Tuesday, April 25, 2017 Blog · News

Alligators ascending. Snakes alive! Nature on film. Rare brown pelicans, at Cornell, and on the Pelicam. Trump vs. Trump. Coal free Britain, for a day. Fatalities from potholes? Probably not. Keeping our republic.

by Dana Beach

We have an environment, madam, if you can keep it.

Earth Day 2017, with homage to Benjamin Franklin.


I hope you had the pleasure of spending Saturday outside.  There is so much going on – turtles are laying eggs, snakes are on the move, warblers and thrushes are returning from the tropics, alligators are basking on second floor Mt. Pleasant porches…  It’s a great time to celebrate nature!

Re: the stair-climbing alligator, Bo Petersen with the Post and Courier reports that a Mt. Pleasant family was awakened last Sunday night by what they thought was a burglar.  Instead, they found a 10-foot alligator on their porch, who had apparently climbed a flight of stairs and chewed through an aluminum screen door.

I have to admit being initially skeptical.  This is the same town, after all, in which a coyote followed a doctor into his office and briefly chased him around the office.  Only it turned out to be a white dog.  But the alligator video is fairly convincing.  I suppose the message is that there is a lot about nature we still don’t understand.  (e.g. Why Mt. Pleasant?  Why not James Island?  What’s wrong with a first floor porch?)

P&C: Alligator climbs to a second-story Mount Pleasant porch, through a screen door and then refuses to leave

This next video, from the Island Packet, features a “massive” (6 foot) king snake on a Kiawah Island boat ramp.  Fortunately, the videographer apparently had nothing but admiration for this beautiful, beneficent reptile.  Besides consuming rodents, as most snakes do, king snakes are also renowned for killing their poisonous brethren, like copperheads and rattlesnakes, (both of which are also imminently worthy creatures, especially when they are treated respectfully.)

Island Packet: King of Kiawah: Massive Eastern Kingsnake spotted on Kiawah Island

On the subject of natural beauty, I was in Washington, D.C. this week and tried unsuccessfully to see this exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.  (It was closed when I got there.)

National Museum of Natural History: Nature’s Best Photography Awards

It features the winners of Smithsonian’s annual nature photography contest.  The winning shots are included in an 11-minute video.  (I promise no more videos after this one.)  The photos are stunning, and a wonderful reminder of the planet’s seemingly boundless, but deeply threatened, profusion of life.

It’s good to be reminded how fortunate we are in South Carolina.  This next article, from the New York Times, reports on world record birder (6,047 species spotted in one year!) Noah Strycker’s suggestions for the best places to see birds.  He wisely notes that birds are everywhere (for the moment) if you pay attention, but says he particularly likes the coast of Texas, the Platt River in Nebraska (the wonder of which I can attest to), Cape May in New Jersey (yes), Ecuador (which I also endorse) and Uganda.

NYT: Big Birder: Noah Strycker on Where to Spot Rare Species

What caught my eye was his response to the question about the rarest bird he had ever seen.

In June 2016 in Ithaca, N.Y., I watched a brown pelican circle over the Cornell University campus. It was the first of its species ever spotted there, and local birders were going crazy with up-to-the-second text message reports; one guy saw it from the Ithaca farmers’ market, and an undergrad managed to run out of class in time to watch the pelican glide overhead. Sometimes the rarest birds show up in the most familiar of places.

Brown pelicans are, of course, a dime a dozen (almost) on the South Carolina coast.  But to the epigram of this email, it’s not without Herculean effort that we can still enjoy these wonderful animals, if we can keep them.  Had it not been for the sacrificial work of Rachel Carson, the founding of the modern environmental movement, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (now under siege by the Trump Administration), and the banning of DDT (under Republican president Richard Nixon), brown pelicans would have followed the same path to extinction as the heath hen, the ivory billed woodpecker and the Carolina parakeet.

Because of DDT, by 1970 they had almost vanished from the Gulf Coast.  South Carolina was a relative stronghold, but had only 400 nests.

I’m happy to report that today you can see almost that many nests today on Crab Bank alone.  And you don’t even need a boat.  The Conservation League Pelicam is up and running!  (I can tell you that keeping this thing going is no mean feat.  We are deeply grateful for the efforts our partners – Charleston Harbor PilotsCoastal ExpeditionsStasmayerMount Pleasant Radio, and the SC Department of Natural Resources – have put into making it possible.)

Coastal Conservation League: Crab Bank Pelicam

On the subject of having an environment if we can keep it, this article from the Washington Post reports that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is calling for U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.  Defending his position on Fox News, Pruitt incorrectly stated that the accord was a bad deal for the U.S. because India and China have no greenhouse gas reduction obligations under the treaty.  (They do.)

Pruitt’s comments also contradict those of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who says he believes it is essential that the U.S. have a “seat at the table” in the international climate debate, and that the U.S. is “well positioned to compete in a low carbon economy.”

WaPo: Scott Pruitt calls for an ‘exit’ from the Paris accord, sharpening the Trump White House’s climate rift

Perhaps the most compelling news of the week, from the New York Times, is that Great Britain just went one day without burning coal – this, in the country where coal has been virtually synonymous with industrialization and modernization.

NYT: For First Time Since 1800s, Britain Goes a Day Without Burning Coal for Electricity

As was the case with banning DDT and leaded gasoline, requiring seatbelt use and raising automobile fuel efficiency standards, industry claims that coal is an essential part of the energy mix is simply a ploy to delay changes that will make the world a safer, cleaner and more biologically secure place.

Speaking of unsupported assertions, gas tax increase advocates have consistently connected poor road conditions with South Carolina’s high rate of highway accidents and fatalities.  (Note this web page of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, http://fixscroads.com/deadliest-safest-places-drive/.)

There is no dispute about the state’s dangerous roads, but there is also no evidence that potholes are a major cause.  More likely, as this article from the Nerve reports, it has to do with the fact that S.C. drivers are more distracted by cell phone use than drivers are in other states.  (The study reported on in the Nerve did not go into distractions from alcohol, or the lack of enforcement of the speed limit, or running red lights….) The cell phone problem is likely a result of weaker laws and lax enforcement of the laws on the books.

The Nerve: The threat to motorists’ safety isn’t roads

Finally, Benjamin Franklin did not, of course, say, “We have an environment, if you can keep it.”  He said, “We have a republic, if you can keep it.”

One of the greatest threats to keeping our republic is the fact that most of the legislative districts in the nation have been so badly gerrymandered that elections are determined in the primaries, rather than in the general election.  And in South Carolina, two elections ago, not one incumbent lost his or her seat – in the entire state. And in most races, there were no opponents in the general election.  (This could either mean we have the most superb legislators imaginable, or that there is something wrong with the election process.) Most observers agree that gerrymandering radically attenuates the range of debate and forces candidates to adopt fringe positions to appeal to party extremes.

There is one reform that could change this for the better – allowing independent commissions to draw competitive district lines, instead of charging seated legislators, looking out for their own interests, to do it.  Arizona created such a commission a few years ago.  It was subsequently challenged and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which blessedly upheld the legality of the commission.

This article from the State reports that there is a move afoot to create a redistricting commission in South Carolina.  And yes, it is being promoted by a former Democratic operative. The party that is out of power is usually the party promoting reforms.  And no, independent redistricting commissions are not a panacea.  And yes, these commissions will never be completely independent.  But they are truly the best hope we have for reinstating real democracy, and for keeping our republic.

The good news is that based on this group’s poll of legislators, the majority of those who have responded support such a commission.

The State: Where do SC lawmakers stand on gerrymandered districts?

It would be worth two calls – to your senator and your house member – to find out where they stand on this issue.  First, take a look at the poll in the article to see if he or she has responded.  If not, pick up the phone!

It is raining in the mountains, which is great news for nature, and for the timeliness of this email.

Have a wonderful week!


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