Tuesday, April 25, 2006

One night during salamander migration

Early spring is a time when salamanders and amphibians wake from winter slumbers and migrate to upland wetlands where they lay their eggs. Once overnight temps get above 38-degrees and soaking rains come, you can expect local salamanders, frogs and toads to be on the move, and for herpetologist Brian Kleinman to be out with them, monitoring how the spring salamander migration is succeeding, and helping many across busy local roads to safety.

During one evening this month, Brian (above) had a night to remember. In a few hours, he watched as hundreds of migrants made their way across wet roads in northwest Connecticut. Equipped with a Handicam, he came back with some remarkable images of the animals he found moving during the first soaking rain of this spring.

An unexpected migrant was this Four-toed Salamander (above), the first Brian has seen in many years spent watching spring salamander migrations at this one spot in northwest Connecticut.

The Jefferson Salamander (above) is found throughout western Connecticut. Hybrid combinations between the Jefferson Salamander and its cousin, the Blue-spotted Salamander, (such as the one below) are also found in this range.

Hybrid Salamanders such as those found in Connecticut have evolved some of the most unique and intriguing reproductive adaptations in the animal kingdom.

The Spotted Salamander (like the one above that Brian taped as he helped it across the road) is one of the largest species found in forested areas, and can begin the breeding season by migrating in large numbers.

Moving along with the salamanders were other amphibians such as the Spring Peeper and Wood Frog. These frogs are able to tolerate partial freezing over the long winter, and in spring are among the first to emerge to lay their eggs. (Visit Dr. Ken Storey's page about freeze tolerant vertebrates.)

Also on the move this night were two rather cold and sluggish amphibians, an American Toad (above) and Green Frog (below).

Friday, April 14, 2006

Search for The Magic Bullet (6th in a series): Preserving Spirit of Place

Drive into Granby east along Rt. 20 and you can't help but notice a couple of hand painted signs spiked onto two trees beside Salmon Brook (below). Their messages, "Cherish Granby--Resist Developmt." (sic) and "Celebrate Pristine Granby--Don't Develop" seem to sum up how many have come to feel over the past few years, not just here in this quiet old farm town northwest of Hartford, but around the state.

Like many in Connecticut, Granby is a town where residents share a strong "spirit of place," one that has developed over the past two centuries, since colonial days. It isn't something that towns usually put into words or write into official documents, at least before people such as the residents of Granby saw it as essential in their effort to preserve what is special about their town well into the future.

Views of Holcomb Farm and the West Branch of the Salmon Brook in Granby.

Last year, the Granby Planning and Zoning Commission appointed a subcommittee to draft a new Plan of Conservation and Development for the town. (The state requires towns update plans every ten years.) The subcommittee reviewed Granby's 1993 plan, held public workshops and facilitated an agreement about things that made Granby special and reasons residents chose to live there. The result was a statement of the Town's Fundamental Values, a new 10 Year Vision for conservation, preservation and development, and recommendations for implementation.

The view from atop the ridge west of Holcomb Farm looking southeast across Granby, toward the Barndoor Hills and the Metacomet Ridge. The hills and the ridge are the remains of lava flows in from The Age of Volcanism the Connecticut Valley some 200 million years ago, as described by geologist Greg McHone in his guidebook, Great Day Trips to Discover the Geology of Connecticut.

The plan begins with a "Statement of Granby’s Fundamental Values" that is refreshingly easy to read and understand and highly evocative: "Agricultural: Our Town’s rural character has its roots in…the small farm...Viewing the livestock, smelling manure, experiencing the changing scenery of the fields…is a treasure that will be missed if it is allowed to disappear. Residents: The residents of Granby apply a broad definition to the term “neighbor.” They show concern and offer help to one another during times of sickness, grief, unemployment or other difficulty…Granby residents cherish the natural environment and are willing to work for its preservation. Wildlife: We look to the sky when we hear the chatter of the geese and we quickly spot the familiar V pattern of their flight. We stop and listen to the chant of the morning dove, the hoot of the owl and the melodies of the songbirds…We catch and release, turn rocks in search of salamanders and shriek at the sudden movement of a snake. We choose to make our home among the wildlife and we are the better for it."

A view from one of Granby's Barndoor Hills (west) of the other (east). The hills are outcrops of once molten rock that intruded through sedimentary layers in the valley and have since exposed by the effects of erosion.

The plan also articulates a vision that is the basis for conservation goals and implementation recommendations:

"Based on this Plan…we believe that in 2015 we will find:
That the Town has remained a rural residential community with:
…A sense of community founded in our Fundamental Values...

"That the Town Center…will:
Offer pedestrian friendly areas
Maintain a village feeling
Ensure quality development...

"That Residential Development:
Maintains the Town’s rural atmosphere
Preserves existing neighborhoods
Creates new neighborhoods with useable open space and pedestrian linkages...

"That Quality Commercial Development:
Has grown in appropriate areas:
Adequately Serves the community
Reflects the character and makeup of the community
Provides increased employment opportunities for residents
Is the product of Architectural Review Guidelines...

"That the amount of preserved Open Space:
Has continued to increase, preserving vistas, views, and ridge tops
Has expanded using corridors or trails to link…parcels
Continues to serve Town residents while preserving habitat...

"That the Town’s quality of life has remained high."

Wild Red Columbine (Rock Bells) found growing among the basalt talus of the Barndoor Hills in Granby. A member of the Buttercup family, the Ranunculaceae, with the scientific name of Aquilegia canadensis, Red Columbine is a favorite of hummingbirds.

The values and vision statements were used to guide the subcommittee in drafting the plan's goals and recommendations in specific areas including population and demographics, environment, housing, budgeting, taxation & grand list growth, transportation, commercial and industrial development and Granby center.

In the area of environment, for example, the plan sets goals consistent with conserving residents "spirit of place:"

Promote Biodiversity
Preserve and maintain natural, cultural and historic resources.
Protect ground water resources.
Protect, preserve, promote, and create wildlife habitat and corridors.
Allow reasonable extraction of sand, gravel and other earth resources.
Encourage the preservation of existing farmlands, existing farm operations, agricultural

The plan is notable for many reasons, an important one being that its development fostered a productive dialogue among residents and was able to gain consensus about attributes of the town that Granby residents sought to conserve and protect, and how they wanted to manage growth, development and commercial areas.

Another is that the plan recognizes the value of open space for residents' use, recreational use, and its value to maintain biodiversity and natural resources. Just as the town seeks to preserve its wonderful ridgetop views it seeks to enhance habitat connectivity and wildlife "corridors" that are becoming increasing vital.

Finally, by first setting the vision, planners established a reference point for developing the specifics of the plan and for evaluating all future proposals for conservation and development. Its easy for anyone to read the plan and decide how a proposal fits with the communities fundamental values or conflicts with the long term plan.

It's an approach any town can integrate into its planning. Look into the last time your town updated its conservation and development plan and what you and your neighbors have done to describe your community's fundamental values. Even if your town has recently completed a plan, you don't have to wait ten years to provide your municipal government with your input. Towns can revise their plans any time they wish. If your town hasn't stated its values as part of a long term vision, you can get started right away.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Search for The Magic Bullet (5th in a series): One Planet Living

It seems odd to talk about "One Planet Living" given that we have only one earth--and that no other celestial body in the universe is known to support life. Of course, when there is information to show that humanity is living beyond its means--beyond the earth's capacity to feed and clothe us--the discussion takes on new meaning.

According to Dr. Mathis Wackernagel of the Global Footprint Network humanity already needs 1.2 planets to keep up with our consumption of natural biological resources and it's only a matter of time before the "ecological debt" we're ringing up comes due.

Source for above: Living Planet Report 2004. Published in October 2004 by WWF-World Wide Fund For Nature (formerly World Wildlife Fund), Gland, Switzerland. © 2004 WWF. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Wackernagel was in Connecticut last week to speak about The Ecological Footprint, an analytical tool he has developed to measure people's biological resource consumption. On Saturday, Network For A Sustainable New Haven hosted a workshop at the Yale Peabody Museum for local community groups aimed at exploring how New Haven's footprint or Connecticut's footprint might be calculated.

According to Global Footprint Network, "Ecological Footprint measures how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its waste. Today, humanity's Ecological Footprint is over 23% larger than what the planet can regenerate. We maintain this overshoot by liquidating the planet's ecological resources. Ecological Footprints enable people to take personal and collective actions in support of a world where humanity lives within the means of one planet."

Ecological Footprint studies suggest that rates of human consumption, left unchecked, will exceed the ability of natural systems to replenish themselves. We'll soon reach a point of no return where a last fish will be caught and after that there will be no more.

To live within our means, Global Footprint Network calculates that, on average, we need to live within a budget of about 2.2 global hectares or 4.4 global acres per person. "The question is, how can we all live well within this 4.4 acres," says Dr. Wackernagel (pictured above at the workshop sponsored by Network For A Sustainable New Haven), "and how much do we want to set aside for other species?"

A 2002 footprint analysis found that the global human population has been living beyond its means since about 1985, and has since gone overbudget, requiring an average of 5.4 acres per person. People in the United States required 24 acres to satisfy their appetites for biological consumables and to then throw out their trash. Others living large were Canada (18.5), Australia (17.3), France (13.8) and Japan (10.6). Those not yet eating their full share of the pie included China (4.0), Egypt (3.5), Ethiopia (2.0), and India (1.7).

The results leave open the possibility that there may come a time when the balance of power between nations of the world may revolve around disparities between ecological debtor nations and ecological lender nations, and a new economics based on dwindling biological resources could emerge.

Yet, "ecological debt" isn't a factor in current economic analyses, or that most economists even measure or track. The question that Dr. Wackernagel has spent the past fifteen years laboring to fix has been "How can we operate economies without measuring ecological debt?" As things are, the best anyone can do is guess at what percentage of the world's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) needs to be invested in an effort to get us back on a budget for One Planet Living. "A rough guess is 5%," says Dr. Wackernagel.

Global Footprint Network has undertaken its "'Ten In Ten Campaign' to make the Ecological Footprint as prominent as the GDP, and by 2015 to have ten countries managing their ecological wealth in the same way they manage their finances." So far, it has gained the involvement of the Swiss government and a statement of support from the European Union.

Source for above: Living Planet Report 2004. Published in October 2004 by WWF-World Wide Fund For Nature (formerly World Wildlife Fund), Gland, Switzerland. © 2004 WWF. All Rights Reserved.

More commitments from governments and individuals are needed. Even so-called "slow growth" plans have the world going deeper into ecological debt. Global Footprint Network projects that global consumption of biological resources would have to be cut in half to reach a balanced eco-budget of 4.4 acres, or 1960 levels, within the next twenty years. Even more than a financial investment, a balanced biological resource budget will require large-scale political and social change as well.

As a first step, try calculating your own ecological footprint.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Search for The Magic Bullet (4th in a series): Grassroots Giant Killers

Fresh from crucial victories, leaders in the fight to "Save the 1,000 acre forest" in Old Saybrook came to Bent of the River Audubon Center in Southbury today to share what they learned about how grassroots environmental advocacy can succeed--even when faced with Goliath-sized opposition.

The giant killers have notched big wins recently, including one last month when the Old Saybrook inland wetlands commission rejected a proposal by River Sound Development, a subsidiary of financial services behemoth Lehman Brothers, to build 220 luxury homes and a golf course in an area of Old Saybrook, Essex and Westbrook dubbed by the developers "The Preserve."

Discussing formulas for success in environmental advocacy at the grassroots level were (from left) Charles Rothenberger of Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Patty McQueen of Communications Strategies, and Jim Keaney of Alliance for Sound area Planning.

Organized by Sandy Breslin, Director of Governmental Affairs for Audubon Connecticut, the 2006 Advocacy Workshop gave tips about what to do when damaging proposals pop up in their communities, as more are all the time. Among the 30 or so people who attended the workshop, nine were municipal officials seeking to become better informed about how to respond to issues in their hometowns. Several others had previously held government office.

Workshop attendees seated around a table in the barn at Bent of the River Audubon in Southbury.

The overall message was to plan, envision a strategy for success, and get the word out. Charles Rothenberger emphasized that town commissions such as zoning & planning or inland wetlands have specific areas of authority, and that it's important for groups to know the difference between issues a commission can consider and rule on, and those that fall outside their authority. Where it may not be reasonable to kill a proposal altogether consider alternatives that might mitigate impacts. Realize that by providing your local boards with expert reports and testimony or alternative ideas you are arming them with the information they need to support your position.

Charles offered key insights with regard to how towns can manage the costs of responding to large proposals, and our rights to legally intervene. He said that more and more towns are requiring applicants to pay legal and expert consultant costs that towns must incur in order to evaluate and respond to development proposals by making these costs part of the permitting fee. If your town doesn't have such a requirement, work with your town officials to add it.

Charles also highlighted legal rights he said we in Connecticut are very fortunate to have, provided by state statute. The Connecticut Environmental Protection Act, CGS 22a-19, enables you to intervene to become party to a proposed activity that you can show to be "reasonably likely to unreasonably impair the natural resources of the state." This puts you in the loop with regard to important legal information, gives you the right to put on a case in court, and the right to appeal. These are rights Charles said give Connecticut residents a powerful tool that people in most other states do not have.

Patty McQueen offered tips on how to conduct media outreach as part of a community campaign, and to understand how newspapers and reporters work. She reinforced the idea that it's critical to focus on a goal, stick to it, and keep things short and sweet. Resist the temptation to get angry or insult people or risk losing all credibility. Above all, speak and write in plain english--language that's easy for anyone to understand.

Jim Keaney echoed many of these themes and added what he thought was essential. "There is nothing magical about raising awareness and stopping a huge project," he said. "It's the same doggedness you apply to any effort: 'the harder you work the luckier you get.'"