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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

December 29, 1995

Air Date: December 29, 1995


Yellowstone Park: Snowmobile Capitol of the World? / Jyl Hoyt

Over the tranquil blanket of snow in Yellowstone Park, a noisy new trend has emerged. Tens of thousands of snowmobilers comes to gape at the scenery. But cross-country skiers and other more traditional nature observers are disturbed by the noise, fumes and disruption they say these tourists bring. Jyl Hoyt from member station KBSU reports. (06:47)

When America Was Young

Author William MacLeish discusses his recent book The Day Before America. It's a survey of the continent's ecology in the years before the European settlers arrived. (05:28)

Naturally Dyed-in-the-Wool Company / Kelly Griffin

The first company to produce all-natural fabric dyes that contain no heavy metals is operating in Colorado. Kelly Griffin from Colorado Public Radio has this profile. (05:30)

Listener Comments


Almanac - The Chinese New Year of the Rat


Earth Day at 25 Years: A Retrospective of the Environmental Movement / Terry FitzPatrick

The first Earth Day in1970 brought environmentalism into the mainstream with an unprecedented ground swell of participation. Reporter Terry FitzPatrick examines the events that shaped the movement, and talks to some of its founders about what they believe it has yet to achieve. (15:16)

Sardines in Literature / Bill Drummond

As John Steinbeck’s popular novel Cannery Row turns fifty in 1995, reporter Bill Drummond explores the author's passion for marine biology, and the ecological warning contained in this book. Steinbeck's widow says her husband was among the first to foretell the collapse of California's sardine fishery. (06:39)

Postcard from Alaska / Nancy Lord

Commentator Nancy Lord remarks on her trip to Alaska's Aleutian islands — a place that modern America has not completely transformed. (02:59)

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
REPORTERS: Jyl Hoyt, Kelly Griffith, Terry FitzPatrick, William Drummond
GUEST: William MacLeish

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. The great outdoors is a place to get away from it all, but not in Yellowstone National Park. Many complain that the hush of winter quiet has been replaced by the whine of snowmobilers.

YOKUM: I'm a healthy skier. I can ski 20 miles a day and I could not find a place that I could ski to and back in one day that was immune from snowmobile noise.

CURWOOD: Also, hundreds of years after Europeans first settled North America, some say society is in danger because it is not well connected to the land.

MacLEISH: I think we are still living on the land, we are not living in it. Our cultures, our religions, our ethics, put us apart, and I find that a very dangerous place to be.

CURWOOD: On Living On Earth, first news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth I'm Jan Nunley.

The most notorious toxic dumping case of the 1970s is all but over. Now that Occidental Chemical has agreed to pay $129 million dollars for the clean-up of Love Canal. The settlement ends 16 years of legal battles with the federal government. Under the agreement, Occidental will pay $102 million dollars to reimburse Superfund for cleanup costs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency which handled the relocation of Love Canal's residents will receive $27 million dollars. The company also will pay $375 thousand dollars for damage to birds and fish. The government wanted, but didn't get another $80 million dollars in interest charges incurred since the completion of the cleanup. The settlement has been submitted to a federal judge. There will be a 30-day waiting period before it becomes official.

The capture of a rare Yangtze River dolphin has raised hopes for saving the critically endangered mammal. The Chinese government reports that it has captured a female of the species, near the central city of Wuhan. Scientists hope to mate the 10-year old female dolphin with an 18-year-old male captured three years ago. The Yangtze River dolphin which has existed for 25 million years is among the world's 12 most endangered species. Fewer than 100 are known to exist. Zoologists say the dolphins will vanish completely within 25 years if not protected. Researchers also warn that the River dolphin's survival will become harder to guarantee once work begins on the Yangtze's Three Gorges dam in 1998.

Environmental issues are expected to play a large role in the 1996 presidential election. In fact, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt expects they'll be crucial to the outcome. From Washington, Joel Southern of Alaska Public Radio reports.

SOUTHERN: Since last April Secretary Babbitt has visited nearly seventy cities in what he calls National Heritage tours. Babbitt argues the public is awaking, quote, like a sleeping giant, to oppose changes the Republican controlled congress is pushing in clean water, endangered species and other environmental laws enacted during the past twenty five years. Secretary Babbitt says there's a new era of conservation beginning which he calls, American Restoration, and he believes the environment will be a big issue for voters in next years' presidential and congressional elections. What's more Babbitt says he will focus attention on it.

BABBITT: I absolutely intend to make it an issue, absolutely. It is an issue, I mean, the radical nature of these proposals, I think has put this on the front burner, has stirred up the American people.

SOUTHERN: Recent actions by House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggest Republicans are sensitive about the environmental bad-guy image they're getting. Gingrich has endorsed a plan to preserve the Sterling Forest on the New York, New Jeresy border. He's also putting together a special task force to develop more moderate reforms of the Endangered Species Act, Superfund toxicwaste cleanup laws and others. Joel Southern, Washington.

NUNLEY: Russia may need up to import six million metric tons of wheat by summer, but may not have any way to pay for it. An Economy Ministry report says the nation's reserves of domestic grain could be exhausted by June of next year. The forecast outlining Russia's food and other needs was the first hint Russia might make big purchases on the international wheat markets. World grain stocks are at their lowest since disastrous harvests on the Soviet Union's collective farms forced the purchase of American wheat in the 1970s, and Ukraine, once called the Soviet Union's breadbasket. Recently announced it would have only about 500 thousand tons of grain available for export, that's down from an earlier forecast of two million tons.

The world's population increased by 100 million people this year, the largest increase ever. According to a report by the population institute, ninety percent of the growth was in poor countries already torn by civil strife and social unrest. A spokesman for the organization said effective birth control could stabilize world population by 2015 at about 8 billion. But unless family planning is promoted actively, he said, there could be as many as 14 billion people by then. The people of 80 countries are reproducing at a rate that will double their populations within 30 years. There are about 30 countries where the number of children being born to the average woman has been declining. The biggest decline has been in China. In 1965 the average Chinese woman could expect to give birth to 6.5 live children in her lifetime. The figure is now down to 1.4. There are now 5.75 billion people in the world.

Crop-destroying Apple Snails have turned up along streams and springs in the Hawaiian island of Kauai prompting concern about a possible threat to Hawaii's ecosystems. In early December, buckets of the alien snails were apparently dumped alongside previously uninfested waterways in the area. The voracious apple snail is already a major pest on agricultural crops in infested areas. Some Maui farmers hand-pick the snails and their bright pink egg clusters. Others use snail-eating ducks to try to control them.

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

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Yellowstone Park: Snowmobile Capitol of the World?

CURWOOD: This is a special edition of Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Today's show includes some pieces that were originally broadcast in 1995, and we start off with a visit to Yellowstone National Park. For years Yellowstone has been enjoyed in the winter by cross-country skiers and snow-shoers as a quite sanctuary. A place to escape the noisy civilized world and retreat into a broad wilderness that hisses quietly with geysers and the swirl of snow. But today, the snow-covered trails of Yellowstone echo with a roar of visitors moving at much higher speeds, touching off a clash of values in one of the country's most treasured landscapes. Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSU has our story.

HOYT: A blue haze hangs over West Yellowstone, Montana, a small tourist town bordered by vast, high basins and the rounded mountains of Yellowstone National Park. The haze feels eerie, and is especially thick every afternoon around 5, when snowmobile enthusiasts wearing black helmets and thick jumpsuits speed back to town on their rented snow machines. It's the machine exhaust that causes this haze. But the snowmobilers don't notice as they marvel to each other about the park's wind-shaped ice sculptures and huge geysers.

(Snowmobile motors revving up)

SNOWMOBILER: Love it! First time here, but boy it's unbelievable, the scenery. Unbelievable, it's great, especially the animals, the elk. Love it!

HOYT: Snowmobilers call Yellowstone the Snowmobile Capital of the World. Last winter, more than 74,000 snow machines entered the park, more than any other year. Even more than park officials predicted would come by the year 2,000. Snowmobilers like John Fowler come here because they can zoom along grooved trails within touching distance of vast herds of wild animals.

FOWLER: The elk and the buffalo lay right alongside the trail. You can stop a few feet back and take pictures and it's beautiful.

HOYT: But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for people who don't ride, snowmobiles can be a nuisance. Slim, athletic cross-country skier Mike Yokum says he can't escape the loud machines, no matter how far he goes in the park.

YOKUM: I spent last winter at Old Faithful, and I'm a healthy skier, I can ski 20 miles a day. And I could not find a place that I could ski to and back in one day that was immune from snowmobile noise.

(Two men speak: "Good morning." "Morning." "Jack, how's it going?" "Good, how are you?" "Jack will claim nobody will listen." "Yeah, that's for damn sure." Laughter.)

HOYT: Even people who travel into the park on other motorized vehicles complain. John Gosbaderick, a driver for Alpen Guides Company, a West Yellowstone-based company that carries tourists on ski-mounted minivans, says his clients often express dismay and disgust at the snowmobilers.

GOSBADERICK: A lot of times it's just the snowmobiling etiquette. You know, we pull up to a waterfall, but you'll get a group of 20 sleds pull up to this waterfall and none of them shut their snowmobiles off. You've got 20 2-stroke engines idling, it sounds like you're in a logging camp.

(Engines revving)

HOYT: Each winter morning, hundreds of snowmobiles line up at the West Yellowstone park entrance and pay a fee to George Kittrell, an amiable seasonal employee who says he often gets headaches from all the exhaust. Even though fresh air is pumped into his cubicle.

KITTRELL: You look at 'em, listen to 'em and smell 'em. But this is what they love; they come from all over to do this. This guy's from Minnesota, you can tell from the sticker.

HOYT: Park officials worry about the health of Kittrell and other gatekeepers. That's one reason why the park started monitoring the west entrance and several other sites along the park's 166-mile traffic corridor for carbon monoxide and particulates from snowmobiles. West District Ranger Bob Seibert says the 2-cycle snowmobile engine can be 100 times more polluting than just one car. So, in a single day...

SEIBERT: You could have certain types of emissions equivalent to a million automobiles coming through the west entrance on a single day. Whereas all of Yellowstone National Park gets a million automobiles in an entire summer.

HOYT: Yellowstone Park is monitoring its air for 2 years to decide if there is a pollution problem. The results will be part of a new winter use plan that will address other effects of increased snowmobiling, and could ultimately impose restrictions. But Bob Ekey of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental activist group, wants the parK to limit snowmobile use now.

EKEY: There are examples of other national parks where use levels are set: the Grand Canyon, only so many people are allowed to float that river. And so in Yellowstone there's nothing wrong with the idea of setting some limits to protect the resource.

HOYT: But just mention the word limits to Vicky Egger, Chamber of Commerce Director in the town of West Yellowstone.

EGGER: Not only do I think it would be a horrible miscarriage of the Park Service's mandate, which is to make that park available for people, I think it would be cataclysmic on our economy in West Yellowstone.

HOYT: Others suggest that West Yellowstone, which first got paved sidewalks just 7 years ago, would remain economically healthy with existing snowmobile use.

(Snowmobile engines revving)

HOYT: The Chamber of Commerce, the Park Service, and environmentalists all agree the snowmobile industry needs to adapt and build a Yellowstone-friendly 4-cycle snow machine that would be quieter and less polluting, even though many snowmobilers say the noise is part of the fun.

(Snowmobile engines revving)

SNOWMOBILER: You want to play, you got to take what goes with it. We're going to lobby or regulate ourselves right out of living, we keep it up. Don't you think?

(Snowmobile engines revving)

HOYT: The park expects about 300,000 winter visitors will maneuver through Yellowstone's narrow, crowded roads each year by the turn of the century. Most will be snowmobilers like Mary Gruber.

GRUBER: It's just a wonderful place to be. It's God's country.

HOYT: Others wonder if Yellowstone can remain God's country with an increasing and perhaps unlimited number of snowmobiles whizzing through.

(Snowmobile engines revving)

HOYT: For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Yellowstone National Park.

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(Snowmobile engines revving; music up and under)

When America Was Young

CURWOOD: In 1995 Yellowstone National Park also became the site of an attempt to reintroduce the wolf. If this effort is successful, Yellowstone will be a tiny reminder of what America was like before the appearance of Europeans - in fact, before the idea of "America" even existed. What those first Europeans saw before the forests began to be cleared, and before most of the wildlife and the indigenous peoples were driven away intrigued author William MacLeish. His brilliantly crafted book is called The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of a Continent.

MacLEISH: They saw pine trees, let's say 5 or 6 foot through and a couple of hundred feet high. They caught cod up to 200 pounds. There were jaguars in Florida; there were bison and elk in New York. There were millions upon millions upon millions of passenger pigeons. And when they roosted, they roosted in such great numbers that they broke the branches off the trees, and this is unbelievable stuff.

CURWOOD: But the landscape hadn't been untouched, though, when the Europeans came.

MacLEISH: Oh, absolutely not. One of the defining characteristics of the human being is that he or she is very curious and has these extraordinary attributes of opposable thumbs, and the three pounds of meat at the top of the neck which thinks pretty well. And you get going with these folks and they're, what they're trying to do, they want to meet their needs as best they can. How do they do it? And they've been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years. They set fires. Extremely good at this. This was diminished because first of all, the large, the mega-fauna, so called, the mastodons, the mammoths and the short-faced bear, very large mammals, were all gone. So there was a depletion in diversity between 12,000 years ago and 500 years ago. And of course an enormous depletion in diversity between 500 and now.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, Bill MacLeish, what sorts of values did the Europeans bring with them about natural resources?

MacLEISH: They brought with them at least 8,000 years of development in agriculture. Domesticated animals and the domesticated plants came together as an engine of survival, if you will, that moved into northern Europe, and the result was a remaking of the landscape of northern Europe. And another result was the creation of surpluses, storable surpluses that would last the winter.

CURWOOD: Wealth.

MacLEISH: Wealth. Wealth meant towns, villages, kings, armies, new ways of thinking. Man the rational was coming into vogue, the idea of markets, the idea of surpluses, and of trade, and of acquisition, mostly of acquisition. And this is what came west to North America.

CURWOOD: And how would this affect what they did here?

MacLEISH: They looked and they saw the plenty here. And I think what happened to many of them is that they set about immediately turning what they saw into what they had been used to seeing in Europe. It's interesting to note, for example, that what took Europeans, let's say in northern Europe, 2500 years to accomplish in the way of transformation of landscapes, it took New Englanders, the early New Englanders, 250 years: one tenth of the time.

CURWOOD: My guest is William MacLeish; his new book is called The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of A Continent. And I want to ask you to assess, what you would see either the success or the failure of Europeans in North America.

MacLEISH: Success is a strange kind of a thing. It is no more permanent than failure. And we have set records that still remain in terms of city building and creating new forms of agriculture. All of this. And new forms of culture. And a huge economy, the most successful economy ever. And the question is, how far can you go? There are limits; there always are limits.

CURWOOD: So in Darwinian terms, in European mercantile terms -

MacLEISH: Yes -

CURWOOD: America is absolutely the biggest success story ever.

MacLEISH: No question about it.

CURWOOD: In native terms, though, not so? You have some references in your book where natives see the European exercise as a failure.

MacLEISH: Yes; this is a passage from the Native American writer Vine DeLauria, Jr., in a recent essay. Now he says, "In spite of severe oppression, almost complete displacement, and substantial loss of religion and culture, Indians have not been completely defeated. Indeed, the hallmark of today's Indian psyche is the realization that the worst has now passed, and that it is the white man, with his careless attitude toward life and the environment, who is actually in danger of extinction. From an Indian point of view, the general theme by which to understand the history of the hemisphere would be the degree to which the whites have responded to the rhythms of the land. The degree to which they have become indigenous. From that perspective, the judgment of Europeans is severe."

CURWOOD: Do you agree?

MacLEISH: I do. I think we are still living on the land; we are not living in it. Our cultures, our religions, our ethics, put us apart. And I find that a very dangerous place to be.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you very much for joining us.

MacLEISH: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Bill MacLeish's new book is called The Day Before America: Changing the Nature of A Continent.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: A way to use brilliant colors while safeguarding the environment is just ahead on Living on Earth. Stick around.

(Music up and under)

Naturally Dyed-in-the-Wool Company

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We hardly ever think about it, but the clothes we wear are often the cause of considerable toxic waste. The dyes that give us the bright and consistent designer colors that we enjoy are often synthesized from some pretty harsh chemicals, and those chemicals can be tough on the environment. Conventional wisdom holds that natural dyes used by our ancestors - extracted from things like the Indigo plant - can't produce consistent and lasting colors. But, a small Colorado company is challenging that notion. Kelly Griffin of Colorado Public Radio has this report.

GRIFFIN: When Sally Gurley learned that a fellow rug weaver was suffering dizzy spells and muscle spasms, she was convinced it stemmed from working with synthetic dyes, which she knew contained harsh chemicals. Gurley, who dyed wool for her own rugs, decided to switch to natural dyes. She thought it would be easy to make them.

S. GURLEY: I thought you went out and found this wonderful book like a great cookbook of recipes of natural dyes. Well, when I started looking through the books for natural dyes, they use copper, tin, chrome, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, iron. They use them like salt and pepper. So I threw away the books and started just with raw materials.

GRIFFIN: What began as tinkering turned into Allegro Natural Dyes, the first company to offer a non-toxic process for commercial dyeing. Gurley runs Allegro with her husband Kent.

K. GURLEY: This is a drum of Cochineal they're little, we get them in a dehydrated state, and if we take a couple of these, just two little bitty insects and crush them up and put them in a cup of warm water, and you will, rather immediately, see them giving off their red color and if you let that sit there and soak for fifteen or twenty minutes it'll turn the color of cranberry juice.

GRIFFIN: The cochineal is a bug that lives on cactuses in Peru. Other natural sources of color include matterroot for oranges, osage for yellows and the indigo plant for blues and purples.

(A shredder motor runs)

GRIFFIN: This old document shredder is used to grind the bugs and plants to a fine dust which is the base for concentrated extracts that can be combined to create one hundred colors on cotton, linen, and silk, and more than 200 colors on wool. The dyeing room looks like a makeshift laundromat: front-loading washing machines swirling T-shirts in a vivid, deep pink dye along side a vat where the concentrated materials are mixed with water.

K. GURLEY: This is a 250-gallon steam jacketed kettle, and basically it's just a big old beanpot.

GRIFFIN: There's a fair amount of duct tape holding equipment together at Allegro, but this shoestring operation has attracted serious attention. For example, a major linen company will introduce a line of towels this spring colored with Allegro's dyes. And 2 west coast companies are on track to dye 1.5 million pounds of T-shirts this year. But many in the textile industry say the promise of natural dyes is overstated. Sue Wagner is Research Director at Ciba Textile Products, which produces synthetic dyes in North Carolina,

WAGNER: They can be relatively devastating to the environment if you don't know what you're doing. Just because it's natural doesn't necessarily mean it's good. The business of all of the waste that you have left over with the Cochineal bug as a for instance, only 1.8% of the solid matter is a dye, so 98.2% is going into the waste stream somewhere.

GRIFFIN: But the Gurleys say their process has a mild impact compared to synthetic dyes. An industry report says textile companies spent more than $1 billion over the past decade treating wastewater and disposing of the toxic sludge left over from their dyeing processes. At Allegro, the wastewater is clean enough to drain right into the city's sewer system. And the leftover bug and plant pulp is turned into compost. Skeptics also say there's simply not enough land to raise all the natural materials it would take to supply the textile industry. The Gurleys counter there's plenty of room to expand.

S. GURLEY: We have started organic growing projects, basically worldwide. We're trying a lot of them here in the United States; American farmers need them just as bad as rainforests in the Third World.

GRIFFIN: The Gurleys have paired up with Wright Industries in North Carolina, the nation's largest distributor of dyes. Wright Industries' Rita Parham says she was skeptical about the Allegro process at first.

PARHAM: I kept reading about how natural dyes were not feasible, that there was no possibility that they could be used in any viable sense, or any kind of mass scale. Every estimate I read was, just made it sound impossible.

GRIFFIN: But a visit to the Allegro facility convinced her the process will work. Now, Wright Industries is gearing up to manufacture and distribute Allegro dyes under the name E-Color. Kent Gurley says dozens of companies have expressed interest in the dyes. While he pitches the E-Color process and develops new sources for raw materials, Sally Gurley continues to work on the colors themselves.

S. GURLEY: Yellow, which we get from the osages, is the weakest color. But we've had some great advances this year in the fastness of yellow, so that was also real exciting. We don't have black on cotton yet without using anything toxic; we don't have it. But we, this dark charcoal is pretty close. We're getting closer and closer all the time.

GRIFFIN: For Living on Earth, I'm Kelly Griffin in Denver.

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(Music up and under)

Listener Comments

CURWOOD: After our recent story about government fuel economy standards, we asked what you thought. Should light trucks and recreational vehicles meet the same mileage standards as passenger cars? Overwhelmingly, those of you who called and wrote in, said yes, they should be held to strictest standards. And a number you thought the government should go even further.

YANUCK: Hi this is Scott Yanuck, I just heard your story on WFUV. I favor going with a gas tax, bring it up to the level that Europeans pay, maybe two dollars, two fifty a gallon total. That would get people to buy cars that would be more efficient.

CURWOOD: Sydney Goodman, a New Jersey engineer who listens on WNYC in New York wants the government to institute "feebates." That means people will get financial incentives such as rebates to buy more efficient cars. Under Mr. Goodman's plan, if you want a gas guzzler, you'd have to pay a premium for it. But some, including this listener to WYSU in Youngstown, Ohio said the light truck mileage rules should be left alone.

OHIO LISTENER: I don't feel that these other vehicles, minivan and sport utilities should be subjected to the same standards. There are some high mileage cars sold right now and they are not fantastically big sellers. I don't feel people want them. You should let the marketplace decide.

CURWOOD: And our final word this week comes from a listener to WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana.

D. WORKER: My name is Dwight Worker. I bought my Geo Metro in '89 because of the fuel efficiency. Since then I have averaged 47 miles a gallon with it. I paid $7,000 for this four-door car, with quadrophonic sound and I've driven it a hundred thousand miles without ant serious problem. I figure my Geo saves me over 2000 dollars a year in gas and lower insurance and car payments. The money I save goes to my children's education and for my home. I see a lot of people buying $30 and 40,000 dollar status mobiles and I feel they deserve all of the indebtness and stress and the overtime that comes with it. I'll take my savings over their materialistic and spiritual deficits any day.

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CURWOOD: If you'd like to comment about anything you have heard on "Living On Earth" pick up the phone and give us a call. Our listener line number is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our email address is loe@npr.org, that's loe@npr.org. US mail can reach us at "Living On Earth" Box 639, Cambridge, MA 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $12 each.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living On Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include: The Ford Foundation, The W. Alton Jones Foundation, All-Natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside, and The National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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CURWOOD: Coming up in the second half of Living On Earth, a look back at when all the fish went away from the California coast a half century ago. John Steinbeck wrote a novel about it, and called it Cannery Row.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. 1995 was the twenty-fifth year after Earthday, and we'll take a look back at the history of environmental activism over this past quarter century, from the environmentalist phase of President Richard Nixon to the skeptcism of Interior Secretary James Watt. Coming up in this half hour of NPR's Living On Earth. Right after this week's almanac.

Almanac - The Chinese New Year of the Rat

CURWOOD: While we here in the west celebrate our new year, on February 19th, the Chinese will welcome the year of the rat. In the Chinese cosmology those born in the coming year are industrious, intelligent and perfectionist. It's no surprise that the rat should loom so large in an oriental system of beliefs. Of the 78 known types of rats, all originated in Asia or the Pacific islands. Now in terms of population, number of different species and territory, rats are the most successful mammal in the world. They have spread everywhere that humanity has gone. In the US alone there are believed to be more than 145 million rats. In Britain, rats now outnumber people. In scientific terms, humanity's dislike of the rat is well deserved. They do carry diseases, but in their favor, rats have a well-developed sense of spatial relationships and an excellent sense of time. That makes them very useful for laboratory studies or to tell you the quickest route to the nearest garbage dump.

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Earth Day at 25 Years: A Retrospective of the Environmental Movement

CURWOOD: Twenty-five years ago, the world celebrated the first earth day, and a broad social movement began. Environmental awareness has since moved from the margins to the mainstream of U.S. society. Green thinking has become popular in schools and welcome in the workplace. Many of us link the environment to our food and water, our homes and even the cars we drive. And just how did environmental activism gain this success? Reporter Terry Fitzpatrick of member station KPLU in Seattle tells us the story.

FITZPATRICK: If you look at the headlines of 1960, you'd never think America was on the verge of an environmental revolution.

(John F. Kennedy: "If I'm elected president, or whoever may be, I think we should...")

FITZPATRICK: As John F. Kennedy was promising a new generation of leadership, he was also stressing the need for economic development, not conservation.

(Kennedy: "The development of the resources of this country to prepare the way for the 300 million people who are going to live here in 40 years, I think, is is an essential requirement...")

FITZPATRICK: But shortly after Kennedy took office, the environment edged into the popular culture. The book Silent Spring revealed the dangers of pesticides. Another book, The Population Bomb, became a bestseller. Musicians like Tom Lehrer were singing about pollution.

(Lehrer: "If you visit American city, you will find it very pretty. Just two things of which you must beware: don't drink the water and don't breathe the air. Pollution, pollution, they got smog and sewage and mud. Turn on your tap, and get hot and cold running crud...")

FITZPATRICK: Still, the environmental movement had yet to coalesce. The issues of clean air and water were viewed as intellectual concerns. Banning atomic bomb tests and creating wilderness areas weren't seen as related issues. Activists like Dennis Hayes felt limited.

HAYES: All of this was coming together but they were separate strands. Nobody sort of put them together in a concerted effort that got them a higher priority in people's minds or linked them all together as being emblematic of a - of a shared set of values.

FITZPATRICK: Ironically, one of the crowning technological achievements of the 60s, President Kennedy's space program, would inadvertently provide America with a shared experience that helped inspire the environmental movement.

(Frank Borman?: "This transmission is coming to you approximately halfway between the moon and the earth." Ground Control: "Roger.")

FITZPATRICK: It was Christmas, and for the first time ever, people could see pictures of the Earth as one planet: a fragile home in a forbidding blackness.

(Borman?: "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.")

FITZPATRICK: The image of one Earth helped to unify the country, and on April 22, 1970, concern for the health of the planet exploded in an unprecedented display of support.

("This is a CBS News special. Earth Day: A question of survival. With CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite." Cronkite: "Good evening. A unique day in American history is ending: a day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival...")

FITZPATRICK: Earth Day was part teach-in, part mass mobilization. Its organizer, Dennis Hayes, spoke at a rally in Washington.

(Hayes: "We are systematically destroying our land, our streams, and our seas. We foul our air, deaden our senses, and pollute our bodies. That's what America's become. That's what we have to challenge...")

FITZPATRICK: It was a challenge not everyone was willing to accept.

(News broadcast: "Some quarters saw more than coincidence in the fact that Earth Day occurred on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lenin, the father of Soviet communism. And the Controller General of Georgia, James Bentley, sent out $1,600 worth of telegrams warning that Earth Day might be a Communist plot.")

FITZPATRICK: But Earth Day events attracted 20 million participants: more than enough to dispel the critics and create the political momentum that Dennis Hayes was seeking.

HAYES: What we wanted to have was people at the end of it who understood these issues, cared about them passionately, were prepared to vote on the basis of such issues, were prepared to make changes in their own lives - in everything from the number of children that they had to the kind of automobile that they drove, on the basis of what they learned.

FITZPATRICK: It worked. It grabbed the attention of Congress. Leon Billings, then Chief of Staff for the Senate Air and Water Committees, says Earth Day turned environmentalism into an unstoppable political force.

BILLINGS: There was a tremendous wellspring of - of goodwill among young people who were looking for something to be for, after the bloodletting of the Vietnam War demonstrations and so on. And the environmental issue was a perfect - I mean, it was a perfect opportunity.

FITZPATRICK: Politicians had to support the environmental cause simply to survive, even president Nixon.

(Nixon: "Because there are no local or state boundaries to the problems of our environment, the Federal Government must play an active, positive role. We can and will set standards. We can and will exercise leadership. We are providing the necessary...")

FITZPATRICK: Leon Billings says Nixon didn't really are about the environment. What he cared about was the environmental vote, which was lining up to support Edmund Muskie's bid to challenge Nixon for President.

BILLINGS: The whole White House strategy was to try to cut Muskie off from that constituency through pre-empting those issues. We got into one of those wonderful points in American politics where you had political one-upmanship as between Congress and the President.

FITZPATRICK: In short order, this one-upmanship resulted in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency; all these environmental landmarks were approved in just 3 years. The early 70s had become an environmental renaissance. The environment was even the province of musical superstars.

(Marvin Gaye?: "Whoa, oh, mercy, mercy me. Oh, things ain't what they used to be, no, no. Where did all the blue skies go? Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and sea...")

HAYES: Suddenly, here was a movement in which a - a middle-class housewife who had never done anything activist before in her life but cared passionately about the kind of world she was passing on to her kids - there was a role in this one for her.

FITZPATRICK: Dennis Hayes and other activists won praise from all directions. Even Republicans, like Williams Ruckleshaus, head of the newly-formed EPA.

RUCKLESHAUS: As a society, we owe a debt to those who have made the environment a call to action. They are for the most part sincere, dedicated, and fair-minded advocates of environmental responsibility.

FITZPATRICK: But it wasn't an unbroken string of environmental victories; there were major defeats. The first big fight under the Endangered Species Act was lost when Congress approved a dam that wiped out a fish called the snail darter. In the wake of the OPEC oil embargo, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was approved. As the 70s drew to a close, environmentalism had lost some of its magic. But then came Love Canal.

(Broadcaster: "An unusual hostage incident is underway in Niagara Falls, New York tonight. No weapons are involved, as 2 officials of the Environmental Protection Agency are being held against their will by members of the Love Canal Homeowners Association at the group's headquarters. The two hostages are...")

FITZPATRICK: Residents of Niagara Falls, America's honeymoon capital, were getting sick because of chemical leaks from the Love Canal dump site. Angry homeowners were fighting back. This was a blue collar town. People like Lois Gibbs hadn't been part of the environmental consciousness that swept the country.

GIBBS: When I lived in Niagara Falls, and we smelled chemicals, and we had black clouds, we had brown clouds, we had white clouds, I mean it was terrible. We smelled that and we thought: good economy. We didn't think air pollution poison because we didn't understand. Because nobody was talking about it at our level.

FITZPATRICK: But soon the entire nation was talking about toxic waste. This was just the first of many communities to learn that chemical dumping could threaten human health. Love Canal was evaluated; so was Times Beach, Missouri. Then, the Superfund list was developed, detailing America's worst hazardous waste sites.

GIBBS: The release of the list woke up America in a way that they had never been woken up before, because every local paper took the list and talked about the sites in their community. Everybody said, "I've got a Love Canal," and so people really became concerned. They saw their self-interest and they wanted something done immediately.

FITZPATRICK: Lois Gibbs founded a clearinghouse to help others who were fighting toxic dump sites. It was the beginning of a second wave of environmental awareness among working class people.

GIBBS: None of us were trained organizers. None of us had any experience in even being an environmentalist. If you were to ask my neighbors today if they were an environmentalist they would say no. What we're about is fighting for justice.

FITZPATRICK: Other events continued to strengthen support for the environment, most notably the nuclear power accident at Three Mile Island. But suddenly, in 1981, the movement was on the defensive. Ronald Reagan took over the White House. To Reagan, environmental groups were special interests that hurt the economy. It was time for business to have a stronger voice. Leading the charge was Secretary of the Interior James Watt.

(Watt: "Businessmen pay taxes. Businesspeople have rights. All Americans won in November, and those liberals from the special interest groups are furious that the positions of power have been opened up to America for Americans. And that's our objective...")

FITZPATRICK: Watt wanted to roll back environmental programs and open more public lands to things like mining and grazing. But the Reagan revolution foundered when it came to the environment. Congress was unwilling to water down the landmark legislation that Leon Billings had helped to craft a decade before.

BILLINGS: We survived the Reagan-Watt era, these policies survived, because of their militancy. People, the American public, saw what they were proposing as too radical.

FITZPATRICK: Watt unwittingly helped his opponents. He showed a remarkable lack of political finesse, such as this comment when announcing his appointments to a Federal commission.

(Watt: I've appointed the Lenos Commission, 5 members: 3 Democrats, 2 Republicans. Every kind of mix you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, 2 Jews and a cripple. And ... ")

FITZPATRICK: Watt undermined the Administration's credibility on environmental policy. Even Vice President George Bush distanced himself from the Reagan record. In his run for the White House in 1988, Bush said he'd be the environmental president. Later, events like the Exxon Valdez oil spill hardened public resolve to protect the environment. But as the movement approached its 20th anniversary, activists were worried by the lesson they'd learned during the Reagan years: that legislative gains are vulnerable to changing political tides. Dennis Hayes was steering the emphasis of Earth Day 1990 toward a broader societal goal and away from a focus on government.

HAYES: There was a widespread correct perception that some of those laws had not worked terribly well, and that we probably had to do some things that affected the culture, affected the society in ways other than by placing legal restrictions and regulatory restrictions upon something that reached into people's behavior.

(Woman: "We have 3 types of trash bins around; they're not hard to miss. We have one for aluminum only, one for bottles and one for just trash. So help us trash your trash. Thanks.")

FITZPATRICK: Earth Day 1990 focused on individual environmental responsibility: things like recycling, waste reduction, energy conservation. The event revitalized the movement, but it felt more like a festival than political rally. It was a place to take the kids.

GIRL: We are a student group showing adults that kids care about the environment, too.

WOMAN: Your exhibit's called The Next Generation. Why?

GIRL: Because we're the next generation; it's going to be our world in about 30 years. So we better make sure it has a future.

FITZPATRICK: What does the future hold? One of the nation's premiere environmentalists is now Vice President, but advocates for property rights and economic growth seem to control the political agenda. Activists like Lois Gibbs say to meet this challenge, the movement needs to build its grass roots support among minorities, working people, and others directly affected by environmental problems.

GIBBS: Historically, we talked about rivers and air and endangered species and trees and so forth. This next 25 years is going to be really looking at people. And people are going to become the endangered species, and people are going to be the ones who define the laws that affect our environment and affect the way we do things.

FITZPATRICK: Long-time organizers like Denis Hayes think the movement should also rekindle the ideals of 1970. He feels Earth Day's big message - building an environmentally-sustainable economy - has largely been lost.

HAYES: This has been much more a reformist movement. Its achievements start from a presumption that, that the fundamentals are good. What we need to do is scrub up around the edges and make things a little bit cleaner. And partly as a consequence of that, most of our heroic victories and expensive victories over the last 25 years have stopped the nation from getting very much worse during that period. But we haven't really profoundly improved in very many areas.

FITZPATRICK: Profound improvement, says Hayes, includes a lowering of the birth rate and a dramatic drop in the use of natural resources. He says we must change the way we think about the Earth: a spiritual transformation. Although the environmental revolution has come a long way in this fundamental regard, the revolution has just begun. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry Fitzpatrick reporting.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead one of this country's most famous writers was also an early environmentalist. Stay tuned.

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Sardines in Literature

CURWOOD: John Steinbeck isn't the first novelist that many people would think of when it comes to writing about environmental change. But, in fact, much of his work recounts human tragedy linked to ecological disaster. His early best seller, The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, chronicles life in the Dustbowl - and also serves as a powerful testimonial to the dangers of soil erosion. But, Steinbeck was at perhaps his most environmentally conscious when he wrote Cannery Row: a vivid account of the sardine industry in California's Monterey Bay, an industry oblivious to the doom that lurked around the corner, thanks to over-fishing. 1995 marked the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. William Drummond has more.

DRUMMOND: John Steinbeck is best known for Grapes of Wrath, a serious novel which examines the Okie migration to California. By contrast, Cannery Row is playful and humorous. It's about how Mac and the boys, who live at the Palace Flop House, go on a frog hunt to collect enough specimens to throw a party for their friend Doc, who's a marine biologist. Steinbeck's widow Elaine says the Cannery Row novel was special.

E. STEINBECK: It showed his relationship with the people who lived there by the sea, and who lived off the sea. It just set the spirit of John's background and of his interest.

(J. STEINBECK, early recording: It was almost dark when young Dr. Phillips swung his sack to his shoulder and left the tidepool. He climbed up over the rocks and squashed along the street in his rubber boots. The streetlights were on by the time he arrived at his little commercial laboratory on Cannery Street in Monterey.)

DRUMMOND: This is the actual voice of John Steinbeck reading from a story he had written about Cannery Row. Elaine Steinbeck said her husband's first love was writing.

E. STEINBECK: His second passion in life was marine biology, and he pursued it all of his life for great fun, and also knowledge.

DRUMMOND: Steinbeck took a biology course at Stanford before dropping out and moving to a cottage near Monterey. It was then that he met Ed Ricketts, a gifted marine biologist. Steinbeck's biographer Jay Perini says the collaboration between the socially conscious novelist and the biologist was one of the most remarkable in American literature.

PERINI: Ed Ricketts became the transforming influence in his life, his best friend, and the intellectual force behind his best early fiction right up through the Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck would go into Ed Rickett's lab every afternoon and watch him as he examined sea specimens. He would go out with him on boats collecting specimens and examples.

DRUMMOND: Ricketts worked in the tidepools, examining the relationship between different species living in a biosphere. Steinbeck studied how human populations interacted. Susan Schillinglaw, director of the Steinbeck Research Center at San Jose State University, says Steinbeck brought the biosphere concept into literature.

SCHILLINGLAW: He had, early on, an appreciation for nature from his father. He was very interested in humans' relationship to the environment before he met Ricketts. However, I think that conversations with Ed Ricketts in the 30s in Cannery Row helped both of them crystallize ideas. They were soul mates, if you will.

DRUMMOND: The great popular and financial success of Grapes of Wrath made Steinbeck rich. This gave him even more opportunity to pursue his interest in biology. Jay Perini:

PERINI: In 1940 he went on his famous expedition to the Sea of Cortez, and Steinbeck and Ricketts together wrote The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which is I think a kind of semi-masterpiece. One of the great examples of nature writing, or good scientific literary writing in American literature.

DRUMMOND: Steinbeck also wrote the foreword to a small monograph authored by Ricketts called, Between Pacific Tides: A Study of Tidepools. More than 50 years later that book is still the all-time bestseller of the Stanford University Press.

E. STEINBECK: To go back one more time to Cannery Row, John was the first ecologist, I think, and he's often been called that by people in marine biology. Because he was the first one to preach against the over-fishing. He said the sardines are here now, but the sardines will be gone because you're over-fishing them.

DRUMMOND: The old canneries have all closed, and a collection of restaurants, T-shirt stores, and curio shops have replaced them.

(Tour guide: "... to the left here. The building on the ocean side of the street was torched in 1978 by arsons, and now it's rebuilt and a collection of shops and restaurants. And across the street is the original warehouse, which is also now a collection of shops and restaurants here. What I'm going to do is walk through...")

DRUMMOND: The area is thriving, not because of fish but because of tourists who come to catch a glimpse of what Cannery Row was like years ago.

POWERS: Just the other side of that building you'll see a big, wooden, kind of like huge crate sort of thing. And heavy. And it is what we call a sardine hopper.

DRUMMOND: Dennis Powers is Director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station at the north end of Cannery Row.

POWERS: And the ships would pull up, and they would dump their sardines into it and there would be like a siphon that would suck the sardines into the cannery. And they would be canned in there. And so there's still remnants of these things around.

DRUMMOND: The remnants of the heyday of the sardine fishery are few. In fact, the only cannery building still in use is the one that houses the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Hopkins Marine Station and the Aquarium are working to prevent another over-fishing disaster, such as the one that decimated the sardines. Sandy Lydon is a history professor at Cabrillo College. Lydon says the fishing village that Steinbeck loved has become one of the country's leading centers for marine research.

LYDON: Right in that brown building over there is a brand new research project on tuna. It's the first joint research project between Hopkins Marine Station and the Aquarium. And so, really high-powered tuna research going on in there.

DRUMMOND: Embedded in Steinbeck's works are ideas that biographer Jay Perini thinks are especially appropriate today.

PERINI: He said if American corporations don't adopt a conservative, long-term view of the environment, they will destroy themselves ultimately, and we will have a country which will be, you know, will be a Third World country in 100 years if we can't come to grips with this. And that's why Steinbeck is incredibly relevant right now. We've lost this long-term community vision.

DRUMMOND: The anniversary of Cannery Row's publication is being celebrated all year in central California. There will be seminars, readings of Steinbeck's works on the radio, and this spring a Steinbeck festival in his hometown of Salinas. For Living on Earth, I'm William Drummond reporting.

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CURWOOD: By the way, we'd like to hear what you consider to be your favorite work of environmental fiction, and why. You can reach us at 1800-218-9988. That's 1800-218-9988. Or try our EMail address: That's L-O-E-at-N-P-R-dot-O-R-G. L-O-E-at-N-P-R-dot-O-R-G. Our postal address is Living On Earth. box 6-3-9, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 0-2-2-3-8.

Postcard from Alaska

CURWOOD: There's a corner of America which the human hand and its search for resources has touched, but hasn't yet transformed. That's what commentator Nancy Lord discovered recently after spending some time as a writer-in-residence in the town of Unalaska, Alaska - in the Aleutian Islands.

LORD: They call it the cradle of storms, this part of Alaska that sweeps westward from the mainland, this arc of islands that reaches nearly to Asia. Cold Siberian air masses knock up against warmer air carried north by the Japanese current, birthing windstorm after snowstorm after thick swirling fog. I had always wanted to visit this place of weather: rich in Aleut culture, Russian history, World War II battle scars. Now the top fishing port in the entire nation. Buried in clouds, Unalaska looks like what you'd expect to find at the edge of the world: a landscape so large and severe it might have been made only yesterday. Land meets ocean without curve or slope, but in straight plunges. These are, after all, less islands than mountain tops surrounded by water. The human effects - the ships and houses and canneries, the Russian church with its twin onion domes - are minimalist, nearly lost against the scale of mountains, ocean, sky. I felt so exposed at first I had to remember that the Aleut people have lived on the island with considerable success and comfort for 8000 years. I've watched flocks of Emperor geese dip in the waves, then listened to a local poet read about the last snow of winter. The snow that melts the snow. A giant new grocery store held its grand opening and the whole town gathered at the salad bar. I attended an art exhibit at the fancy new hotel in the Makushin room. Makushin, previously the Russian name of a volcano, a bay, and an abandoned village on the west side of the island, now applies to thick carpet and windowless walls. The hotel, like the new grocery store, depends on the Bering Sea on the business of those who harvest schools of pollack, cod and other ground fish. The Rusians came to the Aleutians in pursuit of fur seals and sea otters. Later, whalers stalked the surrounding waters. In my own memory, the area's crab fishery boomed and nearly busted. Now billions of pounds of ground fish are scooped from the sea yearly. Standing on the hill that morning, my sense of the Aleutians was not as the far edge of the world, but as a center, a cradle indeed, not only of storms but of a certain civilization both ancient and modern. Which will last longer, the pollack fishery or the new grocery store? The hotel or the volcano? Perhaps more than most other places, the connections here seem clearly drawn. The new enterprises won't survive without fish, and the land and sea abide.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord comes to us from Homer, Alaska, and member station KBBI.

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(Whale sounds)

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CURWOOD: Living On Earth's senior producer is Chris Ballman . Our editor is Peter Thomson. and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production tream includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewsk and Constantine von Hoffman. Also, Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Christopher Knorr, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert and Erik Losick. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Karen Given and Laurie Forrest. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from: The W. Alton Jones Foundation, The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, The National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment. The Ford Foundation for reporting environment and development issues.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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