A nature lover's bucket list

  • Cagle Cartoons
  • Tim Lydon


Lately, I've been struggling to stay positive about the climate. It's not easy. The 190 nations at the November summit in Copenhagen failed to reach agreement on greenhouse gases, and Congress seems determined to avoid the issue. Worst of all, polls show cooling anxiety about climate change among Americans; these days, we are too consumed by economic woes.

And so, I've decided to create my own "bucket list" for Alaska and the West. A bucket list usually tallies what a person would like to experience before kicking the bucket, as made famous in the eponymous 2007 movie. I can't put it off much longer: With climate change rapidly degrading our landscape, I'm afraid time is running out for some of my favorite natural wonders.

I'll start in northern Alaska, home to the polar bear. Ursus maritimus tops my list even though the U.S. Geological Survey says it might not become extinct in Alaska for a few more decades. But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research reveals that disappearing sea ice is already causing nutritional stress, decreased weight and lower reproduction. In other words, the bears are getting smaller and fewer. The longer I wait, the less likely I am to see a big, healthy bear.

Alaska's walruses are also on my list. For ages, these giant marine mammals used floating ice to forage for shellfish. But nowadays, in a brand-new phenomenon, melting is forcing thousands of walruses ashore each autumn, like great mobs of refugees. Unfortunately, the animals lack legs and are not adapted to life on land, and stampedes leave hundreds dead, mostly youngsters. The gatherings also deplete nearby food. Federal biologists are considering protecting the walrus as an endangered species.

I could probably do a whole bucket list for Alaska alone, Ground Zero for climate change. Caribou are also declining, fires are ravaging the boreal forest and dissolving permafrost is causing spectacular erosion and releases of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

But there's much to see elsewhere, such as Montana's Glacier National Park, where some of our most iconic glaciers are rapidly deflating. The National Park Service says they'll be gone in as little as 10 years. Seeing them is another top priority, as it's already becoming difficult to distinguish between the languishing glaciers and plain old snowfields.

Then there's Yellowstone, where two natural wonders are at risk. The first is the whitebark pine, an until-now hardy tree that survived the last 10 millennia in one of the world's harshest environments -- the high-elevation Rockies. But warming winters have led to a mountain pine beetle epidemic. Whole mountain chains, where frigid winters once limited beetles, are now brown. And this is bad news for the next candidate on my list, Yellowstone's storied grizzly bears.

It turns out that grizzlies, especially pregnant females, rely on whitebark cones each autumn. They are the fattiest, highest-in-protein thing going that time of year. Research shows that a poor whitebark crop correlates to low birth rates for bears and high kill rates by humans. The concerns have put the already shaky population of Yellowstone grizzlies back on the endangered species list.

Next up are the Colorado Rockies, where millions of lodgepole pines have already kicked the bucket from the same climate-related beetle epidemic that's killing the whitebarks. Amazingly, the problem stretches hundreds of miles north through British Columbia. And it's getting worse. In my former home of Summit County on Colorado's Front Range, the forest has turned to matchsticks.

Utah's Lake Powell also made the list. In his recent book Dead Pool, James Lawrence Powell shows that by 2100, decreasing snowpacks and heat-related evaporation may cause the level of the reservoir to drop below the dam's lowest outlet, ending hydropower production and water diversion. It's a poor harbinger for the Southwest, where climate change is predicted to make many areas unlivable, not just for golfers, but for saguaros, jaguars and black bears, too.

Climate change threatens other Western icons, like Puget Sound's orcas, most mid-elevation ski areas and the agricultural kingdom of California's Central Valley, which is already stressed by warming. But my bucket list is not confined to within our borders.

Burning fossil fuels is putting so much carbon dioxide into our oceans that they are acidifying. That's killing the coral reefs, home to 30 percent of the world's fish species, so snorkeling there is becoming a sooner-rather-than-later prospect. And with humans cutting down six Manhattans'-worth of tropical rain forest every day, according to Conservation International, experiencing wild Amazonia is also something to consider doing now. What a long and deeply troubling list. Buckets, anyone?

Tim Lydon writes in Whitefish, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

john talley
john talley
Feb 15, 2010 01:56 PM
For every global warming "fact" you can produce, I can give two facts to the contrary. The ice age did not end due to man made emmisions. The worlds climate is constantly changing. Find something else to worry about.
A. Rob
A. Rob
Feb 15, 2010 10:13 PM
The only place you can avoid the obvious signs of environmental degradation is in a large city because everything is paved and the buildings block the haze. Mr. Lyndon speaks the truth, but since no amount of information will most likely change your mind, Mr. Talley, I'd like to invite you to share what you're smoking with the rest of us. I'm gonna need it as I visit the places Lyndon has added to his bucket list to make myself numb to the idea that my own children will never view the same wonders.
M Lucky
M Lucky
Feb 16, 2010 08:24 PM
Interesting the number of people these days who are willing to use every single opportunity they can to claim that climate change is a hoax. (I refer to "crap", above.)
Last week I was at the dentist and the woman cleaning my teeth used the opportunity to let me know that "people who believe in climate change should be made to debate the other side—and just see what they learn!"


As a professional writer who has done research already on "both" sides of the "debate", it was a little galling to be told by someone (who also admitted, later on, that she didn't really think it was necessary to read many books, because human beings are perfectly capable of coming to great conclusions about everything) to do a little research.

What disturbs me most is that there seems to be a sort of underground explosion (at least where I live, in B.C., Canada), in climate change denial, an explosion that easily settles into already well-worn troughs made by other right-wing opinions. There is a network, as well, an underground railroad, if you will, of denial people, passing on the "crap" of denial in their own spun way.

When you get right down to it, climate change deniers (I'm talking about the ones who say variously ridiculous things such as "climate change isn't caused by emissions" and "the earth is actually getting colder") are similar to historical nutcases right through the centuries. Distrusting science, they attempt to shoot holes in any proof, when they happen to research the proof themselves, that is.
In fact, I suspect that people like the person who wrote the comment called "crap"--see the comment above mine--would be satisfied if everyone who "believed" in "man-made" climate change were to suddenly perish.

Even if it "turns out" to be "true."

At least they would not have to hold their fingers in their ears and chant their hackneyed phrases to make all the bad news go away.


Thank you for the article.
On another note, you may be pleased to know that the BC provincial government has just pledged to work with Montana to help maintain the values of Glacier National Park--part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and Biosphere Reserve.

The government did this by banning mining, oil and gas development and coalbed methane extraction in BC's Flathead Valley. (It's the headwaters of one of the continent's most wild and free rivers.)

The Flathead has North America's highest concentration of grizzly bears, and the most species of large carnivores in North America. It is a marvel of biological diversity, and will be needed as a refugia for wildlife in these coming times.
getting around
Feb 17, 2010 07:47 AM
It seems like running around trying to see the disappearing items on one's list will exacerbate the problem, unless one is hiking their way around. Not that the author said what means of conveyance was intended, but many folks seem happy to fly in planes from the U.S. to Kenya, e.g., to see the shrinking glaciers of Kilimanjaro.
exactly how you're getting around?
Feb 17, 2010 01:23 PM
My thoughts exactly. Great list of things we're losing Mr. Lydon, but how are you proposing that you're going to get to all those places without contributing further to greenhouse gas emissions? You biking to AK? You going to carpool to the Amazon? It's really not helping the problem!

There's a great inspired group of folks who are set on educating the public and youth about climate change, alternative transportation, healthy lifestyle AND they're into seeing the great things of America-including Alaska! Guess what- they're doing it all by bicycle. Check 'em out. http://www.bike49.org/

It's an idea to ponder- who long can you lament these losses when you are only expediating their demise?
Feb 17, 2010 02:10 PM
Perhaps the writer is only using the Bucket List as a tool for alerting people to just how many of our local landscapes are being degraded by climate change. It's silly to read this literally and assume he's going to jump in a jet and start checking off dying ecosystems...But thanks for the link on the bikers. That's just the type of thing that we should all support!
Common Sense
Feb 19, 2010 06:54 AM
for those who love to debate if global warming exists due to man made reasons or not, lets make it simple for you and not bore you with obvious facts. Bottom line,the less crap you put in the air, the better off we'll all be!!! It's called common sense!!
what can we do?
Marie Smith
Marie Smith
Feb 19, 2010 05:34 PM
So, just to be on the safe side, whether climate change is a reality or not, more important my energies are focused on methods of conserving our natural resources. Two ideas that have resonated over time are 1. that the transport of water in consumer products wastes an enormous amount of fuel and increases wear and tear, and needed maintenance on vehicles; 2. The color of our exteriors of buildings and other constructions such as pavement adds to the absorption or reflection of the sunlight and increase and decrease of heat islands, causing excessive use of air conditioning and heating.
Solutions that I have come up with for these problems are 1. reducing the viscosity of all water based liquids, not for human consumption (and maybe some of these, like juice), to a minimum for rehydrating before use; 2. Temperature zones could be created, similar to the frost zones observed by agriculture and gardeners, that would determine a minimum and maximum for reflectivity of facades and pavement.
I hope someone with "connections" to government or decision makers in appropriate high places can look at the implications of these ideas and perhaps move them forward.
Thanks for listening, Marie Smith
Pine beetle
A G Foster
A G Foster
Mar 31, 2010 01:30 PM
Marie Smith means "concentration" rather than "viscosity," and Tim Lydon means "receding" rather than "deflating" glaciers. These minor points indicate their lack of familiarity with the scientific jargon, not to mention their ignorance of the science. In Smith's case, economics govern efficiency: when it gets expensive to haul water, prices go up and canning factories proliferate. In Lydon's case, we need lots of space for comment.

His most glaring and inexcusable error is blaming his drying whitebark pine forests on global warming by way of beetles. Let's consider the logical sequence of such a claim: 1) signficant warming is occurring in Oregon; 2) it is enough to increase beetle populations; 3) beetles are a primary cause of whitebark decline.

As for the first point, you would have a hard time getting it past Oregon's state climatologist, George Taylor, who willingly confesses the extreme difficulty of isolating any anthropogenic component to any observed climate change. As for the second point, any scientific analysis would require a demonstration of warming in Oregon and correlation between such a warming trend and beetle infestation. Then it must be shown that the beetles are the primary cause of whitebark decline.

So again, these are the inferences: 1) forests are warming due to 2) greenhouse gases, causing 3) beetles to proliferate, and 4) forests to die. In fact the primary cause of whitebark decline is a blister rust introduced from France to British Columbia in 1910. So if Lydon and his ilk wish to save the forests, he and they would do better to focus on the real problems. Importation of exotic species is a far greater ecological threat than climate change will ever be.

Let's take another example, the polar bears. In 1778 Capt. Cook explored the northern coasts of Siberia and Alaska and encountered pack ice everywhere which he estimated at 10 to 12 feet high. This means it was 90 to 100 feet thick, too thick for seals, hence to thick for polar bear. In other words, there were few if any polar bears north of the Arctic Circle during the Little Ice Age--they migrated northward with the melting of the 1ate 19th century. But unlike walruses, they certainly are creatures of the snow and ice, having only recent evolved from brown bear ancestors. They are in fact of the same species as species is traditionally defined--they can interbreed.

Walruses evolved before the Pleistocene and before the proliferation of ice bergs to roost on. Ice helped them, just as it enabled polar bears to thrive, but they can get by without ice, only with reduced numbers. If polar bears decline walruses should thrive, since the bears eat the walrus pups.

With the exception of the disappearing Amazon jungle, which has nothing to do with climate change, all of Lydon's ecological bugbears may be dismissed with equal ease. The fact is climate change is a fool's bugbear, and one that only distracts us from real problems and their solutions. The sooner we get over the myth of Global Warming the sooner we can save the earth from imported diseases, competing critters, and our own ignorance.

-- A G Foster
Flat Earth Society
John Scanlon
John Scanlon
Feb 23, 2010 12:43 PM
When I read stories like this and read the comments, it makes me consider whether I want to be on the right side of history or the wrong side. It makes me think of what it must have been like in the 1950's and 60's considering civil rights for black Americans, or in the courthouse when the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial."

Think how ignorant one would feel taking the contrarian position. But as evidenced from some comments on this page, there are some very ignorant Americans.
Tool for Localizing Climate Change
Sophia Roudane
Sophia Roudane
Feb 26, 2010 12:07 PM
Excellent article. I've been reading similar blogs and articles on local environmental issues and wanted to share a new tool with you that CU-Boulder has just completed, LearnMoreAboutClimate.colorado.edu.

Climate change skeptics often get their information from skewed sources and political media. Instead of trying to push people to believe one thing or another about climate change, I think it's extremely important for people to have access to resources where they can look at facts and trends.

The goal of the site is to localize climate change for Coloradans. A series of short videos pair climate scientists from CU-Boulder with everyday citizens from across the state to tell compelling stories about climate change in Colorado.

The films lead viewers through the science of climate change, how it is affecting the state's water supply and ecosystems, and how individuals and organizations are addressing these challenges. Stories from the Denver Zoo to the Eastern plains and the mountain forests, illustrate how this issue affects the entire state. The site also provides resources to help teachers bring climate change education into their classrooms and to aide policy makers.

Perhaps down the road we can explore ways to collaborate or for us to be helpful in advance as you seek to engage the community.
Share your bucket list
May 05, 2010 12:54 AM
Here is a great site to create,manage and share your bucket list.


check it out.
True or False
Micky D
Micky D
Jun 06, 2010 11:48 AM
Whether or not you believe that the dissapearing glaciers, weather affected tree deaths, and northward migrations are caused by man-made actions don't you think that if there is even the slightest chance we contribute to it, we should take action?

Besides, there are enough health problems, polluted air, water and ground that are visible, measurable and likely caused by the same human actions.

Only a fool or an incredibly greedy selfich person (or corporation, which is now classified a s a person) would not want to be part of he solution.