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Coloring America Green

You won’t believe the damage a fingernail-sized bark beetle can do to a 100-foot elm tree, says Bill Sales of AFSCME Local 1891 (Council 31). The pesky critter is the carrier of the dreaded Dutch Elm disease.

You won’t believe the damage a fingernail-sized bark beetle can do to a 100-foot elm tree, says Bill Sales of AFSCME Local 1891 (Council 31).

The pesky critter is the carrier of the dreaded Dutch Elm disease that has been wreaking havoc on thousands of elm trees in Evanston, Ill. Sales and his crew, who work for the city’s forestry department, are tasked with bringing down the massive shade trees and replacing them with disease-resistant elms.

Local 1891, like dozens of AFSCME locals all over the country, are hard at work daily to maintain and improve the environment. From replacing trees and preserving endangered wildlife to ensuring bodies of water remain pollution free, scores of members play a huge role in the “greening” of America.

AFSCME’S RESOLVE. In the 1990s, AFSCME’s Environmental Advisory Committee sponsored a series of national environmental conferences that brought in experts from several organizations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The group discussed AFSCME’s role in encouraging pollution prevention, fighting for environmental justice and communicating with members and the public about key issues.

The committee also works closely with the International’s legislation department on federal environmental issues. The team has fought congressional attempts to weaken environmental safeguards, including proposed changes to laws and rules that encourage the privatization of wastewater treatment plants and other environmental infrastructure.

In the meantime, AFSCME members stationed near forests, fields, rivers and streams are busy managing the country’s landscape and wildlife, which, more than anything else, shows the serious dedication and commitment our people have toward preserving the environment. And on April 22, AFSCME members everywhere can chip in because the Earth Day Network, a non-profit agency, is sponsoring activities around the globe. Members can go to the Earth Day Network’s website and find out about Earth Day activities in every state.

BUGGIN’ OUT. The wretched bark beetle has all but wiped out elm trees on a stretch of parkway in Evanston. Sales, who’s been with the forestry department for 30 years, estimates that the beetle has reduced the number of trees from as many as 20,000 down to 4,000 or 5,000. On the parkway, “we had what we call the bridge effect,” says Sales. “When you go down the street, you can see all the trees kind of come together, which makes like a bridge.” Thanks to the bark beetle, “we don’t have that anymore,” he adds. “We’re losing it.”

The bark beetle attacks trees that have pruned or exposed limbs with bark still on them, or whose roots have been damaged by construction. Once a bark beetle gets inside a tree, it emits a chemical called pheromone that attracts other beetles. When that happens, all hell breaks loose.

Scientists have developed a disease-resistant elm tree to counter the bite of the bark beetle. After forestry crews take down diseased elms, which can grow as high as 150 feet and 40 to 50 inches in diameter, they core out the stump and plant new ones. To date, Sales determines that crews have planted 200 disease-resistant trees.

When taking down sick trees, crews sometimes find another problem. “I’ve had people run up and hug the tree to keep you from cutting it down. The people love their trees. I mean, they are very serious,” states Sales. “But there’s nothing like an elm tree. It’s a beautiful tree.”

KEEPING POLLUTION AT BAY. Not many people in San Francisco do more to ensure clean water than the members of AFSCME Locals 2019 and 444 (Council 57).

They all work for the East Bay Municipal Utility District and their charter is to lessen the impact of pollution in the San Francisco Bay, which is bordered on the east by cities such as Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley. These cities have several metal finishing and commercial industries whose polluted wastwater may indirectly seep into the bay.

Karen Biber, Local 2019, says her unit enforces compliance of federal, state and local regulations on how much waste can be discharged into sanitary sewers before possibly entering the bay. Local 444, she states, operates the wastewater treatment plants and wet weather stations, and informs the technical staff from Local 2019 about any abnormalities in the water such as color and pH levels.

Much of 2019’s work centers around monitoring and testing pollution levels in the bay, and education and outreach to industrialists. Through monthly inspections inside metal finishing plants, the unit is able to enforce limits on the amount of copper, lead, mercury, nickel and other metals that may be released into the bay.

Biber says that technicians visit commercial sites like auto repair shops, boat yards, car washes, dry cleaners, photo processors and furniture strippers to educate these companies on best management practices to prevent oils and other toxins from being poured down drains. She says that since a number of the vendors are Korean, Chinese or Hispanic, Local 2019 has people on staff who publish and distribute anti-pollution literature in their languages. If that’s not enough, they go into areas like Chinatown and participate in street fairs and pass out anti-pollution literature.

“We’re very proactive,” Biber boasts. “Our department keeps on top of the regulations coming down from the federal government and state agencies, and we know what’s going to be coming up in maybe a year or two. We start looking at companies before the regulations come out and say, ‘OK, you must eliminate this even further.’

“We’ve got a really dedicated group of people who truly believe in what we’re doing. We take our jobs very seriously,” Biber asserts. “We wish we could do more.”

DUCK, DUCK, GOOSE. On the big island of Hawaii, members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association/AFSCME Local 152, are working to preserve the population of the native nene, or Hawaiian Goose, which is on the endangered species list.

Ron Bachman, manager of the Land and Natural Resources Department’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife in Hilo, says the nene went on the endangered list in the 1940s because it was hunted down relentlessly by natives. Since the birds can no longer be legally hunted, Bachman and his staff spend the majority of their time keeping predators away from the nene.

Animals such as mongooses, rats and wild cats and dogs prey on nene eggs, which lie in nests on the ground. A mongoose also will pluck goslings, and an adult cat can tackle a full-sized nene. “When we are aware nesting season is coming upon us, we become more aware of the predators,” Bachman says. One successful method of keeping them away is workers have cleared out a 30-acre, cold, fresh spring water pond and plotted little islands in the water. “The birds see this as a good place to go and lay an egg,” he points out. “Every one of the islands is occupied.”

One predator that is nearly impossible to stop is a Hawaiian hawk called the io. “It’s a rather ruthless predator,” declares Bachman. Even when a goose and a gander are keeping watch sitting next to a nest full of young geese, the io “will just swoop on down and snatch up goslings. Everyone gets all excited when they’re taking our birds that we’ve spent all year trying to mother along, but that’s nature’s way,” he submits.

But the population of the nene is growing with every breeding season. “They’re out of danger at the present level of stewardship,” says Bachman, who’s worked in the wildlife and forestry division for 40 years. “But if we turn our backs completely on the nene and treat them like a game bird, give them another 20 years and they’ll be back where they started” — on someone’s dinner plate.

SAVE THE SALMON. Working to preserve salmon populations in the upper northwest must be a marvel for fish hatchery specialists at the Lewis River Complex near Olympia, Wash. That’s because salmon in that particular area come in four varieties: wild fall chinook, late coho, early coho and spring chinook. Aaron Roberts, a fish hatchery specialist IV from Local 2964 (Council 28), states that the fish spend their juvenile lives in fresh water for one year but mature through adulthood in the salt waters of the Pacific Ocean. And, after swimming and feeding in ocean waters for two or three years, they almost always come back to their river of origin and lay eggs before dying.

At the Lewis River hatchery, Roberts and his co-workers rear early and late coho and spring chinook, and monitor the population of the wild fall chinook, which is on the endangered species list. “These hatchery fish that we rear are... a different animal — a different stock — than these wild fish that come back because we’re taking Mother Nature and tweaking it,” explains Roberts. “We’re turning things exactly around in these fishes’ favor in terms of the sheer numbers of fish that we plant.”

Public awareness is the key to preserving wild fall chinook. Roberts and other environmentalists inform the public that logging, land development, heavy industries along river banks and farmers using river water for irrigation all contribute to the demise of salmon. For example, Roberts notes that in the “old days,” farmers wouldn’t place protective screens over their irrigating systems. “They would just pump the juvenile fish right out of the river and right onto the land.”

Just like the nene, predators feast on salmon and man is making it even easier. “In the Columbia River — because it is a main artery of commerce — they’ve done a lot of dredging in places so that the ships can get in and out,” says Roberts. “All the dredge spoils are piled up in places where they never used to be. There never used to be these big islands. It’s created a perfect habitat for animals, specifically birds, that prey on juvenile salmon. It’s also a great habitat for seals and sea lions, and they love salmon.”

Another factor that’s pretty much out of the control of environmentalists’ hands is the weather. “In the El Niño years, we had lower than average returns and that was for all stocks, hatchery and wild,” Roberts recalls. “With El Niño, its warmer water currents in the ocean shift the food for the fish and they have to travel farther to cooler waters. In fact, what I’ve been told by biologists is they probably couldn’t even find their food sources at all, and if they did, they were so darned far away, the fish basically got lost and never came back.”

Another method the workers at the Lewis River Complex use to preserve wild fish is cutting off the adipose fin from the hatchery fish, while leaving the fin on wild fall chinook. “When an angler or commercial fisherman catches a fish with a fin... that means they must release it because it is a wild fish,” explains Roberts.

THE SALMON GENERATION. In Vancouver, Wash., Clark County Public Utility has purchased cold-water aquariums and placed them primarily in 5th grade classrooms. “We give these classrooms coho eggs and they hatch them and release these juvenile coho into a local stream,” he says. “The idea is getting people, mainly these kids, to think about all of the issues that we’ve talked about. We’re excited about this because we’re getting some really positive responses from teachers and students.

“We have a lot of hatchery tours where kids come and they ask a lot of questions,” continues Roberts. “We do a lot of work with local colleges. Students come in and do co-op work where they actually work in the hatchery with us. It’s a way to get the message to the public. It opens a lot of doors and creates a lot of communication.”

Roberts speaks for a lot of environmentalists when he declares: “In this business, the people who do this work don’t do it for the money; we do it because we care about the resources. That’s really the case with the staff here. We have the best people in the state doing this work.”

By Jimmie Turner

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