Environews: December 2017

By Amy Brunvand

Environmental news from around the state and the West.

The more we examine the special properties of the quaking aspen, the greater our fascination with the beauty, complexity, and continuing mystery of this tree. If others agree, perhaps we can save clones like Pando from a destiny as firewood.

— Michael C. Grant


Can we save Pando?

Pando, the Earth’s largest known living organism by mass, is dying for lack of large predators in the ecosystem.

Pando, an exceptionally beautiful male quaking aspen clone, is located in the Wasatch Plateau on the Fish Lake Highway in Southern Utah. He covers 106 acres, weighs more than 13 million pounds and has about 47,000 tree trunks all connected by an underground root system so that what appears to be a grove is actually a single organism.

Pando (Latin for “I spread”) was discovered in the 1960s, and was given the name in 1992 by University of Colorado scientists after they identified him as the world’s largest organism.

We don’t know exactly how old Pando is. He first grew from a seed, possibly at the end of the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago, but he may be even older than that.

To go on living, Pando needs to keep on sending up new suckers to replace old “ramets” that live about 65-120 years. But even though Pando sends up plenty of suckers, cattle and mule deer gobble them up before they can become mature trees.

Utah State University Scientists have been experimenting with fences to keep the browsers out, and that may work. But the root of the problem (pun intended) seems to be a lack of predators to keep the herbivores moving, as they did in the days of the buffalo on the Great Plains before the arrival of human hunters. In Yellowstone National Park, aspen trees made a comeback after 1995 when the reintroduction of wolves kept herbivores on the move. However, some think the effect of wolves on Yellowstone aspens is overstated. If that’s the case, it’s even more alarming that Pando is failing to thrive.

If Pando did first sprout at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age, he has lived through the entire Holocene epoch, a time of fairly stable climate when human civilizations emerged from the Stone Age.

Earth scientists are proposing that we are in a new geologic epoch that should be identified as the Anthropocene—the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. After tens of thousands of years on Earth, Pando may be signaling that the new climatic conditions of the Anthropocene are beyond his level of tolerance.

Western Aspen Alliance: western-aspen-alliance.org


Sustainability report recognizes Utah campuses

Innovative programs at two universities in Utah earned special mention in the 2017 Sustainable Campus Index published annually by the Association for Sustainability in Higher Education. Utah State University was recognized for participation in the National Bike Challenge every year since 2013. The Cache Valley Bike Challenge helps combat poor air quality by encouraging people to ride bicycles. The 2016 competition resulted in over 90,000 miles ridden, 32,000 lbs of CO2 avoided, and $20,000 saved.

The University of Utah also earned kudos for institutional support of the Global Change and Sustainability Center as well as for programs to help community members to install rooftop solar and purchase electric vehicles.

Sustainable Campus Index 2017: http://www.aashe.org/sustainable-campus-index/


Rob Bishop’s very bad bill

Heads up! Rob Bishop (R-UT-1) is co-sponsor of a very bad bill that may soon go up for a vote in the U.S. Congress. H.R. 4239 known as “SECURE Act,” supposedly promotes American energy security, but it is actually a public lands giveaway to fossil fuel industries.

The SECURE Act prioritizes fracking over other land uses, eliminates requirements for public comment under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and “empowers States” to permit and develop production of oil and gas on available federal land without environmental review.


Climate change in the Western U.S.

Utah Clean Energy has launched a campaign for local climate leadership called “Path to Positive Utah.” So far over 40 Utah leaders have signed a declaration to combat climate change, including Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Park City Mayor-Elect Andy Beerman and Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison.

Places where people believe the scientific evidence for human-caused climate change are leading the way to a more sustainable and resilient future for Utah.

Path to Positive Utah: pathtopositiveutah.org/

Let the buffalo roam

In November the Ogden Standard Examiner reported that Antelope Island State Park is conducting a feasibility study of motorized trail use, requested by Michael Styler, Executive Director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

The Park is home to watchable wildlife including one of Utah’s three public bison herds, pronghorns, bighorn sheep and mule deer, and is also a birding hotspot. It currently offers more than 45 miles of non-motorized trails open to hiking, biking and horseback riding, and in order to protect critical wildlife habitat, cross-country travel is prohibited.

Friends of Antelope Island have sponsored a “Possible Pathways” trail chair so that people with mobility issues can enjoy the experience of non-motorized trails, and visitor surveys show that park visitors value wildlife viewing and hiking. There is no pressure from off-roading groups to open Antelope Island to motorized recreation.

So why bother with such a study? One clue in the article is that Styler proposes “guided tours” which would be a moneymaker for some concessioner. Or perhaps he wants wealthy hunters to be able to drive trophy game animals out on ATVs.

In 2010, Styler was involved in opening up Antelope Island to trophy hunting despite strong public opposition. Minutes from a meeting of May 6, 2010 describe his plan of marketing permits through hunting groups “because they bring in the big money.”

Indeed, in 2016 an Antelope Island State Park mule deer permit was auctioned at the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo to a Canadian hunter for an astonishing $410,000.

Where did all that money go? Not into the maintenance budget of underfunded Utah State Parks. By Utah law, 10% of money raised from “conservation and sportsman permits” goes into the pockets of “sponsoring” trophy hunting organizations like Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife; the other 90% is mandated for “the benefit of species for which conservation permits are issued”—in other words, only to programs that specifically benefit the very same trophy hunting organizations.

Worse, many of these supposed “conservation” hunting organizations have ties to people and organizations with an agenda of privatizing public land and wildlife. In the past, the Utah Legislature has handed over large amounts of no-strings-attached money to such organizations with very little public accountability.

In 2013, a legislative audit of state funds given to Big Game Forever (a spin-off of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife) found that from 2011 to 2014, $800,000 had been “comingled” with other funds so that there was no way to tell how the money was spent.

In any case, the proposal of ATV trails where they are not wanted sounds more like a behind-the-scenes personal favor than good stewardship of state parks. A November 9 post on the Utah State Parks blog says there will be a public comment process before any final decisions about ATVs on Antelope Island are made.

Antelope Island State Park: stateparks.utah.gov/parks/antelope-island/; Possible Pathways: possiblepathways.org

New SLC chapter of Dark Sky Association

Carpe noctem (sieze the dark) is the motto of the new Salt Lake Chapter of the International Dark Sky Association, formed in October by Jessica Dwyer of the University of Utah Center for Science and Mathematics Education.

Light pollution from artificial lights harms dark-adapted wildlife species, throws human circadian rhythms out of whack and squanders energy by beaming light up into the sky.

The good news is that Utah has more dark-sky designated sites than anywhere else in the world and we can help keep them dark. Outdoor lighting should be no brighter than necessary, shielded to aim light at the ground, turned off when not needed, and designed to minimize blue light emission.

If you are shopping for holiday gifts, Dark Sky SLC has some beautiful hand-printed t-shirts by artist Anna Hansen at Hex Press. May your nights be dark and full of stars.

Dark Sky SLC: darkskyslc.org

Trump expected to visit and shrink two national treasures

President Trump has said he will come to Utah in early December to announce downsizing of two National Monuments, Bears Ears (formed 12/28/2016 by President Obama) and Grand Staircase Escalante (formed 10/18/1996 by President Clinton). Visit CATALYST’s website for details re. the politics behind this move.

A Rally Against Trump’s Monumental Mistake is scheduled to take place at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, December 2, from 1:00-2:30 pm. As of this writing, nobody seems to know exactly what date Trump is planning to be in Utah, or where in Utah he will be so keep an eye out for news updates.

Rally Against Trump’s Monumental Mistake: facebook.com/events/162299857692025

This article was originally published on December 1, 2017.