The Northwest Forest Region- Unfinished Business but Room for Improvement

This is a written piece that I submitted in my Geography and Policy class, as we’ve been learning about the expansion Westward and the management of federal resources. I thought I would repost since it’s relevant to sustainable resources and critiques of models and resources out there. If you’re unfamiliar about the forest issues in the Northwest region, their is a great timeline from High Country News. Thanks for reading and sharing!

Nathan Rice’s article, “Seeking Balance in Oregon’s Timber Country” (2013), provides a clear summary of the interwoven issues present throughout the Northwest region. While reading a majority of the articles on High Country News, I kept having the same reoccurring thought: “Why does the government have to separate and deal with issues and solutions in such compartmentalized ways?” By reviewing the Northwest’s history in land use decision-making, political intervention, and economic strife, it’s clear to see that regional efforts have not been as successful as hoped but still leaves room for improvement.

Wilkinson discusses the five “Lords of Yesterday”, which were five political-economical decisions made by the U.S. government, and are all still in existence today in some form or another. These five lords treated land and water management all as separate entities with no relation. Mutual benefits and consequences of these five lords and where they overlap were only considered after problems became too apparent through environmental and political pressures. Even after science could prove that land use affected water use and vice versa, approaches to mitigate problems were often kept separate, which only exacerbated problems.

Though the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan (NFWP) in the 1990s was a critical attempt towards greater regional resource management, “it has proven more successful in stopping actions harmful to conservation of old-growth forests and aquatic systems than in achieving restoration goals and economic and social goals” (Thomas et al., 2005). In other words, it has made progress but has stopped short at improving the interconnected and mutually interdependent relations amongst the many geographical regions involved. This has left these regions’ economies and socio-political beliefs in a state of turmoil which has reinforced negative relationships with the federal government and private enterprises, as well as how to approach environmental conservation.

Platt gives the history from 1970 to 1998, where 26 separate acts and amendments were passed in the name of environmental protection. Many of these acts have been hugely successful, while some have clearly been defeated and are practically nonexistent due to their inability to work within already existing laws in a functional manner. This is more common that not; especially in land use planning laws. For example, comprehensive plans are made often to delegate land use approaches, but usually require zoning ordinances to be changed in order to reflect these appropriate uses. If the zoning cannot be changed, then the comprehensive plan loses its luster and validity overtime.

In “Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story 1940-2000”, Robbins gave examples of the “new” environmental laws throughout the 70s and 80s along with their lawsuits that often resulted in long circular arguments. The use of pesticides and management of old growth forests in Oregon, though seen as separate issues at the time, were ultimately related. After the clear-cutting of old growth trees, pesticide usage prohibited the natural growth of forests, which in turn prevented adequate re-growth of tree varieties that supported the spotted owl. Today after years of protecting old growth forests through the NWFP initiatives, the barred owl has moved into the areas where spotted owls were meant to repopulate. Could it be the forest conservation practices over the last 20 years have allowed for a barred owl population boom? Furthermore, could heavy use of pesticides throughout the 70s have left the spotted owl populations in such a state of genetic vulnerability that their offspring could not possibly make a comeback?

Why has the U.S. continued this approach of separating and compartmentalizing issues and responses of natural resource conservation and sustainable use? It’s generally accepted through science and past political interventions that sustainable use requires looking at the larger scale and accepting its many components as interrelated and dependent on each other. Why is it that solutions are drawn up as separate policy proposals and picked apart so much until they are only minor stand-alone Band-Aid approaches? This is why I am in my dual degree of regional planning and public policy. This country cannot continue making policies that are decided and implemented in a vacuum-sealed fashion.

With the world’s current state in climate change, this compartmentalization approach is also apparent in our international policies in how we mitigate and adapt our resource use and future development. If stakeholders only consider some of the facts and decide which are relevant, rather than looking at the entire picture (the good and the bad) and all of the interconnections, then we will continue to over-use and under-protect natural resources and further degrade the planet. Thomas et al. suggest that focusing on activities that “contribute to all facets of sustainability” is imperative and must be met with “a better balance of short-term and long-term risk” (2005). I agree in that future management must consider social implications of surrounding communities and their reliance on these resources not just for physical consumption, but also economic viability, ecological resilience and political strength.

The ability to consider all of the dynamic facets involved in current management and future sustainability of the Northwest forests region is critical and imperative. Accountability and evaluation should also be strived for to further the NWFP, in order to measure how effectively goals are being met, review strategies and allow for changes if necessary. I believe that as a sustainable planner, decisions cannot be made without considering all of the small parts of the bigger picture. Unfortunately, there is a careful balance that is hard to strike between humans and the environment. Nonetheless, we should always strive for balance at every opportunity we have in sustaining both ecology and the human experience.

Passive Homes- Sustainable Architecture at a Cost

A passive house like the one seen above, a project from Parsons the New School for Design in 2011, is so well insulated that it needs little or no energy for heating and cooling. PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT MCCLAIN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST/ GETTY

On National Geographic News, Wendy Koch writes an article piece with video included of new Habitat for Humanity D.C. homes: “Thermos-Like Passive Homes Aggressively Save Energy.” Intrigued, I read the article and watched the video to get a glimpse of the higher cost, certified PassivHaus windows needed for the homes. Morally, I think Habitat for Humanity does overall great work. I also love finding new materials and designs for sustainable and energy efficient architecture. Do I think this is a neat undertaking by the organization? Yes. Do I think it needs more testing in the appropriate environment/weather conditions similar to D.C.? Yes. Should it have been implemented yet? Not sure. Wendy Koch writes:

They stand out in other ways: 12-inch-thick exterior walls and triple-pane, imported-from-Ireland windows offer more than double the insulation required of new homes. In lieu of a furnace, tiny, wall-mounted Mitsubishi units provide heating and cooling. 

After watching the video, Dan Hines (construction superintendent) left me not quite sold that these are the most appropriate approach for D.C. homes. Though he explained that the upfront cost would outweigh the further costs on heating/cooling energy bills, I’m concerned if the building design will be able to stand up to the weather of D.C. and if they will in fact live up to what they promise. What if the humidity of D.C. summers is too much for the tightly constructed homes and thus the owners need to run air conditioning? What if we continue to have extreme cold-blasts? The article then explained:

Set to house low-income families, the rowhouses are on track to do something the president’s place nearby has not—meet perhaps the world’s strictest energy rubric: Passive House, popularized in uber-efficient Germany and now gaining ground in the United States.

I set out to find more information about Passive House and after a quick google search found PassivHaus, the company that originally started the movement in Germany. After thoroughly reading their materials and services, I’m convinced that their architecture is sound for Germany and similar climates.  Maybe this is the skeptic in me but I’m still wondering how these standards and certifications will hold up in the various climates and climate changes experienced in the U.S. and other parts of the world? The U.S. has its own Passive House Institute (PHIUS), started by the German architect Katrin Klingenberg.

They’ve generated their share of controversy. In August 2011, Germany’s Passivhaus leader Wolfgang Feist severed ties to PHIUS, saying it was not requiring enough documentation to certify projects. Feist has also criticized PHIUS’s push to adjust the standard to varying climates.

Apparently in late 2014, Climate Specific Passive Building Standards were reviewed in order to be implemented this year, but I did not see updated standards yet on the PHIUS Technical Committee Overview page.  Thus this leaves me uncertain if these homes are such a great idea to already be built, without definite standards that relate to different U.S. environments. I mean, especially if you’re giving these homes to low-to-zero income families, whom do not have extra money lying around to buy a space heater or air conditioner if necessary, or need to make repairs to the home. Should Passive Home-owners be given tutorials on how to manage their home and make appropriate repairs in order to still be compliant with the strict standards? What if a window breaks, how will these home-owners pay for such expensive, imported constructions? (Yes I know that is such a big what-if, but I still think it’s a legitimate question that needs answering)

Furthermore, I wonder if PHIUS is working with any U.S. companies to design their own windows and insulation products that mimc the materials ordered from Europe? If these designs are really going to work in the U.S. and take off, then there should be building contractors and companies that can work together to support the U.S. economy, as well as make the projects as cost-efficient as possible so that the model is sustainable and continued. Not to mention the “new” technology which could add to the growing sustainable design market.  Apparently the PHIUS consultants cost more for projects to make sure the homes are built certified, but how long will this continue? Also, will architects all eventually have to be some sort of energy-efficient or sustainable-design certified at some point in the future? That last question could spark an entirely new post for another date. 

Habitat for Humanity, keep rocking out. PassivHaus, nice learning about you and keep progressing. PHIUS, some advice. 1) You should probably formalize your slides before posting them to your public site and 2) figure out standards for the U.S. sometime soon if you want to make it big and truly change sustainable architecture.

Garden Planner- A Resource for the Food Planner

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As a resourceful planner, I thought I would see if the Farmer’s Almanac had moved any of their brilliance online, as a way to share resources and farming techniques with others who may not buy the paper almanac. It turns out they did! I discovered on their site Garden Planner, an entire free 30-day resource that allows you to map out your garden space! You can your planning page for $25 for yearly access in order to make modifications to your garden, as well as make additional plans (the free trial only allows you to make one plan). This planner allows you to be realistic about your garden space and how it will be used up within every square foot

There are some tutorials on the main site, as well as a gallery where you can view published garden plans and even look up ones close to where you may live. Plant grow guides are available for most plants, and the site also allows you to add plants they may not have, and edit information about them to publish for future use. The plant varieties are customizable but most varieties are already on there, including organic and hybrid plants.

This site is extremely helpful because it provides a printout of when to sow your plants indoors, outdoors, and when to harvest them according to the month. It can even send you email reminders for when to sow if you allow it! I’m including my garden for a reference, but just want to say that as a visual learner and planner this site really helped to take my ideas and turn them into reality without the scariness of making the drawing accurate. Thank you Farmer’s Almanac Garden Planner!

Recycling Plastic Film Locations- A Resource for Simple Sustainability

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Recently I’ve been considering packaging and how that is a major part of buying anything from the grocery store, or any retail store for that matter. As one of my resolutions, I want to eliminate as much packaging and wasteful plastic use as possible. This is hard to do considering much of the food I buy is from Trader Joe’s- I love the store! However my major issue with them is how most of their produce comes already in plastic bags or cardboard and plastic-wrapped containers.

One of the ways to resolve this could be to shop at other holistic stores and local grocers or farmer’s markets to pick my own produce there, and bring my own bags. This is something I really enjoy and now many cities are offering winter markets, so you can have fresh seasonal produce all year long! I also have made plans to design my own garden (another hobby of mine) so that I can grow most of my food on a plot, instead of having to buy it-this will be in another post titled Garden Planner. Another way I realized I could help is by making sure I save all of the plastic packaging I get and bringing it to a site specifically made to recycle just these materials. In most single or two-stream town recycling programs, there is not a way for the plastic machines to handle the thin plastic sheets and bags that are leftover after we’re done with our products. The plastic is too thin and when it is mixed with the larger, harder plastics, it can actually get stuck in the processing machines and cause them to malfunction. However, more towns are finding ways to handle these plastic films often in the form of plastic shopping bags, Ziploc bags, and plastic packaging.

Recently I found the website PlasticFilmRecycling.org. Here you can find locations by your zip code to see where to drop off your plastic film leftovers. There is also information on what sorts of plastic are accepted, and then eventually what they will be recycled into! The plastics currently not accepted are the plastic bags for pre-washed lettuces and for frozen foods, along with compostable bags. However, there is still a ton of packaging that can now have a place in the recycling stream. There’s even a tab that helps you to start your own collection program, as well as report places that take these recyclables but is not in their directory. Check out the Wrap Recycling Action Program page to see how to get businesses and stakeholders of communities to get involved too! I think this is great especially for communities that are trying to reduce their packaging and being civically involved in a collective effort.

As a planner, an environmentalist, and a civic-minded person, I want to do my part and make sure from now on, I save all of my plastic packaging and film, bring it to the nearest location, and feel good that I do not have to wonder what exactly is going to happen to the leftover packaging. I hope you will visit the site, spread the word about it, and find your nearest location to help recycle these plastics that are often seen as small but really have huge impacts on the environment.

Impact Assessments- Are they useful to planners?

To follow up on the last blog post, here I will discuss a tool that I find is very important (though relatively new) to the field of planning: Impact Assessments. I have linked my Prezi here, so you can get a bit of a sense where I am coming from, as well as some of the resources I used.

On the “What is Planning” page of The American Planner’s Association website, the first paragraph states:

Planning, also called urban planning or city and regional planning, is a dynamic profession that works to improve the welfare of people and their communities by creating more convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive places for present and future generations.

Healthy communities. How else can a community survive and thrive, whilst remaining sustainable past generations? While this may sound like a bold statement to make, please remember this is my personal opinion, and I do invite you to comment further and provide resources too! In my work over the years I have developed some questions that helped to guide my presentation as well as serve for further research purposes. These main questions are as follows:

  1. Why is healthy planning seen to be mostly a job for public health officials?
  2. If APA and CDC recognize need, why has it not become more of a priority amongst planners and policymakers?
  3. Should planners focus on the health of communities/environment when they develop their analysis and recommendations?
  4. What is being done to set the standards for all planners to make sure that health is a major consideration for every plan they develop and put forth?

The American Planner’s Association website states on its Health Impact Assessments page:

In practice, an HIA is part of a systematic approach to identifying the differential health impacts of proposed and implemented policies, programs, and projects within an equitable, sustainable, and ethical framework…The HIA is a valuable tool that can be used to integrate health into the decision-making process and enhance communication between multiple stakeholders, including health and planning practitioners and policymakers.

Despite this statement, I feel that planners are not being trained adequately to prepare plans that are not only sustainable, but with the health of people and ecology at the forefront. Although APA recommends the use of Health Impact Assessments or HIAs, most planners are not being prepared to use Impact Assessments unless they are also pursuing a policy degree at their accredited university. For further information on Impact Assessments, visit The Different Types of Healthy Assessments, and on Health Impact Assessments you can partake in the CDC free online training course for planners to learn how to administer HIAs! To get you started, here’s a neat 2 page HIA-Fact-Sheet!

Much of planning history has developed because of the responses needed to remedy certain building or health issues that we humans caused. I do believe the tides are turning and the field is beginning its stages of planning for the future, but overall there needs to be more preventive planning rather than reactive. I recently met with a person that works at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, who originated in the public policy field but ended up working in educational and policy planning. I asked her about the use of Impact Assessments at PVPC, and she said they have used them before for certain ecological or community health projects. Like me, she believes they could be a greater resource to planners and policy analysts if used consistently; not all planners and policy analysts are using them, and furthermore there is no uniform recipe for how to create an assessment. While there are guidelines, only some factors are strictly enforced (more so for the Environmental Impact Assessments).

One paper published from the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health writes about Model Curriculum for HIAs that can be introduced to graduate universities. I think this is a great resource that proves officials are seeing more and more the importance of Impact Assessments. PEW Charitable Trusts has an entire site dedicated to upcoming projects and trainings that utilize health impact assessments for both public health officials and community developers, and here you can access many Toolkits and Data Resources. In my research, though I have not dissected its entirety, I have found this paper from the EPA website, A Review of Health Impact Assessments in the US, to offer an analysis of HIAs and their practicality, as well as areas for improvement.

I am positive I will write more on this in the future since it is one of my passions, but for now I hope you find the many resources I posted to be of help! I am happy to see that there are other planners and officials out there that see the value in using Impact Assessments for future policy and planning work, and I hope to see more efforts to make HIAs become part of standard training.