Friday, June 30, 2006

Invasive Plants: Good Intentions, Destructive Results

Arlington County Board Member Jay Fisette often tells the story of how as an adult, he looked for a home with English ivy on it, because it reminded him of his childhood home. Only after he'd bought the house did he learn that English ivy is an invasive species not native to the area, and it was with a heavy heart that he cut the vines down.

And that's the story of invasive plants in Northern Virginia -- the best of intentions. Homeowners are just trying to make their property look nice, and don't realize the damage invasive plants do to our environment. Big garden centers are just trying to sell lots of plants and turn a profit.

But the bill for these bad choices is coming due in some of our region's most beautiful places. Invasive plants have spread incredibly fast from backyards to local parks, quickly overtaking them. According to Arlington environmental expert Steve Young, "Our parks here in Arlington have some of the most severe invasive problems you're going to find anywhere in the country." At Potomac Overlook Regional Park, 60 percent of the acreage is now covered by invasive plants. Naturalists there warn that number will only grow. As old oaks and poplars fall, young trees can't sprout up through the tangled mat of ivy and other invasives covering the forest floor.

Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment chose Roosevelt Island as the site of our 3rd Annual Hike & Happy Hour to draw attention to the invasive plant problem there, and to raise funds for invasive removals and education. Environmental volunteer Steve Campbell has spent the last couple of years battling invasives on Roosevelt Island, and estimates that more than 80 percent of the Island's arable land is covered by invasives like garlic mustard, Japanese honeysuckle, porcelain berry, and English ivy. He says, "Some parts of the island look like a bomb went off, with trees falling all over."

And science is starting to back up Mr. Campell's anecdotal evidence. The New York Times reported last month scientists now believe garlic mustard kills off beneficial fungi in soil, stunting the growth of young trees. A recent study estimated the economic cost of invasive species damage and control efforts nationwide at more than $138 billion every year.

You can learn more about invasive plants and native plants at The Virginia Native Plant Society's website. You may notice some of those same plants in front of your home or office. And if you do, we hope you're willing to change your own assumptions as Jay Fisette did, and take one step towards reclaiming Northern Virginia's green spaces for native wildlife.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Moving Virginia Backward

In case you missed it, Virginia is taking away one of the benefits of driving a hybrid, ending the HOV exemption. Critics of the exemption blame hybrids for clogging the HOV lanes on I395, but there are more HOV violators than hybrids. According to the Washington Post, "Virginia officials estimate that 22 percent of the 35,250 people who used the I-95/395 HOV lanes on a typical morning in 2004 were violators. Officials said hybrid use was as high as 17 percent. "

It's a major step backward in a region that's long been in violation of federal clean air standards. According to The Sierra Club, 30 years after passage of the Clean Air Act, the Washington area still fails to meet health standards for smog. We should be encouraging people to buy more hybrids, more electric cars, and take more public transportation.

It's been disappointing to see the lack of leadership Virginia Governor Tim Kaine has shown on environmental issues. The Democrat got elected in part on an anti-sprawl agenda, but he barely mentioned any of those initiatives this year. Instead, he's encouraging people to live in the outer suburbs by supporting I66 expansion, and discouraging people from driving hybrid cars by taking away the HOV exemption. Go to Kaine's "Moving Virginia Forward" website, and you'll see plenty of talk of expanding roads and cutting taxes, but no mention of the environment or sprawl.

As the Washington Post detailed back in March, environmentalists are trying to give Kaine a chance. Kaine certainly says all the right things, so we're hoping as term goes on, he's able to get more accomplished. But considering as many as 80 percent of Americans consider themselves environmentalists, you'd think Kaine would be using his environmental beliefs to appeal to Virginia voters of both parties.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Arlington's Transit Future: Green or Lean?

Arlington County has just released a draft version of its Master Transportation plan, and from an environmental perspective, there's an awful lot to like about it.

The plan emphasizes complete streets, environmental sustainability, and reducing reliance on single-occupancy vehicles. Arlington is one of the few communities in the region to recognize you can't pave your way out of transportation problems. New roads fill up just as quickly as they're built, because especially in a fast-growing area like DC, traffic is like a gas -- it expands to fill all available space.

Arlington has committed to smart growth, centering development around Metro stations. Communites like Loudoun and Fairfax Counties have let single-occupant vehicles drive their development, and now find themselves trying to come up with more money to build ever-wider roads. But in Arlington, despite a massive increase in population along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, traffic on Wilson Blvd. isn't much worse than it was 20 years ago.

However, the plan has its drawbacks. While it calls for bringing Arlington into compliance with federal air quality standards, it's only a brief mention. Such a huge problem is going to take years of work and a lot of tough choices to solve. And with Maryland planning to build the Intercounty Connector and Virginia planning to expand the Beltway and I66, it doesn't look like our region's leaders have the stomach to take stands they perceive as politically unpopular.

Then there's the elephant in the room, saved for the last two paragraphs of the 24-page overview: "Identifying funding sources for the wide array of projects and programs recommended in the MTP will also be a challenge. ... The next steps in the MTP process will include prioritizing the recommendations provided in the plan and its supporting elements and the determination of short, mid and long term priorities given current and future funding limitations."

Those two little sentences threaten to undo all that came before them. As the Arlington Connection has reported, lack of funding already threatens to bring pedestrian- and bike-friendly improvements to a screeching halt. With Virginia's House Republicans refusing to raise taxes for transportation improvements, available funds are going to finish already-strarted projects and to maintain existing roads. And when budget priorities are assigned in this transportation plan, environmental projects and alternative transportation could be the first thing to go.

For more details, you can visit Arlington Master Transportation Plan's website, or just read the overview.

UPDATE: I'm quoted in the DC Examiner's article on the plan (note the misspelled name).

Thursday, June 15, 2006

"An Inconvenient Truth": When Spin Wins

My first piece of advice on Al Gore's new movie, "An Inconvenient Truth": Don't go expecting to see "Fahrenheit 9/11" or "Super Size Me." This isn't a typical Hollywood documentary with high production values, one-liners, and an emotional ending. It's a sobering look at the inconvenient facts of global warming that politicians of both parties have chosen to overlook.

You don't get a sense of anger from Gore that you do from a Michael Moore. Rather, Gore comes across as a frustrated man realizing his lifelong crusade against air pollution and global warming is winding down, and as Gore himself admits, we're no better off now than we were when he started.

Gore rationally lays out the facts of climate change, making the same PowerPoint presentation that he has hundreds of times across the country and around the world. Carbon dioxide levels spiked two or three times as high as they've been in the last 650,000 years. Global temperatures shattering records year after year. And disturbingly, reports of polar bears drowning in the Arctic Sea, despite their ability to swim up to 60 miles, due to the lack of sea ice. (For more details,
click here.)

And for all this, Gore blames ... us. Well, not directly. He says despite broad -- maybe even unanimous -- scientific consensus, we've allowed spin to win the argument over science. Because the mainstream media focuses so much on balance of opinion -- "supporters say this, while opponents say that" -- the truth is blurred, and we're given the mistaken impression that just because conservatives don't want global warming to be happening, that in fact there's some question about it.

But there's no doubt temperatures are going up, local climates are changing, and glaciers are disappearing. The only question is whether we'll allow those disasters to continue, or make the hard personal and political choices to slow or reverse the process. So I hope you choose to see this movie, and to bring a friend!