Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.
A tribute to a tree poses questions about its worth.
The story: In a special feature for the Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin tells the story of a single Sitka spruce in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest — one of the last intact, old-growth forests in the United States. Eilperin writes that the spruce likely sprouted sometime before Copernicus planted the sun at the center of the solar system. Now, 500 years later, it bears the mark of a blue “X” spray painted along the base of its 17-story trunk — a sign it had been chosen for destruction. Take heart, the ancient spruce is safe, for now. In 2021, the Biden administration reversed a Trump-era proposal that would have cut massive amounts of timber in Tongass National Forest.
The big picture: Deforestation rates have climbed in recent years — with short-term economic interests outweighing the long-term value of forests in stashing climate-warming carbon. The tree reflects a broader question: As the world contends with runaway climate change, how does humanity flip the economic script that has rendered forests more valuable dead than alive?
Protecting and restoring natural ecosystems, such as old-growth forests, could provide a third of the global emissions reductions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. They also store “irrecoverable carbon” — the carbon we cannot afford to lose if we are going to stabilize our climate. This particular tree makes a pretty clear case for its survival — it holds nearly 13.4 metric tons of carbon, equivalent to the carbon sequestered by more than 800 seedlings grown for a decade.
Could a genetic discovery help resurrect the critically endangered red wolf?
The story: A unique group of canids on Galveston Island, Texas, carry a remarkable genetic link: the DNA of red wolves — a species with only 20 individuals left in the wild, reports Emily Anthes for the New York Times. Experts believe the newly discovered canids are a hybrid of coyotes and red wolves.
“They harbor ancestral genetic variation, this ghost variation, which we thought was extinct from the landscape,” Bridgett vonHoldt, an expert on canine genetics, told the New York Times. “So, there’s a sense of reviving what we thought was gone.”
The big picture: Red wolves are in trouble. In the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed a dozen wild wolves in a captive breeding program to save the species from extinction. Currently, there are around 240 wolves in captivity, along with a struggling population reintroduced to the coast of North Carolina. Every one of those wolves is a descendant of the 12 wolves captured almost 50 years ago. The rediscovery of ancient red wolf genes could help reinvigorate the captive breeding program and restore much-needed genetic variation to the ailing wild wolf population.
Chile is rewriting its most defining document to reckon with climate change.
The story: After two years of political and social upheaval, a Constitutional Convention of 155 Chileans has been elected to rewrite the country’s constitution amid what they are calling a “climate and ecological emergency,” reports Somini Sengupta for the New York Times. The new constitution will likely shape the future of Chile’s extractive industries — particularly for lithium, an essential component of batteries. Chile’s mines have made it one of the richest countries in Latin America, but opponents say this prosperity has come at a significant environmental cost and created further inequity among its citizens.
The big picture: Chile’s Constitutional Convention, which includes parity among women and men, and seats for 17 Indigenous people, has a huge task ahead of it. And it’s asking some heady questions, including how mining should be regulated, what voice local communities have in decisions over extractive industries and whether nature has rights. It’s an opportunity to reinvent how the country is governed and put global warming and climate justice at the very core of its future. The process underscores the uncertainty facing many other nations with economic models based natural resource extraction. Sengupta poses the question: As humanity confronts climate change, biodiversity loss and widening social inequities, must it also reexamine its relationship with nature?
Cover image: Tongass National Forest, Alaska (© HenryHartley/Wikimedia Commons)