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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

October 13, 1995

Air Date: October 13, 1995

SEGMENTS

New Federalism / Terry FitzPatrick

Living on Earth's Northwest bureau reporter Terry FitzPatrick reports on increased efforts to get Federal government programs to return power to the state level. Opponents to this trend recount that it is due to states’ historic unwillingness to change that forces the Federal government to enact such tough, and often broad, measures. (06:30)

Who Will Feed China?

In his recent book, Who Will Feed China? global thinker Lester Brown explores the impacts of a Chinese economic boon on worldwide food production. China is earning more money and eating more meat protein like Westerners while growing far fewer crops. Brown ponders the ramifications for the world's food supply and U.S.food prices, while raising broader questions on future economics and political issues. Brown is the President of the WorldWatch Institute in Washington, D.C. (07:00)

Come Live With Me? / Dan Grossman

Reporter Dan Grossman thought he might like to live in an affordable housing community and set out to explore the world of "co-housing." Co-Housing is a blend of 1960's commune-living idealism with 1990's condo realism. Built in to this process from the start is the idea of agreed sharing in a planned community of neighbors. (06:15)

The Living on Earth Almanac

(01:00)

Seattle Orcas / Jennifer Schmidt

The Governor of Washington State has made an unusual plea: for the return of the orca whale Lolita back to Washington's Puget Sound from her 25 years of captivity in Miami's Seaquarium. Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports on efforts to gain Lolita's return, while others advocate for the orca to remain in her familiar Seaquarium home. (07:00)

Captive and Free

Paul Forestell, a marine mammologist and Director of Research and Education for the Pacific Whale Foundation in Hawaii talks with Steve Curwood about the complex scientific issues involved in returning captive sea mammals to the expansive ocean. (06:40)

Beluga Whales / Nancy Lord

Commentator Nancy Lord reflects on her appreciation for the mysterious Beluga whales of Cook Inlet from her home in Alaska. (02:59)

Walking to the Post Office / Patrick Cox

Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston visits Groton, Massachusetts where the local post office is moving from the center of Main Street, and some say from the heart of the community, to the outskirts of town. Cox talks with local residents, town planners and federal post office representatives about how such decisions get made. Factors to weigh and consider include convenience, transportation and the arguments for and against town expansion. (08:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: David Baron, Stephanie O'Neill, Terry FitzPatrick,
Jenny Schmidt, Dan Grossman
GUEST: Lester Brown, Paul Forestell
COMMENTATOR: Nancy Lord

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Many of the nation's governors and state legislators want the Federal Government to give back more power to the states. One key area is the environment. Governor Ben Nelson of Nebraska has an example.

NELSON: There's no doubt that there's a national interest in our having safe drinking water nationwide, but how we go about doing that ought to be left up to individual states.

CURWOOD: Also, China's economy is booming, but its grain production is falling. One expert predicts China will solve the problem with imports and we'll all feel the pinch.

BROWN: What's happening in China is going to affect consumers throughout the world. And it's going to manifest itself in rising food prices.

CURWOOD: And we meet some architects of the co-housing movement who are building new communities with friends. On Living on Earth this week, but first, this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The first environmental Nobel Prize: that's what some observers call this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to 3 scientists who discovered the hole in the ozone layer. The prize is also a vindication for those scientists. From WBUR in Boston, David Baron reports.

BARON: In 1974, chemists Mario Molina and Sherwood Roland first alerted the world to the danger of ozone depletion. They concluded that manmade CFCs, used at the time in spray cans and air conditioners, could destroy the Earth's protective ozone shield. But Molina, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recalls the discovery was fiercely criticized.

MOLINA: It sort of seemed that like an outrageous idea, that you have this gaseous, invisible gases moving out to some invisible layer high up in the stratosphere that could possibly do some harm on a global scale.

BARON: Today the reality of ozone depletion is well accepted, and the governments of the world have agreed to ban the production of ozone-destroying compounds. Molina shares the million-dollar Nobel Prize with co-discoverer Roland and Dutch chemist Paul Krutzen, who also did pioneering work in the science of ozone depletion. For Living on Earth, I'm David Baron reporting.

NUNLEY: Citing national security considerations, President Clinton has signed an order that permits the Air Force not to reveal possible toxic pollution at a top-secret air base in Nevada. The executive order, signed last month, allows the military to keep classified a list of chemicals used at the site known as Area 51. The list is sought by workers who claim in a lawsuit that they were poisoned by hazardous waste used and burned at the base. The plaintiff's attorney plans to appeal the exemption, but says by seeking it, the government was forced for the first time to admit the existence of the base.

Israeli scientists say the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines affected the growth of delicate coral in the Red Sea half a world away. Researchers writing in the journal Nature say sulfur particles thrown into the atmosphere by the eruption blocked sunlight and triggered a drop in global temperature. The shift caused the Red Sea's waters to circulate more than usual, bringing up nutrients to the surface. This fueled an explosive growth of algae and plankton blocking off sunlight and killing off the coral. Researchers hope the record of such events in fossil reefs will let them chart past variations in regional air temperatures.

A new study has found a link between air pollution and heart failure among the elderly, especially in metropolitan areas. From Los Angeles, Stephanie O'Neill reports.

O'NEILL: On days when carbon monoxide levels peak, hospitals admit a higher than usual number of elderly people suffering from congestive heart failure, according to researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Los Angeles County topped the list, showing a whopping 37% increase in the number of elderly residents who suffered heart failure caused by the pollutant. In real numbers, that translates to more than 6,500 additional cases of heart failure in a 3-year period. Researchers got their information by comparing local hospital records with the carbon monoxide levels of a particular day. The problem is at its worst in regions like Los Angeles, where carbon monoxide often exceeds Federal clean air limits. But surprisingly, the study also found that the pollutant at or below EPA levels was enough to trigger heart failure in some patients with heart disease. Carbon monoxide affects people with heart disease because when the pollutant gets into the body it can displace oxygen, and the heart is unable to pump hard enough to deliver enough oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body. Other cities that ranked in this study were Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Houston, and New York. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

NUNLEY: Elephants are going on-line and into outer space. The Smithsonian Institute and the Malaysian National Parks Department are following the movements of a Maylasian elephant through a navigation satellite. The pachyderm known as Ning has been tagged with a transmitter and is being tracked to assess how successful scientists have been in relocating elephants away from people. Researchers hope to find out how far elephants travel, how they make their way to feeding areas, and how they join new herds. The agencies are looking for sponsors to help defray the $10,000 cost of enlisting new elephants in the program. Starting in January, people around the world will be able to follow Ning's journeys through the Smithsonian's World Wide Web home page at www.si.edu.

The unusually hot, dry summer has caused shortages of nuts and berries that North American bears like to eat, so they've wandered into cities to raid dumpsters. There is a bright side to all this: a decrease in drunk drivers. According to the Boston Globe, a Canadian bartender reports that drunk patrons are too scared to get into their cars because of the bears in the parking lots. And we thought pink elephants were scary.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

New Federalism

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Many members of Congress these days are calling for the Federal Government to hand over some of its responsibilities to the states. Welfare, Medicare, environmental regulation. Advocates say these are some areas of governance that should be reformed by giving more power to the state houses. Later this month, a group of state officials will meet to draft plans to give states greater control. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick takes a look at what might be at stake for environmental protection.

FITZPATRICK: To Governor Ben Nelson of Nebraska, EPA testing procedures for drinking water are a prime example of what's wrong with Federal control of the environment. The EPA requires Nebraska and other states to test for a long list of water polluting chemicals, including some that Nelson says aren't used in his state. He calls this a "one size fits all" approach that's inefficient and unfair.

NELSON: That's really why I think so many people are anxious to get the Federal Government off their backs. There's no doubt that there is a national interest in our having safe drinking water nationwide. But how we go about doing that ought to be left up to individual states.

FITZPATRICK: As chairman of the Natural Resources Committee for the National Governor's Association, Nelson hears frequent criticism about Washington's heavy hand. California, for example, has complained about restrictions on discharging sewage into the ocean. Illinois objects to carpool requirements designed to fight smog. Utah is protesting limits for off-road vehicles in the desert. These kinds of grievances will likely come up at the so-called Federalism Summit in Cincinnati. The meeting is being organized by the Governor's Association, the Council of State Governments, the Conference of State Legislatures, and other groups. Ten governors and 150 legislators are expected to attend. Governor Nelson says the environment will be among the most important topics. That's because many officials feel that inflexible Federal regulations are crippling local economies.

NELSON: There's nothing wrong with having the Federal Government have control. It's the way in which the control is exercised. If Congress were to pass broad national standards for the environment and leave it up to the states to determine how we're going to meet those standards, that would be okay.

FITZPATRICK: Nelson, a Democrat, calls the summit a moderate by partisan effort to fine-tune the relationship between Washington and the states. However, the call to increase the power of the states is prompting more radical proposals from some Republicans. Arizona's governor, for example, has signed a bill defying Federal and international bans on the manufacture of ozone-depleting chemicals. He's also suing the EPA to end the Federal regulation of water quality in his state. Jerry Taylor studies natural resource issues for the Cato Institute, a Libertarian research center in Washington.

TAYLOR: The angrier people become at Washington, the harder it is to sustain a frankly massive federal command and control regiment. It puts the entire 20 years of environmental status quo in play. And I think it puts it in serious jeopardy.

FITZPATRICK: Conservatives like Taylor say there is a Federal role on issues like global warming, or international fishing treaties. But Taylor says the Federal government should stop micro-managing the environment inside the United States.

TAYLOR: Seventy or 80% of what the Federal Government goes to protect the environment are essentially actions that city councilmen ought to take. For example, there's nothing that's more local than taking out the trash. Yet the Federal Government has thousands and thousands of pages about what kind of design parameters for disposal facilities there ought to be. And on and on and on. I mean, there's simply no reason for the Federal Government to get into local issues like that.

FITZPATRICK: Some officials feel the transfer of power should go beyond the state level, down to city and county government. But many environmentalists oppose the transfer of Federal control, and worry that if the US Government doesn't protect the environment, nobody will. Historically, says Carl Gawill of the Wilderness Society, states, counties, and cities have neglected the environment in their push for economic development.

GAWILL: The Federal Government did get involved in the 60s and 70s because the states couldn't clean up their act. We had hundreds of thousands of miles of unreclaimed strip mines in the east. We had rivers that would catch on fire. The Federal Government had to come in because the states would compete with each other to see who could attract business.

FITZPATRICK: Environmentalists say air and water pollution affect entire regions, not just individual states. And they contend many states would be unwilling or unable to protect the environment. Only 9 states have full-time legislatures with large staffs. Several states are struggling under tax initiatives that limit how much money they can spend, or how quickly they can raise their budgets. And when it comes to managing public land, says Gawill, some states are required to put profit before protection.

GAWILL: Many of the western states, particularly, their state constitutions require them to have maximum economic return from their land. They don't look at the whole array of different recreational, wildlife, and other purposes, and by their own constitutions they can't do that.

FITZPATRICK: Despite these drawbacks, Governor Nelson of Nebraska is certain the states are up to the job of managing the nation's environment. States have been working with Federal managers to implement national environmental regulations for 2 decades. Federal intervention got the ball rolling, Nelson says, but now it's time for Washington to scale back.

NELSON: There were times when it was important that they take over certain responsibilities. They were ahead of the curve with the environment back in 1970, ahead of the states. But that was then and this is now. We've caught up.

FITZPATRICK: It's unclear what specific proposals will come out of the Federalism summit. But Nelson hopes the meeting will boost the effort to decentralize control of the environment. Whatever the governors propose may find a receptive ear on Capitol Hill. Many members of Congress seem convinced that when it comes to the environment, as with other issues, a government which is closest to the people governs best. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

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(Music up and under)

Who Will Feed China?

CURWOOD: The Russian government is reporting that its fall grain harvest will be the worst in 30 years, thanks to drought and mismanagement. At this point, the Russians say they won't have to import grain to meet the shortfall, even though this year's Russian crop failure is worse than those in the early 1970s that led to massive grain imports and a doubling of the price of wheat. One reason Russians don't want to buy grain on the world market is that they might well have to bid against China. China's giant economy and population have been growing while its grain production has been falling. This means that unlike the financially squeezed Russians, Chinese demand for grain is up, and they can afford to pay top prices to get it. In his new book, Who Will Feed China? Wake-up Call For a Small Planet, Lester Brown, president of the World Watch Institute in Washington, D.C., predicts grain shortages and rising food prices worldwide. It is an accident of history, he says, that China's new affluence will tip the scales.

BROWN: We have 1.2 billion people moving up the food chain, moving away from almost total dependence on a starchy staple like rice toward consuming more livestock products. And in China that means more pork, poultry, eggs, beef, and also drinking more beer. All of these require grain. And the extraordinary rate of industrialization that's making this possible is chewing up cropland. The bottom line is a growing grain deficit. Over the last year, China has gone from being a net grain exporter of 8 million tons to a net grain importer of 16 million tons, and the great risk is that the demand for grain is simply going to outrun the capacity of export countries to supply it.

CURWOOD: It's an important problem for China that it's got a grain shortage. But why should we in the United States be concerned about China beyond humanitarian reasons?

BROWN: What's happening in China is going to affect consumers throughout the world, and it's going to manifest itself in rising food prices. We're already seeing that in this country just beginning. General Mills, for example, has announced a rise in prices of some 5%. But we'll be seeing a lot more of that in the months ahead.

CURWOOD: What's down the road for us as food consumers here in the United States?

BROWN: Well, China is economically very strong. Their trade surplus with us last year was just under $30 billion. That's enough to buy all the grain we exported to more than 100 countries last year 2 times over. So they have the purchasing power to import grain. And instead of living in a world of surpluses, which has been the case throughout our lifetimes, we'll be living in a world of scarcity where the competition among countries for available exportable grain supplies will intensify, driving food prices up. Grain prices have risen about a third since the early part of this year.

CURWOOD: Lester Brown, who is going to really feel this squeeze in food, if China can afford to buy more? If prices are going to go up in the United States?

BROWN: Everyone will feel it. But for many of us, it'll simply mean moving down the food chain a bit and we may be healthier as a result. But for those people in the world who are now spending almost all their income on food just to survive, a dramatic rise in food prices could become life threatening. The risk is political instability that would interrupt progress and the development process as we know it today.

CURWOOD: In your book you talk about the scale of China and why this makes such a difference. Can you give me some examples?

BROWN: The official goal in China is to increase egg consumption per person from 100 eggs in 1990 to 200 eggs in the year 2000. This means a demand for eggs in the year 2000 of 260 billion. That's an enormous poultry industry. But more importantly, getting from 100 eggs per person to 200 eggs per person takes more grain than Australia produces. Or consider seafood consumption. In Japan, as population pressure built up on the land historically, the Japanese turned to the oceans for their animal protein. Last year, 120 million Japanese consumed 10 million tons of seafood. If China's 1.2 billion were to consume at the same rate, they would need 100 million tons of seafood, which is the world fish catch.

CURWOOD: Now, other development professionals will say "Lester Brown, you're crying wolf. We can deal with these problems with some more prod uctive plant varieties, and get some fowl land in back into production. Technology and unused land will help us." Are they right?

BROWN: Twenty years ago we had all sorts of options that we could employ to expand world food production. But a lot of those options no longer exist in the same way. For example, in the 1970s, when world grain prices doubled after the Soviets cornered the wheat market, farmers invested in a lot of irrigation wells around the world. But if they were to do that today, it would simply accelerate the depletion of aquifers. Farmers put on a lot more fertilizer in the late 70s and dramatically boosted world grain production. Today, in most countries, putting on more fertilizer has very little effect on production because we're already putting on as much fertilizer as existing crop varieties can effectively use.

CURWOOD: In other words, there's nothing really to be done.

BROWN: No, I wouldn't say there's not anything to be done. We need to do everything we can do, even if it's a rather small contribution to expanding the world food supply. But the bottom line is that we're going to have to pay much more attention to slowing population growth and stabilizing it, sooner rather than later. The growth in population is simply overwhelming food production systems in many parts of the world. And when you combine a dense population with rapid rises in income as is happening in China now, you can begin to see the kinds of problems that lie ahead as people throughout the world aspire to a better diet.

CURWOOD: It's not a very optimistic picture.

BROWN: It's interesting because environmentalist and many scientists have been saying for some time that the trends of the last few decades cannot continue. But no one has said exactly why these trends wouldn't continue and what the consequence would be. My sense is that it may be food scarcity and rising world food prices that will be the first economic indicator to signal serious trouble and to provide a wake-up call telling national political leaders everywhere that we're going to have to change course if we want to have an environmentally sustainable future, and an adequate food supply.

CURWOOD: Lester Brown is President of the World Watch Institute in Washington. His new book is called Who Will Feed China? Wake-up Call For a Small Planet. Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you, Steve.

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CURWOOD: A look at the co-housing movement: building neighborhoods with friends, just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Come Live With Me?

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. What's usually the best, and sometimes the worst feature of living in a small town or close-knit neighborhood? The neighbors, of course. In days gone by, the folks next door or down the block were more likely to be friends, if not family. Now suburbanites can go for days without even glimpsing the people next door, and urbanites dwell alongside strangers. People in America move so much today that many of us have good friends everywhere except next door. To counter this trend, some folks are building intentional neighborhoods they call co-housing. Dan Grossman has been looking for a new place to live.

GROSSMAN: Last spring my wife and I were looking for a house, and a friend told me about an unusual development she was helping to build in a Boston suburb. Individual homes there, she said, would be owned privately, but the land around them would be owned jointly. Community life would revolve around a common house, where residents could cook and eat together. The concept is known as co-housing. It sounded to me like a blend of 60s idealism and 90s realism, kind of a cross between commune and condo. So I stopped by.

(A motor runs, and a saw buzzes. Lewin-Berlin: "We're standing in the middle of neighborhood 2 right now. The project is built out of, into 4 separate neighborhood. My neighborhood is neighborhood 4, which is at the top of the hill, and we'll have...")

GROSSMAN: On a gently sloping, grassy hill, rising above a cornfield, a construction team is nailing siding onto what will be Steve Louinberlin's house and raising the roof of another. In a matter of months, two dozen houses will climb this hillside, completing a process Lewin-Berlin and his wife began 5 years ago.

LEWIN-BERLIN: We really wanted to find a place where our kids could grow up outdoors and in more of a neighborhood, more of a community. And we didn't find it. We went to a small town that had great schools, the neighbors are friendly enough. But there's no real neighborhood, there's no real sense of community there.

GROSSMAN: Co-housing, he hopes, can create the community he craves.

LEWIN-BERLIN: And what we're really looking for in co-housing is a neighborhood. To be able to have a control not just of our own home, but as a group to control more space, to cluster the houses so we have lots of open fields for the kids to play in. Where we have our own house, we have our own space, we have our family, but we also have a larger community that we share with people.

GROSSMAN: The idea for co-housing was imported from Denmark, where thousands of people now live in such communities. Here in the US, a dozen co-housing developments have opened in the past 5 years: in Seattle, Santa Fe, and elsewhere.

(Children yelling)

GROSSMAN: At the Pioneer Valley Co-Housing Village in western Massachusetts, 32 pastel-colored homes are connected by a winding gravel walkway like leaves on a vine. Architect Mary Krauss helped design this place and now lives here. She says while the track record for co-housing in general is brief, her own experience shows it works.

KRAUSS: It may sound trite, but just the fact that my neighbor can call me up and say can you pick my daughter up at school. Or the fact that I can walk over to many houses and just, you know, ask to borrow something and vice versa. Just those little interactions create a real sense of connection.

GROSSMAN: Krauss says she was drawn to the co-housing idea by its environmental potential.

KRAUSS: I first got into architecture because of my concern for the environment, and was interested in single family residential architecture. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are things you can do on a community scale, that you can't do on the scale of one house.

GROSSMAN: Things like build a common house. Members of this development often eat dinners together in an airy building a short stroll from their homes. Many residents leave kids in child care at the common house and put up friends in its' guest rooms. Because so much is shared, Krauss says houses here are relatively small, requiring fewer resources to build and less energy to heat.

KRAUSS: So we've got a main room that's kitchen, living and dining room, with a kitchen just along one wall, a fairly small, compact kitchen. Although it works quite well...

GROSSMAN: Since Pioneer Valley has a community laundry room and kitchen, many members don't have their own washing machines and dishwashers. And, Krauss adds, the close spacing of Pioneer Valley's homes promotes a lifestyle that conserves. For example, the community has organized bulk food purchases, producing unneeded packaging and the number of grocery trips. At a weekly environmental salon, Krauss and others discuss new ways to use less.

KRAUSS: We've talked about having essentially a pool of cars. So rather than everybody owning their own car, you'd have access to enough, as a group, to enough cars that there'd always be one ready for you.

GROSSMAN: With barely a year of experience, Mary Krauss says it's still too early to say if her community will deliver the environmental payoffs she's predicted. But the effects on the landscape are apparent already. At Pioneer Valley, the 30 or so homes occupy only about 6 acres. Another 17 acres of the community's land was left undeveloped. Stella Tarnay, an editor of Co-Housing Journal, says the pattern preferred by co-housing designers like Krauss clusters homes tightly together, leaving more land open. And Tarnay says some co-housing communities don't disturb any open space at all.

TARNAY: For me, the exciting piece of co-housing is in fact the urban model. What we're hoping to do is take some old warehouses in the area between Cambridge and Somerville, and turn those into co-housing and common space. And to me that makes the most sense of all, because you don't use up resources. And you actually create something more beautiful and more useful out of an area that may have been abandoned.

GROSSMAN: In the end, my wife and I didn't join a co-housing group. But I did realize how much I desire the kind of social connection they're trying to build, and the environmental benefits such interdependence can bring. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman in Boston.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR Boston and Harvard University. Special thanks today to KPLU, Seattle. I'm Steve Curwood.

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment, and all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt " whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside. Support also comes from the W. Alton Jones Foundation and the Bullitt Foundation for Northwest Reporting.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up in the second half of Living on Earth: a small town in Massachusetts and its fight with the Federal Government to keep its main street intact.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Coming up: a look at whales. When we take them captive and put them on display in marine parks, should we plan to set them free again? Can they go free after years away from their pods? Also, a commentator asks us how far we should go to protect whales in the wild from the dangers of oil extraction. Coming up in this half hour of NPR's Living on Earth. But first, this week's almanac.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Three years ago, on October 12, the Antarctic ozone hole reached inhabited land for the first time, expanding over South America and the Falkland Islands. Since the late 1970s, Antarctica's stratospheric ozone hole has formed each year during September and October. The prime culprits are artificial chlorofluorocarbons used in air conditioners, refrigerators, and as solvents. Since 1987, when industrialized nations agreed to phase out CFCs, their price has skyrocketed. In March, 2 Florida men were caught trying to smuggle 126 tons of CFCs into the United States. Its street value: $2 million. And by the way, the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the ozone problem earned Sherwood Roland, Alfred Molina, and Paul Krutzen a share of $1 million.

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(Music up and under. Singers voices: " Subsequently!")

Seattle Orcas

CURWOOD: Twenty-five years ago perhaps half of the killer whales at Washington State's Puget Sound were captured for research and display in marine parks around the world. Of all the orcas taken from the Sound, only one still survives: Lolita, now 30 years old. Lolita lives today at an aquarium in Miami, and some researchers would like to try setting her free. They say returning her to her home waters would yield valuable information about the health of Puget Sound and the behavior of wild orcas. But others say such a move would put her life in serious danger. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt has our story.

(Ambient voices in a gathering. Lowry: "I am here to state my support for efforts to bring Lolita back after 25 years of work in captivity. To bring her back to retire as a citizen of the State of Washington...")

SCHMIDT: Earlier this year Washington Governor Mike Lowry made this unexpected public plea for the return of the killer whale Lolita to the waters of Puget Sound, where she was captured back in 1970. It was a time when marine parks around the world were clamoring for the striking black and white animals. Puget Sound was the main site for the round-up of wild orcas, an effort the public wholeheartedly supported. Just a few years before, crowds had flocked to Seattle to marvel at one of the first killer whales ever held in captivity. Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro remembers the time well.

MUNRO: There's no question that her captors were heroes, and I would guess that 100% of public opinion was on the side of the capture. And that was really when captivity began to be expanded.

SCHMIDT: From the mid-1960s through the early 70s, it's estimated that nearly 60 orcas, almost half the entire population of whales in Washington and southern British Columbia, were caught and sold to marine parks. At the time there were no laws restricting their capture. But that changed quickly, after 3 dead baby orcas washed ashore in Puget Sound, with rocks and anchors stuffed into their bellies. It was later revealed the babies had drowned during a round-up and the captors had tried to cover it up. Wally Funk is the former publisher of a local newspaper. He says people were devastated by the discovery.

FUNK: It's almost as if you would find a baby had -- there was something that had been taken from people that they lost their innocence.

SCHMIDT: Before long, state and Federal laws were passed restricting the capture of killer whales.

(Outboard motor)

SCHMIDT: Today, Puget Sound is a center for the sturdy of wild orcas. On this windy summer morning, 4 researchers are tracking a half-dozen killer whales off Washington's San Juan Islands. At one point their boat moves alongside the animals as they surface, breathing loudly.

(Sound of whales breathing. People go, "Oh!")

SCHMIDT: Later a microphone is lowered into the water to make a tape of the orcas; vocalizations: the combination of clicking to locate prey, and shrill whistles by which they communicate with each other.

(Whistles from the orcas)

SCHMIDT: This work is part of an ongoing study at the Center for Whale Research in the San Juan Islands. Biologist Ken Balcomb founded the center 10 years ago, and he's now spearheading the effort to reunite Lolita with her pod.

BALCOMB: I'm sure these whales don't expect Lolita to come back. What's their response?

SCHMIDT: Balcomb says such an unprecedented reunion could yield valuable new information about how whales communicate. He also says Lolita would give researchers the chance to do studies they can't do with wild whales. For instance, because she has a detailed medical record, Balcomb says she could reveal to scientists how the waters of Puget Sound affect her and her species.

BALCOMB: We know her blood chemistry, and we can then check at intervals while she's back out here in her natural setting, whether she's picking up any heavy metals, any residues that we may have in our waters in Puget Sound. The risky part, people would say, is will she go back to her family? And I believe she will.

SCHMIDT: It's this goal of reuniting Lolita with her family that's perhaps the driving force behind efforts to free her. For many involved it seems to be a way, at least symbolically, of righting an historic wrong: the round-ups of 25 years ago. Still, it remains questionable whether Lolita's return will ever happen.

(Music plays around an ambient, noisy crowd)

SCHMIDT: Here at the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita is hard at work performing one of two daily shows to the steady beat of rock music. For 20 minutes she performs magic in the water, gracefully diving and leaping and flapping her fins for an enthusiastic audience. Lolita is the marine park's star attraction, and the Seaquarium says it has no intention of letting her go.

RUBIN: Lolita is not for sale. Period. She's not for sale.

SCHMIDT: Seaquarium spokesman Bruce Rubin says the park is mainly concerned about Lolita's well-being. There is no way, he says, they're going to risk her life for what he calls a wacky publicity stunt.

RUBIN: It's important to keep in mind that Lolita has been at the Seaquarium for 25 years. She's been used to being hand-fed. She's used to being around people. She gets, of course, wonderful medical care. The point of it is, this animal hasn't been in the wild for 25 years.

SCHMIDT: Other marine parks have joined the Seaquarium in opposing the release of captive killer whales, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which must approve the release of captive marine mammals, says there are serious risks associated with reintroductions back into wild populations. Anne Terbush is the head of permitting for the Fisheries Service.

TERBUSH: There are concerns about the possible spread of disease, the spread of inappropriate behaviors. Oftentimes, captive animals will follow people, look for food, show begging behaviors, that kind of thing.

MAN: She's heading toward us.

SCHMIDT: Back in the San Juan Islands, staff at the Center for Whale Research are gathered outside, watching as a small group of orcas glide past, heading south on their evening forage. Neither of these researchers, nor anyone else, can say for sure what's right for Lolita. Supporters of her release acknowledge her reintroduction would be an experiment. But they reiterate it's an experiment with the possibility of high payoffs, both for the scientific world and for Lolita. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.

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Captive and Free

CURWOOD: The question of Lolita's fate has generated a real-life debate that is reminiscent of the Free Willy movies, which stirred up feelings in favor of returning whales and dolphins to their natural settings. But the practical problems are complex and challenging. Paul Forestell is a marine mammologist and director of research and education for the Pacific Whale Foundation, in Kihei, Hawaii. He's had considerable experience studying and working with both captive and free cetaceans in the ocean. Dr. Forestell maintains Lolita is a prime candidate for reintroduction, but he's concerned that science doesn't know enough just yet to be sure her release would succeed.

FORESTELL: There are a whole range of difficulties that involve the changing physiology of the animal, the possibility or the danger of introducing foreign pathogens into the area where you would place the animal. Whales and dolphins, as we know, are highly social animals, and they need to be able to fit back into the social fabric of the group from which they were removed. A dolphin in its own environment, or a whale, is going to have to withstand a wide range of depth, water temperatures, water clarity, water condition challenges, that are not part of what such an animal would face in captivity. So over an extended period of time, it's ability and its, even its knowledge base, its learning base about how to deal with that wide range of habitat types is going to either be nonexistent or much reduced.

CURWOOD: So you're saying this is like taking somebody out of the city and putting them back in the jungle and they never really were there before.

FORESTELL: I think it's very much like that, yeah. But I think to conclude that because there are problems there that it's not worth exploring, solving those problems, is rather turning a blind eye to what we know today about the complexity and intelligence of whales and dolphins. It seems to me that, if there is an opportunity to be able to either capture animals or hold animals in facilities and engage in that primarily as a commercial activity, that there should be an obligation to figure out ways to make sure that if necessary, animals could be reintroduced or released.

CURWOOD: What do you think it would take to be able to put Lolita back? Does she need to have a halfway house?

FORESTELL: Yes, I think -- I think there would first of all have to be a series of training programs in-house, essentially in the display facility in which she is now, in order to ensure there's a certain level of medical readiness. That behaviorally, she is able to capture fish and be able to feed on live prey. Essentially, then, there could be a series of transitions to a more and more ocean-like setting. Ultimately, I suppose, one would argue for a kind of large ocean pen in which she could be left to assess her medical readiness to be able to go out on her own, and to explore the likelihood that if she were in the vicinity where old pod mates could be found, whether or not in fact they do show an interest in each other and do give an indication that she would be essentially accepted back into the group.

CURWOOD: I'm afraid we probably can't get through this interview without talking about Keiko, who played Willy in the movie Free Willy.

FORESTELL: Right.

CURWOOD: Now, Keiko is going from its tank in a Mexican marine park to a new home in Oregon. From your perspective, Paul Forestell, what's been the impact of the film Free Willy on public consciousness in this area?

FORESTELL: Well certainly there, as a result of the first release, there was a tremendous upsurge in interest in the display industry and orca and an outpouring of concern about keeping animals in captivity. Fundamentally, however, I think that Free Willy, or movies like Free Willy, have about as much relevance to understanding the natural history of whales and dolphins as Pocahontas, the movie Pocahontas has to understanding the history of Indians in America. I have a real concern about the so-called attempts to educate the public about whales and dolphins, that are happening today. I think there is education perhaps going on, but I'm afraid that it's in a very wrong direction.

CURWOOD: Tell me what you mean.

FORESTELL: Well, one of the things that really catalyzed it for me is a recent commercial I saw on television advertising Barbie dolls, and in this particular case it was an advertisement for a Baywatch Barbie doll, that comes complete with a stranded dolphin that Barbie has saved. And this effort to sort of develop these corporate icons of whales and dolphins are really creating a very comic book image, in my view, about who and what whales and dolphins are. We've really seen an interesting change in human attitudes toward whales and dolphins over the past 25 years or so. You know, what began as a kind of peace movement, hippie type of save the whales, is now in my view turning into a very, almost cynical attitude about whales and dolphins.

CURWOOD: Cynical?

FORESTELL: And everywhere you look, there are these corporate logos in which whales and dolphins are being used as corporate can-openers into people's wallets. In the last few years I've seen whales and dolphins used to advertise computers, toilet fixtures in Australia, women's sanitary napkins in the United States, beer in Japan. Basically, what used to be a sacred image, if you will, has now just become one more logo to be used to get at the wallet. And I think that by introducing people to captured animals in an entertainment setting helps perpetrate that lack of true understanding of who whales and dolphins are and how they fit in our environment.

CURWOOD: Thanks for taking this time with us. Dr. Paul Forestell is director of research and education for the Pacific Whale Foundation in Kihei, Hawaii. Thank you, sir.

FORESTELL: My pleasure; thank you very much.

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(Music up and under: Paul Winter Consort)

CURWOOD: What do you think? Should humans be allowed to keep whales for entertainment and education? Call us right now at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or try our e-mail address. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $12.

(Music up and under)

Beluga Whales

CURWOOD: Scientists have learned a lot about whales in recent years, but there are still some whales who remain largely a mystery. Commentator Nancy Lord worries that one group of whales may disappear before we are able to know them.

LORD: Every summer I watch beluga whales cruise up and down Alaska's Cook Inlet. In the mud-thickened water it's hard to spot more than the rolling vinyl white backs; and, up close, the knuckly dorsal ridges. These are traveling whales, a hundred or more at a time . They make the sea look whitecapped. The air fills with the sounds of their breathing: Ppphfff ppphfff.

They are mystery whales, these belugas of Cook Inlet. We humans know almost nothing about them. We don't know where they calve, where they go in winter, what they eat. Even how many there are. This spring, I sat in a hotel conference room with North America's beluga experts: biologists, researchers, and Alaska native beluga hunters. I found out what they don't know, and a little about what they do. They know from a recent genetic study that the Cook Inlet belugas form a discrete population. These whales, of which there may be 800, have been isolated from other belugas for thousands of years. In that time, they've likely adapted physically and behaviorally to the precise conditions of their location.

Researchers at the meeting talked about plans for more genetics work: contaminant studies, surveys and satellite tagging. Hunters voiced their concerns about contaminants and habitat disturbance. They spoke, too, of the importance of whale hunting and whale meat to their cultures and diets. All 30 people in that room were there because they wanted beluga whales to continue to be part of their lives and northern waters forever.

On the third day, one of the hunters brought in a plate of beluga muktuk. The bite-sized morsels of blubber and skin were fatty and rich. The taste stuck in my mouth all afternoon. I came home. I wrote letters protesting a Federal offshore oil lease sale proposed for next year. The sale covers precisely the area where Cook Inlet's belugas are thought to congregate for winter feeding. No one knows this for sure, as no one knows what effect oil pollution has on belugas. As no one knows quite what it means that the Cook Inlet whales are unlike any others in the world.

Such information will not be known before the area gets drilled. Regardless, the leasing will proceed on schedule. This we've been told. Something about national security. Best estimates are enough oil may be found to fill two months of American demand. A few hundred whales, a few dozen whale eating families. Some of us who just like to look at those white backs cutting through the sea. We are of no concern, no consequence to those who can't wait to wring every drop of oil from the earth.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Nancy Lord live and works as a writer and commercial fisher in Homer, Alaska. She comes to us from member station KBBI.

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(Music up and under)

Walking to the Post Office

CURWOOD: As malls and mega marts have opened around America, many downtown areas have declined, especially in smaller cities and towns. Once in a while, municipalities block the giant retailers from setting up away from town, and sometimes the big stores do open up in the central business district to help bring shoppers back downtown. But what happens when the threat to main street comes not from the mega marketers but from a Federal agency? Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston reports on the fight in one Massachusetts town over plans to move the Post Office.

(Traffic sounds)

COX: Every day except Sunday, 81-year-old Harrison Ripley walks from his home in downtown Groton, Massachusetts, to the post office a few blocks away.

RIPLEY: I pick up my mail and I pick up mail for the First Parish Church, which is up above. And then I come home, and I figure I've got in about a mile.

COX: Ripley could just as easily set up a mailbox outside his house, but that would deprive him of his daily routine, which is the social highlight of his life.

RIPLEY: You meet a lot of people around the post office. Every day. It means keeping in touch with the world. (Laughs.)

(Man: "Hello there, yes. Any postage for these guys?" Woman: "First class." Man: "Yeah." Children yell.)

COX: In Groton, like other small towns, the post office is an anchor of social life.

(Woman: "Hello." Man: "Hey, how are you?" Woman: "Good." Man: "Good.")

COX: It's more than just a place to run into people. Located on Groton's main street, the post office also meets a civic need. Children sell raffle tickets and Girl Scout cookies here. School bands and choirs perform outside, and during election seasons, townspeople come to meet the candidates. But Groton's post office needs more space to keep up with a local population that has swelled by 30% in the last 10 years. Town officials had hoped the post office would move to a site next door, but after a long battle the postal service has decided to relocate a mile and a half away. Groton Postmaster Ruth Tague says the move is long overdue.

TAGUE: Our employees and the town of Groton's townspeople and our customers deserve a nice place to go to, to be able to conduct their business.

COX: What's wrong with next door?

TAGUE: We have to go with what we have available.

COX: What's available is a marshy lot on the edge of town. The postal service bought the land in the late 80s for more money than it's worth today.

(Crickets at night)

COX: Groton Selectman Evan Katz says building here doesn't make sense.

KATZ: I can't imagine where to build on a site where development costs are higher, it's less accessible to customers, is going to be superior to a site which is well-situated and responds to the needs of the customers.

(Traffic sounds)

COX: Those customers, says Katz, are in Groton's thriving downtown, which dates back to the 17th century. There's an inn established in 1678 and a prep school founded in 1793. There's also a hardware store, a couple of coffee shops, a grocery store, a drug store.

(Drilling sounds)

COX: Businesses are sprouting up, like this new insurance agency which Selectman Katz says came downtown because of all the foot traffic. Peppered around these businesses are lots of homes, including subsidized housing for the elderly. Katz says Groton's town plan attempts to check suburban sprawl.

KATZ: The town has made a conscious decision to reject the strip mall mentality and the suburban sprawl mentality. We want the town center to be the core, so we're trying to keep the activities concentrated right here.

COX: And that's why Groton fought to keep the post office on Main Street. The town's preferred site is large enough to accommodate the postal service's needs, and its owner offered to sell his land to the post offices and buy their out-of-town parcel. But, like many national chain stores, the postal service opted to move out. That's left Selectman Katz frustrated.

KATZ: You could understand that you'd be in a battle for Walmart. They have stockholders, they have a bottom line. I recognize that the postal service does. But you'd think that the government would be on your side to a certain extent.

COX: Groton is by no means alone. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, at least 10,000 post offices have moved from town centers in the past 20 years. But when the post office quits downtown, spokesman Mark Corbly says it's always for a good reason.

CORBLY: The postal service is unique in that it provides a government function and yet is also mandated to operate as a business. The result of that is, we have to balance the economics with the local governmental desires of situations where they would like to have it sited.

COX: But the economics often work better for the postal service than for local taxpayers. Federal law requires local authorities to make the post office accessible. In Groton's case that means extending a sidewalk by nearly a mile, and widening the road at the new site. In addition to the cost, officials fear the move will spur development on the edge of town. They admit that downtown is congested, that they have tried hard not to let that congestion spread to the edge of town.

DELEO: This is a town. I suppose it has its own convictions and conclusions and decided to pick up its heels.

COX: Ray Deleo is a developer who has built more than a dozen post offices, and who wanted to build a new one in downtown Groton. Deleo accuses the postal service of often ignoring laws requiring it to consult with local officials before it buys or leases property. And he says local officials seldom put up a fight.

DELEO: Nine times out of ten local government is ill-informed or ill-advised, and they just quietly go along with whatever's been done, feeling that Uncle Sam knows best and that's where they want to be, and forever hold our peace.

COX: The postal service admits it failed to consult with Groton officials before it bought land on the edge of town. But it says since then, town authorities have played the role of obstructer. Postal service spokesman Corbly says customers want a post office they can drive to. He points to a recent survey conducted by the town, showing that 92% of post office customers arrive by car.

CORBLY: Perhaps the town of Groton is changing. Given that there's such a great reliance on the automobile, customers it would seem to us would more greatly appreciate having adequate parking and safe access and exit space, as opposed to have any presence in the center of a downtown that's already congested.

COX: Some of Groton's residents agree.

(Traffic sounds)

COX: Long-time resident Mitzi Bilitski says she's changed her mind about building on the edge of town.

M. BILITSKI: I wasn't in the beginning in favor of that place. But it has to be because it's just no place to go and have a post office here.

COX: Bilitski's husband Frank says town officials are clinging to the past when they declare that people should be able to walk to the post office. He says in Groton, just like in the rest of the country, this is the age of the car.

F. BILITSKI: A lot of people living in the town of Groton have to have 2 automobiles, not one. See, the husband goes to work and the wife has to do shopping. There's no public transportation. So therefore there's 2 cars.

COX: And with 2 cars, any family can get to a suburban post office. That is, unless like Harrison Ripley, you don't like to drive.

RIPLEY: It's absolutely out of the question. I don't feel safe doing it.

COX: So Ripley is hoping the postal service will at least allow a downtown store to set up a contract post office to receive mail and sell stamps. That way, he and some of the town's other elderly citizens can maintain the links to the community built around their daily trips to the post office.

(A door slams. A child coos. Woman: "That's going to be a dollar thirty six; do you need a receipt?" Man: "Please.")

COX: For Living on Earth, I'm Patrick Cox.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Our director is Deborah Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. The associate producer is Kim Motylewski and our production team includes Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, Susan Shepherd and Eric Losick. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Keith Shields and Frank DeAngelis. Our Harvard engineers are Jeff Martini and Larry Bouthillier. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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