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The New Normal

Edward Abbey said that “the idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” A bay without oysters is no longer wild. A coast without prairie is no longer wild. Land smothered by Brazilian peppertree is no longer wild. Wilderness does need defenders, even if such defense offends those who should be our friends.

Hiroshima oysters by Ted Lee Eubanks A recent article in Bioscience declared oysters to be "functionally extinct." According to the Huffington Post

An international team of researchers led by Michael Beck of the Nature Conservancy and the University of California, Santa Cruz, examined the condition of native oyster reefs in 40 ecoregions, including 144 bays.

"Oyster reefs are at less than 10 percent of their prior abundance in most bays (70 percent) and ecoregions (63 percent)," said the study.

"They are functionally extinct — in that they lack any significant ecosystem role and remain at less than one percent of prior abundances in many bays (37 percent) and ecoregions (28 percent) — particularly in North America, Australia and Europe."

Miller and Spoolman (Essentials of Ecology) noted that a century ago "oysters were so abundant that they cleaned and filtered the Chesapeake's entire volume of water every three days…Now oysters have been reduced to the point where this filtration process takes a year." In 1837 Audubon found Galveston Bay gin clear; in 2008 Hurricane Ike buried 60% of Galveston's remaining oyster reefs under feet of suffocating silt and sediment. The BP fiasco has added oil and dispersants to the growing list of threats faced by Gulf reefs. 

The native oyster in the Gulf of Mexico, Crassostrea virginica, is a keystone species. Oysters are ecosystem engineers, modifying bay habitats through reef building and filter feeding. Early Galveston oyster reefs were so immense that they were outlined on topographic maps. I remember oysters so abundant that reefs were dredged to supply material for roads and parking lots.

Oysters filter the bay, allowing sea grasses and other aquatic vegetation to flourish in clear waters. I did not see Galveston Bay gin clear, but I did witness the demise of the sea grasses. Wigeongrass, turtlegrass, and shoalgrass once carpeted the near shore, largely disappearing in the 1970s. Among the chief causes of the demise is light attenuation, weasel words to describe the loss of water clarity. Subsidence in Galveston Bay deepened near-shore waters, thereby increasing wave action and turbidity. If one adds fleets of bottom-plowing shrimpers, jet skis, up-stream development, and personal water craft, the grass had no chance.

Canvasback by Ted Lee EubanksWaterfowl such as canvasback and redhead were impacted as well. Both were common in the Galveston game markets in the 1800s. Both, victims of the same drastic changes, are now rarely seen in the bay. Sea turtles too were once plentiful in these waters, but over harvesting, pollution, and a loss of habitat led to their decline as early as the 1890s.

This week hundreds of birders rushed to Galveston Island State Park, another altered coastal habitat, to see a fork-tailed flycatcher. I noticed that in most of the photos the bird is perched in some woody shrub. Much of this is baccharis, with scattered yaupon and waxmyrtle. None of this would have been present in Audubon's time. Chestnut-collared longspurs and Sprague's pipits would have been common then, scurrying through the dense grasses bordering the dunes. Trees were limited to one grove, Lafitte’s Grove, near the west end of the island. With fire extinguished, and grazing gone, former coastal prairies are now morphing into scrub. 

Each day we are faced with a new normal. We are told that "rentalship" is the new ownership and that an economy with high unemployment and few manufacturing jobs is the new normal. McKinsey has reported that "the business landscape has changed fundamentally; tomorrow’s environment will be different, but no less rich in possibilities for those who are prepared." McKinsey and Company is the “the firm that built the house of Enron,” according to the Observer. Let’s pray that this new McKinsey normal has fewer economic collapses than the last one.

What is the new ecological normal? The ESA is only intended to return populations to sustainable levels, i.e., like we found them in the first place. Keystone species such as the oyster, bison, and prairie dog are no longer present in sufficient numbers to engineer the landscape. Blackbirds are pests, so we poison them. Wolves prey on game animals, so we shoot them. Bison wander off the Yellowstone range in winter, so we cull them. Nature is being shoe-horned into progressively tighter spaces, as "wild" is being redefined to align better with our personal cravings. 

Black-tailed Prairie Dog by Ted Lee Eubanks Consider this example. Prairie dogs are to the prairie what oysters are to the bay. Utah prairie dogs have been reduced from their historic acreage of 448,000 acres to around 7,000 acres today – a decline of over 98%. The species is currently listed as threatened, and a federal judge has ordered the USFWS to reconsider its 2007 ruling which rejected a higher level of protection. According to the Desert News, "Mike Styler, the executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, has told state policymakers that Utah should avoid at all costs any elevated listing of the Utah prairie dog — and should work hard to get them removed from protected status." Isn't the Utah DNR supposed to protect wildlife like the prairie dog, or is this too the new normal?

Newt Gingrich would like to disband the EPA. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), incoming chair of the House subcommittee on public lands, has said that "it is unacceptable that our federal lands continue to serve as drug trafficking and human smuggling superhighways…along the 1,933-mile border with Mexico," and that "strict environmental regulations are enabling a culture of unprecedented lawlessness." Republican Congressman John Shimkus has been selected to head up the new Environment and Economy Subcommittee under the new Republican-majority House. According to the Congressman, climate change is a huge, leftist conspiracy and comparable in its horrors to 9/11, referring to it as “the largest assault on democracy and freedom in this country that I’ve ever experienced.”

There is no requirement that a public official have an environmental bone in his or her body. One can be a talk show host or holy roller and spout hocus-pocus with no threat of retribution or refutation. No matter how ludicrous the claim, all you need are viewers, votes, or donors to get a pass.

There is no rule or law that requires birders to be conservationists, either. There is no birding license, no mandate that birders have a basic knowledge of and sensitivity to the natural world. But doesn't being a seeing, educated, lucid, sentient creature require that you at least acknowledge the gradual, incremental diminution of nature, of life? How is it that some birders fail to acknowledge that which is most obvious? How can one watch yet not see?

Perhaps one reason is that each new generation of birders judges the world by the normal they inherit. Gulf fallouts are now a shadow of the past, for example. If you began birding recently, though, these diminished numbers are all that you have ever known.

Another reason is that birding is a soft-edged, amorphous recreation; each person approaches both the recreation and the resource in an individualized fashion. For example, there are consumer birders that care little about the natural world except for how many ticks, how many rarities, and how many lifers nature can provide. These consumer birders collect birds as commodities, much like people collect spoons, matchbooks, or beer bottles.

In the past Fermata surveyed birders along the Platte River in Nebraska, where we found avid birders that were disappointed in their experience because they had failed to see the one common crane present that year among the thousands of sandhills. Casual birders, however, were overwhelmed by the immensity of the experience (hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes filling the river), and apparently they could not have imagined a more awe-inspiring day outside. 

Bolivar Flats by Ted Lee EubanksI have seen the consuming side of birding more times than I care to mention. I recall birders threatening never to return to High Island the first morning Houston Audubon charged an entrance fee. I remember the birders complaining about not being able to drive out to see the Bolivar Flats shorebirds after Houston Audubon placed the first bollards restricting vehicular traffic. Consider this photograph, taken of the original bollards a short time after they were placed. To the right you see where cars and trucks were still allowed to park. To the left you see vegetation already becoming reestablished, trapping sand, and building dunes. Why would anyone oppose this?

A number of consumer birders opposed Teaming with Wildlife, an effort to implement an excise tax similar to that paid by hunters and anglers. Those funds would have been used to help states finance their nongame programs. With parks and wildlife budgets being slashed this year (40% in Texas), those additional funds from birders would be most welcome now.

Birders in Ohio have been upset by the planned closure of two carbon-belching coal-fueled power plants along the lake shore.

Jim McCormac, an avian education specialist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, called the power plants "ecotourism magnets" that draw birders from across the Midwest. He wrote an article on Northeast Ohio's power plant birding that is scheduled to appear in the next issue of Birder's World magazine.

"This is a real bummer," McCormac said. "The openings in the lake caused by those warm water outflows from the power plants created some of the best and easiest birding on the entire Great Lakes in winter. Of course, it is an entirely unnatural phenomenon."

Birders still complain about the elimination of traffic and RV camping in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, even though the beneficial effects were seen within days of the closure. Here is a recent quote from a Texas birder on Texbirds:

When they shut it [Bentsen] down to camping from my perspective they ruined it. 

Port Aransas Birding Center by Ted Lee Eubanks The most recent example of consumer birding is again from Texas. A few days ago Texbirds buzzed with complaints about "carnage" at the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. The City of Port Aransas decided to remove Brazilian peppertree from the sanctuary before it spread even further, and a number of birders erupted in outrage. Here are a few of their quotes (at least the ones that can be shared in polite company):

  • Hopefully we can change the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce's mind in time before we are kicking through dead golden-winged, cerlulean [sic], and swainson's warblers in the parking lot. 
  • Please contact the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce ASAP and voice your concern. No one else can help the migrant birds. They have no voice. Only our voices will be able to stop this insanity.
  • Although the Brazilian Pepper is a hated invader, it serves a valuable purpose on Mustang and Padre Islands. Although the prevailing logic is destroy all by any means, these barrier islands should stand as an exception. 
  • I see it as hypocritical for birders who are supporting the outright removal of these peppers to even get near these two fine birding spots. They are not what you want. Go find an oak tree 50 miles inland and stand around it. Enjoy your Chipping Sparrows.
  • The fact of the matter is, these barrier islands just need trees and plants, regardless of their origin. 

Is it the birds that need these trees and plants, or the birders? Here are additional revelations from the same peppertree advocates:

  • Last spring a number of birders were delighted to see at eye level a male Cerulean Warbler using the pepper trees next to the larger of the two huisache trees. Some Texbirders may remember seeing this particular bird. Well that stand of pepper trees is just about gone!! 
  • As long-time island residents, [we have] observed hordes of passerines feeding in Oleander, salt-cedar, Brazilian Pepper, and numerous nursery-stock plants. All are unfavorable exotics, most are destructive and competitive to other plant life. But they serve a much-needed purpose in this unique environment.
  • I couldn't even get one to grow in Austin. I tried, no dice. Too cold. Why would I do such a thing? I can't even count how many species I've seen relating to or eating directly from these plants – even when other choices were available.
  • Every spring I see people sitting at the picnic table watching the birds both in the trees and underneath in the shaded water.
  • I also think that its pretty funny that most of the best birders in the state have taken the side with [the Brazilian pepper].  These people have spent thousands of hours out in the field and seen first hand how the birds react to nature.  Maybe more time should be spent outdoors watching and learning about wildlife rather than sitting in front of a computer all day reading reports from people with Phd's that wouldn't Know [sic] a cerulean warbler if they hit it with there [sic] Smart Car.  
  • Of course I'm concerned about the birding hotspot. Hell, it wouldn't be a hotspot if there were no birds…..looks like it's time to get on the phone with these jackasses in Port A….

Yellow Warbler, Port Aransas Birding CenterAsk our readers from Florida about the plant that these birders are so vigorously defending. Brazilian peppertree now blankets around 700,000 acres in that state alone. Like Chinese tallow, Brazilian peppertree is a facilitative wetland species; it will dominate a diversity of upland and wetlands habitats. The dense canopy shades out all other plants and provides a very poor habitat for native species. In Texas, Brazilian peppertree is considered to be one of the most aggressive and undesirable exotic plants in the state, so much so that "no person may import, possess, sell, or place them into water of this state except as authorized by rule or permit issued by the [Texas Parks and Wildlife] department."

Yet here we have birders, allegedly among the best in the state, aggressively defending this trespasser. How can we explain this contradiction to the public? How do we make any sense out of this incongruity? How do we decipher quotes such as "the sooner people concentrate on saving habitat and less on "invasive" plants, the better off the birds and other wildlife will be?"

Hunting and fishing traditionally have been termed consumptive recreations, with hunters and anglers being required to contribute to conservation and restoration through their license fees and excise taxes. Game is harvested at sustainable levels, and the funding helps replace the fish and wildlife sacrificed through the recreation. Hunters and anglers have rightly argued that this approach has served us well for decades (certainly since the passage of Pittman-Robertson in 1937).  Hunters and anglers do pay for conservation, wittingly or not.

With birding, licensing is not a requirement. There is no federal birding stamp, and no Texas birding license. Birders pay no additional excise tax on their equipment. Port Aransas does not charge for entry into its birding center; birders use the facility without being required to give anything back. Birders are able to enjoy this facility through the generosity of the town. Look what happens, though, when Port Aransas is seen to be impinging on a consumer birder’s rights. Look how quickly they will turn a benefactor into a jackass.

Aldo Leopold wrote the following:

American Oystercatcher by Ted Lee Eubanks One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

There are those in the birding community who do not want to be told otherwise. Fortunately they are a small minority. I understand how the decline of the oyster reefs, the loss of coastal prairie, and the invasion of Brazilian pepper in Port Aransas may be invisible to laymen. But why to this group of birders? Is this the new normal, that dark moment when an ephimeral pleasure, to see that next cerulean warbler, trumps any ecological or moral obligation to the future? 

Edward Abbey said that “the idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” A bay without oysters or oystercatchers is no longer wild. A coast without prairie is no longer wild. Land smothered by Brazilian peppertree is no longer wild. Wilderness does need defenders, even when the defense offends those who should be our friends. 

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Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks is president and CEO of Fermata Inc. an Austin-based global leader is sustainable tourism and outdoor recreation. Eubanks and Fermata were responsible for developing the first birding trails, in Texas, in the early 1990s. He has served on the national boards of Audubon and the CLO, and received the first ABA Chan Robbins Award in 2000. Eubanks writes extensively about birds, conservation, and sustainability, and has coauthored two books about birds (The Birdlife of Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast, and Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). To continue his work connecting people to places, birders to birds, Eubanks has formed a new company, Great American Trails, which is using new technologies to attract new constituents to the outdoors.
Ted Lee Eubanks

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