Do you know “America’s Best Kept Secret”?

Here is a video (11:51) introducing the National Wildlife Refuge System.

O.K., so the voiceover shouts “educational video” — although it’s not quite as cheesy as the voiceover for this video produced for the System’s Centennial. In any case, these videos do provide a glimpse of “America’s Best Kept Secret” and the national and natural wonders that they have protected since 1903.

I just checked the NWRS site and found two Refuges within 30 miles of where I live: Great Swamp NWR and Oyster Bay NWR.

Have you been to a National Wildlife Refuge near you?

Visit a National Wildlife Refuge and connect with nature

source (Creative Commons):

source (Creative Commons):

Last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced a new radio campaign to promote the National Wildlife Refuge System as an wonderful natural resource and opportunity to experience nature.

“Americans can take pride in the tremendous beauty and diversity of refuge lands dedicated to the protection of wildlife habitat,” [Secretary] Salazar said. “By visiting these places and encouraging their children to forge a connection with nature, they can help ensure vital wildlife conservation efforts will continue for generations to come.”

The first four segments of the “National Wildlife Refuge Minute” series are available here.

source: USFWS

source: USFWS

“America’s best kept secret”

While Ken Burns’ series on The National Parks recently highlighted the National Parks System as “America’s Best Idea” (borrowing from a quote by Wallace Stegner), the National Wildlife Refuge System has been known as “America’s best kept secret.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains the National Wildlife Refuge System, a network of public lands with refuges in every state.

The National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by the Service, represents the world’s premier system of public lands and waters set aside to conserve America’s fish, wildlife and plants.
Comprising hundreds of thousands of miles and landscapes ranging from southwest desert to Alaskan tundra and nearly every conceivable ecosystem in between, the Refuge System represents the last best hope for survival for many endangered and threatened species. These include the ocelot, manatee, spotted owl, California jewelflower and polar bear.
There are 550 refuges — one within an hour’s drive of most major cities — offering people a welcoming, safe and accessible place to nourish their spirits and reconnect with the land.
Wildlife refuges are home to more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species and more than 200 species of fish. Nearly 40 million people visit National Wildlife Refuges each year, generating almost $1.7 billion in sales for regional economies. In additional to wildlife observation, many refuges provide rich opportunities for hiking, canoeing, hunting and fishing.

The four radio spots highlight: sandhill cranes at the Merced NWR in California; manatees at the Crystal River NWR in Florida; otters at the Alaska Maritime NWR; and pileated woodpeckers at the Wallkill River NWR in New Jersey.

Have you connected with nature at a National Wildlife Refuge?

An urban nature lesson from Philadelphia

Where does environmental stewardship begin?

I came across this wonderful video of second graders in North Philadelphia learning and playing outdoors.

Source: Philly Eco-City

Opportunities to play outdoors and experience nature build upon a child’s innate curiosity. Getting to know a place can lead to a sense of ownership. And this, in turn, becomes the base for further learning about nature and about broader environmental issues and supporting active stewardship of the environment.

As one of the teachers says:

“It starts small, right? It starts with them playing and being outside and appreciating the space. …When they become attached to a space, they feel more responsible for it….”

Mexico City awaits

source (Creative Commons):

source (Creative Commons):

This past weekend, world leaders publicly wrote off hope for a climate accord at the upcoming global summit in Copenhagen. The goalposts may shift to a possible second climate conference to be held next year in Mexico City.

Home to 19 million inhabitants, Mexico City is the largest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere (and second largest in the world). Every year, more than 300,000 people (think Toledo, Ohio, or Riverside, California) are added to this sprawling and fragmented city.

Some 60% of the population — over 11 million people — lives in “popular” or informal or squatter settlements surrounding the Distrito Federal, contributing to the vast environmental and governance challenges across the region. “Mexico City is now taking place outside the city,” according to José Castillo, architect and professor at Universidad Iberoamericana.

Yet even here, there are successes to build upon….

Sustainable transit and ecological parks

Last week, Harvard University’s JFK School of Government awarded the 2009 Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership to EMBARQ for Metrobus, the bus rapid transit (BRT) project it developed with the Mexico City government. Metrobus brings sustainable transit to one of the world’s most congested cities; it will help to stitch together some of the farflung reaches of the sprawling metropolis, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and take polluting minibuses off the road. Already, more than 450,000 residents ride Metrobus each day. Building upon the success of Metrobus, the Center for Sustainable Transport in Mexico is supporting BRT projects in cities across Mexico. Guadalajara launched its own Macrobus system last spring.

And amidst Mexico City’s sprawl, there are efforts towards preserving and restoring the natural landscape and establishing a “cultura ambiental” (environmental culture) among the residents of the city.

On her blog, “Roads Less Traveled,” Tracy Barnett recounts her visit to the Parque Ecologico de la Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City Ecological Park), which was developed over the past two decades with the help of the Mexican environmental organization, Pronatura. According to the Pronatura website for the Central-West region (in Spanish–and translated into English with Google Translate), the park in Ajusco is a critical area for groundwater recharge as well as local biodiversity. Located up the road from the city’s beltway and Six Flags Mexico City, the park’s oak, pine, and scrub oak ecosystems are home to 611 species of plants, 134 species of birds, and 127 species of butterflies. Some of the environmental educators led Tracy on a tour of the park, which overlooks the city:

The leafy canopy opens here onto a startling view: a yellow-grey cloud smothers the landscape, a clutter of urban sprawl stretching for miles below, barely visible through the smog that envelopes it.

“We use this station to explain to people why the lungs of the forest are so important to protect,” Guadalupe said. “If the government had not stepped in to reclaim this land, all of Ajusco would have looked like that.”

After the devastating earthquake of 1985, thousands fled to the outskirts of the city to rebuild and start new lives, many of them building on land they claimed for themselves. This unauthorized activity occurred everywhere and for the most part was unchallenged.

In Ajusco, however, the government took a stand. The area is not only an important recharge zone, but also is situated along the Chichinautzin Biological Corridor, a conservation initiative stretching from the northern Sierra Madre to Morelos in the south.

Here in the forests of Ajusco, “the place where water is born” in ancient Nahuatl, it’s easy to forget the proximity of what is, by some estimates, the world’s second-largest metropolis.

The restoration projects include plant nurseries, reforestation with native species, and bird monitoring. Educational programs begin with opportunities for preschool children to discover the natural world and also introduce birdwatching, butterflies, and acorns to older visitors. At the mariposario, staff collect eggs of butterflies, allow them to hatch and grow, and later release some into the wild and save the rest for a butterfly house, where children can experience the butterflies up close.

source (Creative Commons):

source (Creative Commons):

The park’s history highlights the difficult choices that arise when population and environment collide. In order to reclaim the land for the park in 1989, the government evicted thousands of people and bulldozed hundreds of homes that were built after the 1985 earthquake. Poor residents had little recourse but to move on, probably to another informal settlement. With urbanization swallowing up the surrounding landscape at a rapid pace, ecological parks like this one may seem but tiny islands. While “nature” may sometimes seem a luxury, these areas are vital to protect or restore wildlife habitat and support the ecosystem services that sustain the city and its residents. The parks also preserve opportunities for urban dwellers to interact with nature that may lead, one day, to a “cultura ambiental.”

From here to there…and back again

The United States National Park Service had a hand in the development of the Parque Ecologico. The Service’s Park Flight Program provided support for educational programs. Why the National Park Service? As the Park Flight brochure notes:

The U.S. National Park System provides habitat critical to many species of migratory birds, from raptors and shorebirds to songbirds. Continental and local declines in these bird populations have led to a concern for their future. Because these species use parks on a seasonal basis, their protection cannot be assured without conservation efforts occurring in the habitats the birds use throughout the year. This requires cooperative and coordinated efforts between the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, such as the Park Flight Migratory Bird Program, to protect breeding, migration, and wintering habitats, as well as a proactive approach to migratory bird conservation within the National Park Service (NPS).

The brochure offers a quote by Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac:

“Hemispheric solidarity is new among statesmen, but not among the feathered navies of the sky.”

Vancouver, Part 4 (Coda)

Image courtesy of Flickr:

Source (Creative Commons):

This image was taken somewhere in downtown Vancouver.

Before we move on from Vancouver, I thought it interesting that the city’s motto is: “By Sea, Land, and Air We Prosper.”

While I wonder how many  residents know Vancouver’s motto (or how often it is used to promote tourism), this is a good expression of how cities and people benefit from — and are connected by — nature.

Vancouver, Part 3

credit: Bradley Davis: BackpackPhotography,

credit: Bradley Davis: BackpackPhotography (Creative Commons)

As part of their trip to Canada, the Royal Couple visited Vancouver this weekend. Prince Charles stopped by Simon Fraser University to speak at a seminar about sustainable urbanism:

“Above all else I believe people should be provided with an alternative vision. Otherwise there just seems to be a rather monocultural approach to the way we do many things. And if you sit down with people and consult them as the inquiry by design technique does, it is quiet revealing to see what people feel about many [environmental] issues.

288067193_091109163732“And just at a time when we find there’s more and more interest in where food comes from, for instance in how it’s grown and the story behind the food we’re eating, so it seems to me it is of even more importance to consider the story about the way we live and the connection to nature and the world around us to culture and to local identity.

“It seems to me of great importance we think about these issues with care and don’t approach things with a monocultural exercise, rather like we do with forestry or anything else, like growing crops.

“So that all these things you can easily interlink, and the fact that we’ve fragmented ourselves in the way in which we look at nature, it seems as though we could do with rediscovering our intimate connection with nature at a time when the world is facing so many enormous challenges over climate change and environmental crises of one kind or another. And thinking of nature’s capital and community capital and how we live off the income of that capital, rather than just the capital, seems to me quiet important,” he said.

It was announced that The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment will collaborate with Simon Fraser University to develop a new advanced education curriculum in sustainable urbanism.

Vancouver, Part 2

Credit: Duncan Harris (Creative Commons)

Credit: Duncan Harris (Creative Commons)

Big Problems.

No doubt that all the talk—and action (or activity, some would say)—around “sustainability” is warranted by the scale and interconnectedness of the environmental and social challenges facing us.

Yet like me, many people find “green” (in its many shades) a bit confusing.

Structural changes, such as policy, built environment, etc., may have the most significant impact towards sustainability, but what about underlying attitudes? Just as urbanization has emerged as a driving force among global systems, the broad relationship between people and nature has changed over the last few decades. Can this relationship co-evolve towards a greater “awareness”?

Global environmental change represents the direct and indirect impacts of human behavior; it also reflects the collective experiences of individuals living in places. More and more, these places are urban. Perhaps there is much to be learned by paying attention to and valuing local nature (starting from where you stand).

To get back to Vancouver…

In this post, the Urban Treefrog gives thanks for a slice of urban nature:

Yesterday, was a beautiful sunny thanksgiving day for our walk… we saw a raptor bird, mole hills, a coyote, song birds, nurse tree stumps from Vancouver’s first growth forest, colourful toadstools, many beneficial species of trees (that offer medicinal value to people), and best of all, we learned of recent beaver activity. Yes, a real live busy beaver in an old inner city neighbourhood!

Photo credit: John Green, from

Photo credit: John Green, from

He goes on to explain, what made this Thanksgiving (Canadian Thanksgiving is in October) walk special was the group’s reminiscing about how concerned residents rallied some 13 years ago to save this area of urban forest from development. The story mentions that the internet and BBSs (!) played a part in their organizing.

So, we have much to be thankful for this weekend.

In particular, to all of our current and former neighbours who fought hard to keep our urban forest… especially to those individuals who are no longer with us, but left behind a magnificent legacy for a new generation to enjoy.

Photo from

Photo from

Efforts like this have had an effect across Vancouver. John Gray of the Stanley Park Ecology Society confirms that, “There has really been a growth in wildlife coming into Vancouver, a resurgence. It’s amazing what you can find in your community if you open your eyes.”

Opening kids’ eyes to nature is an important component of developing a conservation ethic and of promoting healthy living in cities. Daphne Solecki of the Young Naturalists’ Club of British Columbia emphasizes the value of experience with nature in the mental and physical development of children. Acknowledging the growing movement to address what Richard Louv has called “nature deficit disorder,” Solecki writes:

For about 1.5 million years of evolution, the lives of humans were intimately intertwined with nature. The challenges and opportunities of the natural world determined our livelihood, demanded our physical interaction, provided our pleasure and inspiration. This close relationship with nature shaped our lives in every way, so it is no wonder that suddenly being cut off from this relationship has a profound effect on children (and adults). Diminished problem-solving skills, inability to amuse themselves, increases in obesity and attention deficit disorder are linked to lack of free imaginative outdoor play.

It is recognized now that being out of doors for a period of time every day—not in organized sports activities but freely playing—helps children develop and learn with all their senses, sharpens their concentration, develops their curiosity, and improves their overall mental and physical health.

The Young Naturalists Club is one of many organizations that are bringing children and families closer to nature.  Solecki claims that these experiences also support the development of “responsible citizens” on the planet, quoting Robert Bateman:

We live in a society where youth recognize 1,000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 species of wildlife found in their communities. Having children learn local species’ names and characteristics will create increased awareness and understanding for wildlife, which will in turn instill increased empathy for their well being.

Finally, Samantha Charlton of Vancouver’s Environmental Youth Alliance, which has worked with youth on urban agriculture and horticultural therapy projects, comments on the supportive and restorative effects of local nature:

For 20 years, EYA has seen the healing benefits of wild spaces for individuals and communities. Creating these opportunities is a subtle, non-invasive way for us to attend to and give back to nature, allowing nature to also attend to us. To be in tune to the ebb and flow of ecological systems affirms that we as people are continually growing alongside them, enhancing and improving the way we are able manage the ups and downs of daily urban living.

As long as urbanization trends continue, ensuring that cities are supportive environments for new generations of residents must be a central concern. Reintegrating local nature into cities can help to ameliorate impacts on human beings and wildlife alike, as well as encourage ecological sustainability on a global scale.

We think and act on Big Problems; we live and learn and grow in places.

Photo from

Photo from

Vancouver, Part 1

“Every week humans create the equivalent of a city the size of Vancouver.”

This week, all roads seemed to lead to Vancouver.

First, I came across these lovely photos of a beautiful autumn day in Vancouver, Canada.

Stanley Park‘s 1,000 acres (400 hectares) make it the third largest urban park in North America.

This past week, Mother Nature Network listed Vancouver as its “Destination of the Week,” proclaiming that: “The city proves that, with a little planning and ingenuity, environmentalism and modernization do not need to be mutually exclusive.”

Then I read this blog post that cited a recent study by Robert MacDonald and Peter Kareiva from the Nature Conservancy. More than half of the six billion people in the world now live in urban areas. By 2030, the figure will be closer to 60 percent.

MacDonald and Kareiva examined the growing urban footprint and its potential impact on biodiversity, and this is what they found:

Ecoregions most affected by urban growth contain some of the highest concentrations of endemic species in the world — these places tend to be small, but significant.

Eight percent of the vertebrate species of the IUCN Red List of endangered species are there largely because of urban development. And that number may continue to rise with new urban expansion and growth.

Around 25 percent of the world’s protected areas will be within a day’s walk or half-hour drive of urban areas by 2030. Such proximity will increase the pressures on natural resources and intensify the threats to these protected places.

Kareiva emphasizes that urbanization and conservation must be considered together:

“We can set up all the reserves we want, but if we do not take care in where we place our cities, how we grow our cities, and how we live in our cities, then we will fail in our mission to protect biodiversity.”

The explosion of cities across the developing world — including  megacities and the small to medium-sized cities where most of the population growth will take place — presents significant challenges to governments lacking financial and administrative resources. Robert MacDonald says, “Only by addressing this growing conflict between cities and biodiversity can society achieve genuine conservation in an urbanizing world.”

Which brings us back to Vancouver. As the Conservancy report suggests, the rate of urbanization worldwide is like adding a city the size of Vancouver every week.

Last month, practitioners and policy makers gathered in Vancouver to discuss ecological governance and sustainable urban systems at the Gaining Ground Summit on “Resilient Cities: Urban Strategies for Transition Times.” At the Summit, Mayor Gregor Robertson introduced Vancouver 2020: A Bright Green Future, a strategy to make Vancouver the Greenest City. In doing so, Vancouver joined New York, Chicago, and other cities that have adopted climate action plans or sustainable development strategies. Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams also spoke about his city’s strategic planning efforts towards being the “most sustainable city.” (Portland released its climate action plan for 2050 last week.) Some interesting coverage of the Summit can be found here, here, and here.

Also of note: the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver will feature carbon offsets for the 118,000 tons of CO2 expected to be released by all activities related to the Games.