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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

August 3, 2001

Air Date: August 3, 2001

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

Clean Air Act / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

(stream / mp3)

The Bush administration is reviewing a key provision of the Clean Air Act. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum briefs host Steve Curwood on what the provision means and why it's come under fire. (05:30)

Profile of a Scientist: Lucy McFadden / Cynthia Graber

(stream / mp3)

Despite the advances women have made in the sciences, few women have entered the field of astronomy. Lucy McFadden is one of them. The NASA scientist is trying to discover the make-up of comets and asteroids. The answers may provide clues to the beginnings of our solar system and earth itself. (06:15)

Health Note

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports on the health dangers of picking tobacco plants (01:15)

Almanac: Lawn Sprinklers

(stream / mp3)

This week, facts about lawn sprinklers. these little spigots and spouts come in all shapes. We'll learn about a place that has them all. It's the only lawn sprinkler museum in the world. (01:30)

Alternative Meat / Michael Muhlberger

(stream / mp3)

When a number of cows tested positive for BSE, or Mad Cow Disease, in Germany last year, droves of people vowed to stay away from beef products. Exotic meats, such as ostrich and kangaroo, came into favor, as well as organic meat. But as Michael Muhlberger reports, many Germans are going back to eating beef. (09:00)

Small Business Commentary / Byron Kennard

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Byron Kennard of the Center for Small Business and the Environment, says states such as California need to look no further than small businesses if they want to cut down on energy costs. (03:15)

News Follow-up

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New developments in stories we've been following recently. (03:00)

Tech Note

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports on a genetically modified tomato plant that can withstand salty soil. (01:30)

Treehouses

(stream / mp3)

Treehouses are no longer just a child's play space. Grownups are now making arboreal abodes a luxury market item. Host Steve Curwood talks with David Pearson, author of the book Treehouses. (07:30)

Bioacoustics / Nathan Johnson

(stream / mp3)

According to scientists specializing in bio-acoustics, ecosystems have evolved a rich and complex sound quality. But noise pollution from cars, ships, and electronic devices is destroying these subtle, acoustic patterns in habitats around the globe. Reporter Nathan Johnson looks into the causes and consequences of the destruction of these natural soundscapes (08:30)

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Clean Air Act

[THEME MUSIC UNDERNEATH]

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A key provision of the Clean Air Act is being reconsidered under President Bush's energy plan. The provision is called New Source Review. Now, originally, the Clean Air Act grandfathered existing coal-fire power plants, making them exempt from tighter pollution requirements. New Source Review added a qualification to that. It says: Any plants making major modifications, no matter what their age, have to install more advanced emissions controls. Now there's a battle brewing over the future of New Source Review.

Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum joins me now from Washington. Hi there, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hi Steve.

CURWOOD: Anna, there's been a lot of pressure from the coal industry about this. They want to see New Source Review done away with. At the same time, a number of companies have been charged with major violations of the law, which they deny. Tell us the story. What happened here?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, over the years, many of the companies did make modifications to their plants. The problem was, most of them weren't adding new emissions equipment as they did it. The companies claim this is because they were simply carrying out routine maintenance, which doesn't require them to add new controls. But in 1999, the Clinton administration started investigating the issue. It's become one of the largest environmental investigations in U.S. history. The administration found the plant's expansion activities had in fact been much larger than anything that could be called routine maintenance.

CURWOOD: Well, how large are we talking about?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, for example, Carol Browner, who was the E.P.A. head at the time, said that one plant spent $60 million on five new furnaces, without adding any new controls. And that was fairly typical of what they found. She said those plants had emitted tens of millions of tons of extra pollutants by violating the rules, and those violations were estimated to have led to thousands of extra deaths. So the administration issued notices of violations with more than 50 facilities, and it filed suit with the companies who owned them. These are companies like Duke Energy and Southern Company--big companies. Just to give you a sense of how big, these companies generate half of the total coal-fired power in this country.

CURWOOD: So, what happened, then, when the Bush administration came along?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: When President Bush first came into office, the companies, they went to him, they explained their case. They said the Clinton administration had re-interpreted the Clean Air Act when it took action against them, and they argued, more generally, that environmental regulations are hurting their ability to generate more electricity. Of course, there are some larger questions surrounding some of those meetings. There's an investigation, ongoing, into Vice President Cheney's energy task force. Some democrats say these meetings were secretive, they were overly stacked with industry, and that environmental groups were for the most part ignored. In any case, following those meetings, when the president announced his energy proposal in May, he asked for a review of the New Source Review provision, and that's what's going on now.

CURWOOD: So, what's likely to come out of this review of New Source Review?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, EPA has held four public hearings across the country. They've been well-attended. They've also held meetings for the various stakeholders. And of course they won't say anything at this point, until they're done with the review. But most of the people I spoke with on both sides of the issue seem to feel it's pretty likely that there's going to be some kind of weakening proposed, if not a wholesale end to New Source Review.

The administration's been talking a lot about making the regulatory system more flexible for power companies. One idea they're pushing is to place caps on certain pollutants, and then to have a market system where companies can trade credits on their emissions. If you read between the lines here, this could end up being their answer to the New Source Review question. Christie Todd-Whitman, the EPA administrator, was talking about this at a recent Senate committee meeting. Here's what she said:

TODD-WHITMAN: Well, it's our feeling right now that depending on where you set the targets, that New Source Review is certainly one of those regulatory aspects that would no longer be necessary.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: So that might give you some indication of where the EPA is headed on this.

CURWOOD: Anna, what about the lawsuits that the Clinton administration and the Justice Department filed against these companies? What's going to happen to those cases?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Along with the review of New Source Review itself, Bush also asked the Department of Justice to take another look at those cases, to investigate, really, whether the Clinton administration did in fact interpret the rules in the wrong way. Some of the companies had already settled their cases before the review was announced, but as you might imagine, there's less incentive to do that now given that their violations could potentially be forgiven. According to some of the companies, government lawyers actually contacted them and said, Hey, wait a minute. Before you settle, wait until the review's finished. Some of these companies were right on the brink of settlements.

The Department of Justice denies that. It points out there was a settlement with one facility just a couple of weeks ago, but, apart from that one, there's been nothing since the president announced the review.

CURWOOD: So what happens next here?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The EPA is supposed to issue their report on August 17th, and the Department of Justice has no set deadline but they're aiming for around the same date. So keep an eye out in the next couple of weeks. But I wouldn't expect this is going to be over when the administration makes up its mind. There are members of Congress who are working on bills that would preserve New Source Review, and some states' Attorney Generals, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, have filed their own lawsuits against these companies. And there's no indication that they're about to back down.

CURWOOD: Thank you, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Thanks, Steve.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, speaking to us from Washington.

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Profile of a Scientist: Lucy McFadden

CURWOOD: Every summer, the Perseid meteor shower delights people in the northern hemisphere, with the display reaching its peak on August 12th. While some of us need an excuse like the Perseids to think about the night sky, Lucy McFadden does not. The University of Maryland astronomer has spent more than two decades investigating the mineral make-up of asteroids and comets and how they might relate to origins of life here on earth. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber has this profile of Professor McFadden.

[AMBIENT SOUND]

GRABER: With the turn of a key, an observatory ceiling pulls away from whitewashed concrete walls. Lucy McFadden gazes up at the heavens.

McFADDEN: And the cloudy skies of College Park.

GRABER: McFadden's love affair with the night sky began with telescopes and observatories like this one, five minutes from the University of Maryland, College Park, where she's a professor. As the ceiling retreats, a starless sky is revealed overhead. Despite the completely dark parking lot and surrounding fields and forest, conditions aren't optimal for star-gazing. An observatory in highly populated College Park isn't exactly the same as what she experienced while doing graduate work at the University of Hawaii.

McFADDEN: When you're on top of a mountain, outside, in clear skies, you actually feel like you're floating in space. It feels like the sky comes down and envelopes you and it's all around you. And looking up, I mean, it's a physical experience as well as a mental experience. So it's pretty awesome.

GRABER: One of the most exciting days of McFadden's career didn't take place while gazing at the heavens, but in a stand of bleachers in Florida.

ROCKER CONTROL: Two minus 11, 10, 9, 8, 7,--

GRABER: Back in 1996, she stood shivering in brisk February air as she watched the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft lift off.

ROCKET CONTROL: We have ignition, we have lift-off, of the Delta Rocket, carrying the NEAR spacecraft, bound for the asteroid Eros.

GRABER: It was heading on a four-year journey to intercept the asteroid Eros. Its goal: to orbit the 21 mile long space rock for a year. If the mission were successful, it would provide the first close-up views of an asteroid.

ASTRONAUT: We've ignited the other three solids and all six of the first set are off.

McFADDEN: It was tremendously exciting, and it was also scary because something could happen at the launch, but, ah, it was very gratifying to see it go off into infinity.

GRABER: NEAR Shoemaker finally met up with Eros, a year ago February, and spent the past year sending information from its camera and other scientific equipment. McFadden is one of a few dozen scientists interpreting the slew of data. This isn't McFadden's first encounter with an asteroid. In the late 1970s, she broke new ground in asteroid research with her Ph.D. dissertation.

In order to understand what she did, you need to know that every mineral reflects sunlight by different amounts, at different frequencies--its own signature, so to speak.

McFADDEN: I did a survey with a telescope, measuring their reflected sunlight spectrum, to see what kind of mineral signatures I could get.

GRABER: McFadden was the first scientist to use this technique to figure out what minerals make up the surface of a number of near-Earth asteroids. What does that matter? Well, planets are large bodies that heated to high temperatures and then cooled. If the asteroids had been part of a planet, then the heating process would have caused complex minerals to form. But there was a second possible scenario.

McFADDEN: Are they small bodies? Have they always been small bodies and never heated to high temperatures? In which case, we would study the asteroids and learn about the pre-planet material of the solar system.

GRABER: And that's exactly what she found. Near-Earth asteroids don't have these complex minerals on their surfaces. They never did break off from some larger planet. Rather, they're the primordial building blocks of the solar system. In essence, they're a window onto the very beginnings of our planetary neighborhood, and maybe even onto the beginnings of Earth itself.

McFADDEN: What we learn about the surface and the structure of Eros will tell us something about the pre-Earth time. So I can't predict what that's going to tell us about the formation of the Earth, but we'll figure it out eventually. It's just going to take time.

GRABER: Her research is what claims that bulk of her attention; that is, when she's not attending her daughter's soccer games. McFadden says that pure scientific knowledge isn't the only reason people are interested in the cosmos.

McFADDEN: We have to deal with everyday life, with sickness and war and natural disasters, and we can look at space and recognize that things are happening out there that are out of our control. And it's awesome and it's beautiful. So I like to think that people find cosmic relief in the universe.

GRABER: For her next project, McFadden will be part of the scientific team for the mission Deep Impact.

McFADDEN: We're looking inside of the comet. To do that, we have to dig a hole in the comet.

GRABER: NASA is planning to launch a spacecraft that will shoot off an almost 800 pound projectile into Comet 9P/Temple 1, creating a crater the size of a football field. This will allow scientists a first look at what's hidden inside a comet, deep below its solid frozen mantle. Comets are rich with carbon and water, the building blocks of life. Billions of years ago, comets constantly bombarded the Earth. Some scientists believe these crashes could have brought the elements that helped create conditions perfect for the beginning of life. Excavating below the crust of this comet may provide some clues.

McFADDEN: Will that tell us whether or not comets produced the atmosphere on Earth and brought us the carbon compounds that came to life? Not directly. But, it will give information. So, Deep Impact is a stepping stone to the issue of the origin of life.

GRABER: No matter what information Deep Impact provides, or where her research takes her next, McFadden says she'll continue to push the balance of our knowledge of the solar system, and maybe in the bargain we'll ultimately learn something about our own beginnings. For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC]

Related link:
Deep Impact
Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission">

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Health Note

CURWOOD: Coming up, the fall, and rise, of eating meat in Germany. First, this health note from Diane Toomey.

TOOMEY: The dangers of smoking are well-known, but just picking tobacco can be a health hazard. Farm workers can come down with something called Green Tobacco Sickness. This acute nicotine poisoning is caused when workers absorb nicotine from tobacco plants through their skin. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headache and dizziness. And, despite the fact that the illness is an on-the-job hazard, workers don't get paid for time lost in the fields. A new study out of Wake Forest University in North Carolina shows that Green Tobacco Sickness is prevalent among tobacco workers. Researchers interviewed 182 farm workers over a ten-week period during harvest season. They found that one-quarter of the workers had suffered from Green Tobacco Sickness at least once during that time. Workers hold the ripe leaves under their arms as they gather the plants. But this is precisely the area of the skin which is the most absorbent. So the harvesting technique makes the possibility of nicotine poisoning likely. Researchers advise that tobacco workers should be given protective clothing or at least be able to change their shirts often, in order to cut down on the amount of nicotine absorbed. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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

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Almanac: Lawn Sprinklers

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

[MUSIC LEAD-IN]

CURWOOD: It's August, and in many parts of the world this is the warmest and driest time of the year. That makes lawn sprinklers one hot commodity, and the state of Hawaii harbors a small arsenal of them, even though they're old and used. These spigots and spouts have retired from lawn care and now reside in what is probably the world's only lawn sprinkler museum. The owner is Robert Bosley of Honolulu, who also happens to be a ballroom dancer. When he travels for competitions, he and his wife add to the museum's collection.

BOSLEY: After we get through, we go out, get our Levis on and tennis shoes, and go out to all the junk places, and start looking for stuff.

CURWOOD: Mr. Bosley has sprinklers dating as far back as 1895, and has amassed a total of about 50 antiques. Some of these relics look like clowns, tractors, and even cannons.

BOSLEY: They're very complicated; they're very clever. They've got gears, and rotaries, and I'm quite amazed at the sophistication on some of these old sprinklers.

CURWOOD: The sprinkler buff does see some advantages in today's sprinklers, though, compared to their older counterparts.

BOSLEY: They use a lot less water, they're more efficient. These things are not efficient; they really go through the water in a hurry.

CURWOOD: Now, Mr. Bosley has spent up to $800 on a sprinkler that originally cost only five, but he says it's getting harder to find new acquisitions because, he laments, he's got just about everything. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

[SPRINKLER SOUND]

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Alternative Meat

CURWOOD: Late last year, Mad Cow disease, also known as BSE, came to Germany. Demand for beef plummeted in the wake of a government report. Almost overnight the number of vegetarians doubled and alternative meat sources appeared. But traditions of meat eating go deep in Germany, from sausage to schnitzel, and as the reports of Mad Cow disease have ebbed, palates have been turning back to more familiar flavors. Michael Muhlberger has our report, from Cologne, Germany.

[GERMAN CHILDREN]

MUHLBERGER: A group of curious pre-schoolers crowd into a small room, lined from floor to ceiling with large wooden incubators. Farmer Ingrid Bellbecher points to rows of white eggs the size of her hand.

BELLBECHER: [IN GERMAN]

TRANSLATOR: This is our breeding room. The baby ostriches breed in these heated incubators. We have 600 ostrich eggs in here and they need about 40 days to hatch.

MUHLBERGER: Bellbecher learned all about ostriches six years ago. She started breeding them to build up her income, most of which comes from fruit farming. Her apple and pear orchards overlook the Rhine Valley, south of Bonn, and now her land is also home to 280 ostriches, the biggest ostrich farm in Germany. It's regularly open for tourists: her wide-eyed birds fascinate hundreds of visitors of all ages.

[LAUGHING--GERMAN]

MUHLBERGER: But if her young audience today were told why the incubators are so full these days, they'd probably burst into tears. Ostrich meat has become increasingly popular in Germany. Recent outbreaks of Mad Cow and foot and mouth disease sent many people looking for alternatives to beef and pork.

BELLBECHER: [IN GERMAN]

TRANSLATOR: We sell to people who are looking for healthy meat. Ostrich meat is extremely lean and it has no cholesterol. We don't use antibiotics and we don't try to fatten the animals. We give them time to grow naturally. That's what our customers value.

MUHLBERGER: The demand for her ostriches has increased so much this year that Bellbecher started a waiting list, and she intends to double the number of birds on her farm. But ostriches need a lot of space, and that's hard to come by in the densely populated Rhineland. Bellbecher's farm is already at capacity, according to the German Association of Ostrich Farmers. They advise members to keep fewer birds rather than overcrowd their farms. The group concedes that ostrich meat, though growing in popularity, is likely to remain a niche market here. Traditional beef sausages and Wiener Schnitzel are far too popular for Germans to make ostrich a staple of their diet.

[RESTAURANT: AMBIENT SOUND]

MUHLBERGER: In most restaurants and company cafeterias, like this one in Cologne, serving exotic meat has already proved a short-lived experience. Six months after the BSE crisis peaked in Germany, beef is back on the menu. Today, for example, diners can choose from spaghetti with beef bolognese, pork schnitzel, or chicken breast, with fries.

FEMALE PATRON: Yes, of course they've offered much more fish and some really exotic kinds of meat, like ostrich and kangaroo--I think kangaroo, and horse meat, yes. And for a while there was no beef at all. Now it's come back, as far as I noticed.

MUHLBERGER: And, as other diners note, while many people stopped eating beef at the height of the BSE scandal, only few have changed their eating habits for longer.

FEMALE PATRON: I started eating more chicken and fish and I didn't touch any meat, like beef and sausages and all these things. But then, after a while, you know, you're getting more relaxed, and now I've started eating meat again.

MALE PATRON: Well, I have changed my eating habits, in the beginning, and then thought it was stupid because now they're testing.

MUHLBERGER: Meat sales plummeted by 70 percent last December. They've since risen to a level 25 percent below last year's figures. That's mainly thanks to the government's new rigorous testing scheme. Professor Zwingmann of the Ministry of Agriculture, also heads the National Crisis Center for the fight against BSE.

ZWINGMANN: [IN GERMAN]

TRANSLATOR: It's because we've implemented a new EU-wide test, whereby all beef cattle older than 24 months are tested for BSE automatically. Germany has tested more than a million animals already and, so far, only 20 were diagnosed positive. So the infection rate here is comparatively small. The new tests allow us to say with a high degree of certainty that the beef sold today is safe.

MUHLBERGER: But there is still a lot of work to be done to rebuild trust in the agriculture and food industry. Transparency is the new buzzword. Farmers and butchers are trying hard to convince consumers that they have nothing to hide. Farm tours, and Web-cams in butcher shops have become effective ways of rebuilding trust. Christoph Silber-Bons from the German Butcher's Association represents small local butchers.

SILBER-BONS: Most butchers know the farmer personally where they get the animals from. If the consumer wants to take him in his car and drive him to his farm and shows him directly the cows or whatever he gets his beef from, and he can show him how he does his sausages, he can look into the sausage kitchen, he can explain what is in it.

MUHLBERGER: With all this professionalism and pride in the meat industry, it's hard to imagine how things could have gone so terribly wrong. Historically, the European Union paid subsidies to farmers by the animal, fueling the growth of factory farms, which aimed to churn out as many cows as they could. Many industrial breeders fed cows on cheap feed, made from ground-up cow meat and bones.

Scientists in Britain linked the outbreak of Mad Cow disease there to the use of cattle feed containing meat and bone meal. Germany banned the use of meat-based cattle feeds in 1994, but the practice continued. A new ban on such feeds, for all animals, was issued in January of this year. Again, Christoph Silber-Bons.

SILBER-BONS: It started with what cows got to eat was the wrong thing, and how they were brought up, how they were transported. Beef is not a product which you can ship all around Europe or the world. It is a product that everything should be close together--the farm, the butcher and the consumer. So this all played together to come to the situation like it is now, and we hope that now there is a rethinking what really quality beef means, and again, that it needs to have its price to really make sure that it has quality.

MUHLBERGER: The Ministry of Agriculture, which is now responsible for consumer protection, has given this rethinking process a name. It's called Agrarwende, or turnaround-in- agriculture. But this turnaround is not limited to cattle raising. The BSE scare triggered a critical examination of agriculture in general. Instead of being pushed to grow as much as possible, farmers are now hearing quality, not quantity. The new model in Germany is the smaller, organic farm, where animals graze freely and the food chain is strictly controlled. Professor Zwingmann of the Ministry explains.

ZWINGMANN: [IN GERMAN]

TRANSLATOR: I think there is a lot to be improved in conventional farming, and it is the declared goal of the government to increase the number of organic farms in Germany. We are trying to be the driving force in Europe, and the restructuring of agriculture can only work if it happens EU-wide.

[AMBIENT SOUND: OUTDOOR FOOD MARKET]

MUHLBERGER: Vendors at the weekly outdoor food market in Cologne say the number of customers has doubled. Even the large supermarket chains are starting to expand their organic food sections. The German government is hopeful that, unlike exotic meats, which have shown to be a niche market, organic produce will go mainstream.

A special budget, of over $5 billion, has been granted to kick-start the farming reform. But, as the newly appointed Green Party Minister for Consumer Protection and Agriculture, Renate Kunast, pointed out recently, the real power to support healthier and more natural farming methods lies in the hands of consumers. To that end, she's calling on them to keep voting--with their shopping baskets. For Living on Earth, I'm Michael Muhlberger, in Cologne, Germany.

[KLETZMER MUSIC LEAD-OUT]

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Small Business Commentary

CURWOOD: Thanks to cool weather and decreased demand, California now has a surplus of energy. The state is selling back some of its excess power for this month, at a loss. But Byron Kennard believes California and other states still need to keep an eye towards conserving energy. He says they should look in the direction of small businesses.

KENNARD: Earlier this year, California spent over $7 billion to import out-of-state energy. Unfortunately, a large chunk of this expensive electricity was wasted through inefficiency. Much of this inefficiency can be traced to small businesses, especially those that are energy intensive, such as restaurants, convenience stores, and small manufacturers. Small businesses consume more than half of all commercial energy in the U.S. So the amount wasted is huge. For example, there are 73,000 restaurants in California, and they're among the state's biggest energy consumers. Now, much of this energy, one-third to one-half, can be saved, thanks to new energy efficient technology.

Let's say these restaurants cut their electric energy use by 30 percent. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, that's the amount typically saved through small business energy efficiency upgrades. These cuts would reduce California's energy demand by approximately 1500 megawatts. That's a lot. For comparison's sake, this winter's blackouts in California were caused by shortages of 500 megawatts. Thirty percent less consumption means 30 percent reductions in electric bills. So small business efficiency upgrades pay for themselves over time. Over all, small businesses could save billions of dollars each year.

This helps the environment, too. A 30 percent reduction in energy use by California's restaurants would at the same time prevent the release of over 2 million tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. What's more, small business energy efficiency upgrades can be put into effect quickly. Basically, making small businesses energy efficient involves doing the same simple thing over and over again, in lots and lots of places.

Restaurants, for example, could use air-conditioning tune-ups, and window film to reduce the summer heat. Little things mean a lot, especially to small businesses operating on slim profit margins. Just one energy efficient exit sign can save about $20 annually in electricity costs, compared to typical incandescent signs. So why aren't small business energy efficiency upgrades selling like hotcakes? The big obstacle is the high cost and hassle of financing. The best way to eliminate this obstacle would be a federal tax credit for small business purchases of energy efficient products. Such a tax credit would point the nation down the road of profitable energy efficiency, with small businesses leading the way.

CURWOOD: Byron Kennard is Executive Director of the Center for Small Business and the Environment, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.

[MUSIC UNDERNEATH]

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth

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News Follow-up

[ELECTRONIC MUSIC]

CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the new stories we've been tracking lately. Two prominent anti-logging activists from southwestern Mexico have lost their final appeal, under Mexican law. The two were accused of drug and weapons charges, but supporters, and even Mexico's Human Rights Commission, say their confessions were extracted under torture. Alejandro Queral, human rights specialist with the Sierra Club, calls this decision a blow to grassroots activists in Mexico.

QUERAL: They had a lot of hopes that they would be able to work with the federal government, but this verdict certainly makes them feel like no one will stand up for them.

CURWOOD: Defense attorneys for Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera are preparing to file their case with the InterAmerican Commission for Human Rights, which could grant a new trial in an international court.

This spring, we visited Alberta, Canada, and the rat control officers there who help keep the province rat-free. Now, a massive attack on non-native rats has been launched on remote Campbell Island, in New Zealand. Officials have dropped 120 tons of poison bait on the uninhabited island. Now they'll wait two years to make sure the rat population has been wiped out. Once that's done, they say, native birds can be reintroduced there.

The National Academy of Sciences has released the final version of its study on government fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles. The report appears a bit less optimistic about the feasibility of raising fuel economy than a draft version leaked earlier. Panel chairman Paul Portney says the changes reflect the process of combining 13 panelists' work into one unified document.

PORTNEY: Yes, the draft changed, but the changes in the draft were due exclusively to trying to respond to reviewers' comments and our own dissatisfactions with the report as it was in draft form, and discovery of errors.

CURWOOD: He said one key error in the draft was a projection of significant improvements over six to ten years. The final version predicts major improvements in fifteen years. The report also recommends basing fuel economy standards on the weight of a vehicle. That means heavier sport utility vehicles will be held to a more stringent standard than they are now, as SUVs are currently classified as light trucks. The report also suggests expanding a credit trading system for manufacturers that exceed efficiency standards. It also calls for more government sponsored research into fuel efficiency technologies.

And remember that band of out-of-work Thai elephants who made beautiful music together? Keepers at another elephant park in Thailand have hit upon another money making scheme. They're harvesting the elephant's dung, to convert it into cream colored paper. All proceeds go toward care of the elephants. And don't worry, the paper is reportedly odor-free.

[ELEPHANT SOUND]

CURWOOD: And that's this week's follow-up on the news from Living on Earth.

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Tech Note

CURWOOD: Just ahead, sound ecology, how Nature shares the spectrum. First, this technology note from Maggie Villiger.

VILLIGER: Most plants can't grow in environments that are very salty, but over a quarter of the world's irrigated farmland is salty enough to limit agricultural productivity. Salt builds up in soil when irrigation is used extensively in arid or semi-arid climates where evaporation is high and drainage is low. So scientists have been trying to develop crops with high salt tolerance, in order to take advantage of these less than ideal habitats. Salt tolerance is thought to be a complex trait that involves multiple genes. But recently, researchers discovered a way to use a single gene to produce plants that can thrive in salty conditions. They took a typical tomato plant, and introduced the DNA sequence that contains a particular gene from the Arabidopsis plant, a member of the mustard family. The gene codes for a protein that pumps excess salt out of cells. The resulting genetically modified tomato plant was able to remove its excess salt by pumping it into compartments in its leaves. These tomatoes flourished, in conditions that would have killed or stunted normal tomato plants. In addition, while their leaves contained high concentrations of sodium, their fruit had very little extra salt. Scientists believe this discovery may allow for greater use of the world's salty soils as other salt-tolerant crops are developed. That's this weeks Technology Note. I'm Maggie Villiger.

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

[MUSIC UNDERNEATH]

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Treehouses

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Most of us think of treehouses as childhood play spaces--a couple of boards and nails were all it took to turn the backyard maple into a towering fortress, or a neighbor's oak tree into a secret club. David Pearson is author of the book Treehouses, and he says, these days, tree territory is no longer just for kids.

PEARSON: There has been a renaissance in tree houses. They're used just about for anything and everything you can think of. I mean, some people use them as kids' playhouses, hideaways. Other people use them as retreats; they even use them as offices; they even hold weddings in them, and all sorts of crazy things happen all the time in treehouses.

CURWOOD: You write that the treehouse has served various roles throughout history. Tell us about some of those roles and how they came about.

PEARSON: Well, it's very interesting. The Romans had a period of treehouses, as leisure sort of areas. The Medici family in Italy, they had marble treehouses. How on earth the tree supported them, I don't know, but--then, in Tudor, England, they used to be called roosting places, after birds roosting in trees. Queen Elizabeth I had a banquet in a large linden tree, laid out with tables and cloths and beautiful food. And then, more later, the royal lineage moved onto Elizabeth II, who was on holiday in Kenya at the time that her father, George VI, died. And literally, she went up into the treehouse as a princess and apparently she heard about the death of her father in this treehouse, called Treetops, and had to swear to be Queen, and so she descended as a Queen. So you can see, treehouses have changed things for many people.

CURWOOD: Could you describe for me the kinds of treehouses that you profile in your book? These aren't just something thrown together with a few boards and nails and luck.

PEARSON: Well, we've tried to find a range of treehouses in this book, going right from the absolute basic, which maybe you would try to build with your kids over a weekend, right the way through to sort of luxury tree houses, which people managed to live in pretty well year-round. So we've got treehouses built of corrugated iron in Australia; we've got them built of recycled timber in Oregon; and we've even got a mad tree house where a guy has found disused parts of planes and he's built this plane into his house. And it's just about how far your imagination can go, really, just controls what you do with a tree house.

CURWOOD: I'd like to climb into the treehouse of a Mr. Michael Garnier you have in your book here. This chap seems to be doing a good deal more than just building a playhouse in the trees. Can you tell us about him?

PEARSON: Yes, he's a very interesting guy, and he's one of the main characters in the American treehouse story. He really set up a resort, up in a little valley in Oregon, and it wasn't doing too well back in the '90s. And so he thought, well, why don't I just build a treehouse, in some oak trees that were nearby. That led onto him basically building, as he has now, 11 tree houses in this resort. But it wasn't all sort of easy. Soon as he built the first treehouse, he had problems with the local authorities there. And they were very worried because it didn't have proper concrete foundations like most buildings. So the county officials refused to grant him a building permit. And it was, after that, eight years of court battles until he finally won out, in 1998, when I think they realized, well, if they'd stood up that long and gone through various winters and winds and stuff, they must be OK. And they've now granted him permission. So Garnier now has this lovely resort and has really won out over officialdom.

CURWOOD: In your book you also feature a construction firm that builds treehouses for clients, using state-of-the-art computer-aided design programs, and some of these places look pretty posh here. Nice finish. Good furniture. Windows. Quite commodious. In fact, if I didn't know it was a tree house from the caption of the photograph, I might think it was someone's rather fancy hunting lodge, or weekend getaway.

PEARSON: That's quite true. And I think what happens with people, they start building the tree house, in a very basic sort of way, but over the years they carry on, they add this little bit one season, add a little bit the next season, and then maybe they refurbish a room the next season, and, give it a few years, and it takes on that sort of feeling of a nicely crafted and loved little house.

CURWOOD: So, what are people paying for treehouses these days, if they call someone up and say, Design it, build it for me?

PEARSON: They can spend thousands of dollars. I mean, it can be 10, 20 thousand dollars, probably even more, depending on how many floors they want, how many rooms they want; do they want it to have facilities like a normal house, inside the tree house? How luxurious is it going to be? But, for a lot of people, they really hand over the whole responsibility for designing it, and getting the permission if necessary, and building it, to these specialist companies. And they'll be guided by the trees on your property. The number one thing with a treehouse is to let the tree tell you what the treehouse should be like. And I think most of these companies realize that, you know.

CURWOOD: What sort of energy advantages, efficiency advantages, are there in a treehouse?

PEARSON: I think one great thing is, its size being usually very small, or much smaller than a normal house would be. Because of its size it's obviously going to use less energy, it's going to be easier to heat or cool, and I think people are going to be more comfortable in it for that reason. So it's another good thing to experience, which is living in small things, rather than, particularly in America where you have houses that, well, from European standards are often very large. It's quite interesting, I think, for people to experience the other way and live in quite small spaces, and to see how comfortable they can be and how much they can do in a tiny space.

CURWOOD: Now what do you think this treehouse renaissance says about our psyches, the way we live today, modern life?

PEARSON: I think it says a lot, because today we live increasingly in cities, we live increasingly pressured lives, we don't have enough space around us. Everything we live in is sort of being built and made by someone else. And this is a way to break out of all that and find a bit of personal freedom, a bit of personal space; relate directly to nature. And so I think it's a very rejuvenating thing, to build a treehouse and to experience that wonderful thing of being just up in the trees, with the tree gradually moving, a bit like a boat on a lake. It's not static. With all the birds up there singing away and all the leaves out and the beautiful scent of the trees and the air. I mean, that sort of thing is a rare experience in this world.

CURWOOD: David Pearson is author of the book Treehouses, the first in a series, called The House that Jack Built. Thanks for joining us.

PEARSON: Thank you as well.

CURWOOD: If you'd like to see some of the treehouses Mr. Pearson features in this book, visit our Web site at www.loe.org.

[MUSIC UNDERNEATH: JOHN FAHEY, "Steel Guitar Rag".]

Related link:
The Treehouse Guide
Out 'N' About Treehouse Resort">

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Bioacoustics

CURWOOD: According to a survey conducted by the National Park Service, one of the biggest draws of places like Yellowstone and Yosemite is the quiet one can find there. But these days, tranquility's becoming more and more endangered. The snap of a twig or the whisper of the wind is often droned out by the whirring of cars and airplanes. Human activity is behind the loss of what are called natural soundscapes. People may feel this loss, but as reporter Nathan Johnson found out, the destruction of soundscapes is affecting other creatures as well.

[SOUND OF HIGHWAY TRAFFIC]

JOHNSON: It's rush hour on the San Francisco Bay's Richmond Bridge. A team of scientists are on a narrow observation deck, checking out a colony of harbor seals on some nearby rocks. These rocks are an important piece of real estate, according to biologist Emma Grigg.

GRIGG: You can look around and see that almost all the shoreline is developed to this point, so there's not that many places for them to haul out in the bay. And in order for this population to persist in the bay, they need these haul-out areas.

JOHNSON: Scientists have seen how agitated the seals can get from all the noise around the bridge, so they've placed recording devices on the rocks and under the water, to monitor sound levels. But the seals do seem to have gotten used to most of the car and truck traffic.

GRIGG: They definitely will react if there's any sound that goes above that sort of normal ambient level, like the screecher brakes or a siren going by; even horns. Or sometimes we'll have workers who stop on the bridge and they'll yell over the side. They're able to discern that noise above other normal ambient noise, and will react to that.

JOHNSON: The fear is that a big construction project, scheduled to start up on the bridge any time, will scare these 200 seals away from this site. In this part of the bay it's one of the only spots where they can rest after feeding for long stretches in the cold water. And scientists say that disturbances like this are becoming the norm. Christopher Clark is director of the Center for Bio-acoustics, at Cornell University.

CLARK: And there are many cases, in fact an alarmingly increasing number of cases, where human activities are creating in one sense an acoustic smog.

JOHNSON: For over two decades, Professor Clark has been studying the acoustics of the ocean, including the songs of large whales, like these Southern Right Whales he recorded off the coast of Argentina.

[WHALE SONGS]

JOHNSON: Clark now does much of his research in the Mediterranean Sea.

CLARK: The Mediterranean Sea is a totally urbanized environment and it sounds, underwater, it sounds as though you were sort of lying under the street in downtown San Francisco. It's just clogged with noise. And if you go to the Sea of Cortez, the Gulf of California, it's quiet. You can hear the small panga boat of a fisherman come out of a harbor so far away you can't even see it, and you can hear that little engine start up and change gear and move across the gulf. It's just radically different between these two places.

JOHNSON: Relatively quiet places like the Sea of Cortez are heading towards extinction, according to Dr. Bernie Krause, a pioneer in the field of bio-acoustics. He says when he first started making recordings in nature, in 1968, he could get an hour of pristine sound for every fifteen hours of work.

KRAUSE: Now it takes me 2,000 hours to do the same thing. So I have to work, now, 2,000 hours in the field to get one hour of useable material. The reason is there's so much noise around.

JOHNSON: Scientists don't fully understand what this loss means, because there's still so much that's unknown about the way other creatures use and depend on sound to survive. However, for years, Dr. Krause has been documenting how sound can help gauge the health of a habitat. A breakthrough in his research came in Kenya, in 1983, at the end of a long day of recording.

KRAUSE: I was extremely tired, and I was lying there with my earphones on, hearing the sounds of the forest. And it occurred to me that they sounded like an orchestra. That it wasn't a din of noise, it wasn't a cacophony like we normally think of, but it was a wonderful animal orchestra.

JOHNSON: Krause returned to his lab, to create a spectrogram, a kind of graph allowing him to see what his microphones had recorded.

KRAUSE: When I looked at what I was hearing, everything was so well-defined. The insects were at one frequency. The frogs were at another frequency. The night birds were at a different frequency. The bats were yet another, showed it in another place in the spectrogram. Well, this was a revelation to me.

[NIGHT ANIMAL SOUNDS]

JOHNSON: If Krause's theories are correct, a healthy habitat is one where animals have divided up the sound spectrum, much the way a radio dial is organized: different animals broadcasting at different frequencies. This helps members of each species hear each other, and it also helps them detect predators and prey.

To demonstrate this, Krause played a recording he made in the jungles of Borneo.

[BORNEO: BIRDS...]

JOHNSON: So you'll see this asian paradise flycatcher vocalizing in three niches. You'll see a brown barbet immediately coming in to vocalize after the asian paradise flycatcher stops singing. And then you'll see a ferruginous babbler, another bird, it comes in right after the brown barbet. So, it's like something is conducting these voices out there.

JOHNSON: Krause says this habitat in Borneo doesn't sound the same as when he recorded it 10 years ago, because of a new strip mine, upriver. And this points out the problem: namely, people show little sensitivity to the acoustic patterns evolution has worked out. Cornell University's Chris Clark.

CLARK: Human activities make a lot of low frequency noise: trucks, trains, traffic, boats, engines--all that stuff. So there's a lot of low frequency smog around. And we don't know what the consequences of those impacts are, but in some cases, the potential consequences are fairly alarming.

JOHNSON: Some scientists say the navy's new low frequency sonar can throw whales off their migration routes and even induce brain hemorrhages. And, in a study out of Montana State University, researchers established a link between snow mobile noise and increased enzyme stress levels in wolves and elk. But, short of turning off all our electronics and engines, no one's really sure what to do.

MORTON: There's a lot of underwater work that you're not going to see. All the piers are going to get reinforced with new piles underwater...

JOHNSON: Back on the Richmond Bridge, Craig Morton, an environmental planner with California's Department of Transportation, is explaining how workers are going to replace thousands of steel rivets with high strength bolts. He says the noise level from this operation will reach 90 to 95 decibels.

MORTON: A rock concert's about 140; airport is probably 120; chain saw is probably 105. So it's somewhere less than a chain saw.

JOHNSON: Even if the noise forces the seal colony to abandon this refuge, Chuck Morton says, realistically, there's no way he can halt construction.

MORTON: We'll talk to a contractor to see if there are any other construction techniques to reduce the noise levels, so we don't have the impact as much. And that's about all we can do.

JOHNSON: A movement is growing to reduce noise levels within the national park system. New rules, if they're not gutted by the Bush administration, would phase out snow mobiles in Yellowstone. There's also talk of new restrictions on noisy air flights over the Grand Canyon. Plus, the Park Service has directed its managers to treat soundscapes as a resource, meaning soundscapes can be protected just like any other resource, such as wildlife, water and clean air. For Living on Earth, this is Nathan Johnson, in San Francisco.

[MUSIC UNDERNEATH: ZORN, "SAIGON PICK-UP"]

Related link:
Richmond Bridge Harbor Seal Survey
Bernie Krause's Wild Sanctuary
World Forum for Acoustic-Ecology">

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth Next week, one researcher's crusade to save endangered sea turtles.

NICHOLS: Just watching the turtles that I'm studying disappear, be eaten, the light went on. You know what? I could sit around and look at turtle DNA for the next five years, while these turtles get wiped out. That would be unethical.

CURWOOD: We'll journey to Mexico's Baha, California peninsula next week on Living on Earth Before we go today, let's listen in to a soundscape from Vancouver, British Columbia. Claude Schryer wove disparate sounds to create this montage that includes Chinese firecrackers, folk dancing, a baseball game, and even a mechanical piano.

[HUMAN SOUNDSCAPE: SCHRYER, "FIRE," VANCOUVER SOUNDSCAPE REVISITED]

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, Milisa Muniz, and Bunny Lester.

We had help this week from Gernot Wagner, Marie Jaya Sekera, and Katy Saunders. 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, Chris Ballman is the senior producer. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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 Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; The David and Lucille Packard Foundation, for reporting on marine issues and the environment; The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; The Town Creek Foundation; The W. Elton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity, www.wajones.org; the Rockerfeller Foundation, for reporting on western issues; The James and Kathleen Stone Foundation; and The Oak Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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