ENN Weekly: February 27th - March 3rd

ENN rounds up the most important and compelling environmental news stories of the week. In the news February 27th - March 3rd: Proposed leniency for ethanol plants, logging looms large in Papua New Guinea, Alaska's Iditarod takes a new route, and much more.

The Week's Top Ten Articles

In the news February 27th - March 3rd: Proposed leniency for ethanol plants, logging looms large in Papua New Guinea, Alaska's Iditarod takes a new route, and much more.

1. World Lawmakers Set up Global Warming Monitor Group
2. EPA Proposes Allowing Ethanol Plants to Emit More Pollution
3. In Congo, Pygmies Ill-Prepared to Fight for Their Forests
4. Warmer Temperatures Complicate Alaska's Iditarod
5. New U.S. Crop Seeks to Replace Imported Oils
6. Bird-Loving Indonesians Worried about Mass Culling
7. Rocker McCartney Takes to Ice to Save Canada Seals
8. EPA Plans Cuts in Benzene, Other Air Toxics for Cars, Fuel, Containers
9. Illegal Loggers Clearing PNG's Forests, Report Says
10. Ocean Scientists Enlist Cruise Ships to Collect Data

Guest Commentary: Urban Land Trusts
Steven J. Moss, San Francisco Community Power

Millions of dollars are spent internationally each year to buy and protect wilderness areas. Large swaths of old-growth redwood forests in the Pacific Northwest, rain forests in South America, even swamp lands in the southern United States have been purchased by government agencies and private trusts. Yet hardly a dime is tossed towards systematically reclaiming urban eco-systems. With a majority of the world’s population soon to live in cities, it’s time to focus on recreating sustainable wilderness areas in our own backyards.

Urban green spaces have traditionally consisted of vacant lots, “pocket parks,” and, in some cases, larger expanses of what might be called artificial-natural recreational areas ”“ Central Park in New York, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Rock Creek Park in the District of Columbia. In some cases these citified wilderness areas provide important habitat to native and imported species, ranging from frogs and birds to even coyotes and mountain lions.

But, by and large even the largest urban parks can hardly be considered thoughtful expressions of eco-system preservation. They tend to be too small to suitably house migratory, or even “walk about,” species, and hyper-focus on activities inside their boundaries, ignoring what happens to a plant or animal once it leaves the park.

There are emerging exceptions, in which significant care is being taken to reclaim land to close to its natural state. In San Francisco, Crissy Field, which for decades was the site of an abandoned and decaying military outpost, recently was transformed back into wetlands. The nearby Presidio, another former military installation, likewise is being slowly altered to be more hospitable to native plants and animals. But even in these cases while significant public and private sector dollars have been invested into restoration efforts, almost no attention has been paid to an issue central to true wilderness preservation ”“ whether the protected area is large enough to provide a home to naturally free range species.

In the absence of thoughtful human intervention, urban animals have found their own way to roam. Relying on an unintentional patchwork of backyards, vacant lots, street medians, and other green spaces, raccoons, coyotes, quail, and snakes find ways to travel through cities in search of food, shelter, and mates. But they risk being squashed by cars, eaten by cats, and poisoned by household chemicals. Less hardy species don’t have a chance.

The way to solve this problem is to start treating urban areas as potential wilderness, map out land purchase or protection strategies, and begin making the right investments. Thousands of creeks are hidden beneath city streets and backyards, waiting to be re-discovered, as are historical migration pathways for birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects. Rather than slapping up sterile pocket parks or requiring deeper lawn-planted setbacks on new developments, networks of green spaces could be formed in a way that creates thriving, integrated, regional wildness areas.

My own San Francisco backyard, located in one of the least green areas of the City, is adjacent to six other backyards which, if thoughtfully directed, could form the basis for a sustainable chain of green areas through the region. Rather than just rats and spiders ”“ as well as more exotic creatures ”“ my small property could serve as an integrated habitat for a host of plants and animals.

While undertaking this strategy may be expensive ”“ urban land is typically more costly to buy or “encumber” than remote wilderness areas ”“ substantial existing resources could be leveraged on its behalf. For example, rather than charging case-specific “mitigation fees” for new construction, or requiring site-specific set-asides, new developments could be assessed a municipal wildness reclamation fee. A nascent effort to develop such a system is currently emerging in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, where large swaths of formerly industrial land are being hungrily eyed by developers.

More than a century ago forward-thinking civic leaders set aside valuable land in rapidly growing cities to create now essential green spaces. It’s impossible to think about Manhattan without Central Park, or San Francisco without Golden Gate Park. It’s now time for a similar vision to transform the uncompleted business of greening our cities into a thoughtful expression of our deep need for wilderness. After all, while several thousand people may visit the Headwaters Forest in Northern California each year ”“ protected at a cost upwards of a billion dollars ”“ millions of people would visit an integrated and sustainable eco-system in Chicago, Rio, or Delhi. That’s worth paying for.

Steven J. Moss is the publisher of the Neighborhood Environmental Newswire. He serves as Executive Director of San Francisco Community Power, www.sfpower.org.

ENN welcomes a wide range of perspectives in its Commentary Series. To find out more or to submit a commentary for consideration please contact ENN's editor, Carrie Schluter: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Photo: Zebras in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Credit: © Marcela Aguilar, Courtesy of Photoshare.

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