These are bleak economic times for the U.S. and many other countries, but as the Los Angeles Times reports, there is at least a green lining to all the bad financial news. Hobbled real estate markets have left property developers and speculators sitting on their hands, creating "a window of opportunity for groups seeking to set aside land for preservation," the Times reports. Combined with tax breaks and other incentives that encourage rural residents to work with land trusts, conditions are ripe for a new wave of ecological conservation to sweep the country.
"There are some extraordinary deals out there, from [parcels in] the North Woods of Maine to timber companies divesting because there are no housing starts and they can't sell their lumber," Land Trust Alliance President Rand Wentworth tells the Times. Conservation groups are weaving complex, leveraged land deals to capitalize on the current opportunity, the Times reports, increasingly using state bond money, federal grants and hefty donations from private philanthropists to grease the wheels. Multiple land trusts are often teaming up to form supergroups like California's Northern Sierra Partnership, but while their primary goals are typically to protect ecosystems, many are also working to maintain public access and traditional uses of the land, such as hiking, fishing, hunting and camping. Private land is even being opened to the public in some cases, and conservation easements allow wiggle room for more intensive uses like livestock grazing and timber cutting. "Conservation easements allow people to get their equity out of the property and still keep it," explains Jason Moghaddas of the Feather River Trust in Quincy, Calif.
California is the epicenter of this land grab, both because it has so much pristine land left to protect and because its economy is especially tattered. "People feel very strongly about California," says Ellen Fred, an attorney with the Berkeley-based Conservation Partners. "It's hard not to fall deeply in love with the landscape. Developers aren't beating down the doors, so if you have the wherewithal to give, you are going to give." Still, voters across the country have proved willing to support land conservation with tax funds, adds Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Lands: "Red states and blue states vote green when it comes to preserving places they care about."
A U.S. invasion of brown marmorated stink bugs from Asia has grown worse this summer, the Washington Post reports, with the putrid pests spreading deeper through the Mid-Atlantic and threatening to run amok in the steamy Southeast. The EPA has already approved limited use of two insecticides to battle the bugs, and now government researchers are studying whether it's wise to release a species of non-stinging, parasitic wasps that naturally prey on brown marmorated stink bug eggs in Asia.
Brown marmorated stink bugs were first discovered on U.S. soil in eastern Pennsylvania in 1998, and thrived over the past decade in the absence of any natural predators. They're also migrating south, and some experts worry their population could explode if they reach the Sun Belt — potentially wreaking agricultural havoc in a region that already suffers from other invasive pests as well as periodic droughts. "If they get to Florida, it could be like the atomic bomb going off," says Douglas Luster, research leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service. The wasps that would be introduced to control the stink bugs aren't very big, the Post notes — they're about the size of the period at the end of this sentence — but they still pose a risk. The wasp itself could become invasive and start feeding on beneficial native bugs, joining brown marmorated stink bugs, Asian carp, chestnut blight and a wide range of other invaders from Asia that have become established in the U.S.
Still, research entomologist Kim Hoelmer points out that the wasps and stink bugs are part of a sustainable duo in their natural habitat, and the problem may just be that one made it to America without the other. "In Asia, [the stink bug] feeds on the same plants as here," she explains, "but it never has a population explosion because of its predators." And because the brown marmorated stink bug has a taste for fructose, its march to citrus-centric Florida has many experts arguing that any potential threat from Asian wasps is worth the risk. "The growers who have the most fear are the fruit growers," says Jerry Bruste, secretary and treasurer for the Maryland Vegetable Growers Association. "It will devastate them."
They may not be a household name, but "glymes" are used in a variety of household products, from solvents and carpet cleaners to lithium batteries and inkjet cartridges. And as Environmental Health News reports, the U.S. EPA is now cracking down on these widespread chemicals, due to a "high concern to workers, consumers and children" that they may have dangerous reproductive or developmental effects. The agency has proposed a new rule under the Toxic Substances Control Act that would let it restrict the use of 14 glymes in the U.S., EHN reports.
"They are potent reproductive and developmental toxicants, and they're also used in a lot of consumer products," says Richard Denison, a biochemist and senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. "The range of uses includes products that the ordinary customer would use and be exposed to." Glymes are part of a family of industrial chemicals known as "glycol ethers," which are widely used as solvents in manufacturing but have also found plentiful other uses over the years. Two kinds, monoglyme and diglyme, have been linked to reproductive and development damage in rodent studies, while a third — ethylglyme — has shown signs of developmental toxicity as well as gene mutation. They're particularly dangerous to industrial workers, with a study from the late 1980s and early '90s linking glyme exposure to miscarriages among women who worked in the semiconductor-manufacturing industry.
Little is known about how glymes affect public health in general, but given the evidence for potential harm — and the fact that up to 10 million pounds each of monoglyme and diglyme are imported or manufactured in the U.S. every year — EPA officials say it's not worth taking a risk. "Because glymes are used in a wide array of applications to which people may be routinely exposed, we are concerned about the effects that could result from additional uses of these chemicals, especially the reproductive and developmental impacts of monoglyme, diglyme and ethylglyme," one agency official tells EHN.
With climate change poised to worsen droughts from Australia to Texas in coming years, one French entrepreneur says he has a solution: Use tugboats to haul in icebergs from the Arctic or Antarctica, importing billions of gallons of freshwater in one fell swoop. The icebergs would be wrapped in a "skirt" of insulating material to prevent melting, tied up in a harness and then lugged thousands of miles through the oceans, finally arriving at a parched seaport to quench the thirst of drought-stricken locals.
The 86-year-old Georges Mougin first proposed this idea decades ago, but now he says technology has finally caught up. According to computer simulations, he says a single tugboat could successfully carry a 7 million-ton iceberg from Newfoundland to the Canary Islands in less than five months — and, most importantly, without much of the ice melting. About 38 percent of the iceberg melted during the 141-day simulated voyage, the International Business Times reports, but the remaining chunk would still have more than enough freshwater for consumption, and the entire journey cost a relatively modest $9.8 million. That's a marked improvement from previous simulations, and shows that the ambitious idea could actually work, Mougin argues.
More than 2 billion people worldwide currently don't have access to clean drinking water, the IBT reports, and droughts have recently devastated communities throughout the Horn of Africa, with up to 12 million people suffering from lack of freshwater. Nearly 70 percent of the world's freshwater is contained in polar ice caps, and one 30 million-ton iceberg could supply half a billion people with enough water to drink for one full year. Of course, there is one major downside to the plan: It may eventually cease to be practical, since climate change is also melting polar ice in addition to intensifying droughts.
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Photo (protected land in Tahoe National Forest): U.S. Forest Service
Photo (brown marmorated stink bugs): U.S. Department of Agriculture
Photo (solvents in lab beakers): Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
Photo (iceberg in Amundsen Sea, West Antarctica): NASA