass.  He only half-joking said that we got into that big worry because the experts who had so-long fought the cold war just needed another big worry to replace the decaying Soviet threat.  In fact, hydro-cooperation has been a peace building exercise.  Scarcity is not a driver of conflict but can be a drive of cooperation.  What matters is resilience of institutions.  He pointed out the Israel “ran out of water” in 1968, but in the time since cooperation with Jordan on this issue has improved, despite tensions in other areas.
He talked about the need to communicate with different audiences.  Don’t forget that people love water.  River festivals are popular. People like to be near water.  And don’t forget the spiritual aspect of rivers, water and nature.   We post-enlightenment moderns do not much consider this a valid concern, but many others do.  In fact, many of us still do too.  Interesting.  I already ordered his book from Amazon.
Thank you
John Matel