Friday, May 10, 2013

Inspirations for Sustainability and Stewardship

Some are leading the way toward a more sustainable future such as Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, my adopted home. While ideological gridlock are holding government initiatives back, entities like Duke and Harvard are forging ahead.

Rushing to become carbon neutral within a decade, as I blogged earlier, Duke has already established a pilot operation as a model for hog farms to manage waste and pollutants and develop on-farm renewable energy.

Last month, Duke began construction of large-scale reclamation ponds designed to capture 22% of the run off from its picturesque main campus and recycle it back across the campus to cool buildings, conserving 100 million gallons of city water a year.

The $9 million project will adapt the natural area around the ponds for education, research and recreation including a boardwalk, a mile-long walking path and amphitheater.

Even the trees that will be sacrificed will be reused as decking, handrails and structures as well as mulch around significant replanting and afforestation. Any surplus wood will be sold to benefit Duke Forest.

Established in 1931, Duke Forest is the university’s more than 7,000-acre research forest stretched across Durham, Orange and Alamance counties and a part of the Nicholas School for the Environment.

This spring new trails were opened near my home to an overlook at the Forest’s Rhododendron Bluffs.  Duke Forest also provides the spectacular backdrop for my frequent motorcycle excursions.

A similar research forest was established in 1907 at Harvard University. The 3,500 acre Harvard Forest is located in Worcester County, Massachusetts near Petersham about an hour and a half west of Cambridge and an hour north of where some of my ancestors were born and lived between Sturbridge and Oxford in the same county spanning from the mid-1600s through the early-1800s.

The year Harvard Forest was created, the first historical estimates of tree cover in the United States were made by Royal Shaw Kellogg who worked under Gifford Pinchot as a statistical analyst in the newly-established National Forest Service.

Reading Kellogg’s historical sketch on file at this link at North Carolina State University based in Raleigh, North Carolina, gives a fascinating glimpse into conservation as it was evolving on farms and ranches in the late 1800s.

He notes that in 1883 after migrating from his native central New York that  [as a then-8-year-old boy] – “Mother and I observed Arbor Day by going down to sandy river bed [Saline River northwest of Russell, Kansas] and pulling up willow shoots which we planted around drain from kitchen sink.  Grew well.”

Obviously Kellogg also gained an early lesson in the ability of trees to cleanse water, something seemingly lost 130 years later on many Republicans in control of the North Carolina General Assembly.

Kellogg, who later received an honorary degree from the Biltmore Forest School near Asheville, North Carolina, the nation’s first, was able to extrapolate forest cover back to 1630 including a state by state assessment.

His analysis determined that back then 93% of the land area between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains was forested, nearly 72% of the nation’s forests.  By the time of his calculations deforestation in America was occurring at a rate three times faster than forests could regenerate.

Three years ago, scientists at Harvard Forest published Wildlands and Woodlands, a vision of New England for the next half century and beyond.

While noting that there is currently more forest cover between Long Island Sound and the Canadian border than there has been at any time since that “summer of darkness,” the report found the canopy in decline again as it is rapidly being replaced by development and impervious surface in every New England state.

We know a lot more today about the economic and public health value of trees as a means to purify air and water, curb soil erosion and regulate climate.

To avoid the disastrous deforestation that occurred there from the 1600s through the 1800s, the report recommends as optimum that 70% of the region be set aside permanently in forestland, free from development, a three-fold increase in conserved land.

Ninety percent would be managed for wood products, water supply, wildlife habitat, recreation and aesthetics while 10% of the forestland (7% of the region) would be wildlands subject to minimal human impact.

Another 18% of New England – twice the area developed today – would be left free potentially for future development or farmland, according to the report’s vision.  The report foresees implementation of the vision by networks of landowners, private companies, governments, foundations and other non-profits such as the organization Wildlands & Woodlands.

Click here for a 2012 progress update.

It has been more than 500 years since Breton, Basque and Portuguese vessels began to sail into the Gulf of Maine from Europe to fish for Cod and began to trade with Native Americans.  Still 130 years prior to the arrival of the Mayflower, these Indians had learned how to manage forests.

I’m glad those of us Americans who followed are rediscovering the importance of sustainability, something we seem to regularly forget.

I also wonder if the ratios of managed forest to conservation areas and developable land in the Harvard report would be useful as guidelines for the City and County of Durham, North Carolina, where I live to establish more sustainable urban forest, open space and development.

Oh yeah, I forgot.  Some autocrats in the General Assembly are pushing to take away the rights of democratically-governed cities and counties in our state to establish any standards higher than those they apply to the state while at the same time defying standards set by the federal government.

Now isn’t that irony.

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