Monday, November 30, 2015

Why I Hate My Job

Although I tell people I am the Executive Director of the Center for Snake Conservation, my paying job is a biologist at an environmental consulting firm.  Well, I claim to be a biologist but I don't do much biology work anymore.  I really just write impact assessments and make sure my clients follow applicable environmental laws such as these federal laws:
  • National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA);
  • Endangered Species Act (ESA);
  • Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA); and
  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).
I also deal with state laws but these laws are easily circumvented or even ignored (loopholes) when dealing with the large federally regulated projects I typically deal with.  Here is a recent example of how a state law is worthless when it comes to the projects I deal with.  I can't insert specific details because I could lose my job but I think you all will hate my job too once you read this story.
I work for rich people - very rich people.  Some of the richest people in the world - in short, I work for the oil and gas industry.  This industry just prints its own money whenever they want.  Not literally but extracting fossil fuels is a lucrative business.  Sure the price of oil is low right now and thousands of people are losing their jobs but these aren't the rich people anyway.  The rich people are the owners and CEOs of the corporations I work for and they make money no matter what happens to the oil and gas prices because the humans on our amazing planet are addictively dependent on oil and gas (and the products created from these) - the more we have the more we need (demand?). 
Sunrise from the Loma
One of the projects I am currently assigned to permit is a Natural Gas Export Facility in south Texas.  This facility is going to take natural gas extracted from a 65 million year old source in Mexico and freeze it after it is piped into the United States to then be shipped off to who knows where.  It will then be burned to generate electricity so more people can be productive at night rather than sleeping (gotta keep the factories running 24/7).  I may sound cynical because this is all a GREAT alternative to coal created energy.  However, I still wonder if it is really needed. Why not create the energy using the sun where it is needed - in the cities - rather than extract it in one country, pipe it to another, freeze it into a liquid, put it on a supertanker, ship it through the Panama Canal, then off load it, and burn it thousands of miles from the source.  The cost to build this one project alone would put solar panels on every house in China but no - someone that is already richer than snot needs more money.  Oh yeah - and our insatiable appetite for plastics created from components of the oil we extract adds to this huge pandemic.  Can you tell I am a bit biased?  Here is the reason I am biased:
I recently visited the over 600 acre site I am permitting this past September (one day) and October (four days).  This was a HUGE mistake for a conservation minded person like me.  This site has not been developed yet so I got to see it before the whole evil process I write about above takes place.  This site is special - very special actually and may just be one of the most biologically unique places I have ever been (and I have been a LOT of places).  The site is situated on a loma.  A loma is a clay island along the Atlantic Coast near the Rio Grande River in Texas and Mexico.  Lomas are formed by the collection of clay particles downwind of saline flats and they are old.  They are islands isolated by tidal flats and marshes making them islands of biodiversity.  I was visiting the loma on this site to conduct a wildlife and plant inventory and I found a lot of really cool things in my short time there. 

I didn't find many snakes (11 snakes total - 5 species) while on the loma (I wasn't allowed on the site at night) but the snakes I did find were impressive.  First, I saw two of the largest rattlesnakes I have ever seen in my life on the site.  These snakes were HUGE!  Easily 6 feet long and if you know me, I don't exaggerate my snake stories like some fishermen and internet snake sensations.  I did not catch and measure these snakes although I would have if handling the snakes wasn't against my company's safety protocols.  These snakes were HUGE.

However, those snakes aren't what make this site really special.  I took a botanist with me to south Texas to help with the plant inventory but soon I had him looking for snakes and tortoises more than plants with my stories of previous field ventures.  He is so into biology and ecology that his appetite to learn more about where we were was insatiable - a perfect field companion for me.  On Wednesday, we were investigating and delineating a large colony of a rare plant that Otto (the botanist) had found the afternoon before.  Otto was heading deep into the shrubland to find a good specimen to photograph when I heard him yell, "big black snake".  This could only mean one thing - he found a Texas indigo snake - a snake I had never seen in the wild before.  I was about 50 yards away from Otto but I could see he was frozen in place - this is typical of botanists that find big snakes.  I also knew I didn't have much time before the Texas indigo disappeared into the thick brush and would never be seen again so I started sprinting.  As I ran, I striped myself of my backpack, camera, and binoculars I had around my neck - I knew I would have to extend myself to catch this snake and I didn't want to miss it because my camera swung around and hit me in the face.  I wish Otto could finish the story here because he is quite colorful in his description of me sprinting towards him and diving over the cactus to catch a snake.

Otto had frozen when he saw the "large black snake" and in retrospect this allowed me to catch it.  If he had made an attempt to catch the snake, it would have been spooked well before I arrived.  I never would have even seen it.  Otto's freeze told me exactly where the snake was as I was running through the cactus filled shrubland and as I got closer to him, I watched his eyes to see where the snake was.  My eyes then caught the back half of the "large black snake" in a small grassy patch behind a large cactus.  The front half of the snake was already in the shrubs and I had little time to devise a strategy to catch it so I dove. 

Texas Indigo Snake
Texas Indigo Snake

I learned a long time ago that if you think about catching a snake, you won't catch it.  By the time your brain is done processing that it wants to catch the snake, most snakes have disappeared.  So I have taught my brain to instantly identify snakes as venomous or non-venomous and this has allowed me to react to the catch rather than plan and think about the catch.  Any non-venomous snake can bite me all it wants as long as I catch it and most venomous snakes are slow to flee making them easier to photograph with no handling.  This training ultimately gave me the opportunity to take these photos of one of our planet's most amazing snakes.  It also afforded me the pleasure of pulling cactus spines out of my arms, legs, and head after diving to make the catch.  :) 

Some of the over 50 cactus spines in my head from diving for snakes in south Texas
So is it the fact that some of the largest rattlesnakes I have ever seen and a few Texas indigo snakes are going to be killed during the construction of this project why I hate my job?  Of course I don't like knowing that these snakes will be killed but that is not why I hate my job.  Why I hate my job is that no matter how good I am at my job (a different consulting firm we previously hired as a subconsultant to conduct the surveys I did reported that Texas indigos did not occur on the site and that Texas tortoises were unlikely - see below for more on the tortoises actually on the site), the laws designed to protect our planet are weak or not enforced.

Example:  The Texas tortoise is one of 4 species of tortoise in North America.  Most of my consulting work when I lived in Florida and Georgia was spent surveying and permitting the "take" of gopher tortoises across the southeast.  "Take" is the legal word for "kill".  For gopher tortoises, there are survey requirements, a permitting process, and mitigation requirements for their "take" so at least the "take" is accounted for, recorded, and paid for in a standard way.  This is not the case for Texas tortoises despite that they are listed as "threatened" by the state of Texas. 
Male and Female Texas Tortoises - They are sexually dimorphic
Texas doesn't have survey methods for tortoises.  This creates opportunities for very unqualified consultants to visit a site and never find them (that is exactly what happened previously on this project).  These unqualified consultants (note that I do not call them biologists - the majority of consultants that call themselves biologists are NOT - don't be fooled.  Most often they have general degrees with little or no field experience - in fact most consultants in the field are straight out of college with no experience - people with experience are too expensive to spend long hours in the field) then write a report and projects proceed killing tortoises all across their range.  Even when tortoises are found, there isn't any effort to determine the number of tortoises on a project site.  This is how consulting works and the regulators just accept it rather than demanding that proven, scientific methods be used by qualified and experienced biologists.  Maybe that is okay for business and government work but it is NOT okay for the future of our planet. 

Okay - so a previous consulting firm documented ZERO tortoises on the site and reported that tortoises were unlikely to occur on the site.  I was on the site for 34 hours during the first week of October and found 48 tortoises - this is more than one tortoise per hour!!!!  Now for the math to estimate the actual number of tortoises on the site.  Since I would need at least 3 weeks on the site to do an adequate survey for tortoises to get a real estimate, I have to rely on the literature.  In the 1970s and early 1980s, several very good herpetologists estimated densities of Texas tortoises on the lomas of south Texas to vary from 3 to 9 tortoises per acre but found a site were there were 49 tortoise per acre.  The site I visited for this project was covered in tortoise signs (scat, trails, pallets (places they rest)) and the densities are quite high on 110 acres of the 600+ acre site.  On the low end of average from the literature, there are 330 tortoises on the site.  On the high end of average, there are 990 tortoises on the site.  On the maximum end of the spectrum, there are 5,390 tortoises on the site.  My guess is 500 tortoises from my experience with tortoises elsewhere and the condition of the site.

No one really knows how old tortoises live but this one in the video above is ancient.  Its shell is almost smooth from age and rubbing through the grasses and shrubs for 50-60 (or 100) years.

500 Texas tortoises!  Think about it - another consulting firm said that tortoises are not likely present on the site and that Texas indigo snakes are NOT present.  This happens daily all across the planet - unqualified people make determinations that they have no business making because they are being paid as a consultant to make these determinations.  Now not all consultants are bad.  The botanist, Otto, that joined me in south Texas to help with the botany inventory is beyond excellent and extremely good at detecting all critters even though he freezes when he sees snakes. However, from my 16 years experience as a consultant, he is the minority.  Is this the fault of the consultants doing the bad work?  No.  It is the fault of the laws and regulators allowing "general" descriptions and bad assessments substitute "science" when permitting projects.  Our current culture of progress and maximizing profit has clouded our vision of the real importance of our planet - its amazing biodiversity.

Now the kicker - my survey report is a part of the public record and permitting process.  Will it change the outcome or mitigation requirements for this project?  Unfortunately no and THIS IS WHY I HATE MY JOB!  This project is being permitted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and everything is open to public review and comment.  FERC has a permitting process that works and that should be a good thing.  But even though both the indigo snake and tortoise are listed as 'threatened" by the state of Texas, there is no permitting or mitigation required for them.  Therefore, FERC will not require anything from the project proponent (my client) for the destruction of this loma.  The public can scream and yell all they want but it won't change that Texas does not have a permitting process for listed species and also does not enforce their own law that prohibits the "take" of a state threatened species.  They just say that the project can't kill the tortoises and then they look the other way.  Over the next month, I will be tasked to write a mitigation plan that includes saving the tortoises but all we are doing is picking them up and placing them outside the construction fence - it would be better to run them over with the bulldozer than to relocate them into an area that isn't habitat.  I will write a BOGUS document that makes the public and permitting agencies feel good but really I am just writing the death warrant for 500 or more tortoises.  THIS IS WHY I HATE MY JOB!

Texas Tortoise
Can this be changed?  Maybe but that would take massive legislative changes to require REAL SCIENE when permitting projects and a change in human attitudes towards conservation.  As a National Park Service employee said during my initial site visit in September, "This site in Texas needs to be protected from all development", and he was just interested in the cultural and archaeological history of the area - not the biology! 

We documented over 200 plant, mammal, bird, reptile, and amphibian species in 34 hours on the site and this is  just a snapshot of the high biodiversity of this loma. I want to go back to find more snakes (I wasn't allowed on the site at night when I know we could have found some really cool critters).  Unfortunately, because I found so many tortoises and indigo snakes, I will probably never be allowed to go back just in case I find something (like an ocelot) that could stop this development.

I guess I am showing my true colors as a bleeding heart liberal tree (snake) hugger - I hate my job as a consultant.

Sunset on the Loma

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Kitchen

I live in a large house. Probably too big but whatever.  It is nice to have a house where everyone can find space of their own especially when three of the people living in it are introverts.  That said, even a large house can feel incredibly small sometimes.  This week is one of those weeks for me.
My kitchen is the only room in my large house that I feel is mine.  I spend most of my time in the kitchen when I am at home.  I have all the cooking duties for the family so that adds extra time for me in the kitchen.  I used to enjoy cooking but lately have found a rut of cooking the same thing each week.  This has made the space that I feel most comfortable in awkward and cold.  To combat these feelings, I am trying to find new things to cook.  Take this past Sunday for example - I made 3 racks of pork ribs but that was just a short term Band-Aid to my current situation. 
Slow-cooked Pork Ribs finished on a very hot charcoal fire
My current situation is that my house is full of people and more people are coming tomorrow and Thursday.  These people are in my kitchen all the time.  The kitchen, by default during the holidays, is probably the most social room in the house so everyone naturally gathers there.  But what if you are an introvert and the kitchen is normally a recharge zone for you when no one is in the house?  I have always loved cooking and especially cooking good meals for others.  This usually means that I get several hours of alone time in the kitchen preparing a meal for house guests.  This is recharge before the party time and I am learning is critically important to me. 
Heather asked me the other day if I enjoyed entertaining.  My answer was "not anymore" and this shocked her as well as upset her.  I gave her a half-assed excuse at the time that probably just made the situation worse because Heather knew that our house would be full of people for Thanksgiving and she is working hard to tune into my need for space and alone time to recharge my introverted batteries.  I don't even remember what I said but an experience last night opened my eyes to what I really used to enjoy and why I enjoyed it.
Last night was going to be a good night.  I took an extra 15 minutes on my way home to bike on Davidson Mesa as the last light was settling behind the mountains.  Let's just say that was a beautiful bike ride.  In addition, I didn't have to cook dinner as my brother-in-law and sister-in-law were making fish tacos.  This should have been even more valuable because I am in a rut in the kitchen.  It was going to be a good night.
Mountain Bike ride at Last Light on Davidson Mesa
But then the scene I walked into in my kitchen just slammed me when I got home.  For some reason I was not prepared for what was happening and now in retrospect I should have been.  I knew people were going to be cooking in my kitchen - that was the freaking plan after all.  But my evening went south the moment I opened the door.  Here is the scene and I wish I had photo-documented it. 
The first person I saw was my sister-in-law (brother-in-law's wife) on the phone having an argument with her parents about healthcare - bam, something negative.  The second person I saw was my sister-in-law (Heather's sister) making mini meatloaves for Heather and these were spread all over my counters as she was preparing them for the freezer.  This should have been a huge positive because she was doing something for Heather to make Heather happy!  But no, all I saw was someone in my kitchen taking up my space.  I quickly moved through the kitchen to try and not let it get me that there were people in my kitchen.  Then I ran into my boys playing a game with their uncle (Heather's brother).  This was great except the game just ended and my youngest began to demand attention in a very negative way by wrestling and touching the dogs.  This then got the big dog riled up and that just adds a dimension of hell in the house that is hard to explain.  Actually, this short video might explain it (this is only hell when you don't want it to happen - all other times it is fun and exciting):
This may not be a big deal to most of you as you expect the kitchen to be a place of action and the social center of the house.  I agree but for some reason I was not prepared for it last night.  My ideal return to home would have been an empty kitchen because I had plans to have a tequila shot or two after work in preparation for the fish tacos that my in-laws were making.  Instead, I entered chaos and it bumped me from any sort of happy place that I may have had after my night time bike ride.
Well I knew I was in a bad place when I noticed I was walking in circles not doing anything.  Finally, I realized that I just needed to stick my plan for tequila and fake my way through the evening.  Unfortunately for me, I think it was too late and my crabbiness was noted by all because comments were made about "Cameron's kitchen" and I found myself defending how I felt.  In retrospect, I should have just smiled but that is hard to do when you are looking for a recharge and can't find it.
I did take a snake and tequila photo.  :)
Snake and Tequila
So why write and complain about "people in my kitchen"?  This is just negativity that is going to breed more negativity.  I didn't mean to complain but wanted to set the stage to say that I learned a lot yesterday.  I learned why the kitchen is so important to me and why I get upset when things are crazy in my kitchen.  I think I can use what I learned to survive the onslaught of guests over the next 3 days.  I do like entertaining and I owe Heather an apology for my brash reaction and response to her question last week.  I do like entertaining because I normally get the 3-4 hour recharge time in my kitchen as I plan and prepare the meal.  This is a good thing and can really energize me.  I have just been in a rut with cooking and I need to spend more time finding a way out of this rut (like the ribs I made on Sunday).  This rut is my fault and I need to escape it - the sooner the better.
Right now with the holidays, I don't get the alone time in the kitchen.  I get the kitchen holiday chaos instead.  Last night taught me something other than "the kitchen is my recharge zone" though.  It taught me that I like having family and guests around despite my crankiness.  Family makes Heather happy.  Family makes my boys happy.  Family makes my dogs crazy.  These are all very good things that ultimately make me happy.  It may seem like I am a grouch but I think I can turn it around for this week.  I plan on it.
I want to end with an old video from several years ago.  It shows the fun that can be had in a kitchen.  It shows the fun in my kitchen but it also shows me recharging in my kitchen.  When I made this video, I didn't know that the kitchen was my recharge zone but that can't be more clear than in this video.  Watch how I relax despite the chaos around me.  Most importantly - laugh at the video and the small glimpse it gives you in my chaotic world.  :)


Monday, November 23, 2015

Mini Me

I haven't been writing and this is probably not a good thing for me.  My moods swing up and down and all over the place and writing helps center me.  I also haven't been making any videos lately.  The only thing I have been doing for the last year or so is posting on my Instagram.  The questions all start with why?  Why haven't I been writing?  Why haven't I been using my creative side with videos to put a smile on my face?  Why have I been afraid to post my thoughts and experiences?
I don't really know why I have avoided writing actually.  Well, that isn't entirely true but I will save that blog for another day (it has to do with a huge fear of mine as being a creative fraud).  The point is that I SHOULD be writing and I should be writing daily even if I don't post a blog daily.  No reason not too really and the only reason I haven't been is that I am keeping myself back.  Enough about my fears - I am going to use the rest of this year to see what happens when I write again.
I had a mad and proud daddy moment today.  Let's start with the negative, mad daddy.  I was at work and received a text from my middle son telling me to "Give me the iPad back now".  Well, I didn't have the iPad so I was a bit confused.  Then I see the messages above this one and they are from my youngest texting a photo of himself to his brother from my iPad.  I then saw that there were similar texts to his oldest brother and his mother.  Talk about a pissed off daddy but this quickly changed to a chuckle and big smile.  The photo my youngest was sharing was almost identical to a photo that I have used as my profile photo for many months this past year. 
Proud daddy - my youngest is a snake fanatic.  He has a passion growing inside of him for snakes that rivals my passion.  He already knows more about snakes than most biologists I know.  This doesn't include the herpetologists I know but it does include a lot of the people that I know call themselves biologists.  He turns 8 next month.
Here is my version of Ashton's selfie: