The Fox is Guarding the Henhouse in America

It was with great dismay that I read about the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator’s removal of nine members of from its scientific review board. The board in question (the Board of Scientific Counselors, or BOSC for short) is one of two that help the agency determine what issues need its attention and funding.

The dismissals hit close to home because I used to be on the BOSC. From 2010-2013 I served as a communications advisor to the EPA on this board.

I know, you’re looking at me and saying, “Really – you?” Yes me. I know I don’t seem like a high-powered research scientist because I am so fun, witty, and seemingly non-scientific. And besides, I get chased by turkeys and attacked by squirrels. But YES, I really was appointed to this influential federal committee not long ago.

The main point I tried to make to the EPA during my tenure was that they didn’t have public communications components to their programs, and that they needed them. I suspect this is one reason why more people aren’t even more upset about some of the changes President Trump has recently made or proposed for the agency. People don’t understand what the agency really does (other than fining corporations for pollution violations), so they don’t understand the significance of Trump’s actions.

Yesterday’s New York Times article says that administrator Pruitt plans on replacing the ousted members with people who represent industries that are regulated by the EPA. Pruitt spokesman, J. P. Freire said, “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.”

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My favorite name tag mistake of all time came from one of my BOSC meetings. The name tag makers just assumed I was a Ph.D. because everyone else on the committee is a Ph.D. Alas, I am only a “master.”

This almost sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But think about it. These people will be in a position of power to change things. Maybe they don’t like all the regulations their corporations are subject to. Gee, maybe they could fix that.

Let’s say the EPA is like a bank — a bank made up of natural resources, if you will. Corporations use natural resources to make their products. The EPA is in charge of protecting the health of natural resources – rather like how a bank vault protects the money from bank robbers. Take the vault away, and what do you have? Free money for bank robbers!

Allowing corporations to control the agency that regulates natural resources is like allowing bank robbers on the board of trustees for your bank. I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound like a very good idea to me. It’s the old “fox guarding the henhouse” deal.

Write your congressional representatives, please. Write letters to the editor. Bang on a drum. March in the streets. I’m going to.

Then I’m going to take all my money out of the bank and bury it in the back yard.

You Know it’s Bad When the Scientists are Marching

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Marchers for Science in Duluth, Minn.

Last weekend I marched with about 1,200 other people along the shores of Lake Superior in support of science. This was a cause I could easily get behind since I work for a water science research organization (Please refer to my previous post, “Why Sea Grant is a Kick-Ass Program (And Not Just Because I Work There)”).

I walked with a few other Sea Granters and recognized many of the researchers our organization funds among the crowd. It was encouraging seeing so many people upholding the value that science brings to our society and supporting full federal funding for scientific programs.

20170422_082249The sign I made for the march said, “Without Science, Life Itself Would be Impossible!” Does that ring a bell with anyone? I wanted something unique, but maybe it was a bit too unique.

I meant it as a play on a terribly blatant propaganda campaign that Monsanto ran in the 1970s in support of the idea of manmade chemicals. Their slogan was, “Without Chemicals, Life Itself Would be Impossible.” It featured a cute Aryan-haired little boy and his doggie. Surely, Monsanto-produced chemicals are just as harmless as this adorable duo. (NOT!)

Monsanto chemicals adI figured only people alive in the 1970s might “get” my sign. I tested a few of my age-appropriate friends as we made our way to the march, but nobody spontaneously recalled the Monsanto campaign. After explaining it, a few remembered, but they did not immediately start applauding my brilliance. I suspect they just thought my sign was saying that medical science is important to human life. That’s okay. My friend had a sign that was as obvious as mine was obtuse. Hers said “Marching for Science.”

You know these events are all about the signs. If you have a boring sign or one that people can’t understand, you might as well stay home.

While sitting on a bench waiting for the march to start, I was mulling over the lameness of my sign when I noticed a TV news crew filming it from afar as it rested on the ground propped up against the bench legs. Maybe it was my sign’s pretty colors or maybe it was the pithy message – anyway, it lured the reporter and cameraman over to our small group. The reporter asked if she could interview us for a story. My friend, her mother, and I readily agreed.

Little did the news crew know, but they had stumbled into a nest of trained media relations professionals. We were able to espouse our key messages and put in a plug for Sea Grant. We ended up being the only ones interviewed for their story. (Which turned out pretty well, given that it was Fox News.)

What didn’t get into the story was my friend Sharon’s explanation about her year-long climate change art project, “Penguins with a Purpose.” She’s a ceramic artist and after the presidential election, decided to put her skills and frustration to use by making large clay penguins to draw attention to one of the issues the president is trying to silence, namely, climate change.

Her goal is to make 100 penguins by the end of the year, which she will sell and donate part of the proceeds to climate science and policy. Each penguin is unique and has a purpose.

She carried one of her heavy penguins for the whole march. We saw dozens of people we knew and had many side conversations along the way. Even though the march took energy, I completed it feeling energized by the crowd.

For now, hopeful noises are coming out of Washington D.C. that my Sea Grant colleagues and I will still have our jobs after next week. It’s sounding like Congress will pass a continuing resolution on the budget for the rest of the year instead of going with President Trump’s plan to fund his wall on the Mexican border with the entire Sea Grant budget (and those of other agencies).

This may just delay the wall-funding issue until the next budget cycle at the end of the year, but it’s comforting to think we’ll have our jobs for a few more months. Thank you to everyone who’s written their Congressperson. Every little bit helps.

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Standing strong for science in Duluth.

Why Sea Grant is a Kick-Ass Program (And Not Just Because I Work There)

Wi Point Ladies 2016 003We interrupt all these dreams of Aruba to insert some harsh (but hopefully entertaining and educational) reality. You may recall from my recent pancake recipe posting that President Trump has zeroed out the National Sea Grant Program that I work for in his proposed budget for 2018.

If that weren’t worrisome enough, he just recently he proposed drastic cuts to Sea Grant and other environmental and health and human services programs in 2017 in order to find funds to build the wall between Mexico and the U.S. You remember his beloved wall, don’t you? The one that Mexico was supposed to pay for (and like it)?

If Congress grants his request, Sea Grant would be gone – maybe as soon as May or August of this year, and I will be out of a job.

Maybe you’re wondering what a “Sea Grant” is. Sea Grant is a kick-ass program that funnels federal money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to universities in 33 states across the U.S. The money goes to university researchers for water studies and to people like me who let taxpayers know about the research results through the media and through other local communications outlets.

Our staff and researchers also develop tools that people can use for things like growing fish, protecting their towns from a messed-up climate, keeping invasive animals and plants out of their local lake, fixing up polluted swimming beaches, making seafood safe to eat and water safe to drink.

UWI_SeaGrant_logo_cyanI work as a writer for the Sea Grant program in Wisconsin. Why is there an ocean program in Wisconsin, you ask? Because the Great Lakes are the freshwater equivalent of oceans (Sweetwater Seas). As water sources for millions of people and home to one of the world’s largest economies, it makes sense to pay attention to the Great Lakes and to put money into understanding them and protecting them.

Nationally, Sea Grant has been around for over fifty years. The federal dollars ($67.3 million) that come into the states are matched by the universities.

One reason it’s a kick-ass program is that in 2015 alone, the work done nationally with these dollars led to an 854% economic return on investment (Turned $67.3 million into $575 million in the communities in which we work). I bet none of President Trump’s business ventures have provided such a huge impact. Seems like a bad idea to cut such a successful program.

We’ve restored over 127,000 acres of degraded ecosystems. We trained almost 2,000 people how to keep seafood safe to eat. We offered about 900 classes to people living on coastlines on how to improve their community’s resilience to storms. We also supported training and funding for 2,000 students who are the next generation of water scientists.

In Wisconsin alone, our programs save lives. Our Sea Caves Watch program, which warns kayakers about wave conditions in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has prevented deaths. Since it went online about seven years ago, no deaths have happened. Before, there was about one death every year. Seven people might not seem like a lot – but every person counts!

Last year, a boater who saw our video about “ghost nets” (abandoned nets lost in the lake) and how to get out of them without capsizing, remembered what the video said when his boat got into a tangle. He credits Wisconsin Sea Grant for saving his life.

In Wisconsin, we also fund a program that helps children who are going through rough times by getting them into the water and taking pictures. The underwater photography program has changed the lives of many of them, and their photos are good enough to be in public displays and even a book. Read the children’s testimonials in the book. They will make you cry!

We find cures to fish diseases. We created over 5,000 jobs during the past two years. We helped almost 12,000 anglers or aquaculture people. We helped find out what was causing the steel pilings in the Duluth-Superior Harbor to corrode (and won a national award for it). Through our sister program, the Water Resources Institute, we are changing how the state warns people about the chemical strontium in their drinking water.

If I lose my job, I can’t take any more nice vacations and write about them for your benefit. I also will be so busy finding a job that I won’t be able to write my blog any more, or my fiction.

So, if you give a rip, please email your Congressperson right away. Tell them to reject the Administration’s proposal in the Fiscal Year 2017 Security Supplemental that would cut the National Sea Grant College Program by $30 million. Also, please ask them to reject the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 proposal to zero out and terminate the Sea Grant program (for all the reasons I’ve just mentioned).

I had an interesting discussion with someone at my church about President Trump. She said she was finding it very hard to love him in a spiritual sort of way. I told her that I don’t like what Trump stands for, but I do like that he’s making us fight for what’s important. It’s definitely not politics as usual.

The only weapons I have to fight this with are my words. I hope you will join your words with mine to preserve a program that makes much more sense for this country than a wall with Mexico. For more information, please see the Sea Grant Association’s website (FY 2017 and FY 2018 documents).

Thank you for your support. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

That Time I was the Subject of a Federal Whistleblower Complaint

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A page in my life story that I’d rather not have repeated, but a page that is interesting, was written back in the 1990s when I was a federal employee. I was working in public affairs for the USDA Forest Service in the Superior National Forest. This particular forest is also home to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), renowned for its canoe routes and primitive character.

As part of my job, I often helped with public meetings, and I wrote and edited documents. At the time, the agency was working on its first-ever management plan for the BWCAW. I wrote some of the background information for the plan and I edited the final version of the document. The plan required public comment, which we gathered by hosting meetings in towns across northern Minnesota. I sent out news releases about the meetings to the media and in general, just tried to ensure that people knew about the opportunity to comment.

Around that same time, I was a board member for our local chapter of the Audubon Society (you know, the environmentalist bird-lovers). I edited their newsletter and helped plan monthly programs. I can’t recall the exact timing of things, but I eventually I quit the board because I was just too busy. The problem is, the new editor forgot to take my name off the board member list that was published on the back page of the newsletter.

After a few months, I noticed my name was still listed, and I asked the editor to delete it just for accuracy’s sake. A few more months later, it was still on there. I reminded the editor again, and he took it off.

As it turns out, it was too late. Somewhere during this time, the Audubon newsletter published a story in favor of the new BWCAW plan. Someone in Minnesota who was connected to the Blue Ribbon Coalition (an organization originating out West that advocates for the use of motorized vehicles on public lands) saw the newsletter story and noticed my name on the list of board members.

This person (who shall remain nameless) and the organization he was affiliated with did not like the new wilderness plan because it limited the use of motors in several areas where they had been allowed previously. He, with all the logic of the clueless, came to the conclusion that it was ALL MY FAULT that motors were being restricted in the plan because I was a board member of the Audubon group. He filed a complaint to this effect through the federal Whistleblower Program. He also complained about the manager of the BWCAW in a separate filing.

This was during a time when the Forest Service was getting political heat for not investigating claims. Heh heh, lucky us. Taxpayers got to foot the bill for an investigator to travel from Washington D. C. to Minnesota for several days to investigate us.

In the complaint about me (which I don’t think I ever got to read, but I got told about it by the investigator), the man claimed that my job within the agency put me in a position of power to influence the new rules that were being proposed in the plan, and that because I was a member of Audubon, I had a conflict of interest.

I explained to the investigator that I wasn’t even on the Audubon board when they developed their position in support of the BWCAW plan. I described the oversight that left my name on the back of the newsletter. I also explained my role in writing the plan, which did not include any omnipotent power to make up new rules against the use of motors in the wilderness. (I only WISH I had that type of power.)

Even though I was sure no wrong-doing would be found, being investigated by the feds was not comfortable, which was another outcome I’m sure the Complainer Guy wanted.

In the end, both the wilderness manager and I were found “not guilty,” and we were able to continue about our business. You can bet that we thought harder about how we did our business, but we continued it, nonetheless – savvier about the tactics used by some organizations.

And Then There Were Two: An Update on the Status of Isle Royale’s Wolves

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The remaining wolf pair on Isle Royale. Photo by Rolf Peterson.

Last week I attended a public meeting by the National Park Service to hear about their preferred plan to deal with the declining wolf population on Isle Royale, a remote island-sized park in Lake Superior.

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you may recall the story I wrote about the issue in 2015. At that point, there were three wolves left on the island. Now there are only two.

The deformed wolf mentioned in my last story is nowhere to be found (presumably dead) and the other two wolves, who may or may not be its parents, are still alive.

Researchers have discovered that they are a male and female wolf who are related to each other in several incestuous ways. (Hard to avoid this when you live on an island.) They are father and daughter, but also half-siblings. And they are old for wild wolves — six and eight years old. As such, it’s not likely they would have any (more?) ultra-incestuous offspring.

During the meeting, the park service staff discussed four alternative plans of action they are considering. Their preferred plan calls for the introduction of 20-30 wolves starting next fall/winter over a span of three to five years. It’s known in the Environmental Impact Statement as Alternative B.

The other alternatives involve taking no action, introducing a smaller number of wolves over a period longer than five years (20 years), and taking no action now but allowing for the option of action in the future.

Under Alternative B, the park service plans to capture packs of wolves, if they can, and to release them ASAP together on the island. They will collect wolves from the Great Lakes area, and ones that are not habituated to humans and are already used to eating moose for food. They want the wolves to spend as little time in holding pens as possible so that they don’t become habituated to them. Initially, the park service will provide moose carcasses (from Isle Royale) for the wolves to eat, but then will leave the wolves to fend for themselves. They will monitor them (with radio collars, etc.) to see how they are doing.

The fact that the park is considering messing with wolf introduction is a big deal. Normally, they are a “hands-off, let-nature-take-its-course” organization. But the wolves are so important to the island’s ecosystem and to controlling the moose population, that public pressure and human-caused global environmental changes have made the park willing to change its philosophy.

When I commented on this issue back in 2015, for nature-purist motives I was against any action. But now since it seems like the wolf population is indeed doomed, and it’s not likely that wolves will wander over to the island from the mainland on an ice bridge during the winter (especially right now as I am writing this and it’s 50-frikin’ degrees in February!), I am okay with the idea of introducing wolves.

What I am not so okay with is introducing the new wolves while the two existing wolves are still living on the island. At the meeting, when someone asked this question, the park biologist dismissed the concern, saying the existing wolves would have a survival advantage over the new wolves because they already know the island’s terrain, etc.

But come on, what chance do two old wolves have against 20-30 young whippersnapper wolves? I fear they will be shredded to pieces by the newcomers. I think it’s kind of inhumane to introduce the new ones while the old ones are alive. But for some reason, the park service is hot to do the introductions ASAP.

Another question that was dismissed at the meeting is whether the park would alter its plans for introducing the wolves if an ice bridge to the mainland was in place. The biologist said that wolf experts have told them the wolves would likely stay on the island.

I question this as well. The park service plans to get the wolves from MN, WI or Michigan. If I was a wolf, and my family and I were taken from our home not that far away (wolves can easily travel 40 miles in a day), dropped somewhere new, and there was a way to escape and go back home, I sure as heck wouldn’t stay there. Studies of wolves introduced in other situations found that they do travel away from the site of introduction toward their site of origin.

One would think the park service would want to ensure that the introduced wolves would stay in place by not introducing wolves if there was an ice bridge, but apparently not. This could be a waste of time and expense to taxpayers.

Another comment that was dismissed, and this time I’m glad it was dismissed, was the idea that people be used to control the moose population on the island instead of wolves. This would involve hunting, of course. Hunting on Isle Royale is currently prohibited by federal law. But also, I’d just rather not have the top predator on the island be humans instead of wolves. There are plenty of other places where people can hunt. And I can only imagine how hard it would be to haul a moose carcass over those island ridges. It was hard enough to haul my own carcass over them when I hiked!

Okay, enough of my ranting. If you’re interested in commenting on the plan, the deadline is March 15. And if you’d like to learn about Isle Royale’s wolves in a fun way, please read my novel, “Eye of the Wolf.”

The Gathering of the Orbs

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A girl and her orb.

Today is the time when all the ice orbs for the Lake Superior Ice Festival are gathered. The orbs I contributed are the colored ones in the photos (and in the bucket).

The water is frozen in water balloons, and the balloons are removed later. A group of Headstart children from Superior, Wis., participated in this community art collaborative, and it was so fun to see them enjoying the outdoors and learning about water and ice.

dsc03803City of Superior staff are arranging the orbs in the shape of Lake Superior in the city park on Barker’s Island to highlight the importance of fresh water. Each orb represents a day that water is important to us. The goal is to create 365 of them to represent a year.

Take a moment to consider how important fresh water is to you!

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My bucket o’ orbs.

Saving the Whales (and Dolphins): Adventures in Scotland, Part 5

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Director Kevin Robinson (left) and Theo (right). The ham in the middle is Jack Borrett.

When I was researching things to do in Scotland, I was intrigued to discover the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit in Gardenstown, next door to our temporary Scottish home of Crovie.

I contacted the “unit” by email before our trip and asked about the opportunity to learn about what they do. We were welcomed to visit. Although it took a few tries to connect once we were in Scotland (due to vagaries in weather and schedules), we found director Dr. Kevin Robinson and research assistant Theofilos Sidropoulos (Theo for short) in their office on the shores of the Moray Coast one afternoon and they were nice enough to talk to us for over an hour.

Let me set something straight. You may have misread the name of the unit as the “Crustacean Research & Rescue Unit.” No, they do not rescue hapless mollusks. They research and rescue cetaceans, which are whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

Kevin founded the organization over twenty years ago. He explained that he got his start in the field by working in Inverness for a marine mammal organization. He saw the need for another organization that focused more on marine mammal strandings, and the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit was born. The Unit is a nonprofit organization that tracks the population of the farthest northern pod of dolphins in the world in the Moray Firth. They do this through scouting trips and by taking photos of the dolphins and identifying them by their dorsal fins. Despite dire predictions at first, Kevin said the dolphin population in the Firth is thriving.

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Gardenstown, Scotland.

The unit also conducts research. Kevin explained that their latest quest was to take skin mucus samples from minke whales. The samples can then be genetically analyzed. To take such a sample, the researchers must get close enough to a whale to reach it with a pole that has the sampler attached to the end. They need only touch the whale with the sampler (no skin pricks or pain involved), but that was proving easier said than done at the time of our conversation. Also, Theo is a student at Edinburgh University and said he was researching the effects of climate change on the environment and marine mammals.

And, of course, they respond to reports of strandings. They provide 24-hour veterinary response for sick, injured and stranded marine mammals. Kevin said that unfortunately, most of the stranded animals don’t make it. But it’s nice to know that someone is looking out for them.

In our wide-ranging conversation, we also learned the organization focuses on environmental education as well. They educate school children about marine mammals and present papers at scientific conferences, and the like. They even have a Facebook page.

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The sign on the path between Crovie and Gardenstown. One takes their lives in their hands at every passing. And it seems the sign has seen its share of rockfalls (or bullets!)

And if, like me, you have a secret desire to save the whales, you can do so by volunteering for the unit during the summer (May-Oct.). As long as you are able-bodied enough to get out in a boat and to walk along steep coastal paths, you’re in! Kevin mentioned that a woman in her seventies volunteered for them and for other organizations around the world. She ended up coming back to them for a second time when she was in her eighties because she so enjoyed her first experience. There are still openings available for this year.

The unit is working to raise funds for a new boat to help with their conservation work and to replace their aging vessels. Click here to donate. Their goal is to raise the funds by the end of July, so please act fast if you are so inclined. They are about three-quarters of the way there.

We left their office with a better understanding of life in the waters of the Moray Firth. Kevin and Theo were also nice enough to direct us to where we could see puffins and seals locally. (And we did!) I think it would be totally fun to come back there someday as a volunteer. We’ll see if the fates will allow for that.

Next up – Visiting Edinburgh in an hour-and-a-half!