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Issue #10, August 2010

Providing a conduit between science and the public

Newsletter Editor: Jacek Lupina
Webmaster: Mike Brockway
Former seabed of The Aral Sea

Aral Sea Project

by David McGowan

Professors Nikolay Aladin and Philip Micklin visited Ravenswood Media to discuss their Aral Sea film project, Lake of Despair, Lake of Hope. Nick is with the St. Petersburg Institute of Zoology and has been involved in Aral Sea studies since the 1970s. Phil wrote an article for Science in 1988, Water Management Crisis in the Soviet Union that got Nick's attention. The two have been working together ever since to find solutions to the Aral Sea problem.

Our role is to clearly communicate the reasons for saving the Aral Sea and establish the narrative for how this will be accomplished.

Nick described the Aral Sea catastrophe as one of a three part series of human bumbling: Chernobyl, Aral Sea and the Gulf Oil Spill. The more power humans have over the environment, the more serious the consequences of our mistakes. Scientists, like Nick and Phil, are our best hope in controlling the inevitable screw-ups and avert disasters in the first place. Unfortunately, they and their colleagues are relegated to Cassandra roles or worse - pilloried by a media that doesn't understand the issues.

Soviet authorities were anxious to grow cotton in the desert of Central Asia. They were aware that the Aral Sea was shrinking by the late 1960s. Nick described the attitude at the time "They absolutely believed that capitalism would collapse in the next 5-10 years. Their thinking was 'Yes, this is an environmental crime but we're in a race now. We can come back and fix it later.'" Today, the Aral Sea is one tenth the size that it was in 1960.

Satellite photo of shrinking Aral Sea

The history of the Aral Sea is a cycle of death and rebirth. Tamerlane in his conquest of Central Asia had diverted the Amu River that feeds the Aral Sea in an act of medieval environmental terrorism. World maps printed at the time of Columbus, nearly 100 years after Tamerlane, did not indicate the Aral Sea. Today, the shrinking sea has revealed 600 year old tombs and artifacts that had to have been built when the sea was a fraction of its modern size. Nick estimates that in the last 2,000 years the Aral Sea has suffered major shrinkage and then recovered three times.

There is strong international interest in preserving parts of the Aral Sea and helping improve the lives of people living around this water body but the political upheavals of the last 20 years in Central Asia have hindered the efforts. The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) is a coalition of the countries surrounding the Aral who are working hard to bring sufficient resources to restore the sea. Ban Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, visited the area last year. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have also shown interest in assisting the project.

With limited funding, Nick and his team have stabilized the Northern Aral Sea. Salinity has dropped dramatically as the water level rose 2 meters. Says Phil "They told us it would take 7 years to reach this water level. It took 7 months." Flamingos have returned and fish species are again spawning in the reed marshes of the Syr River.

Ravenswood Media is very interested in the biodiversity and climate change issues of the Aral Sea challenge. The wetlands of the Amu and Syr Rivers are critical bird migration stops. The resiliency of the wetlands to rebound once water flow was maintained is a favorable omen for the future. The Aral Sea is fed from glaciers in the Pamir and Tian Shan Mountains. Global warming will likely provide the Aral Sea with a higher volume of water in the short term. However, as the glaciers are severely depleted it could mean the ultimate end of the Aral Sea.

Ravenswood office visit
Professors Nikolay Aladin and Philip Micklin are working very hard on a problem that will take many years beyond their lifetimes to solve. It's refreshing to work with people who confront intractable problems not for the glory but because it's the right thing to do.

Bull Trout

by David Cottrell

Not so long ago, important environmental data collected by satellites and other technologies were largely unavailable to the general public. Statistics and maps detailing land use, forest degradation, or environmental impacts of manmade developments and natural disasters were reserved for scientists and a privileged few.

But now these materials, which offer vital, persuasive benefits in conservation are now available more than ever, thanks to a new website called Data Basin. Simply, Data Basin relies on the arduous work of scientists and statisticians willing to upload eco-data in an environment where it can be downloaded and publicly shared. "There's excitement around advances in web technology and a real cultural shift where people are more willing to share information," says Tosha Comendant, a senior conservation scientist with the Conservation Biology Institute, a non-profit Oregon based research group, which designed and continues to build the site. "It's the convergence of the two that's really powerful, this is the new wave."
Brimming with vital information in its user-friendly and simple to navigate domain, Data Basin is all about sharing a vast array of knowledge in a pooled sphere of abilities broken down into platforms, including: a dataset section featuring ESRI shape files and ArcGrid files, translating into solid statistical knowledge ranging from caribou herd viability in Canada to Northern California's major watershed impacts; maps that show past, present, and future data and statistics with incredible detail; galleries where users create collections of maps and stats as they relate to specific studies, books, and other published materials...and that's just the beginning.
Canada Lynx
"We are unique because not only have we built an underlying data architecture that allows people to organize and share information," says Tosha, "but we have the spatial analysis and screening tools that can quickly assess impacts on critical habitats." And unlike other similar web platforms, all of the information is accessible for download, and it's free. "We think the old model is to charge for data, where as the new model is to give away the information and instead provide added value and services."
Part of the added value includes the extensive geospatial, or map information, available to users in 4 different categories: biological, physical, socio-economic, and imagery. Raw data and eco-predictions made with the data are all part of Data Basin's backbone, a truly academic and informative oasis on the web. Tosha thinks accessible information is vital to the future of locating areas of environmental concern. "Data Basin will allow everyone access to WHERE biologically important species, threats, ecosystem services, predicted climate change - are located. You can then combine different layers of data together to ask questions that are relevant to you."
Data Basin's users also have the opportunity to identify with people who share similar interests in specific subject matter to form user-defined groups. An example is the Forest Scenario Group, where a University of Wisconsin researcher has collaborated with others who are interested in evaluating ecosystems and biodiversity in the forests of Northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Tosha believes initial site groups like Forest Scenarios provide great feedback, which is important for any website. "They are testing the functionality and have provided us feedback on what their needs are. We've been able to see our tools being used in an applied setting."

And recent users certainly sound enthused. World Wildlife Fund's Jessica Forrest says Data Basin has the potential to revolutionize collaboration.

"As the first online spatial data clearinghouse dedicated to the conservation community, it can eliminate boundaries posed by the location and affiliation of project partners, while also making collaboration possible with scientists and managers. I believe Data Basin can really change the way we work, and in the process, make our work more efficient and effective."

Leopold's Shack and Ricketts's Lab
by Mike Lannoo

2010 University of California Press

Book Review

Most children today understand the concept of ecology, yet 80 years ago even university professors thought the term too abstruse for the public and avoided using it. How far we've come. Two guys who jump-started the journey were Aldo Leopold and Ed Ricketts.

Mike Lannoo has written an engaging book, Leopold's Shack and Rickett's Lab, which compares the careers of two giants in the field of ecology. Lannoo's understanding of his subjects is because he has not only read everything Leopold and Ricketts have ever published, he's read everything that's ever been published about them. His exhaustive knowledge allows him to move deftly between the starkly different worlds and ideas of the men. He sums up their differences nicely in the following passage.

"With Sand County, Leopold wanted to instill in society an ethic - a voluntary form of individual restraint to curb a purely material focus - when addressing issues pertaining to the natural world. In Sea of Cortez, Ricketts and Steinbeck sought something in the lives of humans akin to the unified field theory in physics. They wished to combine science and religion into a larger, more inclusive philosophical structure that could serve as a guide to living a life that is rich and full, and packed with meaning. These are not competing concepts; Leopold showed us what to do, Ricketts showed us how to do it."

Aldo Leopold at The Shack circa 1940
Ed Ricketts collecting in Alaska circa 1932


Lannoo weaves the lives of Leopold and Ricketts (the two were unaware of each other) into a single narrative of how they came to the idea that in order to survive humans will have live within the earth's natural constraints. Despite being both Midwesterners, the contrast in their upbringings was as distinct as their personalities. Leopold was born in Iowa and his family took frequent trips to the north woods of Lake Huron.


Ricketts was born in a rough section of Chicago when the city was establishing its colorful reputation of politics and criminality. Yet, both men found their life's work in natural systems, Leopold in forests and Ricketts in tidal pools.

I'd like to die like Leopold and live like Ricketts. The book provides a vivid contrast between Leopold's quiet domesticity of family picnics and Ricketts' Nelson Algren-like bohemian lifestyle among the bums and prostitutes of cannery row. Despite their differences, Lannoo finds a clue to the men's thinking through their choice of shelter. He writes, "For Leopold and Ricketts, access to shacks gave them a huge advantage. These simple buildings allowed basic needs to be met while positioning them near the environments and people they loved, and these dwellings allowed them to observe, study, and engage with the natural world on an almost daily basis."

Aldo Leopold and Gus hunting in Wisconsin
Ed Ricketts

Most remarkable for me was the "A" list of artists and intellectuals who were part of the Ricketts' lab scene. I was aware of his relationship with John Steinbeck through the character of "Doc" in Cannery Row, I just didn't realize how extensive it was. I was also surprised to find that a young Joseph Campbell was an intimate of Ricketts' social circle (and a little too intimate with Steinbeck's wife, Carol). As Lannoo's book indicates, Ricketts' ideas grew in the rich blend of science and art.

Leopold and Ricketts offered the world a new way of thinking about our relationship with the environment. It was the simple idea that humans are a part of the environment and that we need to live within its constraints. This startling simple idea has profoundly altered the way we look at the environment today. Lannoo makes a very good case that the idea manifested itself in both men through a combination of innate brilliance, hard work and giving themselves the room to think outside of the academic grid. Their choice of rustic living quarters was one of the few places their lifestyles intersected.

David McGowan

Leopold's Shack and Ricketts's Lab

Photos courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation
Ricketts Photos, courtesy of Ed Ricketts, Jr.

The Big Two-Hearted River

By David McGowan

The Big Two Hearted River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula provided Ernest Hemingway with both solace and inspiration. He explored its landscape for the source of its curative powers. The Nick Adams Stories touch in a powerful way how the wilderness is an essential element to human well-being.

The Nature Conservancy in Michigan has recently secured the future of the Upper Peninsula's wilderness for many generations to come. They partnered with the state of Michigan to conserve over a quarter million acres of forest, fen and rivers through conservation easements and outright land purchases. It is the largest land protection ever made in Michigan.

The Northern Great Lakes Forest Project, or the Big UP Deal, was negotiated with a timber company, The Forest Land Group. The conservation easements stipulate that the forest be harvested in a sustain way and available to public uses such as hiking, hunting, and berry picking. Helen Taylor, Director of TNC in Michigan, said “It's a win win for everyone. The timber company gets their lumber, the public gets their recreation and the land is protected.”

Helen Taylor interview

Like all TNC projects, science is at the core of what they do best. Doug Pearsall, senior scientist for TNC in Michigan, conducts experiments to determine what methods to use to increase the species diversity of the trees. He states “Trees are constantly bombarded with invasive pests and diseases. If you only have one kind of tree in the forest and it gets hit, you'll lose your entire investment.”

Ravenswood Media was contracted by TNC in Michigan to capture images and interviews as to why the Big UP Deal was so important for both conservation and the local economy. We spent a week filming from one end of the Upper Peninsula to the other. Usually, shoots are a stressful time for filmmakers but our time in the Upper Peninsula, and particularly the Two Hearted River, was a great way to forget our troubles for just a little while and contemplate the mystery of the wilderness.

The Karner Blue Butterfly
by Sean Kennedy

Paul Labus of The Nature Conservancy of Indiana's Southern Lake Michigan Rim Project met us on a sweltering July morning in East Chicago, an area which carries the heavy human footprint of a century of intense industrial activity. He led us down a dirt road hemmed in by 8' stands of the invasive phragmites reed when, unexpectedly, we came to a beautiful swale and dune preserve.

Paul Labeus

Nestled under the shade of stunted oaks, the federally endangered Karner Blue butterfly sits motionless atop a blue lupine plant. Its wings, whose gray underside provide an elegant backdrop for the band of orange crescents which line the edges of both wings, remain clasped shut in the summer heat. The males' topside are a bright silvery blue with a thin black margin and white fringe, while the females' are a darker blue dabbled in more orange crescents, which seem to only open in need of warmth or flight, neither of which seems too appealing under the scorching sun.
The Karner Blue, Lycaeides Melissa Samuelis, was first described in 1949 by the author Vladimir Nabakov, author of the novel Lolita. It is one of fifty-two known species of butterflies which inhabit the DuPont Dune & Swale preserve in northwestern Indiana, but the only butterfly in the region listed as federally endangered. The Karner Blue is struggling against extinction through the loss of habitat and the butterfly's complex relationship with fire and their host plant, lupine. Females lay their eggs directly on the plant, while caterpillars feed exclusively on its leaves. Eggs from the summer brood of Karners attach to the dead vegetation of lupine plants over winter, which grow abundantly in open sunny areas scattered throughout oak savannas.

This same vegetation can be consumed by dormant season fires, destroying the eggs and causing local extinction. Historically, this wasn't a problem because the butterflies had a large range and provided that unburned patches were within dispersal range they could re-colonize recently burned areas. However, as their habitat is fragmented they are forced into small tracts where even a small fire could wipe out a significant portion of their population without hopes of re-colonization. For this reason, controlled burns are an important management tool at sites that support Karner Blues.

These fires are set in non-consecutive sections to allow the fire dependent blue lupine to grow, while also giving the Karner Blue an opportunity to live off the lupine in other sections not affected by the fire.
Each year, two generations of Karner Blues persevere through this delicate balance of fire and lupines. The first generation of caterpillars hatch in late April to early May, pupate, and emerge as butterflies to lay eggs of their own. These eggs quickly hatch, developing into a second flight of adults that extend into mid-July. This second brood of eggs, however, must endure predators, the effects of fire, and the harsh cold of a Great Lakes winter before they are finally able to hatch the following year, continuing the lifecycle.

It's hard to fathom that hidden on the property surrounded by steel mills and refineries, with the sounds of traffic humming from the Tollway, and the buzz of power grids overhead, lies a tiny species whose population has plummeted 90% since the 1980s. A number which hasn't gone unnoticed by organizations such as the Nature Conservancy. Yet, the little Karner Blues remain, oblivious to this knowledge, basking in the summer sun, just like the rest of us.

Getting the Message Out

by Mike Brockway

The video Blue River, Indiana is cruising toward 10,000 views and the views per day average continues to climb. It was produced to introduce the work of The Nature Conservancy to the residents of southern Indiana. Allen Pursell, project director for the Blue River office, indicated "we realized the technology for sharing video on the Internet had advanced to a point where we could take advantage of it. A lot of what The Nature Conservancy does, is protect habitat for animals and photos don't do them justice like video does."

Internet content is roughly divided into either "push" or "pull" methods. Push is when the producer of the content pushes it on the user, think spam, email acquisition lists and website ads. Pull is when the content is something that the user can actually use. The Blue River, Indiana video has, in addition to its strong conservation message, beautiful images of the river and the animals that occupy it. Subsequently, these images were very helpful to local businesses that rely on the river for tourism income.
Running the rapids
CCC commissioned their own Ravenswood program
Cave Country Canoes runs a lively canoe business that depends on a clean and scenic Blue River. Their website gets 83,000 visits per year from people looking for an outdoor experience. Most visitors are unfamiliar with the river and want to know more about the area before investing in a trip. For that reason, Cave Country Canoes embedded the Blue River, Indiana video on their website. Their link provides more views per day than views at The Nature Conservancy's website. Carol Groves, marketing manager of Cave Country Canoes, says "It's not a perfect fit but it gives a pretty good view of what the river looks like and that's really important for our visitors.
The symbiotic relationship between The Nature Conservancy and Cave Country Canoes is a good example of the link between conservation and commerce. Each offers the other the potential for fulfilling their missions. The challenge is to think of how to cooperate to the mutual benefit of both parties. The users want to see what the river looks like and are willing to watch a program with an embedded conservation message to get the information they need. It's not a stretch to guess that people searching for canoe rentals on the Blue River are more open to The Nature Conservancy's message than people looking for waterslide parks. The Nature Conservancy gets the demographic that they need and Cave Country Canoes gets the river images.
Too often the environment and business are discussed in antagonistic terms. There are certainly points where the two chaff at one another. The future, however, holds major challenges for both entities and anywhere they can find shared goals it will lead to benefits for all.

The Battle for Bats on Midwest Outdoors

by David McGowan

Midwest Outdoors aired "The Battle For Bats" in June. Ravenswood Media produced the program for the US Forest Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service to inform the public about White Nose Syndrome, a fungus that is killing bats. The syndicated television hunting and fishing show reaches 30,000,000 households nationwide. When asked why an outdoor show would present a program about bats, Dan Keith, Executive Director, stated frankly, "Sportsman care about the environment and the nature of hunting and fishing is to observe. If they're not seeing bats like they have in the past, they'll want to know why and that's why we're here."

"I know all about Midwest Outdoors" say Becky Ewing, Regional Wildlife Biologist for the US Forest Service, Eastern Region. "I'm a sportsman myself and watch their programs all the time." Becky is part of the Endangered Species team for the Forest Service. Her job is to monitor the spread of White Nose Syndrome and coordinate efforts with other agencies to combat it. "We expect WNS to hit the Midwest soon. It strikes while bats are hibernating in the winter. Hunters are good observers of nature and they're usually the only ones out in the woods in the winter. If they're aware of WNS and they see unusual bat behavior, like bats flying when it's cold, they'll be more likely to report it to wildlife experts." Information from the field is critical in the fight to save bats. "Sharing 'Battle For Bats' with their viewers" says Becky "is a wonderful gesture by Midwest Outdoor to help protect our nation's wilderness and the animals that live there."

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