THEY’LL GO ELSEWHERE


I was speaking with an intelligent woman staff member at Rowe Sanctuary about the work they are doing, protecting a key part of the Sandhill Crane migration, the stopover on the Platte River the cranes take every six weeks from late February to mid-April.  The cranes are on their way north from the southern US and northern Mexico, and they refuel, rest, court, and spend 2-4 weeks in south central Nebraska, on the Great Bend of the Platte River.  They’ve been doing this migration for 9000 years, since the end of the last glaciation.

This habitat is critical.  There is waste corn in the fields, although before corn, the cranes came to wetlands here, where there were crustaceans and other invertebrates, rodents and other animals they could eat.  They would fly to the shallow Platte, full of sandbars, for safety at night, for cranes have a vestigial hind foot and cannot perch in trees away from predators.  The water makes it difficult for predators to approach without splashing announcing their presence.  Cranes live in three dimensions: ground, river, and sky.

Their habitat once spanned 200 miles of river, and cranes could be found anywhere there each spring.  But dams were built and irrigation began, channeling the river.  Invasive plants arrived, along with water guzzling cottonwoods, producing shade, but also allowing brush to fill in the river, making it less safe for cranes.  In 1975, a water diversion project planned would have completely dried up the river and the habitat.  It failed, but today, the habitat for the cranes in March is perhaps 50 miles of river, and only a few miles is totally protected.  The rest of it is hit or miss for the birds.  They may find a safe place, they may not.  We estimate 90% of their total habitat has been lost.

I’m pessimistic what the a warming climate and uncontrollable population will do to the migration.  In the name of jobs, because we aren’t going to decrease our population voluntarily in my lifetime, we will require more food, more fresh water, more living space, and put more demands upon all our resources.  Fresh water is the oil of the 21st century, and the Platte is a huge supplier of fresh water to the central US.  Underneath the river and well away from it lies the billion acre feet of the Ogallala Aquifer, fresh water that can be accessed underground.  The aquifer is a national treasure, yet we are risking the Ogallala in the name of building a pipeline to ship dirty, carbon intensive oil abroad, in order to make more carbon released in burning it.  Oil vs. water.

What if water in the Platte goes for other uses, in the name of jobs?  Well, I have been told, the cranes will have to adapt.  “They’ll go elsewhere.”  Really?  Where?  They’ve been coming here, longer than human recorded history.  They can’t adapt to “going elsewhere.”  They are cranes, not technologically advanced individuals capable of altering the environment.

“The climate has always changed.”  Indeed, it has.  And species come and go, but they have come and gone over thousands of years.  We are changing the environment in a matter of a few generations, not over thousands of years, which animals require to adapt.

“They will be fine.”  Really?  That is rationalization, wishful thinking.  No, the birds won’t be fine.  They will go extinct.  And then what?  For the cranes to “go elsewhere” is like my telling humanity right now that we have a century to find “another planet,” because this one won’t be livable.  It can’t be done, and the cranes can’t find another river, another flyway.  There isn’t one.  And by the way, I am dead right.  We have a century.  No more.

I told the young woman that I had no children, no skin in this game, and once I was gone, it wouldn’t be my problem.  She disagreed, stating that my presence as a volunteer meant that I DID have skin in this game, that I felt it mattered to be here.  Yes, she was right.  It does matter to me.

She additionally mentioned how young people of today are angry at the world they are being left.  They should be.  I was left a world after two wars, with enough conflicts that during my young life. I served in the military, visiting countries abroad in uniform, not the way the young do today, traveling freely, learning other languages, being connected with people all over the world on social media.  I survived.

To the younger generation, I will do my best to contribute my skills to make the environment better.  They must do the rest.  They need to get out into this natural environment, not see it on Facebook, play video games on cruises through Kenai Fjords, not look at wild fruit as “yucky,” and not tweet, call, or instant message their parents or friends about their adventures in wild country.  When people see my pictures and ask where I got them on the Internet, I say, I took them.  I WAS THERE.

We are not as far removed from our ties to nature as many might believe.  A number of studies have stated how disconnection from nature makes us unhappier, not happier.  We have one advantage over cranes that can’t go elsewhere.  We alone can manipulate our environment.  We can deal with greenhouse gases, we can figure out ways to avoid or mitigate ocean rise and de-alkalinzation, continued loss of coral species, and an Anthropocene where Earth has far fewer species of animals.

We have reached a time where we can continue on our present path, and when a species can’t go elsewhere, it dies out.  One of those species will some day be us, should we continue.  We can assume we are above the rest of the biosphere and pretend the world isn’t changing.  Or, we can assume we alone can change our environment, need to and start acting.  We can keep denying, and nature will respond.  Biology will respond to changes in physics and chemistry, not to Jim Inhofe, Ted Cruz, and those of my detractors who have been wrong on the climate.  Not one of them, not one conservative think tank can change those laws, no matter how sharp a speaker looks, speak, or tries to debate what is no longer, and never was debatable.

I won’t be around to see much of this.  If the coming generations don’t channel their understandable anger into fixing things, fail to realize that in saving the environment and nature is not a matter of cutsy sayings or “like”s on Facebook, but science, understanding nature, getting out into nature, demanding, working to reverse the damage that has been done, they won’t be around, either.

It’s time to get connected.  With nature.  Without electronics.

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