The Utility of Land Use: Whose Rights, Whose Way?

Power lines in Suffolk England in twilightImage via WikipediaUnder a clear blue late November sky I stood boot-ankle deep in the cold water of Goose Creek, thankful for the respite from a spate of bitter, blustery days the week before, thankful for this windfall firewood that straddled the creek near home. Its bare-pronged roots like the jaw end of a molar were washed clean since the little oak slumped down the rocky face of the bluff.

An opalescent sheen shimmered past with the slow flow of the creek as the whining chain cut into the thin, straight trunk. I quickly realized to my horror that I had just created this slick with the bar oil from my saw. I would never have noticed this environmental “cost of doing business” on dry land, but here was the visible effluence of my work, buoyant and rippling downstream.

This unbidden insight led me to recall the meeting just a few days earlier where I heard AEP officials claim that petroleum products (including bar oil) from mechanical clearing of their right-of-ways woud leave behind more dangerous chemical residues than did their spraying. A specific herbicide incident this summer had been the source of community concern culminating in a November 19 meeting in Cave Springs that I attended. It could just as well have been Goose Creek.

While that claim of relative toxicity of the chosen poisons remains to be known for certain, it is a certainty that by our need for and expectation of uninterrupted power, we impact the land and planet to a greater or lesser degree in whatever way our utility providers choose to make sure that power transmission lines stay clear and standing in every season.

And with more than 46,000 miles of distribution lines and the cumulative hundreds of square miles of clearing in them in the eleven-state region serviced by AEP alone, it was not just Crystal Creek at issue in that Roanoke meeting. In my rubber boots standing in the creek, it dawned on me that this is an issue of national reach and relevance.

The problem from the utilities point of view is that their lines must traverse hundreds of miles, taking the shortest distance between the source at power plants and destinations of use at businesses or homes. Those cleared corridors will necessarily bisect city, farm and forest. The energized wires are dangerous and must be held well out of harm’s way. The lines, too, are prone to sway and sag and tree damage, and their access for repair must be maintained.

Meanwhile you and I will raise all kinds of heck if our service is interrupted, our trees are cut or our water quality or health is placed potentially at risk. Can we have our cake and eat it too?

Those power lines and their clearings are only there because we are here. The denuded and unnaturally straight-edged gouges that cut across the contours of our mountains are not pretty but they are regrettably necessary in our time of history, given consumer electricity addiction and utility mandates to feed those habits.

A bright room at the flip of a switch comes at a price. Like coal, utility right-of-ways are a cost of doing business that require a total of some two billion dollars every year just to maintain. However, this is a human enterprise in transition.

I can imagine a day hopefully not too many decades ahead when the coal under Appalachian mountaintops will stay just where it is and each home or business will generate its own electricity with technologies we can only now imagine. Until then, with rights-of-way issues we are going to have a problem in need of solutions short of a total fix. These will not be problems solved satisfactorily by using a bigger chemical or mechanical hammer or by more vociferous protests.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing to know is that more people within and outside of the electrical industry are comprehending that working with rather than against nature on this issue makes the most sense. Managing corridors to create understory vegetation suited by its growth habit to be both attractive and productive while posing no risk to the power lines overhead is part of the “right tree in the right place” program gaining increased attention.

Right-of-ways course through wetland, meadow, cove forest and coniferous woods–whatever lies in their path–creating edge effects and early successional stages in every conceivable kind of plant and animal community. Botanists, ecologists, hydrologists, wildlife biologists and teachers of every stripe are concerned and involved in helping utilities like AEP become better stewards of these imminent domains that belong to all of us.

The next linear utility clearing you see on your travels is but a single thread of the larger tapestry of our dependence on electricity produced for us and carried to us at no small environmental cost. We should not take the work our utilities do on our behalf for granted, nor they our collective dedication and concern for the common wealth we share together.

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Shrink-wrapped Cypress Swamp: NIMBY

Ivory-billed Woodpecker , Campephilus principa...Image via WikipediaIn reading the May-June Audubon Magazine (thanks Marjory!) I was appalled to learn that the big box stores have been selling bagged mulch made from America’s largest swamp–specifically from Cypress trees (mature and immature indiscriminately) from the Atchafalaya swamps of Louisiana- since 2002.

The environmental services of this swamp are manifold and irreplaceable and grinding it up into shrinkwrap for foundation plantings is supremely irresponsible use of these trees and habitat.

The Audubon piece ( Pulp Fact ) points out that there are better options (pine bark, pecan shells etc) and also highlights the encouraging news that WalMart (as much as I resist handing them kudos for so many other negatives that persist) has backed off this practice while Lowes and Home Depot, less so.

To become part of the solution, please stop by the Save Our Cypress website and send in (with your comments if you want) the form letter encouraging the end to this practice. Make democracy work. Put your mouth where your money is, folks.

The letter to the vendors of cypress mulch reads:

Cypress swamps are vital natural storm protection and necessary habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. The cypress mulch industry has become an imminent threat to cypress forests.

Until a credible, third-party certification program is operating to ensure no products are coming from endangered areas, please stop selling all cypress mulch in your stores, and promote sustainable alternatives instead. We can grow our flowers and still keep our trees.

It’s time to live up to your corporate ideals and policies of sustainability.

See also:

Louisiana to Invest $1 Billion in Coastal Protection, Restoration

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Houston, We Have One Big Problem

Instrumental temperature record of the last 15...Image via Wikipedia…with a million interlocking solutions. That is the future ahead of us. To get to the other side, as Andrew Revkin points out, we’ll need to change how we see the story, not as a linear problem or single issue but with globally and historically comprehensive circumspection. Here’s an except from a recent presentation to Columbia University’s school of Journalism by Revkin:

Q. Obviously climate change is the biggest story on your plate right now, but looking ahead what do you see?

A. My coverage has evolved. Climate change is not the story of our time. Climate change is a subset of the story of our time, which is that we are coming of age on a finite planet and only just now recognizing that it is finite. So how we mesh infinite aspirations of a species that’s been on this explosive trajectory — not just of population growth but of consumptive appetite — how can we make a transition to a sort of stabilized and still prosperous relationship with the Earth and each other is the story of our time. Read more at

And as if to provide evidence of our leaders’ tendency to persist in monocular vision of things to come, the UN’s head of climate change issues a warning of Old School approaches to that important matter:

“POZNAN, Poland — The world must avoid a ‘cheap and dirty’ fix for the economy that could undermine the fight against global warming, the U.N.’s top climate official said on Sunday. Yvo de Boer said the world risked a second financial crisis if governments reacted to economic slowdown by building cheap, high-polluting coal-fired power plants that might then have to be scrapped as climate impacts hit. … ‘I hope that the second financial crisis is not going to have its origins in bad energy loans,’ he said. Short-sighted investments could lead to a need to build new low-carbon solar or wind power plants in 10-20 years.

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Corn-burger With Everything

… and an order of chicken flavored Corn Nuggets with Corn-sweetened ketchup and a half gallon of Corn Syrup Soda. To go.

I wrote recently that I was “encouraged that even American politicians would once again acknowledge that truly sound economies were built on the soil.”

Toward that end, and because we are at large a sick, ill-nourished society, we must end the corn cartel. Corn sweeteners, fillers and fodder are doing us in.

Consider this from yesterday’s SciAmer online:

If you thought you were eating mostly grass-fed beef when you bit into a Big Mac, think again: The bulk of a fast-food hamburger from McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s is made from cows that eat primarily corn, or so says a new study of the chemical composition of more than 480 fast-food burgers from across the nation.

And it isn’t only cows that are eating corn. There is also evidence of a corn diet in chicken sandwiches, and even French fries get a good slathering of the fat that makes them so tasty from being fried in corn oil.

CORN: It’s genetically modified and patented, soaked with Monsanto herbicides to maximize yields, planted in square mile monocultures in the parched and depleted soils of the mid-west, grown in slash and burn former tropical rainforests in Brazil to make biodiesel to get inefficient American automobiles to the shopping malls. Corn© is making some few American’s (mostly not farmers) famously fat-rich and most of us simply fat-obese.

9:00 am FLASH: NYTimes site hacked this morning. From a future July 4th (2009) edition: the war is over.

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National Journalists Gain Appalachian Awareness

To open the Society of Environmental Journalists eighteenth annual conference in Roanoke on October 17th, co-chairs Bill Kovarick and Ken Ward acted out a fruit-toss visual lesson in local pronunciation: Apple. Atcha.

“That’s how we say it, and welcome to Roanoke in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia.” With that, several hundred journalists and guests from across the nation were welcomed to our beautiful part of the world.

The week’s sessions focused as much on possible solutions as on the problems we face. Many experts in their fields expressed the conclusion that very soon we “need home runs, not base hits” to put in place viable energy alternatives and reduced carbon emissions policies and practice on a global scale.

Speakers educated conference attendees during every meal, on bus rides to field trips, and at back-to-back sessions from Wednesday breakfast until Sunday noon. So while a full account of the time is impossible in this space, I want to share with you some memorable personalities from the conference.

Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute has offered energy efficient alternative technoogies for years; the market may finally be ready to listen. Lovins work has long been where we must soon go–to lighter cars and more energy efficient buildings. See his description of tomorrow’s Smart Garage.

In 2002, Lyle Estill, co-founder of Piedmont Biofuels, turned a little cooking oil left over from deep-frying turkey at home into a million-gallon-a-year business converting used fats and oils into fuels. See Small is Possible: Life in a Local Economy.

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm near Staunton, Virginia, farms in much the same way his predecessors would have a hundred years ago. In a recently rediscovered farming practice, he fattens 200# pigs to a finish weight of 300# inside temporary fencing that contains them in oak forest.

The acorns give the meat a unique and desirable taste–so much so that the 800-restaurant chain, Chipotle, takes all the Polyface pork it can get.

Salatin encourages environmental writers to use their voices to increase the public’s “educational footprint” toward new understandings of the way we produce and consume products from within local “farmsheds.”

Roanoke was chosen for this year’s Virginia-tech sponsored conference in part because of its proximity to the sites of major environmental concern in our region and the nation: mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR).

Mining executives among the speakers saw the greatest good in producing as much coal as possible for the lowest possible costs–at least in dollars. Others saw coal’s costs measured in other ways, holding the opinion that post-mining mitigation (making the land like it was before) is nothing more than “lipstick on a corpse”; and that you “cannot regulate an abomination.” The long view and hope of many is towards a “post-carbon economy.”

The personal cost and human impact of current coal-extraction methods was expressed most eloquently by Wendell Berry, cultural and economic critic, prolific author and Kentucky farmer. At the final Sunday morning Author’s Breakfast, Mr. Berry read an essay he had offered months earlier on the Kentucky capitol steps.

He considers MTR the “moral equivalent of genocide” whose end is permanent loss of place and culture. In the light of the failure of lesser measures of “non-violent insistence” to bring about an end to these atrocities, Mr. Berry expressed a reluctant personal willingness to “stand in the way of destruction.” I highly recommend the youtube record of that speech.

As a life-long resident of the Southern Appalachians, I’m gratified that, as these hundreds of journalists and other visitors return home from their brief time in southwest Virginia, they will know much more than how to pronounce the name of our gentle mountains.

They have appreciated our music and our culture; and from their comments, they were impressed by the kindness of the people here and by autumn’s peak of color in the Blue Ridge.

SEJ journalists now have a richer understanding of our deep bonds of connection to place and have experienced in some small way “the infinite private suffering” of those whose mountaintops and creeks have disappeared.

And every time they turn on the lights back home, they will know in new ways why there will never be such a thing as “clean coal.”

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