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  Eco-Beat

Earthship

EarthTalk®

—the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard of extremely environmentally friendly homes and communities called “Earthships” popping up across the U.S. What are they exactly? —Kelsey Kuehn, Kirtland, OH

An Earthship is a kind of passive solar home—or community of homes—typically made of natural and recycled materials such as old tires and recycled cans. Such homes make use of non-polluting renewable energy sources and smart design to meet most if not all heating, cooling, and power needs. The term Earthship, coined by self-proclaimed “biotect” Mike Reynolds, is derived from the homes being in and of the Earth—that is, constructed responsibly out of earthen materials and built into the ground. It also refers to living in a ship, which requires inhabitants to be autonomous from outside help (such as a power grid).

The concept has spread well beyond its roots in the desert surrounding Taos, New Mexico. Besides being the headquarters for Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture business, the Taos area is also home to several Earthship communities which generate their own power without contributing to the atmosphere’s growing carbon load and make use of local recycled materials to minimize resource use.

Construction materials in Earthship homes vary according to what particular recycled items are plentiful and useful in a given locale. The New Mexico versions usually consist of exterior walls made from earth-filled tires stacked like bricks and covered in stucco or adobe. These thick outer walls employ “thermal mass construction” to naturally regulate indoor temperatures. Wintertime heating is provided primarily by the Earthship’s layout and orientation, with windows on the sunny sides of the building letting in light and heat. A properly constructed Earthship can maintain a comfortable indoor air temperature with plentiful natural ventilation all year round with little or no help from power-hungry heating or cooling equipment.

According to the website greenhomebuilding.com, some other common features in Earthship homes include: curving interior walls fleshed out with recycled cans mortared together with concrete; rooftop water catchment; reuse of so-called gray water for landscaping irrigation and plumbing; composting toilets; and other cutting-edge eco-friendly techniques and technologies.

Earthship Biotecture makes available via its website several books and videos outlining different perspectives on the Earthship concept, as well as practical information on how to build one of your own. The website also provides a wealth of information on existing Earthships and helps those interested in the concept connect with one another via a global network of builders and enthusiasts. It is also a great place to find an existing Earthship home for sale or rent. The firm also offers internships with Michael Reynolds and other leading practitioners in the emerging discipline.

Earthships can be found in most U.S. states today, though New Mexico is the leader, followed closely by Colorado. Several have sprung up in England and France as well as in South Africa, among other countries. And with more and more governments tightening up their building codes to require increased energy efficiency and smarter use of resources, Earthships are bound to become even more popular.

Send your environmental questions to: EarthTalk®, PO Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.


‘Tree-cycling‘ to take place December 26 through January 11

Rio Rancho residents will be able to have cut Christmas trees recycled courtesy of PNM and the city of Rio Rancho’s Keep Rio Rancho Beautiful (KRRB) Division  from December 26, 2009 through January 11, 2010.

Cut trees that have had all decorations, tree spikes, and stands removed can be brought to the Rio Rancho Sports Complex located at 3501 High Resort Boulevard. PNM will mulch the trees and this mulch will be available to Rio Rancho residents on a first-come, first-served basis while supplies last.

PNM urges residents to return Christmas trees back to the environment by recycling. Mulch generated from Christmas trees can be used to provide a better growing environment for plants, city parks, and home landscapes. Mulch helps retain moisture in the soil, acts as an insulating blanket to protect soil against temperature extremes, and reduces weed growth. Recycling in this way allows the tree to complete its natural life cycle by nurturing soil so other living things can grow.


Beetle-killed forest

Charles Henry walks through the devastated forest on his property near Granby, Colorado, soon to be clear-cut to control the beetle.

A slow-moving disaster

Communities struggle to adapt to a beetle-ravaged landscape

—Hillary Rosner, High Country News

Back in 1997, when Charles and Nancy Henry moved full-time to their 38.5 acres outside Granby, Colo., it seemed like paradise. The property sits at 8,600 feet, with aspen groves behind the house and a 360-degree view of lodgepole pine forest. A semi-retired agricultural reporter and the son of a forester, Henry set about restoring his patch of long-neglected, largely overgrown forest — thinning lodgepole pines here, doing small clear-cuts there, removing mistletoe and helping create a more diverse ecosystem to replace the homogenous stands of pine. “It was a gorgeous place to live,” Henry says. “Every way you looked was something pretty. It was something we worked very hard for and finally realized.”

Today, though, the Henrys are stewards of acres of wasted trees, and their mountain retreat looks out on a natural — or semi-natural — disaster. “Every day I look out and say, 'Ugh.' I just hate it,” says Henry. Encouraged by rising temperatures and homogenous forests, mountain pine beetles began rampaging through Grand County five years ago, laying siege to nearly 550,000 acres of lodgepole pines overcrowded from decades of fire suppression. Henry's focus on his own property shifted as he joined in the ongoing battle to lower the risk of a catastrophic wildfire. He's determined to make the next-generation forest a healthy one even if he won't be there to see it. His 16 remaining acres of pine forest will soon be clear-cut, to make way for the regeneration process.

“Look at all the little lodgepoles!” he says on a cool May morning, as he gazes at a small area that he clear-cut seven years ago to control mistletoe — an invasive weed — and combat a porcupine problem. A green island in a brown ocean of rigid, spiritless trees, Henry's patch of clear-cut now teems with eight-foot aspens and a flourishing crop of knee-high baby lodgepoles. It's enough to make Henry smile, for a few moments at least, until he looks up the slope again. “Our goal is to get these dead trees out of here before one tree falls and knocks out three little healthy ones.”

These days in Grand County, a haven of mountains, rivers, lakes and evergreen forests in north-central Colorado that includes a portion of Rocky Mountain National Park, the impacts of the pine beetle epidemic are as much a fact of daily life as snow in winter. The first part of Colorado hit by the beetles, it's also the farthest along on the trajectory of forest death. These days, residents are coping with everything from an unexpected lack of privacy as their now-treeless homes are suddenly exposed, to the financial burden of tree removal or spraying. There's a low-grade paranoia about trees falling — on homes, power lines, boats, even people. In October 2008, a beetle-kill pine fell and killed a logger from Granby as he was removing slash in the town of Grand Lake. Earlier the same month, another man was knocked to the ground by a dead lodgepole; he survived.

The debate over the ecological implications of the beetle epidemic — and which misguided policies are to blame for it — rages on. But in places like Grand County, there's a far more immediate concern: how to cope with the new reality the thumbtack-size bugs have created. “It's like dealing with a disaster that moves slowly and never goes away,” says Craig Magwire, district ranger for the Forest Service's Sulphur Ranger District. “As opposed to a fire event, where you bring in resources and work the fire and then you go home. Here, it's continuous.”

The overwhelming concern in Grand County is that this slow disaster could become a very fast one if a wildfire rages through these desiccated forests. Such a fire would destroy homes and businesses — and possibly people. On a wall in the Forest Service's conference room, a large map dotted with dark areas shows 16,000 acres where trees were cut in an effort to create fuel breaks. Some of these are deep in the forest; others are next to towns. The Forest Service is trying to lower the chances that a wildfire will prove devastating, but as Magwire himself admits, they're just tweaking the odds.

The Sulphur District contains 185,000 acres of lodgepole-dominated forests, and most of the trees are already dead. When they fall, they will produce a dangerous mass of fuel on the forest floor. “We couldn't remove trees on all those acres even if we wanted to,” Magwire says. “The money isn't there to do that, and there isn't an industry there that could use the material.”

As the region goes into what Winter Park's town manager, Drew Nelson, calls “full-on clear-cut mode,” what to do with all that wood is becoming an ever-tougher problem. The Forest Service holds timber sales on 1,000-acre parcels, and every Sulphur District sale for the past eight years has found a buyer. But the downturn in the housing market could change that, and in turn curtail Magwire's forest-thinning operations, potentially tipping the odds back in wildfire's favor. “The biggest concern today is, if we don't have a timber industry, how are we going to move material out of the woods?” says Magwire. “In order for us to do our job, we need to have a market.”

Although the Forest Service has so far been able to profit from selling its timber, homeowners, subdivisions and even town governments are spending a fortune to cut down their trees. It has cost homeowners from $100 to have one or two trees cut down and hauled away to $20 apiece for 1,000 trees, though costs have dropped considerably during the economic downturn.

The town of Winter Park uses funds from a mill levy to pay foresters to collect trees that residents remove from their property. Five days a week, they haul them to an air curtain burner, which combusts the wood without spewing smoke into the valley. “It'd be great if we could've figured out some way to harness all of this energy that's just escaping,” says Nelson, “but unfortunately the epidemic was just so fast that there really wasn't this great plan — 'Oh, wow, we could put a wood-burning stove in every house and it would heat the county for years to come.' “ According to Russ Chameroy, Winter Park's public works director, only two companies within two hours of the town are still taking in wood; both are mills that produce pellets for stoves, and both have pellets stacked as far as you can see. One mill reportedly has enough pellets for 175 years' worth of burning.

Small businesses have opened up to make furniture and paneling out of the beetle-kill wood, which is stained a bluish shade from a fungus the beetles inject. (The window for using the trees for structural products, such as 2-by-4s, is brief once the beetles invade.) But these companies, too, have been hobbled by the downturn. And even if the economy were booming, they could utilize only a fraction of all the timber coming down.

On a blue-sky Colorado morning, Bruce Van Bockern stops his truck on a hill overlooking Grand Lake. The panoramas are spectacular — and new. Houses that once faced woods now have unobstructed lake views, a fact that local real estate agents hope to exploit. “You couldn't see a house up here two years ago,” says Van Bockern, operations manager for Mountain Parks Electric, the local power co-op. Some days he suddenly doesn't quite know where he is. “I've gone into some subdivisions that you don't even recognize because there are no trees,” he says. One local logging company has even begun using the slogan, “Creating new views.”

Van Bockern, whose sons capitalized on the beetle infestation with summer logging jobs, spends the bulk of his time trying to ensure that trees don't fall on power lines. Of the co-op's 1,388 miles of overhead power lines, 460 are bordered by trees. But it's not the dead trees Van Bockern worries about. Lodgepoles live in groups, where their numbers help protect them from the wind. When only a few live trees remain, there's nothing to shield them. Compounding the problem, dead trees don't soak up water — or hold snow — so spring runoff causes excess soil moisture, weakening the live trees' roots. Van Bockern stops to examine a beautiful two-foot-wide lodgepole that leans precipitously toward a nearby house. On the ground, a break is already visible in the soil where the tree's roots are coming loose.

Up the road, in a subdivision called Woodpecker Hill, the sound of chainsaws fills the air. Groups of dead lodgepoles and spindly looking live ones still tower above some houses, but everywhere the ground is littered with fallen timber. An early May windstorm that blew through here sent scores of trees crashing to the ground; dead ones snapped, live ones were uprooted, and several toppled on cabins and outbuildings. Paul Shelley, an electrician who lives on a corner lot, is out doing never-ending yard work: burning a slash pile and plotting an outline for a log border around his property. “We use the wood any way we can,” he says. A few feet from the side of Shelley's house, a lone lodgepole is still bushy and green — except for the top, where death is creeping in. A band of blue ribbon marks it for pesticide application, revealing that even though many people here have resigned themselves to clear-cutting, emotional attachments to beloved trees linger. “We've sprayed this tree for years,” Shelley says. “This is the one tree my wife's real sentimental about.”

It's a feeling Magwire understands. “You get Bark beetle-killed pines as far as the eye can see in Granby, Colorado (right). Below, homes on the northern bank of Grand Lake used to be completely surrounded by pines. Many dead pines have been cleared, but there are many still standing. to that point where you have to decide,” he says. “Do you want to continue to spray or just take out all the trees? It's a science decision and an emotional one and a financial one. It's all those things.” Magwire himself lives in a wooded subdivision just north of Granby, where his homeowners' association has assessed residents thousands of dollars apiece for selective logging and aggressive spraying.

The effectiveness of spraying is the subject of much debate. In order to work, the chemicals must cover 100 percent of the tree, so a shoddy job or a too-tall tree can mean wasted money and needlessly dispersed poison, which some believe is killing songbirds. (One plus side of the epidemic, though, has been a noticeable spike in the local population of woodpeckers, which feed on the beetles.)

Indeed, not all the beetles have wrought is bad. Allergy sufferers breathe easier thanks to less pine pollen in the air. Sales of chainsaws and related merchandise — chains, chaps, hard hats — are up. Free firewood is everywhere. People have learned to revere healthy forests in a way they didn't before and are learning how to better manage them.

Still, the daily nuisances remain: fallen trees blocking roads, basements flooding from increased soil moisture, arguments among neighbors over whose property lines the beetles crossed. And concern is rising over the impact on the recreation industry, an integral part of the county's economy. “If you have a choice between a green forest and a dead forest, where would you build your million-dollar resort?” muses Ron Cousineau, district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service's Granby District.

“Things are going to become a lot more difficult to do out in the woods,” says Nelson, the Winter Park town manager. The community's economy is bound to suffer if hikers, bikers and hunters choose to visit greener pastures. “Are people going to want to come hike when all the trails are blocked or there's danger of getting killed by a falling tree?” Henry asks.

The crisis isn't limited to Grand County; trees in Summit and Routt counties are also dying. But Grand's problems resonate beyond the immediate area. Denver Water, the water utility for 1.3 million residents of Denver and the surrounding suburbs, gets a quarter of its supplies from a collection system that includes Grand County. Wildfires lead to erosion, and erosion clogs reservoirs with sediment that costs millions of dollars to remove. “It causes the soil chemistry to change,” says Don Kennedy, an environmental scientist with the utility's planning division, “so you get these hydrophobic soils that repel water.” When heavy rains come, the water races over the denuded landscape with its water-repellent soil, causing huge amounts of erosion. Denver Water is working with a long list of organizations — including Winter Park and the Forest Service — to prioritize key areas for logging. “It's a lot cheaper to address it now than later,” says Kennedy. “Nobody wants to spend $25 million on removing sediment out of the reservoir.”

Grand County's outbreak seems to be finally slowing, compared to other areas of the state that are a few years behind it. Once the mature trees are all dead, the beetles will have nothing to feed on, and it is hoped that their populations will then crash. Nelson believes the area faces four more years of cutting, hauling and fire mitigation, and he fears that a huge wildfire somewhere in central Colorado is all but inevitable.

Still, several decades from now, Grand County's slopes might once again be covered in living forests, with diverse stands of pine, aspen, spruce and fir that will be better able to withstand another onslaught. Charles Henry likes to envision that day. “We're not going to live here forever,” he says of his former paradise. “My goal would be to put it in a land conservancy and sell it to someone who'll keep it as forest. I'm hoping that by spending the money to remove the dead trees and get this forest process started sooner, in five to 10 years, when I'm ready to sell it, I have a more desirable property than someone who hasn't done it. I'm trying to be altruistic about the forest value, but there's a mercenary, a dollar-and-cents factor underneath.”

Hillary Rosner's articles on science and the environment have appeared recently in Newsweek, Popular Science, OnEarth, and Audubon.


Wildlife mural

Our wildlife corridors

—Laura Robbins

Members and supporters of our local group Pathways—Wildlife Corridors of New Mexico and all who have been involved in the “Protect Our Wildlife Corridors” mural project on the Placitas Recycling Center wall feel supported by recent events in our government. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by Governor Richardson and Governor Ritter of Colorado formalizes the intent to cooperate along the shared state borders regarding wildlife corridors.

This MOU states that the respective wildlife management agencies (New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and Colorado Division of Wildlife) will recognize the two states as part of the Western Governors‘ Association initiative to identify and protect key habitat connectivity, travel, and migration corridors across the western United States, irrespective of political boundaries. Scientific data will be collected and evaluated, Native American tribes will be consulted, geospatial mapping systems and consistent protocols will be developed, and existing and potential land use changes that may limit or eliminate the viability of key wildlife corridors will be identified. From this process, shared strategies will be developed.

“Wildlife Corridors” and “connectivity” are terms that are beginning to enter our common consciousness and speech. Secretary of the Interior Salazar, when recently speaking in Copenhagen on climate change, stated, “Entire wildlife corridors are changing,” and “Through the use of landscape and seascape-level conservation initiatives, we will strengthen the connectivity and resiliency of our parks and protected areas and the wildlife and ecosystem services they support. These efforts will prove critical.”

There are many groups in New Mexico and neighboring states working toward these ends. Some are beginning to share information through a new umbrella, New Mexico Wildways (NMW). Core members of NMW include: Wildlands Network, Earth Works Institute, Wildlife Habitat of New Mexico, the Rewilding Institute, New Mexico Wildlife Priority Linkages, Pathways: Wildlife Corridors of New Mexico, and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

Many individuals and groups are working towards meaningful changes, from backyard habitats to passageways for animals through interstates. We need to protect or reintroduce many plant and animal species to restore the balance of our public lands monitored by the BLM. We are growing more aware and knowledgeable regarding our own carbon footprints and are paying attention to the local and global uses/protection of water. We humans have jurisdiction over our own behaviors and each small change towards respecting and honoring all who share the gifts of this planet shifts the weight on the fulcrum.

Our thanks to Governors Richardson and Ritter for sending a positive message that wildlife corridors exist, are important, and are worth protecting. We look forward to future advancements from the Western Governors‘ Association.

Check out the Pathways blog at pathwayswc.wordpress.com.


Placitas recycling: Labor of love or community responsibility?

Recently, John Richardson, president of the Placitas Recycling Association (PRA), was making his weekly (uncompensated) visit to the recycling center on Highway 165 to determine what needed to be done to get the center ready to open the following Saturday, when he came upon a large box of cardboard sitting outside the fence, left by someone who apparently was not able to manage a drop-off during the clearly posted, well publicized operating hours. This kind of event makes one reflect both on how fortunate Placitas is to have residents willing to support an important activity like recycling, and on how easy it is for a few unaware people to ruin it for the rest.

Placitas is a wonderful place to live—the beautiful landscape; the openness and peacefulness; the natural environment. But those benefits are not without a price. Placitas has fewer services than larger, denser cities. For example, it does not have city-operated or funded recycling services. Placitas is able to offer a local recycling collection center only because of the generosity of members of the community who donate their time and energy to this all-volunteer operation.

Most people are not aware of how much work is involved in running an operation like the PRA. Not only does it require labor to work at the recycling center during its Saturday operating hours, but there are also many tasks that need to be performed during the week, including emptying the trailers so they are ready to accept more materials each and every Saturday. It includes baling plastic, transporting materials to Albuquerque, and maintaining the yard and its equipment. The success of the Placitas Recycling Center is a testament to the diligence and devotion of its board of directors, hard work performed by the volunteers, and the care with which users separate their recyclables and bring them to the center ready to place in the proper receptacles.

The Placitas Recycling Center is located on private property provided for PRA use by PNM. Leaving recycled material outside the fence when the center is not open is no different from dumping trash in a neighbor’s front yard. The center is a neighbor. Loose trash can blow around and end up at nearby homes. Furthermore, volunteers who work at the center should not be expected to clean up other people’s garbage.

Placitas recycling: labor of love or community responsibility? Well, it’s both. For the volunteers and the residents who take care with the materials they bring in, it is a labor of love. But for everyone who uses the recycling center, it is also a responsibility—to run a clean operation and be a good neighbor.

The Placitas Recycling Center is located on Highway 165 one-half mile east of I-25. It is open Saturday mornings between 8:00 and 11:00 a.m., except on posted holidays. The center recycles cardboard; office paper, newspaper, and mixed paper; aluminum; No. 1 (PETE) and No. 2 (HDPE) plastics; bagged polystyrene peanuts; and inkjet printer cartridges. At this time, it does not accept glass or non-aluminum metals. More information about the center and the materials it accepts can be found at placitasrecycling.com.

The PRA needs more volunteers to help provide valuable recycling services to the Placitas community. Interested persons can sign up at the recycling center during its Saturday operating hours.

 

     

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