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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

July 28, 2000

Air Date: July 28, 2000


EPA Investigates Itself

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating why its officials never followed up on a 1982 study which found high levels of asbestos in one Montana mine’s vermiculite, an ingredient in home insulation and construction products. Diane Toomey speaks with Adrianne Appel, a freelance reporter who has been following the story for the New York Times. (05:55)

Killer Algae / Erik Anderson

Researchers have discovered a stealth invader off the coast of San Diego: non-native algae that grows so fast it can muscle out most other plant species. It’s already wreaked environmental havoc in the Mediterranean. But as Erik Anderson reports, California scientists hope to eradicate the weed before it has a chance to do serious harm in their territory. (05:50)

Health Update / Maggie Villiger

Maggie Villiger reports that the herbal supplement ginkgo biloba may be able to treat altitude sickness. (00:59)

Birds and Beethoven / Lauren Gravitz

Lauren Gravitz profiles Luis Baptista, the world-renowned ornithologist who died last month. With plenty of evidence from both the human and avian worlds, Dr. Baptista illustrates his theory that birds and people create music in a similar fashion. (08:15)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about lunar gardening. The ancient practice holds that different plants grow best at varying points in the lunar cycle. (01:30)

A Green SUV?

The Ford Motor Company recently announced that it will increase the fuel efficiency of its sport utility vehicle fleet over the next five years. Detroit Free Press reporter Emilia Askari joins host Diane Toomey to discuss this decision. (05:15)

Technology Update / Cynthia Graber

Cynthia Graber reports on a new test that will reveal if rats or mice are hiding nearby. (00:59)

Yes Trespassing / Linda Anderson

You won’t run across a ‘Keep Out’ sign in Sweden; even private property there is open for general use. Linda Anderson explores the Swedish “Right of Public Access.” (05:00)

Moose Mania / Steve Curwood

Living On Earth’s Steve Curwood takes a journey into the Maine woods with moose-lover and wildlife photographer Bill Silliker. (12:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Diane Toomey
REPORTERS: Erik Anderson, Lauren Gravitz, Linda Anderson, Steve Curwood
UPDATES: Maggie Villiger, Cynthia Graber
GUESTS: Adrianne Appel, Emilia Askari


(Theme music intro)

TOOMEY: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

TOOMEY: I'm Diane Toomey.

Eighteen years ago a study by the Environmental Protection Agency showed dangerously high levels of asbestos in ore used to make building products like insulation. But officials ignored the report, and now the EPA is investigating itself to find out what went wrong.

APPEL: Looking at the data it would have been obvious at that point that people were sick who were working with this product for any length of time. But the EPA never followed through.

TOOMEY: Also, is Belafonte for the birds? We remember an ornithologist who helped us see the musical connection between birds and people.


BAPTISTA: You recognize that? That's from a calypso. It was right in the middle of a German forest, way in the middle of nowhere, and this bird comes out with a calypso.

TOOMEY: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. First, news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

EPA Investigates Itself

TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Last year the town of Libby, Montana, made headlines when high rates of lung cancer there were traced to a local mining operation. For years the W.R. Grace company had mined for vermiculite, a material used in insulation. Vermiculite itself is harmless, but is often found mixed with asbestos, a potent carcinogen. Then came the revelation that 18 years ago the Environmental Protection Agency suspected the tainted vermiculite posed a danger, after vermiculite workers began to get sick. The agency prepared a report in 1982 but never released it to the public, and the study was shelved before any safety recommendations were made. Freelance reporter Adrianne Appel has been covering the story for the New York Times, along with colleague Michael Moss. Adrianne, what exactly did the EPA find when it first investigated the Grace mine?

APPEL: They did find that it appeared that there are high amounts of asbestos, up to 21 to 26 percent in the raw ore coming out of the ground. That was far higher than Grace had reported earlier. And at that point the EPA talked about doing other studies, looking at what would happen to it as it was processed. And what happened to the asbestos in the processing plants. But for reasons that are lost to time at this point, that part of the study was dropped, and the EPA never followed through.

TOOMEY: So the EPA gathers this information that there was a higher level of asbestos than there should have been in this particular vermiculite. But then they drop the ball and they do nothing with this information. What was going on at the EPA that that happened?

APPEL: Some people at the EPA who I've spoken to, who are involved in these studies, say that there was pressure at that point to move on, to look at other toxins in the environment, such as dioxin. They moved on.

TOOMEY: So it was simply a matter of priority, some of those are saying.

APPEL: Exactly. But it doesn't make sense. Looking at the data it would have been obvious at that point that people were sick who were working with this product for any length of time. And also, it can't be overlooked that J. Peter Grace of the W.R. Grace company had been appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1982 to head up the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control, otherwise known as the Grace Commission. The purpose of the commission supposedly was to cut waste and abuse within the government. But the commission, when it came out with its more than 2,000 recommendations, it was obvious that many of them included policy recommendations. Some that would have dismantled parts of the EPA.

TOOMEY: So, can we connect the dots between what was going on with this commission and what wasn't going on with the investigation of the mining operation?

APPEL: That's an open question.

TOOMEY: While this EPA investigation is going on in the 80s, what is Grace saying about its own product internally?

APPEL: There was a small circle of executives who knew that there was asbestos in the products, and they were very concerned about government regulators. Very concerned about liability if it should be made public that their products had asbestos possibly in amounts that could harm people. Publicly, they maintained at times that there was no asbestos in their products, and/or that the amount of asbestos was very, very, very small. In 1983 a customer who had bought some of Grace's products wrote to the company and asked, point blank, are these products carcinogenic? Well, Grace writes back, "There is no significant exposure to cancer-causing materials in the use of these products. However, both may be slightly dusty, and you should avoid breathing this or any dust if you can."

TOOMEY: So are they directly disputing the EPA results?

APPEL: Grace has not disputed the EPA's results. The company has simply said that our results were different.

TOOMEY: Of course, there's a controversy regarding how one measures asbestos, isn't there?

APPEL: Yes, but at the same time there were workers in the 1960s who were ill with asbestos, and the W.R. Grace Company knew that. They were taking X-rays of their employees, and the executives at the W.R. Grace Company knew that a certain percentage of their employees would become ill with asbestos and lung cancer.

TOOMEY: Though I suppose the company would say well, we're removing, in the processing of this vermiculite, a good portion of the asbestos. So by the time Joe Homeowner is handling the material, and he's only handling the material for a limited amount of time, it's safe.

APPEL: That is their defense, but these products were largely unstudied. And it's unknown territory.

TOOMEY: So, as the EPA investigates this, and followed the paper trail, and tries to figure out what happened a couple of decades ago, in the meantime there is about a million homes, I believe, that contain this asbestos-tainted vermiculite. So what's a homeowner to do at this point?

APPEL: The EPA is telling homeowners who think that they have this Zonolite attic insulation in their homes, either in their attic or behind the walls of their house, to have it tested if they are very concerned about it. But also to hold off on any renovation of their homes until it's ascertained just how much asbestos is in this product. But also how dangerous this product really is.

TOOMEY: Adrianne Appel is a freelance reporter who's been following this story for the New York Times. Adrianne, thanks for joining us today.

APPEL: Thank you very much.

Back to top


Killer Algae

TOOMEY: Biologists in Southern California hope quick action will help wipe out an aggressive algae that's threatening the region's coastal ecosystem. The underwater plants, a popular decoration for home aquariums, was recently discovered in a San Diego County saltwater lagoon. Left unchecked, biologists say the algae could devastate the native plant and animal life there. From member station KPBS in San Diego, Erik Anderson reports.


ANDERSON: A battle is being waged in a large saltwater lagoon in San Diego County. The enemy is a biological bulldozer, a quick-growing single-celled algae that threatens to overwhelm native underwater plants. Agua Hedionda is a sheltered body of water that snakes inland from the ocean. Although it's surrounded by homes and straddled by the always busy Interstate 5, the lagoon is a biological smorgasbord. Its muddy coast is alive with tiny bugs, worms, and plants. Birds flock here to eat, rest, and raise their young. Underwater, biologist Adam Bailey says delicate eel grass serves as the foundation for a complex food web that nurtures sea bass, halibut, and even lobsters.

BAILEY: A lot of the water depth is only about six feet or so. And if you hover right around three feet, you have to kind of swim through the eel grass and part it as you go. You see the sediment below you and you see just the water column on top of you with all the fish nibbling and eating and feeding.

ANDERSON: But in June, divers noticed something new. An eel grass in the western part of the lagoon had changed. Instead of the wavy four-foot-tall grass, a huge patch of the muddy floor was carpeted with a short, dense, fluorescent green plant. Divers bagged a portion of the weed and brought it to biologist Rachel Woodfield.

WOODFIELD: I definitely did not recognize it as anything I'd ever seen before. And knew there was probably a problem with it.

ANDERSON: Woodfield dragged out an old biology text. The plant found in the lagoon looked like an algae common to warmer tropical waters: Caulerpa taxifolia.

WOODFIELD: It's got a lot of different shapes on it. It's got a stem, and it's got a frond, and it's got these sort of, they're not real true roots, but they sort of look like roots. And a real complex structure.

ANDERSON: Southern California waters should be too cold for Caulerpa. The plant is indigenous to tropical waters, but Woodfield knew that a similar plant had invaded the northern Mediterranean. So she logged onto the Internet looking for more information.

WOODFIELD: Sure enough, as the picture unrolls on the screen, it's like holy cow, this is what we've got. We are potentially in some really big trouble here, and it took a while for the alarm to really set in of the potential for what could happen.

ANDERSON: Caulerpa's devastating potential has already been realized in the Mediterranean. Since a three-square-meter patch was discovered off the coast of Monaco in 1984, the plant's territory has grown exponentially. It now covers 10,000 square meters of underwater habitat from Spain to Croatia, and it continues to expand. Most of the other plants are simply overrun by the fast-growing fronds. And to make matters worse, the weed contains a chemical that repels other sea creatures. The end result is an underwater landscape dominated by Caulerpa. Efforts to contain Caulerpa so far have proven fruitless in the Mediterranean. Divers have tried vacuuming it off the ocean bottom, but it grows back. Chemical treatments have had a minimal impact. Even cutting off sunlight failed to control Caulerpa's explosive growth. That scares California biologists like National Marine Fisheries service scientist Bob Hoffman.

HOFFMAN: An uncontrolled beast is what it is, that just -- I mean, it's one of those science fiction B-movies, where this blob just expands uncontrollably. And that's what exactly this thing does.

ANDERSON: Hoffman says the plant probably got a foothold in the water thanks to a saltwater aquarium. He speculates someone either dumped a tank directly into the lagoon or cleaned out their aquarium in their back yard, near a storm drain that feeds into the body of water. California officials hope quick action keeps this from becoming a disaster. A number of federal, state, and local agencies are already working together to eliminate the invader. That's a good sign for University of Tennessee biologist Dan Simberloff. He was part of the team that last year convinced federal officials to ban the plant in the United States.

SIMBERLOFF: The fact that it appears so far to be restricted to this lagoon suggests to me that it could quite possibly be eradicated. I'm convinced it could have been eradicated in the northwest Mediterranean, but the French government botched it. They refused to try. No agency would take responsibility for the attempt, and so it grew and grew and grew. Now it's so large they can't remove it.

ANDERSON: Because the plant reproduces by breaking off and drifting to new locations, divers have encircled a half-acre section of the lagoon basin. Buoys hold up a huge underwater silk net that isolates the weed. Biologist Rachel Woodfield, meanwhile, has tested a number of different algaecides on Caulerpa and found that chlorine kills it. She plans to first cover the weed with heavy plastic tarps weighted down with steel rods and rocks. Woodfield hopes that will protect other plants and animals. Then divers will treat the area underneath the cover.

WOODFIELD: Now we need to figure out how best to apply it. So we're trying squirting it as a liquid, containing it as a solid, that kind of thing.

ANDERSON: Local officials are optimistic the eradication effort will work. But they also say that won't end the Caulerpa threat along the California coast. While this outbreak occurred in a sheltered San Diego lagoon and was noticed quickly, the next may happen in the open ocean. That would make control a much more difficult proposition. For Living on Earth, I'm Erik Anderson in San Diego.

Back to top

(Surf up and under)

TOOMEY: Just ahead: A man who hears the bird song in Beethoven. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental health update with Maggie Villiger.

(Music up and under)

Health Update

VILLIGER: Planning a mountain trek? Maybe you should grab some gingko before you go. The popular herbal supplement may prevent altitude sickness, according to researchers from the Wilderness Medical Society. The nausea, dizziness, and fatigue of altitude sickness are the body's response to lower oxygen levels at high elevations. Many travelers don't have time to acclimate, and commonly-used drugs have nasty side effects. Gingko biloba may be able to help. In this recent study, 21 people took the herb for five days before their climb. For comparison, another group took a placebo. Then everyone drove almost 10,000 feet up Pike's Peak in Colorado. Those who took gingko were only half as likely to feel ill as those who didn't. While scientists don't yet understand how gingko biloba might combat altitude sickness, the results were encouraging enough to repeat the study, now in the slightly warmer climes of Hawaii. And that's this week's health update. I'm Maggie Villiger.

Back to top

TOOMEY: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Birds and Beethoven

TOOMEY: When Dr. Luis Baptista died last month at 58, the world of ornithology lost a prolific and enthusiastic leader. Dr. Baptista worked at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and devoted his life to the study of bird dialects and vocalizations. He could identify the call of any bird in Golden Gate Park, as well as imitate the dialects of birds from around the world. Dr. Baptista's pioneering work was in bioacoustics, the study of vocal communication in animals. But he was also a great lover of classical music, and it wasn't long before he began to find incredible similarities between the two. Lauren Gravitz has this appreciation of a remarkable man and his unusual work.

GRAVITZ: Luis Baptista was a child when he started going to the Chinese tea houses of Macau. There, on the top floor, he would sit and listen to the birds sing. During the week, he attended Catholic school where he often memorized and sang passages from liturgies. So it was not surprising when he began to listen closely to the music of birds. Shortly before he died, I spoke with Dr. Baptista about the connection between music and bird song. He said there are many places where the two converge. For example, in the song of the Socorro mockingbird. The birds live in a rainforest on a small Pacific island, and they sing in canons, musical passages that use strict imitation. When one Socorro mockingbird sings a phrase, another bird repeats it. According to Dr. Baptista, this could go on for hours.

(Bird song)

BAPTISTA: That's one bird. Can you hear the other one answering? The exact same theme.

(Bird song)

GRAVITZ: But mockingbirds are only the beginning. When he was a graduate student in Germany, Dr. Baptista often heard blackbirds whistling familiar tunes.

BAPTISTA: I remember I was walking with a lady through the forest, and we both heard the blackbird go (whistles). You recognize that? That's from a calypso. It was right in the middle of a German forest, way in the middle of nowhere, and this bird comes out with a calypso.

GRAVITZ: There's more. In the rainforest of Chiapas, Mexico, he heard the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony coming from a white-breasted wood wren.

(Wood wren sings, followed by the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth)

GRAVITZ: But Beethoven's home in Vienna was thousands of miles away from Chiapas, and the German forest quite a distance from where Harry Belafonte wrote his calypso songs. So how did Dr. Baptista explain these similarities?

BAPTISTA: If you have two creatures, let's say in this case birds and humans, that compose music in the diatonic scale, which is the scale of Western music, there are only so many notes in the scale. So after a while you have to converge. And in fact, if you listen to works of the great composers, you always hear snippets that remind you of another composer's work. It could be a very short phrase of three or four, five notes, and that's exactly what the birds have been doing. It's three, four, five notes that remind us of familiar pieces in Western music.

(Beethoven continues)

GRAVITZ: Another similarity, however, may not be explained quite so easily. Some of the birds Luis Baptista studied sing in sonata form. Sonatas, like the kind Beethoven was known for, have an A-B-A arrangement. In other words, they consist of three parts: a melody or theme, a variation on the theme, and then an echo of the original melody. But again, the question becomes how? How is it that birds and humans do the same thing?

BAPTISTA: Birds sing songs, and they put variations in the song. And the reasons for putting variations in a song, of course, is because birds, like humans, habituate. They get bored with monotony. And therefore you have to keep the interest of your listener, in this case the female I suppose, by continually introducing novel things, novelty. But the psychologists tells us that you can't continue putting in novelty, because after a while the brain goes into some kind of fatigue. So you have to come back to an original reference point, an original theme, to prevent this psychological fatigue of sustained effort.

GRAVITZ: So, neurologically speaking, birds and humans need the same thing in their music: variation and repetition. Dr. Irene Pepperberg is a specialist in avian cognition and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She says the parallels between human song and bird song don't surprise her.

PEPPERBERG: When we look in terms of responses to tonal patterns, and responses to the way tonal patterns are used, we see striking parallels, from everything in birds to their territorial defense, mate attraction, to the way humans use war songs and love songs and things like that. Is it a definite brain structure that carries across? Probably not. But it's the idea of this almost limbic response that we have suggests that there are basic areas in the brain that respond to these things.

TRAMO: At a first pass, obviously, our brains are so different from bird brains that trying to understand the brain mechanisms in birds and make analogies to humans seems almost impossible

GRAVITZ: Dr. Mark Tramo is an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and a professional musician.

TRAMO: But in fact, when one looks at the particular brain structures that are involved in vocal communication, one can begin to draw important analogies.

GRAVITZ: One of the examples Dr. Tramo points to is how hearing something can lead to the ability to produce that sound. Understanding this in a bird's brain can help researchers understand it in the human brain. But Dr. Baptista had hoped to do even more with his bird song research. By exposing others to the bird song in music, he wanted to give them a deeper appreciation for the birds he loved. And by doing so, help save them. One species he pointed to was the endangered European quail, a bird he grew to know while living in Germany.

BAPTISTA: In the village where I lived, that was called Merginhan, there were quail right there in a little meadow right next door. Every evening as I walked home from my office, on the top of a hill, through this meadow, I would hear the quail giving the dick-ta-dick.

(Quail call)

GRAVITZ: This dick-ta-dick of the quail makes an appearance in the second movement of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.

(A flute enters)

GRAVITZ: The movement ends with a distinct trio of instruments: a flute, an oboe, and a clarinet. The flute imitates the song of a bird called a yellowhammer. The clarinet is a cuckoo. And the oboe plays three notes, all in one tone, that dick-ta-dick of a quail.

(Passage from Beethoven's Sixth and quail call)

GRAVITZ: Earlier this year, Dr. Baptista and some of his colleagues gathered in Washington as part of the BIOMUSIC symposium. Their goal: to examine the nature of music and the place of music in nature. The group of scientists and musicians hopes to teach people about endangered birds, and the music the birds inspired, in order to raise awareness of environmental issues.

BAPTISTA: It's easy to get kids interested in music. Music is the easiest thing. But if you could combine an interest of music and going out into nature, seeing where some of the motifs of this music is derived, then this could be a tool to create awareness of the environment, and therefore a tool to promote a program to save what's left of our environment.

GRAVITZ: Before he died, Luis Baptista was heavily involved in conservation efforts. He was working with other scientists and the Mexican government to reintroduce a species of dove back to Socorro Island, where the wild population had been driven to extinction. He leaves in his wake many colleagues who are prepared to continue where he left off.

(Bird song and Beethoven's Fifth)

GRAVITZ: For Living on Earth, I'm Lauren Gravitz.

Back to top

(Beethoven's Fifth continues, up and under.)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science and the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Surdna Foundation; and the Ford Foundation, striving to preserve our ecological values.

(Beethoven's Fifth continues, up and under.)

TOOMEY: You're listening to Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. Coming up: This land is your land, this land is my land. We visit the Swedish countryside, where that idea isn't just a song. It's an ancient custom. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


The Living on Earth Almanac

TOOMEY: Look up in the night sky this week and you won't see much moonshine. That's because it's the beginning of a new moon, a phase when the moon is almost directly between the sun and the earth and mostly hidden in shadow. Now, you wouldn't think this information would be important to a gardener, and usually you'd be right. But some gardeners use the lunar cycle to decide what to plant, and when. The theory goes that different plants respond to different amounts of light. The practice isn't new. The ancient Romans, the Celts, and the Maori in New Zealand, all planted by the lunar cycle, regarding the moon as a protector of their crops. Today, lunar gardening has become a science for some, who believe that plants growing above-ground, like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, usually flower best when there's more night light. Those that grow below-ground, like potatoes, onions, and turnips, can sprout with less. Whether lunar gardening actually works is still up for debate, but some theories involve the forces of gravity, light, and magnetism. In recent years moon gardens of another sort have taken root. These decorative plots are designed to look their best in the bright lunar light. Night bloomers, like moon flowers and angel's trumpets, are popular choices. They blossom like any other flower, but only after the sun goes down. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

A Green SUV?

TOOMEY: It’s Living On Earth, I’m Diane Toomey. There are some changes ahead for that most American of vehicles, the SUV.

NASSER: The reason we feel so strongly about it is not because we woke up one morning and decided this was just a great thing to do. We fundamentally believe that this is what customers want, this is market driven - and it is based on the premise of this is good business.

TOOMEY: That's Jacque Nasser, President and CEO of the Ford Motor Company announcing Ford’s plan to increase the fuel efficiency of its sport utility vehicles by 25 percent over the next five years. Since their introduction, SUVs have been the target of criticism from environmental groups because of their low gas mileage. Emilia Askari is a reporter for the Detroit Free Press who’s been following the story. Emilia, environmental groups are for the most part pleased with this decision, but, as we just heard, Ford CEO Jacques Nasser makes no bones about the fact that this decision was not environmentally motivated, it was based on market forces, just a simple case of giving the American people what they want. What’s your take on that?

ASKARI: Well I think he’s right. They have some new market research at Ford showing that people are looking at how much it costs to fill the gasoline tanks of these large SUVs when they are shopping for them. So, increasing the mileage will make the SUVs more appealing, especially this summer with the price of gasoline so high. Increasing the mileage of the SUVs will help sell them. In addition, however, I think that Nasser was very careful not to mention the E word, environment, because the company really got hammered earlier this year by some stock analysts who were concerned about remarks that its chairman, William Clay Ford Jr. made about the environment. He basically acknowledged that he’s an environmentalist and SUVs are not good for the environment, and that gave some investors the jitters.

TOOMEY: Well at the same time that Bill Ford is saying he is an environmentalist and he’s angst-filled because of the SUVs that his company is selling, that company is lobbying against the tightening of federal fuel efficiency standards.

ASKARI: Absolutely, Ford has been right in there with all the other auto companies for many years lobbying hard against the federal fuel efficiency standards known as CAFE. And in fact those standards haven’t increased for many years. There’s a big difference, Diane, between being forced to do something and voluntarily doing it, on your own time, in your own way. And part of the difference also is PR. It’s a lot better PR to say, "Hey, look at me, this is what we’re doing," rather than to be forced by the government to do something.

TOOMEY: Well, speaking of PR then, will other American car companies be pressured to follow suit now?

ASKARI: Yes, I think they will be. And Ford’s announcement is not the only thing that is putting the pressure on. The Japanese auto makers are going to start building SUVs in the United States, very soon. And their SUVs, many of them, will be based on a sedan frame instead of on the pickup frame that has been very popular with the American auto makers when they are building SUVs. So those sedan frames are a lot lighter than the pickup frames and they will have better mileage. And the American auto-makers are going to have to compete with that.

TOOMEY: Technically, how is this jump in fuel efficiency going to be made?

ASKARI: Well, there’s no one big breakthrough, Diane. It’s more a series of changes that they’re going to make. First they’ll look at lightening the frame of the SUV, probably by using a lot more aluminum. And then they’ll look at improving the engines. Most of these changes have been technically feasible for a long time, but they’re expensive. And environmentalists have long said that SUVs could be more efficient than they have been, that it was just a matter of will. And in fact this announcement proves them right.

TOOMEY: From the viewpoint of environmental groups, isn’t this just a case of taking a bad situation–meaning the notoriously low gas mileage these SUVs get–and making it only slightly less bad?

ASKARI: Yes, that’s right. A twenty five percent reduction in mileage only amounts to about five miles per gallon. And that’s a fleet average, Diane. That’s not saying that each model of SUV is going to be more efficient by twenty five percent, by five miles per gallon. In fact, Ford invented SUVs, and it makes the very largest SUV, the Excursion, which only gets about 13 miles per gallon on the highway. I wouldn’t expect to see that Excursion to increase it’s mileage by five miles per gallon in five years. That would be a very huge jump.

TOOMEY: Emilia Askari reports about the environment for the Detroit Free Press. Emilia, thanks for joining us today.

ASKARI: You’re welcome.

Back to top

TOOMEY: Coming up: Moose on the loose: a trip into the backcountry of Maine with a very brave photographer. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

Now this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

Technology Update

GRABER: Soon there may be nowhere to hide, if you're a rodent. Most people don't like the thought of sharing living space with mice and rats. They leave droppings and trails of urine, and the animals are known to carry such infamous diseases as the hanta virus and the bubonic plague. But sometimes these creatures are not so easy to spot. So scientists in England have developed a test that can detect the presence of rats or mice even if there are no visible signs. It works sort of like a home pregnancy test. Here's how: In order to tell each other who's around, rodents put down a scent glued together by proteins. The new test uses antibodies that change color in the presence of the rodent proteins. In experiments, areas exposed to the pitter-patter of little mice feet showed a trail of purply blue paw prints. By using the new test, anyone on the lookout would know if there are rodents around, how they sneaked in, and where they're hiding. That's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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TOOMEY: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. CDs, tapes and transcripts are $15.

Yes Trespassing

(Partial funding for this story came from the American-Scandinavian Foundation.)

TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey.

No Trespassing signs are a common sight in the United States. Bold, red, yellow, or orange posted notices divert people away from private property. But in Sweden you'll never see a No Trespassing sign. Instead, there's an open invitation to use the land, and that includes private property. As Linda Anderson explains, it's all part of Sweden's heritage of access to the countryside.

(Footfalls, voices, berries spilling into a wooden bucket)

ANDERSON: In northern Sweden, the lingonberries are ripe, and Swedes who love this tart, red berry make pilgrimages to find them.

(More spilling)

ANDERSON: Heli Parkkila and her boyfriend have just driven eight hours from Stockholm. And now, buckets in hand, they search the woods until they find a spot so loaded with lingonberries they cover the ground like thousands of spilled rubies.

(More spilling)

ANDERSON: Heli has no idea whose property this is. And as she fills her buckets, she says it doesn't matter.

PARKKILA: We have something really special here. And you can just walk around in the woods and pick berries and mushrooms and whatever you want to.


ANDERSON: In Sweden, anyone can enjoy the pleasures of the countryside. It's an ancient entitlement known as Allemansratten, or the right of public access.

ZETTERSEN: This is not a law. This is a custom.

ANDERSON: Gunnar Zettersen is with the natural resources department at Sweden's Environmental Protection Agency.

ZETTERSEN: The Swedish Allemansratten is a custom from older days, and it's not written in the law. So you can't go to the law book and read exactly what is the possibilities, was it right or wrong?

ANDERSON: Mr. Zettersen says the custom began hundreds of years ago. If people traveling the countryside were in need of collecting food to survive or feeding their horses, access to the land was theirs.

ZETTERSEN: But nowadays, of course, people don't have to go on others' property for survival any more. Now it's more for enjoyment, for recreation.

ANDERSON: As long as you don't disturb or destroy property, Gunnar Zettersen says you may roam freely in any woods, fields, or beaches. You may swim and boat anywhere if you keep a respectful distance from dwellings. And as long as you don't interfere with farming, you may pitch a tent for a day or two. Horseback riding is allowed, and well-behaved pets are welcome. But no motorized vehicles, and no hunting without permission. You may not cut down trees or harvest nuts, but you may collect flowers, mushrooms, and, like Heli Parkkila, berries.

(Berries spill into a bucket)

PARKKILA: When I come home I think I'm going to make some ja. It's like a sauce. And you eat it with meatballs and potatoes. It's really good.

(Spilling continues)

ANDERSON: Heli could even sell the berries if she wished. And guides can bring customers onto private land to birdwatch, canoe, or hike. Since there are no laws to govern Allemansratten, Gunnar Zettersen says its existence is dependent on personal judgment.

ZETTERSEN: You have to have consideration, and think about how should I like people coming to my property? You are a guest in the nature. You are a guest to the animals and the human beings' property. You don't disturb and you don't spoil anything, and be careful.

ANDERSON: On occasion, disputes do arise and must be settled in court. But Mr. Zettersen says a recent study by the Swedish EPA found destructive behavior rare. And while some landowners try to keep travelers off their property, most, like Ingalill Axelsson, recognize their unique responsibility.

AXELSSON: [Speaks in Swedish]

TRANSLATOR: I'm very proud of Allemansratten. It is something found nowhere else in the world. I myself have a little island in Stockholm's archipelago, pretty far out to sea, a wonderful little summer paradise. And I have to say, if someone comes there I would be the last to tell them to leave.

ANDERSON: Roughly the size of California, Sweden has more than 90,000 lakes, and more than two thirds of its land is forested. And with only eight and a half million people, outdoor recreation in Sweden, though popular, does not constitute a serious threat to the environment and its biological diversity. To keep it that way, the Swedish EPA distributes pamphlets on the rights and wrongs of public access in Sweden. And it's an integral part of the nation's school curriculum. As the agency's Gunnar Zettersen puts it, use it or lose it.

ZETTERSEN: Because this is a custom. If you don't, this custom will disappear in 50 years or more. You must keep it alive, otherwise it will die.

(Berries spill into a bucket)

ANDERSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Linda Anderson.

Back to top

(Spilling continues up and under)

Moose Mania

TOOMEY: Photographer Bill Silliker is a man obsessed. As these things go, it could be worse. He's obsessed with moose, those lanky, prehistoric-looking creatures with big lips and bad eyesight. Lucky for us, Bill likes to share his obsession with others, and he offered to give us a tour of Maine's north woods, where we'd meet some moose. On a road near Mt. Katahdin, Living on Earth's Steve Curwood saw why Maine is called moose country.

(A vehicle on the road)

SILLIKER: See where those cars are stopped?


SILLIKER: I'll bet you there's a moose down there.

CURWOOD: It's getting dark. Dinnertime at what locals call the salad bar for moose. Along a paved logging road close to the park.

SILLIKER: I think we've got three moose here, and they're munching. One of them is a pretty good-sized bull. Decent. Not big, not that big. Youngster. Four moose. Hey, the guys are all hanging out here. We could pull right over there on that side, and I might even set up a camera, though there's not much light. This guy's a decent bull right here. Look at the rack on this guy. He's just growing his antlers for the year, and by the fall he'll have that hardened bone. Right now they're in what they call velvet. It's blood vessel-laden tissue.

(Door opens)

SILLIKER: Why don't we get out and hear some moose?

(Door shuts, distant peeping, footfalls)

CURWOOD: Vegetation here is loaded with salt. It's a taste delight for bull moose.

(Footfalls, peeping)

CURWOOD: Across the road near a small pond, there's another moose all alone. Smaller than the others and surprisingly shy. It moves away as we approach.


SILLIKER: Hi. We just want to hear you eat your dinner. We're just here to watch you.

CURWOOD: It's a boy moose, a girl moose?

SILLIKER: A little boy moose. He's a yearling.

CURWOOD: And why is he all by himself?

SILLIKER: Because his mom just threw him out about a month ago. They follow their mother for a year, and then suddenly about mid-May, Mom says, "That's it," and turns and pushes him off, shoves him away, and chases him and kicks him if he won't leave. Now he's on his own. He's wandering. He's got to face the moose world by himself. She does that because she's ready to have another calf. He doesn't really know where to hang out. He's looking for a place to fit in. My wife had one yearling follow her through the woods, one time, for about a quarter mile. Just almost getting an attachment to her.

CURWOOD: Aw, looking for his mommy.

SILLIKER: Looking for his mommy. That, I suspect, he might be doing a little of it. He also looks like he wants to come up here, but every time a car comes by he's really nervous about that. I could try talking to him if you want.

CURWOOD: Would you? How do you talk to a moose?

SILLIKER: Just a little moose grunt. He's coming closer over here.

CURWOOD: All right, let's try it, then.

(Silliker grunts)

CURWOOD: We stand there waiting. The sky is now black, and all we can see are the shadows of trees on the steep bank down to the pond. We listen.


CURWOOD: Finally, we hear it.

(Movement through grass)

CURWOOD: He's closer than we expected. It sounds like just below us.

(More movement up and under)

SILLIKER: All right, let's see, what have we got? Everything, tripod...

CURWOOD: This time of year it's easy enough to find bull moose out by the road. But if we want to see the cows, we have to get into the backcountry. So, at five a.m. we are up at the trailhead of Baxter State Park. We catch glimpses of the great mountain above us, but we can't stop. Bill wants us to be the first people at a pond we're headed to this morning. And he makes me promise I won't put the name of this pond in the broadcast. If everybody comes, he says, the moose will stay away.


SILLIKER: A few weeks ago I was here, and there were six moose all at the same time feeding, and about four here, and this one big cow moose came out. And the other moose looked up and said uh oh, and they all left the pond.

CURWOOD: The woods grow lighter and we can tell we're nearing the lake.


CURWOOD: And Bill stops short and raises a finger to his lips. I can't see anything yet, but I listen, and I can hear a sound like splashing.


CURWOOD: Bill says, "It's a moose," lowering and raising her head as she feeds in the water.


SILLIKER: Go quietly down here through the woods. I'm listening for her head to come up again. When I hear it go back down I know she's out there feeding. I'd rather try to approach in case, for some reason, she's just startled. If I want to get closer to the edge, I'd rather not have her think that I'm a threat coming out of the woods.

(Bird song)

CURWOOD: We wait for the sound of her head going under before we move. And then...

SILLIKER: Okay, let's move.


SILLIKER: Oh, look, she's got a calf with her. See the calf?

CURWOOD: Oh yeah.

SILLIKER: It looks kind of like a golden retriever, but the legs are too long and the ears are really big. The same color as my dog.


SILLIKER: Let me set this up. (Sets up tripod) You see how she's left her calf on the other shore, though.


SILLIKER: So it's safe from people. She knows this pond. This is her home, and she knows that people frequent this side of the pond. She's safe over there. Now it would be a bad mistake for somebody to think they could walk over there to get closer to see the calf, because they would find out what it feels like to be chased by a big cow moose.

CURWOOD: How big is this moose?

SILLIKER: I'm going to guess about 800 pounds maybe.

CURWOOD: Does she stick her head all the way under the water?

SILLIKER: Yes. In fact, I've timed them, Steve. And you know, time it some time, watch and time her, and she might be underwater for a minute. Out here in the center of the pond and parts of it, moose actually submerge for food.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah?

SILLIKER: They dive like a duck. And there are some records of moose going down 20 feet or so. There's the calf. See the ears?


SILLIKER: She knows where he is.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah. Just the ears, there.

SILLIKER: Just the ears. It's kind of waiting -- whoop, here he comes. Here comes the calf. Mom, where are you? (Snaps pictures) Wants to see its mother. Moose? (Clicks) This is tuna. (Quick clicks) See it running along the shore? (Clicks) It's a feisty little calf.

CURWOOD: Can I take a look through your lens?

SILLIKER: Absolutely. Take a look through here, that is 700 millimeters you're looking at. It's about the equivalent of 14-power binoculars.

CURWOOD: And what it means is, I can see the hair standing -- there's a mane on a moose.

SILLIKER: Yes there is.

CURWOOD: It's like a horse.

SILLIKER: Yes. That's an important part of a moose, for a moose-watcher, anybody that's wanting to watch moose. If you see the mane flared, it's just like a dog. Back out. You're in trouble.

CURWOOD: You're in trouble.

SILLIKER: If she starts coming at you with her mane flared and drops her ears, that's body language and you'd better pay attention.

(An insect buzzes)

CURWOOD: This time of year it's the cow moose who can be dangerous if she feels her young is threatened. Later, as fall comes and the hormones start to flow in the males, they'll become more risky to encounter, as Bill likes to recall.

SILLIKER: You see that rock right there?


SILLIKER: One day in fall, early on in my moose photography endeavors, I came to this pond and I looked across. It was the fall mating season.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

SILLIKER: And a big bull and a cow moose came out right on that shore over there.


SILLIKER: And so I thought well, I could get a little bit closer. Even with a telephoto lens you're always trying to get a little, you know, better shot maybe. And I figured it was safe enough, they were over there. And I hopscotched on the rocks. And I got out on to that rock. And they went into the woods. And the next thing I knew, about 15 minutes later, they came out of the woods right here. (Curwood laughs) On the same trail. And I told you the bull moose can be cantankerous.


SILLIKER: This guy was. He dropped his antlers and started tossing his head back and forth like this, and -- that's a guy thing, Steve, it's like he's telling me he can kick me any time, you know. He can beat me with that. It's a challenge. And the next thing I know, he started to do his grunting behavior, and that is not a good time, when you're out there without a tree to climb, to grunt back at that guy. (Laughs) If you know what I mean. So I started talking to him, because it's the only thing I figured I could do. And I'm a pretty big guy, and I've got all this rigging. I'm thinking, could he be that near-sighted? He thought I was another moose that he was challenged by. So I said well, I'll convince him I'm human. So I really did, and the only thing I could think of to say was, you know, she's beautiful, but you found her first. And fair is fair. And she's yours, I mean, you know, she's really, really cute, but -- (Curwood laughs) You know, it's your moose. So -- oh, I need to photograph the ducks with this calf, look at that. Is that cute? (Clicks)

CURWOOD: Do you ever get tired of taking pictures of moose?

SILLIKER: Never. (Clicks) I probably have, oh, conservatively, 25,000 pictures of moose. Every sub-species. There are four sub-species in North America. I photograph them from here to Alaska, and I'm just as excited to see this moose cap as any of the pictures I've got.

CURWOOD: So far we've seen the bulls and the cows apart. And I'm curious about what happens when they come together, to make moose.

SILLIKER: I don't know how they know this, Steve, but according to the researchers more moose mate on my birthday than on any other day. (Curwood laughs) September twenty-fifth, right in the middle of the rut.

CURWOOD: Moose day, huh?

SILLIKER: Moose day. Maybe that's why I like moose so much, I don't know.

CURWOOD: Now, I've been out west and I've seen the elk at that time of year. And one big bull elk will gather up as many cow elks as he can, and the younger guys, hey, if they don't have the big rack, they don't have any girlfriends. Are the moose that way?

SILLIKER: It's interesting because in these woods, and in most of the region, even into Yellowstone area, the moose, the bull moose will chase off the guy with the smaller rack, but they don't gather that harem like the elk do. But in Alaska, the bull moose does collect a bunch of cows, because of the open tundra, I suspect they can find each other easier. Whereas in these woods, you know, you'll see them come along through the woods sometimes. But more often than not, you'll hear them first. They'll go (grunts). And that's a bull moose kind of walking through the woods, signaling to cows in the area, hey, who's around?

CURWOOD: What does she say?

SILLIKER: She'll sometimes answer back with that grunt. But more often -- I cannot do this call as well -- but if you're ever here in September, especially September twenty-fifth, unless you have a good tree to climb, do not make this call.

CURWOOD: All right.

SILLIKER: (Makes long, drawn out call) You'll more than likely have a very big friend if he's within earshot.

(Splashes; fade to music up and under)

TOOMEY: Wildlife photographer Bill Silliker talking with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood. Silliker's newest book of moose photograph is called Uses for Mooses. You can check out some of his pictures on our Web site at www.loe.org.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

TOOMEY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, and Maggie Villiger, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, and Bree Horwitz. We had help this week from Jennifer Chu, Jenna Perry, Nicole Kalb, and James Curwood. Alison Dean composed the theme. Jesse Wegman produced this week's show. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor, and Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. Chris Ballman is the senior producer, and Steve Curwood is the executive producer of Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity; www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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