Congress or no Congress, Obama has plenty of room to address climate change.
At the heart of President Obama’s State of the Union address last week was the message that if Congress won’t pass meaningful legislation, he’s prepared to go it alone. On everything from minimum wage to job training to fuel efficiency standards, Obama laid out a plan to use executive orders to achieve his second-term goals.
Naturally, this didn’t make GOP leaders happy; some even threatened to “go to the courts” (whatever that means). But executive orders are nothing new for presidents. In fact, according to a new report by the Center for a New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, there are over 200 actions Obama could legally take to address climate change without Congress, writes Tim McDonnell at Mother Jones.
First on the list for environmental activists is derailing the Keystone XL Pipeline, a move scientists say is essential to avert catastrophic climate change. Since the State Department released its environmental report on Keystone last week (to much frustration from environmentalists), all eyes have been on the president to make a final decision on the project. “Now we’re going to find out whether John Kerry and Barack Obama are ... captives of the oil industry,” says 350.org founder Bill McKibben, “or whether they’re willing to really stand up when it counts for the commitments they’ve made about climate change.”
And why stop there? After killing Keystone, Obama could also dive into the wild west of fracking regulations, says McDonnell. Now, drilling laws are mostly state-level, but feds have the authority to introduce guidelines for fracking on public land. These rules could address everything state lawmakers don’t wanna touch, from methane leaks to finding out just what’s in those mysterious fracking fluids. Obama could also get more specific about how long this “bridge fuel” is supposed to last, writes McDonnell.
That’s not all. The federal government happens to be the nation’s biggest consumer, and Obama has enormous power over what it buys and why. In fact, the president already requires federal agencies to favor energy-efficient products; why not go further? Obama could require agencies to take a product’s carbon footprint into account, or how it’s manufactured. Obama could also double-down on his promise that federal agencies will use 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. Measures like this would help create a larger market for sustainable products, McDonnell adds, bringing everyone’s costs down.
Speaking of renewable markets, the government’s loan guarantee program for clean tech companies happens to be doing great right now. Last year Tesla paid back $450 million in loans a full nine years ahead of schedule. Today the program’s portfolio includes $32 billion in loans, supporting some 55,000 jobs—much of them in solar. Expanding this program could bring low-cost renewable technology to millions more Americans and bring costs down across the board.
Believe it or not, Obama can push every one of these plans without Congress lifting a finger. If the president is serious about fighting climate change, he should start here.
Image by Glyn Lowe, licensed under Creative Commons.
Kalu Yala, the world’s most sustainable town, is a “tropical laboratory” in Panama.
A 7,000-acre valley in the heart of the Panama tropics houses the site of Kalu Yala, a settlement on the verge of becoming the world’s most sustainable and self-reliant modern town. Just an hour from downtown Panama City, Kalu Yala is the product of CEO Jimmy Stice’s ambition to create a community that is involved in its own management. All investors must own property on the settlement, and each shareholder must be dedicated to stewardship, collaboration, and environmental awareness.
In keeping with its goal of sustainability, Kalu Yala will be carbon neutral or carbon negative. The community supports local businesses over global ones and plans to minimize imports through its farm-to-table program, which will supply 80 percent of all food from within Panama. The houses are built with eco-friendly materials and are powered by solar energy. Clean water is collected from a natural aquifer located underneath the site, and rainwater is stored in preparation for dry seasons. "Kalu Yala is really trying to become the hub for sustainability in the tropics and a ‘tropical laboratory’ to experiment and develop products that can be exported to the entire tropical belt,” Stice told Mashable. The company has even started a regional happiness index to determine how Kalu Yala will affect Panama’s wellbeing.
Part of Kalu Yala’s appeal lies in Stice’s transparent and collaborative business model. Since buying the 575 acres of land from a Panama family in 2007, he and his team have been working closely with local villages. In 2011, they bought a house in nearby San Miguel so they would be able to interact and form a relationship with the villagers who will become Kalu Yala’s neighbors. Along with development company Studio Sky, Stice has been working with a group of interns from over 44 states. Kalu Yala prides itself on its internship program, claiming to be more than the “traditional study abroad [program].” The interns, who can participate in a variety of programs including Agriculture, Biology, Architecture, and Education, are integral to the development of Kalu Yala. Students have done research on environmental challenges, pitched projects, and built infrastructure to contribute to Kalu Yala’s expansion.
Although the town is currently under construction, Stice hopes to make Kalu Yala a 21st century model of sustainability and social entrepreneurship within thirty years. Studio Sky will begin building the first house in May, with a projected completion date of November. Stice plans to adjust development as necessary, selling only twenty houses per year to monitor the impact of the growth. He hopes that Kalu Yala will provide an open-source design that can improve the situations of impoverished regions across the tropics and inspire the development of sustainable models from urban developers around the world.
Photo by Kalu Yala.
The world’s first vertical forest paves the way for advances in urban ecology.
As Earth’s population rapidly moves past sustainable levels, the need for groundbreaking advances in the reduction of C02 emissions has become increasingly apparent. Architect Stefan Boeri with Boeri Studio seeks to reduce pollution in Milan by creating the world’s first bosco verticale, or vertical forest.
Although vertical gardens, which are self-sufficient plots attached to the exterior or interior walls of buildings, have been around for over three decades, Boeri’s design takes the concept to a new level. Inhabit reports that his vertical forest, which consists of two apartment towers standing 260 and 367 feet tall, can accommodate approximately 2.5 acres of vegetation in the form of 20,000 plants, shrubs, perennial flowers, and trees. The trees are being placed on a series of overlapping concrete balconies and will work as a multipurpose filter as they absorb CO2 and dust, produce oxygen, and create a microclimate within the apartments. The buildings implement photovoltaic power to provide energy and a grey-water filtration system to water the plants with used sink and shower water.
The vertical forest is the first of six phases in BioMilano, an ecological vision that is hoping for a revitalized and greener metropolis in Italy. The project brought together a group of architects, engineers, and botanists who collaborated to make the vision a reality. The architects and engineers were responsible for designing terraces that can withstand the heavy weight of the trees, while the botanists carefully selected trees to be pre-cultivated in nurseries for two years. Uprooting and transplanting the trees from the nursery to the balconies is the most difficult step in the process, so these trees were specially chosen and grown to acclimate to their new environment. Once they have been relocated, the trees are held in place with specially designed soil made of organic compounds that keep the roots aerated and allow the trees to grow. When the project is complete, a team of gardeners will perform upkeep on the vegetation three times a year.
The project should be finished by 2015, and architects are hopeful that Milan’s vertical forest will pave the way for further advances in urban ecology. Perhaps this green architecture will be replicated on an international level, becoming a staple in cities across the world. Until then, Boeri says, “I really hope these two buildings can become the landmark of the new Milano.”
Photo by Carlo Alberto Mari.
Long live peak oil!
Among the big energy stories of 2013, “peak oil” -- the once-popular notion that worldwide oil production would soon reach a maximum level and begin an irreversible decline -- was thoroughly discredited. The explosive development of shale oil and other unconventional fuels in the United States helped put it in its grave.
As the year went on, the eulogies came in fast and furious. “Today, it is probably safe to say we have slayed ‘peak oil’ once and for all, thanks to the combination of new shale oil and gas production techniques,” declared Rob Wile, an energy and economics reporter for Business Insider. Similar comments from energy experts were commonplace, prompting an R.I.P. headline at Time.com announcing, “Peak Oil is Dead.”
Not so fast, though. The present round of eulogies brings to mind Mark Twain’s famous line: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Before obits for peak oil theory pile up too high, let's take a careful look at these assertions. Fortunately, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based research arm of the major industrialized powers, recently did just that -- and the results were unexpected. While not exactly reinstalling peak oil on its throne, it did make clear that much of the talk of a perpetual gusher of American shale oil is greatly exaggerated. The exploitation of those shale reserves may delay the onset of peak oil for a year or so, the agency’s experts noted, but the long-term picture “has not changed much with the arrival of [shale oil].”
The IEA’s take on this subject is especially noteworthy because its assertion only a year earlier that the U.S. would overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one oil producer sparked the “peak oil is dead” deluge in the first place. Writing in the 2012 edition of its World Energy Outlook, the agency claimed not only that “the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer” by around 2020, but also that with U.S. shale production and Canadian tar sands coming online, “North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.”
That November 2012 report highlighted the use of advanced production technologies -- notably horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) -- to extract oil and natural gas from once inaccessible rock, especially shale. It also covered the accelerating exploitation of Canada’s bitumen (tar sands or oil sands), another resource previously considered too forbidding to be economical to develop. With the output of these and other “unconventional” fuels set to explode in the years ahead, the report then suggested, the long awaited peak of world oil production could be pushed far into the future.
The release of the 2012 edition of World Energy Outlook triggered a global frenzy of speculative reporting, much of it announcing a new era of American energy abundance. “Saudi America” was the headline over one such hosanna in the Wall Street Journal. Citing the new IEA study, that paper heralded a coming “U.S. energy boom” driven by “technological innovation and risk-taking funded by private capital.” From then on, American energy analysts spoke rapturously of the capabilities of a set of new extractive technologies, especially fracking, to unlock oil and natural gas from hitherto inaccessible shale formations. “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal crowed.
But that was then. The most recent edition of World Energy Outlook, published this past November, was a lot more circumspect. Yes, shale oil, tar sands, and other unconventional fuels will add to global supplies in the years ahead, and, yes, technology will help prolong the life of petroleum. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget that we are also witnessing the wholesale depletion of the world’s existing oil fields and so all these increases in shale output must be balanced against declines in conventional production. Under ideal circumstances -- high levels of investment, continuing technological progress, adequate demand and prices -- it might be possible to avert an imminent peak in worldwide production, but as the latest IEA report makes clear, there is no guarantee whatsoever that this will occur.
Inching Toward the Peak
Before plunging deeper into the IEA’s assessment, let’s take a quick look at peak oil theory itself.
As developed in the 1950s by petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert, peak oil theory holds that any individual oil field (or oil-producing country) will experience a high rate of production growth during initial development, when drills are first inserted into a oil-bearing reservoir. Later, growth will slow, as the most readily accessible resources have been drained and a greater reliance has to be placed on less productive deposits. At this point -- usually when about half the resources in the reservoir (or country) have been extracted -- daily output reaches a maximum, or “peak,” level and then begins to subside. Of course, the field or fields will continue to produce even after peaking, but ever more effort and expense will be required to extract what remains. Eventually, the cost of production will exceed the proceeds from sales, and extraction will be terminated.
For Hubbert and his followers, the rise and decline of oil fields is an inevitable consequence of natural forces: oil exists in pressurized underground reservoirs and so will be forced up to the surface when a drill is inserted into the ground. However, once a significant share of the resources in that reservoir has been extracted, the field’s pressure will drop and artificial means -- water, gas, or chemical insertion -- will be needed to restore pressure and sustain production. Sooner or later, such means become prohibitively expensive.
Peak oil theory also holds that what is true of an individual field or set of fields is true of the world as a whole. Until about 2005, it did indeed appear that the globe was edging ever closer to a peak in daily oil output, as Hubbert’s followers had long predicted. (He died in 1989.) Several recent developments have, however, raised questions about the accuracy of the theory. In particular, major private oil companies have taken to employing advanced technologies to increase the output of the reservoirs under their control, extending the lifetime of existing fields through the use of what’s called “enhanced oil recovery,” or EOR. They’ve also used new methods to exploit fields once considered inaccessible in places like the Arctic and deep oceanic waters, thereby opening up the possibility of a most un-Hubbertian future.
In developing these new technologies, the privately owned “international oil companies” (IOCs) were seeking to overcome their principal handicap: most of the world’s “easy oil” -- the stuff Hubbert focused on that comes gushing out of the ground whenever a drill is inserted -- has already been consumed or is controlled by state-owned “national oil companies” (NOCs), including Saudi Aramco, the National Iranian Oil Company, and the Kuwait National Petroleum Company, among others. According to the IEA, such state companies control about 80% of the world’s known petroleum reserves, leaving relatively little for the IOCs to exploit.
To increase output from the limited reserves still under their control -- mostly located in North America, the Arctic, and adjacent waters -- the private firms have been working hard to develop techniques to exploit “tough oil.” In this, they have largely succeeded: they are now bringing new petroleum streams into the marketplace and, in doing so, have shaken the foundations of peak oil theory.
Those who say that “peak oil is dead” cite just this combination of factors. By extending the lifetime of existing fields through EOR and adding entire new sources of oil, the global supply can be expanded indefinitely. As a result, they claim, the world possesses a “relatively boundless supply” of oil (and natural gas). This, for instance, was the way Barry Smitherman of the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates that state’s oil industry) described the global situation at a recent meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.
In place of peak oil, then, we have a new theory that as yet has no name but might be called techno-dynamism. There is, this theory holds, no physical limit to the global supply of oil so long as the energy industry is prepared to, and allowed to, apply its technological wizardry to the task of finding and producing more of it. Daniel Yergin, author of the industry classics, The Prize and The Quest, is a key proponent of this theory. He recently summed up the situation this way: “Advances in technology take resources that were not physically accessible and turn them into recoverable reserves.” As a result, he added, “estimates of the total global stock of oil keep growing.”
From this perspective, the world supply of petroleum is essentially boundless. In addition to “conventional” oil -- the sort that comes gushing out of the ground -- the IEA identifies six other potential streams of petroleum liquids: natural gas liquids; tar sands and extra-heavy oil; kerogen oil (petroleum solids derived from shale that must be melted to become usable); shale oil; coal-to-liquids (CTL); and gas-to-liquids (GTL). Together, these “unconventional” streams could theoretically add several trillion barrels of potentially recoverable petroleum to the global supply, conceivably extending the Oil Age hundreds of years into the future (and in the process, via climate change, turning the planet into an uninhabitable desert).
But just as peak oil had serious limitations, so, too, does techno-dynamism. At its core is a belief that rising world oil demand will continue to drive the increasingly costly investments in new technologies required to exploit the remaining hard-to-get petroleum resources. As suggested in the 2013 edition of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, however, this belief should be treated with considerable skepticism.
Among the principal challenges to the theory are these:
1. Increasing Technology Costs: While the costs of developing a resource normally decline over time as industry gains experience with the technologies involved, Hubbert's law of depletion doesn’t go away. In other words, oil firms invariably develop the easiest “tough oil” resources first, leaving the toughest (and most costly) for later. For example, the exploitation of Canada’s tar sands began with the strip-mining of deposits close to the surface. Because those are becoming exhausted, however, energy firms are now going after deep-underground reserves using far costlier technologies. Likewise, many of the most abundant shale oil deposits in North Dakota have now been depleted, requiring an increasing pace of drilling to maintain production levels. As a result, the IEA reports, the cost of developing new petroleum resources will continually increase: up to $80 per barrel for oil obtained using advanced EOR techniques, $90 per barrel for tar sands and extra-heavy oil, $100 or more for kerogen and Arctic oil, and $110 for CTL and GTL. The market may not, however, be able to sustain levels this high, putting such investments in doubt.
2. Growing Political and Environmental Risk: By definition, tough oil reserves are located in problematic areas. For example, an estimated 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil lies in the Arctic, along with 30% of its untapped natural gas. The environmental risks associated with their exploitation under the worst of weather conditions imaginable will quickly become more evident -- and so, faced with the rising potential for catastrophic spills in a melting Arctic, expect a commensurate increase in political opposition to such drilling. In fact, a recent increase has sparked protests in both Alaska and Russia, including the much-publicized September 2013 attempt by activists from Greenpeace to scale a Russian offshore oil platform -- an action that led to their seizure and arrest by Russian commandos. Similarly, expanded fracking operations have provoked a steady increase in anti-fracking activism. In response to such protests and other factors, oil firms are being forced to adopt increasingly stringent environmental protections, pumping up the cost of production further.
3. Climate-Related Demand Reduction: The techno-optimist outlook assumes that oil demand will keep rising, prompting investors to provide the added funds needed to develop the technologies required. However, as the effects of rampant climate change accelerate, more and more polities are likely to try to impose curbs of one sort or another on oil consumption, suppressing demand -- and so discouraging investment. This is already happening in the United States, where mandated increases in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards are expected to significantly reduce oil consumption. Future “demand destruction” of this sort is bound to impose a downward pressure on oil prices, diminishing the inclination of investors to finance costly new development projects.
Combine these three factors, and it is possible to conceive of a “technology peak” not unlike the peak in oil output originally envisioned by M. King Hubbert. Such a techno-peak is likely to occur when the “easy” sources of “tough” oil have been depleted, opponents of fracking and other objectionable forms of production have imposed strict (and costly) environmental regulations on drilling operations, and global demand has dropped below a level sufficient to justify investment in costly extractive operations. At that point, global oil production will decline even if supplies are “boundless” and technology is still capable of unlocking more oil every year.
Peak Oil Reconsidered
Peak oil theory, as originally conceived by Hubbert and his followers, was largely governed by natural forces. As we have seen, however, these can be overpowered by the application of increasingly sophisticated technology. Reservoirs of energy once considered inaccessible can be brought into production, and others once deemed exhausted can be returned to production; rather than being finite, the world’s petroleum base now appears virtually inexhaustible.
Does this mean that global oil output will continue rising, year after year, without ever reaching a peak? That appears unlikely. What seems far more probable is that we will see a slow tapering of output over the next decade or two as costs of production rise and climate change -- along with opposition to the path chosen by the energy giants -- gains momentum. Eventually, the forces tending to reduce supply will overpower those favoring higher output, and a peak in production will indeed result, even if not due to natural forces alone.
Such an outcome is, in fact, envisioned in one of three possible energy scenarios the IEA’s mainstream experts lay out in the latest edition of World Energy Outlook. The first assumes no change in government policies over the next 25 years and sees world oil supply rising from 87 to 110 million barrels per day by 2035; the second assumes some effort to curb carbon emissions and so projects output reaching “only” 101 million barrels per day by the end of the survey period.
450 Scenario,” that should raise eyebrows. It assumes that momentum develops for a global drive to keep greenhouse gas emissions below 450 parts per million -- the maximum level at which it might be possible to prevent global average temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (and so cause catastrophic climate effects). As a result, it foresees a peak in global oil output occurring around 2020 at about 91 million barrels per day, with a decline to 78 million barrels by 2035.
It would be premature to suggest that the “450 Scenario” will be the immediate roadmap for humanity, since it’s clear enough that, for the moment, we are on a highway to hell that combines the IEA’s first two scenarios. Bear in mind, moreover, that many scientists believe a global temperature increase of even 2 degrees Celsius would be enough to produce catastrophic climate effects. But as the effects of climate change become more pronounced in our lives, count on one thing: the clamor for government action will grow more intense, and so eventually we’re likely to see some variation of the 450 Scenario take shape. In the process, the world’s demand for oil will be sharply constricted, eliminating the incentive to invest in costly new production schemes.
The bottom line: global peak oil remains in our future, even if not purely for the reasons given by Hubbert and his followers. With the gradual disappearance of “easy” oil, the major private firms are being forced to exploit increasingly tough, hard-to-reach reserves, thereby driving up the cost of production and potentially discouraging new investment at a time when climate change and environmental activism are on the rise.
Peak oil is dead! Long live peak oil!
Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.
Copyright 2014 Michael T. Klare
Image by Eric Kounce.
Planting just 10 to 20 percent of a crop field with patches of prairie can reduce erosion by 95 percent and runoff by 90 percent.
Gary Van Ryswyk's concern for how his farming methods impact the landscape is obvious. A practitioner of a no-till system that avoids disturbing a field's surface as much as possible, he is particularly focused on keeping soil in place.
"None of us who farm want the soil to move—we care," Van Ryswyk told me one summer afternoon while standing in a central Iowa soybean field he no-tills. "I was one of these guys who didn't think we were losing that much soil. I was shocked at how much was being lost."
He was referring to a waist-high pile of eroded real estate next to a collection flume at the bottom of the field. It was a reminder that even a cutting edge conservation system can't always prevent land from slipping away.
On the other hand, the researchers Van Ryswyk works with have been somewhat surprised at the lack of eroded soil being collected by a flume just a few hundred feet away. The soybeans above that particular collector are also being grown under no-till and the field slope is the same. But growing in strategic spots on the second field plot are patches of native prairie.
Van Ryswk is raising crops on the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and the prairie plantings are part of a study coordinated by Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Called STRIPs (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie), the study has produced impressive results: planting just 10 to 20 percent of a crop field to native prairie “strips” (some of the plantings look more like ragged slices of pie) consistently cuts erosion by an astounding 95 percent. The plantings, which have been in place since 2007, can reduce phosphorus and nitrogen runoff by as much as 90 percent.
“It's hard to improve on 95 percent,” Matt Helmers, an ISU engineer and one of the STRIPs coordinators, said to me. It seems the thick stems of prairie plants are effective at slowing water, and anything along for the ride, via a kind of pinball effect. This works particularly well during extreme rain events, which are increasingly common in Midwestern fields.
Tallgrass prairies once covered 10 percent of the contiguous U.S., and its replacement by annual crops is considered the most substantial decline of any major ecosystem in North America. But when environmentalists suggest returning more prairie grasses and other perennials to the landscape, reaction from the agricultural community is often outright hostile. Farmers envision a “Buffalo Commons” scenario where rowcrops are replaced with thousands of square miles of nature preserves—leaving no room for food production or the people involved with it.
What’s so exciting about the STRIPs research is that it proves the value of targeting conservation to critical, relatively small, areas, providing outsized environmental benefits in regions where working farmland is a key part of the economy.
Pauline Drobney, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prairie biologist who is working on the STRIPs initiative, said while patches of prairie are not as optimal as having grasslands extending to the horizon, targeted plantings of natural habitat do provide key ecological services. For example, numerous pollinators and grassland birds use the strips.
"It won't be all of the solution—we still need big blocks of grassland landscape. But these diverse prairies in these strips can providesome of the birds places to fledge; it can be a place for a whole host of invertebrates and other things we know that we depend on," said Drobney while standing in a prairie patch literally abuzz with insect life.
This is no silver bullet. For one thing, the strips keep soil from leaving a field and making its way into waterways, but erosion within fields still occurs.
"We really need a systems approach and think about how we protect that land all the way from the top of that slope to the bottom," said Helmers, adding that a systems approach could include cover cropping and no-till production, with the prairie strips serving as a "polisher."
That's an important message as the STRIPs team takes the next step: getting farmers beyond the refuge to establish prairie within crop fields. One potential barrier to adaption is that, as with many conservation measures, the strips have the potential to produce more benefits off the farm—cleaner water for example—than on. Van Ryswyk argues that even the most conscientious farmers aren't likely to notice the difference on their land given that erosion can creep by unnoticed.
In other words, prairie strips in rowcropped fields are mostly a public good, and getting them established may require public support to prime the pump. A STRIPs economic analysis concluded that while the technique is cost-effective, federal conservation initiatives like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or the Conservation Reserve Program may be needed to provide the financial incentives farmers require to actually implement them. Such incentives could be particularly attractive at a time when cost-conscious conservationists seek techniques that deliver proven results.
Paying for such a public good would help, says Van Ryswyk. But it also wouldn't hurt if more farmers were aware of how much runoff occurs in even well-managed fields. "One of the big barriers is, like me, most farmers truly believe they aren't losing as much soil as they really are."
Brian DeVore works for the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit organization fostering sustainable agriculture since 1982. DeVore writes for and edits the group's publication, The Land Stewardship Letter.
Image by Daniel X. O'Neil, licensed under Creative Commons.
Connecting the dots between wildlife, fertile fields, and the Farm Bill
While walking a piece of North Dakota landscape under a withering August sun, one's thoughts turn to moisture—or rather, the lack of it. So when I and other participants in a farm tour kicked up signs of cool, shady places while traipsing across a hay field, it seemed like a mirage. Green-and-black leopard frogs were zigzagging out of our way, adding life to a field that had not gotten a decent rain in eight weeks. This part of south-central North Dakota is prairie pothole country, but no wetlands were in sight as wheat and corn stretched to the horizon.
"I've never seen so many frogs so far from a slough," said Douglas Miller of the Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service. "What's going on there that would bring them so far from cattails?"
When we reached the edge of the field where the couple who farms this land, Todd McPeak and Penny Meeker, were standing, they made it clear we weren't imagining things. "I hope you didn't step on any of my leopard frogs," Meeker said, smiling. We smiled too, and were especially concerned that we hadn’t hurt any frogs after she related a childhood story of using a stripped horse weed to "whip the crap" out of her brother and a cousin when she caught them shooting birds on their family's dairy farm.
Meeker and McPeak enjoy seeing birds, mammals, and yes, frogs, on the acres they produce grass, hay, cover crops, and beef cattle on. But these critters are also barometers of how the sustainable farming methods the couple use are affecting their business enterprise. As McPeak explains it, more frogs in a field connotes a healthier landscape that retains moisture in the soil more efficiently, which in turn translates into better quality hay and grass that's drought tolerant. That's money in the bank when you're farming in a place that gets only 16 inches of precipitation a year.
Conventional production systems that cover the land with monocultures of corn and soybeans have been a disaster for everything from grassland birds and waterfowl to amphibians and pollinating bees. In Apocalyptic Planet, Craig Childs describes being hard put to find even a couple of spiders and a toad while "camping" in an Iowa cornfield.
But innovators like McPeak and Meeker are proving that productive agriculture and wildlife can occupy the same piece of ground, and in some cases aren't just tolerating each other, but are mutually beneficial. In this case, the farmers are part of the Burleigh County Soil Health Team, a collaboration of farmers, government conservationists and scientists. Using rotational grazing, diverse plantings of cover crops between the regular cash crop seasons, as well as tillage systems that disturb the soil little, this team is building soil's biological health. The result has been less erosion and more farm profitability. It turns out healthy soil is also good for wildlife.
"There is no comparison," said team member Darrell Oswald in reference to how much wildlife is present on his farm since he started building his soil's microbial universe.
An increasing number of environmentalists are seeing that working farmland can be an ecological positive. I've been on farms in northeast Iowa that had, to the delight of an ornithologist with the Audubon Society, developed grazing systems where bobolinks and other troubled grassland species were thriving. Just this summer, I visited a gorgeous stream in southeast Minnesota that was being managed using "flash grazing" of cattle to control invasive plants and establish the kind of deep-rooted grasses that stabilize riparian areas while filtering out contaminants.
"It's a great relationship—livestock and streams," said Jeff Hastings, a Trout Unlimited project manager. On cue, a bluebird swooped over the bubbling waterway while a trout grabbed some air. So much for the old saw that cattle and creeks never, ever are a good mix ecologically.
In 2012 researchers reported that bumblebees, which are key pollinators, preferred visiting cucumbers raised with compost as opposed to those fertilized with petroleum-based fertilizers, even though both soils contained the same amount of basic plant nutrients. The study concluded that non-nutritional factors such as microbial interactions might be making the composted cucumbers more bee-friendly.
Wildlife friendly farming practices are not the norm, and producers who strive to diversify their landscape—above and below the surface—don't get much support from the market or public policy. On the latter front, one bright spot has been the Conservation Stewardship Program, a federal initiative that rewards farmers for producing environmental benefits on working farmland. It has been extremely popular in states like Iowa and Minnesota the past few years. But as Congress begins finalizing a new five-year Farm Bill this fall, the program faces significant budget cuts: 21 percent and 14 percent in the House and Senate respectively.
If these cuts go though, it will be a shame. They would come at a time when innovative farmers are linking healthy soil, healthy land and healthy bottom lines, and CSP adds that extra nudge their neighbors need to make key agro-ecological transitions. Too bad Congress can’t connect the dots as well as Todd McPeak does.
"From bees to badgers to beef, I see it all working together," he said as herds of frogs swarmed across his land.
Brian DeVore works for the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit organization fostering sustainable agriculture since 1982. DeVore writes for and edits the group's publication, The Land Stewardship Letter.
Image: Leopard frog by ImagesBYap, licensed under Creative Commons.
Why go hawkwatching? The most dedicated will try to tell you why they sweat through summer and brave the numbing winds of winter after often distant glimpses of migrating birds, but the explanations always seem perfunctory, rote, telling not the whole tale.
First published in the September 2006 issue of Virginia Wildlife magazine.
“I've got a bird coming in just above the ridge," says the Counter, binoculars held tight to her face, and in unison twenty magnified human eyeballs swing northward. From over the flame-colored crest of Afton Mountain in mid-November I see the silhouette of a hawk flapping and coasting across the glaring afternoon sky, slowly, or so it seems at this distance, heading in our direction.
Against the blinding blue the distant hawk is no more than an anonymous winged shadow, still too far off to distinguish features or colors. There are 922 avian species documented as occurring in North America but only fourteen raptors (birds of prey) typically encountered here on the back porch of the Inn at Afton, high above Rockfish Gap in Nelson County, Virginia.
This helps narrow things down a bit, but then comes the hard part. To the uninitiated, soaring hawks can look much the same, but the experts gathered here today have already trimmed the list down to only two possible contenders based simply on style of flight and a vague outline.
Hawkwatching like other forms of birding is largely a process of elimination, a mental stripping away of potentials based on shape, flight pattern, location and time of year until the viewer is left with only a single, or at most a few, possible candidates. It takes hours of field practice to quickly determine a migrating hawk’s identity, but when the recognition is made we become privy to the hawk’s probable life history, because in correctly identifying a particular animal we assign to it a conjectured background based upon what science has revealed about the species in general.
Thus while one hawk's personal history is as unique and varied as one person's from another’s, by learning how a hawk fits into its native ecosystem—its behavior, habitat and geographic range—we read into every observation an arbitrary but likely chronicle that makes each sighting much more than just another bird seen through binoculars.
Our hawk seems to struggle through the air as it advances: flap flap flap … glide … flap flap flap … glide. As it comes nearer, the veteran hawkwatchers note the elongated tail, the relatively short, almost rounded wings, and the "shoulders" pulled up nearly even with the tip of the bill. Even for beginners the bird's laborious flight behavior has already identified it as belonging to the genus Accipiter, one of five genera of diurnal raptor (not including turkey and black vultures, species more closely related to storks than hawks) that are annually funneled through Rockfish Gap on their great autumnal migration.
Accipiters are forest dwellers, hunting birds and small mammals by ambush and a lightning pursuit through branches and brush. The short, broad wings are ideal for sudden changes of direction and brief, powered charges while the long tail acts as a rudder and stabilizer, allowing these hawks to snake through tangled undergrowth with single-minded relentlessness.
As there are only three species of accipiter in occurring in the US, the bird we've been watching can only be a goshawk, Cooper's hawk or sharp-shinned hawk. Goshawks are big hawks, nearly the size of redtails, and hunt snowshoe hare, grouse and ptarmigan in the northern forests. They are extremely rare vagrants through Rockfish Gap.
Cooper's hawks are crow-sized bird and squirrel killers, and like the smaller sharp-shinned hawk the adults are slate blue above and peppered with rusty-red scales on a soft white breast; in juvenile birds of both species the breast is marked with thick chocolaty stripes. Cooper’s hawks are fairly common migrants in October and early November.
The jay-sized sharp-shinned hawk looks much like the Cooper's, and only close and learned observation can discern the square-tipped tail and forward-swept shoulders of the sharpie. To further complicate identification accipiters are sexually dimorphous, the male sometimes being a third smaller than the female. Differentiating a male Cooper's from a female sharp-shinned at 2,500 feet can stymie even the most experienced observers, which is why "Unidentified Accipiter" is a valid choice on the Counter's daily tally sheet.
The bird in my lenses has the sharp angular tail of Accipiter striatus, the sharp-shinned hawk, and as I watch it grows larger and larger until suddenly it is among us, skimming less than 50 feet above our heads in its determined race to the south. The crowd gasps and grins as the close range allows us to greedily take in details: straight barred tail alternating blue and black and terminating in a band of brilliant white; creamy breast densely speckled with orange; inky cap hooding bright and unforgiving red eyes. Grim determination is what is primarily evoked as the hawk cocks its head to give his audience an ephemeral glance before rushing by us and forever out of sight.
Birds of prey are not generally known for having much sense of humor … unlike, say, crows, though I have seen red-tailed hawks and ravens playing at aerial tag. But accipiters seem to me the most deadly earnest of all birds of prey, utterly focused on the hunt and so entirely creatures of their marvelous reflexes that any close association, even over the long term, can be dangerous. I once knew a falconer who said that while goshawks, especially juveniles, were sometimes capable of being semi-tamed enough to keep their killing fury turned toward targeted game instead of their handlers, sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks, caught wild, were ordinarily beyond even rudimentary domestication, their hair-trigger instincts and electric nerve endings posing a constant danger the falconer's hands, face and eyes.
It looks to be a lot of work to be an accipiter. Built for brief, high-speed pursuits between tree trunks and through bushes, the sharp-shinned hawk and its kin appear ill suited to the high-altitude strains of migration. Better adapted are the members of genus Buteo, the long-winged, short-tailed wind masters whose expertise at finding and riding thermals is rivaled only by the eagles. As our sharpie disappears over the hotel roof someone has spotted another bird climbing over the ridge. "Buteo," intones the Counter, having observed the capacious wings spread at full soar as the bird rides the warm air rising over the mountainside in slowly ascending spirals, thick primary feathers rigidly extended like the fingers of a jazz pianist. We begin to mentally tick off the possibilities as the hawk swings nearer.
At the invisible peak of its spiraling tower of air the buteo banks, pulls its wings in slightly and, joined now by a couple of turkey vultures with raw red heads and gleaming ivory bills, commences a long, shallow glide along the mountain's shoulder, high over the clamorous flotsam of I-64, down the chute of Rockfish Gap and toward its assembled admirers.
By now we see the milky white throat and belly, the black-specked cummerbund, the flat brown back and head and, in stray glimpses as the bird pitches and turns, a rust-red tail tilting to maximize every whiff of updraft. A newcomer shouts "Redtail!" as the powerful hawk drifts past, passing at a low angle and honoring us with a brief, indifferent stare.
Red-tailed hawks are archetypal buteos with long, broad wings, stocky tails and an overall impression of stoic strength. As this one silently coasts by above our heads we take in the charcoal borders highlighting its pale wings, the ruddy tail now tightly closed, and the shoulders swung forward in an apparently effortless concentration on the annihilation of distance.
The "redtail" is the most populous buteo species in North America and generally migrates through Rockfish Gap in November, having been preceded weeks before by a tidal flood of broadwing hawks, smaller buteos that often form swirling "kettles" of sometimes hundreds or even thousands of birds, pulsing and spinning around thermal columns in a feathered cyclone. Broadwings are blunt-winged forest buteos, slightly larger than a crow, whose taste is for the cold-blooded: snakes, frogs, toads and insects. They come through in great swarms timed to maximize the last abundance of their warm weather prey, then are whirled off to Latin America in a few short weeks.
Many local redtails stay in Virginia all winter long, but most of the more northerly-based migrants take advantage of the opportunity to leave their summer homes before prey becomes scarce. An adaptable hawk, the redtail feasts on everything from spiders and earthworms to groundhogs and carrion. I’ve seen a single red-tailed hawk chase a dozen vultures, both turkey and black, from the carcass of a freshly butchered deer, and last summer witnessed a redtail struggling to take off with a bucking 5-foot corn snake in its talons.
Redtails are the most common late fall migrant at Rockfish Gap and at first I mistake the two buteos now circling overhead for members of the same species, but the bold banding on the longish tails and the narrow, sweeping wings with the curious opaque half-moons on the outer edges gives the newcomers away as something else entirely: red-shouldered hawks.
The red-shouldered is a swamp hawk, at home in streamside forests and marshlands, hunting snakes and frogs in the summer and small mammals in cooler months. A gorgeous raptor, Buteo lineatus has a black-and-white checkered back with ruddy shoulders and, in adults, a luminous coral breast and belly. Gliding high above, heading toward warmer climes, the two hawks give us a resplendent display during their momentary transit, chests glowing fiercely as they slip over the southwestern hills like twin sunsets.
All eyes being fixed on this spectacle we fail to notice two more sharpies until they're already overhead and then, at eye level and only a few dozen yards out, a burning dart of red, white and blue comes whickering past with sharp wings chopping the air and long pointed tail trailing like a comet's.
It is a male American kestrel, a vibrant foot-long falcon the size of a killdeer and the smallest falcon in North America; like the rest of its kin, it is wasting no time in getting to its destination. While they will use updrafts and thermals when convenient, falcons are not as dependent upon them as are buteos and accipiters, relying primarily on their untiring powered flight to slice through the wind.
There are three species of falcon that may be encountered at Rockfish Gap: the kestrel, the slightly larger merlin, and the celebrated peregrine, globetrotting exemplar of the falcon clan. Kestrels hunt rodents and large insects from trees and power lines, and will also take amphibians and catch small birds and bats on the wing.
The dusky merlin is the bane of migrating shorebirds, exacting a seasonal toll on small-to-medium plovers and sandpipers as they shadow flocks down the coasts like wolves trailing caribou herds. Powerful and deadly efficient hunters, merlins also hunt songbirds and small mammals and will attack human intruders on their nesting territory.
The world-wandering Falco peregrinus, sublime creature of myth and legend, deigns only to feed on medium to large birds it has knocked out of the sky with its dive-bombing attacks, striking ducks, pigeons, even geese and cranes with its oversized feet at speeds of up to and perhaps over 200 miles per hour. The rare occurrence of a peregrine at the hawkwatch, streaking serenely past on scythe-like wings, is an occasion for stunned silence among newcomers and veterans alike.
Our kestrel disappeared as suddenly as it came, and with approaching evening comes a lull in the flow of migrants. Watchers chat about recent sightings while novices query the vets for identification tips and tales of record high-number days.
Raptors are generally big birds and they depend on the lay of the land for long-distance travel. By following one another along ridges and mountainsides where the winds form warm, rising updrafts, hawks are able to save energy and reduce the need for hunting en route to their wintering grounds. In Virginia, at places like Rockfish Gap, Snicker’s Gap, and Harvey’s Knob, the natural contours of mountain chain and valley create topographic bottlenecks where birds from several migratory paths are channeled together as they seek the most obliging wind currents.
At these staging areas, in times mercifully past, restless killers calling themselves "sportsmen" would regularly gather for an afternoon's hawk-shooting, senselessly destroying thousands of migrating raptors at sites like Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, a location now dedicated to the preservation of wild hawks and a premier destination for hawkwatchers worldwide.
Rockfish Gap is hardly of the eminence of places like Hawk Mountain, Cape May Point in New Jersey or Ontario's Point Pelee, unrivaled sites where tens of thousands of hawks can breeze through in a few weeks, but its mountainous geography has made it an excellent destination for hawkwatchers in central Virginia, a fact recognized by the Commonwealth in its inclusion of Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch as part of the Thomas Jefferson Loop (Mountain Phase) of Virginia’s statewide Birding and Wildlife Trail.
At the top of the hour the Counter checks her electronic weather wizard and carefully enters the current wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, cloud cover and visibility. This information, along with an hourly tally of all hawks observed today, will be entered into the national database of the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) and used to extrapolate the overall population status of the fourteen raptor species regularly reported at Rockfish Gap.
I talk with some of the other watchers, who mostly live in Albemarle, Nelson and Augusta Counties. For dedicated regulars the season from late August to early December is a time to wrap the whole year around, a brief meshing of their own lives with those of some of nature’s most splendid creatures.
The small crowd gathered here this Saturday afternoon is of dissimilar backgrounds but united by a commonly held, largely indefinable, almost atavistic admiration for birds of prey. Insurance salesmen stand shoulder to shoulder with county employees, farmers share pointers with adjunct professors, and the timid novitiate is welcomed to the show by seasoned experts. A common love for these heraldic birds has drawn people from throughout the region to share in a magical moment that could even now be gathering strength behind yonder mountain ridge, some distant atmospheric event hurtling thousands of raptors southward in a strategic withdrawal from onrushing winter.
Why go hawkwatching? The most dedicated will try to tell you why they sweat through summer and brave the numbing winds of winter after often distant glimpses of migrating birds, but the explanations always seem perfunctory, rote, telling not the whole tale.
The birds' objective beauty and grace, certainly, is a recurrent factor—the elegant edging of chiseled wings against an oceanic sky, closer flashes of color, pattern, form, an overall impression of reserved majesty that trails the sky-crossing hawk like an angel's grace.
But something closer yet to the mute heart of the hawkwatcher drives those most deeply obsessed with this yearly pageant to come, again and again, and stand straining to see something that may not appear today, or tomorrow, or the next day. A kind of personal identification seems to be at hand, a yearning to be one with something as near to earthly transcendence as the human mind can be made to perceive.
The Counter here today, as on most every weekend of the season for the past eleven years, is Brenda Tekin of Charlottesville. Previously unfamiliar with hawks, Brenda had learned of nearby Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch from her local bird club, and she well remembers her first day.
“Call it beginner’s luck,” she says. “Just as I showed up on a sunny September afternoon a stream of hawks rolled in and began to kettle low in the sky, so close that at times I thought I could just reach out and touch them. I was mesmerized at this spectacular sight. The experienced hawkwatchers told me that the swirling mass of birds I was seeing were broad-winged hawks, a species I never even knew existed before that day. Then a second group flowed in next to the first and the sky was filled! It was at that unforgettable moment that I knew I had succumbed to hawkwatching.”
Since 1999 Brenda has been HMANA Coordinator for Rockfish Gap and is recognized as an authority on hawk identification, the person newcomers approach when making their first tentative guesses. Having been to the bigger hawkwatches I’ve seen some of the jaded regulars display a sort of gentile contempt for beginners, forgetting that they themselves had once been equally ignorant. Brenda and the other pros at Rockfish Gap—John Irvine, Jr., Bill Gallagher, and YuLee Larner (the celebrated “Bird Lady of Staunton”), among others—are unceasingly considerate toward those with even the most mundane questions (“Hey, what’s that big red-necked turkey-like buzzard out there?”).
“To those new to hawkwatching an established hawkwatch can be a great learning resource,” says Brenda. “During those first years at Rockfish Gap I was always appreciative of the more experienced individuals who were so patient in answering my countless questions. I think I speak for a lot of folks at the hawkwatch in saying that once your foot hits the parking lot pavement you’ve arrived at a place where you can leave all your troubles behind.”
The sun is dying in the west. We’ve had a good afternoon—four species of raptor have been encountered, enjoyed, and tabulated. No eagles this time, no harriers, ospreys or goshawks, but we know they’re out there, silently soaring in the fading air of autumn, following the same ridges and valleys their ancestors have traced for untold millennia.
Brenda claims to love raptors for their “wild boldness,” as sound a reason as any. Few can successfully sum up the reasons why they spend each fall pursuing birds they will never hold in the hand, birds usually seen through a considerable distance and the artificial intermediary of binoculars. There must be something exceptional about hawks, something in their controlled savagery and indomitable freedom which calls out to a part of us long buried in the wearying nullity of industrial civilization, something that speaks, perhaps, to our own unconquerable animal selves.
William H. Funk is a conservation writer in the Shenandoah Valley. Write to him at email@example.com.
Photo by A. Drauglis, licensed under Creative Commons.