Things with Feathers: Down with fracking; up with macaws

By Fjothr Odinsdottir Lokakvan

Here are this month’s choices for signs of positive progress in the world. Who doesn’t want more birds and less polluting, land-and-life destroying activity?

Fracking risks decreased in Pennsylvania and Australia

Earlier this spring, the two major companies who had leases on land in northeastern Pennsylvania decided to cancel their leases, and move out of the area. One of those areas is the county where Josh Fox, the director of anti-fracking films Gasland and Gasland 2 lives, and where fractivist group DCS got its start.

The companies sent letters stating that they “have elected to release your lease, thus your lease will not be continued to the development phase,” terminating approximately 1,500 leases covering over 100,000 acres of land.

“I can’t believe it and I can’t stop crying,” Fox said, adding that he is deeply grateful for this “amazing victory.” “This proves that people passionate and organized can actually win sometimes. We won’t stop until we win everywhere.”

It’s no happenstance that the unprecedented mass lease cancellation occurred in a region that is home both to Josh Fox, fractivism’s heroic Pied Piper, and to the first fractivist organization founded in the Northeast U.S., Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS)— making it a triumph both for Fox and for the dedicated grassroots effort by a community of neighbors that began in 2007.

. . .

Due to DCS efforts and alliances with the over two hundred other groups which soon formed in the Northeast, fractivists have so far been successful in sustaining a moratorium on fracking in the environmentally sensitive Delaware River Basin (as well as a moratorium on fracking in New York State). This is an achievement given that when the group first sat down with the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) —an inter-state entity charged with environment protection— Arrindell recalls that the Commission considered any form of regulation or oversight of gas drilling to be outside of its purview. Along with other factors, the protracted moratorium on drilling may have played a part in the decision of Hess and Newfield to cancel leases and depart

Elsewhere in the world, I’ve seen multiple news reports recently about a variety of really horrible plans for mining in Australia, that will rip up and otherwise threaten wild places and/or lands of major significance to the indigenous people. So this was a very welcome change in the news:

A mining company has retreated from plans to drill for gas at one of Australia’s oldest Indigenous heritage sites, prompting celebrations among traditional landholders.

Representatives of the Djungan people of north Queensland in a statement said they were “elated” at news that Mantle Mining had dropped its bid to prospect at the foot of Ngarrabullgan, also known as Mount Mulligan.

The Djungan, who have been linked to cultural sites on the mountain for more than 35,000 years, learned last week that the Brisbane-based miner had withdrawn its prospecting application after surrendering its exploration permit last month.

. . .

Djungan elder Alfie “Pop” Neal thanked supporters, who ranged from the Greens to the Katter party to graziers and mining protest group Lock the Gate.

The chairman of the Ngarrabulgan Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, Judulu Neal, said the Djungan supported a nationwide moratorium on fracking, which involves injection of chemicals into coal seams by miners to obtain gas.

One of the common threads in both these stories, if not the main thrust, is that the groups heavily involved in these specific places are working with other activists and organizations, creating and becoming part of broader networks that can sustain a long effort and push back on large corporations and governmental problems. It seems at times like these kinds of victories are very isolated, but getting a sense of how they fit into what is quite a large network with a common drive is very comforting.

More scarlet macaws flying wild

Last month I wrote about the California condor population being slowly brought back; the scarlet macaw population was also nearly wiped out last century, in part due to birds being captured for the pet trade, but laws against capturing parrots, work to breed and release birds, and educational efforts where the birds live, are now helping their wild numbers come up.

This spring, we were thrilled to take part in the release of 28 scarlet macaws in Veracruz, Mexico. With just an estimated 250 birds in all of Mexico, these macaws are slowly regaining a foothold in the wild after being nearly wiped out. With the release of 27 macaws last year, and this release of another 28, the population has increased by around 20%.

To help bring back one of the most iconic species of our rainforests, Defenders is working in partnership with the Mexican National University’s Institute of Biology. The effort to reintroduce the scarlet macaw to the rainforests of the Biosphere Reserve of Los Tuxtlas has been years in the making, and in the last year we have seen our efforts literally take flight.

. . .

We and our partners have been working continuously in local communities and schools to teach them about the plight of the scarlet macaw, the environmental laws protecting them, the reintroduction project and its importance for the species and the communities. We supply the field team with posters, coloring books for children and comic books for youths and adults that describe the threats that drove this species from the area in the 1970’s, and how the people who live in the bird’s range have the power to help protect it. This work has already paid dividends —several children have alerted the team when they learn of macaws flying into homes, or of someone trying to capture them. In this way, we can help inspire local communities to play an active role in protecting scarlet macaws.

Scarlet macaws (c) Juan Carlos Cantu  (Fair Use)
Scarlet macaws (c) Juan Carlos Cantu

“I thought: hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.”

Lu Xun

Things with Feathers: The Elwha River; California condors

By Fjothr Odinsdottir Lokakvan

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul.
And sings the tune
Without the words,
and never stops at all.

–Emily Dickinson

One of the things that helps keep me motivated, reminds me that not everything is terrible, and it is not a waste of my time to try and improve what I can, is finding stories about other people doing things to improve the world. This provides a kind of hope that is not merely wishful thinking, but a hope that is based in evidence that things can be better than they are now.

I’ve been saving those things for myself in a “hopes” tag, because sometimes I need to go back through it and remind myself that there’s more to life than Shell moving to drilling in the Arctic, and I’m planning on making a post every month here with two or three items. (It’s exciting! There are a lot of cool things going on!)

Here are a couple of my favorites from the last year or so:

The Elwha River dam removal

From 2011 to late 2014, the largest dam removal project in history took place: freeing the Elwha River in Washington from two hydroelectric dams, one that had been in place for 100 years.

The project has been done slowly, so that the sediment trapped behind the dams would move into the river, and then out to sea, in a somewhat controlled fashion – too much sediment in water is bad for the health of fish and other creatures, and there was massive amount of sediment trapped behind the dams. The changes taking place are going to be closely watched, to see how the watershed recovers, which will probably affect decisions about future dam removal projects in other places. It is already apparent that rivers and their associated watersheds can recover at some of their “lost” functions quite quickly once dams are gone:

So much sediment, once trapped in reservoirs behind two hydroelectric dams, has flowed downstream that it has dramatically reshaped the river’s mouth, replenished eroding beaches and created new habitat for marine creatures not observed there in years.

Meanwhile, Chinook salmon and steelhead have been streaming into stretches of the Elwha River and its tributaries previously blocked by the Elwha Dam, which stood for nearly a century before it came down in 2012.

With the first dam gone, the ocean-migrating fish have been swimming as far upriver as they can. Scientists have observed them at the base of the second 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam about 13 miles upstream, as if they want to continue on.

As they move into areas previously blocked, salmon and steelhead are acting as a fertilizer for the ecosystem, delivering marine nutrients to river otters and other wildlife.

. . .

Just three years into dam removal, scientists say they’ve been surprised at how quickly changes are happening.

The most stunning change is taking place at the river’s mouth. Millions of cubic yards of sediment held behind the dams have flowed downriver and pushed the estuary out about a quarter mile. A once rocky, cobblestone scene is now sandy beach — ideal for forage fish, juvenile salmon and shellfish.

“New estuary is literally being created. It’s wild to watch,” said Anne Shaffer, marine biologist with the Coastal Watershed Institute in Port Angeles. “Fish are using this freshly formed habitat, and they’re using it with such abundance.”

Marine creatures such as eulachon, or candlefish, and Dungeness crab have been documented in the estuary for the first time in decades.

“I was surprised by a lot of things, but I was stunned by how fast the estuary has expanded,” said Robert Elofson, river restoration director with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. The tribe is a partner with the National Park Service in the $325 million river-restoration project.

The mouth of the river, with new land being formed by sediment. (photo from OPB article)

Trees and other plants are recolonizing the land that was once the bottom of the “lakes” formed behind the dams, and additional work is being done by people to restore trees and plants along the river. While the dams were in place, the water held behind them was warmer than the river in its wild state was, which is another harm done to fish like salmon and steelhead, which cannot survive if water temperatures rise too high.

Before the dams were built, the Elwha was one of the Northwest’s great natural resources, hosting steelhead and all five species of Pacific salmon: sockeye, coho, chum, pink, and the legendary Elwha chinook, which commonly reached 100 pounds. Ten salmon runs — each genetically adapted to a specific seasonal migration — meant that the Elwha was full of migrating fish year-round, some 400,000 annually. . .

But the Elwha dam put a stop to that. Despite official warnings, the builder violated an 1890 law requiring fish ladders on dams, substituting a hatchery instead. Other dam builders followed suit, blocking salmon runs throughout the Northwest. That end-run determined state policies for decades, giving rise to a hatchery-dependent fishery during the hydroelectric boom of the 1920s to 1960s. . .

These declines, along with a 1910 prohibition against fishing, deprived the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of a key food source and cultural touchstone. After their fishing rights were restored in the 1970s, the tribe objected to licensing the dams, citing their impact on the salmon fishery and a poor safety report predicting the Elwha dam might fail during high flood conditions. (source)

So, once their fishing rights were restored in the 1970s, the tribe pushed for the dams’ removal. They were joined by conservation groups, and in 1992, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. This gave the Interiors Department the authority to buy the dams and remove them if salmon restoration needed it. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a plan to help with the dam removal that involved managing sediment so fish would survive its release, and in 2011, the actual removal began.

When I look at the timelines here, some of it is kind of daunting. It took, what, 15-20 years to get legal approval to take the necessary steps, and then another 19 years before the first dam removal started.

But when I look at what has happened since that started? How quickly fish and plants and other wildlife are returning, now that one “wrong” element in their landscape is gone?? It gives me such hope for other places.

 The king in feathers

I remember when I was a child or young teenager, reading some magazine article about the efforts being made to save the California condor from extinction. There were photos of the condor chicks, being raised by humans, who put condor-shaped puppets over their hands, so the chicks would see condor shape and color when being fed, and not imprint on the humans.

As much as I am a freak about birds, I didn’t give the condors much thought for quite a long time. Occasionally I’d hear something about it – the efforts were having some success! – but it wasn’t really on my radar.

Last summer, I made it to the Oregon Zoo; I’d been meaning to since moving back to Portland, but hadn’t gotten around to it. There were articles in the news earlier in the year about how the new condor exhibit was finally open. Well, I sure wasn’t going to go and NOT look the condors! They’re birds after all, how could I pass that up?

I was not expecting to be instantly overwhelmed with emotion when I caught sight of the first one in the enclosure (if I’d had the zoo to myself, I would have just sat down and sobbed). I stayed and watched him for quite a while, while he most certainly watched us, and I have honestly never felt such presence from a bird before. Or any other animal. Condors are big, but it wasn’t just his size. He was intelligent. He spent a lot of time up against the fence, reaching through it to pull at plants outside (which were just like the plants inside the enclosure), but he also had a perch that positioned him to be viewed very well from inside one of the exhibit shelters – and I think he knew he is an impressive, commanding bird. There were two other condors in the enclosure, but they hung out on some tall perches near the back the entire time I was there.

California condor at the Oregon Zoo. (photo by Fjothr)
Lord of the aviary. (photo by Fjothr)

The basic story goes like this: Condors once ranged all up and down the western part of what is now the United States. They were native to Oregon, among other places. But they died because they’d eat animals that had either been poisoned (like big predators that early settlers didn’t want around) or killed with lead shot (still a threat to today’s wild-flying condors), or because they were just outright killed. DDT and ingestion of bits plastic were other threats to their survival (plastic is still a problem).

They suffered such harm that by the mid-1980s, there were only 22 left in the wild.

They were all captured and put into captive breeding programs. These programs have done well enough that over 200 have been released into the wild again, in some very small areas, with another nearly-200 in captivity. Here’s more about the condors from the Oregon Zoo.

There is a long way to go before it’s likely they will soar over the skies they did 150 years ago, but the fact that it is possible to help a population on the verge of going extinct from crossing that boundary is a good thing.

Progress can happen. It just takes time.

That’s what I’ve got for this month. Please share additional examples in the comments!