It is amazing how making modest adjustments in our behaviors and standard approaches to the things we do every day can generate significant conservation benefits. Curbside recycling has been a major incentive to separate trash and dramatically reduces the amount of waste going to incinerators and landfills in many states. The way we care for and manage land, either for conservation purposes or for other objectives, can either enhance or degrade the environment, and responsible stewardship requires that we consider the consequences of land management and adjust our approach when a better method or opportunity is available.
Here, then, are 10 recommendations for better stewardship, which you might wish to adopt yourself or for your organization, or see included in permit conditions and local ordinances in your communities.
1. Biodegradable bar and chain oil: There are now high quality, vegetable-based lubricants available for chain saws that are safe to use in wetlands and do not lose their viscosity in cold temperatures. Compared to conventional bar and chain oil, these products cost $20.00/gallon instead of $8.00 and may need to be ordered by your local Husqvarna or Stihl distributor, but you will avoid spraying a mist of petroleum-based lubricant in your woodlands if you make the switch.
2. Artificial Erosion Barriers: This sounds counter-intuitive, but those mulch bales you see lining wetland margins at work sites are left in place to decay and often provide a rich medium for invasive plant growth. This is especially true if the mulch bale contains pieces of Phragmites reed or purple loosestrife seeds, and unless you know for certain that the source of the bale is a clean site without invasives, the risk of it becoming a vector for the spread of invasive plants is fairly high. Although silt fences can fail if not installed properly, when backed with wood straw, a natural product that biodegrades in about 2 years, it can be very effective, especially on cold, north-facing slopes.
3. Real Men Use Reel Mowers: For me, the warmth and beauty of a summer day is perpetually marred by the whir and rattle of power mowers. The American fetish with all things mechanical plays out in our villages and suburbs in our motorized lawn and garden equipment. Now, I believe there is a role for power tools. It would be hard to put in much of a garden without a rototiller, and I own both a chainsaw and a power drill, but I don't use these things every day that it doesn't rain, unlike half of my neighborhood. Unless you have a very extensive lawn (several acres, anyway) or are physically unable to push a mower, owning a riding mower is just lazy. On the other hand, our Amish friends in Lancaster County, PA have reel mowers, and so do I. They do 5 acres of lawn, and I do less than 1, but both of us get a good, even cut when we keep our blades sharp and they are quiet enough to use as still talk on the phone, were you so inclined (our Amish friends are free from such inclinations, but there is an answering machine in the chicken coop). These mowers come in various models, even with bagger attachments, and the top line models will set you back $200. You'll save that in fuel costs alone in no time.
4. Clean Boat, Clean Water: Zebra Mussels and many aquatic invasive plants get an assist over "spacial gaps" from recreation boat users. Fouled propellers and boat trailers may be easier to detect than Zebra Mussel larvae in your bilge, but regardless it should be standard practice to thoroughly wash trailers and boats before moving to a new water body. Some recommend a bleach solution on the hulls, and some lake associations now forbid anyone from putting boats to water without a receipt from the local car wash.
5. Keep Compost Weed Free: Unless you are religious about turning over your compost pile every three days, it will never reach a core temperature sufficient to kill invasive plant material. Some plants can propagate rhizomatously, or from fragments of themselves, and others are so loaded with seeds that your Eco-friendly pile will quickly become contaminated and a vector for their spread if you try and compost them. You can leave non-woody invasives like Phragmites or garlic mustard out in the sun in black contractor bags and cook them that way, but otherwise the only safe disposal is to burn it or cut the plant before it sets seed if that is how it generally reproduces itself.
6. Power Wash Construction Equipment Between Jobs: What is true on the water is also true on land. Invasive material can be moved in the treads of tires, in manure spreaders, and in the beds of pick up trucks. A friend of mine with MA DFW noticed ATV users who parked under Norway Maples were the main vector for the spread of its seeds to the tops of mountains where seeds would not naturally land. Invasives love disturbance, and the very small seeds of garlic mustard, phragmites and stilt grass can be spread deep into forests on logging equipment. Power washing between jobs may be a hassle, but otherwise it should be part of the contract for a follow up site visit during the next growing season to detect and respond to new invasions.
7. De-Icing Alternatives to Rock Salt: Millions of tons of sodium chloride are spread on our roads and sidewalks every year. Vehicle traffic releases pavement salt into the air, and it just as easily finds its way into soil and water. I have seen a spring migration of salamanders burned and paralyzed in mid road after coming in contact with rock salt. Towns and Highway departments use it because it is the least expensive de-icing material, although it is ineffective at temperatures below 20 degrees, and because their liability insurance requires them to protect public safety on winter roads and walkways. There are less toxic alternatives to rock salt, including potassium chloride which costs a bit more but is safer for plants and pets and works at temperatures as low as -15 degrees. There are also vegetable-based de-icers on the market, including ones that use brewery mash and corn steep water, but these are not yet widely in use.
8. Rot-Resistant Alternatives to Pressure Treated Wood: PT is not as toxic as it used to be (arsenic is no longer an ingredient), but it is still unsafe to burn wood scraps from construction jobs and there is still the risk of its chemical preservatives leeching out into the environment. I would not use it to line my vegetable beds, not would I recommend it for use in wetlands. Boardwalks, in particular, can be constructed with both natural and artificial materials without using pressure treated wood. Trex products make very attractive and long lasting decking products, as well as 4 x 4s that make excellent supports from foot bridges and boardwalks. Cypress and Black Locust planks can also be used as decking for bog bridges and boardwalks.
9. Lose The Lighter Fluid: It seems that propane grills have replaced charcoal as the medium of choice for backyard cooking, yet another example of our love affair with chrome and steel. Those who fail to clean their gas grills in these parts may find they've created another bear magnet (see below), and frankly if I wanted to cook with gas I would use my kitchen stove. However, I have no nostalgia for the charcoal briquettes that gas grills are replacing. These Frankencoals belong in the ash heap of history, along with the lighter fluid that they must be soaked in or impregnated with to light. Natural lump wood charcoal is available in my local hardware store, and while it costs more than Kingsford it has many advantages over briquettes. It requires only newspaper to light the fire, it burns hot and imparts a smokey aroma untainted with petro-chemicals to my barbecue. If you must use charcoal briquettes, then the product you need for ignition is a charcoal chimney starter (available for $12.99 at Sears so there is no excuse) that uses paper and radiant heat to get the coals glowing.
10. Bird Feeder Dos and Donts: It is the number 2 outdoor recreational pastime in America after gardening. In Pennsylvania alone, non-consumptive wildlife-related recreation accounts for $2 billion in economic activity every year, with bird watching taking the lion's share. Still, bird feeding is not without environmental consequences. Anyone living in black bear country knows how attractive a bird feeder looks to a recently emerged bruin in the Spring. In Massachusetts, nearly every nuisance bear complaint lodged by homeowners identifies attraction to sunflower seeds, even the shells, as a contributing factor. Most bird seed is grown conventionally with agricultural chemicals and pesticides. Bird feeders that are not kept clean (and who washes their feeder regularly?) can harbor salmonella which can be fatal to feeding birds. Finally, keeping the feeder up in the warmer months gives an unnatural advantage to overwintering species over Spring migrants and may be responsible for the displacement of some bird species by others, including introduced species like English Sparrows and Starlings. If you must feed in warmer weather, provide food sources other than seeds (suet, nectar, peanut butter) that are in shorter supply than millet and sunflower seeds and support different species.
There you go. Give a few of these a try. I've got my BioPlus bar and chain oil on order for my new chainsaw.