Nature Notes

January 1, 1998

For Christmas a friend gave the writer a bag of coffee grown in Guatemala under the shaded conditions naturally associated with tropical rain forests and tropical evergreen forests.

Such integration of coffee-bean trees with taller, in situ, forest trees ostensibly has a far less deleterious effect on the native ecology than would a traditional coffee plantation, which entails wholesale clear-cutting and subsequent clearing and regrading with heavy equipment.

The bag has a picture of a black-throated green warbler on the front. It is appropriately called Song Bird coffee. It is produced by the Thanksgiving Coffee Company of Fort Bragg, Calif., and endorsed by the American Birding Association.

It turns out that the coffee is not only ecological, it is very, very good. Just as tasty and rich as the everyday fare of Yuban, to which the writer had grown accustomed.

The writer's wife, as part of a medicinal diet, has a cup of Stonyfield Farm yogurt every day. When the writer was washing up the dishes on Saturday he noticed the words "Put a lid on global warming" on the cover of one of the emptied yogurt containers.

Inside the cover was the message "Receive your free global warming kit. Send the President an E-mail and get started in an effort to preserve our children's future. Click on our lid at www.ucsusa.org."

The message is good. Julie says the yogurt is also good.

Sobering News

We know that the American free-enterprise system is alive and well, and it is heartening to see the system is becoming more and more involved in safeguarding the world's environment. Yankee ingenuity can not only turn a tidy profit and employ millions; it can help save the world.

The message on the yogurt top is not out of step with what is happening. On Sunday the writer learned from TV that the global temperature has risen one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) over the century.

The Antarctic ice mass is breaking up at an accelerated rate. Imminent sea-level rise is not a fiction, it is a fact.

Such news may not be that frightening, but it should be sobering. As we are about to turn the page on yet another year, it is hard to know whether we are making progress or losing ground. Methinks it is a little of both.

A Few Worries

It is not easy. We are balancing several perspectives. On a global scale, there are lots of things to worry about.

There's that global-warming thing, sea-level rise, the hole in the ozone layer, safe storage of nuclear wastes, microbial resistance to antibiotics and the spread of new diseases.

Also, increases in the rates of several cancers, degradation of potable water supplies, loss of forests and forest resources, the exhaustion of fossil fuel reserves, pollution of estuarine waters, ocean dumping, extirpation of species, cleanup of toxic chemicals, erosion and topsoil loss, and population growth.

Heretofore, we had the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the other destructive acts of God. Now we have the environmental scourges to reckon with as well.

Great Strides

Nationally, we are making great strides. The United States supported a groundbreaking anti-global-warming pact at an international session just concluded in Japan. (The treaty implementing the pact will have to be ratified by the Senate.)

The population is still growing - there are 269 million Americans as of an end-of-the-year tally - yet it is showing signs of stabilizing.

More and more newspapers, magazines, and other paper goods are coming from recycled paper and pulpwood substitutes. Deposit containers are being deposited. Recycling is beginning to work.

Cleaner Atmosphere

Ocean dumping of toxic materials is being phased out. Groundwaters are being detoxified, surface waters are cleansing, fewer pollutants are running into them.

The atmosphere is getting cleaner. America's smoggiest city, Los Angeles, has been enjoying more than a week of smog-free weather, with the air so particle-free that the magnificent snow-capped San Gabriel mountains to the west are clearly visible from downtown.

The California condor, once widespread through much of North America but by 1990 reduced to fewer than 30 birds, has increased its numbers to 132 under a fabulously successful captive-bird breeding program. Several young condors have been reintroduced to the wild in the Southwest and West, with good results.

More Good News

The whooping crane continues to hold on. Trumpeter swans, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and several other species have made a resounding comeback under the aegis of a proactive nationwide Endangered and Threatened Species recovery program.

Very, very few wetlands are being filled or disturbed.

Integrated pest management programs are finding widespead acceptance among growers, landscapers, park managers, and golf course operators. The use of "preadapted" native vegetation for landscaping of residences, businesses, and institutions is taking hold.

Agricultural wastes are being recycled, composted, and used for making other products, rather than being discarded or buried.

Renewable resources - wind, sunlight - are being used more and more to produce energy, and in several areas are competitive with fossil-fuel energy sources.

People are changing their habits: they are smoking less, recycling more, using fewer toxic chemicals in and around their homes, and not discarding the ones they do use down their toilets or sink drains, or in their yards.

(However, they are driving bigger vehicles that use more gas, which dilutes the many good things they're doing for the environment.)

Notwithstanding the need to rein in acid rain and make more progress in limiting wood-cutting in our national forests, over all it's a plus! There has never been a better Secretary of the Interior than Bruce Babbitt.

Locally

Where are we locally?

It doesn't make it easy for us that the South Fork and eastern Long Island is such a nice place in which to live and raise a family. We've suffered a lot of setbacks. The bay scallop population collapsed. Seagrass beds have dwindled. Several finfish species are in short supply.

The waters of our harbors and bays are not what they used to be. The potable water supply and its quality aren't what they used to be, either.

Spots that we likened to wilderness only a year or two ago, now have buildings on them; the charm's gone out the door.

In summer, the place is a mob scene. The traffic is often out of hand.

In spite of the troublesome circumstances in which we find ourselves, local governments have not seen fit to throw in the towel. They are working harder than ever to save the heart of the rural environment, a good chunk of traditional country life.

Most of our lawmakers are trying to hold the line on runaway growth - an impossible job, it would seem - and have worked hard to implement programs that salt away open space and conserve resources.

There is a slew of innovative projects set in motion to help the local environment and, what's so promising, the citizen on the street is largely in support of them. Indeed, he or she is helping to see they get carried out.

Nineteen ninety-eight will be a watershed year. There is not one divisible parcel out there that is privately owned and not in for development.

The pressure is on as it has never been on before.

We already have a glut of building lots. Creating more of them will bring more clearings, more buildings, more people, more vehicles.

It will produce more waste products that go into the ground, into the groundwater, into the surface waters.

A Better 1998

We can link up with Mir and refurbish it, photograph the most distant galaxies from a giant telescope in space, but we have yet to learn how to treat our wastewater so that it doesn't harm the environment. We merely put it out of sight, underground, or into a bay or harbor by way of a convenient outfall.

There is a thing called carrying capacity. We are about to exceed it. We've done a good job trying to live within our means in 1997, but we have to do an even better job in 1998.

Make it a Happy New Year. Talk softly and carry a big stick.