Surrounded by Fire Part 2: Building Resilient Communities

By Shauna Potocky

On Monday, August 18, 2014 all the meetings, planning, and preparation paid off.

Just days before, on Friday, August 15, 2014, I posted an article entitled Surrounded by Fire, which explores fire ecology in the Sierra Nevada, fire-related issues facing California foothill communities and ways to build resilient communities in the face of ecological challenges.

This is an immediate update to that article. An update that I hope inspires you to prepare now for whatever evacuation you might need to be ready for, whether that be for a fire, earthquake, snowstorm, hurricane, or flood–you pick, based on your bioregion.

I arrived home from working in the field on Monday afternoon, August 18. It was another hot, dry summer day on the western slope of the Sierra and I was finishing emails and computer work when I began to hear sirens. The emergency response sounded significant, as if building to a crescendo, so I turned on the police scanner, a free application I had downloaded onto my smart phone. The response was for a fast moving fire that had begun in the town of Oakhurst, California, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The fire was located on the other side of town and a significant distance from where I live, yet it was close enough to pay attention to, considering the current fire conditions in California.

I do not recall how long it took before I could see smoke from my desk. What I do know is that it did not take long. The air filled with the smell of fire and I went outside to look at how close it might be. I could see a mix of black, brown and white plumes to the west. Listening to the scanner, it was evident the fire was building, air tankers were being called in and a full-scale response was in action. The fire was making a fast and furious run through town.

Smoke rising from the Junction Fire, which had become visible from the authors home office.

Smoke rising from the Junction Fire, which had become visible from the authors home office.

The incident, known as the Junction fire, was exhibiting aggressive fire behavior. The fire itself was burning extremely hot with large flame lengths rising above the burning trees and brush as well as spotting (sending embers) well in front of the fire. With the extreme drought conditions, the vegetation acted as a fully receptive fuel, which enabled the fire to move quickly uphill—essentially the fire was racing through town. It moved through neighborhoods, business areas and the edge of foothill wood and grasslands, all of which are located adjacent to Highway 41. Then, as a shock to many, the fire jumped a wide section of highway, making a run down a drainage and coming up the other side. It crossed where businesses and homes are located, and some of these were lost.

This is when the planning paid off.

Evacuation calls and email messages via the reverse 911 service were popping up on my email as well as my personal and work phones.

Having a plan made evacuating fast and efficient. The author evacuated with seven animals and critical items.

Having a plan made evacuating fast and efficient. The author evacuated with seven animals and critical items.

If your area has a reverse 911 system and you need to sign up for emergency alerts—do it TODAY. Do it now, don’t wait, just do it now. Having this system in place can make a significant difference in your being prepared for, and responding to, an emergency.

If your community does not have a reverse 911 system, call your local law enforcement, fire agency and local representatives and tell them that you want one.

Air Attack responding to the Courtney Fire.

Air Attack responding to the even more recent Courtney Fire. The DC-10 is a critical resource in responding to wildfires. Photo by Kirk Keeler.

The dark calico smoke was building, the hum and buzz of spotter planes could be heard circling and the daylight began to take on an ominous orange hue. With this began a series of calls between neighbors—our community group communication plan was now in action. Everyone was checking in with each other and making sure people had places to go, that we knew where people were going and assisting neighbors that needed help.

This is a testament to knowing your neighbors. It takes a team to handle some of the big things life throws at us and we cannot always manage alone. Get to know your neighbors now; you will know whom you can team up with. Share your contact information, build a sense of community, make a plan in case of emergencies and help each other.

You may also find that in an emergency, you suddenly have to be flexible, adaptable or a solution finder. This happened to us. The fire, which was now located south of us, was coming towards our neighborhood. The major highway was closed below our neighborhood, essentially cutting off the route to the designated emergency shelters. Thus, evacuating to the shelters was not feasible. We had to figure out another plan.

A small number of neighbors designated a meeting location north of our neighborhood and secured temporary overnight accommodations with our pets and belongings in tow. For as stressful as an event like this can be, we were calm, organized and adaptable, which made all the difference.

Resources from CalFire that were distributed at a neighborhood meeting prior to fire season, in order to help the community be prepared for a tough summer.

Resources from CalFire that were distributed at a neighborhood meeting prior to fire season. The materials were utilized, thus helping the community be prepared for a tough summer and long fire season.

During the entire incident, the neighborhood community group that I referred to in Surrounded by Fire stayed in contact. We were checking in and sharing information, discussing what people knew from their vantage point, as well as debating what information was credible and what was rumor. It is true, that when an incident is occurring and lots of information is circulating, some of it may or may not be accurate. For example, what time evacuation orders might be lifted, how the fire started or what families or business may have been directly effected. Sometimes, the information just needs time to be vetted by the proper agencies. The most important part, though, was that we were communicating and we knew we had each other to count on.

Once the evacuation orders were lifted, our group followed up on our communication plan. We shared information, made updates and added resources to our toolbox. Of course we swapped stories and added many more neighbors to the community group. We had people asking to be included and offering to be an active part of being prepared, as a neighborhood. This perhaps is the greatest sign of success for such a collective effort.

Now it is your turn.

Build Your Own Resilient Community: resources that make all the difference

  • Reverse 911: this service is critical for alerting residents that there is an emergency and how to respond to it. At our annual neighborhood meeting, a special focus was put on making sure neighbors had signed up for this service. Neighbors, who needed assistance signing up, received that support.

We all received the evacuation call on Monday, August 18.

  • Our larger community has two established Facebook pages for incidents, where literally thousands of people can stay up to date on important information. If your community faces seasonal or ongoing threats, a Facebook group page can be a powerful tool to communicate critical information to a significant number of people, quickly. Where I live, this is the go-to tool during incidents.
  • In addition, there are free police scanners both for the Internet and for smart phones. When an incident is occurring, this is an important way to monitor information AND I can guarantee, it will build your respect for the hard work Emergency Services personnel provide.
  • Be sure to become familiar with the emergency services in your area. Be aware of your law enforcement, fire, and other agencies, and check to see if they have Facebook pages or other information hubs where they post incident updates. It is great when you can get the information you need directly from the source.
  • Finally and most importantly—BE PREPARED. I cannot stress this enough—you will be better off and relieved when the pressure is on and everything you need is ready to grab and go. You need to have a plan and be ready to follow it. Be prepared and be ready to go because when it does happen, it happens really fast! It can feel chaotic and you won’t have time to dally and think about what to grab.
  • Take time to think it through and put your grab-and-go items together. Do you have children, pets or are you a caregiver? Think about what you need to get through at least 1 – 2 days away from home, along with your must have items. Prepare them.
Items prepared for a possible evacuation.

Items prepared for an evacuation.

Over the course of the week following the Junction fire, I heard heartbreaking stories from people who did not have a chance to grab what they needed or wanted. People left with only the clothes on their backs or never had the chance to grab their house paperwork or that special photo. In these cases, one is left with no choice but to wait and see—and that is the hardest part.

A portion of the Junction Fire on the west side of Highway 41 in California.

A portion of the Junction Fire on the west side of Highway 41 in California. The fire line was held utilizing Air Attack, bulldozer lines and fire crews on the ground, all of which helped reduce the number of lost structures during the incident.

We all face challenges where we live. Here in the foothill communities and throughout the Sierra Nevada, fire is a part of the ecosystem and our lives. Wildfire is a reality we constantly face.

You may live in a remarkable place with a completely different paradigm of ecological factors and challenges; perhaps it is hurricanes on the East coast or in the Gulf, perhaps it is blizzards and ice storms in the Northern latitudes or earthquakes, such as along the Pacific Rim.

Regardless of the hazard, being prepared will make facing such challenges easier. The better prepared you are, the better you will feel when you actually have to use your emergency plan or if you are evacuated and find that you have everything or nearly everything, you need.

Thank you signs can be found lining the streets throughout Oakhurst, California.

Thank you signs can be found lining the streets throughout Oakhurst, California following the Junction Fire.


Photo credits: All photos by Shauna Potocky except where indicated.

Shovels and Shade Provide Healing at the Footprints of Terror

Image courtesy of Silverstein Properties, Inc. all rights reserved.

9/11 Memorial Plaza shaded by swamp white oak trees. Image courtesy of Silverstein Properties, Inc. all rights reserved.

By Maymie Higgins

Recently, I visited New York and New Jersey in order to attend a family reunion. My last visit to Manhattan specifically had been in 1988, when the World Trade Center buildings still cast their tall and defiant forms across the skyline. This recent visit included plans to pay my respects at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

During my college years, I visited with my paternal uncle in New York many times, and I would accompany him on his commute from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Financial District where he had a seat at the New York Stock Exchange. Uncle Bill had parking privileges at City Pier A on the Hudson River at Battery Park. From 1960 to 1992, the pier was used by the New York City Fire Department as a fireboat station. Uncle Bill was awarded the parking privileges for his role during a city blackout in coordinating and providing alternative communication through Amateur Ham Radio. It was quite the treat to spend the day exploring the city with my aunt and then simply meet Uncle Bill back at the car at the end of the work day.

On one of my visits, Aunt Beth and I rode the high speed elevator in the World Trade Center South tower and toured the roof observation deck. For many reasons, September 11, 2001 was not just an attack on “those tall buildings in New York and the Pentagon.” It was personal. Even though Uncle Bill had retired by that time, he still lived in the region and it was possible for him to have been in Manhattan. Much of my family still resides in the region and I am grateful none of them perished on 9/11. However, many of them lost friends and still feel an acute sense of trauma and grief.

World Trade Center photo taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

World Trade Center photo taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

On this recent trip, I was eager to see if I still had my skills to navigate the big city. I drove my husband and myself from New Jersey to the Staten Island Ferry, successfully parked and hitched the free ferry ride across New York Harbor. We disembarked and made a beeline up Greenwich Street. No sauntering like a tourist for this gal, at least not until a surprising sight caught the corner of my eye. To my left was a huge garden in a place I had remembered as being mostly paved pathways and park benches. Now it was an eruption of green foliage full of activity as people hoed, raked, dug and harvested vegetables….in Lower Manhattan! Though my schedule did not allow me to linger very long, I made a mental note to research Battery Urban Farm, which had sprouted in the footprints of tragedy. Here is a video explaining the story:

We made our way to the 9/11 Memorial plaza, where massive pools with fountains flow in the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. Each fountain is surrounded by parapets that have inscribed in bronze the nearly 3,000 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. The contrast in stimulation of the senses within the plaza and that in the periphery of the plaza was palpable. In the periphery there were the sounds of jackhammers, cranes, sirens, car horns, and vehicle back up beepers. All this was suppressed and muted within the plaza, done so by the sound of massive waterfalls and rustling of leaves in the more than 250 swamp white oak trees. In fact, I felt cradled and shielded by their canopy. For more about the story of the trees chosen for the Memorial plaza, watch this video:

The Memorial plaza is one of the most sustainable, green plazas ever constructed, with irrigation, storm water and pest management systems that conserve energy, water and other resources. Rainwater is collected in storage tanks, meeting a majority of the daily and monthly irrigation requirements.

E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, which literally means “love of life.” Humans often seek to nurture life in various ways in an effort to soothe their grief, but it was surprising to see so much plant life in a concrete jungle. However, surprise was not my most overwhelming reaction. What concerned me that my heart might burst from my chest was an enormous sense of pride in the human race. Most humans innately know that, although individual lives may end, life itself goes on. Those who are still alive will see to it. No terrorist will ever destroy that rule of the universe.

Restoring the Herring River

The Herring River Estuary. Photo by Christine Harris.

The Herring River Estuary. Photo by Christine Harris.

By Christine Harris

In 1908 the Herring River Estuary in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, a system supporting 1100 acres of salt marsh, was diked off, restricting normal tidal flow and eliminating all but 10 acres of the marsh. The reasoning behind the construction of the dike seems ludicrous in light of modern ecological understanding. Today an effort is being made to restore salt marshes throughout the country, including those of the Herring River Estuary.

At the turn of the twentieth century the quaint coastal town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts was becoming a popular resort area to which many wealthy city-dwellers flocked. One popular hotel, the Chequesset Inn, located near the mouth of the Herring River, attracted an elite clientele. Guests at the Chequesset, and other area establishments, enjoyed spending time relaxing by Wellfleet Harbor, but complained about the mosquitoes. At the time it was believed that the source of the mosquitoes was the Herring River, and it was thought that if the salt marshes of the estuary were eliminated, the mosquito population in the area would decrease significantly. Thus the Chequesset Neck Dike was constructed by the state in 1908, reducing the mouth of the river from a width of several hundred feet to six feet, and effectively cutting off tidal flow beyond the dike.

Cutting off tidal flow to the Herring River significantly affected the health of the ecosystem it supported. In place of native salt marsh plants the Herring River now hosts a number of invasive plant species, including a large amount of the invasive reed phragmites. Furthermore, without the flushing of the tides and the presence of saltwater minnows such as the mummichog, a type of killifish that feed on mosquito larva, the Herring River likely provides breeding grounds for more mosquitoes now than it did before it was diked off.

Once considered to provide little more than foul smells and insects, salt marshes are now recognized as biologically significant ecosystems on which many species, including humans, depend. Peat, the spongy layer of decomposing plant material which is the base of a salt marsh, has been recognized to provide a buffer from storm damage. When storm surges threaten coastlines, peat absorbs flood waters and reduces the height of these surges, protecting coastal communities from the impacts of severe flooding.

Salt marsh peat. Photo by Christine Harris.

Salt marsh peat. Photo by Christine Harris.

Another beneficial feature of salt marshes is their role as the nurseries of the ocean. Over two thirds of all commercially harvested seafood species, including shellfish, finfish, crabs, and lobsters, depend on the salt marsh for part of their life cycles. Salt marshes provide cover and camouflage for many of these harvestable species when they are young and most susceptible to predation, and provide a safe place for breeding and foraging. Salt marshes also have recreational value as popular places to fish, kayak, and contemplate the natural world.

With knowledge of the benefits which marshes provide, local communities, the state, the county and the Cape Cod National Seashore have taken on the task of restoring several previously degraded salt marsh systems on Cape Cod, including that of the Herring River. Most of these restoration projects focus on the use of gradual tidal restoration to reintroduce saltwater, along with the species of plants and animals it supports, over the course of many years.  The Herring River restoration project centers around the reconstruction of the Chequesset Neck Dike. The proposed structure would provide access to the public for fishing and boating and have a series of sluice gates that could allow for incremental tidal restoration across a width of 100 feet. Construction of the new dike is set to begin in 2016.

Planting Trees is a TREAT

treeplantingPlanting trees with TREAT in 2014

By Jenna Gersie

Five years ago, I visited the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland to learn about the rainforest through the School for International Training’s semester abroad in Australia. Our professor asked us if we would prefer to spend our last day in the rainforest hiking or planting trees. Amongst the fourteen students in my group, the decision to plant trees was unanimous. We headed to a property where a planting site had been prepared in the red, muddy soil, with native rainforest tree seedlings laid out next to holes dug in the earth. We moved down the rows, putting the baby trees in the soil and packing the dirt tightly around their thin trunks. We had joined another group of students from the School for Field Studies, as well as many community members who volunteer with TREAT, or Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands.

I didn’t know much about TREAT when I planted with them in 2009, other than that it was a fun day, kneeling in the red mud and putting trees into the ground. The chance to plant trees was especially meaningful after spending the previous ten days learning about rainforest composition, disturbance, reforestation, and wildlife. While I was proud of my small contribution on that day, I certainly did not imagine that I would return to the Atherton Tablelands in 2013 as a staff member for the School for Field Studies, the other group we had met at the planting, and make volunteering with TREAT a weekly occurrence.

Early upon my return to Australia, I visited the Lake Eacham nursery, operated under a partnership between TREAT and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS), to bring my group of School for Field Studies students to volunteer. When I introduced myself at morning tea (also known as smoko) and told the other volunteers that I had planted trees with TREAT in 2009, their faces lit up with pride. Their smiles at that moment were something I would encounter again and again, on Friday visits to the nursery and on Saturday morning tree plantings throughout the Tablelands. If the chance to put trees in the ground and the tasty post-planting barbeques weren’t enough to keep calling me back to TREAT, the friendliness I encountered within that community undoubtedly was.

TREAT was founded in 1982 by local community members who recognized a need to plant native rainforest trees on the Tablelands. The Tablelands were once completely covered with beautiful, native rainforest, but when land was opened to settlers in the late 1800s, there was a requirement to clear and cultivate the land as a condition of occupancy. Much of the rainforest turned to farmland, and giant rainforest trees were felled at a rapid rate. In the early 1980s, protest movements to protect the remaining rainforest, such as blockading logging trucks, began. Enough passionate people got together to ensure that the remaining rainforest would be protected, and in 1988, the Wet Tropics received World Heritage Area protection. That protection, combined with a grassroots effort to reforest the Tablelands, has meant that mature rainforests are returning to the Tablelands.

Furthermore, the community effort that led to the founding of TREAT is backed by science. Community members work with QPWS and rainforest ecologists to connected isolated, fragmented habitat to larger tracts of rainforest. With landscape disturbance from cyclones and the degradation of forest fragments from weed invasion and other disturbances, it is important to connect these high-value systems of forest for the long-term health of the environment.

One example of this type of work is found at Donaghy’s Corridor near Lake Barrine. This wildlife corridor links forest at Crater Lakes National Park with Gadgarra State Forest. Plantings began in 1995, and after 18,000 trees were put into the ground along 1.5 kilometers, the corridor connected the forests in 1998. The work done to create this wildlife corridor was among the leading tropical restoration work in the world at the time. And TREAT didn’t stop there; they’ve been creating these types of forest linkages all over the Tablelands ever since.

IMG_2273Plastic guards protect these seedlings from herbivory by pademelons

One of the main reasons to create these wildlife corridors is to support the amazing floral and faunal diversity of the Wet Tropics. A starring character of this diversity is the Lumholtz Tree-kangaroo, also known as the mabi in the local Aboriginal dialect. Because of these unique and rare creatures, the rainforests in the area have come to be known as Mabi Forest, though they are more scientifically characterized as Complex Notophyll Vine Forest. Reforestation efforts in the area have also led to sightings of the Southern Cassowary, a large, flightless bird who survives on rainforest fruits.

Lumholtz Tree-kangaroo in habitat

To support Australia’s native wildlife, TREAT members turn up at the Lake Eacham nursery every Friday morning to take care of seedlings, extract seeds from rainforest fruit, pot plants, and plant seeds. During smoko, announcements are shared, QPWS gives updates on their fruit-gathering efforts, community members share their exciting wildlife sightings, and tea and cake are enjoyed by all. During the wet season, TREAT members and volunteers meet every Saturday morning on various landholders’ properties to plant hundreds to thousands of tree seedlings. Following each planting, volunteers on the cook crew provide sausages and lentil burgers for the hungry planters. I would give a great deal to again be sharing a cuppa with Tablelands community members after planting trees on a misty morning, red dirt still under my fingernails.

To learn more about TREAT, please visit their website, or watch a short documentary, Wet Tropics – Restoring Communities, here. You can also read about Donaghy’s Corridor and other projects here.

tree3Planting trees with TREAT in 2009


The reply I received from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regarding the hunt on the Huckleberry Wolf Pack

This is the email I received from the office of Phil Anderson, director of WDFW: 

Thank you for your message concerning actions by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to stop members of the Huckleberry wolf pack from preying on a flock of sheep in the northeast part of the state.  Many people have contacted the department regarding this action and we understand your concerns.

WDFW is committed to establishing sustainable wolf populations in Washington, but we also know that lethal measures are sometimes necessary when a pack becomes habituated to preying on livestock.  This is consistent with Washington’s Conservation and Management Plan, which states:

“Lethal removal may be used to stop repeated depredation if it is documented that livestock have clearly been killed by wolves, non-lethal methods have been tried but failed to resolve the conflict, depredations are likely to continue, and there is no evidence of intentional feeding or unnatural attraction of wolves by the livestock owner.”

The situation this month in southern Stevens County, where wolves from the Huckleberry pack killed more than 20 sheep and injured several others in less than two weeks, meets all of these criteria.  We know the sheep were killed by wolves based on an examination of the carcasses and paw prints at the scene.  We also know that members of the Huckleberry pack were involved, based on signals from a radio collar attached to one wolf and direct observations of others on grazing land that is leased from a private landowner.

Throughout the grazing season, the rancher kept watch over his sheep, aided by four Great Pyrenees mountain dogs.  Once the attacks began, he buried sheep carcasses whenever possible and began looking for an alternative grazing site.

Meanwhile, WDFW dispatched a team of four wildlife-conflict specialists to help guard the sheep using paint balls and rubber bullets.  When these efforts failed to stop the attacks, the department’s director authorized the rancher and the wildlife-conflict team to use live ammunition to shoot wolves that they saw approaching the flock. Finally, as the attacks continued, he authorized the removal of up to four wolves by a marksman in a helicopter.

This department’s ultimate goal is to help the rancher move the entire flock of 1,800 sheep to a new grazing area beyond the reach of the wolf pack, but that has been difficult to arrange.  In the near term, our strategy is not to eliminate the pack – estimated to have up to 12 members – but rather to break its cycle of predation until the flock can be moved out of the area.

These actions do not diminish WDFW’s commitment to wolf recovery in our state.  All eight northern states with gray wolf populations have sometimes found it necessary to remove wolves that pose a threat to livestock, wildlife, pets, or public safety – yet wolf populations are stable or growing in all of those states.

WDFW has received a number of messages criticizing our actions, while others have reminded us of our responsibility to protect the people who live and work closest to wolves.  It’s a difficult balance to strike, but two things are clear:  Wolves are in the process of re-establishing themselves in Washington State, and the employees of the department will continue to do our best to protect the interests of people as well as this endangered species.

Thank you again for writing to express your views on this subject.   For more information about wolf management and the Huckleberry pack, see the Latest News and Wolf Conservation and Management sections of our website,

Thurston County’s Plastic Bag Ban


By Neva Knott

All photographs courtesy of wiki commons.

As we roll into year two here at The Ecotone Exchange, I’m taking on the essential challenge of bioregionalism–knowing where I live. True, I was born in Olympia, Washington, but moved to Oregon when I was 18, so most of my adult life and knowledge of place centers on Portland and Oregon in general. It’s time I get to know “back home” in the ecological and environmental sense. Earlier this week I wrote about the current situation with our Huckleberry wolf pack, and in June I wrote about some of what’s going on along the Washington coastline through the work of Surfrider Foundation.

Today, I’m going to write about the new bag ban in my county. I live in Olympia, Washington (the state), which is in Thurston County.

As of July 1, 2014, single-use plastic bags will not be used at retail checkout counters. Produce bags are still allowed, but that final purchase bag will no longer be plastic. Instead, shoppers can bring a reusable bag, or purchase a paper bag for five cents.

The impetus for this ban is to keep more bags out of the waste stream, primarily, out of the waters of Puget Sound and the ocean. Puget Sound is an astounding place, and living on the Sound carries a very water-aware mindset. Secondarily, the ban is designed to address the human health risks of plastics.

pugetSoundOverview_w_legened copy

Statistics from a variety of sources show that each person uses 350-500 of this type of single use plastic bags per year. Even though some consumers recycle them, many municipal recycling programs don’t accept them. Some consumers “reuse” the bags, but the thinness of them does not allow for sustainable use. The most cited reuse in Thurston County’s survey of residents was to “pick up dog poo.” I do my fair share of dog-poo duty with bags from Safeway, Target, and the like. Even so, I don’t think it’s a strong argument for the bag’s reusability.

The webpage for the Thurston County bag ban cites Bag It The Movie: Is Your Life Too Plastic, a short film that explains plastics in the context of human consumption.

Most plastic bags that are recycled–Thurston County’s survey shows a 43 percent recycle rate–are made into composite lumber. The rest is used for a variety of consumer goods.

Because these bags aren’t made of biodegradable material, they don’t break down in the landfill. In fact, in previous research, I’ve learned that plastics take up to 400 years to break down–and then they only break down into smaller pieces. As far as humans know, plastic bags never break down to elements that can be absorbed back into the biota and recycled through the ecosystem.

This inability of the plastic bag to break down is the big problem in oceans everywhere. Eventually, the whole bag disintegrated into pieces. When the pieces disintegrate into small pieces, many species of marine life think the small pieces of plastic are food. For example, whales eat krill, a very small organism easily confused with bag bits.


A swarm of krill.

Once the plastic is ingested, it causes problems for the marine animal, and is passed on into the human food that comes from the ocean–the fish we eat contains traces of plastic. In a sense, the plastics have come full circle–but in a very harmful and unhealthy way.


Plastic bags are made from petroleum and natural gas by-products. While the plastics manufacturing industry explains that oil and natural gas are not mined just for plastic, it’s clear in following the fossil fuel and hydro-fracking debates that too much extraction of oil and gas is being done, period. By-products add to the argument that extraction is necessary because of the range of products it provides.

Sustainability evaluates raw materials sourcing, energy use in production, production waste, energy use in transportation, waste in production (chemical off-puts into the atmosphere or water, for example), and waste from use. Think of plastic bags in these terms, and you’ll begin to understand the rationale behind the bag ban here in Thurston County, and elsewhere.

In the end, these bags are bad, bad, bad. They are made from dirty chemical stuff, clog landfills, and kill marine life, and their manufacture contributes to global warming. Paper bags might not be much better, environmentally speaking–because it’s not the best thing ever to log trees to make bags, even though the bags will biodegrade.

In the end, the best choice is for people to make the effort to take a bag to the store. Europeans do it, and have forever. Why can’t Americans be less lazy about these things?

I’d rather take the extra minute to grab a bag than live on a planet with fewer forests, poisoned water, sick whales, dolphins and turtles, and global warming–wouldn’t you?


Check out Surfrider Foundation’s “Rise Above Plastics” campaign to learn more.

Shooting Wolves in Washington State


By Neva Knott

Not good. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced last Wednesday, August 20, 2014, that it would have to use lethal methods to control the Huckleberry pack because of depredation of sheep in Eastern Washington. Over the weekend, WDFW sent up a sharp-shooter in a helicopter to take four members of the pack, in hopes these deaths would deter any further attacks on the sheep herd. As of August 25, WDFW reports one wolf is dead.

This is the second such instance of WDFW-ordered wolf take. In 2012, the Wedge wolf pack was killed by WDFW because of cattle depredation. Not only did we lose wildlife, the kill cost the state $77,000.

I am pro-wolf. I’ve read all of the current science on the issue, have studied the history of human-wolf interaction and co-existence, and have interviewed people on both sides of the issue. What science says in the here and now is that wolves, and other top predators, keep ecosystems healthy and functioning. The presence of wolves in Eastern Washington doesn’t create a small change in the overall health of the region’s entire ecosystem; rather, it controls significant factors of the ecosystem. Other wildlife is healthier, vegetation and flora are healthier, streams are healthier, and the overall ecosystem works more systematically. The film, Lords of Nature, and the project’s website give good explanation to the ecological purpose of top predators.


Photograph courtesy of WDFW.

The pervasive belief on the other side of this issue is that humans are the top predators who control the ecosystem. Not true.

Washington State does have a fairly forward-thinking Wolf Management Plan, one that is very similar to Oregon’s and to plans of other Western states. Wolves have made their way here from other states on their own; they have not been reintroduced through any program. The primary aim of Washington’s plan is to facilitate, “a long term viable wolf population while addressing wolf-livestock conflicts.” Development of the WMP began in 2007 and the plan was adopted in 2011. It is based on extensive peer-reviewed science and addresses the concerns gathered in a 95-day public review process, during which time 65,000 people across the state commented. Most comments were in favor of wolves on the landscape. Most concerns were about wolf-livestock interaction.

Currently, gray wolves are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. In Washington, they are considered “delisted” yet threatened east of the Cascade Mountains, but are considered endangered on the west side of the state. WDFW has parced the state into three recovery areas where they will monitor wolf behavior and population growth. As the population increases, its status will change from endangered, to threatened, then to sensitive. Hopefully, eventually, the gray wolf will have no such status in our state.


So what makes a wolf population viable? As of the WDFW 2013 Annual Report, there are about 52 wolves in thirteen packs, with five breeding pairs that produced twelve pups total in Washington. Delisting can happen when there are four breeding pairs in each of the three recovery areas, plus three additional breeding pairs anywhere in the state for three consecutive years. Breeding pairs must produce pups that survive. Optionally, delisting can be based on four breeding pairs in each recovery area plus six additional pairs anywhere else in the state for one year. These numbers are based on a variety of methods of year-round monitoring.

In the annual report, you’ll find photographs, maps, and charts that document wolves in Washington. It’s worth a look.

The current conflict is between the Huckleberry pack and a sheep rancher, who is grazing his sheep on private timber land. There are new pups in the pack. The pack has taken down 22 of the sheep and has injured three of the herder’s guard dogs. This is a significant attack. Previous to this event, the depredation rate has been very low in the state. The 2013 Annual Report documents the next highest number to be seven cattle. In all of the reports I’ve read about wolf depredation, the rise in depredation correlates with pup season.

In the Environmental Impact Statement for the Wolf Management Plan, it is acknowledged wolf-livestock conflict is an area for further study. Here’s the rub–before wolves were killed off in the west so that the ranching industry could flourish, there was much more wide-open space, and much more wolf habitat. Now, the areas wolves roam–which can be about 300 square miles a day–are fragmented. Roads, clear-cuts, parks, ranches, break up the area of cover. Part of the conflict is that wolves more often come across human space, and sometimes, there’s a tasty food source, like sheep, just standing there. Sometimes, habitat fragmentation means that the ungulates wolves naturally prey upon, such as deer and elk, are not around.

Though it is sad that Phil Anderson, director for WDFW, ordered the kill, it is somewhat encouraging to know that the sheep herder and WDFW worked closely together and with wolf experts to stop further depredation after the first attack. After several scare tactics were tried and found unsuccessful, WDFW agents worked with the herder to move his sheep to a new location. When that failed to stop the wolf attacks, agents, the sheep herder, and a reporter from KING 5 news camped out to watch for the wolves, in an attempt to scare them off the herd. It was after these efforts that Anderson sent up the sharp-shooter.

I’m not saying that I agree with Anderson’s decision, though I do see how he arrived at it. In following the wolf issue in Oregon and now in Washington for the past four years, I do feel the WMP’s of each state are appropriate, but I do think more can be done to manage within the parameters of wolf behavior.

For example, one goal of Washington’s WMP is to protect den areas when pups are known to be there. My question in this situation is why was this particular herd grazing in high timber land when WDFW knew there were pups in the Huckleberry pack?

Second, what’s the availability of deer and elk as prey in the area? Again, the WMP includes a goal to manage prey populations so that wolves have enough food available that isn’t livestock.

Third, what pre-planning was done with the sheep herder, knowing that the pack was in the area and that pups were likely?

There’s a relationship between the sheep herder’s land as wolf habitat, available prey, and birthing of pups that I haven’t read enough about in WDFW press releases or in news coverage.

I’ve written an email to Mr. Anderson and have left a voicemail for Craig Bartlett, WDFW’s contact on media releases, seeking answers to these questions. If and when I get a response, I’ll write a post to share it.

If you would like to make your voice heard on this issue, please write to

Even though the idea of wolves eating all of one’s livestock is frightful, it’s important to know that wolves kill relatively very few livestock animals. Wild Earth Guardians reports that only four percent of sheep deaths in Oregon (no statistics for Washington are available) are caused by carnivores–to include wolves, coyotes, bear, cougars and dogs. Health problems and cars kill many more cattle and sheep than do wolves. For me, this in addition to the cost to taxpayers for killing wolves swings the balance in favor of letting wolves live and expecting the ranchers to change their ways even a bit more.


Image courtesy of Wild Earth Guardians.

The issue that seems to have raised much of the ire around Anderson’s decision is that not much publicity was given to it. The kill order hit the news cycle as it was happening. Although the WDFW departmental reply was that it was following the WMP, the public feels it had a right to know before the sharp-shooter went up. In reading the plan, I do think Anderson was following the steps outlined for wolf-livestock conflicts. In reading the plan, I do think Anderson sort of flew by the outreach and public education mandates. Even if the kill order was the next step in keeping the sheep safe, the public needed to be helped to understand why.

Even though I have these curiosities and agree with the general consensus about Anderson’s kill order being too much of a clandestine mission, I do–at least for now–think Washington has a viable Wolf Management Plan in place.

I also want to mention that Defenders of Wildlife is very active with all states that have wolves, and provide many cost-share programs designed to help with wolf-livestock conflicts. Their site also provides solid basic wolf facts.

Wolves are a hot-button issue here in the west. It’s my hope, in writing this piece, that people will form informed opinions. There’s a lot of propaganda out there, and a lot of emotion on both sides of the issue when it comes down to the news alert that a sharp-shooter is in a helicopter, gunning for a wild animal.


Photograph courtesy of WDFW.