Northern Indiana sees a solar co-op once again this year

Similar to what we helped coordinate in 2019, northern Indiana is once again seeing a solar co-op being formed for homeowners who are interested in “going solar.”

To learn more, visit the co-op homepage here (and their Facebook page).

Solar United Neighbors (SUN) and Solarize IN, with assistance from The Center at Donaldson and other regional community partners, have launched the Northern Indiana Solar and EV co-op, an opportunity for homeowners and small businesses to learn more about solar and purchasing a solar system for their home or business at a competitive group price. The co-op is free to join, and there’s no obligation to purchase a system, and now is a great time to consider a solar system. Federal tax credits have been extended, but net metering (the system that provides a fair, even trade for electricity that the solar owner sends out into the electrical grid) is going away next year, so now is the best time to take advantage of these financial incentives.

Dan Robinson, the Northern Indiana Organizer for SUN, will be presenting a free Solar 101 session on the basics of solar energy and the co-op at the Culver-Union Township Public Library on July 27 at 6:00 PM. He’ll be joined by Marshall County residents who will share their own experience of having a solar array at their home. A Hoosier native and graduate of Purdue University, Dan will also be hosting a table for the co-op at the Marshall County Fair on July 21, 1:00-4:00 PM. You can learn more about the co-op and register for the Solar 101 session at

news round-up: summer edition

Ok… I’ve accumulated enough links to post another news round-up.

And as a treat, please enjoy this photo of the caterpillar of the Leafy Spurge Hawkmoth. I came across this in the Mackinaw State Forest in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

Prayer for a Just War (Harpers Magazine) Finding meaning in the climate fight.

Indiana Awards Electric Utilities $5.5 Million To Build Electric Vehicle Charging Stations (Indiana Public Media) Indiana will award a group of eight electric utilities more than $5.5 million to set up charging stations for electric vehicles across the state. The money comes from the settlement with Volkswagen over its Clean Air Act violations. The Indiana Utility Group will build 61 DC fast charging stations — which can charge electric cars in as little as 20 minutes. There are about 40 high-powered public charging stations in the state — more than half of them are in Indianapolis.

I found this short Vlog Brothers video very helpful in thinking about individual vs. corporate action on climate change. The research they cite is listed in the description section of the video.

Rooftop solar and home batteries make a clean grid vastly more affordable (Volts) Distributed energy is not an alternative to big power plants, but a complement.

Where the buffalo roam: world’s longest wildlife bridge could cross the Mississippi (The Guardian) Between Iowa and Illinois, spanning the only stretch of the Mississippi River that flows from east to west, sits an exhausted 55-year-old concrete bridge. Each day 42,000 cars drive across the ageing structure, which is slated to be torn down and replaced. But when Chad Pregracke looks at the bridge, he has a different vision entirely – not an old overpass to be demolished, but a home for the buffalo to roam.

Pesticides Are Killing the World’s Soils (Scientific American) They cause significant harm to earthworms, beetles, ground-nesting bees and thousands of other vital subterranean species… For our analysis, conducted by researchers at the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and the University of Maryland, we looked at nearly 400 published studies that together conducted over 2,800 experiments on how pesticides affect soil organisms. Our review encompassed 275 unique species or types of soil organisms and 284 different pesticides or pesticide mixtures. In just over 70 percent of those experiments, pesticides were found to harm organisms that are critical to maintaining healthy soils—harms that currently are never considered in the EPA’s safety reviews.

Wyoming selected as site of new nuclear power plant (Casper Star Tribune) The project is a partnership with Bill Gates-founded company TerraPower, Rocky Mountain Power and the U.S. Department of Energy. The plant will replace a current coal-fired plant in Wyoming’s Pacificorp system. The reactor will use small, modular reactors as opposed to the traditional larger ones. These smaller modular reactions can be used individually or combined to create a single large power plant.

Radioactivity May Fuel Life Deep Underground and Inside Other Worlds (Quanta Magazine) New work suggests that the radiolytic splitting of water supports giant subsurface ecosystems of life on Earth — and could do it elsewhere, too.

Southern Indiana power plant once named ‘nation’s dirtiest’ shuts down (Spectrum News) At Louisville’s Shawnee Park, the 129-year-old green space on the city’s western edge, two grayish smokestacks stretch high above the expansive green canopy. Down below, on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, sits Duke Energy’s Gallagher Station, a coal-fired power plant that has spewed emissions into a borderless sky for more than a half century. That ended on June 1, when Gallagher Station was officially retired.

Dangerous humid heat extremes occurring decades before expected (NOAA) The study, “The emergence of heat and humidity too severe for human tolerance,” published today in Science Advances shows for the first time that some locations have already reported combined heat and humidity extremes above humans’ survivability limit.

Coal-rich Indiana is going solar. It’s not easy (EE Wire) Solar projects totaling 22,000 megawatts of capacity —- 50% greater than the sum of Indiana’s coal fleet — are seeking to plug into the two wholesale power grids that cover parts of the state, PJM Interconnection and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator. The boom is part of a broader trend playing out across the Midwest and the United States as solar costs continue to fall

Stop Worrying and Love the F-150 Lightning (The Atlantic) Here are seven ways that Ford’s first electric pickup truck signals that decarbonization has entered a new era.

‘You Can Feel the Tension’: A Windfall for Minority Farmers Divides Rural America. (New York Times)

Plug In or Gas Up? Why Driving on Electricity is Better than Gasoline (Union of Concerned Scientists) Electric vehicles have a high profile right now, with EVs featuring prominently in the Biden administration’s and Congress’s plans and also important new vehicle announcements from major automakers like Ford. But what are the climate benefits from switching from gasoline to electricity? While it’s obvious that a fully electric vehicle eliminates tailpipe emissions, people often wonder about the global warming emissions from generating the electricity to charge an EV. The latest data confirms that driving on electricity produces significantly fewer emissions than using gasoline.

Watchdog Finds Trump EPA Changed Scientific Analyses to Support Policy During Dicamba Approval Process (Indiana Env Reporter) EPA Inspector General found altered analyses, lack of scientific reviews and other discrepancies in 2018 approval process for dicamba products.

Cleveland Wants ‘Climate Justice.’ Can The Biden Administration Help? (NPR) The fight against climate change may be taking a striking new turn under the Biden administration. The White House is calling climate action a form of environmental justice, part of a campaign to address economic and racial inequity. It’s bringing new attention and, potentially, a flood of cash to low-tech approaches to climate action that directly benefit low-income neighborhoods. They include aid for home renovations and upgrades to city transportation infrastructure, including buses.

local environmental education

Part of my charge as Director of Ecological Relationships is to collaborate with civic groups in our region, by means of combined programming, tasks forces, committees, and generally connecting people and resources to advance ecological and environmental health. I’ve been fortunate to keep chugging along at this for 5 years now, long enough to see the normal employee turnover at partner organizations, so I will admit it feels good to get those occasional cold calls from community partners looking to collaborate, like I’m part of building a stable network of relationships and a growing body of work as the community continues to change.

Resources and institutions are important, of course, but it really is the network of relationships that is the basis of a healthy and resilient community. These are the catalysts for activating change and maintaining responsiveness to the needs of the time.

I thought it was time to catch y’all up with some of this work that’s been happening.

On June 12th, the Plymouth Parks Department hosted a “Walk and Learn” Nature Series on the Greenway trail that runs along the Yellow River. Presenters were located at intervals, covering the topics of native plants and animals, watersheds , foraging, recycling, and prescribed fire (myself).

Not many folks in our region are familiar with prescribed fire (yet!), so in these situations I usually just introduce the concept and show that with the right equipment and training, prescribed fire is a viable tool for natural resources stewardship. For those who stick around, I brought some examples and data from our prescribed fire program, to dive deeper into the subject.

Next was some programming with the Plymouth Public Library, who hosted an “Animal Adventure“. I don’t know if most folks consider insects as “animals”… but I got approved to present on pollinators (specifically, bumblebees)!

I did a rapid introduction to the bumblebee life cycle. And since there was only 12-15 minutes per group, that’s all I could cover. I picked kids to play the role of the queen bee, worker bees, drones, etc. The rest of the children held up sticky notes to serve as the “pollen” that the bees would emerge to gather for the hive. (What is the bumblebee life cycle? Read here from U. of Wisconsin-Madison). I passed each kid of a packet of wildflower seeds collected from Moontree Studios as a parting gift.

not the best photo, but there were about 120 kids!
my wife (2nd from left) and children were unwittingly conscripted into assisting with the booth

Lastly, I got a call a few weeks ago from an adjunct professor at Ivy Tech, who actually was involved with our Phase 2 (2019) solar energy installation. We found time this week for a tour of our systems with his Advanced Solar summer class. Usually when I give solar tours, I try to simplify the technical aspects of solar energy installation so that it’s accessible to folks who are just learning about it. This was the opposite! Knowing that I didn’t have much of anything to teach this crowd from a technical standpoint, I tried to paint a picture of other aspects of solar energy from the customer’s perspective: the trials and tribulations of institutions who want to go solar, the RFP process, maintenance, and pollinator-friendly design. We did a walk through of the installation and discussed all these aspects of solar energy. What a great crew! Can’t wait to see these folks join the industry and make an impact.

The prof wrote afterwards, “I think they really enjoyed it and found it inspiring, I did. I was telling [someone] on the way home, that when you have a hard time getting the students to leave the field trip, it is a good one… their eyes [were opened] to what renewable energy combined with proper eco landscaping can accomplish. I hope this is the first of many tours for Ivy Tech renewable energy students.”

Needless to say, I’m very proud that these panels aren’t fenced off in a distant field, out of site and out of mind, but are generating enthusiasm and knowledge as well as electrical energy.

Brood X

Well, this post has been saved in my drafts folder for weeks. I was excited to report on a plague of (harmless) cicadas coating the trees, filling the air, and making conversation impossible. I even had this article ready to share about the 17-year cicadas who appeared in 2017, 4 years before they were supposed to.

I thought all of Indiana would be blanketed with bugs. Turns out it was a big bust in our area.

here’s a picture of me with one of the Brood X cicadas

Plenty of periodical cicadas from Brood X were to be found in Bloomington and Indianapolis, so I was told. Shame on me, I guess, for not taking the two hour drive to get the full experience. Northwest Indiana was only sporadic. I heard one or more cicadas calling in Potato Creek State Park in mid June. My daughter was the first to point out a cicada calling from our front porch just a week ago. But … that’s about it.

So… until 2038, I guess I’ll just have to settle for our annual cicadas, which should be appearing soon. A fun fact that I learned this year: “The life cycle of a so-called annual cicada typically spans 2 to 5 years; they are “annual” only in the sense that members of the species reappear annually”

And with that, I leave you with an interspecies jam session:


Ok, I’ve been running into a lot of birds lately, so it’s time for some bird pictures! No, not as many (or as flamboyant) as I saw in Florida, but they are amazing nonetheless. (The birds, that is, not the photos).

I was out assessing our 2018 tree planting in the rain a couple weeks ago. I stumbled across yet another Red Winged Black Bird nest.

Can you find the nest?

Ok, look a little closer…

They’re one of the most abundant birds in N. America. Flashy, loud, and not happy about sharing space! Mom and dad were definitely not happy with me being so close, so I moved on before getting pelted in the skull.

Very soon afterward, I was startled by an explosion of feathers from my feet, as an American Woodcock (I think) sprung up and away. I took a few paces backwards and another couple birds – juveniles – also fluttered away. I was pleasantly surprised to find this when I looked at the ground.

Hold on, let me get a little closer…

At least, I think it was a Woodcock. It might have been a Wilson’s Snipe. I really should be better at distinguishing the species, they are just so darn fast. Being that it was out in the rain without momma, I got out of there after snapping a photo.

More recently, I was checking our pastures and hay fields for breeding grassland birds. This guild of birds have been in decline for some time, and their habitat requirements vary by species, but most involve the need for a relatively undisturbed nesting period with a certain size and composition of grassland habitat.

We are fortunate to be hosting several grassland nesting birds, including Eastern Meadowlark, Dickcissel, and Bobolink. Click these hyperlinks to learn more about the birds’ ranges, vocalizations, habitats, etc. Although I usually just point and shoot with my smartphone, this time I trudged along my telephoto lens and digital camera.

I spotted several female Bobolinks (as is typical for most bird species, they are not as flashy as the boys), seen in photos #1 and #2. They were carrying insects in their beaks, which is a good sign that they are feeding newly hatched chicks. We usually have to use this as an indicator rather than directly monitoring individual nests, because 1) the nests are extremely hard to find, and 2) this avoids nest disturbance.

Bobolinks winter in Argentina and other places in South American, then fly all the way up to the upper Midwest and Ontario to breed again the following year. They have a high nest site fidelity, which means they prefer to come back to the exact field they were at last year. I think it’s because the males aren’t afraid to ask for directions (sorry, couldn’t resist a quick Dad joke there).

While walking through one of the pastures, I flushed an Eastern Meadowlark fledgling. The white tips to the tail are a giveaway for this one.

As in previous years, we have Sandhill Cranes hanging around. There is definitely one nesting pair off to the south. Additionally, there’s a loner that’s been hanging around Moontree Studios and collecting a little bird seed when available. Sr. Mary suspects it’s a one-year old bird who has emancipated his/herself.

A typical Sandhill nest has one fledgling that survives to migrate with mom and dad down south. “Mated pairs and their juvenile offspring stay together all through the winter, until the 9- to 10-month-old juveniles finally separate from their parents the following spring” (Cornell University). They don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 2 year olds, so if I might anthropomorphize a bit, I suspect this tween/teenager is perhaps spreading its wings to explore the wide world on its own, before it settles down for a domestic life in due time.

Lastly, an update from the Indiana DNR. They are now recommending that the public stop feeding wild birds, at least temporarily. There is an unknown illness that is spreading among several bird species throughout the region. Any site of concentrated food increases the transmission risk of disease among wild animals, hence the guidance. Hopefully we will get some clarity on what is happening. In the meantime, the birds can return to find their daily bread in the way they have known for a very long time.

Another reason to focus on protecting and enhancing the native ecosystems on which they (and we) depend.

Mountain bike and hiking trail opens by Plymouth (SB Tribune article)

I’m very happy to see The Trails at Mill Pond highlighted by the South Bend Tribune today. Here’s a link to the article.

Glad also to see that it featured our neighbor and active Flat Lake Watershed member Eric Howard. (Flat Lake is a waterbody that is downstream from PHJC property, and our watershed group helps coordinate stewardship in the vicinity with habitat improvements, trash clean-ups, water monitoring, and hunting).

Here’s hoping we can continue the momentum for the Marshall County Park and Recreation Department!

opening day! with more improvements to come…

Poison Hemlock and its discontents

Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is considered an invasive species in N. America. That is, it is both non-native and causes ecological and/or economic harm. Mums, garden tulips, Bleeding Hearts and the like are non-native, but since they don’t bother anyone and just sit there looking pretty, they aren’t invasive. Only a fraction of the many non-native species are considered invasive.

I’ve seen Poison Hemlock become more and more common along Indiana roadsides. It “is a biennial weed that exists as a low growing herb in the first year of growth and bolts to three to eight feet tall in the second year, when it produces flowers and seed” (see more from Purdue extension).

By the name, you should have enough common sense not to consume it. It’s what they made Socrates drink on death row. But don’t touch it either… exposure to bare skin can cause serious reactions in some people. Many plants in the Carrot family, Apiaceae, are like this, with Queen Anne’s Lace / Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) a noteable exception.

In Northern Indiana, the plants are coming into full flower. The window for spraying the plant with herbicide is closed, as there isn’t time enough to stop the plant from producing viable seed. Remember, as a biennial, all the flowering plants you see will be shortly dead, the species living on through seed. Cutting is the only option left, and even that isn’t foolproof. Even when cut, a few robust plants will have enough moisture available in the stem to take the flower all the way to a viable seed. Talk about tenacious! If you want to be absolutely sure at this point, you have to cut and landfill the flowers.

Poor photo of a Poison Hemlock plant about to flower. Hmmm… why does it look so scraggly?

But a few weeks ago I was out spraying, and I saw a few plants with scraggly and curled leaves. I was very excited! It sure looked like insect impacts to me.

One reason that we think some plants become “invasive” is that they are out of place from the web of life in which they evolved over a long period of time. Any given plant species has numerous rusts, viruses, fungus, insects, and animals that are adapted to feeding on it. Most plants have evolved a specific chemical resistance that works against most insects, except for a small suite of species or group of species who evolved a way around it (think of milkweed and monarch butterflies).

This complex and biodiverse web ensures that any one species isn’t permanently dominant. There is an ebb and flow with the cycles of each species, the variation in climate, and stochastic events. When liberated from this web of checks and balances, sometimes plants go berserk and can dominate native communities.

Back to the insect-impacted plant! I didn’t know what it was right away, but after some Googling, I suspect it’s the European Hemlock moth (Agonopterix alstroemeriana), which was accidentally introduced to N. America in 1973. I didn’t actually observe any larva or moths, so I’m basing that just off a quick observation of the leaves. To my knowledge, the moth has not been documented feeding on native plants, so that’s good!

So… problem solved, right! Well, unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the moth provides any serious control of the spread of this plant. Nonetheless, I decided not to spray the plants that had insects present (since I didn’t know anything about it upon first observation).

It turns out that there is a native wasp (Euodynerus foraminatus) that parasitizes moth larva, and has learned to also do so to the European Hemlock Moth. This, in turn, may limit the moth’s ability to impact Poison Hemlock. What a tangled web!

It’s a good reminder that our terms native/non-native, invasive, naturalized, etc. are just human constructs that attempt to make sense of the world around us. Nonetheless, I still think they are important concepts. Lots of things are “merely” constructs! But it’s good not to be overly-ideological about it, and remember to continue to test the concepts with observation.

So… learning to identify Poison Hemlock (especially in the year 1 rosette stage, long before final flourish of flowering) and control it will still be important tasks. Should you choose to go into battle, just be sure you wear proper PPE for skin protection!

As a reminder of why we choose to spend so much time on invasive species, I’ll share one more carroty photo.

Poison Hemlock (left) right next to it’s native cousin, Great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea).

On the left is Poison Hemlock, growing adjacent its native cousin, Great Angelica, aka Purple-Stemmed Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), seen towering on the right. Angelica is one of our tallest herbaceous (non-woody) plants. It’s usually indicative of high-quality natural wetlands. It sure looks like it was designed by Dr. Seuss. Like the hemlock, it’s growth is biennial. It contains furanocoumarins, which can cause phytophotodermatitis, which happens if you touch the plant and then expose the area to UV light from the sun. Which is why I’m very careful while harvesting the seeds from this plant. Like I said, don’t mess with the carrots!

So: if we can keep the invasive species at bay, we can let the native plant community (and insects, etc) do their thing. Doing so isn’t rocket science, but it does require attention, diligence/commitment, trial-and-error, and strategizing/triage.


The title says it all. After >100 years, it’s a technology that keeps on giving, and is now seeing a resurgence in importance & visibility. Just a few pounds of steel can be a human-force multiplier.

everybody likes ’em… good luck getting your paws on one right now!

An unofficial group in Plymouth has been doing monthly rides around town to build community, highlight the bike routes through town, consider the challenges that still exist, and just to have fun.

We are meeting again this Friday at 5:30 pm at River Park Square. (Event details here). Please join!

It was at one of these exact meet-ups a couple years ago where a few key community leaders met and the spark of an idea ignited. A pollinator way-station on an unused mini-lot downtown? Well, sure! Since the ride, the garden was installed, and maintained, and now blooming.

I recently acquired an action camera so I could get a bikes-eye-view of my rides. One Friday, my family rode downtown to grab takeout and eat it at this little pocket park.

I made a 4 min video of the trip, highlighting the waystation, and tried my hand at some video editing:

Next I wanted to show off the county parks department’s newest mountain bike trail, what we’re calling “The Trails at Mill Pond.” I didn’t have a proper mountain bike, really, but I didn’t think that was any reason to stop me! There’s a nationwide shortage of mountain bikes, and it looks like I’ll have to order one and wait a couple/few months (my first pick was expected to be delivered in January 2022, so I’m looking for something else).

I haven’t had time to edit down all the footage I took, but here’s a 60 second teaser:

The trail has been attracting a TON of enthusaism in the community and the region. Volunteers and donors are coming out in droves. We really couldn’t be happier with the effort!

The grand opening of the trail is this Saturday at 10:00 AM. (Details here). Hope to see you there!

Then… SURPRISE! Little did I know that several serious mountain-bikers (and you tubers) hit the trails and produced a suburb 10 min video previewing the trail!

Now of course my lengthier footage is going to feel too amateur by comparison… hehe… but maybe I’ll see what I can do with the editing software. My camera was mounted to my helmet (and without suspension on the bike, the shot is really a little too shaky). I really liked the chest mount that they used, showing handlebars and hands/arms. Maybe I’ll try that next.

I also shot footage from our last community bike ride through Plymouth, I just haven’t had time to edit it, and I wanted to get this posted ASAP!

See you Friday night and Saturday morning. What a week for cycling in Marshall County!

news round-up: mid-spring edition

Well, I usually wait longer than this to post news round-ups, but there’s just a lot!

Summer is only 1 month away. The threat of frost is past, and we’ve got a week of nighttime lows in the 60’s forecast.

Which also means… the tick nymphs are out. Ugh.

do you see it?

Even after several layers of protective measures, my kid still came back from the woods with this tick attached. We’ve dealt with Lyme disease once and it wasn’t fun. It’s a depressing thought, but I’m thinking of restricting certain outdoor activates for them in late spring.

For a refresher on ticks and tickborne diseases, here’s a good piece by MN Dept of Health.

As I was doing some invasive species control yesterday, I came upon this Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) sprout and took this blurry photo. It was in a ditch that was burned this spring along with the adjacent oak woods. Anyone out there remember cutting these from roadsides in the spring? My dad did (northern Iowa in the 50’s and 60’s) but it doesn’t appear to be a common practice anymore.

Anyway… I’ll write a grab-bag post of goings-on from the spring at another time. Now, the news:

Governor Signs Bill Repealing Most State Protections for Wetlands into Law (Indiana Environmental Reporter) New law removes state protections and permitting requirements for more than half of all state wetlands and weakens protections for most remaining wetlands.

South Bend’s new invasive plant ban includes Bradford pear (AP) Dozens of invasive plant species, including a commonly planted flowering tree, will be banned from being sold or planted in South Bend starting this fall under a new ordinance.

Ørsted is first in US to operate solar, wind, and storage at utility scale (Electrek)

Talking about a revolution: What ‘clean’ gold mining would mean for the Amazon (Landscape news)

Pollinators Are in Trouble. Here’s How Transforming Your Lawn Into a Native Wildflower Habitat Can Help (Discover Magazine) Biologists are recruiting everyday gardeners to save pollinators, with a little help from a smartphone app.

Recovering from “Fortress Mentality” (Strategies for Stewards blog) a great reflection on the challenge of maintaining ecosystems in the Corn Belt.

20-Megawatt St. Joseph Solar Farm Unveiled Today; Local Clean Energy Now Flowing (PR Newswire) Executives from American Electric Power, Indiana Michigan Power and the University of Notre Dame, along with Indiana Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch, officially flipped-the-switch for I&M’s largest solar array; South Bend Mayor proclaims Thursday, May 6, to be Solar Energy Day in South Bend and the President of Commissioners of St. Joseph County declares it to be Solar Energy Day in St. Joseph County

Add Layers to Garden Beds for Beauty and Sustainability (Houzz) You can renew nature at home by filling in gaps with native plants and extending the bloom season

New Law Restricts Local Governments’ Ability to Address Climate Change (Indiana Environmental Reporter) House Bill 1191, now Public Law 180, takes away local governments’ power to restrict natural gas or set energy-saving regulations on buildings.

South Bend ban on invasive species to start in September (WSBT) The city council voted 8-0 Monday to approve a ban on the future sale or planting of invasive species in the city limits, including the Bradford pear tree. The measure fills the gap of 47 species of land-based plants that the state had left off of a ban that it created in 2019 against 44 species.

The enemy no more, fire helps regenerate forests (Faquier Now) On the warmest day of 2021 yet, the fire swept over Summers Mountain in a remote corner of Highland, a Virginia county so lightly populated that cattle outnumber humans by almost seven times. At times the fire moved with startling rapidity, fast as an arrow of flame. Watching it spread along the southeast slope, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources forester Kent Burtner quoted the Bible: “The devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour.”

Deepening Drought Holds ‘Ominous’ Signs For Wildfire Threat In The West (NPR) After one of the most destructive and extreme wildfire seasons in modern history last year, a widening drought across California and much of the West has many residents bracing for the possibility this season could be worse. Anemic winter rain and snowfall has left reservoirs and river flows down significantly, even as the state experiences its driest water year in more than four decades. Today, wildfire fuels in some parts of California are at or near record levels of dryness.

In Colombia, Indigenous Lands Are Ground Zero for a Wind Energy Boom (Yale e360) The northernmost tip of South America, home to the Indigenous Wayúu people, is the epicenter of Colombia’s nascent wind energy industry. But Wayúu leaders are concerned that the government and wind companies are not dealing fairly with the inhabitants of this long-neglected land.

Idaho Senate approves bill to kill 90% the state’s wolves (AZ Family) The Idaho Senate on Wednesday approved legislation allowing the state to hire private contractors to kill up to 90% of the wolves roaming Idaho. The agriculture industry-backed bill approved Wednesday on 26-7 vote includes additional changes intended to cut the wolf population from about 1,500 to 150.

The Untold Story of Grasses (by South African prof Dr. William Bond) 7 min video on the history of grass evolution)

Megadrought’ and ‘Aridification’ — Understanding the New Language of a Warming World (The Revelator) New research reveals a creeping, permanent dryness expanding across the United States. It’s much more than “drought,” and researchers hope more accurate descriptions will spur critical action.

Northern Indiana Utility NIPSCO To Close Half Of Its Schahfer Coal Plant Early (WFYI) The northern Indiana utility NIPSCO has announced it will shut down half of its R.M. Schahfer coal plant in Wheatfield by the end of this year. That’s about two years earlier than when the whole plant is expected to shut down in 2023.

Species or Ecosystems: How Best to Restore the Natural World? (Yale e360) What’s the best way to protect nature and restore what has been lost? A series of new scientific papers offer conflicting views on whether efforts should focus on individual species or ecosystems and point to the role human inhabitants can play in conserving landscapes.

240-pound sturgeon caught in Detroit River among biggest ever recorded in US (Detroit Free Press) How’s this for a big fish story? A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crew caught a 240-pound sturgeon last week. It is 6-foot-10, with a girth of nearly 4 feet. It is a native — and threatened — species to Michigan, and one of the largest lake sturgeon ever caught in the United States.

A burning passion for the good kind of forest fire (U of Missouri) With the help of tree rings, an MU researcher is on a mission to show the world that not all fires are harmful.

Who Owns Appalachia’s Greatest Natural Light Show? (Atlas Obscura) Many viewers want to bask in synchronous fireflies’ glow. Ecologists want to ensure that the insects aren’t hurt in the process

a 7-generations project: restoring the American Chestnut

As the Spirit would have it, it just so happened that on Earth Day we broke ground on a unique tree planting project.

Moontree Studios Executive Director Matthew Celmer gets his hands dirty.

We are partnering with local retired forester Bruce Wakeland. If you are familiar with the Marshall-Starke region, you know of Bruce’s enormous contributions to conservation and culture in the area.

One of his biggest contributions to Marshall County was helping steward the timber management program at Mill Pond for Marshall County, prior to it’s conversion to a county park. Through carefully collected data over the decades, he showed that productive soils in our area can provide timber income in excess of typical cash rental rates for row crops (in addition to all the other things a forest provides to us and the ecosystem).

Bruce is currently working with the American Chestnut Foundation to help restore this vital native species.

Bruce adding one more tree to his count of millions planted in his lifetime.

You can visit the ACF’s website to read all about the history of the American Chestnut, a species which accounted for maybe 1 in every 5 trees in Appalachia before it was completely devastated by an imported blight (fungus). It’s a tragic tale, but one that is not yet over.

The ACF has a “3BUR” strategy to return the species to it’s role in Eastern North American ecosystems: “Breeding, Biotechnology, and Biocontrol United for Restoration Using Science to Save the American Chestnut Tree.”

Bruce took a careful look at the existing properties currently under stewardship of Ancilla Domini Sisters, Inc. and found a particular soil type that was ideal for the species. We are starting with just 6 trees to see if the location is receptive. If all goes well, we may be able to expand the trials.

Matthew working again! Affixing wire cages to a metal stake. Hopefully this is enough to keep curious cattle away.

These 6 individuals are 15/16ths American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) and 1/16th Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima), another species who evolved with the blight and has genetic defenses against it. It is hoped that through careful breeding, the resistance can be preserved while also producing a tree that is as close to the original American Chestnut genome as possible.

This conventional breeding program is supplemented with use of biotechnology to introduce a gene from wheat into the American Chestnut tree that will allow it to fend off the blight. Purdue University is involved in this effort, and it is pending approval by regulators.

I wrote last year about the idea of “seven generation stewardship” – said to be based on the Great Law of the Iroquois – is to make decisions based on the benefit of those living seven generations into the future (yes, there’s even a consumer products company named after the idea).

Someone has to supervise the work, right?

Restoring an entire tree species would certain qualify as a seven generations project! (Heck, even planting a single oak tree would). If a couple of these individual trees persist 200 years from now, I’ll be long gone. There is typically several turnovers in land ownership during that time, as well as a cycling of municipal leaders, businesses, cultural trends, etc.

When one thinks about the challenges or threats (to a species, or to a particular tree) on such a timescale, there is a shift in focus. Annual drought or deer herbivory is a very short-term concern, but over the course of 200 years, we start thinking about the very stability of our political system and culture, the composition of the atmosphere and climatic patterns, and the presence and patterns of human habitation on the landscape.

As I accumulate years on my career (and a few pesky gray hairs on my beard, which my daughters found last month), I have come to see these later challenges increasingly salient. I have seen leaders come and go, plans begin and end, strategic initiatives rolled out, ribbons cut, plantings established (and destroyed), initiatives come and go, politicians promise, deliver (or not), then disappear. I have come across past projects from previous companies or institutions, old foundations from buildings long gone, a soil layer disturbed and inverted from some clever human from decades past. Often one finds in the past a startlingly similar perspective, initiative, or project as one is currently in the midst of. Nothing new under the sun, ya know.

Not likely to still be standing in 2221, but we might as well try, while we have breath still in our lungs!

One way of expressing this challenge is the Shifting Baseline, which is “is a type of change to how a system is measured, usually against previous reference points (baselines), which themselves may represent significant changes from an even earlier state of the system”. This could lead an ecologist to rank a particular ecological community as “healthy” because it was much better than anything they remembered as a youth, even though it may still be a far cry from its state before industrial disruption.

Unless we break out of our limited, narrow perspective (one growing season, one political cycle, one decade, or even one human generation), we may unfortunately (and even unintentionally) oversee subtle but inexorable degradations. You can imagine how this might also apply to our cultural, political, and religious institutions, in addition to obvious ecological examples.

Whew… where was I? Oh… just planting trees! Such a simple act, but connected in so many ways to our past, our future, and the entire planet.

(I’ve been running into an annoying problem of the attached photos not orienting properly. If they are upside-down or sideways, you can see the originals properly by clicking here).