Klamath in Peril
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Fifty years ago, the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge had the greatest concentration of waterfowl in North America. But in recent years, migration brings fewer and fewer birds. Water destined for the wetlands is diverted for agriculture, leaving birds high and dry, and sometimes dead. Host Bruce Gellerman spoke with American Bird Conservancy’s Steve Holmer and Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild about how water management and competing interests have caused the death of tens of thousands of birds. (07:35)
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The Lemelson-MIT Program recognizes inventors whose designs improve lives. This year’s winner of the Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, Ashok Gadgil, helped bring light to 100 million people in the developing world, designed fuel efficient cook stoves, and a simple way to purify water. He spoke with host Bruce Gellerman. (06:10)
Clearcut Chemicals/ Ingrid Lobet
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Timber companies in Oregon spray their forests with chemicals to prevent plant growth. The practice was banned decades ago in the state’s national forests. In a project with the Center for Investigative Reporting Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports on the practice and the residents who are worried that the chemicals are affecting their health. (14:30)
Using Thoreau’s Journals to Track Climate Change/ Bruce Gellerman
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Scientists are using Henry David Thoreau’s detailed diaries to analyze the ebb and flow of the natural world. They conclude climate change has significantly altered the budding of wildflowers, and the migration of birds, at Walden Pond and beyond. (07:30)
Field Observations from Everyone
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A nation of backyard naturalists observe leaves and flowers arriving early. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Jake Weltzin, the executive director of the USA National Phenology Network, about the role of citizen scientists in describing a changing climate. (06:00)
Birds Among Alligators/ Mark Seth Lender
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The Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida has its very own gator-filled swamp. In spring that swamp is also home to 600 pairs of nesting egrets, herons, wood storks and roseate spoonbills. Writer Mark Seth Lender was struck by the paradox of birds nesting among alligators. (03:10)
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The haunting sounds of gongs and bells at a Buddhist temple near Hong Kong. (00:55)
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Steve Holmer, Steve Pedery, Ashok Gadgil, Richard Primack, Libby Ellwood, Jake Weltzin
REPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Mark Seth Lender
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Birds die of thirst and disease at a national wildlife refuge:
PEDERY: I think all Americans would want to see a national wildlife refuge have water, I mean after all we created this place to provide habitat for bald eagles and great blue herons and Canada geese and snow geese. But the reality is in a drought year the refuge is the first thing that gets cut off.
GELLERMAN: Migrating birds are dying en masse as they compete with farmers and
fishermen for water. Also, residents in rural Oregon worry about the widespread use of herbicides sprayed on forests.
KING: I do not think it is okay that my children have 2,4-D and atrazine in them. And I do not think it is okay that children should be allowed to drink water that is contaminated with Imazapyr.
GELLERMAN: We'll have a special investigative report and much more this week on Living on Earth - Stick around!
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The Lower Klamath Refuge straddles the border of Oregon and California. It was our nation’s first waterfowl refuge. And until a few decades ago, it had the largest concentration of waterfowl in North America, and quite possibly the world.
But a recent drought, an elaborate system of dams, dikes, and drains and competing demands for water have dried up the wetlands, creating a dire situation for the birds. In recent months there has been a massive die off at the Lower Klamath refuge. Steve Holmer is the senior policy advisor with the American Bird Conservancy.
HOLMER: It's an area of wetland marshes, it’s a vast, flat expanse ringed by some low hills. I’ve been out there to see some bald eagles in the wintertime and it’s really a magnificent place. And, historically, it was one of the most important wetland complexes in the west, some seven million migrating birds in a year would visit there.
GELLERMAN: How many birds came this year?
HOLMER: Right now there’s between one and two million.
GELLERMAN: Wow. Why are the numbers down so far?
HOLMER: Well, about 80 percent of the wetlands there have been drained. So, there’s a lot less available habitat. And there’s still kind of ongoing controversy about how to maintain the remaining water and wetlands that are still there. This year there was insufficient water, and this forced the birds that did migrate there to crowd too closely together and as a result an avian cholera epidemic, spread through the bird community and as many as 10,000 birds have already died.
GELLERMAN: So, there’s been a drought this year, right?
GELLERMAN: But that’s not the whole story.
HOLMER: That’s right.
GELLERMAN: As I understand it, there are a number of dams in the area, and that’s a large part of the problem.
HOLMER: It is. The biggest issue really has been the diversion of water for agriculture. There needs to basically be a more equitable distribution of the water particularly when you have a drought year like this because it seems that wildlife is really kind of at the bottom of the pecking order.
GELLERMAN: So, let me understand this. You’ve got a drought, but on top of that you’ve got these dams and the diversion of water for agriculture.
GELLERMAN: Why is that a problem this year as opposed to years past?
HOLMER: Well, it’s actually an ongoing issue that we’d like to see resolved. The Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is going through a conservation planning process. And as part of that process, we are asking the agency to consider a more equitable distribution of the water. You know, there’s a lot of farmers who might be interested in working with the agency on conservation for more areas, because that’s really what’s needed to try to bring back more of the wetlands.
GELLERMAN: Which agency is that?
HOLMER: That’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that manages the Klamath Wildlife Refuge.
GELLERMAN: Well, to some it sounds like mismanagement.
HOLMER: Well, I think that this is kind of one of those historical challenges where I think the agency has been doing things for a certain way for a long time, but we’re hoping that they’re now ready to take a fresh look because we are seeing some real serious impacts on wildlife. You know, it’s a missed opportunity, this is a refuge that could be hosting seven million birds a year, and this could be a huge tourist attraction and a real spectacle that I think people would want to come check out, so if we could restore the system, there will be some real benefits.
GELLERMAN: Now, I understand that these dams are going to come down in a couple of years.
HOLMER: Yeah, there has been a number of things happening in the courts, and with Congress. And for that piece I would talk to my colleague Steve Pedery at Oregon Wild because he’s been much more directly involved with that, and our group has really mainly been involved in this conservation planning progress.
GELLERMAN: Well, Steve Holmer, thanks a lot!
HOLMER: Thanks for having me on!
GELLERMAN: Steve Holmer is senior policy advisor with the American Bird Conservancy. Well as he suggested we called Steve Pedery, the conservation director with Oregon Wild, to find out what can be done to relieve the parched wetlands and save waterfowl in the Lower Klamath Refuge. He joins me on Skype. Mr. Pedery welcome to Living on Earth.
PEDERY: Thanks for having me!
GELLERMAN: As I understand it, there is no legal mechanism available for the Refuge to get more water. Is that right?
PEDERY: You know, that’s not entirely true. In the west, we allocate water based on a very archaic set of laws and it basically means, first come, first serve. The first person to come to a place and use water gets a water right and they have the highest priority and the people who come later, come down the line.
GELLERMAN: By rights of first dibs it would be the birds that get the water though.
PEDERY: And, you know, that’s one of the great frustrations of people who work on water issues and fish and wildlife conservation in the West, that I think all Americans would want to see a National Wildlife Refuge have water. I mean, after all, we created this place to have habitat for bald eagles and great blue herons and Canada geese and snow geese.
The Refuges were founded in 1908. And then there’s a Bureau of Reclamation irrigation project in the Klamath basin that was founded in 1905. And that’s sort of the root of the conflict, that irrigation tends to come first in the Klamath Basin. The Refuges do have a water right, but the reality is, in a drought year, the Refuge is the first thing that gets cut off. Because of the demands for irrigation upstream, the wildlife have suffered.
GELLERMAN: Well, wasn’t it just a few years ago that the governors of Oregon and California signed, what was termed a historic agreement, to bring down the dams in the Klamath Basin and help spread out the water?
PEDERY: Well, yes and no. Under the Bush Administration, there was an agreement crafted to remove a series of aging dams on the Klamath River, and that is absolutely a great thing. But one of big the problems with that agreement was that the Bush Administration essentially said, if you want these dams out, you have to support continuing the current practice, the status quo of irrigation in the upper basin. And for wildlife in the refuges, that’s a bad thing.
GELLERMAN: Well, who benefits from the status quo?
PEDERY: Well, the status quo really preserves an agricultural project that has been very well connected politically and that has been very good at maintaining the status quo for a very long time.
GELLERMAN: So it’s agriculture, it’s the farmers who are using most of the water, then.
PEDERY: Yeah, and you know, the Klamath Basin is a really interesting place. It was one of the reclamation projects built in the country, it’s about 4,000 feet in elevation. It gets a similar amount of rainfall to Tucson, Arizona. Most of the agriculture that happens here, happens because of irrigation - because water is captured before it can flow into these wetlands and into the Klamath River and used for irrigation.
GELLERMAN: So, what’s the solution?
PEDERY: We really need a program, a voluntary program, to buy back water rights from irrigators and retire them so that water can be left in-stream for fish and wildlife, it can flow into these wetlands. But also, so that the farmers who choose not to participate can have more certainty that they will have an adequate supply of water in the future.
That’s really the best long-term solution, and especially when you think about climate change and what the future can bring in the basin, we really have to get ahead of this problem, if we don't do something were just going to keep lurching from one crisis to another. The reality is that there just isn’t enough water to go around, and that ultimately is probably going to take Congress getting involved to buy back some of these water rights.
GELLERMAN: So, do you see anything happening, anything changing?
PEDERY: You know, we remain optimistic. If you’re not an optimist, you don’t last very long working on fish and wildlife conservation. But the Fish and Wildlife Service has really struggled to come up with management plans that both provide water and balance some of the commercial activities that happen on the Refuges.
You know, we’re looking ahead to 2014, the Wildlife Service is supposed to develop a comprehensive conservation plan for these refuges. We think that’s going to be the next bite of the apple. But the bottom line in the Klamath Basin is we’ve just promised too much water to too many different interests. And no settlement agreement has the power to wave a magic wand and create more water.
GELERMAN: Well, Mr. Pedery, thank you so much!
PEDERY: Thank you.
GELLERMAN: Steve Pedery is the conservation director with Oregon Wild.
[MUSIC: Captain Beefheart “When I See Mommy, I Feel Like A Mummy (Warner Bros 1978).]
GELLERMAN: Jerome Lemelson was one of America’s most prolific inventors. Among his 650 patents are inventions for industrial robots, lasers and the Walkman tape player.
In 1993 he established the Lemelson Prize to recognize and support inventions that improve the lives of people around the world.
This year’s one hundred-thousand dollar Lemelson - MIT award for Global Innovation goes to Professor Ashok Gadgil, he's chair of Safe Water and Sanitation at the University of California, Berkeley and joins us on the line. Welcome to Living on Earth!
GADGIL: Thank you for having me!
GADGIL: It’s indeed a great honor to be selected for the Lemelson - MIT Award!
GELLERMAN: Well, this is not a time to be modest; I understand that your inventions have helped something like, wow, a hundred million people around the world.
GADGIL: That indeed is true. The invention that has gone to help more than one hundred million people is a way to get poor residential customers in the developing countries to afford to use compact fluorescent lamps to save electricity.
GELLERMAN: To use compact fluorescent lamps?
GADGIL: That is correct!
GELLERMAN: So, you didn’t invent the compact fluorescent lamp…
GADGIL: No, I didn’t invent the compact fluorescent lamps at all…no. (Laughs.) I figured out a way to get them in the hands of a very large number of people. The problem was, or, the problem is, that utilities in the developing world routinely subsidize electricity to their poor residential customers. If electricity is subsidized, then saving electricity is less attractive. So, subsidized electricity undercuts unsubsidized energy efficiency, that is a problem. The solution, which we brought to the table, was to persuade the utilities and consumer groups, that if the utilities actually could subsidize efficiency, they would sell less subsided electricity as a result.
GELLERMAN: So, you created a model by which the demand side was reduced, as opposed to subsidizing the supply of electricity.
GADGIL: Absolutely right. So, the utility gets to keep some money, the customers reduce their electricity bills, and the environment has less pollution, and less CO2 emissions.
GELLERMAN: One of your big inventions was the UV Water Works for safe drinking water.
GADGIL: That’s right. In the 1990s I invented UV Water Works to affordably disinfect drinking water for those who still don’t have safe drinking water.
GELLERMAN: How effective was that?
GADGIL: Well, it meets or exceeds the WHO, that’s the World Health Organization, and the U.S. EPA guidelines for disinfection. Which means that, it must have a certain kill rate for pathogens and we aimed at ten times better kill rate, and we achieved it, all for a cost of about five cents per ton of water.
GELLERMAN: Five cents a ton?
GADGIL: Yeah, that’s how inexpensive the goal was, and we achieved it. That’s pretty good.
GELLERMAN: Your other big invention was the Berkeley Darfur Cook stove, which was basically invented for refugees in Darfur.
GADGIL: You know, there are dozens of fuel efficient stoves, and my idea was to offer them one that will work for them, but I found none of the stoves were appropriate. So I ended up getting involved and designing one with my team. We co-designed it with the Darfur refugee women. The whole purpose of the stove really was to reduce the exposure of these women to systematic attacks by the Janjaweed.
These women, they do get food from the UN Agencies, but the food is raw and they can't eat it, they cannot feed their families unless they have fuel for cooking the food, which means they have to leave the safety of their camps. However, all the land within walking distance has been completely denuded of combustible biological material, which also means that now refugees have taken to selling part of their food rations to middle men, and with that cash, they have been buying wood for cooking from other middle men.
GELLERMAN: So, professor, what is it about these stoves, in Darfur, that makes them useful to the women?
GADGIL: We found that all of the stoves that we tested, which we brought to the field, toppled over during the cooking. And our solution was to mechanically stabilize the stove by providing very big stabilizing legs. And that seems to work very well.
GADGIL: Yes, it is indeed simple. It just takes the time and trouble to go there and find out what they want.
GELLERMAN: So, it’s not enough to just invent a better mousetrap, a better stove, you’ve gotta invent something that is useful in a cultural context.
GADGIL: You’re absolutely right. The inventor who hopes to help people in a different culture in a distant place, cannot do so without going to the population and field testing and listening to what they have to say, even though they may not have the same level of scientific knowledge or formal education, they are the ones who will decide if my invention succeeds or fails.
GELLERMAN: So, you know the most prolific American inventor, Tom Edison said once: Invention is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Has that been your experience?
GADGIL: Absolutely right. This is a lot of hard work, but it comes from passion rather than work as a slog. If it’s not interesting or if it’s not rewarding at some level to you, you wouldn’t work with that much intensity and focus. It’s very exciting and rewarding to be able to work on these problems.
GELLERMAN: Well, good luck, professor!
GADGIL: Thank you very much.
GELLERMAN: Professor Ashok Gadgil is the chair of the Safe Water and Sanitation program at UC Berkeley. He's this year's winner of the Lemelson- MIT award for Global Innovation.
Read more about Ashok Gadgil
[MUSIC: Medeski, martin & Woods “Jean’s Scene” from Radiolarians III (Indirecto records 2009)]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: a special investigation into the spraying of herbicides on Oregon timberland. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Johnn Ellis and Double Wide: “Puppet Mischief” from Puppet Mischief (Obliqsound 2010).]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Oregon is timber country.
The terrain is steep, dark green, and intensely beautiful. Six million acres of Oregon forest is owned by commercial timber companies. The companies spray the land with herbicide when the trees are young. It’s an efficient way to kill every other plant except for the commercially valuable douglas fir.
But the timberland region is vast so it’s no wonder many rural Oregon residents don’t know of the extensive use of herbicides. Now, residents have become increasingly aware of the practice, and a growing number are questioning it. In a joint project with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Living On Earth’s Ingrid Lobet has our story.
[SOUND OF ANIMAL COOP DOOR OPENING AND A CHILD’S VOICE. ROOSTERS AND HENS IN THE BACKGROUND]
LOBET: Eleven-year old Rowan Waking steps inside a pen on his family’s country acre near Triangle Lake, Oregon. He proudly feeds his goats.
WAKING: When we got these three, Carmel was more of a baby. And she was a pretty cute baby. She was still getting milk off of Coco, but we weaned her.
LOBET: The family’s home sits between two creeks. Forested mountains rise all around. Rowan’s mom, Eron King, wasn’t surprised when the timber company Weyerhaeuser clear-cut a section. But what came next shocked her.
KING: The first spray that we ever witnessed we could watch from my kids’ bedroom window.
LOBET: A helicopter equipped with spray tanks and nozzles doused the mountain with herbicide.
KING: You would suddenly hear the thunderous roar and the helicopter comes up and over the mountaintop and hovers…
[SOUND OF HELICOPTER]
LOBET: King recorded this video of a spray near her house.
KING: It turns around and disappears again. Over and over, sometimes for hours.
LOBET: Oregon law is favorable toward an industry that generates 12.6 billion dollars a year. It doesn’t require companies to inform residents when they are going to spray. So during the spring and fall sprays seasons, King and her partner Justin wait for the rotor sound, so they can call the kids inside.
KING: But we have chickens and goats. I can’t really bring them inside and away from all that. And we eat the eggs and drink the milk and we can only take so many precautions.
LOBET: Not long after the first spray near King’s house, about 200 miles to the south in Selma, Oregon, Gisa Hertler was home with two young kids, when she heard something unusual. She stepped outside.
HERTLER: Because the helicopters came over and I mean it’s interesting and it’s interesting for the kids. And we live, we live at the end of the world, you could say. And we don’t see things like that, and I took the girls outside and we were watching the helicopters. A little after that, we found out that they were actually spraying.
LOBET: This is a common refrain. People know about the log trucks and sawmills, but they don’t know about the spraying.
[SOUND OF BREATHING]
LOBET: Hertler’s youngest is now four. She lies across her mother’s legs, fast asleep despite having taken a puff of albuterol. Her mother says she’s had asthma since they stepped outside during the spray. In fact all three have been ill.
HERTLER: We are sick constantly. I mean I had in the last year three times pneumonia…
LOBET: She also worries about the family’s animals.
HERTLER: We had a cow where we were waiting every day for her to actually have a baby and she was having symptoms and we even went out in the woods because sometimes they go into the woods to have their babies. She had no baby. My rabbits they had dead birth. And we fed them just from the grass or dandelion or whatever is there. And my cat, one of my cats, she had two times, in that year after the spraying, she had two times dead birth.
LOBET: About 1.1 million pounds of herbicide were sprayed on Oregon’s forests in 2007. It's the number industry cites as best now that the state no longer keeps records. This is on land owned by Weyerhaeuser, Roseburg Resources, Stimson Lumber and others. Representatives of these companies and others declined to be interviewed. Some referred questions to Terry Witt, who represented the industry for 25 years. He says aerial spraying is efficient.
WITT: It's a very economical way to apply a uniform rate of pesticides according to the label.
LOBET: Witt explains timber companies need their trees to be “free to grow.” That means unencumbered by other plants like alder that might spring up quickly after a clear-cut.
WITT: There's a tremendous seed bank in the ground that when you disturb the soil the seeds start sprouting. And it severely restricts the ability of the seedling to number one, survive, but just as important, if it survives the first couple years, it really prohibits or hampers the growth potential of that seedling.
LOBET: With modern equipment like GPS and maps onboard the helicopters, Witt says, there’s little chance for chemicals to stray off target.
WITT: We believe that if it's done responsibly and legally, it does not represent an unreasonable harm.
LOBET: But by early last year, some residents near Eron King’s community of Triangle Lake were so concerned they reached out to Dana Barr, a national expert on chemical exposure.
BARR: It seemed like a significant enough situation that it should have at least garnered some attention and should have been evaluated.
LOBET: Barr spent 23 years at the Centers for Disease Control and now has her own lab at Emory University in Atlanta. She tested urine from 41 people, most of them living near Triangle Lake. She found the herbicides atrazine and 2,4-D in every one.
BARR: It was not what I’m used to seeing, that we don’t frequently detect these chemicals in urine samples. It was surprising to find them in all of the samples tested, yes.
LOBET: The results were also surprising because these herbicides are not thought to stay in the body.
BARR: It would either have been a recent exposure or a continual exposure, which would include a recent exposure.
LOBET: Some dozen herbicides are commonly used on the forest here. The top five are: glyphosate, that’s what’s in Roundup, also atrazine, 2,4-D, triclopyr and hexazinone.
FENTON: Herbicides are understudied. There’s not a lot of funding for it. But even worse than that is the fact that early life exposures to herbicides are really understudied.
LOBET: Suzanne Fenton is a reproductive endocrinologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. She says animal studies show some herbicides, including atrazine, can disrupt the development of certain parts of the body when exposure happens during a vulnerable period.
FENTON: There is a very small window of time during pregnancy during which these herbicides, atrazine and its metabolites, can actually affect the breast. And it can affect it into adulthood. It can affect lactation. So it can affect the ability of the mom to provide nutrients to her offspring. In a child and an infant, the gland, the organ in the body may not be well formed, or mature. And as it’s being exposed, it’s changing its life course, the path it’s going to take for the rest of its life.
LOBET: At the University of California Irvine, developmental biologist Bruce Blumberg says this can happen because developing babies and their mothers respond to certain substances in infinitesimal concentrations.
BLUMBERG: So for example the estrogen receptors in a woman’s body is fully saturated at one part per billion of estradiol. The androgen receptor is comparable. So is the thyroid hormone receptor.
LOBET: But that’s not why Stu Turner, an expert in pesticide accidents, is concerned about weed killer in Oregon’s forests. Turner likes herbicides as a tool, but he says Oregon allows pilots to spray in terrain and under conditions that are just too risky for wildlife and people.
TURNER: These pilots are very skilled pilots. I have tremendous, sort of, respect for their technical flying skills. But they are only able to defeat the laws of nature to a certain extent.
LOBET: Turner says the helicopters fly high to clear the tops of trees. They release spray into shifting mountain air currents. It’s not like spraying wheat and cornfields, ten feet off the ground, the way most herbicide is sprayed. Turner points to a photo.
TURNER: You take pictures of a helicopter at that elevation above the ground. You take pictures on frozen, steep, snow-covered ground. That’s directly above the Rogue River or some other major feeder that if it doesn’t have salmon in it, it’s got trout, if it doesn’t have trout, it’s got steelhead. We know that this is damaging, and even if it wasn’t damaging, it’s wrong.
LOBET: Even more concerning, Turner says, is that when herbicides like Roundup or 2,4-D are used on forests, they’re sprayed at more ounces per acre than when they’re used on cropland.
TURNER: And this is what I tell all of my industry people is: You keep it on your block, I don’t have an issue with you. You keep it in your block. The fact is they’re not keeping it in the block. The physical evidence is overwhelming.
LOBET: Weyerhaeuser’s Greg Miller disputes these characterizations. He declined to be interviewed but in an email said licensed staff and the right technology ensure the safe application of herbicide. Company personnel know how to take weather conditions such as temperature and wind into account. And he stresses it’s all according to the law.
The U.S. Forest Service is the other major forestland owner here, and it used to blanket the land with herbicides, including the mixture Agent Orange. Rural residents sued the government to stop the spraying and won. So the national forests in Oregon and Washington haven’t used this practice since 1984. Jim Furnish, a former deputy chief at the U.S. Forest Service, says they found an alternative: hand cutting saplings at just the right time. It was more expensive. But it did the job.
FURNISH: The use of herbicide is not necessary. If you are trying maximize profit, you can make the case herbicides are the best way to control deciduous vegetation and maximize profit. But I would make the argument also that forestry in Oregon is profitable under many difference scenarios. It is some of the best timber growing country in the world.
LOBET: Furnish says there was frustration and grumbling at the Forest Service when the courts took away herbicide, but it was better for the forest.
FURNISH: I mean when you look at a 40 acre clear-cut unit and you drift in some herbicide over and a week later all the deciduous vegetation is dead it’s difficult to imagine that not being a profound impact on the environment.
LOBET: Furnish is surprised the practice is still used on commercial land.
FURNISH: I find it somewhat ironic that this has been almost what 20 years and counting since this practice stopped on national forests lands but it continues even though the issue is the same. If it was stopped because it was perceived as being bad for people and bad for the land why is that not also true?
LOBET: Those who object to forest spraying in Oregon do not have much recourse because of the Right to Farm and Forest Act. Lisa Arkin directs the non-profit Beyond Toxics.
ARKIN: If they call the Oregon Department of Forestry or the Oregon Department and Agriculture they’re going to be told that commercial timber has every right to spray aerially with pesticides because of the Right to Forest Act.
LOBET: Oregon residents don’t even have the right to find out what was sprayed. Physicians who want to know what their patients were exposed to often can’t get records. Even the health department has trouble getting spray records. The Oregon Health Authority asked for data so it could find out what was sprayed when Triangle Lake residents tested positive. Eight months later, the agency still doesn’t have the records.
[SOUND OF CROWD]
LOBET: Some residents are becoming impatient. Recently more than 100 people, including Sally Crumb, packed a community meeting to hear from state and federal officials why it’s taking so long to set up air monitors and further urine testing.
CRUMB: People are getting sick and they’re getting hurt and you are talking about a scientific solution that is somewhere in the future. You know we need something done now.
LOBET: Some, like Ellen Mooney, said they’re not worried about forest herbicide spraying.
MOONEY: I’m not concerned with this. What we have is a circumstance where we have a lot of outside people that have moved into our community and now are telling us how to manage our farms.
LOBET: Others, like Eron King, said it was the local school that was the last straw. Forest around the school was cut and sprayed, then the herbicide Imazapyr turned up in school drinking water.
KING: I do not think it is okay that my children have 2,4-D and atrazine in them. And I do not think it is okay that children should be allowed to drink water that is contaminated with Imazapyr.
LOBET: State health officials sought to reassure residents they’re still on the case. But some parents, convinced that local officials don’t understand the risk, are moving on. They seek a moratorium on spraying the forest. For Living On Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.
GELLERMAN: Our story about the use of herbicides on Oregon forest is a joint project with the Center for Investigative Reporting.
[MUSIC: Snowboy “Astralization” from Acid Jazz Rarities (Retro Music 2001).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up, tackling Henry David Thoreau’s awful handwriting to track climate change. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world's most pressing environmental problems, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Fats Waller: “Alligator Crawl” from 75 Original Great Performances Remastered (Gralin Music 2011).]
GELLERMAN: It's Living On Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.
GELLERMAN: On July 4th 1845 Henry David Thoreau came here, to the shores of Walden Pond in Concord Massachusetts. He had built a simple one room cabin on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and for the next two years, two months and two days, Thoreau lived deliberately in the woods, to learn what nature had to teach.
THOREAU (VOICED): I soon found myself observing when plants first blossomed and leafed and I followed it up early and late, far and near, several years in succession.
GELELRMAN: Thoreau kept journals of his comings and goings at Walden and his long rambles beyond; his personal diaries detailing, year by year, day to day, sometimes hour by hour the rhythm and cycles of the natural world.
THOREAU (VOICED): I often visited a particular plant four or five miles distant, half a dozen times within a fortnight, that I might know exactly when it opened.
GELLERMAN: In scientific terms, Thoreau was a phenologist, he studied the timing of seasonal biological events. His unique historical dataset is being mined by scientists today.
PRIMACK: My name is Richard Primack and I’m a professor of Biology at Boston University and I study the effects of climate change on plants and birds in Concord and other places in eastern Massachusetts.
[SOUND OF FOOTSTEPS]
PRIMACK: So, we’re at the edge of Walden Pond and we’re here because 160 years ago Thoreau kept very detailed records about when plants flowered in Concord, when plants were leafing out in Concord. And also when birds arrived in the spring. And so by coming back 160 years later and recording these same events we can actually see how a warming climate has shifted the basic timing of biological processes in Concord.
[SOUNDS OF WALDEN POND]
GELLERMAN: For the past decade, Richard Primack and his colleagues have literally followed in Thoreau’s footsteps, first tracking down his unpublished journals and the records of local naturalists, to create a field guide to over 500 species of wildflowers in Concord and its environs.
PRIMACK: We’re talking about all the common wildflowers. So for example around the pond here there’s high bush blueberry, low bush blueberry, marsh marigold, bulbous buttercup, common violets, bird’s foot violets, black cherry, fire cherry, these are the kind of plants that Thoreau was observing and that we can observe right around Walden Pond today.
GELLERMAN: While Professor Primack compared flowering times, his graduate student Libby Ellwood searched Thoreau’s records of migrating birds.
ELLWOOD: And these records are at Harvard’s museum of comparative zoology so I found them there. And they are these impressive spreadsheets that look like today’s excel spread sheets, where you have rows and columns that have the years and the species. And you can see, for example, maybe he saw an Eastern Phoebe on April 1 of 1853 and from there you could determine over time the changes he saw in bird arrivals. And it was difficult to decipher but just having a few words here and there was much easier than having to decipher extensive journal entries.
PRIMACK: Thoreau had terrible handwriting, very difficult to read,
GELLERMAN: Biologist Richard Primack says reading Thoreau’s journals was just one of the problems he encountered in trying to piece together the historical-phenology data base.
PRIMACK: And also or it’s even more problems working with his data because he started off using common names and then he changed over to scientific names and both his common names and his scientific names are different from the ones we use today. So one of our very major challenges was just to read his handwriting and then to kind of match his names with the names we use today.
GELLERMAN: Walden Pond is still undeveloped but Concord has definitely changed since Thoreau lived here. Perhaps surprisingly, now there are more trees and green space.
During the 19th century this was deforested farmland but today, thanks to conservation efforts it’s heavily wooded.
GELLERMAN: Cars speed by the road right next to Walden Pond. Boston is about 20 miles to the east, and that further complicated Professor Primack’s use of Thoreau’s historic evidence to document climate change today.
PRIMACK: It’s again a little bit deceptive, if you look at Concord it looks like a fairly forested, pastoral landscape and yet it’s really within the urban heat island effect of Boston. So Boston is warmer because of all the roads and parking lots and buildings, and the warm weather of Boston, the warming of the city, actually extends into Concord, and so the temperatures here have risen by about five degrees Fahrenheit because of both global warming and also because of the urbanization of Boston.
GELLERMAN: Richard Primack calculates that global warming is responsible for just about one and a half degrees of the temperature increase. The effect can be seen in the spring.
PRIMACK: What we’ve discovered that plants in Concord are now flowering about ten days earlier than they were in Thoreau’s time. The temperature is just much warmer than in Thoreau’s time and so this really explains the earlier flowering time.
GELLERMAN: Over the years Primack has published his findings; his most recent study appears in the journal BioScience. Climate change has taken its toll on some species; asters, bluets and buttercups, lilies, mints and violets are all on the decline around Concord. Thoreau understood the ebb and flow of nature happens on a timescale of its own.
THOREAU (VOICED): It takes us many years to find out that Nature repeats herself annually. But how perfectly regular and calculable all her phenomena must appear to a mind that has observed her for a thousand years!
GELLERMAN: According to the observations of scientist Libby Ellwood, while plants in Concord are very sensitive to temperature, the effect of climate change on migrating birds is more complicated.
ELLWOOD: Some are arriving earlier, some are arriving later, some don’t seem to be changing their migration dates at all.
GELLERMAN: That’s not to say warming temperatures haven’t affected birds. Almost all of the 22 species of migratory birds Elwood studied have declined in abundance since Thoreau’s time, and then there are birds like the fox sparrow and swamp sparrow…
ELLWOOD: Some of those species don’t actually even migrate anymore. They over winter here.
GELLERMAN: Why don’t they migrate here?
ELLWOOD: Well it’s warm enough where they don’t have to migrate any more. So the winters have become that hospitable to several species that they just don’t even bother going south.
[SOUNDS OF BIRDS, GEESE]
GELLERMAN: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is near the historic center of Concord, Massachusetts. Overhead, a flock of geese flies in V formation. Here on Author’s Ridge, some of the giants of American 19th century literature are buried. Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
THOREAU (VOICED): Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink, I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.
GELLERMAN: Henry David Thoreau died May 6th 1862, precisely 150 years ago. He was 44. His tombstone reads simply: Henry.
GELLERMAN: Well, you too can follow in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau and become a chronicler of Nature’s Notebook. The U.S.A.- National Phenology Network invites citizen-scientists to contribute their observations of changing biological activity and the group has just marked a major milestone.
Joining me is Jake Weltzin, he's a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Executive Director of the U.S.-National Phenology Network. Hi Mr Weltzin!
WELTZIN: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure!
GELLERMAN: So what’s the milestone?
WELTZIN: The milestone is a million records in our database!
GELLERMAN: A million records, meaning, your members have contributed a million observations?
WELTZIN: Yes. We opened up our interface called Nature’s Notebook, and we invite citizen-scientists and scientists, resource managers, to work together to enter their observation of leafing and flowering and bird migrations and frog activity into a database. And we now have one million records contributed by our observers across the entire nation.
GELLERMAN: So - citizen-phenologists!
WELTZIN: Citizen-phenologists, citizen-scientists, but we’re quite proud because we have scientists and citizens working together. So what you have are people who are using the same protocol, so the data can easily be compared and everybody has this same protocol that they’re using, say, to define the leafing on a red maple - from Louisiana to Maine.
GELLERMAN: So, how does it work? I see a bud on a tree, I go to your website, I say, hey! I see a bud on a willow tree, it’s the first one of the spring, and here it is.
WELTZIN: Yeah, that’s pretty much the essence of it, it’s a bit more formal than that because our emphasis really here is on data quality. So the steps are very generally: go to the website, get yourself registered as an observer with Nature’s Notebook, all we really need is an email.
Search for plants and animals in your area that you’ve seen or you’re interested in observing, register a site, in other words you would define your backyard or your front yard or your favorite natural area, or nature preserve and then download some data sheets and get started, report your data online.
GELELRMAN: Well, we’ve had a really weird spring this year. I had read recently that every state in the nation had a record high temperature. Has that affected the observations that your crew of phenologists have registered?
WELTZIN: Sure! This spring was incredibly weird, this global weirding thing really hit us. And yes. The thermometers tell us one thing, and then the biometers - the biological world out there, plants and animals - are saying the exact same thing. That, indeed, with these warmer conditions this spring, we have earlier leafing, we have earlier pollen production, we have earlier mosquitoes. And people are just trying to figure out what is going on with spring this year.
GELLERMAN: So, how long have you been keeping records?
WELTZIN: Well, we opened the doors to citizen-scientist’s observations just in 2009.
GELLERMAN: So, too soon, too narrow a dataset to, kind of, track climate change?
WELTZIN: Probably relatively narrow, although what we’re doing is we can compare our recent data and our recent observations to old data sets like Thoreau’s datasets. So, Henry David Thoreau was seeing flowering of highbush blueberries, they find that blueberries are now three weeks earlier than they were back in Thoreau’s day. And so we can take advantage of those historical datasets.
Lewis and Clarke collected phenology datasets across the Western U.S. There’s great records from Mt. Vernon that Washington was holding, and some of your listeners actually have datasets that they’re holding because they keep track of when they planted bulbs and when the daffodils came up, or when the combines arrived to harvest the wheat out on the back 40.
GELLERMAN: There’s a study in the current edition of Nature, which talks about phenology, are you familiar with it?
WELTZIN: Yes. Yes. That’s a very exciting and a really interesting study.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, basically what they’re saying is that lab studies of natural events don’t even come close to approximating what’s going on in nature, that nature’s changing a lot quicker.
WELTZIN: Yes, it’s really surprising because actually I have a background in experimental ecology too where you would go out to the field and you would select some plots and you experimentally warm them to simulate, you know, global warming. And what the Nature paper is exciting about is because it’s showing that those experimental manipulations are actually under-predicting the changes that we see on the landscape.
GELLERMAN: Yeah by a lot! I’m reading the paper, it says four times faster for leafing and eight times faster for flowering in the natural environment.
WELTZIN: That’s indeed the case. And we don’t exactly know why, but it clearly demonstrates the need for sort of a national observing system for plants and animals. We like to call it an early warning system for climate change.
GELLERMAN: And I guess the question is: Can we keep pace with the changes?
WELTZIN: Yes, and I think that’s where, that’s really, to be honest, what it comes down to it. We recognize that we are indeed tightly tied to our environment. We need clean water, we need clean air, we want to have sustainable wildlife populations. And in order to do that, we need to understand the patterns that we see across the landscape.
We need to understand the reasons why those patterns are the way they are, and then we need to adapt to those changes. Because in a lot of cases, we can’t change when the pollen comes out, we can’t change when the fires happen, there were fires in Virginia already this year, and those things are changing and we’re going to have to adapt to our environment as it changes.
GELLERMAN: So, here we are Mr.Weltzin, we’re looking at and recalling the observations by Henry David Thoreau 150 and more years ago, do you think we’re going to be looking at the datasets from the National Phenology Network 150 years from now?
WELTZIN: Yes, I think, I guess I have to say that it’s possible that there might not be a National Phenology Network 50 or 150 years from now, but what I would like to do, and what I am working with excellent information technology people on, is to make sure that the data we collect today are going to be available, in readable form, if you will, similar to what Henry David Thoreau’s notes in his diaries were, I mean notoriously bad writing, you had to decipher all of that, but it was written down.
And, in this case, we’re collecting information that’s going to be digital, and so we have ensure that as computers change and as computer science changes in 150 years from now, those data will be available. So we’re thinking about that, thinking way out, to ensure that the data can be used in a similar way.
GELLERMAN: Well, Jake Weltzin, thank you so much!
WELTZIN: Thank you for this opportunity!
GELLERMAN: Jake Weltzin is executive director of the U.S.-National Phenology Network. You can learn a lot more at our website - L O E dot org.
[MUSIC: James Brown “Funky Drummer” from in The Jungle Groove (Polygram Records 1986) (Happy Birthday to the late Godfather of Soul).]
GELLERMAN: As you might guess the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida is filled with, that’s right: alligators. But it’s also a major nesting area for herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills and wood storks. Mostly there's a peaceful co-existence. The alligators keep the birds and their young safe from a host of predators. But as Mark Seth Lender reports, there is a price to be paid.
[SOUNDS OF ST. AUGUSTINE ALLIGATOR FARM]
LENDER: Birds of many feathers weave and dance and settle in to guard their fragile eggs. All these nests, of many shapes fastened to branches thick and thin, high and low. Hidden in the tropical green of cypress. Sequestered in the cup-shaped pockets where palm fronds join their prehistoric trunks.
In plain sight on the main mast of a great live oak where only the widest wings set sail, or touch down. The swamp below is a remnant, reduced to a vanishing point reptilian and dark. The canopy above is where the wealth resides, shimmering like the many-colored light of planets and stars - birds among alligators, by the hundreds of pairs! Danger is the rent. When rent is due, there will be no partial payments made.
Soft, soft, silent s-curve of tail in sans serif lower case, only a ripple for a wake. Only eyes and nostrils show, no more remarked than a shelf of water-worn stones when water is low.
Drifts at the gate.
Waits… waits… waits…
Snowy egret dips too careless and too close, wingtips clipping water. Better to thirst. Better heat than trip those golden feet to cool in the sulfurous spring where an ancient device lies ready to be sprung… All is undone.
Roseate spoonbill on wings hued of sunrise, so confident in color and in form, the clapping bill a rounded gentleness, glides down to an untimely end. Jaws like vice grips, clamped in that unchanging alligator grin.
Bobcat and raccoon will not set foot here. Nor climbing possum, creeping snake. Every would-be robber of the nest fears the cut alligator takes. Yet great egret finds repose here, wood stork and little blue heron find retreat. Safe from the thieves they fear the most, while the Doorman only charges what he eats. Symbiosis by the bite, wing beat by wing beat.
GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender is the author of “Salt Marsh Diary – A Year on the Connecticut Coast.” You can feast your eyes on some toothsome photos, and hear a short interview with Mark Lender about his trip to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, at our website LOE dot org.
[MUSIC: Lou Donaldson “Alligator Boogaloo” from Alligator Boogaloo (Blue Note Records Reissue 1987).]
GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth, re-thinking recycling. Upcycling your waste paper.
TERRY: I think about upcycling as taking a humble material, such as cardboard, yellow pages and keeping them out of the recycling bin entirely, actually using them for functional things.
GELLERMAN: One hundred and one creative, useful things to do with used paper next time on Living on Earth.
[SOUND OF GONG BEING RUNG]
GELLERMAN: We leave you this week at a Buddhist Temple.
GELLERMAN: Just outside of Hong Kong, visitors walk the sacred grounds, tap wishing bells and gongs and spin prayer wheels. Martyn Stewart recorded this for naturesound dot org.
[SOUNDS MADE BY BUDDHIST MONKS JUST OUTSIDE OF HONG KONG]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Helen Palmer and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Mary Bates and Sophie Golden. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and don’t forget our Facebook page -- It’s PRI’s Living on Earth - and you can follow us on Twitter - @livingonearth…that’s just one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
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