Swamp Water Jurisprudence: Can laws change our environment? You bet.


by Judge Dennis Challeen

I was on vacation pedaling my bike in the South Island of New Zealand a couple of decades ago. I was in Christchurch passing some children’s playgrounds when I noticed mothers applying white sunscreen lotion to their children’s faces. I soon learned this was a necessary precaution to the threat of skin cancer throughout New Zealand and Australia.

Scientists had determined in the 1980s that the ozone layer in the stratosphere over the South Pole had diminished greatly, allowing deadly ultraviolet light from our sun to endanger exposed human skin. These innocent children of Christchurch, who lived only 1,593 miles from the Antarctic Circle, were victims of modern technology that used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that break down our ozone layer that protects life on Earth. Two-hundred countries responded by signing an accord to phase out the production of CFCs. Slowly the ozone hole has been closing and will, hopefully, return to normal in 50 to 60 years. By that time, these playground children will be elderly, having spent a lifetime living with the threat of skin cancer.

There seems to be clear evidence that when governments band together they can alter nature and our environment.

We who live on the Mississippi boundary waters look out and see eagles soaring over our bluffs and river shores — it wasn’t always so routine.

Some of us remember the book “Silent Spring” (1962) by Rachel Carson, when she warned that spring will come and the birds will no longer be singing. She warned that humans were misusing powerful chemical pesticides (DDT, etc.) that were harming our planet.

Pesticides were used to control mosquitoes and other insects. The chemical residues washed into the waterways and were absorbed by fish. The eagles consumed the contaminated fish and the chemicals interfered with their ability to produce strong eggshells. By 1963 there were only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles remaining, and they were in danger of extinction. The Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in the United States and by 2007 announced the recovery of our national emblem with 9,789 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous United States. Today the National Eagle Center in Wabasha says that bald eagle populations are healthy and thriving. Laws do change nature.

So now we face the political controversy of global warming. Scientists claim that burning fossil fuels (oil, coal) has caused a so-called “greenhouse effect” that has caused high levels of carbon dioxide gas to warm our planet.

Scientists urge that we become more energy efficient, protect our oxygen-producing forests, and increase wind and solar power, natural gas and nuclear power.

The critical decision of our age is fundamentally clear: If you believe that earth is just going through another normal cycle (e.g., Ice Age, increased sun intensity, volcanic eruptions, asteroid collision, etc.), then we and our future generations will continue to do as we have, and helplessly wait for nature to stabilize itself into some normalcy. However, if we are destroying our planet and are taking no steps to heal it, then we are dooming our descendants to a quality of life that we never endured. If we spend our resources to heal our planet and it proves to be unnecessary, then we wasted at most, a lot of our money housecleaning for naught, except perhaps cleaner environment, air, water, and who knows? — longer lives.

We who live today will probably never during our lifetimes learn whether today’s scientists have reached the right conclusions about global warming.

Perhaps we can learn from the orange and black monarch butterfly that flitters about our summer gardens. The insect survives by making a four-generation survival trip each year in order for the species to maintain its life on Earth. All the monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains begin their northern migration each year from some mountains in Mexico and travel north following the blooming of the milkweed plant. They reach our southern plains states, lay eggs, and die off. The eggs hatch and become cocoons, then butterflies, and continue to follow the milkweed to our Upper Midwest states, where we see them lay eggs, become cocoons, and then butterflies again. This generation in the fall flies south to the mountains of Mexico where they return to the exact same trees where their ancestors’ journey began.

We now know the harmless monarch butterflies are in trouble as well. Our expanding cities and cultivation of farmland are crowding out the wild milkweed plants, and deforestation of our mountains threatens their winter homes.

If you happen to be in the Monterey, Calif., area, visit the Monarch Winter Habitat Park in Pacific Grove where you will find all the monarchs west of the Rockies hibernating for the winter hanging onto a few locally protected eucalyptus trees.

As we gaze up at the lovely butterflies, we realize how fragile our earth is and how easy it is to upset its delicate balance.


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