Thursday, February 27, 2014

Environmental Issues: National Invasive Species Awareness Week

There are so many "National Awareness" days, weeks, and months these days that it is impossible to keep track of them all.  However, National Invasive Species Awareness Week -- February 23rd through the 28th -- brings light to a little-publicized but very important issue with serious environmental and economic repercussions.

Invasive English Ivy at Saint Edward State Park.  Lainey Piland photo.


What is an Invasive Species?


Also called non-native species, these can be plants or animals (both aquatic and terrestrial) that invade habitats and ecosystems, where they out-compete native species for resources, damage ecosystems, and rack up millions or even billions of dollars in economic damage. Often these species have no natural predators in the ecosystems they invade, so they spread and multiply quickly, and are difficult to eradicate.

Invasive species are spread in many different ways: on clothing and hiking boots; vehicles, boat hulls, anchors, and ballast water; home aquarium water dumped into local water bodies, exotic pets that have been set loose; gardening with non-native plant species or using mulch contaminated with foreign seeds... in our globalized, on-the-go society, there are many opportunities for spreading invasive species from one area to another.

Examples of Invasive Species


One invasive species currently wreaking havoc in aquatic ecosystems across the country is the zebra mussel. These tiny bivalves create huge problems by taking over habitats and pushing out native species and causing damage to boats, underwater infrastructure, and clogging water intake/outfall pipes. This has especially been a problem in the Great Lakes, where estimated costs of managing zebra mussels and dealing with the damage they've caused is around a billion dollars. According to researchers at Washington State University, the Northwest's own Columbia River basin is among the dwindling number of major river systems not yet infected with zebra mussels.  With the threat they would pose to our native species and extensive hydroelectric power generation infrastructure, it is important that these little buggers stay far away!

Some familiar plants in the Pacific Northwest are not only a pain to deal with, but are actually invasive!  These include such plants as Himalayan blackberry (those thick, thorny, twisting vines that grow in ditches, roadsides, forests, parks...and whose berries make delicious pies and jam!) and English Ivy (a familiar sight in gardening and landscaping, this invasive plant shows up in unexpected natural places... if you look closely on the drive up to Snoqualmie Falls, you can see English ivy completely covering several trees in the forest alongside the road).  Although these plants are ubiquitous in this area, they do threaten native species, so many cities and local conservation groups organize volunteer events to remove them from parks and natural areas.

What Can We Do?


One easy way to help with this issue is to become familiarized with which species in your area are invasive.  For those of us in Washington state, the Washington Invasive Species Council is a great resource, and provides a list of the top fifty "Priority" invasive species, which you can see here. They also provide a downloadable field guide for identifying invasive species. If you see any of these species, report them!

The best thing you can do to avoid spreading invasive species is to use common sense and be conscientious. The National Invasive Species Awareness Week website offers the following tips:
  1. Clean hiking boots, waders, boats and trailers, off-road vehicles and other gear to stop invasive species from hitching a ride to a new location.
  2. Avoid dumping aquariums or live bait into waterways.
  3. Use forage, hay, mulch and soil that are certified as "weed free."
  4. Plant only non-invasive plants in your garden, and remove any known invaders. (the King Conservation District is having a Native Plant Sale this Saturday, March 1st... check it out here)
  5. Report new or expanded invasive species outbreaks to authorities. (See for a state-by-state list of contacts.)
  6. Volunteer to help remove invasive species from public lands and natural areas.
  7. Ask your political representatives at the state, local and national level to support invasive species control efforts.
Learning about invasive species and taking action on the issue is just one more way that we can work together to preserve our beautiful Pacific Northwest ecosystems.  Spread the word!

No invasive species here! Lainey Piland photo

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Musings: Noise Pollution and the Search for Natural Soundscapes

If you had to venture a guess as to the location of the quietest place in the United States, what would it be?  In a desert in the Southwest?  On a glacier in Alaska? In the middle of a cornfield in the Midwest? According to the One Square Inch project, the quietest place in the United States in located right here in Washington State’s own Olympic National Park.

Hall of Mosses, Olympic National Park.  Photo courtesy NPS

The One Square Inch Foundation is dedicated to the preservation of natural spaces from the intrusion of noise pollution, and on Earth Day in 2005 designated the One Square Inch of Silence in Olympic National Park as an example of soundscape management and the benefits of a space devoid of noise pollution. After happily stumbling across a wonderfully written article on this subject by Kathleen Dean Moore, I had to learn more about One Square Inch.  What exactly does it mean to be the quietest place in the United States? 

It means that all you hear is nature. Marked only by a small red stone 3.2 miles up Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park, the One Square Inch of Silence is free from any human noise.  No droning of airplanes, no road noise, no human conversation… just the delicate, quiet sounds of the natural world that are so frequently drowned out by human noise, or that go unnoticed to our ears which are no longer attuned to listening for them. 

Each day, we are aware of the visible landscape that surrounds us, but how often do we pay attention to the soundscapes that surround us?  It is astounding to discover how loud your world actually is when you take a moment to really listen to, and endeavor to identify, the everyday sounds that have faded into subconscious background noise.  For a person such as myself who lives in just about the noisiest place possible, a square inch of silence where only nature sounds can be heard sounds like absolute bliss.

My home soundscape is noisy. Even with the windows closed, the sound of traffic on the nearby freeway is ever-present in my house.  Opening my windows for fresh air also invites in the overwhelming roar of tires traveling at high speeds over pavement, the ear-splitting wails of sirens, and the constant low rumble of airplane traffic overhead, with the occasional thwap-thwap sound of a helicopter. If I’m fortunate enough, I can pick out the sound of birdsong or hear the rustle of a breeze in the small stand of Doug firs nearby.  With the hum of computers, the rattling/whooshing noise of the furnace, blaring television and constant drone of the fridge, my indoor soundscape isn’t much quieter.

Perhaps the search to fulfill that innate need for peace, solitude, and escape from human noise pollution is one of the reasons why I love hiking so much.  When you’re hiking, the sounds of human activity are overshadowed, if not eclipsed completely, by the sounds of nature.  However, if you’re lucky enough to travel to Olympic National Park and hike to the One Square Inch of silence, you can be certain of experiencing a soundscape comprised solely of the music of the natural world. I think I found another thing to add to my bucket list.

Sand Point Trail, Olympic National Park. Photo courtesy NPS
You MUST listen to the “Breathing Space” recordings on the One Square Inch website.  These are lengthy recordings of the sounds of nature in Olympic National Park, including a rainstorm in the forest, ocean waves, and the sounds of spring.  If you’re having a stressful day, I guarantee your blood pressure will drop a few points as you listen!

Is it completely awful that I had to use noise-canceling headphones just to be able to listen to these recordings and appreciate their full beauty without the distraction of traffic noise from outside?  Noise pollution indeed.

What does your daily soundscape sound like? Peaceful? Noisy? Do you love it or hate it? Feel free to share in the comments below!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Environmental Issues: Drought in Washington?

It is unusual for a rainy forecast to be met with a sigh of relief in a region famous for its gray skies; where a “day without rain” is often a rarity to be celebrated. However, that is just the case in the Pacific Northwest today, as heavy rain showers and familiar overcast skies roll back into place in the midst of a winter seriously lacking in precipitation.

Hooray, rain! 7-Day Forecast for Seattle from

While many people have enjoyed the sunny skies and outdoor opportunities offered by the uncharacteristically dry weather so far this winter, there are others who have a different view.  Skiers and snowboarders languish as day after day passes without any new snowfall to bolster the woefully thin base on the ski runs, and nature nerds such as myself cast a wary eye at bare mountain slopes in the distance, which should be resplendent in sparkling white at this time of year.

Lack of snowfall in the wintertime can lead to a big problem come summertime: drought. Drought is not normally a concern for our typically rainy region, but in light of the lean precipitation we’ve seen this winter, the Water Supply Availability Committee met at the WA Department of Ecology to examine the current outlook for our water supply and to plan for potential shortages this summer.  Findings from the Committee’s first meeting were posted on the Department’s ECOconnect blog last Friday, and here is their summary of the good and the bad:

The bad news:
  • "Conditions vary in basins across the state. Currently, water supply as measured in snowpack, January precipitation and reservoir levels is at less than 60 percent of the "median" in the Central Columbia, Upper and Lower Yakima, Lower Columbia, South Puget and Central Puget and Olympic regions.
  • Snowpack is currently at 35 percent of average in the Olympic Mountains. 
  • Statewide, Washington would need 200 percent of average snowfall over the next two months to get back to normal water supply.
  • The weather forecast for the months of March – May shows only an "equal chance" of above or below precipitation. "
The good news:
  • "Statewide average stream flows for now are normal.  
  • Seattle Public Utilities typically sees a 30 to 40 percent drop in water consumption this time of year and a spokesman said protecting the water supply for more than 3 million people is "manageable" right now "provided we get normal spring rain."
  • Reservoirs in the Yakima Basin are in "good shape" although snowpack is "in bad shape.""
Click here to read the full report.

The drought conditions for Washington state are currently reported as “moderate”. Let’s hope that we won’t be looking at an escalation to the same type of severe drought that much of California is currently experiencing.  With increased wildfire danger, dwindling drinking water supplies, and significant threats to agriculture, there are serious concerns about the state of affairs in California right now, as well as the ripple effects that would be profoundly felt throughout the country.  


So, let’s brush up on our rain dances, dust off the Gore-Tex and galoshes, and hope that the rainy weather keeps on coming!  Maybe we can even convince a few rainstorms to take a trip down to sunny California.

Don't wait until a drought hits - every day is a good day to save water! Click here for easy water conservation tips.

For all of the stream flow, snow pack, reservoir, and drought data you could ever need, check out the helpful compilation of sites from the Dept. of Ecology here.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Wanderings: The Snoqualmie Valley Regional Trail

Most people wouldn't consider a January morning shrouded in dense fog with the temperature struggling to push its way above freezing to be the ideal conditions for outdoor activities.  As a person who hates being cold, I would generally include myself in that category with "most people". However, this was the morning of my birthday, and without an opportunity to go for a hike or decent walk since our Deception Pass "First Day Hike," I was feeling a bit starved for some fresh air and natural scenery and was determined to get outdoors. Being an intrepid Pacific Northwesterner and Nature Nerd who is a champion when it comes to dressing in layers, I wasn't going to let some chilly weather scare me off. And besides, being freezing cold after finishing a hike is the perfect excuse for stopping by Starbucks for a hot beverage on your way home... 

For my outdoor birthday adventure, I decided to revisit a trail that I drive past several times a week but haven't actually set foot on since I was a child: the Snoqualmie Valley Regional Trail. Stretching 31 miles from Duvall to North Bend, this trail is built on an abandoned railroad grade and passes through agricultural areas, natural areas, parks, and several towns. 

Aside from the fact that it is completely flat along most of its length, one of the best things about this trail is the variety of scenery!  With views of the picturesque Snoqualmie Valley, Cascade Mountains and Snoqualmie River, the trail is never lacking natural scenery to admire and appreciate.

While I would someday love to walk the entire length of the trail, my current fitness level (out of shape!) isn't able to accommodate a 31 mile expedition. With that in mind, my husband and myself opted to walk just a few miles along the trail between Carnation and Duvall.  Thankfully by the time we set out, the fog had lifted a bit and allowed me to snap a few photos!

Beaver dam in the wetlands.  Highway 203 is in the background.
Another beaver dam - it is easy to see why they are known as "ecosystem engineers"!

Peeking between the trunks of gnarled cottonwoods, you can see the forested hillsides rising from the valley.
There are plenty of dead snags like this one along the trail - the perfect spot to look for bald eagles, although none were out and about today.
Rare wintertime greenery: licorice ferns growing on a cottonwood tree.
When we reached this spot on the trail, all I could think was "cathedral of trees". Must be even more gorgeous when the trees are leafed out!
The Snoqualmie River in its muted wintertime tones.
The sun tried very hard to burn through the fog!
I love the palette of greens and browns in the trees this time of year.

The Snoqualmie Valley is my favorite place on earth, and being able to spend time enjoying the scenery there was a wonderful birthday present!  I hope to explore other areas of the trail during the spring and summer to see the change in scenery with each season... stay tuned to A Day Without Rain for photos from those future adventures!