Saturday, April 24, 2010

Safari 7: a wilderness tour of Queens

During a few days spent in New York, I had a chance to briefly visit the Safari 7 Base Camp, set up in Grand Central for Earth Week.

Safari 7 is pretty much exactly what I have been thinking about doing ever since I worked as an Urban Park Ranger a few years ago in Inwood Hill Park: a guided tour that highlights nature and ecology in the places we typically overlook those things. I'm glad that someone actually had the initiative to make it happen. From the project's description:

“The 7 line is a physical, urban transect through New York City's most diverse range of ecosystems. Affectionately called the International Express, the 7 line runs from Manhattan's dense core, under the East River, and through a dispersed mixture of residences and parklands before terminating in downtown Flushing. Safari 7 circulates an ongoing series of podcasts and maps that explore the complexity, biodiversity, conflicts, and potentials of New York City's ecosystems. Tours are available online and can be experienced independently, or in group expeditions and workshops organized by the Safari 7 team.”

The "Base Camp" at Grand Central included an array of gorgeous banners that highlighted things like the aquatic wildlife of the East River, the ecosystems of decomposition at work in the city's huge “cemetery belt,” and the dual role of urban chickens, as food sources and as illegal fighters. The centerpiece of the project is a series of podcasts, short enough to listen to between stops, that describe various ecological phenomena at work at each stop along the line.

Thus, as you ride under the East River, you can listen to a podcast about the tiny island formed from that tunnel's excavation, and learn about the cormorants that nest there. Or hear about the ecology of courtyard gardens in Queens, while you try to get a glimpse of one from the elevated portion of the line.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to write more about those individual podcasts and some of the issues they discuss in more detail. Much of the subject matter isn't unique to Queens - no matter what city or backwoods internet-enabled cabin you live in, there's something for you to learn about your own human habitat. Visit to download your own safari audio tour.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Running for Bayside/Parkside

At the urging of some of my neighbors, I have undertaken a bid for Maine's State House, to represent District 119 (the Bayside and Parkside neighborhoods) when Rep. Herb Adams retires this year.

If you read this blog, you're probably familiar with where I stand on a lot of issues. Obviously, getting the state to take more aggressive action on climate change, and making the Maine Dept. of Transportation more considerate and proactive about sustainable modes of transportation, are big goals of mine. But I'm also interested in doing more to cultivaqte small businesses as an economic development strategy, promoting more walkable downtown development in Maine's smaller villages and Main Street areas, and doing more to support immigrant populations in our neighborhood and across the state.

In order to have a fighting chance, I need to collect 60 $5 contributions in one week, in order to qualify for the state's Clean Elections Funding. These contributions all have to come from the Bayside, Parkside, and East Bayside neighborhoods. So if you're my neighbor, PLEASE go to the state's secure website and make a contribution online:

Note that even though I've changed my name to "MilNeil," I'm still listed as "McNeil" with the state. Hopefully this will be sorted out by November.

Even more importantly (because I definitely need help with this), if you know anyone else who lives in Bayside or Parkside, please vouch for me and ask them to chip in five bucks as well. Send them here, or to, if they'd like to learn more about me.

Thanks, readers!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Paramilitary Conservation

Last week's New Yorker has an exhaustively researched report on Mark and Delia Owens, two conservationists who worked for much of their life running a well-funded conservation foundation in eastern Zambia's North Luangwa National Park.

The Owenses have long been minor celebrities of conservation, having written two successful books about their projects in Africa. One of the most interesting aspects of Jeffrey Goldberg's report is how it collects quotes and details from other public publications and broadcasts, from National Geographic to Sports Illustrated, in previous coverage of the Owens's work in Zambia. Much of the past coverage more or less portrays the Owenses as white saviors for the dark continent - a sort of Kipling fable where environmentalism has replaced the Anglican church. The Sports Illustrated story was even headlined "A Light in the Darkness" (as far as I can tell, Joseph Conrad didn't get any credit).

And just like a Kipling fable, it took the audience a little while to realize just how fucked up this seemingly-innocent story about wild animals in Africa really is.

When they first arrived in Zambia, there was a massive trade in ivory that was decimating elephant populations, and poaching inside the park became an early bête noir for the couple. At first, they focused on offering more productive and sustainable alternatives to local residents, with small agricultural industries that simultaneously provided jobs and alternative sources of protein to local residents. To their credit, the Owenses kept up this local economic aid throughout the duration of their work in Zambia, and supplemented it with medical care, schools, and other social programs.

But when these measures didn't produce the results they wanted, the couple turned to the small force of "scouts" that were charged with protecting park wildlife. Under their authority, and with funding from American conservation funders, these "scouts" evolved from a bedraggled and non-confrontational band of government employees into an intimidating paramilitary force. Goldberg makes a compelling case, based on dozens of personal accounts and writings from the Owenses themselves, that this force regularly operated outside the rule of law, with deadly results.

The central episode of the story is a literal hour-long episode of a 1996 ABC News documentary, broadcast on national television, about the Owenses and their work in Zambia. The program included a snuff film: footage of an alleged poacher getting shot and killed in the woods. The off-camera murderer was not identified in the program, and ABC's crew never notified Zambian authorities. It's hard to believe, but the televised killing seemed to have little effect on the Owens Foundation and their aggressive way of operating in Zambia.

These crimes, and the American media's permissive, even reverent attitude towards them, illustrate some uncomfortable truths about traditional environmentalism. First, it illustrates the arrogance of the myths we keep about an Edenic, pre-civilized nature, or of Nature as a place where there are no people. The truth is that people have lived in the wild for a million years, and they have important roles in natural ecosystems - we're part of nature, not above it.

Many of the alleged "poachers" in Zambia were recent descendants of natives who had hunted in North Luangwa for generations before British colonialists expelled them to create an artificially human-free "park" in the 19th century. Americans did the same thing to Blackfoot tribes in Glacier National Park and to the Nez Perce who lived in Yellowstone. The idea of a wild frontier without human neighbors is closely bound to the history of atrocities from American and European colonial ambitions.

Second, the Owens story reveals how, as with any important cause, environmentalism can sometimes grow to seem so important to its adherents that it supersedes their own sense of humanity. Mark Owens claimed to be sickened at the gunfire exchanged between his patrols and the poachers. But nevertheless he went out every night in his plane to do battle with them. For him, protecting (and perhaps avenging) the lives of the park's elephants was more important than human life - even if it ended up being his own.

I won't spoil it for you, but there's a substantial Maine connection to the story as well. Goldberg's report takes a taut 17,000 words to cover all the angles, and for such a complicated story - one that spans several decades and involves dozens of characters - the article maintains a tight sense of suspense throughout. I won't even bother linking to the online version - find or borrow a copy of the magazine and enjoy it over the course of a long evening.