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On peatlands as critical carbon banks, our gridlocked national parks, and more

Commending five terrific longer and thoughtful pieces for your midsummer reading list.

REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

Did you know that peatlands store more carbon than all the world’s standing forests, even though they make up but 3 percent of the Earth’s surface?

Or that there are extensive peatlands in the tropics as well as the boreal zone, with one the size of New York State discovered just last year in the Congo? Or that northern Minnesota, which has the largest area of peatlands in the lower 48 states, is also home to cutting-edge research on peatlands and their place in the calculus of global warming?

For these revelations and many more I am indebted to our local online magazine Ensia and its article by Jeremy Lyon Hance published last Friday, which examines how “the fate of these carbon-hoarding habitats will play a big role in our planet’s climate future.”

Writing from the Marcell Experimental Forest near Grand Rapids, a 55-year-old project of the U.S. Forest Service, Hance makes these points in the piece that leads this month’s suggestions of longer, thoughtful additions to your environmentally minded reading list:

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Peatlands are the superheroes of ecosystems: purifying water, sometimes mitigating flooding and providing a home for rare species. And they beat nearly every system when it comes to carbon storage. … At least one-third of the world’s organic soil carbon, which plays a vital role in mitigating climate change and stabilizing the carbon cycle, is in peatlands.

“From a climate perspective, [peatlands] are the most essential terrestrial ecosystem,” says Tim Christophersen, a senior program officer with Forests and Climate at the United Nations Environment Programme.

Unlike rainforests or coral reefs, peatlands have largely been ignored by researchers and policy-makers. They have been so neglected that we don’t even know where all of the world’s peatlands are. Scientists used to believe that the vast majority of the world’s peatlands were in boreal and temperate areas — like Minnesota — but we now know that the tropics are also home to massive areas of peatlands.

A study published this year in Global Change Biology estimates that tropical peatlands — the most important in terms of carbon storage — may cover three times more land than previously estimated. But they are difficult to find because not all wetlands contain peat. The only way to know for sure is to send researchers to sample the soil, and that takes money.

And, of course, they are under threat from a variety of development/deforestation forces, because they tend to be seen as unsettled wastelands that are ripe for conversion to agriculture. Also, they burn really well — so well that peat fires, like coal-yard fires, can be virtually impossible to extinguish.


Even if I hadn’t fallen in love with Zion National Park a few Christmastides ago, I’d find it hard to tear my attention away from Jim Robbins’ piece for Yale Environment 360, “How a Surge in Visitors Is Overwhelming America’s National Parks.”

I wish Robbins hadn’t added “greenlock” to my vocabulary, to describe gridlock in natural surroundings, but I suppose we may as well have a word for this circumstance nature-minded travelers seem doomed to encounter with rising frequency — especially in the national parks, whose managers tell Robbins they are considering limiting access to the parks in order to save them.

Zion, he writes, “is the poster child for the crowding of America’s most hallowed places”: Though it is just under 150,000 acres and has a single, six-mile-long road, it draws more than 4.3 million visitors each year, which is as many as Yellowstone, whose territory is 15 times larger.

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Visitation at parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon have more than doubled since 1980; the gate count at the canyon went up by a million visitors, or 20 percent, during 2016 alone.

Saving a landscape as a national park is only part of the preservation battle — saving the spirit of these places is also essential. National parks are often thought of as America’s natural cathedrals — serene, contemplative places to visit and be restored by a connection to wild nature and grandeur.

“Visitors are losing in this mix of 5 and 6 million people trying to cram into places that are busy when it’s 2 or 3 million,” said Joan Anzelmo, a retired Park Service superintendent who lives near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and is active as a volunteer in efforts to mitigate the impacts of visitation outside Grand Teton and Yellowstone.

“These are irreplaceable resources. We have to protect them by putting some strategic limits on numbers, or there won’t be anything left. Nobody will want to visit them. Everyone I know who lives, works, and is involved in these issues says something has to be done, it can’t go on like this anymore.”

But remedies would be difficult even if the parks didn’t have a huge backlog of maintenance needs, even if they weren’t operating with lots of staff vacancies, even if the Trump White House weren’t proposing a 13 percent budget cut for the park service, the largest since World War II.


You don’t see bubonic plague in the news much these days — except as a metaphor for the metastasis of certain viral internet continent — but it has never really gone away, especially in parts of the American Southwest, like the Colorado Plateau around Flagstaff, Arizona.

Obviously the disease threat is not discouraging visitation to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. But it does afflict about seven people a year in the southwestern U.S., which would be trivial if the disease were not so virulent and deadly — and so easy to misdiagnose because of its rarity.

Thus a special assignment for David Wagner of Northern Arizona University, a geneticist specializing in infectious disease. He’s the expert to call if, say, a bunch of prairie dogs suddenly seem to have gone paws up, as Eric Goodman wrote in STAT a couple of weeks ago.

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He’s a tall man, with the square-jawed looks of the sheriff in a spaghetti Western, and one of his jobs is to determine whether these flare-ups are indeed caused by the same bacteria as the Black Death. He pulls on long pants and long sleeves — preferably white, so it’s easier to spot the dark speck of a flea — and drives out to the scene.

Usually, the corpses are already underground, not because they’ve been buried, but because they are prairie dogs. In the throes of plague, they crawl down into their burrows to die at home. Wagner isn’t there for their bodies. He’s more interested in the fleas that transmitted plague in the first place. Sometimes, like their dead hosts, they too are beneath the earth, and he needs to coax them out. At other times — when he’s investigating what he’d call a “hot site” —  the blood is gone from the corpses, the fleas have begun to starve, and they’ve jumped their way to the surface to wait for another mammal to pass by. “You can just see them popping around looking for something to feed on,” Wagner said. “It’s pretty creepy.”

The creepiness stems in part from the fact that a bite, left untreated, could give Wagner lumps the size of chicken eggs; make him bleed from his mouth, nose, and rectum; turn his extremities a gangrenous black; and kill him within days. The prospect doesn’t worry him much. He carries prophylactic antibiotics, which he’ll take if he starts to feel his muscles aching or his throat getting sore. He wears latex gloves. And really, more than a liability, his access to fleas full of plague is an opportunity.


My thanks to Sharon Lerner at the Intercept for introducing me to the Poison Papers, an online library of documents about “the hidden history of chemical and pesticide hazards in the United States.”

A project of the Center for Media and Democracy and the Bioscience Resource Project, the files now run to some 200,000 pages, having just doubled in size with the contributions of a 76-year-old activist whose long struggle with pesticide manufacturers and regulators is Lerner’s subject.

For decades, some of the dirtiest, darkest secrets of the chemical industry have been kept in Carol Van Strum’s barn. Creaky, damp, and prowled by the occasional black bear, the listing, 80-year-old structure in rural Oregon housed more than 100,000 pages of documents obtained through legal discovery in lawsuits against Dow, Monsanto, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the Air Force, and pulp and paper companies, among others. …

Van Strum didn’t set out to be the repository for the people’s pushback against the chemical industry. She moved to a house in the Siuslaw National Forest in 1974 to live a simple life. But soon after she arrived, she realized the Forest Service was spraying her area with an herbicide called 2,4,5-T — on one occasion, directly dousing her four children with it as they fished by the river.

The chemical was one of two active ingredients in Agent Orange, which the U.S. military had stopped using in Vietnam after public outcry about the fact that it caused cancer, birth defects, and serious harms to people, animals, and the environment. But in the U.S., the Forest Service continued to use both 2,4,5-T and the other herbicide in Agent Orange, 2,4-D, to kill weeds. (Timber was — and in some places still is — harvested from the national forest and sold.) Between 1972 and 1977, the Forest Service sprayed 20,000 pounds of 2,4,5-T in the 1,600-square-mile area that included Van Strum’s house and the nearby town of Alsea. …

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Immediately after they were sprayed, Van Strum’s children developed nosebleeds, bloody diarrhea, and headaches, and many of their neighbors fell sick, too. Several women who lived in the area had miscarriages shortly after incidents of spraying. Locals described finding animals that had died or had bizarre deformities — ducks with backward-facing feet, birds with misshapen beaks, and blinded elk; cats and dogs that had been exposed began bleeding from their eyes and ears. At a community meeting, residents decided to write to the Forest Service detailing the effects of the spraying they had witnessed.

“We thought that if they knew what had happened to us, they wouldn’t do it anymore,” Van Strum said recently, before erupting into one of the many bursts of laughter that punctuate her conversation.


Finally I want to commend, from a few weeks ago, Eliza Griswold’s complex and stereotype-challenging dispatch to The New Yorker concerning “The Future of Coal Country.”

She writes from Greene County in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, whose coalfields are contiguous with West Virginia’s, where national attention is typically focused. Her main character is Veronica Coptis, a 30-year-old community organizer who is highly unlike the activists typically featured:

She grew up among miners, and her father, a surveyor, sometimes works for the oil industry. She heard the word “environmentalist” for the first time in college, at West Virginia University. (Local hunters and fishermen, whom Coptis sees as some of her best potential allies, prefer to identify themselves as “conservationists.”) After graduating, she moved back to Greene County and married Donald Fike, a former marine who worked in the mines. When Coptis brings in outside activists, she often warns them not to expect issues to break down along tidy ideological lines. “The assumption is that rural America is this monolithic community, and it’s not,” she told me. She also warns them to be prepared for shotguns leaning against kitchen walls. Like many locals, Coptis learned to shoot when she was a child. “I find firing handguns relaxing,” she said. “Maybe because I’m so powerless over so much of my life.”

Around Greene County, Coptis carries a Russian Makarov pistol, partly to reassure her father. Her fight against coal mining often puts her in opposition not only to energy companies but also to miners concerned about their jobs, and he fears that someone will run her Nissan Versa off a rural road one night. “The coal mines are multimillion-dollar projects,” he told me. “Stopping them can be a nasty thing.” Coal has dominated the area for more than a century, and mining companies own about fifteen per cent of the county’s land. Above ground, their dominion is marked by yellow gates that block roads into valleys designated for waste; when Coptis was younger, a coal company that was expanding its waste area bought a neighboring village and razed it, leaving only a single mailbox. Below ground, the practice of “long-wall” mining, which removes an entire coal seam, can crack buildings’ foundations and damage springs and wells, destroying water supplies.

In 2005, this process led to an environmental catastrophe in Ryerson Station State Park, a twelve-hundred-acre preserve that contains some of the county’s only pristine land. The center of the park was Duke Lake: a reservoir, created by damming a fork of Wheeling Creek, where people had gathered for decades to swim, paddle canoes, and fish. While Consol was mining nearby, the dam ruptured, and the water had to be drained away. The lake has not been restored; a survey commissioned by the state found that the ground was too unstable. But more than fifteen million dollars’ worth of coal remains under the park, and now Consol wants to return and mine it. Coptis’s organization, along with the Sierra Club, has filed suit to block the mine from acquiring the necessary permits, arguing that the mining would destroy three endangered streams. According to Consol’s own survey, the mining is predicted to crack the streambeds, draining the water and spoiling the last fishing in the park. “This is property owned by every resident in Pennsylvania,” Coptis said. “They don’t get to keep plowing through our communities as if we didn’t matter.”


Several times in this space I have commended longer, thoughtful reads by Elizabeth Grossman, and so I feel bound to report that Lizzie died last Friday at the terribly young age of 59. She will be missed and so will her journalism, which investigated and also interpreted difficult issues regarding industrial poisoning of the environment.