On the wing with whooping cranes and Operation Migration


Last week, 20 young whooping cranes completed their first migration led by their mentors in flight, ultralight aircraft flown by pilots from Operation Migration. The 89-day, 1285-mile (km) journey started at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and traversed seven states, until the cranes reached their destinations at the St. Marks and Chassahowitzka NWRs in Florida. Over nine years, Operation Migration has helped to rebuild a decimated whooping crane population, teaching cranes to fly and migrate; from there, the cranes’ instincts will take over. What a wonderful, even poetic, story…but it’s much more than that.

For someone watching a 30-second news segment on TV or reading the quick general interest article in the local paper (some coverage can be found here, here, and here), it’s easy to marvel at the dramatic images of an ultralight leading whooping cranes across the sky.

Now that the migration season is over, I read through the Field Journal on Operation Migration’s website. I highly recommend it. Three months of daily entries by Liz Condie and the OM pilots, staff and volunteers reveal a grander, more epic journey and a deeper, more complex relationship between the humans, the cranes, the wind, and the land.


The birdmen/birdwomen of Operation Migration

Adult cranes have 7-foot wingspans, which means they are built to ride thermals. But the pilots seem to have as much flight in their DNA as do the cranes. Tucked into their “trikes” (as the ultralights are called), they read, test, and prod the air, negotiating cold and cross-winds. Pilot and crane alike share an aversion to turbulence, also known as rough or “dirty” air.

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What are Landscape Conservation Cooperatives?

“…climate change does not respect juridictional boundaries.”
– Hector Galbraith, Director – Climate Change Initiative, Manomet Center for Conservation Studies

Of course, no sooner do I post about colleges and universities collaborating at the bioregional level than I come across this exciting initiative from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: landscape conservation cooperatives.

From the Service’s FAQ sheet:

What are landscape conservation cooperatives?
Landscape conservation cooperatives, or LCCs, are self-directed, applied conservation science partnerships that will drive success at landscape scales. Collectively they create a seamless, national network of interdependent partnerships between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, other federal agencies, states, tribes, NGOs, universities and other entities which will inform resource management decisions to address national-scale stressors, including climate change.

Seeking to “address the impacts of accelerating climate change on wildlife and the habitats upon which they depend,” the Service has pulled together a national collaborative strategy for strategic habitat conservation on the landscape level, seeking to “put the right science in the right places.”

Check out this video (4:08) from the Service’s Northeast Region:

Source: USFWS Northeast Region (If you have trouble viewing the video, you can also visit this page.)

As pointed out in the video, LCCs provide a new institutional framework for addressing ecological issues beyond the state level. The FWS proposed an interim national geographic framework of 21 conservation areas.

Just as flyways have provided an effective spatial frame of reference to build capacity and partnerships for international, national, state and local waterfowl conservation, the national geographic framework will provide a continental platform upon which the Service can work with state and other partners to connect project- and site-specific efforts to larger biological goals and outcomes. By providing visual context for conservation at “landscape” scales — the entire range of a priority species or suite of species — the framework helps ensure that resource managers have the information and decision-making tools they need to conserve fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats in the most efficient and effective way possible.

Source: US Fish & Wildlife Service

From these 21 areas, the Service is forming eight initial LCCs in the following geographic areas: Pacific Islands, Great Plains, Plains and Prairie Potholes, South Atlantic, North Atlantic, Great Northern, California and Arctic.

Working Together for Wildlife — and People

In June 2009, the Service convened the inaugural Conservation Leadership Forum to launch discussions toward the development of the national strategy.

Though the primary objective of the strategy is ensuring abundant, healthy, and distributed populations of fish and wildlife, leaders noted the effort would be tied to a larger goal of improving quality of life for all Americans by providing clean water, clear air and “green” infrastructure critical to sustainable and healthy human communities. While investments in the strategy would be national, the group agreed collaboration and information sharing must extend to the global community. …

Forum participants also agreed the strategy must be developed with an eye toward the future. By 2050, Selzer said, the U.S. population is projected to be mostly urban, minority, and increasingly beset by health issues such as asthma and diabetes. He urged the group to view its conservation work in the larger context of a changing society and articulate a vision that resonates with tomorrow’s audiences.

The LCC brings a valuable approach to coordinating scientific research and for promoting preservation. The Service’s information mentions a “continental” platform, so it will be interesting to see how this initiative integrates research and policy beyond the U.S. borders, as well as how it connects with the efforts of the Wildlands Network. I also wonder what other interdisciplinary collaborations might evolve from this landscape perspective.

Connecting Colleges by “Nature States”: public universities for the 21st Century (part 1)

“All education is environmental education.”
– David W. Orr

It’s time to update the mission of U.S. land-grant and state universities to align education and research with a growing understanding of ecosystems and the world’s changing environmental and social conditions. That means working together across landscapes and bioregions. We need colleges connected by nature.

In the last post, I proposed adapting the idea of NCAA athletic conferences in a way that fosters bioregional collaboration among US colleges and universities in order to understand better and promote awareness of nature and ecosystems. (I was, admittedly, in the throes of bowl season.)

Many of the major state universities — including those belonging to the six conferences in the Bowl Championship Series — share a common origin as land-grant institutions, which were created by Congress during the mid-1800s.

“A State University for the Industrial Classes”

Let’s take a quick look at the historical roots of the land-grant university.

During the middle of the 19th century, the industrial revolution began to transform life and work across a largely agrarian America. Led by the populist preachings of Jonathan Baldwin Turner and the statesmanship of Representative Justin Morrill from Vermont, a reform movement arose in the (these) still fragmented United States and territories. Congress responded to the call to open up education and opportunity to the growing “industrial classes.” Previously, higher education was accessible mainly to the elites and focused on classical studies. (If one considers that currently only half of Americans have attended any college, and approximately one quarter graduate with a Bachelors degree, significant disparities in educational attainment remain.)

The Morrill Act of 1862, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, called for each state to establish a major public university,

without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

Turner’s words, carved onto the main quadrangle of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1867 (then the Illinois Industrial University), capture the context of a nation in transition: “Industrial Education Prepares the way for the Millenium of Labor.”

The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 (the latter to incorporate the former Confederate States) launched the expansion of education through land-grant and public universities and supported the widespread agricultural and industrial development of the United States. The precursors to Michigan State and Penn State became the first land-grant institutions.

Today, the 218 universities (including 76 land-grant institutions) included in the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities now enroll 4.7 million students annually and claim 20 million alumni. (18.2 million students were enrolled in 4800 colleges and universities in the US in 2007.)

Public and land-grant universities for the 21st century

A century and a half since the Morrill Act, our world is in transition again. Populations are much more urban, more mobile. (Students and academics are also more mobile.) Families are smaller; life expectancy is greater. Advances in medicine and sanitation have brought many diseases under control. Food is more plentiful for many. The human world is more connected in many ways. Information, news, and gossip flow at speeds previously unimaginable.

In the US, people live less connected to nature. We plug into electronic forms of entertainment. Manufacturing has given way to a service-based economy. We know little about the origin and resources embodied in goods and products. The fulfillment of needs has merged with the encouragement of wants and the tyranny of convenience.

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The Green Campus and Beyond: from bowl games to bioregions?

Photo by Ian Ransley (Flickr CC)

The start of winter and the new year bring many things: Christmas bird counts, whale migration along the Pacific Coast, New Year’s resolutions, and…college football bowl games (U.S. colleges, U.S. football).

Ah, you say, that last one makes you…a) giddy, b) annoyed, c) like, whatever. (I get a thrill out of watching college football, but don’t catch it that often.)

Last night, in the final game of the season (and the last of 34 bowl games), the Alabama Crimson Tide rolled over the Texas Longhorns to claim the BCS National Championship. 92,000 fans packed the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, to witness the matchup. Another 30 million tuned in to watch the game on television.

What does this represent? Big bucks. College football is a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S. (think hats and T-shirts, hotels and restaurants, alumni donations and TV rights). In 2005, the 121 football teams of what was then called Division 1-A (now Football Bowl Division) generated US$1.8 billion for their colleges.

Of course, the ultimate value of a football program to these institutions of higher learning is, supposedly, to further their educational and research mission.

So what does this have to do with people and nature?

Photo of Austin by Jaredten (CC)

Alma mater and Mother Earth

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine college football as a network of places and regions

What do you see when you picture a college stadium on game day? The swath of crimson or orange or blue t-shirts reflects a strong self- (and collective) identification with an institution. These fans are invested in the ongoing success (at least football-wise) of an institution. They maintain a vital connection with a place.

Now, I know not everyone relates strongly with college sports or goes to a school with a team or even attends college. But it is a big part of American culture. And for some, the sports seasons are as important as spring, summer, fall, and winter.

On the field or in the media, sports teams stand in for their respective colleges and places — and states, conferences, or regions. Tuesday night, following the Orange Bowl, a sportscaster asked the quarterback of Iowa what it meant to him to represent mid-America. Bowl games still offer intriguing contests between teams from different regions that don’t normally play each other.

The regular college sports season revolves primarily around teams playing other colleges within their respective conferences, which are mostly regional groupings of schools. The reason for the proximity is practical: less travel time and expense for teams and fans (mostly students). I suppose having regional rivals also means enough familiarity to develop “healthy competition” (i.e., acceptable levels of contempt). The conference name often reflects the region: Southeastern Conference, Mountain West, Pac-10.

Now look at this through another lens. Regional affiliations means that the schools may share landscapes or other connections through nature.

I looked at some regional maps (here) of NCAA or other athletic conferences and then compared them with these maps of ecological regions. Some possible relationships:

  • The Pac-10 and Atlantic Coast Conferences link universities along major flyways and migration routes.
  • The Ohio Valley, Big South, and Ivy League conferences share watersheds or ecoregions.
  • The universities of the Big 12 cover the breadth of the Great Plains.

Image from EPA/Commission for Environmental Cooperation

Beyond the green campus

As American society becomes more urbanized and life more media-saturated, what’s the role of the university in fostering a land or nature ethic?

Undoubtedly, college campuses across the nation are hotbeds of “sustainability.” Students are concerned about their future and what to contribute to a better world. The “green campus” seems to emphasize energy and resources, or operations and planning. These are important changes that can be made. Beyond that, what are the complements to becoming “carbon neutral” in the educational mission of the university?

The crux of making the transition to sustainability is large scale behavior change. Policy and regulation are essential tools, as are technological advances, but systemic change may ultimately reflect new patterns of individual and social behavior. Is there a concurrent push to educate and develop residents, community members, and decision-makers who are ecologically aware — not simply to emit less CO2, but also to act in greater alignment with the natural systems that support our world?

How might these institutions of higher learning take the regional relationships of competition and develop corresponding relationships of cooperation to

  • foster a higher level of awareness of natural systems
  • inculcate within students a greater appreciation of place and context, especially where young adults may spend four years

College education represents an important transitional phase for young adults — as much about social relationships and networks, growth and distraction, as it is about books. But writ large, it is about finding a place in the world.

Today’s institutions of higher learning introduce students to a broader horizons of time and space. In a sense, though, “higher education” tends towards ways of understanding that are more abstracted, more disciplined, less experiential, certainly less outdoors. The community of scholars usually has more in common with other similarly disciplined individuals scattered across the globe than with the world across the street, along the river, in the valley. But as some have observed, even in the era of globalization, the world isn’t really flat; it is made of people living in places.

Especially in today’s culture, a student may spend two or four years on a campus without developing any real connection to or awareness of the natural world. The Leave No Child Inside movement, led by Children and Nature, takes on “nature deficit disorder” at a formative age. Some projects, such as Classroom Earth, focus on high school students.

Given the rise of nature-deficit disorder, colleges may be tasked with a new kind of remedial education.

This world of climate change and degradation of the ecosystems that support the well-being of human society and all life on earth calls for a rewidgeting of the academic disciplines. Social sciences can highlight ecological and behavioral economics, sustainable security, ecosystem services.

For an analogy, one might look to the evolution of the environmental movement. Initially, the movement focused on point-source pollution and its impacts on air and water quality. As many of those conditions improved through effective regulations and education, non-point-source pollution became the greater challenge. The pervasive, systemic issues that underlie global warming and biodiversity loss, etc. require new approaches.

If one thinks of campuses (and college communities) as embedded in nature’s systems, then alongside campus greening, we can look beyond single institutions to how they relate in natural networks. The sustainable campus is a site specific endeavor. The sustainable conference or ecoregion or flyway may offer possibilities for higher education to support future generations.

Faithful college football fans — and other alumni — hold dear the alma mater, which is Latin for “nourishing mother.”  Perhaps  college can become a place where people can develop deeper connections both to home and to the larger world.


I imagine there are great examples of innovative work going on out there. If you know of colleges connected by nature, schools working together to promote a better understanding of place and the value of natural systems — or have other thoughts on this — please share them below.

Next post: Land-grant universities for the 21st century

Happy 2010! Where You At? (a bioregional quiz)

Photo by Jillyspoon (Flickr CC)

As the new year and new decade begins, I thought I’d post a version of the bioregional quiz. It’s a thought-provoking set of questions worth revisiting periodically.

I recall first encountering the quiz in The Whole Earth Catalog during the late 1980s. The questions were intriguing for a city kid. All these years later, I can answer more — but, frankly, not many more — of the questions than I could back then. Certainly, there seem to be more distractions these days. For me, the point of the quiz is not to provide a list of items one must know; rather, it’s a point of departure for reflecting on one’s natural environment.

The bioregional quiz first appeared in 1981 under the title, “Where You At?,” in CoEvolution Quarterly, which later evolved into The Whole Earth Review. The version below comes from Kevin Kelly’s post, “The Big Here.”

You live in the big here. Wherever you live, your tiny spot is deeply intertwined within a larger place, imbedded fractal-like into a whole system called a watershed, which is itself integrated with other watersheds into a tightly interdependent biome. (See the world eco-region map ). At the ultimate level, your home is a cell in an organism called a planet. All these levels interconnect. What do you know about the dynamics of this larger system around you? Most of us are ignorant of this matrix. But it is the biggest interactive game there is. Hacking it is both fun and vital.

Along with figuring out one’s ecological footprint, the bioregional quiz is a helpful tool for developing a concept of one’s connections with nature’s resources. The advantage of the quiz is that it focuses on “place,” that is, a local or regional context. This awareness can support better local choices. And, as Kelly suggests, places are interconnected. Most of the current focus on “sustainability” provides few answers to the questions included in the quiz.

As it’s been said, “wherever you go, there you are.”

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