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Dear 2040: Climate change activist Richard Whiteford thinks about the future

By Richard Whiteford

Hello. My name is Richard Whiteford. I’m writing to you on August 24, 2015. I’ll turn 69 next month so, if I live to be 94, there’s an outside chance that I can be there when you open this capsule.

In my lifetime I’ve watched humans destroy the world’s biological diversity to the point of increasing the extinction rate to 1000 times the natural background rate from habitat loss and climate change. For instance, fish populations are crashing, agricultural areas worldwide are being decimated by extreme droughts. Many rivers are running dry from the loss of glacial feed. Insect infestations and wildfires are destroying forests because of climate change. Continue reading

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Natural Philadelphia: Where Do We Fit In?

By guest contributor Rhyan Grech, Audubon PA

Are humans a part of nature?  This important question spans generations, geographic locations, fields of study, vocations, religions, political parties and the city of Philadelphia. Working to protect wildlife and their habitats in the fifth most populated metropolitan area in the country may sound like a one-step-forward-two-steps-back sort of process, but it’s exactly what Audubon Pennsylvania and many other organizations are doing. And illustrating the relevance of our work to every city resident is a challenge we all share. Continue reading

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Earth Day and the Green Tsunami

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On Wednesday, April 22, 1970, 45 years ago today, more than 20 million Americans participated in the largest mass demonstration in American history, some 1 million in New York City alone.  They marched wearing gas masks and buried cars in mock graves protesting polluted air, threw buckets of dead fish into the lobbies of corporate offices to protest polluted water, and carried signs with grim messages like “RIP: Earth.”

It was the first Earth Day.  Reflecting back, it’s too easy to forget how angry people were about a polluted planet back in 1970.

In Philadelphia, thousands gathered on Belmont Plateau for speakers like Edmund Muskie, then a leading presidential contender, and beat poet Allen Ginsberg, honoring the intention of creating a “national environmental teach-in” as envisioned by then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, father of the event.

As a middle schooler on Long Island, I organized a litter cleanup in my town’s park. Bitten by the environmental bug then, I knew I’d be doing environmental work now.

Fast forward 20 years. On Saturday, April 22, 1990, 120,000-plus people crammed into Fairmount Park under a picture-perfect day for a family-oriented festival of music, games, speeches, food and more.  Here’s an irony: Earth Day 1990 shut down the Schuylkill for hours, and the crowd left behind mountains of unrecyclable trash.  Oops.

But  more than 200 million people from 141 countries participated, the largest mass event in world history.

This year?  Thousands already joined Usher, will.i.am, Mary J. Blige, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on the Mall in DC last weekend, while 2,500 runners joined the Clean Air Council’s Run for Clean Air, our city’s longest running Earth Day event.  It’s the “Phillies Red Goes Green” event tonight in the stadium, and hundreds of groups are hosting Earth Day activities bookending these two weekends, like my Schuylkill Center’s Naturepalooza festival on Saturday.

And 1 billion people—1 in 7 worldwide—from 200 countries will participate.  Surprise: Earth Day is suddenly one of the world’s largest nonreligious observances.

Dismiss Earth Day if you will—and many do—you have to give it this: the day has staying power, and a heckuva track record.  1970’s massive demonstration jumpstarted the modern environmental movement, a raft of environmental groups like Friends of the Earth were founded, Nixon caved to mounting pressure and signed bills creating the EPA, impact statements, and the endangered species act, and thousands of kids like me went into environmental careers.  Almost every curbside recycling program is brought to you courtesy of 1990’s toned-down Earth Day, as are dolphin-safe tuna, recycled paper products, and Rio’s Earth Summit.

Since we are much better counter-punching than planning, 1970’s Earth Day was a reaction to the Santa Barbara oil spill, DDT and eggshell thinning, Lake Erie being declared biologically dead, lead from gasoline lowering people’s IQ.  1990 in turn was a counter-punch to medical waste washing up alongside dead dolphins, Yellowstone burning under a fierce drought, and NASA scientist James Hanson testifying in Congress that the world was warming, the first scientist to do so.

It’s easy to see what 2020 will be in reaction to: in the next five years, new data—not to mention, say, a giant iceberg calving off the Antarctic shelf—will likely end the 25-year debate on climate change, the disappearance of a charismatic species like the rhinoceros will call make biodiversity a top-tier issue, and horrific droughts here and floods there will signal the emergence of water as a central concern.

The environment likely surfaces—finally!—as a core issue in that year’s presidential election.

So Earth Day 2020’s confluence of big anniversary with monstrous problems will cause the day to explode, and more than 2 billion of us—double this year—will participate, easily a low-ball estimate.

For a green tsunami is coming, a tidal wave of concern for the fate of an imperiled planet.  And love it or loathe it, Earth Day will be at the heart of that tsunami.

The day is here to stay, and will only get bigger.  Happy Earth Day.

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Wetlands and WetLand in the city

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Often, when I fly into Philadelphia International Airport, I imagine what a bird’s eye view of the area must have looked like back before Philadelphia became the bustling metropolis it is today.  If I squint just the right way, I can almost see how the flat expanse of skyscrapers and rowhomes transforms to green, how South Philly and even the airport itself melt into the freshwater tidal wetlands that were once in their place (the last remnant of which is still visible at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge). Continue reading

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Giants of the Forest: Reading the forest

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Tuliptree (1)Every day at the Schuylkill Center I am reminded of the passing of time, the history of the land, and the immense power of plants to change our landscape.  Amazed at how the trees could grow so tall in just 50 years, I stand in awe of the towering tulip poplars (also called tuliptrees) which rise high above old fields once clear cut for agriculture.  As winter approaches and vegetation retreats, ruins and farm walls of old homesteads – signs of literally hundreds of years of human occupancy – reveal themselves as markers of the past.

Tuliptree (2)Trees can also be a source of information to us; they are simultaneously signs of resilience and indicators of land use patterns.  Some of our oldest, biggest trees are situated just at the edges of former farm fields, where they could stretch and branch in all directions due to unlimited sunlight.  In the forest, the same species would be taller and thinner, with branches reaching directly up toward the sun shining through a break in the forest canopy.  For many years, these remarkable old trees have drawn interest from visitors, staff, and volunteers at the Schuylkill Center.

In the summer of 1974, volunteer Gus Wiencke assembled an extensive report entitled “Biggest Trees at the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center,” detailing land history and size, species, location, and even sketches of growth patterns of the property’s largest trees.  The original survey presents 57 trees that measure over 6 ½ feet in circumference, although many far exceed that now.  The survey was partially updated in 1986 and again in 2012, when eight more trees were added to the list.

It has been 40 years since Gus compiled this list of biggest trees, yet I’m experiencing his observations in a similar way these days.  He concludes, “Year after year, traces of the old farm fields grow dimmer and a forest spreads in the protected haven of the Nature Center.  Our biggest trees are the aristocrats in a unique, unviolated area of self-propagated woodland.”  These trees exist with little help from us, and in many cases, perhaps, in spite of us.  They are beautiful and vital beings in our ever-changing landscape.  Join us at the Giants of the Forest walk in January to see some of these big trees, learn about why they remained during the farm years, and find out what they can tell us about the past.

Note: an excerpt from this article appeared in the winter 2014-2015 Quill, the Schuylkill Center members newsletter.

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Restoring Cattail Pond


By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Toad in Cattail PondCattail Pond sits in a serene, sunlit woodland opening at the edge of our forest, just a few quick steps outside our back door.  It is a special place, nestled into one of the few areas on the property that is free from undulating topography, naturally protected by a steep slope uphill from it and surrounding trees.  Taking all of this into consideration, it’s not surprising that there are also ruins of a barn near the pond, part of a former homestead and a reminder of the rich history of this land. Continue reading

The Sixth Extinction, Book Review

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director
Book review for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a print version of this review appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, March 30, 2014.

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth KolbertWe inhabit an extraordinary planet overflowing with an abundance of life: massive coral reefs built by billions of tiny invertebrates, rain forests teeming with uncountable plants and animals, frogs and toads singing in vernal ponds, bats flitting over summer meadows.

But we also live at an extraordinary moment when all of the creatures named above, and millions more, might disappear in our lifetime. And while climate change gets all the attention as an environmental game-changer, the loss of biological diversity, the burning of the Tree of Life, has too quietly slipped below the cultural radar screen.

Until now. Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the acclaimed Field Notes From a Catastrophe about climate change, has just published the definitive book on the biodiversity crisis. It is a must-read for every citizen of this planet. Continue reading

Wild Turkeys: The Truth Behind the Bird

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On Thursday, Americans of all shapes, sizes and colors gather around tables overflowing with colorful cornucopias of food.  And whether that table includes cranberry sauce or couscous, tortellini or tortillas, the centerpiece of the meal is likely that quintessential American bird, the turkey.turkey

Consider that turkey, one of our biggest natural neighbors.  Likely one of your holiday plates includes an image of the tom turkey, chest all puffed out, strutting its stuff.  That’s not how turkeys appear in November.  Sleeker, thinner, turkeys are now forming winter single-sex flocks, a tom and its brothers joining a fraternal order of other males.  During this first winter, the toms spar viciously and violently to establish, yes, the pecking order, and a rigorous, fiercely contested one at that. They peck, wrestle, and strike with wings, feet and head until exhausted, and he who fights longest and hardest is the winner.  To him go the spoils of war: the right to mate in spring.

For when the winter flocks break up, the brothers stay together.  They pick clearings in the forest to strut their stuff, gobbling and fluffing like hyperactive mummers, calling attention to themselves while attracting harems of females.  The bumps atop their heads turn various shades of reds, whites and blues—they are, after all, patriotic—and their wattles flap while their snoods bounce around: they have a face only a mother—and hens—can love.  And when the hens arrive, only the big brother—top of the heap—mates, top gun mating with multiple females to spread his strong genes throughout the pool.

It’s not known whether or not Pilgrims and Native Americans dined on turkey that first Thanksgiving.  But the Pilgrims knew about turkeys, encountering them in England, of all places.  You see, the Aztecs domesticated the Mexican subspecies around 800 B.C., and Spaniards introduced the bird to Europe, where it came to England in 1550, and by the Pilgrim’s era was the centerpiece of large feasts held by the wealthy. The turkey we eat today is still a descendant of the Mexican subspecies—not the native North American bird we see at places like Pennypack up in Huntingdon Valley.

Oh, one more turkey story. If you do go to somewhere like Pennypack searching for turkeys, the sight of these massive birds was unlikely even recently. Though turkeys had roamed a huge swath of America, with the one-two punch of overhunting and deforestation, only 30,000 turkeys gobbled across 18 states by 1900; the animal had disappeared completely from Canada, New England, New York, and agricultural states like Indiana.  While Pennsylvania was the northernmost state on the East Coast to retain a wild turkey population, there were none in Philadelphia or its suburbs.

So the wild turkey almost met the same fate as the dodo and passenger pigeon.  Happily, three things altered its future.  Too many hunters in too many parts of the country let wildlife agencies know they valued wild turkeys.  Turkey hunters are a passionate lot, and whether or not you hunt or believe in animal rights, turkeys are here, in part, because of pressure from hunters.  Second, wildlife managers learned how to use relic populations of wild turkeys in captive breeding programs—and re-introduced newly hatched turkeys to their former haunts.

And finally, over the last decades, our forests have been slowly regenerating over the years, turkeys rediscovering new, viable habitat.  Creatures of the edge, they crave forests for cover and nesting spots, fields and meadows for seeds and insects to eat.  As their habitat returned, so did they.  Today, turkeys nest in all but two Pennsylvania counties, Delaware and Philadelphia, and I wouldn’t be surprised if nesting turkeys return to my Schuylkill Center sometime soon.

The National Wild Turkey Federation now estimates some seven million turkeys range across the U.S., and National Audubon christened it one of the “10 Creatures We Saved” in its centennial celebrations a few years back.

On Thursday, as turkeys decorate our tables, be thankful for one of the too-few conservation success stories we share, the return of the wild turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Naturalist Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

 

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A Silent Fall: Vanishing Monarchs

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A Monarch dries its wings after emerging from its chrysalis in our front garden. (Schuylkill Center, 2013)

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The new fall season brings a chain of wonderful events: trees turning color, birds migrating south, goldenrod fields bursting in bloom. But one of my favorite fall phenomena is sadly and strangely absent this year.

There are almost no Monarch butterflies afoot these days.  All summer, I’ve seen only three at the Schuylkill Center.  And my compatriots at other centers like Bowman’s Hill in New Hope and Peace Valley in Doylestown report the same horrific drop.

You know Monarchs, those large orange and black butterflies. Every fall, every Monarch east of the Rocky Mountains begins an extraordinary migration south, one of the strangest in the animal kingdom.  All Monarchs, whether hatching here in Roxborough or up in Nova Scotia, fly slowly to a couple of small, secluded mountain valleys not far from Mexico City.  Somehow encoded in the  pinhead-sized brains of these creatures is a road map to Mexican forests.  (West Coast Monarchs, by contrast, head downslope to multiple small locations along the Pacific coast.)

Arriving in Mexico around All Soul’s Day—folk tradition there says these are the returning souls of Aztec warriors—the butterflies cluster in large groups, clinging to each other, coating fir trees with their bodies.  Nicknamed the Methuselah generation because they live for many months, this group stays in their mountain cluster until the spring.  Then they fly north again, search for  the first growths of milkweed plants, (the host plant for their caterpillars), lay their eggs on the milkweed, and die of exhaustion.

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Graphic by Journey North

When the next generation matures, it pushes north again—and Monarchs ultimately arrive back in Philadelphia in early summer.  Only to head back to Mexico two months later.

Last winter was the worst year on record for the size of the Monarch cluster—their group covered only three acres of forest, down 59% from the previous year, and down 94% from their 1994 high.  Think about it: most of North America’s Monarchs clinging to only three acres of trees.

So the drop this year was expected.  But it does have biologists wondering about the possibility of losing this utterly unique phenomenon.  And all eyes will be on Mexico this year to see how many butterflies return to their winter home.

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A Monarch chrysalis hangs from a milkweed stem. (Schuylkill Center, 2013)

Why the drop?  Scientists expect many culprits, but highest on the list is the use of Roundup-ready crops through much of the Midwest.  Grown to be immune to this herbicide, the plants allow farmers to pour the chemical on fields for weed control, and take out all the milkweed that once supported populations of Monarchs.  Pennsylvania’s Monarchs can’t get through the Farm Belt, so few arrive to reproduce here; few in turn migrate back.

At the Schuylkill Center, we’ll watch the butterfly carefully, plant lots of milkweed to support the creature, and report back to you information as researchers discover it.  We can’t afford to lose this high-flying beauty from our fields.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

Learn more at:

“Bring Back the Monarchs,” Monarch Watch: http://monarchwatch.org/bring-back-the-monarchs/campaign/the-details

“Tracking the Causes of Sharp  Decline of the Monarch Butterfly,” Yale Environment 360: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/tracking_the_causes_of_sharp__decline_of_the_monarch_butterfly/2634/

US Forest Service, Celebrating Wildflowers: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/monarchbutterfly/migration/