You are on page 1of 36


A compilation of Sustainability stories

tSR Editorial Staff

This past Monday, I presented my Master of Sustainable Solutions applied project to policymakers, planners,
business leaders, and environmental activists in Indianapolis. I took my audience on a rapid journey through
the images and visualizations of the citys energy and transportation system, stopping periodically to recap
how the information connected with the values and goals of Indianapolis stakeholders.
After the presentation, I opened the floor to questions and called on a hand raised to my right. The
owner of the hand talked briskly, keeping his eyes peeled to the 20-page report that summarized my research,
while slowly turning each page to ensure he did not miss a detail.
While you provide a lot of good information, I think this report misses the opportunity to frame how
your research fits in the larger picture of the city-wide carbon reductions and community benefits that will result from implementing your policy solutions.
For me, capturing the larger picture of my research is a major challenge. As sustainability scientists,
we seek to achieve solutions based in academic rigor. All the time, we discuss studies that use faulty methodologies or insufficient amount of data to make illegitimate claims. But, rarely do we debate articles that
overload the content with methods, data, and jargon to the point that the larger picture or the so what moment is lost.
At the Sustainability Review (tSR), we believe that academic articles need to strike an appropriate balance between applying academic rigor and identifying the larger picture. While the public, decision-makers
and leaders want to gather information from credible sources, at the end of the day they want to use that information to better their communities. They cannot use the information if they do not understand it or cannot relate its findings to their work.
With our first annual Narrative, the tSR editorial staff challenged five sustainability scientists and
scholars to capture the larger picture of their research. After reading this publication, we hope you understand
the important role fossil fuel divestment plays in the fight against climate change through a personal investigation into the expenditures of the Arizona State University Foundation. We explore the tireless work required
to protect the endangered loggerhead sea turtles by following a day-in-the-life of a turtle girl. We expose
you to a first-hand account of the different cultural perceptions that nuclear weapons elicit across the globe and
explain the need for nuclear disarmament. We describe the complexities faced by Arizona farmers and the innovations they employ to overcome them to deliver food to your table. Finally, we introduce you to the deeprooted planting method that could potentially reduce erosion and bring life back to the desolate urban desert
landscape in Central Arizona, if it was only given it a chance.
We want to hear your reactions and thoughts after reading this Narrative, as sustainability science and
research can only progress with an open conversation. Please share with us through social media, in face-toface conversations, and, maybe, even add your voice in next years Narrative. At tSR, we are all ears.
Ryan Anderson
tSR editor-in-chief

"Moral Cents: The Ethical and Financial

Case for Fossil Fuel Divestment at Arizona
State University"
Nick Di Taranto
In the mid-1980s, resistance to apartheid in South

Desmond Tutu noted, it could not have been

Africa reached critical mass, becoming one of the

achieved without the use of non-violent means,

most pressing international issues of the period. It

such as boycotts and divestment that encouraged

began when black South Africans protested the

their governments and other corporate actors to re-

1983 South African Constitution, which included

verse decades-long support for the Apartheid re-

racially segregated Parliaments. In response, the


South African government, Apartheid, sent thou-

The actions taken by the college students

sands of troops to quell the protests, as millions

against apartheid represented the first major divest-

around the world watched on television.

ment campaign. Divestment, which simply means

The events in South Africa galvanized

getting rid of unethical or morally ambiguous

college students across the United States to start

stocks, bonds or investments, has since grown to

campaigns and pressure their universities to di-

become a prominent strategy in the fight against

vest from companies directly related to the South

climate change.

African regime. The movement spread, with 55

Large institutions such as the Rockefeller

campuses eventually divesting, and more than 80

Brothers Fund, more than 30 U.S cities, and a

cities, 19 counties, and 25 states taking some

growing number of American Universities and reli-

form of binding economic action against compa-

gious institutions have taken the steps to divest

nies connected to the Apartheid.

from fossil fuels, but the movement requires more

While this campaign did not single handedly end Apartheid, South African Archbishop

participation to become an agent of social change.

To date, the nations largest university, Arizona

State University, has yet to divest its endowment from

Divestment: a grassroots campaign to combat the

fossil fuels.

climate crisis

Arizona State University takes climate change

For my Masters in History, I focus on envi-

seriously. The University has the nations first School

ronmental policy, so naturally, a global grassroots

of Sustainability, established in 2006. Tens of millions

campaign peaked my interest. Three numbers stuck

of dollars fund tremendous amounts of research and

with me2 degrees Celsius, 565 gigatons, and 2,795

practical solutions to sustainability challenges in Ari-

gigatons. These numbers form the foundation for the

zona and around the world as part of President Crows

divestment campaign and were first brought to promi-

New American University vision, while educating a

nence by environmental activist Bill McKibben three

new generation of sustainability scholars and practitio- years ago.


The first number comes from the 2009 CopenOne would expect that a leader in sustainability hagen Conference, where 167 countries recognized

would take the lead in divestment, but after research

the scientific view that the increase in global tem-

and multiple conversations with the ASU Foundation perature should be below two degrees Celsius. To
the organization that handles ASUs endowmentI

keep temperatures below that threshold, global car-

found that to not be the case and took it upon myself to bon emissions cannot exceed the second number, 565
understand and unwind the complexities that prevent

gigatons. The problem lies with the third number,

the Foundation from taking action against fossil fuel

2,797 gigatons, or the amount of carbon already con-


tained in proven fossil fuelcoal, oil, and gas

reserves worldwide. In other words, the carbon we

plan to burn short of any action to curb either its

tive assets worth more than $50 billion have

extraction or use.

pledged to drop their fossil fuel holdings.

My interest in divestment stems from

Despite the overwhelming scientific evi-

McKibbens passion, energy, and earnest activism,

dence supporting anthropogenic climate change,

but there was something more than that. The politi-

few political solutions exist to curb carbon emis-

cal process often seems inaccessible and climate

sions. Meanwhile, fossil fuel interests continue to

change is a problem too wicked for individual

spend large sums of money to fund climate denial

action to have a meaningful impact. The divest-

research, lobby policymakers, and explore options

ment campaign seemed like something I could sup-

for extracting more oil, gas, and coal from the

port and maybe make a difference. I began follow-

ground. In 2013, fossil fuel companies spent $213

ing campaigns around the nation and researching

million dollars lobbying U.S. and European offi-

the arguments for and against divestment to deter-

cials, an OxFam International study reported. The

mine if it was a worthwhile cause for Arizona State

study also concluded that fossil fuel companies

University to pursue.

spent nearly $700 billion on exploration and de-

Where does the New American University stand?:

velopment projects in 2012.

weighing divestment at ASU

To combat the influence of fossil fuel in-

Choosing to divest requires navigating an

terests, McKibbens non-profit,, called

institutional bureaucracy. Endowments consist of

for a grassroots movement to break the power of

money or other financial assets donated to a univer-

the top 200 fossil fuel companies100 oil and

sity or organization. Most often, donors gifts come

gas and 100 coal companiesby bankrupting

with strings attached, meaning the university must

them, not financially, but morally, and, in doing

use the donation to achieve an end goal designated

so, pressuring political officials and businesses to

by a donor. According to its 2014 Financial Audit,

take action that curbs emissions. Since 2012, pub-

the ASU Foundation manages $626 million in the

lic, private, and individual investors with collec-

New American Universitys endowment. The Foun-

dation consists of six voting board members, who

exists solely to support ASU. Then, after intro-

steer the overall strategies of the organizations

ducing myself, I proceeded with my questions.

investment policies. Approximately, fifty different

Ginny and Lisa explained that divestment

firms make the actual investment decisions,

could result in financial losses that prohibit the

though, each of whom invest in about 300 to 500

University from meeting its fiduciary obligation to

companies based on their own investing strategies.

donors. Moreover, the Foundation focuses on

Initial attempts to learn how the Founda-

achieving the best possible return on investment

tion invests the Universitys endowment through

for donors. Ginny noted that large oil and gas com-

financial reports provided vague answers: 40 per-

panies have the finances and ability to make large-

cent goes into global equities, 10 percent in global

scale changes in energy infrastructure, so divesting

fixed incomes, 20 percent in private capital and so

from those companies may actually undermine di-

forth. Moreover, due to its status as an independent

vestment campaigns goal of reducing carbon

and private organization, the Foundation has no

emissions. For instance, ASU collaborates with

legal obligation to make more information avail-

Shell in its Gamechanger Program. Yet, the

able. So, I started contacting people at the Founda-

theme this year implores students to come up with

tion. I sent multiple e-mails that eventually led to a

innovative ways to take oil out of the ground more

meeting with Virginia DeSantoknown in the of-

efficiently; meanwhile Shell and other oil and gas

fice as Ginnythe Foundations vice president

companies are abandoning their renewable energy

of finance, CFO, secretary and treasurer and Lisa

investment projects.

Jacobson, the assistant treasurer.

Ginny sat with a note-filled legal pad in

Well, OK, I thought, but how much of the

endowment is tied into fossil fuel companies? Nei-

front of her, which signaled she took me seriously,

ther Ginny nor Lisa knew. They cited the difficulty

and she started things off by introducing herself

of tracking hundreds of investments that that any

and explaining that the Foundation is an inde-

one of the fifty investment managers may trade on

pendent tax-exempt organization from ASU that

a given day. They explained the Foundation

would not likely disclose individual stock invest-

defined sustainable investment strategy and it cer-

ment information because some managers con-

tainly was not seriously considering divestment. It

tractually forbid that type of disclosure since it

remained unclear if, or how, those values guided

could risk weakening the investment managers

investment strategies.

competitive edge in investing.

When asked how the New American Uni-

The meeting lasted roughly 45 minutes.

Ginny wished me luck on finishing school, told me

versity values such as being socially embedded,

to e-mail her if I had any other questions, and

globally engaged, and aspiring to transform soci-

showed me out. On the walk home, I plugged in my

ety influenced investment strategies, Ginny ex-

earphones and began digesting the conversation.

plained that the Foundation has no policies in the

Ginny and Lisa answered my questions to the best

investment strategy that specifically includes or

of their ability and provided important context to

excludes any particular environmental, social or

how the ASU Foundation operates. Still, the lack of

governance concept. She mentioned, however,

specific answers nagged at me.

that the Foundation was considering setting up a

A few days later, I flew home to Philadel-

separate sustainable investment fund for inter-

phia for Spring Break where I mulled over my next

ested donors to invest. The Foundation, also, re-

steps. I decided to look into some of the barriers to

cently held a sustainable investing conference that

divestment mentioned by Ginny to see if I could

included 30 to 40 universities from across the

find potential solutions. Google proved to hold a


wealth of information. To Ginnys first point about

She transitioned into explaining that the

financial loss, I found some studies that supported

New American University values guided some of

her claimalbeit funded by fossil fuel interests

the ways the Foundation spent its revenue,

but most put forth evidence that demonstrated that

through public outreach, scholarships and by re-

divestment makes financial sense.

ducing its carbon footprint from operations. Still

though, the Foundation had no clear or well-

Investment is about managing risk and the

concept of stranded assets makes investment in

fossil fuel investments dangerous. An Oxford Uni-

yielded similar results.

versity study defined stranded assets as assets that

I also discovered that on average, U.S. unihave suffered from unanticipated or premature
versities have only two to three percent of their
write-downs, devaluations or conversion to liabiliendowment invested in fossil fuel companies.
ties. Coal, oil, and gas risk becoming stranded
Based on the average, ASU has between $12.52
assets due to potential regulatory policies that limit
million and $18.78 million invested in fossil fuels.
carbon emissions through a carbon tax, emissions
While that seems like a lot of money, it represents
trading program, or some other regulatory mechaonly a drop in the bucket of the $12 trillion total
nism that internalize the cost of carbon pollution.
market capitalization of fossil fuel companies.
Carbon pricing schemes cover more than one-fifth
Last, I looked at divestment commitments at other
of global emissions, with the European Union and
universities and found a wide range of options.
23 U.S. states under some form of carbon regulaPitzer College, for example, committed to divesttion policy. A larger proportion of emissions will
ing 99% of its endowment from fossil fuels, while
likely come under regulation after the U.N climate
the University of Sydney created a plan to reduce
talks in Paris this December.
investments in fossil fuel companies by 20% over
Mainstream financial institutions provide
the next three years and then reassess its situation.
some of the most compelling evidence in favor of
divestment because it can result in financial gain.

Armed with this information I decided to

For instance, a research team from Standard and

take Ginnys offer for follow up questions and af-

Poor (S&P) modeled the performance over the

ter a few e-mail exchanges I headed back to the

past decade of the S&P 500 index stripped of its

ASU Foundation to meet Ginny, as well as Rick

fossil-fuel stocks. A $1 billion endowment in-

Shangraw, CEO of the Foundation.

vested in carbon-free S&P 500 companies would

Prior to his appointment as CEO in 2011,

have yielded an additional $119 million in profit

Shangraw served as the director of the Global In-

through 2013. Studies from other investment firms

stitute of Sustainability. He demonstrated both

knowledge of and engagement with sustainability

sustainable investing. He emphasized that the Foun-

issues as he went through my questions in a

dation planned to provide new options for donors,

power point presentation he made for the meet-

such as a sustainable investment fund, which

ing, taking care to stop when I asked for further

along with a sustainable investment statement

clarification, and expressing personal frustration

will be voted on at the next Investment Committee

with the political apathy toward the climate crisis.


I found that we shared an admiration for McKib-

Additionally, Shangraw mentioned the need

ben and his public outreach on climate change,

for groups like to reach out to donors to

although he was less enthusiastic about the target-

encourage them to push for sustainable options as

ing of University endowments. He seemed on my

an important step for moving this topic forward

side, and even if he disagreed, I liked him because

with similar investment organizations. Yet most of

he listened patiently to my perspective and took

the discussion focused very little on the endow-

care and consideration in explaining his.

ment. In Shangraws opinion, the endowment represented only one of the Universitys and the Founda-

Shangraw agreed that getting to a carbon

tions sustainability levers and he expressed the
free investment portfolio was a desirable goal, but
need for a more holistic approach to moving the
also a journey, one ASU had just begun. He gidneedle on sustainable investing. While I never got
dily described a new investment opportunity or
the impression the Foundation was seriously contool that tracks companies behavior for socially
sidering divestment, they made it clear that they
responsible indicators
such as human rights,
treatment of labor, and,
yes, carbon emissions.
Shangraw explained that
this tool could help move
the Foundation toward

were pursuing other sustainable investment strate-

mation, embedded socially and connected with


communities, to encourage innovation, and to ad-


vance global engagement.

The facts are simple and clear: humans are

ASU and the Foundation should commit to

changing the climate by releasing carbon dioxide

combating climate change through all its sustain-

and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere

ability levers. While the University has a Carbon

and the main source of those emissions come from

Neutral Plan that covers many sustainable lev-

burning fossil fuels. To prevent the most catastro-

ers, investment strategies are notably missing.

phic impacts of climate change, we need to keep

Still, ASU and the Foundation do not operate in an

fossil fuels in the ground. Divestment campaigns

ideal world and as with other climate-related chal-

aim to pressure businesses, institutions, and or-

lenges and any large institution, solutions are often

ganizations into stopping the flow of finance to

more difficult to implement in the real world and

these companies, not to inflict financial harm, but

change will likely occur slower than one might

as a value statement: it is wrong to ruin the earths

hope. The Foundation is indeed moving in the

climate and therefore wrong to profit from it.

right direction, but it can do more.

If the ASU Foundation for A New Ameri-

To fully realize its goals and mission,

can Universitys sole purpose is benefitting the

ASU should divest from fossil fuels. First, the

University, then it should be held to the same val-

Foundation should assess the greenhouse gas emis-

ues and standards. Climate change is a social, eco-

sions embedded in its investment portfolio. Many

nomic, cultural, and political problem, pervasive at

companies already disclose emission information

the local, national, and international level, that is

due to EPA greenhouse gas reporting regulations

largely attributable to burning fossil fuels. Divest-

and the push for corporate social responsibility.

ment from fossil fuels and the message it sends

Next, ASU and the Foundation can discuss to what

could not fit more perfectly with the Universitys

extent they want to divest from fossil fuels. Again,

aspirations to become a force for societal transfor-

options abound as many universities and other in-

stitutions have already divested or partially divested from fossil fuels. Last, ASU and the Foundation can work
together with their current investment managers, or seek out new ones, to develop a low carbon investing strategy that does not jeopardize the Universitys fiduciary obligations. For instance, Morgan Stanley Capital and
other investment firms offer sustainable or low carbon investment strategies. Fossil fuel companies comprise
only 11 percent of the S&P 500 so divestment hardly restricts investment strategies.
The Universitys endowment is one quiver in the arrow, but when our society is dealing with a challenge as pervasive as climate change, it needs all the arrows available. When considering divestment, University and Foundation officials should reflect not on my words, but ASU President and Foundation board member Michael Crows: Do you replicate what exists, or do you design what you really need? ASU has already
changed the university model through its interdisciplinary approach and it is time that kind of reevaluation take
place concerning the Universitys endowment, to create what Mr. Crow calls the maximum societal impact.
End Notes
What is Fossil Fuel Divestment, Fossil Free, http://
(accessed February 1 2015). For a full list of commitments, see ibid, Divestment Commitments. For Tutu
quote, see Divesting From Injustice, Guardian 13
June 2010.
(accessed April 1 2015).
See the School of Sustainability website at https://
The numbers come from Carbon Tracker Initiative, a
project of the non-profit Investor Watch. Its report
has been utilized by several large investment firms and
banks, including Standard & Poor and HSBC, to calculate risk to carbon exposure. The total reserves do
not include shale gas. See, Bill McKibben, Global
Warmings Terrifying New Math, Rolling Stone August 2 2012.
news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math20120719?page=2 (accessed March 3 2015).

See OxFam International, Food, Fossil Fuels, and

Filthy Finance (October 17 2014, 4. The Figure
adapted from European Climate Foundation http://
See OxFam International, Food, Fossil Fuels, and
Filthy Finance, 2-3.
For the board of directors, see http://
Personal Correspondence with Virginia DeSanto, February 18, 2015. For figures on ASUs endowment, see
Arizona State University Foundation for a New
American University and Affiliates, Consolidated Financial Statements and Additional Information (July
30, 2014), 5.
For the Gamechanger Program., see http:// For more information
on Shell and other oil and gas companies withdrawal
from renewable energy sources, see Tom Bergin.
Shell goes cold on wind, solar, hydrogen energy,
Reuters 17 March 2009.
article/2009/03/17/us-shell-renewablesidUSTRE52G4SU20090317 (accessed March 28 2015);

Terry Macalister, Shell accused of abandoning

solar power buyers in the developing world,
Guardian 2 January 2010. http://
shell-sri-lanka-solar-warranty-row (accessed Mach
28 2015); and Antonia Juhasz, Big Oils Big Lies
About Alternative Energy, Rolling Stone 25 June
big-oils-big-lies-about-alternative-energy20130625 (accessed March 28 2015).

The S & P study was commissioned by the Associated Press. See Tom Zeller Jr., Fossil Fuel Divestment: Smart Bet or Losing Strategy, Forbes
February 10 2015. (accessed March 24, 2015).

For an example of a often cited study purporting

the financial risk involved with divestment see
Daniel Fischel, Fossil Fuel Divestment: A Costly
and Ineffective Investment Strategy. The study was
funded by the Independent Petroleum Association
of America. (accessed March 20,

For Pitzer College divestment see Pat Morrison,

Why Pitzer College decided to quit carbon, Los
Angeles Times October 21, 2014. http:// (accessed
March 9 2015). For the University of Sydney, see
Sydney University announces plan to reduce fossil fuel investments, Australian Broadcasting Corporation.. February
8 2015. (accessed March 9 2015).

Sheila M Olmstead, Applying Market Principles, 220-221 and Henrik Selin and Stacey D.
VanDeveer, Global Climate Change: Beyond
Kyoto, in Kraft and Vig, Environmental Policy,
287-292. As of 2013, there are three regional cap
and trade programs. For example, ten Northeastern
states created the Regional Green House Gas Initiative and in 2009, and California launched a capand-trade program. See, Barry Rabe, Racing to
the Top, the Bottom, or the Middle of the Pack?
The Evolving State Government Role in Environmental Protection, in Kraft and Vig, 32-49 and
Ken Portney, Sustainability in American Cities:
A comprehensive look at what cities are doing and
why, in Daniel Mazmanian and Michael Kraft,
Toward Sustainable Communities, 232-236. For
carbon pricing scheme statistic, see Fabian,
Support low-carbon investment, 28.
For other examples, see MSCI ESG Research
Team, Responding to the Call for Fossil-fuel Free
Portfolios, December 2013 and IMPAX Asset
Management, Beyond Fossil Fuels: The Investment Case for Fossil Fuel Divestment, 2013. See
Carbon Trackers website for a multitude of reports on the matter of unburnable carbon.

Atif Ansar , Ben Caldecott, James Tilbury,

Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign:
what does divestment mean for the valuation of fossil fuel
assets?, Oxford University Stranded Assets Pro-

gramme at the University of Oxfords Smith

School of Enterprise and the Environment (2013),
53-57, 66-67.

Bill McKibben wrote the first book about climate

change for a general audience in 1989, The End of
Personal Correspondence with Rick Shangrew on
March 24 2015.
This was taken with permission from the power
point presentation made by Mr Shangrew for our
meeting on March 24, 2015.
For examples, see MSCI ESG Research Team, Responding to the Call for Fossil-fuel Free Portfolios, December 2013 and IMPAX Asset Management, Beyond Fossil Fuels: The Investment Case
for Fossil Fuel Divestment, 2013. Also, see Carbon Trackers website for a multitude of reports on
the matter of unburnable carbon as well as the US
Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investing
Tim Dickinson, The Logic of Divestment: Why
We Have to Kiss Off Big Carbon Now, Rolling

Stone 14 January 2015.

-kiss-off-big-carbon-20150114 (accessed March 14
Collin Macilwain, The Arizona Experiment, Nature
Volume 446 No 26 (April 2007), 968.
President Crow uses this phrase often and is a core
value of the New American University. For examples,
see Michael M. Crow. Ed. A New American University
Reader: Selected Writings On University Design And
Related Topics (2011). The Phrase appears in numerous articles within this text and within other cited by
Crow in the forward.

T U R T L E TA L E S !
Stressed and devastated, we sprinted through shallow cold
waves that soaked our pants. Seagulls picked off silver-dollar
sized sea turtles for morning snacks. A late-hatch led these
little ones to face their attackers in the
We sprang into action, divvying up the
rescue efforts for the turtles by
screaming and yelling to each other
and at the murderous birds. Frantically, we ran around collecting turtles
and swatting gulls, Ill go after the
birds, you get the turtles!! Those vulture-esque seagulls always seemed to
emerge out of the sand scavenging for
easy pickings, especially unattended
turtles and Sun chips. Ash! Can you
tell how many have been taken?? Not
the best day of turtling on Cumberland Island.
Cumberland Island hides off the southern coast of Georgia,
only accessible to man by boat and intends to stay that way.

The sereneness is like nothing Ive experienced

and sun-glaring drive to the shore. Surprisingly,

before. While taking long walks through the miles

we found indications of a new nest upon arrival

of Spanish moss lined beach and forest, I searched

a good sign for the turtles!

for skittish armadillos that always seemed to be

Though new to finding

digging their head in the ground. Other times, I

freshly-laid nests, counting

might stumble upon a new-born wild horse. But

hatched eggs, and everything

its the 700 sea turtle nests and 52,309 hatched

that goes along with turtling,

baby turtles in 2012 that define this wildlife

I felt that I had the procedure down. After all, its

heaven for me.

not rocket science to dig up eggs and count them,

I started the day like any other turtle girl would,

right? Marking new nests may not be the most

busy before sunrise, loading up the Park Service

glamorous part of the job, but it protects incubat-

truck with blank white wooden posts, old fencing

ing turtles from nest thieves like hogs and coyotes.

screens, and ever-enticing Texas Pete-filled turkey

We would hop out of our truck, barefoot and sun-

sandwiches for lunch. Id only been turtling for

tanned, and just dig, careful not to get too much

about a week at this point, but it was still complete

sand under our fingernails and especially not to


slip our fingers through an eggshell, an event that

The uninhabited beach is 17 miles long, a perfect

is equal parts sad and gooey. But the feeling of a

spot for those egg-filled Caretta caretta

freshly laid endangered sea turtle egg is unimagin-

loggerhead sea turtlesto nest. My two fellow

able. If we missed a nest because wind erased the

turtle girl partners-in-crime ran a tight ship keep-

tracks or we just couldnt find it, more often than

ing track of the turtle nests during the first half of

not the wild hogs, ghost crabs, or raccoons on the

the nesting season, as high numbers of mama tur-

island would sniff out the nest and dig up the eggs

tles landed upon the shore to lay their eggs.

for an aphrodisiac-y meal.

We bet on the number of turtles that had hatched

Its almost 7am now and only a half-mile or so

the night before during our two-minute, bumpy

down the beach we see another turtle crawl! New

..we found
indications of a
new nest upon
arrival a good
sign for the turtles!

crawls looked like if a tourist set down one of

There are about 100 eggs in each loggerhead nest

those monstrous coolers and dragged it from the

and if there are not any lighting distractions

ocean to the tanning spot and then back to the

housing lights, bonfires, traffic lights, etc.then

ocean, not an easy task. Realizing last night could

all hatched turtles crawl in the direction of the

have been a good night for turtles to get busy and


lay nests, we mentally prepared for more new

Light to a sea turtle is like a Black Friday deal to a

nests or crawls to dig up.

mother of five, they cannot turn away. Baby turtles

Not every turtle sighting means eggs. Almost half

pop out of the sand and follow silvery reflections

the time a turtle drags

of moonlight toward the ocean where they know

her 300 pound body to

food awaits. Those animal instincts are some of

the dunes but does not

the best in the animal kingdom! So, a distraction

like the area and turns

like a bonfire on the beach often causes the turtles

away to try another

to scurry as fast as possible down the coastline in-

locale. Mistaking real

stead of to the ocean. This puts the turtles at risk

nests for these false

to death from starvation, predation, or exhaustion.

crawls can be frustrating, since conservationists

To prevent this risk, conservation organizations

will not take measures to protect incubating eggs

have created lights out campaigns on nesting

in unmarked nests, thus increasing the chance of

beaches, to ensure the turtles end up in the ocean

predators gobbling up the nest.

and not someones backyard.

We pulled up to the hatched nest. It was still early

After recording the nest and hopping back into the

in the morning; the sun hadnt made it to the

sandy truck, we barely traveled any distance be-

scorching hot angle yet so the long shadows em-

fore finding a new nest! What is it, we hit 600

phasized the tiny baby turtle marks. Looking from


the hatched nest toward the ocean, you will ob-

It was highly unusual to have this many new nests

serve what looks like an explosion out of the sand.

so late in the season. Once August hit, just about

all the activity was supposed to be baby crawls to

turning back to the same beach may actually in-

the ocean, maybe a couple lagging nests here and

crease parasite resistance, which is why its impor-

there. Loggerhead nests sit in the ground for about

tant to not baby the turtles by carrying them to

60 days on Cumberland so anything late in the sea-

the ocean from the nest, as adorable as that is.

son is vulnerable to cold water or ground tempera-

The DNA collection makes the work feel very sci-

tures, another factor to add to the survival of this

entific and substantial, as well. Wearing neon blue


gloves, we piled out of the truck, pulled out our

Young grasshopper, me, took the reins for this new

vials, cut through the sacrificed egg and took the

nest and with the help of the team dug all the eggs

shells in to custody. The first couple of times it felt

up, marked the GPS location, and broke one egg

wrong harming incubating eggs, but the technique

open for DNA analysis. The University of Georgia

is important and actually getting your hands dirty

keeps track of the locations that the turtles lay their

by handling eggs and turtles and fighting off hogs

eggs and if the mama turtles chose nesting sites

bare-handedlymaybe that one is just in my

close to the place they hatched, which happens of-

headmakes the work feel immediately meaning-

ten. Recent research has found that chemical cues

ful. Like most wildlife protection, sea turtle con-

left by the little ones struggling down to the ocean

servation is a long-term process, but witnessing the

helps to memorize the location for the future. Re-

process of nesting and hatching elicits an emotional reaction and a deeper

understanding of the plight of
the turtles that researchers and
conservationists can share with
the public.
After recording the number of
eggs at the new nest, we assessed the surrounding area.

Sometimes a mom lays a nest too close to the

During that day on the beach, August 6th 2012,

high tide line of the intense, seven-foot tides of

there were five new nests laid, eight nest hatches,

Cumberland. If the nest gets soaked in water, they

and four inventoried, previously hatched nests. For

often fail to incubate and hatch. Instead, the eggs

a day in August, thats very unusual. Turtles nest

sit underground and rot; the smell is unbelievable

every two to three years, so I cant help but wonder

but the texture is even worse.

if 2015 will be another crazy season in the East

If we feel a turtle laid her nest in an unsafe part of

Coast or if 2012 was a fluke?

the beach, we do not hesitate to relocate a nest to

Since the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the

a higher or safer part of the beach. Some find the

Loggerheads have received a lot of money and pub-

practice controversial, as Mrosovsky (2006) sug-

licity for conservation efforts. Still, 42 years later

gests that the long-term handling and relocating

researchers know little about what the turtles do

of nests distorts gene pools. The question then

between hatching and returning to breed. So the

remains: which is better, leaving a nest untouched

best way to protect these crazy reptiles is to help

and increasing the risk of a deadly wash-over or

them on the beaches. And that is exactly what has

relocating and creating sea turtles with different

been happening since it became illegal to even

genes than

touch them. A recent study reported that the age

mom in-

until sexual maturation for a loggerhead is 23.5 to

tended? The

29.3 years. So if you take into account the time it

priority on

takes to get the turtle programs funded and actually


making a difference in the number of hatchlings

is hatchling

making it to the breeding age, 40 years sounds

success and

about right to see substantial results.

relocation is

Long before it was cool to care about sea turtle

an impor-

conservation or to save the whales, Richard Nixon

tant aspect.

signed the Endangered Species Act to give rights to

wildlife. This lead to the creation of conservation

and even educate others to do the same.

groups to hit the beaches as they say; to be turtle

You can ask any turtle volunteer and theyll tell

protectors. Although its not a perfect system and

you that its tough work but completely worth-

it seems an impossible task to fight the dozens of

while! You can get that instant gratification that

extinctions per day, the law made a huge differ-

everyone needs these days. Once a nest hatches

ence for sea turtle populations and worked because

you can actually

it hit the sustainability triple bottom line right on

watch the little ones

the head: People, Profit, Planet.

struggle and race to

Cumberland Island is a national seashore and thou-

the ocean. You can

sands of tourists visit the beach each year to spot a

even give them a lift,

sea turtle either laying eggs or hatching, both

but dont tell the bossman about it. Its even more

equally magical in my opinion. This experience is

gratifying when you check in on a nest and can tell

once in a lifetime for many people and instills love

that something had tried to dig into it but the pro-

and respect for nature as societal values. Turtling

tective screen stopped them and all that hard work

is an incredibly dirty job where volunteers learn

paid off!

about human-wildlife conflicts, but it is also, usu-

On that abnormal day of turtling I did not make the

ally, a fun time that makes it more likely volun-

connection between the triple bottom line princi-

teers will share their experiences with friends and

ples. I was just another nature nerd trying to do my

potentially recruit new turtlers. In addition to so-

part. It was not until I started my Master of Sus-

cial and environmental benefits of this activity, the

tainable Solutions at Arizona State University that

National Park Service profitsmore or lessfrom

I understood the full effort and years of transfor-

visitors to the island. Although this island was

mational work that had been accomplished for

once inhabited by wealthy plantation owners, it

those 700 nests to occur.

shows that with the right mindset and governmen-

But where did it all start? Did the destruction of

tal support, it is possible to revive an environment

the turtles habitat begin as an unintended conse-

I was just another

nature nerd trying
to do my part.

quence of the industrial revolution? Was it the

politics, we learn that sustainability principles can

Endangered Species Act that made citizens under-

be applied to almost any situation. On the surface,

stand that there are limits to nature? Was is the

sea turtle conservation seems to only touch upon

turtle girls quietly and religiously taking action to

the environmental aspect of the term sustainability

protect the species? Does it really matter where it

and should be left to the researchers to solve. But

started? While I do not know the answer to all

we can put a sustainability lens on this field to cre-

these questions, I am developing the analytical

ate an even more engaged public and supportive

skills, principles, and methodology of sustainabil-


ity so that I can seek to answer those questions.

Although a Master of Sustainable Solutions may
sound like a degree in energy efficiency or green
Casale, P., Mazaris, A., & Freggi, D. (2011). Estimation of
age at maturity of loggerhead sea turtles Caretta caretta in
the Mediterranean using length-frequency data. Endangered Species Research, 13, 123-129.
Cumberland Island Sea Turtles Conservation Program Activity Log. (2012) Retrieved November 16, 2014.
Hoarau, L., Ainley, L., Jean, C., & Ciccione, S. (2014). Ingestion and defecation of marine debris by loggerhead sea
turtles, Caretta caretta, from by-catches in the South-West
Indian Ocean. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 84, 90-96. Retrieved November 10, 2014.
Lamont, M., & Fujisaki, I. (2014). Effects of Ocean Temperature on Nesting Phenology and Fecundity of the Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta). Journal of Herpetology, 48 (1), 98-102. Retrieved November 10, 2014. http://
Phillips, K., Mansfield, K., Die, D., & Addison, D. (2014). Survival and remigration probabilities for loggerhead turtles
(Caretta caretta) nesting in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Marine Biology, 161, 863-870. Retrieved October 8, 2014.
The Extinction Crisis. Center for Biological Diversity. Retrieved November 16, 2014.

Nuclear Options
Do nuclear weapons threaten the human species?
Does anyone at ASU care?
Siddhanth Paralkar
As a child, I was in awe of nuclear weapons.

ders were capable of, I was thrilled and convinced that

They made me feel safe and strong. I remember at 9

nuclear weapons were good for my country. This

years old during the Indian Independence Day, my

filled me with a sense of power and supremacy over

father turned on our television to the national news

our arch-rival Pakistan.

and my entire family stayed glued to it for hours.

I knew of the tensions between India and her

People on the screen dressed in the saffron, white or

neighbors Pakistan and China. Nuclear weapons

green, colors of the Indian tricolor flag stood still, de-

would keep our enemies at bay, I thought as a child. I

spite the cold wind, saluting the flag and singing the

believed in nuclear weapons for years, until I joined a

Indian national anthem. My heart soared with pride

Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai International, a

when our Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Bihari Va-

few years ago.

jpayee, gave the nation hope for the future of the coun- The society taught me about the agony of nuclear war

and the terrible consequences that could result from

The event was broadcast live from New Delhi to tele-

nuclear weapons. About 105,000 people perished in

vision screens all over the country, including our

Hiroshima and Nagasaki after atomic bombardments

home in Mumbai.

by the United States during World War II. The moth-

After the speech, the televised parade began. The mili- ers who survived the Japan bombings gave birth to
tary marched to a brass band. Then the crowd ap-

children with disabilities. Seventy years later, survi-

plauded with great pride as the Indian army began pa- vors still suffer from radiation sickness.
rading the nuclear Agni missiles past them.

Nuclear war and a sustainable future

Although I had no clue what those long colossal cylin- A nuclear war would prevent a sustainable future,

writes David Krieger, a founder of the Nuclear

ing, and of Law at Arizona State University.

Age Peace Foundation, a non-profit global or-

The biggest threat to sustainability, he told me,

ganization that opposes nuclear weapons and con-

remains nuclear weapons. Its not climate change,

sults with the United Nations. A sustainable

its not changes in biodiversity, its not nitrogen,

world is a necessity for the people of the future

and its not phosphorus its nuclear weap-

who are not yet here to speak and act for them-

ons. Nuclear war, he said, is the only

selves. It is the responsibility of those of us now

planetary system that could potentially destroy

living to speak for them and to do what we can to

life as we know it.

pass this planet on intact to the generations that

The problem is that almost 70 years since

follow us, Krieger writes.

the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, people are

Braden Allenby is an American environmental

forgetting about it.

scientist, environmental attorney and a Professor

of Civil and Environmental Engineer-

While in the military during the Cold War,

Allenby worked with nuclear technology. He un-

derstands that the geopolitical incentives to pos-

The people in both these nations live in fear of a

sess a nuclear force are strong. He added

terrorist attack or a major blitzkrieg attack at the

that most nuclear weapon states will not give up

borders of India and Pakistan, either of which may

their nuclear arsenals in fear of losing status, pres-

escalate to a nuclear confrontation.

tige, and bargaining power with potential adversar-

Will bilateral or multilateral talks between the na-


tions help mitigate these fears or will such talks

When asked whether the world will ever be free of

further add impetus to the competition?

nuclear weapons, he explained that nuclear weap-

The outcomes are uncertain.

ons can be managed but will not be whisked away.

Meanwhile, the nuclear arms race has taken on an

We cant push that genie back in the bottle, he

unprecedented pace across the rest of the world,

told me.

with more than 16,000 nuclear warheads reported

Uncertain outcomes

by the Federation of American Scientists.

Barely 30 years after the Japan bombings,

Although today the tensions between the US and

amidst the Cold War, India conducted its first un-

Russia have decreased and chances of a nuclear

derground nuclear test. My country deployed her

war seem quite low, the risk of accidents or illegal

first nuclear missile Prithvi-I in 1994. Currently,

use of the huge nuclear stockpiles is persistent.

India has around 75-110 nuclear capable missiles.

An informal survey of ASU students

In response to India's second nuclear test

Now, as a student at ASU, when I tell my fellow

(Operation Shakti), Pakistan detonated five nuclear

students about the nuclear-themed Independence

devices in 1998.

Day parade in India, they seem amazed. They

Today India and Pakistan both have more than 100

have never heard of such an overt display of nu-

nuclear weapons and are continuously expanding

clear power, and they seemed fuzzy on the history

their arsenal. As political and military tensions be-

of nuclear weapons.

tween the countries fluctuate, there is a high possi-

Late in the fall of 2014, I decided to conduct a de-

bility of a nuclear war.

cidedly informal survey on campus by designing a

questionnaire to gauge just how aware ASU stu-

tional, started a 2011 campaign called, Our New

dents are of nuclear weapons.

Clear Future. With the primary goal of complete

When asked about the exact number of nuclear

nuclear weapon abolition by 2030.

warheads in the world, only 19.4 percent of the 37

Since the programs inception, members of the or-

respondents gave the correct answer.

ganization have conducted 176 anti-nuclear confer-

Fifty percent believe that the abolition of nuclear

ences, events and exhibits in different states. In

weapons is possible.

2010, atomic bomb survivors from Japan shared

While a little over half of the students said they

their experiences during a conference aimed at

were taking actions to improve world peace, only

deepening motivations to achieve world peace.

a third of the students said they wanted to get in-

Soka Gakkai International has also collaborated

volved in activism to abolish nuclear weapons.

with movements like the International Campaign to

I really dont know where Hiroshima and Na-

Abolish Nuclear Weapons, initiated by Interna-

gasaki are and have no clue of when the bomb-

tional Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear

ings took place, one student told me.

War. The way to lasting peace can only be achieved

Unending tensions

through sincere and compassionate dialogues. Thus

In India, we are acutely aware of nu-

the students of Soka Gakkai International in the

clear weapons. Pakistan and China continue to

United States have been spurred to create a ground-

geopolitically pressure India, and so the nuclear

swell of public consensus toward nuclear abolition

arms race continues.

by 2015, when the next Nuclear Non-Proliferation

Being in the United States, though, I feel I

Treaty Review Conference is due to be held.

have the resources and foundation to at least

We hope to achieve the complete abolition of nu-

make younger generations aware of what nuclear

clear weapons by 2030.

weapons can do, so we can live in a world without them.

My Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai Interna-

The Desert Farmer

With a well-managed water strategy, Scott Tollefson grows
melons and hope in the Harquahala Valley.
Sean Murray
Scott Tollefson farms melons in the Harquahala
Valley desert west of Phoenix. The valley is an

term drought.
Tollefsons family hails from the Midwest,

oasis of lush green farmland juxtaposed against a

where many of his kin were farmers. Tollefson,

brown and red landscape peppered with sharp and

though, spent his early years in Washington D.C.

thorny vegetation.

His father, a man who loved the world of politics,

Years of farming have left a permanent mark on

worked directly for Ezra Taft Benson, the under

Tollefson, the manager for Del Monte Farms in

secretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agri-

Arizona. His hands are calloused and gritty. His

cultural services during the Eisenhower admini-

face is lined with wrinkles, which highlight his

stration. Though he spent his childhood in the na-

animated blue eyes. He smiles warmly from be-

tions capital, Tollefson was apathetic to politics

neath his grey moustache.

and yearned for the land.

Hes a man of the desert, an innovative farmer.

He eventually

Years of farming
have left a
permanent mark on

It seems counterintuitive to farm in a desert that

ventured west to attend

receives a meager average of 13 inches of rain

the University of Ari-

each year. Available groundwater and the com-

zona, where he earned

plex surface-water irrigation systems established

both an undergraduate and graduate degree in agri-

by the Central Arizona Project and the Salt River

culture. Scott fell in love with the desert.

Project have compensated for much of the rainfall

When his studies came to a close, Tollefson re-

deficit, but those systems are constantly under

mained with the university to work with the

pressure from population growth and severe long-

schools cooperative extension service. He

worked with farmers on solutions to manage in-

along with the yield of the crops. The results

sects, disease, crop failure, and soil health. It was

shocked them. The flooded plots of land used up to

here that Tollefson began to wonder about water.

nine acre-feet of water, equivalent to filling nine

The way people were irrigating with flood, peo-

football fields with water one foot deep. The water

ple were using too much, he said.

would percolate deep into the ground and the

Flood irrigation, the traditional way of watering

cropnot having full exposure to the resource

crops in the southwest, consists of flooding a plot

produced a small yield.

of land for an extended period of time in order to

The drip plots, on the other hand, only used 3 acre-

soak the roots of plants. He quickly realized that

feet of water. More direct percolation produced

wasting a resource as precious as water in a place

four times the yield of the flood plots. These star-

like the desert is foolish at best.

tling differences convinced the farmers to use drip

Once he came to this realization, Tollefson sought

to water crops.

out others who shared his convictions. After two

Drip, however, was not a perfect system. The bulky

years working for the university, he partnered

and heavy drip tapes used by the Israelis required

with Howard Wuertz, owner of Sundance Farms

large labor crews to roll them up after each use.

in Coolidge, Arizona.

Hoe crews easily damaged lines in the field as they

Wuertz was inspired by the agricultural practices

tilled the land. The hot desert sun would degrade

of Israeli farmers and their use of surface drip

the tape quickly.

systems, according to Tollefson. With the aid of

With flood irrigation, all one had to do was open a

Tollefson and another colleague, he began to look

valve and let the water out. The pipes were laid

for ways to implement similar practices in Ari-

deep into the ground where they couldnt be dam-


aged and rendered labor crews unnecessary.

The team designated small plots of land for flood

So, Tollefson and his friends put their lines under-

and drip irrigation. Over the course of a growing

ground: problem solved. Drip crews became obso-

season they measured the amount of water used

lete. The lines placed into the ground were pro-

tected from the sun and monitored with GPS track-

residency. There is broad speculation on what

ers to prevent damage from farm machinery.

eventually happened to the Hohokam. When they

Other benefits were soon discovered. The bulky

disappeared, their

Israeli surface drip lines easily clogged. Every

canals remained as

row of crop would require a drip line on both

reminders of their

sides, making salt monitoringa crucial factor for


seed germinationdifficult to manage. The sub-

When the first prospectors came to the Arizona

surface tape was smaller and didnt clog. Instead

territory, searching for minerals that would make

of using two drip lines only one was needed,

them rich, the canals were rediscovered and dug

placed under the plant roots. The placement made

out like lost treasure. A new civilization was born

monitoring salt levels easier and further decreased

from the ashes of the Hohokam civilization.

water usage to 1.5 acre-feet. Lastly, because the

With flowing water, the modern Arizona began to

new tape didnt clog, crops could be fumigated

take shape. Early in the territorys history, legisla-

and fertilized through the drip lines. The results:

tion was passed that established the doctrine of

more quality food, less work, reduced costs, and,

prior appropriation: First in Time, First in Right.

most importantly, reduced water consumption.

This enabled landowners to claim rights to water

First in Time, First

in Right.

throughout the state, which set the stage for many

Arizonas arid climate forces water management
Arizonas arid climate has forced civilizations to

The first half of the century saw explosive

progressively manage water. The prehistoric Ho-

development in water infrastructure. Rivers were

hokam Tribe developed complex irrigation sys-

dammed for water management, the most signifi-

tems that spanned 500 miles throughout central

cant being the Colorado River. Consistent winter

and southern Arizona. The Hohokams irrigation

storms left high snow packs in the Rocky Moun-

systems allowed them to cultivate their desert

tains and the Colorado River flowed at an all-time

landscape successfully during their multi-century

high. Unaware of its potential to drop, policymak-

ers signed complex treaties that allocated high

Even with all the conservation efforts, todays

portions of water to the seven basin states that

farmers still have a lot to fear. Heather Macre, a CAP

laid claim to it.

board member, told me the first cuts go to agriculture

In the latter half of the century, the climate

during water shortages. When this happens, farmers

of the region began to slowly change resulting in

will more than likely return to groundwater pumping

lower annual flows. As the Colorado River yield

and this could damage the long-term health of Ari-

dropped, disputes between states escalated and

zonas fragile aquifers.

led to major lawsuits. An important turning

Macre has been able to work with farmers and

point, The 1968 Colorado River Basin Project Act

successfully implement many of the CAP water con-

ensured that California would receive its full al-

servation programs. In Yuma, for example, the CAP

lotment of water during times of shortages before

and farmers are working on a pilot study in which

any water was granted to Arizona.

farmers would forgo some of their water allotment in

The Central Arizona Project (CAP), which

transported Colorado River water through Arizona, was finally under way by 1973. Because of

exchange for credit that would subsidize their loss of

Steve Smarik, the state conservationist for the

the growing severity of droughts, the completion

National Resource Conservation Service, told me the

of the CAP canal was a high priority; however,

original plan for Arizonas development was to com-

the Bureau of Reclamation was threatening to cut

pletely replace agriculture with municipalities. Sma-

funding to the project because of Arizonas exces-

rik said that prior to the recession urban sprawl was

sive use of groundwater. The state, under pres-

claiming farmland across the state at a rapid rate.

sure, readdressed prior appropriation and enacted

Even with the economic slowdown, however, he pro-

the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. The

jects that farms will decrease radically in 50 years.

Act created urban-based Active Management Ar-

Farmers not immune to changing climate

eas that regulated and redefined the rules of

Tollefsons work with Howard Wuertz eventually

groundwater usage and transportation.

came to an end but his experiment with drip irrigation

has not. The soil on his melon acreage, when com-

To Tollefson, the southwest should primarily focus

pared to the soil of his flood-irrigating neighbors, is

on water scarcity. In his eyes, it is an issue of na-

soft and easy for a plants roots to penetrate. His

tional security. Local food sourcing is key. Outsourc-

drip lines, almost 20 years old, provide significant

ing the nations food production to other countries

water savings.

because we have no water to grow our own food

But Tollefson is not immune to the changing

spells danger to Tollefson.


If you cant produce your own food, he asks, and

Though he is extremely resourceful, major cut backs

the food-supplying nations system collapses how

from CAP water have threatened his practice. As he

are you going to eat?

walked along a melon field, he explained the supe-

Tollefsons not a pessimist, though. He hopes for a

rior nature of river water to groundwater. River wa-

brighter future for his 14 grandchildren. He believes

ter picks up nutrients and minerals as it flows mile

that, if people understand the problem, they will pull

after mile. Drawn from an underground reservoir,

together and come up with the solutions needed to

groundwater lacks many of those nutrients. In his

face a growing water crisis.

words, it is the equivalent of giving a baby Diet


Before Tollefson came to the Harquahala Valley, the regions aquifer was nearly depleted from

His algae stations turn the nutrient-scarce

flood irrigation and the soils were nearly exhausted.

groundwater into mothers milk. The algae con-

Many of the original growers responsible for the ar-

tain chemical and biological micronutrients that flow

chaic farming practices had left the valley.

through his irrigation lines to the roots of his melon

But on a late summer day, as his crews harvested a


rich bounty of melons, Tollefson voiced optimism

Tollefson has been able to make well water

about the sustainability of the valleys water supply.

work but is aware of its limited availability.

The desert farmer smiled and said, With the drip, its

He understands that eventually groundwater may be

coming back.


To view Sean Murrays documentary visit:

Tall Pots in a Shallow World

Scientists have figured out how to restore damaged urban desert landscapes with native plants that use less surface water and prevent erosion. Problem is, the scraggly little saplings with long roots just arent as pretty as their conventionally grown counterparts.

Wayne Warrington
Im drawn to the call of frogs congregating on a

Maricopa County hopes to combat the destruction.

lone desert tree - the only dry anchor they can

One tree at a time.

find. The tree stands isolated, on an island cut

An obscure and time-tested solution

from recent eroding floodwaters. A muddy river

The salvation of flood-ravaged desert landscapes lies

now separates me from this last tree standing in a

in an obscure but time-tested planting method for na-

landscape scoured by downed limbs, tumbling

rocks, and long discarded man-made debris.
Yesterday, this expanse of desert in Maricopa
County was silent, dry, and sparsely vegetated.
The natural desert plants must have been cleared
years ago for a farm or perhaps a housing development on the edge of Scottsdale. Now its barren
land. Had the native mesquite, creosote, palo
verde, rabbit brush, and various cacti been left
undisturbed, the established network of deep native plant roots may have weakened the recent
torrents damage. Unfortunately, damaged landscapes like this are common in disturbed desert
environments. But the Flood Control District of
Photo by Erin Gunn

tive plants. A decade ago, the county embarked on

and retain healthy populations of vegetation, al-

an experiment to plant native trees and shrubs in

lowing wildlife, like chorusing frogs, to remain

tall pots, hoping to create plants with more robust

dispersed, instead of clinging to islands.

root systems better adapted for our arid climate.

The tall pot nursery

Since native plants have a natural propensity to

Harry Cooper, the Flood Control Districts land-

create root structures that seek ground water doz-

scape architect, inherited the tall pot experiment in

ens of feet below the surface, it made sense to pot

2014. His inheritance included a tall pot tree nurs-

new desert plants in a way that encouraged long

ery, an office stocked with bookshelves and file

root structures.

drawers containing related materials, and a collec-

Conventional growing methods, conversely, create

tion of digital data.

unnaturally dense balls of matted roots. While

I met with Cooper early on a windy morning in

they may be hearty to start with, they struggle with

mid-October, in the Flood Control District build-

a shallow root structure in the harsh environment

ing in the county complex in south Phoenix.

of the Sonoran desert. But the rub is that native

Smells from the landfill directly to the south be-

plants transplanted from tall pots are not immedi-

come noticeable each time the wind picks up.

ately pretty. During the early growing phase,

plants transplanted from tall pots have reduced fo-

Coopers voice is deep and gravely, and his pro-

liage, thanks to their long roots.

fessionally proper greeting reinforces his serious

The longer root structure allows vegetation to an-

demeanor. Im interested in looking at his data,

chor itself in the desert soil, while reaching for the

but hes eager to showcase the tall pot nursery.

water table that may lay dozens of feet below the

We cross the agency parking lot to a fenced off

surface. Such an anchor provides additional sup-

plot of land marked Maricopa County Flood Con-

port for fledgling or established trees in fierce

trol District Tall Pot Nursery. He unlocks the gate

winds that can occur during the height of monsoon

and leads me to rows of vegetation growing in 30-

storms. Anchored plants also hold soil in place

inch sections of PVC pipe. Standing amongst the

scraggly sapling and yearling trees, I wonder

longed high temperature periods increase, plants

where the notion of incubating native plants in

grown with minimal water and robust roots will fill

tall pots began.

a valuable role in and around Phoenix.

The modern development of growing methods

Richard Adkins, forestry supervisor for the city, is

emphasizing elongated roots had originated in

charged with managing its urban forest. In an inter-

southern California during the 1980s in experi-

view with, Adkins admits that the

ments in arid lands restoration. The tall pot tubes

largest challenge he faces is lack of citizen aware-

surrounding Cooper and me were developed from

ness of the existence and benefit of Phoenixs urban

planting practices started in Joshua Tree National

forest. Surprising and frustrating, since a 2013 in-

Park, were improved by research conducted by

ventory documented over 92,000 trees, palms, and

David Bainbridge in San Diego, were transported

tall cacti within the city. The U.S. Department of

to Arizona by way of revegetation specialists at

Agriculture says urban forests cool cities, save en-

Arizona Game and Fish Department, and were

ergy, improve air quality, strengthen quality of

shared with the Center for Native and Urban

place and local economy, reduce storm water run-

Wildlife at Scottsdale Community College before

off, improve social connections, help promote smart

ultimately being embraced by Maricopa Countys

growth, and create walkable communities. With

Flood Control District. And, while its still rela-

such tangible benefits directly available from a well

tively unheard of today, it boasts an enviously

-managed urban forest, public funds should be

high survival rate.

pouring into Adkins office. Unfortunately, they do

Once considered impractical and improbable, arid

not. As points out, the city designates

lands restoration projects have become examples

funds for the maintenance of established trees in its

of ingenuity and successful persistence.

urban forest, but not for the planting of new trees,

If climate changes, tall pot plants will fill valuable

or even for replacement of lost trees.


In an email, Adkins writes hes familiar with the

If monsoon storms continue to intensify and pro-

benefits of tall pots and if the opportunity to util-

ize tall pot material for a project was to arise, I am

At least with these efforts I may find myself once

certainly in favor of using the material.

again listening to frogs in the desert after a sum-

Given the ability of tall pot vegetation to thrive in

mer storm. This time, however, thanks to tall pot

arid environments with minimal maintenance and

plant restoration, I will hopefully stroll through a

limited irrigation, the connection between Richard

grove of trees, instead of standing staring at just

Adkins, the forestry supervisor, and Harry Cooper,


the flood control districts landscape architect,

should be an instant win.
Adkins says in an email that public preference dramatically favors top growth when selecting plants
for residential or commercial use. Cooper, surrounded by his nursery saplings, emphatically and
disappointedly agrees. Despite the demonstrable
superiority of tall pot trees in dry desert environments, these plants are not mass-produced because
theres just not a market for them. They are not as
aesthetically pleasing as conventionally grown
plants when first transplanted.
While tall pot plant use in urban areas may remain
a challenge, their suitability for restoration projects
is being properly utilized. The Flood Control Districts nursery maintains the ability to grow 8,500
trees at a time and typically coordinates two to
three restoration efforts each year in conjunction
with their flood control construction projects.

Check us out on Social Media!