Invisible Travellers: Aquatic Invasive Species Threaten Many Waterways

They never even noticed it. When the boat was put into a new water body, the tiny strand of Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) that had attached to the bottom went with it. Whether it is a small motor boat, a ship, or a plane, this is the manner in which plants and animals have been getting moved for decades. While invasive species are a threat at any time of year, with many boats on lakes now, this is the time that is particularly ripe for aquatic invasives. These species, which include plants, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and insects, can be introduced on purpose or accidentally. However, in new environments, they have no natural predators and thus populations can frequently explode in a very short time period often wreaking havoc on native wildlife.

Both the National Wildlife Federation and the EPA cite invasive species as the second biggest threat to biodiversity after habitat loss. Kimberly Jensen, Environmental Scientist with the VT Department of Environmental Conservation, said invasives can outcompete native wildlife for both space and food. She said boats were the most common way for aquatic plants and animals to be introduced to new places.

Jensen said that species of particular concern are the Eurasian watermilfoil, referenced above, hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata), and zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha). The Eurasian watermilfoil is native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. It is a submersed perennial plant with featherlike leaves and stems that branch when they approach the suface. It can tolerate brackish water and low temperatures. It is agressive, can replace native plants, and forms canopies that block sunlight. Zebra mussels are native to the Black and Caspian Seas. They are extremely small mussels usually not exceeding five cetimeters in length. They attach to any hard surface and can clog pipes. Hydrilla is a submerged aquatic plant, which can grow to 23 feet. It can clog power plant valves and also impacts biodiversity. Jensen stated that it appears zebra mussels have been successfully removed from Lake Dunmore in western Vermont. However, once a species is introduced, it is generally very difficult to get rid of, and Jensen said the best control is prevention in the first place. If an invasive species is confirmed, though, she said there would first be efforts for eradication and then containment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife ( also stated that eradication would be the first goal and if that was not longer possible, preventing the spread would be the next option.

Boats are the most common way for species to get moved and Jensen said it is important to thoroughly clean and dry boats in between uses. The Vermont Invasives ( recommends draining all water from boats and equipment and drying boats for at least five days before putting them in a different water body. In addition, Jensen recommended the VT Invasive Patrollers who assist in identifying and removing invasive species and stated there was more information about them on the VT Invasives website. It is true that invasives can cause a huge number of problems. However, taking some precautions as well as being on the lookout for exotics can go a long way to preventing their spread and in some cases, successfully eradicating them altogether.


Plants For All Seasons: Yards Can Be Transformed Into Habitat

          The bee flew over a row of houses looking for nectar.    There was a house there with a green lawn, but no flowers.   The next one was the same.   And the next one.  And the one after that.  But there!  In that yard, there was a strawberry patch, phlox, and the blue flowers of the native sage. The bee landed on one of the sage flowers and happily drank the nectar.

This is the situation for a lot of wildlife.   As forests and fields are turned into houses and businesses, many birds, insects, and mammals are losing both year round habitat and migratory stopovers.   However, both homeowners and community gardens can fill in this gap by planting native plants which can provide, food, shelter, and nesting places for both migratory and year round wildlife.  Even potted plants on the balcony of an apartment building or flowers in a community plot can provide food and a welcome respite.   Last year’s article generally focused on summer blooming plants, which while still important, is a limited time frame. This article will focus on plants that bloom at different times, which provides cover and food sources throughout the year. In addition, eliminating pesticides and fertilizers is also an important step.   


Strawberries: (Fragaria virginiana) Strawberries are a low growing plant which produce small white flowers from April through May and fruit in May and are a bird favorite. However, they do spread and require some space.

Creeping Phlox: (Phlox stolinifera) This plant flowers from April to June and is native to Quebec, Ontario, and all of the eastern U. S. going as far west as Texas and Nebraska. It is good for all smaller butterflies.

Lyre-leaved sage: (Salvia lyrata) This plant produces lavender to blue flowers from April to June and is native to Connecticut, the southern U. S., and the Midwest. It is a good plant for bees.

Bee balm: (Monarda didyma) Bee balm produces beautiful red flowers in July and, as its name implies, is a favorite of bees. Its leaves can also be used in tea.

Butterfly Weed: (Asclepias tuberosa) Butterfly weed produces orange flowers from June to September and, as its name implies, is a favorite for a number of butterfly species.

Milkweed: This includes a number of species in many parts of the country including the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), in the East, both of which bloom June to August. Western species include the California milkweed (Asclepias californica) and the the showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Milkweed are the only plant on which Monarch butterflies lay their eggs and so they are a vital plant for this species.

Elderberry: (Sanbucas canadensis) This is a shrub which grows 3 to 12 feet, so it does require some space. It produces white flowers early in summer and then dark blue berries later, which are an important food sources for birds. The berries can also be made into jelly and wine.

Spotted Joe Pye Weed: (Eupatorium maculatum) It produces small clusters of pink flowers from July to September, is native from Alberta to North Carolina, and goes as far west as Kansas and North Dakota. It is good for gulf fritilliaries and several species of swallowtail butterflies. However, this plant can grow to six feet tall, so it does need some space.

Jewel weed: (Impatiens capensis) It produces reddish orange flowers from July to October and is native to Canada and the eastern U. S. It is especially adapted to hummingbirds, but is also good for bees and butterflies. In addition, the sap is also an antidote for poison ivy and nettles.

Asters: This includes the New England Aster ( Aster novaeangliae) and the New York Aster (Aster novi-belgii). The New England aster flowers somewhat earlier, but both bloom through October and are native to Canada and throughout the eastern U. S.

Purple Coneflower: (Echinacea Purpurea) Coneflowers bloom from June to October and are native from eastern Canada to Florida and west to Kansas and Wisconsin. They are the plant from which echinacea tea is derived.

American Holly: (Ilex opaca) This is a shrub and so does require some space and produces its signature red berries in December, which are good for a number of bird species.

Scarlet Sumac: (Rhus glabra) This tree is native throughout North America and has brillant autumn color as well as fruit that lasts through the winter, making it one of the few food choices for birds in the later winter months.

Winter berry: (Ilex verticillata) This shrub grows 3-10 feet and is native to Canada and the eastern U. S. as far west as Texas and Minnesota. It produces bright red fruit in late fall and early winter and is popular with many bird species.

With development, habitat fragmentation, and pesticide use, many bees, butterflies, and birds are in decline, and in some cases, serious decline. Providing cover and food sources throughout the year is an an important way to help local wildlife. The National Wildlife Federation’s native plant finder ( is a good resource for finding plants for specific regions. In addition, from the first bee buzzing in the spring to a cardinal in the winter, yards can be transformed into amazing places for plants, wildlife, and people. Happy Spring!

Celebrating Our Blue and Green Dot: Earth Day Turns 50

There was oil in the ocean and dead wildlife on the beaches. On January 28th, 1969, there was an oil well blowout off of Santa Barbara, which cracked the sea floor in five places, spilled an estimated 3 million gallons, and stretched along 35 miles of the California coast. It was the largest oil spill until the Exxon Valdez of 1989. Across the country, as well as the world, smog was a major problem in many cities. The Great Smog of London, from December 5-9, 1952 killed 12,000 people, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The Hudson River was heavily polluted with toxic chemicals and fish had disappeared for many miles of it, leading folk singer Pete Seeger to found the Hudson Clearwater Project as a means of both cleanup and education. The issues had been building for decades, but the oil spill proved to be the tipping point. It spurred Wisconson Senator Gaylord Nelson along with environmentalist Denis Hayes to create the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970. An estimated 20 million people from New York to San Francisco came out to celebrate and a portion of Fifth Avenue had to be closed. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

In the half century that has since passed, several important changes have taken place. 1970 also saw the birth of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act came in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. What started out nationally soon grew to an international movement and in 1990, Earth Day was celebrated in more 140 countries. On Earth Day 2016, 174 nations and the European Union signed the Paris Agreement, which was an international effort to reduce greenhouse emissions.

The creation of Earth Day had a profound effect on environmental policy and spearheaded much important legislation. Nevertheless, there is much more to do and many of the laws that came with Earth Day and the EPA are now under threat. This Earth Day, there will not be events drawing millions of people. However, what is important to remember is that Earth Day brought about both needed legislaton as well as a change in awareness of our impact on the planet. To date, we have found no other planet capable of supporting life which serves as a reminder that our blue and green dot in the universe is truly unique.

The Great Manipulator: Understanding Viruses is Key

They are less than a cell, yet they are one of the greatest manipulators of the world and are responsible for some of the worst diseases. They are viruses. This is somewhat different from the topics that this blog normally covers. However, a greater understanding of the world leads to a greater ability to meet the challenges that face us. Thus, this article will look at what viruses are, how they differ from bacteria, and how they work.

It is true that both viruses and some bacteria are pathogenic, however, there are some significant differences between them. They have a different chemical structure and what kills bacteria does not necessarily kill viruses. Viruses are strictly parasitic and are unable reproduce or carry out metabolic functions without a host cell. They are comprised of a submicroscopic particle of a nucleic acid genome (all genetic material surrounded by a protein coat called a capsid). The infective extra cellular form is called the virion and it contains at least one protein synthesized by genes in the nucleid acid of that virus. Some viruses also contain a lipoprotein membrane called an envelope. Viruses contain either DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) or RNA (ribonucleic acid), but not both. DNA and RNA both contain genetic material with one chemical difference. (RNA has uracil instead of thymine). Bacteria, by contrast, are unicelluar organisms which contain both DNA and RNA. They reproduce through cell division and are not dependent on a host cell for biological functions. While bacteria can also be pathogens, there are also a number that perform important ecological functions, such as nitrogen fixing, which allows plants to absorb nitrogen from the soil. Without these bacteria, soil be fertile and organic matter would decay much more slowly. Viruses, however, are solely pathogenic. When a virion comes into contact with a host cell it attaches, penetrates the plasma membrane, and introduces its own DNA or RNA. Through chemical messages, the host cell is then “tricked” into sythesizing the virus’s genetic material which is then used in making new viruses. Eventually, the virus kills the host cell and goes on to infect other cells. Most viruses can produce between 100-1,000 new viruses in less than one hour. Hence, then can mutate very quicky and this one reason they can be so difficult to treat. COVID 19 belongs to the coronaviridae family of viruses, which is one of several. The corona virus has a club shaped glycoprotein spike in its envelope, which gives it a crown-like appearance (hence corona). Its genome consistes of a single strand of positive sense RNA. Positive sense RNA means that it acts as a synthesis for the translation of viral proteins.

There is some debate as to the origin of viruses and they were originally considered to be primordial life forms. However, this is not likely correct, since they need a host cell to metabolize and reproduce. According to Robert M. Wagner and Robert M. Krug, Encyclopedia Britannica April 2020, it is “likely” that viruses trace their origins to rogue pieces of nucleic acid. It is also “possible” that viruses came from plasmids, which are circular DNA molecules, without chromosomes. They could be transferred from cell to cell, acquired coded proteins to coat the plasmid DNA, and evetually have been converted into viruses.

According to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the word virus dates form 1392 and comes from the Latin virus meaning poison, sap of a plant, or slimy liquid. Related words are the Old Irish fi, the Greek wisos, and Sanskrit visa, all of which also mean poison. Its use as a disease causing agent was first recorded in 1728, the Chamber Cyclopedia. The word bacteria was first used between 1847 and 1840. It is from New Latin bacteria, French bacterie (1842), and Greek bakterion, meaning small staff or rod. Words are powerful and an understanding of the word can lend a greater understanding of what it names. When I looked these up, I thought it was interesting that bacteria, which can have good uses, is essentially named for its shape without any positive or negative connotations, while viruses which are solely pathogenic have a name rooted in disease.

As was stated earlier, due to their high reproduction and susequently high mutation rate viruses can be very difficult to treat. In addition, antivirals must kill the virus without killing the host cell. According to Wagner and Krug, effective antivirals must do one of the five following: prevent the virus from attaching to the host cell, uncoat the virus, prevent the sythesis of new viral components, prevent assembly of viral components, or release the virus from the host cell.

Viruses have the distinction of having a simpler chemical makeup than a living cell, yet they have achieved great evolutionary success. There is no doubt that the current climate is a difficult one. As of this writing, cases and deaths are continuing to increase, hospitals are overstretched, and tens of thousands of people are out of work as a result of the economic shutdown. If anything, this virus may convince us that we’re not as invincible as we’d like to think. However, with a greater understanding of what viruses are and how they are transmitted, we may be able to put long term preventative measures in place.

Foam Glass Creates Recycling Potential

There’s a bin of glass bottles on the curbside. But what if there was no use for them after they went in the recycling bin? Would they end up in the landfill after all? According to Rick Smith, the technical sales manager for Aero Aggregates, in Eddystone, PA approxiamtely 30% of glass has been recycled and 70% has gone to a landfill. However, a new use for recycled glass, known as foam glass, may provide both a use and market for recycled glass which can keep it out of the landfill. It is lightweight, easy to move, and highly inusulating, and can be used as a fill for building foundations.

Smith said foam glass is made of recycled material as opposed to synthetic foam or polystyrene, which are made from oil and plastic. Smith also said foam glass is more fire resistant than other insulation materials. While gravel, which is a common fill is a renewable resource, Smith said foam glass is lighter, easier to move and puts less pressure on the soil. Torsten Dworshak, who does marketing and sales for Glavel based in St. Albans, VT, which hopes to be in prodution in six months, said that foam glass has compressive strength and thermal insulation properties. In addition to fill, Smith said it can also be used for filtration, hydroponics, and agricultural uses. He said it can release water back into the soil as it dries out. Dworshak said another use for foam glass is also green roof applications and noted that it doesn’t put too much stress on buildings.

To make the product, the glass is ground up and mixed with a foaming agent, such as silicon carbide or a limetone based agent. It is is then spread on a layer of fiberglass and baked. While the material bakes the foaming agent creates air bubbles, which gives it a highly insulating value. Smith said the limestone based agent causes the air bubbles to be connected, while the the silicon carbide causes air bubbles to be separate. As a result, the material doesn’t absorb water which was better for construction materials, which was why his company uses silicon carbide. Dworshak said his company was considering using either calcium carbonate or glycerin as the foaming agent.

Smith said foam glass was first made in Germany in the 1980’s and has been in widespread use in Scandanavia for approximately three decades. To date, it has not been in common use in the U.S., but he hopes that will change in the coming years.

Smith said one of the difficulties with recycling glass is that it is heavy and hard to ship. As pressure on resources increases, finding creative and innovative ways to use recyclable items becomes more and more imperative. Foam glass has the potential to provide a use for recycled glass and offer an alternative to synthetic materials.

Wildlife in Winter: Animals Find Many Ways to Adapt

The temperature drops, the water freezes, and the snow slowly drifts down. You and I bundle up and curl up with a nice mug of hot cocoa. But what do animals do when the mercury drops way below freezing? Many animals have developed some amazing adaptaions to deal with some nature’s most extreme conditions. This includes changing colors, growing extra fur and feathers, becoming dormant, and even taking advantage of the snow pack for warmth and shelter.

There are a number of animals that change from gray or brown to white in winter. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, color changes are thought to be linked to the amount of daylight, as temperature and location does not seem to affect it. In the case of the Arctic hare, mountain hare, and snowshoe hare, there are receptors in the retina that transmit information to the hare’s brain that stimulate the color change. There are also three species of weasel- the least weasel (Mustela nivalis), the longtailed weasel (M. frenata), and the shorttailed weasel (M. erminea) that change and this takes place regardless of temperature or location. In addition, Siberian hamster, the only domesticated animal to do so also changes regardless other environmental conditions. While changing coats has obvious camouflage advantages, there is also a theory that a pale coat may have better insulating properties as melanin, the substance responsible for a colored coat is absent, thus leaving more room for air spaces in the hair shaft. In ptamigans, there are air bubbles in the winter feathers, which also may help with insulation and also makes them appear brighter.

Another adaptation is dormancy in its various forms. In reptiles, this is referred to as brumation and this is induced by low temperatures. Brumating reptiles may move to drink water, but they can go months without food. The type of winter dormancy that some mammals and birds do is called hibernation. However, this is not merely a matter of going into a den and going to sleep, but requires complex changes beforehand. Hibernating animals readjust body temperature, metablolism, and heart rate. There is also an increase in magnesium in the blood and reduction in endocrine glands. While bears may be the best know hibernators, their body temperature only drops from approximatley 100 degrees to 93 degrees. They also give birth in the winter and for these reasons they are considered shallow hibernators. They are able to conserve energy, but their bodies do not undergo the level of physiological changes as some other animals, such as ground squirrels and bats.

While snow may seem like the opposite of warmth, it is actually able to serve as a good insulator and several animals make use of this. Snow actually traps heat close to the ground so this layer or subnivean zone may be only slightly below freezing, while the air temperature could be much colder. Voles tunnel through the snow as a way to both stay warm and avoid predators. In addition, grouse, ptarmigan, porcupines, wolverines, and bears also make dens in the snow.

Snow blankets the ground, ice crystals coat the trees, and a cold wind blows through the forest. While winter is a challenge for all wildlife, a large number have found ways to stay warm and even turn environmental conditions to their advantage. It is the ability to meet these challenges that can serve as a reminder of the amazing world we live in.

Living With Wildfires: How Do We Respond?

The last article looked at the ecological role of fires and the history of fire suppression. While fire is important to a number of ecosystems, in recent years, there have been a number of especially severe wildfires, which have claimed both lives and property. The 2018 fire season was California’s deadliest on record. So, are wildfires getting worse or are we not looking at the larger picture? A changing climate, fire suppression, and invasive species all affect fire length and severity. This article will look at what factors affect wildfire behavior and how we should respond to them.

Faith Ann Heinsch, Greg Dillon, and Chuck McHugh, of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, stated in an email that the majority of fires are human caused. W. J. Bond and R. F Keane “Ecological Effects of Fire” (2017), also state that most fires are ignited by people. In spite of some of the fires that have recently made headlines, looking at wildfires through the historical lens can help to put them in perspective. Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh said that fires were not necessarily more “severe,” even though more area has burned compared to the mid twentieth century, but that the proportion of high intensity fires has remained fairly constant. They also stated that the frame of reference for most Americans is the mid to late twentieth century, which was an especially cooler and wetter epoch. This was largely what caused fire suppression to be successful and in this time period and much less burned than would have had nature been allowed to take its course. Bond and Keane also stated that fires declined after 1870 and areas burnt recently may actually be at the lowest level for the past few millenia. However, the lack of fire in earlier times is one factor which may have affected some more recent ones. Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh stated that fire suppression leads to fuel buildup. In addition, Bond and Keane also noted that fire suppression allows young trees to become estabished and this can serve as a “fire ladder.” In these instances, “surface fires” which might might otherwise have just burned the underbrush can become “crown fires” and jump to the canopies of mature trees.

While a changing climate is not the only factor to affect wildfire severity, hotter and drier temperatures can cause them to burn longer and spread more quickly. Acccording to W. Matt Jolly, Mark A. Cochrane, Patrick H. Freeborn, Zachary A. Holden, Timothy J. Brown, Grant J. Williams, and David M. J. S. Brown, “Climate-Induced Variations in Global Wildfire Danger 1979- 2013” (July 2015) climate “strongly influences global wildfire activity.” They also said that the factors of dry weather, available fuel, and ignition sources are what causes fires to start and spread. In addition, temperature, relative humidity, and wind speeds also influence wildfire activity. Hot, dry, and windy conditions are what lead to the most severe fires. According to their paper, global temperatures have increased by 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade over the last three decades “possibly” leading to more intense rainfalls and more severe drought. They also stated that climactic changes have been “implicated in global fire variation” and it is “expected” that there will be increases in fire season severity in the coming decades. Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh stated that there are “indications” that fire seasons are getting longer as a result of climate change. Bond and Keane said that global warming is “predicted” to cause a doubling of burned area and 50% increase in fire occurence by the end of the century in the circumboreal region.

Invasive species can also affect fire length and severity if such species are more fire tolerant than the ones they are replacing. According to Bond and Keane, in Hawaii the invasion, tall nonnative grasses has fueled frequent fires and largely changed forests into grasslands. Likewise, in the western U. S. invasive cheatgrass has also increased fire frequency and severity in the native sagebrush habitat.

The next question then is what should our response be to wildfires and what may be more severe fire seasons in the coming years. Fire is part of a number of ecosystems and there are many species which are not only fire adapted, but even depend on fire. Returning fire to the ecosystems that need it is a way of reducing fuel load and the severity of fires. Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh state that wildfires are a “key component” of keeping forests healthy, but it is possible to reduce the risk through prescribed burns and treating the area around homes. As with so many other aspects of the world, fire is multifaceted. While fire has its destructive power, it also has its power to maintain ecological balance. Understanding fire’s ecological role as well as what affects its behavior is crucial to accepting it as part of the ecosystem and reducing risk.

Acknowledgement: Faith Ann Heinsch, Greg Dillon, and Chuck McHugh of the U. S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station not only responded to my email inquiry, but also compiled a number of other research materials for both these articles.

Smoke Rises: Fire Plays an Important Role in Many Ecosystems

Smoke rises from the trees and this is a scene which usually triggers fear and dire news reports. However, while it is true that fire can cause serious destruction, there are many places in which they are a necessary part of the ecosystem. This will be the first of two articles to look at wildfires, their role in the ecosystem, the factors that affect their severity, and what our response should be. This one will focus on the ecological role of wildfires as well as the effect of fire suppression. The second one will look at the factors that affect wildfires and how we should respond to them.

There are several ecosystems where fire plays a vital role. In these areas, plants have developed not only adaptations to survive fire, but in many cases, are also dependent on it. According to Faith Ann Heinsch, Greg Dillon, and Chuck McHugh, of the U. S. Forest Sevice’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, who responded in an email, all ecosystems are adapted to fire in some way. Some ecosystems require fire to function. In the western U. S. many vegetation types evolved with fire whether from natural or human causes, though they require different types and frequencies of fire. The open, dry ponderosa pine forestes of the western U. S. require frequent, low intensity fires that burn approximately every 10-15 years to keep the area open. Lodgepole pine forests, also of the western U. S., require less frequent high intensity fires. In many places, they are adapted to stand-replacing fires that occur every 100 years or so. The longleaf pine forests of the southeast are also adapted to fire as it clears out competing vegetation. In these ecosystems, plants have developed a number of specific adaptations. W. J. Bond of the University of Capetown and R. F. Keane of the Rocky Mountain Institute in “Ecological Effects of Fire” (2017) cite thick bark, open crowns, deep roots, and sprouting from insulated buds. In addition, several species of conifer have what is called serotinous cones, meaning they only open in intense heat. Bond and Keane also say that grasses are among the most fire resistant species and can survive frequent fires, though few species are dependent on burning.

There are a number of ecological benefits to fire. In addition to opening serotinous cones, Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh say it can improve forest health and create better wildlife habitat. It also helps to return nutrients to the soil. Bond and Keane state that fire-stimulated flowering is common among grasses and herbs. In addition, they also say that dormant seeds in soil show heat stimulated germination. In grasslands, fire helps avoid encroaching trees and shrubs. Elk, deer, and bears eat vegetation in areas opened by fire. According to Richard L. Hutto, Robert E. Keane, Rosemary L. Sherriff, Christopher T. Rota, Lisa A. Eby, and Victoria A. Saab, “Toward a More Ecologically Informed View of Severe Forest Fires” (2015), black-backed woodpeckers (Picoides arcticus) eat the larvae of wood boring beetles that are attracted to trees killed by fire. While they are known to occur outside severely burned forests, studies show growing populations only in recently burned forests.

In spite of fire’s role in the ecosystem, the main policy of the Forest Service for several decades has been fire suppression. However, in ecosysems that are adapted to fire, this has had a negative effect on flora and fauna. It is only relatively recently that the true role of fire had been studied seriously. Heinsch, Dillon, and McHugh stated that fire suppresssion began with European settlement and started in earnest during the early to mid 1800’s. They also said that a major fire in 1910 set the stage for full fire suppression. According to Diane M. Smith, “Missoula Fire Lab: 50 Years Dedicated to Understanding Wildlands and Fire” (2012), in the early twentieth century most political leaders saw fire as too dangerous to be allowed to burn, though this resulted in harming the ecosysems the agencies sought to protect. Smith also refers to the 1910 fire and said estimates vary, but it burned approximately 3 million acres and killed over 80 people, most of them firefighters. Nevertheless, Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the U. S. Forest Service, and his contemporaries understood the beneficial role of fire. Fire suppression left forests more vulnerable to disease and insect infestations. In the early to mid twentieth century research began on the causes of fires and how they spread. In 1970, a study tested a new approach to fire management in the White Cap Creek Drainage in Idaho. Vegetation was sampled, evidence of fire history was collected, and the effects of fire exclusion. In 1972, a fire was allowed to burn and it put itself out after four days. In 1973, another fire was also allowed to burn and it was only put out when it moved beyond the test area.

While fire is important to a number of ecosystems, some recent wildfires have killed a number of people in addition to causing serious property damage. So, are wildfires getting worse, or is this the natural order and what should our response be? The next article will look into these questions.

Beach Closed: Blue Green Algae Threatens Lakes and Rivers

It’s a hot summer day and perfect for a swim. But the beach is closed due to an algae bloom. Sadly, this is becoming a more and more common occurrence due to an organism called blue green algae or cyanobacteria. It is a prokaryotic or simple celled organism originally considered to be algae, but then reclassified as bacteria. Nitrogen and phosphorous are often used as fertilizer on farms and lawns. However, when too much of these chemicals are used they can wash into lakes, rivers, and streams, thus causing major algal blooms. These blooms cause scum on the surface of waterways and take so much oxygen that fish suffocate. In addition, water with serious algal blooms are also not considered safe for people or pets. It has affected lakes and rivers acoss the country.

Angela Shambaugh, an aquatic biologist with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said that cyanobacteria produce a couple of different toxins which can cause skin rashes. She also said children and pets should be kept away from any areas with algal blooms. In addition, Shambaugh said that algal blooms reduce oxygen concentrations, which have resulted in fish and mussel die-offs in Lake Champlain.

According to Foul Water Season, by Laura Tangley, published in The National Wildlife Federation July 2015, there is evidence that harmful algal blooms are on the rise. The article states that the loss of forests and wetlands which help to absorb nitrogen and phosphorous contribute to the problem. Warmer water and heavier rainfall also create a more suitable enviroment for blooms as well as higher runoff that can wash nutrients into streams and rivers. Tangley recommends applying only the precise amount of fertilizer needed, planting cover crops, and restoring wetlands. Shambaugh concurred saying that blooms seemed to be lasting longer and cited one which lasted into October of last year.

The Union of Concerned Scientists also criticized the overuse of fertilizer as one of the main causes. In their article “Subsidizing Waste: How Inefficient Farm Policy Costs Taxpayers, Businesses and Farmers Billions” (2016), they state that farm subsidies often encourage an overeliance on certain crops, such as corn and soybeans. The UCS cited a study in Iowa in which researchers planted prairie strips or small areas of native plants among farm crops. The study found that planting these on just 10 % of farmland reduced nitrogen loss by 85 %, phosphorus loss by 90% and sedimentation by 95%. Lisa Nurnberger, the media director for the UCS, sent information concerning the red tide in Florida. The organism that causes red tide is not the same as the one that causes blue green algae, but it is a related issue. According to studies she cited, the red tide has been linked to both runoff from cattle farms and residential development as well as rising sea temperatures due to climate change.

While certain crops have received strong criticism, Shambaugh said any nutrient running into the water can cause problems. Agricultural runoff has received large amount of the blame. However, Shambaugh said this is largely a matter of location. In some areas, agricultural runoff produces the largest amount of runoff and in other areas, lawns and gardens produce the largest amount. She also pointed out that areas with more concrete also have higher runoff, because there is no soil to absorb the rain.

While this is a serious issue, there are steps that can be taken. The UCS recommends reducing reliance on commodity crops and making the adoption of conservation practices a requirement for receiving subsidies. Shambaugh said it wasn’ t an easy problem to solve, but she recommended the Vermont Dept. of Health website for more information. In addition, reducing or eliminating fertilizer on lawns and gardens is also an important step.

Electronic Recycling Prevents Waste in Landfills

So, what to do with that old computer or phone?   Electronics comprise a significant and growing number of houseold items.   Yet many of them contain toxic materials that can contaminate air and water when dumped in landfills.   This includes lead, cadmium, and mercury.   Cadmium is generally used to prevent corrosion and poisoning occurs from inhalation.   The dangers of lead and mecury are well documented.   Both can accumulate over time and lead can cause cognitive deficiency in children.  Recycling prevents the release of these chemicals into the enviroment as well as the recovery of valuable metals, such as gold and silver. 

    In addition to computers and phones, electronic waste also includes houseold appliances, lighting, electric tools, toys, medical devices, and monitoring equipment.   All of these contain chemicals that can be detrimental to air and water.   Recycling involves two different groups.  First there are collectors which sort items and ship them out  Second are the actual recyclers which dismantle the items to recover the parts and metals which can be reused.    

Charlotte Low, the Operations Manager for Central Vermot Solid Waste, said that one third of all Central Vermont recyclables are electronics. She said the most common toxic materials are freon from refrigerators, which depletes the ozone and lead and cadmium fom televisions, which pollute air and water.

Robin Ingenthron, the CEO of Good Point Recycling in Middlebury, VT and founder of, said they dismantle the items they receive and the sell the parts. He gave the example of TV repair shops which may need a part for merchandise under warranty but are uable to get it from the manufacturer. Ingenthron said the largest release of toxic material is through mining and he saw the mission of recycling of keeping material in the economy rather than mining new ore. There have been concerns about the overseas trade. Ingenthron responded to these concerns by saying that the international trade helps to encourage investment. He said cell towers would not be built if reusables were not being shipped. The Basel Action Network (BAN) is a watchdog group that tracks electronic devices, and according to their website, a February 2019 study found 6% of computer and computer equipment shipments “very likely” illegal. However, as of this publication, they have not responded to an interview request.

Most of us keep our food in refrigerators, use computers at work, and listen to the radio. However, all of these items contain chemicals that can be detrimental to the enviroment if dumped in landfills. Thus, finding responsible recyclers keeps these chemicals out of the enviroment, can provide parts for other equipment, and reduces mining.