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Inside the Mind of Thru-Hiking's Most Devious Con Man (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

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As I learned about Caldwell’s exploits, I wondered if there was something about the outdoor community and our sympathy for such wanderers that may make us especially easy marks. When we see a man with a trail-worn Gore-Tex jacket and a decade-old Dana Designs backpack, we instinctively trust him. We can’t help but envy his authenticity, his freedom. He’s not just a weekend warrior—he’s living the life we want. Or at least, that’s how it seems.

For six weeks, I texted Caldwell at a number that Trent had given me, but he never responded. Then, on June 27, he finally sent me a text along with a photo of himself sporting a blue flannel shirt while lounging on a rolled-up fleece in a pine forest. When we spoke on the phone a couple days later, I could hear birds chirping. At first he told me he was in northern Arizona. Later, he claimed he was near the popular Barr Trail on Pikes Peak. “I know Pikes Peak,” he said, “I can hide on this mountain for a long time.”
 
He agreed to speak with me because he hoped that, by coming clean in public, he wouldn’t be able to take advantage of anyone ever again. “There has got to be a reason why I’m here,” he said. “There’s got to be. It can’t be to keep scamming people.”

Read the story at Outside Magazine

Can You Cure Autism? (Slate and Spectrum News)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

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From the moment her 18-month-old son Sam was diagnosed with autism, Elizabeth B., or Liz, found it difficult to accept. When Sam failed to make much progress in an early intervention program and, later, at a special-needs preschool in Manhattan, Liz consulted with his speech therapist. The therapist suggested Liz look into the Son-Rise Program, taught at the Option Institute’s Autism Treatment Center of America in western Massachusetts. (Liz asked that we not mention her last name, out of concern for her and her son’s privacy.)

The name rang a bell with Liz. She had a vague recollection of seeing a 1979 made-for-TV movie called Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love. In the movie, New York advertising executive Barry Neil Kaufman and his wife “cure” their son’s autism at home, spending more than eight hours a day immersed in his world and copying his behaviors.

The therapy seemed worth a shot. So in August 2005, Liz and her husband paid $1,623 in fees, left Sam, then almost 4, with a family friend, and drove to the institute’s 100-acre campus for a five-day Son-Rise “startup” class. The angular brown buildings scattered in the woods give the institute the look of a New Age monastery. Adding to the monastic vibe, participants are advised to leave their valuables at home because the dormitory doors lock only from the inside.

Liz hadn’t anticipated how deeply the experience would affect her. Having a child with autism can feel isolating, and because Sam didn’t participate in school activities or have friends, she had few friends herself. But on the first day of the Son-Rise Program, as she took a seat on the floor of the lecture hall with about 100 other parents, she immediately felt at ease. “You have a powerful sense that you are with cousins,” she says.

On Tuesday evening, Barry Neil Kaufman, known as “Bears,” made his rounds in the dining hall, clad in his usual getup: a blazer and a black turtleneck. Liz found his message of love and acceptance intoxicating and, for the first time since Sam’s diagnosis, felt she had a way to help her son. When Kaufman spoke of children with autism as having limitless potential, his words resonated strongly with Liz.

Over the next four years, she spent nearly $50,000 on Option Institute programs, both for Sam and for her husband and herself, and to train as a mentor for other parents. Although that amount may seem extreme, she is hardly alone: More than 30,000 families from more than 120 countries have participated in the Son-Rise Program over the past three decades, according to the institute. Some families pay full price to attend multiple courses, others receive scholarships from the institute, and a few even resort to crowdfunding. “Your generosity would allow our beloved son to experience the best treatment available,” reads one plea to raise $25,000 on the GoFundMe website.

The prices at the institute are especially steep given that states such as California and New York pay for a wide range of evidence-based interventions. Son-Rise startup classes are advertised as $2,200 per parent; an “intensive” course, attended by parents and children, can run to $18,000. “Should you be selling your house to pay for this extraordinarily expensive program?” asks Catherine Lord, founding director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York. “That’s where we are getting worried.”

Investing in Son-Rise, experts say, is a little like buying a lottery ticket. “I’m not aware of any rigorous scientific evidence that supports it,” says Fred Volkmar, head of the Autism Program at Yale University. There are no independent clinical trials or scientific studies of Son-Rise to back the institute’s claims that the program “helps parents cure their children in some cases” and “achieve significant improvement in almost all cases.”

At the same time, autism researchers express frustration that the Kaufmans discourage parents from combining Son-Rise with proven behavioral therapies and direct them instead toward alternative treatments, such as horse therapy and homeopathy. Some former employees Spectrum interviewed describe the institute as rule-bound, lacking in transparency, and focused on fundraising. The Kaufmans, they say, control nearly every detail of the program and demand unstinting loyalty from staff and commitment from families.

Bryn Hogan, executive director of the institute’s Autism Treatment Center of America and the Kaufmans’ daughter, says that the center welcomes more research on its programs and that the criticism it’s received is unfair or inaccurate. “People tend to be suspicious of things they don’t fully understand,” she says.

Read the rest at Slate

Flight School (National Geographic)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

 

They move so fast that human eyes see only a hovering spot of color, a blur of wings. But when frozen in time by high-speed cameras, hummingbirds reveal their secrets.

In pursuit of the world’s smallest bird, we’ve come to the backyard of a flamingo pink house in Palpite, Cuba. Ornithologist Christopher Clark has a car full of gear to unload: cameras, sound equipment, a sheer cube-shaped cage. Within minutes of arriving this May morning, Clark is spinning around in circles. He’s trying to follow the path of a bullet with wings as it whizzes from one clump of orange fire bush blossoms to the next. When the hummingbird pauses to draw sugary fuel from the flowers, his wings continue to beat a grayish blur too fast for the human eye to resolve.

Read the rest at National Geographic

Have Gun, Will Run (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

We're not saying you need to prepare for societal collapse or anything, but Brendan Borrell did feel a need to improve his game in case zombies attack. He signed up for the Survival Trial, a grueling test of field skills and marksmanship held in the wilds of northern New Mexico. Did this city feller come back in one piece?

I'm in the back office when I hear Jake's screams echo across the factory floor. We have no idea what's happening, only that there's no 911 to call--not out here.

I’ve got my everyday carry tucked into my holster—a Glock nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, with a bullet in the chamber and seven in the magazine. I slip extra ammo into my back pocket and yank my 12-gauge out of a bag. This isn’t your grandpa’s duck gun, either: it’s a matte black Mossberg 500 Tactical Persuader, a tough piece of metal that meets military standards. The chk-chk of the pump action is calibrated to tell all the goblins to buzz off.

I’m the last person you’d expect to see packing heat, but after the crash things have gotten freaky out here in Arena Heights, our little make-believe town in northern New Mexico. Looting, home invasions, assaults, you name it. It’s basically WROL— without rule of law. As one of my buddies at the shooting range likes to say: “The cops are five minutes away—when you need them in five seconds.”

I tell my partner to wait as I follow a pair of tire tracks to a couple of orange cones in a dusty clearing. To the west, the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo mountains seem to levitate above the horizon: a thin white mirage of tranquility. I stash my shotgun in a bush and go crashing down a fresh trail marked with neon splotches of surveyor’s paint. Around the corner, Jake is lying motion less in the dirt. He’s a meaty fellow, the size and shape of two truck tires. In fact, he is two truck tires, linked together with PVC pipe to represent an incapacitated colleague. I tug on his rubbery shoulders, dragging him back to the safe zone.

The task leaves me panting. I clutch my widow-maker, sweat burning my eyes. The four targets are lined up on the hillside. Ready. Aim. Gasp! I’m puffing so hard that I can’t hold the sight steady. I drop the muzzle. Thirty seconds pass and I raise the gun again. Pow! The first clay target explodes. Chk-chk! I send the next three back to oblivion. I’m feeling downright cocky, but those targets are only ten yards out. Next up: eight metal plates hanging from a crossbar, roughly 15 yards away. I draw my pistol and miss every one.

After racing back to the starting line and tagging my teammate, I see Jon Weiler standing on the edge of the dirt road, gazing down at the valley below like a scout watching for an ambush. He looks at me approvingly. “That was very good,” he says, Yoda-like.

Read this story in the June 2017 issue of Outside

Rachel Atherton Goes Big (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Downhill mountain bikes weren’t designed to go up. They’re heavy as hell and have the wrong gear ratio, and the best that you can hope for is a ride on a chairlift or in the back of a truck. Failing that, you’re pushing. Which, for most of us, is no fun.

Than again, most of us aren’t Rachel Atherton. It’s early October, and she’s on the side of a grassy slope in northern England, rolling her powder-blue Trek alongside her as though it’s filled with helium. Her full-face helmet hangs from her handlebars, and her frizzy blonde hair is twisted into a bun. Atherton, 29, has a smile on her face, the kind of contented smile that comes when you’re the world’s top female downhiller and have just wrapped up a perfect season.

And today, she just gets to ride. It’s the warm-up for the Red Bull Foxhunt, a mass-start race where 220 women will set off down a track as Atherton tries to overtake them from behind. “I’m amazed by how the women all feed off each other,” Atherton says. “The main thing I want to get across is how confident it makes you feel to tackle a whole mountain on a bike.”

At the base of the hill, many of the competitors have boyfriends or husbands in tow, schlepping baby carriages and fetching energy bars from the base. Amelia Taylor, a 36-year-old mother and amateur racer, points to her 15-month-old daughter, Phoebe. “She’s been coming to bike events since she was five weeks old.”

Signing up for the Foxhunt is like getting a backstage pass to Atherton. Everywhere she goes, competitors pull her aside for selfies, to which she unfailing responds with a “Yes, please!” At a slippery off-camber section of the course, where the racers are sliding into one another in three-bike pileups, Atherton pauses to hold court. “Drop your outside foot, and then this foot is in the air or dabbing along and you can lean in loads,” she says. A few seconds later, a rider comes flying down. “Nice! Nice, nice! Holy mother! Yeah, woo!” she hollers.

Read the rest at Outside

Going underground: inside the world of the mole-catchers (The Guardian)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

A bitter battle is raging within the mole-catching community over the kindest way to carry out their deadly work

Roger Page purchased his home in East Bilney, a Norfolk farming community, about 25 years ago. For the better part of those 25 years, he bore no ill will toward the moles. He was fond of wildlife, or at least what little of it remained in the country. A family of deer foraged in the backyard. Foxes lolled in the road at dusk. Moles were a rarity.

Page worked as a commercial pilot and when the occasional molehill erupted on his lawn, he would pat it down before departing again to New York or Hong Kong. They seemed to have an understanding, he and the moles. They mostly kept to the woods, while Page mostly kept to the garden.

But after he retired five years ago, Page expanded his back lawn and the moles became more persistent. As more and more molehills sprung up, Page came to feel as if their labours were engineered to produce in him the maximum anguish. He purchased traps at the garden centre, but they would often remain unsprung or – worse – sprung and empty.

He decided to escalate his counter-assault. During a stopover in Amsterdam, he bought a pungent bag of flower bulbs advertised as a natural mole deterrent. (The moles didn’t mind.) Next, he installed a solar-powered mole repeller, a torpedo-shaped device that emits vibrations that are supposed to keep the moles away. (The moles carried on.) He tried flooding them out with a water hose. (Moles are strong swimmers.) Finally, he tried suffocating them with the exhaust of his lawnmower. (Moles can survive in low‑oxygen environments.)

Read the rest at the Guardian

The Crazy Hard Boulder Problem that Took Four Years to Send (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

In the fall of 2013, Finnish climber Nalle Hukkataival took a trip out to Lappnor, Finland, a new bouldering area about an hour east of Helsinki on the country's forested southern coastline. When he arrived, his old friend, Marko Siivinen, pointed out a nameless hunk of rock the size of a bus that looked like it was about to topple over.

With just a few obvious holds on the flat face, Hukkataival, 30 could see the line to the top immediately. It looked like a V14 problem—expert-level but not impossible. He stepped up to the wall and gripped two vertical ridges, compressing them as though he was closing a sliding door. But the moment he dabbed his right foot onto the wall, he plopped onto the padded mat beneath. It was the first sign that this project wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d thought. “If it looked as hard as it is, I wouldn’t have even tried,” Hukkataival says.

Over the next four years, Hukkataival would make an estimated 4,000 attempts on the bouldering project before finally conquering it last October. “I thought he was going crazy at some point,” Siivinen, 36, says. “I was feeling guilty that I showed it to him.”

Hukkataival has given it a V17 grade, which—if given the nod by future climbers—would make it the hardest bouldering problem in the world. As a self-professed guardian of the integrity of the grading system, it’s not a claim he makes lightly, and top climbers who have visited the boulder agree it has potential. “I’ve been traveling for 12 years non-stop,” Hukkataival told Outside. “The whole time I’ve been looking for something with the perfect level of difficulty.” (So far, no other top climber has repeated the ascent, which is the next step in corroborating the V17 rating.) 

To put things in perspective, a V0 bouldering problem is like climbing a ladder. Problems in the V4 to V5 range have skimpier handholds and require the technique and finger strength of a dedicated amateur. V9 and above are pro-level, the kind of problems featured in climbing competitions. Currently, the number of climbers in the world who have scaled a V15 is fewer than 100. A V16? Just five.

This boulder—which Hukkataival christened Burden of Dreams after a 1982 documentary about director Werner Herzog’s monomaniacal quest to move a steamship over a mountain in the Amazon—stands alone. It is like Yosemite’s Dawn Wall writ small, an exercise in frustration that Hukkataival documents in a short film called the Lappnor Project, which will be out February 8. The problem consists of just five or six hand movements to the top with funky moves like a piano match, where Hukkataival has to lift his index finger from a crimp to fit his other hand on securely. The footwork may be even more critical. In the beginning, Hukkataival couldn’t even do some of the individual moves, let alone string them together. In total, the climb is a combination of precise, dynamic lunges to sloping holds and powerful body-tensioning static moves. 

Read the rest at Outside

Last Trial of the Codfather (Hakai Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

It’s another quiet July day at the fish auction in New Bedford, Massachusetts. When I arrive at dawn before the bidding begins, three men are seated at folding tables, waiting for a darkened television screen to flicker on. The drone and dribble of a Keurig coffee machine is the only sound interrupting the silence. It promises to be another wistful day in a long series of wistful days.

Last night, just nine fishing boats pulled up to the dock behind the building, far fewer than the hundreds of boats lining up for the old city auction on Pier 3 in the 1980s. Back then, boats would haul in as much as 500 tonnes of cod, haddock, flounder, and other species of groundfish from the icy depths of the North Atlantic. Today’s groundfish catch is 4.3 tonnes. Most of the money keeping the port afloat is in scallops.

I start to pull out a chair to take a seat when I hear a voice behind me. “I don’t think you want to do that,” says a lanky, gray-haired man reading a magazine. “The guy who normally sits in that chair will choke you to death.”

“Choke you to death on cigarette smoke!” cracks a black guy with a patch on his beret that reads, “I’m Cape Verdean.”

After I move to the back row, a big-bellied, bald man in a plaid shirt pushes past the No Smoking sign on the front door and walks into the room. He takes his seat and lights up a Winston cigarette. He spits out a few words about a dissatisfied fish buyer to the auction owner in raspy Portuguese. Then, he switches to English. “Tell him he can go fuck himself, the fish is fine,” he growls. “I saw every fucking one, it’s his fucking problem.” It doesn’t take me long to realize that this is Carlos Rafael, otherwise known as The Codfather, who was out of jail on a US $2-million bond. Under the table, an electronic monitoring bracelet is beaming his location to federal authorities who are making sure he gets back to his house every night by 8:30 p.m.

Read the rest at Hakai Magazine

Antibiotic Resistance (Avaunt Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

The antibiotic era began with Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin at St Mary’s Hospital in London in 1928. Fleming had witnessed first-hand the terrible effects of infectious disease while serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War I, watching helplessly as wounded men died of sepsis – a reaction of the immune system to infection, damaging tissues and organs – and he became interested in developing a better treatment to replace the often ineffective antiseptics used at the time.

Fleming had been growing colonies of staphylococcus – a type of bacterium that is ubiquitous on human skin and can easily infect wounds – in Petri dishes, when he noticed an unexpected development. On one dish, which had been left open by mistake while Fleming was on holiday, there was a spot of green mould that was inhibiting the growth of the bacteria. Following some experimentation Fleming discovered that an extract from the mould, Penicillium notatum, was able to kill a wide variety of bacteria.

Read an excerpt of my story from Avaunt Issue 4

Bugs on Ice (Biographic)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Sean Schoville slips an elastic loop around his waist, securing a square piece of foam to his backside. “It’s a trick I learned from an entomologist in Siberia,” he says casually. “It helps you stay warm when you’re sitting on cold rocks all the time.” It may be June, but it’s frosty here at Summit Lake, the highest pass along the Alaska Highway in far northern British Columbia. Standing before us, the 1,905-meter (6,250-foot) Mount St. Paul looks like a scoop of stracciatella gelato, with dark slivers of limestone slicing through the pillowy white snow.

We’re here to hunt for an elusive and unassuming group of insects utterly unperturbed by the cold weather. In fact, they love it. Less than an inch long, these creatures—ice crawlers—look a little like an earwig that hasn’t been getting enough sun. They are wingless, have six legs, and a pale, segmented body that ends with two tail-like appendages known as cerci. When the Canadian entomologist Edmund Walker discovered them in Banff, Alberta, in 1913, he was so dumbfounded by their appearance that he gave the group the scientific nameGrylloblatta, which roughly translates to “cricket-roach.” Entomologists aren’t known for their media savvy, but that name certainly landed with a thud. “It’s not particularly flattering,” Schoville sighs. “It doesn’t sound great, and it doesn’t help you understand the group.”

But ice crawlers, as their common name suggests, have a thermal superpower, which allows them to flourish at the edges of glaciers. After the sun sets, they emerge from their hideouts deep within rock crevices to scavenge decaying plant matter along with comatose moths, flies, and other insects that have blown onto the snow. The genus Grylloblatta includes almost 40 described species in the western U.S., Canada, Russia, and the Far East. Highly adapted to their frigid environments, ice crawlers remain active at temperatures in the 20s—the same temperatures that cause other insects, including their prey, to shut down or freeze solid. Hold an ice crawler in the sweaty palm of your hand for too long, however, and they’ll go belly-up. One species has been found at 9,000 feet on Washington’s Mount Rainier. Others spend their lives at lower elevations, albeit in the cool crevices of talus piles or inside ice-filled caves.

Read the rest at Biographic

Physics on Two Wheels (Nature)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Seven bikes lean against the wall of Jim Papadopoulos's basement in Boston, Massachusetts. Their paint is scratched, their tyres flat. The handmade frame that he got as a wedding present is coated in fine dust. “I got rid of most of my research bikes when I moved,” he says. The bicycles that he kept are those that mean something to him. “These are the ones I rode.”

Papadopoulos, who is 62, has spent much of his life fascinated by bikes, often to the exclusion of everything else. He competed in amateur races while a teenager and at university, but his obsession ran deeper. He could never ride a bike without pondering the mathematical mysteries that it contained. Chief among them: What unseen forces allow a rider to balance while pedalling? Why must one initially steer right in order to lean and turn left? And how does a bike stabilize itself when propelled without a rider?

He studied these questions intensely as a young engineer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. But he failed to publish most of his ideas — and eventually drifted out of academia. By the late 1990s, he was working for a company that makes the machines that manufacture toilet paper. “In the end, if no one ever finds your work, then it was pointless,” he says.

But then someone did find his work. In 2003, his old friend and collaborator from Cornell, engineer Andy Ruina, called him up. A scientist from the Netherlands, Arend Schwab, had come to his lab to resurrect the team's research on bicycle stability.

“Jim, you need to be a part of this,” Ruina told him.

Read the rest at Nature

Havana: Some Assembly Required (Hakai Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

A communist city struggles to lure foreign money and rebuild its failing infrastructure without sacrificing its revolutionary roots.

If a place could be described as bitterly hot, it’s here on a street along Havana’s waterfront. A century-old custom house sprawls the length of three soccer fields, blocking the sea’s cooling embrace. The building is an affront—a dilapidated fortress with broken windows and gaping holes in its terra cotta roof—that I deeply resent right now.

I’m on a walking tour with two dozen international architects and urban designers, as we imagine a theoretical future for Havana. The walk is part of a charrette—an exercise that gives professionals and community members a voice on urban development when there is no formal mechanism to do so, as has been the case in crumbling Havana. At this moment, however, under the searing sun, it’s our imaginations that are crumbling and the water that’s theoretical. Every so often, the scent of sunscreen permeates the air as someone slathers it on their glistening pink face. “Agua?” we inquire, as we poke our heads into doorways on a fruitless search for bottled water.

As relentless as the heat on this “death march”—to quote the mutterings of the design contingent—is our leader: Cuban-born architect Julio Cesar Perez, clad in a heavy blue blazer and exuding a kind of reptilian comfort. His taut, olive skin is radiant under the tropical sun. Like a lizard animated by the heat, he whirls around, pointing this way and that way, and expounding on the failings of this once great city—the largest metropolis in the Caribbean, with a population of over two million. Havana is Perez’s birthplace, his stomping grounds, and his part-time home when he’s not in Miami, Florida.

Unlike the rest of us sun-numbed dolts, his brain gallops around the problem of the behemoth blocking views of the sea and its cooling breeze. Perez barks out a solution: hollow out the ground floor of the custom house, tear off the exterior walls, and liberate its bones, the structural supports. I can almost feel the rush of fresh air. “The bay is Havana’s most important geographic feature,” Perez booms. “Geography is what allows cities to be born!”

Read the rest at Hakai Magazine

The Husband-and-Wife Team Behind the Internet’s Most Infuriating Outdoor Retailer (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Illustration by Neil Webb

It’s hard to believe a Colorado gear shop could outrage so many customers in the age of crowdsourced review sites and marketplaces like Amazon. But 123Mountain, owned and operated by European couple Olivier and Anna Sofia Goumas, has been fending off lawsuits for years. Has their luck finally run out?

Read the story at Outside magazine

The Emerald Edge (Nature Conservancy Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

LAND AND WATER: (left) Conservancy staffer and commercial fisherman Michael Kampnich is among those working to ensure that Southeast Alaska’s forests and streams remain healthy and full of the region’s lifeblood—salmon. (right) Local herbs flavor small-batch liquors made at Heather Shade and Sean Copeland ‘s Port Chilkoot Distillery. They were among the winners of a grant contest the Conservancy helped develop to support the growth ofsustainable small businesses. © Chris Crisman

LAND AND WATER: (left) Conservancy staffer and commercial fisherman Michael Kampnich is among those working to ensure that Southeast Alaska’s forests and streams remain healthy and full of the region’s lifeblood—salmon. (right) Local herbs flavor small-batch liquors made at Heather Shade and Sean Copeland ‘s Port Chilkoot Distillery. They were among the winners of a grant contest the Conservancy helped develop to support the growth ofsustainable small businesses. © Chris Crisman

From the February/March issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine

A 47,000-pound steel claw painted fire-engine red hunches on the edge of Thorne Bay, looking like something that fell from a spaceship into this remote, forested cove on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. But locals don’t blink when they drive past “The Claw,” once one of the largest logging grapples in the world. They remember when its massive pincers hoisted bundles of 5-ton logs into the water like so many matchsticks. During the logging boom from the late 1950s through the ’90s, Sitka spruce that had towered over the island’s salmon streams since long before Europeans arrived on the continent were shredded in Ketchikan and dissolved into paper pulp.

Prince of Wales is part of the Tongass National Forest, which stretches across the 500-mile ribbon of land and maze of islands that constitute the Alaskan panhandle. It’s a wild, magical place, where glacier-fed waterfalls splash into fogshrouded fjords frequented by humpback whales and orcas. Black bears and coastal brown bears feast on five species of salmon, including king, sockeye and coho. Bald eagles seem as common here as pigeons in New York City, and the endangered marbled murrelet, an adorably chubby little seabird, builds its mossy nests in the oldest, largest trees.

For the first half of the 20th century, the Tongass, named after a Tlingit Indian clan and established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, was too isolated and undeveloped to be worth logging on a large scale. But after World War II, Congress jump-started the timber industry with the Tongass Timber Act, which helped establish pulp mills and subsidized the building of roads and other infrastructure. The Forest Service surveyed and sold off tracts of timber to the highest bidder, even though that frequently meant selling at a dramatic loss. By 2004, a few years after The Nature Conservancy launched its Southeast Alaska program, some 40 percent of the most ecologically valuable old-growth habitat in the Tongass had been logged.

Greg Boyd, now 60, moved out here in 1983 in search of adventure. He had worked as a logger in northern Michigan and dreamed of doing the same in Alaska. But, he says, “I wimped out as soon as I got up here and saw what the deal was: the size of the trees, the topography.” Instead of taking up the risky work of logging trees that can reach heights over 180 feet, he decided to get into the insurance business.

It was a smart move. Old-growth timber was getting scarce and clear-cutting regulations had grown stricter, which meant the profit margins were slimmer. The Claw was retired in 1994, and the pulp mill shut down a few years later. The slender, second-growth trees that grew back in the forest gaps had little value, and without thinning, these stands often grew so dark and dense that the understory became as ecologically barren as a cave.

But Boyd never forgot what drew him to Alaska in the first place, and in 2012, he became co-owner of one of the last sawmills on the island. Good Faith Lumber, just up the road from Thorne Bay, was a small mill with a big advantage: two kilns. Kiln-dried wood can be cut with precision, enabling the mill to manufacture high-value retail products like beveled cedar siding. It also had a four-sided planer to cut wood into rounded D-log siding—the kind used to build cabins—and into tongue-and-groove boards used for interior paneling.

From the Conservancy’s perspective, small sawmills like Good Faith point the way to the next chapter for Tongass. Developing new, high-value products out of second-growth timber could keep people employed in the industry and help restore forests by thinning dense stands—all while reducing economic pressure to log old-growth, says David Albert, the Conservancy’s Alaska chapter director for conservation science. “We want to protect the last, best remaining temperate rainforest watersheds on Earth but also provide economic stability to communities,” he says. Wholesale logging is no longer the backbone of communities like Thorne Bay, and new, greener enterprises are emerging with the Conservancy’s help.

Read the rest here

A Flower and a Way of Life in Peril (Sapiens)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Prized—and increasingly rare—bouquets of an enchanting flower from Brazil’s mountainous heartland pit collectors against conservationists.

Read the rest at Sapiens.org

The 680-mile-long Serra do Espinhaço mountain range rises from the Brazilian lowlands like the fossilized backbone of a fallen dinosaur. Sandwiched between the Atlantic rainforest and the country’s savanna heartland, the meadows and scrubby forests that run along this rocky spine are home to tapirs, maned wolves, giant anteaters, and more than 4,000 species of plants.

One of the most alluring and valuable of these plants is a flower found nowhere else on Earth. It has a straw-like stem and a white head the size of a peanut. Lacking the gaudiness of a greenhouse rose or the steamy sensuality of an orchid, these flowers—individually—seem unremarkable. They achieve their beauty through multiplication, when dozens of them are dried and bound into a mesmerizing bouquet in the palette of an eternal autumn. Up to 10 years after their harvest, a drop of water will cause the delicate buds to close their petals. When they dry out again, they open as if they are still alive, which is why this species and its close relatives are called sempre-vivas, Portuguese for “everlasting” flowers.

Read the rest at Sapiens.org