On November 4, the Trump EPA rolled back Obama-era regulations that limited contamination from the 737 toxic coal-ash sites in the US and Puerto Rico. The 2015 Coal Ash Rule pushed to close unlined ponds and landfills where coal-ash—the contaminated residue of burning coal to produce electricity—is stored. The practical effect of the rollback is that most utilities won’t have to clean up their toxic lagoons. And when the lagoons leak, the rollbacks also weaken measures meant to check water pollution. According to the EPA itself, at least 30 percent of industrial water contamination in the US comes from coal-fired power plants. Ninety-five percent of these plants have unlined ponds, and almost all coal-ash sites are polluting groundwater above safe drinking water standards.
Attempting to justify the move, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said the old rule placed “heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country.” The new rules let industry generate revenue from coal ash, allowing its “beneficial use” in landscaping and structural fill, including sports fields and playgrounds.
But according to coal-ash experts, Wheeler’s claims that the revisions “protect public health and the environment” are phony.
Avner Vengosh, professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University, says the rollbacks lack any scientific support whatsoever and that the EPA “should be ashamed.” For Vengosh, even the 2015 rule was a compromise because, under industry pressure, it failed to define coal ash as hazardous waste. Instead, even though coal ash contains toxic substances like arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium and is linked to a variety of health problems including birth defects, cancer, and damage to every major organ system, it is regulated like household waste. A new study by Vengosh has even linked coal ash leachate in freshwater to increased levels of hexavalent chromium, the toxic form of chromium Erin Brockovich famously campaigned against.
Coal-ash spills are disastrous, and costly, for communities. In 2014, Duke Energy released 39,000 tons of it into North Carolina’s Dan River, and in 2008 a Tennessee Valley Authority site near Kingston, Tennessee, buried the town of Swan Pond and the Emory River in 1.5 million tons of coal ash. The subsequent cleanup effort violated a laundry list of safety protocols and sickened more than 400 workers—42 of whom have died from illnesses linked to their exposure.
While those spills were linked to negligence, Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that coal-ash pits also “threaten catastrophes every time there is a hurricane, flood, or a storm.” That is obviously worrisome given the increased frequency and severity of flooding and rainstorms, as well as the intensifying of tropical storms, that comes with climate change. 2017’s Hurricane Matthew and 2018’s Hurricane Florence both led to coal ash spills in North Carolina, and those are only the spills we know about. As Lisa Evans, attorney for Earthjustice told Sierra in September, these disasters are “entirely preventable, but the Trump administration lacks the will to require industry to shut these sites down.”
With the new rollback, Vengosh worries about communities living next to coal ash sites. While the 2015 ruling gave limited protections, “this ruling takes it away from them,” he said. “They’re on their own again. There’s not any safeguard or protection.”
Instead of relying on the EPA, states could take a larger role in protecting their constituents. After the 2014 Dan River spill, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality created its own coal-ash law in lieu of federal regulation. In April, the department ordered Duke Energy to excavate all nine of its remaining coal ash basins. Duke continues to appeal the ruling, but judges have twice ruled in favor of the state.
But in states with weaker regulations, utilities are already using the proposed rollback to their advantage. TVA announced it wouldn’t excavate a coal ash pond at Bull Run Fossil Plant unless ordered to do so. Just over 30 miles from the Kingston disaster, the unlined clay pit holds five million tons of coal ash next to the Clinch River, a public drinking water source, and is partially submerged in groundwater.
The EPA rollbacks are a gift to a dying industry, but may not be enough to save it. (Last month Massey Energy became the ninth coal company to declare bankruptcy under the Trump administration.) Betsy Southerland, a former EPA official and writer of the 2015 rule, told Newsweek that she thinks the courts will kill Wheeler’s revisions, but while possible litigation drags out, “their rules will be fact.”
According to Vengosh, the rule change transfers the cost of contamination from the company to the public. “Even if companies aren’t responsible for taking care of coal ash contaminants, they’re not going away,” says Vengosh. “Someone has to take responsibility.”
Every year in early spring, Lane Green sets half of his property—100 acres of longleaf pine forest in the Red Hills region of the Florida Panhandle—on fire. Green, 73, has been burning this land since the time he learned to walk. His father would jury-rig a torch using a wire hanger and piece of cloth and tell him to drag it through the brush along the road—just as Green’s father had been taught before him, his granddad before him, and his great-granddad before him. When Green was young, his favorite time to burn was at night, when the air was cool, and the fire, creeping and crackling, looked as if the stars had been scattered across the ground.
Florida’s longleaf pine forests depend on frequent fire to knock back competing plants. | Photo courtesy of David Godwin
“The fire culture has always been here,” said Green, the former director of the Tall Timbers Research Station, where the study of fire ecology was born in 1958. “There’s no place in Florida where fire is not an accepted practice.” Green said that before Europeans colonized the area, Native Americans used fire to manage longleaf pine forests and attract game. In the chronicles of his expedition to Florida in 1539, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto writes of woodlands so open that entire armies, including cavalry and supply wagons, could march through them unencumbered. After most of the land was violently taken from its Indigenous residents, Spanish ranchers and, eventually, American farmers, continued burning. They never stopped.
Scientists and land managers almost universally agree that prescribed fire is the single best tool available to help mitigate wildfire risk. Landowners in the American Southeast use more prescribed fire than in any other part of the country. But across much of the American West—which has captured an outsize proportion of the public imagination around wildfire—scientists say land management agencies aren’t using fire nearly enough.
In 2017, federal and state forest managers, ranchers, and private property owners in Florida, which many fire scientists consider the prescribed fire capital of the country, burned more than 2 million acres, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Climate Central. That same year, California—which is twice the size of Florida and has six times more acres in public land—burned less than 50,000 acres. Oregon burned 48,000, Idaho 33,000, Montana 24,000, and Nevada 5,000.
At the University of Florida’s Ordway-Swisher Biological Station, prescribed fire is used throughout the year. | Photo courtesy of David Godwin
Like in Florida, Native American cultures throughout the United States used fire to manage the land. But in the West, much of the land taken from Indigenous groups was redrawn as public “forest preserves.” In the absence of Native American land management, many of the places where they had previously used fire to clear the landscape became dense and overgrown. In 1910, a series of wildfires burned more than 3 million acres of forest in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Known collectively as the Big Blowup, the blazes spooked the nascent US Forest Service into adopting a policy that demanded all fires be put out by 10 A.M. the day after they were reported. Because much of this land was publicly owned, federal land management agencies could efficiently enforce this policy of suppression.
In southeastern states, such as Florida, where most forestland is privately owned, people simply never stopped burning it. Even the US Forest Service in the Southeast dabbled with prescribed fire—the first-ever lit on federal land was in Osceola National Forest in 1943.
Property owners like Green are supported by a host of laws that recognize fire’s ecological necessity and enshrine a person’s right to burn. In 1990, Florida lawmakers passed a bill declaring prescribed fire “a land management tool that benefits the safety of the public, the environment, and the economy of the state.” Florida was the first state in the country to pass a “gross negligence” law, which protects landowners from liability if a fire gets out of control. Laws like these could be a model for what fire management throughout the country could look like.
Fire is a “common denominator” in the South; universities, nonprofits, and public agencies come together to burn. | Photo courtesy of David Godwin
“Prescribed fire is not just an accepted practice in the Southeast,” said David Godwin, an expert in fire ecology at the University of Florida and director of the Southern Fire Exchange. “It is how we manage ecosystems. It is our number one tool for managing and improving wildlife habitat, and it is our number one tool for reducing wildfire risk at the landscape scale.”
Still, says Godwin, Florida and California have very different landscapes and weather. While some ecologists say the best time to burn in Florida is in the spring and summer (lightning strikes, the state’s natural fire starters, peak in June), the near certainty that a thunderstorm is just a few days away makes it safe for landowners to burn year-round. With its long, wet winters and hot, dry summers, California has two short burn windows, in the spring and fall, when the land is dry enough to hold a flame but damp enough that it’s not likely to burn out of control.
Prescribed fire is used to prevent shrubs from encroaching on California’s coastal grasslands. | Photo courtesy of Lenya Quinn-Davidson
California is home to almost 200 unique ecosystems and landscapes. While nearly all of them burn, they each burn in their own way and on their own time. The problem is, the entire state operates under one uniform fire management system. It can be hard to get a prescribed burn approved in one part of the state if another is on fire watch. For example, the best time to burn in Northern California is often in October, just when regions to the south are worried most about wildfires. A red flag warning in Butte County, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, can stymie a prescribed burn hundreds of miles away in Humboldt County, near the ocean.
Geography and topography are also complicating factors. The upland forest ecosystem on Green’s property in the Florida Panhandle, also known as a pine flatwood, is, well, flat, which makes fire easier to control. Most of the terrain in need of burning in California is steep and mountainous. Just like a flame creeps up a matchstick when lighting a candle, the flames from a prescribed burn will race uphill. Keeping a fire under control in such an environment requires back-breaking effort. For much of Florida, a peninsula with the Gulf of Mexico to its west and the Atlantic Ocean to its east, a steady breath of wind blows most smoke produced during prescribed fires out to sea. In the mountainous West, smoke from prescribed fires can settle into valleys, choking residents for days or weeks.
For some of these reasons, getting permits for prescribed fire in the West can be prohibitively expensive. In California, an air quality permit can range from under $40 to as high as $1,250. To burn during the fire season—from May through October—you also need a permit from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. For a 300-acre burn, Cal Fire might require three fire engines and for as many as 30 people to be on-site. Lenya Quinn-Davidson, an area fire adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension, said that, apart from being maddening to organize, this can add up to thousands of dollars a day.
The biggest hurdle for those who want to burn in California is that firefighters have a near monopoly on prescribed fire, Quinn-Davidson said. “There’s a lot of ownership by the fire-suppression community over prescribed fire. It’s this culture of, ‘We’re the experts; we’re the only ones who know how to use it, and we’re the only ones who should use it.’ But they don’t have time to use it because they’re too busy fighting fires.”
In the Southeast, a coalition of prescribed fire councils, which bring together federal and state land managers, foresters, air quality regulators and private landowners, help advocate for prescribed fire in their states, and educate residents. Godwin, the University of Florida fire ecology expert, said prescribed fire councils help private property owners incorporate new fire science into their land management decisions. The Northern Florida Prescribed Fire Council helped advocate for Florida’s prescribed burn laws in the 1980s and ’90s. In 2013, Quinn-Davidson formed the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council—the first in the West. Others have been following ever since. Oregon created one in 2014. Nevada in 2017.
The Northern California Prescribed Fire Council hosted the state’s first training program in October 2013, at the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. | Photo courtesy of Lenya Quinn-Davidson
Private land managers in California are slowly learning how to utilize prescribed fire within the confines of the state’s geographic guardrails. California’s strict air quality standards, once considered a major impediment to prescribed fire, have become less of a problem, as those who want to burn are building relationships with local air quality districts, and regulators realize that not allowing prescribed fire can make air quality even worse in the long run. For example, in November 2018, smoke from the Camp Fire poured into the San Francisco Bay Area. For a few days, air pollution levels were among the worst in the world.
Last year, influenced by Florida’s prescribed burn law, California state legislators passed Senate Bill 1260, which mandates Cal Fire to create a training program for anyone who wants to become a “state-certified burn boss.” The law doesn’t provide complete liability protection the way that it does in the Southeast, but those who become certified will have the option to “share” liability with Cal Fire.
“The cool thing about this law is that it’s meant for people who aren’t professional firefighters,” said Quinn-Davidson, who is now on the team developing a curriculum for the new training program.“Cal Fire is uncomfortable with it, but it’s going to happen. We’re going to see people say, ‘Yeah, I’m a certified burn boss, and I never fought fires.’”
Breathing the polluted air in the Indian capital of New Delhi, population 20 million, is currently the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes a day.
More than 70 “catastrophic” wildfires sweep Australia’s densely-populated New South Wales.
Japan plans to build 11 solar farms and 10 wind farms, with a total output of 600 megawatts, on land contaminated by radiation from the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear meltdown.
Flood waters in Venice, Italy peak at 1.87 meters above sea level, the second highest level in recorded history. Two people die and St. Mark’s cathedral suffers “irreparable damage.”
In Venice, California, hypodermic needles and medical waste are washing up on the beach.
Wild boars in a Tuscan forest sniff out and scatter a stash of cocaine worth $22,000 that had been hidden by drug dealers.
In the calm Hawaiian waters known as “slicks” that serve as aquatic nurseries, pieces of plastic outnumber baby fish by 7-to-1.
Israelis are posting pictures of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg next to single-use plastic utensils to deter people from using them.
After more than 200 elephants die from lack of food and water, Zimbabwe plans to move more than 600 elephants—as well as giraffes, lions, antelope, and other creatures—hundreds of miles to other parks not so badly stricken by drought.
A Vietnamese biologist confirms the continued existence of the mouse-deer or chevrotain, the world’s smallest hooved mammal, with the first-ever photograph of the species.
Three cows that vanished from the North Carolina shore during Hurricane Dorian turn up on Cape Lookout island, several miles offshore.
Yellowstone National Park considers greatly expanding wi-fi throughout park. Should the project be deemed successful, it will likely be repeated in other national parks.
Melting Arctic sea ice is spreading deadly phocine distemper virus, threatening seals and other marine mammals.
The last 11 orcas and belugas in Russia’s “whale jail” near Vladivostok are freed.
Iran announces the discovery of a new, “supergiant” oil field with reserves of more than 50 billion barrels.
The European Investment Bank, the world’s largest public bank, will no longer lend money to most fossil fuel projects.
SUVs now account for 40 percent of world motor-vehicle sales and are the second-largest contributor to the increase in world carbon emissions since 2010.
A national survey conducted by the Sierra Club finds that only one in four auto dealerships sells electric vehicles.
The Department of Transportation announces $900 million in infrastructure grants, 70 percent of which goes to roads and bridges. Grants for mass transit decline from 27.8 percent under Obama to 8.5 percent. Funding for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure: 0.0 percent.
A week after President Trump threatened to strip California of its ability to set its own auto-emission standards, New Mexico and Minnesota join the 13 other states that have adopted those strict standards.
Trump’s Scottish golf company agrees to pay Scotland $289,000 in legal fees after the failure of his lengthy legal battle against an offshore windfarm that would be visible from his golf resort in Aberdeen.
Trump proclaims himself to be “very much into climate” and “in many ways to be an environmentalist.”
My friend Teresa Whipple and I had come to Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska’s vast Tongass National Forest looking for bears. A lot of tourists, of course, come to Alaska to see the wildlife—but for Teresa and I, that’s our job. Each of us has spent nearly a decade working as bear guides for visitors, and we had traveled to Chichagof in early September to explore the different watersheds there to see about establishing a new bear viewing area.
The ABC Islands — Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof — have exceptionally dense concentrations of rainforest grizzlies, also called brown bears. Chichagof alone likely has more grizzlies than all the contiguous United States. It wasn’t at all surprising, then, that on our first night of our exploratory trek we heard, as we lay in our tent, a grizzly chasing salmon through a nearby slough. The bear exhaled loudly—perhaps catching a whiff of our scent—and then the sound of its footsteps echoed away into the darkness.
That’s life as usual on Chichagof Island. But the bears’ lives—their ability to make a livelihood—may very well change if the Trump administration and Alaska’s retrograde political leadership succeed in rolling back longstanding protections for the Tongass National Forest.
Photo courtesy of Bjorn Dihle
At 26,500 square miles, the Tongass is the North America’s equivalent of the Amazon. It encompasses the majority of Southeast Alaska and is the largest (relatively) intact temperate rainforest left in the world; by comparison nearly 96 percent of the Pacific Coast’s old growth forests from California through Oregon and Washington have been logged. The Tongass’s sheer size makes it a globally significant carbon sink, and critical in combating climate change. In 2001— after receiving overwhelming public comment against more logging in the area— President Bill Clinton’s administration instituted the Roadless Rule, which protects inventoried roadless areas across America from unnecessary road building, old growth logging, and other resource extraction. After decades of industrial logging in Southeast Alaska and the loss of around 50 percent of the region’s old growth, 14,800 square miles of the Tongass became protected.
Until now, that is.
A few days before Teresa and I began our trek, President Trump – with support from Alaska’s governor and congressional leaders – directed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule. A month and a half later, in mid-October, the Forest Service released its first draft of the administration’s formal plan.
Forests are one of our best resources for fighting the climate crisis. They store carbon, protect wildlife, and support gateway communities that rely on tourism and recreation. Alaska’s Tongass is our nation’s largest national forest — but the Trump administration wants to roll back Roadless Rule protections and open it to logging, road building, and extraction.
As I know from my experience in the Tongass, a revision of the Roadless Rule would be devastating for the bears, other wildlife, and many of the people who live here.
In 2015, I helped develop a viewing area in an Alaska Native corporation-owned watershed that had been logged in the 1970s. A stand of trees in the Tongass, once cut, takes up to 200 years before it again becomes ideal old growth habitat. Until then, trees are the same height, choking out the understory and essentially creating a dead zone. The Alaska Native corporation wanted to figure a way to make money off its land before another century or more passed, when the trees would become marketable again. The problem was that the majority of bears had long ago left the stream for watersheds that hadn’t been logged. The mission was a total bust—and a stark reminder that without intact habitat, both bears and people lose out.
The watersheds Teresa and I were exploring on Chichagof showed much more promise for the simple reason that they hadn’t been logged. Earlier that day, we watched as pink and chum salmon spawned, died, and gave their flesh back to the land and water. It had been an incredibly hot summer, and most of the bears were deep in the mountains taking advantage of a phenomenal berry crop. In the evening, several bears emerged from the shadows of ancient trees to prowl the beach and fish for salmon. We watched one large bear come out in the twilight as we sat on a rocky peninsula eating dinner.
Photos courtesy of Bjorn Dihle
Normally, there’s no place I’m happier than deep in the wilderness. On this trip, however, I felt unbalanced. I couldn’t stop wondering what this place would be like for my son and future generations if the Roadless Rule were to be overturned and widespread commercial logging resumed.
There’s a recycled insanity behind the drive to open the Tongass’s old growth forest for the paper and pulp market. Our current political leaders in Washington, DC appear to subscribe to the philosophy that Alaska is a natural resource colony—rather than a home for nearly 700,000 people and a dream destination for millions of people across the world. Logging in Southeast Alaska is heavily subsidized by our taxes; according to the US General Accountability Office, the Forest Service only receives pennies on the dollar for every timber sale in the Tongass.
A majority of residents of Southeast Alaskans support keeping the Roadless Rule in place, according to one survey of public comments to the US Forest Service. That support is likely based on first-hand knowledge of the benefits of preserved ecosystems, as well as an understanding of the measly benefits from logging. Intact habitat supports commercial fishing and tourism, which make up the lion’s share of the region’s economy. The heavily subsidized timber industry, in contrast, amounts to less than 1 percent of Southeast Alaska’s economy and employs about as many people as a single Wal-Mart. In 2020, visitors to the Tongass—who come here to witness natural wonders—are expected to spend nearly $800 million in the region. No one comes here hoping to see clear cuts. Logging old growth forest is the opposite of investing in the future of the Tongass.
The morning after we’d heard the bears snuffling near our campsite, Teresa and I broke camp and shouldered our backpacks as the sunrise lit up the ocean and mountains in pink and purple. We followed fresh bear tracks along the beach as Sitka blacktail deer watched us warily from the edge of the forest. We explored a salmon stream, taking note of bloody fish carcasses and wet paw prints on gravel. A bear was right beyond the bend in the dark forest, but we backed away in hopes we wouldn’t disturb it from its breakfast. The sun began to beat down mercilessly, and we watched as a number of bears moved across a meadow on their way to take advantage of shade inside the rainforest. While we walked up another small stream, a young bear exploded out of the grass behind us and sprinted for the safety of the forest.
Later that day, we reached Corner Bay and the last watershed we planned to explore on this trip. The area had been logged—much of Chichagof’s old growth had been cut before the Roadless Rule came into effect in 2001—and it looked nothing like the forests where we had spent the previous days. Mountains and valleys had been stripped of their deep stands of hemlock and spruce trees. In the place of the old growth stood clusters of young spruce and deciduous growth with little value to wildlife or people.
We pushed through the brush and entered a “leave strip,” an area of forest that the Forest Service had left intact as a buffer of habitat along a salmon stream. Lying in the autumn-wilted skunk cabbage, at the shadowy edge of the forest, was the headless carcass of a brown bear.
There was still decomposing meat on its bones, which was odd. The rainforest eats its dead rapidly; often when a bear is killed, whether by another bear or person, its bones will be picked cleaned in a few days. My guess was that it had been killed by a poacher, as the bear hunting season had been closed for months.
It’s only a dead bear, I told myself. But I couldn’t shake the feeling it was an omen for the future of the Tongass if America’s great rainforest loses the protection of the Roadless Rule.
Night is coming on, and the research team is in a hurry. We’ve been on the move since early morning, climbing into the upper reaches of the Sierra Madre del Sur along a web of smuggling trails and old logging roads. Hurtling from site to site in cuatrimotos (ATVs), we’re out collecting data from a series of camera traps meant to track the movements of jaguars and other big cats in the area. I’m here with an intrepid, rain-soaked, eight-person patrol made up of research students and local guides, and headed by biologist Fernando Ruiz, one of Mexico’s foremost jaguar experts.
We made good time earlier in the day, but at higher elevations the trails are choked with bracken and debris, forcing us to clear the way with machetes. Midafternoon it began to rain, the trails soon growing so slick that at times we’ve had to get down and push the cuatrimotos. Now it’s starting to get dark.
Dark is not a good time to be out and about in these mountains. Horned pit vipers are endemic to the area, as are five species of big cat. But the most dangerous predator to prowl these slopes walks on two legs. That’s because this part of the sierra—in rugged Guerrero state—is also cartel country.
One of Mexico’s most violent states as well as one of the poorest, Guerrero—sprawling along the coast of southwest Mexico—is home to several organized crime groups, including the powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). About 60 percent of the heroin that enters the United States from Mexico comes from Guerrero, which is also a hotbed for production of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
“We know it can be dangerous up here, and we don’t take it lightly,” says Ruiz, as he kneels beside a camera trap strapped to the trunk of an encino sapling. “But we can’t let them scare us off. We’ve still got a job to do.”
Ruiz, who teaches at the National Autonomous University in the state capital of Chilpancingo, and his team have an ambitious plan. One goal of their “Jaguar Warriors” project is to form a corridor that will link existing pockets of big cats in this region with other parts of Mexico—up to and including the US border—to create space for a healthy breeding stock. A related objective is to curb illegal hunting and range reduction within the corridor.
Both goals require knowledge of jaguar movements. And that means taking the risk of running into the narcos. When I ask Ruiz if he’s ever thought about an armed escort he just shrugs.
“Not even the army is safe in the sierra,” he says, referring to brazen cartel ambushes in Guerrero. Then he guns the engine of his ATV, turns on the headlights, and we start the long, wet trip back to the base camp.
Photos courtesy of Fernando Ruiz
The cameras we’ve been checking are triggered by motion sensors and can record both still and video images. They’re also equipped with night vision and infrared. In some six years of work, Ruis and his team have identified 18 individual jaguars by carefully studying the unique patterns of their rosettes, or spots. They’ve also discovered four other species of big cat living within the study area of about 40 thousand acres—puma, ocelot, jaguarundi, and margay.
And they’ve documented unexpected behavior—allegedly nocturnal jaguars out during the day and roaming in the chilly, pine-and-oak cloud forests as high as 8,000 feet. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve been able to study information about the cats’ interactions with farmers and ranchers with the hope that reduced poaching will expand their range.
In Guerrero, hunting and deforestation have combined to reduce the state’s jaguar population to about 120 animals, all of which remain highly endangered. At least seven cats were killed so far this year in the Tecpan Galeana municipality where the Jaguar Warriors project is based.
Part of the Warriors’ strategy to stave off jaguar extinction in Guerrero involves working with Mexico’s National Forestry Commission (CONAFUR) to reward campesinos (small farmers) for helping to safeguard the cats.
Many farmers live in land-sharing communities called ejidos, which take a cooperative approach to resource management. The Warriors use funds provided by CONAFUR to reward the campesinos for grass-roots conservation. In the ejido of Cordon Grande, within the Tecpan district, more than 50 percent of community lands are protected, off-limits to farmers and cattle alike.
Such mountainous corridors “facilitate jaguar dispersal and therefore promote genetic diversity,” Dr. Joe Figel explains by email. He is a jaguar researcher with the Mexico-based Institute for the Management and Conservation of Biodiversity (INMACOB). “Throughout Mexico,” he says, “the greatest threats to jaguars are habitat loss and poaching.”
Unlike jaguars in the Amazon basin, those in North and Central America are “at much greater risk due to the greater extent of fragmentation across populations,” Figel continues. Illegal hunting of jaguars, often “in retaliation for livestock depredation,” remains an ongoing problem, despite attempts to compensate farmers for their losses.
A few days after the camera trap excursion, I accompany the Cordon Grande comisariado—sort of a cross between mayor and sheriff of the ejido—to hear the complaint of a farmer who has lost several goats to a jaguar.
Photos courtesy of Fernando Ruiz
We ride horseback through high country covered with parota and higera trees. Red-winged vaquero birds call from the brush. We stop to drink from a spring just off the trail and the comisariado, whose name is Luis Casares, twists a large and fleshy leaf from a lampa plant into a perfect drinking vessel, complete with a stem for the handle.
Casares, 36, was only elected to his post a few months ago he tells me as we water the horses from the folded lampa leaves. In fact, he used to be a poppy farmer, like all his neighbors. But most of them have gotten out of the business. The opium market has crashed over the last year, replaced by synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and forcing farmers to focus on other revenue streams.
“Now they all want to run more cows, more goats. So they see the jaguar as a threat,” he says. “Many are jealous that they can’t clear more trees because of the cats.”
But Casares himself is an avid deer hunter, and as such he knows the value of the animal he calls el tigre.
“When we walk the forest they flee before us. They aren’t like ocelots, who will live near humans. And unlike the puma they don’t attack people. Also the tigres control the deer and peccary so they don’t overpopulate and strip the woods—or come into our fields and eat the corn.”
We ride on to meet the farmer who lost his goats. His name is Dionicio Rodriguez, and he’s brought a neighbor as a witness. The jaguar came upon Rodriguez’s flock sheltered under a boulder on the side of a hill and killed nine of them in one night, but ate only one.
“It’s like it killed them all for sport,” says neighbor Rosendo Hernandez.
“Or out of spite,” says Rodriguez.
“We’re sick of jaguars around here,” Hernandez says. “There are too many of them and they’re pests.”
When I ask them about the risk of jaguars going extinct in Guerrero, the men say they’re skeptical of such claims.
“The biologists don’t know everything,” Hernandez says. “Those things [jaguars] are all over these mountains. And the economy is very bad. We need our goats to live. Why should we suffer so the cats can eat well?”
The preferred method of killing a jaguar, Rodrguez explains, is to track it down with hounds until it’s treed and then shot. Such poaching is punishable by fines or even prison time, but because the hunter must be caught in the act the rules are rarely enforced.
“A friend of mine in the next village kills them with poison instead of shooting,” says Hernandez. That way the hide doesn’t get mutilated and will fetch a better price.
Photos courtesy of Fernando Ruiz
Thanks to grants from the CONAFUR, Casares is able to promise the farmer he’ll receive 2,500 pesos [$130] for each goat killed. Once we take our leave, he explains that the neighbor is confused about the number of jaguars in the area.
“Tigres are always on the move,” Casares says. “There can be a sighting here and then one the next day a few kilometers away and then again somewhere else, so the people think there are so many. But it’s often the same one showing up in different places.”
Then I ask him the same question I put to the farmer, about the cats dying out, and Casares frowns and shakes his head.
“I have heard them cough and growl in the night, in the woods, and it is like no other sound in the world. I would not like to think of a Guerrero without tigres,” he says. “I would not like to think of my children growing up in such a place.”
On their last night in Cordon Grande, the research team gathers in Casares’ tin-roofed house in Cordon Grande. When they are out in the field, the team sleeps in tents set up in a clutch of old and battered cabins, without electricity or running water. Here in the village, however, the Casares family always opens their home to the Warriors, providing shelter and hot meals cooked on a wood-fired, clay stove.
As they sip coffee and nibble tortillas fresh from the comal, Ruiz and his students review the recently collected data from the camera blinds. Some of the researchers have made plaster casts of ocelot tracks they came across, and these are passed around with reverence.
There’s a sense of awe in the clean but humble casa. Grown men and women stand around a laptop, laughing like children over the retrieved photos and videos—exclaiming over a big male jaguar they’ve not seen in some time; a puma who looks to be pregnant; a female jaguar with a pair of cubs. They’ll stay with their mother for at least two years, Ruiz says. The species’ long adolescence means a female might only give birth to three or four litters during her lifetime.
The Warriors have applied for funding from a national conservation program sponsored by the automaker Volkswagen , and there is much hopeful talk this evening about what to do with the funding should they win. The communications director suggests eco-tourism as a long-term means of financial support for the project, although the presence of the cartels makes that dream seem unlikely to come true anytime soon. Another team member mentions expanding their outreach program to local schools, until someone reminds her that many of the children’s parents resent such programs, even as they resent the cats themselves.
I’m sitting in a camp chair taking notes when Ruiz comes over to hand me a mug of coffee. In response to a question about why he decided to specialize in jaguars in the first place, he cites the emblematic nature of the cats in his native culture, which made a deep impression on him growing up.
“The dances, the tigre masks, the costumes,” he reminisces. “The jaguar is mystical. Sacred. And that quality of charisma helps us. If we can convince people to save the jaguar, we can convince them to save all the animals in the jaguar’s kingdom.”
A few weeks later, Volkswagen will announce that the Warriors project won the grant, and so will receive just over 26,000 dollars for research. On the same day the winner is announced, a poacher will post a series of photos on social media, posing proudly with another slain jaguar in the Tecpan sierra. Then reports will surface indicating the two cubs seen on the camera were also killed. Shortly thereafter, armed men from an unknown cartel in Guerrero will gun down a Discovery Channel photographer in a targeted assassination, sending a powerful message to journalists and environmentalists throughout the state.
That last night at Casares’ house, I ask Ruiz about the risk-to-reward ratio of his efforts in such a dangerous place. His response makes it clear he’s not about to back down anytime soon.
“I’m willing to risk my life for my work,” he says, in service to the “common conscience” of humankind.
“There is no sacrifice too great if it means that future generations will know el tigre still lives among them. And that they won’t be dressing up and dancing in honor of an animal they’ve lost.”
Planet Earth is losing the battle of the bulge. Rotation makes it slightly fatter in the middle and flatter at the poles; though still quite round, it is not a perfect sphere.
This flattening is called “oblateness,” and measuring its changes is a key part of tracking ice loss from polar regions. A recent paper combines measurements of gravity by different methods to more accurately capture how this oblateness changes with time, and improve calculations of ice loss.
This new method reveals more ice loss and larger increases in ocean water than previously estimated: an increase of 0.08 millimeters per year for sea level rise, along with an additional 15.4 gigatons of ice loss each year for the Antarctic Ice Sheet and 3.5 for the Greenland Ice Sheet.
“The ice sheets are losing more mass, and the ocean is gaining more, than we previously thought,” said Bryant D. Loomis of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the paper’s lead author.
One way scientists measure the loss of melting ice and the resulting shifting of mass, from ice sheets to the ocean, is by NASA’s GRACE satellites (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) — both the now-ended original mission and its sequel, GRACE-FO (Follow-On).
For both missions, a pair of satellites was designed to keep sharp track of each other’s movements as they pass over Earth’s surface. Large masses on or near the surface below — mountains, glaciers or hidden expanses of subsurface groundwater — give a gravitational tug on the first of the passing spacecraft. That causes a slight increase in speed; the microwave link with the second satellite is stretched a bit, changing again as the second satellite passes over. The size of these changes in distance between the satellites reveals the mass of the objects below.
When it comes to measuring changes in the oblateness, however, GRACE and GRACE-FO are not as accurate as another method.
“That’s the only part of the gravity field GRACE doesn’t observe well,” Loomis said.
Fortunately, changes in the oblateness are well-observed by the other method, called satellite laser ranging or SLR. This technology, which dates back to the 1960s, involves shooting a laser beam at a satellite from a ground station and measuring how quickly it bounces back from a specially designed mirror on the satellite.
Combined Measurements Improve Accuracy
Measurements of the effect of surface gravity on satellites in orbit can be used to calculate the mass of objects on Earth. While not as accurate as GRACE at smaller spatial scales, it does an excellent job of measuring oblateness.
“Since early in the GRACE mission, scientists have been replacing the GRACE values of oblateness (called ‘J2’) with the more accurate SLR solution,” Loomis said.
Correctly accounting for this slight polar flattening can make a big difference in estimating the loss of ice mass in polar regions as planet Earth warms.
But Loomis and his team discovered important differences between previous estimates of oblateness and their own values. He and his co-authors decided to include the valuable GRACE gravity information at the smaller spatial scales when processing the SLR measurements and found that it improved the results.
They showed that the new approach led to more accurate estimation of ice loss that was in better agreement with other types of measurements. One of these is known as the “sea level budget,” or the sum of all known contributions to changes in sea level. These are the thermal expansion of the ocean (measured by drifting floats called Argo), plus the change in ocean mass, measured by GRACE and GRACE-FO with a little help from SLR. The two measurements must add up to the total sea level change measured by satellite radar altimeters, like the one aboard the current Jason-3 satellite.
The improvement in measurements of loss of ice mass brought the sea level budget closer to being “closed” — that is, accounting for all contributions in a way that matches up with known rates of sea level rise.
Their new solution is now becoming more widely adopted in the scientific community, Loomis said — and all because of more precise “weighing” of a slightly rotund planet Earth.
“Even though it’s a relatively small change, it nudges it in the right direction to improve the sea level budget closure,” Loomis said.
In the 1920s, Los Angeles fell in love with cars. Now, almost a century later, the city is trying to end the affair.
Facing the worst congestion in the nation, notoriously bad air quality, and of course, climate change, L.A. is pouring billions into expanding its public transit system. But despite the completion of several expensive new rail projects, transit ridership is plummeting. Boardings for Southern California’s largest transit carrier, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro), dropped around 17 percent in the past five years—from just under 473 million in 2013 to around 391 million in 2018.
The decline in public transit ridership comes at a time when L.A. is trying to shake off its smoggy image and rebrand itself as a sustainable megacity. Its sustainability plan, L.A.’s Green New Deal, takes aim at car culture, calling for both a 13 percent reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) per capita and a 35 percent increase in trips made by transit, walking, biking, or micro-mobility by 2025.
Voters have signaled their willingness to invest in transit improvements by approving four sales tax increases for transportation projects: Prop A in 1980, Prop C in 1990, Measure R in 2008, and Measure M in 2016.
Why, then, aren’t more Angelenos using the public transit system they are funding?
Transit spending has a controversial history in Los Angeles. To understand it―and to discern whether or not L.A. Metro is repeating past mistakes―you have to go back to the 1980s, when Angelenos decided that the city’s all-bus transit fleet wasn’t cutting it. L.A. wanted rail. Once upon a time, decades earlier, hundreds of miles of rail had woven through L.A., but over the course of decades, those streetcar routes were torn up and replaced by less expensive, more flexible bus service.
The vision for a city connected by light and heavy rail took a major step forward in 1980 when voters approved Prop A, the first of four half-cent sales tax increases, to fund public new rail projects and bus improvements.
Initially, the Southern California Rapid Transit District received around 20 percent of Prop A funds for a subsidized bus fare program; between 1982 and 1985, bus fares were reduced from 85 cents to 50 cents, and monthly passes were reduced to $20 for the basic transit pass and $4 for the elderly, people with disabilities, and students. In response to the fare reductions, ridership numbers soared, increasing 40 percent from just over 354 million annual boardings in 1982 to just over 497 million annual boardings in 1985.
Then in 1986, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission cut funding for the subsidized bus fare program and shifted money to light and heavy rail construction projects. Between 1986 and 1989, bus fares increased from 85 cents a ride to $1.10. Ridership immediately declined, dropping 8 percent to around 411 million annual boardings in 1989.
“If we look at periods when public transit ridership has increased, and periods when it has decreased, I don’t think it is hard to figure out what is driving the change,” James Moore, II, director of the Transportation Engineering Program at USC, said. “[Transit riders] are a very price-sensitive group. When you raise fairs, you price them off the system.”
Watching bus fares skyrocket and service decline, bus riders grew indignant. Angelenos were tired of watching from the curbside as buses cruised by their stops, unable to accommodate more passengers. In order to resist fare increases and service cuts, community organizers formed the Bus Riders Union (BRU) in 1992. The BRU galvanized its supporters around opposition to an adversary―the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA, now L.A. Metro). According to the BRU, MTA was building out its rail system by cannibalizing its bus system, which serviced mostly low-income people of color. L.A.’s rail system, the BRU argued, connected to the wealthier, whiter suburbs.
Tensions between bus riders and the MTA reached an all-time high when MTA passed a fare increase that included the elimination of monthly passes. In 1994, a coalition of groups representing bus riders, including the BRU and the NAACP, filed a class-action lawsuit against MTA, accusing the agency of transit racism. By disproportionately funding rail projects, the plaintiffs argued, MTA was favoring white suburbanite riders over poor people of color, violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The court delivered the BRU and allies an impressive legal victory in 1996; the resulting 10-year consent decree mandated that MTA purchase new buses to reduce overcrowding and reduce the cost of a monthly pass to $42.
During the period when MTA was bound by the consent decree, transit ridership in L.A. increased significantly, rising from around 363 million passenger trips in 1996 to just over 495 million passenger trips in 2007. In 2008, shortly after the consent decree expired, ridership numbers started to drop off. Transit ridership has been declining consistently since 2014. (Note that all ridership statistics in this story were calculated based on the fiscal year. According to the calendar year, the consistent decline in transit ridership started in 2013.)
Did court-mandated investment in bus service drive higher transit numbers while it was in place? And how did the end of the consent decree affect ridership? Transportation experts disagree.
Moore, who provided key assistance to the BRU during its legal battle with MTA, argues that the consent decree played a key role in expanding ridership while it was in place. “When Metro was no longer bound by the settlement, it refocused its efforts almost exclusively on new rail projects,” Moore wrote in a 2017 Los Angeles Times opinion piece, coauthored by Thomas A. Rubin, the former chief financial officer of the Southern California Rapid Transit District. “The quality of bus service began declining in almost every way measurable, and overall ridership again fell.”
Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of a 2018 report on falling transit ridership in Southern California, does not see a correlation between the end of the consent decree and the subsequent decrease in transit ridership. In fact, Manville’s report refutes a key aspect of Moore’s argument―that high transit prices, which the consent decree kept down, were a key factor driving down transit ridership over the course of the last decade.
“The evidence that we see is that fares don’t seem to have a huge influence [on transit ridership], but they don’t move that much either, in real terms,” Manville said. Manville’s report, which focuses on ridership since the year 2000, finds that “changes in transit service and fares have mostly followed and not led falling ridership.”
Manville’s report, however, focuses on six counties in Southern California―Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, and Imperial. Looking at broad trends in the region, as the report acknowledges, can “mask significant variation among transit operators.”
What, if not transit prices, is causing ridership numbers to fall?
According to Manville’s report, higher rates of car ownership―especially among low-income, immigrant Angelenos who traditionally make up transit’s core ridership―is the single most important factor driving down public transit use in Southern California. The report did not look at whether a disparity in financial investment between rail and bus service could be a factor.
Over the past few decades, improvements to bus service, like the addition of bus rapid transit lanes, which can dramatically improve commute times, have taken a back seat to L.A. Metro’s billion-dollar rail projects, despite the relative cost-effectiveness of bus projects.
Perversely, the high price tag on rail projects is one reason rail has taken priority, according to Juan Matute, deputy director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA. Members of Metro’s Board of Directors―13 members representing areas across L.A. County―have a political incentive to deliver contracts to their constituencies. Those political interests do not always align with the real needs of transit riders.
“One of the most powerful forces in Metro’s investment program [is] the idea of geographic equity . . . trying to spread the money around L.A. County, regardless of the cost-effectiveness or the need for the project,” Matute said. “That is a political decision, given how county district representation on the Metro board is set up.”
Given L.A. Metro’s prioritization of rail projects, is the transit agency making the same mistakes that preceded the consent decree? Again, experts disagree.
“If they didn’t understand that they were going to lose riders, it would qualify as a mistake,” Moore said. “But they do understand. These are college-educated people. They know full well what they are doing, and they are abandoning their obligation to serve a low-income group in exchange for growing an agency and delivering rail projects to various groups of constituents.”
Manville isn’t convinced. “Are we at the type of situation that precipitated the [lawsuit] back then? I don’t think so,” he said. “I think Metro is now much more cognizant of that criticism.”
Back in the 1990s, a key aspect of BRU’s case against MTA was that L.A. rail riders were more likely to be higher income and white than bus riders. That is still true today―but both services overwhelmingly serve low-income riders. According to L.A. Metro data from 2018, the median household income of L.A. bus riders was $17,154, compared with a median household income of $32,634 for rail. Notably, 14 percent of rail riders had a household income above $100,000―compared with just 3 percent of bus riders.
Some transportation planners see rail as key to luring Angelenos with transportation alternatives out of their cars and onto transit lines. L.A. will certainly need to make a lot of progress in that area if it wants to achieve the goals outlined in its sustainability plan. Still, all that rail construction is an expensive strategy for enticing new transit riders, and to date, it hasn’t worked.
Moore acknowledges that one challenge facing L.A. Metro is that L.A. has given the agency inconsistent and competing objectives. “On the one hand, we say please serve low-income groups that otherwise would not be served, and in the same breath we say, oh, and by the way . . . configure a service that will attract [us] out of our cars. You can’t really do that following the same strategy.”
Implementing congestion pricing, or charging people a fee to drive on traffic-ridden roads, could give drivers the push they need to start taking transit―and make L.A.’s investment in rail make more sense.
“The rail system we are building in Los Angeles County makes sense if there is a comprehensive system of congestion pricing in the county,” Matute said. “The volumes of transit riders we would expect with that, the buses with bus-only lanes would need to have the capacity of a rail network, in order to make it work. But in absence of that, a lot of the . . . far-flung rail investment outside of the core, high-ridership corridors of the county, is much less justified.”
According to Moore, the solution to falling ridership is to lower transit fares and invest in bus service. “We could reverse this trend in ridership and increase it very quickly,” he said.
L.A. Metro argues that spending on rail is a long-term investment. Once L.A. has built out its rail network, then Angelenos will start riding transit again.
The climate implication of L.A.’s gamble on rail is important. Fewer transit riders means more cars on the streets―something L.A.’s climate goals can’t afford.
Just 30 feet short of the summit of Washington State’s Mt. Baker, Todd Love was on his own.
Not literally of course—nine of his closest friends surrounded him and cheered him on as he struggled toward the summit. But as a triple amputee, Love made the final push under his own power, arms propelling his body through the cold and slippery snow.
Love and his team of climbers were among the hundreds to reach Baker’s 10,781-foot peak last summer, but their climb was nothing like that of the usual weekend warriors.
In 2010, while on deployment in Afghanistan, Love stepped on an improvised explosive device, losing his left arm below the elbow and both his legs from just below the waist. Now he was climbing Mt Baker with fellow marines who had been with him on that life-altering day and who had endured both visible and invisible wounds of their own. For Love and his team, climbing Mt. Baker was a chance to move forward.
To hear it from Love, it was almost predetermined that he would become a marine.
“My dad was a marine and his dad was a marine as well. We used to joke around and tell people I thought a lot about joining the air force because of that,” Love says. “But it just felt right.”
For his 2010 deployment, Love was sent to the Sangin Valley in Afghanistan as part of First Platoon, Bravo Company, First Reconnaissance Battalion. That’s where he met Andrew Dyer.
Dyer, too, grew up feeling his fate as a marine was a foregone conclusion.
“I was in middle school when 9/11 happened. I was actually home sick that day, so I watched everything play out on TV,” he remembers. “I was kind of a true believer, if you will, when I joined. I wanted to go and fight terrorists.”
The Sangin Valley was not an easy place to be stationed. Already in one of the deadliest regions in the country, Bravo Company was located at the outer edges of the range of medical evacuation helicopters. Survival chances diminish greatly if a patient can’t get to a hospital within an hour—a trip for Bravo Company was 45 minutes one-way.
The company was on its first of two missions in Sangin in October, running regular patrols through small towns in search of the Taliban. On the morning of October 25, Love was leading a group of soldiers through an abandoned town while Dyer and others worked through a nearby field. As Love recalls, it was pretty routine.
“I remember that morning, and I remember doing my job,” he says. “I remember searching a building, and no one had lived there for a long time. All the plants inside were growing wild and crazy. That stood out to me as not a good sign.”
Out in the nearby field, Dyer heard the explosion and immediately found himself and the rest of his immediate team surrounded by gunfire. When the Medevac helicopter finally arrived, Dyer watched at least six rocket-propelled grenades launch and narrowly miss the chopper.
“I still can’t believe that they landed in the midst of all that,” he says.
Love and another soldier, Kyle Thompson, who had been patrolling with Love, were flown out to the closest hospital (Thompson lost an eye in the blast). Eventually, the firefight settled down enough for the rest of the battalion to return to their base, where Dyer and others received word that Love and Thompson had survived the trip. There was nothing to do but try and wind down and prepare mentally for the next round of patrols the following day. But for Dyer, Love’s absence was especially jarring. The two usually spent their evenings together.
“[Love] and I both liked sleeping outside for some reason. The night before he got blown up, we were basically sleeping with my head at his feet. We’d plan our missions and go to bed and wake up next to each other every morning,” Dyer says.
The explosion meant the end of the deployment for Love and Thompson, but the rest of the platoon still had two months of life-as-usual in Sangin. By December, when their deployment ended, more than 20 Purple Hearts had been awarded to the company, and no marine had suffered a fatal casualty, but, Dyer says, he and the rest of the company felt “hardened” after the attack that injured Love and Thompson.
“Going home was hard,” Dyer recalls. “I had been in active gunfights within a month of getting home.”
For Love, there was no going home yet. Eventually, he was transported to a hospital in Germany, where he underwent the long, slow process of recovery. For a while, the extent of his injuries wasn’t clear to him—he was just happy to be alive. He knew one hand was banged up, but he thought he could still feel and move his legs. It was only when he reached down one day to try and touch his legs that he realized they were completely gone.
“My hand just hit the hospital bed,” he said. “I looked up at my dad, and I was shocked.”
Gradually, Love adjusted to his new reality. He underwent intensive physical therapy and within three months, he was skiing on a sit-ski—an adaptive set of skis designed for people with disabilities.
Learning to sit-ski was a game-changer.
“I’m an athlete. I’ve always been an athlete. That part of my identity felt like it died when I got hurt, but then I got into skiing, and it woke everything back up,” Love says. “That was one of the biggest eye-openers for me. Like, ‘Holy shit, there’s a lot of fun and cool things you can do in life despite being in a wheelchair.’ I didn’t know that things like that even existed.”
After skiing, Love kept upping the ante, participating with fellow marines and family in Spartan Races, where he’d alternate between “running” on his hand and prosthetic arm and riding on the backs of his friends. He even tried skydiving, freefalling in a custom harness designed for a person without legs.
Then during a 2018 platoon reunion, Love and Dyer started tossing around the idea of bagging the peak of a Cascade volcano.
After a second deployment ended in 2012, Dyer had bounced around different parts of the country before landing in the Pacific Northwest, where he started climbing and skiing. As part of a G.I. Bill program, he learned to guide with Alpine Ascents Institute and spent a winter ski patrolling.
As Dyer sees it, the soft skills he developed as a marine translate well to the mountains—“like being able to analyze and interpret risk and risk mitigation,” he says. Mountaineering, he thinks, is about as close to combat tours as it gets in civilian life. Teamwork is everything, the stakes are higher, and mistakes can be fatal.
Love, Dyer, and eight other fellow marines decided they would summit Mt. Baker, but they had a number of obstacles to overcome before they set foot on the mountain. One was funding for the trip, which required gear rentals, food, lodging, and travel for the veterans, who had all scattered to different corners of the country.
David Jarvis, who was platoon sergeant during the 2010 deployment in Sangin, set himself to the task of fundraising. Now the executive director of the Force Recon Association—a nonprofit that provides reconnaissance veterans with scholarships and other forms of support—he set a lofty goal of raising $100,000. Force Recon advertised the climbing trip on a dedicated website and auctioned off items donated during the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s annual Shot Show, with two auctions bringing in $20,000 and $35,000 each.
“We ended up blowing it out of the water,” Jarvis says. Of the $100,000 raised, about $20,000 went toward the climbing team, while more than $70,000 went back into Force Recon to help others in the reconnaissance community.
The next step was figuring out how to get Love up the mountain’s steep, crevassed terrain. The team eventually settled on a combination of pulling him in a sled and carrying him on their backs and were able to have a backpack custom made for this purpose.
On June 4, the group of 10 began their ascent of Mt. Baker via the Easton Glacier, taking turns towing Love on his sled. They spent the next two days at base camp, practicing crevasse rescue skills, watching the weather, and enjoying one another’s company. Then a storm blew in just before their planned summit push on June 5, forcing them to wait a day. The following morning, the group was greeted with clear skies, and together they set off before sunrise.
Strapped into his rucksack, Love was lifted onto Thompson’s back, and they began to ascend the steep Roman Wall, which lies just before the summit, a mostly flat expanse that rises about 30 feet at its peak.
As the climb progressed, Love found it increasingly difficult to stay warm inside his pack. His carbon-fiber prosthetic arm was getting too cold to wear, and he had to contend with the snow that had been accidentally kicked into his pack. He began to worry that just by being so high on the mountain, he was putting his teammates in danger, and it occurred to him that he might have to call the climb off.
Just as the team reached the last 30 feet, Love got out of the backpack to climb the rest of the way on his own. The going was tough: “Every time I would take a step up, I would slide back like two steps,” Love says.
When he finally reached the top, he and his teammates were elated.
Altogether, summiting the mountain took an exhausting 14.5 hours; the entire trip took six days. According to Jarvis, the climb wasn’t about Love or any one person but about the bond the fellow marines share. Adventures like this one, he says, are a way to build a new legacy together.
Love agrees. “What we did in Afghanistan, looking back, we were so good at it,” Love said. “We were a good team, and we worked really well together. Climbing Mt. Baker gave us that team again. We were working together to accomplish a mission. I’ll never forget that.”
Like much of modern trade, the coffee industry has a complicated record when it comes to environmental impacts. Coffee’s journey from the trees of Ethiopia or Brazil to your local cafe is long and undeniably polluting, from the cargo ships that transport the green beans to our shores, to the gas and electricity used to roast, grind, and brew your favorite drink, to the huge amount of landfill waste generated by the average coffee shop.
At the same time, coffee does some tangible good. Coffee trees and their shade crops provide protection for migrating birds and serve as carbon sinks. Oftentimes, schools and hospitals are built with proceeds from green coffee sales. And coffee shops have become important community assets—as meeting halls, organizing spaces, or art galleries.
So what’s coffee-loving consumer to do? Enormous conglomerates are the main eco-culprits. You can’t personally control the intricacies of the global coffee trade. Still, there are a few simple ways to mitigate your own contribution, and feel a bit better about that morning buzz.
1. Buy local, buy small, ask questions
If you’re a home coffee brewer, this is one of the simplest and most effective ways to decrease your coffee footprint. Instead of picking up whatever happens to be on sale at the grocery store, seek out your local coffee roaster and talk to them. Ask questions, see how they work, and find out what they’re doing to reduce their waste or energy usage. (Most roasters will also let you bring in your own container, which negates the need for a difficult-to-recycle bag.)
And while you’re buying local, buy small. Purchase what you need, use it up, and buy more—this will cut down on your own waste, and allows you to enjoy fresher, better-tasting coffee.
2. Invest in a decent to-go cup
Speaking of difficult-to-recycle, did you know that Starbucks alone used nearly 4 billion disposable cups in 2017? Because of the thin plastic lining that keeps them from leaking, disposable coffee cups are incredibly hard to recycle. So why not invest in a reusable, insulated to-go cup? As a bonus, you might save some money—most cafes offer a discount to customers who use their own cups.
3. Or better yet, enjoy your coffee in the cafe
Take 10 minutes to quietly sit and enjoy your latte. Contemplate the taste, gaze out the window, people-watch, listen to the music, and soak in the atmosphere. It’s meditative, and also saves a disposable cup.
4. Use your strength
A hand grinder and manual lever espresso machine probably make for the cheapest, and most environmentally friendly, tools to make cafe-style coffee at home. Completely manual espresso machines are improving all the time—Fellow Products even sells an attachment that can be used with the AeroPress coffee maker that simulates the espresso experience—meaning you can, theoretically at least, savor a delicious, concentrated caffeine jolt while wearing your pajamas. And simply using a manual pour-over brewer like the Chemex or Kalita Wave is better than an electric drip machine, which wastes a lot of electricity (and tends to produce relatively sub-par coffee).
5. Brew manually, or cold brew
Not only is making a pour-over in the morning a peaceful, meditative act, but if you follow some simple rules—only boil the water you need, only make what you will drink—it can be eco-friendly as well. Using a cloth or metal filter removes another wasteful element, as most paper filters are made with harsh chemicals (although it is possible to buy unbleached versions).
If you don’t want to boil a kettle, and don’t mind waiting, then cold brew might be the way to go (here’s a good, simple recipe). Simply grind your coffee coarse, let it steep overnight, and you end up with delicious, concentrated black magic. Dilute to taste, store the rest in the fridge, and you’re set up for the next week or so.
6. Mind plastic waste—mindfully
The past couple of years have seen a huge uptick in bans of plastic straws, which are very difficult (if not impossible) to recycle, and tend to end up in landfills or polluting our waterways, where they wreak havoc on marine life. Accordingly, many coffee companies have opted to swap them out for paper or metal alternatives (or to simply not offer straws).
However, plastic straws can be vitally important for people with disabilities, who often rely on the flexibility of movement that paper or metal straws just can’t afford.
The issue of plastic waste in the coffee supply chain is a big one, but it’s also worth looking at other, bigger culprits—disposable cups, coffee bags. That being said, if you don’t need a straw, don’t use one.
7. Say no to plastic and wooden stirrers
When the humble spoon has been in use since at least ancient Egypt, there’s no need to use a throwaway alternative. If you’re making coffee at home or at the office, simply add your creamer first. If your favorite coffee shop uses them, consider bringing the issue up with a manager, and simply ask if they’d consider sourcing reusable options.
8. Upcycle your grounds
Used coffee grounds are great for your compost—they’re basically pH-neutral and are an excellent source of nitrogen. If you don’t have a compost or municipal service, just sprinkle them in your garden or even on the lawn. And if you’re feeling especially ambitious, coffee grounds make for a great body scrub or addition to homemade soap.
9. Drink your coffee black
Hopefully, the coffee you’re drinking is tasty enough on its own. The goal all specialty coffee roasters share, after all, is to have their product stand on its own without the need for cream or sugar—allowing the end consumer to taste the nuance and quality contained within.
Keep in mind, the industrial dairy farming industry has a huge carbon footprint. Even if your favorite cafe uses a sustainable milk source, the reality is that cows equal methane, which equals global warming. So, try your coffee black—you might even like it better that way.
“What if the survival of the fittest is the survival of compassion?” Terry Tempest Williams’s newest collection of essays, Erosion: Essays of Undoing (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 2019), is a plea for a tender fierceness driven by the love of a disappearing world. Williams beckons us to a circle of testimonies in which “animals bear witness to a changing world, a changing climate.” She writes, “The fate of the pronghorn is our own.”
From the art installation of a circle of bones in “The Council of Pronghorn” to the haunting “The Questions Held by Owls,” Williams measures the wealth of an industrialized Wyoming against a “sky of stars now noticeably obscured.” In exchange for making possible 24-hours-a-day electricity to power our lights, gas and oil industries pollute the air and poison the water. The experiences of animals expose the threats of an altered Earth. Nonetheless, Williams avoids a habit of many environmental writers, who mourn the loss of nonhuman beings without acknowledging how human lives are inextricably entwined with their fate.
Throughout, Erosion feels as intimate as a diary. “Every day, I feel the barrage of bullets I am trying to duck,” Williams writes, “the hate speech coming out of the White House; the injustices perpetuated repeatedly against black people, brown people, and Native people; and the war being waged against wildlife and our public lands.” The essays, including personal meditations on her brother’s suicide, are a dance between despair and resistance, yet the call for compassion remains clear.
This article appeared in the November/December 2019 edition with the headline “After the Undoing.”