Thursday, April 27, 2017

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The mourning cloak – the first butterfly of spring

If you were out and about in the woods enjoying some of our nice April days, you likely encountered – and were surprised by -- a mourning cloak butterfly. This fair-sized butterfly (about the size of a monarch), always catches hikers off guard because butterflies are the insects least expected to be seen as we climb out of the cold of our long winter. After all, aren’t they insects of the summer months, appearing weeks after they entered the world as caterpillars?

Mourning cloaks are different. They actually hibernate and can survive our harshest of winters as adults, even when the temps drop below zero. Other species of Lepidoptera winter-over in cocoons or as eggs. To survive Jack Frost, mourning cloaks will search out sheds and brush piles, hide on the undersides of eaves, and go under loose bark on trees.

Mourning cloaks get their name from their black wings which look like the clothes someone would wear in grief. From a distance, they do look plaintive, even totally black in flight. But, in closer inspection, you will see some stark beauty. The black wings have a tan-hued (sometimes yellowish) fringe. Just inside that fringe are six or seven blue dots per wing. The undersides of the wing look like weathered wood, giving the butterflies camouflage when their wings are closed. They are gorgeous butterflies no matter the season and especially so in early spring when the forests have yet to green out.

But, they sure don’t look pretty when they’re babies. Their caterpillars are ugly little critters, about two-and-a-half inches long, a bluish black with a row of red spots on their back with countless branching spines sticking out of them. Their appearance screams “don’t touch!” And, don’t…the hairs on those branched spines are stingers and they don’t feel good at all. Those caterpillars can be problematic at times, as they feast on the leaves of poplars, willows, and elms. When in good numbers, they will defoliate trees.

Here in Western New York they don’t lay waste to trees like they used to. That’s because the elms -- the preferred foodstuff of mourning cloaks which are also known as “elm worms” -- are virtually nonexistent, wiped out by Dutch elm disease. You’d be hard pressed to find a healthy elm over 25 feet in height anywhere on the Niagara Frontier, let alone saplings in any number.

When I was a kid, elms were still fairly common, but nothing in size like they used to be decades earlier. But, they still gave plenty of nourishment to mourning cloaks and that’s why I saw more of the critters when I was a kid. On any given April day in the woods I’d see a few mourning cloaks.

Now, I might see a dozen of them over the course of the whole spring.

They are a spectacle nonetheless, one to be admired when you are out exploring the Niagara Frontier.

+Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 27 April 2017 All WNY News

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rare earth elements: A national crisis is in the making

The history of mankind has been filled with numerous wars, of both the military and trade sort, over elements that come from the Earth. Gold and silver have long been at the epicenter of such struggles, many a civilization driven to destruction over their greed - or other peoples’ desires - for the metals.

There are other precious elements now taking their place as resources hungered by all and they are already testing the balance of power in global trade. Rare earth elements (REE) are a collection of 17 members of the periodic table. All of them are not as well-known as metals like copper and zinc yet they are just as important. REE like yttrium (cancer treatments), lanthanum (hybrid car batteries), cerium (catalytic converters), neodymium (magnets) and gadolinium (nuclear reactors) are crucial to our modern society and, truthfully, we could not live without them.

Like gold in our world’s long history, whoever possesses REE, possesses the power. 

We don’t.

Currently, China mines in excess of 90% of the world’s REE while holding 40% of the Earth’s reserves. The United States has 9% of the world’s reserves and is mining nothing.

Needless to say, having all of our eggs in one basket – especially one held by China - is dangerous for national security. Just ask Japan.

Back in September of 2010, Chinese officials temporarily unleashed a trade embargo that prevented shipments of REE to Japan, scaring the dickens out of Japanese manufacturers. It was believed that China did this as a bargaining chip to secure the release of a Chinese captain detained by Japanese officials.

In the whole scheme of things, a political impasse like that is nothing in comparison to the potential for conflict that exists between China and the US. China controls $1.12 trillion in US debt and we’ve had strained relations of late for various reasons, one being a new President who won on a campaign blasting China and the other reason being the flexing of muscles between the US and North Korea (China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and likely the supplier of the physical and intellectual resources needed to make Pyongyang’s ballistics). It wouldn’t take much for an agitated China to impose temporary REE restrictions.

China has dominated the REE marketplace because of their less-stringent environmental standards. Most of the 17 elements are not rare as the name supplies. They are widely available throughout the world yet are rare in finished, usable form because the excavation and processing of them can be toxic to the environment if not properly controlled.

America has been out of the REE game for years because of those warranted environmental concerns. But, environmentalists in the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as other unexpected REE champions like the news show “60 Minutes”, now see merit in the development of REE projects because they know that, ironically, clean energy technologies (like wind turbines and new-age automobiles) require rare earths. It’s a catch-22: One set of resources (REE) must be capitalized at cost to the environment to prevent other resources (oil, coal) from harming the environment.

A few years back a company named Molycorp was finally given the okay to tap into a vast REE reserve in the Mojave Desert after an 8-year suspension of operations by the federal government. That mine offers the single largest deposit of REE outside of China. The value of the materials couldn’t overcome the agonies of that prolonged suspension, as Molycorp went bankrupt in 2014 and the last of the US REE mines closed in 2015.  

It is hoped that other projects are developed and quickly at that. Doing so will require a serious public-private partnership that will need the government, environmentalists and corporations working hand in hand to develop guidelines and processes necessary for a relatively clean and safe realization of our resources’ potentials.

Those entities also need to follow the lofty goals set by Apple in recent weeks. The tech giant said that they want to wean themselves off of mined resources and one day produce all of their products from recycled materials – including recycled REE, which would be an extraordinary undertaking in itself.  

That sort of forward thinking is what we need to weather the storm ahead. Without the ability to produce REE, we could be heading into a new national crisis, one where we will suffer in the health, energy, and defense industries until we can get back on track in REE capture and end our reliance on China and the other players in the global marketplace.

From the 24 April 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The Lockport Nature Trail – the ultimate springtime hike

The rich soils of Western New York’s forests support an incredible number of beautiful wildflowers in the spring. April and May see some forest floors virtually blanketed with array of colors.

Having immediate access to such floral displays is often difficult. For example, the hills of the Southern Tier are especially beautiful, but access is moderately difficult for a family looking to go on a spring hike – while Allegany County might sport tens of thousands of acres of state forests, most are without trail networks, making for some serious bushwhacking. Plus, getting there can be quite the haul for anyone coming from any of WNY’s population centers.

To see our vernal plants in all their glory, one need only head north to the town of Lockport Nature Trail. This wonderful 100-acre woodland is accessible to the masses – it’s just 45 minutes from downtown Buffalo and 30 minutes away from Niagara Falls. Getting there is easy: For most Western New Yorkers, take Route 78 (Transit Road) north through the city of Lockport. After passing the Niagara County fairground, you will go down a hill. Near the bottom is Slayton Settlement Road on your right. Turn there and the nature trail will be about a mile down Slayton Settlement Road on your right.

You will be greeted by a friendly sign at the park entrance and a stone and grass parking lot that can hold approximately 20 cars. The park is open all year long, from dawn to dusk. Don’t let the closed gate at the back of the parking lot scare you away, that is only there to keep cars out of the trails and, when open, allow the town’s park employees to keep the trails maintained.

And that they do -- quite well.

Every portion of the trail network -- which might approach 2 miles in total length if you take every primary trail and lesser-used sub-trail -- is in tip-top shape. They are wide, there are no overhanging branches or fallen trees, many are covered with fine crushed gravel and there are very few mud pits (I encountered only one on a recent April hike). Many trails are flat and will allow the use of a baby stroller or wheelchair; there are a few rises heading to the trails to the southeast which might prove to be problematic for wheeled transports.

That’s what makes the Lockport Nature Trail such a finely-accessible field trip – families with young kids, senior citizens, those with a handicap, and anyone who doesn’t count themselves as a rugged outdoorsman can enjoy this hike…as can even the most seasoned of naturalists.

You will also find that this might be one of the most popular dog trails in WNY; early last Saturday morning, I encountered seven different hikers with dogs. Unlike many such trails that I’ve encountered in places like the Alabama Swamps and the Adirondacks, there is a good culture at Lockport and the hikers pick up after their best friends – I didn’t have to dodge one “land mine” while on the trails (critical for someone taking a five year old who doesn’t watch where she’s walking on a hike).

While those dogs will severely limit the amount of mammals you will see on your hike (deer, woodchucks, and rabbits will be scared off), they have no effect on the other impressive aspects of animal and plant life at the park.

The birds are especially abundant and varied because their surroundings are the same.

The deciduous forest is mixed in age. To the west it features brush chock full of hawthorns, honeysuckles, and ashes. The eastern two-thirds of the park feature older trees with a taller and wider canopy.

Such a mix makes the forest a great nesting site for woodpeckers, cardinals, thrushes, and vireos. That same diversity makes the park an extraordinary place to observe colorful warblers by the dozens as they migrant through the region in May.

It’s also a great place to find snakes. Prior to reforestation, the park was a gravel pit and that left tons of exposed rocks, especially in the higher areas and along the ridges. If you poke around those rocks in the summer, it’s not out of the question to find a dozen or so snakes a day (most being the common garter snake).

But, I digress.

This column began talking about spring wildflowers and that’s what this park is all about this time of year.

If you’re putting the Lockport Nature Trail on your bucket list, make sure you visit sometime between April 15 and May 15. For that one month span, the rich soils along the stony ridges and creek beds boast some incredible flowers.

You will see thousands of spring beauties in April. These attractive little potatoes of the spring woods were featured in an installment of this column last year.

At the same time, the forest floor will be covered with the green and red leaves of the trout lily (or adder’s tongue) and it’s beautiful yellow flower as well as the brilliant deep purple of the wild violet.

As you head into May, the woods will be painted with white as you will see numerous white trilliums (a species in major decline across WNY) and the interesting bloodroot that Native Americans once used as war paint.

You can also encounter some real Niagara County rarities. This trail is the only public place in Niagara County outside of the Niagara Gorge where one can find Dutchman’s breeches and the strange-looking maidenhair fern. Those plants are more readily seen in rocky places like the Gorge or in the high country of Allegany County, but typically, the soils aren’t of the right nutrients or coolness to allow their growth in Niagara’s flatlands.

All of these, and 20 more early-spring species, make for great sightseeing – always take pictures of the plants and never, ever pick them.

The flowers aren’t the only remarkable plants in the park. Despite the land being almost deforested 100 years ago for gravel, there stands some awesome trees. There are two brutish oak trees on the premises, one believed to be 180 years old and another in excess of 200 years in age. Stop and appreciate these ancient giants.

Don’t overlook some of the other trees in the park. The woods also holds the largest hornbeam (ironwood) tree that I’ve ever seen.

There’s also another reason to visit the trail in the spring. The water is flowing.

Going through the park is a stony creek that feeds Red Creek (which is the east branch of Eighteenmile Creek). In the late summer it can dry right up. In the spring, she flows mightily and that makes for one of the best photo ops in the park….it has an attractive waterfalls of about five feet in height cutting through some ragged, multi-layered rock shelves. It’s truly a sight to behold.

As a matter of fact, the entire trail system is.

So, if you have a hankering to explore the Niagara Frontier in the coming weeks, make the drive to Lockport. The Lockport Nature Trail is a real gem, a place to take the whole family and experience nature.

+Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 20 April 2017 All WNY News

Monday, April 17, 2017

Eating healthily on a budget

It’s well known that America’s adults are battling an obesity epidemic, with more than two-thirds of them overweight or obese.

They aren’t alone. The bad habits that led to that health crisis know no boundaries when it comes to age; now, their children and grandchildren are overcome with obesity.

One of every 5 teens is now considered overweight and those kids are besieged with related sicknesses. A January report issued by Fair Health, a national clearinghouse for health insurance claims data, showed that between 2011 and 2015, child and adolescent claims for Type 2 diabetes more than doubled while claims for prediabetes rose 110 percent, high blood pressure rose 67 percent and sleep apnea went up 161 percent.

Why is this happening?

The default refrain from health professionals is that it’s too expensive to eat healthily.

That defeatist response is the furthest thing from the truth. Healthy eating is cheap eating. Americans can eat well and not break the budget.  

Look no further than the menus at any given fast food chain which often becomes the convenient lunch and dinner for many. The high-fat, high-sodium, high-sugar meal deals average $6. For a family of 4, that’s $24. Why spend $24 when there are plenty of beneficial alternatives that can be had on the cheap?

A family would be better served by brown bagging it. Tuna is a nutritious and important protein that can be purchased at one of the local discount supermarkets for 60 to 80 cents a can, one of which can feed 2 people. Throw in low-salt, low-corn-syrup bread and some cheese and you’re looking at sandwich under $2 per person. $4 less per person -- and a whole lot better -- than the fast food fare. The cost of lunch suddenly went from $24 to $8.

Burger joints are just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the following alternatives to “normal” diets:

Most families likely indulge in junk food. Americans love their potato chips and corn chips. People may think they are easy and cheap snacks, but are they? Take a stroll around the grocery aisles and you’ll see most bags of chips nearing $4. How long does that bag last? A lot of times it won’t survive one feeding if there are a few people around. Due to the fatty goodness and addictive MSG, it’s not uncommon for a household to burn through a few bags a week. Alternatively, you can visit any local roadside stand or farmers market and buy a large bag of apples or other fruits for $5 that will last for days. They are just as satisfying and incredibly useful for our bodies. So, what may be $16 per week is down to $5 to $10 (depending on appetite).

That same family probably opts for processed foods in a variety of packages and cans for lunches during the workday or dinners at night. How much are sodium-soaked cans of chili or soup? Around $1.50 each and you need multiples to feed a family. Calorie–heavy prepared meals (TV dinners, pastas, boxed meats) are pricy, too, with price tags around $8 to $12 for family sizes. Assume 4 people eating canned foods, 7 lunches per week. That’s $42. Processed dinners might cost $84/week.  

Those financial and health obstacles can be overcome with a little time, effort and planning.  Take chilis and soups for example. Most every day at work I eat a healthy bowl of homemade chili or a quinoa/vegetable/lean meat mix. I make this stuff in batches. My cost: $0.80/lunch. That would cut most lunch budgets in half (far more if they frequent fast food joints).

Likewise, look at grocery sales fliers that show chicken at 99 cents to $1.80 per pound depending on cut and frozen vegetables for $1 per bag; all this while produce is available in and out of season at local farm markets. Numerous tasty dishes can be made from those items, all at $10 per dinner or less to feed a family. The cost may be similar to the processed foods, but they build a body in a good way and not in a bad way.  

The USDA says that the typical family of 4 spends $150 to $240 a week on food. Using some of the examples provided, eating healthy falls at the lower end of that budget -- if not below it. So, why are we kidding ourselves about the real cost of eating healthy?

It might just be that the high cost bogeyman conveniently masks the true and more controversial cause of America’s enlarged waistlines -- our lack of responsibility and discipline. We choose to eat bad foods because we like them, we’re too lazy to cook and we have a certain weakness of will when it comes to our stomachs.

Bad health is our own doing. 

It’s high time we started saving money and saving lives.

From the 17 April 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers