conservation Projects

How to start your summer

The St. Croix and its valley.Memorial Day weekend is just a few days away; it’s when summer gets real in Minnesota. The holiday really sneaked up on me this year, but that’s how summer is.

Soon, the blur and bustle of the season will be the only existence imaginable. A blast of hot and humid weather starting last weekend was a wake-up call that the season is underway, and I started thinking about how Minnesotans will celebrate the weekend.

I just posted an article over at Minnesota Trails magazine about great opportunities this weekend in our state’s many great parks:

Everyone knows that Memorial Day weekend marks the start of summer in Minnesota. The current blast of hot and humid weather has gotten a lot of folks pulling out the shorts and sandals, and looking for ways to enjoy our state’s great outdoors.

We’ve picked some of the most promising events and opportunities for fun scheduled in Minnesota’s state parks and trails this holiday weekend.

Whether you’re looking to learn about nature or history, or walk through the woods looking for birds, or even just get some pancakes, we’ve got something for you.

Memorial Day is not just an extra day off work, of course. It’s also a solemn holiday for all the brave Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Take a moment while you’re enjoying the parks and trails this weekend to remember those that never got the chance to, so you could.

I still don’t quite know what I’m going to do with myself this weekend, but I’ve certainly got a few ideas. Head on over to the magazine’s website for seven interesting events at parks around the state, as well as a special bonus featuring some paddling opportunities!

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River stewardship and online cartography

Kinnickinnic River Land Trust logoNext Saturday, the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust will organize crews of volunteers to fan out along the river’s 22 miles and pick up trash as part of an annual event. It’s a good spring cleaning for the premiere trout stream in the St. Croix River watershed.

I just completed an update of their interactive map, to help with the effort. A couple years ago, I created a Google Map displaying all the public access points to the river. At the time, I mostly located those maps by cross-referencing an old PDF map with satellite imagery. But, since I created it, some of the points have been found to be inaccurate, and there have even been a few new ones created along the river, with new DNR parking lots for anglers (or trash picker-uppers).

Additionally, in order to best organize the effort, the Land Trust staff split the river into seven sections, with 3-5 access points per stretch, and they wanted to have the map easily reflect those sections. So, I got to work.

This time around, Land Trust Conservation Programs Manager Eric Forward sent me a document with precise GPS coordinates for all the access points, as well as names for each, and notes for some. I used Google’s Spreadsheet Mapper tool for the initial input. I thought it was going to help me to get to final product, but either what I wanted to do isn’t possible in the tool, or I wimped out before I figured it out.

After entering all the points and their names into the Google Docs spreadsheet, I viewed the dynamic Google Map created with the data. At this point, all was fine and dandy. In the left-hand “table of contents,” the access points were handily organized by folders matching the seven river sections. Updating data would be as simple as updating the spreadsheet.

But… it wasn’t perfect:

  1. All the access points had identical markers, rather than separate colors/numbers for the different river sections.
  2. The content that was displayed when you clicked on a marker was a mess, with multi-column layouts that I didn’t need. I needed the name and number of the access point and a little room for description; the Land Trust’s logo and a link to its website would also be nice.
  3. The Spreadsheet Mapper tool provides six templates and–this is where it might be possible but I didn’t figure it out–I couldn’t edit the templates to get the layout I needed or the place marker unique for each section. I also had seven sections of river and couldn’t create one more to accommodate all seven sections.
  4. It seemed difficult to divorce the map from the spreadsheet back-end, so simply modifying the map right in Google Maps was problematic.

So, under a bit of a time crunch, I decided to get a little more manual. I exported the map as a KML file, and then opened it up in Google Earth, where I could pretty much edit to my heart’s delight. Then I created seven unique numbered markers, pretty simple black circles with unique fill colors, and I assigned each of these markers to a section of river. Lastly, and this was perhaps the most tedious, I created a basic HTML template and customized it for each of the 27 access points to include the necessary information.

When it was all done, I re-uploaded it to Google Maps for easy online viewing by Land Trust staff and volunteers. And here is the finished product:
View Kinnickinnic River access points in a larger map

Click here if you can’t see the map.


St. Croix River Week coming this July

A canoe rests on the shore of a narrow island
July, upper St. Croix River
“The assaults on the St. Croix watershed by development, run-off and loss of habitat, put at risk the river we protected 40 years ago. Without a renewed commitment, we could lose the most unique Wild and Scenic River in the nation. Our challenge is to act.”

– Walter F. Mondale

I received the following information from the St. Croix River Association about a big effort they are organizing this summer. Read through it and then please consider my questions below about how the online community might participate! Leave your ideas in the comments.

The St. Croix River Association is coordinating a 2010 St. Croix River Awareness Week, July 17-25, 2010.

The goal is to provide members of the St. Croix River Association and the community at large opportunities to engage cooperatively in intergenerational service projects for the sake of building a strong community of watershed stewards and restoring the health and beauty of the St. Croix River and its watershed. We hope to reach into every tributary.

Objectives are to:

  • Inspire stewardship action through role modeling
  • Offer hands-on participatory projects where people of all ages can feel empowered to take action and ‘make a difference’
  • Raise awareness of the state of the river and the watershed from source to mouth of the St. Croix River
  • Teach best practices for healthy water quality
  • Build awareness of how our actions on the land affect watershed health and the scenic quality of the Riverway
  • Educate people about efforts to monitor, inventory, and scientifically study the river and its environs
  • Celebrate the natural environment

You are invited to develop an event for your organization and yourself. Let the River Association know about it and we will publish it on our website and in our media releases.

I’d love to see the folks of the St. Croix River Facebook page, this blog, and other online communities come together dynamically and do something to participate in this effort. Let’s hear your ideas in the comments!

It’s important to note that a river is a narrow ribbon of water moving across the landscape, but it is so much more. It is also the vast tracts of land containing the streams, ponds, lakes, wetlands, springs, and other watery elements that ultimately join the river’s flow. This interactive map of the St. Croix River basin might be useful in thinking about the whole watershed:

View View larger map

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Defined by life

Eaarth, by Bill McKibben

This morning, Bill McKibben stood in the pulpit at the church that Katie and I have been going to for a few months. The author and climate change activist gave a brief talk–not a sermon–about where things stand with climate change and the work to do something before it’s too late.

McKibben is the founder of an effective and respected advocacy organization called Last October 24, they organized what CNN called the “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” comprised of 5,200 actions in 181 countries. McKibben’s 1989 breakthrough book, “The End of Nature,” was originally published serially in the New Yorker when he was a staff writer there.

One thing I learned was the origin of the “350” thing. It’s quite simple. In 2008, NASA scientists published a paper saying that 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is the breaking point for global warming:

If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.

James Hansen, et al, Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?, 2008

McKibben briefly covered much of what has been most widely discussed: the big, noticeable effects of global warming, like the melting Arctic and the vanishing polar bears. He warned that the climate bill that will be introduced in the U.S. Senate in 10 days by Sen. Kerry and others might as well have been written by the electric utility industry, is full of loopholes, and simply will not arrest the accelerating progress of global warming.

As far as President Obama’s actions, he paused at length and then said that Obama has done more on climate change than any previous President. Then he said that he had also drunk more beer than his 12-year-old niece.

I have lately been frustrated that the problem with a lot of environmental work is that there simply are too many humans. Other efforts can feel like treating the symptom, and not the cause. I got a kick out of the Center for Biological Diversity’s campaign of handing out condoms on Valentine’s Day with illustrations of endangered species printed on them.

Polar Bear condom package

The question of population growth was the first question put to McKibben after the service and he responded with some surprising information. He said that fertility rates are dropping and the planet’s population is expected to top out at about 9 billion in 20 or 30 years, I think. He said that obviously 9 billion is beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, but there is a bit of a fertility bubble right now and birth rates will soon start to slow.

McKibben then repeated something that I’ve been hearing more and more about lately, which is that programs that seek to educate and empower women in societies around the globe are proving remarkably effective at slowing population growth. Once women have options beyond just having a bunch of kids, they go from having six to maybe two. He also said that he is the proud parent of one child.

The population argument is also somewhat inconsequential because people in countries like the United States where birth rates are relatively low consume so much more of everything–including energy–than people in developing countries where birth rates might be higher. An American family uses as much energy between midnight on New Year’s Eve and dinner on January 2 as a Tanzanian family uses in a year.

People forming "350" in India
Hundreds of students at "Tiger Fest" in India call for 350 in order to protect endangered species like the tiger. (

There’s a lot of hype out there regarding climate change. McKibben impressed me as someone who had given a lot of information and theory and science a long, dispassionate examination, and was now very passionate about spreading what he had learned. He was in Minnesota for less than 24 hours, landing last night and catching a flight right after the second service. He speaks again tomorrow night in Portland, Oregon and the next night in Seattle. In fact, his touring schedule would put just about any rock and roll band to shame.

McKibben has a new book out, which also explains the furious tour. It’s called “Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet” (the second “a” in “Eaarth” is not a typo, the author said to “channel your inner-Schwarzenegger” when pronouncing it).

Wooded pasture

Our friends Brian and Rachel joined us for the service and we had breakfast afterward, then Katie and Rachel left to do some “crafting” and Brian and I ran an errand or two and then went back to our house, where we had a few cups of Oolong tea and played a game of chess. The sun was spilling in the bay window and the view to the lake was starting to be obscured by the burgeoning green on the trees.

We weren’t sure what to do with ourselves and the beautiful afternoon and decided to try to the samurai method we had been discussing earlier, which was that any major decision can and should be made in the length of time it takes to drink a cup of tea. We had a few cups of tea–I recently read that Oolong is considered to be best after three or four steepings (it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true!)–and considered our options as we played.

Red pines on the banks of a lake

We talked about the game a bit, again visiting on the idea that it is so enjoyable and endlessly complex, and also that it is a perfect distillment of war. But later I got thinking and realized it’s completely inaccurate in regards to war because in chess, the two sides start out perfectly equal, as far as numbers of soldiers, equipment, and resources.

What war has ever been fought between two perfectly equal forces? Underdogs can and often do win, but the very imbalance of the opposing forces and how their leaders respond to their own and their enemy’s strengths and weakness is the true test of a strategic mind.

Birch tree branches and pale spring leavespale

About the time we were drinking our third cup of tea and finishing up the game, I decided that some part of me wanted to get into Wisconsin. We packed up the dog and some provisions and pointed the car east. The iPod provided the Black Keys, Gorillaz, and lots more, but the music had to compete with the wind rushing in open sunroof and windows.

When we crossed the St. Croix, I figured out where I wanted to go and we navigated to a little county park with a lake where we had gone to swim and canoe and fish a few times in the past.

Speed limit 10 mph sign with wooded bluff in the background

The gate was locked across the road when we got the park, but that actually proved to be fortunate. There were a few other cars parked there so we joined them and set off walking up the road and into the park. It’s not a big park and if we’d driven in we might not have gotten much of a walk. And, in this season of so many ticks, walking on the road was frankly sort of relieving.

The road climbed a big hill through dry grassy hills and I felt like we were walking in some parks I remember in western North Dakota. Lola ran ahead, checking out the tops of the hills on both sides of us. After reaching the top, we were able to see the valley to our right where there were a couple horse farms nestled in between the ridges and not much else around. It exceeded my arbitrary aesthetic standards. It looked like heaven, really.

A horse grazes on a Wisconsin farm with budding and blooming trees around it.

Although I thought we would just walk on the road down to the lake where Lola could swim, we spotted a trail that headed that way and decided to check it out. It was a beautiful trail which wound down the hill through woods, primarily planted red pine, which I can’t help having a fondness for.

The trail was beautifully-constructed; often it was inexplicably carpeted in moss. Rocks and timbers had been well-placed and erosion-preventing waterbars had been placed generously. The trail slowly cut down the hills sideways and soon, the lake began to appear shimmering through the woods. It is a cold, clear lake not open to motors and is home to stocked rainbow trout and the biggest largemouth bass I’ve ever caught.

Turquoise water in a Wisconsin lake

Down at the lake, Lola finally got to swim. She had been driving for the water from the moment it came in sight and one could feel her happiness when she finally plunged in.

There were some other folks fishing around a bend, but otherwise there was no one around. We took a break at a picnic table in the shade before heading back up and a loon splashed around on the lake and called one short call while we sat and watched the water.

Wooded hillsides

Perch Lake seen from above on a hill

A moss-covered hiking trail


How online communities can combat graffiti vandalism of natural wonders

Last night, I posted a photo of graffiti vandalism at Fairy Falls on the St. Croix River page on Facebook, with a brief “open letter” to the vandals:

What jerks do in the woods.
"Hey, jerks - Why would you want to deface a beautiful cliff like this? What kind of way is this to act? Fairy Falls is a beautiful place, your scribblings add nothing to it."

As I expected, the reaction from many of the 13,000 fans of the river was pretty severe, with the post accumulating 60+ comments within about 12 hours:

Angela Y: If you want to do graffiti, don’t do it to deface property and other things. Do light graffiti. No damage. No problem.

Becky P: I grew up mere feet from Fairy Falls. Never had these kinds of problems back then–which wasn’t too long ago. Maybe the occasional “Bob + Jane” scratched into a rock here and there.

Kristin K: What a shame…we love to go eat our lunches there in the summers…Stupid KIDS!

“How can we help??”

Also, not surprisingly, but still very affirming as to the power of online communities, the first reaction of several individuals was to bypass outrage and start thinking about solutions. Many folks wanted to help clean it up:

Angie H: that is a terrible sight to see….How do we fix it?

Paul R: How can we help??

Bridget B: though it may very well be our own kids doing it, lets pull our kids into the effort; that’s one way to help them appreciate the beauty of pristine, natural sites such as the Falls. Pull your kids’ friends into it as well!

By this morning, action had already started to occur. A fan of the page reported he had already gone out there this morning and picked up a garbage-bag full of trash:

Brandon Z: Yeah, I picked up one load of garbage, drove home to throw it away, and now I am out of gas so there isn’t much I can do about round 2.

Other interested folks were doing the legwork to organize a more formal effort, particularly in regards to finding out how to remove the spray paint. The National Park Service, which manages Fairy Falls as part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, ought to at least be informed of any such activities:

Solvay P: I have contacted the National Parks Service – I’m awaiting a response from them about how this clean-up effort should proceed.

Want to get involved in the effort? Visit the discussion on Facebook.

Cave drawings?

An interesting aside to the graffiti discussion was the few people who actually defended the act. One individual broke out an argument I had heard before but had generally dismissed without really thinking about:

Jeff W: how are cherished cave drawings any different?

Although I think the differences are pretty obvious, thinking about it was actually kind of fun, and I came up with the following:

…most pictographs and the such were a) painted using native materials, not synthetic spray paint, b) generally small and in earth tones so they complemented where they were painted, but did not attempt to distract from the natural beauty, and c) were usually small and in inconspicuous locations so they weren’t visible from a hundred yards away.

Another individual put eloquently what I think are perhaps the more obvious distinctions:

Becky P: I’d start with the fact that these paintings tell us nothing about pre-literate cultures (avoiding a rather cruel joke here). I’d say that prehistoric man was not concerned with suburban delinquent turf wars. I’d say that a glut of space meant that natural resources were less important 1500 years ago. I’d say that the paints prehistoric humans used weren’t comprised of polluting chemicals.