For his work to understand how to build better robots, Joshua Bongard, a researcher at the University of Vermont, received Friday the highest award given by the US government to young scientists.President Barack Obama announced Bongard as one of 94 winners of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers on Sept. 26.Bongard received the award today at a ceremony at the White House. Bongard is only the second researcher in UVM history to receive the PECASE award, which provides $500,000 in research funds over several years.At a ceremony Friday in the White House, President Barack Obama announced UVM robotics researcher and assistant professor Joshua Bongard as one of 94 winners of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest award given by the U.S. government to young scientists. After the ceremony, Bongard displayed the award. To his right is Dr. John P. Holdren, the President’s science and technology advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. To his left is Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director for Education and Human Resources at the National Science Foundation.Inspired by evolutionBongard’s far-reaching work looks to nature for ideas. “The goal is to borrow ideas from neuroscience and evolution to help us build better and more intelligent robots,” he says.So far, scientists have had little success in building resilient machines that can continually perform behaviors that are fairly simple but require ongoing adaptation to changing conditions ‘ like paving a road or cleaning up a toxic dump. But Bongard is on a mission to make them.”The prevailing approach to create such machines is to copy physiological and neurological systems observed in animals, and build them into robots,” Bongard notes. “This raises the issue however of what, from among the infinitude of existing biological structures, should be copied.”Instead of guessing, Bongard has innovated systems in which computer programs copy the dynamics of biological evolution and replay them in a virtual space with numerous generations of synthetic creatures ‘ something like a highly sophisticated video game.The resulting algorithm yields ideas for robots that have optimized their neurological structures ‘ and their behaviors and body plans ‘ over many generations of being tested by virtual evolution, instead of human guesswork.With these ideas in hand, Bongard and his students can then build actual robots in their workshop that are adaptable and capable of responding to novel challenges.”My long-term goal is to give back to neuroscience and evolutionary biology, to give us a different tool to investigate: why does intelligence evolve?” Bongard says. “Under what conditions will intelligence evolve? Could we ever consider a machine to be intelligent, or is intelligence something limited to biological organisms?”Presidential visionRecognizing this kind of innovative work, the PECASE awards “embody the high priority the Obama Administration places on producing outstanding scientists and engineers to advance the Nation’s goals, tackle grand challenges, and contribute to the American economy,” the White House wrote in a press release.In 1996, the National Science and Technology Council was commissioned by President Clinton to create a program that would support and honor outstanding scientists and engineers early in their research careers ‘ from this council came the PECASE award.Each year, more than a dozen federal departments and agencies nominate scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments “show the greatest promise for assuring America’s preeminence in science and engineering and contributing to the awarding agencies’ missions,” the White House press office wrote.”It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers ‘ careers that I know will be not only personally rewarding but also invaluable to the Nation,” President Obama said in the White House release. “That so many of them are also devoting time to mentoring and other forms of community service speaks volumes about their potential for leadership, not only as scientists but as model citizens.”An innovatorBongard, an assistant professor of computer science in UVM’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, was one of 21 nominees presented by the National Science Foundation for the most recent round of awards.Bongard’s research has received national and international attention, and has been featured in Wired magazine, the Boston Globe, The Voice of America, Popular Science, and many other outlets. He also received a fellowship from Microsoft Research in 2007 for research related to self-healing robots ‘ one of five given nationwide. He was named by MIT as one of the world’s top innovators under 35.”This award allows me to continue with my basic scientific research, but it also allows me to create tools that draw many people into my research beyond my graduate students,” Josh Bongard says. “Through this award, we’re developing a web interface that will allow people to perform evolutionary robotics experiments without having a background in evolution or robotics.”UVM. 10.14.2011###
FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailPrint分享CBS News:A Tennessee coal mining company that filed for bankruptcy this week is the second coal company to go bankrupt during Donald Trump’s pro-coal presidency. It’s also the fifth U.S. coal industry bankruptcy in the last three years as competitors in the energy market continue to drive coal into the dust pile.Mission Coal, an operator of three mines in West Virginia and one in Alabama, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Sunday listing about $175 million in debt and just $55,000 cash on hand, according to court filings. This small company joins Colorado-based Westmoreland Coal, one of the country’s oldest coal companies, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, and Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, which all have ended up in bankruptcy courts since 2015.Competition from other energy sources—super-cheap natural gas in particular—has been the main culprit. Obama-era “clean coal” regulations scuttled earlier this year by the Trump administration has played just a small role in the industry’s collapse, experts say.“Coal plants have been losing market share just on competitiveness alone, to natural gas, for quite some time–even before the EPA regulations came down that accelerated the shutdown of even more plants,” Greg Reed, director of the Center for Energy and the GRID Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, told CBS MoneyWatch recently.The total stock market value of the country’s four largest coal producers has plunged to $6.3 billion today from $33 billion in 2011. About 62,000 coal miners have lost their jobs during that time. Further job losses will come: More than a quarter of the U.S.’ current fleet of coal plants is projected to shut down over the next 12 years, according to one analysis.More: Mission Coal files for bankruptcy—5th coal company in 3 years Mission bankruptcy underscores coal’s long-term decline
Adani downsizes Australian coal mine plan, says it will build without government support FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailPrint分享The New York Times:After months of protests over whether Australia should subsidize one of the world’s largest coal mines, the Indian mining giant Adani announced on Thursday that it would scale the project back and finance it itself.The Carmichael mine had been projected to produce 60 million tons a year from the coal-rich Galilee Basin; now the output will start at 10 million tons and rise to 27.5 million, the company said, putting it more in line with other mines in the area.“The project stacks up both environmentally and financially,” said Lucas Dow, Adani Australia’s chief executive. “We will now deliver the jobs and business opportunities we have promised for North Queensland and Central Queensland, all without requiring a cent of Australian taxpayer dollars.” The company had previously asked for a taxpayer-financed loan of a billion Australian dollars, about $730 million.Critics of the plan — and they are legion — said the company was trying to rush ahead and break ground because of polls indicating that the next federal election could be won by the Labor Party, which is likely to oppose the mine. There are still obstacles in place, involving water and other issues, but the company maintains that they are procedural and will soon be resolved.Resistance to the mine remains strong. It has become an environmental cause célèbre across Australia, with legal challenges, protests and celebrities painting “Stop Adani” on their cheeks. The concerns have focused on potential damage to the Great Barrier Reef, because of a port connected to the mine along Australia’s North Queensland coast, and more broadly on coal’s damaging contribution to climate change.More: Adani to proceed with scaled-back version of contentious Australian coal mine
Fitch sees renewables becoming Western Europe’s top power source by 2023 FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailPrint分享Recharge:Western Europe will spearhead the transition to non-hydropower renewables, which will become the region’s predominant power source by 2023, Fitch Solutions said in an update to its 10-year global renewable energy outlook.“We expect the region’s total non-hydropower renewables capacity will grow by more than 330GW between 2020 and 2029 to reach nearly 1TW of capacity, almost equivalent to the total thermal capacity expected in 2029,” the analysts said.Non-hydro renewables according to Fitch Solution’s estimate are slated to make up 31% of total generation in Western Europe.The analysts said the detrimental impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the short term will disrupt non-hydro renewables growth. But an expected recovery after this year actually presents greater opportunities for investment in solar and wind power as their lower costs and more rapid deployment characteristics will prove attractive to both private investors and governments seeking to maintain power sector growth over the medium term.On a global scale, the renewables sector will expand from over 1.3TW by the end of 2019 to more than 2.6TW ten years later, when 18% of the world’s generation are expected to come from renewable sources. That growth will be mainly driven by China, which is seen making up 42% of global non-hydro renewables additions in the ten-year period.[Bernd Radowitz]More: Renewables to become Western Europe’s main power source by 2023: Fitch Solutions
FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailPrint分享E&E News:A French utility won’t move forward with a $7 billion deal to import liquefied natural gas from Houston-based NextDecade Corp., roughly two weeks after contract negotiations paused over reported concerns about the methane emissions footprint of U.S. natural gas.“ENGIE decided not to pursue commercial discussions with NextDecade on this gas supply project,” the company confirmed to E&E News in an email yesterday. French newspaper Le Monde first reported that Engie SA would not finalize the contract.The canceled deal marks a blow for NextDecade, which is working to secure a final investment decision in 2021 on the planned Rio Grande LNG export project, located in Brownsville, Texas, which seeks to use an “abundant gas supply” from the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford Shale.NextDecade did not respond to a request for comment, but told E&E News earlier this week that the company “is proud of its leadership in environmental and social performance.”Kevin Book, managing director at research firm ClearView Energy Partners LLC, said multiple factors are overlapping, but cited the French government’s “heightened trade-based climate concerns” and European efforts to meter methane — a potent greenhouse gas — as two dominant trends surrounding the deal between Engie and NextDecade.“Today, the bigger effect appears to be the lack of clear signal from the U.S. federal government that U.S. gas is regulated to the standard that Europe can accept, and that France can accept,” Book said yesterday.[Carlos Anchondo and Miranda Willson]More: Backlash over U.S. methane emissions kills LNG export deal France’s Engie pulls out of $7 billion deal to import U.S. LNG
From l to r: Sierra Designs’ Vincent Mares, Columbia Apparel’s Bryhn Ireson and Black Diamond Packs designer Nathan Kuder.For every backpack that summits the Southern Appalachians, there’s a really smart gear designer working long hours in a dark office to make sure it has all the bells and whistles it needs to get the job done. Ditto technical apparel and tents. BRO pulled a few of the outdoor industry’s leading designers out of the their cubicles and let them speak about gear design. Here’s what they had to say.Vincent Mares, design manager for Sierra Designs packs, tents, and sleeping bags.The goal whenever you create a new pack or tent or sleeping bag, is to answer a question in a better way. Are we solving problems for the users, not just creating another option in a different color?Failure is part of the process. We go through a bunch of design concepts to create an idea for a pack, then we build the first prototype. But you never get it 100 percent perfect. There are lots of growing pains along the way. It’s more of an evolution than people probably realize. You have to fail to succeed. You have to learn from it.The future for tent design is the same as the past: lighter, lighter, and lighter. In tents, every ounce counts. There are some new fabrics coming out that are amazing. It will give tent designers some interesting options. We should be able to build something extremely light without sacrificing performance.I live in the future. I have this crystal ball, thinking two years in the future, thinking about economics, color trends, innovation. It’s part science, part voodoo. These are the things they don’t teach you in design school.Bryhn Ireson, product line manager for Columbia’s technical apparel lineI look at the market, examining a competitor’s set: the price, features, colors, how waterproof it is…then I approach a specific piece from our perspective. For us, it’s about the end use, providing something comfortable and usable. But a product begins when I write a brief on an idea I’d like to see built, then I let the designers go at it.Typically, it takes 18 months to get a piece of apparel from the brief to market. It takes that long to nail the process. Longer if there’s an innovative technology involved, like Omni Freeze Ice. We knew about the technology and spent a lot of time testing with our innovations department before we started to design specific pieces. It took a matter of years. Right now, we’re looking at developing products for spring 2013.Basically, we’re predicting the future. It’s tough with color trends. Our design department can be pretty fashion forward. Will we be ready for these color schemes in 2013? How will we price items for 2013? There’s some educated guess work, but it pays to be the leaders too, so you’re driving the market, not responding to it.We have an extensive beta project that spans the world with hundreds of real life users chipping in to test gear. They don’t pull any punches. We have guides as well spending 200 days a year giving us so much feedback and direction, from color to technical traits. We take those comments from the Beta project, then apply them to the product before we go to market and use them for future development.Nathan Kuder, category director for packs for Black Diamond With any piece of gear, the goal is to make that gear disappear from your experience. The concept behind our Active Frame Technology in our packs’ suspension systems, was to take away some of the restrictions that traditional packs have had on the backpacking experience. People have just assumed that a certain amount of discomfort and limited mobility come with large packs.I’m a firm believer that active suspensions will become as common as internal frames are now. Right now, 90 percent of the packs on the market have static suspension. But eventually, you’ll see those become the price point options, and active suspension be the more common option. It’s simply too good to not be adopted by more backpack manufacturers.I’d say 80 percent of the stuff on the store floor has an element of gimmickry. The end user is my yardstick. If the user doesn’t get what they paid for, the product won’t stick around. At Black Diamond, we’re always asking, “Is this real, or is this bullshit?”
The first reports of the fire in Shenandoah National Park arrived at 1:15 p.m. on Saturday, April 16, citing smoke several miles up the Rocky Mount Trail in the south district.Shenandoah National Park Assistant Fire Management Officer Matt Way reported for work and hiked the Rocky Mount Trail from the park’s western boundary to find a 50-acre fire burning a few ridges below Skyline Drive.The fire was too large and intense to make a safe direct attack with the few firefighters on site. Instead, Way worked with law enforcement officers to evacuate hikers from the trail, and he began to develop a suppression plan that would use additional resources and require clearance to use chainsaws and leaf-blowers—key tools to fighting eastern fires, but ordinarily prohibited in wilderness areas.Driven by wind and burning through stands of mountain laurel, pine and oak, the fire rapidly grew. Way initially planned to use existing trail breaks to contain the fire, which had grown to more than 200 acres by the next morning. By day three, the fire had reached 2,000 acres. Crews headed down a trail to establish a fire line and halt the fire’s southern progress, but with the dry conditions and gusty wind that day, the fire beat them there and jumped the trail just as they arrived. Soon flames were racing up the ridge toward Skyline Drive.The firefighters repositioned themselves to track the fire’s progress from the Brown Mountain overlook. What they saw was one of the fire’s most intense moments. Driven by winds and steep slopes, the fire roared up the mountain. It devoured leaf litter, dead snags, and mountain laurel in the understory, and when it hit drier pine stringers, it used the laurel as a ladder fuel to climb the trees, scorching them from top to bottom with 60-foot flames.In just 20 minutes, the fire had climbed from the valley bottom to Skyline Drive. As it approached, the gusting wind lofted airborne firebrands to ignite spot fires on the other side of the road. Crews fell back to establish yet another fire line on the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the ridgetop above the road. This line held, but aided by winds, a lack of rain and low relative humidity, the fire continued to burn in other directions, including toward private property and houses to the north and west.Park Superintendent Jim Northrup wrote in an open letter posted on Facebook:“It is important for the public to understand that allowing the fire to come to these stopping points, where safe, defensible positions have been prepared, is not the same as ‘letting the fire burn’ out of control.”The Rocky Mountain Fire of 2016 continued for another two weeks, burning 10,234 acres before officials declared it controlled in early May. It burned down to the park boundary on its north and west sides, and actually crossed the boundary into Beldor Hollow, but no structures were harmed. The Rocky Mountain Fire was only half the size of the 24,000-acre Shenandoah Complex fire of 2000, but it still ranks as park’s second largest fire in recent memory, and it serves as an example of how fire continues to play an important role in forests, even in the temperate rain forests of the Blue Ridge.Brown Mountain Overlook.Fire plays a crucial role in the shape of the world, included with air, earth and water as one of the classical elements. Native Americans routinely used fire to make forests more productive for wildlife and game, effectively altering the ecology of Southern Appalachia. English settlers continued the trend, burning to open the understory, aiding in hunting and traveling, while also facilitating new plant growth for wildlife and domestic grazing animals. A 1908 report by a U.S. Senate committee reported that Appalachia “has suffered incalculable damage from fire, which in many localities still burns every year unchecked.”Today, fire continues to do what it’s always done. But in an age of climate change, suburbanization, and ecological changes, the physical, cultural and political landscapes around fire have shifted along with the way we conceptualize it.Much of that evolution has been framed by how public lands agencies manage fire. The U.S. Forest Service was still a fledgling institution in 1910 when it fought what became known as “the Big Blowup” on the Idaho-Montana border. The blaze burned more than a million acres in three days, creating its own weather, devouring entire canyons with giant fireballs, and forcing mass evacuations.The Forest Service suffered a crushing defeat, yet the Forest Service’s creator and most outspoken champion, Gifford Pinchot, wove into a grand narrative numerous heroic moments by federal officials—running toward the fire when everyone else was fleeing, taking shelter in abandoned mine shafts and creekbeds, and helping evacuate towns in the fire’s path. This narrative both guaranteed the Forest Service’s survival and ensured it would spend decades focused primarily on fire suppression.The Big Blowup’s veterans defined federal fire policy for decades to come: Willam Greeley emerged as Forest Service chief and prioritized fire suppression above all else. Meanwhile Elers Koch—whose obituary appeared in newspapers after the Big Blowup before he emerged from the forests still alive and with an intact crew—advocated for fire as an important component of forest health. For most of the century, Greeley’s views dominated federal policy, but over time, Koch’s influence grew as agencies began to recognize fire as a necessary ecological force, not only desirable but essential for many species of plants and animals. Smokey has been sending the wrong message: wildfire is as natural and necessary as rain for forest health.Today, fire policy continues to evolve. The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service both look for opportunities to let fire run when they can, as long as it doesn’t endanger firefighters or private property.“We’re more populated in the East compared to the West, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have opportunities to achieve ecological objectives,” says Riva Duncan, fire management officer for North Carolina’s National Forests. “We look for opportunities. We had a fire last summer, an unusual lightning fire in summer without rain, that we were able to manage for multiple objectives. We got about 2,000 acres out of it.”Allowing a fire to burn to accomplish ecological goals, however, must be weighed against other considerations, primarily the safety of crews and the proximity of private land and structures.“We want a fire that we can pretty much keep it where we want it, providing good ecological effects, whether to soil, to wildlife, to vegetation, and certainly we want to minimize impacts to the public,” Duncan says. “Every single fire we really have to look at differently and decide if we can meet our objectives. If we don’t think we can, we’ll do our best to suppress it.”In managing the spring fire in Shenandoah National Park, fire officials chose not to make a direct attack because it was difficult to do so on rugged terrain in unfavorable weather conditions without endangering firefighters. Instead, they pulled back and made a stand at defensible locations—roads, trails, natural barriers and constructed fire lines.The fire strategy came about from prioritizing firefighter and public safety, but the Rocky Mountain Fire of 2016 still produced a wealth of ecological benefits.In late June, two months after the fire was contained, its aftermath could still be seen in charred ground cover and scorched trees, but already sedges and ferns had reclaimed the forest floor, covering the charred-black ground with a vibrant green.“This is pretty much what we’re going to see at this point in the game,” says Way. “There’s vegetation growing back. Mother Nature is going to heal the scars.”Thin pine trees where the fire burned hottest were completely scorched, but National Park Service fire ecologist Missy Forder says the thick-barked pines are “pretty bombproof,” and even those that do die will likely be replaced, since they also released cones that rely on flames to reach the temperatures required for them to release seeds.“The fire will have positive impacts on the vegetation and the wildlife,” Forder says. “It will regenerate those oaks and acorns. New, succulent vegetation that comes out pulls in wildlife. You’ll see different bird species, different animal species, things that haven’t been in that area because it’s been the same [ecological] structure. Fire alters it and makes it much more of a destination for different species.”The same factors that make recently burned areas attractive for native plants and wildlife also create opportunities for invasive species, so biologists also must monitor them for exotics such as wavyleaf basketgrass, princess tree, and oriental bittersweet.Not everyone is convinced of fire’s touted ecological effects. During the Shenandoah spring fire, residents along the park’s northern and western boundaries grew nervous as the flames grew closer. The various agencies involved in fighting the fire were able to use heavier equipment outside the park’s wilderness area, with the Virginia Department of Forestry pitching in with bulldozers to help cut fire lines.In North Carolina, residents near Linville Gorge fought against a federal proposal for a prescribed burn. The burn, budgeted at about $4.5 million, would have been planned for 16,586 acres of mostly wilderness but also some areas near private land. Opponents formed Save Linville Gorge Wilderness as a chapter of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and rallied public opposition, which succeeded in putting the project on hold, likely for good.Lonnie Crotts, Save Linville Gorge Wilderness’s public engagement coordinator, argues that prescribed burning rarely improves the health of forests.“Prescribed burning is driven by a supply of federal money that began in 2001 with ‘forest landscape restoration’ legislation under the George W. Bush administration,” Crotts wrote in an email. “This money provides much desired income to agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service … which creates a bias for the ‘need’ for more fire in our environment.”Crotts’ arguments against prescribed fire in the gorge include: concerns that human-caused fires may rage out of control; carbon release contributing to climate change; invasive species that thrive in burned areas and may cause more fire; air quality impacts made by the particulates released in fire; and threats to fire-sensitive endangered species.Crotts also points to a 2012 fire in Croatan National Forest, near the North Carolina coast, that started as a prescribed burn but which spread to more than 20,000 acres. The fire didn’t threaten private property, but it did result in “code red” air quality warnings in three counties, and smoke could be smelled as far away as Raleigh.The halting of prescribed burning in Linville Gorge doesn’t mean the end of fire there. Nearly 20,000 acres in the gorge have burned since 2000 from fires that weren’t planned (although three of the four fires during that time were human-caused).Odds are fire that will strike Linville Gorge again. So long as they can keep firefighters safe and private property protected, federal officials are likely to let it burn.“Because of the nature of topography there, it’s rare we can safely put people in the gorge to fight it,” Duncan says. “With fires in the gorge, we have to wait until it comes to us.”Photo by Tom DalyDespite the impasse at Linville Gorge, the Forest Service and other land managers continue to conduct prescribed burns and manage unplanned fires for ecological goals when possible. In 2015, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), fire crews conducted 37,263 prescribed burns that affected a total of 2.9 million acres, with state agencies accounting for about half of that, and the U.S. Forest Service for another third.Overall, more than 10 million acres across the country burned in wildfires in 2015, according to the NIFC. In the Southeast—a large geographic area that includes southern Appalachia but also extends west to Texas—an average of 910,000 acres burn each year from human-caused fires and 224,000 acres from lightning-caused fires.Most of those fires burned unevenly in a mosaic pattern, scorching some areas while leaving others relatively unscathed. The mosaic pattern left by fire aids in recovery, as vegetative heterogeneity leads to more biodiversity as different ecotypes overlap. That patchiness also can disguise the effects of fire, especially to an untrained eye observing a burned area just a few months afterward.In Shenandoah National Park, land that was ablaze a couple of months ago is now covered in green, obscuring the ashes that still cover the ground. If one is closely watching the trail ahead or in deep thought, it’s possible to wander through a burned area without even noticing. That rapid recovery may also lull us into believing that fire has been eradicated from the landscape in which we live and play. But fire continues to shape the natural environment, as it has for millennia and as it will into the future, despite all efforts to eradicate and manage it.WOMEN AND WILDFIREArrive on the site of a wildfire and you’ll find fire engines, staffed by crews clad in yellow and green, lots of shovels and pulaskis, and the smell of smoke. One thing not likely to be present: A significant number of women.Federal land agencies, traditionally dominated by men, have started to hire more women, including for leadership positions. Still, that progress hasn’t translated to wildfire jobs, according to numbers compiled by Brenda Dale, a U.S. Forest Service fire management officer. Women hold only 11 percent of permanent wildfire jobs in the Forest Service; by contrast they make up nearly 40 percent of its overall workforce. In the agency’s Southern region, only three women hold supervisory fire jobs, compared to 94 men.Duncan says the numbers are getting worse instead of better.“It’s something I scratch my head over all the time—there are fewer women now in fire than at any time in the last 15 years,” says Riva Duncan, fire management officer for North Carolina’s National Forests.In the Southwest U.S., Bequi Livingston first joined a fire crew in 1979. She worked with wildfire for three decades, and in 2012, she established the Women in Wildland Fire program to pay her experiences forwardThe program provides young women with fire training in a supportive environment, creating an opportunity to land a job on a seasonal fire crew. It also creates a foundation for its graduates to eventually work their way into leadership positions.The eastern version of the Women in Wildland Fire program looks quite different than out West, however. Eastern fires tend to occur in the spring and fall, when dry leaf litter covers the ground, while western fires mostly happen in the summer. That means college students often can’t participate on a regular basis.The few young women who do pursue fire training in the East often go west during the fire season. Duncan sees her job as providing the training and helping participants find opportunities, like one woman who trained in North Carolina and then joined a hotshot crew in California.“We certainly look for young women who like physical challenges, are physically fit, who like the adventure,” Duncan says.Related Content:
The October issue of Blue Ridge Outdoors is live and on newstands now. Pick up your copy or read online today for an in-depth profile of 14 regional photographers, drives and hikes not to be missed this fall, sunken secrets about Appalachia’s underwater ghost towns, Jennifer Pharr Davis’ top gear picks for the Mountains to Sea Trail and much more.QUICK HITSStringbean sets new A.T. speed record • Bear roams U.Va. • New N.C. natural areaBEER RUNSThe Blue Ridge region is blessed with some of the country’s best craft beer, bourbon, and beautiful landscapes. Runs, bike rides, hikes, and even yoga sessions are often followed with beers, and trolley pubs and pedal taverns have long been popular throughout the region.THE DIRTAppalachia’s newest state park • 652-mile record swim on the Tennessee River • Sunken secrets • Hiking the Blue Wall • Chasing WaterfallsTHE GOODSJennifer Pharr Davis’s go-to gear for her Mountains to Sea thru-hikeTRAIL MIXFarm boy Scott Miller returns with a new recordCLASSIC COLORTake the scenic route on your next leaf peeping adventure with these 10 iconic drives and roadside hikes.THE PHOTO ISSUEFourteen top regional outdoor photographers share their unfiltered stories of hard work, stubborn perseverance— and sometimes, damn good luck—that goes into getting the shot (and how you can get it, too).BOONE’S BIG BUYAfter more than 30 years of climbing access issues in the High Country, Boone finally has its very own boulderfield.SOLE SISTERSTwo college roommates from Atlanta started jogging—and launched a global movement to inspire African-American women to run with them.
Eva Beaule wasn’t sure what might happen when she and her husband, Mike, opened an outfitter in the tiny community of Mendota, Va. several years ago. Their property sits in an ideal location along the North Fork of the Holston River not far from the Tennessee line, but it takes a long, winding route on narrow roads to get there. “There’s no cell phone service out here,” Beaule says, “and we’re seventeen miles from a grocery store.”But geographic isolation hasn’t stopped the Beaules’ shop, Adventure Mendota, from booming. While business started slow—no one came out to Adventure Mendota’s opening day—thousands of customers have since come to float the North Fork. The outfitter is now one of the most popular outdoor businesses in the region.The Beaules aren’t alone in their success. In fact, the story of Adventure Mendota—an entrepreneur growing a dream into a thriving outdoor business—could apply to almost any corner of Appalachia. Outfitters have sprouted from the pastoral banks of the North Fork to urban stretches of the French Broad. Mountain communities are reinventing themselves to attract hikers, mountain bikers, and climbers. Revamped downtowns across the region are complete with microbreweries and Airbnbs. And the region’s national forests and state parks are being reimagined not just as weekend getaways but as economic support systems for small towns and entire states alike.A quick look at the numbers shows just how much of an economic behemoth the outdoor industry has become. In 2017, the Outdoor Industry Association estimated that outdoor recreation accounted for nearly $900 billion in consumer spending and just over 7.5 million direct jobs nationwide—more than the coal and gas industries combined. Those trends hold closer to home in the Blue Ridge. A recent report by the Outdoor Alliance found that the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests—just two of more than ten national forests across the larger Appalachian region—host 4.6 million visitors annually and plug $115 million into local economies each year.As impressive as those figures are, questions remain about what role outdoor recreation has in the region’s economic future. Can recreation replace the extractive industries that have dominated the mountains for more than a century? Are outdoor entrepreneurs really building the base of a new economy, or are their small businesses simply feel-good stories without lasting economic impact? Finding the answers to those questions is one of the biggest challenges currently facing Appalachia—one that may shape the region for generations to come.The Outdoor Economy by the Numbers$9 billion in annual consumer spending on outdoor recreation in West Virginia366 full-time jobs supported by mountain biking in North Carolina’s Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests7,500 unique climbers visiting Kentucky’s Red River Gorge annually. Visitors spend an estimated $3.6 million each year.$13.61 generated for every dollar of tax revenue provided to Virginia state parks in 2016—Outdoor Industry Association, Outdoor Alliance, Eastern Kentucky University, Virginia Association for ParksGrowing an IndustryIt’s impossible to understand the growth of the East’s outdoor economy without first considering the historical arc of land use trends across Appalachia. From early European settlement through the mid-1900s, the predominant force in the Appalachian economy was resource extraction: timber harvesting along the Blue Ridge, coal to the west along the Appalachian Plateau, and agriculture in the Great Valley in between.In fact, many of the region’s national forests and parks were created as a reaction to the ecological devastation caused by those industries decades earlier. President Franklin D. Roosevelt acknowledged as much during his address at the 1940 dedication of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, stating that “we realize now that we committed excesses which we are today seeking to atone for.” That atonement paved the way for public lands that became hubs of outdoor activity across the nation.Outdoor businesses began to capitalize on those assets later in the 20th century, with outlets like Western North Carolina’s Nantahala Outdoor Center leading the charge. The center opened in 1972 at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and Nantahala River Gorge and has since grown into one of the nation’s leading outfitters, producing Olympic whitewater champions and hundreds of regional jobs. In the decades since its creation, a litany of businesses and communities have followed suit to build a thriving outdoor economy, even as traditional industries have waned.Todd Christensen has watched that transition throughout his career. Christensen, recently retired as executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation, has helped lead efforts to revitalize distressed communities throughout 19 Virginia counties. In many ways, Christensen’s region serves as a microcosm for how a decline in extractive industries has catalyzed an increased focus on the outdoors. Over the past few decades, manufacturing employment in Southwest Virginia fell by half, agricultural jobs declined, and coal mining jobs dropped by nearly 70 percent. Those impacts, Christensen says, left many communities looking for new economic options.“The big opportunity I think a lot of people saw was outdoor recreation,” he says. Southwest Virginia’s communities began marketing outdoor assets residents had taken advantage of for decades.“It wasn’t that there wasn’t anybody doing any outdoor recreation. It wasn’t that the assets weren’t there,” Christensen says. “It was about connecting them all to a common theme to brand the region.” Since 2001, the region has added nearly 3,000 leisure and hospitality jobs, along with a more than $300 million increase in travel expenditures.While many communities in Southwest Virginia are just starting to capitalize on the outdoors, other areas, such as Western North Carolina, have had a focus on the outdoors for generations.[nextpage title=”Read on!”]“Outdoor recreation and tourism has been a part of our local economy for over 100 years,” stresses Clark Lovelace, executive director of the Brevard/Transylvania Chamber of Commerce. Lovelace cites the Pisgah National Forest and the region’s history of hosting summer camps—both of which date back as far as the early 1900s—as examples of the region’s outdoor roots. “In more recent years,” Lovelace says, “the addition of DuPont State Recreational Forest and Gorges State Park…has led to tremendous growth in the local tourism industry.”In 1986, the Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority (TCTDA) was formed to promote the county’s outdoor assets—a factor that became important when the area’s largest manufacturing companies left starting around the year 2000. Since then, Lovelace says that outdoor recreation has “gone from an important industry to a leading industry.” The TCTDA reported close to $90 million generated in tourism revenue in 2015 alone, with accommodations revenue—a key tourism indicator—nearly doubling since 2010.Not Just a Numbers GameWhile the revenue figures touted by regional communities paint an encouraging picture, many experts argue that the outdoor economy alone isn’t sufficient to save many areas, especially those suffering from severe economic decline.“Tourism is so important, but we cannot put all of our eggs in one basket,” says Shannon Blevins, associate vice chancellor at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Blevins works with rural communities across the Appalachian coalfields that are looking to diversify their economic strategies, and she emphasizes the dangers of putting too much focus on any single industry. For starters, she says, a tourism-based economy isn’t recession-proof. “We don’t want to get back into that same situation where we are single-threaded on one industry,” she says.Blevins also points out that many outdoor jobs pay lower wages than other industries, a discrepancy that is all too real. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in the recreation industry earn a median income of around $24,000 per year nationwide. Compare that to the median level of $50,000 or so in annual wages taken home by a coal miner, and it becomes easy to see the challenges associated with using outdoor businesses to replace high-wage extractive industries.Still, the intangible benefits of the outdoor industry can enhance other dimensions of the economy. As one example, Blevins stresses the impacts that tourism and recreation can have on a community’s quality of life. “If it’s done right,” Blevins says, strengthening an outdoor economy “increases the impression that people have of the area.” That, in turn, can increase a community’s exposure and draw in new investment.Lovelace agrees. “Outdoor recreation and quality of life for residents are directly tied together” for the Brevard and Transylvania County area, he says. In addition to retirees who move to the area after leaving the labor market, Lovelace points out that many working families who move to Transylvania County are choosing quality of life over the size of their salaries as a determining factor in selecting a new home.In other cases, recreation can also attract new manufacturing sectors altogether. The broader Western North Carolina region is one example, as it now plays home to a burgeoning outdoor gear manufacturing industry that is capitalizing on the region’s outdoor culture. The Outdoor Gear Builders of Western North Carolina, a group of 27 regionally-based companies, estimated in 2014 that manufacturers contributed nearly 500 jobs to the regional economy, with a $6 million impact in local sourcing.Lovelace credits the quality of life provided by the outdoors as helping to bring several manufacturers to his region, citing it as “key” to economic growth. The Transylvania Economic Alliance—the county’s economic development organization—now even lists outdoor gear manufacturing as one of its six target markets, alongside tourism.Building on SuccessIf a single rule has emerged from the region, it’s that the recipe needed to harness the outdoor recreation economy’s benefits may look different from one community to the next.Some communities, like Erwin, Tenn., are looking downtown. Erwin is home to the Appalachian Trail and Nolichucky River, but its economy has historically been grounded on the transport of coal via the CSX railroad. Jamie Rice, an Erwin business owner and president of the community group RISE Erwin, says that economic landscape changed when Erwin’s railyard closed in 2015.“We were really in mourning,” Rice says. In response, residents began strategic planning sessions, where Rice says “the thing we kept identifying with was our geography.” One result of those discussions was a Great Outdoors Festival that links Erwin’s downtown businesses to the trail and river. Rice estimates the event attracted nearly 7,000 people in its inaugural year. “We were thrilled with that number,” she says. “And we know it’s going to continue to grow.”In other areas, taking the outdoor economy to the next level means playing off of existing strengths. Virginia’s Appalachian Spring initiative is doing just that: taking eight popular outdoor “anchors”—recreation meccas like the New River, Mount Rogers, and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park—and tying them together in a regional branding strategy where political boundaries are blurred.“The whole region has developed a spirit of collaboration and understanding that what’s good for one part of the region is good for the other,” Christensen says. Rather than crafting competing economic plans behind closed doors, community leaders are having opportunities to share best practices for engaging visitors with the outdoors. Emerging from the initiative is the recognition that a region’s strength often lies in its diversity.If that diversity is found in the sum of a region’s parts, small businesses like Adventure Mendota play a key role. The outfitter sits between two of Appalachian Spring’s anchor areas, the Clinch River and Mount Rogers, and that sense of community is not lost on its owner. Eva Beaule credits a group of leaders near Mendota—what she refers to as her “posse”—with helping to spur on the outfitter’s success. It’s a relationship that has to go both ways, Beaule says. “A small business owner cannot wait for people to come to them,” she stresses. “You’ve got to go meet with somebody that you don’t know.”In fact, supporting a community of outdoor entrepreneurs is a plan for success that holds from a city with a strong outdoor economy like Brevard to a rural coalfield town just beginning to plot out its economic future. Rice, Lovelace, and Blevins all emphasize the role that entrepreneurial support has played in their respective regions. “If you’re able to give people who are already rooted in the area the ability to start their own jobs that are in alignment with their aptitudes, then that is a huge win,” Blevins says.In that sense, the principles driving the success of Appalachia’s outdoor economy are rooted in the same culture that has supported the region for generations. “The one thing we’ve learned that is so tremendous,” Beaule says, “is that we’ve got a lot of resources in each other.”
James L. Jordan, who is suspected of killing 43-year-old Ronald Sanchez and attacking and wounding a female hiker on the Appalachian Trail in May, has been declared mentally unfit to stand trial. According to the Boston Globe, a federal judge has ruled that Jordan be taken to a federal facility “to be restored to competency.” After the horrifying attack in May, Jordan was detained for evaluation to determine if he suffered from “mental disease or defect.” It is unclear how long it will take for Jordan to be restored to competency or if he will appear in court again.