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

December 8, 2000

Air Date: December 8, 2000


New Deal / Cynthia Graber

One software company has developed a way to bring old computers back to life, and keep them out of the trash. Cynthia Graber reports. (07:40)

Chicken Monitor / Sy Montgomery

Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery enjoys living in rural New Hampshire. She also gets a lot of pleasure from listening….to her chickens. (03:50)

Health Update / Diane Toomey

Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports that stress may diminish the effectiveness of certain vaccines. (00:59)

A Whale Hunt

Robert Sullivan tells Steve Curwood about the two years he spent with the Makah tribe of Washington. The author got to know members of the tribe as they were preparing to revive their ancient tradition of whale hunting. The hunt drew national attention and protest. (08:45)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about motels. It was 75 years ago this week that the world’s first motel was built in California to provide a pleasant place for automobile travelers to spend the night. (01:30)


The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered General Electric to clean a 40 mile stretch of the Hudson River that the company polluted with PCBs. Host Steve Curwood speaks with New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert about the latest developments in this story. (05:55)

Technology Update / Cynthia Graber

Living On Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on windows that become darker with the flick of a switch, helping reduce heat and glare from the sun. (00:59)

Rockweed / Naomi Schalit

The seaweed industry is an important part of coastal communities around the world. One type of seaweed called rockweed is among several that have been harvested in Maine for the last three decades. But when a Canadian seaweed company made plans to harvest rockweed in Cobscook Bay, Maine near the Canadian border, scientists and fishermen joined together to call for a moratorium on harvesting in the area. Naomi Schalit reports. (07:00)

Sonoran Desert / Jeff Rice

Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is one of the most biologically rich deserts in the world. Conservationists are calling for protection of this wilderness. One proposal calls on Congress to create a national park and preserve that would protect three million acres of desert. But, as reporter Jeff Rice reports, there’s something unusual about this piece of land: it includes a military bombing range. (09:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Cynthia Graber, Naomi Schalit, Jeff Rice
UPDATES: Diane Toomey, Cynthia Graber
GUESTS: Robert Sullivan, Elizabeth Kolbert
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Wait! Don't put that old computer in the trash. Rehab it instead with new software that can help it cope with everything from browsing the web to running Windows. It could turn the computer market upside down.

SMITH: The used car market is much larger than the new car market. The used computer market will be much larger than the new computer market. It's not a complicated equation. It's the law of large numbers.

CURWOOD: Also, when the Makah Indians recently conducted their first whale hunt in three generations, many people sympathized with the whale. But one writer says the Makah are also saving something precious.

SULLIVAN: If you go and watch a bunch of guys try to hunt a whale and spend a year or two trying to do this, you realize that it's really difficult to hunt whales. That way of life, that's as endangered as anything.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

New Deal

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Whether you use a Macintosh or a PC with Windows, there's a little icon down in the right-hand corner for getting rid of digital junk, called the Trash or Recycle Bin. The trouble is, all too quickly, the very computer you use is also headed for the trash. Americans replace more than 60 million computers every year, and almost all of them are discarded. Computers are a toxic potpourri of metals, plastics, and insulating chemicals. So, a number of folks have been working to keep them out of landfills. Among the most successful: a Boston-area software company that has found a way to teach old computers new tricks, and put them in the hands of people who most need them. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber has our story.

MAN: Can anybody tell me -- oh, this is easy -- what RAM stands for? Yeah.

CHILD: Random access memory.

MAN: Okay, yeah...

GRABER: It's the second day of computer classes at the Dorchester Neighborhood Service Center in Boston. When the week is over, each student will take a computer home. Not a new one, though. Executive director Leonard Lee says these used computers are a perfect beginning to let these children, who come from low-income families, join the technological age.

LEE: With all these computers that are coming offline, everybody should have a computer. The pencil of today is computers, and I'm not talking about a Mont Blanc pen. I'm just talking about a regular old fifteen cent Bic. And that's the recycled computers that are coming offline today.

GRABER: The computers the students are taking home are loaded with a software package called "NewDeal," specifically designed to rejuvenate these old machines. Clive Smith is the CEO and founder of NewDeal, Incorporated.

SMITH: Every time you trash a computer, you trash someone's chance at computer literacy, and that's literally the case.

GRABER: Smith stands in front of a low-end Pentium loaded with NewDeal software: a word processor, spreadsheet, database, e-mail, and web browser.

SMITH: So what I'm going to do is, I'm going to do a setting here that will reset the computer. And let's time from now. That was it. That was an entire operating system shutdown and restart.

GRABER: Speed is just one of the things that makes NewDeal software unique. The system doesn't have special features most people never knew existed on other word processing systems, such as four levels of footnoting. It's so compact that not only can it zip along on a used Pentium, but it can also easily run a Windows-type system, complete with e-mail and a web browser, on what are commonly considered computer-age dinosaurs, two and 386s. It's incredibly easy. For those who've never used a computer, there's an introductory point-and-click setting with huge buttons. And there are four levels of each program, from beginning to expert, each with more features and complexity. In creating software that would easily run on old machines, Smith saw a business opportunity that appealed to his sense of social justice.

SMITH: Right now there's this feast of imagination going on around the world, and the table is the Internet. And if you sit at that table, you can participate. It's not actually about money. It's more about ideas.

GRABER: Smith believes that marketing low-cost, used, useful computers will help people get to the table. And he predicts that the business opportunities created by these used computers will only continue to grow.

SMITH: Every year 110 million machines are sold, that means every three year 110 million used machines are coming offline somewhere or in four years. In a pure business sense, the used car market is much larger than the new car market. The used computer market will be much larger than the new computer market. It's not a complicated equation. It's the law of large numbers.

GRABER: This summer, NewDeal officially launched their first products. Their software package sells for about a quarter the price of its competitors. And they're not just selling software. They've also introduced $99 green PCs, a package of refurbished 486s and low-end Pentiums, complete with NewDeal software.

(Forklift engine, clanking)

GRABER: One of the companies that provides the computers for these green PCS is Redemtech, outside Columbus, Ohio. Here, forklifts and dollies transport computers across the warehouse to be wiped clean of information and software, refurbished, and donated or resold. Accessing the hundreds of thousands of computers they receive yearly from corporations is relatively easy. The companies can ship truckloads at a time. But Redemtech's Executive Director Bob Houghton says getting a hold of those stored in homes and small businesses is a challenge.

HOUGHTON: The logistics challenge is one of the significant ones. Just physically picking it up or providing a collection point for the person or business to drop the computer off is quite expensive.

GRABER: Redemtech now loads some of the computers they do receive with NewDeal software. Houghton says that after finding out about the software company last year, he knew his company had found a promising new tool.

HOUGHTON: It immediately became apparent that NewDeal software was a great option for making an older PC that would otherwise be relatively unusable, quite usable. This would have been something that would have gone to recycling otherwise.

GRABER: The focus on collection and reuse is only one part of bridging the digital divide. Greg Rhode, assistant secretary of the Department of Commerce, says this gap is a growing economic concern.

RHODE: As our economy goes more and more digital, so to speak, those that don't have access to these tools in the new information age are not going to be able to participate in the future of our economy.

GRABER: The Department of Commerce is the governmental agency that has been researching the technology gap, and that coined the term "digital divide" in its studies. Rhode says bringing technology to those in need encompasses a variety of issues.

RHODE: One is, you'd have to have access to an infrastructure. You could be a very skilled computer user and be very sophisticated, but if you happen to be living in a community or in a remote area that doesn't have access to infrastructure, you get nowhere. You also need to have access to the tools that connect to that infrastructure, such as computers. On top of that, you also need to know how to use it.

GRABER: That how to use it is where Clive Smith believes NewDeal will corner the market.

SMITH: The idea that you can use this without a manual, and without ever having used a computer before.

GRABER: This simplicity, while complex enough for home use, will not attract many corporate clients. But Scott Kirsner, a freelance technology reporter, says this may be NewDeal's strength.

KIRSNER: I view it as a niche that they're smart to go after, and it may turn out to be a very big niche. If NewDeal's market is individuals in the U.S. and in other countries that buy a used computer or are given a used computer, I think it can be a good economic space for them to be in.

GRABER: NewDeal's Clive Smith believes these older computers will also be socially and economically successful abroad, where the digital divide is even more striking. About 90 percent of the world's population does not have access to a computer, according to the Software and Information Industry Association. NewDeal employees are currently translating their software into Spanish, French, and German, and they may be the first software company to begin translating into Zulu. There are other organizations trying to reuse or recycle old computers. And there are also groups that are working to bridge the digital divide. But at the moment, NewDeal appears to be the only company with an innovative technology to address both issues at the same time. For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber.

Back to top


Chicken Monitor

CURWOOD: Writer and Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery has a computer. It's one of the few high-tech gadgets she tolerates. Sy tries to live the simple life in rural New Hampshire, but she's found that turning on one modern convenience has had an unexpectedly pleasant result.

MONTGOMERY: I don't have a cell phone. I don't have a microwave. I don't have a dishwasher. I don't even have a crock pot. And I don't have a baby. But I do have a baby monitor. I use it to listen to chickens.

(Chickens cluck through a speaker)

MONTGOMERY: It's a dangerous job being a chicken in rural New Hampshire. An entire flock I once had was wiped out by a mink. In the three years since I've had this new flock, one was killed by a neighbor's dog, another felled by a hawk. And that's the reason for the baby monitor down by the barn. If anything goes wrong, I'll immediately hear it over the speaker in my office and can rush to the rescue.

(A door slams; bells tinkle)

MONTGOMERY: (Yells) Fox be gone!

But I found this chicken monitor to be a gift of unexpected pleasures.

(Chickens cluck through speaker)

MONTGOMERY: Chickens voices, you see, are wonderful to write by.

(Clucking continues)

MONTGOMERY: When hens are calm, there's nothing more comforting than their clucks of contentment. In the past, when I've been sad or frustrated or lonely, I'd go stand in the coop with them and let their coos and clucks wash over me like a mantra. Sometimes I let them sit on my head. But listening to them remotely is far better for my hair. And who knows? Surrounded by their voices, perhaps my writing will experience something like the Mozart effect. You know, like how people taking standardized tests score higher when classical music is piped in.

(Mozart plays; fade to clucks)

MONTGOMERY: On the other hand, this might mean I end up writing books composed entirely of the letter Y. Or give up touch-typing for hunt and peck.


MONTGOMERY: Or I could end up making some astonishing new scientific discovery. Some of the world's great naturalists have productively spent time decoding the language of birds. Niko Tinbergen decoded seagulls' talk. Larry Kilham and Bernd Heindrichs have translated the calls of crows. What are the chickens trying to tell us?


MONTGOMERY: So, I listen carefully, especially when they're particularly animated. Has somebody just laid an egg? Did somebody just unearth a particularly juicy worm? Or maybe they're onto something far bigger. Maybe my chickens are really brilliant. Maybe they're the Manhattan Project of the poultry world! Maybe, I said to my husband, they're holding discussions of profound import, revelations that perhaps I could share. If only I could understand.


MONTGOMERY: One morning, I could swear I could almost make out what they were saying.

(Clucking: "E equals MC squared...E equals MC squared...")

MONTGOMERY: It was my husband squawking into the baby monitor. All right. Maybe it's just that the chickens found that cabbage in the compost pile.

(Clucking; fade to Mozart up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery lives with her husband Howard and their chickens in Hancock, New Hampshire.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: 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. That's www.loe.org. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: Fighting to reattach deep cultural roots to modern native life. The story of the Makah is next. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

Health Update

TOOMEY: We know that stress can make us sick. Now it appears that stress can even affect our immune system so much that vaccines don't work. Scientists gave the pneumonia vaccination to two groups of people. One group was in the high-stress position of taking care of spouses suffering from dementia. The other group consisted of former caregivers. Following the vaccination, researchers measured blood levels of the antibodies that fend off the pneumonia bacteria. Both groups showed a strong initial response to the vaccine, but after six months the immune response of the highly-stressed group dropped off 30 percent. But the group of former caregivers held steady. A few years ago, similar research showed stress produced an immediate weakening of response to the flu vaccine. So researchers in this study advise people to consider putting off vaccinations until they're not so stressed out. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

A Whale Hunt

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In 1997 author Robert Sullivan began a two-year journey to a remote corner of the Pacific Northwest and into the culture of one of North America's most famous indigenous communities. In his new book "A Whale Hunt" Mr. Sullivan chronicles his time spent with members of the Makah tribe, as they put together and trained an eight-man canoe crew for the tribe's first whale hunt in 70 years. Live television cameras and numerous protestors dogged the Makah whalers when they finally went out on the hunt in the spring of 1999. Neah Bay, on the tip of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, is the tribal home of the Makah. Robert Sullivan says when you go there, you can understand how the land, the sea, and the Makah are interconnected in the web of life.

SULLIVAN: I'd never been to a place where the place was so much a part of what everybody did, and how everybody was, and what everybody talked about. I mean, there is an abundance there still. I met a guy who lives way out, back in the woods, and he gave me some smoked fish. The most amazing smoked salmon. You know, he showed me where he had a mill to cut wood. He showed me where he caught the salmon on the stream. I mean, he said to me, you know, if the market closed down tomorrow, we'd be fine. We'd be fine. We live here. We know this place. And that's incredible.

CURWOOD: Tell me a bit now about the crew that was assembled to do this, this whale hunt. How were they selected?

SULLIVAN: In the very beginning, years back, I guess four, five years ago now, the tribe decided to go about trying to whale hunt again. They went back to look at the tribal roles from earlier times, around the turn of the century, to see what the names of the original families were, the whaling families. And they formed a commission with the heads, the representatives from all these families on it. That was the whaling commission. And the whaling commission members then nominated people for the crew, for the whaling crew. There were no women, by the way, it was all men. And that was a point that people made.

CURWOOD: A point that who made?

SULLIVAN: That the tribe made. The idea was, at least for the whaling commission, as far as it went for the guys in the crew, there were to be no women on the whaling crew. Which is, as they said, tradition.

CURWOOD: Now, did they carve their own canoe? Did they find a large tree?

SULLIVAN: They did. The whaling commission had a canoe carved. That was a whaling canoe. And yes, they used one log. And the log was cut in this longhouse. And if you saw it during the progress of the carving, you know, it just was incredible, just the cedar just lifted out. And it smelled incredible, just from many feet away. You could smell the incense of the cedar. And I remember when they got rocks and they heated the rocks and they put water in the canoe and they steamed it, and it opened up. The canoe opened further. But the canoe that they commissioned, and that was made by a local carver, wasn't quite ready in time. So they ended up using another canoe that they had, which was the racing canoe. And anyway, they used that just because the whaling canoe wasn't ready.

CURWOOD: Robert, over time you watched these men prepare for the hunt. I'm wondering, what were the greatest obstacles that they faced, or obstacles that they overcame? And tell us how you fit into that picture, too.

SULLIVAN: The obstacles were, first of all, conceptually, the task that they were taking on was so huge. In a way, the hugeness of it was difficult; it was an obstacle. I mean, you are the few people in your tribe who have been chosen to re-create this ancient ritual, to do a modern version of this ancient traditional ceremony. And you know, you are supposed to do the thing that defines your culture, that gives meaning to everything in town, everything and everybody. So, that's one thing. I mean, then you get into the specifics of it. Well, is there going to be enough money for harpoon shafts? Are we going to have to go out and buy something else we don't have the money for, and then we'll be out of money for rope? Or you know what? One of the guys figured, we can go to the Army and Naval bases and get some stuff surplus. You know, just the way the government gives surplus cheese to Native American tribes, if you're a tribal member you can get a surplus Naval van that they don't need any more, that they're getting rid of on the Naval base. And so now you've got a van that's breaking down but, you know, now you've got a van. You need a van sometimes to do a whale hunt, an ancient ceremonial whale hunt. And will the van work? I mean, detail is all it was. I mean, obstacles is almost all it was.

CURWOOD: What was the toughest thing for you in this? What was your greatest obstacle in trying to write the story?

SULLIVAN: The greatest obstacle for me was to kind of stay out of the way, but to get an idea of what was going on. I mean, when the hunt happened, it was on the front page, I remember, of the New York Times. And you saw this shot that was actually taken from a news helicopter, a filming or videotaping of the hunt. And you saw this guy in a canoe and a harpoon. And if you were there you saw that and you saw protest boats and you saw the tribal chase boat with the gun, where in the end, after harpooning the whale, they shot the whale. You could see even more if you were up in the peaks. You could see the mountains and the coast and you could see whatever was happening. And you could see the Coast Guard boats trying to give the Makah some room so they could do this. So, my objective came to be to sort of flesh out that picture. Why are they using a metal harpoon shaft? Is that because they went to Barrow, Alaska, and met some whalers up there who wished them luck and gave them this harpoon point and said maybe you might want to try this one? Why would this tribe keep their whaling rights and give away all their land, or sign away all their land, anyway? So it became about fleshing this out. Also, why are people so intent on stopping a whale hunt? Why are people, you know, leaving their home in California to come up and say to this tribe, "You cannot do this, and we will not let you do this"?

CURWOOD: Okay. This first hunt is over. What kind of impact do you think it had on the crew and their families?

SULLIVAN: Everything seemed to be very intense. And you know, there would be guys trying to go out to dinner in Victoria and, you know, to a restaurant with a friend or something. And they couldn't, because they wouldn't be allowed into the restaurant because they were a whaler. And there were people who had to change doctors because the doctor wouldn't treat them because they were related to one of the whalers. On the other hand, I know some other guys in the crew who now can, kind of, go into Seattle and, maybe, have breakfast with a news anchor, or somebody who covers sports for one of the big newspapers, or, you know, or has good contact numbers at The Today Show. So it's kaleidoscopic, what happened.

CURWOOD: Now, let's see. Before commercial whaling there were what? About 20,000 gray whales, and since commercial whaling stopped there are, again, about 20,000 gray whales. So, the argument is made that certainly the Makah's subsistence use of whales didn't affect their population in any material way. I'm wondering, could it be said that the Makah way of life may be more endangered than the gray whales?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. The numbers are growing a lot faster, I guess you could argue, for gray whales than they are for the Makah. I would think you could argue that. But you know, some people say if we start whaling, if we allow the Makah to whale, that it'll just open the door to worldwide whaling, that everybody's going to try to whale. On the other hand, if you go and watch a bunch of guys try to hunt a whale and spend a year or two trying to do this, you realize that it's really difficult to hunt whales. Now, maybe if you have a giant commercial whaling ship, it's a lot easier. I would think it would be. But that way of life, the way of life that involves you knowing where the whales are, knowing how the river runs to get out there, knowing where to get seal oil or even salmon to go with the big giant potlatch -- you know, the big party that's going to happen after you bring in a whale after you know eighty years -- that way of life, that's as endangered as anything.

CURWOOD: Robert Sullivan's new book is called "A Whale Hunt: Two Years on the Olympic Peninsula with the Makah and Their Canoe". Thank you so much for taking this time.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

Back to top

(Music 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 in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting reporting on western issues; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Surdna Foundation; and The Ford Foundation, striving to preserve our ecological values.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: Dredge they must. The EPA orders General Electric to take the PCBs out of the Hudson River. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Early in the automobile age, weary travelers might pitch a tent or crawl into the back seat with a blanket if nightfall found them far from home. Seventy-five years ago that all changed when enterprising architect Arthur Heineman built the world's first motel. Blending the words "motor" and "hotel," Mr. Heineman coined the term to describe his haven in San Luis Obispo, California. Just two dollars a night at The Milestone Mo-Tel bought a traveler a night in a private room with a bath, telephone, central heating, and, of course, a parking spot for the trusty automobile. Motels began springing up all along the American roadside, joining gas stations and diners to serve the new tin can tourists. The motel industry peaked in the early 60's before big chains came to dominate the landscape. Eventually, the new interstate system concentrated travel systems at highway exits, relegating neon-lighted Mom & Pop culture icons like the Ho Hum, the Sandman, and even the infamous Bates Motel to Americana.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Your room is ready. Enjoy the shower. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)


CURWOOD: The Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that General Electric must clean up a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson River in upstate New York. Decades ago, GE factories released thousands of tons of polychlorinated bi-phenols, PCBs, into the Hudson. The chemicals persist in river sediments. GE and the federal government have wrestled for years over whether it's wiser to dig out the toxic chemicals or let them remain on the river bottom. I am joined now by Elizabeth Kolbert, who recently wrote about this story for The New Yorker. Hello, Elizabeth.


CURWOOD: Now, today the Hudson River is definitely healthier and cleaner than it was, what, ten, 20 years ago. How much of a problem are PCBs there?

KOLBERT: Well, they remain a significant problem, especially in the sense of contaminating the fish. There is a ban on eating the fish for a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson south of the plants where GE dumped these PCBs. And then, throughout the entire river there is a health advisory that warns women of childbearing age and children to eat no fish from the Hudson. Also, I should add that some communities draw their drinking water from the Hudson, and that's a problem, too.

CURWOOD: How much of a problem are PCBs themselves?

KOLBERT: Well, that's been studied at great length for the last 20 years, and there are roughly three areas of concern. One is whether they cause cancer. They've been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, although the human data is somewhat more equivocal. They have been linked to developmental problems in children, reading delays, IQ, lower IQ. And they mimic certain human hormones, and there's a lot of concern about whether they may cause reproductive problems.

CURWOOD: Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is focusing on what they call "hot spots," about a 40-mile stretch there, right? How is the EPA telling GE to clean all this up?

KOLBERT: Well, they haven't really specified exactly what technology they would use. But in essence, what you do is, you go in and you literally dig up part of the river sediment. You try to do it as specifically as you can in terms of where the greatest concentration of these chemicals are. And then you run all this, you know, muck through a treatment system until you get down the really, to the PCBs, virtually. And then you have to dispose of those PCBs.

CURWOOD: In fact, where would they put these PCBs?

KOLBERT: Well, they've said that they want them to go to an already licensed facility, toxic waste dump, basically. And so, a lot of people, I think, think that they would end up in western New York, where there is a dump. But we're not sure where it will end up.

CURWOOD: Now, GE says that doing this dredging, this removal, is a mistake. That all this stirring up of the PCBs and then disposing of it really poses more of a health hazard than just simply leaving it there and letting natural sedimentation, the action of the river, cover over these PCBs and encapsulate them out of harm's way. How valid is that argument?

KOLBERT: Well, that's at the heart of the EPA's decision. They have decided that argument is not valid, and they've done a lot of study of this. And they've decided that the PCBs that are on the river bottom in the hot spots are a major source of contamination to the rest of the river. So they have decided that that argument, as it were, doesn't hold water. However, there are, you know, reasonable people who would question, I suppose, whether you're really going to achieve what you want to achieve with a project like this. But you know, I think GE would have a lot more credibility on this topic had they not fought this every, every step of the way, using virtually every argument known to man.

CURWOOD: It seems to some, to many, that it might well be in GE's financial interest to oppose dredging. It's going to be pretty pricey. How much do you think the cost of this is influencing GE's position here?

KOLBERT: I think it's influencing its position a lot. It was estimated as a half a billion dollar project, and that's just, you know, sort of today's estimate. And I think everyone thinks, well, by the time this is over, that that will be a lot higher. And I think what's probably even more significant is, GE probably didn't want really any decision at all, dredging or not dredging. Because once you get a decision you open yourself up to what is called "a natural resources damage claim" of this sort that Exxon had to pay after the Valdez spill. And that can run to a tremendous amount of money, a billion or more.

CURWOOD: Now that the EPA has issued this cleanup mandate, what happens next? I'm saying, this is the final days of the Clinton administration. Those Clinton people aren't going to be around to push this through. There must be some politics involved here.

KOLBERT: Yeah, that's a very, very significant point. GE and its allies in Congress really tried to push this off until after the Clinton administration, hoping for a more sympathetic administration. And the sort of last stand that the EPA took, even after sort of submitting to a lot of delays, was no, they were not going to put this off until after the administration had left. So they issued it in the final days of the Clinton administration. However, there is, by law, a six-month comment period before which this decision cannot be finalized. So, it is going to be left to the new administration to finalize this decision, and that's very significant. And we don't know what's going to happen at the end of those six months.

CURWOOD: Before we go, I just have to ask you: how is this playing locally to folks who live along the Hudson?

KOLBERT: Well, there's a lot of very, very intense emotion along the Hudson, both ways. And even individuals you meet can have very conflicting feelings about it. Because people live along the river and they love the river, and they feel it's been wrecked to a certain extent. On the other hand, they're going to have to live with the dredging, and they're very, very worried about that, too. So, it's really split a lot of communities.

CURWOOD: Elizabeth Kolbert's article "The River" appeared in the December 4th issue of "The New Yorker." Elizabeth, thanks for taking this time to talk with us.

KOLBERT: Thank you.

Back to top

CURWOOD: Just ahead, a novel plan to create a new national park in a preserve with a twist: its own military bombing range. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

Technology Update

GRABER: Windows make a big difference in how much heating, cooling, and light a building needs. Today's best windows can reduce heat and glare from ultraviolet rays. But about half the heat streaming through them comes from visible light. So researchers have teamed up with the U.S. Department of Energy to produce the first electrically-powered tinting windows. These windows are coated with five layers of a thin metal mixture. With the twist of a dimmer, a user can send an electric charge through some of the coatings. Some layers absorb the charge and become darker, then lighter once again when the charge is released. Researchers say the new panels can save up to 40 percent of electricity needs even over today's best energy-saving windows. And because they cut down on both ultraviolet and visible sunlight, your couches, chairs, and carpets won't fade so quickly, either. That's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

Back to top

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

You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15 each.

(Music up and under)


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Rockweed is a slippery, brownish seaweed that grows near the ocean's edge. Try to walk over it at high tide and you could easily slip and fall. Rockweed also supports a major industry across the North Atlantic. From Norway to Iceland, Canada, and Maine, it's cut and processed into fertilizer and animal feed and then sold around the world. Maine's rockweed is mostly taken along the state's mid-coast. But as Naomi Schalit reports, when a Canadian company planned to pick rockweed from one pristine spot near the U.S./Canada border, some Mainers put up a fight.

(Splashing water)

HODGKINS: This is the boat landing at Cobscook Bay. And as you look ahead, you see the Sisters. They're called the Sisters because they look so much alike.

SCHALIT: Julie Keene Hodgkins grew up on Cobscook Bay. She descends from a family of lighthouse keepers, and she's fished and clammed all her life. And from as far back as she can remember, she was fascinated by rockweed.

HODGKINS: And we used to peer into the water, and we could see all the baby fish, harbor pollack, little flounder, crabs, wrinkles, whelks, limpets, everything. And it was just like peering into an aquarium. This was in the rockweed. It was so full of life, and I grew up knowing that the ocean is full of life but it does start in the rockweed.

SCHALIT: Life in the rockweed includes periwinkle, sea urchins, and other invertebrates. The plant serves as a nursery ground for herrings, scallops, and larval lobsters. When waves surge and pieces of rockweed break off, they eventually form floating mats filled with insects and other animals that provide forage for migratory birds. And this plant that scientists call "the topsoil of the sea" also feeds an industry in this coastal state.


SCHALIT: Here at Atlantic Labs, one of Maine's oldest seaweed processors, huge one-ton balls of wet briny rockweed sit outside. Inside, dried, chopped rockweed is being thrown off a conveyor belt.

MORSE: We've got nets that have been mechanically harvested at the shore of rockweed that have been brought up this morning fresh from the shore. And we're running them through the dehydrator to dry them down, so that we can preserve the seaweed for the different uses that we put the rockweed to.

SCHALIT: That's Bob Morse, who is founder and President of Atlantic Labs. He also heads the Maine Seaweed Council. Maine's seaweed industry began almost 30 years ago and is located mostly along the central coast. The state's 120 licensed harvesters cut about 3,000 metric tons a year of rockweed and Irish moss and other seaweeds. But Maine's industry is small potatoes compared to eastern maritime Canada, where lone processor Acadian Seaplants harvests 11,000 tons a year, the amount their government limits them to. Acadian's second plant can handle almost double that amount. So the company turned to Maine this year to harvest. They put up posters in communities around Cobscook Bay, offering to hire locals. And they met with resistance.

BROOKS: Cobscook Bay is really the heart of our region, and that's not just geographic. It's also got to do with the extraordinary ecological value of Cobscook Bay as well, its importance for the local communities.

SCHALIT: Alan Brooks is head of the Quoddy Regional Land Trust, a conservation group whose focus is the Cobscook Bay region. He joined local fishermen here to protest Acadian's plans. Brooks and area fishermen point to scientific evidence that rockweed's where much of the bay's life begins and is sustained. Unlike other coastal areas in Maine, where rockweed has been harvested for decades, Cobscook Bay is relatively untouched and undeveloped. And local fishermen and environmentalists like Brooks fear a collapse of the thriving fishery if rockweed is harvested.

BROOKS: Cobscook Bay really has the highest diversity of marine invertebrate life on the East Coast, north of the tropics. It's internationally significant for that reason. Harvesting rockweed directly undercuts the productivity and the diversity of the bay, not just through removal of biomass but through removal of habitat that's either directly or indirectly used by many different species.

SCHALIT: Brooks and other protestors want to ban rockweed harvesting from Cobscook Bay until research is done that says removing it is safe. They point to a disastrous overharvesting of rockweed in Nova Scotia during the 80's as evidence that it's not safe to harvest it here. In many places in Nova Scotia, the rockweed barely grew back. But Atlantic Labs processor Bob Morse says that what happened in Nova Scotia won't necessarily happen in Maine. He says that in his mid-coast area, the harvest has been sustainable, and the same could be true for Cobscook Bay.

MORSE: I've harvested 30 years without regulations, and we don't have any depletion on how we harvest.

SCHALIT: But there is conflicting evidence. Researchers at the University of Maine have found that some older rockweed beds don't regenerate after cutting. Overall, there has been little research on the effects of long-term harvesting. Regulation of the rockweed harvest in Maine is light. The state's recently passed rules, for example, have no harvest limits. They simply require harvesters to report their rockweed take and to leave at least 16 inches of the plant attached to the rock on which it grows. It's that degree of scientific uncertainty and the lack of comprehensive regulation that's led the Cobscook Bay Fishermen's Association, local Native Americans, and area conservationists to call for a moratorium on harvesting there. But Maine's Department of Marine Resources chief George LaPointe says he's not going to grant one.

LaPOINTE: Clearly, rockweed is a major plant in the Cobscook Bay area. And you want to pay attention to your plant base, like you do anywhere else. But if you use that line of reasoning, do we allow no timber harvest? Inherently, that doesn't make sense to me.

SCHALIT: Anti-harvest advocates say they'll go around LaPointe and ask the state legislature to impose a long-term moratorium that will allow time for studies to be done. They have yet to find a sponsor for a bill before the mid-December legislative deadline. For their part, Acadian Seaplants officials declined to comment on tape. The company publicly stated their plans for harvesting in Cobscook Bay earlier this year, and according to Julie Keene Hodgkins and other fishermen, advertised for workers. But an Acadian Seaplants spokesperson says they did not harvest in Cobscook Bay last summer and they are unsure of the company's future plans in the area.


SCHALIT: For Living on Earth, I'm Naomi Schalit in Edmunds, Maine.

Back to top

(Bird calls and surf up and under)

Sonoran Desert

CURWOOD: If you drive along the Arizona highway between Phoenix and Yuma, you'll see vast forests of suguaro cacti and mountains that shimmer in the distance. This is the Sonoran Desert, a place alive with biological riches and largely untouched by development. The Sonoran Desert was once called a wasteland, but today there are many who want to preserve its unique landscape. Recently, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt toured the desert with an eye on recommending it to President Clinton for national monument status. The President may designate this area as a monument without Congressional approval. But this is also part of a much larger land protection proposal. A group in Arizona wants to create a national park and a special preserve three times the size of the Grand Canyon. It would be the first national park to share a border with Mexico. It would also be the first to include a live military bombing range. Jeff Rice has our story.

(Wind, voices)

RICE: In Arizona there is a road called the Camino Del Diablo, which snakes along the border of the United States and Mexico. Translated from Spanish it means "the road of the devil," and this trail bisects one of the harshest environments in North America.

(Bird calls)

RICE: Because of a general lack of water, because of its extreme 120-degree heat in the summer time, the ancient tribes called it "the direction of suffering," and relatively few people even passed through. Many of those who did ended up buried along the trail.

DYKINGA: This whole area used to be the site of graves, where people died trying to scale up to these water holes. Oh, look at this. This is it.

(A shutter clicks)

RICE: That's Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jack Dykinga. We're at one of the legendary stops on the Devil's Road, the Tinajas Altas or "high tanks." These rare, naturally-occurring water holes hidden among the cliffs are one of the only consistent sources of water for miles. Historians say there were once as many as 50 grave markers at this spot, memorializing the travelers who arrived here just short of salvation. (Shutter clicks) Today we watch from a distance as a family of Bighorn sheep approaches to drink.

DYKINGA: See, he's starting to climb out now. What a thrill, huh?

(Shutter clicks)

RICE: For a long time, this place was a well-kept secret among desert rats. Now you can get a permit to visit, and more and more people are discovering the area, with an estimated six to ten thousand visitors last year. But with increased visitation comes problems. At the Tinajas Altas, history is literally being driven over.

(Bird calls)

DYKINGA: Our worry is that, yeah, mostly these three-wheelers, ATVs --

RICE: Photographer Jack Dykinga points out that 150-year-old gravesites have been scattered by all-terrain vehicles, and some of the stone grave markers used for campfire rings.

DYKINGA: I think they're almost all obliterated right now. There might be one -- there's one cross right here. That's the only one. But basically, this whole area has been driven over. You can see campfire rings everywhere.

RICE: Campers are also threatening animal habitats.

DYKINGA: And as you can see, they're also, they're way too close to where the sheep are. So if people camp here, the sheep will simply not come to water.

RICE: Dykinga is part of an expedition to document this area for a photography website, and to promote the idea of protecting it as part of a national park and preserve. Stretching roughly between Tucson and Yuma, this is one of the most biologically rich deserts in the world, harboring well over 1,000 plant and animal species. If park advocates are successful, it would become the Sonoran Desert National Park and Preserve, the second-largest park in the United States - second in size only to California's Death Valley. What makes things all the more remarkable is this.

(Plane engines. A voice on radio)

RICE: Two-thirds of the land in the park proposal happens to be on a military bombing range.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, what they're doing right now is called a dive-bomb. This one is basically a 30-degree dive, and they're releasing the weapon at about 5,000 feet in the air...

RICE: The Air Force flies about 70,000 training missions a year here on the Barry M. Goldwater Range, relentlessly pounding the desert with machinegun fire and explosives. And as Colonel Fred Pease, who oversees the nation's bombing ranges, points out, there aren't a whole lot of other places in the country where you can do that.

PEASE: It's the one location in the United States where we train all our F-16 pilots and our A-10 pilots to learn how to fly those two aircraft. We have some smaller installations that are starting to do that, but we fly more sorties there than any other range. It's extremely important.

RICE: Advocates for the park don't disagree. And here's something odd. They want to allow the military to continue bombing, even as park rangers manage the land.

(Bird calls)

RICE: What's going on here? How does this fit with the concept of a national park? It turns out that while planes need a lot of airspace to fly, they don't need much room on the ground for target practice. Only a fraction of the land on the range, anywhere from three to six percent of it, is actually used for military training. The remaining 2.5 million acres stretches out into a gigantic safety buffer.

BOWDEN: Thank God, they want to train pilots out there and can keep on doing it forever. It's cheaper than guards.

RICE: Writer and park advocate Charles Bowden argues that in a way, the military presence has been a good thing for the land. Since World War II it's kept out major development and destructive land uses like mining and grazing.

BOWDEN: Look, if we hadn't been essentially at war since 1940, this place would look like Phoenix. I have no quarrel with the military. Due to our military needs, this place has been protected from the only thing that could ever really destroy it: myself, you, anyone listening to this.

RICE: Some call the more than 5,000 square miles of wilderness out here the last great opportunity in the U.S. for environmental preservation. It would also be an international opportunity, linking with already-existing preserves in Mexico that extend all the way to the Gulf of California. If successful, it would create the largest stretch of protected land south of the Arctic. Political heavyweights like Arizona Senator John McCain and former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall are supporters of the proposal. Public opinion polls show residents of staunchly conservative Arizona are also strongly in favor. The military, however, may be a reluctant suitor. Top brass worry that if the area becomes part of a park, the public might not favor continued bombing. Preserve it, but just don't use the park word. National range manager Colonel Pease:

PEASE: I guess the difference of opinion is what we call that piece of land out there, not how we take care of it and how it applies to the military mission.

RICE: Recently, the military has become more entrenched than ever. Where the Bureau of Land Management used to oversee the range's plants and wildlife, the military has recently been given sole charge. To help with the task, it's formed an advisory group, which includes agencies like the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Bureau of Land Management, as well as archaeological experts. As far as the military is concerned, Air Force rangers are as good as park rangers. Park advocates take exception. Charles Bowden.

BOWDEN: I'd be terrified if we had a military problem and sent the Department of Interior to fix it. And I'm not too keen on the Department of Defense becoming the biologists for the Sonoran Desert.

RICE: The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., agrees with proponents that the best group to manage the land is the National Park Service. David Simon is the association's southwest regional director.

SIMON: I believe that the Park Service's long-standing history of managing people will fit well with the military's concern about managing people in an area where active military operations are going on.

RICE: Congress, of course, will have the final say. The National Park Service itself is staying out of the debate, deferring to the lawmaking process on Capitol Hill. Arizona Senator John McCain submitted a bill to Congress in 1999, which proposed a feasibility study. The bill has been sitting with the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and is expected to be re-introduced to the new Congress. One of the big issues that study must address is how to include the live bombing range. It is technically against the law to bomb a national park. But park advocates have a suggestion: the area including the military range would be labeled a park preserve. By making it a park preserve, Congress could then define how the land would be used, which could include things like military training. Meanwhile, one million acres outside the range that includes Organ Pipe National Monument and other adjacent lands would be included in the proposal and given full park status. Park supporters say they are looking to the future, when the military may no longer need the range. At that point the entire three million acres could become official park land. Charles Bowden.

BOWDEN: And no one really thinks 30 years from now this is going to be easier to do or even possible. This is our chance, and it's the right thing to do, and we ought to take it.

(Coyotes and wind)

RICE: It's hard to know what the future of this desert range holds. But tonight, as we camp here, we can see distant flares from the military exercises. We hear no planes or explosions, just two coyotes who remind us that this is also their home.


For Living on Earth, this is Jeff Rice in Tucson.

Back to top

(Coyotes, fading to music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, deals are afoot to protect more than a million acres of the north woods of Maine from development, and it seems everyone wants a say in what's going to happen to this immense and special swath of earth.

MAN: I think it would make a better world if everyone experienced the northern Maine wilderness, and what happens when you're in it. How you feel after you leave it. It's spiritual to me. I'd cry, if it was ever changed.

CURWOOD: The future of the north Maine Woods, next time on 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, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Milisa Muniz. We had help this week from Stephen Belter. And a special thanks to Tobi Malina. Alison Dean composed our theme. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. And Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. 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.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth