Proposed national recreation area could mean vistors, revenue for Texas

A new National Recreation Area could be created in TexasAccording to a study by the National Parks Conservations Association, a proposed national recreation area along the Gulf Coast of Texas could bring a host of benefits to the state, including more visitors, jobs, and revenue. The creation of this new recreation area would also have the added benefit of protecting the coastline from hurricane damage, while preserving the fragile ecosystems that exists there.

Plans for the so-called Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area came about when prominent local businessman John Nau and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker put together a team to investigate the possibilities of creating such a preserve. The proposed site would span four Texas counties, including Matagorda, Brazoria, Galveston, and Chambers. That region was specifically chosen for its outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation and the existing infrastructure of both publicly and privately managed lands.

When the NPCA got wind of the plans back in December, they immediately went to work conducting their own research on the possible economic impact of the new national recreation area. Their findings bode well for the future economic healthy of the region. The organization predicts that creating the NRA would triple the number of visitors to the region in the first ten years alone, which translates to a projected $192 million in local revenue, along with more than 5200 jobs.

Economic gains aren’t the only touted benefits for the new NRA either. The designated lands would also serve as a buffer from powerful storms coming out of the Gulf of Mexico, helping to mitigate damage to property further inland and keeping flood waters to a minimum as well. Furthermore, residents living in and around the recreation area would also see a rise in their quality of life too. Having a fantastic, and federally protected, outdoor playground in their backyard, provides unhindered access to nature that might not be there if the land isn’t protected.

The NPCA report notes that the designation of the new National Recreation Area won’t result in the economic benefits alone, but will lay down the ground work to facilitate development of the region. A coordinated approach to that development could turn the Texas Gulf Coast into a premiere outdoor destination however, which could attract hundreds of thousands of visitors on an annual basis.

Having visited this area myself, I can say that it is already a good destination for outdoor enthusiasts. That said however, it has the potential to be even more amazing if it garners the national recreation area designation. That would not only protect it for future generations to enjoy as well, but help facilitate the development of an infrastructure that will make it more accessible as well.

[Map courtesy Dan Servian, Direwolf Graphics]

Ten iconic foods of summer, and where to find them

favorite summer foodsAah, summer. A time for the beach, pool parties, lazy days…and sheep cheese? While many foods are undeniably the essence of summer–watermelon, peaches, and anything grilled come to mind–there are plenty of edibles not identified as seasonal foods.

Most of my favorite things to eat just happen to peak in summer, so I decided to compile a list of both the obvious and not-so. Even the most dedicated city-dweller can find these foods with minimal effort. Farmers markets abound in major metropolitan areas, as do specialty food shops and local produce-focused grocery stores and food co-ops. Just look for the most local product where things like tomatoes or corn are concerned; they degrade quickly, and summer produce is all about freshness.

1. Cherries
I used to work for an organic peach and cherry farmer at several Bay Area farmers markets. Each year around this time, customers would start getting antsy, wanting to know when the first cherries of the season were coming in.

I understood. I also eagerly await their all-too brief appearance. Sweet cherries have a wide growing range, from the Pacific Northwest and Southwest to the Rockies. But Traverse City, Michigan, gets the title of Cherry Capital of the World. Their famous National Cherry Festival is July 2-9th, but should you miss out, there are U-picks pretty much everywhere cherries are grown. FYI: Most tart (“pie”) cherries are grown in Michigan.

[Photo credit: Flickr user dr_knox]favorite summer foods2. Copper River Salmon
The first shipment of this Alaskan treasure hit the tarmac at Seattle-Tacoma Airport on May 17th. While season and availability depend upon how stable the fishery is during a given year, May 15th to mid-June is when you can usually find this succulent, deeply-flavored species on menus and in the marketplace. If you’re feeling really motivated, take an Alaskan fishing expedition. However you procure it, treat it gently and prepare simply, so you can best enjoy this most fleeting and precious of wild ingredients.

3. Corn
“Knee-high by the Fourth of July.” The first time I heard that old-timey phrase, I was driving with a chef through the verdant farmland of Southern Wisconsin. As with cherries, people get really amped up over the imminent arrival of sweet corn. U-picks and farm stands are a way of life in Cape Cod and other parts of the Northeast (how can you have a clam bake without fresh corn?). And “fresh” is key. Corn starts to lose its delicate, milky sweetness the moment it’s picked; refrigeration converts the natural sugars into starch. Resist purchasing until the day you need it, and don’t shuck it prior (avoid purchasing pre-shucked ears, or those with dry, brown, or slimy tassels). For a real down-home corn hoe-down, check out the Olathe Corn Festival on Colorado’s Western Slope.
favorite summer foods
4. Blue crabs
A few years ago, I went crabbing for the first time in an estuary on the Florida Panhandle’s “Forgotten Coast.” Those blues tasted all the sweeter because I’d caught them myself (Equipment check list: string, bait, and a net. Go to this site to see what state permits are required, and double-check with local authorities). Alas, BP has utterly screwed the marine and estuary life and livelihood of the fishermen on parts of the Gulf Coast (word is the Apalachicola/Forgotten Coast was spared). An alternative are Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. While commercial harvests are in decline due to habitat loss, it’s still considered a “good alternative,” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Just don’t be greedy.

5. Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Spot prawns–actually a species of large shrimp– can be found throughout the North Pacific, but this fishery has a rep for being one of the most sustainable, due to it’s strict regulations, catch-method (traps), and the fact that the small fleet are all small, family-run vessels. Because the cold, deep waters of the nearby Channel Islands are so clean and nutrient-rich , SB spot prawns are revered for their sweet, lobster-like flesh. Supplies are limited, however, due to loss of habitat (if you need to purchase a large quantity, opt for British Columbia spot prawns). While technically available yearround if the fishery is stable, spot prawns are an iconic Santa Barbara summertime treat, especially grilled. You can purchase them from the fishermen at the farmer’s market; at the Santa Barbara Fish Market (live and frozen) or straight off the boat at the adjacent Saturday morning Fish Market at the Harbor (7-11am).
favorite summer foods
6. Wild mushrooms
The Rocky Mountains explode with edible fungi such as morels, chanterelles, and boletes (porcini) come early August, which is monsoon season. If you’re not an experienced forager, be sure to go with someone who is, or see if your local mycological society offers forages. Never eat a mushroom you’ve collected without having it identified by an expert, first. If you live in mushroom country, which also includes the Pacific Northwest, and parts of the South and Midwest, you’ll likely find foraged mushrooms at the farmers market. If you want to really geek-out, don’t miss the Telluride Mushroom Festival, August 18-21st. Seminars, forages, special dinners, and a truly, uh, trippy parade are the highlights.

7. Tomatoes
Sun-ripened. Just picked and still warm–preferably from your own garden or container planter. Or just check local farmers markets, farm stands, specialty food stores, and co-ops for local, sustainably-grown heirlooms or hybrids such as Early Girl. Tomato-lovers understand that there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

8. Watermelon
Few can resist a slice or three of icy-cold watermelon, followed by a long nap on a sweltering summer afternoon. Cordele, Georgia, declares itself the Watermelon Capital of the World (Watermelon Days Festival ion June 3rd!), but Arizona, Florida, and California’s Imperial and Riverside Counties are the other major growing regions. My personal favorites come from Northern California’s pastoral Capay Valley, located between Davis and Sacramento. The Valley’s dry, intense heat produces melons with a syrupy sweetness and perfume balanced by fine-textured flesh. Bonus: most of the farms in the area are small, organic or sustainable family operations; look for Capay or North Valley/Sacramento Delta melons at Bay Area farmers markets.

9. Honey
Most folks don’t realize honey is a seasonal food. But during the chilly, wet winter months, bees hunker down in the hive, feeding on honey. Come mid-to-late spring, they again venture out in search of pollen. Seasonal harvests depend upon location, climate, and food source (pollens) but on average, a beekeeper can expect two to four hauls between late spring and late summer/early fall.
favorite summer foods
If you’ve never tried local, raw (unheated; pasteurizing or heating destroys flavor compounds as well as health benefits), unfiltered honey, you’re in a for a big treat. Honey has proven anti-microbial properties, and studies show consuming local honey helps prevent seasonal allergies (by ingesting it, you’ll build up a tolerance to the allergens). The flavor complexities and textures in local honey are specific to microclimate, and what the bees are eating. Where I live, in Seattle, blackberry honey is treasured. But you can find great local honey anywhere: whenever I’m in New Mexico, for example, I’ll puchase a jar from a roadside stand.

10. Fresh goat and sheep’s milk cheeses
As with honey, our urban-dwelling culture has mostly lost touch with the concept of seasonality, especially as it pertains to certain crops and food products. Cheese is of an entirely seasonal nature, especially at the “artisan” level. A small-scale cheesemaker creates product as the milk supply waxes and wanes throughout the season(s). The flavor and chemical composition of the milk also changes, depending upon how lush the pasture, if the animal’s feed is supplemented by hay or grain, and what plants are indigenous to the region.

While cows produce milk for about 10 months of the year, sheep and goats lactate only during the spring, summer, and sometimes early fall months. That makes cheeses produced from sheep and goat’s milk a seasonal specialty, especially when they’re fresh varieties such as tangy chevre or fromage blanc, or sweet, milky ricotta. I know summer has arrived when the first deliveries of cloud-like sheep’s curd arrive at the cheese shop I work at.

We live in a time when we can get whatever ingredient or food product we want, when we want it (usually at the expense of massive fossil fuel consumption, environmental degradation, and pesticide use that affects the health of both consumer and farmworker). Some things are just worth waiting for.

What’s your favorite seasonal food of summer? We’d like to hear from you!

[Photo credits: corn, Flickr user agrilifetoday; all remaining photos, Laurel Miller]

How to Grow Tomatoes on Your Patio

From the shores of Louisiana – Gulf Fisheries

In Baton Rouge last week I met for the first time a very vocal third-generation shrimper, George Barisich, who has been working the Gulf his entire life, initially for the fun of it – crabbing as a kid – and ever since as a fulltime commercial fisherman, since 1966.
He inherited his 50-foot shrimp, the “FJG,” which his father named after his three sons: Frances, Jefferson and George.
Today he’s president of the United Commercial Fishermen’s Association, which represents 139 shrimpers who are still all every disappointed by both the BP spill and its follow-up.
While the fisheries have largely been opened, and Barisich and his peers are out there every day catching shrimp, the market for them has mostly disappeared.
“There’s no one to buy the shrimp we’re bringing in, because they’re having a hard time selling it. The result is I’m getting 85 cents for a pound a shrimp, which used to bring me at least two dollars,” he says. “I’m not sure how long I can keep that kind of business going.”
The week before he’d had to drive his shrimp all the way into Mississippi before he could find a processor who would buy his shrimp, for $1.40.

“Back home my dealer don’t want it and his processors don’t want it. I’m going to have to go to make some money, but it’s going to be at depressed price, which means somebody’s going to have to give me free fuel or something. It’s complicated and not many fishermen understand what to do now.”

For the moment he vouches for the safety of the shrimp, despite some local scientist’s concerns that the allowable chemicals in the seafood have been altered by federal testers, making them seem safe when maybe they are not.

“We should be concerned about the reputation of Louisiana shrimp and seafood, so yes it needs to be tested. But for right now, I’m going to stay out there, fishing.”

“As for the oysters … I’m scared to death.” Due to all the freshwater from the Mississippi that was released into the mouth of the Gulf, most of the oyster beds are dead and may take three years or longer to revive.
A physically robust 54-year-old, George garnered good attention at the height of the spill, by appearing on Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” show wearing one of his own designed t-shirts.

On the front it had a mock-BP logo and the words, “Bringing Oil to Your Shores in All New Ways.” (Watch video)

“We sold 893 of them the first day after the program,” he says, “which was the best money I made all summer.” The day after I met him last week he was headed to a Gulf Coast concert in Houston armed with t-shirts to sell.

(His knack for producing timely t-shirts had previously gotten him in hot water with Homeland Security, when he handed some out free near a FEMA office soon after Hurricane Katrina. Those read “Flooded by Katrina! Forgotten by FEMA! What’s Next, Mr. Bush?”)

Like many Gulf Coast fishermen, Barisich is wrestling with proposed buy-outs from BP.

“Helping with the clean-up was the first time I ever worked for someone else in my life, so I’m more than a little confused,” he admits.

Thousands of business owners, fishermen and others along the Gulf Coast are confronting a similar conundrum. Those who accept a one-time payoff check for their long-term losses from the victims’ compensation fund will have to give up their right to sue BP. So George could accept a piece of BP’s $20 billion claims fund – relatively fast, easy money – or sue the oil giant for a bigger payday, which could require waiting years and risking ending up with nothing.

“One lump settlement – should I take it if it’s decent? Should I wait it out? It’s on the back of everyone’s minds right now,” says George. “It’s another one of the unknowns that’s driving everyone sleepless right now.

“The only silver lining that is going to come out of this is that the government and the country are going to understand the importance of the Gulf.”

[Flickr image via leunix]

From the Shores of Louisiana – Is gulf seafood safe?

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: It’s rare for me to see 67-year-old Wilma Subra – chemist, MacArthur Grant ‘genius,’ grandmother of six – so worked up. But when I asked last week how things were going in the Gulf, where she’s been measuring levels of toxicity in air, water and fish long before the BP gusher began she was adamant that things are still bad out there.
“My biggest concern is that the message is ‘The oil is all gone.’ We are planning on being out in the field monitoring the wetlands, estuaries and beach areas for the impacts of the oil over the next several years,” she says, insisting that only then will we truly know about the impact on marine life, the environment and human health created by the BP mess.
But Subra’s biggest immediate concern is that the seafood coming from the Gulf may not be safe and that the federal agencies, specifically the FDA and NOAA, have cooked the books by adjusting the amount of some of the chemicals allowed in the fish they are testing… as a way to get fishermen back onto the Gulf and to restore confidence in the seafood market.
She forwarded me the criteria NOAA is using for testing, which makes it clear that its first test is smell and second for chemicals. Subra’s main concern is Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons, of which the BP crude had large percentages.
In June, says Subra, while the spill was still unfolding “the FDA, in association with NOAA, raised the acceptable levels of PAH, without providing a rationale for why.”

“Here’s part of its statement in the Protocol for Interpretation and Use of Sensory Testing and Analytical Chemistry Results for re-opening oil-impacted areas closed to seafood harvesting by the FDA, published June 18, 2010: ‘The new numbers were developed specifically for the unprecedented Deepwater Horizon Oil spill event and will not necessarily be applicable after all fisheries closed due to oil contamination are re-opened for safe harvest. Levels of concern and other factors for any subsequent oil spill event would be independently evaluated based on case-specific information.”

In other words, according to Subra and other scientists, the acceptable levels of PAH in the Gulf’s marine life were raised simply to address the impacts of the BP spill. It smacks less of concern for long-term human health, and more about getting the economy going again.

Subra’s complaints go bigger: “There is no testing for dispersants. In addition the calculations of the meal size used to calculate the consumption quantity is based on things like four shrimp per meal.” Who in Louisiana, or elsewhere, eats just four shrimp at a meal? Which begs another issue, which is that by allowing more chemicals to be in the seafood that is being taken from the Gulf it most-powerfully impacts those who eat it most often … which are the residents of the Gulf.

The bottom line, says Subra, is that “the concentrations of PAHs in seafood, based on the FDA acceptable levels, are inadequate to protect the health of seafood consumers.”

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA, has defended both her agency and the FDA’s approach and that they are doing “comprehensive testing,” which includes a two-part test: A team of sensory experts tastes and smells the seafood and if it” passes muster,” is sent to a lab and tested for 12 types of hazardous compounds. “

Subra is not alone in not buying the agency’s modus operandi.

Dr. William Sawyer, a Florida-based toxicologist hired by a New Orleans law firm to look at test results of water and seafood samples, said seafood safety could not be guaranteed using those tests. “Absolutely not, especially with respect to Louisiana shrimp.”Senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Gina Solomon, concurs, and on September 21 urged federal officials to undertake “more rigorous” testing. She claims “NOAA only used data from 12 samples of shrimp, consisting of 73 individual shrimp for its evaluation. That’s just too small, she said, for an area the size of Connecticut.”Lubchenco, NOAA and the FDA continue to defend the testing and claim “the Gulf seafood taken from these waters is safe to eat” and the reopening of Gulf fishing waters “is another signal to tourists the northern Gulf is open for business.”

[flickr photo via Ms. Gail M Tang]

Choice Hotels offers music downloads to support charity and new artists

It feels good to give back, and when hotels get in on the giving we make a point to salute them.

Choice Hotels International, Inc. announced the launch of Choice Hotels Music – a new music initiative that brings new artists in front of millions of consumers and helps drive donations to non-profit organizations. Here’s how it works:

Choice Hotels will produce the original music and offer consumers the chance to download these songs for a limited time for free at ChoiceHotels.com. The artists retain ownership of their works. With each download, a financial donation will be made to a featured cause or charity. Choice Hotels Music has already begun producing 10 songs that will be matched to appropriate charities. Case in point: on August 28, Holly Montgomery performed her song “”My Brother’s Keeper” live at a special block party concert in New Orleans. This event culminates the efforts of Choice Hotels and Rebuilding Together’s Fifty for Five initiative to rehabilitate 50 homes in New Orleans on the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Have a song you want the world to hear? Artists interested in creating great music to support great causes can visit choicehotels.com for updates on the initiative.

For those who don’t have a musical note about them, just download “My Brother’s Keeper” for free from August 25 through September 24 and help support Rebuilding Together’s efforts in the Gulf Coast.