by Whit Gibbons

March 4, 2012

Following complaints from neighbors, the Anti-Gravity Relaxation Organization in Springfield, Mo., has declared that they will try not to hang from trees where children can see them. You will have to do your own research to learn about the AGRO Suspension Team, but I will clear up the question of why this news tidbit appears in a column on ecology and the environment.

Though trees are obviously an integral part of the environment and gravity certainly affects ecology (as well as everything else on earth), the reason I read this enticing morsel on how to unwind is because it was in a section of USA Today called "Across the USA." A snippet of news is given for each state, and the section as a whole is an indicator of what interests Americans. Over a two day period last week, I decided to see what proportion of "Across the USA" dealt with valid environmental matters as opposed to stories like the one about people hanging from trees. Ecology was the clear winner: 24 of the 100 articles were about environmental issues.

Alabama was the only state to have unequivocal environmental news reports on both days, one about turtle conservation; the other about an endangered mollusk. The turtle problem is one faced by other southern states with a lot of turtles that commercial turtle collectors want to capture and send to China and other Asian countries as food items. People do not eat the turtles for sustenance. The turtles are high-priced delicacies that some consumers eat as social status symbols and others because they believe the turtles have some entirely unproven medicinal value. A recent investigation uncovered an exporting business that was sending "about 25 tons of live turtles per week to China and East Asia." Freshwater turtles of many Asian species are now virtually extinct due to overharvesting, so commercial collectors have turned to the southeastern United States, which has more turtles per square mile than anywhere else in the world. At least for now.

According to USA Today, two Alabama herpetologists, Craig Guyer and Jim Godwin, have provided officials with the documentation needed to establish state regulations that will protect Alabama's turtles from unrestricted commercial collecting. I know both Craig and Jim and have great respect for their knowledge of Alabama's natural resources. The Alabama Conservation Advisory Board better listen to what they say and put a stop to open-ended turtle removal from the state. Alabama is already behind Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas in its turtle protection process. No turtles on earth today can withstand the kind of commercial harvesting in progress in Alabama.

The other Alabama story involved the snuffbox mussel, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ruled will officially become an endangered species this month. The freshwater mussel found in northern Alabama no longer exists in more than half the streams it once inhabited. The species serves as a disquieting barometer of stream and river degradation.

Other USA Today environmental news flashes last week included one from Virginia on expanding facilities at a National Wildlife Refuge and one from Maine about the promotion of National Invasive Species week by state agencies. The introduced, clam-eating green crab is a big problem in coastal Maine. In Alaska, volunteers with the Alaska Moose Federation are placing hay bales at feeding stations. The well-meaning public safety effort is designed to keep moose away from open areas alongside highways where they tend to seek food during heavy snows. That attraction to highways has resulted in hundreds of moose-automobile accidents, which is bad for the moose and for cars, trucks, and drivers. I hope the AMF realizes that dietary supplements will presumably lead to even more moose next year. They'd better have plenty of hay ready for the program in 2013.

If stories in USA Today are an indicator of public interest (a not unreasonable assumption), based on my sampling of stories in "Across the USA," the environment is quite important to Americans. In fact, it is apparently more important than gravity.

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