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Tracking Animals -- update

Thursday, January 29, 2009 by Kyle Scribner

As part of my research for the tracking post, I spoke with Del Morris from the International Society of Professional Trackers. He was extremely helpful, getting the word out to ISPT members that Captivate was looking for city-specific tracking tidbits. I’ll post the information in this space as it comes in.

Jan. 27: Adam Fox, an ISPT member from outside Portland, Ore., recommends Kim Cabrera’s CD-ROM as a fun, easy-to-follow way to quickly learn animal-track basics. Cabrera’s site has enough handy info to fill a bear’s den, plus links to other great resources.

Jan. 28: ISPT member and Girl Scout nature specialist Tina Smith checks in from outside Philadelphia, where she says, “I dig tracking in the city because you get fleeting glimpses of nature holding fast in the concrete ‘jungle.’ Besides the pigeons flying about or pecking around the ground, you can see their pudgy little prints in the dust and silt around the landscaped trees along the curb or even in the silt in the gutters. There are also other birds that hang in the city: sparrows, finches, starlings, etc. Those dirt areas are ‘track traps’ for squirrels as well. Along alleyways and park sides, or even along the edges of sidewalks, you can spot rat tracks, squirrels, opossum and raccoon. Depending on your area, you may have a large population of skunks, and there are always the feral cats. … In Philly's Fairmount Park there are also coyotes and foxes, rabbits and various reptiles and amphibians.”

Tina emphasizes that, while there is much to be learned while tracking, the main point is to have fun. She says you can use tracking as an excuse during the workday to get outside and play: “The cool part during the day is that if you are taking a lunch or break, it is recess ... go play!!! Have some fun! Tracking is fun; it slows you down and you can take it really far into the details of each track you find. Connect it to the gaits and the big story – what has happened before you got here? [Maybe make it] a little treasure hunt? A little ‘CSI’? Find a motive if you have to, but play!”

Jan. 29: And Ms. Cabrera herself checks in now, with a description of the tracking potential of downtown L.A., where she used to work. She says you can find tracks of raccoons very often in the bed of the L.A. River, and “there is also quite a good population of urban coyotes living in L.A. Residents can see them at night, and even find their tracks. Places that are good for tracking near L.A. include Griffith Park. Also the Whittier Narrows Dam area was excellent for tracking. And, my favorite place was Turnbull Canyon. This is a huge open area that backs up to the Rose Hills Cemetery. There is a dirt road and I saw coyotes and tarantulas there. Tracks of raccoons, foxes, skunks, coyotes, and more are common in that canyon. It's a beautiful place. I found many species that visited my backyard while I lived in the suburbs of Whittier. These included raccoons, opossums, mice, coyotes, Pacific treefrogs, and a California kingsnake.”

Feb. 4: “Although a relatively recent phenomenon, coyotes have become the top carnivore in an increasing number of metropolitan areas across North America. This includes one of the largest urban centers in the Midwest — the Chicago metropolitan region.”

So says the Cook County Coyote Project, a collaboration of The Ohio State University and several agencies that seeks insight into these beautiful animals and how they intermingle with humans. This site is a perfect place to see hard data on how even the wildest of animals can be found in city propers. Thanks to Kim Cabrera, who brought this site to Green Among Gray’s attention, noting, “Coyotes live in many urban areas, including Los Angeles.”

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Tracking Animals

Wednesday, January 28, 2009 by Kyle Scribner

cougar tracks
This is the point in the season where you get really sick of the snow. The holidays are past, you’ve done inordinate amounts of shoveling/snowblowing/plowing (not to mention ice-breaking, roof clearing, salting …), you’ve already gotten your skiing in, and you’ve got no use for the white stuff anymore.

But since the snow isn’t going anywhere for another month or so, rather than grouse about it, we need to find a way to deal with it. The best way to enjoy a snowstorm (absent a view of the falling snow from a supple couch near a fireplace, a smooth beer on one side and an even suppler and smoother Kate Winslet on the other)?


Yes, animal tracking. Tracking a wild animal is one of the most invigorating and healthy – both physically and psychically – things you can do. If you’re a walker, you’re already halfway there; the only aspect you have to add is to start paying close attention to the stuff around you. You’ll be amazed at what you see. Everything has meaning, from broken twigs and skinned saplings to scratches across the snow’s surface and ripples in the water. When you’re in a tracking mindset, these typically imperceptible things start screaming out at you, and they draw you in, revealing a story. It makes you feel connected.

And you don’t have to escape the city to do it. Your local park has all the fauna you need to experience the essence of tracking. In fact, the NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation is offering a tracking class next month, and NYC Parks Dept. Deputy Director of Public Affairs Philip Abramson has passed along some tips to Green Among Gray readers:

· The best time to track animals is after a fresh snowfall or when the ground is muddy or wet.

· Look for “gait patterns” – the pattern that an animal uses to walk – such as one foot in front of another, walking parallel and how far apart their steps are spaced.

· A cat’s tracks do not show claw marks but dog tracks do show claw marks.

· Besides mammals, birds also leave tracks when they walk on the ground.

· Tracks are part of “animal sign” which also includes scat (natural term for excrement – one can ID what animal left it, what it ate, how fresh it is), scratch marks on trees, and hair/skin that is shed by the animal.

· Common animals in NYC parks that one can track include dogs, cats, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, opossums, birds and ducks.

· Tracks tell a story about animals without even seeing them. They put clues together and read the landscape.

We also had the pleasure of trading e-mails with master tracker Mark Elbroch, whose book, “Mammal Tracks & Sign,” is a must-have for any tracker. Elbroch took some time out from studying cougars in California to give some insight into exactly what tracking is all about.

How does tracking inform your everyday life, and how might it inform the life of the average person who normally doesn’t give much thought to tracking?
As a working biologist, I rely on tracking for nearly every aspect of my trade. It guides the questions I ask about wildlife and their interactions, and provides me a means of finding animals, catching them, and of course provides a rich data set in terms of recorded behaviors, presence/absence data, habitat use, etc.

On a more regular basis, tracking skills allow me to know what wildlife are around and what they are doing in whatever environment I'm in. Just this morning on the University of California campus, I encountered a carpet of cut twigs under some almond trees. This was the sign of industrious Eastern fox squirrels, harvesting the twig ends to eat the swollen buds. The folks I was with thought it like magic that I would know what had happened.

For regular folks, tracking provides an avenue to participate in their surroundings, to achieve real relations with wildlife.

What tools are required when starting out tracking – both equipment-wise and mindset-wise?
Focus (discipline) and imagination. Both are free. No equipment needed – just clothes you don't mind getting dirty.

What part of the U.S. is your favorite for tracking?
I like tracking large carnivores – bears and cougars – so that influences where I like to be. But I also love fishers and bobcats so am also happy in the Northeast. I love snow – it is easier tracking – and thus frees the mind to focus on what you are learning about wildlife behaviors and natural history. But I also love the desert earth. There's something to enjoy wherever I am.

Our audience might be surprised to learn more than just squirrels can be found in a city. What relatively uncommon birds or mammals might leave sign in/around city centers?
I lived in Boston several years and had wonderful encounters with kestrels, red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons – once watched a falcon very close up eat an entire pigeon. But while there I regularly tracked skunks, raccoons, opossums, and red foxes. The occasional coyote too would slip into town.

Any other insight on tracking in an urban environment?
Pay attention. Wildlife are surprisingly adaptive and often live invisible lives in between us.

What do you find rewarding about tracking, and what one specific experience in the field best represents this?
I think what continues to keep me tracking is that it provides me tangible relations with wild animals. As a wildlife fanatic this is like an addiction. Tracking is a way to interact with animals, without ever seeing them. To be reminded that we, too, are a part of natural systems.

Mark graciously provided an excerpt of a draft for a new guide he’s working on to be published by UC Press in their California Natural History Guide series (working title: “Animal Tracks and Sign”). “In the story,” Mark says, “I ‘dance’ with a mountain lion – and yet never see her. Only tracks betrayed the story:”

Suddenly fresh cougar tracks were beneath me. I love that part—the appearance of tracks on the landscape. Even when I expect to find them, it always seems so unexpected. It’s as if the whole world is slightly out of focus while my mind wanders and then suddenly I see just one thing in perfect clarity and my chattering mind stops—the tracks of some beast. The tracks belonged to a mature female cat and she’d been walking down the drainage heading in the direction from which I’d just come. It was there that she abandoned the soft sands of the wash and traveled northeast into the manzanita, pines and juniper. After a deep breath to focus and quiet my mind, I began to pursue. The afternoon was fast slipping away, so time was short, and I followed as quickly as possible. Yet within an hour of starting on the trail, I found myself confused. I looked down at the fresh tracks of a male cougar—had she really been a he? No, for just around the corner I found her trail again—there were two cats, one following the other. But I was wrong again, for I then noticed the trails of at least three different cougars converging among the dense manzanita bushes and winding up and over the folds of the desert canyon. I paused to reassess, kneeling down, and feeling the large pad of a cougar’s track—that which shows more clearly in difficult tracking terrain. Where was that cat at that very moment?

The mess of tracks could have been a family group. Or perhaps a kill was nearby. That’s what I hoped for— a fresh kill—something I could photograph. At the time I knew it didn’t really make sense—a mature male and female at the site of a kill, unless one were stealing from the other, but the sun was too low in the sky to give anything much thought, and the trailing demanded all of my attention. I began to jog along the cougars’ trails, circling in on myself and jumping from trail to trail, all the while peering into every shadowy bush and dense growth for the dark telltale mound of a cougar’s cache. Several times I stopped to scrutinize the large nests of woodrats, but recognition came quickly and I’d move on. As fast as I tracked, the sun moved quicker, and soon it was turning orange above the mountains to the west.

I popped out on the wash again, up drainage from where my adventure had begun. I’d followed numerous trails, looped in on myself countless times and had turned up nothing. I’d not even revealed where any of the cougars had departed the confusion of converging trails. But with sunlight at a premium, I decided to backtrack the female up the wash to see if a piece of the larger story lie behind her. It did. A male lion had been following her and had cut into the bush up drainage, where I hadn’t initially seen his tracks. Eventually their trails veered south and left the wash on the other side of the canyon.

As the sun moved below the mountain range to the west and the entire canyon was bathed in rosy shadows, I jogged on, reluctant to leave such a beautiful trail; the tracks were like food, and I was starving and couldn’t stop eating. Higher and higher I climbed but the light faded with increasing speed. Eventually the light was so low, I found myself moving at a crawl, losing the trail more often, and walking in a bent crouch so that my eyes were closer to the ground. I stood on a steep slope and appraised the areas that I had covered in the valley below and to the north where the cats had spiraled in on themselves. Temperatures were dropping quickly as I began my trip back to camp.

By the time I reached the wash, it was full dark and the brilliant stars were twinkling overhead. The simple notes of poorwills sounded in the distance, but otherwise the night was eerily quiet, and my footsteps in the sandy, gravelly wash seemed abrasive and loud. Niggling nervousness began to work its way into my mind, but I threw it off as the usual fears associated with being alone in the wilderness surrounded in fresh cougar sign. I walked on.

“Crunch, crunch, crunch,” my foot falls echoed along the wash and out into the scrub. I moved quickly to fight off the dropping temperatures and to stop from shivering. The nervousness in the back of my mind hadn’t resolved itself completely, and furrowed my brow. Then real fear seized me like a slap in the face, my gut twisted and I froze. The moon had just crested the canyon’s ridges, and its ghostly light filtered through the bushes and trees creating shadows and shapes that suddenly appeared menacing and dark. “A cougar could be sitting trail side and you’d never see it,” I thought to myself. I picked up a few good throwing rocks and began to massage my right arm to prepare for action in the cold.

“Stop it!” I told myself. “Get control of yourself. Its just the willies. Just irrational fear associated with a still, silent night spiced by fresh signs of cougars. Nothing to worry about. Another mile and a half and I’ll be safely back at camp.” And as the mind seemed to be playing tricks on me, I decided to play one back. I told myself, “You have permission to be afraid if you see her tracks atop your own.” Not likely, I thought.I walked perhaps fifty yards further down the wash before the moon rose high enough to bathe its floor. “No, it can’t be,” I thought. I knelt to get closer to my tracks from just hours before. Yet there was no denying it: there were the fresh tracks of a female cougar atop my own, and she was tracking me. I stood quickly and looked behind me. Suddenly that fear didn’t seem so irrational after all. I studied each shadow intently, willing my eyes to penetrate their black depths to discover the form of the cougar which no doubt was watching me at that very moment. I worked my throwing shoulder and rolled my first rock in my hand. Finally, I broke the spell and began to move quickly down drainage. I stopped with regularity to listen for footsteps behind me, and to look for a cougar’s form in pursuit. I avoided any area where she could attack from above, winding my way down the shadowy wash which seemed to stretch on for eternity. But I arrived safely back to camp, more tense than I’d have liked, and decided to sleep in the bed of my truck. With great relief, I slipped into my sleeping bag, and with the comfort of steel beneath me and the twinkling stars overhead, I soon asleep, thrilled to have shared an evening with another predator.

I awoke during the night with the certainty that I was being watched. The moon was straight overhead and bright. I sat up and peered into the contrasting landscape of dark shadows and reflecting moonlight. Nothing but trees, shrubs, shadows and crisp cool air. The canyon was utterly silent. I coaxed myself back to sleep, but in what seemed an instant, I was wide awake yet again. I gazed out over the edge of my truck bed and beyond the open tailgate at the pines and canyon slopes. I was starting to wonder if I should have closed the tailgate for additional protection. Still nothing. Eventually I fell back asleep and then awoke with the first hints of light, when the air seemed thick and somehow more tangible.

It was still cold, but I was eager to head up drainage to discover where the cat had been when we encountered each other in the wash the night before—which I was certain was the moment when my gut screamed be afraid. I layered up and grabbed a water bottle to fill at the spring. But I was stopped at the perimeter of my camp, perhaps 10 meters from my truck where I’d slept. There were her tracks, and she was accompanied by two large kittens, perhaps 10-12 months of age. No doubt the first time I awoke in the middle of the night corresponded with this initial visit. I followed her as she circled my camp, where at intervals she approached where I slept to have another look. She appeared curious. The kittens too, but they never approached as closely as she did. Then she led her kittens down to Nettle Springs for a drink. I continued to follow her as she circled up hill behind the springs and back to where I had slept. She had peered down at me from above—likely the second time I’d woken and sat up.

It took the remainder of the day to piece the entire story together, having followed her tracks in every direction to relay this story: She’d followed my tracks for a half mile up drainage to where we’d met in the dark. No doubt she heard me coming. She moved off to the north side of the drainage, lay sphinx-like in the shadows of a manzanita bush, and watched me as I passed by, massaging my throwing shoulder and trying to look every direction at once. Less than twenty yards from the wash where I’d walked, she’d remained invisible to me. From there, she worked her way up the hillside, cutting east as she climbed, paralleling the wash below. Soon, she began a more vertical ascent to the north, before dropping into a tiny hidden canyon. It was there she’d left her kittens.

Together the three cougars dropped back into the wash and followed my tracks towards my camp for well over a mile. She came into my camp, circling, investigating and then eventually took her kittens to drink. Likely they’d been at an old kill site, for cats often move to water after a heavy feeding. After circling above my camp for another look, they climbed to the mesa above and headed towards Pine Mountain , several miles to the east. It was the direction from which she’d come when followed by the male, so perhaps somewhere near the mountain she’d cached another deer to feed her growing kittens.

One more tracking definition before we start: Tracking provides us the opportunity to participate in genuine relationships with real animals in a real world. I tracked the cougar, the cougar tracked me. Tracking also allows us the opportunity to recognize our participation in natural systems. If I’d been unaware of the tracks about me, I’d only have hiked in a beautiful canyon. Perhaps I’d have experienced an instinctual alarm of fear, but I’d never have been able to substantiate its cause. I’d have departed Nettle Springs, never having seen a cougar, and therefore completely oblivious to the dance we shared in the moonlight. Some might argue that I’d have been a poorer man indeed.

Thanks to Mark for the eloquent, feels-like-you-were-there account. Admittedly, it’s probably not going to be a cougar you’ll be “dancing” with. But if you’re just starting out tracking, the experience of gaining insight into an animal and its behaviors – even if it’s just a plain ol’ gray squirrel – is incredibly rewarding.

If you try it out, let us know your impressions by posting a comment below.

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Pushing 'Planet Forward'

Friday, January 23, 2009 by Kyle Scribner

So you’re excited about the promise of a new power for good in Washington, about Obama and his new team of environmental stewards, and want to get involved somehow. You want to initiate some action yourself (you know, beyond your recent switch to mostly CFLs, except for that one lamp by the couch because that’s where you do all your reading and you’re getting a little older now and the damn little type they use in books these days just doesn’t pop the same as under a good ol’ incandescent). But you don’t know where to start. One suggestion: Planet Forward.

This “hybrid media initiative,” to be launched in March, will combine an online presence and PBS specials to showcase opinions on what we should do about the environment. Of course, there’ll be the usual scientists and policymakers chiming in, but the focus is on the ordinary public and how they may (or may not) be able to shape the climate crisis debate, as well as its solutions.

The Planet Forward website is asking for submissions – anything from videos to poems – and will include the “most persuasive, most informative, most creative” arguments as part of the PBS specials, which begin airing April 15 (just ahead of Earth Day).

Planet Forward is largely the brainchild of George Washington University Public Affairs Project Director and former CNN veteran Frank Sesno. We spoke with Frank via email for more insight into Planet Forward’s goals.

How did you get involved in Planet Forward?
I wanted to create a space for innovation, thought and genuine citizen engagement in public affairs media. I felt there were new ways to connect web and television, citizens and decision-makers. I wanted to try all this in an environment that would foster creativity and fresh thinking. The university setting is ideal for that and a wonderfully compatible partner for public broadcasting since both share a mission of inquiry and creativity. I chose energy, climate and sustainability as the focus of Planet Forward because they are issues that touch everyone, are dynamic and will profoundly affect the way we live.

What are the expectations for involvement level?
We hope to hear from students and workers, civic and business leaders, recognized experts and entrepreneurs. They will make their case and show us what it looks like. We will use their contributions to generate a conversation that is bottom up, rather than top down. The web community will help shape the television show. We have established relationships with partner schools and organizations, businesses and interest groups to cast a wide net for ideas, expertise and experience. We anticipate dozens of submissions on the startup website on a wide range of topics reflecting a highly diverse set of viewpoints. It is our expectation -- and hope -- that the conversation will reveal the complexity of the discussion, the challenge of the moment, and the prospects that technolgy and time hold. Planet Forward comes at an ideal time, as a new president makes energy a top priority and is asking Americans to weigh in, be heard and use technology to become part of the process.

There are so many outlets now for the online community and its many causes; how will Planet Forward stand out and really make an impression?
This one culminates in a television show and then moves back online, so there's movement and a high profile conversation that will generate and promote participation. The process will reward the best submissions -- most informative, creative, persuasive -- with a potential appearance on the television show, where contributors will come face to face with decision-makers. So the community meets the power brokers. It's an opportunity to shape the debate. And it starts online.

How exactly do you see this sort of "bottom-up, citizens-leading" initiative resulting in real-world change?
We're introducing Planet Forward at a time when the new president is inviting citizens to get involved, have a voice and shape the decisions the country will be making. Planet Forward will give citizens not just a voice, but a camera and a platform -- and it will connect citizens with decision-makers in the public and the private sector. They will discuss and debate and influence the process from the ground up.

So there it is. If we want to make change, our excuse of “I would do something about it if I could” is flimsier than ever. Who knows if Planet Forward will end up amounting to real change? Not me, not Frank Sesno, not anyone.

But it could – and you or I could be the one to make it happen.

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Hyundai’s Green Push

Wednesday, January 21, 2009 by Kyle Scribner

Hyundai’s Dr. Hyun-Soon Lee, next to the Genesis
Hyundai recently announced one of the biggest green initiatives ever by an auto company: the Genesis Forest carbon-offset project.

The world’s fifth-largest automaker is working with Carbonfund.org to offset the first year of emissions from all Hyundai Genesis sedans through the conservation and reforestation of tropical forest in Brazil.

They work it this way: Estimate the number of Genesis vehicles they’ll sell in the model’s first year (they debuted in June), then figure the amount of carbon dioxide those cars will emit, then calculate how much forest it takes to chew through that much carbon dioxide. Working with Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standards, Hyundai came up with 93,170 metric tons of CO2, to be offset by 3,000 acres of forest.

Let’s take the math a little further. Suppose we’re going to buy a Genesis. We want to know just how much tropical forest we’ll be “saving” with our purchase, right? The Hyundai/Carbonfund calculator can help.

It tells us that if we drive a Hyundai Genesis (3.8 L) 12,000 miles, it emits 5.069 tons of CO2. So simply by puttering back-and-forth to work everyday, picking up the groceries, and doing other assorted driverly tasks, we’re saving .16 acres. A tenth of an acre might not seem like much, but consider there are 200-400 trees per acre in the Amazonian rainforest.

Theoretically, this all means that if you buy a Hyundai Genesis this year, you’re saving about 50 trees in the Brazilian rainforest. Pretty cool.

Hyundai is also awarding three $35,000 grants to whoever can come up with new ways to help forests, following CCB standards.

This is all part of the “Hyundai Blue Drive” strategy. Keep an eye on this space for more details and insight from Hyundai executives.

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FOIA To The Rescue?

Friday, January 16, 2009 by Kyle Scribner

FOIA. In this day of ubiquitous acronyms, there may be no more important yet little-known term than this.

It’s short for the Freedom Of Information Act. I won’t pretend to be an expert, as I’ve never utilized it, and in fact only in the past year started to really pay attention to it and how it gives us behind-the-scenes glimpses of that forever-running passion play in DC.

But for a journalist doing an in-depth story on anything related to the government, it’s their bread and butter, their ticket to the truth. And so it is all ours, because FOIA ensures access to federal agencies’ records is open to anyone – all you have to do is ask, in writing.

There is, of course, a catch: FOIA requests can be turned down, based on nine exemptions and three exclusions, including that old chestnut “national security,” as well as “Records or Information that Could Reasonably be Expected to Interfere with Enforcement Proceedings.”
It’s this exemption that is of particular interest to us now, as it’s the one (apparently) that the Bush administration is using to deny a FOIA request made by online newsletter Greenwire.

As Greenwire’s Darren Samuelsohn explains, The White House Office of Management and Budget has rejected attempts to uncover the EPA’s sealed "endangerment finding" documents, which reportedly reveal greenhouse gas emissions do in fact pose a health threat, making them fair game for regulation. The EPA has maintained they don’t have the right to regulate such emissions, as famously demonstrated when it denied California a waiver to regulate vehicle emissions.

The more jaded among us have read this as EPA putting money (the influence of the U.S. auto industry) ahead of Americans’ health, a supposition pretty much substantiated with incoming EPA chief Lisa Jackson’s recent comments: “Science will be the backbone of what EPA does.”

Jackson’s implication, of course, is that science has NOT been the backbone of what the EPA does (at least for, say, the past 8 years).

Greenwire plans to sue for release of the full endangerment finding document, though it may not come to that with Jackson and company soon taking the stage. So this particular secretive drama should all be out in the open soon. But there will be others, despite the “fully open” promise of Obama.

And FOIA will be there to help – most of the time.

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Kyle Scribner is a born-again nature freak who also happens to be an editor at Captivate Network.

You know that exhilarated feeling you got as a kid when you would go down to the pond to catch frogs? It never really goes away; it’s just dormant. So I'm here to slap a mix of facts and borderline balanced opinion on you, to poke a stick at the nature freak slumbering in us all and maybe get him to once again come out and play.

And we might even learn a few things about the environment as we go.


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About Green Among Gray

How do you commune with nature or become part of the solution to the environmental crisis when you're trapped in a cement-and-glass, gas-guzzling, power-sucking, emissions-spewing metropolis 8 hours (or more) a day? How do you go 'green' in a world of gray?

Actually, there are plenty of ways, and Green Among Gray aims to show high-rise inhabitants how they can help ease the load on the environment and on their minds by exploring natural oases, conservation tips, and other ways to stay green while working in the concrete-built world of the big city.

Look for short updates on the latest environmental news along with periodic longer features on specific places and events that allow big-city workers to get close to nature.