The Environment in Focus | WYPR

The Environment in Focus

Wednesday 7:46 am and 5:45 pm

The Environment in Focus is a weekly perspective on the issues and people changing our natural world.  Tom Pelton gives you a tour of this landscape every Wednesday at 7:46 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.

Tom Pelton is a national award-winning environmental journalist, formerly with The Baltimore Sun. He is the author of the book, The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Pelton is also Director of Communications at the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation, which is working to enhance the quality of life in Baltimore and in Maryland. The views expressed are solely Pelton's. You can contact him at

Archive of Environment in Focus for 2010-2014

Wikimedia Commons

Populations of frogs and other amphibians have been declining around the world and biologist Lisa Schloegel believes that she may have discovered why.

Schloegel and her fellow researchers concluded that the breeding and farming of bullfrogs in Brazil, Taiwan and China, and the international sales of these live frogs may be spreading a fungus that causes a disease called chytridiomycosis, which is often deadly in amphibians.

Although bullfrogs are native to North America part of the natural ecosystem here, their sale, release and multiplication around the world is also creating an invasive species problem in other countries, as the large and aggressive bullfrogs gobble up smaller frogs and amphibians.

Wikimedia commons

Around the world, humans have wiped out 60 percent of all mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, according to a report by the World Wildlife Foundation.

To cite one just example in North America, seventy percent of shorebird populations have disappeared since 1973. That was when I was a child strolling on the beach. 

Modern civilization is wreaking havoc on biodiversity, with our industries, population growth and pesticides gradually killing off most large forms of life that do not serve humanity or feed off of us.

This is frightening. But at the same time, the average life span of people around the world has more than doubled since 1900, because of medical improvements, advances in farming technology and rising incomes.

This conflict is sometimes described as the “environmentalists paradox.” The paradox, in a nutshell, is that the quality of life for humans has improved even as we’ve pillaged and destroyed the planet’s natural ecosystems.

The Intercept

Since 1971, 10 states – led by Oregon and Vermont – have passed bottle deposit laws. These so-called “bottle bills” have proven to increase recycling rates and reduce litter on roadsides and in waterways. The laws give people a financial incentive, often five or ten cents per bottle or can, to pick up the litter and return the containers for a cash reward.

For example, Michigan passed a 10 cent bottle deposit law in 1976 and today enjoys a 95 percent recycling rate for bottles and cans. That’s almost four times the 25 percent rate in Maryland, which does not have a deposit law.

Six times in Maryland over the last decade, legislators have proposed bottle bills. Predictably, soda and beer manufacturers and store chains have fought the laws, because they don’t want to lose any income or take responsibility for handling dirty containers.

But that’s not why the bottle bills keep dying in Maryland and other states. The really effective lobbying against them in recent years has come from county and city recycling programs. These local government programs do not want to lose any of their own income, either from re-selling glass and aluminum or through grants from phony environmental groups such as Keep America Beautiful that are quietly bankrolled by the soda companies.

Investigative reporter Sharon Lerner popped the top off of this recycling corruption scandal in a recent article published on the news website The Intercept.

Thomas Easley

Thomas RaShad Easley grew up in an apartment in an urban neighborhood in Birmingham, Ala. But he learned to love nature, in part because his grandparents cultivated a lush garden amid the concrete and blacktop.

He was also an Eagle Scout, and Scouting got him out of the city and into the woods, where he enjoyed  spending time at Tannehill State Park.

“Yes, we would go camping, and I’m glad that we did it. Because at first, I didn’t want to do it,” Easley recalled. “And then, when we got out there, it was so much fun. You know, me and the guys. And the other good thing about our scout troop was we were a diverse scout troop. So we had black, white, as well as brown young men in our troop.  So it was almost like a social experiment – Troop 49 in Birmingham, Alabama.”

Easley went on to earn an undergraduate degree in forest science from Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University; a master’s degree in forest genetics is from Iowa State University; and eventually a doctorate from North Carolina State University. He is now an assistant dean at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

But in his work with environmental groups, he noticed that they were not like Troop 49 in Birmingham.  They were almost entirely white – with very few African Americans like him, or Latinos or other minorities. This ethnic narrowness caused a problematic narrowness of focus – in terms of both audience and subject matter.

Tom Pelton

Last week, Baltimore Mayor Jack Young abruptly announced the retirement of city’s Director of Public Works, Rudy Chow, amid public controversy surrounding steep rate hikes that have more than tripled water and sewer bills.

One of the most expensive infrastructure projects that Chow launched was right here, in Baltimore’s Hanlon Park. Hundreds of trees have been cut down and the grass torn up into a mud and gravel landscape rumbling with bulldozers.

“This was the most wooded areas of the Ashburton community in Northwest Baltimore,” said Mark Reutter a reporter for the news website Baltimore Brew who has been writing about the project. “This park had 198 mostly old-growth trees, all of which have been removed to place these tanks.”

The tanks he’s referring to are massive underground drinking water holding tanks that the Baltimore Department of Public Works is building both here and beneath part of Druid Lake in Druid Park to replace old open drinking water reservoirs and comply with EPA regulations.

But Reutter’s investigations revealed that the drinking water projects, under Chow’s leadership, were almost $200 million more expensive than they had to be, and delayed for years.

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Many of us would like to gaze into a crystal ball and see what the future will be like.

Well, Matt Fitzpatrick, an ecologist and associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, did just that for Baltimore. And he discovered that our future is … Mississippi.

In an article published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, Fitzpatrick examined the best available climate change modeling data for 540 North American cities sixty years from now, assuming that current rates of greenhouse gas pollution continue.

“By 2080, we expect Baltimore’s climate to become most like those found in the Deep South today,” Fitzpatrick said. “So we are talking Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, East Texas, those kinds of places.  Actually the best match is a town called Cleveland, Mississippi, in the northwestern part of the state.”

In case you are not familiar with this non-Ohio Cleveland, Cleveland, Mississippi, is a depopulating town of about 12,000 souls in the Mississippi Delta. It has a per capita income less than half that of Baltimore’s and is most famous as the former home to the legendary blues musician W.C. Handy, who called himself the father of the blues.

Tom Pelton

It was a late Saturday afternoon, and I was on the Chesapeake Bay, on a peninsula of land called Taylor’s Island, about 15 miles southwest of Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

I dragged my kayak across slabs of concrete beside the road and then launched into the Little Choptank River. Blue crabs were dense in the nooks between the rocks, scuttling away when I dipped my paddle into the waters.

As the sun slid lower on the horizon, I headed out across the rippled, olive-green surface toward a tuft of trees rising from the waters, about a half mile out. Fish jumped. An osprey circled and then dove.

My destination was James Island. Settled by the English in the 1600’s, James Island was once a 1,300 acre expanse of forested land -- a fishing and farming community with 20 homes, a school, store, and Methodist church.  But it was abandoned to rising sea levels in the 1910’s. James Island is one of hundreds of Chesapeake Bay islands that have been consumed by rising sea levels driven by climate change.

Tom Pelton

Almost four years ago, the sewers of Baltimore erupted in a scandal.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment had sued the city to force it to fix its leaky and overwhelmed sewer system and stop discharging raw waste into the Inner Harbor and urban streams.

The Baltimore Department of Public Works more than tripled water and sewer rates, but mismanaged the sewer system upgrade project. City workers shut down sewage outfall pipes before it increased the capacity of the system. This caused raw waste to erupt into the basements of hundreds of homes.

Natasza Bock-Singleton, a community leader and mother of three from southwest Baltimore, described what these sewage floods are like during a public hearing on the problem Monday at the Maryland Department of the Environment.  She said her home suffered more than $25,000 in damage from three sewage floods.

“It’s a geyser of human waste,” said Bock-Singleton. “And just to clarify – it doesn't happen when it starts to rain. There is a little bit of a lull.  You have a rain storm, and you think you might have a problem, so you go in your basement and you wait and you watch (the toilet) and you put everything else on hold.  And there is a little gurgle, so you call 311, and just as the rain stops, and the sun comes out, and the birds chirp, and rainbows come, then the geyser of human waste comes up.”

Tom Pelton

On Monday in Washington D.C., three blocks north of the White House, climate activists shut down traffic by banging drums, chanting, and dragging a 24-foot long boat into the middle of a busy intersection.

The sailboat was painted bright pink on one side, and yellow on the other, and emblazoned with the words, “Tell the Truth,” and “Rebel for Life.”  As more than 40 police officers surrounded the protesters, one of the crew raised a flag over the ship with a black X surrounded by a circle. It’s the symbol of a group called the Extinction Rebellion.

One of the protesters, Nadine Bloch of Tacoma Park, explained what the advocacy organization is. “The Extinction Rebellion is a group that’s global, that’s working on moving governments and others to take responsibility and change what we’re doing,” Block said.  “The goal is to actually address the climate crisis now and keep fossil fuels in the ground and make sure the government is doing what it needs to do to keep our climate change in check.”

Tom Pelton

On Friday, groups of students around the world plan to walk out of classes and hold marches and protests to demand government action on climate change.

Globally, the youth protests are being inspired by a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist named Greta Thunberg.  She held a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court today and told elected officials: “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists and I want you to unite behind the science.”

In Baltimore, several students have been influenced by Thunberg’s leadership. A coalition of activists plans to meet at 8:30 am on Friday at the Bryn Mawr School at 109 West Melrose Avenue in North Baltimore. The students will then march south down Charles Street and hold a demonstration at noon at the Inner Harbor.

Hachette Books

One of the biggest obstacles to dealing with the problem of climate change is that it will not impact everyone equally.

Even if temperatures soar, coastal cities are flooded, and drought makes water supplies dwindle, the rich will still be able to turn up their air conditioning, jet off to Aspen, and pay a few bucks more for bottled water.

And it’s these millionaires and billionaires  -- like the current occupants of the White House -- who control the levers of government in the United States and other countries. They decide whether or not we should change our fuel consumption or lifestyles.

Meanwhile, the people who will suffer and die from global warming are the poor. They don’t have air conditioning when temperatures hit 104 degrees, often live in older urban like New Orleans or Baltimore beside the rising waters, and will be powerless if their food and water becomes too expensive.

This is one of the insights of author Bryan Walsh’s new book, End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World.

Wikimedia Commons

Twenty years ago, following a trend of Republican-style free-market deregulation across the country, the Democratic-led Maryland General Assembly passed a law called the Electric Customer Choice and Competition Act of 1999.

The whole point of the law was to make electricity cheaper for average folks. The idea was to give people the freedom to choose whether to keep buying from old-fashioned, regulated public utilities like BGE or PEPCO, or sign contracts with a whole galaxy of new, unregulated electric providers.

Utility executives who pushed the scheme made millions.

But customers did not make out so well. Two decades after the deregulation law passed, a pair of authoritative reports -- by the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel and the Abell Foundation -- have concluded that Maryland rate payers were ripped off and are now paying more, not less, as promised.

Tom Pelton

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has criticized Pennsylvania for being the state that contributes by far the most pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and the state that has done the least to meet its cleanup obligations.

But the problem in Pennsylvania is a political one, because many local voters don’t care about the Chesapeake Bay because they don’t live near it.

So I worked with my colleagues at the Environmental Integrity Project to investigate the question:  Well, how is Pennsylvania doing on enforcing the Clean Water Act to protect local waterways in its own back yard, in the state Capital?

We examined fiveyears of public records and found that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been taking a lax approach to sewage discharges in Harrisburg. The state agency has penalized only 20 percent of 131 self-reported illegal sewage discharges from the city’s water and sewer authority since 2015.

Tom Pelton

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, at the very end of a long peninsula reaching out into the Chesapeake Bay, is a remote and isolated crabbing town called Deal Island.

The place is so little-known and off the grid that it is often mistaken for the better known town of Deal, Maryland – on the Western Shore. But this is a different place, all the way on the other side of the Bay. And the only way to get to Deal Island is down a long road leading west from Princes Anne through vast and open wetlands and over a narrow bridge.

The town is dominated by a wooden dock, piled with crab pots. A waterman’s bar called “Arby’s”  doubles a general store, and about 20 workboats come and go.

A skipjack called the Somerset is tied up beside the boat ramp, its canvas sails furled and streaks of rust tracing its white wooden hull. It’s a sign of this town’s still-living connections to the Chesapeake’s history, when thousands of these single-masted ships dredged oysters from the bay bottom.

D Coetzee/flickr creative commons

President Trump’s official campaign website features a new product for sale: Red plastic drinking straws with the word “Trump” emblazoned on their side.

The price: $15 for a pack of 10. The website advertises them this way: “Liberal paper straws don’t work. STAND WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP.”

Apparently, Trump voters are snapping them up – despite the fact that, at the price of a dollar and a half for each straw, the Trump straws are about 75 times more expensive than biodegradable paper straws. Politico reports that the Trump campaign has already raised almost half-million dollars selling plastic straws.

Now, you might think, well that’s just funny. Trump supporters are gleefully trolling liberals and environmentalists by saying, in effect, “You say the ocean is full of plastic trash?  Your beaches are covered in litter? Stick a Trump straw in your political correctness …and your biodegradable straw mandates.”

Tom Pelton

Recycling programs across the U.S. are suffering or shutting down. This is because China – until recently, the world’s largest importer of recyclable material – imposed a ban on more imports amid its trade war with the Trump Administration.

This is unfortunate. But it is not the end of recycling. There are dozens of other ways people can recycle, other than at the curbside. You can buy and sell furniture and home goods at yard sales. Folks can also donate goods to Goodwill and buy things there, instead of spending 10 times as much at the Gap or Urban Outfitters.

I recently visited Goodwill of the Chesapeake on its 100th anniversary of public service to the Baltimore area.  For a century, the nonprofit organization has been taking donated clothes and goods from the public and providing jobs and employment training to those most in need.

Tom Pelton

It was a hot Friday afternoon, with mounds of white clouds in a dazzling blue sky, and I was hiking along the gravel of the Chesapeake & Ohio canal trail in Western Maryland. 

To my right, down a steep, wooded embankment flowed the waters of the Potomac River. The river here, at a place called the Paw Paw Bends, twists and snakes in five horseshoe-shaped turnarounds within a six-mile stretch.

To the left of the trail is a muddy ditch, spouting with wetlands plants. It’s all that’s left of the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The canal was built from 1836 to 1850 to carry coal and other goods from the Appalachian Mountains 184 miles down to Washington, D.C.

I pass a stand of sycamores trees, and suddenly, up ahead, I see something dramatic:  The gaping mouth of an ancient-looking tunnel, carved from rock to allow the canal and trail to pass through the mountains.

This is the entrance to the Paw Paw Tunnel -- in my view, one of the most amazing places in Maryland for hikers and nature lovers to visit, and a gem in the chain of scenic wonders that line the C & O Canal Trail National Historic Park.

Wikimedia Commons

As he runs for re-election, President Trump is portraying himself as the man who turned around the American energy industry and rescued it from a hostile Obama Administration that strangled energy innovators with regulations.

“The previous administration waged a relentless war on American energy,” Trump said during a July 8 speech on the environment at the White House.  "They can't do that. They sought to punish our workers, our producers, and manufacturers.”

The Trump Administration has been good to energy innovators?  Tell that to Hans Wittich.  He’s a Baltimore area businessman, president of the Solar Gaines solar panel installation company based in Hunt Valley. In part because of technological advances and falling prices of solar panels, under the Obama Administration, Wittich’s business grew from two employees in 2009 to 45 in 2017.

Then President Trump imposed tariffs on solar panels manufactured in China – raising their prices to Wittich’s customers and undermining financial support for his industry. Wittich was forced to cut his workforce by more than 40 percent, from 45 employees down to 25.

“You know, as a business owner, we never anticipated those layoffs, and you feel badly about it,” Wittich said.  “I mean, these are people whose families depend on the income, so we’ve been very careful about re-hiring.  We’ve looked to subcontract some stuff so that we don’t over hire.”

Crown Publishing Group

In the science fiction film The Matrix, the global environment has been destroyed. But most people don’t know it, because their minds are caught up in a software program and all they see is a beautiful, computer generated reality while their bodies lie in metal and glass capsules.

To David Wallace-Wells, the movie is a good analogy for what advancing technology is doing to people’s ability to see, and therefore care about, the ecological damage we are inflicting on the earth. His new book: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, explores the intersection between people’s growing obsession with iPhones and digital images and the widespread lack of concern about the very real floods, wildfires, pollution and plastic trash all around us in the real world.

Here’s Wallace-Wells discussing how people respond to climate change. “The Matrix is absolutely right that one way we may respond it to try to concoct, or enact, false bubbles in which we can continue to live or pretend to live in a kind of time of plenty and paradise, when – in fact, in reality – we are living in a much, much more degraded landscape,” he said in an interview.

Wikimedia Commons

The Trump Administration is proposing to roll back car and truck fuel-efficiency standards that were imposed by the Obama Administration to cut down on the burning of petroleum and reduce the greenhouse gas pollution driving climate change.

The main public argument the Trump EPA is making for this de-regulation is the suggestion that smaller, lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles are more dangerous to their drivers in crashes than larger, heavier gas guzzlers like SUV’s, crossovers and pickup trucks.

Here’s Bill Wehrum, chief of the EPA’s air program, testifying before a U.S. House committee on June 20 about the Trump Administration’s so-called SAFE (Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient) vehicles rule proposed for the years 2021 through 2026.

“The proposal would revise existing fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards to give the American people greater access to safer, more affordable vehicles,” Wehrum said. “The proposal estimates that the preferred alternative would prevent thousands of on-road fatalities and injuries.”

It should be noted that Wehrum resigned six days after this testimony amid ethics investigations into his former work as a lobbyist at a firm that represented polluting industries, including clients – petroleum refiners – who would profit from the more relaxed fuel-efficiency standards Wehrum was promoting.

But beyond this ethical issue, what about the broader assertion that bigger vehicles are safer?

Wikimedia Commons

A heat wave in Europe this week drove up temperatures to a record-breaking 115 degrees in France.  In the American Midwest, scientists said climate change contributed to torrential downpours that flooded farms and killed livestock.

In Delaware Bay, rising water temperatures are playing a role in a small but increasing number of cases of swimmers becoming infected with a  flesh-eating disease called vibrio that normally only lives in tropical waters, according to a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

With all of these climate-related impacts unfolding, a reporter asked President Trump at an international economics conference in Japan on Saturday why he is rolling back environmental regulations and pulling out of an international agreement, the Paris Climate Accord, meant to reduce the greenhouse gas pollution that is causing global warming.

Here’s how the President responded. “I’m not looking to put our companies out of business,” Trump said at the G20 conference. “I’m not looking to create a standard that is so high that we’re going to lose 20 to 25 percent of our production.  I’m not willing to do that.  We have the cleanest water we’ve ever had.  We have the cleanest air.  You saw the reports that came out recently – we have the cleanest air we’ve ever had.”

This is an argument that Trump and Congressional Republicans have frequently made for reducing pollution control regulations and slashing the budget of the EPA.  Essentially, the claim is that environmental regulations kill jobs and that our air and water are in good shape, so we don’t need the bureaucrats.

But this deserves some fact checking… and a reality check.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources

I was paddling down the Big Gunpowder Falls near Sparks, Maryland, when I saw a great blue heron standing on a log in the river, tall and elegant.   As I drifted closer, it launched into the air and flew over my head, its six-foot wingspan and knife-like beak all the more impressive at close range.

Nearby, atop the riverbank, was a house.  I thought:  what is the economic value of this heron to that homeowner? 

Would he be able to sell his house for $505,000 instead of $500,000 if a buyer saw the heron before agreeing to the price? Or maybe the location and the view of the river are all that matter in the fast-moving world of real estate transactions.

What if there were no more blue herons?  It’s not an idle thought.  During the quarter century after World War II, the spraying of the pesticide DDT almost eliminated the species – as it almost killed off bald eagles, osprey and other fish-eating birds.  EPA’s ban on DDT in 1972 brought all these birds back, in big numbers.

But now the Trump Administration is proposing to dramatically shrink EPA. And this raises in my mind again the question of economic value – the worth to capital markets -- of all the nonhuman life saved by EPA and environmental regulation.

Tom Pelton

It’s a warm June night and a full moon is painting a silvery path across the gentle ripples on Delaware Bay.

I’m on the beach, southeast of Dover.   And from the darkness of the bay, I watch what looks like an invading force of army helmets with eyes on them emerge from the murk to crowd, clatter and scrape against each other along the shoreline.

These are horseshoe crabs – prehistoric creatures that have been summoned by full moons and high tides like this for hundreds of millions of years to perform this springtime mass mating ritual on the beach.

Tom Pelton

It was a warm spring evening as I set off in a kayak from a boat ramp in Middletown, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Baltimore, into the still waters of Swatara Creek.

A family of ducks, with a dozen ducklings, paddled in the river.  A pair of kayakers, father and son, came in off the waterway, dragging their boats up and laughing with each other. Children in their bathing suits splashed in the shallows at the boat launch.

As the sun set, illuminating  the clouds, I passed around a bend and, beyond the trees, saw the four enormous cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

It was 40 years ago, in 1979, that a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island triggered the evacuation or flight more 140,000 people from south central Pennsylvania. The incident – and the authorities’ bungled response to it -- generated so much fear that the nuclear industry never recovered in the U.S.

Fibonacci Blue/Wikimedia commons

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrators. Many Americans used the occasion to criticize the Chinese government for being intolerant of public protests, and to feel good that such authoritarian behavior could never be tolerated in the U.S., where the rights to freedom of assembly and speech are enshrined in the Constitution.

After all, America was born in protest – with the Boston Tea Party. Nonviolent civil disobedience was the cornerstone of the abolition, suffrage, labor, and Civil Rights movements.

But over the last two years, a growing number of Republican states have been passing laws to outlaw and criminalize public protests, often threatening long prison sentences for activists.

A recent example was in Texas, where state legislators last week passed a law making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for protesters to try to interrupt the construction of oil and gas pipelines or any other so-called “critical infrastructure” projects.

Wikimedia Commons

Last year, record-breaking rains pummeled Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay, flushing farm fertilizer and runoff pollution from parking and roads lots into the estuary.

Many Chesapeake ecologists feared that the unprecedented downpours – partially driven by climate change – would reverse progress that the bay had been enjoying since the year 2010.

Well, the results finally came in last week and they were in some ways predictable.  The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Health’s annual report card on the bay found that the water clarity in the bay last year plummeted to a rating of 7 out of 100 – the second lowest figure on record.

But, here’s the surprising part:  the bay’s overall health dipped only slightly last year, from a 54 rating out of 100 in 2017 to a 46 in 2018. That’s much less of a slip than researchers expected with all the rainfall.

The main reason: Underwater grasses in the bay, which are critical habitat for crabs and fish and perhaps the Bay’s most important single health indicator, hung on despite the downpours, which normally smother grasses with runoff, sediment and mud.

Preliminary data from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science found that underwater grasses covered at least 86,000 acres of the bay last year (and that figure is likely to grow when the final numbers are submitted). That’s less than the almost 105,000 acres in 2017, but still about the fifth highest total on record since monitoring began in the late 1970s.

Wikimedia Commons

This is the call of a black skimmer.

Also called the stormgull or scissor bill, black skimmers are curious-looking birds that fish along the Atlantic Coast. They have black and white feathers, bright orange and black beaks and what looks like a ridiculous underbite. The lower portion of their beak juts far beyond their upper beak.

David Curson is Director of Bird Conservation at the National Audubon Society’s Maryland/DC chapter. He described how black skimmers use this seeming deformity in an ingenious an efficient way to trick and capture prey like no other creature on earth.

“They have a very interesting shaped beak where their lower mandible is much longer than the upper one,” Curson explained. “And they use this lower one to make a little disturbance in the water, as they fly along a straight line.  Now this attracts little fish, which are their main prey. And so then the black skimmer turns around and flies along the exact same path with its beak in the water again. And when it feels a fish, it snaps it up.”

Black skimmers return to the Maryland’s coast every spring to lay their eggs and raise their young on small, sandy islands that lie in the coastal bays between Assateague Island and Ocean City and the mainland.

A recent study by the Audubon Society, however, found that these sandy islands – which the birds need to protect their eggs from predators – are rapidly disappearing in part because of sea level rise driven by climate change.

Johns Hopkins University Press

It’s an hour after sunset on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  Glenn Therres, a wildlife biologist and associate director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, is up to his usual Friday night routine: prowling the back roads in a pickup truck, surveying frogs.

He pulls off on a swampy roadside near the Miles River and scrambles out to identify several species of amphibians by their trills and grunts.

“Each of the frogs has a unique call,”  Therres said. “Some of them are fairly similar but most you can distinguish from each other. So the little rattle-y sound here? Sounds like crickets?  Those are called northern cricket frogs. And they really sound like someone taking a can of paint and shaking it and hearing that little ball inside. That’s a cricket frog.  The bullfrogs are the kind of ‘mrrp, mrrp, mrrp.”’

Keeping track of frogs, toads, and salamanders is increasingly important because amphibians are in sharp decline around the world.  The journal Science recently published a study that found that an invasive species of fungus called "chytrid" is contributing to the decline of more than 500 species of amphibians globally.

Tom Pelton

At the far southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, Jonathan White, a former rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, directed a tour of the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk.

While some dismiss climate change as a hoax, Admiral White described the very real threat that sea-level rise caused by global warming poses even to the military.

“If we just did nothing with this base, it’s easy to see that in a worst-case scenario of a couple of meters of sea level rise by the end of the century, much of this base would not be usable,” said White, an oceanographer and former director of the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change. “You wouldn’t even be able to get to the ships to even pull the ships in to the piers here. So you are going to have to do something to respond to that level of sea level rise.”

Wikimedia Commons

On Earth Day this year, the Trump Administration’s EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, appeared in a television interview in which he claimed America’s environment is dramatically cleaner than it used to be.

“A lot of younger people, a lot of Millennials voting for the first time, think that the state of the environment is horrible,” Wheeler said. “Actually, our air quality is 73 percent cleaner than it was in the 1970s. Back in the 1970’s, 40 percent of our drinking water systems did not meet the basic EPA regulations or standards. Today, 92 percent of our drinking water systems meet the EPA drinking water standards every single day. So we have clean air, we have clean water. But we can do better and we are doing better.”

This is a theme – that the environment is doing well-- often repeated by both the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans as they propose cutting EPA’s budget by 31 percent and slashing regulations that control air and water pollution.

The idea is this: If voters think they don’t really need EPA so much anymore – or more broadly, government in general – that will allow politicians to cut back government and give companies a freer hand to make more profits by dumping more pollution into our waterways and atmosphere.

The problem is that Andrew Wheeler’s comments contain narrow elements of truth, but are more generally misleading.