News :: Environment & Food : Transportation
Eco warriors working within the system
ECO-VIGILANTES across northern Europe are fighting the growing popularity of 4x4s by letting air out of their tires. Having studied the law, the environmentalists concluded that it was legal if the vehicles sustained no damage. Some claim to have let tires down in front of police officers.
Eco warriors find legal way to ground the 4x4 motorist
The Sunday London Times
January 29, 2006
The movement began in Paris late last year and has since spread to other cities in France, Belgium and Holland. Protesters in Italy, Spain and Germany have shown interest in starting similar campaigns.
Now British environmentalists, who adopt a gentler approach, are worried that deflating may become a popular tactic in the UK, alienating mainstream supporters.
The Association des Constructeurs Européens d'Automobiles, Europe's leading motor trade association, says the number of 4x4s in the European Union more than doubled between 1998 and the end of 2004.
The continental groups compete to see who can let down the most tires in a night. In December, 14 Belgians deflated the tires of 137 off-roaders.
The most difficult part of the task is to let air out slowly, so the vehicle's alarm does not go off. To avoid the possibility of owners driving off with flat tires and putting lives in danger, campaigners leave documents on windows explaining what they have done.
A spokesman for a Paris group, who calls himself Sub-Adjutant Marrant (Joker), argues that drivers of 4x4s do not care that their vehicles emit disproportionate amounts of carbon dioxide, and that politicians are scared of the car lobby. "We emphasize the comic, the burlesque side," he said. "It would be hard to take us to court. We don't slash tires; we deflate them. Air doesn't cost anything."
Not everyone is so confident. Protesters in another French city were caught last weekend by the owner of a Mercedes 4x4, who had them arrested. Not content with letting the air out, these campaigners had also smeared mud over the vehicle, to emphasize that it was designed for rural use.
"I spent a few hours at the police station," said a young member of the group, anxious not to be identified. "I am very afraid of what will happen."
Protesters in Britain have urged a different approach. "Before the groups in France did this for the first time," said Sian Berry, of the British Alliance Against Urban 4x4s, "they got in touch with us. They said they'd had a brilliant idea.
"Our initial reaction was that it's quite amusing, and clever to have established that they aren't breaking the law. But if just one person needs to go to hospital in a hurry and their 4x4 has a flat tire, the joke won't seem so funny. The campaign will be finished."
The British group seeks to change the minds of the vehicles' owners by placing spoof parking tickets on windscreens. These contain information about the vehicle's demerits, written in a gently teasing way.
The tickets were an American idea. Earth On Empty, based in Massachusetts, claims its supporters have issued more than 1 million "violation earth" tickets in 500 cities and 48 states.
Another American group put stickers on 4x4s saying: "I'm changing the climate, ask me how." But when owners found that removing these caused damage to paintwork, the group was sued, and the tactic ended.
Aggressive forms of opposition to large, fuel-guzzling vehicles in America continue to flourish, however. A website, www.fuh2.com, invites people to submit photographs of themselves "saluting" Hummers with an upraised middle finger. Thousands have obliged, including some in Britain.
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News :: Media Criticism
The Web: Working hard or hardly working?
Capitalists force workers to work harder online.
CHICAGO, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Are you wasting time when online? Or working? A new study released this week showed that about 20 percent of government staff, while on the job, in one Malaysian state utilized the Internet for purely personal activities -- like downloading porn, games and music. This was one of the main causes of poor work performance in the Johor state, Bernama, the state news agency there said, quoting a top government official, Norsiah Harun.
Experts tell United Press International's The Web that the Internet productivity problem is global, and that cultural changes are needed to ensure that people are hard at work, rather than hardly working, as our parents' generation used to say. By Gene Koprowski
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News :: Media Criticism
Networking: Sales skyrocket overseas
Imperialists take over the Internet in third world nations.
CHICAGO, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Sales of networking equipment -- routers, switches and the like -- are soaring overseas at major, multinational companies, indicating signs of a global expansion in the technology economy, experts tell United Press International's Networking.
One study, just released by the Reading, U.K.-based research consultancy Canalys, indicates that U.S. companies like Cisco and Juniper are leading the charge as the overall value of the market increased by an astounding 76.3 percent in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, or EMEA. By Gene Koprowski
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News :: Education & Youth
Nuz: Credible Threats
With Santa Cruzans in an uproar over any number of police surveillance scandals--Bush's illegal wiretapping of citizens who make overseas phone calls; the Pentagon's classification of the demonstration at the UCSC Career Fair last April as a "credible threat"; and the SCPD's infiltration of private homes during the "un-planning" phase of the Last Night D.I.Y. Parade--Nüz was intrigued by rumors that one highly placed local resident has actually been demanding that police watch her. Day and night.
Nüz is talking about UCSC chancellor Denice Denton, who our source says has been demanding around-the-clock security detail since August 2005.
With UCSC offices closed for Martin Luther King Day, Nüz was unable to verify this with UCSC's top brass before press time, but the alleged presence, first of First Alarm trucks, then of UCSC Parking Department vehicles, and now of cop cars in Denton's driveway from 7pm-7am each day suggest the rumor may be true--and that a whole lot of overtime is going on.
It's worth noting that Denton's predecessor M.R.C. Greenwood never had around-the clock police escort, but perhaps that's because she wasn't plagued by scandal until after her departure from campus, unlike Denton, whose problems began the minute she assumed her $275,000 a year post-- a job she began, ironically enough, on Valentine's Day '05.
So, yeah, maybe Denton is afraid that revelations that her partner Gretchen Kalonji was hired for $192,000 a year for a new management position with UC and had been granted $50,000 for moving expenses would get the goat of some downsized/underpaid UCSC worker. Or that she'd be blamed for Pentagon spying scandal, or that homophobes would harass her after Sentinel Managing Editor Don Miller named her part of a "powerful coterie of lesbians."
Or maybe she decided she needed to be guarded after someone threw a sign through her window during the Tent U affair last spring, or after a UCSC student (who now works as Metro Santa Cruz's editorial assistant) wrote a City on a Hill column in which she threatened to park her car on Denton's lawn, after policy changes made it harder for students to find free parking on campus.
Certainly, Denton's über-obsession with security would explain why she moved her office from the McHenry Building to the Kerr Building, whose second floor was ripped out in the process, to install, as our highly placed source informs us, a lockdown area for Denton's office with cameras every 3 ft-- a set-up that must have cost thousands of dollars.
But before Denton decides she also needs an underground bunker, someone needs to intervene, next time she's out throwing balls for her dog, and say, hey, this is the UCSC campus, where the worst you're likely to encounter is nudists with divining rods, vegans high on organic sugars, civil libertarians low on the Bill of Rights or, at the very worst, a mountain lion with a bad case of the munchies.
Meanwhile, Denton has been dealing with revelations that the demonstration at the UCSC Career Fair was classified by the Pentagon as a "credible threat" by asking Assemblymember John Laird, Congressmembers Sam Farr, Mike Honda, Zoe Lofgren, and Anna Eshoo and U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to request a) a definition of "credible threat;"b) determine why the April 5 demonstration was classified as one; c) learn how the information was gathered; and d) address concerns that future monitoring could have a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech on campus.
"We want to let you know" wrote Denton in Currents, UCSC's online magazine, "that UCSC has not provided any federal agency with information about the event in April, nor did we receive a request for such information."
Denton also insisted "statements that UCSC Campus Police surreptitiously gather information about campus activities are incorrect," yet at the same time admitted that "we do not know the method by which information was obtained and subsequently included in the Pentagon database." That said, she reiterated, "We do insist upon the rights of peaceful assembly as integral to the political freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. We will do everything in our power to protect those rights for all."
About Last Night 3
And in the city at the bottom of the hill, the debate about First Amendment rights rages on in the context of Last Night surveillance. Following our earlier reports about Last Night planning (Nüz, Dec. 21) and the spying that occured (Nüz, Jan. 4) D.I.Y.Last Night Parade organizers Sherry Conable, Rico Thunder and Grant Wilson visited Nüz last week to clarify that the event was never described as a "demonstration," but as a do-it-yourself "parade", which included clowns, jugglers, bikes, kids, bubbles and a Peace Walk. They also argued that two police officers gave false names, introducing themselves as "Tim" and "Wes" at meetings in private homes. not public places, last fall.
Acknowledging the SCPD's argument that police were concerned about safety aspects of the event, the trio asks why the officers did not identify themselves as police, and they want to know if any other undercover surveillance has been conducted in Santa Cruz post 9/11, especially of Friday Peace Vigils and of opponents of the Iraq invasion.
Accusing the council of "damage control" and a " wait and see approach," the trio is pressing for an independent investigation. They've also enlisted the help of ACLU lawyer Mark Schlosberg, Policy Practices Director of ACLU's Norcal division, who filed a records request Jan. 11 to find out what police did discover while investigating the parade's organizing meetings.
To Conable, Wilson and Thunder's minds the SCPD's undercover ops "violated the First Amendment several times, and the Fourth Amendment at least once,' and they want to know if this was done with Homeland Security money.
The city and the SCPD have 10 days to respond to their requests.
"We want to see full disclosure of records and an independent investigation, things we feel will help the police restore public confidence, and we want explicit procedures set up to prevent a repeat," says Wilson.
Thunder acknowledges what the police did do right, namely their hands-off approach on the last night of the year.
"Their standing on the periphery made ia better event, " says Thunder, "but we were responsible for the organization and clean-up. We didn't have to rely on the city to make it happen."
Noting that the First Night event was canceled this year because organizers couldn't raise $125 K, Thunder smiles, "We did this for zero dollars, unless you count the $2.35 spent on coffee at Lulu's afterwards."
To learn more about Last Night, visit http://www.lastnightdiy.org
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Bin Laden Backfire
US ‘intelligence’ agencies now realise the ‘Bin Laden’ tape has been a huge flop and the effect has been the reverse of that anticipated. It has also proven to be a monumental liability as people around the globe are now questioning the veracity of all allegations relating to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda; Howard and Blair beware, even the Arabs are questioning their ideological base. Well done Semitic ideologues, neo-cons and Straussians. External attacks are unnecessary, you are doing an excellent job on yourselves – no help needed or wanted!
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Bin Laden to the Rescue
In a desperate attempt to retrieve the tatters that is the Bush government, Bin Laden has again come to the rescue – perfect timing! Who remembers the last major announcement from the person who has done more to assist Bush than any other man on the planet? It was during the last presidential election when Bush was in desperate need of an alarmist boost.
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News :: Environment & Food
Residents around Los Gatos Creek are up in arms about San Jose Water's logging plan
Residents around Los Gatos Creek are up in arms about San Jose Water's logging plan
By Vrinda Normand
Milton Barber's house was in the direct path of the Lexington Fire that swept through the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1985. On a July afternoon, warm winds were pushing the flames uphill, toward the summit where Barber owns 21 acres of forestland.
His wife, Joan, had gathered their three children and sped off in a Volkswagen van, scrambling to take their computer and a box of family photos. But Barber stayed, despite the helicopter that circled overhead with a man on a bullhorn demanding that he evacuate immediately.
He was determined to protect his house with a garden hose, fed by a 10,000-gallon tank at the top of the hill. Hours later, the flames came within 10 feet of the garage. A group of firemen had fled Barber's property when a neighbor's propane tank burst, spewing fire like a torch.
So Barber wrapped his head in a wet towel, took a deep breath and sprayed a steady stream of water into the furnace. The air was so hot it singed the hairs on his arms.
For nearly three hours he kept the fire at bay and saved his house. There was nothing he could do, though, about the rest of his property and the giant redwood trees that were nearly 1,500 years old. Joan and the kids returned to a desert of blackened sticks.
The Lexington Fire had consumed 16,000 acres and destroyed 42 homes.
"I thought, Oh my God, everything is burned. It'll never be the same," Joan says. "But you know what? It recovered."
The Barbers, along with many other mountain-dwellers in the same area, bounced back with a sharpened awareness of fire prevention, to say the least. Like the bald hills and charred trees that remain, the memory of that disaster is seared into the minds of local residents.
Neighbors in this community, which lies just the north of the summit, where Los Gatos Creek runs through a gulch and drains into the Lexington Reservoir, say that's why they're wary of a San Jose Water Company proposal to log 1,000 acres of its watershed land. The thickly wooded area in dispute stretches along 5.5 miles of the creek, spanning the steep slopes that surround it.
Nestled in the same slopes are four communities of "urban forest people," who straddle two worlds connected by Highway 17. According to the 2000 census, over 10,000 people reside in Los Gatos Creek Canyon, and nearly 4,000 live on or border the watershed.
Hundreds in this unusual suburbia are voicing opposition to the San Jose Water plan because they believe it will create more fire hazard. Ironically, the company claims the purpose of the proposal is fire protection. Residents, who were notified of the plan in July, say they're not buying it.
"We don't feel like we're getting the straight story from San Jose Water," says Rick Parfitt, a research scientist and member of the group Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging (NAIL).
"People think we're just a bunch of tree huggers," says resident Terry Clark, "but this is a neighborhood up here, not just the wilds."
Red Flags in The Forest
The core of this grassroots effort brings together representatives from each of the four affected communities, who have hired two consultants to help them analyze the 450-page document and are speaking with a variety of experts about potential risks.
Armed with that information, they say San Jose Water's timber harvest plan, which was filed with the California Department of Forestry (CDF) in October, has raised concerns in several areas:
Threatening the forest canopy: This is the most direct and obvious impact to the environment, resident opponents say, because San Jose Water, in contract with Davenport-based Big Creek Lumber, aims to cut the largest and most valuable trees. This includes redwoods and Douglas firs at least 1 foot in diameter, some as thick as 4 feet. Steve Staub, a forestry consultant in the Santa Cruz Mountains, estimates that redwoods in this size range could yield $40 to $2,000 each in timber.
These trees, many over 300 feet tall, form a high layer over the forest, shading it from sunlight so the underbrush doesn't dry out and become more fire-prone. Breaks in the canopy's shade also feed invasive plants like brush, which are the most likely to burn. Added to this fuel factor could be up to 30 inches of "slash" or branches and needles left over after the tree trunks are removed. Furthermore, redwoods are known to be fire-resistant—a thick grove of them can help curb a wild blaze.
San Jose Water could legally cut up to half of the trees 12-18 inches in diameter, and 60 percent of trees greater than 18 inches in diameter.
"That sounds like a lot of sunlight to me," says Jodi Frediani, one of the consultants hired by NAIL to help analyze the proposal. The executive director of Citizens for Responsible Forest Management, Frediani has been reviewing technical logging plans for 25 years.
San Jose Water has responded to this and other concerns in a Frequently Asked Questions webpage at www.hiway17.com, which says the company only intends to take 20 percent of the trees over 12 inches wide and 40 percent of trees over 24 inches wide. Frediani says this promise is not legally enforceable and isn't any better than a "Girl Scout pledge."
The FAQ also explains that the canopy will only be "partially removed during any given harvest," and that redwood branches will quickly grow to fill in the gaps.
But residents say that if San Jose Water's primary motive was indeed fire protection, it would be targeting smaller trees, dead trees, hardwoods and underbrush. This is exactly what local CDF official Darrell Wolf does on the watershed owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, four miles away. He has proposed conducting such a project on the Los Gatos watershed because he hasn't seen the San Jose Water do that kind of land management. "They pretty much leave it in its natural state," he says.
San Jose Water spokesman John Tang says the company hasn't focused much energy on land management in the past 10 years because it has been busy upgrading its pipes and treatment plants. It has owned the watershed land since the early 1900s.
"It's really just a forest we use to collect water from," he says.
Tang says the timber plan is only part of a larger strategy to maintain the watershed. While mountain residents say San Jose Water initially told them logging would help thin the forest and reduce fire risk, Tang now says logging will help fund other programs that focus on road improvement and fire prevention. However, he had no specifics about how the company would treat brush and small trees, and plan documents are not yet available to the public because they are still being prepared with the help of a fire scientist.
One local CDF forester named Rich Sampson doesn't believe San Jose Water's plan will pose more fire risk to the watershed, at least not any more than the growth of residential development already has. "What I'm hearing are a lot of people who are not familiar with the process or the industry," Sampson says. "From my standpoint, timber harvesting is one of the best ways to modify fuels."
Disturbing the quality of life. This is a big source of worry for people living, working and going to school near the logging zone. In one area, loggers could be shouting "timber" only 250 yards away from an elementary school, middle school and day care center. What's more, six helipads will be installed for aircraft to help remove the trees—which will also be done by tractors, trucks and large cranes that drag logs up the side of the mountain by cables.
"It's gonna be insane," exclaims Harold Lee, a retired software engineer who has lived on the summit for 30 years. Clark says he's worried about the noise from industrial saws driving through thick trunks.
Rebecca Moore, a software engineer for Google Earth, says that because sound travels uphill, timber harvesting on the watershed would reverberate throughout the canyon.
Tang acknowledges that there will be social impacts. "We are working to mitigate and minimize them," he says. He adds that all 1,000 acres will not be logged at the same time. The area is divided into nine units and only one will be harvested every other year. Furthermore, he says the logging season in any given year only lasts for six weeks during the summer, and operations will occur Monday through Friday from 8am to 4pm.
NAIL members, though, say they're skeptical of these assurances. While the company says it will only harvest during the above times, the logging proposal requests the legal maximums, which include allowing operations from 7am to 7pm that could extend into the winter season.
"Essentially, SJW has kept all their legal options open," Frediani says. She also points out that even if the company had the best of intentions, it could change hands and the logging permit would remain the same.
If approved, the logging plan would last forever. San Jose Water wants to reharvest each section every 15 years, "in perpetuity," the document reads.
"Mistakes in this matter should be avoided at all costs," writes resident Celia Francis to county Supervisor Don Gage, "since the effects will be felt 'in perpetuity.'"
Danger to water quality: Many experts say tree harvesting on a watershed is actually harmful to water quality, causing more erosion and sedimentation in streams. Charles Hardy, spokesman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, says logging is a "big no-no" on its watersheds for "obvious reasons." Uprooting trees loosens the soil and results in more runoff into water systems when it rains. The only tree-removal activities his company engages in are to clear paths for fire trucks and clean out the underbrush to maintain trails.
The Marin Municipal Water District manages 22,000 acres of watershed land and does not allow logging, in order to the keep the area as pristine as possible. The last time it removed any trees was in 1997‹that was a small population of nonnative pine trees that infringed upon the native ecosystem. Spokesman Michael Swezy puts it simply: "An undisturbed watershed is going to yield better-quality water.
Why would San Jose Water launch a project that could endanger its primary product? The company provides water for nearly 1 million people, largely in the western part of Santa Clara County. Ten percent of that water comes from Los Gatos Creek.
"Logging is only a risk if it's not done correctly," spokesman Tang says. "We're pretty comfortable that our project is going to turn out well."
Dumber Than Stumps
Still, NAIL has gathered over 1,500 signatures to oppose the plan. Its first public meeting, held on Sept. 11, drew 350 people, with overflow outside of the building. Moore displayed a three-dimensional map and virtual flyover of the area to be logged. She says people gasped at the extent of the zone and its proximity to their houses.
After NAIL's presentation, many residents stepped up to the microphone and pleaded with representatives from San Jose Water and Big Creek Lumber, who were present in the audience, to stop the logging proposal.
"They must think we're dumber than the stumps they're gonna leave if they think we're gonna agree to a plan like this," one man said.
Members of NAIL have met with all members of the county Board of Supervisors. Rachael Gibson, Don Gage's aide, says NAIL is one of the "more effective" groups she's worked with. After their presentation to the board, all five supervisors were sympathetic to their concerns, she says.
The county has hired a consultant to review the logging plan; it is currently drafting an official response to the CDF, which has the authority to approve or deny the proposal. The board will also request a public hearing with the state agency for residents to speak out.
Leslie Markham, division chief for the CDF, says a pre-harvest inspection of the forest will probably happen in December, which will involve a comprehensive review team that includes a county representative. After the review team offers a recommendation, Markham or another top official will make the final decision.
Frediani says it is extremely rare for the CDF to deny a logging plan, but one can appeal to a higher body, the state Board of Forestry. Gibson says that Gage is prepared to do this if he found reason.
Just two years ago, the CDF approved a controversial logging plan on the Lompico Creek headwaters in Felton—which had been deemed "impaired" because of the creek's high sedimentation levels. The water source could not safely withstand more pollution potentially caused by tree harvesting.
So the County of Santa Cruz appealed to the Board of Forestry, and its request was granted. Redwood Empire, the logging company originally turned down, has recently resubmitted its plan.
Signs of Change
Summit resident Lee drives through the shady San Jose Water property on one of the few private roads that are still available to the public. "No Trespassing" signs are dotted along broad redwood trunks. Lee points to one and jokes, "They're going to need a new post to hold up their sign."
Someone else in the neighborhood has taken the liberty of adding to one of those trunks a farewell shrine composed of a blue ribbon and a photocopy of the logging plan map.
Lee says he was ambivalent about San Jose Water's proposal when he first heard about it. As a landowner, he too must occasionally remove trees to keep his property in shape. After learning more, though, he became angry. "It seems like they're trying turn this forest into a tree farm," he grumbles. "This is not just a little operation to help fire control."
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News :: Environment & Food
GREEN Eyes in the Sky Desktop satellite tools are changing the way environmentalists work
Imagine yourself in outer space, gazing at the blue and green sphere that is our home. Now zoom in, fast, diving toward continents and oceans. Soon rivers and cities emerge, then individual houses, then cars. Zoom closer -- there's a camel in the desert, and you can even zoom right to its eyelashes.
This is Google Earth, the flagship of the latest generation of desktop tools (NASA's WorldWind is another great tool) that is putting sophisticated and comprehensive models of the planet in the hands of anybody with a PC. When it came out last June, the free Google Earth application immediately became an online sensation, with geo-enthusiasts everywhere using the program to tour the world virtually, and then posting images and movies on the Web.
But for environmentalists, Google Earth has turned out to be much more than another gee-whiz software development. Instead, it's starting to look like a killer app that could change the power balance between grassroots environmentalists and their adversaries.
"Google Earth enabled us to give people a chance to visit the Arctic from their desks," says Eric Antebi, national press secretary for the Sierra Club. As part of the struggle to keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge free of oil wells, the Sierra Club set up a Google Earth annotation (linked to from here) so users can explore the region. "People could fly around Northern Alaska and see this landscape -- they could get out there and see why this place is worth protecting."
Because Google Earth drapes satellite imagery over 3-D topographic data, the program creates the illusion of flying through a landscape. As the "pilot," a user gets a very intimate understanding for how a place is laid out. Users can also create annotations consisting of markers, labels and other information laid over Google's geodata -- which they can then share with others.
"One of the slides we presented shows the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," says Antebi. "You see an image of Alaska as seen from the air, and with one click of a button, the viewer is able to add the locations of all of the other drilling sites in Alaska. It really drives home that most of Alaska is already open to oil and gas development and there's this one place that we've managed to protect thus far."
This kind of visual perspective on environmental problems transforms vague policy debates into concrete problems. "Smokestacks don't look very impressive when you see them from straight on," says Mathew Spolin, creator of Sprol.com, an online magazine that posts information and images culled from explorations on Google Earth to expose environmental catastrophes. "But you can follow the smoke coming out of smokestacks for thousands of miles in Google Earth."
Spolin, chief technical officer at a Bay Area software company, says that he started Sprol.com because the sites that cropped up when Google Earth came out last year "kept posting pictures of Disney World and the St. Louis Arch," while he was more interested in the places that are radioactive or poisonous. The site's tagline is "The Worst Places in the World."
Contributors to Sprol.com, a labor of love that Spolin manages in his spare time, use Google Earth to explore worldwide environmental issues ranging from soybean farming in Argentina to coal mining in the desert to land ownership patterns in the Deep South to the problems of nuclear weapons storage.
In each case, the visual evidence is stunning. Simply taking a look and seeing these phenomena creates an understanding of the problem that no amount of words can convey. That's precisely why satellite imagery has always been so valuable, starting with Cold War-era spy programs. But the vast amounts of imagery now available to everyone dwarf those early programs.
"It's incredible," says Spolin, who worked for a commercial satellite company in Bethesda, Md., while he was still in high school in the late 1980s ("I started consulting when I was 12. I was one of those kids," he says.) "If you wanted to get data like this before," continues Spolin, "you were just out of luck. Even with the expensive, high-end machines, you couldn't just bring up a map and look at it. We had a photography lab downstairs and giant drum film scanners. And now anybody can do it. It's mind-blowing."
The environmental importance of this tool has not been lost on Google. "The power of Google Earth is that it's not a map. It's actually a real model of the real Earth," says Rebecca Moore, a software developer who works on Google Earth. "Suddenly ordinary grassroots environmentalists have a tool that up until now only government agencies or commercial interests had. It's leveling the playing field."
As both an environmentalist and a programmer for Google, Moore is, more than anyone else, pushing forward practical environmental applications with Google Earth. Indeed, it was her environmental work that led her to join the effort at Google.
Several years ago, Moore was working as a programmer in telecoms and living in the Santa Cruz Mountains when local land-use issues spurred her to get into digital mapping. First using off-the-shelf consumer software, then professional geographic information systems (GIS), Moore took the initiative to create a digital map that could be used by the local counties, first responders, the state Department of Forestry and others.
"They got really excited," she says, but she remained frustrated by the expense and awkwardness of the professional software. Then in 2004 she stumbled on to Keyhole, the desktop application that was to become Google Earth. "I knew that was the real solution," says Moore. When Google bought Keyhole later that year, Moore went to work for Google -- her hands-on ideas for practical applications were just what the company needed.
Shortly after Google Earth was released, Moore had a chance to put it to the test. A company wanted to log in the Santa Cruz Mountains, expecting little interference from the community. "They sent out a one-page map that was just a grainy sketch," says Moore. "It did not convey what was at stake -- it was difficult to decipher and people didn't understand it. "
"So I put together a model in Google Earth. I drew the region and filled in the watershed -- the source of drinking water for over a million people in Silicon Valley. I mapped the whole thing, annotating the whole canyon."
At a public presentation of more than three hundred residents, Moore "flew" in from outer space to the Santa Cruz Mountains, then turned on the swath of red that represented the proposed logging. "There was a gasp from the audience," she recalls. "It electrified the room."
This sophisticated presentation -- including a low-elevation flyover constructed from Google Earth's imagery that shows individual trees that were going to be cut and dozens of layers of information -- took Moore only a couple of days to put together. And it got results: The logging plan was withdrawn. But it's perhaps even more impressive that people without Moore's programming skills can use these same tools to get dramatic results of their own.
John Stephens is one of them. A retired plumber in Napa, Stephens is dedicated to the preservation of the remaining forestlands and watersheds in his county. "We're alarmed over the loss of native habitat and forest for farming," he says.
So when a local landowner applied for a permit last year to withdraw water from a Napa creek, Stephens went to the State Water Resources Control Board. "We were concerned about insufficient flows of the creek," he says.
The meeting took place just a week after the release of Google Earth. Stephens downloaded the program as soon as he heard about it, and immediately saw how useful it could be. He printed out a series of screen shots of the watershed and taped them together. "It was about three or four feet long," he says. "We rolled it out on the table very dramatically."
Because of the map, Stephens was able to ask detailed questions of the hydrologist the landowner had hired. "I asked exactly where the location of the withdrawal was going to take place," says Stephens. "He pointed to a location and I said, 'Oh, right above that is about 300 feet of bare stream bank. Somebody must have cleared that area. Are you willing to re-establish vegetative cover there?'"
"Well, everybody's sitting around that room," continues Stephens. "Fish and Game is there. The Water Board is there. We're there, and the owner says, 'Well, yeah, I could re-vegetate the area.'"
Stephens says that because the visuals make the abstract obvious, the result was positive for everyone. The stream was re-vegetated, the landowner got the water he needed and the whole thing happened quickly, without the litigation and endless hearings that are so common in land-use disputes.
"Google Earth is great because you can get a feeling of the valleys and the slope of the hills," says Stephens. "You can go up a creek bed like you're flying. It's very dramatic. People cannot hide anymore."
With results like these less than a year after its release, Google Earth is well on its way to revolutionizing the way people talk about the environment. "I think that this has the potential not only to raise people's environmental consciousness but to raise their consciousness of humanity," concludes Google's Rebecca Moore. "I see it as making the world a smaller place in a good way; giving everyone a greater intimacy with the Earth and the rest of the people and the plants and animals that share it with us."
Gregory Dicum, author of Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air, writes about the natural world from San Francisco. A forester by training, Gregory has worked at the front lines of some of the world's most urgent environmental crises. For more of his work, see www.dicum.com/list
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