Eco-tourism and our National Parks

April 22nd, 2011

The International Ecotourism Society defines eco-tourism as, “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”  They set forth six principles of eco-tourism including minimizing impact, building environmental and cultural awareness, providing positive experiences for everyone involved, providing direct financial benefits for locals, and raising awareness to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.  However, as visitor numbers increase, eco-tourism can become destructive to the environment if measures aren’t taken to prevent it.  This discussion made me think of my experiences with the National Park Service, where with my family I have visited around 100 National Parks and Monuments, camping in many of them.

While all National Parks try to minimize impact, the most vivid example I recall was in Denali National Park where there is only one road into the interior of park (the area of the park where Mt. McKinley is).  While many parks have a shuttle bus system of some kind, in Denali this is basically the only option for exploring the interior of the park.  The 92 mile road, pictured below, is closed after mile 15 to private vehicles, although you can walk or bicycle in and some exceptions are made for campers.  Day visitors can buy shuttle bus tickets to various stops along the road.  The decision to close the road was made in 1972 after a major highway near Denali was completed, making it much easier for visitors to come to the park.  Now, around 400,000 visitors come to the park during its short summer season each year.  I really liked the bus system.  It not only allowed a lot of people to visit the park with minimal pollution and harm to the environment, but the lack of traffic also made for a better, more peaceful environment in which to observe and enjoy nature.  When I go to National Parks, it is to be closer to and appreciate nature, not to be interrupted by the heavy traffic and pollution I could get anywhere and Denali was definitely a great place for this.  Another cool thing, I noticed while on the road was the eco-friendly bathroom design, pictured below.

This has been a very interesting and eye-opening class.  It was slightly depressing to learn about the extent of all of the problems in the world; however, it was refreshing to discuss possible solutions and measures we could take as individuals to help.  As we discussed in class yesterday, the world is currently facing problems such as deforestation of half of its forests, draining of over half of its wetlands, damage to over 1/3 of its corals reefs, the decimation of its fisheries decimated, and suffering of biodiversity.  Human population is quickly approaching 7 billion, which will put even more strain on the already strained resources on the world unless we step in and make some changes that will result in long-term solutions.

The resiliency approach to solving problems that we learned about in class gives us a great start for working on these problems and creating a more sustainable society.  Some facets of the resiliency approach include promoting biodiversity, working with economic variability, and fostering creativity and innovation.   It was helpful to see applications of these principles in action through the case studies we looked at and to look at possible solutions in areas such as agriculture, fisheries, and coral reefs.  I really enjoyed digging deeper into some of the subjects we talking about in class for my blog and finding helpful solutions, such as eating less meat or only specific kinds of fish.  Not only has this class opened my eyes to the many problems of the world today, but it has also prepared me to think critically to help solve these and other problems.

Activity Blog 2: River Cleanup

April 17th, 2011

Last Sunday, I went to Old Mill Park along the Rappahannock River to pick up trash through Circle K’s river cleanup.  After an hour, we had a two big trash bags full- one of recycling and one of trash.  Among the trash we picked up, I noticed the two biggest types seemed to be plastic bags and aluminum drink cans.  Both of these have numerous environmental effects.  According to the Environmental Literacy Council, “Stray plastic bags, which have been estimated at one to three percent of the hundreds of billions that are produced each year, are now found almost everywhere on the planet.”  Plastic bags are dangerous to marine life animals as they can mistake them for food and ingest them, which causes stomach blockages and eventual starvation.  Plastic bags have also been known to clog pipes and drains, which leads to backed up water that can cause health problems.  Unfortunately, this excess of bags is not going anywhere anytime soon as scientists estimate it takes at least 400 years for them to biodegrade.  They can be recycled, and you can help by clicking here to find a drop off location in your area.

Aluminum cans are recyclable; however, more often than not they aren’t recycled.  According to International Rivers, “More than half of the 99 billion cans sold in the U.S. last year were landfilled or incinerated….A similar amount wasn’t recycled in other countries, for a global total of about 1.5 million tons of wasted cans.”  This causes companies to have to manufacture more cans, which causes environmental pollution.  Remember to recycle and together we can keep our rivers from looking like this.


One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish

April 7th, 2011

This week with our discussion about overfishing and collapsing fisheries and the need for more sustainable fishing practices, I decided to look into “environmentally friendly fish” and where to get them.

Walmart is in the process of making itself a sustainable business.  They have set several goals relating to their business practices, including the commitment to sell products that sustain people and the environment.  In the United States they have successfully met their goal to “work with the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) and Aquaculture Certification Council, Inc. (ACC) to certify that all foreign shrimp suppliers adhere to Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) standards in the U.S. by 2011.”  BAP certification outlines standards for different facilities and include regulations on conservation of biodiversity, soil and water management, and drug and chemical use.  Shrimp, tilapia, channel catfish and Pangasius are currently eligible for BAP certification and soon salmon will be included as well.  Besides Walmart, BAP certified fish can be found at Bottom Dollar Food, Food Lion, Giant, Kroger, and Target, among others.  Just look for the stamp.

Another goal Walmart is still working on is “purchasing all wild-caught fresh and frozen fish for the U.S. from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified fisheries by 2011.”  Their website cites them as having 55% MSC-certified fish as of January 2010.  MSC certification is based on adherence to sustainable fishing and seafood traceability standards.  Besides Walmart, MSC-certified fish can be found at Kroger, Harris Teeter, Target, and Whole Foods Market to name a few.  The complete list along with specific products can be found here or while grocery shopping you can look for the blue oval on seafood products, as shown below.

One great tool to use while dining out or grocery shopping is the FishPhone.  iPhone users can download a FishPhone app for free.  This app not only provides information about the sustainability of the fish in question, but also provides sustainable alternatives based on taste and suggests recipes and complementary wines.  For those without an iPhone, you can text FISH and the name of the fish to 30644 to get information about the environmental sustainability of the fish you want and good alternatives if it is a fish associated with environmental problems.


April 4th, 2011

On Thursday, I went to the Eco-Palooza, which was part of the Eco Club’s Green Week.  The Green Boys, a local band, provided music for the event.  According to their online bio, The Green Boys, sing only what they know and have a sound similar to that of the music of the Appalachian Mountains many years ago.

Besides music there was a clothing swap, a recycling box decorating station, and letter writing to Congressman Wittman and Senator Webb questioning their support of mountaintop removal coal mining.  According to the template letters provided, Wittman supported three amendments to the budget bill H.R 1 that took protections away from Appalachian mountains, streams and communities and made it difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency.  Appalachian Voices, an environmental non-profit organization, says “These were revenue-neutral amendments, meaning they weren’t aimed at reducing the federal budget deficit, but were designed solely to prevent the EPA and other government agencies from updating and enforcing clean air and clean water laws.”  Besides the environmental effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, there are many health risks.  Mountaintop removal mining also employs fewer people than traditional mining.  Last fall Senator Webb spoke about jobs at a rally supporting this type of mining.  However, according this template letter asking for his support of the Appalachia Restoration Act, “Coal mining jobs in Virginia have declined by 65% in the last 25 years in large part because mountaintop removal has replaced miners with machines.  Mountaintop removal also greatly diminishes prospects for future economic diversification by irreparably destroying mountains, burying headwater streams and negatively impacting human health.”  The benefits of mountaintop removal mining are greatly outweighed by the costs.  It’s time to step up and take a stand — let your local representative know your views on the issue.


Plants to Plastic?

March 16th, 2011

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This week, PepsiCo announced the development of a 100% plant-based PET plastic bottle, of which they will produce several hundred thousand in 2012.  Provided success in their test drive they will eventually use only this technology for their bottles, completely replacing the petroleum-based PET plastic that is currently used.  The bottle is made from bio-materials such as switch grass, pine bark, and corn husks.  A University of Pittsburgh study argues, however, that plant-based plastics are not necessarily more environmentally friendly than petroleum-based ones.  According to the study, plant-based plastics are more biodegradable, less toxic, and make better use of renewable resources than other plastics, but the extremely energy intensive nature of agriculture and the environmental costs from using chemicals to grow the plants, make it questionable as to whether it is actually a good alternative.  In the future, PepsiCo plans to use byproducts from their other brands such as orange rinds (Tropicana) and potato peels (Frito Lay) to make these bottles, which takes away the argument that the bottles are not more environmentally friendly.  Provided this new technology proves to be feasible, the environmental effects will be huge.  For perspective, Coca-Cola has currently produced 2.5 million bottles made of 30% plant materials, which is said to be the equivalent of saving 3 million gallons of gasoline.

With rising prices of oil, bio-plastics alternatives are moving towards becoming the cheaper plastic.  Cereplast, a company that makes such plastics, says that once oil reaches $95 a barrel, their plastics are cheaper to make than regular plastics.  According to, oil prices are slightly higher than this already ranging from $97-110 per barrel.  As for the environmental effects, Frederic Scheer, Cereplast’s owner says, “Each time you create one kilo of traditional polypropylene, you create 3.15 kilos of carbon dioxide. When we create one kilo of bio-propylene, we create 1.40 kilos of carbon dioxide, so clearly you have a substantial saving with respect to greenhouse gases, creating a much better carbon footprint for the product.”  A transition from petroleum-based plastic to plant-based may not be as far-fetched as it seems.


The Buzz on Bees

March 10th, 2011

In class this week we discussed conventional and sustainable agriculture, and the challenges that prevent sustainable agriculture from becoming more prevalent.  One of the issues we discussed was the fact that conventional agriculture appears to be cheaper than sustainable agriculture; however, this is due to the fact that conventional agriculture doesn’t factor in all of the hidden costs into the price.  One such hidden cost was the billions of dollars a year in environmental damages, health problems, and the loss of wildlife, which reminded me of a research project I worked on last year at Central Virginia Governor’s School.  My group looked at the declining number of honeybees and how if nothing is done, it will affect the biosphere over the next 50 years.

Around the world a decline in honey bee populations has become a pressing environmental issue.  Honeybees are important as they help sustain biodiversity, pollinate approximately one-third of the global food supply, and contribute to approximately 90% of sexual reproduction of angiosperms.  According to this article, “of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.” Reasons for decline include habitat fragmentation, agriculture, grazing, and Colony Collapse Disorder.  As humans expand further into natural habitats for developments or agriculture, they reduce the number of plants that can function in pollination.  Conventional agriculture is based on the large-scale growth of one species, which displaces native plants and changes the biodiversity of a region.  Grazing destroys the bees’ natural habitats and also decreases native plant diversity as animals selectively feed on certain plants.  Colony Collapse Disorder has been observed in 35 US states so far and is characterized by the sudden death of adult worker bees when they’re away from the hive.  Scientists are still investigating causes for CCD; however, some probable causes include decreased nutritional fitness and chemical contamination.  Nutritional fitness is determined by the number of honey bees that must share food and how healthy the plants are that are available for pollination.  The use of pesticides can lead to a high death rate in bees and herbicides can kill native flora that they rely on for food.

The effects of honeybee decline are costly and far reaching. Currently, commercial pollination by honeybees is a $15-20 billion industry.  As there are less pollinators available to pollinate flowers, fewer get pollinated and as a result there is decreased seed and fruit production, which leads to increased costs of production and greater demand causing market prices to skyrocket.   As part of our project, we did a  mathematical analysis taking into account birth and death rates for a healthy bee population with a starting number of 1.5 million and discovered that in 50 years the number would grow to 2.7 million; however, when using the numbers for the sick bee population, the population drops to 273,000.  Using these numbers, we were able to model the effects on crop production over 50 years, which we found to be a 44% decrease in apples, broccoli, carrots, and onions; a 32% decrease in alfalfa/hay/seed and a 3% of soybeans.

Unfortunately, with conventional agriculture, the human response to a decline in crop yield may be simply to convert more land into farmland to make up for the decrease in crop profits.  This would only make the problem worse as habitat fragmentation and mono-culture increase.  The effects of a decline in bee population are huge and it is only one of many problems conventional agriculture contributes to.  Therefore, it is important to implement sustainable agriculture practices, such as crop diversity and the efficient use of inputs, such as pesticides.


Stay Cool

February 24th, 2011

Since I was in first grade my parents and I have visited many national parks throughout the United States.  Visiting parks like Glacier, Kenai Fjords, Denali, Mount Rainier and the Rocky Mountains has shown me how important it is to protect our national parks.  Flying into Alaska two summers ago was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life.  I had seen glaciers before, but never on this scale.  Out of the plane window I could see glaciers that stretched on for miles and tall mountains almost completely engulfed by snow; however, even these glaciers were nothing like the glaciers of the past.

Alaska, 2009

Several days later, in Kenai Fjords I had the opportunity to get very close to the glaciers.  Hiking beside Exit Glacier, we could make out a group of people on an expedition across the glacier.  They appeared no larger than ants in comparison to the landscape as they navigated around crevasses over ten stories deep.  From the top of the mountain, all I could see was immense amounts of ice and snow that seemed to go on forever.  Later on a boat trip in the Prince William Sound, I got within a hundred yards of a tidewater glacier that periodically calved into the sound.  Being surrounded by glaciers that have been around for thousands of years and hearing them constantly groan and crack as they move and break off was a very powerful experience.

Kenai Fjords, 2009

Because of increasing temperatures, glaciers that once covered the landscapes in these national parks have now retreated drastically, many disappearing forever.  This Time Lapse video shows drastic changes of a glacier in Alaska over a three year span.   The glaciers in Glacier National Park in Montana are expected to disappear completely by the year 2020.  Why does this matter?  Melting glaciers contribute to rising sea levels and climate change, as glaciers play an important role in regulating temperatures on Earth.  Unlike dark rock which absorb heat, the white glaciers reflect the sun’s rays.  As the glaciers melt, there will be more absorption and less reflection of rays, which will lead to an increase in world temperature.  So, let’s stay cool and work to reduce our community’s greenhouse gas emissions.


February 17th, 2011

It came as no surprise when I read that China’s environmental problems are some of the worst in the world for any major country; however, I was slightly surprised to learn how far reaching the effects of some of these problems could be.  Air pollution is one of China’s greatest problems, largely stemming from their reliance on coal as an energy source and their rapidly increasing number of motor vehicles.  In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond writes that China’s pollutant levels are currently several times higher than they should be to be considered safe to live under.  In fact, China is home to 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world.

In addition to pollution, China’s air quality is diminished by its increasing frequency of dust storms.  Plan B 3.0 describes China’s ongoing battle with desertification and the resulting dust storms.  These dust storms not only affect areas in China, but have also been known to affect the United States and South Korea.  For instance, in April 2001 a major dust storm from China crossed the Pacific leaving the western United States covered in dust.  Currently there is an average of 10 major dust storms a year; however, as deserts continue to expand across the country this number will continue to increase.  These dust storms not only interrupt everyday activities, but also pose serious health risks to those breathing the contaminated air.

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Will it get better?  Perhaps, but according to the CBS news clip above, “China is using America’s inaction on the environment as an excuse to not change their ways.”  As Kenneth Lieberthal of the University of Michigan said, “[The Chinese] say as long as the US doesn’t move forward, how can you expect a poor country like China to move forward?”  If China’s pollution levels don’t improve; however, it can be assured that other countries will also suffer.

Don’t Have a Cow

February 3rd, 2011

While brainstorming about what to focus on in my blog this week, I came across the Meatless Monday campaign, which I thought fit in perfectly with our discussion on deforestation.  I had always assumed that logging was the primary cause of deforestation and was surprised that on average throughout the world, cattle ranching is a bigger cause than logging and large-scale agriculture and ranked second to small-holder agriculture.  In the world, cattle ranching is the cause of 20-25% of deforestation.  In Brazil, the country with the highest rate of deforestation in the world, cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation- contributing to 80% of all loss.  Cattle ranching has other environmental effects besides deforestation, such as an estimated contribution of 20% of manufactured greenhouse gas emissions.  It also uses up large amounts of water and fossil fuels.  The Meatless Monday campaign encourages people to help reduce the effects of cattle ranching on the environment and improve their physical wellbeing at the same time by avoiding meat on Mondays.  Several chain restaurants, such as Moe’s Southwest Grill, are participating in the campaign.  Closer to home for us as UMW students is Sodexo’s recent pledge to offer Meatless Monday option, which according to their recent news release will officially begin in the colleges they serve during the Fall 2011 semester.  After looking at the vast effects of deforestation including floods and mudslides, habitat fragmentation, and water pollution to name a few, I decided that giving up meat for one day is definitely worth it when it not only helps the environment, but also improves my health.  You too, can take the pledge here.


Save the trees!

January 27th, 2011

So far in Global Environmental Problems, we have read about the collapse of the civilizations of Easter Island, the Polynesian Isles (Mangareva, Pitcairn, and Henderson), the Anasazi and their neighbors, and the Mayas in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  I found it interesting to read about the many contributing factors that led to the collapse of each society, especially the Anasazi and their neighbors as I visited Mesa Verde in 2003 so it was easy for me to picture the problems they faced in areas such as agriculture and water management.  There were many similarities in the factors leading to collapse of these societies, one in particular – deforestation – stood out to me.

Mesa Verde, 2003

Deforestation was a factor in the collapse of all of these societies, leaving some of them completely without trees, and continues to be a problem today.  Clive Ponting points out many startling statistics in his book, A New Green History of the World. For instance, 10,000 years ago 45% of the Earth’s surface was covered with forests; however, only 30% is covered today.   In the last 50 years, tropical forests have decreased from a total of 2.8 billion hectares to 1.5 billion hectares.  Perhaps most surprising is the fact that in the early 2000s, tropical forest destruction was said to be at a rate 86,000 hectares per day and 31 million hectares per year.  Before reading this, I had heard the word hectare, but wasn’t really sure how big one was.  Ponting really put things into perspective with his comparison of 86,000 hectares to an area larger than New York City and 31 million hectares to an area larger than Poland, although it’s still hard to imagine losing that many trees in one day.

Last summer, I had a chance to visit Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park in California.  I not only got a chance to see the giant ancient trees, but also many stumps of trees that had been cut down before the area was protected.  While the size of the stumps was impressive, I enjoyed seeing living trees a lot more.  With deforestation rates as they currently are if something is not done, the Earth will eventually end up like Easter Island and the others.  Like myself in California, I am sure that future generations would definitely appreciate being left actual forests instead of a forest of stumps.

Sequoia & Kings Canyon, 2010

So you may be asking, “What can one person do?”  There are many ways we can help reduce the effects of and stop deforestation, including the three listed below to help get us get started.

  1. Recycle
    • Did you know approximately 1 billion trees worth of paper are thrown away every year in the US?  And that if all of our newspaper was recycled we could save 250,000,000 trees each year?  You can read more interesting recycling facts here.
  2. Look for Forest Stewardship Council certification on wood and other forest products.
    • The FSC is an independent organization that promotes responsible management of the world’s forests.
  3. Buy recycled paper products such as tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, and napkins.
    • The Natural Resources Defense Council has rated many different brands of these products based on factors such as percent of recycled content or use of FSC approved virgin fiber.  According to their website, “If every household in the United States replaced just one package of virgin fiber napkins (250 count) with 100% recycled ones, we could save 1 million trees.”  Many popular brands such as Kleenex, Puffs, Charmin, Cottonelle, Bounty, and Viva are on their list to avoid with 0% recycled content.  You can find the full list here.

-Kelly Brown