We'll reap what we sow

We remember the inaugural Earth Day — the first day of spring, 1970. We pedaled our bike to Guilderland High School instead of riding the bus.

Like the day, the gesture was only symbolic. Despite the cyclists, the buses ran, emitting their fumes — and it was only one day.

Still, symbols can matter because they can focus attention, and inspire. This year, the governor has declared April 19 to 25 as Earth Week in New York. We applaud the events going on in our coverage area. This past Saturday was the first village cleanup in Voorheesville. The Village Green Clean was a community celebration as well as a way to pick up litter; it was coupled with a recycling event.

This Saturday, the Guilderland School District will host its ninth Recycling Extravaganza at the middle school for those who live in the district and for those who don’t. Any recycled item is one less to fill the dump. Also on Saturday, Altamont will hold its annual Green and Clean event when volunteers will spruce up the village landscape. And, on May 2, New Scotland’s annual Town Wide Volunteer Day, backed by the Kiwanis, will help those in need. Details for these worthwhile events can be found in our Community Calendar.

This time of nature’s equipoise is a good moment to reflect on the delicate balance that is our ecosystem. We need more than a single day, more than a declared week to right our relationship with the planet that sustains us. Such a reckoning is necessary for the survival of our species.

We got a call last week from Laurel Tormey Cole of Knox; the annual native plant sale she organizes at the Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center is celebrating its 10th year this spring. We’ve been to Tormey Cole’s workshops and caught her missionary zeal for native plants, which are both beautiful to look at and easy to care for.

You can match the plant to the soil you have and not have to water it after its first season or clean it up in the fall. Native plants don’t waste the valuable water that exotic imports do and they support local species.

The Joe Pye weed we bought at the first native plant sale a decade ago and put in our yard now towers over us. It attracts beautiful swallowtail and monarch butterflies.

In her recent call, Tormey Cole expressed concern over the fate of the monarch. Every year, we cover the release at Farnsworth Middle School of the bright orange butterflies with dramatic black veins striped on their wings. The kids raise the monarchs under the tutelage of their teacher Alan Fiero, and then, in late August, exuberantly chanting, “I gotta go! I gotta go! I gotta go to Mexico!” they set them free.

But the monarchs that breed east of the Rockies and migrate to forests in the mountains of Mexico are in peril. In the 1990s, up to a billion made the epic flight each fall; last winter, only about 33 million made the journey — a 90 percent drop from the 20-year average.

Tormey Cole cited a recent report from NatureServe and The Xerces Society, funded by the United States Forest Service, that attributes the decline to three things: loss of milkweed in North America, logging in Mexico where the butterflies overwinter in once-dense forest; and climate change.

We may not be able to stop logging in Mexico, but we can help with the other two.

Milkweed is to the monarch what lupine is to the Karner blue butterfly.  Because farmers now plant more genetically modified herbicide-resistant crops, they use the herbicide glyphosate on those crops, which doesn’t kill the corn or soybeans but does kill the milkweed that used to grow between the rows. We can plant milkweed native to our area to help the monarch.

We can also support legislation that would reduce greenhouse gases, moving to solar or wind energy, rather than depending on coal and oil. Recent erratic weather, including extreme storms, has been linked to greenhouse gases. “Winter storms can have severe impact on overwintering monarchs,” says the report, citing a single storm that killed up to 500 million butterflies.

What arrogance we humans have to end a miracle like a multi-generational migration that can span thousands of miles. The monarch should serve to warn us, like the proverbial canary in the coalmine — miners would carry the caged birds into their tunnels; the birds’ death alerted the miners to the fatal gasses.

But can we, as a human race, escape the fate we’ve wrought?

We’ll continue to report on and praise progress that is being made in our midst. This week, we have a story on a corridor at the foot of the Helderberg escarpment that points out several important factors in preserving our ecosystem.

First, we commend the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy for its mission. It serves to preserve open space and natural habitats in the midst of development pressure. Across our nation, an estimated 16 million acres are under conservation easements, according to the National Conservation Easement Database.

The local conservancy has put together a patchwork of land to build most of a protected corridor.

Second, we commend the people who, at personal loss, care enough about the environment and the future to sell or donate easements, or to sell or donate land outright. We wrote last summer of the desendents of Milford Becker, a beloved local veterinarian and naturalist, who sold their late father’s land below market value to the land conservancy. “They made a pretty big sacrifice on their part,” said Mark King who directs the conservancy.

The 154 acres along the Bozenkill, outside of Altamont, sold by the Beckers added to a valuable corridor that not only affords recreational opportunities but also protects an important watershed.

Similarly, King told our New Scotland reporter, Jo E. Prout, this week that Margaret Craven Snowden in accepting $150,000 for a guarantee not to develop her land also made a sacrifice for the common good. Chris Lehman, who owns neighboring land, is prepared to do the same.

Finally, these contributions not only preserve natural views that residents and visitors alike can enjoy, but they preserve valuable and fast-disappearing habitats. Such habitats can serve as classrooms to educate people before we destroy what is left.

On Sunday, April 26, Alvin Breisch will lead a hike through the Craven Snowden lands, giving people a chance to learn about its natural inhabitants, like the wood frogs and spotted salamanders. These amphibians are important links in forest food webs and indicators of healthy, functioning ecosystems, according to a report from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

In the early spring, both wood frogs and mole salamanders, like the spotted salamander, breed in woodland pools, which are small and temporary. They migrate to these breeding pools by the hundreds.

A few weeks ago, we pictured signs made by thoughtful second-graders at Altamont Elementary School, warning motorists traveling on Picard Road at the foot of the Helderbergs, to watch out for salamanders crossing the road.

As roads fragment forests, as wetlands are gobbled up by development, these amphibians suffer.

The Hudson River Estuary Program and Cornell University Department of Natural Resources are working together to conserve woodland pools and the wildlife that depend on these critical habitats. They are asking citizens to report on migrations. (Details are available at www.dec.ny.gov/lands/51925.html.)

We human beings are not wise enough to fully comprehend what we are destroying. The links that form the web of life are sometimes invisible to us. The lowly salamander, for example, may well play a part in slowing global warming.

Research done in our midst, in Rensselaerville, more than a decade ago indicated that salamanders play a vital role in maintaining the carbon sink on the forest floor.  By eating the small insects and other critters that break down the fallen leaves to a size for the microbes to ingest, salamanders slow the rate of carbon being re-released into the atmosphere by keeping more of the carbon trapped in the fallen leaves on the forest floor.

That same research, however, demonstrated how sensitive these amphibians are to global climate change.  As the number of salamanders drops each year, due to the changing climate and loss of habitat, their critical role in the carbon cycle goes unfilled, further speeding the release of carbon into the atmosphere and creating a downward spiral of climate change and further losses to salamander populations.

So, in taking care to preserve the smallest of creatures we may find our own salvation.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

More Editorials

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.