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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 29, 2006

Let us act with courage and care

Illustration by Forest Byrd — The Enterprise

The Karner blue butterfly is a symbol — a delicate, beautiful, fluttering symbol. It symbolizes both the best and worst of human nature — our callousness to run rampant over the natural world and our ability to preserve it if we so choose.

Earlier this month, we witnessed a moving ceremony at Farnsworth Middle School where students dedicated a garden in the school’s courtyard, filled with native plants. The students had vials of wild plant seeds from the Pine Bush on board the doomed Columbia space shuttle. Plants from control-group seeds are growing now in the school garden.

Some of the seeds were lupine, necessary to sustain the Karner blue butterfly. Development has encroached on much of the globally rare inland pine barren where the lupine grows and the Karner blue is listed by the federal government as an endangered species.

At the garden dedication ceremony, Assemblyman John McEneny, who is 62, told the students he could remember when he was young, growing up in Albany, how Karner blues were all over the city, even clumped on storefronts.

"It was like they were always going to be there," said McEneny. But, he went on, care and courage are now needed to preserve them.

We were sorely disappointed, then, when McEneny sponsored a bill that would have traded 13 acres of pristine Pine Bush land for 30 acres and a landfill.

The Rapp Road landfill, which serves 12 local municipalities, is reaching its capacity. Expanding into the Pine Bush would have been a mistake. No land has been removed from the preserve since 1991, when the city of Albany dedicated the land.

"Now a template will be set up to undedicate land," Chris Hawver, executive director of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, told us last week.

We were relieved when McEneny decided to kill the bill, keeping his sound environmental record in tact. But we were distressed that all but one of the 12 member municipalities of the Solid Waste Planning Unit that use the landfill signed Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings’s letter of support for expansion.

Guilderland, which has land in the Pine Bush, took a strong stand against it. Bravo!

Leaders of other towns may have felt there were no other options. The unit member municipalities pay a hefty fee to Albany, that contributes to the $10.8 million last year from the landfill; this makes up about 7.3 percent of the city’s $148 million budget. The landfill is a money-making proposition for Albany; the city’s comptroller told us Albany property taxes would go up 23 to 25 percent if it were to lose the income from the landfill. Guilderland’s supervisor, Kenneth Runion, suggested his town could pay to send its garbage elsewhere.

For a lasting solution, though, we Americans need to change our wasteful ways. We produce far more waste, per capita, than any other industrialized country. We could rally as a nation — much the way our country did on the home front during World War II — to change our habits. But in the absence of strong national or even state-wide leadership to limit waste, we can act as individuals.

What if local grocery stores started encouraging the use of reusable shopping bags, the way they do in European countries" It wouldn’t eliminate the layers of wasteful packaging inside the reusable bag, but it would be a start.

What if we took recycling beyond just taking our plastic and paper and metal and glass to the local transfer station" We could re-use — shop at thrift stores and garage sales — rather than buy new.

And why not return our organic waste to the earth"

We’ve written before about composting — something simple we all can do, whether we live on a farm or in an apartment house.

Consider these facts:

— Every year, Americans throw away 24 million tons of leaves and grass; leaves alone can account for 75 percent of the solid waste in the fall;

— The average American family produces more than 1,200 pounds of organic garbage every year; about 70 percent of the garbage Americans create is compostable;

— Organic waste buried in a landfill releases explosive methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to air pollution and global warming.

Composting is something easy to do that each of us could start right now. Rather than filling landfills, polluting the earth, we can return our organic waste to the earth to replenish it naturally.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in our modern world. As individuals, we often believe we can’t control systems larger than ourselves.

The people of ancient societies, perhaps, died young because they didn’t have medicines we now have to fight disease. Or they starved because they didn’t have the systems we now have to raise and preserve foods, or their crops withered because they didn’t have the means to irrigate fields.

While they didn’t attempt to control the natural world, they may have felt more in control of their everyday existence. Because tasks were not specialized, members of the same family unit gathered or raised food, built a home, and made clothes to protect themselves from the elements. They lived in better harmony with nature than we do now.

As Americans today, we may, for example, be worried about the effects of global warming. We understand the greenhouse effect; we realize that gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the earth’s atmosphere allow incoming sunlight to pass through but absorb heat radiated back from the earth’s surface.

We realize, living in an industrialized society, that we consume irreplaceable raw materials at a rapid rate and shift the natural order of the world.

How do we change things — a corporation-driven imperative for profit, a culture that values the new to be thrown away over the traditional to be preserved — things that seem so much larger than ourselves"

We can start with the simple things we can control and lobby for larger changes. We can act, as the assemblyman put it to the schoolchildren — with courage and care.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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