The Hand Of Man (or Santa Ana’s Demise)

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

A fellow birder and photographer I met a few winters ago in pursuit of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher—a bird of Central and South America who somehow found his way to the wilds of Connecticut—recently posted a photo of a Great-crested Flycatcher perched on a feeder pole in her back yard. Unlike the Fork-tailed, this flycatcher is a regular fixture in the Northeast, but finding one in your yard is still an event of some note, and she was thrilled to have captured it—particularly given how notoriously skittish these birds are. And it’s a wonderful photograph—the image is crisp, the color beautiful, and the light just about ideal. In her mind, the only drawback is the metal pole; she prefers photos that are free of, as she put it, evidence of the hand of man.

She’s not alone in this. Given the choice, most photographers I know would rather capture wildlife in a natural setting. And I get it. After all, showing animals in their unaltered environments is the First Commandment of wildlife photography. I share this bias towards unspoiled nature, and though I won’t pass up the chance to photograph a bird just because there’s an object from the human world in the frame, I often feel that such images are somehow tainted.

Peregrine Falcon

Lately, I’ve been questioning this. For one thing, there’s quite a bit of artistry to many of these photos, and they open windows into the lives of creatures who share spaces we think of as ours: songbirds singing from fence posts; raptors using telephone poles as vantages and nest sites; gulls perched on buoys; sandpipers foraging in parking lot puddles; birds resting on wooden piers, feeding from stone jetties, and nesting on, in, and around all manner of structures… the list of human objects birds use as they go about the business of being birds is limited only by what’s available to them. Sometimes, too, the line between the human and wild worlds blurs to indistinction: Purple Martins nest almost exclusively in houses we’ve built for them, and in the most extreme example, the world’s largest populations of Peregrine Falcons now live in our cities. Having traded rocky outcroppings for cliffs of concrete and steel, the urban jungle is the Falcon’s natural environment.

There’s something beyond aesthetic considerations though, an unintended consequence of this tendency to discount images that show evidence of our presence. It’s so subtle that it hadn’t even occurred to me until very recently. The issue is this: Presenting photos of animals only in a wild context unconsciously reinforces the misperception that we are somehow removed from them, that the worlds of people and nature are separated by a vast, unbridgeable divide, that we are not a part of nature, but apart from it. A photo of a Mourning Dove on a shingled roof or a Black-capped Chickadee nesting in an abandoned telephone junction box reminds us that wild creatures are not confined to the wilderness; they’re all around us, and we are bound to them by threads that stretch back farther than the dawn of humanity.

Fiery-billed Araçari

Don’t get me wrong—we need both kinds of images, desperately. A photo of a toucan in the middle of the rainforest or a Snowy Owl hunting the Arctic tundra opens our eyes to the wonders of the world and reveals the wilderness still left to protect. And a picture of a hummingbird visiting a backyard feeder or a Red-breasted Nuthatch feasting on a suet cake sheds light on the wildlife just outside our doors, to which we are intimately connected. Regardless of your own preference—and there’s no right or wrong in this—neither type is inherently better. Both have equal value, and both remind us that there’s life here beyond humanity.

That we share this planet with countless species is a point worth remembering, particularly when making decisions that impact our world at large. For better or worse, we have the ability to alter our environment more so than any other species in history—even to the point of driving others into extinction. As such, we bear a heavy responsibility to make such decisions soberly, with full possession of the facts, and with an awareness of and appreciation for the potential consequences to all.

With the fear-mongering and fact-averse Trump administration in the White House and the GOP-led Congress rolling back even the most basic of environmental protections and hell-bent on wholesale ecological annihilation, this is more urgent than ever. There is no greater illustration of this confluence of forces and the danger they represent than the recent developments within South Texas’ Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

Plain Chachalaca

Widely considered to be the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge system, Santa Ana NWR encompasses more than 2,000 acres of critical wildlife habitat along the banks of the Rio Grande. Hosting more than 400 species of birds—including Lower Rio Grande Valley specialties like Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, Green Kingfisher, and Great Kiskadee, as well as several rarities that stray north from Mexico—Santa Ana is one of the top birding destinations in the world. It’s also home to half of all the United States’ butterfly species and more than 450 species of plants, and is the last refuge within this country for the endangered Ocelot (fewer than 50 of these beautiful cats are left in the U.S.). Santa Ana is a biological hotspot like no other, and with 95 percent of the Rio Grande Valley’s native habitat already lost to agriculture and development, it is one of the most ecologically important areas in the country.

And we’re at risk of losing it. Santa Ana is under attack.

The key to the refuge’s richness and the source of its peril are one and the same: location, location, location. Santa Ana sits at a convergence between four distinct climates—subtropical, temperate, coastal, and desert—that tragically occur at North America’s most contentious address: the U.S./Mexico border. Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” has found Ground Zero.

In an administration rife with controversies, this may be the worst. Expanding the border wall was the foundational promise of Trump’s campaign: he would secure the entire 2,000-mile border with an impassable barrier—and he’d get Mexico to pay for it.

The ludicrousness of that assertion aside, here’s the catch: Texas holds the lion’s share of the border between the two nations, and the vast majority of it is on private land, which the federal government can’t just build on. Its options are limited: purchase the land from each individual owner or seize it through eminent domain or some other means. Both are expensive and complicated, and create issues the administration would rather not spend time resolving (around 100 condemnation suits filed against private landowners by the George W. Bush administration for the first round of construction in 2007 have yet to be resolved).

There is a way to avoid all this hassle, though, and just get to work: build on land the government already owns. Thus, Santa Ana. As a National Wildlife Refuge, it technically belongs to the federal government, and it can do with the refuge as it pleases. And thanks to the REAL ID Act of 2005, it can do so without regard to environmental restrictions or impact. The Trump administration is wasting no time: government contractors have already begun preliminary work, surveying land and taking soil samples for a proposed three-mile section of wall that would cut Santa Ana in half.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

The current plan calls for construction of an 18-foot high physical barrier set into a solid concrete base, as well as clearing broad swaths of land on both sides of the wall, building a road south of the wall, and erecting light towers and other surveillance equipment. To call this a disaster is to severely understate the case. Driving a wall through Santa Ana’s heart would be an ecological catastrophe from which the refuge and the vast array of species who depend on its bounty would never recover. Of course, many birds could simply fly over the border wall, but they’d still be affected by the loss of critical habitat and the disruption to their lives that would result from construction, monitoring, and maintenance. For those birds who prefer to keep close to the ground, 18 feet of wall presents more of a challenge. And terrestrial animals whose survival depends on free movement across the border would be doomed. Faced with an impenetrable barrier and cut off from critical sources of food and water, many would die. In addition, the refuge is already prone to storm flooding from the Rio Grande: 2010’s Hurricane Alex flooded Santa Ana for four months (if that doesn’t seem excessive, try treading water for that long). Add a border wall to the mix, and the impact would be even more devastating. For the endangered Ocelots, this could be the final push that sends them plummeting towards extinction.

There’s a human cost as well. South Texas is one of the poorest parts of the country, and nature tourism has an enormous impact—$463 million annually, to be exact, most generated from birding. Santa Ana alone hosts 165,000 visitors a year, from all over the world. They’ll continue to come, too, as long as there’s a refuge left to visit. But if Trump has his way, you can kiss it all goodbye. And all for a border wall that the people ostensibly most in need of it don’t want, and many experts agree won’t work (the Cato Institute, not known for its liberal leanings, published an analysis of border wall effectiveness; you can find it here).

Fortunately, the voices of protest are ringing clear throughout the valley. Landowners, residents, naturalists, religious leaders, and Texas politicians on both sides of the ideological divide have joined forces to decry Trump’s assault on their homes, their lands, and the irreplaceable wild lands and refuges to which the Rio Grande valley plays host. There is strength in numbers and in unified opposition, and both are building.

And there is also hope in the form of more effective and less destructive solutions. A small coalition of border-state lawmakers has emerged to offer an alternative to Trump’s medieval approach. Led by U.S. Representative Will Hurd—a Texas Republican—they’ve introduced a bill for a “smart” wall. Instead of a physical barrier, they propose monitoring and protecting the U.S./Mexico border through a network of high-tech security systems. It may sound farfetched, but Rep. Hurd knows whereof he speaks. Not only does his district encompass more of the border than any other congressional district (around 800 miles), he’s a former CIA operative and cybersecurity advisor—making him something of an authority on the subject. At worst, the “smart” wall wouldn’t be any less effective than a slab of concrete that anyone with determination could climb over or tunnel beneath—and it would be far less expensive. According to his research, this cyber wall would drop the cost from an estimated $24.5 million per mile (under Trump’s plan) to a fraction of that: $500,000 per mile. And since you and I will be footing the bill either way, their proposal deserves serious consideration.

There’s a more important reason to resist Trump’s wall, though: it’s the right thing to do. Preserving our wild lands and protecting the incredible bounty of life within them is a moral imperative. It goes beyond the artificial constructs of ideology, nationality, and faith that divide us, and cuts to the core of what it means to be human. Every so often we are given an opportunity to stand up for the greater good, to give our voices to those who have none, to act in defense of something larger than ourselves, to raise the vision of humanity and create a better world in the process. This is such a time.

Green Jay

Our history is not pretty; too often the hand of man has levied death and destruction. But our history need not define our future. In the past, we have turned our hand to preservation and conservancy; now we must do so again. The blind push to expand the border wall is a clarion call to those of us who would stand with wildlife and not against it, and who recognize the intrinsic value of all creatures, great and small. The fight for Santa Ana is more than a fight to save a single refuge. It’s a fight to uphold the sanctity of life in whatever form it takes, and to protect it from threats borne of greed, ignorance, or fear. It’s a fight for the soul of our humanity.

And it’s a fight we will, we must, win.

 

To learn more about Santa Ana NWR, visit its National Wildlife Refuge page here.

You can get more information about Santa Ana and the border wall controversy through the following links:

And the Denton Record-Chronicle has an article about Rep. Hurd’s “smart” border wall here.

 

 

 

The National Wildlife Refuge System Turns 114

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt gave the wildlife—and citizens—of the United States a grand gift by founding the National Wildlife Refuge System. More than a century later, the system is still going strong: it protects more than 150 million acres of habitat—land and water—for the benefit of an incredible variety of wildlife, and remains one of our best resources for wildlife conservation and enjoyment. Today, on its 114th birthday, I’d like to share some images of birds I’ve taken over the years throughout our nation’s wonderful wildlife refuges, parks, sanctuaries, and recreation areas. I post these both in celebration of our National Wildlife Refuges, and as a reminder of just how critical they are to the future of wildlife conservation.

Tri-colored Heron, Merritt Island NWR, Florida

 

Hermit Thrush, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, New Jersey

 

American Coots, Great Meadows NWR, Massachusetts

 

Red-tailed Hawk, Parker River NWR, Massachusetts

 

Great & Snowy Egrets, Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware

 

Palm Warbler, Silvio O. Conte NWR, Fort River Division, Massachusetts

 

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Prime Hook NWR, Delaware

 

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, New Jersey

 

American Bittern, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR, Texas

 

Greater Shearwater, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Massachusetts

 

Sandwich, Royal & Forster’s Terns and Laughing Gull, Canaveral National Seashore, Florida

 

Roseate Spoonbill, Merritt Island NWR, Florida

 

Red-eyed Vireo, Trustom Pond NWR, Rhode Island

 

Marsh Wren, Great Meadows NWR, Massachusetts

 

Shorebirds, Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware

 

Wild Turkey, Parker River NWR, Massachusetts

 

Cory’s Shearwater, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Massachusetts

 

Northern Pintails, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, New Jersey

 

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR, Texas

With attacks on our federal lands coming almost daily, we would do well to consider how much poorer our nation would be without them. These lands exist for the benefit of all wildlife, and for the enjoyment of all citizens of—and visitors to—this country. We must not allow the greed of the few to supersede the rights and needs of everyone else—human and non-human animal alike. The value of this national heritage is incalculable, and its loss would be devastating beyond measure. Our national refuges, parks, monuments, sanctuaries, and recreation areas are a safe haven for countless species, and a vital resource for our well-being as much as theirs. If you care about the animals who look to our federal protected lands for sanctuary, if you appreciate the value of being able to spend time in wild spaces, if you understand the need to make room for the incredible creatures that share our home, or if you simply uphold the commitment to leaving this world a better place for future generations, then raise your voice in support of the voices that risk being silenced by those who refuse to hear them.

 

For more information about our National Wildlife Refuge System, check this link

… and this one.

The Necessity Of Wild Spaces

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Parker River NWR

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Parker River NWR

Birds are extraordinary creatures. I find them endlessly fascinating and entirely captivating, and can easily spend hours with a single bird, never mind all those I can discover on a stroll through the woods or a day at the shore. Birding connects me directly to the heart and spirit of Nature, it calms and re-energizes me, and it reminds me that we are but a small piece of a grand puzzle, and that our concerns are not as important nor our worries as large as we make them out to be. When I’m in the company of birds, I want for nothing more—save, perhaps, the desire to share them with a kindred spirit or two.

I’ve birded in six countries, on four continents, and across two island chains. Here at home, I’ve been up and down the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine, into the desert southwest, down the Gulf Coast and along our southern border, and out to our country’s western edge. And though I’ve found myself in a variety of settings, many of the places I return to again and again are part of this country’s incredible system of national wildlife refuges, sanctuaries, and parks. If you’ve ever spent time exploring one, it’s easy to see why: Not only are they true national treasures, marvelous in their own right, the lands contained within them provide safe haven, and sometimes a final stronghold, for a multitude of plants and animals (there are approximately 1300 species in the United States listed as endangered; around two-thirds of those exist on federal lands)—critical shelter from many of the dangers they face outside these protected areas.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area

The hazards that migratory birds encounter can be particularly acute. Migration itself is a perilous venture, involving vast distances that push even the strongest birds to their limits. Many species fly for hundreds or thousands of miles at a stretch, and rely on stopover sites to feed and rest, allowing them to pack on reserves of fat and energy to power them along their epic journeys. As development, conversion to industrial agriculture, and other consumptive uses chew up more and more wild lands, the birds need sources of food and shelter they can count on. Our refuges and national parks thus take on special importance; without them, many birds would quite literally die before migration’s end—and many species, already in decline, might slip over the edge and slide inexorably into extinction. Allowing the loss of our protected federal lands to happen would be tragic; actively encouraging it would be a crime.

And yet that’s exactly what this administration is planning for. Two developments over the last few weeks make this clear. On the first day in session of the 115th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a new rule written by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) that makes it easier for Congress to cede federal control of public lands—national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other federal areas—to states or local governments. The rule allows the 115th Congress to claim that any legislation disposing of public lands and natural resources costs the U.S. taxpayers exactly nothing, regardless of whether the Congressional Budget Office determines otherwise. In other words, Congress can give away our public lands for free, and, if necessary, charge the American people for the privilege of doing so.

Leading the resistance to this blatant attack, Democratic Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-03) had this to say:

“The House Republican plan to give away America’s public lands for free is outrageous and absurd. This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value. Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, but it is also a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people.”

Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director for The Wilderness Society, added his voice to the debate:

“Right out of the gate, Congressional Republicans are declaring open season on federal lands… This is not Theodore Roosevelt-style governing, this move paves the way for a wholesale giveaway of our American hunting, fishing and camping lands that belong to us all.”

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

At first blush, turning federal lands over to the states and/or local municipalities in which they lie might not seem like a bad idea. I’ve visited many state parks, and they’re almost universally beautiful and well-maintained areas, often teeming with wildlife. However, most state and local governments may not have the budgets or staff to maintain such large parcels of land, and so would likely be forced to sell them to the highest bidder—and the extraction industry has a lot of money. Hello, mining and drilling operations, goodbye wildlife habitat and public recreation.

The second development happened at noon on January 20. Just after Donald Trump took the oath of office, whitehouse.gov underwent a drastic transformation, including the replacement of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan with An America First Energy Plan, which contains language that should trouble anyone who cares about preserving our unspoiled wild spaces:

“We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”

For those unsure, or unwilling to accept, what this means, allow me to translate: the Trump administration plans to allow fossil fuel extraction from national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. And it doesn’t stop at fossil fuels: federal lands containing uranium and copper deposits would also be at risk. Places like Grand Canyon National Park, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—places of unbounded beauty and immeasurable value—would be open for destruction. Desecrating such lands, upon which countless birds and animals (ourselves included) rely, to enrich the already obscenely wealthy through resource extraction is, in my mind, the most egregious insult to Nature, and the gravest form of sacrilege.

Northern Pintails, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

If these plans come to fruition, if Congress allows fossil fuel extraction from our public lands or sets the wheels in motion for turning them over to the highest bidder, then we stand to lose something precious, a birthright of all citizens of this country. We stand to lose these wild places that nurture and revitalize us, that provide emotional and spiritual succor, that nourish our beings, down to the core. We stand to lose a vital part of our heritage, and a large piece of what makes our country special, unique, and great.

But there are those who stand to lose much more. There are those who depend upon these lands, these wild spaces, for shelter, food, for their very survival. Our national parks and wildlife refuges harbor an incredible diversity of life—plants and animals for whom these lands must remain wild and natural.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, we are not the most important species on the planet; our needs and desires do not take precedence over the needs of all others. An intricate web links all life on this planet—one that’s evolved over countless millions of years. And in just a few short centuries, we’ve disrupted it and damaged it in the name of human progress. We’ve taken it nearly to the brink, and now we stand at a precipice, staring into an abyss of our own design that threatens to swallow us all.

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

As we move forward, as our elected officials prepare to give away for pennies a heritage of incalculable value to greedy developers and extraction companies, we would do well to remember this: just as we are not the most important here, we are also not somehow magically insulated from the damage and destruction we visit upon our planet. We are as dependent on Earth’s life support systems as any other organism, and we may yet reach a point of no return that finds us riding headlong into self-made oblivion. But even if we don’t, if we somehow survive the conversion of our environment into a barren wasteland, what would it matter? At what point is living on this planet no longer worth it? We’ve lost so much already, taken so many species to the edge of extinction or beyond—and each one that vanishes takes a bit of us with it. How many more do we have to imperil before we realize that the wondrous variety and diversity of life on Earth is what makes life on Earth worth living?

All the riches in the world are nothing compared to the graceful flight of Snow Geese across the evening sky; the raucous greetings between crows coming to roost; a murmuration of starlings—a million birds moving as one; the acrobatics of hunting swallows; the awe-inspiring sight of a Peregrine in full stoop; or the heartbreaking beauty of a thrush’s song ringing out through the clear morning air. Once they’re gone, after it’s too late, only then will we realize the true value of what we’ve lost.

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

You can read the full text of House Resolution 5 here (page 35 has the relevant section).

And you can find an article discussing the rules change in the Guardian here

… in the Washington Post here

… in Think Progress here

… and in Daily Kos here.