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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: What is Cheatgrass and when did it become such a big problem out west?

-- William G., Portland, ME

Cheatgrass is an annual grass native to Europe and eastern Asia that European settlers brought to North America in the late 1800s as forage for grazing their livestock. Little did they know at the time that this innocuous looking herbaceous plant would eventually wreak havoc on ecosystems across the American West, edging out native plants and creating conditions ripe for now all-too-frequent brush fires.

“It probably wouldn’t have outcompeted with native vegetation if early settlers hadn’t also introduced large numbers of livestock like cattle and sheep into sagebrush country,” reports Mike Pellant, a retired Rangeland Ecologist with the Bureau of Land Management who volunteers for the non-profit Sage Grouse Initiative. “Our palatable native grasses and forbs [herbaceous flowering plants] weren’t adapted to those high levels of uncontrolled overgrazing by domestic livestock, which created a void that Cheatgrass quickly filled.”

And once Cheatgrass gains a foothold, it ups the fire risk around it significantly, in part because it sets seed in the spring and by the heart of fire season, in mid- to late-summer, its shoots have dried out and become like tinder that can spark into fire with the slightest provocation. “Basically, cheatgrass is comparable to tissue paper covering the landscape—an easily-ignited fuel that carries fire quickly and spreads it rapidly,” adds Pellant.

Native plants in the Great Basin have not evolved to handle such frequent burns—every five to seven years on average lately. As such, each Cheatgrass-fueled brush fire creates more open space for more of the weed to quickly colonize. And by moving into open territory before native plants have a chance to set seed, Cheatgrass ensures its dominance over the desert ecosystems it inhabits.

The ascendancy of Cheatgrass is also a big problem for native wildlife as well as plants. The Greater sage grouse, Mule deer and Pygmy rabbit are just a few of the iconic desert species dependent on healthy sagebrush plants for their own survival. If sagebrush steppe landscapes go the way of the dodo thanks to Cheatgrass, so will these species and dozens of others which contribute to making the American desert such a special place.

That said, there is little we can actually do to effectively stop Cheatgrass’ spread—it has already taken over some 50-70 million acres of desert across the American West. Herbicides applied widely have been effective at removing grown Cheatgrass plants, but these synthetic chemicals do nothing against the seeds already rooted in the soil—meaning the plant will sprout anew the next spring regardless. Employing all-natural soil microbes to inhibit the growth of Cheatgrass’ root system below the surface shows promise as a potential solution. But it could be years before we know whether it’s feasible to use on such an epic scale given how much Cheatgrass has already spread across the sagebrush steppe.

CONTACTS: Sage Grouse Initiative,
sagegrouseinitiative.com; “Attacking Invasive Cheatgrass at Its Root,” blog.nature.org/science/2016/09/07/attacking-invasive-cheatgrass-root-soil-microbes-biocontrol-sage/.

Dear EarthTalk: What if anything are environmental groups doing to increase the diversity of their own staffs and boards? -- Jake S., Queens, NY

This issue was in the news recently when 13 current and former staffers from the National Audubon Society, a leading environmental non-profit, spoke out against the organization’s management for maintaining “a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color.” One employee who quit voiced his perceptions of an uncomfortable reaction in the mainly white and male executive board when issues surrounding the lack of women and people of color came up. David Yarnold, President and CEO of Audubon, has rebutted the claims and has brushed off any responsibility for the actions and behaviors that people have attributed to him around issues of diversity.

“Audubon is not the first environmental organization to face allegations of racial inequity and most likely will not be the last,” says Andrés Jimenez, Executive Director of Green 2.0, a non-profit dedicated to increasing racial diversity within green groups. “The responsibility of creating a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion falls on the leadership of every organization,” he adds. “It should never be the burden of employees of color to have to fight uphill battles and face intimidation or harassment in order to accomplish something as fundamental as equal treatment and transparent processes for accountability.”

Dorceta Taylor’s 2014 study The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations detailed bias along gender, racial, and class lines within 293 environmental groups. Key findings included that men were still more likely than women to occupy powerful positions in environmental organizations, and that while significant progress had been made on gender diversity, the gains had mostly gone to white women. Additionally, the state of racial diversity was lagging far behind gender diversity. “Homogeneous workplaces arise because of adherence to particular cultural norms, filtering, network structure and recruitment practices,” reported Taylor. “These are forms of unconscious or inadvertent biases that can lead to or perpetuate institutional homogeneity.”

In the intervening years since Taylor’s landmark study, several environmental groups have made strides toward becoming more inclusive and diverse. To wit, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has implemented training workshops on implicit bias. Meanwhile, the Wilderness Society’s innovative “Urban to Wild” program works to make nature more accessible to city dwellers and people of color in urban communities. Additionally, the group has been working to increase racial and ethnic diversity through paid internships.

Another example is the Resources Legacy Fund (RLF), which moved its base to a bigger city and expanded its outreach to local schools and colleges in order to attract staff from more diverse backgrounds. And it’s not your granddaddy’s Sierra Club anymore: The environmental group that started it all back in 1892 recently adopted a comprehensive Multi-Year Equity Plan and Workplan Guidance.

“In the 21st century, the success of environmental causes will be based on our ability to transform into more just, inclusive and relevant organizations and movements,” concludes Green 2.0’s Jimenez.

CONTACTS: Green 2.0, diversegreen.org; The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations, vaipl.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/ExecutiveSummary-Diverse-Green.pdf; ED, edf.org; Urban to Wild, wilderness.org/access-to-nature; RLF, resourceslegacyfund.org; Sierra Club, sierraclub.org.

Dear EarthTalk: The holidays are so wasteful given all the consumerism and decorations. Do you have any tips for making this year’s celebration less wasteful? ­-- Shelly R., New York, NY

The holidays are indeed a hugely wasteful time of the year, but there are many ways we can reduce our impact and still enjoy this special season.

Gift wrap is a great place to start. Much of the wrap we buy in stores can’t be recycled because of its mixture of paper with glitter, plastic, dyes, laminate and other materials, so it goes straight to the landfill after we use it once. Wrapping gifts in brown grocery bags or parcel paper makes use of an everyday item that you may already have in your home while keeping your wrapping recyclable. Cut open paper bags from the grocery store, wrap up your present like you would with any other kind of paper, and tie it up using recyclable twine, paper ribbon or a shoelace (you can even put it back in the shoe later).

To decorate your gifts, use stamps and leafy embellishments to make for a cute or sophisticated look. Go out into your neighborhood to forage for flowers or shoots of leaves to slip under your ribbon or twine. Another alternative to wrapping with brown paper is wrapping your gift with a scarf (two presents in one)!

The debate over which kind of Christmas tree (real or artificial) is better for the environment has been raging for a long time, but the real right answer is a live tree that you can plant in the ground outside after the holidays. If you decide to get a cut tree, look for one that’s grown sustainably and pesticide-free. Going to the closest tree farm lowers the carbon footprint of buying a tree that was imported. If you want to get an artificial tree, most experts agree that you would need to reuse it for about 18 years to keep the environmental impact lower than that of a real tree.

There are plenty of ways to decorate your home festively for the holiday seasons without being wasteful. First of all, if you already have decorations, use them! If you don’t, try DIYing your decorations this year. You can use recycled paper or salt dough to make ornaments for your tree, and collect branches, holly, and leaves outside to create a wreath to hang on your door. Additionally, if you enjoy advent calendars for the month of December, try investing in a reusable wooden one this year so that you can fill it up with your own favorite treats, toys, or surprises for years to come.

It’s also important to be conscious consumers while we shop for holiday gifts. Be sure to think (and think again) before buying something this season. Try to buy long-lasting gifts and shop at small, sustainable and/or local businesses to make your shopping greener. Etsy is a great place to find small businesses that sell ethical and sustainable products. Finally, if you enjoy unwrapping your creative side over the holidays, making your own gifts (upcycling thrifted clothes, jams or chutneys, knitting, painting, pickling or whatever you want to do) is another way to reduce waste. Cheers for the holidays, and have a crafty one!

CONTACTS: Creative Ways to Cut Your Holiday Waste, blog.epa.gov/2016/12/21/creative-ways-to-cut-your-holiday-waste/; “Tis the Season...To Take out the Trash?” https://www.neefusa.org/holiday-waste.

Dear EarthTalk: What will President-elect Joe Biden’s top environmental priorities be once he assumes office—and who is he tapping to head up key environmental positions in his administration? -- J. Woodbine, Saddlebrook, NJ

The world collectively faces the threat of climate change driven by human-made pollutants and environmental degradation. President-elect Joe Biden has made it clear that he intends to work to address and mitigate the climate crisis as the U.S. president.

The President-elect has set a goal to reach net-zero emissions within the U.S. by 2050, promises to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord immediately upon entering office, and aims to create 10 million new jobs within the clean energy economy.

The Biden Plan outlines his strategy to address climate change while securing environmental justice and equitable economic opportunity. One thing that the Biden Plan prioritizes and engrains into every aspect of its proposal is the importance of creating jobs and workers’ unions throughout the transition to a more sustainable economy.

The Biden Plan will cost around $2 trillion. This covers investments in infrastructure, an American-based energy efficient automobile industry, increased public transportation options, a sustainable power sector, weatherized buildings and housing, scientific innovations, climate-smart agriculture and conservation, and efforts to promote environmental justice.

Despite his lack of clarity on whether or not he supports the Green New Deal (GND), Biden has worked together with several key players such as Bernie Sanders and the youth-driven Sunrise Movement to develop his own climate plan. After these collaborations, the main differences that still stand between the GND and the Biden Plan are how much would be spent ($10 trillion in the GND versus $2 trillion in the Biden Plan), their goals for carbon neutrality (GND aims for carbon neutrality in 10 years, while the Biden Plan aims for 2050), and their outlook on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract oil and gas.

In addition to his climate plan, Biden’s cabinet will also play a large role in pushing through his environmental agenda. Deb Haaland, Biden’s pick to run the Interior Department, would be the first Native American to hold a cabinet secretary position. Biden also nominated Michael Regan as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator and Brenda Mallory as Chair of the Council of Environmental Quality. They would be the first Black man and woman to hold these positions. Some of Biden’s Obama-era nominees include former EPA head Gina McCarthy as national climate adviser, John Kerry as the international presidential envoy on climate change, and Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary. Overall, there has never been a cabinet with so much focus on climate. One of the biggest ways we can help as individuals is to urge our Senators to confirm Biden’s cabinet choices.

How much of Biden’s climate and environmental hopes and dreams come true depends on many factors, but one thing that’s for certain, he will likely go down in history as one of the greenest presidents ever.

CONTACTS: President-elect Biden’s Climate Plan, joebiden.com/climate-plan/; How to Contact Your Senator, senate.gov/senators/contact.

Dear EarthTalk: My New Year’s resolution is to eat healthier. Which fruits and vegetables are worth spending extra money on for organic varieties? Likewise, is it worth it from the standpoint of health to also pay a premium for organic meat, cheese and eggs? – P. McAdams, via email

It is indeed difficult to figure out which foods are worth spending more money on for organic varieties. Sure, you can just buy only organic in every category, but you’d end up spending upwards of 20 percent more every time you shopped. And certain “conventional” (i.e., non-organic) foods contain lots of pesticides and chemicals while others do not. Knowing where to draw the line in the grocery aisle is increasingly difficult given the profusion of organic choices these days. But luckily if you are armed with a few facts, you can eat healthier without breaking the bank.

As for produce, many conventionally grown fruits and vegetables don’t contain or pass along significant amounts of pesticides or other noxious chemicals. The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests only buying organic for their so-called “dirty dozen” list of common produce items that do tend to harbor larger amounts of chemicals: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, celery, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and potatoes. Going for organic varieties of these fruits and vegetables is one of the most affordable ways to eat healthier because the price premium on organic produce is in many cases negligible given more consumer demand driving increased production and supply. On the flip side, EWG also produces the “Green Fifteen” list of produce that tends to be contaminant-free even when not organic: avocado, pineapple, onion, papaya, frozen sweet peas, sweet corn, eggplant, asparagus, cauliflower, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage, kiwi and honeydew melon.

As for animal products, organic varieties can only bear the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “Organic” stamp if they are “raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.” As to whether organic meat is better for your health, don’t bet on it. A 2015 Spanish study found that consumption of organic meat does not diminish—and in fact might slightly increase—the risk of getting cancer. That said, other research has shown that organic meat contains more healthy Omega-3 unsaturated fats—this results from the animals eating grass not grain. Another good reason to go organic if you eat meat is ethics: Conventionally raised livestock are subject to confinement and overcrowding while being dosed with antibiotics to prevent the spread of bacterial infection in their midst. The same calculus applies to organic versus conventional dairy products: organic milk and cheese may contain more Omega-3s but otherwise the health differences are negligible.

It certainly is a balancing act today to shop with your family’s health and your own conscience in mind while not breaking the bank. The bright side of this conundrum is that we do have so many healthier choices overall these days, and it’s easier than any time in the last 75 years to avoid chemicals in your food if that’s the way you want to roll.

CONTACTS: Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen,” ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php; “Consumption of organic meat does not diminish the carcinogenic potential associated with the intake of persistent organic pollutants (POPs),” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25893622/.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https//earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org .


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