Archive for May, 2011

Essay: In the campsites and the trail, let nature’s sounds prevail

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Virtual natural environments and benefits to health

Public release date: 29-May-2011


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Contact: Andrew Gould
The Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry

A new position paper by researchers at the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health (ECEHH – part of the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry) and the University of Birmingham has compared the benefits of interaction with actual and virtual natural environments and concluded that the development of accurate simulations are likely to be beneficial to those who cannot interact with nature because of infirmity or other limitations: but virtual worlds are not a substitute for the real thing.

The paper includes details of an exciting project underway between the collaborating institutions to create virtual environments to help identify the clues and cues that we pick up when we spend time in nature.

The study is published in Environmental Science Technology on 1st June 2011.

The paper discusses the potential for natural and virtual environments in promoting improved human health and wellbeing.

We have all felt the benefit of spending time in natural environments, especially when we are feeling stressed or upset. The researchers describe creating virtual environments to try to identify just how this happens. It may be that the colours, sounds, and smells of nature are all important, but to different extents, in helping to provide mental restoration and motivation to be physically active.

It was recognised that, while some studies have tried to explore this notion, much of the work is anecdotal or involves small-scale studies which often lack appropriate controls or statistical robustness. However, the researchers do identify some studies, such as those relating to Attention Restoration Theory, that are valuable.

Key to the research is an exploration of the studies that showed a direct relationship between interaction with the natural environment and improvements in health, and the potential such activity has for becoming adopted by health services around the world to the benefit of both patients and budgets. For example, a study in Philadelphia suggested that maintaining city parks could achieve yearly savings of approximately $69.4 million in health care costs.

Programmes such as the Green Gym and the Blue Gym which promote, facilitate and encourage activity in the natural environment, are already laying the groundwork for workable programmes that could be adopted throughout the world to the benefit of human health. Research teams from the ECEHH are currently undertaking a range of studies to analyse the effects of interaction with the natural environment on health which in turn could lead to prescribing clinicians being able to treat patients with natural environment activity alone or in conjunction with reduced pharmaceutical solutions the beneficial effect on national health service drug bills around the world could be immense, and also help reduce the release of toxic pharmaceutical residues contained in sewage into our ecosystems.

The paper also examines how step-change developments in the technology used in computer-generated forms of reality means that the software and hardware required to access increasingly accurate simulated natural environments are more readily available to the general public than ever before.

In addition to recognising the value of better technology which includes the ability to synthesise smells – the review also recognised that key to the success of virtual environments is the design of appropriate and effective content based on knowledge of human behaviour.

Teams from the ECEHH and colleagues from the University of Birmingham, which include joint authors of the paper, have constructed the first two virtual restorative environments to support their experimental studies. This pilot study is based on the South Devon Coastal Path and Burrator Reservoir located within Dartmoor National Park, both within a short distance of the urban conurbation of Plymouth (UK).

Both natural environments are being recreated using Unity, a powerful game and interactive media development tool.

The research team is attempting to achieve a close match between the virtual and the real by importing Digital Terrain Model (DTM) data and aerial photographs into the Unity toolkit and combining this with natural features and manmade artefacts including wild flowers, trees, hedgerows, fences, seating benches and buildings. High-quality digital oceanic, coastal and birdsong sounds are also incorporated.

The pilot study, part of a Virtual Restorative Environment Therapy (VRET) initiative, is also supporting efforts to establish how psychological and physiological measurement can be used as part of a real-time biofeedback system to link participants’ arousal levels to features such as cloud cover, weather, wave strengths, ambient sounds and smells.

Professor Michael Depledge, Chair of Environment and Human Health at the ECEHH, commented: “Virtual environments could benefit the elderly or infirm within their homes are care units, and can be deployed within defence medical establishments to benefit those with physical and psychological trauma following operations in conflict zones. Looking ahead, the wellbeing of others removed from nature, such as submariners and astronauts confined for several months in their crafts, might also be enhanced. Once our research has been conducted and the appropriate software written, artificial environments are likely to become readily affordable and of widespread use to health services.”

He added: “However, we would not wish for the availability of virtual environments to become a substitute for the real thing in instances where accessibility to the real world is achievable. Our ongoing research with both the Green Gym and the Blue Gym initiatives aims to make these options a valid and straightforward choice for the majority of the population.”

Professor Bob Stone, Chair of Interactive Multimedia Systems at the University of Birmingham, and lead investigator, said: “This technology could be made available to anyone who, for whatever reason, is in hospital, bed-bound or cannot get outside. They will be able to get the benefits of the countryside and seaside by viewing the virtual scenario on screen.

“Patients will be free to choose areas that they want to spend time in; they can take a walk along coastal footpaths, sit on a beach, listen to the waves and birdsong, watch the sun go down and – in due course – even experience the smells of the land- and seascapes almost as if they were experiencing the outdoors for real.”

Professor Stone continued: “We are keen to understand what effect our virtual environments have on patients and will be carrying out further studies into arousal levels and reaction. In the summer we will start to test this on a large number of people so that we can measure biofeedback and make any changes or improvements to the scenario we have chosen.’”


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Palm Beach County budget cuts threaten popular nature centers

Budget cuts threaten to close or scale back operations at Palm Beach County‘s three nature centers, where children’s groups and retirees alike flock to see wading birds, alligators and other wildlife tucked among encroaching suburbia.

The survival of the nature centers is at risk because the county faces a more than $30 million shortfall blamed on the still-struggling economy and past county spending.

The parks department’s $55 million cost makes it one of the prime targets for cutbacks and the three nature centers — which total about $700,000 a year to operate — are on the list.

Budget cuts have already contributed to closing the nature centers on Saturdays, starting on Wednesday.

The looming changes have supporters of the Green Cay Nature Center, west of Boynton Beach, firing off emails to the Palm Beach County Commission calling for the board to spare the county’s most-visited nature center from further cutbacks.

The cutbacks are limiting educational programming at the nature center, Green Cay volunteer Gerry Weiss said.

“We are shorthanded now. The budget has restrained us,” Weiss said.

The county’s nature centers include Green Cay; Daggerwing, at the South County Regional Park west of Boca Raton; and Okeeheelee, at Okeeheelee Park west of West Palm Beach.

County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, who represents the area that includes Green Cay, said that while “everything is on the chopping block,” the nature center should be spared.

“Green Cay happens to be one of the jewels of the county,” Aaronson said. “It is something I will be fighting to keep.”

Green Cay was once farmland that the county bought in 1999 for $2.9 million and transformed into 100 acres of wetlands that now include a cypress swamp and tree-covered hammock islands.

Water is pumped in from a county wastewater plant and the submerged plants at Green Cay help soak up and filter out heavy nutrients, further cleaning the water that eventually mixes back in with the natural supply.

A guided tour of the 1.5-mile boardwalk trail allows visitors to get up-close looks at herons, Rosetta spoonbills and alligators that thrive in reconfigured terrain, made to look like what Palm Beach County once did before agriculture and development invaded.

Green Cay, which attracts about 500,000 visitors a year, has exhibits that show how Florida’s environment evolved over tens of thousands of years. It includes a frog terrarium, turtle pond and a display of baby alligators.

Fran Brehm is a frequent visitor, walking the boardwalk and watching movies at the nature center.

“It’s beautiful. That’s why I come here,” said Brehm, who lives near Green Cay. “Every day I see something different.”

The nature centers’ new hours will be on a Tuesday through Friday schedule. Okeeheelee and Daggerwing will be open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Green Cay will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

When the nature centers are closed, the public can still access the parks and nature trails seven days a week, from sunrise to sunset.

“I understand that cuts have to be made, but there has to be other areas,” Green Cay volunteer Edward Nemec wrote to county commissioners. “When I’m there during hours we are closed, almost without exception, every person [tries] to open the front door, which to our great shame, it is locked.”

The parks department has cut its budget 20 percent since 2007, Assistant Director Jennifer Cirillo said.

The county has been relying on nature center volunteers to pick up the duties of county positions left vacant due to past budget cuts, Cirillo said.

Eleven employees operate the three nature centers. Three naturalist positions remain vacant, limiting the centers abilities to produce educational programs.

“Anything we look at cutting … the public is going to begin to see the impacts,” Cirillo said. or 561-228-5504

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Natural Approach: Farm works with environment

April 28, 2011 – There is a natural approach every where Teri and Mike Gordon look on the Native Son Ranch in Whitewright. They have been concerned with conserving energy and partaking in only the most naturally-produced products they can find since they married.

“It has always been just the right thing to do, not to waste, not that we didn’t have the money to, but just not to waste it,” said Terry. “We moved to Australia for a few years and that just reinforced it since they live a lot more environmentally-friendly over there.”

It seemed like they just about had their ranch how they wanted it — producing 100 percent grassfed Angus cattle, using renewable wind energy through three wind turbines and really getting into natural horsemanship through Parelli practices.

In May 2006 a tornado demolished everything they had been working so hard to build. The storm took their home, shop, barn and arena, as well as some of their herd. In a short amount of time, they have been working to renew what they had and come back even stronger.

“There are two other wind turbines that have to be put back up after our little storm we had,” Mike said. “That will run the entire place, but my goal is to have a small bio-fuel station out here to make bio-fuel. Eventually we will probably get some solar, but solar panels are about three times the price of wind.”

Looking at the ranch now, someone not knowing what they had been through, might never realize how far they have come in such a short amount of time. But for the Gordons, there are still reminders scattered throughout the ranch. Bent metal from what used to be wind turbines, piles of rock that are all that remain of their former home and a tree that managed to survive the tornado.

The Gordons are not ones to dwell on the past ,and although the loss was devastating, Teri and Mike appreciate the opportunities that came out of losing everything. Mike’s family has always had cattle, but raising 100 percent natural grassfed Angus has been great for the Gordons and their friends. They now really appreciate their downsized herd and what it brings to the ranch.

“They are a pure breed, always known for good meat, so it just seemed right,” Mike said. “They were always known as the business breed and they have always been good to us. We started out with registered, we grew the herd registered. I like the medium frame, they are not hard on the fences, they are not hard on the pastures and they winter well.”

The cattle are strictly grassfed on what is now a mix of spring grasses and in the summer time there is some Johnsongrass.

“If it is a year where we run out, then we just have to buy it,” Teri said. “We have to search depending on the year, depending on whether it has been a good hay year or not, to find good hay.”

During the rebuilding of the ranch, the grassfed cattle business seemed to take a hit that the ranch is still reovering from.

“When the down turn came, we actually had a lot of need for custom beef,” Mike said. “But just as soon as that big down turn happened about two years ago, no one, no one called. They didn’t want the price, nothing. So we started downsizing, and then the last year because of the weather pattern (and obviously we use natural grass so we don’t use any fertilizer to speak of) the hay was no good.”

Making the commitment to raise 100 percent grassfed beef is hard enough without the realizations that it takes more time to raise to slaughter than a grain-fed cow and are more susceptible to the natural elements.

“You take a Charolais that is going to the feedlot and a guy that can go out here and put cubes on them and all that, they can have 1,000 pounds of beef in nine months,” Mike explained. “It takes us 18 to 24 months to get an Angus, on natural grass, to get to the size that they need to be for slaughter. So raising on natural grass you need to be in it for the long haul.”

“But it just worth it for your health,” Teri added. “A lot of the people that come out for the natural horsemanship and stuff they all eat organic so they love the grassfed beef.”

The Gordons have come to realize that part of the reason many decide they are not a fan of grassfed beef is because they don’t know how to prepare it.

“Sometimes you really have to educate people on how to prepare natural grassfed, cause it is not near as much marbling,” Mike said. “So like a well-done guy, he needs to go back to medium. Because what happens is they over-cook it. They burn it quick. They are like ‘that grassfed stuff is like Longhorn.’ So we have found to get someone’s heart in the grassfed industry most of the time give them hamburger. They can very rarely screw that up so they end up liking it.”

They are still implementing changes on the ranch to make it better and even more productive as they continue to rebuild. While it may look like a perfectly organized property, the Gordons cant help but look around and see dozens of things they still want to do.

“We are going to start aerating, we might go with some nitro fertilizers in the future if I can get some stew and things of that nature, composting,” Mike said. “But, basically we will be just like this for quite some time. I have got some natural fescue coming up down in the bottom. It is just a lot harder.”

To learn more about all they things the Gordons offer at the Native Son Ranch visit them at


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Nature-based Seneca Creek Charter School makes case to Montgomery County

The founders of the Seneca Creek Charter School hope a meeting they held Monday morning with Montgomery County Public Schools staff will lead to approval of the county’s first charter school.

The founding families want to open an environmentally based public charter school for kindergarten through eighth grade, where students will use nature and the community as a framework to construct their own learning, guided by teachers and administrators. The school, to be located in Germantown, would use the Environment as an Integrating Context Model, said Krisna Becker of Clarksburg, one of the founders.

The model was developed by the California-based State Education and Environment Roundtable in a collaborative effort of 12 state education departments, including Maryland.

The Maryland Board of Education awarded Seneca Creek a $550,000 start-up grant in March, contingent on the school receiving county approval.

The two-hour meeting with school system staff went well, Becker said.

“We thoroughly answered all of their questions, I believe, with seven minutes to spare,” she said.

The founders submitted a 600-page application before the meeting, Becker said. They will form the school’s governing board but it will be staffed with public school teachers.

“We’ve poured our hearts and souls into it for more than one year,” she said. “We look forward to working with MCPS.”

Charter schools are semi-independent schools within the public school system that can create their own mission statement and priorities. They also develop their own learning and teaching methods and staff development criteria. The schools must be nonprofit, nonreligious, nonsectarian and not based in a private home. Although they receive public money, they also can get money from private sources but cannot charge tuition, according to the school system.

Students take standardized assessment tests.

As an original member of the roundtable, the Maryland Department of Education participated in research to assess the efficacy of schools using the principles of the model.

Hollywood Elementary in St. Mary’s County reported in 1996 that after implementing the environment-based instructional practices, its state exam results were 16 percent higher than at other schools in St. Mary’s County, and 30 percent higher than in Maryland. In 1997, they were 27 percent higher than at other schools in the county, and 43 percent higher than in the state.

Founder Brooke Levey of Germantown taught teachers at the University of Nebraska how to integrate the environment into the curriculum before moving to Montgomery County 2.5 years ago. She is helping develop Seneca Creek’s curriculum.

Her oldest child is a third-grader at Waters Landing Elementary School in Germantown.

“It’s not that I think [Montgomery County Public Schools] is a bad system, I just want my kids to be able to go outside, not just learn about it from the textbook,” Levey said. “I want them to have the opportunity for hands-on experience.”

Becker plans to home school her 6-year-old daughter, Leah, next year in a cooperative arrangement with other potential Seneca Creek families.

Organizers plan to open Seneca Creek Charter School in fall 2012 with 102 students in kindergarten through fifth grade and expand to its full capacity of 150 students through eighth grade the following year, Becker said.

The integrated curriculum will teach math, science, social studies and reading in the natural environment, said founder Karen Accardi of Clarksburg. Founders say the studies-focused curriculum will enable students to become creative, thoughtful, successful and participatory members of society.

Accardi expects her 4-year-old to be in the first kindergarten class.

“I think Montgomery County has good schools and that’s a good thing,” she said. “We really are looking at something that fits in with our values.”

The school system unveiled new charter school regulations in February, days after the state school board told the county school board to reconsider its rejection of 2010 charter school applications from the two other groups, Global Garden Public Charter School in Wheaton or Kensington and Crossway Community in Kensington. The county also rejected an application to start the Jamie Esclante Public Charter School in Silver Spring in 1999.

Montgomery County has no charter schools and none have been approved. There are 49 charter schools in Maryland, mainly in Baltimore.

The school board will vote on the Seneca Creek application and revised Crossway Community application June 27, said Lori-Christina Webb, an executive director in Deputy Superintendent of Schools Frieda K. Lacey’s office who works with charter school applicants.

Global Garden did not submit a new application, she said.

Staff writer Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this report.

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County Digest

‘Mural in the Parks’ contest

The Department of Recreation Parks is sponsoring an art contest for youths ages 11-17. Contestants are to design a mural illustrating the department’s activities or programs — such as the environment and nature, sports, art, music, dance or even a favorite park facility. There will be one winner for each of the park locations. Winners will receive a $50 gift certificate that can be used for a future camp, class, league, program or amusement park ticket. Entry forms with contest rules are available at For more information, call Jennene Lausier at 410-313-1693. Entries should be mailed or dropped off at Recreation Parks’ Headquarters, Attention: Teen Division, 7120 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia 21046. Deadline is Wednesday, June 1.

Guided hikes

The Howard County Conservancy offers free guided hikes and talks on the second Saturday of the month. Visitors can enjoy an easy walk in the meadows and woods and along stream banks of the conservancy, 10520 Old Frederick Road in Woodstock. Information: 410-465-8877 or go to


The Howard County Arts Council seeks two volunteers to serve on the Baltimore City Arts Cultural grant review panel. Interested individuals should have expertise in science/history museums, aquariums, libraries or zoos. Attendance at a three- to four-hour meeting on June 15 is required. Send resume and letter of interest to Information:

Theater rental

The Howard County Arts Council has announced the availability of the Black Box Theatre for rental. It is a 98-seat multipurpose performance space and is equipped with professional sound and lighting equipment, nearby dressing rooms, padded seats, black stage curtains and a sprung dance floor. A performance grand piano is also available for rental through a separate agreement with the Howard County Music Teachers Association. All renters of the theater are required to carry a commercial liability insurance policy of $1 million. Other requirements and rental request forms and rates can be found at Rental request forms should be mailed to Room Rentals at the Howard County Arts Council, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City, 21043.

Flea market and book sale

Event takes place from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 11 at Shepherd of the Glen Lutheran Church, 14551 Burntwoods Road in Glenwood. Rain date is June 18. Tables available for $5 and spaces are free. Information: 410-489-0063.

Endowment fund

Howard County resident Elaine Ritchey has established the Arnold Braer and Maggie Endowment Fund, a donor-advised fund at the Columbia Foundation, that will support organizations dedicated to animal welfare. Fund is a memorial to her brother, Arnold Braer, who lived in Laurel, and his beagle, Maggie. The two died in November 2006. For more information about the Columbia Foundation, call 410-730-7840 or go to

Seeking committee members

The Slayton House Gallery seeks qualified individuals for the Slayton House Gallery Selection Committee. Applicants must have a background in the arts to be considered. Send resume to Bernice Kish, or Carole Black, This is a pro bono position. Deadline is June 15.

Boating season

The Department of Recreation and Parks has opened its newly renovated boat-launching ramp and fishing pier at Centennial Park. Located on the south side of the park, the ramp and pier improvements include an enlarged pier and an ADA-compliant walkway. The start of this year’s boating season, which normally begins March 1, was pushed back to April 22 because of the construction project. As a result, the cost of an annual boat permit has been reduced from $35 to $30. Permit is good for the entire season, which ends Nov. 30. Information: 410-313-7271 or

Vendors for Columbia International Day

The Columbia Association seeks vendors for the 17th annual Columbia International Day, 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, July 23, at the downtown Columbia lakefront. Columbia International Day highlights and celebrates the cultural and ethnic diversity that distinguishes Columbia from other communities. Free event features live music and entertainment representing a variety of cultures; international food and crafts vendors; children’s activities and more.

Applications are being accepted from vendors and artisans who would like to display or sell items with an international theme. There is a discounted rate for vendors who apply before June 2. For an application and more information, call 410-715-3161 or go to

Renovation project

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Real nature beats technological versions for human well-being

Washington, May 22 (ANI): A new study has argued that regardless of technological advancements, humans need exposure to the natural world in order to flourish.

“We’re losing not just nature but our interaction with it,” said Peter Kahn, a University of Washington associate professor of psychology.

Kahn describes his studies showing how substitutes for nature affect our physical and psychological well-being. He generally finds that while technological nature is better than no nature, it is not as good as the real outdoors and exposure to living beings.

Kahn emphasizes that humans are losing rich interactions with nature because we are quickly and pervasively degrading if not destroying large portions of nature, which are required for such interaction.”

It will only get worse through a condition he calls “environmental generational amnesia,” in which people consider the natural environment they encounter as children to be what’s normal. Eventually we consider a degraded, polluted environment to be the norm.

In a series of studies, Kahn investigated the health benefits of having a window-like display in offices. He found that participants with a wall-mounted plasma screen displaying a real-time outside nature view looked at the screen as often as participants who had a window with a real nature view looked out their windows.

But participants with the screen did not show the same decrease in heart rate after a mild stressor, indicating that a real window with a nature view can counteract stress.

“If you care about stress reduction, human well-being or human-flourishing, we need a direct connection with nature,” Kahn said.

The study has been published in Technological Nature. (ANI)

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