While coronavirus coverage has dominated the airwaves, our environment continues to grow into the new summer season. Here is a cornucopia of conservation topics we’ve curated to get you in the summer mood…

The National Park Service can make agreements with researchers who make discoveries or inventions from park resources. Brian Yablonski, CEO of Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), discusses how the parks could use this as a potential tool to maintain financial sustainability.

Keith Weber, Geographic Information System (GIS) Director at Idaho State University, who’s lab also shares a relationship with NASA’s DEVELOP Program, talks about wildfires in southeast Idaho. He and NASA’s DEVELOP Team are using satellite imagery to detect the amount of moisture contained in organic matter (live fuel moisture) on the forest floor to better predict where and when wildfires might occur, especially during dry spells. See more: Assessing and Forecasting Live Fuel Moisture Content of Wildfire Fuels for the Eastern Great Basin to Improve Wildfire Timing and Severity Predictions

Just outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, sits one of the largest 1,4-dioxane contamination sites. Spencer Weaver, Founder of Fourth View, briefly introduces some of the history of the site and how activists are trying to keep it in the headlines throughout the coronavirus.

Slide PARTIES PARTIES FUNERALS Keith Weber, GIS Director, Idaho State University Spencer Weaver, Founder, Fourth View Brian Yablonski, CEO, Property and Environment Research Center

TRANSCRIPT: Brian Yablonski, Property and Environment Research Center

A famous picture you’ll see of Yellowstone and you Google like the hot springs, you’ll see this rainbow looking hot spring out there. It’s called Grand Prismatic Springs. It’s giant. It’s like 20 Olympic swimming pools, you know, out there. And it’s got these really colorful rings to it. So the center is like this deep blue. And then it gets a little bit lighter, like almost like a green as you get further out from the blue. And then you get to like a yellow, and then you get to an orange. And really what that is reflecting is bacteria or not bacteria, the water based on the heat. So when you’re in the core of the hot spring, where it’s that deep blue, there’s no life. And so that’s what the deep blue is showing you. But as you get further out, the ability for life through bacteria to live comes about and so those yellow bands and orange bands there at the edge of the spring, are actually the microbes and bacteria that are living in what is still extremely hot water, right? So for us to give you a sense these microbes which are called thermofile, so thermofile, the definition is actually heat loving microbe. So I might say heat loving microbe like that’s actually a definition of a thermal file. So, so these thermal files, like are living in 180 degree Fahrenheit, heat, and nobody thought life plant or animal or otherwise could live at that temperature. This guy, Thomas Brock, who was with Indiana University, back in the 1960s, came into Yellowstone to do research on this and discovered this thermos aquatics, which was this thermofile that was living in these bands that like at 180 degree heat. Now, he didn’t think there was a commercial application. Well, he wasn’t out there like oh, how am I gonna make a million dollars on this? He took specimens, he actually took specimens from the park was allowed to do this and continue doing research on it and then he, he fell into the pages of history, you know, he belonged to the ages at that point. Along comes this company in the 1980s and this guy named Kary Mullis who ends up winning the Nobel Prize for this and gets the specimens that Brock has. So he’s been studying. And he creates something called the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR is what it’s called. And essentially, it’s like, how do you study DNA? Like how do you study the genetic material of DNA. And that process requires a lot of heat to replicate DNA so that you can keep studying it, right? So he creates this replication process, his ability to copy DNA, but it’s really hard to do because that process of copying that he invents, relies on a lot of heat and that heat ends up killing the enzymes you need to study DNA replication. But lo and behold, he gets a hold of thermos aquatic is from Thomas Brock’s collection. And he realizes that there’s an enzyme in there that can withstand heat, you know, like at 180 degrees Fahrenheit, so he’s able to insert it in the process. And that’s what makes the whole thing go is that he can do rapid replication of DNA. And so the addition of this this thermal file into the PCR process is now what has enabled us to do DNA fingerprinting in crime scenes. It’s enabled us to do genetic diagnosis and genetic studies. The testing of infectious disease has come from that process. So the COVID tests or you know, National Geographic has even said it’s the backbone you saw in the article. It’s the backbone of the testing. So think about it. So there was a thermal file was discovered in the 1960s. The process where it enhances the PCR the polymer chain, polymerase chain reaction happens in the 1980s. And from the 1980s, this whole multibillion dollar industry flourishes right? So if an agreement had been set up, right, like the royalties and revenues might not have been realized until 30 years after the case, but right now today would be a windfall. Complete windfall for the park. There’s, research going on in the park, right? We know that there’s commercialization of that research that’s going on. So people who do research in the park take that knowledge, specimen technology, they convert it into something that is lucrative on the market, or potentially lucrative on the market, and they make money on it right. So we know that. The third missing piece was the park wasn’t seeing any of that. None of the national parks were seeing any of that. And so the question came up, if the national parks like setting fees or negotiating concession setting fees for entry, or negotiating concessionaire fees, if the park is being a good business thinker, somebody is going to say, wait a second, if the research they’re doing is in my park, and they’re going out and making a billion dollars on that research, shouldn’t the public, shouldn’t Americans get a cut of that, to pay for the needs of the park. None of this is going into the pocket of anybody. It’s going back to the park, which is the beautiful thing here. And sure, it’s a diamond in the rough potentially to find something that would pay in any kind of scale. But you never know when that’s going to come. And the reason this all happened was because it happened, it came, that billion dollar industry was created, and the park wasn’t at the table. And when it got created, and by the time the parks, National Park Service, realized, oh, my gosh, this was a billion dollar opportunity, it was too late. So, this benefit sharing process was put in place to sort of capture that so that wouldn’t potentially happen again.

Yeah, the pedigree. One of the companies that came in actually enabled provided the science and research to create the Yellowstone wolf pedigree, via the DNA and genetics. So now when you capture a wolf in Canada, you can tell if it’s a Yellowstone wolf or not based on that pedigree created, so it helps with like wolf tracking. So to your point that was a non-monetary benefit that the cart got from it. But it was fairly significant, like the park didn’t have the resources or money to actually create that pedigree of wolf so that they could track the wolves going out of Yellowstone. So you know, you could put a price tag on that, and that would probably be the monetary benefit, but they would call that a non-monetary benefit. This is really a lot about Yellowstone, because right now Yellowstone, and as Annie would probably tell you like the caves, you know, the national parks that have caves, like Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky and Carlsbad caves, those are the places where the bacteria…You know, about 25% of the research permits that Yellowstone issues are to study the microbes, and bacteria versus wildlife and other things. That’s really the interesting cutting-edge side of research. And so those are the parts that potentially will be able to generate the most benefit here. The good news is the benefit goes to the entire park system. Right? So there is a there’s a company right now you can Google that for the millennials is probably a really cool thing called Nature’s Fynd. This is a company that has a benefit sharing agreement, like very new. Now, we don’t know what’s in that agreement and Annie confirmed that they have an agreement. But this is a food, a company that is developing a protein like chicken nuggets, pork dumplings, cream cheese, chocolate mousse. It’s not animal based and not plant based. It’s based from a thermofile in Yellowstone National Park. And so there’s an agreement. Like if this became like a big thing, like this could become, I don’t want say it’d be like the PCR. But this is the kind of big thing like if all of a sudden, 20 years from now everything we’re eating is coming from this company, Nature’s Fynd. Like they become the next Kellogg’s or whatever. That’s a big deal. Like they have a benefit sharing agreement. And hopefully, the terms of the benefit sharing agreement are favorable for the long view as opposed to the short view. Because if you’re a company like Nature’s Fynd, my sense is you would come in and negotiate one of these and say, I’ll give you $10,000 you know, today, and today money, you know, and we’ll call it, I’ll give you $50,000 today. If you’re the person on the other side, and you just got $50,000, like that’s a pretty good deal. Like you’re the person who got $50,000, you’re the park employee who got $50,000. But a shrewd negotiator would say, no. I don’t want your $50,000 today, or maybe I’ll take 10 instead, I want 2% of your company’s proceeds going forward or 1% of your company’s proceeds going forward. You know, a company’s probably going resist that. They’d rather just pay you the money upfront and keep all the big, you know, the big payout at the end of the day for themselves. But that’s kind of part of the give and take negotiation where you, you probably have to be a little bit of a shrewd negotiator here. So if the park is getting a percent of Nature’s Fynd’s revenues and Nature’s Fynd takes off, then that’s a great thing. They’ve structured a really good agreement. We’re outside Yellowstone National Park and there is fabulous intellectual hedge fund savvy brainpower all around this region, because, you know, Eric Schmidt of Google lives up the road here. Mark Zuckerberg has a place here. This is kind of the new Aspen for the titans of technology and a lot of them have their ski homes here, their second homes here. The ability to tap some of that brainpower, to help you sort of negotiate with companies and things, as you as you start going down this road would be huge. And a lot of these folks because this is going to benefit Yellowstone National Park at the end, a lot of these folks probably do it for free, because like that’s their public service. They would sit there go, “Look I’ll sit with you and help you negotiate an agreement with some company” because at the end of the day, this is all benefits Yellowstone National Park or all the national parks out there. That’s keeping your eye on that prize to say, look commercialization is a Boogeyman. Everybody gets worried about it. You know, benefits sharing agreements is a really wonky term and it’s not on people’s radar. What can we do to help the national parks? Because we know the national parks have huge challenges right now. I mean, there’s a $12 billion maintenance backlog that they’re facing. Housing hasn’t been repaired in 100 years. These are wastewater systems that are on the verge of failure. They’re campgrounds and trails that have to be closed. All these things add up and $12 billion is probably a small number. That’s an old number, that was a number that was developed back in the mid 2000s. If you were to do that number today from the national parks, it would probably be closer to $20 billion. So how do we get creative about addressing those needs, and this is just one tool in the market based toolbox that, right now isn’t spinning off a lot of money, but has the potential, if you hit it right, to spit off hundreds of millions of dollars.

TRANSCRIPT: Keith Weber, Idaho State University

Yeah, it’s interesting. This year, it’s probably what we’ll say, too early to really tell. Because sometimes what we’ve seen is the spring is nice and wet. The grasses are growing nicely, I’m talking to native grasses really, the grasses that you find in the range lands and in those ecosystems. They’re growing very nicely. Temperatures are relatively cool, not doing too bad that way, but then all of a sudden, it just doesn’t rain anymore. Right? And what you end up having is you’ve got a tremendous amount of fuel that has grown, the plants are so healthy, they’re standing up out there, but when they when that water gets more or less turned off, no more rainfall. You come about late July, early August, it is so ready to burn. And you get these dry thunderstorms that come through, very, very common. And it’ll light up the place. And I mean, I talked to BLM (Bureau of Land Management) folks, they say, “Hey, after that storm that went through last night, we had, you know, 20 wildfire starts, 100 wildfire starts.” A lot of them went out on their own, but not all of them. So, we’ve seen this before. So it’s too early to tell. If it stays wet, stays wet, stays wet, we’ll be okay. The likelihood it’s really going to stay wet throughout the whole summer is really bad. There’s a poor likelihood, low probability for a place like southern Idaho.

We were working with the GAC (National Geospatial Advisory Committee). What they do is they will look at and assess wildfire risk. And one of the big drivers of wildfire risk in their model is live fuel moisture. So it’s this whole idea that, okay, you got a lot of fuel out there. And now it’s getting drier and drier and drier. In some regions of the United States or the eastern Great Basin, it’ll be drier than other parts of that same region. So what they will do Forest Service, BLM, and so on, so on so forth, they’ll actually proactively stage smoke jumpers or hot shot crews in these areas. If they say look, that spot right over there, has got a high wildfire risk because of very low live fuel, moisture. We know that there’s storms coming in tonight or tomorrow or this weekend, so they’ll actually bring people in so that they can respond quickly to wildfire starts and kind of get them under control and ultimately put them out.

Yeah, that’s satellite remote sensing, right? So we used a number of different satellite platforms looking at the evapotranspiration products out of MODUS, VERS system, and correlated that effectively with field observations. So the BLM and Forest Service people will go out every two weeks, they’re already out at this time of the year, and they are collecting samples of these fuels from grasses, to fine fuels, to larger fuels. They’ll weigh them when they first clip them. And then they’ll, what we call, oven dry them. So they get kind of cooked for about two days, at a very, very low temperature. What you’re doing as they’re driving off the moisture is driving out the water. Then they’ll reweigh that plant and the difference in weight is the difference that was lost because of water. And that difference then can be calculated as live fuel moisture of that plant prior to drying. And they’ll watch it. It goes down and down and down over the season. And right now it’s probably 200-300% live fuel moisture, maybe even higher than that.

Then the problem though is for this entire Eastern Great Basin, there’s only about 100-150 samples taken across that entire area. Essentially each sample has got a represent, what is it like 1000 acres? It’s a large area, I want to say it’s like 160,000 square kilometers or something like that, right?

Yeah, they realized that just because we do a sample here and we show low or high live fuel moisture, that may not be true when we go over a little bit of a hill right over there. It may be more or less moist, right? So we used their field data and the satellite imagery to make a spatially complete or continuous layer where that live fuel moisture would change over areas and so on and so forth. It’s not 100% accurate, no doubt about that. But I think it gives them a far better idea of what’s going on out there in the landscape than they did with just a 150 some plants.

TRANSCRIPT: Spencer Weaver, Fourth View

We’re less than four miles from downtown Ann Arbor, where, just over my shoulder, used to be the former Gelman Sciences. From the 1960s to the 1980s, they made high tech filtration systems there. But in the ultimate of ironies, their process used a unique waterborne toxin known as 1,4 dioxane. That toxin is still lingering beneath here in the aquifer and it continues to spread all of these years later.

Now, for years, there were rumors about different toxic air bubbles that used to eat paint off the cars and there were odd smells that would come whenever they watered the grass. And it wasn’t until 1984, when a local grad student named Dan Bicknell, actually confirmed that there was contamination here at the site. Since then, an array of community activists, politicians and local residents have tried to keep the issue on the radar in order to get a full cleanup. But that hasn’t happened. The coronavirus has just been another obstacle in terms of trying to get through the news cycle and make people aware of the situation.