Society for Conservation Biology Grants

After a rewarding and draining trip out to Southern California, I’m back in Knoxville and beginning the adventure of catching up. I have posts about the Emotional Geographies conference I attended in Long Beach as well as some urban investigations in LA in the works, and both should be up by later this week or next.

I write so little on this site about biology (especially conservation biology), that I figured the least I could do was give a slight signal boost to a great grant opportunity. It’s an area I know so little about, so rather than trying to publish uninformed opinions here, it would be more constructive just to pass this along. – Tyler


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This photo comes from the Orange County Society for Conservation, which may or may not be directly related to the Society for Conservation’s at large. I’m just putting it here because this owl is adorable.

The Society for Conservation Biology is pleased to solicit applications for the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship Program. These two year postdoctoral fellowships provide support for outstanding early-career scientists of any nationality who want to better link conservation science and theory with policy and management, improving and expanding their research skills while directing their efforts towards conservation problems of pressing concern for the United States.

Each Fellow proposes a team of at least two mentors: 1. an academic mentor who encourages the Fellow’s continued development as a conservation scientist and 2. a conservation practitioner who connects the Fellow and her/his research to practical applications. Fellows may be administratively based at either an academic institution or conservation organization in the United States, typically the location of either the academic or practitioner mentor. We encourage applicants to explore both options and consider being based at the non-academic institution as that is the world less familiar to most early-career scientists and can provide valuable experience.

Fellows will spend up to three weeks per year during their fellowship attending Program-sponsored professional development retreats. These retreats provide opportunities to cultivate skills typically not covered during their academic education including: leadership, communications, professional and funder networks, and to gain better understanding of policy making and application of research.

The Smith Fellows Program and its administrative host, the Society for Conservation Biology, are committed to equity, inclusion and diversity and invites individuals who bring a diversity of culture, experience and ideas to apply. We envision that the cadre of scientists supported by the Smith Fellows Program will eventually assume leadership positions across the field of conservation science. Fellows are selected on the basis of innovation, potential for leadership and strength of proposal.

The deadline for receipt of application materials is 8 September 2017. The Program expects to select five Fellows in January 2018 for appointments to start between March and September 2018. Fellowship awards include an annual salary of $55,000, benefits, and generous travel and research budgets.

For detailed proposal guidelines, please visit the Smith Fellow websiteQuestions may be directed to Shonda Foster, Program Director, by emailing sfoster@conbio.orgPlease share within your professional networks!

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My Hometown and McMansion Hell

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Not my town, but it could easily have been.

I grew up in a small town that, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, became a “small town.” If you grew up in one of these towns during that era, you probably know exactly what I mean. If not, allow me to explain.

My father grew up in this town when, nestled between the WWII and Vietnam eras, it was the quintessential New England community. People knew you based on your family name, you graduated with maybe 100 other kids, and you entertained yourself by going to the movies, hanging out at the nearest diner, or setting off fireworks inside an old TV in a local meadow (actually, that last part may have been drawn more from my adolescence…). Anyway, it retained a good deal of that character through the Vietnam era when my dad went to college and eventually met my mom. They were living in Boston when I was born, and then when my sister came along, we moved back to said small town where he had grown up and my grandparents still lived.

The year was 1986, and we moved into a house bigger than what we had lived in for the first few years of my life. It was by no means a mansion (it was completely modest compared to other houses in my town), but the street it sat on had not existed when my dad was a kid. The town had certainly grown, but the population (as of the 1990 census) was well under 10,000. Over the following decade, though, the population would balloon from roughly 8,500 to well over 18,000. It was no longer a genuine small town in the Mellencamp sense; it was transforming into a “small town”: a community that capitalized on widespread skepticism of all (or at least, most) things urban and clung to relevance as a bucolic simulacrum of its former self.

Even as a small child, I noticed various indicators of those gradually-forming quotation marks. No indicator shone more brightly than the new developments of these big, ugly, uniform houses that were popping up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I don’t remember when I first learned the term “McMansion;” it may have been from a friend later in high school. Either way, it made me laugh.

None of this is meant to disparage the experience I had growing up where I did; a lot of the reasons it grew so quickly during the Bush I and Clinton eras were what made living there nice for most of us. The public schools were really good, it wasn’t hard to get (or commute) to New York or Boston, and the crime rate was so low that (1) most anything violent that did happen was an isolated incident and (2) the highest-profile petty crime was often committed by the cops.

I never disrespected people for working hard for years to buy those big conforming houses and put roofs over their families’ heads, but even as a teenager, I failed to understand why anyone would consider these clunky and gaudy fake mansions a signpost of success. I suppose that real estate developers at the time had some pretty good PR campaigns, and the baby boomers really devoured what they were selling: Gaze upon my really, really big house! Look at how successful I am! Are you not jealous of my amazing riches!?

Though I’m sure Syracuse had its share of these kind of developments, my exposure to them was somewhat limited as a University student. When I moved to Washington after college, my roommate at the time was playing in a band slated to open for Rusted Root (yep) at the 9:30 Club. He asked if I wanted to help him out as a guitar tech, and I jumped at the chance. The day of the gig, we drove out to one of the planned communities on the city’s periphery for a rehearsal with a drummer the band had hired for that gig. The drummer was an incredibly good dude and, unlike the vast majority of people who lived in these McMansions, actually worked in this town (rather than contributing to the choking of the DC-area roadways). His wife had their first baby on the way, so I understood the need for space, but at least three of the rooms in this house were empty, save for maybe a piece of furniture or two. The ceilings rose a couple stories off the ground, which I can only imagine made the heating bills astronomical six months out of the year.

The other moment that really stuck with me, however, was how long it took us to find the correct house. We had the address. The houses were almost completely indistinguishable from one another, and the addresses were all about 5-digits long for some reason (there weren’t 10,000 houses on the road that circled through there, so it’s still a mystery to me). I remembered the old wives tale of the London drunk who kept wandering into the wrong house during the London fog, since he could not tell his own house apart from all the others the working class had been shuffled into during the age of industry.

This was yet another contradiction of McMansions: why would one still feel special in a giant house if everyone around them has the exact same house or at least something very, very close to it? Thankfully, building codes prevented people from building cheap, inflated houses in neighborhoods nestled together with more modest homes, as seen in Kate Wagner’s TEDx talk, embedded below.

Kate Wagner began McMansion Hell as a blog last year as a way to make fun of these quintessentially American excesses. What she probably did not expect was to generate an articulation of this frustration that so many of us have been feeling for decades. Last year, an acquaintance of mine posted on social media that “if you buy a record solely because you think it will go up in value, you deserve to die cold, alone, and penniless.” Buying houses, at least to me, is a similar venture when you are not wealthy. Buy a house because you look forward to being able to come home to it for decades. Buy a house because you want to leave your mark and imbue it with character, “turning space into place,” as the saying goes. Don’t buy a house just because you want to show it off and then flip it for a marginal profit, especially one that wastes resources and looks stupid. Every day, my deep respect grows for architects, graphic designers, and other people with professional grades of  taken-for-granted knowledge, and this is a quintessential example of why more geographers, sociologists, and economists should listen to them.

 

UT Geographer Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer discusses TN Wildfires with CNN

It’s always cool to see someone in your department speaking with the national press, especially at such a teachable moment for local policy-makers and an educational moment for those of us who didn’t realize quite how prone regions like this have always been to wildfires.

I can’t re-blog the CNN Post, so I’ll link the original post (with the video) here, and I’ll post the article text below. All the best wishes to those affected by the wildfires in Gatlinburg and the surrounding area.

‘Gatlinburg was made to burn,’ professor says

Gatlinburg, Tennessee (CNN)

The devastating wildfires that struck this week in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, could not have been stopped, experts say. Sudden winds reaching near-hurricane force caught people off guard, separated them from loved ones and forced thousands down tiny, winding mountain roads in pure panic. At least 11 people were killed and more are missing, some 700 structures have been lost and more than 17,000 acres have burned — most of them in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“The conditions that we normally experience in this region are not conducive to wildfires,” park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said. “We are a temperate rain forest.”
When not in a drought, the National Park Service has a very difficult time even doing a controlled burn because of the humidity in the air. Soehn says natural fires are very rare in the park.
But according to a local fire ecologist in the area, wildfires in the region weren’t always a rarity.
“If you look for it, you can find evidence of past wildfires in and around Gatlinburg,” said biogeographer Henri Grissino-Mayer of the University of Tennessee. “You can’t really prevent forest fires.”

‘Gatlinburg was made to burn’

Grissino-Mayer has studied wildfires for over 30 years and, more specifically, those in the Southeast for 20.

“Gatlinburg was made to burn,” he said.
He says he’s been predicting a fire in the area for 15 years. Residents need to know that they are living in a very fire-prone region because of its proximity to a national forest, he explained.

“This area in the Southeast especially is what we call the wildland-urban interface,” an area where large uninhabited lands neighbor urban development. That region, especially Gatlinburg, “is a very dangerous place.”
Being next to this big, uninhabited forest is the reason people build here, Grissino-Mayer says.
“This is the Southeast at its best,” he said.
And people want to have that rustic feel, he says, so they build beautiful wood homes on a hillside in the forest. Looking over the Great Smoky Mountains outside Pigeon Forge, Grissino-Mayer points out older trees that have been charred by wildfire in the past four years.

Next to one charred stump, a log cabin is being built. Then he notices a fence that was recently installed alongside the charred remains of the old one. He says people will buy this cabin without realizing that the one before it burned in a wildfire.
“This is fuel,” he said, pointing to the woods. “Everywhere around us is fuel, everything: trees, grass, shrubs, weeds. Everything. … All of this is fuel, and then guess what: All of this fuel butts up to a house made of fuel.”

History in the trees

Tourism in the area really kicked off with the foundation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Many displaced mountain families moved into town to develop new enterprises or take jobs in new hotels and restaurants.”
Tourism increased after World War II, about the same time wildfires started to diminish.
Grissino-Mayer is one of the world’s leading experts on tree rings. Looking at tree rings across the Great Smoky Mountains, he and his team have found a long history of wildfires. A slice of a tree has a series of rings, each one representing a year in the growth period of the tree. In the year of a wildfire, the fire leaves a scar along that ring. By looking at the scars, you can count the number of years between wildfires.

Grissino-Mayer runs his finger along one slice of a tree. From the early 1800s to early 1900s, he says, there was a “low-intensity fire” about every seven years. These aren’t the kind of fires we are used to seeing today: They didn’t roar. Instead, they crept along the understory, the area beneath the tree canopy, near the ground. Fires were smaller because there wasn’t enough fuel on the ground to make them any bigger.
That is, until the 1930s and ’40s. He points to an area near the edge of the slice that has almost no imperfections. This clean area represents almost a century without wildfires.

“We now have, after the last fire, 80 years of fuels built up,” Grissino-Mayer said. “And that means when fires return, it will be much more intense. We call that the Smokey Bear effect.”

Smokey Bear: More harm than good?

“Smokey the Bear is probably one of the best educational tools a federal agency has ever come up with,” Grissino-Mayer said.

The US Forest Service’s ad campaign has informed the public that we need to be aware of wildfires and to be better stewards of our forests. However, he said, “Smokey has done his job too well.”
It is now the public perception that wildfires are bad. Actually, he said, they’re beneficial. Forests need fires to recycle nutrients and clear the understory. Many species even require fire to thrive, he says, such as yellow pines, which must have a fire to regenerate. Dana Soehn agrees — when you talk about fire in relation to the ecosystem, there can be a mixed message when using Smokey the Bear.

However, there have been times that Smokey is a good reminder of what things can cause a wildfire — like cigarette butts and campfires. Recently, Dolly Parton — who owns Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, near Gatlinburg — joined Smokey for a public service announcement that taught people how to prevent wildfires.

Could Gatlinburg fires have been prevented?

“I don’t think (the wildfire) could have been prevented,” Grissino-Mayer said.
Soehn and others working the incident also believe there was nothing that could have stopped the extreme winds that rapidly spread the flames.The fire had been slowly creeping through the understory for days, said Soehn. By Monday morning the fire had only grown to 35 acres and the National Park Service alerted the surrounding communities. By the afternoon, based on the forecast winds, fire breaks were bulldozed around neighborhoods thought to be in the path of the fire. By 5 p.m. the fire had reached the city limits. When the winds started topping out at 80 mph, fires started spotting — carrying embers very far away and igniting new fires. The wind even knocked down power lines, which, in turn, sparked new fires. Just one hour later, Soehn says, the Gatlinburg Fire Department was battling 20 different structure fires.

“These were very rare and unprecedented conditions that lead to the destruction,” she said. “The opinions that I have heard from the scientists around me this week say that this is completely unpredictable.”

Grissino-Mayer believes that education would’ve helped saved lives and structures.
“There could have been more of an awareness of the danger that wildfire poses to Gatlinburg,” he said. “There could have been more education, more efforts to inform people of what to do and what to look out for and to be more wary.”
Soehn says the park service is proactive when it comes to education.
“With the way the conditions and winds were in this situation I don’t think this would have helped,” she said.
Grissino-Mayer says Gatlinburg could have probably been evacuated sooner, even though he understands how fast the fire flared.
“It is too soon” to begin to evaluate how things were handled, Soehn says. “But anytime there is a situation like this there is going to be learning points that come out of it.”
After the incident is over there will be teams that evaluate and review response and recovery efforts, she said. Grissino-Mayer says people must be aware of the environment and the forest in which they live, and they must understand that fire always has been and always will be a part of these forests.

Music Geography 101: R.E.M.- “Cuyahoga”

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

While I do consider R.E.M. to be the quintessential Southern American rock band and the very paradigm of indie-to-mainstream success, I had not thought of the geography in their lyrics much before last semester. This is odd, I know, as they recorded and released “Stand,” perhaps the most blandly geographic song ever heard on the radio (that dance, though…). However, one of my students in Fall 2014 pleasantly surprised my TA’s and I with this song when her paper came up. It not only provided a breath of fresh air from the torrent of “Walking in Memphis” submissions we had, but it also inspired me to dig deeper into Michael Stipe’s Southern mysticism.

R.E.M., despite becoming one of the biggest bands in the world in the 1990s, never quite shed the “college rock” association. They formed in Athens, GA, which could qualify as one of the best college towns in America. The music scene at the time was already on the map due to a campy dance-rock culture that could only have thrived in a relatively warm place full of wierdos. Someone told me recently that the band would throw snack cakes out to their crowds at the 40 Watt Club early on; some of those snack cakes are still preserved as mementos/possible eat-this-and-win-$10,000 hangup pieces.

As for Cuyahoga, it’s a county and river in Ohio. The band’s geographic references obviously didn’t stay close to home (Mike Mills’ wonderful song “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” being another case), but this one gave Stipe an ample opportunity to talk about pollution. Famously, the river outside Cleveland caught on fire in 1969, signaling federal cleanup dollars and a whole lot of embarrassment for the city. It was a great joke on The Simpsons, but a terrible reality for the rustbelt city of so few sports championships.

Your Sunday Tortoise

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IMG_0859I’m way behind on work and I don’t have all the resources I need for my latest re-photography post (Columbus, OH edition), so here’s a photo I took of a giant tortoise a few weeks ago. He made an appearance outside of my GEO 101 classroom, so I delayed the start of class for the hordes of my students wanted to join me and going to take a look. I forgot his name, but he was grappling pretty hard at the sides of that wheelbarrow. The RA who worked for his owner had to keep interrupting herself to make sure he didn’t climb his way out of it. I’m hardly an expert in biogeography, but I do know enough to say that turtles and tortoises are the greatest.

Hope everyone is making it through their fall semester. Talk soon.

UTK Geography Research Symposium this Weekend! (Open to the public)

Symposium_logoAs we all wait with bated breath for Shane Rhyne to dig up his old Japanese country music documentary appearance so we can digitize it, I’m very excited to announce the greatest possible distraction in the form of the UTK Department of Geography Research Symposium! This is a biennial invitational event where some of the top cutting-edge researchers in the region come to together to present papers and discuss advances in geographic studies. The proceedings will include a series of posters by undergraduates in the department, a Geography Quiz Bowl event that should get crazy, and a keynote address by Dr. William Moseley of Macalester College. You can download the whole program HERE and you can read about Dr. Moseley  and his work HERE.

I have pasted the schedule of events and details about locations below. For those of you in Knoxville or nearby, see you fine folks this weekend.

Symposium_scheduleFor those of you who would like to see me give a solid preview of what’s to come at the AAG Meeting in Tampa this year, I will be presenting on Friday afternoon in a session with my friends and colleagues Ruth Bowling and Tyler Mitchell (reading for Ryan Taussig). More info is pasted below.

1:00-1:50 Human I (UC 221):

  • “Creating Place, Building Community: A Case Study of the Antagonist Art Movement.”
    by Ruth Bowling, Department of Geography, University of Tennessee
  • “‘The Boston I Knew is Lying on the Ground:’ Reinterpreting Boston Landscapes Through Song.”
    by Tyler Sonnichsen, Department of Geography, University of Tennessee
  • “Landscape and Soundscape in Olivier Messian’s Des canyons aux étoiles. . .”
    by Ryan Taussig, Department of Music, University of Tennessee

Long Beach’s Great Wall of Mulch

I know I don’t post on environmental science and physical geography nearly often enough (or…ever), so here is something fun for you all who may have stumbled upon my site.

from Mayor Foster’s site.

The city of my MA (and home for two wonderful years), Long Beach just completed the world’s first “Great Wall of Mulch.” At first, when I clicked on the link below, I was a bit confused. It seemed like Long Beach embarked on a massive publicity stunt. But, after reading on, I realized that it makes so much more sense than an eyesore concrete barrier, and is also sustainable, relatively inexpensive (only $150K) in addition to being just plain creative. It’ll be interesting to see where else around the world these alternative-material barrier walls start showing up.

For now, take a look at some other photos of Mayor Bob Foster’s dedication ceremony and pass this along to anyone wondering which CA cities are actually dedicated to sustainability.