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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

May 4, 2001

Air Date: May 4, 2001

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

Energy Plan

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Vermont Wind

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Health Note

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The Living on Earth Almanac

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Teamsters and Turtles

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Recycled Prostheses

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News Update

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Tech Note

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Roadless Rule

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Tongass, Part I

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This week's EarthEar selection
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Energy Plan

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Bush administration has developed a long-term plan to supply the nation's energy needs. And supply is the key word. Most of the administration's proposals focus on boosting production of fossil fuels and nuclear power, with little attention to curbing consumption. Vice President Dick Cheney says, and I quote, "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." Mr. Cheney has been chairing the White House Task Force on Energy. Recently, he spoke about the committee's work with Time Magazine reporter Michael Weisskopf, who joins us now. Welcome, Michael.

WEISSKOPF: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Tell me, who are the winners? Who are the big winners and the big losers in this energy plan?

WEISSKOPF: Everyone comes out a winner, Steve. Oil and gas will be encouraged to drill in once-sacrosanct federal lands, including the Alaskan Refuge. The nuclear industry will receive incentives, probably in the form of more government research money to look for ways of disposing of nuclear waste, which has been one big impediment to the use of nuclear energy. The coal industry will receive other breaks, including easing of environmental regulations on modified plants. The utilities have been reluctant to modify because, in using coal to burn, they've had to put on expensive state-of-the-art equipment.

CURWOOD: What's powering this push for coal?

WEISSKOPF: A recognition that we will need at least 1,300 new power plants over the next 20 years. That's 65 a year. A sense that natural gas supplies are limited, oil supplies are limited by dint of their importation from overseas. And that coal is there. We are the Saudi Arabia of coal reserves. We have a 250-year supply there. And the administration realizes it needs to be tapped. At the same time, of all the other fuels, coal has a lot of political energy. It is underlying our heartland states and the Southeast, places that are considered battleground states in any kind of presidential election, and places that President Bush squeaked past or lost narrowly. And so, this is sort of a coming out party, or coming back party, by coal. Also, I should mention that the mining industry dug deep for President Bush in the last election in terms of campaign contributions.

CURWOOD: You say everyone's a winner in this plan. But how do environmentalists feel about this?

WEISSKOPF: Environmentalists will probably believe that the Earth comes out the loser in this, in the sense that there's been too much of an emphasis on greater energy production, not enough on smarter ways of cutting back. Unlike past inter-agency meetings of this sort, even in the first Bush administration, when there was lots of battle being done by environmental forces, these are pretty amicable. People inside have said that there is a remarkable ease at reaching consensus. They move swiftly through an agenda. The meetings usually last about an hour.

CURWOOD: Some might say that the reason the meetings have been so amicable is that it's pretty much pro-energy extraction industry at the table. How fair is that analysis?

WEISSKOPF: It is to some extent. We lightheartedly call it the Fossil Fuel Club, because some of its primary members have come from that industry or have had lots of dealings with them. Abraham, for instance, the Energy Secretary, was a favorite of the energy industry when he was a senator. Dick Cheney and the Commerce Secretary, Don Evans, come from the oil industry. These are men who have dealt with the energy sector for a long time. But you also have in there the Interior Secretary and the EPA Administrator, both of whom are supposed to be representing environmental concerns. And so, there will be conservation measures. However, the belief of the task force that any gain will be marginal, the only way to deal with this effectively is by throwing more energy at the matter.

CURWOOD: Michael Weisskopf writes for Time Magazine and joined us from the NPR studios in Washington. Thanks for taking this time with us.

WEISSKOPF: Pleasure.

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Vermont Wind

CURWOOD: The force of the wind is the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in the world. Most of the growth is in Europe. And here in the U.S., some large-scale wind power projects are also underway. More and more private consumers are also becoming interested in windmills, but as Nina Keck reports, many states, including Vermont, are not yet willing or able to pay for incentives to promote small-scale wind power.

(Windmill turning)

KECK: Tucked amidst the rolling hills, farms, and costly homes of Charlotte, Vermont, is a lone windmill. Its three blades hum rhythmically as they turn in the breeze.

(Windmill)

KECK: The windmill belongs to David Blittersdorf. Blittersdorf is president of NRG Systems, a Vermont-based company that makes wind-measuring devices. Blittersdorf says renewable energy is all about power generated in your own back yard. He installed the turbine and several solar panels to prove his point. The equipment saves him between $60 and $70 a month, and he says it shows that clean energy sources are a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

BLITTERSDORF: Every time I see a windmill around, I get excited. It's -- it's a great feeling to see the blades going through the air and the swishing sound, and knowing that electricity is being generated, all from just the invisible air going by.

KECK: Not everyone is as enthusiastic. Several of Blittersdorf's neighbors were less than thrilled when they learned of his plans to install the 80-foot turbine. Some even took legal action to fight it, worried about how it would look and the noise it would generate. David Blittersdorf says communities should always have a public means to voice their concerns. But, he says, the permitting process in Vermont is unnecessarily cumbersome.

BLITTERSDORF: You submit a nine-page application to the Public Service Board. You have to notify all your neighbors that are abutting. You have to notify the Town Select Board, the town zoning people, the Agency of Natural Resources, the Department of Public Service, and the Public Service Board themselves. And then that just starts the process.

KECK: In the end, Blittersdorf says it took almost a year and $5,000 in legal fees to get approval for his windmill. That's on top of the $30,000 he spent to purchase and install it. He says people won't give wind energy a try until it's more affordable and user-friendly. So, he's been lobbying state lawmakers and regulators to streamline the permitting process and offer hefty tax rebates to people who use renewable energy sources. Scutter Parker is the director of the Energy Efficiency Division of the Vermont Department of Public Service. He says Vermont is encouraging renewable energy systems. But he says it's new territory, and simply paring down regulations isn't the answer.

PARKER: One of the important things to do is to develop consistent standards so that people planning for wind installations know what the rules are, that communities can reach a consensus about where it's good to have wind sited, and where they really want to encourage and promote wind installations as a part of moving to a renewable energy future.

KECK: Parker says his office hopes to complete a study this year to help communities develop clear guidelines for placing wind turbines. As far as making wind energy more affordable for consumers, a bill is currently being proposed in the Vermont legislature that would provide up to a 60 percent tax credit for installing wind, geothermal, or solar equipment. David Blittersdorf estimates the credit would cost the state $34.5 million over ten years. But he says the measure would stimulate more than $105 million in equipment sales in Vermont, and create more than 400 jobs. Lawmakers point out that with the current budget, it's not likely that such an expensive proposal will be approved this year. Blittersdorf says if the state truly wants to promote renewable energy, it has to put its money where its mouth is.

BLITTERSDORF: We're exporting a billion dollars of Vermonters' money outside the state right now for energy per year. If oil costs go up, natural gas prices go up, like they're going up, in a few years it may be two billion dollars a year. That's a lot of dollars, considering we only have about 650,000 people in the state.

KECK: Rhode Island and North Carolina offer tax incentives for using renewable energy. Other states go even further. California and Illinois, for example, pay for 50 percent of purchase, permitting, and installation costs. New Jersey now pays for 60 percent of those costs. John Zimmerman, a Vermont-based consultant who develops commercial wind sites, says that publicly-funded incentives are important to stimulate the market. But, he says, they create controversial policy questions.

ZIMMERMAN: The questions here in Vermont will be, should money be directed toward the residential scale development, where homeowners can install them on their own property, or would you get more bang for the buck by putting the wind turbines up on mountaintops where the winds are stronger in a commercial application, and the technology will operate more cost-effectively?

KECK: Scutter Parker of the Vermont Department of Public Service says ideally, the state should support both large- and small-scale wind power.

PARKER: In Vermont, for instance, we've lowered, over the last ten years, the number of kilowatt hours the average home in Vermont uses by a thousand kilowatt hours a year. If we could get, with renewable energy, an increased efficiency to the point where new homes added little or nothing to the demand on the energy system, wouldn't that be a good outcome?

KECK: But promoting windpower in Vermont in any fiscal way may take awhile. The state currently has an energy contract with Hydro Quebec until 2017. Since Canada provides a major portion of Vermont's energy, there is not the pressing need to develop renewable sources, and no state budget for it. Vermont has approved something called net metering, which allows people who use renewable energy sources to plug into the power grid and get credit for any excess power they produce. But wind energy experts say until power costs go up dramatically in Vermont, the number of windmills in the Green Mountains will remain low. For Living on Earth, I'm Nina Keck in Charlotte, Vermont.

CURWOOD: Coming up: A good solution for a bad situation. Changing trash into prostheses for bodies broken by land mines.

First, this environmental health note from Maggie Villiger.

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Health Note

VILLIGER: With summer approaching, people are stocking up on their favorite sunscreens to fend off the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays. But some Swiss scientists warn that the UV-absorbing chemicals used to protect skin cells may pose hormonal risks. Researchers studied six chemicals commonly used in sunscreens and other cosmetics. Five of the six UV screens they examined behaved like the hormone estrogen in lab tests, speeding up the growth of breast cancer cells. Three of the chemicals also quickened the pace of sexual development in rats when mixed with their feed. Even applying the chemicals to the rats' skin in concentrations allowed in commercial sunscreens disrupted normal reproductive development. Researchers don't know whether these dosage levels have similar effects on people, but they are concerned because the hormone-mimicking chemicals can build up in our bodies and have been found in breast milk. Also worrisome, the UV-absorbers can enter the food chain when fish accumulate chemicals that wash off sunscreen-coated swimmers. Scientists aren't yet advising us to abandon sunscreens, which still provide the best defense against sun-damaged skin. They do suggest that until we know more about the effects of UV-absorbing chemicals, zinc oxide, which doesn't contain the additives, may be your best bet. As long as you don't mind a bright white nose. That's this week's health note. I'm Maggie Villiger.

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

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Staring groggily into your morning cup of coffee, the last thing you're probably thinking about are migratory birds. But on Saturday, May 12, birds and bees will have something in common. It's International Migratory Bird Day, and this year's theme is all about the way coffee production affects bird populations. You see, coffee is second only to petroleum as the world's most valuable export. Coffee shrubs are usually grown under a covering of shade trees that double as home to an array of migratory birds that head for the tropics during winter. But since the 1970s, coffee growers have turned to high-yield sun-resistant types of beans. Now, that may mean more coffee for you and me, but fewer spots to roost for the birds, and their numbers have been steadily dropping. One answer: In Indonesia, which is the world's third-largest producer of coffee, the shade trees are coming back. That's good news for, who else, the java birds. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Teamsters and Turtles

CURWOOD: Labor and environmental activists marched together again recently in Quebec to protest the prospect of a free trade area of the Americas. The event drew comparison to the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle, when the group's partnership was dubbed the Teamsters and the Turtles. At the same time, though, the Teamsters, along with some building trades unions, came out in favor of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The environmental movement, of course, has largely opposed oil extraction in ANWR. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum joins me now. She's been speaking with key players involved in the so-called Blue-Green Alliance to find out how they're dealing with this apparent contradiction. Hi there, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, what does it say about the state of the Blue-Green Union that the teamsters did come out in favor of drilling in ANWR?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, Steve, it actually doesn't say that much that wasn't already clear. The fact is, when it comes to labor and environmental groups seeing eye to eye, some issues like trade are pretty easy and others cause a lot more friction. But both groups have been trying to focus on the positive here, and they'd probably say that the divide on ANWR doesn't take away from the consensus in Quebec on the FTAA Treaty.

CURWOOD: So what were they calling for there in Quebec?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: If any kind of trade accord is going to go forward, these groups want to see strong labor and environmental protections built in. As it stands now, though, they're trying to block the treaty altogether. And they'll do that by trying to stop what's called fast track negotiating authority. Fast track basically makes it much easier for the president to push a trade accord through because it bars Congress from amending it. They can only vote yes or no. And this is how NAFTA was passed in 1993. Labor and environmental groups have opposed it ever since, and, for the most part, they've been pretty successful in defeating it. Now President Bush, of course, is looking to gain fast track in order to push FTAA through, but once again the Greens and Blues are putting up a pretty united front. And without fast track, it's unlikely the trade treaty will go forward.

CURWOOD: Okay, Anna. So, they have agreed on trade. But as you say, that's kind of the easy stuff.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Right. If you want to talk tough there is plenty to talk about. And there's probably no issue that's tougher for environmentalists and labor groups to agree on than climate change. Even so, there's been a strong effort from folks on both sides to try and engage on the issue and see if they can find some kind of common ground. This actually started out with several environmental groups sitting down with the AFL-CIO itself. But the Federation has so many member unions that were in such different places with regard to climate and carbon issues, they couldn't really build any kind of consensus to move the talks forward. So that kind of fell apart. But there were a few unions who wanted to see the talks continue. These include the steel workers, the service employees, and this has grown into sort of an informal working group that's dubbed itself, kind of predictably, the Blue-Green Alliance.

CURWOOD: And so, what have they discovered in the way of common ground?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, the first thing they agreed on was that they couldn't agree on Kyoto. So instead, they've been asking themselves the question: How do we reduce carbon in a way that doesn't hurt workers? The key concept here is referred to as just transition. And they've been developing an economic model that uses tax policies and technology incentives to protect workers through a shift away from fossil fuels. Keep in mind, this isn't a new idea. Just in the last decade we saw Northeast fishermen paid to stop fishing. Now, Maryland tobacco farmers are being paid to stop growing tobacco. And in the 1970s, when California's Redwood National Park was created, a program was put in place to provide benefits and retraining to the loggers there who lost their jobs. But, Steve, whatever the specific policy solutions, I think it's significant that both sides in this discussion say they're making progress simply by starting to trust each other. One negotiator for the Sierra Club told me, before this process, he'd go around talking about, you know, win-win answers to the problem of climate change. And he said these talks have made him realize "oh, well it's really not quite that simple if we reduce our carbon output." Unless we're very careful, there are going to be people who are going to lose out there.

CURWOOD: So where would these potential losers fit into this Blue-Green Alliance?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, that's the big question, I think. You have to consider the workers who stand to lose the most from a shift away from fossil fuels. Auto workers, Teamsters, the big industrial unions. And the best example here are probably the United Mine Workers. They've been threatened already by mechanization and a sharp decline in the number of jobs out there, and they argue that this idea of a just transition, however good it sounds in theory, is simply not realistic. That the legislation needed to make it work just isn't going to happen. They say they are in favor of making coal cleaner. But you know, one mine worker told me he'd heard an environmentalist recently compare clean coal technology to the idea of a clean cigarette. So from his perspective, the environmental groups haven't taken miners seriously, they haven't addressed their concerns, and it looks like unless they do, there isn't going to be a real dialogue here.

CURWOOD: So, where do things go from here? I mean, beyond climate change and trade, what's ahead? What's on the horizon for these labor and environmental groups?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, there's an interesting conversation just beginning around the issue of toxic chemicals. Specifically, an organization called Health Care Without Harm has been talking with chemical workers about phasing out the use of polyvinyl chlorides in health care. And it's certainly too early to call this a coalition yet, but just a couple weeks ago the umbrella group that represents the largest number of chemical unions in the world agreed to meet and talk about what this kind of transition might look like.

CURWOOD: Sounds pretty rosy to me.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, I wouldn't say that. Remember, a lot of what we're talking about still exists largely on paper. And there are plenty of examples where labor and environmental groups are working together and losing. Just in the past couple months, they opposed the nominations of Gail Norton, John Ashcroft. They also rallied against President Bush's decision to block what are known as the responsible contractor rules. And they spoke out against the reversal of the new ergonomic standards. And these are lost battles. Last year, don't forget, they lost a big one with the Clinton administration over Most Favored Nation trading status with China. So you know, critics call this a marriage of convenience. And it's true; when it comes down to it, we are not talking about a movement here. These are two movements with distinct responsibilities, just trying to find places where they can come together. But there's definitely growing recognition within both camps that they probably need each other if they want to win. And don't forget, they've been working together in one form or another since the first Earth Day. I'd say they're in it for the long haul.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. Thanks so much, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Thanks, Steve.

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Recycled Prostheses

CURWOOD: In the 1970s, Cambodia's ruling faction, the Khmer Rouge, put more than a million land mines along the nation's northern and western borders. The intention was to stop Cambodians from fleeing into neighboring Thailand. The Khmer Rouge is no more, but few of the mines they left behind have been cleared away. And each year those mines maim and kill hundreds of people. Most of those who survive do not have access to affordable prostheses. But a solution has been found through an innovative recycling program in Thailand. Orlando de Guzman has our report.

(Voices)

DE GUZMAN: Every day at the Thai border town of Aranyanya Prathet, about 10,000 poor Cambodians cross a narrow concrete bridge dividing Thailand and Cambodia. The tide of people swells by mid-afternoon. Dozens of carts piled with sacks of rice and scrap metal are pushed across the border. This border crossing is also where you'll see the legacy of Cambodia's 30 years of war. Hundreds of land mine victims come here to work. Many find jobs as porters hauling heavy sacks of clothing and food back to Cambodia. Sitting in a pool of shade, Sammath, a 44-year-old porter, takes a break from the afternoon sun. He says he remembers the day he lost his left leg.

SAMMATH: Speaks in Cambodian.
TRANSLATOR: It all happened on the twentieth of November 1990. I was a soldier with the Cambodian government, and our platoon was told to chase a group of Khmer Rouge guerillas hiding out in the jungle just across the border. We were walking down a dirt road when I hit a tripwire. That's all I can remember.

(A motor starts up)

DE GUZMAN: Sammath says he thought he would never walk again. Then he heard about a charity here in Aranyanya Prathet that was helping land mine victims. He signed up for the service, and, along with 200 others, got an artificial limb last year. He rolls up his left cuff to show off the prosthesis.

SAMMATH: Speaks in Cambodian.
TRANSLATOR: With this new leg, I can carry up to 65 pounds and make a living that way. Before, I couldn't work or do anything. Now I can walk, even run. I still have to be careful and not put too much pressure on my legs. I can't carry 100 pounds like the other porters who have both legs.

(Motors)

DE GUZMAN: Sammath owes his new leg to an innovative program in Thailand that is recycling cheap and readily-available plastic and aluminum and turning them into useful prostheses. In the outskirts of Bangkok, aluminum cans are processed and molded into parts for artificial limbs.

THERDCHAI: These prosthetic parts are made in our country, and all of them are plastic and aluminum.

DE GUZMAN: Dr. Therdchai Cheevaket is the man behind the program. He is the founder of the Thai Prosthesis Foundation, and he's an orthopedic surgeon at Chiang Mai University. The foundation has distributed about 7,000 artificial limbs to land mine victims since 1995, says Dr. Therdchai as he examines one of his first inventions.

(Clattering)

THERDCHAI: This is the artificial leg. It's a good-looking one for daily use now. If they want to go to work in the field, to go into the water, they can use this one. You see most of the Thai amputees, you know, they are farmers.

DE GUZMAN: Dr. Therdchai says he did not have a lot of money when he started his foundation. So he went looking for cheaper materials to lower the production cost of his artificial limbs. He found help from the Ajinomoto Company, which makes the popularly sweet Thai coffee packed in aluminum cans. Orchachai Atcharanukul, the manager of Ajinomoto's marketing department, started a recycling drive called "One Flip-Top Toward a New Step." Within a year, Mr. Orchachai says they had collected enough aluminum to make about four-and-a-half thousand artificial limbs.

ORCHACHAI: (Speaks in Thai)
TRANSLATOR: The main reason for the recycling campaign's success comes from the ancient belief of Thai people, which has origins in Buddhism. In Buddhism, if you do a good act, then good things will come back to you. The second reason is more recent. More and more people are being educated about the environment, and there is a growing awareness about the benefits that resource conservation has on our quality of life.

DE GUZMAN: In addition to aluminum, the Thai Prosthesis Foundation experimented with plastic. Plastic bottles litter most of Thailand's highways and markets. Dr. Therdchai discovered that most of the plastic bottles used in Thailand can be melted without heat, using a solvent. The melted plastic is then spun around a cast to create a prosthetic leg. The process is so simple that it can be made by trained technicians at local villages. Because it's made on the spot, amputees don't have to wait weeks for an imported artificial limb. Dr. Therdchai says until he started his program, artificial limbs remained beyond the reach of about 70 percent of all amputees along the Thai-Cambodian border.

THERDCHAI: The prostheses made in Thailand in the past is expensive. Because you have to import the material and parts of the prosthesis. So the poor cannot afford to buy it.

DE GUZMAN: An imported prosthesis costs more than $100, but the ones made of recycled material were five times cheaper. That's allowed Dr. Therdchai to give his artificial limbs away for free. Christian Brunner, the regional delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, says foreign aid agencies often overlook how important it is to keep the costs down.

BRUNNER: The problem is always with organizations. If they are active in prosthesis projects, they want to sell their own products. Like if an American organization would come, they would like to bring American technology and American products. The same with the Germans. And that makes the thing expensive. And this is, of course, the big problem for these countries.

DE GUZMAN: Imported prostheses are not only more expensive, but they must always be used with shoes. That meant breaking a well-guarded Southeast Asian custom of removing your shoes before entering a home. Dr. Therdchai solved that problem by making a small slot between the toes on his prosthetic feet so a rubber sandal can slip on and off without much effort.

THERDCHAI: You can use a sandal, you see? There's a grip in here. It's a hole between big toe and the second toe. Gives you grip on the parts of the sandal.

DE GUZMAN: This year, Dr. Therdchai plans to give away more than a thousand of his environmentally-friendly and culturally-appropriate artificial limbs. For Living on Earth, I'm Orlando de Guzman in Bangkok, Thailand.

(Music up and under: Rita Takashima, "Ito Okashi")

CURWOOD: You're listening to Living on Earth.

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News Update

CURWOOD: Time now to update some of the news items we've been following lately.

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CURWOOD: The endangered Puerto Rican parrots we reported on earlier this spring were dealt another blow in April. An undisclosed number of the birds were stolen from a government aviary deep in the Caribbean National Forest. These parrots were captive breeding stock, which researchers used to increase the parrot population in the wild. Tom MacKenzie of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stresses the tough spot these birds are in.

MacKENZIE: It's a pretty despicable act, when someone would steal an endangered species that we're trying to recover. People have put a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of their personal soul into this project. And to have somebody go in and steal them is an insult to all of us.

CURWOOD: A reward of $2,500 is offered for information leading to the conviction of the thieves. Only about 50 parrots remain in the wild.

In other news from Puerto Rico, despite lawsuits and protests, the Navy has resumed bombing exercises on the island of Vieques. The federal government, meanwhile, is reviewing studies that show noise from the bombing on Vieques promotes heart disease among island residents.

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CURWOOD: A federal appeals court in West Virginia has tossed out a court order that would have limited the coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal. This process blasts the tops off hills to extract coal. The earlier court decision could have shut down this method, since it prohibited mines from burying most streams with the resulting dirt and rock. Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, a litigant in the lawsuit, says residents are now bracing for another wave of large-scale strip-mining.

RANK: I think this just opens the floodgates. There is going to be an extreme amount of pressure to push through some big permits that should not be granted under these conditions. That adds an extreme amount of pressure that's going to be difficult to buck.

CURWOOD: The coal industry has declared victory on the matter and revived a permit application for what would become the largest strip mine in West Virginia history. Environmental groups in the state say mountaintop removal mining has already flattened thousands of acres of wooded hills and buried more than 700 miles of streams.

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CURWOOD: And finally, cane toads have reached Australia's Kakadu National Park in their march across the continent. In a recent Radio Expedition from Down Under, you may have heard that cane toads are an invasive species without compare. These sizeable toads eat anything that gets in their way and are poisonous to animals that try to eat them. Researchers are toiling to find some way to stop the toad menace, but most have written off Kakadu as a lost battle in the cane toad war.

And that's this week's news update from Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead: The ecological treasures of the Tongass National Forest. First, this environmental technology note from Jennifer Chu.

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Tech Note

CHU: Dams have long been a source of contention from the salmon whose migration they block to the people they displace. But the hydroelectricity they generate is cheap and abundant. Now, a new breakthrough promises the power without the problems. Scientist Alexander Gorlov has invented a new kind of turbine. It looks like an oversized eggbeater, but Gorlov says it could rehabilitate the world's hydropower system. Conventional turbines require a strong, confined flow of water to work efficiently. But Gorlov's design can harness 35 percent of the energy in a naturally-flowing river. And unlike other turbines, this one captures power regardless of the water's direction, so it could be used in tidal flows as well as rivers. The so-called Gorlov Helical Turbine is being tested now on a remote stretch of the Amazon River, where local residents are using it to charge car batteries to power their televisions. And South Korea has asked Gorlov to design a system for one of its shipping channels. Gorlov points out that since 95 percent of the world's rivers are unsuitable for conventional hydropower, his giant eggbeaters could fill the gap. That's this week's technology note. I'm Jennifer Chu.

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

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Roadless Rule

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In January, the Clinton administration announced its decision to ban building new roads in almost 60 million acres of national forests. But with the changing of the guard in Washington, the rule was put on hold - until now. The Bush administration says it is going ahead with Clinton's rules, but will also allow local officials to modify or challenge the rules depending on regional concerns. The Bush Administration's problems with the Clinton ban on roadbuilding stem from a suit brought by the timber industry and the state of Idaho. I'm joined now by Rocky Barker, environmental reporter at the Idaho Statesman, who's been covering that case. Welcome, Rocky.

BARKER: Glad to be here.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what exactly are the issues in this lawsuit in Idaho?

BARKER: At the heart of the issue is the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that requires environmental impact statements for major projects. What the state of Idaho and the timber industry are arguing is that this process carried out by the Clinton administration was too hurried. It really didn't take into account their concerns. Ironically, it's the same kind of an issue or a lawsuit that environmentalists have used in the past to stop things like timber sales and other activities that people like Idaho and the timber industry would want to take place in these roadless areas.

CURWOOD: I'm a little confused here. There were some 600 meetings. There were over a million and a half public comments recorded. And yet Idaho is saying that they didn't have a voice in this. Fill in the blanks here for me.

BARKER: Well, it's true. This really was one of the largest public involvement processes that I've covered. But westerners really felt left out. Even though they went to the meetings, they felt nobody was listening on the other side. They felt like all of these things had been taking place that were limiting the timber harvest. They were protecting endangered species. They were essentially closing mills. And they were watching their rural communities die. And they were blaming it on Clinton. So when this roadless policy came about it was kind of the last step. For the state, they argued they didn't get detailed maps for them to determine how much of their state land was going to be blocked off because they couldn't build roads across roadless areas to get to it.

CURWOOD: Now, let's talk a bit about who cares about this issue there in Idaho. Tell me about the people who are involved here.

BARKER: Well, clearly, there is the environmental movement, both nationally and locally. People who are concerned about road fragmenting. The importance of these areas for wildlife habitat, like elk and grizzly bears. And also, there are concerns about roads causing erosion and sedimentation in streams and fish habitat. Then, on the other side, you've got, really, the people who live in the small towns around the roadless areas. They're sometimes loggers, woodworkers, ranchers, and, actually, motorized vehicle users who use these areas, both for work and play, and they want access.

CURWOOD: What happens, then, if it turns out there is no roadless rule?

BARKER: There really isn't a lot that will happen. The roadless issue has been practically resolved in the west in the last five years. We aren't spending money on building new roads. Congress came within a few votes of killing the entire road budget for the Forest Service. And this is mostly about values and about -- it's almost like a religious war at this point. What really is important, it's interesting, for the timber industry, are the roaded areas. Those are the places where we have some of the most so-called forest health problems, where forests are overgrown from a century of fire suppression, and actually they would probably prefer to get the attention off of the roadless debate and over to the roaded areas.

CURWOOD: What about the politics on the Republican side here? How is this issue going to play now in the upcoming midterm elections, and further down the road when Mr. Bush is looking for re-election?

BARKER: As you said, Steve, this is a very popular decision nationally. And I think it adds to President Bush's challenges in coming off as an anti-environmental president. He's going to have to finesse it. In other words, he's going to have to show people that he's not going to just allow these roadless areas to be destroyed. And I think one of the ways that we'll see it is on wilderness bills. We may start to see more wilderness bills come out of a Republican Congress.

CURWOOD: Rocky Barker is an environmental reporter with the Idaho Statesman and author of the book "Saving All The Parts: Reconciling Economics and the Endangered Species Act." Thanks, Rocky.

BARKER: Thank you.

Back to top

 

Tongass, Part I

CURWOOD: Whether the roadless initiative stands or falls will have huge consequences for one of the world's natural wonders. If the ban is overturned, nearly nine-and-a-half million acres on the panhandle of southeast Alaska could see a significant increase in logging. The area is called the Tongass National Forest. It's the nation's largest national forest, and it's made up of just about the rarest kind of forest in the world: the temperate rainforest. In this, the first of two reports on the Tongass, producer Guy Hand explores the wild and wet nature of this unique ecosystem.

(Rolling over rough terrain)

VOICE: Forty seconds.

VOICE 2: They're getting nervous now!

(Engines)

VOICE: Thirty-five seconds.

HAND: I've never seen anything like this.

VOICE: Thirty seconds.

HAND: It's moments before the opening of the herring fishery off Sitka, Alaska, and things are a little crazy.

VOICE: Twenty-five seconds.

HAND: Like the start of some kind of aquatic demolition derby, commercial fishing boats are all but bouncing off each other, jockeying for position, bobbing in the icy water as their captains yell frantic last-minute orders.

VOICE: Twenty seconds.

HAND: If that's not enough, a hundred -- and I'm not exaggerating - a hundred bald eagles share the sky with spotter planes and helicopters, all waiting for the fishing to begin.

VOICE: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six...

VOICE 2: A flock of seagulls. That's something you don't see very often. (Laughs)

VOICE: Five, four, three, two, one, open. Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery is now officially open...

(Motors, splashing water)

HAND: As soon as Fish and Game announces the herring opening via radio, diesel smoke explodes from the stacks of every boat.

MAN: Look at all this smoke. (Laughs)

HAND: And each begins dropping sein nets into the sea. Soon, they're pulling uncountable masses of wriggling, silver-skinned herring to the surface. It's as if the ocean were made of fish. Nothing in my two weeks in the Tongass has shouted more loudly of its fertility than this churning circus of herring and humanity.

(Yelling)

HAND: And nothing speaks to its fragility like the sliver of time allotted to the herring opening, just 15 minutes. In this quick quarter hour, thousands of tons of fish are being yanked from the sea.

MAN: We got it!

HAND: This delicate dance between fecundity and fragility defines not only the herring fishery, but the whole of the Tongass.

(Flowing water)

HAND: And as the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, its fertility is fueled by water. Alaskan state writer Richard Nelson.

NELSON: Rain is the god here. Rain is what makes this forest. Rain is to southeast Alaska as sun is to the desert.

HAND: Water is the one thing that touches and fuses and influences everything else in Alaska's panhandle. Even the bookstores. A sign in the Old Harbor Bookstore in Sitka says, "Please don't drip on the books." But dripping is what the Tongass does best. Here you could measure rainfall in fathoms. Hundreds of inches fall in southeast Alaska a year.

METEOROLOGIST: Let's take a look at the weather story this morning. Showers in the forecast today...

HAND: The land itself is shattered by saltwater into thousands of islands, and each of those is partially submerged in boggy muskeg and riven with rivers and streams. And from all that water sprouts a forest of superlatives. Richard Nelson.

NELSON: What's remarkable about the Tongass National Forest, that sets it apart from almost anywhere else in North America, and what ranks it with the great wild places anywhere in the world, is that every species of plant and animal known to have been here as far back as we can trace a human presence is still here. There is nothing missing here.

HAND: John Schoen, senior scientist for the Alaskan Audubon Society.

SCHOEN: We have healthy populations of all five Pacific salmon. We have all of our large carnivores, brown bears or grizzly bears, the black bear, the wolf. The Tongass Forest has the highest concentration of nesting bald eagles in the world.

HAND: And what protects and nurtures those animals, apart from the rain, are stands of very big, very old trees. What naturalist Richard Carstenson calls the landmark forest.

CARSTENSON: The landmark forest is the bear, salmon, eagle forest.

HAND: But trees make up only a small portion of the Tongass National Forest. Far more rock, ice, and wetland covers southeast Alaska. It's the very rarity of trees that makes old growth Sitka spruce, hemlock, and cedar so important to Alaska's temperate rainforest ecology.

CARSTENSON: So the loss of that forest can have an enormous impact on wildlife that converges on those streams from every other habitat in the Tongass.

(Footfalls, dripping water)

HAND: And that's why Carstenson, with the help of friends and volunteers, has taken it upon himself to find and catalogue the biggest, best stands of old growth forest left in southeast Alaska.

CARSTENSON: We're anxious to see that the value of these forests are recognized. And it's just a great way to spend your summer. (Laughs)

HAND: Today, Carstenson is taking measurements of a very old Sitka spruce on the outskirts of Juneau. Behind this tree's massive trunk you could hide a car.

CARSTENSON: This is a forester's drill. It's hollow. We'll turn it into the tree and extract a pencil-diameter core that we can look at the rings with.

(Squeaking)

CARSTENSON: They often squeak a lot when you're being extracted. Sometimes they make wildlife noises. Last summer in Petersburg I was coring and I had deer come in, and a varied thrush got all irritated at me. The old varied thrush must have sounded like I was messing with the babies or something, because he flew right over my head three times.

(Squeaking)

CARSTENSON: Okay, it's all the way in. Now I'm going to insert an extractor, and back off the increment bore a couple of turns to break the sample loose, and pull it out.

HAND: Carstenson slowly begins pulling the core out and counting rings.

CARSTENSON: This is a very old tree. Look at that. We've only got six inches out and there's already 200 rings.

HAND: Carstenson estimates this spruce to have sprouted at about the time Columbus set sail. But just because it's called rainforest doesn't mean that the biggest trees grow where the most rain falls.

(Clattering)

SMITH: Watch out for that pit over on your left there. That goes down thirty feet. You can step right off the edge of it.

HAND: Thanks for the warning.

HAND: In fact, rain in a rainforest can be too much of a good thing. The most dramatic forests on the Tongass rise where excess rain drains efficiently away. On alluvial fans, skree-covered slopes, or above the natural plumbing created by caves.

SMITH: So, just to see if this light's going to work here.

HAND: Pete Smith, a director for the Tongass Cave Project, is leading me from green trees into gray cave. El Capitan Cave, the longest in Alaska. It feels kind of weird. I've hiked through old growth forests before, but never beneath one.

SMITH: Make sure you get a good footing in. Don't slip.

HAND: Pete and I pick our way through a passage that's about ten feet wide and 20 feet high, around a tube of cool, dripping stone. On the cave floor are what look like river cobbles.

(Drips)

SMITH: We're in a part of the cave that has had water flowing through it for thousands of years. The limestone or carbonate rocks are very porous. The rainfall that hits the surface drops underground almost immediately.

HAND: Pete and the Tongass Cave Project have found hundreds of caves on the Tongass. He thinks there are hundreds more.

(Drips)

SMITH: Yeah, you do get some really interesting formations in our caves here. We've got formations around here that form underwater, that aren't seen anywhere else in the world, actually.

HAND: Caves can also protect spawning salmon from brown bear and other predators. While some salmon swim through the caves to spawn in waterways beyond, others spawn in the safety of the caves themselves.

(Flowing water)

HAND: Yet, for the salmon who do end up in the jaws of bears, it's hardly the end of the story. Scientists are just beginning to realize that a significant amount of nutrients flow from ocean waters to conifer needles and back again via salmon. Call it the salmon cycle. Writer Richard Nelson.

NELSON: One of the miracles of the Tongass National Forest is the salmon. The bears and the otters and the bald eagles and other animals carry the bodies of fish, fragments of the fish, up into the woods. Those nutrients go up inside the veins of the trees. And then the trees rot. What they were made of flows back into the stream, flows back out into the ocean, and nourishes the next generation of salmon. You know, it's as if salmon were put on the Earth to show us how our world works.

(Dripping water)

HAND: Maybe it's the fluidity of this place, the way the rain softens hard edges, that gives the Tongass a knack for teaching connections. How salmon connect to trees. How trees connect to caves. How an intact, healthy ecosystem flows within itself, cycle within cycle. There aren't many places like the Tongass left, places that can show us how the world works. But one day they could become the most precious places of all.

(Dripping water)

HAND: For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand.

(Dripping water, fade to music up and under)

Back to top

 

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, our series on the Tongass continues, with a look at how clear-cutting in the Tongass and the backlash against it has left some of this national forest in ecological and economic tatters.

MAN: I'm a wood user. I've cut down lots of trees in my life. I believe that loggers ought to have a place out there in the forest. It's noble work. It's honorable work. I don't have any problem at all with a stump in the forest. But what breaks my heart is a forest of stumps.

CURWOOD: The future of logging in the Tongass, next week on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Before we go, we'd like to take you on a sonic journey to a place where two worlds meet. Sound recordist David Dunn placed his microphones at the very edge of a small village in Zimbabwe, Africa, between humanity and its natural surroundings. The result is called Outside Besa Village.

(Humming insects, frogs, voices, laughter, drumming)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, 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. Our interns are Merav Bushlin, Evie Stone, and Dawn Robinson. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. 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 National Science Foundation supporting environmental education; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; The Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Oak Foundation supporting coverage of marine issues; the Turner Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting coverage of western issues;

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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