Electric buses, u-rent bicycles, and fish at the brink of extinction

Fellow SEJer and NPR reporter Karen Schaefer contemplates renting a bike to explore Chattanooga.I am returned home from a six-day conference, counting travel, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, during which I saw little of the city whilst I mingled with fellow recorders of “environmental” tales and observations. It was an informative sojourn, full of camaraderie and information, at least some of which we members of the Society of Environmental Journalists each hope will add value and color to our future musings.

But I was impressed, in what limited exposure I had, with the uncity-ness of the historic burg.

Electric shuttle buses, for instance, run from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and carried many of us silently between our hotels and attractions such as the Tennessee Aquarium, the latter designed by the same pens as created the marine-life showcase in Baltimore, Md.

I don’t remember what time I arrived at the aquarium, but I took my usual slow walk among the levels and by the time I was ready to leave the clock had passed 11, so I walked the seven blocks to my bed.

One of the aquarium’s attractions causing my delay was Matt Hamilton, 20-year-old assistant curator of fishes, whose primary love is bringing back the Barrens Topminnow from the edge of extinction. The little guys, named for the Barrens Plateau of middle Tennessee, normally live at the headwaters of streams, where the water pops out of the ground and begins its downhill run to the ocean.

But humans, in their early 1900s quest to reduce the mosquito population, introduced the Mosquitofish, a carnivorous beast with a hunger that included not only those pesky insects with the painfully prominent probiscus, but the young of the Barrens Topminnow. Add the encroachment of humans themselves, and a little drought, and the minnow nearly expired.

Hamilton, who learned to fish from his father, and about fish at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and an internship at the Chattanooga aquarium, is bringing back the minnow, with some financial aid from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a few other conservation organizations.

Unfortunately, when I and the other members of the SEJ visited, the USF&W was closed. The resulting funding cut may change Hamilton’s fish-raising schedule.

The finned critters normally are released at about 30 millimeters (a bit over an inch), age about three to nine months, but many may have to be released early as Hamilton tries to maintain the health of the population swimming and growing in the multitude of tanks in his laboratory.

Still, Hamilton, only recently promoted to his present position, loves his work at the Tennessee Aquarium.

“My kids don’t go hungry and I go home with s a smile on my face,” he said.

As I headed back to my bed, I was conscious of being a stranger in town. I know I looked like a tourist – we dress slightly nicer than if we live where we’re walking, and we’re constantly looking in shop windows. But people I passed along the way were most always equipped with a friendly hello, including the bus driver who wasn’t going my way but was ready with instructions as to which way was my way.

And I came back with an idea for some entrepreneur in my home town – rental bicycles. Not rentals you must go to the bike owner’s shop to find, but street corner stands where a credit card can unlock a ride around the city, to another bike rack on another street corner.

And when you are done shopping or sightseeing, you pick up another bike, “as many times as you like during your 24-hour Access Pass period.” The $6 Access Pass is good for 24 hours.

I think I’d like to go back to Chattanooga and ride a couple of those distinctive bi-wheeled transporters around some of the bridges, riversides and other attractions about which I only got to read last week.

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