Category Archives: Conservation

Everyone Should Practice Environmental Libertarianism

This stream ran red into the Moormans River of western Albemarle following logging upon the adjacent mountain. The dirt-laden water pouring into the river was unfortunate not only for aquatic wildlife, but also for the future growth of trees on the mountain. Photo: Marlene Condon.

Flowering plants (angiosperms that make up more than 80 percent of green plants in the world) depend upon wildlife for their continued existence. Conversely, wildlife depends upon plants for its existence. It is a form of quid pro quo, in which both entities benefit from each other’s activities.

Humans, just like plants, also depend upon wildlife for their continued existence.  When people provide habitat for pollinators and numerous other kinds of critters, the animals provide people with the perpetuation of plants that provide oxygen and food, as well as great beauty in the form of flowers, birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and oh, so very many creatures!

Yet it can be very difficult to get folks to do what is proper for the environment, which in the end, is also going to benefit neighbors near and far as well as wildlife nearby and down the road. The situation with the Chesapeake Bay is a prime example.

Although people are aware of the causes of the bay’s problems, many refuse to change their ways to help the Chesapeake Bay to recover. Their inaction has brought great harm to the people whose livelihoods were dependent upon a healthy bay chock full of sea life. Environmental libertarianism would never have allowed this to happen.

A right-to-the-point summation of the political philosophy of libertarianism is that it advocates allowing folks to do pretty much whatever they wish, especially on their own property, so long as they do not bring harm to others. The idea is that state intervention in the lives of citizens should be minimal. Therefore, so long as people are not causing difficulties for other people, there should be a minimum number of government regulations for citizens to abide by.

Indeed, if everyone practiced libertarian ideals with respect to the environment, we certainly would not need so much government interference in our lives. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency came into being only because people refused to take proper care of the environment that all of us depend upon for our own health and wellbeing.

When too many people will not act of their own accord to do what is right for the natural world—and thus their fellow citizens—there is absolutely no choice but to rein in their behavior with threats of fines, or jail, or whatever it takes. More recently, government had to step in to demand that companies manufacture more-energy-efficient light bulbs because people would rather leave lights unnecessarily burning than to flick a switch to turn them off.

And while some farmers have put up fencing to keep their cows and cow waste out of our waterways, others continue to allow their animals to enter streams at will, the Chesapeake Bay and the people dependent upon it for jobs be damned (please excuse the language). I have heard straight from farmers’ mouths that they do not believe waste from their cows is a major contributing factor of bay pollution that harms sea life, but chemistry proves these farmers to be in denial of the truth.

Of course, home and business owners, as well as government, are equally guilty, if not more so, of polluting the bay. On many of their properties, laborers mow and weed-whack every last plant to such an extent that the soil often becomes exposed and then dries out. If you come by as they are working, you can see soil dust-clouds created by their machines. The dirt settles out on roads, eventually washing into drains and streams that feed the Bay.

In our forests, loggers may not feel obliged to take adequate precautionary measures to limit erosion if the logging takes place high up on a mountain hidden from view.  However, a steady rain alerts those of us paying attention to the error of their ways.

I have seen more than one local stream run red with local clay during logging operations well out of eyesight, but not out of earshot. All that dirt ends up settling out eventually to smother aquatic habitat and wildlife.

Some folks leave trashcans out 24/7, creating a hazard for our wildlife. When people neglect to secure their trashcans so that animals cannot get into them, critters may eat plastic wrap because it smells like food, and die a horrible death due to intestinal obstruction. Bottles that were not cleaned up can lure and trap small animals.

The world would be a much nicer place in which to live if folks would just consider whether the things they do on their own land impact not only wildlife, but other people as well. On many a lovely day I have had to close my windows to keep the house from filling with smoke from neighbors burning yard debris (and sometimes plastic-laden trash, the fumes of which can cause cancer).

On those occasions, it is very upsetting that I am not able to bring fresh air inside, but it is also troubling to know that these folks are not letting their yard debris decay naturally. They would not be polluting the air, and they would be recycling organic matter while creating habitat for many different kinds of animals, such as lizards, salamanders, insects, and spiders.

We have so many environmental regulations because far too many people do not take proper care of the environment. Yet it is our moral duty to nurture it, and if everyone behaved morally in the first place, we would not need laws to make us behave appropriately.

I am not particularly political by nature, but I think it would be extremely worthwhile for people to start practicing environmental libertarianism, no matter what their political stripes may be. After all, a better world always begins at home.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Everyone Should Practice Environmental Libertarianism

In your garden nurture a treasure trove of life

Marlene A. Condon, June 17, 2014

A Milkweed Beetle on a Common Milkweed inflorescence. Photo by Marlene A. Condon.

One day, my mother-in-law was strolling around the yard with me when we came to a large milkweed plant in the middle of what little lawn I have. She asked me, with much surprise, “Are you keeping this?”

I didn’t know whether it was the placement of the plant (coming up in the grass) or whether it was the type of plant (a “weed” to most folks) that made her think I shouldn’t want the milkweed there, but it didn’t matter. I knew that particular milkweed held a tiny treasure that I was delighted to have in my yard. I would never consider destroying such a valuable plant!

A minuscule (less than 4 mm long) monarch caterpillar was eating its way toward adulthood on that 4-foot-tall plant. It belonged to the last generation of the season and would fly to Mexico before freezing weather set in. I felt proud that my milkweed was helping to sustain the population of this tropical butterfly that can’t survive the winter in our area.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is an early-summer flowering plant that comes up in dry fields and along roadsides, usually growing 3–5 feet tall. While the overall impression you might have of these plants from a distance is one of coarseness, a closer look reveals beautiful, goblet-shaped, pink flowers that perfume the air with a wonderful scent.

The blooms hold lots of nectar, which is especially alluring to bees and butterflies. Silver-spotted skippers, great spangled fritillaries, zebra swallowtails, American ladies, tiger swallowtails, Eastern tailed blues, and spicebush swallowtails are some of the butterfly species that you might see visiting.

You may even spot an unfamiliar species that you have not seen in your yard before. On June 18, 1999, I saw my first-ever variegated fritillary nectaring at common milkweed. This lovely butterfly spent the afternoon feeding in my milkweed patch before moving on. And, of course, milkweed will bring in the monarch butterfly whose caterpillar can eat only milkweed plants to survive.

The monarch has suffered very serious declines over the last several years, with 2013 being catastrophic. The clearing of the Mexican fir forests where these insects overwinter, in combination with the continued displacement of “weedy” habitat in this country, have made their prospects dim.

Gardeners can help save this disappearing species by growing milkweeds, especially the widespread common milkweed. These plants come up in spring, just in time for northward-migrating monarchs to lay eggs on them.

It should take about 13 days for the eggs to hatch, but that may vary, depending upon the weather. The teeny-tiny, colorful caterpillars are striped in black, yellow and white.

But monarchs are not the only interesting insects to be found on common milkweed. Orange-and-black insects known as large milkweed bugs may appear by the time that the green seedpods have begun to form. Or you may see small milkweed bugs that are red and black. Both insects pierce the pods to suck the juices from the developing seeds inside.

After you have seen milkweed bugs mating, you can keep an eye on the seed pods where the immature ones will appear. They will stay there for quite some time, which means you can check every day or so to watch them develop.

I usually see one or more adult large milkweed bugs with their nymphs (the immature milkweed bugs) until well into fall. The adults appear to be watching over the young ones, which is extremely unusual behavior in the insect world.

An interesting phenomenon associated with the common milkweed is that many of the creatures feeding on these plants are orange, including a species of aphid. A few organisms are red—the color which is closest to orange on the color spectrum.

Milkweed sap contains alkaloids that make monarchs that feed upon it somewhat poisonous to predators.

The fertilization process in common milkweed is so complex that very few flowers ever get fertilized. From each cluster of up to 75 blooms, only two seed pods will normally develop.

I highly recommend that you grow common milkweed. Then perhaps a monarch laying eggs will alert you to the plants emerging from the ground and soon, you too, could be able to enjoy seeing “tiny treasures.”

Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.



“Pests” are powerful allies in effort for healthy waters

By Marlene A. Condon. Text from article that appeared in the Bay Journal on July 14, 2015

The immature form of the Japanese Beetle is a grub that consumes (recycles) dead plant roots.

Soil constitutes the foundation that supports plant and animal life on Earth. Consisting of broken-down rock and the remains of organisms that once existed, it brings forth new life and takes back the old.

Soil is worth more than its weight in gold, yet humans tend to treat it as if it has little value and as if its loss is neither important nor consequential.

As a result, we don’t give much thought to soil erosion during rain storms, even though it can be quite visible.

In Charlottesville, Va., for example, the Rivanna River that runs smack through the city appears red during and after every rain storm. That obvious red coloring represents clay soil leaving the area, and it’s a serious problem for the local backyards and farmlands from which it came, as well as for the Chesapeake Bay to which it flows.

The loss of soil and nutrients negatively affects the landscape by reducing its productivity. When runoff from throughout the watershed reaches the Chesapeake Bay, it causes the die-off of underwater grasses that are needed by water-dwelling organisms to survive.

Excess nutrients cause algal blooms that cloud the water and starve it of oxygen while suspended soil blocks sunlight necessary to plants. Without access to sunlight, grasses can’t photosynthesize, or make food—and they die.

The loss of these plants affects the survivability of animals, such as young striped bass (Morone saxatilis) and blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus)—two economically important Bay species—that are dependent on underwater grasses for shelter from predation.

The grasses also oxygenate water, which benefits most aquatic animal life. And, well-established areas of grasses reduce erosion along shorelines during storms that roil the water.

There’s a simple, common-sense solution to help save the Chesapeake Bay as well as our yards and farmland from the movement of sediment: We should save the pests!

When burrowing animals, such as moles, voles, mice, ground hogs, chipmunks, ants, termites, grubs and cicadas—animals usually thought of as pests—make openings at the surface of the ground, and tunnels or burrows underground, they create air spaces into which rainwater can quickly disappear.

By accepting these critters and allowing them to coexist with us, we and the Bay receive immediate assistance limiting water run-off that carries away our priceless soil.

As an added bonus, plants are naturally irrigated and groundwater supplies are naturally recharged. But there’s more: Every single one of these “pests” plays a vital role in keeping the environment functioning properly.

Consider moles and grubs, which people love to hate. Moles are disliked because of the upraised tunnels they make when traveling through the soil to eat soil-dwelling creatures, such as grubs.

People don’t want mole tunnels in their yards because lawnmowers scalp the upraised earth and their feet sink into it as they walk. But we should feel grateful instead of aggravated.

First of all, tunnels provides natural aeration in a yard so the homeowner doesn’t need to pay for man-made aeration services to allow air to reach the roots of their plants.

Second, the mole that made the tunnel is announcing that there’s an overpopulation of soil creatures and that it’s going to reduce their populations—free of charge—before they cause problems for healthy plants.

Take, for example, grubs. The function of a grub is to recycle dead plant roots so they don’t sit there forever taking up precious space that could instead be used by a living plant. But if someone doesn’t allow the mole to do its job of limiting the numbers of grubs, these beetle larvae will become overpopulated.

When that happens, the grubs will eventually run out of their preferred food—dead plant roots—and start eating what’s left—the roots of healthy plants—to survive.

Therefore, the root cause of people’s dislike of both grubs and moles can be traced to their intolerance of mole tunnels. Yet these tunnels can be easily fixed by simply tamping them down. During the next rain, water will seep into the air spaces of the squished tunnel and it’ll be difficult to tell it had ever been there.

Your acceptance of a mole will have helped your yard and the Chesapeake Bay.


If you break it, you pay for it

Commentary from The Baltimore Sun

Marlene Condon

August 21, 2014

Some years ago, a colleague told me how, when he was a boy, he would vacation each summer with his parents in Ocean City. He and his mom always looked forward to crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Annapolis, where the sea breezes carried the very essence of this estuary — the smells associated with the vast array of organisms that live and die along the shoreline or in the saltwater.

But by the 1980s, Rick noticed that the air surrounding the bridge no longer brought to mind visions of the beach with its myriad periwinkles, sea stars, crabs, shorebirds and seaweed. The tell-tale aura of the sea had disappeared, and the family’s much anticipated arrival at the bridge had lost its magic.

The “magic” died because the bay was dying. And as the bay’s health declined, so did the once-bustling fishing industry that employed numerous workers, on and off the water. Only a remnant of what was once a thriving economy exists today.

The bay workers did not lose their jobs due to technological innovation, as happened when Henry Ford invented the assembly-line production of cars, thereby putting carriage and harness makers out of business.

No, these people lost their livelihoods because of the apathy and inaction of their fellow Americans upstream. Despite decades of media attention and scientific literature that rang again and again the alarm bell, society responded with a virtual yawn. The result has been devastating to the folks who have lived, worked, played and died in concert with the bay.

It’s not yet too late to restore the bay to health; the natural world has a remarkable ability to rebound as long as the needed variety of organisms still exists.

But people need to own up to their obligation to help the bay instead of railing against the “rain tax,” the derisive name given to fees that are supposed to be used to address deteriorating storm water infrastructure that local politicians have long neglected.

However, paying fees and pointing fingers at farms, factories and waste-water treatment plants — easy-to-identify and certainly undeniable sources of bay pollution — is not enough. We must also restrict pollutants that originate in our own backyards and end up in the Chesapeake Bay: chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides), soil and small-engine exhaust (from lawn mowers and weed trimmers).

The big problem is the American obsession with lawns around homes and businesses: Lawn and turf grass together are now considered the largest crop grown within the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Although seen as natural and water-absorbing, lawns actually function much as pavement does. The soil, compacted by lawn mowers, allows little penetration of water. Indeed, that is the reason lawn-care companies offer aeration services — they know lawns require man-made holes punched into the ground in order for water to penetrate the soil.

With ever increasing development in the bay watershed, there has been ever increasing lawn acreage. These green swards should be greatly minimized with encouragement from government. Homeowners and business owners who create nature-friendly (and thus bay-friendly) landscapes — lawn mostly replaced by flowers, shrubs, and trees — should be given reduced property tax rates.

Streams through properties should be required by law to be protected by natural vegetation. Current regulations often allow lawn to be grown right up to the stream edges.

And lastly, wildlife should be encouraged to live among us so that the environment can function as it’s supposed to do. People must learn to live in agreement with nature; living without it is not an option.

Unfortunately, most of the measures that have been taken over the past 50 years to address bay problems have involved trying to repair the bay itself (i.e., fix what was broken), rather than addressing the ongoing sources of the problems (i.e., the impaired state of the waterways flowing in).

Millions of dollars and much time and energy have been spent, for example, on growing a diverse assemblage of underwater plants and rearing oysters, as if these plants and animals could just be placed into a degraded system and survive. Needless to say, such efforts can only meet with minimal success.

It’s time for all citizens to recognize and take responsibility for their personal decisions in and around their homes and businesses that do, indeed, affect the Chesapeake Bay and those who live along its shores.

As signs in the fine-china shop declare, “If you break it, you pay for it.”

Bats Endangered; The Crozet Tunnel Should Remain Closed

 Marlene A. Condon

April 2013

Many years ago, when I first heard that people were interested in opening the Crozet Tunnel on Afton Mountain to hikers, I e-mailed a Nelson County supervisor. I was concerned about bats that might be using the tunnel to hibernate or roost.

I’d hoped those flying mammals would be taken into consideration and would not be disturbed at all during hibernation and minimally bothered during the rest of the year.

With animal populations crashing all around us, I recognized the value of preserving healthy populations of whatever critters had managed thus far to survive the increasingly disruptive impact upon wildlife by humans.

The supervisor responded to me as if I were a naïve little girl. He assured me that there were plenty of bats around and that there was nothing to worry about. He ignored my pleas to avoid harming these animals.

But within just a few years of that correspondence, a disease called White-nose Syndrome (WNS) was discovered in a cave near Albany, New York. It gets its name from the white fungus that is often visible on the muzzles and bodies of infected bats.

The fungus is deadly, killing bats by weakening them when it invades their body tissue and disrupts their hibernation. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a minimum of 5.5 million bats have since died in four Canadian provinces and 19 states, including Virginia.

Many species of bats have been affected, including the Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) and the Tri-colored Bat, which was formerly known as the Eastern Pipistrelle (Perimyotis subflavis). The Little Brown used to be the most common bat in North America, but it’s now threatened with extinction.

Research has shown that populations of the Little Brown Bat and the Tri-colored Bat have declined by more than 90 percent. Both of these species have been found in the Crozet Tunnel by game biologists from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Our neighbor state to the north, Pennsylvania, has lost approximately 99 percent of its Little Brown, Tri-colored, and Northern Long-eared Bats (Myotis septentrionalis) since 2008, illustrating the speed with which almost entire populations of species can be wiped out. The probability for a rebound of populations is practically nonexistent.

Bats usually live for two to three decades and typically give birth to only one pup per year. Thus even if WNS could be stopped right now, it could take hundreds of years for populations to come back to pre-WNS levels. And that’s assuming there are no other assaults upon these mammals.

All organisms have important roles to play. The role of bats is to feed upon night-flying insects, limiting their numbers to sustainable levels. Bats themselves are fed upon by other animals, such as snakes and owls, and even humans in some parts of the world.

As species disappear, the environment comes ever closer to being unable to function properly. Mother Nature is no fool and has built into the system back-up creatures to fulfill roles played by other critters that may temporarily disappear or be in short supply.  But that back-up system is becoming more and more depleted, threatening the existence of our own species.

The cause of WNS is a European fungus that somehow found its way to the United States, perhaps upon the sole of a traveler’s shoe.  The spores from the fungus (Gomyces destructans) have been discovered now in 21 states.

If people pick up spores on their shoes or clothes and then go into caves or tunnels with roosting or hibernating bats, they can help to spread this infectious disease that, as of now, no one knows how to cure. (Humans are not affected by White-nose Syndrome.)

I myself would love to walk through Claudius Crozet’s engineering marvel. But the Crozet Tunnel needs to remain closed to the public. WNS is such a devastating disease that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that people stay out of places where bats are known—or suspected—to hibernate (hibernacula) in all [emphasis mine] states.

Right now, this is a voluntary moratorium, but people must ask themselves whether it’s more important for folks to be able to visit this site than it is to help bats that have rapidly become endangered and may disappear in our lifetime.

Some might argue that humans created this tunnel and therefore it’s theirs to do with as they wish. However, it’s virtually assured that the deadly fungus wiping out our bats was introduced to this country by humans and that they have helped to spread it. Thus it’s incumbent upon us to try to limit further harm.

Many environmental problems have been caused by human ignorance and carelessness. But in this case, Nelson County officials can’t feign ignorance. If they choose to open the tunnel, they are knowingly inflicting harm and demonstrating mankind’s continuing disdain for the natural world that sustains us.

Man can do extraordinary things; the Crozet Tunnel is proof of that. Unfortunately, man’s extraordinary conceit often causes him to believe that other life forms aren’t important. But they are. We do not live in a vacuum. Opening the tunnel now is clearly not environmentally prudent.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Bats Endangered; The Crozet Tunnel Should Remain Closed

You Shouldn’t Need Honey Bees for Pollination


The European (more accurately known as the “Western”) Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) was brought to America in hives by European settlers. It escaped domestication and can now be found in feral colonies. This one helped to pollinate the author’s peach tree, but many native pollinator species also assisted. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)

By Marlene A. Condon –
December 4, 2015

At Cornell Orchards in Ithaca, New York, the scientists and managers of this 37-acre research and outreach facility decided this past spring to take, as they put it, “a leap of faith.” They chose to forego the assistance of commercial honey bees (hives of European bees trucked from growing area to growing area to ensure crop pollination) to see if their apple trees might still get adequately pollinated. To their surprise, they got a great crop of apples.

This news release astonished me. I’ve been to Ithaca, where there are many natural areas that include deep forests, wetlands and waterfalls, and dense brushy habitat for wildlife. How could resident researchers from the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science and the Department of Entomology at Cornell be surprised that there would be plenty of native pollinators in the area?

It might be because nowadays people think that they must personally orchestrate the workings of the natural world. But an orchard would only require the assistance of non-native honey bees if people had destroyed the biodiversity of the area—the incredible numbers of species that exist to perform such tasks as pollination.

Indeed, such eradication is taking place around the world, thanks to an increase in pesticide usage and development of the landscape, along with a decrease in natural-area preservation. A natural area un-trampled by humans maintains a reservoir of organisms for the future, should people ever again recognize the value of nature to their lives. Until they do, honey bees will continue to be needed to pollinate about a third of commercial food plants world-wide.

I’ve written hundreds of articles, and even a book, about nature-friendly gardening. Yet folks are still resistant to the main tenet of my thesis, which is that in order to be a successful gardener or farmer, you must blend your garden or cropland into the environment.

In other words, your food-growing areas must meld with the larger landscape around it so as to become one with it. This means you must allow native and naturalized plants (normally viewed as “weeds”) to grow among and in the vicinity of the plants you transplanted or started from seed.

When you follow this natural mandate, you don’t encounter the usual problems with insects and other invertebrates that most home and commercial gardeners believe are inevitable. Unfortunately, people doubt this truism, especially because scientists and extension agents talk about “pests” as if they are, indeed, a given when growing plants.

But the scientists, extension agents, garden writers and talk-show hosts are wrong. The problem for gardeners is not that certain organisms exist solely to kill their plants, but rather that gardeners haven’t provided habitat for the predators needed to keep plant-eating organisms in check.

Logic and common sense should tell us that no animal is supposed to eat itself out of house and home by killing the very plants it is dependent upon. If an organism destroys its food source, how will it survive to reproduce? And should it manage to reproduce, how will its progeny survive if there’s no food for them?

Thus when predators keep populations of plant-eating organisms limited to a population level that doesn’t seriously harm or kill the food plants of those organisms, the predators are aiding those creatures to keep their kind from going extinct. They are also allowing the food grower the ability to grow food without the use of pesticides that poison his world.

In order to invite predators to any property—large or small, commercial or private—you can’t treat it as a room inside a house that needs to be kept perfectly neat and sanitized. The overly ordered appearance of a property signifies ignorance of how the natural world works and how to garden or farm in agreement with nature.

Don’t get caught up in today’s societal standards that dictate a manicured look instead of a natural one. Garden cleanliness is definitely not next to godliness. It results in the need for pesticides to try to do the job predators could have done free of charge and much more safely, without effort on the part of the grower.

Instead, go wild! And don’t apologize for it.

My yard teems with numerous kinds of trees, shrubs, flowers, and wild grasses. Best of all, it’s absolutely alive with a variety of critters. A landscape teeming with wildlife is a landscape that is healthy.

To be a successful gardener or farmer, keep or create a variety of habitats to provide food, water, shelter, and nesting sites for a mix of wildlife. Accept that all wildlife is providing services so don’t be prejudiced against particular organisms.

There’s no harm in moving along critters that have taken up residence right around your house or farm buildings where you might experience an unpleasant or unsafe interaction with them. But you should never attempt to rid an entire property of particular kinds of animals.

Consider wasps: They limit the numbers of insects and spiders in addition to pollinating plants, which are all vital to the proper functioning of the environment. But if wasps start to build nests on or right by your house, you can tend to it in an environmentally friendly way.

Check every day all spring to very early summer to discover where nests have been started. As long as morning temperatures are still in the 40s, you can easily knock down nests without getting stung. There will be very few wasps per nest at this time of year and they can’t fly or even move much when it’s chilly. Therefore they will drop to the ground when you hit the nest.

But you must check carefully almost every day to get all the nests down before morning temperatures reach 50 degrees or above. By that time, very few wasps are still trying to start a nest. Vigilance is the key to avoiding or dealing with possible wildlife problems.

You needn’t take action at all if the location of a wasp nest poses no danger to you because, for example, it’s so high on the house that no one will ever be close enough to it to get stung. And don’t just turn to pesticides or poisons. It’s your responsibility to do your best to avoid serious problems with wildlife, and I’ve found that where there’s a will, there’s a way to deal with difficulties in a safe manner for you and the environment.

Why not make your New Year’s resolution the resolve to create a nature-friendly garden that’s safe for everyone—people, pets, wildlife, and the environment. It’s the only way to live.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: You Shouldn’t Need Honey Bees for Pollination

Nuclear Energy More Wildlife-friendly than Most “Green” Alternatives


Dominion Resources’ Chesterfield Power Station is the largest fossil fuel-powered plant in Virginia. Replacing such plants with solar and wind farms isn’t necessarily the best choice. (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

By Marlene A. Condon –
February, 2016

Thanks to the burning of fossil fuels, global climate change is now a term everyone knows. But do we talk about limiting population growth and the particular aspects of consumerism that have brought about this dangerous alteration of our atmosphere?

After all, as long as the human population keeps increasing, there will be a corresponding increase in demand for energy just for basic needs, such as heating homes and cooking—never mind the energy gluttony of our modern era of computers, cell phones, automatic doors that open and close constantly, etc.

Yet as power companies attempt to provide the energy that our modern lifestyles are commanding, they are lambasted for their efforts. In Virginia, a lot of contentiousness exists about bringing fuel through the state via three huge natural-gas pipelines as well as the movement of electricity through gargantuan transmission towers.

That’s not surprising. What person who appreciates the natural beauty of a rural area wants such unnatural-looking features running through it? However, every American whose house is larger than absolutely necessary, or whose computer runs 24/7 for no good reason, bears some responsibility for these situations.

Many people insist that we don’t need coal or fracked hydrocarbons (environmentally destructive sources of energy) to supply our energy demands. They suggest we just need to develop “green” energy, such as can be obtained from sunshine, wind, and water.

But these so-called green energy sources are not synonymous with “harmless to the environment” as many people seem to think. Although “green” power sources may emit fewer or no carbon emissions as compared to coal, their use—when employed on a large scale—results in a variety of wildlife losses, both directly by infrastructure and indirectly by habitat alteration or destruction.

Dams built across rivers to create hydropower stop migratory (and edible) fish from being able to continue as far as they need to go in order to abundantly reproduce. And the concept of gathering energy from wave action presents such problems as alteration of habitat for benthic organisms (creatures that live at the lowest surface of a body of water, including on the sediment surface and in some sub-surface layers) and animal entanglement due to underwater moving parts.

Huge wind turbines kill migratory birds and bats that hit the spinning blades. Placing the bases of these structures within the ocean creates noise that can negatively impact sea life, especially cetaceans (whales and dolphins) that must communicate with one another over long distances.

The deployment of acres and acres of solar-panel arrays destroy habitat for the variety of wildlife they displace, and in some instances, the solar array itself has caused the deaths of particular species of birds, many of which are already recognized as endangered.

That said, solar panels on top of a roof (which are very common) and small wind turbines in a home landscape that no longer supports wildlife anyway are both great ways to obtain energy for the homeowner’s needs. However, large-scale solar- and wind-energy projects are too destructive of the environment. If people are going to continue to demand enormous amounts of energy instead of using energy more frugally—as I believe they should—the “greenest” alternative to coal is nuclear power.

Yes, people tend to be terrified of this radioactive fuel source, and admittedly with good reason. Radioactivity can be exceedingly dangerous should we be exposed to too much of it by a radioactive release from one of these power plants. And, of course, there’s the problem of leftover radioactive waste that needs to be properly disposed of. But are nuclear power plants “prohibitively dangerous,” as I’ve seen written?

There have never been deaths in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, or Europe due to nuclear power. Indeed, it has been in use now for over five decades and has a very good safety record.

The sum total of accidents in over 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 countries is three: Three Mile Island (United States, 1979), Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986), and Fukushima (Japan, 2011).

Three Mile Island was contained without anyone being harmed, and there were no adverse environmental consequences.

Chernobyl involved an intense fire in a reactor designed without provision for containment of radioactive material should an accident occur. This design flaw is not allowed in Western countries. This incident killed 31 people and the ensuing environmental and health consequences have increased that total to at least 56.

Fukushima was designed to withstand an earthquake, which it did just fine. The operating units shut down and backup diesel generators started automatically to keep the nuclear safety systems powered. The problem was the huge tsunami that knocked out the backup power systems, allowing the reactors to overheat and release some radioactivity. Lessons have been learned; in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission now requires that portable electric generators and water-pumping equipment be stored onsite in a building away from the units so it’s available if needed to keep them safe.

Some folks worry that a nuclear power reactor might explode like a nuclear bomb. However, the fuel is not enriched anywhere near enough for that to happen.

Can spent fuel rods be enriched and then employed in bomb-making? Yes, but that’s why operating staff are monitored carefully, especially if they handle fuel. And new methods of mining uranium and improved technologies for building reactors that run on less-enriched uranium fuel should help make nuclear power even safer.

Although nuclear power stations emit about 17 tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt when producing power (compared to coal at a whopping 1000 tons), that’s not much more than wind and geothermal power, which emit the lowest amounts.

In terms of electricity production, the main advantage of nuclear power is that it delivers energy almost constantly. This makes it well-suited for providing the always-on “baseload” power supply we depend upon for reliability.

The main disadvantage in terms of electricity production is the problem of nuclear waste. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, all of the used nuclear fuel produced over the past 50 years, if stacked end to end, would cover a single football field to a depth of about 21 feet.

The plan is to eventually store nuclear waste in underground repositories, but for now it is stored onsite at nuclear power plants in steel-lined, concrete water-filled vaults or in massive steel or steel-lined concrete dry containers. Although some folks worry about the possibility of equipment failures and personnel errors, there has yet to be a major incident.

Energy conservation should be practiced much more than it is, but the reality is that people are highly unlikely to change their ways. This fact was demonstrated by the need to legislate the use of more energy-efficient bulbs when people could have simply shut their lights off. That said, nuclear is far “greener” than most other sources in terms of maintaining the very existence of our natural world.

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Nuclear Energy More Wildlife-friendly than Most “Green” Alternatives

A New Year’s Energy Resolution: Waste Not, Want Not!


© Marlene A. Condon
January, 2015

Roughly 50 percent of refrigerated display cases in grocery stores are open, wasting an enormous amount of energy that shoppers foot the bill for by paying higher food prices.  (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)
Roughly 50 percent of refrigerated display cases in grocery stores are open, wasting an enormous amount of energy that shoppers foot the bill for by paying higher food prices. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)


Last Thanksgiving, I came face to face with the environmental prospects facing our world. Speaking with a young man who I’d guess was about 30, I was deeply distressed by his indifference to the effect of ever-increasing energy demands placed upon the Earth.

With all of the talk about sustainability, I would have hoped that young people, especially, would demonstrate more environmental awareness. But for this young waiter, energy consumption was as natural and necessary as food consumption.

He spoke of how his generation believed work should be mixed with play, and he pointed to the TV screens lining the walls of the hotel restaurant where he was an employee and I was a guest.

His point was that people could be connected constantly to the world via many electronic gadgets, and he added that even the apartment building where he lived was similarly set up, with screens in the lobby to greet people the moment they walked into the building.

While the restaurant employee felt right at home at work (which I now know was the intention), I had felt thankful that the TVs were silent, their information being disseminated by closed captioning instead of blaring very much unwanted sounds. For me, the TVs represented a terrible waste of energy as they consumed it most hours of the day, even though few people were paying any attention to them.

Additionally, the screens were so large that just the one on the front wall of the restaurant could have served the purpose instead of covering the length of an additional wall with them.

Yes, electronic screens may be far more energy-efficient than the old-style TVs, but when you multiply them by the uncountable screens running most of each day in other hotels, doctors’ offices, car repair shops, and homes, whether anyone is watching them or not, you can begin to understand how much we squander our energy resources.

The coal, natural gas, and oil that run our modern-day world consist of nothing more than the remains of prehistoric organisms that were chemically altered via great pressure and temperature. It required millions of years of processing to become the fuel we are burning through at such a rapid pace that the depletion of it is in sight after just more than 150 years!

The proof that these fossil fuels are truly a limited resource is made clear by the desperate attempts to obtain oil and gas by hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits. Why else would anyone bother to go after oil and gas deep within the ground?

What about leaving fuel for future generations? The fact that we are going after every last hydrocarbon molecule we can possibly get does not show much concern for people’s descendants.

Obviously, we should not view this precious commodity with such a cavalier attitude, but many folks do. Indeed, on the very day I started writing this column, I heard a person on a conservative radio talk show saying he should have a right to build his home without insulation, if he so desired (and I believe he could, as I could find no reference to government regulations requiring homes to have insulation).

To him, the increased amount of energy he would end up using to warm his home was nobody’s business but his. If he wanted to waste energy, that should be his prerogative as a freedom-loving American.

But declaring a right to waste resources affects all of us: Following through on your right causes the resource to run out all the sooner for everyone. It’s remarkable that the caller—and his host who thoroughly agreed with him—were oblivious to the irony of calling themselves “conservatives” when they didn’t care about conserving a limited resource.

However, when you look around, it’s easy to see how society as a whole gives short shrift to energy usage:

Grocery stores use upright, open, refrigerated display cases that make those aisles, and sometimes the entire store, uncomfortably and unnecessarily chilly.

The automatic doors at the entranceways to many businesses and apartment complexes are constantly opening and closing, even if no one is entering or leaving.

The large houses that have become the norm over the past couple of decades or so require a great deal of energy to cool and heat, whether every room is actually used or not.

And perhaps the most obvious example of our wasteful ways is the running of such things as lights, computers, and TVs at home and at work even though no one is making use of them. It should be noted that we wouldn’t have been forced into buying more-expensive CFL light bulbs that contain mercury if people would have just switched off the lights when exiting the room.

In Virginia, people are fighting three pipelines¹ proposed to go through the state to carry natural gas obtained by hydrofracking. Many folks don’t want these huge conduits going through their “back yards” and you can’t blame them.

Personally, I’ve never understood why some people should be forced to give up their properties for the sake of everyone else, especially in this case when so much energy is, and has been, expended so carelessly and needlessly.

Additionally, we should not overlook how our appetite for energy horrendously affects wildlife. Even supposedly “green” power sources (i.e., they emit fewer or no carbon emissions), when employed on a large scale, result in a variety of wildlife losses too numerous to completely list. The following are but a few examples:

Huge solar panel arrays destroy habitat for desert tortoises and are killing birds by incineration.

Wind turbines on mountain tops impact eagle nesting sites while killing migratory birds and bats that hit the turbine blades.

Wind turbine construction and operation in the ocean create noise, which can impact sea life, especially cetaceans (whales and dolphins) that need to communicate with one another.

River dams to create hydropower stop migratory fish from being able to reproduce adequately.

Please understand that I’m not saying we shouldn’t use energy. I, for one, am certainly grateful that I don’t have to fully suffer the freezing temperatures of winter the way my ancestors did.

My point is that we should use energy as wisely as possible to minimize its seriously deleterious impacts upon the Earth as well as to prolong the availability of the resource.

It’s January, a time of New Year’s resolutions. It would be wonderful if everyone resolved to make “waste not, want not” their motto when consuming energy.

¹[Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline; the EQT Corp and NextEra Energy companies’ Mountain Valley Pipeline; and the Oklahoma-based Williams company’s Western Marcellus Pipeline]

To Feed or Not to Feed: That Was the Question


© Marlene A. Condon
February, 2015

Brightly colored American Goldfinches will visit feeders as well as plants to obtain the seeds they need throughout the year. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)

Brightly colored American Goldfinches will visit feeders as well as plants to obtain the seeds they need throughout the year. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)

At my last talk of the season in Shenandoah National Park, an audience member asked me about bird feeding. He’d heard that this activity was linked to the increase in Lyme disease because it increased the number of mice around people’s homes.

White-footed Mice serve as the main reservoir for Lyme bacteria. These microorganisms are transferred to people when larval ticks that have fed upon infected mice reach the nymph or adult stage of their life cycle and feed upon humans. (Ticks prefer deer, but people make an acceptable substitute.)

The man was quite concerned about the possibility of contracting this illness, and he was rather upset that I didn’t agree that people should stop feeding birds. He felt that if people maintained the nature-friendly garden that I was advocating, they wouldn’t need to feed birds anyway.

While it’s true that people could—and should—supply food to wildlife by properly landscaping their property, the reality is that very few people understand the value of replicating the natural world around their homes. Thus very few yards are truly capable of supplying food to birds and other wildlife.

Bird feeding can help animals survive, especially during harsh weather when it’s absolutely crucial for them to have easy access to food. However, people should feed responsibly, which means understanding the consequences of their actions and addressing potential problems.

You can avoid increasing mouse populations by simply putting out only the amount of seed that birds will consume in a day. An organism’s population can grow only if there is plenty of food to sustain its expansion.

You can figure out how much to feed by checking the ground at the end of the day to assess how many seeds remain. It’s not a problem for some seeds to be on the ground; after all, the mice have to eat too! But there shouldn’t be an abundance of them. If necessary, cut back on how much you dispense in the morning.

Some years ago, many ornithologists were also quite concerned about bird feeding and wanted people to stop. They worried about the spread of disease among birds in close contact day after day, and they also felt it made birds more vulnerable to predation by hawks. Again, such situations can be easily addressed.

First of all, no feeder should be much more than 9-12 feet from shrubs and/or small trees, or at least a brush pile, where birds can have a chance to escape a hawk attack. That distance provides a barrier to prevent Gray Squirrels from jumping from the plants or brush pile to the feeder (a squirrel can jump about 8 feet horizontally), but it’s close enough for a bird to make a prompt dash to safety.

If there aren’t woody plants near your feeder pole, you should consider placing a fast-growing evergreen (such as Photinia serrulata) close by. Evergreen shrubs and trees are better than deciduous woody plants as they provide cover all the year around.

However, the best cover for birds is provided by a nearby brush pile. Small birds can navigate through the interlocking branches and twigs to reach the safety of the interior of the pile, while the larger hawk is unable to get through the small openings.

[For a free brochure on brush piles that I wrote several years ago for the Virginia Department of Forestry, please contact me at]

To avoid the spread of disease among birds at feeders, you should watch for sick animals. They can be recognized by their sluggishness and hesitation to fly away from food.

If you notice a bird behaving this way, you should take down all of your feeders, empty them completely, and then wash them well with plenty of soap and water to wash away microorganisms. Rinse the feeders well and let them air dry completely, preferably in sunlight, before refilling them.

Healthy birds will move off during this time to find food elsewhere (in your natural landscaping, I hope), and the sick bird will die more quickly, relieving it of its misery.

In addition to believing that bird feeding can be quite helpful to birds, I also believe that birds—via bird feeders—can be quite helpful to us.

More than 20 years ago now, I took care of my mother in my home for the last 11 months of her life. She had cancer and became bedridden about two months after I brought her to live with me.

I had placed her bed where she could watch the bird feeder on the deck. I knew she needed something to entertain her and watching birds was just the ticket!

Not only did my mom get to see birds she had never seen before, which she found interesting, but she also felt useful by filling the role of research assistant. Because I couldn’t stay right with my mother all day (there was plenty that needed to be done elsewhere in the house), she would give me a report about what I’d missed when I had been out of the room.

I was thrilled to get her observations as they added to my knowledge, and they provided us with wonderful conversations that could relieve us both of thoughts about her impending death.

One of the most meaningful things my mother did for me under these heartbreaking circumstances was to call me whenever there was a photo opportunity. One photo, of a male Northern Cardinal bathing in my deck water pan, will always bring back that day so long ago when my mom helped me to get that bird’s picture.

For some people, bird feeding has played a lasting role in family relationships under happier circumstances. Nancy, a birder I know by way of the Virginia bird list-serve, shared with me her experience as a very young child.

Her grandmother would feed Blue Jays. She’d hold up Nancy, who wasn’t even three years old yet, to see the birds eating. To this day, Nancy loves Blue Jays. They are the first kind of bird she can remember being aware of and, of course, they will always make her think of her loving grandmother who introduced Nancy to a lifelong hobby.

My only concern with this activity is when people start to believe that birds are somehow more precious than other kinds of wildlife, and then proceed to try to banish some species from around their homes.

Your environment can only support birds if it contains a tapestry of organisms living and working together to fulfill their natural roles. If you want your feathered friends to live well, don’t try to make them live in a vacuum.

Wildlife Dependent upon People

© Marlene A. Condon
April, 2015

Last month, on a day that was —according to the calendar—about two weeks before the beginning of spring, I listened to the sounds of its impending arrival. Wood Frogs had been calling vociferously all day from my artificial ponds and a lone Spring Peeper had occasionally joined in.

But what really made an impression on me was the number of woodcocks I had heard calling in the morning darkness before the Sun rose. I was taking my usual walk along a nearby road and was thrilled to hear at least seven of these birds in my area.

A woodcock is a rather strange-looking bird with a long beak and plump body. It nests from Virginia northwards, but then needs to move southwards with the seasons—generally speaking. One relatively snowless winter, I did hear a woodcock calling every month from November to May in a nearby field, but that is unusual.

Birders visit fields to listen for returning woodcocks at this time of the year, particularly fields that contain damp soil conditions that allow the birds to feed. A woodcock’s long beak is used to probe the soil for earthworms and other invertebrates.

The population of woodcocks has been in decline since the 1960s. Their diminishing numbers are said to be due to loss of habitat because of development and also forest maturation. The reason we now have more forests composed of older trees is because we are still suffering the fallout from years ago when the huge outcry against clear-cutting left people thinking that cutting forests is a bad thing to do.

The result has been a loss of habitat for the many kinds of wildlife that absolutely depend upon the shrubby and wild grass-and-flower-filled landscape that comprises a regenerating forest landscape. The American Woodcock and other birds, such as the Ruffed Grouse, simply cannot reproduce without the appropriate habitat provided by a young forest.

But when people view the world with a very narrow perspective, and they insist that their perspective guide the management of most public (and often private) land, the end result is typically disastrous for the environment as a whole.

Additionally, based upon my own local observations, another very serious problem for the woodcock and other birds of field and edge habitat is the default modification of the landscape that occurs in conjunction with people building houses in fields.

Instead of maintaining mostly field habitat around their new home, the owners more commonly turn the acreage into lawn, which very few species of wildlife can utilize. Or, if they keep it looking like a field, it is cut far too often to be of much use to wildlife.

As evidenced by my pre-dawn walk that early-March day, fields are vital to our American Woodcock. Although most of the woodcocks I heard that morning were performing their aerial mating display to impress females in farm fields, one woodcock was making use of a wonderfully overgrown “yard.” And since I’ve also heard a woodcock here in previous years, the acreage is obviously being managed well for this type of bird.

The yard consists of about five acres (I would guess), which has neither been turned into a lawn nor kept cut throughout the growing, and mating, season. The folks who moved into the house on that property several years ago made the decision to manage the land in a nature-friendly manner and have done so continuously.

The woodcock singing from, and displaying above, their field is testament to their management-style success. In my opinion, these folks are so admirable that they deserve an award. Instead, Albemarle County and Commonwealth of Virginia officials bestow upon them the very highest land valuation (and tax bill) possible for private property—residential—for helping wildlife and the environment as a whole.

As often as local politicians purport to be conservation-minded, it’s difficult to understand why they don’t push for Richmond legislators to change tax laws so people who are truly conservation-minded aren’t penalized for doing what, in actuality, everyone should be doing with their properties.

No one requires a huge lawn. This aesthetic concept should be considered archaic and a relic of a time when mankind wasn’t taking up every bit of available space on the planet. It may have been acceptable years ago to waste land, but it shouldn’t be tolerated nowadays.

Any lawn that is larger than what will be utilized for everyday entertaining represents a wasted resource. Land is supposed to be productive. It should be growing food (whether for people or other organisms) or providing shelter and nesting sites for animals.

This is the reason that every bit of usable land sprouts seedlings that people call “weeds.” Mother Nature is trying to provide for her critters.

Anyone who gardens and anyone who owns land should think about their actions upon the environment as a whole. And if you are fortunate enough to own a fair bit of land, you should consider emulating my neighbors who’ve managed to attract a woodcock to their property for a few years now.

Make no mistake about it: The future of our wildlife is going to be determined by how people choose to manage their yards.