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Five TED Talks to Watch This Weekend

By Liz Clift

One of the gifts of TED talks is that you can learn a lot about a concept, idea, or experience in a fairly short amount of time. This may spark your interest enough to do further research on your own, provide fodder for a dinner conversation, help you reimagine the world, or reconsider your own preconceptions and biases about a particular topic.

Every so often, we post a list of TED talks we’ve especially enjoyed that are (at least roughly) related to our line of work, which we think you may enjoy as well. Here are five more we think you’ll enjoy.

In The Magic Ingredient that Brings Pixar Movies to Life (Danielle Feinberg, ~12 minutes), Feinberg discusses how the movie Finding Nemo creates a believable world that an audience can immerse themselves in (and understand some more abstract concepts, such as evoking sadness because of pollution in the Sydney Harbor or creating a more visual East Australian Current). This discussion of color and lighting can be applied to how we communicate difficult concepts to audiences, and serves as a good reminder for how we can get strangled by science when we remove it from art. Feinberg says, “It’s this interweaving of art and science that elevates the world to a place of wonder, a place with soul, a place we can believe in.”

What would a symphony of barometric pressure, wind, and temperature sound like? If you watch Art Made of Storms (Nathalie Miebach, ~4 minutes), you’ll have the opportunity to find out. As you know, if you’re a long-time reader of our blog, we’re always interested in unusual ways to convey (often dry) data and this is another great example—and she also creates 3-D models that show behavior relationships that might not be evidentif you’re just studying graphs.

Have we limited our idea of nature too much? Emma Marris, in Nature is Everywhere – We Just Need to Learn to See It (~16 minutes) argues that all landscapes are humanized to some degree, and that the results of our altering ecosystems (and the pure fact of animal extinctions) has changed landscapes. Marris proposes that if we define nature by where life is thriving, then we can see nature all around us, including in urban landscapes—which is important since 71% of people in the US live within a 10-minute walk of a city park. If we redefine nature to include that which we can touch, including the nature right around us, then we can inspire people to care.

Why Wildfires Have Gotten Worse – And What We Can Do About It (Paul Hessberg, ~14 minutes) examines the reasons megafires have become more common and explores the ways that we might escape the current trajectory we’re on in terms of fire management and patterns of development. Hessberg argues for “patchy” forests, meaning multi-age forests, with a combination of closed and open canopies as well as meadows, and for greater awareness of where we build.

An Economic Case for Saving the Planet (Naoko Ishii, ~14 minutes) In this talk, Ishii discusses how to avoid the tragedy of the commons, by accepting that our economies are no longer local and that the earth does not have unlimited capacity to self-repair. Ishii argues for green cities, changing our energy systems, changing our consumption patterns, and reimagining our food systems.


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Fire Takes a Toll

By Liz Clift

We’ve watched the West burn. If you look at a map from last year—current as of December 28, 2017 at the time of this writing, the majority of the state of California appears freckled with fires of various sizes. Idaho and northern Nevada look much the same.

Property damage is what a lot of people think about first when they think of fire impacts—and not necessarily damage to the land itself, but the homes and businesses—and associated equipment, livestock, vehicles, and other tangible items on those properties. This damage is, at least, moderately easy to quantify, though devastating for the people impacted.

Often as a second thought, some people may consider the damages to the ecosystem and ecosystem services. For landowners, there may be a high intrinsic value on their land—but additionally, fires have implications for erosion, water quality, habitat, local temperature regulation, and more. These things can be harder to quantify—and to restore.

Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of impacts to ecosystem services over the past few weeks were the landslides in Santa Barbara County. These landslides were, in part, a result of the fired that destroyed many of the plants that help stabilize the ground and slow water during rain events. Additionally, the scorched ground made it more difficult for water to penetrate the surface of the soil (fire scorched soils often become hydrophobic), which meant that more of the rain ran off. So, when California’s winter hit the area post-fire, there was little stopping the water from gaining momentum.

The result, unfortunately, was rivers of mud.

In addition to causing earth movement, as landslides are often called, landslides have implications for water quality through increased erosion and disruptions to habitat for a variety of species, among other ecosystem impacts.

This adds another layer of complexity to assessing the damages from the fires—and highlights the importance of restoration work in areas impacted by fires. It’s not as simple as just spreading some seed or planting some saplings, especially in areas where fires burned extensively and sterilized the soil. Additional measures are needed to help restore the soil, decrease erosion, and improve habitat—particularly in areas that are known to provide a home to threatened or endangered species.

To restore these damaged landscapes, landowners must coordinate with a variety of stakeholders to complete the permitting efforts and get informed on fire ecology and the ecology of the region. Additional coordination includes: landscape design, the provision of the actual seeds and plants necessary for restoration to occur, construction of the restored landscape, and ongoing monitoring to ensure project success. And, of course, if a landowner’s insurance didn’t (fully) cover fire or land movement, funding the restoration could cause additional difficulties and delays.

You don’t need to go this alone. Great Ecology specializes in assessing damages to natural resources and impacts on a landscape scale, establishing a restoration plan, developing construction documentation, construction and post-construction monitoring, and providing litigation support.

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Great Ecology Honored with Environmental Excellence Award

We are honored to share that Great Ecology, as part of a larger project team, is the proud recipient of the Colorado Contractor’s Association (CCA) Environmental Excellence Award for our Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) work, as completed for Left Hand Canyon. Vice President of Technical Services, Randy Mandel, will accept the award this morning at the 84th Annual CCA Conference, in Denver.

Learn more about the EWP project here.


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Species Spotlight: Limber Pine

by Liz Clift

“What we contemplate here is more than ecological restoration; it is the restoration of relationship between plants and people. Scientists have made a dent in understanding how to put ecosystems back together, but our experiments focus on soil pH and hydrology—matter, to the exclusion of spirit.” — Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist and writer

Pinus flexilis, the limber pine, has gained some level of notoriety in recent years—in part because these trees have the ability to live for a relatively long time and in part because they are competing with bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva, Pinus aristate, and Pinus balfouriana) in movement upslope, in response to climate change. The oldest limber pine is estimated to be roughly 3,000 years old, and is located in Alberta, Canada (the oldest living bristlecone pine is estimated to be approximately 4,765 years old, for the record, and it lives in an undisclosed location in eastern California—in fact, it’s the oldest known living tree).

Many of us are, perhaps, particularly fascinated with long-lived trees now that we know that they might not always be around. Take, for instance, the news that’s been trickling in over the past few years about the decline of the redwoods in California or the logging of old-growth forests. These old trees provide habitat for a variety of animals and plants and can also tell us a lot about ourselves, if we take the time to study the rings and the forest around them.

At the Denver Botanic Gardens, there are several examples of limber pine I like to visit. They are small and look sturdy against the landscape, and I have to remind myself that although small, these trees are not all that young—some are older than I am. They’re set in an area that represents Colorado’s more extreme soil conditions: dry and rocky, and yet they’ve found purchase. There’s a lesson in that for all of us, and this is part of what makes the limber pine one of our more resilient trees in montane and subalpine ecosystems.

Limber pine is a keystone species in these montane and subalpine ecosystems. It provides food for a variety of animals, including bears, small mammals, and birds—and its needles are the sole food of a small ermine moth. Nutcrackers, a type of bird in the jay family, rely heavily on limber pine, particularly in certain areas—including Craters of the Moon National Park—where few other coniferous trees exist. This relationship is mutually beneficial, as nutcrackers create caches of seeds for the winter, but don’t return to all the caches, which allows these newly planted seeds the opportunity to take root.

Limber pine is also an effective pioneer in colonizing disturbed areas, and is able to stabilize soils in places where few other vegetative species thrive. Despite this, limber pine is rarely used in restoration projects because it is so slow growing—which makes achieving results within standard monitoring time frames a challenge, and as a result, the average landowner does not easily recognize the ecological value of using limber pine for restoration.

There’s something to be said for developing more patience with these, and other, slower-growing trees. It might not be us—or our children, or theirs—that see slow-growing trees reach maturity, but in this way we can be stewards of the environment for future generations. We can also learn, again, how to build a relationship with plants, to understand the role they play not only in the ecosystem, but in our lives.

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How Bigger, Badder Wildfires are Changing Ecosystems

By Kay Wiseman and Liz Clift

Fires in the west have become larger, more frequent, and more severe in recent decades. This upward trend is likely to continue, making it vital to understand the implications these massive fires have on our landscapes.

For nearly 100 years, fire management policy has established a best practice of  suppression to control potential fires and sources of fire. However, suppression can lead to the disruption of natural fire regimes essential for fuel load reduction, seed germination, and soil nutrient cycling. Despite best efforts for prevention, fires continue to ignite and spread and with nearly a century worth of fuel accumulation, a wildfire can quickly turn into a devastating threat.

While there is room for debate as to what defines a “severe wildfire” in differing ecosystems, it is well documented that for the United States’ dry western landscapes fuel accumulation has been a major component for increased fire intensity. Heavy fuel loads can have multiple negative impacts:

  • Prevent the fire from sweeping quickly across the landscape and concentrating the heat in localized areas. Intense, slow moving fires can cause combustion beneath the soil surface and spread underground. Underground fires can cross fire breaks and pop up several hundred feet in any direction putting firefighters and protected structures at risk.
  • Cause a fire to burn especially hot, which can lead to the death of soil microorganisms, effectively sterilizing the soil and can also create a hydrophobic layer in the soil—and making it difficult for water to penetrate This can cause recovery to take a significantly longer time.
  • Impact water quality, through increased erosion and downstream sedimentation.
  • Allow fires to reach into tall vegetation and trees creating large, fast-moving crown fires. Crown fires move quickly through trees releasing hot embers that travel farther than would be possible for low intensity ground fires. These travelling embers have the potential to ignite spot fires outside of the projected burn path—because crown fires can move independently of a ground fire. Some crown fires do not even touch the ground, which can leave a forest permanently damaged—and filled with more fuel for a future fire.
  • Present treacherous obstacles for firefighters traversing the landscape.

There’s a balance though between removing fuel and allowing some of the vegetative fuel to stay because of the role it plays in a biotic community. Vegetative material that could easily become (excess) fuel provides beneficial soil stabilization and habitat areas. Fuels, such as senesced grasses, may allow soil to hold moisture more effectively or provide bedding or nesting materials for a variety of animals, as well as providing cover to small prey animals. Larger fuel, such as tree snags or “standing dead” trees provide nesting habitat for a variety of birds as well as a rich environment for a diversity of beneficial insects and fungi that provide decomposition—thus enriching the overall nutrients within the soil (and which may also be forage for a variety of animals, including some songbirds). Trees, even dead ones, may also provide soil stabilization for many years.

Additionally, if these fuels are fully cleared soil is exposed to sunlight and wind creating dry conditions more conducive to increased fire intensity or increased erosion. The presence of fuels is also essential for topsoil production and nutrient cycling—nutrients from vegetative fuels cycle back into the soil as they decompose—which is another reason that it should be considered undesirable to completely remove fuel sources from the landscape. Therefore, fuel management can be a delicate balance between leaving too little or accumulating too much. Other than the human safety aspect, why should we concern ourselves with fire intensity? Let’s dive more deeply into the points made in the bullets above.

Fires that burn underground—especially those burning peat—can release inordinate amounts of stored carbon. That’s because peat, which makes up only 3% of the world’s surface contains 25% of the world’s carbon soil. What does that mean? It means that there’s currently about as much carbon in the air as there is in all the peatlands in the world.

That’s not all. According to Guillermo Rein, an expert on smoldering fires, “Once ignited, these fires are particularly difficult to extinguish despite extensive rains, weather changes or firefighting attempts, and can persist for long periods of time (months, years), spreading deep (5 meters) and over extensive areas of forest subsurface” (as summarized by Andrew C. Revkin, for the New York Times). These fires occur in tropical, temperate, and boreal forests around the world—because peat exists on all seven continents, including places you might not expect if you don’t know much about the landscape.

Although it’s often easy for anyone who isn’t a soil scientist to see the soil as dirt, it is, in fact, alive with microorganisms and invertebrates which are integral to overall soil health. Additionally, a complex mycorrhizal (fungi!) system exists beneath the soil, which is integral to soil health (in particular helping different plants receive nutrients). Hot fires can kill this mycorrhizal system, which can take years or decades to restore. These intense fires can leave soils not only hydrophobic (which has implications for loss of soil function and may increase risk of erosion or downstream flooding and sedimentation), but effectively sterilizes the soil, leaving it a “moonscape.” This isn’t a reference to the moon that controls the tides—it refers to a post-fire devoid of all vegetation, potentially for years after the initial devastating fire. Moonscapes burned so hot below ground that seeds, soil microbes, and even the compounding properties of inorganic materials in the soil have been expunged.

Without protective vegetation and woody debris, the soil is left exposed to the elements. Exposure and water repellency increase the erosive potential of soil and the subsequent runoff after fires cause stream sedimentation and low water quality, because plants that may have normally acted as “filters” to rainwater or other precipitation were removed from the ecosystem as a result of the fire. In addition to increased repellency, the absence of plants in the landscape means that there is little to slow down precipitation—which can further decrease water percolation into the water table.

Crown fires—especially in the absence of intense ground fires—can provide new opportunities for younger trees and understory growth to flourish. However, the loss of the tree canopy can result in greater vulnerability for some canopy dwelling organisms, can increase damage to lower forest strata during precipitation events (canopies can effectively slow down rain, hail, for instance), and increase surface soil temperatures, due to the absence of the shading properties a full canopy provides during the hottest months of the year.

Restoring areas hit by severe wildfire is resource intensive and expensive but is also necessary to immediately stabilize soil and prevent future erosion, along with reviving ecosystem function. There are a variety of options for short term soil stabilization, and remediation, which can help limit some of the impacts of a fire on an ecosystem (and the human community that depends on that ecosystem as well). Long-term solutions must take into account the current soil quality, options for soil remediation (if appropriate), appropriate (native) plant communities, planting plans, and land management to support revegetation. Other abiotic factors, as well as the pre-fire history of the landscape, may also provide important clues about what restoration techniques will work best for the landscape.

But, these are reactions. We should also be having proactive conversations about how fire management plans can be effectively and appropriately incorporated into a variety of landscapes. These conversations—and the implementation of plans—will likely help fire managers effectively and safely reduce the fuel load that’s resulted from decades of fire suppression.



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Great Ecology to Present with Blue Latitudes at Decom World

Great Ecology is excited to announce that we will be teaming with Blue Latitudes on a panel at Decom World this year in Houston (February 19 – 21), for the 2018 Decommissioning & Abandonment Summit. The panel, which will include Dr. Mark S. Laska, founder and President of Great Ecology, will focus on end of life planning options for oil platforms worldwide. We would love to see you there!

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Stapleton Open Spaces Win 2017 ASLA Colorado Merit Award

Denver is semi-arid—it averages about 15 inches of a rain a year, which is why Denver isn’t filled with large trees (at least in areas that aren’t alongside river systems or in well-irrigated greenscapes). In our line of work, it’s critical to consider which plants would grow best with little-to-no irrigation—so they can survive long term in Denver’s climate, without adding strain to the water resources. Yet, we also want to provide an aesthetically pleasing place for people to engage in passive or active recreation and restore ecosystem services that support the overall health of the Denver area.

Great Ecology has been working on the 2017 ASLA Merit Award-winning Stapleton planned community, led by CIVITAS since 2013. Our work has primarily focused on restoring the landscape, including revegetation plans for open space areas. One of the design goals was to create prairie-like landscapes, which restore historic prairie landscapes that used to fill the Denver-Metro area. These prairie-like open spaces are interconnected through a series of trails and underpasses that allow people (and other animals) to safely avoid traffic.

Prairie grasses, and other native plants, tend to have deeper root systems which can increase water infiltration, decrease soil compaction, and provide soil stability. Additionally, they can provide important habitat for a variety of animal species.

The planting plans we assisted with are keyed into each microclimate and microtopography, with a focus on low- to no-irrigation plants. This is coupled with designs that encourage water flow and stormwater detention—which nourishes these plants when rain or other precipitation does occur. We took site-specific soil conditions into consideration, and suggested soil amendments to increase the likelihood of successful early plant establishment and long-term sustainability.

We’re thrilled to have been part of such a great team, and are honored that this project was selected by ASLA’s Colorado Chapter for a 2017 Merit Award for the creation of a water-resilient parks system.

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Laurel Glass Lees Named Regional AEP Director at Large

Great Ecology is pleased to announce that our  Western Regional Director, Laurel Glass Lees, who serves as Vice President of Membership for the San Diego Chapter of the California Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) was recently voted into a Director-at-Large position with the AEP State Board. This two-year term, which begins in January, offers Laurel additional leadership opportunities to provide direction, guidance, and overall coordination of the organization statewide. As part of this role, Laurel will act as the Board representative for each member not represented by one of the nine chapters throughout California. In conjunction with the other Directors-at-Large, she will maintain the annual California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) workshops and provide input to committees that establish and implement programs for creating new membership services or recruiting. Laurel will also participate in Board meetings, the annual AEP Institute, the annual AEP Summit, and other statewide events that seek to enhance, maintain, and protect the quality of the natural and human environment.

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Emily Callahan & Amber Jackson Named to Forbes 30 Under 30

Great Ecology is pleased to announce that Associate Ecologist Emily Callahan, and Ecologist Amber Jackson, were named as part of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Energy. Emily and Amber are co-founders of Blue Latitudes, which works with oil companies to transform their offshore oil platforms into environmentally beneficial artificial reefs. We’re proud to have them on our team—and of all the work they do to make the world a better place.

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Species Spotlight: Lynx

By: Liz Clift

Not too long ago, sand cat kittens were filmed for the first time, and the internet went gaga over the brief video—especially the portion of the internet that’s convinced the internet is for cats.

So, I pose this question to you: what could be better than cats wearing snowshoes?

Yes, these exist.

Well, sort of.

Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) are a member of the cat family that lives primarily in boreal forests that receive high levels of snowfall—and so in the US are generally found in Alaska and in montane forested areas along the Canadian border; although, they can also be found in high elevations further south in the contiguous US. They have giant paws that help distribute their weight over the surface of the snowy areas in which they live—which allows them to more effectively pursue their prey.

Lynx populations—like many other predators—fluctuate in response to their food supply. Lynx primarily eat snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), so when populations of snowshoe hare decrease, so do populations of lynx. Lynx typically have litters of up to five kittens, but particularly food-rich years and a fertile mother can lead to litters of up to seven. In years of scarcity, these litters are smaller, which helps keep populations in check (there’s no evidence of significantly higher adult mortality when prey populations are smaller).

Lynx populations are dependent on areas with stands of conifer (also a preferred habitat of snowshoe hares)—which are areas that can be disturbed by forest fire or landslides, but also human-caused disturbances such as mining, logging, and infrastructure or housing development, all of which can cause habitat fragmentation and loss. Additionally, with lynx, there’s evidence that competition from other predators can also impact lynx populations—and that this competition can be increased as other resources, including habitat, become scarcer.

This has implications for how we think about restoration—and how we think about development projects. Do we include wildlife corridors as a part of our planning process (even while development or logging or mining is happening)? Do we try to replicate natural patchiness upon restoration, and provide phased restoration work that will provide a mix of older and younger conifer forest? How do we best pay attention to all the factors that make up critical habitat for species of concern?

These questions are important for considering how this species can be de-listed (it was listed by US Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened in 2000). For this to happen, its population will need to continue to increase, which means we must work to negate habitat loss and fragmentation.

And we should do this because lynx provide economic benefits by controlling snowshoe hares and its other prey animals, which are considered agricultural and silvicultural pests, because these animals have evolved to be part of our boreal forest ecosystems, and because most of us want more cat videos on the internet.


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