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Seeing Nature
A web log for enhancing the understanding of human impact on the natural world

Appreciating Nature's beauty through photography has been a focus of my life since I was a teenager, but the time has come to do more.  I am taking my work in a new direction to highlight threats to the natural world.  I'll still do fine art photography, but I've come to realize that without doing something concrete to rally public support for protection both my work and the joy we all experience outdoors are likely to perish.  My blog Seeing Nature will share insights on current topics.  You won't find environmental extremism here;  I aim to be thoughtful and critical of unsound thinking on both sides of the discussion on conservation.  Please read along, but promise me something:  After you're finished, take some action to help the natural world.  Then turn off the computer and get outside.  The quick link to this blog is http://tinyurl.com/3nau4l6
Summary of Posts

The Eighth Wedge: Population and Climate Change November 7, 2012
An inexpensive fix for carbon emissions that doesn't require a technology breakthrough
Roadside Trash: Causes and Solutions March 29, 2012
Political will could fix the litter problem.
The $10 Picnic March 8, 2012
Escalating recreation fees wall off parks from the public
Wind Turbines Blow Away Gorge Views July 2, 2011
The central Columbia Gorge falls prey to advancing wind power development.
Making Conservation Dollars Work January 14, 2011
Why I stopped contributing to the Sierra Club.
In Business For The Wilderness July 27, 2010
What corporations know that the conservation community doesn't.
The Windmills Are Coming June 6, 2010
Wind turbine development threatens Columbia Gorge scenic views

The Eighth Wedge

Entry 7:  November 7, 2012

If you have read Al Gore's book "An Inconvenient Truth," Page 280 has a chart of seven wedges representing different approaches to controlling carbon emissions contributing to climate change.  The chart is based on a paper by Robert H. Socolow and Stephen W. Pacala published in the journal Science.  The paper proposed seven strategies to level off emissions: energy efficiency, renewables, clean coal, forests, soils (stop deforestation and agricultural tilling), fuel switch (coal to gas, oil to heat pump, etc.), and nuclear power.

Source: Pacala, S., and R. Socolow. "Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies." Science 305 (August 13, 2004):968-972.

The premise of the paper is that there is a way to control carbon emissions through these techniques that could successfully mitigate human impact on climate.  However, even though the paper talks about current technologies, there are many uncertainties in the success of these strategies.  Clean coal, for instance, could be too costly to implement and it relies on unproven technology such as carbon capture and storage.  But what if we were overlooking an eighth wedge, a strategy that doesn't require any new technology at all?  

Click here to read more on this article

Roadside Trash:  Causes and Solutions

Entry 6:  March 29, 2012 (updated October 23, 2012)

For several years I've picked up trash along different stretches of roadway.  I do it to make the world a better place and as a way to do exercise that produces a benefit to society rather than just to burn calories.  Trash pickup is an endless job though; it's hard sometimes to realize that there's no way to make permanent progress.  

While doing all that work I have plenty of time to think and I've come up with some ideas that might make a dent in roadside litter.  It started with analyzing what gets thrown away.  Much of the trash comes from products involved with addiction, such as beer cans, liquor bottles, and cigarette boxes and butts.  A lesser amount is fast-food packaging and cups, followed by food packaging from the grocery, and finally random non-food items.  Below is what I found on a recent cleanup trip along Old Highway 8 near Lyle, Washington.  This road is near a lake, so there's a disproportionate amount of fishing items such as bait cups.  Other than that, it's fairly typical.  Contrary to what most think, I've never found drugs or syringes over the several years I've done this work.  We hear about it on the news a lot, but most trash is quite boring.  

Typical roadside trash (click to enlarge) 

Just like on TV commercials, I tried to turn most items so their corporate logos are visible.  These companies deserve some bad press for contributing to the mess along America's roads.  Some of the items say "Please recycle," but as you can see the message is not getting through.  If you click on the photo above it will open a high-resolution version (3MB file.)  The collection above came from along about 1/2 mile of country road.  I've cleaned that stretch many times before, so it's representative of what appears in the course of a couple of months.  

I see two solutions to the problem of roadside trash.  The first is to fine the companies producing product packaging and use the money generated to fund cleanup efforts.  It would be relatively easy to do this, just collect trash along a sample of roadways and sort it by the manufacturer, grade it by weight or volume, and then assess a fee.  

The second approach, while more complicated, would attack the problem at its source.  This would be to tax all product packaging.  The tax would be calculated on how biodegradable the packaging is, how easily it's recycled, and just as in the first suggestion above, on actual measurement of how much trash is found along roadways.  Money from the tax would fund cleanup and recycling efforts.  

Both of these approaches would create jobs cleaning up litter.  The packaging tax would be especially effective at spurring manufacturers to create more efficient packaging that creates less litter, and perhaps find ways to eliminate some kinds of packaging altogether.  We should also allocate a portion of the money collected to addiction treatment programs.  That would reduce alcohol and cigarette consumption and decrease litter as well.  

Today most states have a deposit on carbonated beverage containers, but as you can see in the picture above they still make up a huge portion of trash even though in theory one could make money by picking up and returning the cans and bottles.  We could increase the deposit and that would certainly help.  But it wouldn't address the trash coming from other kinds of packaging.  At the current redemption rate of 5 cents per container in Oregon, I couldn't even buy half a gallon of gasoline from the cans and bottles above.  Oregon pioneered a bottle-return bill but the latest version was watered down by retailers and beverage companies.  There is a provision for refunding a dime per container but it would require the number of cans returned to drop below 80% of sales for two years.  

There is a possible shortcoming to these ideas, and that's the notion that people might be more inclined to litter because someone will clean up after them.  But people who litter already think that today, and I don't think there will be much of an increase of littering, if any.  

Some of the alcoholic beverage containers are likely discarded by underage youth who are drinking in their cars and don't want the containers to be found at home.  That's a tough problem to solve.  Reducing underage drinking has never been very successful.  But we could certainly take some money from the ideas here and put it toward better education and enforcement campaigns.  Georgia has studied the profile of people who litter, and the majority of people who litter deliberately are young males between the ages of 11 and 24.  I think anyone caught littering in that age group should be the first to work on a cleanup crew.  

We can also expect some ranting from the right-wingers who claim that we shouldn't be paying a tax on product packaging.  I don't think the tax would be very high though.  Also it would likely decrease over time as manufacturers found ways to reduce wasteful packaging and improve recycling.  Either a tax or a manufacturer charge is more practical than trying to more strictly enforce littering laws.  The cost of patrolling to catch violators is prohibitive and couldn't be done without an intrusive police presence.  We know who makes the trash in the first place, and that is the manufacturers.  They are easy to locate and bear responsibility for the problem too. 

While on the topic of trash, Nestle Beverage has a plan to bottle water from a spring in Cascade Locks and sell it.  Since the spring is on state land and feeds the local fish hatchery, they've come up with a proposal to provide well water from the city to the hatchery and take the natural water.  That water is a public resource and belongs to everyone in the Columbia Gorge, as well as to the plants and animals that rely on fresh water to survive.  We shouldn't squander this spring for the benefits of a corporation, and neither should water from the Columbia Gorge end up contributing to the growing mountain of discarded water bottles.  Nestle only wants the water because it's free, and they've found a town that's willing to gamble its future on this scheme in exchange for jobs.  If Nestle were serious about helping small towns, they could purify water from the city's well and sell that instead, creating the same number of jobs and leaving the natural spring alone.  

Just about every state has studied the composition of roadside litter in ways far more detailed than my own analysis.  I've yet to hear of anyone proposing a fine on manufacturers or a packaging tax though, likely due to industry opposition.  We have all the data we need and have spent all the money we need to spend to understand the problem; what we lack is the political will to create a solution.  Until we do, many volunteers will waste tireless hours picking up a never-ending stream of trash.  

October 23, 2012 update:  After making another trash pickup, I found an interesting connection between this story and the one below about Washington State Parks.  Rowland Lake State Park lies along the road and it's seen visitation drop to near zero due to the Discover Pass fee hikes.  The law of unintended consequences (see maxim below) has taken effect and now people park at the junction of Old Highway 8 and SR-14, where parking is free, and camp and litter in the woods there.  No one polices the site and there are no trash receptacles.  So the perverse result of raising state park fees is that we now have more litter.  

Washington Parks' Discover Pass:  The $10 Picnic

Entry 5:  March 8, 2012

March 30 Update:  Governor Gregoire has signed a bill that makes the Discover Pass transferable between two vehicles and creates a $50 pass that's completely transferable.  It turns out that Discover Pass revenues haven't met expectations.  While this new policy helps, it still creates a headache for recreation clubs as the cost of a transferable pass is the same as buying five day-use passes.  Many smaller clubs might not recoup the savings from a $50 pass.  It seems that Washington won't violate the maxim that when government tries to solve a problem, it only gets worse.  They could have simply eliminated the license-plate requirement on their annual pass and reduced the price of a day pass to $5.  That would have done something useful.  

Unless an organization buys the $50 passes, each member of a carpool visiting a park needs to pay a portion of the day-use fee for each visit.  That means a person with a valid annual pass but not acting as the carpool driver will end up paying even more to visit a park since the person's pass is restricted to the vehicles they own.  Even with the $50 passes, it is difficult for organizations to ensure they are available for each trip.  I lead hikes for the Adventure Group in Portland, and we always have situations where a carpool driver has a pass and hasn't returned it to the person who acts as the keeper for them.  This person needs to rendezvous with hike leaders every time a pass is needed and when the passes are returned, and that creates an impractical drain on their time and that of the hike leaders.  What ends up happening most times is that people split the day-use fee for each trip.  It's a broken system.  

Another problem with the current system is that people who use car sharing services such as Zipcar or Car2Go will have a different license plate on each visit, and can't use an annual pass at all.  They are unfairly locked out of the benefits of an annual pass.  

On March 7, 2012 I visited Beacon Rock State Park in Washington to hike the Hamilton Mountain trail.  I knew there was a new user fee for visitors because Washington is facing a budget shortfall and wanted park users to pay up.  What shocked me was the $10 fee for one day's use at Washington parks.  This is called the "Discover Pass."  What it looks like to me is that Washington is doing everything it can to discourage people from using their state parks, especially if the visitors aren't wealthy.  Perhaps a better name for this fee is the "Discourage Pass."  

Most of us would say that there is a way out, and that is to buy an annual pass for a $30 fee.  But $30 is a lot to pay for many families, especially in the tough economic times we're in.  There's another gotcha to Washington's fee program that's hidden away:  The pass is licensed to only one vehicle by the plate number.  So if you have more than one car, choose carefully which one you get a pass for.  If you carpool in another person's car, your pass will be invalid.  

Washington's Discover Pass:  Cost recovery, or recreation for the rich?  

The "one pass per license plate" policy also creates a mess for recreation clubs, which used to buy annual passes for the club and share them for carpooling to the park.  Now that can't be done unless the club knows the same vehicles will be driven on each trip.  So it will be necessary to poll everyone at the start of the trip to find out who has a pass, who must drive their car in order to use it.  Otherwise each car will need to be sure there's $10 available to buy a day pass at the park.  

Why does all of this matter to my photography blog?  I can afford the pass, but I am concerned that walling off nature so only the wealthy can afford it is a good way to make it irrelevant to the public.  It sends a message that the parks don't matter, and we can't pay for them as a community resource so we'll just charge the visitors as much as can be gotten away with.  Once the public gets used to life without parks, why have any land set aside at all?  If I had my way, parks would be free to the public and paid for by taxes on polluters and developers.  After all, people who impact nature should be asked to give something back.  Given Washington's rubber-stamping of wind power projects without considering their impact, I'm not surprised to see them doing something as stupid as making a family pay $10 to visit a park to have a picnic.  

Washington's policy of discouraging visitors is working.  On March 24, a sunny Saturday, I drove by Rowland Lake park near Lyle and it was completely deserted at noon.  So even the well-to-do are choosing to stay away.  I've always seen lots of people at the lake when the weather is nice on a weekend.  Nearby trailheads for Catherine Creek and Coyote Wall were filled to overflowing with parked cars.  These are Forest Service sites and don't have any fees.  

Another way to look at the problem is to ask how much it would take to pay for Washington's state parks through the gasoline tax.  Washington used approximately 3.2 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel combined in 2010(1), and the state parks annual budget is approximately $74 million (2).  If a gas/diesel tax were implemented of 2.2 cents per gallon, it would completely pay for the state parks budget.  I'm not saying this is the best way to pay for parks, but a balanced funding approach that drew money from several sources such as gasoline, other pollutant taxes, land development, and the sales tax could easily pay for parks.  A small user fee for park use could reduce the amount from other taxes, of course.  Oregon's approach is much more sensible and funds parks partially through the state lottery, which is a voluntary choice on the part of those providing the money.  Oregon's annual passes are not registered to a vehicle plate.  

Wake up Washington, nature is important.  

 

Wind Turbines Blow Away Gorge Views

Entry 4:  July 2, 2011 (updated January 11, 2013)

March 5, 2011 update:  Governor Gregoire has approved the Whistling Ridge project.  Unfortunately, she will be remembered as the governor who trashed the Gorge by allowing wind power development just outside its boundary, opening more land to this kind of destruction.  Donate to Friends of the Columbia Gorge if you are in favor of challenging the decision in the courts. 

In view of the monumental damage this decision will cause to the region's scenery by opening up wind power development to all comers, I think it's time to rename Whistling Ridge to Gregoire Ridge:  

Gregoire Ridge:  Decidedly unscenic for the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area
Gregoire Ridge: Decidedly unscenic for the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area

Image credits:  
Photo by Karen Chandler
Simulation of turbines by 
GeoDataScape, Inc.
Note:  This is a simulated image,
not a real one.  The turbines shown
have been approved but not built
yet.  

Back to the main topic:  

For decades Washington's Dog Mountain has been one of the most popular trails for hikers to take in spectacular views of wildflowers and to enjoy expansive horizons that encompass the entire length of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. I've taken those views for granted, assuming they were protected.

In the spring of 2011, I got a rude awakening. On a clear day I noticed that wind turbines in both Oregon and Washington are now visible in the east from the Puppy Mountain overlook just below the summit. Oregon's turbines are located in the Biglow Canyon area, and those in Washington, just outside the photo on the left side, are from the Windy Flats project south of Goldendale. I didn't believe it was possible for wind turbine farms to desecrate views in the central gorge. It shows how impacts can sneak up on us without warning or a fair public approval process.

What Can I Do?

Click here to view contact information to comment on wind power impacts in the Columbia Gorge.  


Dog Mountain Viewpoint (left) and Biglow Canyon Wind Turbines (right, 10x zoom)

Another shoe is about to drop. Whistling Ridge (see map below) is a proposed project that's only five and a half miles from this viewpoint. While the turbines off to the east are small enough to miss on a cloudy day, the fifty turbines on Whistling Ridge will be close enough to be a real eyesore. They will be visible from Mitchell Point, Nestor Peak, the Columbia Gorge Hotel, portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway, Cathedral Ridge Winery, and many other sites where scenic interest is paramount.


Windy Flats Turbines Viewed from Dog Mountain

It's too late to fix the Biglow and Windy Flats projects. But there is time for the Columbia Gorge Commission to oppose Whistling Ridge and the continuing assault on the view. Whistling Ridge isn't inside the Scenic Area boundary, but the Gorge Commission has every right to comment on it and their silence is telling. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Scenic Area Act, we need to remember how important it is to be ever vigilant of new development threats. The Act was visionary when it was written, but could not anticipate new impacts that rapid changes in society and technology are creating. Now when we need it most, the system set up to protect Gorge views is failing us.

The Act contains a critical flaw. It does not specify buffer zones around the Scenic Area. We now see why that's wrong. Cities and counties can establish buffers, but we must move quickly before more projects are built. Three more are proposed in the sightline between Dog Mountain and Biglow Canyon.


Golden Hills II/III and Nook Wind Projects in Dog Mountain Sightline
(red "x" indicates proposed project, green circle is an installed one)
Source:  BPA Wind Map

The big issue with not having buffer zones is the sheer size of the turbines.  Whistling Ridge, as seen in the map above, is just outside the Scenic Area boundary at one of its narrowest places and only 2-1/2 miles from the Columbia River.  The turbines that would be located there are nearly twice the length of a 747 jumbo jet, and one-seventh the height of Dog Mountain itself:  

Wind turbine height comparison chart
Wind Turbine Height Comparison

While these turbines would be illegal within the boundary, the Act as written allows them to be built a stone's throw away from it and at that close a distance to the Gorge they would be disastrous for recreation, tourism, and wildlife, some of the major reasons an estimated 8 million people visit the area each year to pump money into the local economy.  

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Map
Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area Map (boundary in blue) showing Whistling Ridge Site
High-quality downloadable map PDF Link

The Commission needs to require state energy agencies to include the entire Gorge Scenic Area in the scenic impact simulation mapping that's part of the approval process. Today simulations are only done within a fixed distance from a turbine project, yet we are finding that impacts to the view, as in Dog Mountain's case, are happening far beyond the radius required in the public comment process. View simulations produce computer-generated maps that show the number of turbines visible at any geographic location. The environmental impact statement (Appendix B, page 18) for the Biglow Canyon/Klondike III project stated that view impacts in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area were "low to none." Clearly this was a gross understatement of the truth.

Unanticipated impacts to views in the Gorge from wind energy are out of control. There should never be surprises, such as Dog Mountain. Until we have a functioning regulatory system, we need to go slow on further development and get government officials and the public talking about ways to fix the problem before any new projects are built. With the Bonneville Power Administration already limiting wind generation during spring snowmelt to save salmon, we could put tax incentive dollars to better use through energy conservation programs and urban rooftop solar. These alternatives don't destroy pristine vistas and broaden our generation base beyond wind. The reason we haven't gone in this direction is that big investors are behind the wind industry and it's very profitable to ship the energy out of state. Those investors have the ear of our legislators in Oregon and Washington. Energy from urban solar and conservation primarily goes to the local market. It may not line investors' pockets and provide funding for political campaigns, but it does create jobs that are hard to export and reduces carbon emissions.

As wind power grows, local citizens need to think hard about who will pay for the infrastructure needed to manage wind energy on the grid and export it out of the region. It will likely be the ratepayers. It's a bad deal for all of us to lose the views we cherish while others benefit who don't care about what we're losing. That's poor policy, and it doesn't share the burden of cost fairly with those who are creating the electrical demand.

I think the best solution is to amend the Scenic Area Act to include buffer zones around the area that allow regulation of visual impacts, noise, and pollution coming from outside the area that affect it.  Failing that, we need a process that allows the public to regulate new forms of impact that were not envisioned when the Act was created. A gridlocked Congress is unable to respond to fast-moving changes in the local environment. The Gorge Commission is stacked with members who favor development over conservation, and lack the vision and prescience needed to anticipate the unforeseen. This is the wisdom we've learned from the past 25 years of the Scenic Area Act. If we can't amend the Act, I call for the Gorge Commission to set up a local framework that could help with these decisions and gives conservation a voice in decision making. In my dreams, I see that future authority negotiating to relocate the 66 turbines in Oregon and Washington that are visible from Dog Mountain so that once again, we have a view we can be proud of.

More about my position on wind energy:  

The Oregonian op-ed article is stimulating a lot of comment on wind energy, and due to the paper's 500-word limit I could not state my position on it.  I think that wind energy is a useful way to reduce carbon emissions and I'm in favor of wind energy projects when they are properly located to minimize environmental impacts, including harm to wildlife such as birds and bats, noise, and visual disruption of scenery.  Regarding the Columbia Gorge, they should not be located anywhere that they would disrupt the view from key viewing areas notable for the area's scenic resources and tourism potential.  The region's tourism economy depends on preserving scenic views.  

 
Video of vulture dying in turbine strike (courtesy American Bird Conservancy)
Link to their petition.
More comprehensive video from KQED about bird deaths in the Altamont Pass

The Whistling Ridge site is very close to the White Salmon river.  Later in 2011, the Condit Dam will be removed and will open that river to salmon.  Along with the salmon will come bald eagles, and they will be endangered by the turbines while soaring to search for fish.  This site has many unfortunate parallels to California's Altamont Pass, where 1300 raptors are killed each year from turbine strikes.  Lewis' Woodpecker also lives in the forest at this site and unlike most woodpeckers feeds on airborne insects.  It flies within the rotor sweep area of the turbines while seeking insects and is a candidate for endangered-species listing by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  

It is now (January 2013) well documented that bats die from wind turbines.  While we don't know all the reasons they seem to be attracted to turbines, it is known that at one wind farm on the east coast of the US, an estimated 2,000 bats were killed in six weeks.  (Horn et al. 2008 Journal of Wildlife Management 72:1 123-132. based on data from p. 129) That means wind energy is far from "green."   

The Oregon Field Guide segment below describes bat deaths from wind power and has some chilling infrared night video showing how bats seem to be drawn to the turbine blades:  

Link to:  OPB segment "Wind and Bats" opens in new window

Projects such as Whistling Ridge are tests by business interests to see if they can get a project built just outside the scenic area boundary.  If approved, more will follow because the Gorge is a windy place.  But there are lots of windy places all over Oregon and Washington, and we need to decide which ones are appropriate for wind power development, and which ones should be protected to preserve the scenery.  In reality, the part of the landscape that needs protection is very small compared to the total acreage available for wind development in our region.  Keeping wind farms out of that area would not harm generation potential in any measurable way.  And yes, I believe there are many other ways to reduce our energy needs besides building turbines.  Conservation, efficiency, better public policy such as building codes that maximize roof orientation for solar panels, reducing population growth, and limits on exporting power outside the region are all things we need to investigate.  

One change I'm particularly in favor of is to create incentives to allow the many acres of unused rooftops on warehouses, schools, and other buildings to be used for solar power generation.  Today, many of these buildings are leased by their tenants and there is no incentive for the landowner to install solar power because the tenant is paying the utility bills.  That situation needs to change.  A locally owned public utility could install and maintain equipment in these locations and pay the landowner a fee for the power that's generated.  I think that would be a far better use of government dollars than the current system of tax incentives that reward exporting power out of state while destroying our views. 

The public tends to think that wind power is "green" and has no environmental impact.  While it's cleaner than some forms of power generation, this belief is mistaken.  Wind power has a number of problems.  First, it's a distributed generation source.  Turbine installations are spread over many thousands of acres, unlike conventional power plants which take up much less land.  Coal and natural gas plants do pollute, but pollution controls are easier to implement because there is only one emissions location to treat.  With wind power, there are feeder roads for maintenance that impact wildlife habitat and use oil to build and maintain.  High-tension lines are needed to collect and distribute power.  Second, when these lines stretch to remote states to supply export markets, hundreds of miles of right-of-way must be kept clear and that requires removing vegetation, often with the use of herbicides.  Power-line corridors disrupt wildlife and create pathways for invasive species to thrive.  In the Northwest, these corridors are full of Scotch Broom, Himalayan Blackberry, and other non-native species that are resistant to herbicides.  Third, there is the impact on scenic views already mentioned.  It's one thing to have a power plant on a few acres that mars the view in a small area.  It is quite another to have turbines spread across miles of countryside.  Fourth, there are well-documented impacts to birds and bats.  Fifth, turbines must be lit at night for aviation safety and the lighting can disrupt nocturnal animals and migrating birds, besides being an eyesore.  Effects on humans and animals due to turbine noise are being investigated, but it is too early to find conclusive evidence confirming or denying effects other than complaints from people living near turbines where it's obvious the noise will be annoying.  

Wind power at its heart is no different from any other form of generation.  It has impacts that need to be measured and controlled, and locations must be chosen carefully to manage those impacts.  

A number of people have commented that private landowners have a right to do what they want with their property.  That's a simplistic argument since property rights play a lesser role in decisions to build.  It's taxpayer dollars that are providing the subsidy to build these projects.  If public funding is helping to build wind farms, the public has a right to decide how and where those dollars get spent.  

 

Making Conservation Dollars Work:  
Why I left The Sierra Club after 28 years

Entry 3:  January 14, 2011

In my last posting I said I'd be writing about some major changes in my conservation giving.  Recently I sent a letter to the president of the Sierra Club informing him that I am ending 28 years of contributions to his organization.  The text of the letter is reproduced below.  It stands on its own to explain my reasons for leaving, but I also want to briefly summarize my thinking.  I also sent another letter to a local mountaineering organization resigning my membership for similar reasons.  

When I take hard-earned money and give it to a conservation group, I'm doing it for several reasons.  I want to multiply my voice by acting in concert with others who share my views.  I'm trusting the group to do good things with my funds.  I value the group's expertise in making good decisions and prioritizing how much effort is spent on each one.  Finally, I expect their efforts to have some tangible benefit in my own life and the enjoyment of nature I value so highly.  What I hope is that everyone reading this thinks carefully about what their reasons are for donating, and holds organizations accountable for acting responsibly with their money.  

In the Sierra Club's case, in 2008 the organization had $87 million in income according to the BBB's Wise Giving Report.  When I look at how much money the Sierra Club is spending on its programs and the lack of scientific, fact-based reasoning behind their initiatives, I now realize that it's an incredible waste of the public's conservation dollars.  The club has become so politically charged in their communications that it's no longer an environmental group, it's a political one.  Much more good could be done if the money were spent more efficiently and in results-oriented ways.  

After I wrote my letter, I found that the club wrote an article saying that Australia "appears to be reaping the climate chaos it has sown" in response to recent flooding in Queensland and drought across the country.  Irresponsible statements such as this are not the way I want my money being spent, especially when so many have died in this catastrophe.  While Australia bears some responsibility for climate change, any blame for the disaster has to lie proportionately with those doing the most polluting, and that would be China (#1) and the USA (#2);  Australia ranks 16th in the global tally of carbon emissions.  Clear thinking is a requirement for any organization deserving my contribution.  We all need to work together to tackle climate change, and the Sierra Club is fond of pointing fingers rather than encouraging cooperation.  

The money that went to those organizations is now going to Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Amphibian Ark, and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand.  

Before joining any organization, check out its record with the BBB or Charity Navigator.  Look at their website and publications and be certain your money will work hard for the environment.  Reevaluate how they are doing every year, and don't be afraid to speak out when they're not meeting your requirements.  

Update:  As of April 5, 2011 Mr. Brune has not responded to my letter.  I don't expect he will.  

Now for my letter:  

Michael Brune 
The Sierra Club 
85 Second Street, 2nd Floor 
San Francisco, CA 94105

Dear Director Brune:

I'm 51 and have belonged to the Sierra Club since I was 22. Over that time I've given thousands of dollars to the club. This year, I'm ending my membership. It wasn't an easy decision, but I felt that given the amount I've contributed and the time I've been a member you deserved to hear about the reasons I've grown disappointed enough with the club's direction to leave it.

It would be wrong to look at my decision as rooted in the adage that people grow more conservative as they age. If anything, I have become more of an environmentalist as I've grown older. What has changed about me is that I've become a lot savvier about how to advocate for change, and the club hasn't kept pace, despite being a much older organization than I am. I'm going to take my money and put it where it can do the most good for the environment, and that's not with the Sierra Club.

When I joined the club, I did it to add my voice to a larger one advocating for protection of the wilderness and a healthy environment, much as John Muir wrote. What I found happened in the intervening years is that the club has taken my money and devoted much of it to things that have little or no bearing on those core principles. It makes sweeping statements that have no basis in fact as if they are Gospel. The club's website proudly claims that John Muir appears on the back of the California quarter. How can that possibly mean anything tangible about the club's integrity or effectiveness in modern times? It's not an award from impartial judges, and Muir isn't alive to comment.

I've watched as the club has grown much larger and its staff have become incestuous, taking on a purpose of their own that feeds on their own thinking, rather than listening to member concerns and ensuring that larger goals align with those concerns while staying true to core principles. Organizations can multiply the power of their members, but at other times they give into the temptation to create new initiatives that members didn't want or need. As an example, the Sierra Club sent me an email today about how to choose toothpaste with the smallest carbon footprint. What a waste of my membership dollars that was. My choice of toothpaste isn't your business; it's between my dentist and me. Fire the staffer who's writing about green toothpaste choices and use the person's salary to hire a conservation lobbyist or do television advertising; that's what the Sierra Club should be doing for its members.

Branching out into areas that aren't key to the club's core principles reduces the power you can wield through staying focused and putting more dollars to work where they can do the most good. Every dollar you receive should go to influencing the public or government officials, or to programs that actually clean up the environment or preserve natural areas. There is a huge expense going toward sending information back to members that we really don't care about. I want my dollars directed toward changing government policy and educating the public who thinks we are a bunch of granola-heads, not going to messages to membership on how to be green to the point where one can't live a moment without guilt about our choices. Your goals will be achieved only when the public sees that the club is looking out for their welfare and therefore responds with support. Today, the club is making enemies from people who could be your best supporters.

Let me give you an example of an outstanding organization I belong to that has its priorities straight and is making a real difference. It's the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand (http://www.forestandbird.org.nz/). I found out about it on a trip I took to New Zealand a few years ago, and joined immediately. They have a tough job, but they are amazingly effective in protecting biodiversity, gaining public support, and implementing programs that make a difference on the ground rather than waste dollars to fuel useless political infighting. This year I took the money I was going to send to the Sierra Club and sent it to them. Some great domestic organizations are The Nature Conservancy, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Beyond Pesticides, and Amphibian Ark. They also deserve my money because it goes to work with an efficiency that the Sierra Club can only dream about.

Another big concern of mine is the club's lack of attention to complexity when it communicates to the public and decision makers about environmental issues. Two major initiatives come to mind that illustrate this problem. One is the "Beyond Oil" campaign. The second one is the club's emphasis on wind power as a green power solution. On both of these topics the club has fallen into the trap of becoming a polar opposite of the conservative community, and articulating a solution that grates on the public as being environmentally extreme.

What I expect to see from the club in response to disasters such as the BP oil spill is a program of practical, realistic ideas to reduce our dependence on oil, not the idea that we can totally eliminate its use. There is no way we can do that any time soon given the number of automobiles, buses, and trucks in service worldwide. We won't move this concept from a dream to reality without solving many technical and political problems. Americans simply won't accept the sacrifices that would come with eliminating petroleum use in 20 years. That's a given. What the public needs to see from the club is ideas that will reduce oil use without creating excessive inconvenience for the public or business, along with increased funding for research into the most important advances we need to get there, including biofuels and large-scale energy storage to smooth out the intermittent power from wind and solar energy.

Automobile use can be made much more efficient by batching up small errands into a larger trip, and by installing equipment that monitors traffic on roads and links to navigation systems in cars to show the fastest route to a destination that's updated in real time. That use of technology isn't even on the radar in the club's thinking. People need to drive; what the club can do is show them ways to do it smartly so we accomplish what we need and gain something useful such as more time by being more efficient, instead of the philosophy that the only way to reduce oil use is to make driving inconvenient, more expensive, and hit people in the pocketbook (not a great way to curry favor with the public.) A traffic-monitoring network would create jobs nationwide as well as provide great benefits for everyone in terms of saving valuable time.

The club pushes bicycling as a significant way to reduce energy use but again the idea lacks practicality. Biking sounds great until you're seriously injured from an accident. It's not wise to bike in bad weather or at night, and bikes don't work well for people who must travel long distances, take along the family, or need to haul large items. Try asking someone who lives in rural Kansas to take a bike to Home Depot to buy lumber. When the club's ideas draw laughter from anyone with common sense, you know they are in need of revision. Cycling has a high priority in the club because many of the staff are young people living the myth of immortality who haven't had enough time on the road to see how dangerous cycling actually is, especially in urban areas. They also don't have families and don't understand why the public finds cars to be a much more practical way to meet their needs. Don't get me wrong; I think cycling is great exercise and fun if done on safe streets, but it's not a solution that will get us off of oil. It's a misguided and confusing message that needs to stop. This example shows that there is a demographic mismatch between those who make up the club's staff and the public they're trying to influence. True progress is only possible when the club makes an effort to understand their audience.

The club has fallen in love with wind power as a solution to our energy needs but hasn't come to grips yet with its drawbacks. Wind turbines as designed today kill birds and bats, are an eyesore, and have many deleterious effects on humans as well as animals due to the noise and pressure fluctuations that happen near them. They require construction of many miles of high-voltage power lines and often the power from installations is sold to distant regions while local people must deal with the negative impacts. Faraway corporations make the profit from the wind farms and very little money stays in the local community. It may be possible to solve these problems, but the jury's still out and the club shouldn't be promoting them as a panacea unless it's also strongly advocating for policies that solve the drawbacks of wind power.

The club has also lost its impartiality and hasn't been critical enough of the Obama administration in a number of areas. Since most club staffers and most members are Democrats, there is a culture that emphasizes partisanship over impartial advocacy for the environment regardless of the party in power in Washington. The club should be very vocal when it comes to the administration's cover-ups about the BP oil spill, denying scientists access to the site who have valid reasons to gather data about the spill's impact. It should also be quite critical of the administration's refusal to list endangered species such as the sage grouse simply because there is insufficient funding. The ESA doesn't give government the right to choose which species are endangered based on funding. If populations are low and habitats are threatened, the species deserves to be listed. The club needs to put partisanship aside and set an example for the public that the environment is what counts first and foremost, not the party affiliation of people in it. Again, you send a confused and hypocritical message to the public when it's wrong for Republicans to spoil the environment, but Democrats get a pass because they're the lesser of two evils.

The club relies too heavily on ideology in place of science to guide its decisions and initiatives. In the area of climate change a cap-and-trade system is a great idea, but implementing it or a carbon tax or expecting nations to agree on binding international treaties is not likely to happen in the next 20 years, especially with the new Congress. Given this reality we need practical approaches that don't require federal legislation to succeed. There are many other ways to achieve reduced emissions that are not as politically volatile as the club's approach. One area where the club could make dramatic progress is in championing the idea of installing solar power generation on rooftops, especially in places where current policy limits financial feasibility. If policy changed, significant generation capacity could open up that would not have the environmental impacts that wind farms do.

For instance, schools, warehouses, and health clubs have large roof areas, but schools are closed in the best months for solar power and warehouses and health clubs are typically in leased buildings, where the landowner has no incentive to install solar generation because the tenant is paying the power bills. If a public utility were to install, own, and maintain the equipment, these places could be immediately put to use in generating power. Solutions such as this are how we will make progress on reducing carbon emissions, not by putting a tax on carbon. Expecting Congress to solve our environmental problems is not only unlikely, it's a waste of good money to even try. It's better to work at a local level where pilot programs are easier to create and once they succeed are likely to spread nationwide.

Along similar lines, while the club has emphasized national campaigns such as "Beyond Oil," and branched out into unnecessary areas such as toothpaste choices, it has in the process lost touch with important local issues. Two examples come from the Portland, Oregon area where I live. In our region we have a large off-reservation casino proposal in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. This casino would destroy scenic views from roads and trails, contribute to global warming through lengthy vehicle trips from the city of Portland where most patrons live, harm salmon and plant habitat, create traffic congestion and light pollution at night, and increase the fire danger in nearby wilderness. When I contacted the local chapter about opposing this project, they didn't even respond to my email. After that incident I had to seriously question why I belonged to an organization that didn't do anything substantive to oppose a project with this kind of environmental impact.

Another time, I learned that Oregon has a hunting season for the sage grouse where on average 900 birds are killed annually. When the Obama administration refused to list this bird as an endangered species purely because it didn't have the money in the budget to handle the cost of doing so, I contacted the local chapter and asked them to cry foul. They refused to do anything about it even though there were opportunities to get press articles published and influence our governor and legislators. The reason given was that the club had important initiatives in the early stages at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and they didn't want to do anything that would "piss off" the people there and possibly endanger the success of those projects. Now why would I want to give money to a club that purports to be an advocate for conservation but won't even go to bat for a species that is endangered and has a legal hunting season in place, just to save face with a few state officials? Mr. Brune, where are your principles when they are needed to protect these helpless birds?

When I look at the largest impact the environment has had on me and my family, it is in the area of disease. Parkinson's disease and two kinds of cancer have touched us. There is growing evidence that chemical contamination plays a role in these diseases. Look at your web site; toxics reduction is buried in the "more programs" section while Beyond Coal and Clean Energy get top billing. The club's priorities place toxics much lower than global warming and oil dependence, and it's a major reason why my money is better spent elsewhere. It's not that I don't care about those causes or think them unimportant, but I know that making progress on controlling dangerous chemicals in food, air, and water is something we can achieve far more easily than reductions in carbon emissions and petroleum use. Rather than making noise for its own sake, the club needs to do a better job understanding the cost/benefit relationships for environmental initiatives and put the money where it's going to accomplish the most change. The public is far more willing to support initiatives that improve health than it is to give up their cars, pay more for electricity or fuel, or make time-consuming changes to live a zero-waste lifestyle. I expect the club to have a full-court press on requiring disclosure and regulation of toxic chemicals in consumer products, and to rally the public to the cause long before it tries to address ending our use of petroleum. The priorities here are completely reversed.

This is a lot to say, but it needs to be said. I hope someday that I'll be able to rejoin the Sierra Club because it's become a more effective force in putting conservation dollars to work. I'll be watching to see what happens.

Sincerely, 

Chris Carvalho

 

In Business For The Wilderness

Entry 2:  July 27, 2010

In the 1980's I took a trip to the Rogue River to get acquainted with Oregon after moving here in 1981.  I took some day hikes, and did some fishing and car camping.  One afternoon I gave myself a nasty cut on the thumb while fishing.  I bandaged it up, but was concerned if I needed medical attention.  At the campground I met a wonderful couple; the husband was retired from the Forest Service and the wife was a nurse.  She looked at the cut and said it would be OK.  Later that evening we had a conversation that to this day shapes my life.  

The talk turned to protecting the outdoors and the retired ranger told me, "In my history with the Forest Service I've seen that corporations view the wilderness as a resource to be exploited for profit.  They realize that there is a cost to secure that profit, so they set aside significant money to aid them in getting the access they need.  It's simply a business expense to them.

"The problem with environmentalists is that they don't see the value in preservation.  They expect the land and the recreational services such as trails and campgrounds to be provided for free.  When you see as I have the amount of money being spent by corporate interests to develop wild places for profit, the environmentalists don't have a chance unless they change their thinking to realize that this is really a game of competing dollars, with the winner spending the most money to influence government.  

"Every time you hike a trail, visit a campground, or drive to a scenic vista, you need to calculate the value of that trip and give that money to an organization you trust that will protect what you enjoyed."

Oregon's Mt. Hood and the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River, McNeil Point Trail
Oregon's Mt. Hood and the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River, McNeil Point Trail.  How much is this view worth to you?  

As soon as I returned from the trip, I joined the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy.  Since that time, I've donated a lot of money to various organizations.  Some have done well with it, others not so well.  I plan to make some major changes in my giving soon and I'll write about that.  I will say for now that The Nature Conservancy is still doing great work and deserves your support.  

In the 20-plus years since that memorable evening, I've been drawn back to the notion that the lack of attention to preserving the natural world comes down to the simple fact that people who enjoy Nature don't put their money or time where it can make a difference.  Every night, thousands of hikers post photographs online in web forums hoping to get a "frequent poster" star rating.  If they took that time and wrote letters to elected officials instead, something truly worthwhile might result.  

We all need to be "In Business For The Wilderness."  Big Oil, Big Energy, Big Mining, and Big Housing all know the value of developing wild lands to their future profits.  The conservation community needs to understand the value those lands have to their own future and the planet's well being, and start paying that value to influence those in power who make the decisions.  

 

The Windmills Are Coming

Entry 1:  June 6, 2010

The Columbia Gorge faces many development threats.  This one wasn't even on the radar screen ten years ago.  But in the past few years as I hike and even drive the roads something is slowly creeping into my conscious perception, bit by bit.  As I drive east starting near Hood River, in the far distance there's now a white jagged appearance to the horizon.  At the top of the McCall Point trail on any clear day the wind turbines are visible.  Eastward from there, on just about any high peak one can see a forest of white pinwheels is growing.  

Stacker Butte Panorama View Wind Turbine Impact --  Chris Carvalho/Lensjoy.com

The shot above was taken from the top of Stacker Butte, also called Columbia Hills State Park.  It is just a small piece of a much larger panorama.  I am providing the full image so you can appreciate the impact.  Remember that it is copyrighted, so any publication or non-educational use must be licensed by contacting me.  To download it, click here.  This is a 1.7 MB file, so it may take some time to load.  The view is toward the east with the farms of the Klickitat River valley in the foreground.  

Once you open it, you will see thousands of turbines.  My camera isn't good enough to show the most distant ones, but if you look closely they extend almost to the left (north) and right (south) edges of the view.  They are getting closer to the edge of the Scenic Area boundary.  In fact, a project called Whistling Ridge is in the approval process right now just north of Hood River on the Washington side of the Gorge, and it will be on the edge of the boundary and visible from Nestor Peak and Mitchell Point.  It is a galling insult to the spirit of the Scenic Area Act to place a wind energy project a stone's throw from the regional boundary and call it compliant with the Act.  

Now I'm a big fan of renewable energy, but something about this march of the turbines reminds me of what happened when The Dalles Dam was built and drowned Celilo Falls.  We didn't appreciate what we lost at the time, and now it's unlikely we'll ever get the falls or the salmon back for decades to come, maybe never.  Early research is documenting how these turbines kill birds and bats (1), and it's obvious what they do to the view.  They also create noise pollution that aggravates nearby residents as well as jams the communication calls birds and other creatures use for breeding, finding food, and predator avoidance.  We've got to stop building them so close to the Scenic Area until we know more about their long-term effects, and also come to an understanding about how much visual impact we should tolerate.  In the meantime, we can look at something proven to meet our growing demand for energy that doesn't have any negative impacts.  It's called conservation.  

Few of us realize the rapid pace of this change.  Soon it won't be possible to go on a hike to a viewpoint anywhere in the eastern end of the Gorge and see a pristine east horizon.  Most of it is already gone.  The view of the horizon was something I took for granted.  Today I realized it's been taken from us and might never come back.  

To comment on the Whistling Ridge wind energy project, go to http://www.efsec.wa.gov/whistling%20ridge.shtml
The project contact person is currently Stephen Posner, his information is located at the very bottom of the page.  

Your comments will likely carry more weight if submitted to the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).  The Washington EFSEC typically defers to the wishes of rural counties, which are hungry for the tax dollars these projects provide.  The counties have a history of ignoring the environmental impact when corporations wave money at their officials.  

Comments to the BPA can be submitted at http://www.bpa.gov/applications/publiccomments/OpenCommentListing.aspx 
Scroll the page down to find the section on the Whistling Ridge Energy Project and click the "Make Comment" button.  

(1) Bernton, Hal. "Scientists study wind-farm risks to birds."   The Seattle Times.  Seattle, 2010.  Web.  6 June 2010  <http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2012048835_windbirds07m.html>.

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