Protecting Alaskan Wilderness At What Cost?

by Abigail Wang

As President Obama finishes his last term, he’s rolling full steam ahead with his environmental and energy policies. In a move that left environmentalists, oil companies, and politicians upset, the president announced the Interior Department’s plans to prevent future oil and gas production in major parts of Alaska, but support development along the East Coast. The Obama administration wants to designate 12.28 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), including the coastal plains in Alaska, as “Wilderness”. Wilderness is the highest level of protection available for public lands; it prohibits mining, drilling, roads, vehicles, and the establishment of permanent structures in select areas. Over seven million acres are currently managed as wilderness because of the National Interests Lands Conservation Act of 1980, but more than 60% of the ANWR is not listed as such. Continue reading

Shale Gas Development Poses Threats to Regional Biodiversity

by Shannon Julius

Shale gas development physically and chemically alters the surrounding landscape, and native plants and animals can be particularly susceptible to these changes. In the Marcellus and Utica shale region—a largely forested area that encompasses the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia—shale gas wells are being drilled with increasing density. A shale gas installation, including the well pad, compressor station, and storage areas, requires 3.56 ha on average. If an edge effect is considered, installations can affect approximately 15 ha of forest per site. Kiviat (2013) reviewed the potential ways that shale gas development can impact biodiversity. The most serious threats are physical alteration of terrestrial landscapes, chemical contamination of water and soil, and alteration of regional hydrology. Terrestrial alterations include construction of well installations, which cause deforestation and habitat loss, and construction of roads and pipelines, which create forest fragmentation. Chemical contaminants come from fracturing fluid and recovered wastewater. Hydrologic alterations are caused by water withdrawals and an increase in impermeable surfaces. Minor impacts on plant and animal health can come from noise, light, and air quality. Certain species are particularly at risk from shale gas development activities and some are able to thrive in the altered conditions. Continue reading

Oil Palm Plantation Boom in Indonesia

by Chieh-Hsin Chen

The anticipated depletion of fossil fuel has caused the production of alternative fuel sources to become an extremely important field of industry. Many less developed countries in South East Asia promote mass production of biofuel crops as a primary export. Palm oil, used in cooking as well as biofuel, is one of the main exports from Indonesia. The high demand of palm oil has led to a rapid increase of oil palm plantations, leading also to massive deforestation. Riau Province is one of the largest oil palm producing regions. From 1990s to 2012, there has been a significant decrease of forest in the region due to the boom of oil palm plantations. Ramdani and Hino (2013) analyze satellite imagery and greenhouse gas emissions from different time periods to determine the scale of deforestation. The results show that in the Riau Province, the oil palm industry rapidly increased from 1990 to 2000, with transformation of tropical forest and peat land as the primary source of emissions. Continue reading

Biotic Impacts of Fracking

by Emil Morhardt

How does shale-bed energy development, including hydraulic fracturing, affect ecology? There have been a number of studies looking into this, and a new review paper by Sara Souther at the University of Wisconsin and seven colleagues at a diverse array of other institutions summarizes the current knowledge and where the gaps are in it. Their legitimate fear is that much damage will be done before much is known about the issues, and there is plenty of experience with other rapid industrial development to warrant concern. As an example, consider the damming of nearly all the rivers on both the east and west coasts of the US with little attention paid to the consequences for salmon.

The big issues they identify are subsurface and surface water contamination by fracking Continue reading

Measuring Impacts of Solar Development on Mojave Desert Plants

by Emil Morhardt

The massive development of wind and solar generating facilities in California’s Mojave Desert puts California way out in front of the rest of the US in generation of renewable electricity, but at the same time the development drastically alters the desert ecosystem. Installation of photovoltaic arrays seems to require grading the land flat, removing all existing vegetation, and since there will be nothing to eat, all of the animals as well. To those who haven’t travelled this wild desert during a verdant spring—something that happens only every few years—it might seem barren. But I’ve camped out in the middle of it many times in the spring when it is lush, covered with desert flowers, and alive with birds and other animals; to me it is the epitome of virgin wilderness. (My wife and I even wrote a book about it and took a lot of plant pictures…see reference below.) So, one question to ask is Continue reading

Recent Land Use Change in the Western Corn Belt Threatens Grasslands and Wetlands

The recent boom in the biofuel industry, in part due to incentives that promote the conversion of grassland to corn and soybean cropping, is reshaping the landscape of the US Corn Belt. Wright et al. (2013) sought to study the extent to which this land use conversion is occurring, and what its implications may mean for the environment.  The researchers used the National Agricultural Services (NASS) Cropland Data Layer (CDL) to examine the rate at which grasslands have been converted into corn/soy cultivation over five states of the Western Corn Belt: North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa.  The authors considered the agronomic and environmental attributes of lands on which grassland conversion was occurring, as well as the effects on nearby waterfowl nesting sites, and included these in the results as well.  The results of this study show that the rate at which land was being converted has not been seen in the US since the advent of the mechanization of US agriculture in the 1920s.  The implications of this rate are bleak as it threatens waterfowl populations, soil quality, and water resources.  The authors recommend we shift to biofuels produced from perennial feedstocks, as these fuels have desirable traits with respect to net energy and greenhouse gas balances and wildlife conservation. —Anthony Li
Wright, C. K., Wimberly, M. C., 2013. Recent land use change in the Western Corn Belt threatens grasslands and wetlands.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published ahead of print February 19, 2013

The authors acquired land cover data from 2006 to 2011 of the Western Corn Belt from the NASS CDL.  They selected this year range because the extent of the data recording goes back to 2006. The NASS CDL uses land cover data acquired from satellite imagery and maps agricultural land cover at a very high crop-type specificity.  Using the 2006 NASS CDL data and comparing it with the 2011 NASS CDL on a per-pixel basis allowed the researchers to observe a general grass-dominated land cover be converted into a general corn/soy cultivation land.  In order to see if the land use data derived from the NASS CDL was representative of long-term land cover change region-wide, they performed a trend analysis of grassland conversion in North Dakota and Iowa.  The analysis showed that the data were representative.  The researchers also took note of the agronomic and environmental attributes of the lands in which NASS CDL recorded data on.  Lastly, the authors examined the relationship between grassland conversion and lands protected under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  The CRP “pays farmers to establish and maintain grassland cover on retired cropland in exchanged for a fixed rental payment over a fixed period,” but in recent years with the rise of corn and soybean prices as well as a projected consistently high commodity prices, more farmers have not been renewing their CRP contracts.  By examining this relationship, the authors were able to see which recently converted areas were formerly protected by the CRP, showing some insight in the farmer’s reasons for changing crop.
The results showed that across the Western Corn Belt, there was a net decline in grass-dominated land cover totaling near 530,000 ha, more than 1.3 million acres, from 2006 to 2011.  This change in land cover was concentrated in South Dakota and Iowa.  The rates at which grassland is being converted to corn/soy is comparable to the deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  The authors make the comparison that the current rates of grassland conversion have not been seen in the Corn Belt since the advent of agriculture’s mechanization in the 1920’s.  Grassland conversion is also occurring dangerously close to the Prairie Pothole Region, a wetland region that acts as a climate-change refugia for North American waterfowl.  The current rate of grassland conversion threatens one of the few breeding grounds of waterfowl.  The authors found that grassland conversion was concentrated on relatively high quality lands in Minnesota and the Dakotas, suggesting that the local landowners are seeking higher rates of return by swapping to corn and soybean cultivation.  This trend has become increasingly consistent due to the emerging market of corn/soy production and its rate of return.  In Iowa, they found grassland conversion was occurring on less suitable land, reflecting the lack of high quality land for soybean/corn cultivation.  Similar to Iowa, Nebraska was also shown to have used unsuitable land for crop production, suggesting that both these states will have to acquire more resource-intensive irrigation practices to sustain the soy/corn crops.  The authors also predicted that fewer landowners will be renewing their CRP contracts as the higher rates of return for soybean/corn cultivation is more economically viable.
While this paper shows the rate at which the biofuel industry has grown, it also shows the daunting implications for such a growth. Grassland conversion into corn/soy production is characterized by high erosion risk and vulnerability to drought.  This grassland conversion also threatens waterfowl populations, as the soy/corn fields encroach upon diminishing waterfowl breeding sites.  The grassland conversion also effects the soil’s carbon sequestration ability.  The authors predict that with the reductions in soil sequestration caused by grassland conversion, “more than three decades of biofuel substitution” will be required to counteract this.  In the face of all this the researchers suggest an alternative, saying that biofuels derived from perennial feedstocks are more efficient with respect to net energy and greenhouse gas balances as well as wildlife conservation.

Effects of Biofuel Production on Biodiversity

Production of biofuel is expected to increase to 135 million cubic meters by 2022, which would require about 100,000,000 ha of land to grow the necessary feedstock (Perlack et al. 2005).  Such a large amount of land committed to biofuel feedstock production is likely to have a significant negative effect on local and surrounding biodiversity as crop diversity decreases and pest arthropods proliferate (Cook et al. 1991).  Insects are the largest group of organisms on Earth, comprising approximately 1 million described species (Anonymous 2011).  Plants and moths have a mutual reliance on one another.  Moths rely on plants for food and breeding purposes, and plants rely on moths as their pollinators. (Reynolds et al. 2009; Yoder et al. 2010).  In addition, adult moths are an important source of food within the food chain, and, therefore, any decline in their numbers or diversity could lead to further problems within the ecosystem (Whitfield & Wagner 1991).  As the growing production of biofuel disrupts biodiversity, Harrison and Berenbaum (2012) aim to determine the impact of non-corn feedstock production on the diversity of moths.  One of their main concerns is that the increased feedstock production will decrease the abundance and diversity of native prairie plants in Illinois, thereby decreasing the diversity and population of arthropods. Shelby Long
Harrison, T., Berenbaum, M., 2012.  Moth diversity in three biofuel crops and native
prairie in Illinois.  Insect Science. DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7917.2012.01530.x

Harrison and Berenbaum of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne investigated the impact of non-corn feedstock production on moth species diversity.  They planted 7 sites in Illinois, each site varying in size and shape.  Each site supported plant species adapted to live in the mesic prairie.  The University of Illinois site south of Savoy included 6 of each type of plot of switchgrass, miscanthus, mixed miscanthus, vetch, and corn.  At the University of Illinois Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) Energy Farm site they planted four plots of each treatment of switchgrass, miscanthus, corn, and mixed prairie.  At the Agricultural Centers of DeKalb, Dixon Springs, Fairfield, Brownstown, and Orr they planted 8 alternating plots of miscanthus and switchgrass, which were both adjacent to large cornfields.  In order to collect samples, researchers used an 18.9-L bucket trap with an 8-watt ultraviolet light, placing the traps in the center of each plot.  Researchers identified moth species by sight and genital dissection.  Collections were taken from one of each plot type on the same night within the sites.  Samples were collected from the Savoy site ten different nights in 2007, two nights in 2008 and one night in 2009 at the EBI Energy Farm site, and one night from the Agricultural Centers of DeKalb, Dixon Springs, Fairfield, Brownstown, and Orr in 2009.  In order to determine the alpha diversity within the crops they used the Shannon-Wiener index and to determine the beta diversity researchers used the Sorenson’s index.  Alpha diversity refers to the diversity of species within a local habitat, in this case within the plots, and beta diversity compares the diversity of species between different habitats, in this case between the plots. 

Over the course of Harrison and Berenbaum’s (2012) study, 5,411 total moths, 252 species, and 25 families were collected.  Based on 2007 data collection, researchers determined that alpha diversities were similar among all crops and beta diversities were low.  After analyzing the 2008 collections they determined that alpha diversity of moths was high within the prairie and low within miscanthus and corn.  Beta diversity was lowest in praire x switchgrass and miscanthus x switchgrass and highest in corn x miscanthus.  In 2009, researchers calculated alpha diversity to be highest in prairie and switchgrass.  Overall, Harrison and Berenbaum (2012) found in 2008 and 2009 the highest level of moth diversity to be in prairie plants, second highest in the switchgrass, and lowest in the corn and miscanthus.  Therefore, their results are consistent with previous studies showing that more diverse native prairie plant abundance leads to a higher diversity of arthropods than in monocultures of annual plants such as soybeans and corn (Bianchi et al. 2006).  Harrison and Berenbaum indicated that their data are generally consistent with the previous studies; however, they suggest that any inconsistencies present are a result of the small sampling size, close proximity of the plots, and low species counts, which tend to skew the calculations. Harrison and Berenbaum recommend that further research be done in order to determine the most efficient methods to manage agricultural fields being used for biofuel feedstock production.