Geo-engineering…and a taking or two.

Just returning from those mangrove swamps described in the previous post… with a couple more experiences to relate.

On the west edge of the Everglades, visitors can sign up for a variety of guided boat and kayak experiences (not to be confused with the more exotic airboat-, swamp buggy-, and aerial tours). On one of these we found ourselves in the company of Mike (not his real name), who was on his day off. Mike hails from the Midwest. He has been in south Florida only a few weeks – hired on by a company doing infrastructure repair in Everglades National Park. One part of their task? Replacing old, smaller-diameter culverts along a road into the Park with wider pipes, so that alligators can more easily make transit underneath the road.

As Mike related this, I flashed on a recent conversation with an old friend and colleague. My friend had opined that although geo-engineering was a relatively new term, it was in fact a longstanding human activity, although practiced more on local and regional, as opposed to global scales, and more inadvertent than deliberate. So I got to wondering whether my friend would have defined this culvert replacement as geo-engineering (although on the smallest of scales), and decided that he would.

The stream of consciousness then meandered to a memory of a series of articles in the Washington Post some years back, recounting the history of the Corps of Engineers in Florida. Back in the day, the idea had been to drain Florida and make it suitable for development, both residential and business, as well as citrus orchards and other agriculture. The Corps worked to channel and cut off the flow of water southward from Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades. In so doing, they made the swamps at Florida’s tip vulnerable to dry years. Sure enough, in response to this engineering and a dearth of hurricanes over a period of several decades, the Everglades habitat has been disappearing and changing. More recently, the Corps has been struggling to reverse that.

But back to Mike and more of his story. It seems that when their big machinery would lift out one of the old culverts, they’d find nests of Copperhead snakes underneath. And I got to wondering…is that a “taking,” that is, a case where human behavior makes an animal a little less wild? We’ve heard about such takings with respect to wildlife for some time. Think of “do not feed the bears,” or “do not feed the dolphins,” and you get the idea. Animals finding easy food this way become habituated to humans, losing their natural fear of us, to the detriment of our mutual interaction. This happens in a small way at your bird feeder, or your birdhouse. Anyway, if we’ve helped create an artificial shelter for snakes, perhaps this is a similar example. [One difference is that this instance is an unintended consequence as opposed to a deliberate aim to make nice with snakes.]

But there’s more to Mike’s story. He related that a rather large alligator had been watching the proceedings from a distance. When the gator saw the copperheads skedaddle (a technical term), he went after and caught one. Apparently, good eating! Because for the rest of the day, the gator hung around the renovation, dining again and again as more snakes would turn up.

So does that sound like a taking? You be the judge.

At about this point in Mike’s story, we were interrupted by our boating guide, who had pulled us up to an enormous mound of oyster shells, tens of feet high. We couldn’t see very far inland, because of the dense mangroves, but our guide told us this was one of dozens created by the Calusa Indians, starting back a few thousand years. Some mounds cover many acres. Theyapparently offered a variety of benefits, including a measure of protection from storm surge, etc. He pointed at that the dense stand of trees growing out of the oyster mound were not mangroves, but another species. An early example of geo-engineering, if you will?

These small examples have to be replicated thousands of times a day, year after year, region by region, and location by location, all around the world – on both dry land and at sea. They’re a reminder that the choice – to geo-engineer or not to geo-engineer – is really no longer available to us, if indeed it ever was. Instead, our only option is to geo-engineer “well” or “effectively”. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine a human-animal interaction that isn’t some form of taking. Again, we can only make these engagements more or less deft.

And just what do “well,” “effectively,” and “deft” mean in this context? The fact is, today we have little way to know. Our state of ignorance, particularly about the longer-term consequences of our initial impacts, is nearly complete. Odds are we’re blundering along, building a bow-wave of future problems for ourselves. [But we already knew that, didn’t we, because today we’re seeing the effects of past mistakes.] We’ve every incentive to invest more in understanding the Earth and ecosystems. And we should also take every opportunity to build our personal and corporate awareness of these transactions. We shouldn’t be oblivious. They should register!

A closing note. All day with Mike and the others we’d been treated to the sight of birds of prey. Egrets, herons of every description, ibis, all fishing at the surface. Anhingas and cormorants diving for fish. White and brown pelicans, osprey by the hundreds, soaring on high, then hurtling from above, feasting on snook and mullet.

Vultures were also soaring up there as well. But where were they most concentrated? Feeding at the dumpster behind the restaurant where we ate that night.

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