• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

January 19, 2001

Air Date: January 19, 2001

FULL SHOW

(stream/download) as an MP3 file

SEGMENTS

Abraham and Energy

(stream / mp3)

()

Homestead

(stream / mp3)

()

Health Update

(stream / mp3)

()

Ice Archaeology

(stream / mp3)

()

The Living on Earth Almanac

(stream / mp3)

()

California Cars

(stream / mp3)

()

Business Update

(stream / mp3)

()

Listener Letters

(stream / mp3)

()

Fire Plan

(stream / mp3)

()

Powder Burn

(stream / mp3)

()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Back to top

 

Abraham and Energy

TOOMEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. As George W. Bush settles into his new job in the Oval Office, his cabinet picks are just about set to begin their work, too. Christine Todd Whitman sailed through her hearing for head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, Gail Norton, up for Interior Secretary, faced more intense questioning of her environmental record. As part of our ongoing coverage of the leading environmental players in the new administration, we take a look today at Spencer Abraham, George W. Bush's choice to run the Department of Energy. Matt Wald, reporter for the New York Times, attended Abraham's confirmation hearing. Matt, thanks for joining us.

WALD: Hi Diane.

TOOMEY: Things have been fairly heated in some of the hearings lately. Talk to me about the temperature of the room for Abraham's questioning.

WALD: Oh, this was about as bland as it gets. The senators kept referring to him as "Spence." They each have some peculiar, particular energy interest. They tried to pin him down, but didn't try very hard and did not succeed. And it was all very friendly.

TOOMEY: Tell us what some of the issues were that the senators on this committee - this is the Energy and Natural Resources Committee - brought up during the hearing.

WALD: They want to know about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which he did not commit himself to up front, but it seems likely the Bush administration's going to move to drill there. They want to know about what we're going to do to increase domestic production. Some of them want to know what we're going to do about conservation. Mr. Abraham was not specific about anything. He did, as a senator, oppose making the mileage standards on cars stricter. But he did not talk about specifics of how we would stimulate drilling, how we would improve efficiency of land use. He promised to study lots of things, but he didn't commit himself.

TOOMEY: Abraham, in his past, wanted to abolish the Department of Energy. Did he get asked about that?

WALD: That was one of the few specifics he foreswore his previous position. He had called upon the department to sell off some hydroelectric generating assets, and that's a hot political topic for people in the Northwest who get cheap electricity from these things because they're government, they're not commercial. And he said he no longer thought that was a good idea, to general chuckles around the room.

TOOMEY: Of course, the energy issue that's been making the most headlines of late is the energy crisis of California. The state government there has relinquished control of the power industry to make it more competitive, but a number of factors have conspired to produce those rolling blackouts in that state we've been hearing about. How did Abraham say the Energy Department would deal with this issue?

WALD: They asked him three times and three times he said he wasn't going to say a thing, because he doesn't want to interfere with the negotiations now going on between the utilities, the state legislators, the governor of California, and the power producers. They pushed as hard on that as on anything, but he was pretty resolute in sitting back and leaving this to the current administration, at least for the next few days.

TOOMEY: What was the committee's reaction to that?

WALD: They just kept asking. To a certain extent they're playing to their home audiences, which are two. One audience is California, which has a problem. And the other audience is the Pacific Northwest, which is now under an order from the Energy Department to sell electricity to California. This is not to their economic advantage under present circumstances. And they don't want to do this forever.

TOOMEY: So, was there a chance that the energy crisis will spread beyond California's borders into the Northwest?

WALD: I don't think it will spread in the form of rolling blackouts. Generally, when you have a problem in one power control area, neighboring areas will be required to sell power, shipping what they can, but not to the point of turning off the lights themselves. It will spread in a different way, which is, it could drive up power costs outside the area in a way that will be detrimental to other parts of the West.

TOOMEY: Let's step back a bit and talk about the reasons why California is in this crisis. Can you give us a brief summary of what led up to this?

WALD: In the good old days, you had a monopoly utility that was responsible for generating electricity, transmitting it and distributing it. And those places, those companies, did not run short of power because they could make money by investing in new plants. They could also have the finger pointed at them if they ran short, so they always built and built and built. Deregulation has been coming in all kinds of places around the United States, but California was out front on this. California severed the utilities from the generating stations, told them to sell their generating stations, said we'd get independent companies to build generating stations, and that this would encourage competition on the generating side. But they, in this process, did two things they didn't think through too clearly. They let the wholesale price fluctuate according to the market. And at the moment buying electricity in California, it's like selling lifeboat seats on the Titanic. The price becomes astronomical because there's no flexibility in demand. And the other problem is as part of this deregulation deal, they froze the price to the consumer. So the utility is paying higher and higher prices, but can't get higher prices from homeowners, commercial customers, etc. The result is they're going bankrupt. And this has developed with increasing rapidity. It'll take a long time to solve, because what you really need to drive down prices is either to build more power plants, which you can do but not instantly, or to cut demand. You can do that by raising prices, but the legislature doesn't want to let the utilities do that.

TOOMEY: Many other states around the country are at varying points in the process of deregulation. Are they doing it differently than California did?

WALD: Well, New York is interesting. Each state has done it slightly differently. In New York, the wholesale price was deregulated, but so was the retail price. So the increases in wholesale price were passed through to customers who complained loudly and were paying through the nose. But it probably held demand down somewhat, which in turn held down the wholesale price.

TOOMEY: It seems that energy crises at the state level are either avoided or created at that level. So, is there any possibility the Department of Energy can come in on its white horse and save the day in California, for instance?

WALD: The role is pretty limited. What the current Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson is doing, strikes me a little bit as what Bill Clinton's trying to do in the Middle East, which is bring parties together, knock heads together, and get them to agree without having any direct control over the situation.

TOOMEY: Matt Wald covers energy and other issues for the New York Times. Matt, thanks for joining us today.

WALD: Thank you, Diane.

(music)

Back to top

 

Homestead

TOOMEY: After years of haggling over the future of Homestead Air Force Base in southern Florida, the Clinton administration is saying no to a commercial airport there. The base was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and county officials pushed the airport idea to boost the local economy and relieve air traffic at Miami International Airport. Opponents argue the base's proximity to the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks make it the wrong place to host hundreds of flights a day. But as Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports, just what will become of the base is up in the air.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The Clinton administration's decision to block an airport spilled out onto the Web and wires within minutes of its release, demonstrating how national an issue the Homestead base has become. Alan Ferago says that's because the proposed runways flew in the face of a $7.8 billion federal effort to restore the Everglades.

FERAGO: You cannot invest the amount of money we are talking about investing in the Everglades, which is a cornerstone of the environmental agenda, and at the same time support a billion dollar commercial airport. So finally, in the end, we were able to engage national environmental groups and, really, citizens across the nation in raising the stakes and raising the awareness that our national parks have to be protected from what could have turned out to be a devastating precedent.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Ferago directs the Everglades Defense Council. He says a major airport isn't the only way to help the economy in south Miami-Dade County. He envisions Homestead as a model gateway for the national parks that flank it. And now, he's hopeful that will happen. If the word "gateway" brings to mind images of strip malls and theme parks, Ferago says think again.

FERAGO: Right now we have a stretch of U.S. Route 1 that is filled with signage from Holiday Inns to Kentucky Fried Chickens. It really looks quite similar to many of the other sort of blighted landscapes that fringe our national parks at the entrance. What we need to do at Homestead is find a better way, a more sensitive way, to develop and to plan for that kind of area, in order to keep people coming and to preserve the natural landscape.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The proposal Ferago favors features a world-class aquarium and an eco-friendly golf course. The Air Force plans to keep using the existing runways for its small reserve unit. The rest of the land, 717 acres, will be offered to Miami-Dade County. But county mayor Alex Panelas says he wants the land at Homestead to be used for public runways. He says South Florida's current airports are maxed out, and he doesn't believe a new one here would harm the wetlands or coral reefs. Mayor Panelas points to an environmental impact statement issued in December by the Air Force. The document concluded that an airport should not be ruled out because of environmental impacts. What happened between then and now?

PANELAS: I don't know what happened, but I do believe it was an erroneous decision, and one that does have the potential of impacting not just the south Dade economy but the economy of this entire region.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The airport's developers have filed a federal suit against the ruling. Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County officials have 90 days to decide whether to accept the federal government's offer of land without an airport. That's not what the mayor had in mind.

PANELAS: We applied for the aviation advance because we believe the south Florida area needs a new supplemental airport. So right now, we don't have any quote-unquote mixed use plans ready to go. Nor, quite frankly, has a policy decision been made by the board and myself, that we want to be in the economic development business.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: If the county decides to forego its mixed use opportunity, the land will be turned over to the Bush administration's Department of the Interior. Alan Ferago doesn't expect there to be a problem during the transition.

FERAGO: It's not on the order of a last-minute decision. The Homestead Air Force Base controversy that began in the throes of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 has really taken a long time to unwind. So we think that when the Bush administration has the opportunity to review this decision, it will support whole-heartedly the reuse of the Homestead Air Force Base in a way that's consistent with the long-term goals of Everglades restoration.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: If the Interior Department ends up with Homestead, the likely outcome is a land swap. The department's been eyeing mineral rights on a piece of Florida land that's owned by the same developers who want to build an aquarium on the base. The idea is the government would get those mineral rights, and the developers would get Homestead. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

TOOMEY: Coming up: The cool side of global warming. Melting ice in polar Canada reveals archaeological treasures. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental health update with Maggie Villiger.

(Music up and under)

Back to top

 

Health Update

VILLIGER: The chaste berry plant grows in the Mediterranean and Central Asia and gets its name from the belief that it suppresses sex drive. For centuries the chaste berry has also been a key ingredient in herbal therapies to relieve premenstrual syndrome. And a study out of Germany confirms its effectiveness in treating its symptoms. One hundred and seventy women diagnosed with PMS were either given chaste berry extract or a placebo. After three months, women who received the herb reported significant reductions in a number of symptoms, including mood swings, headaches, and feelings of anger and irritability. Overall, more than half the women given chaste berry extract say their symptoms improved by at least 50 percent. Researchers think the active ingredient in the fruit works by lowering the level of the hormone prolactin. That's this week's health update. I'm Maggie Villiger.

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

(Music up and under)

Back to top

 

Ice Archaeology

TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. Some of the most dramatic evidence of climate change can be seen in the rapid retreat of the world's glaciers and ice patches. The melting of ancient ice could eventually cause drought and famine for millions of people around the world who rely on rivers fed by mountain ice. But in the western corner of Canada, the receding ice has also produced an unexpected benefit: the uncovering of ancient artifacts that archaeologists call some of the most important finds in North America. Bob Carty has this report from the Yukon.

(Helicopter engines)

FARNELL: We're a short distance south of White Horse in the Coast Mountain Range. We're flying at about 6,000 feet, and the site we're going to is known as Friday Creek. It's just up in this hanging valley at 12 o'clock.

CARTY: Rick Farnell is a government biologist, and today he's taking me for a little helicopter ride. Off to the west about 100 miles is the border with Alaska. Down below are the high ridges of the Yukon Mountains. In their crevices and in their hanging valleys are ancient patches of ice.

FARNELL: This one is about 100 meters wide, and I'd say about 300 meters long. A couple of years ago, we discovered these ice patches were melting back quite rapidly. This could be a real strong signature of global warming.

(Helicopter engines, fade to footfalls)

CARTY: The helicopter lands and we scramble over to the ice patch. As we walk up to it, there is a football field of rocks at its base. Rocks that are barren of lichens and mosses. They used to be covered by the ice patch. That's how far it's melted in only a few years, the result of repeated summers of high temperatures. In this part of North America, ice patches have melted by up to 80 percent of their original size.

(Flowing water)

FARNELL: There's always water runoff on the ice patches, and it's because these sites are really burning out. They're melting back really fast.

CARTY: Ice patches were formed thousands of years ago in the same way as glaciers: snow accumulating over the years getting packed down into ice. But unlike glaciers, ice patches do not move, which means they don't crush and mix up everything inside them. Which means that when they melt, they release their contents.

(Footfalls on gravel)

CARTY: Rick Farnell takes me up to the 25-foot face of the ice patch, and then he points to the thick black clumps under our feet. "What you're standing on," Rick tells me, "is caribou dung. Lots of caribou dung." And that's what Rick Farnell comes here to find and collect.

(Scrapes, chops)

FARNELL: What we do is chop in here into the ice like this, and you can remove fecal material from the bottom. And that will be the oldest fecal material. I was telling my assistant, Lora Lee, when she started working on this project, that she's going to learn a new science, and we're going to call it "fecology." And I've had her sorting and mailing and shipping turds, or, you know, fecal pellets, to all kinds of researchers.

CARTY: Now the question arises, why is there such scientific excitement about these caribou droppings? The reason is, there aren't any caribou living in these parts, and there haven't been for hundreds of years. And that made Don Russell, a caribou expert with Environment Canada, really curious when he heard about the dung. Three years ago he went up the mountain and discovered more than just caribou droppings.

RUSSELL: Just before I left, I picked up what looked like the end of an arrow. We subsequently had it aged and it was 4,300 years old, which was at that time the oldest organic artifact found in Canada. We had some of the droppings aged, and the oldest is around 8,000 years.

CARTY: It seems that for a period of up to 8,000 years, these mountain ice patches were visited by immense herds of caribou escaping from mosquitoes in the summer heat. And where the caribou gathered, so too did aboriginal hunters. If a hunter missed his prey with a spear or an arrow, it could be lost to the snow and to the ice. And to time. Until today. Diane Strand is the spokesperson for the Champagne-Aishiak Indians. Her elders used to talk about herds of caribou so large that when they moved, it seemed the mountains themselves moved. For Diane Strand, those are now more than just old tales. When the artifacts were first discovered on her people's land, Diane Strand went up to the ice patches to see what her ancestors had left behind.

STRAND: As I was climbing up, I had said a little prayer to my grandmother, just to give me some guidance and help. My grandmother had lived there. My mother was raised in that area. Just when I was finishing my prayer, I look down and I seen a stick that looks something like a pencil sticking out of the dirt or the dung, actually. I brushed it off, and I could see that there was some sinew that was wrapped around it. It was a spear-throwing dart. It was dated at about 6,700 years old, plus or minus a few hundred years there. And I go back and I think about -- it could be one of my ancestors, my great great great great great grandpa, of some sort.

(Chopping)

HARE: What we found, is you can find a piece of bone that looks as fresh as if it was dropped last year or the year before, and it can be 5,000 years old.

CARTY: Greg Hare fingers a piece of caribou antler he's just picked up from the ground. The ice patch we're visiting today is the seventy-fifth site that is now producing artifacts from previous centuries. It's like a dream come true for Greg Hare, an archaeologist with the Yukon territorial government.

HARE: One of the finest pieces we found in the last two years was a type of hunting technology where you use a throwing board to propel a long dart. And it's this beautifully-made stone point. The sinew is still very intact, holding it onto the wooden foreshaft. For most archaeologists this would be unbelievable.

CARTY: After artifacts are found on the ice patches, they're taken down to White Horse to be freeze-dried and preserved.

(Clanking, hammering, fans)

HARE: This is a dedicated freezer for storing the artifacts and faunal remains from the ice patches. It's constantly kept at minus 12 degrees.

CARTY: Greg Hare brings a tray of artifacts out of the freezer to show them off. And I have to admit to being very impressed. I visited quite a few museums and I've seen my share of arrowheads. And frankly, I've always found them kind of boring. This is different. These specimens are more than just the rock. They have their original organic parts, the wood and the sinew that would normally rot away and disappear. Greg Hare shows me an arrow he's particularly proud of.

HARE: Just a remarkable specimen. It's about two and a half feet long, it's got a barbed antler point at the end, it's tied on with sinew. There's three feathers, ochre decoration at least in five places down the arrow. This arrow has got to be a thousand years old, and it's in nearly perfect condition. If you had a bow you could shoot and hunt with this arrow today.

CARTY: The ice patches may contain other surprises. The caribou dung itself is being analyzed for what it can tell us about vegetation, bacteria, and diseases over thousands of years. It could even reveal insights into climate changes of the past. But for aboriginal spokesperson Diane Strand, the discoveries mean something more intangible.

STRAND: I do have mixed feelings about climate change, but it's been kind of a mixed blessing for us so that we can have -- the first nation's people can have some kind of opportunity in looking at their past. And once you have that, you develop a sense of pride.

(Helicopter engines)

CARTY: Up on these ice patches, you might expect researchers to be enjoying and celebrating their discoveries. Instead, they're working with a sense of anxiety and urgency. The problem is that their icy treasure chest is melting too fast. They may be running out of time to retrieve the secrets of the past. And it's all because of the weather of today and the forecast for the future, according to biologist Rick Farnell.

FARNELL: Our glaciologist predicts that we've only got five to ten years and they may melt back completely if the summers stay as hot as they are.

CARTY: Climate change giveth and taketh away.

FARNELL: Yeah, and then they're no longer going to be time capsules, if they melt completely back.

(Helicopter engines)

CARTY: In the Yukon Mountains of Western Canada, I'm Bob Carty for Living on Earth.

(Music up and 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)

TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: The ZEVs are out and the hybrids are in, as California takes a second look at mandating cleaner cars. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

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

(Music up and under: "Well I've got a girl, she looks so neat. When I take her downtown I want something to eat. I want the lettuce boogie. Lettuce boogie. Oh, the lettuce boogie. Lettuce boogie. Oh, the lettuce boogie, well give it to me please...")

Back to top

 

The Living on Earth Almanac

TOOMEY: Anyone can look back on their more innocent salad days, but to reminisce about lettuce days you'll have to visit Yuma, Arizona. The self-proclaimed Winter Lettuce Capital of the World is celebrating its showcase crop this week at the annual Lettuce Days Festival. The growing season in this corner of the Southwest is virtually year-round, with the Colorado River providing water to the fertile Yuma Valley. It's the perfect place to grow those popular greens called Lactuca sativa. Lettuce cultivation began thousands of years ago throughout the Mediterranean region. Rome's first emperor, Caesar Augustus, even erected a statue to the verdant plant after recovering his health thanks to a diet of lettuce. Ancient Romans did eat lettuce with dressing, but Caesar salad was actually invented in the early 1900s in Tijuana, Mexico. Lettuce itself has very few calories, though it does supply a fair amount of Vitamin A. Iceberg, romaine, Bibb, Bostoner, looseleaf...Americans eat an average of 30 pounds of the green stuff each year. That's an awful lot of salad or BLTs. And with thanks to Clive's Jive Five, that's this week's Living on Earth Almanac.

(Music up and under: "Well, the moral of this is plain to see. If you don't want your lettuce, give it to me. I want the lettuce boogie. Lettuce boogie. Got to give me that lettuce. Lettuce boogie. Well, you know what I mean. It's so green...")

Back to top

 

California Cars

TOOMEY: California's Air Resources Board meets on January twenty-fifth, and is expected to officially relax its requirement that auto makers sell tens of thousands of Zero Emission Vehicles by the end of the decade. The state's mandate spurred manufacturers to invest billions of dollars to develop and market electric cars with advanced battery technology. And clean air advocates argue that taking the pressure off the industry now will slow a push for more fuel efficient vehicles. But California regulators say they're taking a pragmatic step that won't sacrifice air quality goals. Jeff Hoffman reports from San Francisco.

HOFFMAN: California's Air Resources Board currently requires that in 2003 four percent of new cars sold here by major auto makers must have zero emissions. Those failing to meet the requirement face stiff penalties on each vehicle sold in California. Collectively, the six largest auto companies would have to sell more than 22,000 battery electric cars, currently the only zero emission vehicles. Auto makers say there isn't demand for that many electrics, which cost much more than conventional cars and have limited range. They've put only 5,000 on the road in California since the mid 1990s.

OLSON: Electric cars are a theology, not a technology. This is not about clean air. It's about political pressure from well-meaning but I'm afraid misguided, environmental groups.

HOFFMAN: Jim Olson oversees regulatory affairs for Toyota in the United States. He says the company is losing money on an electric version of its RAV-4 sport utility, which Toyota has been market-testing in California since 1998. That's mainly because of the high cost of advanced batteries.

OLSON: There are too many other alternatives that are in the marketplace, or coming, or on the not-too-distant horizon, that we would prefer, the auto industry would, to spend our resources on. And it would deliver clean air for California a lot faster than electric cars.

HOFFMAN: Those alternatives include hybrids powered by both a gasoline engine and a battery motor. Hybrids don't have to be charged up, get up to 70 miles per gallon of ordinary gas, and cost only a few thousand dollars more than conventional cars. Proposed changes to California's policy would give auto makers Zero Emission Vehicle credits for hybrids. Toyota, for example, could replace half of its quota of about 2,500 electric cars with sales of its sleek hybrid sedan, the Prius. Mike Kenny is Executive Director of the Air Resources Board. He says the board is reacting to technological change and isn't caving in to industry pressure.

KENNY: What we really have forced to occur over the last ten years is this development of this multitude of technologies, all of which give us huge advantages on air quality.

HOFFMAN: Indeed, in the past two decades, the state's insistence on cleaner-burning gasoline and more efficient cars has achieved a massive reduction in pollution, especially in smog-plagued Los Angeles. Even so, 95 percent of Californians still live in areas where air quality doesn't meet state or federal standards.

HATHAWAY: We have made progress, but the question is, do you say that you've finished when you haven't even seen a commercial takeoff of the most important technology, which is true zero emission battery or fuel cell technology?

HOFFMAN: Janet Hathaway is a lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says the proposed rule changes send the wrong signal to makers of cars and advanced batteries.

HATHAWAY: It is a crippling change. The technology is a great one, it's available now, and we need to have certainty in the market in order for the cost to come down.

HOFFMAN: Some analysts say California regulators are taking a flexible and politically expedient approach to air quality goals. Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis, says electric cars will fill a niche in short-haul transportation, but will never compete head to head with full-sized gasoline vehicles.

SPERLING: Many fear that this is the end of the battery electric technology in particular. I don't think that's correct. I believe the Air Resources Board is dealing with a reality. You cannot force a technology that's very expensive into the marketplace.

HOFFMAN: Sperling adds that the zero emission mandate forced the industry to invest heavily in clean car technology. Breakthroughs stemming from research on battery electrics led to the hybrid, which could prove to be the missing link between today's cars and tomorrow's hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Auto makers like hybrids because they don't require major changes in consumer behavior. Drivers don't have to deal with complicated charging devices. They just fill up the tank and go. Toyota's Japan-built Prius, on sale for just a few months in the U.S., is winning quick acceptance in the market, says executive Jim Olson.

OLSON: We cannot get enough of them, basically. And we do intend to take the hybrid technology in the Prius and put it into other vehicles in the future here in the United States. We think the technology has a very bright future.

HOFFMAN: Even Detroit is scrambling to get on the hybrid bandwagon. Earlier this month, at the North American Auto Show, Ford announced it would build a hybrid version of the gas guzzling Explorer sport utility vehicle. General Motors, meanwhile, says it plans a full line of hybrids. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman in San Francisco.

TOOMEY: Just ahead: Eco-terrorists, disgruntled snow bunnies, and an evil empire. A tale of arson, money, and mystery on Colorado's fabled Vail Mountain is coming up. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental business update with Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

(Music up and under)

Back to top

 

Business Update

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Salvage logging usually happens on forested hillsides, but now there's another place to find old, forgotten timber: underwater in the reservoirs of dams. A company called Aquatic Cellulose has developed a robotic cutting machine that can harvest up to 35 trees per day from the deep. The company says underwater salvage logging could minimize cutting of trees above the water line and remove rotting wood, which releases tons of greenhouse gases per year. The company's now logging Brazil's Tucurui Lake, where a government dam inundated 450,000 acres of rainforest. The next challenge is to build markets for the tropical hardwoods. Mahogany is one species in the lake, but with names like Ipe and Massaranduba, most of the other trees aren't familiar to many U.S. and European woodworkers. That's this week's business update. I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

(Music up and under)

TOOMEY: 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.

(Music up and under)

It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. Coming up: Western governors tackle the problem of western wildfires. But first...

(Music up and under)

Back to top

 

Listener Letters

TOOMEY: Time for your comments.

(Music up and under)

TOOMEY: Last week we profiled Robert Lind from San Francisco, who tags SUVs with bumper stickers that read, "I'm changing the planet. Ask me how." From Cleveland, WCPN listener Jeff Barbalics says he was less than pleased to hear us devote air time to this "vandal." "I recycle," Mr. Barbalics writes. "I compost. I sometimes bike to work to save the gas and pollution. I do not own an SUV. But where does this eco-vandal get his mandate? Appointing yourself spokesperson for the human race is egotistical and self-righteous. Where will this end? Will it be accepted if vegetarians tag people eating at McDonald's? Shame on you for giving this person validation in his mistaken and misguided vendetta."

Filson Glanz had another view. Mr. Glanz listens to us on New Hampshire Public Radio and he writes, "One person who had been stickered said there was no harm in using gasoline. Seems like there should be a few minutes listing the consequences for all to hear. Increased lung trouble from air pollution, increased dependency on foreign oil, increased environmental degradation due to transportation of oil, increased threat of war due to need for oil, etc."

Speaking of oil, last week's feature on a resurgence of olive oil production in California sparked this call from KQED listener Cindi Alpieri.

ALPIERI: I thought it was fascinating and really important to try to educate the urbanites of this world as to the value of agriculture, particularly when the Great Central Valley where the Shabika Farm and Shabika olive processing plant that was so much a part of your report is located. And Central Valley is in great danger of being razed over by development.

TOOMEY: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. 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.

(Music up and under)

Back to top

 

Fire Plan

TOOMEY: When Western governors gather at their upcoming annual meeting in Denver, finding a way to avoid another round of catastrophic wildfires will be high on their agenda. Uncontrolled blazes scorched more than six and a half million acres of western land last year. Recently, in Tempe, Arizona, state, regional, and federal experts met to lay out their plan for the next decade. And, for the first time, they're finding common ground in the battle against wildfire. From KJZZ in Phoenix, Mark Moran reports.

MORAN: If nothing else, the devastating fire in Los Alamos, New Mexico, last year heightened the lack of coordination between state and federal agencies. As a result, President Clinton appropriated an additional $1.6 billion to hire more firefighters and buy more firefighting equipment. He also gave local governments decision-making power over how best to use the money. So, for the first time, a plan to battle wildfires and restore the nation's forests has the resources to back it up. Arizona's fire management director Kirk Rodebaugh says the money will be put to work right away.

RODEBAUGH: You'll see that in the woods this summer. There will be more chainsaws running and more trees coming down and more wood being removed from the woods than there have been in prior years.

MORAN: The ten-year plan, which has been in the design stage for several months, seeks to do two things: reduce the threat of wildfire for people who live on the edge of the forest, by reminding them to remove fuel sources, such as pine needles, small trees, and fuel storage tanks. The second part of the plan seeks the long-term goal of preserving and restoring the nation's old growth forests and wild lands. New Mexico state forester Toby Martinez says the approach is different in the wild lands, where the focus is not so much on people but on trying to repair an ecological imbalance that has been a century in the making.

MARTINEZ: These lands are not in balance. We have a very unnatural situation. Too many trees, small trees. Some of those trees are five inches in diameter and they're 100 years old, you know.

MORAN: Last year that imbalance erupted in flames when a prescribed burn near Los Alamos, New Mexico, a fire set intentionally by federal officials, blew out of control and quickly began consuming trees and threatening homes. But Toby Martinez says it's not productive to blame, especially now when state and federal officials are making an effort to cooperate.

MARTINEZ: We can always look back and Monday morning quarterback and say "Well, we could have done this and we could have done that." But in reality, there are a lot of factors that, you know, are unpredictable. And I think prescribed fire is certainly a tool we need to continue to use in the future.

MORAN: Along with prescribed fires, the ten-year plan also calls for reducing the number of smaller, fire-prone trees, both in fire-prone residential areas and in the wild lands. But there's a fine line between thinning and logging. Even environmentalists who'd opposed thinning now agree that, to some degree, it will be necessary. Brad Ack is with the Grand Canyon Trust, a coalition of sixteen environmental groups formed to restore forest ecosystems.

ACK: Thinning has become the flashpoint for the fight over forest ecosystem restoration, because many people believe that what you have here is logging in sheep's clothing. That what we're really all about is trying to get out commercial timber. And that is just a fallacy.

MORAN: Despite a large degree of cooperation between all sides in this debate, there's one sticking point over which there seems to be no agreement: the size of the tree. Brad Shulke with the Southwest Forest Alliance says it's okay to clear away underbrush in small, fire-prone trees, but worries that the ten-year plan will mean logging big trees a foot and a half in diameter from the wild lands. Shulke says saving the big trees is the most important element in any plan to restore old growth forests.

SHULKE: It's the small trees that really create the fire risk problem. And a vast majority of the trees in the forest are smaller than 12 inches, in most cases smaller than nine inches. So, if there is an attempt through this ten-year plan to cut large trees, then yeah, we're definitely going to oppose it vigorously.

MORAN: The ten-year plan, as much as anything say experts involved in writing it, is about money. While the Clinton administration appropriated more than a billion and a half dollars for more fire protection in the years to come, there is no guarantee that the next administration will do the same. Arizona state forester Mike Anable says the plan needs a consistent source of funding to train and equip firefighters in the region.

ANABLE: We're hoping that the federal share of those programs will increase, and we'll be able to direct more money to local governments, to rural fire departments, to gear up for what really will be a campaign over the next ten years in terms of fire and forest restoration.

MORAN: Ecologically speaking, Todd Shulke is convinced that a decade is not nearly long enough.

SHULKE: There's a lot more questions, a lot more controversy over the issues, and I think it's sort of crazy to think we can resolve those problems in ten years.

MORAN: In the short term, fire officials have been encouraged by rain and snow in the Southwest's forests in recent weeks. But, to a large degree, the severity of the next wildfire season will depend on the weather staying damp through the spring. For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Moran.

Back to top

 

Powder Burn

TOOMEY: The Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for a number of acts of vandalism and arson, including the recent fire set in Long Island to protest sprawl. But the scene of the clandestine group's most notorious claim lies in the small mountain community of Vail, Colorado. In the early morning hours of October 19, 1998, seven separate fires swept through the central headquarters of the Vail Ski Resort. The result was $12 million in damage. ELF said it set the fires to protest expansion of the resort and to protect the habitat of the lynx. But as journalist Daniel Glick found, solving this crime was not as simple as it seemed. The community of Vail had built up enough animosity against the ski resort to assemble an impressive list of suspects beyond the Earth Liberation Front. As he writes in a new book "Powderburn," the little town on the mountain came to represent a number of problems now facing the "New West."

GLICK: In Vail's tale lies a parable for our times: how global dot com capitalism stretches its tendrils into the most unlikely places. Like this bucolic Alpine valley in the Rocky Mountains. How the post Drexel-Burnham-Lambert junk bond mentality has shifted insidiously toward vulture investors, even in the unlikely environs of the ski and recreation industry. How environmental conflicts over recreation have shifted the western debate from cowboys, miners, and loggers to the impacts of mountain bikers wearing lycra and skiers wearing Gore-Tex. And how, after 40 years, the unintended consequences of creating a full Austrian ski resort, then building a community as an afterthought, have come to haunt Vail, ultimately making it the target of an arson that was dubbed the costliest eco-terrorism act in history.

TOOMEY: That's Daniel Glick reading from his book "Powderburn." Why isn't this a simple story of a simple whodunit?

GLICK: One of the things that struck me and struck law enforcement at the very beginning is that there were so many different factions of people in the area around Vail that plausibly had motive and opportunity to commit the crime. The company that owns Vail, the ski aea, also owns three other resorts in Colorado, and had really become a big force in this mountain valley. And the new company had alienated so many different groups of people, whether they were the old school ski bums who thought the whole place was going corporate, or small merchants who felt that the new company was buying retail outlets and hotels and really trying to take over the whole town. Ultimately, this was a perfect kind of whodunit, because so many people had motive and opportunity.

TOOMEY: Talk to me about the underbelly, what I wouldn't see. Tell me what's not apparent in Vail.

GLICK: I think that 72 percent of the homes are owned by people who don't even live there. In some ways, it's a facade of a town. It's a ghost town where the owners are there only a couple weeks out of the year. But basically, it's a cauldron of a lot of people who have seen the valley change over the 40 years since Vail was built, and it just keeps getting built up and built up and built up. And I think the tensions of the social and the cultural dislocation that follows is really intense.

TOOMEY: You write at a certain point in your book, "In many ways Vail was almost ready to combust spontaneously before somebody literally poured gasoline on the place and lit a match." So, you had some employees that weren't happy, small business owners that weren't happy, an immigrant labor force who wasn't happy. And then in the early morning hours of October 19, 1998, comes the fire. Twelve million dollars worth of damage. What were people's knee-jerk reactions about whodunit?

GLICK: There was an enormously volatile conflict going on at the time. Vail had plans to expand their ski area, and they had -- the local environmental groups had ginned up a fair amount of opposition in the town of Vail and in the Eagle Valley. But Vail Resorts had won every administrative challenge and every legal avenue that the environmentalists could pose to try to stop it.

TOOMEY: And those environmental challenges had to do with this being possible lynx habitat.

GLICK: Exactly. That was one of several ways that the environmental groups had sought to stop this. So here we are, poised on the day, literally, Monday morning, that the bulldozers were supposed to come to start the construction. And lo and behold, the fire starts that day.

TOOMEY: So, was everybody thinking eco-terrorism from the get-go?

GLICK: A lot of the people who worked for Vail Resorts immediately thought it had to be these environmentalists. But one of the things that I found fascinating when I started researching the book is that I sat down with one of the Eagle County Sheriffs Department investigators, and he told me a story that when he sat down two days later with the FBI, and they said "Okay, you're the local guy, who could have done this?" And the sheriff's deputy said, "Who couldn't have done this?" The list of people pissed off at the owners is pretty long.

TOOMEY: Shortly after the fires there was an e-mail claim of responsibility for the Earth Liberation Front. But you came across some evidence that it was not this group who lit that match.

GLICK: To say that this is a group or an organization is overstating it a little bit. This is not a group that has a board of directors. It doesn't have a glossy magazine it puts out. I would call it a loose-knit accumulation of like-minded people who probably only know each other in cyberspace. So, what you see is some dissimilarities between this arson and some of the other arsons that the ELF has claimed. It was of orders of magnitude more damage than anything else they had done. The note itself was quite a bit different than some of the other notes that had been left. It contained no information in it that wasn't in the public domain already. Now, normally, in some of the previous e-mails that had been sent in the name of the ELF, there had been that kind of information. In this case there was none.

TOOMEY: There was also speculation that if the Earth Liberation front was responsible, they must have had inside help. Why would that have been necessary?

GLICK: It was a pretty strategic strike. They hit a clump of buildings, the old patrol headquarters, the heart of the communications system for the mountain were in the basement of that building. Nobody really knew that. And they hit some chair lifts that were really vital to the way that the mountain works. And then they hit this signature lodge that was 33,000 square feet, called Two Elk. So people thought, how could anybody just sort of come up here from sea level, climb up to 11,000 feet, torch all these buildings, and then get off the mountain unnoticed, unless they had had at least some sense from one local?

TOOMEY: It's my understanding, and you write this in the book, that Vail Resorts headquarters was known as the evil empire. But after the fires, it seemed that overnight Vail Resorts went from evil empire to victim.

GLICK: It was abrupt and I think very, very heartfelt. People felt personally violated by this affront. The mountain was a very special place, is a very special place, to people who live there. And, you know, the boss is always the person you love to hate. And so, there's a curious relationship between the company and a company town. And I think that when the company was being threatened, many people rallied around. They offered to help rebuild. There was a great feeling of coming together.

TOOMEY: Does it matter in the end who set the fires, in the larger scheme of things?

GLICK: I don't think it does. I think the fires really did raise a lot of issues that needed to be raised. And in the recreation industry in general, people are waking up to the fact that mass recreation has environmental impacts. And the money that's being made in skiing these days is not selling lift tickets, it's selling real estate and golf courses and condos. And that is where I think the sprawl that comes along with the development of ski areas and recreation areas for the masses is where the next focus of some of our attention should be. We can't keep growing and developing and still have a relationship to this natural world that we seem to cherish so much that we want to flock there.

TOOMEY: Daniel Glick is a special correspondent for Newsweek. His new book is called "Powderburn: Arson, Money, and Mystery on Vail Mountain." Dan, thanks for joining us.

GLICK: It's been my great pleasure.

(Music up and under)

TOOMEY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: When Larry can't go to the lake, the lake goes to Larry. How to make a backyard skating rink that will be the envy of the neighborhood.

LARRY: Why do I sweep? What you're trying to do is, you have as flat a surface as possible when you put the flood down. And any little bit of snow, any little chip of ice or something like that, it's going to spoil that. I know it's sad. (Laughs) It's a pretty sad statement. But it's about perfection.

Back to top

 

TOOMEY: Making the perfect rink. Next week 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 Mylisa Muniz. We had help this week from Stephen Belter. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. Steve Curwood returns next week. 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)

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

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.

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

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

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 hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.