An Emerging Voice in Film and the Environment: A Special Interview with the Winner of The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Film Competition, Patrick Webster.

Immersed in the wonder of the kelp forest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Immersed in the wonder of the kelp forest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

by Shauna Potocky

One cannot doubt the power of film, social media and the internet to connect people to stories, issues and challenges—whether on a local or global level. These same venues for communication also hold the power to share important positive stories, to educate, inform, empower and create space for important self-reflection.

One example of powerful storytelling emerged recently through The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Film Competition. The competition was hosted in collaboration with the American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking and gave participants a venue to connect audiences to environmental issues through the power of humor and storytelling. What emerged was a highly engaged audience who rampantly shared the videos, providing a wide reach for the issues and giving emerging voices a platform for sharing and educating in a truly unique and engaging way.

The People’s Choice and Grand Prize Winner of The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Competition is the brilliant and inspiring Patrick Webster, a Program Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who specializes in educating the visiting public about marine science and ocean conservation issues. Patrick graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz and was employed at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Laboratory where he credits making the connection between “dry, academic science and translating it into words and concepts people can relate to and care about.”

Patrick Webster in his element. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster in his element. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Patrick and congratulate him on his recent award winning film. It also presented the perfect opportunity to ask him about his emerging voice in the area of film and the environment, as well as his thoughts on engaging audiences and making tough issues accessible to people. Nothing short of thoughtful—one of the things that I was most struck by, was the assurance that young voices are emerging to help carry and create connections that can inspire change—and that they are doing it in new and fresh ways—ways that work.

Shauna Potocky: It is clear that you have a robust grasp of environmental issues, especially facing the ocean. What is your background in education or environmental work?

Patrick Webster: I’ve been working in the world of informal science education for about eight years now. I studied marine biology at UC Santa Cruz, and I was thankfully employed at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at UCSC’s Long Marine Lab for my whole college career. I’m also a big fan of stand-up and improv comedy—my “arts” requirement at UCSC was fulfilled with a stand-up class—and I am currently employed with this extremely niche set of marine-science-comedy-performance skills as a programs specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

I think I defaulted into conservation and environmental work from studying marine ecology and living in the Monterey Bay area—the culture here is very ocean-minded. When you’re learning about how organisms affect and are affected by their environment, just by doing whatever it is they do to survive, and when you apply that ecological thinking to people, it changes how you think about your place in the world. When you see what we’re capable of doing—both bad and good—to our local ocean, you learn quickly that if you’re not careful with what you’re doing now, you could blow it for [everyone else in] the community, human or otherwise. I like to talk to people about conservation issues, because they really boil down to our priorities and choices: we’re lucky as humans that we can pick the role we want to play in the environment—and we know now that you can make a better living whale watching in the Monterey Bay than you could whaling!

S.P.: Many of your films include underwater scenes. How did you get into scientific diving?

P.W.: I have wanted to be a marine biologist since I was five years old, ever since I saw the sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But growing up landlocked in the French Alps and the suburbs of Stockholm, diving wasn’t ever on the radar as something that anyone does until the college years. It was when I started taking upper-division classes in marine science, that I realized all the people I looked up to were scientific divers, and all the best stories told by the “elders”-involved dive trips and associated shenanigans. That’s when I knew I had to be a science diver, too. It also helps as motivation that 99% of the real estate on planet Earth for life to live is in the ocean—might as well get out there if you can!

S.P.: How did you find your voice in video and film production?

P.W.: The first time I realized I might be on to something in film was the reception to my submission to the “Youth In Yosemite” film contest. It was a very personal story about my connection to Yosemite through my late grandpa and my rock climbing hobby. I liked how it came out, but the response was very humbling. A lot of people said they connected with the story personally, that they cried and were reminded of their own family history of visiting the park. A long-time Yosemite resident told me that I was the first “outsider” he’d met who “got it”, and he thanked me. That gave me the confidence to enter more contests, and when I won the BLUE Ocean Film Festival’s YouTube contest that same year—with comedy instead of the dramatic Yosemite piece—that’s when I knew that “Hey, maybe people want to hear what I have to say.”

S.P.: What gives you hope or inspires you, when you consider the environmental issues that the world or the ocean face currently–such as what you highlighted in your film? They seem like huge challenges, how do you see us facing them?

P.W.: There are so many environmental success stories out there that we simply don’t notice for the same reason we don’t notice things getting bad in the first place: shifting baselines. Every time I see an otter in the kelp right outside, that is an incredible sight, and every time I see an otter I should be saying, “HEY EVERYONE, STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING, THERE’S AN OTTER RIGHT THERE!” I mean, they literally recovered from being classified as extinct! We are so used to seeing otters that we forget it is like seeing a kelp grizzly. Same thing with peregrine falcons, pelicans, all the whales in the Monterey Bay—those were all on the brink of disappearing forever. Now they [sea otters] are back and doing good. But we don’t notice them because they’re normal again, which is great as long as we don’t forget where we came from.

All it took for those animals to recover was for us humans to simply stop doing stuff we didn’t need to be doing. That is what is hopeful to me about “conservation issues”: they all boil down to a matter of choices and priorities. All it takes is for enough people to say “Hey, why don’t we just stop doing that?” and things start recovering right away. DDT is killing birds? Let’s stop doing that. Catching too many fish is bad? Let’s stop doing that. The climate is wrecked by burning fossil fuels? Let’s try to stop doing that. It has worked for us before to just stop doing bad things for things to get better. It is a matter of willpower.

For a lot of problems, that willpower is blocked by a lot of moneyed interests. And that’s hopeful too, because it means that if you can figure out how to make conservation more profitable than exploitation, you win. If the worst of humanity’s traits is greed, then flipping that for the planet will save us all and then some. It’s totally doable. I think that people are realizing the economic value of keeping ecosystems healthy, and I see that reality every day. Looking outside my window, I can see a bay that swapped whalers for whale watchers, flensing beaches for seal sanctuaries, a cannery for an Aquarium.

S.P.: If you could encourage others to make a difference–what advice would you give? How can people find their own voice, like you did through film? 

P.W.: Find out what you’re good at, and then keep doing that. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s also very accessible. We all have our passions and our skills, and finding where they overlap is key. I’m passionate about marine science, but I’m not that dedicated a marine scientist. Had I gone the bachelors-masters-PhD-in-a-row route, I would have been ignoring the fact that I’m a far better communicator and I am an investigator. Talking in public about science has always been easy for me; writing scientific papers has always been a struggle. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it on things that are merely tangential to your actual niche. Each species out there does at least one thing better than everybody else, and people are no different.

Then, you have to listen to the people in your life, the strangers and the loved ones, and especially to the people who don’t owe you a thing. If they’re giving you feedback, it’s honest. If they tell you you’re on to something, make a note of that, because that might be where your voice is hiding in plain sight. Self-reflection is key: what is it that I do that comes easy and that people resonate with? If you find that nugget, that’s your gold vein, and you work it for all its worth.

Patrick Webster, an extraordinary emerging voice in film and the environment. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster, an extraordinary emerging voice in film and the environment. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster’s current projects can be viewed at www.vimeo.com/underwaterpat and by following him on Instagram @underwaterpat. Be sure to stay tuned for his upcoming launch of www.upwellingmedia.com.

 

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Inspired by the Planet: Celebrating Earth Day and National Poetry Month

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Poppies on the west slope of the Sierra. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

The Sweet Spot of Spring

By Shauna Potocky

 

The shadows are leaning long

on the north east side of the house

so the crickets start singing,

even though there are a couple

more hours before nightfall.

 

The cold spring breeze is carrying

a thin film of burn pile smoke

from the western slope of the Sierra

down to the San Joaquin Valley;

it slips by like high clouds.

 

In the shadows the faint build up

of buds can be seen; the trees

are waking. Dangling mistletoe needs trimming

like the grasses, topped before burrs form

dry and tangle in the fur of unsuspecting cats.

 

Spring is divine. All the grasses

green and lush; wildflowers rise, bloom, seed.

The birds fill the forest canopy with chatter

song, a fair bit of whimsy.

It is the sweet spot of spring

before summer.

 

April offers much to celebrate—profound signs of spring along with two celebrations: Earth day and National Poetry Month.

This year, don’t miss the chance to find an Earth Day event near you and get out there to connect to the remarkable and unique environment in your community. Check your local community calendar listings; you are sure to find something spectacular. Many events are hosted at local parks and public lands, through businesses, by a local tribe or through full-scale festivals.

Look for local poetry events as well. Don’t miss all the talent blooming this National Poetry Month at your local bookstores, cafes, pubs or poetry slams. Many of these events are filled to the brim with eager people just waiting to share their thoughts and latest creations with you. Don’t let them down—sometimes the greatest thing we can do is show up—and you might just walk away WOW’ed and inspired.

If you’re really lucky you might just find a grassroots event that celebrates both!

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Sky Pilots in the High Country. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky.

This year, the connection of Earth Day and National Poetry Month came together at Intermountain Nursery in Prather, California, an exciting event inspired by music, storytellers, poets and of course, great food.

Intermountain Nursery specializes in California native plants and events that engage and empower individuals to embrace using natives as a smart source of landscaping. The nursery proactively educates people on common landscaping issues such as replacing water-thirsty landscaping with drought resistant plants and native species—a much needed consideration in the drought stressed state of California.

The nursery features an incredible array of community events, from their annual Harvest Festival to weekend classes on American Indian basketry, plant propagation techniques, illustration classes and much more. New for this year, Intermountain Nursery brought a unique blend of nature and art together in order to recognize and celebrate Earth Day and National Poetry Month.

Senator Gaylor Nelson fought a hard battle in 1970 to create Earth Day. Since then, his efforts have paid off. Today, Earth Day is an international event that is celebrated in schools, communities, public land sites and supported by international organizations and agencies.

Due in part to environmental champions as well as the awareness raised by Earth Day, the United States has put significant protections in place including the banning of DDT, creation of critical laws such as the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and establishment of the Endangered Species Act. Although Gaylor Nelson was not responsible for all of these efforts, the momentum he created propelled many of these issues and solutions into the public eye.

National Poetry Month was established in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets to bring wider attention to the amazing legacy of poetry. The Academy worked in collaboration with schools, libraries, literary organizations and writers, thus becoming the “largest literary celebration in the world, ” according to Poetry.org.

There is no denying the remarkable connection writing and poetry can create with the environment. Nature writers such as Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry along with poets such as Gary Snyder and Mary Oliver have captured our attention and held it, helping us keep the environment close at hand even when it seems far away from our busy urban lifestyles.

This month, take the opportunity to celebrate both Earth Day and National Poetry Month. Find some inspiration outdoors or curl up with a book from a celebrated poet or someone completely new to you—you might just find that they can connect you to the magic of the world we live in. Poetry might not be science, but it is a powerful art and its ability to help us discover and make connections to the natural world should not be underrated.

Sandhill Cranes over water KKeeler

Sandhill cranes at sunrise. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Edge of the Refuge

By Shauna Potocky

 

Held down all night

the Tule fog breaks as the dawn does

it rises, ethereal, masking the sun’s luminance;

beneath this low cloud, living things stir

water moves, ripples–and the bird calls come.

 

In the rise, wings   s p r e a d,   e v e r y t h i n g

o u t s t r e t c h e s ,   l i f t s in the coming light.

Song, chatter, foreign languages of the past

stir the damp cold of morning, every little thing

shattering in the waking of day.

 

The genes of wildness and knowing pass through the generations

they face boldly, calmly, the hunts, migrations, births, deaths

and this morning, all who wake, have triumphed.

They gather, breed, sing, sigh, continue the journey

their breathy words rise, sink, fade…

 

Their final syllables muffled as they come to rest

at the edges of the wetland, dampened by the wild

songs of the redwing black birds, who hold the line

in the tall, wind chilled icy reeds

that hold back the hunters and the rest of us.

Recreate Your Commute

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Excitement builds for the kick off of Bike to School Day in Santa Cruz, California. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

by Shauna Potocky

How long is your commute?

How many hours do you spend traveling to and from work, school or completing your errands? What if this time could be transformed into something that actually invested in your own well being? What if your commute time translated into health-benefits, saved you money—maybe even made your community a little nicer—by helping clean the air or reduce traffic congestion. Would you be interested?

Walking, running, skating, bicycling or using human-powered modes of travel are known as active transportation or non-motorized transport (NMT). When people empower themselves with these types of transportation options, individuals as well as communities see remarkable outcomes.  These outcomes are studied and evaluated,  such as through the work of Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, and via this work the benefits become increasingly clear.

Take the example of bicycle commuting: this single mode of transportation has the ability to produce positive change by freeing people from single vehicle transportation. It opens the door to providing physical exercise—burning approximately 500 calories an hour, while saving money directly related to gasoline costs, vehicle maintenance, registration, insurance and parking expenses. In addition, cycling is commonly used as a recreational activity, so there is the added benefit of cycling actually being fun, getting people outside and being practical.

Bike commuters at their way to the Santa Cruz Bike to Work event . Photo courtesy Dan Coyro, Sentinel Newspaper via Ecology Action.

Bike commuters at their way to the Santa Cruz Bike to Work / School event . Photo courtesy Dan Coyro, Sentinel Newspaper via Ecology Action.

How does bike commuting improve communities? Studies have demonstrated that by choosing to bicycle commute individuals have a direct and positive impact related to reductions in air pollution, traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) provides this incredible example as reported on their website, “On average, WSDOT adds more than 20 miles of new sidewalk, trails and paths each year. A recent federal study showed that when bicycle and pedestrian safety increases, total vehicle miles traveled is reduced by an estimated 156.1 million miles over the course of a year. These investments can mean savings of more than $23 million in fuel costs, and 67,000 metric tons of reductions in CO2 emissions.”

In addition, bike commuting can have even broader and longer-term positive impacts related to community planning. As communities embrace bike commuting as a viable option for individuals, they may invest in additional bike lanes, bike paths separated from roadways, bike commuting programs, bike lockers, and initiative options that further enhance cycling as a long-term transportation goal. Great examples of cities that have impressive bike commuting cultures include Santa Cruz, California and Portland, Oregon just to name two. Both areas take pride in their robust cycling infrastructure and community, which has embraced and grown truly passionate about cycling.

Museum exhibit celebrating the cycling community, culture and bicycle frame builders of Santa Cruz.

Museum exhibit celebrating the cycling community, culture and handmade bicycle frame builders of Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

As positive outcomes increase, communities often build on these successes, resulting in expanded investments or programs, which further benefit bicycle commuters as well as other stakeholders. Consider the success of Rails to Trails initiatives, which seek to transform train/rail systems into multi-user travel corridors that often include pedestrians, cyclists and recreational user groups. For an excellent example of a program designed to build community engagement—consider the popularity of Bike to Work days, which occur in cities and communities throughout the United States as well as internationally. Bike to Work days inspire people to take to the bike—either as a newcomer or as an experienced rider and provides encouragement, safety messaging and often food as positive ways to reinforce the effort.

Bike to Work Day in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

Bike to Work Day in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

One surprising or often unseen benefit to community investment in non-motorized transport projects is that ultimately they help to create more “efficient and equitable transportation systems” as reported in the study released in February 2015 by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

How can a transportation system become more equitable? Investments that improve active transport such as walking or cycling actually translate into benefits for individuals who rely on these modes of transportation due to socioeconomic factors or physical capabilities. Thus, when a community invests in transportation modes outside of motorized use, they create benefits for user groups beyond the regular commuter. It is a true win-win for citizens and the community as a whole.

Safety signage as well as designated pedestrian paths or bicycle lanes enhance safety and awareness for all citizens. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

Safety signage as well as designated pedestrian paths or bicycle lanes enhance safety and awareness for all citizens. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

What if breaking into a new commute mode is daunting? Find some encouragement here! There are great resources to help get you started. Ecology Action, a pioneering organization in Santa Cruz, California has one of the most successful and inspiring Bike To Work programs around. Their site has plenty of resources, advice, tips from the pros and more to help inspire a ride to work or school by bike.

Ecology Action is an excellent example and role model for getting people inspired to make a shift in their commute—and they are just a starting point. If you are interested in taking a more active approach to your own commute consider your options and then do some homework. Depending on the mode of transportation you would like to try—whether walking or bike commuting, you may want to search for resources in your community.

Specifically for bike commuting, some employers, schools and communities offer bike purchasing assistance programs. Many bike commute programs also offer assistance with helmet purchases or bike light advice. A trip to your local bike shop can also be a great first step—experienced staff can help answer questions on what kind of bike you need or what maintenance your current bike might benefit from—in order to make your first miles smooth. In addition, they can provide advice on the proper fit of a bicycle as well as your bike helmet.

Community Bike to Work or School events encourage riders of all levels to take to the bike. Surveys help organizations measure participation and learn about potential barriers that can be addressed to help more people use alternative transportation modes.

Community Bike to Work or School events encourage riders of all levels to take to the bike. Surveys help organizations measure participation and learn about potential barriers that can be addressed, thus helping more people embrace alternative transportation modes. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action

Perhaps having a commute partner will help make those first few miles easier. If that is the case, not to worry, some organizations, such as Ecology Action, help provide connections through Bike Buddy programs. In addition, asking friends, family or looking for riding partners via your work, school or local bike shop can be great places to start as well.

So as the days get longer, the weather gets warmer and Spring emerges, consider all the ways you can recreate your own commute. You never know how it might just transform you and your community.

You never know where your commute might just take you!

You never know where your commute might just take you! Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler

Finding Refuge

Sandhill Cranes over water KKeeler

Sandhill Cranes and other species find refuge at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

by Shauna Potocky

The morning is damp and cool—not cold, just wet and cool. A thick blanket of Central Valley tule fog keeps the Merced Wildlife Refuge in a dream like state of obscurity. In the gray mist the voices of thousands of birds rise in the morning air. Only a few Whitefaced Ibis, Pintail ducks, Cinnamon Teals, and Northern Shovelers are seen on the edge of the wetland as the fog begins to lift and the sun rises.

Pintail Ducks and more stand at the water line as the fog breaks.

Pintail Ducks and company preen in the emerging sunlight as the fog breaks. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

Today, what the fog is hiding is substantial. As California emerges from January with hardly any precipitation, it is clear that the historic drought that California is experiencing is set to continue into a fourth year. With it will come significant challenges—exacerbating last year’s remarkable issues. From critical and hard decisions regarding water allocations to agriculture, wildlife refuges, and rivers with native fish runs. To addressing tree mortality estimated at 40 percent in some areas of the state as well as having faced a prolonged fire season, with no shortage of extraordinary and fast moving wildfires.

Taking action, California is now employing significant steps to address the ongoing drought and provide for both human use and environmental needs. In November, California voters approved Proposition 1, which allocates $7.5 billion via a bond measure for water programs, projects and restoration. The proposition addresses seven key areas: Regional Water Reliability; Water Storage Capacity; Water Recycling; Groundwater Sustainability; Safe Drinking Water; Flood Management; Watershed Protection and Ecosystem Restoration.

Specifically, the proposition focuses on expanding and diversifying water resources and management options. It is clear that one method of water management cannot address the needs of the entire state. Thus, the goal is to diversify water collection and storage, protect and correct current water quality issues—primarily in disadvantaged communities where water pollution is a major issue. In addition, efforts will be made restore ecosystems and river functions and address both short and long-term water needs.

The importance of water has grabbed the attention of representatives, business owners, farmers, public land managers, and citizens. Collectively, the people of California are taking a forward-thinking, diverse approach to address another record-breaking dry year. Of course there may not be consensus on all the initiatives, yet it seems clear a diverse approach will offer more potential solutions than a narrow focus.

Faced with today’s water realities in California, a proactive forward-thinking approach is needed to address these challenges.

Habitat that received water despite overall reduced wildlife refuge water allocations.

Habitat that received water despite reduced water allocations. Photo credit Shauna Potocky

One example of proactive management includes the actions and planning of California’s Wildlife Refuge managers in addressing the dry conditions of this winter’s migratory season. Many planned for a large influx of migratory birds in December and January based on reports of a productive breeding season in the northern habitats of Alaska and Canada. With refuges situated along the Pacific Flyway, it was critical that managers provided habitat for migratory species, despite the drought conditions, which serve as resting and feeding grounds as the birds move through California.

Sandhill Cranes in flight at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California

Sandhill Cranes in flight at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

Faced with reduced water resources, wildlife refuges have concentrated water in critical habitat.  Many California refuges received only a portion of their normal water allotments, making strategic management of the wetlands essential. In addition, visitor use activities have been limited including hunting and tours at various locations. Although difficult for bird enthusiasts, it is a good reminder that the refuges are for the birds. They represent only 5 percent of the remaining historical habitat in California’s Central Valley.

A Whitefaced Ibis forging on a mild winter day.

A Whitefaced Ibis forges on a mild winter day in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

As the fog lifts on this winter day, the Sandhill Cranes begin to dance for their partners. The Ross’ Snow Geese rise in great loud clouds of movement and the reeds that frame the wetlands shimmer with the flutter of Redwing Black Birds—their songs as sharp as their brilliant red and yellow shoulders. With the receding fog, we are reminded that as resources like water become scarce, we are all pressed to be wiser and more forward thinking in our planning, use and conservation.

The fourth year of California’s drought is the perfect time to examine how water is allotted, conserved, and protected. Although facing significant challenges, California is also perfectly poised to embrace responsible, innovative, and robust water planning and management. Its success is critical. Frankly put, citizens, wildlife and ecosystems are depending on it, as California seeks its own refuge during a paradigm-shifting drought.

A perched raptor watches quietly as the wildlife refuge comes to life as the morning breaks.

A perched raptor watches quietly as the refuge comes to life just after daybreak. Photo credit Shauna Potocky

Taking The Long View

El Capitan,  Yosemite National Park, California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

By Shauna Potocky

This week Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall, considered one of the hardest climbs in the world. In fact, due to the sheer face of the wall and its technical aspects, it was considered impossible to free climb—until this week.  Suspended on the granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, the climb took them 19 days to complete. Yet, what most people may not realize, is that their effort did not start on day one of their 19-day journey.

The journey to the Dawn Wall began more than six years ago—built on vision, planning, and preparation.

In short, the attempt at freeing the Dawn Wall, required taking the long view.

As we begin 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s feat is an excellent reminder for all of us to consider taking the long view. It is the perfect time to reflect on the benchmarks, milestones, and successes of previous work and to be inspired by the work ahead. It is also an opportunity to acknowledge that there will always be work ahead. By taking the long view, we begin to see that success between quick wins and real vision, means being patient, planning and often times includes building a network of support.

Detail of climbers base camp on the wall of El Capitan. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Detail of climbers base camp on the wall of El Capitan. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Consider the remarkable story of the recovery of the Peregrine falcon in the United States. In hindsight, it becomes clear that although the obstacles may have seemed overwhelming at the time, they provided the best opportunity for innovation and creating a completely novel conservation and management strategy.

In 1970, only two nesting pairs of Peregrine falcons existed in the California and the species had already gone extinct on the east coast of the United States. After extensive efforts—some of which people doubted—the Peregrine falcon emerged to re-inhabit its wild spaces as well as take up residence in our urban landscapes.

Ultimately, the Peregrine falcon recovery proved to be a remarkable success with the species being delisted from the Endangered Species List and becoming an inspiration for other recovery efforts.

And, just like the Dawn Wall ascent and its pre-planning and vision, the recovery of the Peregrine falcon and its success was built on significant touchstones, many of which preceded the recovery effort.

Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, bringing to light the challenges to the environment in the face of industry and human impacts. Carson revealed the realities of bioaccumulation and the resulting issues facing wildlife. Within a few years, the Environmental Protection Agency would ban the use of DDT (dichlorodipheyltrichloroethane), which was having a significant impact on Peregrine falcons and other bird species. Soon after, President Nixon would sign into law the Endangered Species Act, and two bird conservation groups would take on the challenge of trying to bring the Peregrine falcon back from the brink of extinction in the United States. All these efforts contributed to groundbreaking change—and collectively, the recovery of the Peregrine falcon is just one example of their success.

Ano Nuevo State Park, located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is well-known for its seasonal Northern Elephant Seal population.

Ano Nuevo State Park, located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is well-known for its seasonal Northern Elephant Seal population. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Then there are the efforts to establish the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which began in 1967 and would not come to fruition until the Sanctuary was established in 1992. Success was realized due to the acknowledgement that the Monterey Bay, along with its associated coastline, featured some of the nation’s most diverse ecosystems—all of which would face significant impacts if not protected from oil exploration or other large-scale industrial operations.

The vision of the sanctuary culminated through various efforts over a long period of time, and included work by the Sierra Club, various counties, and stakeholders. In the end, Leon Panetta, then a representative of California, carried forth the legislation, protecting the Monterey Bay and more than 250 miles of coastline.

Today, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is nothing short of a national treasure.

Harbor seals resting on a beach on the shores of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Harbor seals resting on the shore of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

There are also important human stories of taking the long view. In Kenya, organizations are establishing relationships with local communities, providing opportunities for innovative and sustainable employment. These solutions allow residents to transform their living situations and the environment. Zawadisha is just one example of an organization that is empowering people to transform their own lives and livelihoods while providing them access to resources that can also make a difference for the environment.

A Zawadisha workshop focused on leadership development in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

A leadership development workshop held in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

The examples do not end with reaching the top of the Dawn Wall or empowering change in Kenya. Consider the ecosystem cascades associated with the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone National Park. The continued habitat protection even in the face of drought in California, which includes assuring wildlife refuges still receive water allotments in order to maintain the integrity of important habitat for resting, breeding or wintering birds along the Pacific Flyway.

There are many successes, and we need to take time to really acknowledge this work and know—it does not always come as a quick fix—often it is a long vision, made real.

The Merced Wildlife Refuge in the Central Valley of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge in the Central Valley of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

As we enter 2015, we know there are big issues to be decided and no shortage of environmental challenges to face. A vision and what emerges from the idea of what can be, creates the resilience needed to face these issues and challenges with grace and poise.

The successful freeing of the Dawn Wall by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson can inspire us all to consider what it takes to think big–to plan, prepare, practice, and then do. Each pitch on the route was a milestone, and their perseverance is a great reminder to us all of the real value of taking the long view.

The Future of the Pacific Fisher: On Our Watch

Pacific fisher artwork by Megan Connelly

Pacific fisher artwork by Megan Connelly

By Shauna Potocky

January 5, 2015 will be a pivotal day in the future of the Pacific fisher along the West Coast of the United States. An extraordinary predator of the mixed conifer forest, the Pacific fisher was once abundant throughout the forested areas of the United States and Canada. Fisher populations rapidly declined due to hunting and timber extraction in the mid 1800 through the early 1900s. Today, the fisher is affected by development, timber extraction, fires, toxins and forest fragmentation—but the fisher’s story does not end here. In fact, there is a chance to write an entirely new chapter for the West Coast populations of fisher, focused on its future.

Previous attempts to protect the Pacific fisher under the Endangered Species Act have not resulted in it being listed, but soon that track record may change. Increased pressures on the West Coast population of fishers, along with consistent monitoring of the population by a wide range of professionals and stakeholders, have culminated in what may be an important review and opportunity to list the fisher as threatened via the Endangered Species Act. This may afford a new level of protection and suite of management strategies to help preserve the existing population and potentially assist in its eventual recovery.

USFWS Pacific South West Region photo via Creative Commons

USFWS Pacific South West Region photo via Creative Commons

The natural history of the fisher has made it uniquely susceptible to various human pressures. A member of the weasel family, also known as mustelids, the fisher is essentially the middle cousin between the smaller American martin and the larger wolverine. Yet, what might help one understand the appeal of the fisher, is that it is also related to the sea otter—and shares many characteristics of its remarkable fur. This fur is what made the fisher a valuable commodity during the settlement of the United States and the fur trapping and trade of the time. That, along with its dependence on forested areas as habitat, put it in direct competition with a young country looking to extract lumber and build its future infrastructure.

The result was that the fisher declined in many areas of the United States and went extinct along parts of its range on the East Coast. Reintroductions have helped to bring the fisher back to its historic range. Yet, today, there is a population of fishers still eking out a living on the West Coast—primarily in Washington, Oregon and California. Perhaps the most remarkable of these populations is the geographically isolated population of fisher in the Southern Sierra Nevada of California. Here, a small population of just several hundred individuals is hanging on—though, they are facing big odds. That said, there are many people working to explore the issues, find solutions and potentially turn the odds in the fisher’s favor.

Research groups are working to better understand the needs and critical habitat of the fisher, this work enables them to collaborate with and inform communities, businesses, agencies and other research groups on adaptive management strategies that can best support the fisher in its remaining habitat. Essentially, this work can help in effectively preserving or restoring habitat and potentially bridge or solve the fragmentation gap—thus reuniting the fisher within its historic range.

The Pacific fisher preys on small mammals such as mice, squirrels and is famously known for predating porcupines. It is generally found in close proximity to a water source and prefers a closed canopy forest. Perhaps most importantly, is its dependence on medium to large trees as an essential part of its habitat. Specifically, the female fisher utilizes cavities in trees as dens for resting, giving birth and raising her young, known as kits. Smaller trees generally do not provide den space—thus, the fisher is associated with forests that have larger diameter trees.

Photo courtesy of Mark Jordon

Photo courtesy of Mark Jordan

The fisher is well adapted for climbing trees; it has large paws that feature impressive claws, which aid in climbing. The fisher is also a skilled predator—it may look remarkably cute, but don’t be fooled, it is an effective hunter. Unfortunately, as an ironic twist of predator fate, the fisher has become the center piece of an emerging issue in forests and public lands, especially in California.

Illegal marijuana farms are permeating public lands throughout areas of the Southern Sierra Nevada. In these areas national forests, national parks and other remote forested landscapes have fallen prey to marijuana growers who have no regard for public lands, the forest, water resources and the wildlife that reside there.

Entire areas of forest may be cut or thinned in order to cultivate marijuana. Water is plumbed from streams and there is no remorse for killing wildlife—either for illegal hunting or to protect the marijuana crop itself. This second motivation has resulted in heavy poisons being used in forest landscapes in order to kill mice, squirrels and other animals that may jeopardize the crop. These poisons, known as rodenticides, bioaccumulate in the food web, and the fisher has emerged as a major victim.

In a population that is already facing great pressures from land use, resource extraction, vehicle collisions, an increased threat of fire, as well as geographic isolation—there is now an option to do something for the Pacific fisher.

January 5, 2015 is a fast approaching deadline. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is providing the public with an opportunity to weigh in on whether the Pacific fisher should be protected via the Endangered Species Act. Whatever your opinion, don’t sit silent—we are being given the opportunity to speak up and the future of the fisher is on us. Its fate will be determined on our watch.

 

Zawadisha: Creating Change, Inspiring Action in Kenya

Zawadisha

By Shauna Potocky

What if one of the best solutions to social and environmental change came in the form of empowerment? What if that empowerment was gifted to the most disenfranchised members of society? What if, in their empowerment, family units, communities and whole economies began to change? What if with that change, came the benefits of education, stable family economics, clean water, clean air, and entrepreneurial businesses operated from the heart while also based on sustainability? In such a paradigm, how might lives, economies, and ecosystems change?

The answers to such an empowerment paradigm are known and the non-profit organization, Zawadisha knows first-hand how profound the changes can be.

Zawadisha, (which meaning “to give a gift”), is focused on empowering women in Kenya with the means, training, mentorship and supportive structure needed to not just lift themselves up but to thrive as an emerging economic force in their home communities. Through an innovative and well informed micro-lending program, designed to set its members up for success, the program also requires the women it engages to create sustainable businesses. In doing so, it transforms women from not only being the backbone of their family structure but also empowering them with the tools needed to become an active part of the local economy. As women emerge into this new role, it shifts and shapes the economic and environmental stability of their community.

Group Meeting Zawadisha 2

Group leaders participating in a leadership development workshop held in 2014. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

In particular, by employing a culturally relevant and safe micro-lending program, Zawadisha has honed in on a successful focus, one that Jennifer Gurecki, the Chief Innovation Officer describes as, “pro-poor, pro-women and pro-environment.”

Specifically, Zawadisha leverages several critical factors into its successful program model; the first is that it fully engages the participants it serves by completely integrating them into the management of the program. Participants are engaged as members and actively participate in the fiscal and business management of the micro-lending program. This active participation and engagement translates into a partnership that members feel passionate about, resulting in a high degree of personal investment in the program outcomes. This empowerment results in an impressive success rate in the repayment of loans while supporting the much needed disbursement of products and services into communities with significant need.

Zawadisha meeting

Zawadisha’s Opportunity and Empowerment Director, Cindy Mayanka, facilitating a workshop with the Neema Women’s Group. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

There are two other elements that make Zawadisha’s program outstanding. Once the loans are dispersed and the members are engaged by a peer chair-lady, who organizes monthly meetings, the members also benefit through access to both leadership and business training opportunities. These opportunities further advance the women’s potential for success, ensuring that beyond financial investment in their business, they also have the additional tools needed to be successful in their endeavor.

Solar Light and Bright Smile Zawadisha

A solar lighting system and an opportunity for a brighter future. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

In addition, Zawadisha is taking a clear environmental approach to empowering its members. Current members are being “grandfathered” into a new vision, one that will offer training on sustainable business practices. The vision for future members, is that as requirement for obtaining a micro-loan, the women entrepreneurs must demonstrate that they are developing an environmentally sustainable business. It is clear that in communities where businesses are grown based on environmental degradation—future problems arise. Although there may be a short-term economic gain for the community—in the long-term, jeopardizing water, soil or air resources are not a good investment—for anyone. In recognition of this, Zawadisha will only invest in projects that build on sustainable practices or services—most of which are related to solar power lights, rain water catchment tanks and soon-to-be launched, eco-stoves for cooking, which will reduce dependence on coal.

How transformational can solar lighting, a rain water catchment tank or eco-stove be in a women’s life? Subsequently, what can the effects be on her community? Consider these remarkable examples that come directly from the women served in the environmentally impacted community of Maungu, located five hours south of Nairobi. Of note, Maungu is a community situated in a landscape that has suffered from desertification. The women of the community report that, “thirty years ago the area was covered in trees.” Today, the trees have been removed and the landscape suffers from a lack of water and is characterized by dry red dirt and low-lying shrubs. In such a scenario, here is how transformative an investment in what the women say they need, can be.

Maungu landscape Zawadisha

Maungu landscape and the future site of the Neema Women’s Group native tree nursery. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

When a woman receives a loan for a solar light, she directly changes two key aspects within her home—she eliminates the greatest health risk to people within their living quarters related to the use of paraffin burning lamps, which is known for its toxicity. Paraffin is directly related to elevated respiratory issues and significantly impacts the young and the elderly. Beyond elimination of this health hazard, she increases the productivity hours within the home, allowing her to focus her efforts on beneficial aspects of household management and significantly shift household expenses. Paraffin is costly to the household and can be offset by the use of solar lighting. One solar light loan is equal to the cost of a one month supply of paraffin, thus, the solar light can pay for itself within one month of use.

In addition, an unexpected benefit of the new household investment has emerged. Women who have received the lamps have indicated that they have been treated with more respect and support from family members as a result of their contribution to the household.

Rain water catchment tank Zawadisha

A rain water catchment tank can provide increased food security and help transform the landscape. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

For a woman who has received a rainwater catchment tank; her daily life is significantly changed—she no longer is required to spend six hours each day, walking to obtain water. This allows her to focus her daily efforts on activities that can continue to transform her living situation. In addition, with water catchment located at home, many women have started kitchen gardens that are able to supply food to the household and provide food for market, which translates directly into increased food security. These women have also indicated that they too have benefited by increased respect and support for their efforts in transforming and significantly contributing to their households.

JG and Group Zawadisha

Pictured here: Jennifer Gurecki, Chief Innovation Officer and group leaders; together they distribute or manage micro-loans on a financial scale that for $100, can provide a loan for either one rain water catchment tank, four solar lights, or new in 2015, four eco-stoves. Photo Courtesy of Zawadisha.

New for 2015, Zawadisha is excited to begin providing loans for eco-stoves. These stoves will provide a positive alternative to high coal consuming stoves, which have significant impacts on people and the environment. One significant difference in the roll out of the stove program as compared to other microfinance institutions (MFI) is that Zawadisha spent a significant amount of time listening to the women of the community to find out what the women needed and what type of stove will truly work for them. This is critically important because it has been observed that some MFI’s have provided products to communities without investigating the needs of the people and the products to be provided, in order to assure a beneficial match to the end user. This has translated into products being delivered into communities that subsequently were not utilized, as it did not meet the need of the people they were meant to serve. Zawadisha has been very mindful of this and has diligently inquired into the true need of the people regarding cooking alternatives. As a result of the investment in knowing what the women will truly benefit from, the new stove loans will become available to Zawadisha members in 2015.

Garden Zawadisha

An example of landscape transformation, this garden was the result of a rain water catchment tank. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

The coming year also offers another exciting development. Zawadisha will also assist the women of Maungu in establishing a native tree nursery. This nursery will supply seedling trees to the restoration market that is generated by local national parks and through the nongovernmental organization, Wildlife Works.

The women of Maungu represent many of the women of Africa, they are strong, family-minded, and community building. They are not defined by the demographic statistics reported to us and throughout the world. They are the smiling faces, the jovial laughs, the cultural shepherds and entrepreneurial spirit of their communities. They are also the game changers—when provided with the opportunity to empower themselves, without jeopardizing everything in unsafe loans; when they are given a truly supportive opportunity to change the economic expenses of their household, shift the environmental impacts of traditional supply chains, what emerges is a shift in health benefits, the obtainment of food security, and positive impacts on the environment and the local ecosystem.

The women of Maungu represent a deeper hope for all of us. They prove that impacted areas of Africa can be transformed and healed through the vision of its own women. They demonstrate for the world that many of the issues facing communities today can be addressed by engaging and empowering the members of society who may frequently be overlooked—a lesson we can all learn from.