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Archive for the ‘Nature/Conservation’ Category

‘Threatened’ Status For Polar Bear

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Polar bear adult and two cubs
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service

The polar bear, whose summertime Arctic hunting grounds have been greatly reduced by global warming , will be placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit in 2005 to force a listing of the bear. The Center, based in Arizona, has been quite open about its hopes to use this as a legal weapon to attack anthropogenic causes of climate change, such as proposed coal-fired power plants or other new sources CO2 emissions.

On April 28, a judge ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a final listing decision by May 15. Just a day before the newly imposed deadline, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced that the polar bear would be listed as ‘threatened’. This move offers the bear some new protections, such as prohibiting the import of hides or other trophies from bears killed by US hunters in Canada. However, the Interior Department added some seldom-used stipulations that would allow oil and gas exploration and development to proceed in polar bear territories, as long as companies abide by existing restrictions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The Bush administration continues to maintain it is under no obligation to address or try to mitigate the causes of melting sea ice that is threatening the bear. Mr. Kempthorne said, “When the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, I don’t think terms like ‘climate change’ were part of our vernacular.” Barton H. Thompson Jr, director of the Woods Institute of the Environment at Stanford University, said the decision reflected the administration’s view that “there is no way, if your factory emits a greenhouse gas, that we can say there is a causal connection between that emission and an iceberg melting somewhere and a polar bear falling into the ocean.”

It should all have been so straightforward. There are about 25,000 polar bears, all dependent on a fragile and rapidly-changing environment. What’s the problem with giving them a little protection? Well, for a start, there’s a worrying lack of consensus on whether the polar bear is ‘endangered’ at all. Over all, scientists agree that rising temperatures will reduce Arctic ice and stress polar bears, which prefer seals they hunt on the floes. However, few foresee the species vanishing entirely for a century or more.

Of the 25,000 bears in the Arctic, 15,000 live in Canadian territory. A scientific study issued last month reported that four out of thirteen bear populations would probably decline by over 30% over the next 36 years, while the others would remain stable or increase. M. Reed Hopper of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights group based in Sacramento, called the decision to list the polar bear “unprecedented” and said his group would sue the Interior Department over the decision.

“Never before has a thriving species been listed [under the Endangered Species Act] nor should it be. The Endangered Species Act was not intended, nor does it allow, the listing of a thriving species. PLF is prepared to challenge this arbitrary listing of the polar bear. The polar bear is already among the most protected species in the world. According to the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act would provide ‘very little added protection.’

“This listing could have the effect of imposing severe restrictions on land use, job creation, and normal economic activity, not merely in Alaska but also – if global warming factors are cited in lawsuits based on the listing – throughout the lower 48 states.”

Meanwhile in Canada, management of bear populations is the responsibility of the various provinces and territories. The territorial government of Nunavut has campaigned against new US protection for the bear, concerned that lucrative local bear hunts run for US visitors will stop when trophy skins can no longer be taken home. John Baird, Canadian environment minister, said that the government would adopt an independent scientific panel’s recommendation to declare polar bears a species “of special concern,” a lower designation than endangered.

So there we are. One of the world’s most photogenic creatures has been granted ‘protection’ after a three-year legal battle, but little seems to have changed. We still want to dig up and pollute its hunting grounds, and we still want to kill it and hang its skin over the fireplace.

Rumours that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney had tried to block the listing of the bear are greatly exaggerated and, of course, completely unfounded.


Front Gardens

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Front garden paving desert

Last Thursday, April 10th, The London Paper, a give-away tabloid from the News International stable, ran an article under the headline “Block put on paving over front gardens”. The main thrust of the story involved supposed plans at DEFRA to force householders to appply for planning permission before they can pave over their gardens. The proposed change, to be introduced this Autumn, requires planning approval to be granted, at £875 a pop, for any paving that does not use permeable materials. The idea is that, by reducing the price differential between ‘normal’ paving and the stuff that lets rainwater through rather than sending it down into the drains or next-door’s basement, urban flooding will be reduced.

A spokesman from the Royal Horticultural Society said:

“It’s the first legislation that actually directly links to front gardens and gives proper protection.
“This sets it down and says we can protect front gardens, at least from being solidly concreted over.
Gravel is an alternative to concrete. “ There are plenty of gaps between the gravel and those allow the water through into the ground below”

The flaw in this argument is that there’s still nothing in the proposed legislation to prevent gardens having all their vegetation and soil being replaced by hard landscaping. It would have been interesting to hear what the RSPB or any other wildlife or conservation group have to say on the issue. Gardens are the last remnants of the farmland that our suburbs were built on, and increasingly serve as refuges for the wildlife that intensive farming has driven out of the countryside. A garden without trees, shrubs, flowers, grass or bare earth is still a desert, whether it’s paved with tarmac, crazy paving or gravel.

Channel 4 property renta-guru Sarah Beeny portrays the move as a way for homeowners to recoup some of the value their property has lost recently:

“There’s no doubt a great- looking front garden makes your property more attractive and easier to sell.”

The irony is that it was the likes of Ms Beeny who kicked off the paving craze by emphasising the added value of a private parking space. It might have been true that the first one or two houses in a street gained a few grand by paving the front garden for parking, but once everyone did it properties actually lost value.

This is a classic example of addressing a complex problem by reducing it to a single issue, much as climate change has come to be seen as the only environmental problem in town. It’s true that replacing gardens with parking increases the amount of water permeating into the ground, but there’s a whole raft of other issues that make this trend a social and environmental disaster. It’s a scandal that the planning system has allowed major changes to ground surfaces to slip through the system as ‘permitted development’ for so long. It’s a double scandal that, now someone’s raised sufficient head of steam to do something about it, most of the issues are being fudged or ignored.

‘Future Water: The Government’s water strategy for England’ (DEFRA strategy document, February 2008)

‘Last rites for the front garden’

Written by Pete Smith

April 17, 2008 at 11:13 am

The Father Of Phenology

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27th January 2008 marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of Robert Marsham, the founding father of phenology, the study of the timing of natural events in relation to climate. Marsham is best known for the phenology notes he started making in 1736 on his family estate near Norwich, and continued writing for over 60 years. His ground-breaking work developed into the 27 ‘Indications of Spring’ which were eventually reported to the Royal Society in 1789. Successive generations of his family added to his work and this information now provides over two centuries’ worth of priceless data to the UK phenology database.

In a rapidly warming world, it is more vital than ever to know how the natural world responds to climate in order to predict the consequences for the future. The Marsham records show how responsive Spring events are to temperature. For example, trees come into leaf 8 days earlier for each 1°C increase in temperature. Furthermore, these records warn us that not all species respond at the same rate, with potential for conflict in the natural world. For example, Hawthorn appears very responsive to warming temperatures but Beech much less so. Similarly, Oak has the advantage over Ash in warmer springs, suggesting that it will become increasingly unlikely for Ash to precede Oak as the climate warms.

So, what species should be selected when planting new woodland? Woodland consists of communities of plants and animals that live in support of or in competition with one another. That Oak is taking greater advantage of a warming climate suggests that there may well be a change in the competitive balance in woodland in the years ahead. Phenology has travelled a long way from its roots as a means of optimising timber production on Marsham’s Norfolk estate, to become a key decision-making tool for conservation organisations in determining appropriate responses to climate change.

Robert Marsham’s Tricentenary Celebrations website

Nature’s Calendar

Runway 61 Revisited

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Last week the government launched its consultation into plans for a third runway and sixth terminal at London Heathrow. Greenpeace has been in touch with The Coffee House, asking us to support their ‘Stop Heathrow Expansion’ campaign. As in most issues nowadays, the prime arguments against the expansion are climate change and economics. To quote Greenpeace:

Already the busiest airport in Europe, the plan would mean a 70 per cent increase in flight numbers and a corresponding rise in climate change pollution. It’s crazy to be paving the way for such big increases in greenhouse gases when we should be doing all we can to reduce emissions.
What’s particularly short sighted about this proposal is that a third runway at Heathrow really isn’t needed. Well over a fifth of flights from Heathrow are to short-haul destinations, already well served by trains which cause ten times less damage to the climate than flying.

Hidden away in the small print are a few references to the effects on the local residents of additional noise and pollution. Nothing about wider environmental impacts on habitats and biodiversity. You get the impression that if this development was a Tesco rather than an airport no-one would bat an eyelid.

Contrast this with the campaign being fought in Florida against the dual expansion of Fort Lauderdale International Airport and Port Everglades. Citizens Against Runway Expansion give a whole list of reasons why the project is a bad idea. Here are a few:

  • Eradication of protected mangroves, some of which are Essential Fish Habitat
  • Loss of hatching and nursery habitat for numerous aquatic, terrestrial and avian species
  • Destruction of Manatee habitat
  • Decimation of 15 or more acres of our coral reef system
  • Detrimental effects from noise pollution on wildlife
  • Probable damage to the potable water supply from leaching of toxins from dredged fill during dewatering and compaction processes

OK, I know we’re not comparing apples and apples. I doubt if Heathrow has many manatees or coral reefs, but there might well be some great crested newts. It’s still interesting how the Heathrow campaign has taken a completely different spin from the one in Florida, which even accepts that increased capabilities for trade and leisure travel are benefits, rather than Public Enemy Number 1 as they are seen in the UK.

Newt In My Back Yard

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A North Wales house builder has spent £140,000 on creating a special habitat for great crested newts on the site of a 26-home development. When environmental specialists arrived to move the newts to their new home, they could find only two. The same builder has already spent £300,000 at another development where a much larger colony of newts was discovered close to the site of 320 homes and a school.

‘ Two newts given £140,000 new home’

The great crested, the largest of the three British newt species, is a European Protected Species , listed under the EU Habitats and Species Directive 1992. It is protected under UK law by the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) Regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is an offence to deliberately kill, capture or disturb a great crested newt or damage its environment, carrying a penalty of six months in prison.

Conservationists estimate the UK has about 18,000 colonies comprising almost half a million individuals. Newts like to establish themselves in precisely the kind of spot that builders are being encouraged to build on: brownfield sites. If newts are discovered, planning applications must be withdrawn to allow a full environmental survey to be carried out. A special licence must be obtained from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. If it is granted, an alternative home has to be found and the newts trapped and relocated by wildlife experts, work which is permitted only during the newts’ spring and summer migration between land and water. The process can last up to two years from start to finish.

With Britain in need of millions of new homes, and builders’ costs for newt relocation and other environmental work certain to be passed on to the customer, it’s no wonder there’s a dire shortage of affordable housing.

Climate Change Too Hot To Handle?

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It’s official, we’re in trouble again. Or still. You’d be forgiven for thinking the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is more of the same old same old. It is. The Synthesis Report of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report is effectively a summary of three papers published earlier this year, and is intended to lay the foundations for worldwide agreement on emissions. You’ll have heard much of this before:

Snow and ice melting, sea levels rising by up to 0.59m by 2100, Arctic sea ice shrinking by 2.7% a decade, heatwaves and hurricanes increasing, human greenhouse emissions up by 70% between 1970 and 2004 and set to double by 2030, atmospheric CO2 at its highest level for 650,000 years, up to 30% of species at risk of extinction.

Despite all the doom and gloom, there’s still a surprising degree of confidence that if decisive action is taken now we can mitigate the worst of the projected impacts. In particular, not only do we have current or imminent technologies that will enable us to do this, but prompt action will be cost-effective and will have a minimal economic downside. In other words, it’s possible and it’s affordable.

It seems the UK government is having trouble balancing the books to make this happen. On Saturday the Guardian reported that DEFRA, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is planning reductions in key environmental services to generate savings of at least £300 million. The cuts are driven by the huge costs of a series of recent disasters such as foot and mouth disease, severe flooding, and mismanagement of agricultural subsidy reforms. All fifty DEFRA agencies are expected to be affected, hitting areas such as National Parks, sustainable development, forestry, fisheries, energy saving, waste management, environmental protection and, last but not least, the fight against climate change.

Coinciding with the publication of the Climate Change Bill and constant re-affirmation of emissions commitments, the conclusion must be that the government is struggling to meet its targets. Concentrating efforts on climate change and neglecting wider environmental obligations is bad news for nature conservation, with Natural England facing budget cuts of 30% for new conservation projects. Spending cuts are under consideration for some of the country’s most valuable wildlife sites.

It’s time that someone realised that it’s not just about carbon, stupid. Making environmental policy around a single issue is short-sighted and short-term thinking. We must continue to support our natural resources, our habitats and wildlife, to keep them robust and resilient against the effects of climate change. Without a holistic view of the environment , we may win the battle to reduce carbon emissions, but we will lose our natural heritage. A landscape consisting of nothing but windmills set in fields of biofuel source crops is not somewhere I would want to call home.

Summary for Policymakers of the AR4 Synthesis Report

“Climate change department faces £300 million cuts” (Guardian)

Nature Can Be Dull

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seat-nature.jpgPicture from

But not as dull as SEAT, who say on the one hand “The spirit of competition comes with a price: responsibility. SEAT has always been acutely aware of this in regard to sustainability and protection of the environment” and on the other hand urge idiots to drive all over the landscape in a girly ‘SUV’ like the Altea Freetrack. What they find to do with their gripping hand we can only speculate.

The irony is that, the way things are shaping up, Nature is going to be anything but dull as climate change tightens its grip. Freetrack owners may find themselves wishing they’d bought one of these:

Written by Pete Smith

October 31, 2007 at 1:38 pm