Saturday, November 25, 2017

The I'On Swamp

I'On Swamp Map
Nestled away in the southern reaches of South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest lies a swamp with a long and storied history. This forested wetland—the I’On Swamp—lies on the upper reaches of the Wando River, a tributary to the Cooper River and ultimately the Charleston Bay. I visited the I’On Swamp back in October with the intent to hike a short interpretive trail, look for some reptiles, and otherwise see an area I had often heard about. The I’On Swamp is truly an alluring site with a fascinating history with regard to geology, biology, and human history. When I tried to learn more about the history and nature of this swamp, I quickly learned that there are many bits and pieces of information scattered across the internet, but it was hard to find a more encompassing article on the swamp. With this post, I hope to weave together these bits and pieces into a story on how humans utilized and modified the I'On Swamp throughout history, and how this utilization and modification impacted three now-extinct species of birds which used to inhabit the swamp.

Geological Setting

The story of the I’On Swamp begins long ago when a series of complex geological processes took place that ultimately led to the formation of this southern freshwater swamp. Due to both uplifting forces in eastern North America and periodic sea level rises and falls driven by glacial cycles, the Atlantic Ocean receded from the coast of what is now South Carolina in a series of “steps”. Each time the ocean receded from the then-current coast of South Carolina, a new shoreline and a new barrier island system were consequently formed. As this new shoreline and new barrier island system were formed, the previous shoreline and barrier island system would be left high and dry on the mainland. This step-like process led to the creation of a series of scarps and terraces. Essentially, a scarp is a narrow, but long, hill formed from the old sand dune system that was present on what used to be the barrier island system, while a terrace is a flat, slightly sloping area behind the scarp that used to be both the back half of the barrier island as well as the shallow marshes and/or lagoons behind the island.

I'On Swamp Geology
Figured modified from "Revision of the Pleistocene Dorchester and Summerville Scarps, the inland limits of the Penholoway Terrace, central South Carolina," by W.R. Doar and Ralph Willoughby (South Carolina DNR Geological Survey).
One of these step-like coastal recessions occurred around 85,000 years ago. This specific recession formed the Mount Pleasant Scarp and the Princess Anne Terrace, and these formations bring us to the geological context for the I’On Swamp. Because the Atlantic Ocean receded in a step-like pattern along the South Carolina coast, a series of repeating scarp-terrace-scarp-terrace-scarp formation were created. Subsequently, each low-lying terrace was bound on its east and west sides by a higher scarp. (If you want to really dive into this topic, I suggest reading “Geneticstratigraphy and geochronology of last interglacial shorelines on the central coast of South Carolina" by Russell Willis) In the case of the Princess Anne Terrace, to the west was the Awendaw Scarp and to the east was the Mount Pleasant Scarp, both of which were higher in elevation than the terrace itself. Because of the resulting U-shaped depression, water collected in the Princess Anne Terrace, forming a wetland. After the last ice age ended, and the temperatures in the area warmed, plants and animals that are characteristic of a southern freshwater swamp emigrated into this wetland, forming the original primeval I’On Swamp. This swamp went on to form the headwaters of the Wando River, which drains the southern half of the Princess Anne Terrace.

Human History and Land Use

American Alligator South Carolina Lowcountry
For the majority of the past several thousand years, this area had been a mature swamp forest. Swamps are a type of wetland which are dominated by trees and are either permanently or seasonally flooded. Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers, American Alligators, River Otters, and a whole host of other animals lived throughout this old-growth swamp. The area was not devoid of humans, however. In fact, Native Americans first began inhabiting South Carolina around 9,000 to 10,000 years ago. Around 3,500 years ago, tribes began to form more permanent settlements along the coast of South Carolina right near the I’On Swamp, which is itself only about five miles from the Atlantic Ocean. It is important to note that these native peoples did impact and modify the land, including the I’On Swamp. The idea of Native Americans “living alongside the land” is a bit of a misconception. We now know that Native Americans did indeed alter the land to benefit them, just not as on a large-scale manner as people do nowadays.

The greatest environmental impact from the Native Americans in this region stemmed from their use of fire. Natural wildfires—ones started through lightning strikes—historically occurred frequently throughout the Lowcountry of South Carolina, with many habitats in the Lowcountry being dependent on such wildfires. Some habitats, such as Longleaf Pine savannas, experienced natural fires as often as 1-5 years. Swamps like the I’On Swamp, however, experienced natural fires once every 25-100 years. In addition to the natural wildfires which occurred throughout the Lowcountry, many fires were also started by the Native Americans living in the region. These native peoples made ample use of low-intensity burns to both open the understory for easier to travel and make the areas more conducive for hunting, among other reasons. There is no doubt that low-intensity fires started by the native peoples impacted the I’On Swamp prior to European settlement.

European exploration of the South Carolina coastal areas began in the 1500’s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1600’s that European settlers emigrated to the region in significant numbers. In 1670, British settlers established a city called Charles Town only 20 miles southwest of the I’On Swamp. Charles Townwhich we now know as Charlestonrapidly grew. This rapid growth led to other colonists moving out from Charleston to settle the surrounding land. The area immediately around the I’On Swamp itself began to be earnestly settled in the 1690’s.

It was around this time that the economy of coastal South Carolina began transitioning from one dominated by fur trading to one dominated by rice cultivation. From 1700-1860, rice was the crop to grow in coastal South Carolina. Rice cultivation became the dominant force that impacted the I’On and other nearby swamps during this period, and the effects can still be seen today.

I'On Swamp Francis Marion National Forest

Before I dive into how rice cultivation changed the landscape of the I’On Swamp, I want to briefly talk about rice cultivation in the Carolinas. While researching articles for this topic, I relied heavily on Dr. Hayden Smith’s Ph.D dissertation entitled “Rich Swamps and Rice Grounds: The Specialization of Inland Rice Culture in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1861.” This dissertation was fascinating to read, and is very approachable for those (like me) without any real background knowledge in the topic. If you’re interested in this sort of historical subject, I highly recommend reading the piece, which you can find at this link.

There are two main types of domesticated rice in the world—Asian Rice (Oryza sativa) and African Rice (Oryza glaberrima). The rice we eat today are cultivars of Asian Rice, but the rice that was grown in the colonial United States was most likely a cultivar of African Rice, specifically a cultivar called Carolina Gold. African Rice was originally brought to the Carolina colonies by European explorers and traders that traveled to Africa. When rice cultivation in the Carolinas began expanding in the early to mid 1700's, the colonists started to utilize enslaved peoples from Africa to work the rice fields. There were two main reasons for this. First, the colonists needed more people for labor, and African slaves were sadly a horrific way to satisfy this need. Second, many of these enslaved peoples came from the Senegambia and Sierra Leone regions of West Africa. The peoples of West Africa had been practicing rice cultivation for nearly 2,000 years, and during this time they had developed a very efficient method for growing the rice using dikes and flooded fields. Enslaved African peoples brought with them this knowledge of rice cultivation, which was then implemented in the Carolina Lowcountry.

There were two main methods of rice cultivation in the Carolina Lowcountry—tidal rice cultivation and inland rice cultivation. As the name suggests, tidal rice cultivation relied on the tides, which moved water in and out of impounded rice fields near the ocean via canals. Inland rice cultivation, on the other hand, relied on gravity. Inland rice plantations utilized the principle that water flows downhill from higher elevations to lower elevations. Due to the location of the I’On Swamp, tides were not a factor in the movement of water. Consequently, plantations in the I’On Swamp utilized the inland rice cultivation method.

Wythewood Plantation I'On Swamp
A 200+ year old Wythewood Plantation canal along the I'On Swamp Interpretive Trail.
Here is a very brief overview of how the inland rice cultivation process worked in the swamps of the Carolina Lowcountry. The enslaved peoples would first clear the land of trees and shrubs by using fire, axes, and saws. After the land was clear, they would then build elaborate earthen dikes that channeled and controlled the water found within the swamp. A reservoir would first be created at the highest elevations within an area (which might have been only a mere 3-6 feet higher than the “low” parts of the surrounding swamp). Impounded fields where the rice would grow would then be created at the middle or lower elevations. Finally, canals and channels would be created to connect the reservoir to the rice fields, and the rice fields to the natural creeks and rivers throughout the swampland. At each point where one section met another, a rice trunk—which are essentially watertight gates/valves—would be installed that could either be opened or closed. If the rice fields needed to be flooded, they would open rice trunks on the reservoir dam and allow the water to flow downhill through channels and into the rice fields. If the rice fields needed to be drained, rice trunks at the lowest points of the fields would be opened, allowing the water to flow out of the fields and into channels leading to a creek or river.

As you can see, changing a mature swamp to a rice plantation alters not only the vegetation of a swamp, but the entire landscape as well. This level of landscape modification would wreak havoc on the ecology of an area like the I’On Swamp. Some animals or plants undoubtedly benefited due to the change from dense swamp forest to a more open marshland—say, for example, some species of migrating shorebirds or waterfowl—but the overall impact was negative for the majority of the species that were originally present.

The peripheries of the I’On Swamp experienced development for rice cultivation as early as the 1750’s, if not a bit earlier. At this time, the swamp was known as the Wappetaw Swamp. “Wappetaw” was a Sewee Indian term meaning “Sweet Water,” and was a name that tribe had given the swamp. From the 1790’s to the 1810’s, more and more plantations popped up in the area, many of which were pushing further and further into the swamp. At the same time, several of the richer plantation owners in the area began buying out some of the smaller plantations to consolidate land. They did this to both expand their rice production andperhaps most importantlygain more thorough control of the water for their fields.

As this consolidation occurred, a few “big name” plantations that controlled thousands of acres formed. These were the Fairlawn Plantation in the southern portion of the swamp, the Wythewood Plantation in the northwestern portion, and the Clayfield Plantation in the eastern portion. The early owner of the Clayfield Plantation was Jacob Bond I’On, which is where the current name for the swamp stems from. From what I could gather, most people called this swamp the Wappetaw Swamp during the 1700’s and 1800’s, and the name didn’t transition to the I’On Swamp until the 1900’s. As an interesting aside, this part of the Lowcountry spoke non-rhotic English in the 1700's and early 1800's, meaning that people born and raised in this region did not pronounce the "R" sound in words. Jacob Bond I'On's last name is actually a modification of the name "Iron." This name was modified to reflect how people were pronouncing the name, and the spelling stuck, both with the I'On family, but also the I'On Swamp.

Rice Dikes I'On Swamp
Old Wythewood Plantation rice dike (the "trail" running through the right side of the photo).
By the mid 1800’s, essentially all of the I’On Swamp had been modified for rice cultivation. However, that isn’t to say that all the land had been turned into rice fields. There were probably still pockets of young, secondary growth swamp forest in places that had originally been logged in order build canals and dikes, but that were not ultimately used as a rice field. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the rice industry in the south collapsed. Essentially all the commercial rice cultivation in the I’On Swamp ceased by 1870. Although commercial production ceased after the Civil War, subsistence rice production by now-freed African Americans continued in small tracts around the I’On Swamp for the next 30 years, most prominently in what had been the Wythewood Plantationa plantation which will come into play later on in this story.

The forest began to regrow in any part of the swamp which were not being used for subsistence farming during this post-Civil War period. Hardwood trees characteristic of southern bottomland forests—various oaks, tupelos, Sweetgum, etc.—began recolonizing the abandoned fields and dikes. By 1900, essentially all of the I’On Swamp was reforested by a young, secondary growth forest. This extensive tract of hardwood trees was quickly noticed by a booming southeastern timber industry. Between 1900 and 1910, a large timber company bought most of the old plantation lands in the I'On Swamp. By 1920-1925, this company had clear-cut nearly all the trees throughout the I’On Swamp.  

I'On Swamp Nature
Various hardwood species regrowing in the I'On Swamp.
After timber companies clear-cut the I’On Swamp and nearby swamps such as the Wambaw and Hellhole Swamps, the land “lost its value,” at least in the eyes of the timber companies. The government, however, saw some promise, and the Department of the Interior began purchasing these tracts of land starting in the late 1920’s. These newly-purchased lands became the foundation for Francis Marion National Forest, which was formally established in 1936. Nowadays, the majority of the coastal land between Charleston and Georgetown is part of this national forest, and that includes most of the I’On Swamp itself.

For the rest of this post, I want to focus on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Carolina Parakeet, and the Bachman’s Warbler. These three species—all of which are now extinctused to inhabit swamps throughout the southeastern United States, including the I’On Swamp itself. Sadly, most of the swamps in the southeastern United States have been heavily modified or completely destroyed by humans over the past 300 years, and these actions have either directly or indirectly led to the extinction of these three bird species. I want to explore how human land use of the I’On Swamp over time impacted these three birds, and how and why they became extirpated (locally extinct) in the I’On Swamp.

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers I'On Swamp
John James Audubon Letters and Drawings, 1805-1892, MS Am 21 (31), Houghton Library, Harvard University
I’ll begin with the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, as this was the first species to become extirpated in the I’On Swamp. The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker required mature bottomland swamps, a habitat that used to exist in large tracts across much of the southeast. In the 1800’s, especially after the Civil War, the majority of these virgin swamps were either logged, drained, or in some other way modified. With the destruction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker’s habitat, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker’s populations followed.

The Ivory-Billed was known to be common throughout the swamps in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and they most certainly inhabited the I’On Swamp for hundreds, if not several thousands, of years. Their time in the I’On Swamp probably came to an end between 1750 and 1770 when the swamp experienced the first wave of logging and modification to make way for rice fields. From historical and contemporary accounts that I’ve read on the plantations of the I’On Swamp, there were a few sections of the swamp forest that remained relatively unscathed during this early agricultural time. It’s possible that these tracts could have harbored a few individuals into the mid 1800’s, but these tracts were most likely too small for a population of Ivory-Bills to sustain itself.

Map of swamps in Francis Marion National Forest
Topographic map of eastern Francis Marion National Forest with the names of main swamps added in. For a greater geographical context, just past the bottom left hand corner is the Charleston, SC, area, and outside the top right corner is Georgetown, SC. This map was modified from a USGS Topographic Map.
The last confirmed Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in South Carolina was observed in 1938 on Wadmacon Island. Wadmacon Island is an island in the lower Santee Swamp (which runs along the Santee River), and is only a mere 20 miles north of the I’On Swamp. Although Ivory-Bills were without a doubt gone by 1915 from the I’On Swamp itself (which, if you remember from earlier, was completely clear-cut by this point), a few individuals did indeed remain in the greater region in the few pockets of remaining mature bottomland swamps. The last confirmed sighting in the United States occurred in 1944 in Louisiana. By the late 1900’s, it was generally assumed the Ivory-Billed was extinct.

The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, however, recently jumped back into the public eye after a handful of credible, but not 100% confirmed, sightings from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Florida came to light in the early 2000’s. This raised the question as to whether the Ivory-Billed was truly extinct, or if tiny populations remained in remote and relatively untouched bottomland swamps around the Southeast. Sadly, even if the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is not truly extinct, and a few individuals are indeed still alive in one or a handful of swamps around the Southeastern US, the species is still functionally extinct. Any such population—if one were to truly exist—would be too small to be viable over the long term.

Carolina Parakeet

Carolina Parakeets I'On Swamp
Painting by John James Audubon, 1825, New York Historical Society.
The Carolina Parakeet was the second species to become extirpated from the I’On Swamp. The Carolina Parakeet—the only parrot species that was native to the Eastern US—was a denizen of mature swamps and forested floodplains filled with either American Sycamores or Bald-Cypresses. The Carolina Parakeet used to be quite common throughout the appropriate habitat in the 1700’s, but their populations began plummeting in the early 1800’s. The exact causes for the decline and ultimate extinction of the Carolina Parakeet are still debated, but most agree it was probably a combination of several factors. Habitat destruction via logging, unchecked hunting to attain their colorful feathers, unchecked hunting by farmers who viewed them as pests, and other factors all contributed to the decline and eventual demise of the Carolina Parakeet.

Carolina Parakeets living in the I’On Swamp probably began facing trouble in the late 1700’s, as the mature Bald-Cypress trees—whose cavities they nested in—throughout the swamp were cleared to make way for the rice plantation fields. When did they most likely disappear from the I’On Swamp? Although I can’t find any specific reports of this species from the swamp, I would say that the Carolina Parakeet was most likely extirpated from the I’On Swamp by 1810-1840 based on two details. First, many naturalists noted that Carolina Parakeet sightings were rarely made outside of Florida by the 1850’s, which suggests that most of the populations in South Carolina were probably gone by the early 1800’s. Second, most of the I’On Swamp was already intensely farmed for rice by 1820-1830, which means that most, if not all, of the appropriate Carolina Parakeet habitat was gone. No Carolina Parakeet habitat, no Carolina Parakeets.

By 1904, the last known wild individual was observed—and promptly killed. The year 1918 saw the death of the last captive individual. By 1939, the species was declared officially extinct, although tantalizing reports of Carolina Parakeets trickled in from Florida, Georgia and South Carolina between 1930 and 1960. The Santee Swamp was one site of such reports, with a handful of unconfirmed sightings of Carolina Parakeets inhabiting the dense, relatively untouched swamp were made throughout the 1930’s. If you remember, this is the same swamp which harbored Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers into the 1930’s, and is only 20 miles north of the I’On Swamp as well. Several credible people, such as bird wardens hired by the National Audubon Society, reported seeing Carolina Parakeets in the Santee Swamp, including on Wadmacon Island (the same island where the last confirmed Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in South Carolina was observed). Although these sightings were never confirmed, the existence of a small, remnant population of Carolina Parakeets existing into the 1930’s in the Santee Swamp seems plausible. Despite such thoughts, they are certainly extinct now.

Bachman’s Warbler

Bachman's Warbler I'On Swamp
Painting by John James Audubon, 1833, Reynolda House: Museum of American Art.
The final species I want to discuss is perhaps the reason why the I’On Swamp is famous in the world of birders and naturalists. The I’On Swamp was the last known refuge for the Bachman’s Warbler. The Bachman’s (Pronounced “Back-Man’s”) Warbler was a small migrant songbird which bred in swamps throughout the Southeastern United States and overwintered in Cuba.

The Bachman’s Warbler was always a mysterious and hard-to-find species. It was first described by John James Audubon in 1833 when an individual was discovered in South Carolina. Over the next few decades, more individuals were recorded in other southern states, but the species seemingly disappeared from South Carolina. The Bachman’s Warbler was rediscovered in South Carolina by Arthur T. Wayne, a Victorian ornithologist, in 1901. The individual that Wayne found had been inhabiting the remnants of the Fairlawn Plantation, one of the old rice plantations found on the southern end of the I’On Swamp. As an aside, Arthur T. Wayne lived an absolutely fascinating life filled with ornithological endeavors. I highly recommend reading this short, 6-page biography on the man.
Wayne, who lived in the Charleston area, began systematically searching for more Bachman’s Warblers in the I’On Swamp, specifically throughout the old Fairlawn Plantation property. In 1906 he found two nests, providing evidence that the warbler did indeed breed in the I’On Swamp, and didn’t just use the swamp as a migration stopover. Over the next several years, he found many more individuals and nests.

As I said, the Bachman’s Warbler was always hard to find, and its ecology is rather misunderstood. There have been no actual studies ever done on this species prior to its extinction. Everything we know comes from naturalists in the 1800’s and early 1900’s who thankfully recorded bits and pieces of information on the species—whether it was the habitat one was found in, or the behavior of an individual, or what have you.

The last confirmed sighting of a Bachman’s Warbler was in 1988, and the species is almost certainly extinct. The cause for the extinction of the species has been subject to debate, and several hypotheses have been put forth about “the cause.” Nearly everyone agrees the Bachman’s Warbler went extinct due to habitat destruction, but no one knows what type of habitat the warbler exactly required. The Bachman’s Warbler vanished before any thorough studies of its habitat requirements could be conducted. The little habitat information we do have is confusing and contradictory, which further complicates matters. For example, some naturalists found the Bachman’s Warblers in mature swamp forests; others found it in young, successional swamp forests. If habitat destruction was the killer of the Bachman’s Warbler, what specific habitat feature was destroyed that the Bachman’s Warbler relied on?

Although Bachman’s Warblers had been recorded in mature swamp forests, it seems unlikely that they depended on such a habitat like the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker did. Between 1948 and 1953, there were many Bachman’s Warblers observed throughout the I’On Swamp, which—if you remember—was all but a young, secondary-growth swamp forest at that time after the period of intense logging between 1900-1920. The prevalence of the Bachman’s Warbler in the I’On Swamp when it was a young, secondary-growth swamp forest has made some scientists hypothesize that the species relied on disturbed, successional areas within swamps, similar to how the Blue-Winged Warbler and Prairie Warbler rely on similarly disturbed, successional areas within forests.

I'On Swamp history
Drier areas within the I'On Swamp—like the area pictured above—would have been the site of extensive Giant Cane "canebrakes." Nowadays, such extensive canebrakes have vanished.
The apparent fact that Bachman’s Warblers could be found in both mature and successional swamp forests suggests that there was some other habitat component or feature that they relied on, and not simply the age of the forest. In 1986, J.V. Remsen Jr. published an article in the Auk that argued the Bachman’s Warbler was actually a bamboo specialist. Throughout the Southeastern US there’s a species of bamboo called Giant Cane (Arundinaria gigantea). Giant Cane used to be extremely prevalent throughout the swamps of the southeast, many times forming near-impenetrable understories called "canebrakes" which would go on for miles in swamps. Over the most recent 300 years, approximately 98% of these canebrakes were cut down or otherwise destroyed, as they proved a barrier to farmers and travelers. Sadly, Giant Cane is a finicky, slow-growing plant with a low reproduction rate, and the remaining individuals have been unable to fully recolonize the sites of former canebrakes. Although you can still find Giant Cane today, as well as dense canebrakes, these are nowhere near as dense and extensive as they once were.
What does that have to with the Bachman’s Warbler? As it turns out, most of the notes that naturalists recorded on the habitat of the Bachman’s Warbler mentioned the presence of Giant Cane. This is even more prevalent when reading descriptions of where nests were found; nearly all of them mention the nests being either in Giant Cane plants, or being in the same vicinity of Giant Cane. Many of their nests even contained leaves from Giant Cane. This suggests that the Bachman’s Warbler might have been a bamboo specialist, a niche that many birds across the world utilize. If this is true, then it makes sense that the Bachman’s Warbler disappeared as the Giant Cane canebrakes became less and less extensive throughout the Southeast.

Is the decline of Giant Cane the sole reason for the extinction of the Bachman’s Warbler? Probably not. Although it might be the main contributor to the destruction of the species, other factors probably exacerbated the decline. The destruction of swamps across the southeast, the destruction of their wintering habitats in Cuba, and potentially unknown factors might have all helped drive the Bachman’s Warbler to extinction.

The I’On Swamp Today  

I'On Swamp Interpretive Trail Francis Marion National Forest
Visiting the I’On Swamp today can be a difficult endeavor. The swamp is large, and only a few gravel and dirt roads allow access. Only one trail exists in the whole of the swamp. That trail—the 2.5 mile I’On Swamp Interpretive Trail—is part of the Francis Marion National Forest trail system. The I’On Swamp Interpretive Trail offers the easiest way for visitors to get “into” the swamp, butat only 2.5 milesit allows visitors a tiny glimpse of the swamp. Short of bushwhacking through the swamp, the trail is the best choice visitors have to see the swamp.

Nearly the entirety of the I’On Swamp Interpretive Trail runs atop ancient dikes that once belonged to the Wythewood Plantation, one of the main rice plantations that used to call the swamp home. As you walk along the nearly 300-year-old dikes, you can’t help but marvel at the engineering feat they represent. At the same time, you can’t help but feel an overwhelming sorrow when you realize that enslaved peoples from Africa were the ones who toiled away to make these extensive dikes. The colonial and early American rice industry was the second most dangerous industry for enslaved peoples to find themselves part of, second only to the sugar cane industry. Between the harsh owners, never-ending work, the oppressive heat of the Carolina Lowcountry, rampant diseases, and dangerous wildlife, being a rice plantation slave was an absolutely brutal, and many times short, affair. Injuries and deaths were commonplace. The mortality rate of enslaved peoples working on rice plantations is mind-numbing to consider. At some rice plantations, almost 90% of children died before they reached 16 years old. Many adults did not make it past 30. The profit margins on rice were so high that an enslaved person only had to work for one season for the owner to make back the cost of the slave, so slaves were viewed as a highly dispensable commodity. Although this mentality seems unfathomable today, it was sadly common throughout the Lowcountry in the 1700’s and 1800’s.

I'On Swamp Interpretive Trail South Carolina
Today the I’On Swamp looks like a very young, secondary growth swamp forest. When Hurricane Hugo slammed South Carolina in 1989, the winds knocked down essentially all of the trees in the eastern section of Francis Marion NF, including the I'On Swamp. Consequently, most of the I'On Swamp's forest is only 28 years old. Despite the young age, the forest is still impressive. Dwarf Palmettos cover the ground. Red Maples and Black Tupelos take hold in the drier areas. Bald-Cypresses dot the wetter areas, where their knees jut up through the shallow, tannin-stained water. Alligators bask along the banks of the ancient dikes, and River Otters swim through the canals. The place feels natural on the surface, but—while it is still natural to a certain extent, true—the I’On Swamp is scarred. Animals which should call the swamp home are forever gone. Plants which should be easily found throughout the swamp are uncommon and nowhere near as extensive as they used to be. The water flows in unnatural channels and canals, separated by earthen banks that shouldn’t be there. The landscape has been forever changed, and a sorrow hangs in the air—not only because the land will never be as it once was, but also because so many lives were unnecessarily lost here.

Despite the scars, the I’On Swamp is nevertheless a fascinating place. Go visit the swamp if you’re in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Walk along the ancient rice field dikes as you travel through the swamp forest. Look for animals and plants, and enjoy the landscape. But while you do, don’t forget to take a few moments to reflect on all the history bound up in this swamp.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Few Birds From Huntington Beach State Park

Two weeks ago I had a break from work and decided to head to Huntington Beach State Park, SC, only a short two hours away. Huntington Beach State Park is a phenomenal and well-known birding (and tourist) location along the Atlantic Coast of South Carolina. The park features a long (typically busy) beach and extensive salt marsh and lagoon nestled behind the beach dunes. While birding around the park, I was able to grab a few photos of some of the hundreds and hundreds of birds taking up residence throughout the park that day.

Sanderling Huntington Beach State Park
I first ventured out to the beach, which was rather dead at the time. Other than Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans, the little sandpiper pictured above was the only bird patrolling the beach. This is the Sanderling, an incredibly common shorebird found along the beaches of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts during the winter. A small, but massively charismatic shorebird, the Sanderling is well known for its wave-chasing foraging. When the leftovers of a wave begin to recede after hitting the beach, individuals or flocks of Sanderlings will run out onto the freshly-exposed sand and probe for any sort of invertebrate that the wave either uncovered or left stranded on the sand. As the next wave comes rushing in, the Sanderling will quickly dart away from the water. This running back and forth as the waves come in and out is rather entertaining to watch. And just a random fun fact: The Sanderling recently garnered non-birder fame after being the focus of the Pixar Animation short "Piper," which debuted in 2016 before Finding Dory 2. Although the short strays from the biology a tad for artistic sake, it's a beautifully animated, and fun, short film. Here's a link to watch the 6-minute short: "Piper"

Great Egret South Carolina
I left the beach and headed to the salt marsh, and the bird diversity instantly picked up. Patrolling the low-tide waters in the salt marsh were several wading birds, including this Great Egret. The Great Egret is a common species throughout much of the east, especially along the coast. Like other wading birds, the Great Egret is never found far from water, whether it be salt marshes, rivers, lakes, ponds, swamps, or the like. The Great Egret is the largest of the egrets—an "egret" is nothing more than a common name given to herons which happen to be whitein the United States. Standing at over 3 feet tall, the Great Egret is also the second tallest of the herons in the US, only second to the Great Blue Heron.

Great Egret Neck
A Great Egret stretches out his neck to get a better view of the water.
Fish are the preferred food for the Great Egret. The lanky Great Egret spends most of its time slowly and carefully moving through the water, looking for fish swimming about. When a potential meal is spotted, the Great Egret will pull its long neck back into a compacted "S" shape and take aim. Their long neck essentially acts as a spring. When the egret is ready, it will shoot its neck and beak forward into the water, spearing the fish. Once the fish is speared, the Great Egret will deftly maneuver the fish with its beak in order to swallow it whole. 

Double-Crested Cormorant
Hanging out on a mudflat near the Great Egret were several Double-Crested Cormorants. The Double-Crested Cormorant can be found throughout pretty much all of the US at some point during the year, and the coast of South Carolina is one of their overwintering grounds. The Double-Crested Cormorant is another fish-eating and water-loving bird. Like other cormorants, the Double-Crested Cormorant is a diving bird, and they typically dive to depths up to 25 feet in order find, chase, and catch fish. You might also see individuals of this species sitting somewhere with their wings spread as they face the Sun. They do this in order to dry their feathers after a dive. Unlike most water-dwelling birds, the structure of a cormorant's feathers make it to where they do not shed water. This is an adaptation which allows cormorants to more easily dive, but it comes at a cost. After a Double-Crested Cormorant dives, its feathers are soaked. Dripping wet feathers make it hard to fly, so the cormorant is forced to stand in the Sun and let its feathers air dry if it wants to fly to another location.

Birding at Huntington Beach State Park
The highlight of the day was a much-awaited lifer, the Roseate Spoonbill (two of which are pictured in the foreground). I'll get to the Spoonbills in a moment. First, let's talk about that bald-faced bird in the back.

Wood Stork Huntington Beach State Park
Meet the Wood Stork. The Wood Stork is a resident of the marshes and swamps of the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coasts here in the US, but is also found throughout Central and South America. Although you wouldn't guess it when visiting Huntington Beach State Park—where there can be hundreds and hundreds of Wood Storks at a time—the Wood Stork is actually Federally Threatened in the United States. Habitat degradation, invasive species, disruptions to the historical food web, and other factors led to the decrease of the population here in the United States during the 1900's. Originally listed as Federally Endangered, Wood Stork populations have been on a slight rebound over the past decade or so, prompting the listing to be moved down to "Threatened" in 2014. A good sign for now, but the species is by no means out of trouble.

Roseate Spoonbill Huntington Beach State Park
As I mentioned, the highlight of the day personally were the Roseate Spoonbills. I've been wanting to see this strange wader ever since I was a young kid flipping through my Sibley's field guide, and I finally got my chance! As becomes quite obvious upon seeing one, their name stems from their pinkish color and their spatulate bill. They owe their pinkish color to their diet, much in the way flamingos do. Roseate Spoonbills feed on shrimp and other organisms which contain a type of pigment called Canthaxanthin. This pigment is reddish-pink in color. As a Roseate Spoonbill consumes more and more Canthaxanthin, it sequesters the pigment in its feathers, giving its plumage a pink coloration. This also means that the intensity of pink and the exact hue can is different from individual to individual, and location to location, depending on the available food and the individual's specific diet.

Roseate Spoonbill Foraging
Of course, the most attention-grabbing feature of the Roseate Spoonbill is its spatulate, i.e. spoon-like, bill. The widened-tip of their bill is actually a foraging adaptation. When the Roseate Spoonbill feeds, it waves its bill back and forth through the water with its mouth slightly open. The widened tip of the bill allows the Spoonbill to better grab onto various prey items—fish, crustaceans, worms, etc.—as the beak offers more surface area. Imagine that you had to catch an insect that was moving around quickly. Would you rather use two chopsticks to catch the insect, or two large spatulas? The spatulas would be much more effective at grabbing the insect, for the same reason that the Spoonbill's beak is better than a sharp, pointed beak.

American Alligator Huntington Beach State Park
Of course, birds weren't the only reptilians (as birds are nothing more than an offshoot of dinosaurs) patrolling the waters for food. Huntington Beach State Park is also extremely well known for its American Alligator population, and I saw around a dozen that day either swimming in the lagoon or basking on the land. Several people regaled me with a story of earlier in the day, when a particularly large Alligator shut down traffic as it crossed the main road. Apparently this is a rather common occurrence at the park, and one that I would love to see!

My new job has kept me busy, and it's been difficult to find time to blog. I've got some more downtime this month, so hopefully I will be able to find time to photograph some things and pump out a few blog posts. Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Blog Name Change and Update!

Hello All,

I have some exciting news. On September 23, 2017, I will be leaving Athens, Ohio, and moving down to South Carolina. I have accepted a seasonal position as an outdoor education field instructor at Clemson University's Camp Bob Cooper.

As such, "Ohio Nature" will soon not make much sense as my blog name. If you have been a long-time follower of this blog, you might remember when I changed my URL from "" to the current "" As I mentioned in my 2015 post about the URL change, that was done in preparation for the likely outcome that I would be leaving Ohio upon graduation. I chose to retain "Ohio Nature" as my blog name at that point because I was still living in Ohio and still writing about Ohio nature.

Now the time has come that I won't be writing strictly about Ohio nature, and I felt the need to change my blog name to reflect this. This blog will now be entitled "On the Subject of Nature." I will still be blogging the same type of material, but now I won't be tied down to a geographic location. And although the specific places and species I will be covering will change as I move from seasonal job to seasonal job—and location to locationthe core mission of this blog will remain the same: highlight interesting subjects in nature and talk about the science and the issues surrounding them.

The full image of my new blog background. This is an abstract shot of blooming trees from A.W. Marion State Park in Central Ohio.
In addition, I decided to change up the looks of this blog just a tiny bit. I changed the background image from an open source image from the Blogger library to a photo I personally took. I also slightly widened the text boxes, and increased the size of my post titles.

Finally, I want to thank everyone for reading and supporting this blog! I recently surpassed 150,000 page views, which is way more than I thought this blog would hit. Your continued readership pushes me to find more interesting subjects to talk about, take better photos, and write more compelling posts. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Caterpillar Extravaganza

This past weekend I attended the third annual "Caterwauling for Caterpillars" night. Despite the strange name, this event is a yearly gathering of insect-loving Ohio University students who have one goal in mind: find cool caterpillars. Although the overall diversity wasn't too great this year, we still saw some interesting "cats," and I wanted to highlight a few of them here.

Saddled Prominent caterpillar (Heterocampa guttivitta) Ohio
First up is the Saddled Prominent (Heterocampa guttivitta). This wide-ranging species is quite variable in appearance, and it took me awhile to figure out just what species of prominent (Family Notodontidae) this individual was. The main identifying features are the saddle on the top of the 3rd and 4th abdominal segments (the two segments which have the first and second prolegs), the white line running down the body near the back (subdorsal line), and the brown and white band on the head. The Saddled Prominent is a generalist when it comes to host plant preference. Unlike some caterpillar species which feed on only one or a few species of plants, the caterpillar of the Saddled Prominent feeds on pretty much any woody plants, including American Beech, birches, buckeyes, dogwood, hickories, maples, oaks, sumacs, and many other trees and shrubs.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar (Hypercompe scribonia) Ohio
A relatively common species in southeast Ohio—yet one that I always enjoy seeing—is the Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia). Although you can't really tell from the photo, Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars are large. They're also extremely easy to identify; if you see a large black caterpillar covered in black bristles, with red rings where each abdominal segment meets, you've got yourself a Giant Leopard Moth. The caterpillars of this species feed only at night, spending most of the daylight hours hiding out on the forest floor. Although the black bristles (which are technically called "setae") look formidable, the Giant Leopard Moth does not actually sting. Instead, they will simply roll up into a ball if threatened and hope that they look scary enough for the threat to leave them alone. If you want to read about the adult Giant Leopard Moth, check out my previous post "Mothing at Clear Creek: The Showy."

Agreeable Tiger Moth caterpillar (Spilosoma congrua) Ohio
A few minutes after seeing the Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar, another strikingly-similar caterpillar crossed our paths. This is the caterpillar of the Agreeable Tiger Moth (Spilosoma congrua). Like many other species of insects, the Agreeable Tiger Moth is able to sequester toxins found in the plants that they eat in order to become toxic themselves. In the case of this species, these caterpillars sequester iridoid glycosides. Although the levels of iridoid glycosides aren't very dangerous to most potential predators of the Agreeable Tiger Moth, they do make the caterpillar taste pretty nasty, which would hopefully deter any predators from eating this species. Caterpillars of the Agreeable Tiger Moth come in two color morphs: one with colored rings, and one with red dots down the side of the body. Although I couldn't find any information about the two morphs, it would be interesting to see if there are any differences between the two—whether they occur in different geographic locations, or if they have differences in the iridoid glycoside sequestration, or the likes. 

Camouflaged stick mimic geometer caterpillar
By far the most abundant type of caterpillar of the night were the geometers. Geometers—better known as "inch worms"—are moths belonging to the family Geometridae. The geometer family is huge, with over 1,400 species in North America (and several hundred in Ohio alone). Identifying geometer caterpillars can be incredibly difficult, especially since many of them are incredibly camouflaged and lack much in the way of obvious identifying characteristics. Although I couldn't identify the one pictured above to species, it was my favorite geometer of the night. This caterpillar is a perfect twig mimic. I would have never seen him had I not had a UV flashlight. UV flashlights are indispensable tools when searching for caterpillars. Most "caterpillaring" occurs under the cover of night, when caterpillars are most active. It just so happens that most caterpillar species fluoresce when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. If you walk around the forest with a hand-held UV flashlightwhich you can easily find on Amazon—the caterpillars will quite literally light up, making it much easier to find cryptic species. 

Black-Waved Flannel Moth caterpillar (Lagoa crispata) Ohio
One of the most peculiar species of the night was the Black-Waved Flannel Moth (Lagoa crispata). The caterpillar of the Black-Waved Flannel Moth is rather ridiculous looking in my opinion, appearing like a frizzy toupĂ©e. But don't let its appearance fool you—flannel moth caterpillars are not one to mess with. This caterpillar has two lines of defense. First, all those long hairs you see are urticating setae, which are essentially bristles which can break off into your skin causing irritation (like dozens and dozens of tiny splinters). But hidden within the urticating setae is the second line of defense: short, venomous spines. Being stung by the caterpillar of any flannel moth species is not a pleasant experience, but the Black-Waved Flannel Moth is one of the least painful of the bunch (the Southern Flannel Moth, Megalopyge opercularis, wins the pain contest).

Black-Waved Flannel Moth (Lagoa crispata) Ohio
I couldn't talk about the Black-Waved Flannel Moth without at least showing what an adult looks like. The adult Black-Waved Flannel Moth is one of the most fuzzy moths out there. Unlike the caterpillars, the adults are completely harmless. This individual was found in Ross County earlier in the summer.

Jeweled Tailed Slug (Packardia geminata) Ohio
The last three species I want to highlight are all slug caterpillars from the family Limacodidae. The "slugs" are almost always a favorite of anyone into Lepidopterans (moths and butterflies). Slug caterpillars are called such due to their rounded, slug-like appearance. They hug whatever surface they are clinging too, and move around in a manner more like a slug than a caterpillar. Some slugslike this Jeweled Tailed Slug (Packardia geminata)—can be rather dull in appearance. Others can be stunningly beautiful.

Nason's Slug (Natada nasoni) Ohio
Many slugs are tiny (quarter sized or less) and mostly green. However, many species are adorned with stinging hairs, such as this is Nason's Slug (Natada nasoni). The spines of the Nason's Slug are unique compared to many other slug caterpillars. These spines are actually retractable, and most of the time the caterpillar will only have the tips of the spines exposed. If the caterpillar feels threatened, it will extend its spines and hopefully scare the threat away. If not, the threat (whether it be a bird, human, or whatever) will receive a painful sting. This was a good species to find for the night, as the Nason's Slug is restricted to only the southern and southeastern portions of the state.

Saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea)
The highlight of the night—at least in my opinion—was this Saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea). The Saddleback is one of the most well-known slug caterpillars, and it's easy to see why. Even someone who doesn't care about insects would be hard-pressed to ignore one of these cats. As you can tell from the photo above, the common name for this species is due to the circular "saddle" on its back. But if any feature is grabbing your attention, it's most surely all the protruding appendages covered in spines. These spines pack quite a punch. Each spine is rigid, incredibly sharp, and most importantly hollow. At the base of each spine is a venom gland. If a spine comes in contact with exposed skin, it breaks off into the skin and begins releasing venom. The Saddleback's venom is both vesicating and hemolytic, meaning that it causes your skin to blister while also breaking down your red blood cells and damaging your tissue. A sting from one of these caterpillars will cause immediate localized pain (fellow blogger Andrew Gibson likened it to "burning knives"), and in extreme cases can also cause nausea, migraines, and a host of other symptoms. The effects of the venom can last upwards of 5 hours. 

Saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea) Ohio
On the front end of the Saddleback are two large white spots. These are thought to mimicking eyes. Fake eyes are common in insectsespecially in Lepidopterans—and these eye-spots serve to scare away potential predators by either startling the predators or conveying that the animal in question is dangerous.

Like always, this year's Caterwauling for Caterpillars event was fantastic. If you want to read about some of the caterpillars from the first Caterwauling for Caterpillars night, please check out my post entitled "Caterpillars, Caterpillars, and More Caterpillars." And if you are interested in seeing some caterpillars yourself, mid-September is the best time for that in Ohio! Get out and see what you can find!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Trump Administration and the Environment — August 2017 Update

Grand Canyon National Park in the Winter
Sixteen days into President Trump’s term, I wrote an editorial entitled “What the Trump Presidency Has Meant for the Environment So Far.” We have now surpassed seven months with President Trump in office, and I want to give yet another update on how his administration is handling environmental matters. In my previous post, most of the material I covered had been only ideas that the administration was considering implementing, or ideological positions that the people President Trump had surrounded himself with held. Since that post was published, the Trump Administration has enacted concerning and downright damaging laws, overturned many beneficial laws and regulations already in place, and began restricting and suppressing scientists and scientific research in the government and beyond.

This post will attempt to collect and summarize some of the more damaging and harmful actions taken by the Trump Administration so far with regard to the environment. I want to once again stress that although my blog does not normally venture into the political realm, the environment does not exist within a vacuum. The actions taken by politicians have a tremendous effect on the environment. When concerned with the environment, one cannot help but find themselves concerned with politics as well.

I will be examining the following:

  1. President Trump's opinions and ideals about the environment, and his direct actions.
  2. Ryan Zinke and his actions at the Department of the Interior.
  3. Scott Pruitt and his actions at the Environmental Protection Agency.

President Trump

I’ll begin with President Trump and some “big picture” material. Back in May, President Trump proposed his budget for the fiscal year that begins on October 1, 2017 and lasts until September 30, 2018. Before I highlight some of the relevant sections of the budget, I want to note that this is the proposed budget. The president proposes a budget, and then Congress either passes the budget as is or alters parts of it and then passes the altered budget. Congress has not begun this process of altering or voting on the proposed budget yet, and as such the budget will most likely change (possibly dramatically) before it becomes law. Regardless, the proposed budget gives us citizens an insight into what President Trump and his administration considers important and what they consider unnecessary.

This proposed budget includes dramatic cuts to many environmentally-oriented projects and sectors in the federal government. Here are just a few highlights:

  • A proposed 31% cut in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This proposed cut involves removing over 3,200 jobs in the EPA, gutting the funding for the EPA enforcement office (which ensures corporations are following federal environmental regulations), ending programs aimed at cleaning the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay, and a whole lot more. (Source)

  • It would cut funding for the Department of Energy, primarily cutting funding for the DOE’s Office of Science which funds research on climate change, biology, and the environment. (Source)

  • It would cut funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, most notably to their weather satellite program which helps meteorologists more accurately predict the weather. (Source)

  • It would cut $3.1 billion in funding for the National Science Foundation, which helps fund research projects at universities and research facilities all across the United States. This would result in many graduate students and professors being unable to carry out their research. (Source)

As the proposed budget shows, President Trump does not care much for scientific research and protecting the environment. President Trump’s disregard for the environment was further underscored with his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. The Paris Climate Accord is an international agreement that aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to stymie the rate of anthropogenic climate change. This agreement was originally signed by 195 countries, including the United States. The only countries to not sign the agreement were Syria (due to their preoccupation with the Syrian Civil War) and Nicaragua (who thought the agreement did not go far enough). (Source) However, President Trump announced in early June that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, an unprecedented move that was harshly criticized across the world. (Source) The Paris Climate Accord did not come without concerns, but the vast majority of the world agreed it was a move in the right direction.

Donald Trump's Chinese Hoax Tweet
A screen capture of this tweet: @realDonaldTrump

President Trump claimed that the Paris Climate Accord placed unfair environmental standards and regulations on the businesses in the United States, harming the economy here in the United States. (Source) The problem is, letting climate change go unchecked will result in more of a negative economic impact than the economic costs associated with attempting to lessen the effects of climate change. Estimating the overall economic impacts of climate change is difficult, but most studies find that the long term (i.e. over the course of 100 years) effects will be harmful to the economy. (Source ) Interestingly, the sections of the United States which voted heavily for Trump, such as the southeast, are often the sections which are predicted to experience the worst economic effects from climate change. (Source) In addition to the economic effects of climate change, the Pentagon considers climate change to pose a significant threat to the security of the United States. (Source) Despite all of this, President Trump does not acknowledge climate change as a threat to our economy, security of our nation, or even as real threat itself. (Source) President Trump has famously, and repeatedly, claimed that anthropogenic climate change is not real, even going as far as to claim climate change was “created by and for the Chinese.” (Source)

President Trump is doing more than refusing to take actions to slow the effects of climate change. He is proposing actions that would actually exacerbate the effects of climate change. President Trump wants to increase the rate of fossil fuel extraction in the United States, including ending the supposed “war on coal.” (Source) The problem is, there is no “war on coal.” Coal mining did not begin dying due to environmental regulations, but instead began dying due to market factors. The automation of the coal mining process, the waning market demand for coal, and the rise of cheaper coal alternatives (such as cheap natural gas) has killed coal. (Source) Coal is not coming back because the changing times have rendered it unwanted and ineffective.

President Trump’s failure to act on climate change is just one example of him failing to plan for the long term, instead only focusing on short term gains at the expense of long term stability and growth for the United States and the world.

Montezuma Pass Huachuca Mountains Arizona
Looking down at the United States - Mexico border (in the valley) from the Huachuca Mountains in Arizona.
In addition to actions that would harm the environment on a large scale, President Trump is also taking actions which would cause irreparable harm to the environment on a finer, smaller scale. For example, President Trump’s proposed border wall would permanently damage the wildlife and habitats along the border. A concrete border wall would interrupt animal migration routes, increase desert flooding, and fragment wildlife and plant populations and sensitive habitats. (Source) Normally, projects like this would require an intensive environmental impact assessment, but the Trump administration plans to instead exploit a loophole that would allow the government to bypass environmental laws aimed at mitigating negative impacts. (Source ) If the border wall is funded in the end, this bypassing of environmental laws would allow the Trump administration to go ahead with the project without knowing how the wall would impact the environment, and how to best mitigate those impacts.

The proposed border wall would also directly impact recreation along the border, taking away recreational opportunities from the public and consequently drying up the revenue that such recreation brings to local economies. For example, the border wall is currently planned to travel through the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, which is often considered the “crown jewel” of the national wildlife refuge system and is a top international birding destination due to the rarities it attracts. This current plan would result in the border wall completely ending public access to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The national wildlife refuge currently draws 165,000 visitors a year and brings in $463 million a year for the local economy, and the border wall would end this visitation and the money it brings. (Source)

Rocky Mountain National Park
National Parks—like Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park—could find themselves closed down for an unknown period of time if the government shuts down over funding for President Trump's border wall.
The fight for the border wall could also harm environmental recreation across the nation, not just along the border. On August 22, 2017, President Trump threatened to allow the government to shut down if Congress didn’t allot funding for the border wall when it came time to approve the fiscal year budget. (Source) If this government shut down occurs, the national parks (among other areas) in the United States will shut down too. (Source) National park visitation generates over $32 billion a year, and many small communities near national parks are dependent on visitation to the parks. (Source). If the government shuts down for even a few days, this will dry up some of the money flowing into these local economies, harming many communities. The last time the federal government shut down, the National Park Service lost $450,000 a day in revenue and the national economy suffered a $2.4 billion loss in travel spending. (Source)

Is the environmental, recreational, and fiscal cost of a border wall worth it? Not at all. First, the number of illegal immigrants within the US has been stable since 2009. (Source) Second, the vast majority of those currently in the US illegally did not come by illegally crossing the border; instead, the vast majority did so simply by overstaying their legally-obtained visa. (Source) Consequently, regardless of whether you think illegal immigration is a problem, a border wall does not make logical sense to stop the flow, especially at all the costs—from environmental to recreational to fiscal—that such a wall would bring.

Overall, President Trump’s actions and words have shown that he does not base his actions on data and logic. This ideology was recently put into official words by Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s appointed head administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt recently said in an interview that science shouldn’t be used to “dictate policy.” (Source) President Trump has also shown that he does not place any importance on environmental stewardship. This is unacceptable for a president, or anyone in a position of power for that matter.

Ryan Zinke and the

Department of the Interior

The Department of the Interior (DOI) is a federal department whose tasks include managing lands such as National Parks, National Monuments, and Bureau of Land Management lands. The DOI also oversees the management of natural resources on those lands, including who can access and extract those resources, and how they can extract them. The DOI is currently overseen by Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Slickrock as far as the eye can see, with the Escalante River Canyon cutting through the middle. This section of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument might soon be cut from the monument.

Secretary Zinke entered the news in late April when he announced that the Dept. of the Interior would be launching a review of all the national monuments which had been created over the past 20 years and were at least 100,000 acres in size. (Source) The goal of this review was to decide whether any of the national monuments in question should be reduced in size, or even completely eliminated. Unlike National Parks, which are created by Congress, National Monuments are created by presidential power as defined in the 1906 Antiquities Act. (Source) As I mentioned in my previous post, there’s been a push from conservatives to get rid of federal public land, either by ceding the land back to the states or by selling them off to private entities. But public land offers many benefits to the citizens of the US, including recreational opportunities, which in turn bolsters the economies of small towns near the public lands. (Source) Most importantly, these public lands protect many historically and ecologically significant areas of the United States.

On August 24, 2017, the results of the national monuments review were somewhat announced. Thankfully, no national monuments were recommended for elimination. (Source) However, it was recommended that the sizes of three national monuments be reduced. (Source) These three national monuments include Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon, Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and the recently-created Bears Ears in Utah. By how much will these three national monuments be reduced? Well, we currently don’t know; Zinke and the DOI hasn’t made the final review available to the public. (Source) This in itself raises questions; if the review was finalized (as it had to be by August 24), then why wasn’t it released to the public? Why the secrecy?

Regardless, the recommended reductions will likely be significant in size. This is distressing for many reasons. Bears Ears National Monument, for example, was designated by President Obama in 2016 in order to protect over 100,000 Native American archaeological sites, Native American holy land, and land that held ample recreation opportunities. (Source) This area of Utah had long been damaged by unchecked use; illegal off-roading destroyed archaeological sites and damaged natural areas, looters ransacked many of the archaeological sites in search of artifacts to illegally sell, and unmanaged recreation in general degraded the land and archaeological sites. This area needed protection. By designating it as a national monument, law enforcement activity and land management could be better organized and funded, offering a better, more efficient way to protect all of the important features of the land while also facilitating recreation in the area in a less impactful manner.

Grosvenor Arch Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Grosvenor Arch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Arizona. Grosvenor Arch is just one of the many places at risk of losing protection.
Hearing that Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was recommended for size reduction was especially sad for me. In 2016, I spent several days exploring Grand Staircase-Escalante. Although I only just scrapped the surface of the national monument, I was blown away by the beauty and the history—both archaeological and geological—of the area. It is something special, and it deserves to be protected. Reducing the size of this American treasure would be nothing less than a travesty.

Reducing the size of our public lands isn’t the only action Zinke and the DOI is taking or attempting to take. Zinke is also directing the DOI to open up public lands for more resource extraction, while simultaneously rolling back regulations intended to protect public lands. For example, on July 25, 2017, Zinke officially proposed axing a law on fracking that was intended to “Ensure that wells are properly constructed to protect water supplies, make certain that the fluids that flow back to the surface as a result of hydraulic fracturing operations are managed in an environmentally responsible way, and provide public disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids.” (Source) Zinke claimed that this law imposed “burdensome reporting requirements and other unjustified costs on the oil and gas industry.” (Source) That’s right—the profit margins of the oil and gas energy is more important in the eyes of the Trump Administration than ensuring that our water supplies are safely protected.

Zinke has called for increasing offshore drilling. (Source) He has called for increasing coal mining operations on public lands. (Source) He has announced that the government will relax protection for the declining Greater Sage Grouse, a species whose habitat is being destroyed by land and energy development. And why is Zinke relaxing protection for the Greater Sage Grouse? To lower the restrictions on energy development within Greater Sage Grouse habitat, of course. (Source)

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t utilize federal lands in any capacity for natural resource extraction. Some natural resource extractions can be beneficial both for economically and ecologically. One such case involves strategic logging, which can create habitat for species that require young forest habitats. For example, managing forests for oaks and hickories (by logging other species) helps create habitat for the Cerulean Warbler, a species that’s in severe decline. (Source) Another example is the shelterwood cut, which can create successional growth habitats for declining bird species like Prairie Warblers and Yellow-Breasted Chats. (Source)

The problem comes when we place an emphasis on extractions for resources that are either on their way out, or push for extraction methods which are more damaging than beneficial to a given area. Renewable energy is the future, and fossil fuels are the past. Energy use from renewable sources is growing much faster than energy use from fossil fuels. (Source) Although the majority of the energy utilized in the US still comes from fossil fuels, the writing is on the wall. The Trump administration needs to recognize this and begin investing in the future, instead of trying to prolong a dying giant.

In April, Zinke said “I’m a Teddy Roosevelt guy! ... No one loves public land more than I do!” (Source) Teddy Roosevelt would have quite a problem with Zinke’s statement. Zinke’s actions have shown that he values the oil and gas industry much more than the public lands he supposedly loves.

What would Teddy Roosevelt think? One has to look no further than his May 13, 1908 speech at the Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources: We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

Scott Pruitt and the EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a government agency whose mission is to protect both the environment and American citizens from significant threats, such as pollution or the effects of climate change. Sadly, the EPA under the Trump Administration has been at the forefront of rolling back environmental regulations, disregarding climate change education and action, and suppressing science and scientists. This is no surprise, as Scott Pruitt was selected by President Trump to lead the EPA. Pruittwho has sued the agency he now leads 14 timesis striving to fundamentally break down any positive environmental actions that the EPA has previously taken, or could currently take. (Source

Lake Erie Storm at Sunset
Lake Erie, a large body of navigable water that benefits from environmental regulations like the Clean Water Rule.
Let’s look at just three regulations the EPA is in the process of rolling back. Pruitt proposed that the EPA repeal the Clean Water Rule. (Source) The Clean Water Rule was originally implemented to protect “navigable” waterways from pollutants and other dangers. Pruitt is also attempting to repeal a 2015 rule that regulated the amount of toxic metals power plants could dump into waterways. (Source ) This regulation was essentially aimed at limiting the amount of toxic metalssuch as mercury and arsenicthat power plants would routinely dump into rivers and other waterways when expelling wastewater. When asked why the EPA was trying to repeal this rule, Pruitt said “Some of our nation’s largest job producers have objected to this rule.” (Source) Although this regulation would have surely strained the economic bottom line of power plants, the quality of our water is much more important than profit margins. As we saw with Zinke and the DOI, Pruitt and the EPA are placing an emphasis on the profits of corporations rather than the health and safety of us citizens and our environment. Lastly, Pruitt is directing the EPA to rewrite the Clean Power Plan. (Source) The Clean Power Plan was initially created to aid the US in its transition from climate-change inducing fossil fuels to environmentally-friendly renewable energy sources by regulating carbon dioxide emissions and promoting renewable energy sources. Not only would the Clean Power Plan help lessen the effects of climate change by quickening the transition from fossil fuel use to clean energy use, but it was also projected to prevent 90,000 asthma attacks and 3,600 premature deaths a year. (Source)  With this action, Pruitt—and ultimately President Trump—shows us that your health and livelihood mean nothing next to a corporation’s profit margins.

In addition to rolling back important environmental regulations, Pruitt is actively purging scientists from the EPA. Pruitt dismissed most of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, which is a board made up of scientists who are very familiar with environmental sciences. (Source ) This board is dedicated to addressing whether the EPA is acting on sound scientific research. The fear, expressed by those who worked in the EPA, is that Pruitt will now appoint industry lobbyists to the Board of Scientific Counselors, instead of objective scientists. (Source) This fear was only strengthened when a memo that was circulating among Pruitt’s upper-level team was made public. This memo included a list of climate change deniers, with that list being labelled as “climate scientists.” (Source) This list, which was compiled by an outside climate change denier group called the Heartland Institute (Source and Source), is thought to be a list from which Pruitt will choose replacements for the Board of Scientific Counselors and other such committees. If such people are appointed, they will not have the goal of the EPA in mind and will only serve to cause more damage.

Arguably the most concerning of Pruitt’s actions surround his continued denial and fundamental misunderstanding of anthropogenic climate change. Anthropogenic climate change is the biggest threat humanity is facing. Pruitt’s views on climate change are not only flawed, but dangerous for the United States and the world. Initially, he denied climate change was occurring. (Source) Then he changed that view and said that climate change was occurring, which seemed a step in the right direction. (Source)  But then he took a step back and said that humans are not at the root cause of climate change. (Source) And then, in March, he came out and said that he does not think carbon dioxide is the main driver of the current climate change we are seeing (Source). This is all just wrong, and goes against decades of data-driven and rigorously peer-reviewed scientific conclusions. The climate is changing right now, and it’s due primarily to human actions, and the main driver is carbon dioxide which is being released by human actions. (If you have questions or doubts about climate change, please see the following helpful resources which will answer any relevant questions: Resource 1 and Resource 2) It’s incredibly concerning that the head of an agency who mission is to protect us and the environment refuses to acknowledge the facts behind the biggest environmental threat we are facing.

Pruitt is charging ahead with willfully misguided actions on climate change that are driven by his fundamentally flawed views about the subject itself. For example, he is taking direct actions to remove and censor pages about climate change on the EPA website. In late April, under approval by Pruitt, the EPA removed the vast majority of its climate change information. (Source) This action was coupled with a statement on the EPA website that claimed “[The EPA is] currently updating our website to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt.” (Source) This censorship about climate change has extended to other departments and agencies in the federal government as well. Employees of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), for example, were directed to stop using the term “climate change,” and instead use “weather extremes.” (Source) The National Institute of Health’s website also underwent similar changes, with parts of their website deleting references to “climate change.” (Source)

One of the most problematic aspects of Pruitt’s actions at the EPA involves the extent of all the changes. Much of his actions have been shrouded in secrecy to some capacity, rendering us citizens unaware of the true extent of the damage he is creating, and just how far he has dismantled the EPA. (Source) It is obvious that Pruitt is trying to dismantle the EPA, and this should not come as a surprise. Steve Bannon—President Trump’s former White House Chief Strategist—famously said in a speech that Pruitt and the other cabinet administrators and secretaries “Were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction.” (Source) Although we might not know the true extent of the damage that Pruitt will have caused at the EPA until he leaves office, we at least know that it will be alarmingly significant.

Mustang Mountains, Arizona, at Dusk

Protecting Our Environment

The troubling times continue. We are only 7 months into President Trump’s term, and the actions we have seen him and his administration take have been overwhelmingly detrimental to the health and future of our environment and our livelihood. These actions—especially the actions with regard to climate change—will harm us and the environment for decades, if not centuries, to come.

People are angry, and for many this anger has led way to despair. We have to be sure to not fall to this despair though—to not fall to defeatism and give up without a fight. We cannot give up and simply throw in the towel when it comes to the fight for protecting our environment.

President Trump says he wants to “Make America Great Again.” His actions, however, have done anything but that. The health of the environment directly affects the health and well-being of you and I, and promoting the destruction of the environment only worsens our future. And yet this is what we see President Trump and his administration doing every day.

We must hold President Trump, his Administration, and the Congress accountable. We must voice our opinions. We must make a stand.

Reach out to your Congressional and State Representatives and Senators, regardless of their political affiliation. Send emails, make phone calls, show up to their offices and town halls. Attend peaceful protests. Pay attention to the news, and stay informed. Get involved at all levels of the government if you can, especially the lower rungs. It is easier to effect change from the bottom up than the top down.

Don’t be silent. Don’t be defeated. Don’t give up.

"To announce there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public" - Theodore Roosevelt