What started 50 years ago on a plot of cattle-stripped land has grown into the only tropical cloud forest in the United States with over 100 species of bamboo, gigantic tree ferns, and many rare and endangered species affording visitors an opportunity to learn firsthand about the value of conservation
As I drive up the windy road, high above the white-sand beaches and black lava fields of the Kona coastline into an area covered by ‘Ōhi‘a trees and lush rainforest, I am struck by how ecologically diverse the island of Hawai’i truly is. As the largest inhabited island of the Hawaiian archipelago, the island of Hawai’i has almost every subclimate zone on the planet altogether in one relatively small place.
At the entrance of the 70-acre Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary, a white-haired, eighty-ish-looking man is greeting visitors. Wearing a sweatshirt that reads “May the forest be with you” Norman Bezona’s smile spreads ear to ear, crinkling the deep creases along the corners of his eyes. He can hardly wait to tell us the story behind this unique forest. It is one of 736 known tropical cloud forests in the world and the only one in the United States except for the El Yunque National Forest located in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.
The entrance to the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary.Tours available by appointment only.
Our small group of ten visitors follows Norman inside the entrance, stepping into a magical oasis of peace and tranquility. Statues reminiscent of Bali line the property. Norman informs us that Bali is one of his favorite places on earth, except for of course the island of Hawai’i. We sit on a wooden balcony overlooking the vast depths of the forest while Norman pulls up a chair, readying himself to start our first lesson.
“Does anyone know the difference between a tropical rainforest and a tropical cloud forest?” Norman asks the group.
One blond-haired, pig-tailed girl eagerly raises her hand and replies: “It rains a lot in a rainforest while a cloud forest feels like being in the middle of the clouds“.
Today, March 22, is World Water Day, a day designated by the United Nations (UN) to bring attention to the importance and need of safe water worldwide. Water is life, and access to safe water is a fundamental human right. However, 771 million people worldwide continue to live without safe drinking water affecting their health, wellbeing, education, and livelihoods. Water is so critical to life and wellbeing that the UN added it as a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6), which commits the world to ensuring that everyone has access to safe water by 2030.
This year’s World Water Day theme is groundwater and making the invisible visible. Groundwater is invisible, lying underneath the dirt, yet its impact worldwide is visible everywhere. Groundwater provides the majority of the water that sustains us. As we face climate change and increased pollution, the role of protecting our groundwater could never be more important. Since the beginning, EOS has been working hard to protect our watersheds by implementing our Circuit Rider model of training, education, and sustainability of rural communities’ water systems.
Just two weeks ago, I joined our US-based team on a visit to Honduras, and for a few of us, it was our very first time on the ground seeing our work. We watched a water chlorinator being installed in an extremely remote community called La Cañada, located high up in the mountains in Gracias, Honduras. Reaching the community was not for the faint of heart, as the roads are almost non-existent in parts and it requires patience and perseverance to make the bumpy drive up the mountain to reach the village.
The Dead Sea has been a place of refuge and mystique since Biblical times. Formed over 3 million years ago, the Dead Sea is the saltiest body of water in the world with a salinity of 34% (9.6 times saltier than the ocean) and its salty waters and nutrient-rich mud have been attracting humans to its shores for millennia. Due to its high levels of salt, no animals or plants can survive hence the name “Dead Sea” however tourists and industry alike flock to the Dead Sea to reap the health and financial benefits of its products. In fact, the global market for Dead Sea mud-based cosmetics hit 678 million US dollars in 2015 and is predicted to grow. Tourism to the Dead Sea is also significant with an explosion in tourism. I could hardly wait to be one of those tourists, covering myself in mud, basking in the sun like a turtle and then floating in the Dead Sea.
The Magical Dead Sea. Photo credit: Pixabay
After a delightful morning exploring the Roman Ruins of Jerash, we set off for an hour and a half drive south to the Dead Sea. Many people chose to spend a night or two at one of the fancy resorts and spas located along the Dead Sea however since we were on a set seven-day tour of Jordan we would only have the afternoon. For me, that was all I needed as I’m not one who likes to lounge around however there were a few fellow travelers on our tour who opted to spend their last few days in Jordan there. Either way, the Dead Sea is only an hour’s drive from Amman so it is easy to do for a half a day or full-day trip from the capital.
As we left Jerash, we learned from our Jordan guide about the importance of the olive tree in Jordan culture and industry. The northern part of Jordan, where Jerash is located, is considered to be the breadbasket of this arid nation and is where 72% of the olive trees are grown in Jordan. You cannot find a breakfast table in Jordan without olive oil and Jordan is the 10th largest producer of olive oil in the world. It was surprising to see a greener landscape but it wasn’t long until the trees disappeared and the landscape returned to its dusty, sandy self.
Located in the Jordan Rift Valley, the Dead Sea sits at the lowest point on Earth at 422 meters (1,385 feet) below sea level. As you descend to the Dead Sea, your ears begin to pop similar to how you feel when descending in an airplane. It is a rather strange sensation but perhaps not as surreal as catching your first glimpse of the Dead Sea. It first appears almost as an apparition off in the distance of hazy, stirred up sand and it is hard to get a true idea of how big it is. The Dead Sea measures roughly 50 km (31 miles) long by and 15 km (9.3 miles) long and borders Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. The main tributary is the Jordan River and that has been part of the problem. The Dead Sea is rapidly shrinking at a rate of 3 feet (1 meter) annually and humans are to blame. Without swift intervention, the Dead Sea could almost disappear by 2050 some scientists warn.
The first sight of the tourist beach at the Dead Sea
Did you know that around 70% of our Earth’s surface is covered by oceans? June 8th is World Oceans Day, a day delegated by the United Nations to raise awareness, and to protect and celebrate the major role that oceans have in supporting everyday life. Oceans are critical to life as they provide most of the oxygen we breathe, are a major source of food and medicines and are an essential part of the biosphere. Oceans also intrinsically bless us with beauty and wonder. However, between rising temperatures, climate change, ocean acidification, and single-use plastics polluting our seas, we are taking a detrimental toll on our oceans, not only negatively affecting marine life but also compromising human health. The good news is there are ways we as travelers can protect our oceans.
In honor of the 17th annual World Oceans Day on June 8, Impact Travel Alliance (the world’s largest community for impact-focused travelers and travel professional) is asking travelers to take a stand for our oceans by making conscious changes to their routines as they explore the world. As a devoted member of the Impact Travel Alliance (ITA) and an ocean-lover myself, I wanted to share some tips and resources on how we as travelers can make a difference and help protect the future of our oceans.
“Destinations on or near the ocean continue to be a favorite for travelers,” said Kelley Louise, ITA founder and executive director. “But with our oceans’ health at serious risk from climate change and overpopulation, it’s important to understand how we can make a difference with small, individual decisions we make while away from home.”
Ocean Conservation Travel Tips
The Ocean Project has worked in partnership with hundreds of organizations and networks from all sectors to help rally the world around World Oceans Day, a way to bring about a healthier ocean and a better future. Check out these guidelines on how you can make a difference and help conserve our oceans.
On April 22nd, the 49th annual Earth Day is being celebrated around the world. This year’s theme – to protect the Earth’s endangered and threatened species – could not be more important. The world is facing unprecedented climate change and a mass extinction of many of the amazing species of plants and wildlife that make our planet so incredibly unique. Unlike the extinction of the dinosaurs 60 million years ago, the devastating changes to our planet are driven by us. As concerns grow, there is still hope that we can fight climate change and reverse the mess we’ve made of our planet. As travelers, we have a choice on how we spend our money and we can make a difference by supporting travel organizations that help protect the environment and its wildlife.
In honor of Earth Day’s Protect Our Species campaign and as a member of Impact Travel Alliance (the world’s largest community for impact-focused travelers and travel professionals), I am highlighting some of the amazing tour operators working to help travelers responsibly visit and protect wildlife around the world.
“Seeing wildlife in their natural habitat can become some of our most vivid travel memories. I was deeply impacted by a trip to Uganda where I watched gorillas go about their daily lives in the Bwindi National Park and I bonded deeply with elephants while interacting with them at a conservation park in Thailand,” said Kelley Louise, Impact Travel Alliance founder and executive director. “It’s important to take the time to research and book wildlife tours that put the animals and their environment first.” As an avid traveler and nature lover, I could not agree more. Whatever we can do as travelers to make a difference is better than not doing anything at all. By choosing to travel with an ethical organization, we are making a big difference in hope that these incredible animals will be around for future generations.
Leatherback Sea Turtles on the shore of Playa Viva, Mexico. Photo credit Playa Viva and Dave Krugman
Here is a list of sustainable tours that help travelers see and protect Earth’s wildlife:
Atlas Obscura’s mission is to inspire wonder and curiosity about the incredible world we all share by offering unique trips, sharing stories, holding events and fostering a global community to create a comprehensive database of the world’s most wondrous places and foods.
Atlas Obscura offers some pretty fabulous trips such as tracking wild bumblebees in the wild with expert biologists. Travel to Sequoia National Park with Atlas Obscura and expert biologists to track, conduct research on and help protect wild bumblebee populations and explore this peaceful landscape. You will learn firsthand about the plight of the humble bumblebee while also supporting them.
Giant sequoia grove near auburn california trees, nature landscapes. Photo credit: Atlas Obscura
Playa Viva is a unique yoga retreat destination where you will enjoy the rugged, unspoiled beauty of Mexico in the guilt-free luxury of an environmentally conscious resort. Become immersed in nature, volunteer in the turtle sanctuary, give back to the local community, engage in a workshop, or just relax completely.
The Yucatan Black Howler Monkey is the largest monkey in the Americas, and found only in a small section of Central America. Originally called baboons by the locals, the Yucatan Black Howler Monkey has been listed as an endangered species since 2003 and its population has declined over 60% due to loss of land, hunting and disease. Yet an innovative, community-led grassroots project called the Community Baboon Sanctuary located in the Belize River Valley outside of Belize City is doing wonders to conserve and protect both the monkeys and the local community who support them. It was the first place I visited on my trip to Belize with G Adventures and was the perfect way to start off a week of adventure and sustainable travel.
I arrived in Belize City on a non-stop morning flight from cold, wintry Minnesota. The moment I walked off the plane, I was greeted with the sticky, thick humidity of the tropics. A smile instantly came across my weather-worn face. I was ready for some sun and adventure, both which would be coming over the next eight days in Belize exploring the jungle, ancient Mayan ruins, and marine life in the world’s second largest barrier reef.
After gathering my luggage, I was greeted by a representative from the Black Orchid Resort where I’d be spending the first two days of my trip. Located next to the mangrove banks of the Belize River near the tiny village of Burrell Boom, it was the perfect alternative to staying in Belize City. The Black Orchid offered peace, beauty and nature yet was not too far away from the major tourist attractions and very close to the Community Baboon Sanctuary where we would be spending our first full morning.
The Black Orchid Resort is located on the banks of the Belize River and is filled with wildlife.
After an evening of settling in at the hotel and meeting my fellow group of travelers with G Adventures, we were ready to depart for a morning tour of the Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS). I was extremely excited to visit the CBS because I love monkeys and I am passionate about seeing sustainably run conservation projects on the ground. We arrived around nine and were met by our guide Robert who would first give us an overview of the project and then take us on a wonderful nature walk within the sanctuary where we would learn about the flora and fauna of the rainforest and be able to observe the monkeys in the wild.
The Community Baboon Sanctuary Education Center was built in 2003
The Black Orchid is the national flower of Belize
The CBS is an exemplary community-led grassroots conservation project that works to protect the natural habitat of the endangered Yucatan black howler monkeys while also working hand in hand with the local community through education, community development and sustainable ecotourism practices. The CBS was founded by American primatologist Dr. Robert Horwich in 1981 after he identified the region of the lower Belize River Valley as one of the largest habitats of black howler monkeys in North Central America. Working with the local community of private landowners, the pioneering idea of creating a voluntary sanctuary for the monkeys was formed. Property maps were drawn up for each landholder and they were asked to sign a voluntary pledge that outlined the management plans for conservation.
Awhile back, I was walking around one of my favorite urban lakes in Minneapolis with a good friend and she told me about an amazing program in Guatemala being run by two local non-profits, the Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry and the Community Cloud Forest Conservation. Through a unique partnership, they have been offering transformative intergenerational travel trips to a remote part of Guatemala where families, couples and solo travelers alike can work side by side the local community and do good. The trip brings travelers to the highlands of Guatemala for an intercultural and educational opportunity to work with the Community Cloud Forest Conservation on projects in education and agroecology.
As a strong supporter of sustainable travel, I was instantly intrigued and had the chance to meet with both Tricia Hall of the Community Cloud Forest Conservation and Mary Peterson of the Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry to learn more about their work and the trips to Guatemala. Tricia, a family doctor, humanitarian and mother of three, has been leading the trips to Guatemala since 2013 and I asked her to share a bit more about her inspiring work.
Tell me a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and what were your hobbies when you were a child?
I grew up in Minneapolis and have always loved the lakes and parks of this area. We spent time in Minneapolis, but we also traveled to distant places. My parents are both social workers and we grew up with a strong sense of social justice, both locally and abroad. From an early age, I loved to travel and learn about new and different cultures.
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan for undergrad and then to Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine for medical school. I have always loved literature and so my undergraduate degree was in English, which I did alongside my pre-med science classes. I enjoyed the variety and have never regretted having both of these areas of study.
Why did you decide to become a doctor and what is your area of expertise?
I started to think about medicine in my high school anatomy class when we dissected a cat and I found it so interesting, particularly all of the muscles. Concurrently, I was starting to do service trips with my church. I knew that I wanted to work in some aspect of service and that muscles were cool, so there you have it! I decided on the specialty of Family Medicine because I loved the interactions with the whole family at the various stages of life.
How did you first get involved with the Community Cloud Forest Conservation (CCFC)?
We first visited Community Cloud Forest Conservation in 2013 when our daughter was just 18 months and our sons were 7 and 10. I wanted to see what my cousin Tara (CCFC co-director with Rob Cahill) and her family had been doing in Guatemala and I was immediately hooked on the beautiful area, but more importantly I was compelled by the beautiful people and the mission of CCFC.
Tell me more about the CCFC. What is their mission and how are they making an impact with the people they work with in Guatemala.
CCFC’s mission is to alleviate poverty and protect forests in the Highlands of Guatemala. These two objectives, although not obvious synergistic goals to most residents of the United States, definitely go hand in hand. The Q’eqchi’ Maya people of this region of Guatemala live in and by the land. As the land is deforested, their lives are denuded as well. Through education, reforestation, sustainable development, leadership scholarships, and ecological improvements to agriculture, CCFC is fulfilling its mission from the ground up. As kids learn about conservation, as young women are empowered to stay in school and fulfill their dreams, and as people from remote, rural villages are partners in collaboration, the physical landscape of the cloud forest improves and the personal landscape of the communities thrives.
Kids from the US and kids from the a village school making friendship bracelets together. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Young women in a leadership training session at CCFC’s ecology center. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Beautiful faces, learning, growing. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Where in Guatemala do they work? What do most of the people in this community do for a living? What are some of the challenges they face?
CCFC is located in Alta Verapaz in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, a mountainous region which is largely indigenous and suffers from extreme poverty. The vast majority of the people in these communities are subsistence farmers, farming corn and beans on the steep sides of the mountains. Although corn is an important part of their diet and also the Mayan culture, when corn is grown as a monocrop, both the land and the nutrition of the people suffer. CCFC is working to increase agricultural diversity, often using ancient Mayan and native cloud forest heirloom crops to decrease deforestation and to dramatically improve nutrition.
What is your role with CCFC?
I feel very blessed to be able to work alongside the directors, staff and volunteers at CCFC and to bring a focus on community health. I have been working with Guatemalan nurses and nursing students over the past three years to assess the health needs and successes of the communities, identify areas for improvement, and develop initiatives to improve the health of the people in the communities.
CCFC in partnership with Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry, offers a unique intergenerational trip each year to see the work in Guatemala. How was the partnership formed?
We have been supporters of Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry for many years and I served on the board until recently and so I knew about LPGM’s partnerships with organizations around the world, building relationships, breaking down barriers, and partnering in the essential areas of need. A collaboration between LPGM and CCFC seemed like a great fit for both organizations. We started with a pilot travel experience and have continued to grow the partnership; because of this partnership, dozens of individuals and congregations around the United States have been able to travel to and work alongside CCFC in Guatemala, expanding the worldviews and potential of people both in Guatemala and here in the US.
Making dinner is fun! Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Peeling cacao beans to be made into chocolate. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Cacao beans. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Picking cloud forest native naranjilla fruit to be made into tasty jam. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Weeding and planting with friends. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
What is the mission of the trip? What does a week look like?
The mission of the trip is to:
Experience and learn from a different culture,
Work alongside CCFC on projects that are ongoing in education and agro-ecology
Shareour lives and God’s love with each other and with those we meet in Guatemala.
When we arrive in Guatemala City, we get an introduction to Guatemalan culture and then we head to the mountains! We spend 4 days partnering with a group of children from a local village school, learning and experiencing together, and at the end of the week, we accompany them to their village, often with trees or other native products to plant. Throughout the week, we are hiking, cave-exploring, making native cloud-forest products, learning about coffee-production, playing soccer, and packing in as much learning and fun as we can. At the end of the trip, we spend a day “adventuring,” either in a natural waterpark or on a volcano.
How does this experience change you?
This summer will be my 6thyear bringing a group to CCFC and I never tire of witnessing the beautiful connections that occur on these trips. To see a 7-year-old US girl from the city and a Q’eqchi’ Maya girl from a remote village walking together, smiling, communicating through hand gestures, and learning about themselves, each other and the world around them—it just doesn’t get any better than that!
Want to learn more about the upcoming summer trips?
June 19-29 2019 | Community Cloud Forest Conservation | Intergenerational Trip – Open
July 27 – August 6 2019 | Community Cloud Forest Conservation | Intergenerational Trip – Open
The usual trip size is around 10-18 people, filled with a mixture of families, couples and even solo travelers ranging from all ages. Cost is $1250 per person plus airfare. To learn more about the trips please click here.
Community Cloud Forest Conservation alleviates poverty and protects forests through education, reforestation, sustainable development, leadership training, and ecological improvements to agriculture. CCFC believes that holistic human / community development through education and capacity building is the key to conservation and development in Guatemala’s central highlands. Education, especially for young women, is key to building peace in this region.
Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry was created in 1995 out of a pressing need to connect people with opportunities around the world and build relationships. Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry shares resources and hope through: Partnerships (with local, national, and overseas organizations), Education (for women and children, transforming lives for a brighter future), Empowerment (empower peace, stability and sustainability through leadership development), and Transformational Travel (to India, Guatemala and the Central African Republic).
For many of us, clean water is so plentiful and readily available that we rarely, if ever, pause to consider what life would be like without it. – Marcus Samuelsson
Today, March 22 is World Water Day, a day designated by the United Nations to bring attention of the importance of water. Today, 2.1 billion people live without safe drinking water affecting their health, wellbeing, education and livelihoods. Water is life and in my opinion access to safe water is a basic human right. Water is so critical to life and wellbeing that it was added by the UN as a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6) which commits the world to ensuring that everyone has access to safe water by 2030, and includes measures to protect the natural environment and reduce pollution.
In my work, I’ve had several opportunities to write about water and have recently witnessed firsthand the impact of bringing safe water to communities during a trip to Western Kenya last month with LifeStraw.
In light of this important day, I wanted to share with you a few shocking facts about the lack of safe water around the world, ways that single use plastic water bottles are threatening our planet and ideas on how you can help. Please feel free to share this post and help spread awareness of this critical issue.
Demonstrating washing hands with safe water
Trying out the LifeStraw Community Filter
The youngest child at the school, age 3, takes her first sip of safe water
Did you know….
World population impacted by unsafe water:
Globally, 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services. By 2050, the world’s population will have grown by an estimated 2 billion people and global water demand could be up to 30% higher than today. (UNESCO-United Nations World Water Development Report 2018)
Today, around 1.9 billion people live in potentially severely water-scarce areas. By 2050, this could increase to around 3 billion people.
2.5 million children miss school every day around the world due to waterborne illness
29 percent of the global population (2.1 billion people), and 42 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa, lack access to safe drinking water services. (UN)
“All Good Things are Wild and Free”. – Henry David Thoreau
There are some things in life that are truly miraculous. Before going to the Outer Banks, a 130-mile strip of barrier islands running off the coast of North Carolina, I had no idea that a herd of Wild Spanish Colonial Mustangs called the northernmost part of Currituck Outer Banks their home. The story of how they came to this unique part of the country and their survival for over 500 years is nothing short of a miracle. However, as I would soon learn the future survival of these amazing creatures is in peril.
We left our rented vacation home in Duck for the short drive north on Highway 12 to the neighboring town of Corolla where we would begin our tour with Wild Horse Adventure Tours. After signing in at the friendly front desk we met our guide, Tom Baker, a Virginia Beach native who has lived in the area for decades and goes by the suitable nickname “The Outlaw”. We boarded the open air, custom-designed 13-passenger Hummer H1 and followed Highway 12 to where the pavement ends at North Beach. The remainder of the drive would be on the beach.
I sat upfront next to “The Outlaw”, taking notes and asking him tons of questions about the history of the Corolla Wild Horses. Tom, a man in his sixties by my estimation, had grown up in Virginia Beach and spent his teenage years driving down the vast open, uninhabited stretches of shoreline to go surfing with his friends. He recalled with sadness the immense isolation and remoteness of what was once a landscape filled with sand dunes, trees and thousands of wild horses roaming free. However, over time as more and more people discovered the beauty and miles of endless beaches of the Outer Banks, the surge in commercial and residential development caused the decline of the wild horse population which was once estimated at over 7,000 back in the 1930s.
The most significant change happened in 1985. Before then, the 17-mile stretch of road between Duck and Corolla was unpaved, untouched and infrequently travelled. This allowed the area to be the perfect sanctuary for the wild horses as it was one of the most remote, isolated and undeveloped areas in the country. Once this road was paved everything changed. The area became open to mass development and tourism and the wild horses were in constant danger, being struck and killed by cars and roaming around strip mall parking lots. Something had to be done or else all the wild horses would disappear.
Thankfully, It was decided that the wild horses would be relocated further north where they would be safe. They were rounded up by cowboys and moved to the North Beach area where Highway 12 ends and only a 4 x 4 “road” runs along the beach. With the help of The Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a South to Sea fence and sanctuary were established which includes roughly 7,544 acres of land heading 12 miles north to the Virginia border. The land is unique as it is one-third public and two-thirds private land, meaning the wild horses live alongside people. There is no other place where wild horses live in such close contact with humans but it is better than nothing. Tom said that this has helped the wild horses yet there are still many challenges ahead.
When we finally reached the end of Highway 12 and pulled into the entrance at North Beach, Tom beamed and said “Welcome to the door to my office“. I had never seen a highway on the beach before. It was quite bizarre. The speed limit is 15 mph and it is patrolled by a Sheriff who is ready to ticket any offenders. Tom said that there is one tow truck driver named Larry who has the rights to working the beach. At $200 a pop to tow out all the cars that get stuck in the ruts along the beach, he is apparently always in a good mood. I finally understood why we needed a hummer for the tour. We were going to be doing some serious off-roading and climbing sand dunes.
When you imagine bears in wild, images of majestic grizzly bears roaming the high mountain peaks of the Rockies often come to mind. Thriving with lush vegetation in the summer, fattening their bodies up in the fall, laying fast asleep during the long, cold winters, and coming out of hibernation at the first sign of spring, a bear’s life seems perfect for this postcard-worthy landscape. Yet, miraculously the grizzly bear also lives in one of the most surprising places on earth: The Gobi Desert.
During an inspiring interview with Doug Chadwick, wildlife biologist, journalist and author of the new book, “Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond”, I learned about the Gobi Bear Project in Mongolia and the amazing opportunity we have to save the world’s rarest bear from extinction. Here is the story.
The Gobi Bear, a rare grizzly bear that lives in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Photo credit: Joe Riis
Thousands of miles away, in one of last remaining wild places on earth lies a remote section of the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia. The Gobi Desert is the world’s fifth largest desert spanning from the southern third of Mongolia on into northern and northwestern China. In one of the most unusual habitats in the world lives a miracle: The world’s rarest bear, the Gobi Bear.
Fewer than three dozen Gobi bears remain in the world, living in one of the harshest places on earth. The extreme temperatures range from 120 degrees in the summer to a bone-chilling -40 F in the winter. There is less than 2-8 inches of rainfall a year. The landscape is almost like being on the moon with large, windswept valleys, high mountain peaks and scatterings of low vegetation. Yet somehow, there are Gobi Bears. The fact that these large, rare creatures actually exist is a shock in itself. In fact, no one actually knew that Gobi Bears existed until 1943. Today, little is still known about the world’s rarest bear whose very existence is on the edge of extinction.
Big Bawa among the Phragmites grasses at the oasis where he was radio-collared. Photo: Joe Riis
A little history on Mongolia
Mongolia’s history is as long and vast as its rugged, expansive land, dating all the way back to the 3rd century BC. This landlocked country known as “The Land of Blue Skies”, lies between China and Russia, and its immense, dramatic landscape has the lowest human population density on the planet with a magnitude of uninhabited land. Mongolia’s 3 million inhabitants are mostly nomadic and hold a deep connection to the environment and nature. Mongolia remains one of the few places in the world where nomadic culture is still the main way of life for its people.
For centuries, Mongolians have lived nomadically and their main income has been based on agriculture and livestock. Yet Mongolia also lies on a jackpot of mineral wealth: There are vast amounts of copper, coal, gold, and other valuable minerals laying beneath the massive, barren landscapes of Mongolia. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s led to devastating economic cutbacks in Mongolia pushing the country into a deep recession. The Mongolian economy slowly picked up from an increase mining exports however the mining boom has dwindled again due to a sharp decline in the price of commodities over the past couple of years. Despite this fact the pressure to open up new wild lands to mining remains and with mining comes a price: Roads and new mines must be built which could endanger animal habitats and the environment.
Thankfully, the Mongolian Government has protected key Gobi Bear habitat by creating the “Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area” which sits adjacent to three large Mongolian National Parks. However, the economic temptation of increasing mining is a huge threat. Existing gold, copper and coal mines are not far from either Protected Areas. The question becomes what will the Mongolian Government do.
Map credit: Maggie Smith – National Geographic Staff. Sources: T. McCARTHY, ET AL, URSUS; TURQUOISE HILL RESOURCES
“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools”. – John Muir
As much as I have traveled to the far corners of the earth, I am constantly amazed at the beauty of my own home, Minnesota. A land of over 12,000 lakes, Minnesota is a nature lover’s paradise that is awash in forests, water, fields and plains, and rugged wilderness. Minnesota is also home to one of the largest federally protected wilderness areas in the United States, the 1.1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area (BWCWA). The BWCWA is one of the most pristine wilderness areas I have ever visited and its extraordinary beauty and tranquility is unequal to any place I’ve been except the far reaches of Patagonia. Its 1,000 untouched lakes and streams, and 1,500 miles of canoe routes are like no other place on earth.
When we were in Ely just two weekends ago, we noticed all the lawn signs up supporting the mining industry. Ely is part of Minnesota’s Iron Range, a group of four large mining areas of iron-ore that dot northern Minnesota near Lake Superior and the Canadian Border. Ely is known for its strong mining and timber harvesting industry (which was established as a clause in the 1964 Wilderness Act that also protects this pristine wilderness). However, it is also known for its strong tourism sector given its prime location as a launching off point into the BWCWA.
The Iron Range in includes these four major iron deposits: Mesabi Range, the largest iron range, largely within Itasca and Saint Louis counties; Vermilion Range, northeast of the Mesabi, in Saint Louis and Lake counties (Ely); Gunflint Range is in the extreme northern portion of Cook County and extends into Canada; and Cuyuna Range, southwest of the Mesabi, largely within Crow Wing County. Source: Wikipedia Free Media Commons.
What I didn’t realize was the struggle and conflict between conservation and industrial development has been impacting the BWCWA for over a century and once again has come to a head on collision.
If the Chilean company Antofagasta is able to renew the federal mining lease, their proposed sulfide-ore copper mine located adjacent to and draining into the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area, could make America’s most popular wilderness, its most polluted, argues Mihell. 1.1 million acres of pristine wilderness could be forever changed.
After reading the piece, I realized that I too could not sit back and let this happen. I decided to write this piece to raise awareness of the issue and also use my advocacy to contact the Interior Secretary of the US Government to pledge to protect the BWCWA. (To see how you can help, click here).
“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another” – Mahatma Gandi
This past June, we took a family trip up north to Ely, Minnesota one of the main launching off points to explore the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW or BWCA). This expansive wilderness area in northeastern Minnesota covers 1,090,000-acres (4,400 km2) of the pristine Superior National Forest and is filled with lakes, streams, waterfalls, forests and wildlife. Its preservation as a primitive wilderness began over one hundred years ago, and its protection was solidified in the signing of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978. Today, the wilderness area is managed by the US Forest Service.
The BWCA is a magical place where you often feel as if you are stepping back in time to an easier, more peaceful way of life. You are awoken each morning to the melodic cry of the loon or lulled to sleep at night by the chirping of the crickets or croaking of the bull frogs. You can easily spot deer and sometimes fawn and if you are lucky you may even see a distant mouse, wolf or a bear. It is a truly remarkable place that has given us so many gifts and with the passing of the US National Parks 100th birthday I was reminded how blessed we are to have such an amazing network of protected parks (both national and state), forests and wilderness areas around the nation.