Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Meridian of My DNA

My western heritage is sprinkled along settlements my ancestors created in the 1800s down the length of a route that would become the 1,100 mile U.S. 89, a “Blue Highway” stretching from Montana to Arizona.

The “Ponderosa belt,” as I call it for the dominant species of pine tree found along its length, stretches from the cusp of the Northern Rockies through Yellowstone and along my native Tetons.

It crisscrosses the Idaho-Wyoming border then drops down Bear Lake Valley and across the Utah line before jumping across into Cache Valley.  From there this ancestral spine tracks against the Wasatch Mountains as they split off from the southern Rockies.

Then it shoots straight down the high plateaus, alpine meadows, forests, and valleys of central Utah before jogging around the Grand Canyon and giving out on the last reaches of the Colorado Plateau as it spills across northern Arizona.

The roots of my longitudinal DNA never strayed more than a degree after 1847 along nearly the entire length of the 111th meridian west as it dissects the continental United States.

But Mugsy, my English bulldog and I, usually weave back and forth across this route using various scenic byways on the last leg of our annual cross-country-road-trips before collecting my daughter and two grandsons for a week of reunion along the shores of a lake in the northern Rockies.

These byways often take in one or two of the dozen or so settlements my ancestors created along the length of the meridian between 1847 and 1907.  Last year we took a scenic byway along state route 14 as it slices through alpine meadows between Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks.

This year, a different byway about an hour’s drive north will give us a glimpse of one of the world’s oldest and largest living organisms which was discovered when I was in college in the late 1960s by Dr. Burton Barnes, a forest ecologist at the University of Michigan.

Christened “The Trembling Giant” or Pando, this ancient 107-acre grove of approximately 47,000 quaking aspen trees near Fish Lake (8,800 foot above sea level) all share a singular root.  DNA tests by Utah State University geneticists confirm it is one huge clone weighing nearly 7000 tons.

Essentially all one tree, the 80,000-year-old grove is now in crisis.

In fact, USU scientists are rushing to find out why aspens are suddenly dying all over the west.  Aspens don’t grow from seeds.  The grove we’ll see in a few months are all stems off the same plant.

This is because as geneticists have learned, these trees now have three genes.  My uneducated hunch is the problem will have something to do with human activity over the last 250 years and the side-effects of both the first and the second Industrial Revolution which peaked in 2008.

The question is, “Will the far more environmentally friendly third Industrial Revolution now percolating ramp up quickly enough?”

From Fish Lake we return to U.S. 89 and drop 3,000 feet as we head up the San Pete Valley through two areas first settled among Native Americans by two of my paternal ancestors before they began to explore much further north along the route.

In fact, nearly all of my ancestors along this longitude of my DNA lived long enough to see the end of the first Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the second.

As we near the place where my grandsons live nestled on the slopes of the Wasatch, the haze of pollution often visible will be a reminder that 167 years of their ancestral DNA also lies along that same meridian.

They will be in or near their 30s when we reach the tipping point for the new Industrial Revolution now underway.  If too late for the aspens, will it be soon enough to save and restore our planet?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cultivating Concentration

A business professor lamented on a recent blog that it is hard to get in the “flow” at work when you’re constantly interrupted, and then prescribed superficial antidotes such as fewer meetings and less email.

I don’t mean to be flip or insensitive, but complaints about tactics such as these are more likely a sign of employees who are among the 70% overall in the US who are simply disengaged or worse “actively disengaged (even higher worldwide.)

Distractions are part of every line of work or endeavor, but recent research reveals that 75% are unrelated “self-interruptions.”

From my experience, even if emails and meetings could be banned altogether and every effort were made to fill the workplace with motivation, enthusiasm and purpose, it wouldn’t really make a dent.

The proportion of workers who either spin frequently into what neurobiologists call “frazzle” or simply sleepwalk at work are apparently struggling with focus.

I was blessed to spend more time engaged and in the “flow” during my career than most people spent being awake, something that can mostly be credited to my wiring.  But this didn’t make me immune to rare but inscrutable instances of distraction, usually brought on by personal turmoil.

Nor was I a stranger to interruptions and distractions.  Part of being the CEO of a community organization is having to “putting out fires,” many set intentionally by one or two other executives or officials hoping, I assume, to benefit from the resulting chaos of “who’s on first.”

My job was also to firewall my coworkers from these “fires” so they wouldn’t be distracted and to restore my focus to tasks at hand as as quickly as possible.

Realizing that what seemed to be in my wiring or mysteriously acquired was obviously illusive to others, I was always trying to learn, adapt and cultivate in others new information about concentration and attention.

It always disturbed me when some people not only perpetually fixated about their worries, but then seemed to hitch rides on the personal drama in the lives of others, even strangers, as though they were their own.

These are the folks who, for example, when someone in the office has encountered a death in their family, even if it is an aunt twice removed, will react as though it is happening to them.

They become not only distracted for days with vicarious lamentations, but use them to repeatedly distract and dramatize others around them.

Wiring or not, researchers are finding that difficulty with focus is really at the root of distractions or the inability to tune them out rather than after-work access to emails or meetings.

In fact, complaints about not being able to unplug are just an extension of why some people were so disturbed to find emails waiting for them on Monday morning or before that, voice mails and snail mail to be answered upon returning from wherever.

Managing and processing information is a part of life.  Being so distracted by it that one cannot refocus or focus at all runs deeper than a few tweaks in office productivity can remedy.

Anyone temped to think focus and attention can be populated in others by some superficial office tweaks is well advised to read a new book published a few months ago entitled Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Dr. Daniel Goleman a scientific researcher who also writes about science.

I suspect the few negative reviews I read about the book came from those who thought, without understanding why they have trouble with focus, that the book would just give a set of list-checking techniques and “voila,” instant success.

What they were looking for is better found in a series of CDs Goleman has produced based on the science that focus and attention can be cultivated like a muscle.

But in my experience with people who struggle with these inabilities, the book is a way to understand and come to grips with how emotional centers in our brain work.

More importantly, it explains why without what is called cognitive control, these emotions can literally take over the centers of our brain used for learning, critical thinking, focus and attention.

Developed when we are young, studies show that cognitive control—or focus—is a better predictor of health and financial success in our 30s than either IQ or family background.  This was the type of focus that came easy to me.

“Outer focus” also seemed to come easy or was fueled by early distributed learning.  This is the ability to perceive how larger systems shape our lives, organizations and communities.

This is what people mean when they credit me as strategic, an inclination to see how various ecologies work and interrelated.  In fact, it is something that can be cultivated too.

The third type of focus is one I always felt that I had to work hard all of my life to cultivate, “empathy for others.” 

But in my 30s an RHR management consultant once told me that from his observations my sense of empathy and “other focus” was so strong that at a very early age I had earned to over-rule it, moving to the safety of cognitive control.

This ability to quickly shift back up to cognitive focus always is why some people perceived me as cold.  It is also why some people become extraordinarily calm and focused in the face of tragedy, chaos or adversity.

Goleman puts it this way – “Since focus demands we tune out our emotional distractions, our neural wiring for selective attention includes that for inhibiting emotion.  That means those who focus best are relatively immune to emotional turbulence”

That consultant in the 1980s helped me understand that my challenge wasn’t gaining more “empathy for others.”

Instead, to paraphrase Signe Spencer who researches competency at Hay Group, that consultant told me I needed to learn to manage my impact (referring to my passion and intensity) on others in my presence.

I’ve worked hard at this but it remains a challenge.  Maybe not as challenging as it is for so many people who find it much more of a challenge to reach up from the eddies of emotional turmoil to grasp cognitive focus.

See, I can be empathetic (smile.)

One of the best explanations of empathy is a short TED talk by Jeremy Rifkin put to illustration.

In his book on focus and attention Dr. Goleman breaks empathy down into a triad:

  • Cognitive Empathy which is fed by inquisitive nature and comes from our top-down brain circuitry.
  • Emotional Empathy which shared with other mammals comes from our more instinctive brain and helps us join the other person in feeling along with other people
  • Empathetic Concern or compassion, a mix of top-down and bottom-up circuitry, the opposite of self absorption which involves discomfort at others pain and caring instinct.

The key takeaway from the science of focus and attention is that we need to cultivate all three levels along along with the ability to shift levels, especially to cognitive focus, in the workplace.

This includes learning when to soften that focus. But this is difficult in a fast moving workplace where it may make more sense to hire people with these abilities.

It would be far more efficient for society, especially parents and teachers, to cultivate this in children at very early ages and as they are prepared for the workplace.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Incentivizing Urban Forest Preservation

It is easy to mistake the dispassionate communication styles of some in local government as apathy, especially when deployed to quibble away absurdities based on technicalities.

This is the impression I took while digging into two recent instances of huge clear cuts in Durham, North Carolina’s urban forest, one a few months ago along the road to Chapel Hill above New Hope Creek.

Now another is drawing attention north of the Eno River along Guess Road near Russell (or click on image shown below to enlarge.) This is along what had been an unspoiled stretch taken by many visitors and residents to reach a designated 27-mile Scenic Byway through Durham countryside that begins just a few minutes up road.

As usual, both of these egregious examples have escaped any significant news coverage because they would be too complex to sort through all the bureaucratic CYA, but they have residents shaking their heads.  Why are gatekeepers brushing off desecration to something so key to the community’s appeal and why we love living here?

Because I get the feeling that Durham’s tree ordinances are not only fragmented but seemingly ineffective, I keep an eye out for communities on the forefront of protecting green infrastructure both for eco-system services and to protect sense of place.

One such place lies on the opposite side of a dramatic ridge of Tualatin Mountains from Portland, Oregon in the Tualatin Valley, a gateway to that state’s wine country (of course Portland calls them the Portland hills.)

This best practice community of Tigard lies beyond the much larger City of Beaverton, the noted home of Nike, with which it shares a part of the Tualatin Hills including Cooper and Bull mountains.

It lies short of a tiny crossroads also named Durham, where the namesake river dissects the valley.

A further coincidence is that the Oregon Durham, known for an incredible roadside grove, is just across the river from where Bill Baker, one of the world’s foremost consultants in place branding is based.

Thousands of Durham, North Carolina residents will recall when Bill facilitated the archeology nearly ten years ago that revealed and distilled the roots of Durham’s acclaimed and widely embraced overarching brand and personality.

Cooper and Bull mountains provide a contrast in urban forestry.  Above Beaverton, Cooper Mountain features a very cool nature park but forestry policies have had some unintended and many feel horrendous consequences.

Some landowners there have completely deforested, or to use a euphemism, “timbered,” large tracts of the mountain as a means to ostensibly end run permits, fees and tree preservation ordinances.

This is in preparation of eventual mass development, similar to what we see so tragically occurring in Durham.Tigard

On nearby Bull Mountain,Tigard has taken steps to incentivize tree retention on private property.  This began with an in-depth survey of resident opinion and development of an acclaimed Urban Forestry Master Plan, embarrassingly neither of which has been done in Durham, North Carolina.

While the survey showed that Tigardians were generally satisfied with the quantity and quality of trees on their own street, in their neighborhood and in the community overall, the questions probed much deeper.

By a ratio of 23 to 1 they “strongly agreed” that trees are important to a community’s character and desirability as a place to live.  By similar ratios they voiced support for more trees and more resources to maintain and protect existing trees.

By 9 to 1 they supported city requirements that some trees be preserved and new ones planted on sites being developed.  The ratio of those feeling strongly in support of this was 18 to 1.

One-in-three Tigardians also felt the overall quality of their community’s urban forest had decreased.  Only 12% gave high ratings to the extent and appearance of trees in their community.  Taken together, this was cause for alarm.

Interestingly, by a ratio of 4-to-1, Tigard residents chose tree preservation or replanting over allowing individuals to remove trees.  By nearly 2-to-1 they supported regulations limiting tree removal during property development in general.

More telling, by nearly 3-to-1, they favored city tree regulations even if they had the opportunity to develop their own property.  By 2-to-1 they supported a focus on large groves vs. individual trees.

This more in-depth survey confirms that communities that only ask whether residents are pleased are settling for the weakest of metrics.  Tigard used its deeper understanding of resident opinion to shape novel tree ordinances.

Tigard’s overall tree canopy is 24.52%, less than half of what it was in 1851 when settlement began.  This compares to only 10% on commercial property now and 46.13% on city-owned property. 

Tigard’s plan is to increase overall urban tree canopy to at least 40%, a goal only achievable by addressing the 78% now on private property.

Using this calculus to extrapolate an urban forestry goal for Durham, North Carolina, the city and county should each pursue a goal of 57% tree cover.

The effect of respective development codes for Tigard and Beaverton can be seen on Bull Mountain across Scholls Ferry Road from Cooper Mountain where it slices into the heart of Oregon wine country.

Blogs and news reports indicate that Tigard has avoided clear-cutting by thoroughly inventorying significant tree groves and then reaching out to property owners with incentives.

While all new residential development is required to achieve 40% tree canopy coverage, no matter what is growing there prior to development, when computing the tree canopy on a site design, “double credit” is given for preservation of existing trees.

In other words, a property owner with existing forests could meet the 40% requirement by preserving tee canopy covering 20% of the land.  Housing density requirements are also relaxed if a tree grove is protected.

Similar flexibility for building height restrictions is given commercial developments, including apartment complexes, when related tree groves are protected.

Thanks to news reports and blogs such as Tualatin Watch, tree ordinances there are now more familiar to me than in my adopted home of Durham, where fragmentation makes them all but inscrutable.

Over the past two decades, developers here have moved away from preserving groves of trees in new developments like they did in a series of neighborhoods stretching along the southern edge of the Eno River, including one where our City Manager lives.

Developers began the practice of clear cutting all existing forest, then making the clay soil almost entirely impervious by repeatedly running heavy equipment over it, then planting a a couple of sparse sprigs of new trees on each lot where they struggle to grow.

The net effect is a loss of huge amounts of tree canopy, increased storm run off, higher temperatures, reduced climate regulation and other ecosystem services provided by urban forest not to mention less curb appeal and a drag on values.

Commercial development has been even more short-sighted.  In the thirty year span prior to 2005, on average, Durham subsumed nearly 1,500 acres of urban forest and other green infrastructure a year creating an average of 2.5 acres of impervious surface a day, outpacing population growth by 8 to 1.

On average, Durham reforests net losses less than an acre of trees a year.  You do the math.

Of course, Durham isn’t the only community where urban forest is at risk, it just has more to lose.  Nor is this the only place failing to be strategic.

An example is a report heralding a few companies that have pledged to be “deforestation free” regarding palm oil, but still enables clear cutting of hundreds of thousands of acres of roadside trees in this country through use of roadside billboards.

“Every little bit counts” only works when part of an overarching strategy.

While one of the most cherished parts of Durham’s character is rapidly vanishing, we have no inventory, no strategic plan, no goal and all we seem to do is dicker over what an urban forest entails or throw ourselves into well-intended but activity-trap endeavors without any view to outcome metrics or strategy-making.

Seemingly lacking a sense of urgency and political will to even conduct a real inventory of the overall urban forest, in this city and county we seem to also lack the motivation to be a “quick follower” by adapting to best practices.

Residents don’t seem mad enough for some officials because they are stunned and bewildered thinking such a precious and perishable resource must surely be of the highest priority for gatekeepers.

It isn’t too late, but it may soon be.  Clear cutting means vast groves here are disappearing exponentially, not linearly.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Infographic - Wake Up Times of Famous Authors

Friday, April 18, 2014

Americans Value Both Property & Public Lands

The news media loves a good stereotype, such as a story recently out west where inadvertently a rancher may be abusing the commons while failing to pay his fair share.  He successfully posed as a victim by calling on heavily armed extremists.

As a descendant of generations of cattle ranchers, I know that as independent as they are, ranchers have no patience for the few among them who always seem bent on gaming the system while dodging responsibilities.

This is especially true of those who abuse the land.

But in this instance, I suspect one or more government agents had been enablers until pushed into action by a lawsuit.  Uneven or lethargic enforcement is the real reason regulations have earned a pejorative.

I suspect ranchers and regulators generally fall into the three groupings, long-identified in research about how Americans overall feel about their work.

Fully half are “not engaged,” or as one researcher put it, either “sleepwalking” or frazzled by concerns unrelated to work.  This group is where the government agents in this news story probably fell.

Twenty percent of Americans are “actively disengaged,” working to undermine others.  This may describe the rancher who was abusing publicly-owned land while also failing to pay for the right to use it.

All too often, leniency with members of this group merely breeds a sense of entitlement.

According to a Republican friend of mine who has served both as an administrator and elected official, given more energetic and even handed enforcement of regulations, we would need far fewer.

Of course, a third of Americans are fully engaged in their work according to the annual survey.  Researchers at Harvard, Stanford and Claremont have also found that 20% of these workers experience what is described as “flow” at least once a day and a smaller percentage less often.

Government workers fit the profile for Americans workers overall with a slightly smaller percentage “actively disengaged.”  I assume ranchers overall are more engaged than the average, as are workers in smaller non-profits.

However, being engaged is about far more than just genes or heritage.  In fact, while one can learn to be engaged, finding it is about exploration of passions until there is a fit.

There is clearly room in every economic sector and organization, including government and even families, for the trend to Pay to Quit” programs.

I became a fan of economist/futurist Jeremy Rifkin more than twenty years ago when I happened to read, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture.  Initially, I was interested in the archeology of my heritage, but his books always transcend their focus.

Even more prescient today is one I read a little more than a year later entitled, The End of Work.

In Mr. Rifkin’s newest book released this month, he again reminds us of how the notion of private property evolved. It began with the first of several European enclosure movements in the 1500s, including mass evictions, and was then legislated from the early 1700s to 1850, including 14 million acres in England alone.

Several books and essays regarding this era were required reading when I was working my way to a degree in 1972 at Brigham Young University, including one entitled, The Tragedy of the Commons, which is more a platitudinal op-ed than science, history or economics.

Private property was embedded in the evolution of America, even down to initial limitations of who could vote.

But by 1847 when many of my ancestors were headed into the Rocky Mountains, lawmakers were paying attention to the concerns of Americans over the destructive excesses caused by human activity when left to the market alone.

This rapidly led to a federal department of the Interior and formation a little more than two decades later of Yellowstone National Park, a few miles from what would become our ancestral ranch.

This American movement was driven by popular acclaim fueled by  nature essayists, photographers and artists taken on survey expeditions, including the spectacular Hudson Bay school depictions of the west by Albert Bierstadt.

Favorite memories of mine include cutting through the fine arts building between classes on my way to work part-time in what was  then-called the Office of Tours & Conference, my first start-up experience.

My favorites were Bierstadt’s pieces, including the 10’ wide painting shown in this blog, two decades before a 102,000 s.f., 4-story building was erected to showcase what must be nearly 20,000 pieces in the Museum of Art’s collection by now.

Influenced by John Muir, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt incorporated scenic and natural preservation with his own brand of utilitarian conservation including national forests such as the Targhee, located just north of our ranch.

All of this is now scientifically reinforced by the subsequent science of ecology and what economists measure as eco-system services.

A scientific poll taken last year reinforced how strongly more than two-thirds of Americans feel about permanent protection of public lands including 1-in-3 who wants some accessible for fee-based livestock grazing.

Judging by an even more recent poll showing that Americans put protection of the environment over jobs, I assume they would not be sympathetic with over-grazing on public lands in Nevada, even when threatened by extremist assault weapons.