SAVE OUR SALAMANDERS!
We’ve reached a point where survival is no longer about stopping global warming; it’s about saving our snails and salamanders.
One of my earliest recollections from childhood – and one in which I still indulge myself when there’s an opportunity – is turning over stones. The stones along the edges or in the shallows of streams or creeks are the ones I like best to turn over; also, the stones in tide pools at the beach. Whether it’s a walk in the woods, or a stroll along the ocean front, I’m still curious to know what small creature is hiding from predators beneath the stones I come across.
This curiosity emerged, I think, when my parents enrolled me as soon as I reached the eligibility age of ten years in a week-long summer camp nestled in the forests about an hour outside of Portland, Oregon, where I grew up. I soon longed each year for that week away from home and a chance to join about fifty other kids at Camp Gales Creek, named after the stream that flowed through the camp on its way down from the snow-topped Cascade Mountains range to feed the fertile Willamette River valley below.
The camp facilities were basic. They consisted of a kitchen/dining hall and nature/art center that flanked a fire pit, flag pole and exercise area big enough for playing tether ball. Off to one side was the girls’ dormitory and the counselors’ residences. Just upstream to where the creek was deep and wide enough for a small swimming hole, was a narrow wooden bridge that led across the creek to the boys’ dormitory on the other side.
What attracted me most about the camp was the creek where I could discover crawdads, minnows, snails and amphibious salamanders. My personal challenge was collecting specimens rare enough to be included in one of the aquariums or terrariums that the camp counselors maintained at the nature center. I guess I got some validation from that exercise because with my discoveries came recognition from the counselors and campers that, ooh! aah! Phil’s found another creepy crawly to look at!
Camp Gales Creek also gave me the opportunity to get up close and personal with fragile living creatures close to the bottom of the food chain, atop of which we summer campers – and all of humanity – sit in the evolutionary scheme of things. Many of those creatures have shown commendable resilience to the changes we have introduced into their habitats from the homes – and roads and factories – we have been constructing around them. Some, like the house wrens, ground squirrels, field mice, deer and rabbits have even learned to adjust and cohabitate in our suburban surroundings. Still, I read too often now about species that have not been so adaptive and whose numbers have declined to the point of extinction.
Evolution continues, and in its path are the inevitable extinction of some species and the proliferation of other species that have been able to adapt. There’s a basic problem in this evolutionary scheme of things today. Species evolve slowly, very slowly, in response to the changing conditions around them. Scientific evidence suggests, however, that rising temperatures and growing human populations are changing habitats faster than many species can adapt. Moreover, it’s very likely that we’ll shoot past even some of the most pessimistic predictions of planetary warming. Our fossil fuel addiction is now too deeply entrenched in our market economy to halt or even slow in time to avert rising temperatures and with it more frequent and more violent weather events.
Fortunately, we humans stand out in our capacity to protect our ourselves, or recover from weather disasters. We have at our disposal social and technological tools – for example, damage insurance, physical infrastructure and sturdy homes. Unfortunately, other species in the plant and animal kingdoms have none of these human tools for survival. They need our help. And it is in our interests to help them for one critical reason: our mutual survival. We are inescapably interdependent.
Also, we must recognize that there are only limited resources -- time, money and people -- to advocate for and to conduct programs needed to achieve a sustainable and prosperous planet. We need to use those resources judiciously. That may mean redirecting effort away from appeals and programs for ending our fossil fuel dependency. That money may produce greater welfare and benefits if budgeted to restore and maintain the natural habitats around us and to build the capacity of those habitats, and the living organisms that compose them, to survive extreme weather conditions, and to bounce back quickly when adversely impacted. In short, to buy them time to evolve and build capacity to survive in a changing world the future form of which we can only speculate.
Given that reality we need to shift more resources away from advocating for a fossil fuel-free world and towards efforts to increase resiliency in a mixed fossil and renewable energy setting. It’s a disservice to the natural world, and most likely a disastrous course of action, for humans to pursue unrealistic efforts to end the use of fossil fuels and have little remaining money to budget for building resilience to coming global climate change. Available funds are finite. Focusing primarily on investing in fossil fuel substitution will be so costly that little money would be left for protecting habitats and building resilience of critical plant and animal species.
Yes, fossil fuel dependency will give way to new technologies just like similar changes have occurred in the past. History confirms that substitutes will be developed. In past centuries, global empires were acquired and defended by launching armadas of wooden sailing ships. The construction of those fleets of vessels led to denuding European forests for wood to build them and for charcoal to refine the heavy iron weaponry they carried. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries European forests were disappearing at alarming rates. In the mid-eighteen hundreds, however, fossil fuels – coal for making steel hulls and petroleum to fuel the newly invented steam and internal combustion engines that drove modern sea-going vessels – became the environmental saviors of Europe’s forests. Thanks to fossil fuel discovery and use, more forests stood in Europe and North America at the beginnings of the 21st century than did 100 years earlier. Coal, oil and gas made that possible.
I’m a strong advocate for applying our inventive skills and collective know-how as a nation to developing and bringing to market, renewable energy sources that can gradually displace the use fossil fuels just as fossil fuels displaced forests in the past. But today the trajectory of fossil fuel displacement with renewable energy will most likely be too slow to avoid or even dampen current rising trends in overheated weather conditions across the world.
Current political and economic conditions dictate against declines in fossil fuel use taking place at a pace necessary to slow global warming. Recent economic developments, including the post-pandemic inflation in 2022 that is seeing energy prices soar alarmingly, have forced the current US administration – one that is most disposed to address putting a lid on more fossil fuel extraction – to cave to voters pressing for expanded fossil fuel extraction in an effort to return to cheap energy supplies. The political will and the sense of urgency are just not there and not very likely to emerge until environmental degradation becomes so severe, we are forced to act. The problem: By then it will be too late to reverse rising global temperatures and to save much of the earth’s natural habitats.
That leaves us with only one choice: to prepare for a warmer world. Where we can make significant strides is in habitat protection for all creatures on a warming planet. But first we need to make nature a partner, an equal partner, in our work. Some specific steps we can foster include:
Working with our state and local governments to build resiliency in both human and natural habitats. We can start by advocating for sufficient state and local resources to protect and manage the natural habitats on which we all depend. State and local government own and manage large tracts of land. We should advocate for sound stewardship of the natural habitats, monitor state and local governments to assure these lands are administered sustainably, and hold them accountable when they don’t. We can’t all do this individually , of course, but we can contribute financially to local non-profit organizations that do conduct the advocacy, monitoring and accountability tasks required to assure compliance of public institutions our tax dollars are funding.
Supporting local bond measures and property taxes that fund habitat protection. Public money invested in maintaining and operating state and local lands yields a range of dividends, among them the multiple contributions of those land habitats, when properly managed: clean air, pure water, stable soils, sustainable forest products industries and jobs, and recreational outlets. And that includes summer camps for our kids!
Establishing natural habitats in our own backyards and community green spaces. Urge commercial stores to carry organics and drought-resistant plants that can tolerate the extreme weather conditions that most likely we will confront. Exercise our ecological consumer purchasing power in this way to bend market forces in the direction of environmental sustainability.
Spending a week in the woods. Find the time to live for a week in the woods each year. For many, that may be sending their kids to summer camp or sponsoring summer camp opportunities for inner-city kids who otherwise could not afford the experience. All these protected resources fall within state boundaries and are close enough at hand for us to support and enjoy. We need to get out into forested habitats and get better acquainted with them. If we can’t camp in the forest for a week, then budget a couple hours every couple of weeks to walk in the woods or along the beach shores. That totals up to almost 60 hours a year, a solid “work week” of outdoor experiences by most measures.
Recycling and reusing material goods. Clearing forests for wood products and farming is over. A tree standing is worth more than a tree cut when all the contributions of forest habitats are included. Commercial pressures on terrestrial and marine habitats can be reduced by recycling what we have new extracted from nature.
Why do I focus on snails and salamanders? Because they are among the most vulnerable of animal species and the habitat to support them is among the most fragile. They serve as our signature species, or markers, of our progress; if we can preserve and protect salamanders and their habitat, then most other species will have a better chance at survival as well. I know this seems a bit simplistic, so I’ll leave the ecological nuances of my proposal to the scientists and environmental specialists. My goal right now is just to change the public’s outlook on how to arrive intact at the new world that is evolving so quickly around all of us.
And by “all of us,” I mean not just humans but all living plant and animal species we’ll need along for the ride into the future, a future world with resilient and sustainable habitats, including places where the next generation of kids can turn over stones with the excitement of discovering what’s beneath them.
I can’t predict what a warmer world will be like for our kids, but I can work to give them the tools and training and to instill in them the empathy they will need to survive and thrive in partnership with nature. And if these efforts to save natural habitats just happen to contribute to reducing the release of greenhouse gases, slowing global warming, and ameliorating dramatic and destructive climate events, great! Consider that an added positive dividend from protecting the habitats of salamanders.
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