Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bats Have Regional Accents

This month's newsletter from Bat Conservation International highlighted some really fascinating new research. Bats have accents. Two animals of the same species from different regions may have very different sounding calls.

Past research has also noted the same phenomenon in birds. Southern-living chickadees, for example, have different accents than their northern counterparts. And cows in the UK were shown to also have regionally different moos.

Bat Conservation International always puts out a great newsletter, full of this kind of interesting info.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Why Are Those Chimney Sweep Signs Up in the Parks?

Like a lot of other Montgomery County residents, I was wondering how the heck the Step In Time chimney sweep people were able to get away with posting signs all over the county parks.

I see a lot of signs like these put up illegally in the parks, but usually they are removed immediately by either county employees or anti-litter activists. The Step In Time signs, however, were placed high up, out of reach, on many different tennis courts and ball field back stops.

I just figured that they were posted so high and so well that they were harder to rip down. And with recent budget cuts I also figured the county was spreading its employees’ time thinner than ever, so maybe the county just hadn’t gotten to it yet.

Well, it turns out the budget connection goes like this: Step In Time is sponsoring portable toilets for some of the parks this year. Citizens who asked were told that the company was permitted to hang the signs in exchange for the sponsorship, much to the irritation of many park users who find them to be, in the words of one of my neighbors, “visual pollution.” Others have called into question the legality of such sign-posting, citing MNCPPC’s own rules and regulations.

I’m really curious to know what other people think about this.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Using Pet Poop to Light Parks: This is for Real

This morning I came back from walking my dog in the park and found this interesting article posted on a local environmental listserv:

Pet Poop Fueling City Park Light, Sparks Conversation

Seems Matthew Mazzotta, an enterprising student from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has designed a device which uses the methane in dog waste to power a street light. How cool.

I envision these all over Montgomery County. We could put them near lighted tennis courts and ball fields, and along streets where lots of people walk their dogs.

Dog waste is a huge pollution problem in our watershed and in many other parts of the Chesapeake Bay region. Meanwhile, our budget has forced the county to offer ad sponsorship on portable toilets. This seems like a tidy solution to both problems.

How cool. How cool.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Making Way for Impending Construction

I am not a happy gardener lately.

We are preparing here for some impending construction. A crumbling patio and a deteriorating roofline have made some repairs necessary. I always knew the day would come, but who can tell a gardener to wait for years? I made the most of our open sunshine-filled yard. I gardened with abandon.

Well, now the day has come. Actually, it probably will arrive next week in the form of a small excavator. In order to protect the trees in our yard and maintain the top soil, we’re carving out a carefully planned path for the machinery and destruction. We’ll be spreading out loads of wood chips and fencing off most of the planted areas so that clay and debris doesn’t get dumped there.

We spent long hours during August and September moving plants out of harm's way and heeling them in odd places. Like any crazed plant lover, I would like to save them all. Many of them are hard to come by in retail stores, and besides, I hate waste. My husband, a wonderful cook but terrible gardener, has better sense. He reels me in from compulsive plant insanity sometimes.

No matter what it is discouraging work. Getting your garden plants to grow in a orderly but artistic way is never easy. It takes years. Now I feel like a conductor silencing the choir. Seeming like puzzled divas, some of the plants flop over in their new locations.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Trees are the Answer, Not the Problem

It is frightening to see a large tree fall.

I was walking once at Brookside Gardens on a beautiful sunny day in the middle of the autumn two years ago when I saw one go down in the forest along the horizon. It made an awful sound, and the weight of it made the ground shake around our feet for a moment. You feel a pit in your stomach when that happens. You feel small and helpless.

A lot of people recently experienced this first hand, when massive trees fell along our streets and in the parks. Two families in my own neighborhood even lived through the horrendous experience of having massive oaks fall directly on their homes. Everyone living in both homes came out safe and sound, thank God. The clean up efforts have been slow and hard and my heart goes out to them.

Yes, it is scary to watch trees fall, and also frustrating to experience power losses. I would not deny that.

But as politicians and Pepco argue over questions of management and the public grows increasingly frustrated, I’d like to reframe with a different perspective. We’ve lost a lot of trees this year, and now more than ever we need to be planting replacements.

When I hear people begin to talk as if the trees themselves are problem, I get worried. Trees are not the problem. In fact, I think that trees are the answer. Rather than see them as the cause of our human woes, we need to understand why they are here, acknowledge their importance in our landscape, and manage to somehow live our lives safely in their presence. Because without large trees we would really be in trouble.

Trees, many people know, help reduce air pollution and cool the air. The cooling occurs not only because trees provide enormous amounts of shade, but also because a mature tree actually moves water into the atmosphere.

What a lot people sometimes overlook, however, is that a forested landscape can also reduce the impact of water pollution and slow or reduce flooding in urban areas. That’s because when stormwater is able to move across tree roots, it is readily absorbed by the tree. The roots and the other living things in the soil and leaf litter act as excellent filters. They do this naturally and are quite effective at it.

Although water moves considerably slower through a forested landscape then through a cement-covered one, we’ve done a lot of work lately to fill our watershed with a huge amount of hard surface in the form of parking lots, roads and rooftops. This, in turn, has caused an increase in pollution and flooding, even when the storms aren’t unusual in intensity.

Where once there were fields and forests, there increasingly tends to be concrete and asphalt. Where once, the water moved as if it was moving through a sponge, it now moves as if poured from a smooth pitcher.

All of this is not good for the creeks, which get scoured out by the fast moving water and begin to erode. In the metaphor above, the pitcher is not clean but covered in oily and nutrient-rich pollutants which are washed into the stormdrains and then into our creeks. The abundance of things like fertilizers and pesticides from our lawns and streets can lead to anaerobic and toxic conditions. Our waterways become less inhabitable for fish, turtles, and other wildlife. The waterways, including the Chesapeake, become unhealthy.

“Dirty water kills,” Arlene Bruhn told me recently. She’s written the county council numerous times to advocate for more trees and better tree protection laws. Trees are essential to protecting our water supply, because we drink the Potomac’s water, she added.

Bruhn also reminded me that we’d had the hottest DC summer on record, meaning that we need as many shade trees as possible to help cool the city.

It makes sense, then, to protect the buffer zones of trees around creeks and plant more trees planted throughout our watershed. Does that mean we should plant trees any old place? No. What it means is that we need to be smart about where we plant and what we plant. It also means that we need to take care of what is already there.

“When you go to a garden center and see a tree in a little pot it is like looking at a little preschooler,” Mike Galvin, Deputy Director of Casey Trees told me recently. His organization works hard to get more trees planted in the city. “You need to say, what is this tree going to look like when it is mature, just like you try to think ahead to your kid’s future and how they are going to grow and get big.”

I liked Mike’s analogy. But sadly it reminded me of a story that an older friend here in Silver Spring told me last year. She recalled a time in the early 1950s, right after the houses were built in her neighborhood, when all of the people along one street bought some trees. We walked out one Saturday and planted them together, she recalled with warmth.

I appreciated the civic pride her story demonstrated, but I cringed when she pointed to the trees they had planted. Oaks, maples and gums were all there, directly under existing power lines in what is sometimes called the Right of Ways or ROW along the curblines.

Those trees then grew to be beautiful, treasured, big and dramatic. They also grew to be big problems for power line companies, well-managed or otherwise. And those trees often struggled to grow strong roots where the sidewalks existed. Those happy neighbors had definitely not thought ahead to the day when their baby trees would be mature.

In the decades since, we’ve struggled to do a bit better, with very little success. Municipal arborists now oversee ROW planting. Some developers have undergrounded lines as technology and innovation made this safer. Some who were really progressive even built developments which allowed for central green spaces full of trees. But many did not, opting instead to squeeze as many houses as possible into each space they developed. As a result we continue to lose our existing canopy at an ever increasing rate. New trees do not see to be a real priority for the county or the state.

We need to do a better job in the future. Homeowners can start by planting wisely. If you select a tree to plant, research and understand the tree before you begin. Don’t be afraid to pick a big one, but look up before you plant and see if there are powerlines there first.

If you don’t have space for the big, mature shade trees, pick one that will naturally stay small. Don’t pick a big species and try to train it to stay small. That only leads to pain for the tree and trouble for you or the next homeowner.

You can also work to maintain existing trees, both big and small. Too often, suburban folks tend to see trees as static, architectural features. Instead we need to understand that they are living, dynamic things that change and grow and sometimes begin to decline. They need regular attention in the form of professional pruning by a certified arborist.

The storms of summer have subsided for now, but I have no doubt we will face new ones again soon. Hopefully, we’ll at least get a healthy amount of rain. All those new seedlings I hope to see out there will need it.

This piece originally appeared in the Sept edition of the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Kensington.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Keeping Rx Drugs out of the Waste Stream and Our Medicine Cabinets

By now pretty much everyone has heard about the mutant animals that keep showing up in our nation’s rivers. Intersexed fish have been found in the Potomac, for example. These malformed animals are especially alarming because the area’s human residents draw their drinking water from the same said river.

While there is strong evidence that some of the malformations may be due to chemicals which are washing out of our lawns and from farmlands in the form of excess weed killers, there is also a great deal of research showing that our own wastewater plays a role in contaminating the watershed. That's because the meds we take eventually make their way into the waste stream with the rest of the sewage.

For years, law enforcement officials have also been asking people to flush unused prescription drugs down the toilet, since excess or leftover prescriptions form a safety threat if left sitting around unused in medicine cabinets. This unfortunately meant that an even larger number of dangerous things were making their way downstream via the toilet.

Considering all of this, I was really pleased to see an announcement from the city of Rockville last week. On Saturday, September 25, the city will join the national Take-Back Initiative, which is aimed at preventing pill abuse and theft. Such events can help stop the rise in addiction to prescription medications, while at the same time help to decrease the amount of chemicals entering our waterways.

For more information about this event, go to or call 240-314-8922.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

And the Survey Says: More Trees for Montgomery County

Just in time for today's primaries, Conservation Montgomery has unveiled the results of their recent online survey about our county's environmental issues. It was the first act undertaken by the new fledgling group, formed by several of the county's most outspoken and passionate environmental activists. The survey, which was posted earlier this summer, was aimed at perhaps giving environmental topics a stronger voice in the elections.

In general it seems that the environment plays pretty strong in the MoCo elections. Still, results of this kind of survey are always fascinating, even if I know that a lot the time the answers are a bit skewed by the fact that the only people who actually take the time to fill out such things are the people who actually care about the environment in the first place.

It feels like asking the perverbial choir to sing. But that's okay. We need more that kind of music, so to speak.

The thing that really grabbed my attention in the release was the final line:

"81.8% of the respondents said they are supportive of funding for the county street tree program to be fully restored in the Montgomery County budget."

As someone who testified at the last round of the county's budget sessions, I say bravo everyone. I agree. We do need more trees. Please. Let those elected officials hear that music, too. So if you haven't already voted, go now.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Natural Capital, a blog for DC's urban dwelling nature lovers

Wow! I just stumbled upon this cool blog, which is chock full of field trip ideas for grown ups and kids. Really incredible, and just my kind of thing.

The Natural Capital