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Dispatches : Science

Organic Agritourism: Good for Your Health?

Farm_shot_egan_snowPhoto: Egan Snow/Flickr

As summer wanes and garden harvests start to dwindle, this news lands with a thud: a recent study performed at Stanford University indicated that eating organic produce doesn’t necessarily mean eating more nutritious produce.

If you figured this would raise the ire of organic food advocates, you were right. Much of the debate that arose from this research and the breathless headlines it generated, however, focuses on what the study did not consider. There is no question that food raised "conventionally"—that is to say, with the aid of any number of synthetic pesticides—does harm to those who grow and produce the food, and to the surrounding ecosystem.

The takeaway is that while an organic tomato might not make you healthier than a conventional one, a conventional tomato may well do more harm to its producer. So buying organic is one way to vote for better agricultural working conditions. It’s one way to vote for fewer fertilizers and chemicals entering the environment. (Suggested reading for more on this is "Eat Organic: It’s Good for Other People’s Health" over at Earth Island Journal.)

But there’s another element to organically-raised food that we should consider: it is a conduit for connecting people and landscapes. Without organic farms, adventure travel would suffer.

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12 Ways to Channel Your Inner Citizen Scientist

GrizzlyprintsnowGrizzly print, and a notebook. Photo: Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

Rachel Carson earned a master's degree in zoology from John Hopkins University and spent most of her career working as a marine biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But after her fourth book, Silent Spring, garnered pesticide manufacturers some unwanted publicity, the pesticide industry attempted to discredit Carson by claiming she wasn’t a trained biologist, writes Paul Brooks in his biography Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work.

The irony here is that in Silent Spring, which turns 50 this month and is arguably responsible for starting the environmental movement, Carson championed the growing concerns of untrained biologists. She listened to backyard botanists who simply observed nature and were alarmed by the indiscriminant death that DDT appeared to be doling out to songbirds, bees and other non-target species around their homes. Armed with their anecdotes and her own rigorous scientific research, Carson raised many red flags and brought the word “ecology” into the general lexicon.

Today, these untrained biologists actually have a moniker: citizen scientists. They also have many more ways to contribute to our understanding of the health of our environment.

Citizen science demographics used to trend toward the close-to-retirement set who like to study water quality, or toward younger, tech-savvy male astronomers, says Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, a hub for citizen science information and opportunities. But citizen science is becoming increasingly accessible and interesting to the general, outdoor-recreating public, thanks both to the connections between citizen science and climate change research and to the power of smartphones. 

“Smartphones are increasingly equipped with sensors that makes it so easy to become involved in citizen science,” says Cavalier. “It removes the fear of giving bad data and it makes it harder to say participating isn’t convenient. People can’t really say ‘I don’t have the tools or knowledge I need.’ The barriers are falling.”

Whether it’s collecting marine debris or chasing butterflies or tracking grizzly bears, there’s something for budding citizen scientists of every stripe and appetite for adventure.

Grab your waterproof-breathable pocket protector and check out these citizen science resources:

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Can the National Park Service Afford to React to Climate Change?

Delicate_arch_windowDelicate Arch, Arches National Park. Photo: Ryan Dearth

Last year, as part of his Call to Action plan to revise and improve the way our national parks are managed, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis asked a committee of scientists and advisers to the NPS to revisit and rewrite a 1963 report called "Wildlife Management in the National Parks."

Though the 1963 report, penned by the son of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, was groundbreaking as a contribution to wildlife management practices, it was written well before the park system had to address and adopt to climate change, and well before the system gained most of the cultural artifacts and memorials it now holds. Therefore, the report needed a major makeover.

The revised report, written with the help of an 11-member committee that includes a Nobel Laureate and two Presidential Medal of Science recipients, was released on Friday and includes broad recommendations on how the NPS should go about protecting park ecosystems and the cultural treasures they contain. Also published last week was a Washington Post news story entitled “National Parks Face Severe Funding Crunch,” in which Juliet Eilperin described the impact that fiscal belt-tightening has had on the park service in recent years and how the proposed 2013 budget would only worsen the park’s economic health. Some say more cuts will precipitate park closures.

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The Elwha River Is Fit, Once Again, for Kings

Chinook_swimmingChinook salmon. Photo: NWFishers/Flickr

The Elwha Dam is gone. The Glines Canyon Dam is nearly gone. With the dams no longer blocking fish from their migratory route up the river, Chinook (king) and other species of salmon and trout are returning. Salmon fry began hatching above the dams early this spring and now biologists have spotted the first adult Chinooks.

"We knew this was going to happen and as I saw the fish roll, my heart jumped!" Phil Kennedy, lead fisheries technician for the Olympic National Park, said in a statement announcing the return.

He's certainly not alone in his enthusiasm. "If Elwha River ecosystem recovery has a poster child, it is this fish," Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes wrote on September 17, 2011. "Bringing back the Elwha River kings, the most storied in Puget Sound, has been a rallying cry for advocates of dam removal for more than a generation."

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The Top 10 Destinations for Enjoying Healthy Oceans

Sea_turtle_ellenboganSea turtle hatchling, Baguan Island, Philippines. Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

Examples of poor ocean health are too easy—unfortunately—to find in many parts of the world, especially along densely populated coastlines or in the midst of ocean gyres filled with plastic pollution. But what is the global state of ocean health? A group of marine scientists spent three years devising the Ocean Health Index, a new tool that provides some answers.

More than 60 scientists, researchers and organizations collaborated on the index, which was officially released on Wednesday. The index was designed to provide a framework and benchmark to measure the health of the oceans so that policy makers will have a point of reference to use in shaping future laws and regulations. Basically, it is intended to help us determine to what degree humans can continue to exploit the world’s oceans for food, products and tourism without diminishing their ability to sustain themselves. It sets the bar accordingly.

"A healthy ocean is not a pristine one," says Ben Halpern, the index’s lead author and a research scientist for the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). "A pristine ocean is not a practical goal. To strive for that is a futile effort and never achievable at global scale."

The index is based on 10 indicators, or "goals," such as tourism/recreation or biodiversity, that set various lenses through which to view ocean health. These 10 goals can be viewed at the global scale or per country, with 171 coastal countries included in the index. The United States rates horribly in the tourism/recreation goal, scoring just one out of 100. I asked Halpern what gives.

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