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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

March 8, 2002

Air Date: March 8, 2002

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SEGMENTS

The Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Part 1 / Brenda Tremblay

(stream / mp3)

Despite the accepted belief among most biologists that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct, avid bird enthusiasts continue to search for the species among southern U.S. swamps and bogs. In this documentary report produced by Brenda Tremblay, we visit with hopeful birdwatchers searching for their aviary Holy Grail. (11:30)

The Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Part 2 / Brenda Tremblay

(stream / mp3)

The Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker continues. (08:30)

Cornell & the Ivory-bill

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Earlier this year a birding team brought back a mysterious tape of knocking noises in a Louisiana forest. It was a woodpecker, but could it be the elusive Ivory-bill? Steve Curwood speaks with expert John Fitzpatrick from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about listening for the lost bird. (06:00)

News Follow-Up

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New developments in some of the stories we’ve been following recently. (03:00)

Business Note: BP Cuts Political Spending / Jennifer Chu

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on an international oil company’s decision to cut its political purse strings. (01:20)

Almanac: Korean Bullfighting

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This week, we have facts about Korean bullfighting. Each year, handlers pit their bulls against each other in a contest that’s not a fight to the death. (02:00)

Resignations

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Host Steve Curwood talks with Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Anna Solomon-Greenbaum about the recent spate of resignations from some of the key members of the Bush administration’s environmental team. (06:00)

Geocaching / Ken Shulman

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When former President Clinton declassified the global positioning system, also known as GPS, it opened the door for citizen use of the satellite navigation network. As Ken Shulman reports, a new sport called geocaching has sent both outdoor enthusiasts and techno-geeks on treasure hunting adventures using handheld GPS devices. (07:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Brenda Tremblay, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Ken Shulman
GUESTS: John Fitzpatrick
UPDATES: Jennifer Chu

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Decades after scientists recorded the call of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker for the first and perhaps, only time, eyes and microphones have recently caught something like it in the swampy forests of Louisiana. But no ornithologist is ready to say the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is back from extinction just yet.

JACKSON: For me, nothing like sound takes you back to a place or a time, and that's exciting, and helps communicate to us what the loss of a creature like an Ivory-billed Woodpecker is, as we sit and listen to that recording and think that if we walk through the swamps of the south, we're not going to hear that again, in all likelihood.

[SOUND OF WOODPECKER]

CURWOOD: Scientists are analyzing the sounds from a recent bird hunting expedition. It's all part of the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, on Living on Earth. Right after this.

[NPR NEWS]

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The Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Part 1

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In a few weeks, ornithologists will learn if they're any closer to finding a bird that most people believe is extinct. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was thought to have disappeared from its swamp habitat in the southeastern U.S. during the 1980s. But, in April of 1999, a forestry student reported seeing a pair of the birds in Louisiana. His account was credible enough that, this year, an elite bird watching team began a special search. They traveled by foot and canoe in the Louisiana Pearl River Wildlife Area. They say nothing definitive. But the team did record some sounds that may have been made by an Ivory-bill. We'll speak with the scientists who's analyzing those recordings a little later in the program, but first, let's hear a documentary about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker that Brenda Tremblay produced for us a few years ago. Brenda traveled to Mississippi's Delta National Forest, as part of her own quest for the Ivory-bill and to explore the culture of birders who've made it their holy grail.
[MUSIC: Coyote Oldman, "Rolling Earth," (LIMEWIRE)]

TREMBLAY: I hardly know where to begin this story. A story that's part fable, part science lesson, and part obsession. I suppose it began when I first saw a picture of a bird in a book. The picture got into my head. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I even dreamed about it. Months went by and I was still fixed by its image. Finally, I decided to drive to Mississippi to look for it.

ALEXANDER: Were there any pelicans in Mississippi?

HEYEN: I cannot find my daily bread for sale in this beribboned mall thronged with the polymer sound of generic birds on plastic limbs, in plastic trees. I need to fathom what I'll need to buy.

Photo: James T. Tanner, 1937Female Ivory-billed Woodpecker at nest hole.
(Photo: James T. Tanner, 1937)

JAMES: Like all other groups of birds that are endangered and becoming extinct, it's always the largest one that's most endangered, like the Whooping Crane, the largest crane; the Trumpeter Swan, the largest swan; the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker.

BUDNEY: The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was probably not a bird that was following such a narrow path that it was doomed to extinction. In all likelihood, it has to do with human manipulation of the habitat.

TURCOTT: Well, you know what the holy grail is, don't you? It's when you go out seeking something that's maybe not possible or not there but you still go out to see if it's possible.

[MUSIC OUT]

TREMBLAY: Highway 82 passes by the fast food joints, cheap motels and corrugated metal buildings of Greenville, Mississippi, and through the fertile cotton and soybean fields of the Mississippi Delta. It's another 20 miles to the Delta National Forest. Here I met Jerry Jackson, a professor of biological sciences at Mississippi State University. For years, Jackson has been searching the southeastern United States for what he and others call the "Lord God bird."

JACKSON: And it's the Lord God bird, I'm sure, because when people would see the woodpecker they would say, "Lord God, what a woodpecker," and that's referring to its size. It's an incredibly large bird. It's a woodpecker with a three foot wingspan, the size of a crow or slightly larger.

TREMBLAY: The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is, or perhaps was, a magnificent bird, but not in the same way that a large hawk or eagle is magnificent. The Ivory-bill has a prehistoric aspect. It's pterodactyl-shaped, other-worldly, with a stark color combination of red, black and white, and light colored eyes. It is an unforgettable image that keeps people searching, despite the odds.

JACKSON: There are some real fanatics out there that are really so, so anxious to find an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. There's a young doctor, who is now stationed in Hawaii, who came to my office and spent some time with me, who has all of the literature on Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, who knows everything there is to know about them, and who's continually looking for them. There's a lawyer in Texas who put up a bounty of $1000 and plastered placards advertising his willingness to pay $1000 for evidence that there are Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. There are people out there who are very serious in their intent to find Ivory-bills and who are very serious when they say that they think that they exist.

[SOUND OF BIRDS, TALKING]

ALEXANDER: Okay, let's start the tally. Now, what I'm going to do, I'm going to call out the species and if the people in Mississippi saw the bird, I'm going to write it down. If we have some birds that were seen in Arkansas and not in Mississippi, I would like to put an asterisk by the species.

TREMBLAY: The Mississippi Ornithological Society meets every few months to look for birds and commune over catfish dinner. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was crossed off their lists a long time ago, but there are some old-timers in the group who remember the days of rare sightings and still tell stories of tantalizing encounters. Bill Turcott used to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

[SOUND OF PEOPLE EATING]

TURCOTT: The place was teeming with woodpeckers, a lot of Pileateds in there. Of course, we never saw anything we considered an Ivory-bill. We're on the last day of the second trip that we made up there. I pulled off of this road that borders the lower part of the bluff, at a little overlook overlooking the swamp out there, and I got out and played the Ivory-billed tape one more time. I was sitting there, feet on the ground, the car door open, and Al was up behind me here, and I swear I heard, twice, the Ivory-bill call. Twice, just as plain as day. And I stood up and looked back and hear this Barn Owl that I called out of this big cottonwood there on the bluff, come cross there with three Bluejays behind it. Well, a Bluejay can imitate just about anything he wants to imitate. And I heard what I considered to be Bluejays making that call, because there was no possibility there was an Ivory-bill on the other side, because at the top of the bluff it was open pasture.

MAN: Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Cornell catalogue, cut one.

[SOUND OF IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER'S CALL]

TREMBLAY: There is only one recording of the ivory-billed woodpecker, made in the 1930s. It was made in the Singer tract, an 80,000-acre tract of hardwood forest in north-central Louisiana. Greg Budney is the curator of the Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York.

BUDNEY: They realized in 1935 that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was likely to become extinct; that numbers of birds were very low, and they wanted to make sure that its voice was documented. It was a joint expedition between Cornell, the American Museum, and, I believe, it was funded by the National Geographic Society.

[SOUND OF IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER]

BUDNEY: I would just say, how lucky they were, Arthur Allen, James Tanner, Peter Paul Kellogg had the foresight to record this animal, to go to the lengths that they went to record the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. What a great thing to be able to hear. For me, nothing like sound takes you back to a place or a time. It's essentially unreduced in dimension. We're listening to what they listened to. And that's exciting, and helps communicate to us what the loss of a creature like an Ivory-billed Woodpecker is, as we sit and listen to that recording and think that if we walked through the swamps of the south, we're not going to hear that again, in all likelihood.

[SOUND OF IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER, LOCOMOTIVE ENGINE]

BUDNEY: Following the Civil War, much of the lands of the southeast reverted to federal ownership, simply because the people of the south were so poor that they couldn't afford to pay the taxes on the lands. By the late 1870s, early 1880s, this had grown to crisis proportions, and southern senators and representatives were lobbying in Congress trying to get those federal lands sold, so that the lands could go back on the tax base. So the lands were sold, and they went to the lumber companies of the north. Special railroads were built, going out of Chicago, coming to the south to bring land buyers to the south. And the virgin pine forests of the southeast sold for a dollar and a quarter an acre.

[SOUND OF TRAIN]

TREMBLAY: Nobody knows all the reasons why the bird has disappeared. By the time scientists began to study causes of its decline, there were hardly enough birds left to research.

[MARCHING MUSIC]

TREMBLAY: In 1935, ornithologist James Tanner began a study of the few Ivory-bills left in the Singer tract.

BUDNY: But then, World War II broke out, and during a war, if something is being done in our national interest, then it has to be okay. And we needed timber, we needed wood for pallets to put the shells on that were being shipped overseas. And the Singer tract in Louisiana, owned by the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, was a tract of forest that, as far as those lumbermen were concerned, needed to be cut for the war effort. It was the patriotic thing to do. Unfortunately, that was where the last of the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers lived. But we couldn't be concerned about them. There was a war going on.

TREMBLAY: For more than 30 years after the war, people searched for and fantasized about finding the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the remote swamps of the United States. In 1969, two amateur naturalists claimed to have seen Ivory-bills in central Florida. Ornithologists who investigated their claim found nothing. On March 14th, 1971, a member of the Audobon Society played the tape recording of Ivory Billed Woodpeckers and heard a response, in the Santee Swamp of South Carolina. No one saw the bird there either. Six months later, Dr. George Lowry, Jr., a well-respected ornithologist, reported that a birdwatcher in Louisiana had photographed Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in May of 1971. Lowry believed the photographs were authentic, but no birds were ever found. They were seen in Cuba, in the 1980s. Lured by the possibility of photographing the last Ivory-bills left, the National Geographic Society hired Jerry Jackson to lead an expedition there, where Jackson thinks he caught a glimpse.

JACKSON: Well, I can tell you the minute, it was 9:32 a.m. in the morning, on March 4th, 1988. How's that for being excited about it? I had spotted this place, on the first day that I was there, that I could overlook and see some dead trees that looked like they had woodpecker work, and I thought, that's where we're going to see them. And I went back to that spot, it was about three weeks later, and I was sitting there, early in the morning, and had my 400 millimeter lens focused on the dead trees about 300 feet in front of me, and this woodpecker, or what I believe was the Ivory-bill, flew past, 30 feet in front of me, and it was zip, right by, it was gone.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: Our search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker continues right after this short break. You're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Faith No More, "Woodpecker from Mars", THE REAL THING (Warner - 1989)]

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The Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Part 2

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We continue now with our search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. As producer Brenda Tremblay explains, the bird hasn't been seen in the U.S. for so long now, it's close to being declared extinct.

[MUSIC]

TREMBLAY: Jerry Jackson may well have been one of the last people to see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but he didn't get a picture. Intense surveys of Cuban forests, in 1991 and 1993, proved fruitless. A few years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called a meeting of three ornithologists: Lester Short, James Tanner and Jerry Jackson. They sought their endorsement of the Service's decision to declare the Ivory-billed Woodpecker extinct.

JACKSON: I don't really know why, except that I think they just wanted to be able to cross it off their list and not have to worry about it anymore. I guess I was the fly in the ointment of the Fish and Wildlife Service and, in response, they decided that, yeah, they really might look bad if they declared it extinct and someone found the birds. And so, the Fish and Wildlife Service funded a one-year study to examine those areas in the southeast that offered the best hope for there still being Ivory-bills. And I was given the contract to spend a year looking for Ivory-bills.

[SOUND OF IVORY-BILL]

JACKSON: Well, I stretched that amount of money--I got no more money--but I stretched into two years, and actually it's been many years, because I've continued to go back and go back and go back.

TREMBLAY: Jackson plays the same tape made in the Singer tract in the 1930s, hoping for a response and hearing only echoes, mimics, and phantoms.

WOMAN: So then you would wait?

JACKSON: Yeah, we'd play it for the Red Belly responding to the Red Belly on the tape. See, the birds do respond. There's another Red Belly.

JACKSON: We were in an area, in fact, not very far from here, it's only about five miles from here, and we had been doing surveys, transects through the forest, playing this recording of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker for 45 seconds and listening for three minutes and then moving 15 minutes and doing it again. And I came to a place where the trees were incredibly large, and I played the tape. I told my graduate student, "This is by far the best habitat I've seen anywhere." And no response. And so, we started to move on, and my graduate student says, "Wait, there it is, there it is." And I said, "I don't hear anything." He said, "No, it's coming closer, he's coming closer." And we just stood there, and finally, I heard it.

[SOUND LIKE THE IVORY-BILL]

JACKSON: And it was a bird repeating what we had just played, about three minutes before, on the tape, and it kept coming closer and closer until it got about maybe 100 yards from us, and then it stopped where it was, but it called repeatedly from there, for several minutes. And it wasn't coming closer. And so I said "On three, we're just going to have rush toward it and hope we can get a photo." And we did, we ran, and didn't see a thing.

Everything in me that's a scientist says it's not at all likely that there are any Ivory-bills left. But, as a human being, and as an individual, that likes to think positive, I like to hope that maybe, just maybe, out there there is a pocket of Ivory-bills still left.

SHORT: I think he's mistaken about it. I think he's an incurable optimist, I'll say that about Jerry, which is great, but not too much of a realist.

TREMBLAY: Lester Short is the Lamont Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History. He's one of the world's leading experts on woodpeckers. Like Jackson, Short caught fleeting glimpses of Ivory-bills in Cuba, in the late 1980s, but he thinks the birds he saw were part of a doomed population and he's convinced there are none left in the United States.

SHORT: When you think of the mobility of the birdwatchers in the United States and the terrific number of them and the many people who've become interested in birds, hunters and others who go into the back country, and the fact that the birds need to have a place to breed. If they produce young, the young have to move away from the parents. And these are big birds that are conspicuous. So, I don't think that any place can be so remote from people that they could be hanging on and not be seen over the years.

TREMBLAY: But is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker really extinct? Could there be an undiscovered pair in some deep southern swamp, in the remote forests of South Carolina or in the Florida Panhandle?

JAMES: Hope springs eternal and sometimes, you have to face reality.

TREMBLAY: Douglas James is a professor of biology and ornithologist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, in the upper regions of the Ivory-bill's former habitat. Though he believes the Ivory-bill's demise was hastened by man's interference, James says its extinction may have been fated from the very beginning.

JAMES: Like all other groups of birds that are endangered and becoming extinct, it's always the largest one that's most endangered, like the Whooping Crane, the largest crane, the Trumpeter Swan, the largest swan, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker. And this has been going on for millions of years, since the Pleistocene age and geological age. I see it as sort of a continuation of a process that's been going on for several million years.

TREMBLAY: Greg Budney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology disagrees.

BUDNEY: The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was probably not a bird that was following such a narrow path that it was doomed to extinction. In all likelihood, it has to do with human manipulation of the habitat. The loss of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is an indication that something has changed in a substantial way in the environment. So it was an indicator of the integrity of the habitat. And when you lose that, it's a sign that should direct our attention to look at what impacts, what pressures, are occurring in this particular habitat to cause this animal to disappear.

[SOUND OF IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER]

HEYEN: I don't know where I saw it first, maybe in a Peterson's or maybe in some other bird book, a picture of an Ivory-bill. And it's a sharp, vivid image in mind, and, of course, representative of so much, now, that we've lost.

[BIRD CALL CONTINUES]

TREMBLAY: William Heyen is a poet and professor at the State University of New York in Brockport. In his collection of poems, "Pterodactyl Rose," Heyen wrote about endangered and extinct species, including the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

HEYEN: But when I ate the Dodo, I could not ingest its gentleness and trust. Genes lost voyages ago sometimes seem to snag in my human heart, idle lawns of Easters past. But, Passenger Pigeon's eggs wink in a vanished series, and the Ivory-bill cries in the vacuum of its skies not at all.

[SOUND OF IVORY-BILL]

HEYEN: You know, I was brought up on Long Island, and in the center of the island, when my boyhood was all ponds and woods. And now I return and I see what has happened to the places where I once had my imagination and had my being. And all of us have this story in us. I mean, this is an American story.

[MUSIC: Coyote Oldman, "Rolling Earth," (LIMEWIRE)]]

TREMBLAY: We don't want the story to be true. Jerry Jackson and the others who still search want this story to end differently.

JACKSON: Sometimes I'm looked at a little bit askance--yeah, you're crazy, fella. Or with a little bit of disbelief that you believe there might still be Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. How about the trolls under the bridge, too?

TREMBLAY: Do you doubt yourself sometime?

JACKSON: No. I guess that's part of being successful and part of being a scientist: if I doubted myself, I wouldn't be out here looking for them, wading through the chiggers and the ticks and the snakes in the water.

TREMBLAY: For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay reporting.

[MUSIC OUT]

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Cornell & the Ivory-bill

CURWOOD: A new, carefully orchestrated search for the Ivory-bill has just been concluded in Louisiana. World-renowned birdwatchers spent 30 days looking through the forest. They didn't see the bird, but a few of them did record a series of drumming signals peculiar to the Ivory-bill and no other woodpecker. Now, a team from Cornell University is analyzing that sound and hoping to hear more through listening devices they've posted throughout the forest. Joining me now is John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Ornithology Lab. Welcome to Living on Earth.

FITZPATRICK: Great to be here, Steve.

CURWOOD: So tell me, Professor Fitzpatrick, what is it that you team is doing in Louisiana to find this bird?

FITZPATRICK: Well, we have 12 acoustic recording units that we put out into the forest in late January, more or less continuously recording during the day time hours, hoping to hear any acoustic signal from this bird, either its voice or its mechanical rapping sounds on the trees.

CURWOOD: Now it was, what, 1935 that another team from Cornell made the only recording we have of a live Ivory-billed Woodpecker? So why don't we take a listen to that so we can hear what we're looking for.

[SOUND OF IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER CALL AND KNOCKING]

CURWOOD: So, there's a knocking there, but there's also a kind of, well, chirping, or chatting.

FITZPATRICK: Now, that's a very distinctive woodpecker sound, and that's one of the reasons we can do this technique that we have. We're digitally recording all the sounds of the forest, and we're going to be able to listen specifically for that signature, that funny, nasal sounding signature in the voice.

CURWOOD: Now, just this January a search team went out in the Pearl River area near where you put your recorders, and they recorded something. Let's take a listen to that.

[SOUND OF RAPPING]

FITZPATRICK: Those are the sounds that everybody's wondering about right now, and in fact, on that very day, unbeknownst to the team that recorded those, we were, that morning, about a mile away and we heard similar sounds. And so, the big mystery right now is, what were those sounds? They don't sound like any of the more common woodpeckers that we have down there. Those very loud, rhythmic hammerings like that were used by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers as their distinctive rapping sound. So our idea is that there's a possibility those were Ivory-bills.

CURWOOD: Now, if it wasn't an Ivory-bill, what woodpecker would it most likely be?

FITZPATRICK: No doubt, if it was not an Ivory-bill, it would have been a Pileated Woodpecker which is the other large, big, red-crested woodpecker that's in those forests. And the Pileated is very common in those woods.

CURWOOD: Well, let's take a listen to a recording of a Pileated.

[PILEATED DRUMMING]

CURWOOD: So, that's way different from what we heard before.

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, that's quite different, and that, what you just heard, is the typical rap drum or drum rap of the Pileated Woodpecker being territorial.

CURWOOD: Let's play them both now, in succession. First, we'll play the mystery recording, and then we'll play the common Pileated.

[SOUND OF DRUMMING, THEN PILEATED DRUMMING]

FITZPATRICK: It's the rhythm that these sounds have that make us dubious that it's a Pileated.

CURWOOD: Now, I imagine you have more tape to analyze, if you've been running your recorders all the time out there. You must have a few hours.

FITZPATRICK: Absolutely. In fact, what you got is a small set of tape from the group that was on the ground. What we've got out there, still recording as we speak until the middle of March, we're going to end up accumulating 6,000 hours of recordings. So we've got a job in front of us.

CURWOOD: This sounds like the fate of some poor graduate student is sealed for the next 6,000 hours.

FITZPATRICK: Can you imagine how tough that would be? Fortunately, we have at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we've developed a very sophisticated acoustic software that will allow us to go very quickly through those digital sounds and look for the ones that might be interesting for that graduate student to listen to.

CURWOOD: What are those key sounds you're going to look for?

FITZPATRICK: Well, we're going to listen for two main kinds of signatures: the mechanical rapping sounds like we were just listening to, and we'll also be listening for those nasal sounds that the Ivory-bill made because it would be the only bird that could make those, down there.

[SOUND OF IVORY-BILL]

CURWOOD: How would it feel to find this bird?

FITZPATRICK: It's totally impossible to describe. Anybody who knows birds in North America would drop to their knees and weep if they saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It's just one of the most magical birds that has ever lived anywhere in the world, the largest of our woodpeckers. Nothing can bring this bird back to life if it's gone, and it might very well be. The big part of this story that we're trying to put an end to or resurrect is the complete destruction of the bottomland forest of the southeastern U.S., over the course of 100 years. We just cut it all. And it's actually much better now down there for Ivory-bills than it was 50 years ago. So, if they're still there, then they have survived the worst of it and things are actually getting better for them, and that's what, of course, everybody hopes.

CURWOOD: John Fitzpatrick is the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Thanks for taking this time with us.

FITZPATRICK: Been my pleasure. Thank you.

CURWOOD: Our story on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was written and produced by Brenda Tremblay. The technical producer was Dave Sluberski. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

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News Follow-Up

CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the news we've been tracking lately. Research by scientists at the University of California at Berkeley showing that genetically modified strains of corn in the U.S. have spread into crops in Mexico is being challenged. C.S. Prakash is a professor of plant genetics at Tuskegee University and president of AgBioWorld, a pro-biotech information center. He says the UCal. researchers misinterpreted their results when they scanned Mexican corn seed for evidence of transgenic DNA sequences.

PRAKASH: It was flawed in the methodology, and the most likely explanation of the results that they observed were, in fact, they were simply finding some false positives, or artifacts that they concluded were to be transgenes.

CURWOOD: Professor Prakash says the gene flow from transgenic to non-transgenic corn is bound to happen sometime somewhere. But, he says, the UCal. study, published in Nature, does not provide the scientific evidence to prove it, and that about 100 scientists have signed a petition asking the journal to review the data.

[MUSIC BUTTON}

CURWOOD: The town of Libby, Montana, is on its way to becoming a Superfund site and getting millions of federal clean-up dollars from the fund. Asbestos was spread throughout the community for decades because the mineral was in vermiculite that was minded in the town. Todd O'Hare from the Montana governor's office says the state decided to use its one so-called silver bullet to fast track Libby to the top of the Superfund list.

O'HARE: I think taking a look at the health concerns that are related with Libby, the fact that you're dealing with a company, in W.R. Grace, that's bankrupt, I think the concern was that we needed to get this mess cleaned up and we needed to get it cleaned up as soon as possible.

CURWOOD: There are 60 days of public comment before the Superfund designation is made final.

[MUSIC BUTTON]

CURWOOD: Another mining operation received a setback recently. This one aims to extract clay, to be made into premium kitty litter. County Commissioners in Nevada denied the Oil-Dri Corporation's permit to build a processing facility in Washoe County. Oil-Dri's Bob Vetere says the decision leaves the company with less appealing options on where to site the plant.

VETERE: If we were to go into BLM property, then it becomes a much more out in the open plant, as opposed to being hidden around the side of a mountain. If we decide to haul it out of Washoe County to process it, then all the jobs leave Washoe County. If we decide to haul it out of state, then the state of Nevada loses all the jobs and the revenue from it.

CURWOOD: Vetere says Oil-Dri intends to proceed with the cat litter mine. And that's this week's follow-up on the news from Living on Earth.

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Business Note: BP Cuts Political Spending

Coming up, a scavenger hunt that uses satellites, computers, and the World Wide Web to track buried treasure. First, this Environmental Business Note from Jennifer Chu.

[THEME MUSIC]

CHU: When it comes to money, BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, is divorcing itself from politics. The international oil conglomerate will no longer be making any contributions to political parties or activities anywhere in the world. In the U.S., the absence will be felt. During the 2000 presidential campaign, BP donated one million dollars as federal soft money contributions. In 2001, the contributions dropped to a quarter of a million dollars, most of which went to Republicans. A spokeswoman for BP says that the company inherited a history of political contributions when it merged with Amoco and Arco, both American oil companies. These mega-mergers made BP the third largest oil company in the world. BP's announcement comes at a time when multi-national companies and their relationship with governments are facing close scrutiny, following the collapse of the energy trading company, Enron. BP says it will continue to participate in policy debates but come April 1st, politicians should go elsewhere to fill up their coffers. That's this week's Business Note. I'm Jennifer Chu.

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

[MUSIC: Akira Satake, "Tail Wag Dog Jig," PLANET SOUP (ellipsis - 1997)]

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Almanac: Korean Bullfighting

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

[MUSIC: Ken Butler, "Instru-matics," GRAVIKORDS, WHIRLIES & PYROPHONES," (ellipsis - 1997)]

CURWOOD: If you're heading to the bullfighting festival in South Korea this week, you can check your red cape at the door. Bullfighting in the city of Chong-do has a twist. Instead of man against bull, the two partner up and compete against other teams. The bulls use techniques like pushing, head pressing, and horn bumping while their humans coach from the sidelines. A panel of judges scores the moves. And, according to William Dawson of the Korea National Tourism Organization, losing a match isn't life threatening.

Bull Fighting(Courtesy of Korea National Tourism Organization)

DAWSON: When a bull is finished and he's weak and he turns back and walks away, the bullfighting session is over. So, there's not the gore and the spectacle that we would associate with other types of bullfighting throughout the world.

CURWOOD: Korean bullfighting dates back to the onset of agrarian society. Farmers would pit their bulls against each other, to compete for more grazing space. But these days, the bulls have become an elite corps of athletes. Each bull weighs in at more than half a ton. They're given special foods, like ginseng, snakes and Chinese herbal medicine, to build their strength. To bulk up for the big day, they run over steep mountain paths, drag tires, and wade through sand. And heifers get their chance, as well, to shine during the festival's beauty pageant. When spectators aren't cheering on the bulls they can vote on a selection of bovine beauties. Holy cow! And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC OUT]

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Resignations

CURWOOD: You almost need a scorecard these days to keep up with the number of high profile resignations by key members of the Bush administration's environmental team. Joining me to fill in the blanks is Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. So, Anna, tell me, who are these people, and why are they leaving the administration?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, Steve, the latest example is Martha Han. She was the director of the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho. She faced a lot of criticism out there for her decisions on grazing issues. The Interior Department gave her a choice. They told her that she could transfer to a National Park Service job in New York harbor - where grazing rights, you might imagine, are not such a big issue - or she could leave. And Hahn decided to resign. Two days before that, the Army Corps of Engineer chief Mike Parker, stepped down after the Bush administration threatened to fire him for criticizing its proposed cuts to the Corp's budget. And this whole wave of resignations began about a week before when Eric Schaeffer quit his job as the EPA's top enforcement officer. He'd been there since the first Bush administration, and he left in protest, saying this administration was failing to enforce environmental laws.

CURWOOD: Well, Anna, tell us, do these mark the beginning of some kind of trend, a protest against Bush environmental policies?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, I think it's hard to know at this point whether there's going to be more of this. I do think that these resignations are part of something bigger that's going on. There's also been a growing number of public lands managers who've been transferred to new posts or new jobs. One example of this is Kate Cannon. She was the director of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. And in December, the Bush administration moved her to the Grand Canyon National Park to be a deputy superintendent there. Another case was Tim Salt. Tim Salt was the head of the BLM's California Desert District. He's been moved to a new post. Yet another example is Jack Williams. He was the director of two national forests in Oregon, and he's being moved to a teaching position at Southern Oregon University. These are just a few examples.

CURWOOD: Okay, Anna, but typically, people get reassigned and transferred when a new administration comes in, or just even over time.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, to some degree, yeah, there's always a certain amount of shifting around that's expected to happen. And a lot of the managers I've spoken with said that they weren't particularly surprised to hear that their job was about to change. But, at the same time, most of these people also say they think that there's something going on that's beyond the normal adjustments you'd expect to see. In particular, they feel like some of these personnel decisions that are normally made at the state level are now being made from the top, in Washington. And they say that the normal guidelines that govern transfers aren't being followed. Some government watchdog groups feel like there's a real pattern of persecution being carried out, that the Bush administration is targeting people who've been subjects of controversy and basically letting private interests dictate public policy.

CURWOOD: You say these managers have been controversial figures. How so?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, in all these cases, we're talking about people who were managing land where there was a lot of conflicting pressures on the resources. In Utah, you've got ranchers and miners and natural gas producers. In Idaho and Oregon you've got timber. California there's every kind of pressure, off-road vehicles, development. And then, in all these areas you've got hunters, hikers, you have conservation groups. You know, at one point last fall, I was talking with oil and gas producers in different areas around the west. And I was asking them what they thought of the administration's plans to increase production on the public land in their area. And the thing they kept telling me was it doesn't really matter what happens in Washington, it's whether or not the new policies are actually implemented at the local or regional BLM office.

CURWOOD: And I imagine these local offices are still headed by people who came up through the ranks in the Clinton years.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's right. And these energy producers feel like they're biased toward conservation and against using the land for oil or mining or other uses. And they were taking their complaints directly to Washington in many cases. And I saw, at least, a few examples where they were getting the attention of some very senior officials at the Interior Department or the Forest Service. But it isn't just industry that cares about who's running things. Sometimes the pressure comes from local residents who just don't agree with the decisions that are made in Washington about the land in their community. A good example of this - you might remember Gloria Flora. In the Clinton administration she directed the Forest Service in Nevada. There was a road there that local people wanted rebuilt. And Flora wouldn't do it because she said the road would threaten a fish called the Bull Trout that's on the endangered species list. At some point, under pressure and I think some fear about her own personal safety, she resigned.

CURWOOD: These recent resignations, Anna, what's the message these people are sending?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, it differs, Steve. Martha Hahn in Idaho has been fairly quiet about her resignation. Eric Schaeffer, on the other hand, has been very public about it. Schaeffer was one of the key players in the EPA when the Clinton administration brought all of its lawsuits against the utility industry, saying they were violating a provision of the Clean Air Act called New Source Review. Now the Bush administration's been working on altering and possibly doing away with New Source Review. And Schaeffer says many of the utilities that were about to sign settlements on their cases are now putting down their pens because they can see the cop is off the beat. In Schaeffer's view the utilities' violations are causing thousands of premature deaths a year, and he wanted to bring attention to it.

SCHAEFFER: Enforcement needs public attention. This is something a lot of people take for granted. They just assume the law's being enforced. And I'm stepping outside the agency to say that ain't necessarily so. And you better get involved and you better talk to people and you better see especially what's going on with these power plant lawsuits because it affects you personally.

CURWOOD: Anna, thanks so much for filling us in.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You're welcome, Steve.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Washington correspondent, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

[MUSIC Subot and Dawson "Waterbug" TRACTOR PARTS: FURTHER ADVENTURES IN STRANG (Black Hen Music, 2000)

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Geocaching

CURWOOD: About two years ago, President Bill Clinton declassified the global positioning system. His decision gave civilians full access to the extensive satellite navigation network. Created to help the military track enemy troop and missile movements, GPS is now proving useful in navigation, mapping, environmental monitoring and disaster management. Yet, none of these applications seem as creative, or delightfully frivolous, as geocaching--a new treasure hunting sport that uses computer, the World Wide Web, and GPS. As Ken Shulman reports, geocaching is catching on all over.

[SOUND OF HIKING]

XANATOS: We're right on top of it now. It's probably in here some place.

SHULMAN: Here, at the foot of Mt. Tom in central West Massachusetts, the mercury cowers just below the 15 degree Fahrenheit mark. There must be something very valuable, very precious, to lure us out onto the slippery, ice-crusted snow, three miles off the nearest road. The arrow on Dave Xanatos' handheld GPS device points due north. The numbers on the display tell us that we're close.

XANATOS: Wait, wait a second. I found it. I got it, it's right here.

SHULMAN: Found what? Xanatos tugs a green metal ammunition box out of its hiding place and sets in on a rotted birch log. The self-employed web designer undoes the latch and opens it.

XANATOS: Ah spine key chain. From Family Chiropractic. Dr. Michael Gleil... Aluminum shafts, no doubt for darts, I guess, or something like that. A yo-yo. A little, some sort of poke the thing game. An AOL disc. That can't really be an AOL disc. Oh. how cheap. Someone put an AOL disc in here. That's bad.

[QUIET SOUNDS OF TALKING IN BACKGROUND]

SHULMAN: One week after President Clinton lifted the GPS ban, a GPS enthusiast in Oregon placed a slingshot, a can of beans, and some software in a five gallon plastic bucket, hid the stash, and posted the GPS coordinates on the web. And geocaching was born. Now, nearly two years later, there are almost 13,000 caches posted in 107 countries. There are caches on the side of a dormant volcano in southern Russia and others in undersea grottoes. Websites like www.geocaching.com offer listings, along with cache descriptions, photographs, and clues for novice hunters.

XANATOS: I'm going, at this point, to put everything back in.

SHULMAN: Xanatos signs our names in the logbook and takes our photographs with the disposable camera. He takes the spine key chain, and leaves a Hot Wheels race car and some of his business cards as barter. He hasn't gotten any clients this way, he says, but hey, you never know.

[SOUNDS OF PUTTING BOX BACK]

XANATOS: So now, I'm putting it back right where it was and I will camouflage it effectively.

SHULMAN: Then he conscientiously returns the box to its hiding place for future geocachers to find. Geocaching is, in his own words, one of the best things to happen to geeks in a while, because it gets them out into nature.

[SOUND OF HIKING]

XANATOS: I mean look at this, we've been battling the ice and it's cold and we have beautiful trees and sunlight all around us. No computers in sight really to speak of.

SHULMAN: Isn't there one in your pocket?

XANATOS: Yeah, but that doesn't count. It's not on right now.

[SOUND OF CHILDREN]

SHULMAN: Geocaching doesn't just bring out the kid in adults. It also brings out the kids.

[SOUNDS OF CHILDREN]

SHULMAN: These cub scouts, troop 702 from Reading, Massachusetts, are on their first geocache hunt. The terrain is a gentle hill two hundred feet above the parking lot at Hogue Pond in nearby Winchester. It doesn't sound like much of an adventure. Yet there is something magical, says Adena Schutzberg, one of the supervising adults.

SCHUTZBERG: Well I think the best thing for me, I'm trained as a geographer, is it takes me to places I otherwise wouldn't go. Sort of an excuse to get out and find a new place that somebody else has decided is somehow is significant or important to them. So it's a great way to see your local area. I grew up about two miles from here and I've never been here in my life so there you go. That's the perfect example.

CHILD: Oh a calculator, excuse me, excuse me, a beach ball, yeah.

SHULMAN: It appears that most school-age geocachers do it for the trinkets, while most grown up geocachers get their kicks from using their high tech toys, toys that are surprisingly affordable and easy to use.

[SOUND OF CHILDREN]

SHULMAN: A hand held GPS device costs as little as $100 and can be mastered in about five minutes. Bob Hogan is an engineer, and one of the first geocachers in Massachusetts. He's the leader on this cub scout outing. One thing geocachers of all ages have in common, he says, is that they expect, and usually get, a very quick fix.

[SOUND OF CHILDREN]

HOGAN: Most of society still requires semi instant gratification. And if you can't get people to a cache, the majority of the people, within forty-five minutes to an hour, chances are they may not want to go out and do it.

CHILD: See we got a calculator. Now daddy has a new one and so do I.

SHULMAN: While geocachers will undoubtedly benefit from even twenty minutes in the woods, there are those who worry about the impact this low key hi-tech odyssey might have on public lands and parks. Tom Casey is head of law enforcement at Minuteman National Park in Concord. The park includes important sites and artifacts from the American Revolution. Casey recently discovered, through an internet search, that at least one geocache has been set in his park. And he's concerned about the consequences.

CASEY: We have rock walls that have been here since 1775 and in some instances they could have been used by the local militia to fire at the Brits, and if someone removes rocks to hide a container inside a rock wall or to build a cairn as a marker for where it might be, all those items could drastically change the complexion of this park..

SHULMAN: At present, geocaching is illegal in national parks. Casey does concede that specific national parks, and specific park superintendents, might eventually issue permits to allow limited supervised geocaching if the demand should grow. And it well may.

[SOUND OF HIKING]

SHULMAN: Geocaching is easy, it's fun, and can be done at all levels of ability and age. Like the Worldwide Web, it creates a mysterious, benign connection among people who may never meet, but who share in the experience of a special place. And of a special time, a time of memory, when finding a chest that someone has stocked with treasures and hidden for us to seek was all that really mattered in the world.

HOGAN: We're in business, boys.

SHULMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Ken Shulman, in Winchester, Massachusetts.

HOGAN: There it is. Yee-haw. All righty, let's see what he wrote here.

[MUSIC: Gak, "Gak," 25 YEARS OF ROUGH TRADE," (Mute - 2001)]

HOGAN: One of those little Chinese checkers type games, some fishing lures, more golf balls. Top Flight with somebody's ESB logo on it.

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

Related link:
Geocaching site">

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, birth control pills, heart drugs and diabetes medicine are just a few of the pharmaceuticals showing up in treated waste water, and as some thirsty cities prepare to turn toilet water into tap water, there are concerns that trace drugs may wide up pouring out of the spigot too.

MAN: In the United States pharmaceuticals, there are no regulations with respect to their concentrations in the environment, or treated sewage, or drinking water and the reason is because there is so little know about actual effects, or for that matter, potential effects.

CURWOOD: How one California county plans to keep its drinking water drug-free. Next time, on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC OUT]

[BIRD CHIRPING AND INSECTS BUZZING]

CURWOOD: Before we go a remembrance of summer strolls past.

[WOODPECKER AND BIRDS CHIRPING]

CURWOOD: This one in a temperate forest along the shores of Lake Constance on the Bodensee in Germany where Walter Tilgner and his microphone met a few hornets, a fox rustling in the leaves, and an assortment of birds including the fabled cuckoo.

[Water Tigner, "Sylvan Afternoon," Waldenkonzert/Sylvan Conert (EarthEar - 2002)]

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, Jennifer Chu, Jessica Penny and Gernot Wagner -- along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Bree Horowitz and Milisa Muniz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver and member station WXXI in Rochester, New York. We had help this week from Rachel Girshick, and Jessie Fenn. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. Our Technical Director is Dennis Foley. Ingrid Lobet 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.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation environmental information fund. Major contributors include the Educational Foundation of America for reporting on energy and climate change. The Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation supporting efforts to better understand environmental change.

ANNOUNCER : This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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