Put Down That Sandwich!

by Greg Walcher on February 7, 2018

John Montagu was a prominent 18th Century nobleman, serving as England’s Postmaster General, Northern Secretary of State, and First Lord of the Admiralty. He financed Captain James Cook’s explorations of the Pacific, was an early supporter of professional cricket leagues, and a great patron of the arts, whose scandalous affair with an opera singer led to her murder.

As the 4th Earl of Sandwich, though, Montagu is not remembered for any of that history. Even when Cook named the Sandwich Islands after him, the name didn’t last – we now call them Hawaii. The reason he is remembered today, of course, is that he couldn’t leave the gambling table long enough to eat, so he had pieces of salted beef brought between bread slices. That way, he could eat with one hand while holding cards with the other. It was so clever that others began ordering “the same as Sandwich,” and the rest is culinary history.

What you probably didn’t know is that on that fateful day of gambling in 1762, Sandwich had inadvertently invented something else, too – global warming.

Don’t take my word for it. There is a new academic study from the University of Manchester concluding that an average sandwich carries “the same carbon emission output as a car driven 12 miles.” Researchers extrapolated that British consumers eat 11.5 billion sandwiches annually, generating roughly 9.5 million tons of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent of 8.6 million cars. And that is only a tenth of the 300 million sandwiches eaten every day by Americans. We even celebrate National Sandwich Day every November, or at least I do.

You may have been under the impression that the primary causes of man-made climate change had to do with driving cars, burning fossil fuels to make electricity, or perhaps livestock emitting methane gas. But if you think about it, all of those things go into the making of every humble sandwich. The bread comes from wheat that requires the use of fertilizer and mechanized equipment. Food packaging is made of plastic that comes from oil. Shipping requires large amounts of fuel, as do refrigeration and trash disposal.

Clearly, additional government regulation is needed, or at least a serious change in our eating habits, according to the study. One of the authors calls for changing the expiration dates on packaged sandwiches to increase their shelf life and reduce disposal costs. But the more important point in the study is that we should change our sandwich’s content. Obviously, bacon, ham, and sausage contribute the most to a sandwich’s carbon footprint, especially compared to the tofu sandwich, for example. Worst of all, apparently, is the breakfast sandwich with bacon, egg, and cheese. They recommend drastically reducing ingredients with a higher carbon footprint, especially lettuce, tomato, meat, and cheese.

We are told that slashing these ingredients from sandwiches would not only reduce carbon emissions (by as much as 50 percent!), but would also reduce the number of calories and make people healthier. I have no doubt that is true. That’s because we have a simple name for a sandwich with no lettuce, tomato, meat, or cheese – we call it bread.

The University of Manchester website has a lengthy article announcing the study, and asking readers to ponder a simple question: “What is the environmental impact of your lunch-time sandwich?” The author explains, “Given that sandwiches are a staple of [our] diet… it is important to understand the contribution from this sector to the emissions of greenhouse gases.”

All of this is true, of course, to the extent that everything mankind does has some impact on the environment. Which always leads me to wonder what role humans are supposed to play. Many activists view people as destructive interlopers whose activity is always negative to his natural surroundings. Nature must be protected from mankind, and thus his access to resources limited.

Conversely, I rather view people as part of the environment. In fact we are the only species with the capacity to improve it for its own sake. Conservationism was founded on the principle of using natural resources to improve our standard of living, while also ensuring their availability for future generations. Sandwiches are an important part of that standard of living.

Arguments about the causes of global climate change are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. But I have trouble believing an eating habit begun in 1642 is very high on the list. I may write more about it later, but right now it’s lunchtime and I have an important appointment – with a sandwich.

A version of this column appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel February 2, 2018.


Do As We Say, Not As We Did.

by Greg Walcher on February 1, 2018

If your cat kills a bird, could you be fined $15,000 and spend six months in jail? If a bird flies into the side of your house, did you kill it, just by owning the house? If a truck hits a bird, did the company violate federal law?

The common sense answer to these questions is, of course not. But the technical legal answer may be yes. It depends on whether the law applies differently when birds are killed on purpose, or accidentally.

At issue is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Stemming from a 1918 treaty with Canada (and later Mexico, Japan, and Russia), the law was adopted at a time when hats and other fashions created a worldwide demand for bird feathers, risking the extinction of several species of birds. It forbid anyone to kill, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird or its parts, nests, or eggs without a federal permit. It protects over 1,000 species, nearly every bird in North America, and violators face stiff fines and possible jail time.

The common-sense question is, should a law intended to ban commercial trafficking, apply equally to unintentional bird deaths resulting from otherwise legal activity? That depends on who you ask. The government has applied the law unequally in recent years, for instance punishing oil and gas companies whose operations result in bird deaths, while providing waivers to wind farms. Court cases also fail to provide clarity; three federal appeals courts say the law does not apply to accidental conduct, but two say that it does. Thus, all that really matters is the opinion of the current officeholders.

During its last month, the Obama Administration issued a “Solicitor’s Opinion” concluding that the Act does, in fact, criminalize accidental bird deaths caused by otherwise legal and normal activity. Such a broad interpretation turns every American who owns a cat, drives a car, or owns a home (nearly all Americans) into potential criminals, as well as every business that owns buildings, or operates facilities from sawmills and oil rigs to farms and ranches. The new interpretation was not a regulation, adopted through any public process, but simply a memo describing how the law would be interpreted and enforced.

The new Administration, under the leadership of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, has reversed that absurd course, clarifying that the law will not be used to criminalize bird deaths that accidentally result from otherwise legal activity. From the firestorm of reaction, you would think the new opinion reverses a century of protection and will cause wholesale extinctions of vast bird populations. A group of former federal officials has written a highly-publicized letter objecting to this “new” interpretation. Signers of the letter include several Obama Administration officials involved in the eleventh-hour ruling, so it is not surprising that they would object to the reversal. But the letter was also signed by some former officials who oversaw the issue under other previous Administrations. Their objection is misinformed, if not flatly disingenuous.

That seems clear because, while expressing concern about the “new” policy, the letter fails to acknowledge that the policy being reversed was also new. The signers call for this latest opinion to be withdrawn, implying a need to return to the way they always enforced the law, with common sense and prosecutorial discretion. But the Obama policy, now being reversed, was not the way these folks enforced the law when they were in power.

Signers include two former Deputy Secretaries, three former Assistant Secretaries, five former Fish and Wildlife Service Directors, and several retired career officials. They claim the new legal opinion “is contrary to the long-standing interpretation by every administration… since at least the 1970’s, who held that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act strictly prohibits the unregulated killing of birds.” Meaning everyone who killed a bird, accidental or otherwise, had to either have a federal permit or go to jail? Or that the law can be enforced against all the people we dislike, but not against our allies? That’s what the Obama interpretation allowed, but the law was never enforced that way – not by any of the letter’s signers. They seem to be asking the new Administration: do what we say, not what we did.

Government officials and prosecutors have a good deal of necessary discretion, and have generally used it wisely, to avoid applying such a vague law in ways it was never intended. The new policy is designed simply to re-establish common sense, and acknowledge the difference between “accidentally” and “on purpose.”

A version of this column appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel January 26, 2018.


Can We Even Recognize Success?

January 24, 2018

Noted physician and educator Lewis Thomas wrote, “We are, perhaps, uniquely among the Earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.” Other species do not stew and fret over everything as we tend to […]

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Disaster Relief Homesteading

January 19, 2018

Geologists at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources warn that an imminent landslide threatens the homes of about 70 people along a sliver of land called Rattlesnake Ridge. Residents have been offered five paid weeks at a hotel, and most have taken it. They’re still returning home every few days to take care of […]

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Settling the Great Blue Frontier

January 12, 2018

There was a time when people unhappy with their government, and no longer able to tolerate the situation, would simply go somewhere else, and set up their own new communities. That is largely the story of the western frontier, but it is no longer an option – or is it? Today, nearly all the world’s […]

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Natural Solutions to Unnatural Problems

January 5, 2018

A popular definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” A 1983 speaker put it this way: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” It may be the perfect definition of our approach to natural resources management. We respond […]

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The Definition of Civility

December 29, 2017

People often bemoan the loss of civility in our society. Webster’s dictionary defines civility as “civilized conduct, especially courtesy and politeness.” We see the decline of civility in everyday encounters, from parking lots to movie lines, but it is especially notable in politics. That’s because civility is vital to a democratic system requiring constant compromise […]

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Can’t Win for Losing

December 22, 2017

If we continue to burn coal to generate electricity, we might destroy the Earth’s capacity to support life. If we switch to natural gas, then fracking might poison the water and set our faucets on fire. Biomass sounds good, but burning it also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Hydroelectric power requires dams, which destroy […]

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Recalling a Monumental Tradition

December 12, 2017

President Trump has announced significant changes in the boundaries of several National Monuments, including the two most controversial in the West: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, both in Utah. Whichever side of this controversy you are on, there is no bigger news in the West this month. Based on recommendations from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, […]

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Time to Get Off the Gravy Train

December 7, 2017

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt recently issued a directive to end a 20-year string of “sue and settle” cases that have funneled untold millions of tax dollars to environmental organizations. Predictably, those groups and their allies are apoplectic about it. Many of these groups have grown from grassroots citizen movements to gigantic cash-flush conglomerates, with much […]

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