Cherniak: Neglect and a woodpecker: Why I became an environmental engineer |

Cherniak: Neglect and a woodpecker: Why I became an environmental engineer

Christopher Cherniak
Park Record contributor

When asked why I became an environmental engineer, I energetically reply: “New Jersey and the ivory-billed woodpecker, care to learn more?” No, they say, suddenly remembering a trans-continental flight they have to catch. Well, good news for you! You can read this while waiting at the gate!

I grew up in southern New Jersey in the 1960s, surrounded by the impacts and consequences of those industries, municipalities and individuals who neglected and abused the environment. The foul air from Philadelphia’s oil refineries, the polluted rivers and streams from untreated municipal sewage and the contaminated groundwater from unregulated pits and dumps; repositories for drums of industrial waste.

Hardly a summer went by without the periodic closure of local beaches from fish kills and high fecal coliform counts, or lakes closed to fishing from untreated wastewater and the resulting algal blooms. The final insult came around 1980 when the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency identified some 1,300 superfund sites around the country, 140 of them in New Jersey and five within 10 miles of my home.

Growing up in these conditions, I was drawn to the science of environmental systems, interested in understanding the physical, chemical and biological damage we inflicted upon them and how these ecosystems were able to absorb, adapt and, at times, heal themselves in spite of that harm.

I was also drawn to nature on an emotional level — birds in particular. Happily distracted by the finches, juncos, flickers and cardinals that would populate our backyard feeders during the winter. Most enjoyable were the evening grosbeaks, whose regal looks, colors and attitude would take over the feeder en masse and demand “sunflower seeds only, or we’re outta here!” Regal, but with a Jersey attitude.

This interest and attraction to the environment and nature set, I was shocked when I learned about the ivory-billed woodpecker. This woodpecker was the largest of its kind in North America, with a wingspan of almost 3 feet. A bird so spectacular that some locals referred to it as the “Lord God” bird, since those were the first words from their mouths when they first observed one.

Unlike the carrier pigeon and the Carolina parakeet, the IBW’s demise was not strictly by hunter and gun, but by loss of habitat, primarily the wholesale logging and clear cutting of the hardwood forests the bird called home throughout the southeastern U.S.

The ivory-billed woodpecker had very particular dietary and habitat requirements: mature and decaying hardwood trees and the beetles that lived in them. As a result, a single pair required some 10 square miles of forest to live and prosper. In the book “Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941” as reported by Audubon magazine, one logging manager suggested indifferently: “They ought to learn to feed on something different.”

It didn’t. Or maybe it was trying, but couldn’t do so fast enough. Efforts by scientists and conservationists during the ’20s and ’30s to slow and manage the clear cutting went unheeded by the logging company. Its populations declined steadily and the last official sighting of the bird was in the mid-1940s.

In all likelihood, the ivory-billed woodpecker is gone. I’ll never see one, you’ll never see one. One of the continent’s most iconic creatures driven to extinction because of indiscriminate logging and indifference towards the bird and its habitat.

I was 10 when I first read about this in “My Weekly Reader.” Shocked, I wrote a science paper and delivered it in front of my fourth-grade class with equal amounts anger, frustration and sniffles. My teacher later told me that she was impressed by my passion for the subject and that maybe protection of the environment might be my calling (teachers are amazing). Most of my buddies in class ribbed me for the remainder of the year for crying over some “stupid bird.”

But that passion and encouragement inspired me to begin reading more about the environment. First, every National Geographic I could find and eventually the classic books on the subject: “Silent Spring;” “A Sand Hill Almanac;” “The Snow Leopard;” and “Small is Beautiful.” I went on to obtain a degree in environmental engineering and have spent the last 35 years designing better wastewater treatment plants, remediating superfund sites and restoring wildlife habitat. It is a career I would not trade.

Kids today have equal reason to be frustrated and angry over our continuing indifference and neglect towards the environment, particularly with respect to climate change and how a warmer world is impacting animal habitat and biodiversity.

It’s nothing short of stunning that 50 years after my experience we find that 7.6 billion of us, and our overly consumptive attitudes and behaviors, are driving another form of extinction, this time of ourselves. I’m hopeful there’s a handful of fourth-graders out there who might be as frustrated and angry about this as I was at their age. We don’t have another 50 years, or anymore “stupid birds” to spare.

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