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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Whatever became of the rediscovered Ivory-Billed Woodpecker that we thought we had lost to extinction? What other animals that we thought went extinct have “come back” from the dead?         -- Betsey Edgewater, Austin, TX

Whether or not the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is extinct in the Southeastern U.S. is still a matter of debate. The last conclusive evidence of the bird’s existence in the U.S. dates back to 1944; most biologists presume the species didn’t hang on around here much longer than that. And the last confirmed sighting of the species anywhere was in Cuba in 1986.

But then in April 2004, amateur birder David Luneau captured video of what he claimed to be an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker making its rounds in the Arkansas’ Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, soon thereafter sparking international interest in the story of the bird that came back from the dead.

But doubters point out that the bird Luneau saw may have been a common Pileated Woodpecker, giving the similar size and coloring of the two different birds. Luneau’s shaky, distant video is far from conclusive proof, and since then no one else has managed a confirmed sighting of the bird at Cache River or anywhere else in the woodpecker’s traditional range. A 2016 trip to Cuba by researchers from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology looking for evidence of living Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers there likewise turned up nothing. While birders continue to hope the majestic woodpecker turns up again, no one is holding their breath. 

But one source of optimism for the Ivory-Billed’s return continues to be other examples of wildlife coming back from the dead. Some of the most famous “larazus taxa” species—the name refers to the biblical Gospel of John, in which Jesus raises his follower Lazarus from the dead—include the Coelacanth, a prehistoric fish thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago but started showing up in fishermen’s hauls in the late 1930s; the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, thought to be driven to extinction on the remote Australian island by invasive rats in the 1930s only to reappear in the 1960s; and the Terror Skink of New Caledonia, presumed extinct by the 1990s but then rediscovered in 2003.

Likewise, New Zealand’s Takahe, a large flightless bird, was thought to be driven to extinction as a result of predation by introduced rats, cats and pigs at the end of the 20th century. But in 1948 a small population of living Takahes was discovered near an isolated lake in a remote mountainous region. These days a population of more than 200 of the birds is holding steady in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park.

Other lazarus taxa examples include Cuba’s Solenodon, the Bermuda Petrel, Laos’ Rock Rat, the Canary Islands’ La Palma Giant Lizard, Japan’s Black Kokonee, Columbia’s Painted Frog, the Bavarian Pine Vole of Europe’s Alps and Indonesia’s Banggai Crow. Of course, the term lazarus taxa isn’t reserved just for fauna: The Mt. Diablo Buckwheat, an inconspicuous little pink flower last seen in the 1930s on the slopes of the San Francisco Bay Area’s highest peak, reappeared in 2005 much to the delight of botanists.

CONTACTS: Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, www.fws.gov/cacheriver/; The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, www.birds.cornell.edu.


Dear EarthTalk: What are planners and designers doing to solve the so-called “last-mile” problem regarding transit? -- Ginny R., via e-mail

Solving the “last mile” (or “first-mile”) problem—that is, getting transit riders from their bus stop, train station or ferry terminal “the last mile” to the doorstep of their home or workplace—has plagued urban planners since the dawn of public transportation.

“Most people in the United States are ‘comfortable’ walking less than a quarter mile to or from public transit stops,” says Alex Gibson of TransLoc, which works on solutions to transit problems using app-based technologies. “The problem arises when a potential rider is further than a ‘comfortable distance’ to the necessary fixed-route stop.” 

Widespread suburbanization across the U.S. is part and parcel of the problem, given that fewer and fewer of us now live within walking distance to public transportation options. The result is more private cars on the road (and the accompanying carbon and air pollution) and underutilized public transit systems.

So, what can be done to overcome this last-mile hurdle? Some municipalities and counties run feeder buses that circle the ‘burbs and bring riders right from their homes or a nearby corner to a transit hub. Likewise, Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services can help transit riders fill in this gap, especially in a pinch. But these are hardly the most cost- or energy-efficient fixes to the last-mile problem.

One time-tested solution is bicycles. Many regions have stepped up their commitment to installing more bike lanes accordingly. While a bike, either the traditional kind or one of the new battery-assisted models, works fine if you have somewhere safe to lock it up or can bring it inside, folding bikes may be a better option for “intermodal” commuters (who pair biking with a bus or train or ferry). Hip London office workers swear by their folding Bromptons. Another increasingly viable option is hopping on a pay-as-you-go share bike which you can pick up in one part of town and drop off in another. Beyond bikes, e-scooters—check the Stigo E-Scooter and Segway’s new MiniPro—are gaining traction and market share across the country. 

And let’s not forget about the oldest last mile option of all: walking. Denver, Nashville and Los Angeles have made strides in fixing infrastructure to encourage transit riders to go the extra mile on foot. “Because most riders in high ridership systems walk to catch buses and trains, transit stops must be supported by well-designed streets and sidewalks,” reports the Transit Center, a foundation that supports transit reform advocacy. “Yet many cities in America have built streets without sidewalks, or allowed property owners to encroach on or neglect them.”

Even more important than spiffing up sidewalks would be macro-level changes to how municipalities manage development. “Transit-oriented development and zoning changes are other highly effective strategies that put more people within walking distance to transit,” reports Angie Schmitt of StreetsBlogUSA. “Removing barriers to walking and transit-oriented development are likely to yield better ridership and financial return on investment than others designed to draw transit riders from suburban environments—the transportation equivalent of swimming upstream.”

CONTACTS: TransLoc, transloc.com; Stigo, stigobike.com; Segway, segway.com; Brompton, brompton.com; StreetsBlogUSA, usa.streetsblog.org.


Dear EarthTalk: I know what C Corporations, S Corporations and LLCs are, but what are “B Corporations” and how does this status help the environment?   -- Robert Gendarme, Chicago, IL

C Corporations, S Corporations and LLCs are legal business structures distinguished by how they pay their taxes under U.S. federal income tax law, whereas a B Corporation (or “B Corp,” with the “B” standing for “Benefit”) isn’t actually a legal entity and is still taxed based upon its chosen C, S or LLC structure. 

“B-Corp” is a certification awarded by the non-profit B Lab to for-profit companies which meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. “B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk,” reports B Lab, which has certified upwards of 2,100 companies from 50 countries and across 130 industries. To qualify as a B Corp, a company must be working primarily to solve an environmental or social issue through its work as a business entity.

B Lab launched in 2006 with the first B Corp certification of 19 companies coming a year later. The non-profit began lobbying efforts across the country in 2008. In 2010 Maryland passed the nation’s first B Corporation Law, followed closely by California in 2011. When Patagonia and 11 other well-known California companies registered as B Corps on the first day possible in January 2012, major national news outlets covered the story, putting the B Corp concept “on the map,” so to speak. And later that year, the movement went global when companies in Africa and Brazil became certified B Corps. 

“I think B Corp ... will allow the values of my company to continue, even after it's sold and it’s way down the line and we’re dead,” says Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, adding that he compares it to a conservation easement on a piece of property. “It’s a conservation easement on a business.” Besides Patagonia, some of the better-known companies now certified as B Corps include Ben & Jerry’s, Etsy, Warby Parker, Plum Organics, New Belgium Brewery, Stonyfield Farm, King Arthur Flour, Cabot Cheese, Badger and Seventh Generation. 

Today 33 U.S. states recognize Benefit Corporation status while six more—Alaska, Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico and Oklahoma—are considering it. Companies that want to pursue B Corp status should check whether it’s recognized in their state by looking it up on benefitcorp.net’s State-by-State Status page. If the answer is yes, the next step is taking B Lab’s “B Impact Assessment,” which assesses the overall impact a company has on its stakeholders, including a heavy emphasis on sustainability and environmental considerations. The assessment takes two to four hours to complete depending on company size, sector and location. Several of the questions concern sustainability issues such as energy efficiency, waste and pollution mitigation efforts. For instance, one of the assessment questions asks: “What percent of energy (relative to company revenues) was saved in the last year for your corporate facilities?”

Companies that qualify must then revise their articles of incorporation so that managers and directors can start factoring in how their decisions affect all stakeholders, not just financial shareholders, while recertification every two years requires that companies maintain that commitment to all stakeholders in order to keep their status.

CONTACT: B Lab,  www.bcorporation.net.


Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways we can encourage more commuters to ditch their cars in favor of bikes? -- Dennis Northrup, Avon, CT

One of the best things we can do as individuals to fight climate change is to reduce the number of miles we drive in our fossil-fuel powered cars. But replacing those car rides with more fuel-efficient options isn’t so easy, especially if you don’t live near a transit hub. Given all the new bike lane infrastructure across the country and the availability of battery-assisted bicycles to help you around, there’s never been a better time to ditch the car in favor of pedal power.

If you’ve only got a short way to go, your good old bike might work just fine. But if you need to get further than you’re comfortable riding under your own power, why not upgrade to something with battery assistance? You can retrofit your current conventional bike with a battery-powered rear wheel, such as Superpedestrian’s Copenhagen Wheel ($1,499), lovingly referred to as the “Two-Wheeled Tesla,” given its sleek design, Bluetooth connectivity and biometric monitoring. Or DIYers might prefer to spend their weekend tinkering with Aosom’s battery-powered rear-wheel replacement kit ($219) instead.

If you’re ready to buy a new electric-assist bike, there’s a lot to choose from. Some top choices include Stromer’s ST2 ($6,500), Elby’s 9-Speed ($3,700), the Espin Sport 350W ($2,000) or Raleigh’s Superbe iE ($1,700). City slickers might prefer Brooklyness’ CMYK 5.0 Folding Electric Bike ($999), which pedal-assists for 50 miles per charge and can fold up into a neat little 25-pound bundle when you get there. Brooklyness is also getting ready to release the first production models of its new helmet design, the Classon, which has sensors built in to detect cars approaching your blind spots, motion-activated brake and turn signals to keep drivers and pedestrians in the know about where you’re going, and a video camera to document your adventures.

Another way technology is facilitating bicycle commuting is through the release of various apps to help riders optimize their routing. For instance, Lanespotter aims to be the Waze of cycling by providing riders with real-time data to find bike lanes and trails nearby, filtering mapping options based on other cyclists’ routing choices and safety recommendations. If you live in Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), San Francisco, St. Louis or Washington DC, you can download and start using Lanespotter (free) today. 

And then there’s bike sharing, a growing phenomenon from coast-to-coast whereby riders can pick up a bike in one part of town and drop it off in another to speed up their commute. New York-based Motivate has designed and implemented bike share networks in nine U.S. cities to date, with the largest in New York (10,000 bikes) and San Francisco (7,000 bikes). A typical ride on one of Motivate’s bikes costs $3, and many of the systems are integrated with larger transit networks. For instance, Bay Area riders can pay for their “GoBike” using the same refillable Clipper card that gets them onto BART trains and MUNI buses.

CONTACTS: Superpedestrian, content.superpedestrian.com; Brooklyness, www.brooklyness.com; Lanespotter, beta.lanespotter.bike; Motivate, www.motivateco.com.


Dear EarthTalk: It’s obvious that our cars are getting greener every year, but what about 18 wheelers? -- Pauline McRae, Sebastian, FL

We all rely on heavy duty trucks to haul as much as 80 percent of the goods we use and consume. But those ubiquitous 18-wheelers are also a big contributor to the overall pollution footprint of the transportation sector, given they get only 4-8 miles per gallon on average and travel large distances transporting heavy loads. Currently, some two million big rigs make up just five percent of the vehicles on American roads while accounting for upwards of 20 percent of the transportation sector’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. 

But like with cars, things are changing quickly for big rigs. The U.S. got serious about reducing truck emissions back in 2010 when the Department of Energy launched its SuperTruck Initiative to improve heavy-duty truck freight efficiency by 50 percent. Some of the technologies that have started to trickle down out of the SuperTruck program into trucks on the road include predictive cruise control, chassis “light-weighting” and battery-assisted air conditioning systems to reduce overnight engine idling. These upgrades are saving operators tens of thousands of dollars in fuel costs annually — the average long distance American trucker spends some $70,000 a year on fuel — as well as shaving off greenhouse gas emissions.

Then in August of 2016 the Obama administration announced aggressive new standards requiring big rigs plying U.S. roads to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions 25 percent by 2027, which should save more than a billion metric tons of greenhouse gases from escaping into the atmosphere over the next decade—that is, if it’s not overturned (as threatened) by Trump.

To get the ball rolling, DoE launched SuperTruck II, pledging to match commitments of up to $20 million by manufacturers working on even more cutting edge technologies to boost the efficiency of big rigs. Peterbilt, Navistar and other truck makers are using these matching funds to bolster efforts to develop newer technologies including active aerodynamics, cylinder deactivation, hybridization, electrified engine components and alternative engine designs.

Regardless, Tesla will be ready with its new Semi. This futuristic all-electric big rig incorporates proprietary lithium ion batteries to power four independent motors—and promises the lowest energy cost per mile in the world of trucking. The Semi also features enhanced autopilot to help avoid collisions, a centered driving position in a cockpit designed to maximize visibility and control, and a low center of gravity to prevent rollovers, among many other forward-thinking features.

In the meantime, truckers with regular old big rigs can save money on fuel and reduce emissions by adopting better day-to-day practices, such as changing gears gently, avoiding sudden braking and acceleration, and slowing down — a truck can use 25 percent less fuel by driving 65 miles per hour instead of 75 mph.

CONTACTS: Peterbilt, www.perterbilt.com; Navistar, www.navistar.com; Tesla, www.tesla.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org

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