Friday, December 30, 2011

Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff ... Prince, Conservationist

Back in 1990, after five years of research had made it clear that nitrogen in treated sewage was responsible for Long Island Sound's hypoxia problem, the U.S. EPA and the states of Connecticut and New York were taking their first steps toward doing something about the problem.

It was hardly a radical idea -- they would freeze the amount of nitrogen flowing into the Sound from sewage plants at 1990 levels. They called it a nitrogen cap. It wasn't a reduction. They weren't prepared to actually begin cleaning up the Sound yet. But they didn't want it to get worse either.

And yet that recommendation freaked out people in Westchester County, in particular real estate developers, the trade groups they paid to represent them, and elected officials who were beholden to them. They had influence in Albany and for a while it seemed as if they might stop the entire Long Island Sound cleanup effort.

Among the people who would not let that happen was Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff. He was the EPA administrator in the New York region, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, and he decided the nitrogen cap was important -- and he said so, publicly, in a way that made it seem completely sane and rational (which of course it was):

"I, at this point, think it would be wise to go ahead. I think time is of the essence. Why not take steps now if you know what you can do and it's doable?"

His EPA counterpart in New England, Julie Belaga, agreed, and their position became policy, as both EPA regions and both states approved the nitrogen cap.

I didn't know Connie Eristoff well. He was gentlemanly the few times I met him and when I asked him questions, either in person or on the phone, he answered them (which is how I got the quote above). There's not much more a reporter can ask for.

I was reminded by his obituary, in today's New York Times, that he also strongly fought to allow New York City to keep its drinking water clean by protecting its watershed rather than by building a filtration plant, a decision that seems as common-sensical now as it was controversial 15 years ago.

Connie Eristoff got his start in government under John V. Lindsay. He was actively involved in Audubon New York. And he was a prince "whose family nobility dates to the 15th century in the Eurasian kingdom of Georgia."

I always assumed he was a Republican. That matters only because we need more like him.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

State of the Sound

Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound released its first "State of the Sound" report today (although in truth that's a bit of a misnomer: a more accurate name would have been "State of How We the People Who Live Near Long Island Sound are Doing in Protecting and Restoring It," but that's not quite as pithy).

They found that by some measures, we're doing OK and by others we're doing considerably worse than OK. All in all, the grade they assigned was a C-plus.

You can find a pdf here, and there's coverage by the Connecticut Post here and here (Newsday also wrote about it but you have to pay to see it).

I wrote the foreword (several years ago, actually -- that's how long it took to publish the report.) Here it is;
     Long Island Sound was in bad shape back in mid and late 1980s, when I first started paying attention. If you think of the Sound as a big forest, it was as if all the air had been removed from a third of that forest, and all the warblers, thrushes, butterflies, spiders, bats, squirrels, cicadas, katydids, and deer suffocated or, if they were lucky, crowded into other areas. That's how bad hypoxia was in the summer. Virtually all forms of marine life were unable to survive in the western third of Long Island Sound.
    But that was 20 years ago. What's happened since?
    Lobsters have all but vanished. Oysters, carefully restored with infusions of money from taxpayers and the private sector, succumbed to two diseases and are only now starting to revive. Winter flounder disappeared. The water on average has gotten warmer; warm-water species are replacing cold water species. Salt marshes are dying. And hypoxia returns every summer -- sometimes bad, sometimes not so bad, sometimes critically bad.
    Last year I was on a conference call, planning a public forum with a handful of college professors who teach on the far eastern end of the Sound, and when I used the word "crisis" to describe the late 1980s, one of them interrupted and told me quite peremptorily that there is not now nor has there ever been a crisis in Long Island Sound.
    On the contrary. Long Island Sound exists now in a state of permanent crisis. That's my opinion, of course. But what other conclusion are we to draw? Twenty years ago the U.S government and the states of New York and Connecticut created what has become a permanent -- as well as knowledgeable and dedicated -- bureaucracy to manage Long Island Sound, and yet there's so much going wrong in the Sound we can hardly keep track.
    When I was in elementary school I tried to cover up a failing grade by dropping a strategically-located blot of blue ink from a cartridge pen onto my report card. Reading this "State of the Sound" report card, I see a lot of places where I'd like to drop blots of blue ink.
    After 20 years of anti-pollution efforts, we get a D-plus in raw sewage? Spill an ink blot there. C-minus in low oxygen? Ink blot, please. Adapting to the rise in sea level, and conflicts among the people who use the Sound -- a D in each? Blot, and another blot. A C-minus in keeping stormwater that is contaminated with dog crap and motor oil and chemical fertilizers away from our beaches and shellfish beds? A big ink blot there.
    But we must be doing well in something, yes?
    We get an A in fish ladders. Fish ladders open up rivers blocked by dams, letting anadromous fish swim upstream to spawn (although as the biologist in charge of Connecticut's program has said, swimming upstream is one thing; getting back down past the dams and ladders is another).
    We get a B in coastal habitat, for restoring 600 acres, mainly of coastal marshes.
    And we get a B in beach litter, although not because there's any less of it now. The amount of litter is about the same as it was a decade ago. We earn a B because more people are volunteering to participate in beach clean-ups -- in other words, more people are picking up other people's trash. 
     It takes an act of will not to feel pessimistic in the face of all this, and I'd be lying if I said that at times I don't. But those of us who care about Long Island Sound can't afford to be too pessimistic – or rather, we can't afford to let pessimism deter us from doing what needs to be done.
    What exactly is that? We need to make sure our elected officials know that Long Island Sound is a priority, and that they continue to provide money for sewage treatment plant upgrades and stormwater management, and for increasing and improving public access to the Sound. We need to help organizations like Save the Sound continue to promote the notion that what we as individuals do has an effect on what Long Island Sound is.
     When anyone – a municipality operating a sewage plant, a boat owner heedless about where he dumps his vessel's head, a multinational corporation that wants to industrialize the Sound, a homeowner with a bad fertilizer habit – damages the Sound, we need to take it personally. We need to remember that Long Island Sound is ours.
    And one more thing: although the state of the Sound seems grim, this "State of the Sound" report is excellent – read it, and do what it says.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy to be Working With Connecticut Audubon

At least a couple dozen people have sent me good wishes and congratulations on the new Connecticut Audubon Society position. It's a good organization and I had a good first week (in my estimation anyway). You can keep up with Connecticut Audubon by signing up for its newsletter, here, and by reading or subscribing to its conservation blog, here.

I've been doing communications and fundraising consulting for a number of other non-profits, and I'll continue to do that as well. Here's the full Connecticut Audubon announcement:

December 15, 2011 -- Connecticut Audubon Society, the state's leading independent conservation and environmental education organization, has named conservationist and author Tom Andersen as its director of communications and community outreach.

Andersen will oversee all of Connecticut Audubon's communications with members, the general public, and the press, and will also coordinate the organization's public policy and advocacy work.

Founded in 1898, Connecticut Audubon Society is an independent conservation and environmental education organization, with headquarters in Fairfield. Connecticut Audubon operates five centers -- Pomfret, Glastonbury, Milford, Fairfield and Birdcraft Museum -- and owns 19 sanctuaries covering 2,600 acres.

Connecticut Audubon's education program has worked with more than 70 percent of the state's school districts, and its conservation scientists write and carry out conservation management plans for landowners throughout the state.

"We're poised to grow and to play a bigger role in conservation issues in Connecticut," said CAS President Robert Martinez. "Tom Andersen's knowledge and experience in the not-for-profit world and in conservation will help us focus our message and our work, reach more people, and be even more effective in protecting Connecticut's critical natural habitats."

Andersen will oversee Connecticut Audubon's website and direct communications with members and the general public, social media, and press relations. He will lead a team of Connecticut Audubon staff and board members in identifying, and then formulating positions on, the public policy issues that make up the core of Connecticut Audubon's advocacy work.

He is the author of This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound, published by Yale University Press. Andersen spent 10 years at Westchester Land Trust, in Bedford Hills, N.Y., as director of communications and special projects and as acting executive director. He helped Westchester Land Trust protect an average of more than 600 acres a year from 2000 through 2010, a decade during which the total amount of land the organization protected rose from 900 acres to more than 7,000 acres.

Previously he worked as a newspaper reporter in Westchester County, mainly writing about environmental issues. A former 15-year New Canaan, Ct., resident, he now lives in Pound Ridge, N.Y.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Diving Ducks and Oyster Beds

The mouth of the Housatonic River and the stretch of Long Island Sound immediately to the east and west is one of the richest natural spawning areas for oysters not only in the Sound but probably in the northeast.

Oysters that spawn in the Housatonic populate the mouth of the river, and currents sweep oyster larvae around Stratford Point, where they settle out on Bridgeport Natural Bed, a four-square mile area from Point No Point to Black Rock that is so important to the Sound’s oystermen that state regulators allow oyster boats to use hand-powered dredges only, so as not to damage the beds with power dredges.

I visited Stratford Point today to learn about Connecticut Audubon Society’s habitat restoration project there, and in the course of an hour’s conversation with Scott Kruitbosch, Connecticut Audubon’s conservation technician, some interesting speculation about the Housatonic oyster beds emerged.

Last year at this time, Scott told me, there were “massive” numbers of diving ducks on the mouth of the river. Greater and Lesser Scaup. White-winged Scoters and Surf Scoters, maybe Black Scoters, as well as Redheads and King Eider.

This year, nothing. The protected cove to the north has plenty of dabblers -- American Wigeon, Black Ducks, Gadwall -- but the diving ducks are not around.

The diet of diving ducks includes small oysters. The speculation by Connecticut Audubon’s conservation staff -- a guess, really -- is that something happened to the oyster beds. And the further speculation is that what happened was Hurricane Irene.

Numerous oystermen reported in September that the storm had damaged their equipment and smothered their oyster beds with sand and mud. Historically, the infamous hurricane of 1938 did so much damage -- wrecking oyster boats and oyster beds -- that it almost wiped out the Sound’s oyster industry. It took two decades for it to recover.

I haven’t seen a full assessment of the damage that Irene did to the Sound’s oysters. But if the lack of diving ducks on the Housatonic is an indication, the damage includes not only the Sound’s oystermen but possibly the wildlife that relies on the Sound’s oysters as well.

[This is also my first post for Connecticut Audubon Society's blog, which you can read here.]

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Westchester's Nature Centers Will Stay Open

It looks like the Westchester County Board of Legislators has worked out a budget that keeps the county's six nature centers open (and restores lots of other programs and jobs as well). It also looks like at least part of it was done with the support of the county board's Republican minority. The Journal News has a few details.
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