Monday, March 26, 2012

How "Green" Is Your Lawn?

It’s true: A green lawn is often not a green lawn.

Many of you already know this, but neighborhood peer pressure keeps you reaching for weed spray, fertilizer and a lawnmower.

When you step through your front door, do you feel like you’ve landed on the set of American Beauty?

Do you worry that your attempts at eco-friendly landscaping will draw more overzealous homeowner’s association enforcers than butterflies?

Fear not, cool green suburbanite, because creating a more wildlife-friendly yard is easier than you think. You too can become a refuge for the local critters, win the approval of your neighbors and lower your carbon footprint.

Several years ago, my wife and I replaced our very green (in color) front yard with native and drought-tolerant plants. Living in the arid West, we wanted to reduce our use of water—and lessen our mowing time.

As we tore up all that grass, we met with the predictable looks, scowls and disapproving remarks from our neighbors.

But a funny thing happened on our way to native flora.

Goldfinches, hummingbirds and swallowtails became regular visitors. So did neighborhood kids, drawn by the more visually interesting mix of rocks, wavy grasses and wildflowers. Random people started stopping by to learn more about particularly pretty plants.

Why? Because, in reality, few people really love all that green grass. There are more interesting things to do with your yard—and your time. Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Get Reel. As anyone trying to sleep in on a summer Saturday can attest, gas lawnmowers should be cited for disturbing the peace. They’re loud, smelly and often unreliable. Use your own power instead, with a reel mower. There’s no pollution, and you may find that lawn mowing is a lot more pleasant.
  1. Plant for Wildlife. There are a number of ways to make your yard a safe haven for the wild things. The National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat can get you pointed in the right direction.
  1. Plant Natives. You don’t have to tear out your whole lawn; just a corner of native plants will draw butterflies and birds. As ecologist Michael Rosenzweig notes, if everyone did this in a neighborhood, it would create a sizeable wildlife refuge. Just think of the possibilities if every neighborhood incorporated native vegetation.
  1. Grow Your Food. Concerned about how far your food is traveling? The ultimate local food is from your back (or front) yard. Even a very small space can produce enough veggies to help reduce your grocery bill while reducing your carbon footprint.
  1. Lay off the Spray. Herbicides and other pesticides don’t just stay in your yard. They run off into the water, impacting amphibians, fish and other wildlife. The fact is, you don’t need these toxic chemicals around. Organizations like the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides offer free tips on how to solve your weed, insect and pest problems without resorting to nasty chemicals.

--Matt Miller

Image courtesy of Jennifer Miller

Monday, March 19, 2012

Conservation Legacy: The Hixons

The Nature Conservancy recently announced the donation of a 110-acre easement in Washington County, in Hells Canyon, by conservationists Tim and Joe Hixon.

This easement will keep national forest lands connected, ensure the property remains a working ranch and provide habitat for wildlife ranging from elk to white-headed woodpeckers.

It also builds on a substantial western Idaho conservation legacy established by the Hixon family.

The Hixons have also donated nearby conservation easements protecting an additional 1827 acres along the Wildhorse River in Hells Canyon.

They have also played an important role in an amazing conservation success story.

In the 1980s, Tim and Karen Hixon donated funds for the Conservancy to purchase a 4200-acre ranch which contained the last population of Columbia sharp-tailed grouse in western Idaho.

In the 1970s, it was believed that these birds had disappeared from this part of the state. In 1977, a Bureau of Land Management manager accidentally discovered a small spring dancing ground—also known as a lek--on a private ranch near Midvale Hill. Sharp-tailed grouse, like many grouse species, gather each spring on these dancing grounds as a mating display.

The manager alerted then BLM biologist Alan Sands of his discovery. This prompted extensive searching effort throughout Washington and Adams counties, resulting in the discovery of three other dancing grounds, two more of which were on the same ranch.

The Nature Conservancy worked with Tim and Karen Hixon to purchase the ranch. Now known as the Hixon Sharptail Project, the effort to protect and restore these grouse has been a spectacular success, with grouse populations continuing to increase. In many parts of their range, these grouse have continued on a precipitous decline.

The contributions of the Hixons have truly made western Idaho a better place. Their latest easement gift builds on that outstanding legacy. Thank you!

Top image: TNC files, bottom image: Alan Sands/TNC.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Blumenstein Internship

Last fall, I had the great opportunity to speak with Jack and Sarah Blumenstein for a story on the Charlie Blumenstein Water and Wildlife Conservation Internship, which I was writing for our Idaho annual report.

The internship funds a summer internship at Silver Creek for a Colorado College student, and is a tremendous learning opportunity for students and a tremendous benefit to our work at Silver Creek.

Jack and Sarah started the internship as a way to remember their son Charlie, who tragically died as a young man. In talking to them about the internship, I was inspired by their vision, kindness and passion for their son's legacy and for conservation.

Sadly, Jack Blumenstein passed away unexpectedly on February 29. We are all saddened by the loss, and our thoughts go to Sarah and the Blumenstein family. In memory of both Jack and Charlie, we are reprinting the full story of the internship here.

Remembering Charlie
Visit Silver Creek in the summer, and you’ll probably see a flurry of activity: people planting trees, leading tours, fixing fence, greeting visitors, painting buildings. Taking the lead on much of the efforts are the Conservancy’s great interns. We truly couldn’t do it without them.

The interns, in turn, gain working experience while enjoying one of the most beautiful streams in the country. Many echo the sentiments of 2010 intern Dominique Lucio, who called the intern experience “one of the best and most educational of my life.”

Funding Lucio’s experience was the Charlie Blumenstein Water and Wildlife Conservation Internship at Colorado College. The story of that internship is the story of a legacy, a memory, of another young man who was touched by the Silver Creek experience.

Charlie Blumenstein was an avid fly fisher, hydrologist and conservationist who—like so many with his passions—fell in love with Silver Creek on visits there with his parents and two brothers.

He credited his informal, out-of-classroom, extra-curricular, field experiences with his decision to become a hydrologist.

Charlie shared his passion with his family, and his parents Jack and Sarah credit him with educating them about stream conservation and water resources in the West.

In 2003, Charlie tragically died of stomach cancer at age 29, a terrible loss for family and friends.
“We knew we had to do something to honor and remember him,” said his father, Jack. “We realized we could do something that combined two of his loves, Colorado College and Silver Creek.”

The internship was born from this idea, and has been since been almost entirely funded by family friends. Since 2004, eight Blumenstein interns have lived and worked at Silver Creek for the summer, providing invaluable help to the Conservancy’s work while also furthering their own education and professional resumes.

Jack and Sarah Blumenstein, who own a home in Sun Valley, are able to spend time with the interns and host them at their home during the summer. “It’s been an absolutely wonderful program to remember Charlie,” Sarah said . “And it’s a wonderful way to make a contribution to sustaining Silver Creek.”

Jack and Sarah were increasingly involved in other Conservancy projects, including at Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake River and the Henry’s Fork, as well as Alaska. Recently, they took a trip to southern Africa, and appreciated the chance to discuss global conservation with Conservancy lead scientist Sanjayan at Silver Creek’s 35th anniversary gala.

“The Conservancy has a big mission but does an excellent job of making sure the conservation happens on the ground,” said Jack. “We are huge fans and believers in the organization. We are so happy to be able to contribute to the Conservancy’s work in our own small way, and to remember Charlie and his love of Silver Creek.” --Matt Miller

Monday, March 05, 2012

Great Horned Owls

It's the hooting season.

On nearly every evening walk at this time of year, I look forward to hearing the haunting HOOOOT-hoot-hoot-hoot of great horned owls. If I stop, I can often see one silently flying from tree to tree. Somtimes, they even land just above my head.

Great horned owls begin calling to potential mates as early as October. They will pair off this month. At this time of year, they call to each other more frequently--what is called "duetting."

The owls breed in January and February--among the earliest of any birds on the continent. But they're still active now. If you take an evening walk this month, listen carefully--you may hear the haunting hoots echoing across the landscape.

And you have a good chance of hearing great horned owls wherever you are in Idaho. They are one of the most adaptable birds in the Americas, found from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, in small woodlots and vast wilderness, in sagebrush and city parks, in deserts and along rivers.

It's a great time of year to take an evening walk. The sounds of coyotes howling mixed with various active birds--from red-winged blackbirds to ducks to warblers--creates a lovely spring symphony. Get outside, and enjoy the nature that is found nearby, wherever you live in Idaho.