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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


EarthTalk® From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine Dear EarthTalk:

What’s up with efforts by Native Americans to take back the national parks? -- C.

Prior to white settlement, as many as 15 million Indigenous people inhabited what would come to be called the contiguous United States; by the 1890s only about 250,000 remained. Today, roughly five million Native Americans live in the Lower 48, but they control only about two percent of the lands. Recently tribal activists have renewed efforts to remedy this historical misappropriation by demanding that control of the national parks be given back to the tribes.

“The national parks are sometimes called ‘America’s best idea’, and there is much to recommend them,” reports Leech Lake Ojibwe tribal member and author David Treuer in a recent op-ed in The Atlantic. “But all of them were founded on land that was once ours, and many were created only after we were removed, forcibly, sometimes by an invading army and other times following a treaty we’d signed under duress.”

Indeed, Indians were extricated from Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite national parks despite their ancestors having lived there for 10,000 years. But what happened in these landmark parks was just the tip of the iceberg, as Indigenous peoples were “robbed” of hundreds of other naturally significant sites from coast to coast as well.

“Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, in Wisconsin, was created out of Ojibwe homelands; the Havasupai lost much of their land when Grand Canyon National Park was established; the creation of Olympic National Park, in Washington prevented Quinault tribal members from exercising their treaty rights within its boundaries; and Everglades National Park was created on Seminole land that the tribe depended on for food,” reports Treuer.

Since we live in a time of “historical reconsideration,” he says, the national parks should be returned to Native control. “Indians should tend—and protect and preserve—these favored gardens again,” he writes, adding that not only would making such a transition be good for tribes, it would also be good for the American people and the parks themselves, which he says have been mismanaged in recent decades and currently face insurmountable federal maintenance and other backlogs.

“All 85 million acres of national-park sites should be turned over to a consortium of federally recognized tribes in the United States,” urges Treuer, excepting “a few areas run by the National Park Service, such as the National Mall.” The total acreage would be a far cry from the 90 million acres taken from tribes by 1887’s General Allotment Act, he maintains, which regulated land rights on tribal lands (and served to further splinter already displaces tribal communities). It would ensure unfettered access to tribal homelands and would go a long way toward restoring the dignity of America’s original peoples.

“To be entrusted with the stewardship of America’s most precious landscapes would be a deeply meaningful form of restitution,” he concludes. “Alongside the feelings of awe that Americans experience while contemplating the god-rock of Yosemite and other places like it, we could take inspiration in having done right by one another.”

CONTACTS: “Return The National Parks To The Tribes,” theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/05/return-the-national-parks-to-the-tribes/618395.

Dear EarthTalk: Should we all be ditching our gas stoves in favor of electric models?

-- Mary R., San Francisco, CA

Walking into your kitchen to make dinner appears relatively simple with a gas-powered stove readily available to cook your every desire. But while rotating the switch to turn on a gas stove, most people do not consider its health and environmental implications. According to a University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) report, over 90 percent of gas-powered appliances in California residences emit toxic pollutants such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter and formaldehyde.

While gas furnaces and water heaters are big polluters no doubt, most of them are vented outdoors and are thus sending their CO and NOx emissions outside. But pollution from stoves and ovens are released indoors. The UCLA researchers found that in nine out of ten residences surveyed where gas ovens or stoves were in use, peak levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) inside the kitchen after cooking for one hour surpassed both state and national outdoor acute air quality standards. Such high concentrations of indoor air pollution are even more dangerous for smaller households—peak levels of NO2 in 98 percent of apartments surveyed exceeded state and national air quality standards.

Such pollution from gas-fired appliances like furnaces, water heaters and stoves present a serious health threat, increasing the likelihood of respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease and premature death. For the elderly and children who are more susceptible to infections and diseases, elevated NO2 levels can be especially toxic. Additional risks of cooking with gas include increased risk of lung disease and vulnerability to novel viruses, not to mention the prompting of new allergies. Children risk a decreased IQ, learning deficits and asthma. In fact, a 2013 report analyzing the impacts of indoor NO2 from gas stoves found that children who grew up in a home with a gas stove are 42 percent more likely to develop asthma than those who didn’t.

Gas stoves are also a source of carbon monoxide, a pollution that is fatal at extremely high concentrations and can cause headaches, dizziness, vomiting and nausea. Though morbidity linked to accidental CO is quite low, frequent exposure can increase the risk of lethal heart disease.

To avoid such health and environmental setbacks, gas appliances can be replaced by any number of zero-emission electric alternatives. The most common and effective stoves to replace gas stoves are induction cooktops and modern electric stoves. Electric stoves are powered by thermal conduction whereby electricity runs through a set of coils; induction cooktops are powered by electromagnetic currents that directly heat the cookware. Though initial installation costs of electric or induction stoves can be quite high, they consume much less energy than gas stoves and thus are more cost-effective in the long run.

CONTACTS: Health Effects from Gas Stove Pollution, psr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/health-effects-from-gas-stove-pollution.pdf; Pollution from Gas Appliances Endangers Our Health. Going Electric Can Help, sierraclub.org/articles/2020/05/cooking-gas-hurts-your-wallet-and-your-health; Gas Stoves: Health and Air Quality Impacts and Solutions, rmi.org/insight/gas-stoves-pollution-health.

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Dear EarthTalk: Are environmental advocates happy with the Biden administration so far? -- B.C., Philadelphia, PA

Overall, environmental advocates are much happier with Joe Biden in the White House than Donald Trump, given his administration’s interest in pursuing sustainability and climate goals. Indeed, on Day One Biden wasted no time making good on several environmentally related campaign promises. He signed executive orders rejoining the Paris climate accord (Trump had pulled us out in 2017), revoking the permit for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline (green-lighted by Trump in 2017), and halting construction of Trump’s infamous border wall that among other things restricted the habitat range of wildlife already struggling to hang on in the drought-stricken, warming-addled Southwest.

While Biden couldn’t get everything done in a day, his administration has kept its eye on the conservation ball ever since. In early September, Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it was restoring protections for Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The Trump administration had blocked those protections in a shortsighted effort to pave the way for construction of a massive gold mine threatening the world’s largest sockeye salmon run as well as ecosystems for hundreds of miles around. The Biden administration has also proposed cancelling controversial Trump-era petroleum drilling leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but it’s unclear whether this provision will remain in the larger Congressional budget reconciliation bill it’s currently tied to given potential Republican backlash.

Another big move lauded by greens just weeks ago was Biden’s executive order restoring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in Utah to their original boundaries; Trump had reduced them by 80 and 50 percent respectively. Eco-advocates also cheered Biden’s move to restore federal rules designed to guide environmental reviews of major infrastructure projects that the Trump administration had scaled back in order to “fast-track” construction permit approvals. Additionally, Biden has pledged to overturn Trump-era rollbacks of endangered species protections so as to preserve the ability of the federal government to designate lands as critical wildlife habitat regardless of their development potential.

While many are pleased with Biden’s actions so far, others worry they are too little too late. Activists from the grassroots Build Back Fossil Free campaign, which includes Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity, among others, decry the Biden White House for not already using executive orders to stop fossil fuel project approvals and declare a climate emergency. According to a recent analysis by the research and advocacy organization Oil Change International, Biden could stop at least 24 major fossil fuel development projects with the stroke of a pen (including the controversial Line 3 and Dakota Access pipelines) and save upwards of 1.6 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions—the equivalent of taking all the cars and trucks off U.S. roads for a year.

“We are out of time for the president to take his executive powers off the shelf,” says Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Anything less is leaving a scorched future for people and our planet.”

CONTACTS: White House moves to restore key environmental review rules, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/white-house-moves-restore-key-environmental-review-rules-2021-10- 06/; Build Back Fossil Free, buildbackfossilfree.org; Oil Change International, priceofoil.org; Center for Biological Diversity, biologicaldiversity.org.

Dear EarthTalk: My husband thinks it's better for the planet to hand-wash dishes in the sink, but it seems to me using the dishwasher is more eco-friendly. Can you settle this debate for us? -- Chris B., Bowie, MD

Hands-down, the dishwasher is the way to go, not only from the standpoint of water waste and energy use but also to preserve your own sanity. Who needs to be scrubbing, rinsing and drying dishes all day when an efficient machine can do the work? Modern dishwashers use much less water and energy than their forebears, so you can clean up after your meals and snacks quickly and without guilt just by filling up the dishwasher and hitting the “start” button.

It’s not surprising that many of us still think hand-washing is better, given that the dishwashers of yesteryear used 10-15 gallons of water per cycle. But dishwashers sold today in the United States can only use a maximum of five gallons per cycle per the mandate of the U.S. Department of Energy. And to qualify for one of the federal government’s EnergySTAR labels identifying especially efficient appliances, dishwashers must max out their water use at 3.5 gallons per cycle.

Meanwhile, handwashing the same number of dishes, pots and pans as you can fit in the dishwasher typically “consumes” some 27 gallons of water, according to a study by researchers at Germany’s University of Bonn. (They also found that some people can handwash a load of dishes with as little as 8.7 gallons of water while others use as many as 116 gallons!)

“The average kitchen faucet has a flow rate of 2.2 gallons per minute, meaning that you’d only have two minutes to wash an entire dishwasher’s worth of dishes to match a dishwasher’s water efficiency,” reports Savannah Sher on BobVila.com. “It would be nearly impossible to use less than five gallons of water to hand wash a full load of dishes.”

And if you’re going to use the dishwasher anyway, save yourself even more hot water by skipping the sink pre-rinse and just loading those dirty dishes right into the bottom rack.

“Scrape big chunks of leftover food into the trash, but pre-rinsing isn’t necessary with modern dishwashers because they have sensors that adjust the wash cycle based on how dirty the dishes are,” says Consumer Reports’ Perry Santanachote. In fact, unnecessary pre-rinsing can waste about 6,000 gallons of water per household per year.

These efficiency gains only apply to running your dishwasher when it’s full. Rather than running the dishwasher with a half-load, wait until it fills up before hitting start. (Some units have a “rinse and hold” feature that pre-rinses what’s in there so it’s easier to clean when it does fill up later.) Of course, some items—cutting boards, silver flatware, cast iron cookware, non-stick pans—will still require handwashing, but you can always try to minimize your use of them accordingly.

CONTACTS: A European Comparison of Cleaning Dishes by Hand, https://www.tempurl4.unibonn.de/forschung/haushaltstechnik/publikationen/eedal-manualdishwashing-ht1; Dishwasher vs. Hand Washing: When to Use Each Cleaning Method, https://www.bobvila.com/articles/dishwasher-vs-handwashing/; 9 Tricks That Save Tons of Water, https://www.nrdc.org/stories/9-tricks-save-tons-water.

Dear EarthTalk: What are conservation dogs? -- Jon Gretcham, Portland, OR

Simply put, conservation dogs are canines specially trained in sniffing out evidence of specific wildlife species that scientists are seeking to learn more about for one reason or another. Most commonly these dogs are used to help biologists understand where and how threatened or endangered wildlife species are hanging on—or if they are still around at all.

At the forefront of this burgeoning field is Rogue Detection Teams (RDT), a Washington State based nonprofit that sends their specially trained dogs around North America and beyond to help scientific researchers, government agencies and non-profit groups gather field evidence in order to further their conservation work.

It’s no wonder that conservationists have started using detection dogs, a standard practice in the military and law enforcement since the 1940s when U.S. troops first employed canines to detect German land mines in North Africa. By pairing human handlers well-versed in ecology and biology (the “bounders”) with detection dogs trained on a specific scent, conservationists can monitor the density, distribution and overall health of certain species of concern.

To wit, Rogue’s dogs have worked all over the world helping conservation groups bolster their cases with hard data collected in the field. The majority of the Rogue’s work so far has been in the American West, but teams are scattered as far afield as Brazil, Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East in search of everything from sea turtles to grasshoppers to pygmy rabbits, big cats, red foxes and bumblebees.

What makes for a perfect conservation dog? The best detection dogs wouldn’t necessarily make a great pet, as they tend to be obsessed with reward accumulation. “Our dogs are typically considered unadoptable due to their high energy and obsessive desire to play fetch,” says Rogue’s Jennifer Hartman. “This obsessive energy is quite perfect for us because we pair this with detecting an odor and reward our dogs with their ball for locating the odor.” Rogue’s dogs can cover up to 15 miles a day in survey work, and still have energy left over for more playtime after the search.

And it doesn’t take a specific breed or size dog—it’s all about the dog’s so-called ‘high ball drive’. “We have quite a few Labrador mixes as well as heeler mixes because these seem to be high drive dogs that end up in shelters, but we also have a chihuahua mix and what might be a papillon mix in our program,” reports Hartman. “We love all dogs though, and don’t discriminate as long as they like to play fetch!”

Currently Rogue runs 19 dogs out of its Washington State headquarters. The organization, founded in 2019 by a group of conservation-oriented dog handlers who had been doing this sort of work on their own for more than a decade, also runs programs to train others’ dogs (and their owners) in these canine “detection” practices. Through its training work, Rogue hopes to develop the next generation of bounders to carry on the innovative work of the conservation dogs in helping other species hang on in this warming-compromised world.

CONTACTS: Rogue Detection Teams, roguedogs.org; “A Nose for Science: Conservation Dogs May Help in Search for Endangered Franklin’s Bumblebee,” https://therevelator.org/conservation-dogsbumblebee/.

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


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