This is my latest conservation column for the Hazleton, Pa., newspaper, for which I have written more than two decades now.
Some of my greatest natural history experiences were enjoyed during my Air Force Reserve duty tours at Headquarters Strategic Air Command near Omaha, Neb., two decades ago. We won the Cold War, of course, and SAC is long gone, but the memories hold – memories of wonderful hours spent watching thousands of sandhill cranes on and near the Plate River in central Nebraska.
And one weekend’s trek into south-central Nebraska included a stop at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, a place that memorializes the pioneer days author while protecting hundreds of acres of never-been-plowed native tallgrass prairie. You can read this place and its namesake at www.willacather.org. I quizzed nieces of mine in Vermont recently about Willa Cather. Even Eve the teacher was stumped by the name. For a while at least.
Nebraska comes to mind nowadays for another reason, and that is the continuing industrialization of the American native landscape. The disappointments of late include a proposal to build a 1,700-mile crude-oil pipeline between Alberta, Canada, and the Texas coast. The pipeline, carrying petroleum distilled from the province’s tar sands deposits, would cross Nebraska and five other states.
The boondoggle was the focus of a round of multi-state public hearings in September. Supporters of the $7 billion project point to the jobs it would create, while conservationists and other opponents point to the environmental dangers it poses. They’re particularly worried over possible contamination of the huge groundwater pool known as the Oglalla aquifer.
The pipeline proposal sparked a two-week protest outside the White House earlier this fall. Hundreds of people, many of them from the state I now call home, Vermont, were arrested for civil disobedience. The arrested protesters included Dr. James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and veteran actress Daryl Hannah.
Hansen, arrested Aug. 29, was one of the first scientists to warn about global warming. He reportedly yelled into a microphone before led off by police for President Obama to act “for the sake of your children and grandchildren” and say no to the pipeline.
Hansen and 20 other leading scientists sent a letter to the White House urging the president to stop building of the pipeline. The letter declared: “If the pipeline is to be built, you as president have to declare that it is ‘in the national interest.’ As scientists, speaking for ourselves and not for any of our institutions, we can say categorically that it’s not only not in the national interest, it’s also not in the planet’s best interest.”
The industrialization and paving of our native lands continues today, despite all sorts of zoning and other land-used regulations and laws, and the heroic efforts of land trusts and conservation organizations, local and national in scope and membership.
Thanks to the off-duty hiking and general outdoor experiences my career in the Air Force afforded me, I walked through and studied many great natural areas spanning the North American continent. I remember with a smile on my face the time my wife and I stepped onto the seaside rocks of Cape Spear along the coast of Newfoundland. Cape Spear is the easternmost point in North America. When we visited it and its historic lighthouse, we were also treated to the sight of a recently-arrived northern wheatear. This avian species is well known among birders and ornithologists for its cross-Atlantic migrations. Seeing one, alive and well and searching for food atop a Newfoundland rock was the sighting that our names into the birding records of the province. (Read about this species at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/316/articles/introduction).
Across the continent, our travels included hiking from my brother’s place on Washington’s San Juan Island a half-mile or so to a bald eagle nest in the far reaches of a Douglas-fir tree. My outdoor experiences across the globe – this one dating to 1983 – included a drive-by look at a peregrine falcon aerie in central Saudi Arabia.
The Internet has made recalling each place a heck of a lot easier. But it has also yielded disappointments – like learning that suburban sprawl had overtaken a nice kudzu-free natural area in central Georgia my wife and I visited during our two years as Georgia residents.
More recently, I noted, with camera I hand, the loss to development of natural areas in the Nescopeck Creek Valley. And shocking to this conservationist’s eyes was the subdivision that appeared almost overnight atop a big wetland complex in Monroe County.
These days, one hears a lot of talk, among politicians especially, of how environmental laws must be rolled back to get Americans back to work. Some among the Republican presidential hopefuls have singled out the Environmental Protection Agency for wrathful attacks.
To this conservationist, the proposed Keystone pipeline would set in motion a lot of bad things. At the very moment in time humans should be learning to live closer to the native land and return from being called “consumers” to being known as citizens, this pipeline would be only exacerbate the ecological problems now facing society.
I wish the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie the very best. The author of such classics as “O Pioneers!” and “Song of the Lark” is, perhaps, watching the Keystone debate.
That debate brings to mind my recent view of the High Peaks Wilderness in New York’s Adirondack Park. The highlight: Forest stretching off toward the horizon, with no roads or sprawl marring the scene.
It’s time again for “citizens” to cherish such open spaces and ensure that our natural heritage is preserved for those who’ll follow us.