• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

February 21, 1997

Air Date: February 21, 1997

SEGMENTS

Presidio / Peter Thomson

The most expensive national park in the country, the Presidio has been given the dubious honor of being the first National Park to have to wean itself from government support. Exactly what that means for the Presidio, as well as for all of the National Parks, is explored by Peter Thomson in San Fransisco. (09:25)

Nature Conservancy

The largest and richest environmental group in the world, the Nature Conservancy has purchased 10 million acres in the US alone. Recently the group has conceded that human activity outside the preserves is affecting life within, and they've begun to change their tactics. Steve Curwood spoke with the Nature Conservancy's president, John Sawhill. (07:10)

Franklin Tree / Lou Anella

The brilliant fall colors of the Franklin Tree inspired two naturalists to collect its seeds and send them to nurseries. Today the tree is extinct from the wild. Does collecting plants and seeds from the wild hasten their demise? Lou Anella comments. (02:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... nylon. (01:15)

Lake Tahoe / William Albright

Last year, Lake Tahoe was visited by five times as many people as Yosemite. Yet it does not enjoy the same protections as a Naitonal Park. As a result, Tahoe has lost a third of its renowned transparency in the past three decades, and water quality continues to decline. William Albright reports from Nevada. (05:55)

Sprawl Commentary / Keith Schneider

Environmentalists are using people's anger over suburban sprawl to re-energize and transform the environmental movement. Keith Schneider tells us how. (03:10)

Carved from the Arctic

Steve Curwood speaks with artist and author James Houston whose book is titled Confessions of an Igloo Dweller: Memories of the Old Arctic. Houston is largely responsible for the increased awareness and interest in Inuit art carvings which have brought monetary rewards to the remote population and incidentally changed many of their ways by having the means to buy snowmobiles. (16:07)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1997 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: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Susanna Capaluto, Alexis Milner, Peter Thomson, Willy Albright
GUESTS: John Sawhill, Jim Houston
COMMENTATORS: Lou Anella, Keith Schneider

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Increasingly the private sector is being asked to maintain open space that benefits the general public. Some as crucial habitat for wildlife, and other areas as recreational space. San Francisco's Presidio is slated to become the first self-sustaining national park.

CLINTON: By establishing a nonprofit trust to manage the Presidio's property, it gives us a blueprint for national parks that one day will be able to sustain themselves without government funds.

CURWOOD: And the world's largest environmental group, The Nature Conservancy, is trying to leverage its vast holdings with controlled development near sensitive habitats.

SAWHILL: If we don't accommodate the needs of people, we're not going to provide for the needs of nature.

CURWOOD: Private stewardship in the public interest this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: For Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The US Forest Service pays more money than it receives for logging on Federal lands. According to a report by the President's Council of Economic Advisors, the Forest Service collected more than $600 million in timber receipts but spent more than $850 million on timber management, reforestation, logging roads, payments to states, and other costs. But in its own annual report, the Forest Service said its commercial logging operations turned a $59 million profit for 1995. The Agency traditionally has excluded from its bottom line some road building costs as well as the 25% share of timber revenues it's required to give to states. The Council of Economic Advisors report also says recreational use of Federal public lands is heavily subsidized. The National Park Service spends about a quarter of a billion dollars annually to provide visitor services while bringing in only $80 million in user fees.

Scientists at Georgia's Skidaway Institute of Oceanography say a chemical found in marine paint may pose a threat to the world's dolphin population. From Peace State Public Radio, Susanna Capaluto reports.

CAPALUTO: Tributyl tin is an organic tin compound found in paint used for ships. It keeps algae from attaching to the hulls. Scientists with the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in Savannah have found elevated levels of the chemical in tissue taken from dead dolphins. In 1989, it was banned in the United States except for use on large boats. But Richard Leigh with the Skidaway Institute says it is still a problem.

LEIGH: There's still plenty of tributyl-tin around in areas where, for instance, marinas and stuff where it's used extensively, say 7, 8 years ago. So that the -- you can easily get a dolphin today that would have high concentrations of tributyl-tin.

CAPALUTO: Leigh says it isn't known what effect the compound has on dolphins. But in laboratory rats, tributyl caused nerve damage and weakened the immune system. For Living on Earth, I'm Susannah Capaluto reporting.

MULLINS: A chemical used by drug traffickers may be to blame for the deaths of whales and dolphins in the Gulf of California. A spokesman for Mexico's Environment Ministry would not provide statistics of the number of marine mammal deaths but called them massive. Officials blame a chemical known as NK-19. It's used to mark drug loads for nighttime detection from the air. Mexican officials have declared an environmental emergency and are sending a team of scientists to the area. The Gulf of California is rich in diverse marine life and is a main corridor for cocaine and other drug shipments destined for the United States.

The 20-year-old project to restore the Florida Everglades may cost nearly $200 million more than expected. The $760 million plan includes the creation of miles of filtering marches designed to cleanse sugar farm runoff. Alexis Milner reports from Miami.

MILNER: As budget analysts began assessing the actual costs of the ambitious project, they found the original budget of three quarters of a billion dollars didn't account for everything, including $70 million in debt financing or $11 million for heavy equipment. Also contributing to the budget overrun are higher land acquisition costs and bigger bills from engineers. Phosphorous runoff from sugar farms has been blamed for most of the Everglades' pollution. The heavily-subsidized sugar industry is slated to pay more than a third of the tab for the clean-up, but it is unwilling to pick up any more of the costs, which means the overrun costs is likely to be paid by taxpayers. Managers say they have other ways of dealing with the overrun, including delaying the project to save money on debt. That, says environmental activists, would drag out a project they believe is years too late already. For Living on Earth, this is Alexis Milner in Miami.

MULLINS: The Supreme Court has rejected a lumber company's challenge to limits on Pacific Northwest logging. The court, without comment, let stand rulings that bar loggers from an old growth forest of redwood and Douglas Fir trees in northern California. The forest is where a threatened species of bird, the marble mirlet, nests and lays eggs. The company wanted the justices to narrow their ruling last year that let government regulators ban the destruction of the natural homes of endangered or threatened species on private property. In its appeal, the company argued that the lower court wrongly concluded that the Endangered Species Act is violated by conduct that might impair the breeding practices of a threatened species. The law bans only conduct that has actually killed or injured members of a protected species, the appeal contended.

You've heard of petting zoos, but now there's a petting pool with real sharks. The petting pool is the latest attraction at Underwater World at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Visitors are able to stroke the backs of foot-long nurse sharks and Arabian bamboo sharks. A spokeswoman for the aquarium says the sharks are docile and seem to like the human contact, but a shark expert makes sure that visitors don't put their hands near the sharks' mouths. The spokeswoman says that the sharks don't like their faces touched.

And that's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Presidio

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez sailed north from Mexico to California in 1542, he did not see the narrow opening into the vast San Francisco Bay. Then as now, the Golden Gate was often shrouded in dense fog. It will be more than 200 years before another Spanish party would find it and build a small fort, a Presidio. The Presidio first guarded the San Francisco Bay for Spain, then Mexico, then the Republic of California, and finally the United States. When the US Army moved out in 1995, the Presidio joined the US park system as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Presidio is unique within the national parks because it will have to wean itself off government funding. As Living on Earth's Peter Thomson reports, that financial arrangement raises important questions about the future of the Presidio and the park system.

(Wind, sea, and foghorns)

THOMSON: Stop for a minute on the coastal route just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, and you'll understand why the Presidio became a national park when the Army moved out.

(Foghorns continue)

THOMSON: Stand on the bluff high over the Pacific and watch the bank of fog march in off the ocean, envelop the bridge, and then consume it whole.

(Foghorns continue)

THOMSON: Walk inland through the forests of Monterey pine, eucalyptus and redwood. Dip down to the San Francisco Bay, to the last remnants of the area's coastal dunes. Stroll through the parade grounds where soldiers were mustered before shipping off to war; many of them are buried, and you'll understand that this place combines dramas of natural and human history as few others.

VENTRESCA: There's essentially a time capsule for the nation in this national park.

THOMSON: Joel Ventresca is a longtime resident of San Francisco. He comes to the Presidio often to escape the crush of the city.

VENTRESCA: The park is full of wonderful things. You can come here and it's a respite from the hustle and bustle of urban life. It's quiet, it's natural. It's historically significant.

THOMSON: Still, as the Army began to pull out, there were suggestions in Congress that the Presidio shouldn't be transferred to the Park Service. Not because it wasn't worthy of Federal protection, but because it's so expensive to run. The Presidio is almost a city unto itself, with roads, bridges, and 800 buildings, including many historic ones which must be lit, heated, and maintained. In fact, when it joined the park system the Presidio instantly earned a dubious distinction.

PELOSI: The Presidio is the most expensive national park in the country. More than Yellowstone National Park or Yosemite or any other park that you can name. Twenty-five million dollars a year.

THOMSON: It was San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi's task to beat back the attempts to remove the Presidio from the Park Service.

PELOSI: It was thought by many of us who treasure the Presidio for its historic and natural resources that we needed to preserve it, but we had to find a way to lower the cost to the taxpayer.

THOMSON: Ultimately, Congresswoman Pelosi helped craft and pass a fiscal plan as unusual as the Presidio itself. It turns the park's liabilities, its buildings, into an asset. Under the management of a new government trust, hundreds of them will be rented to nonprofit groups, professionals, even corporations. In this prime location the buildings will bring premium rents. The income will pay for their upkeep and restoration, and eventually should even cover the cost of running the park's natural areas and interpretive programs. In 15 years the plan calls for the Presidio to be the nation's first self-sustaining national park. If it doesn't pay its own way, the park will be sold off. The trust plan passed its final vote in Congress last fall almost unanimously. Environmental groups and deficit hawks were behind it, and the President liked it so much that when he signed the bill he seemed to ask for more.

CLINTON: By establishing a nonprofit trust to manage the Presidio's property, it gives us a blueprint for national parks that one day will be able to sustain themselves without government funds.

THOMSON: But many supporters of the Presidio plan shiver at the idea of making other parks self supporting.

NOTTHOFF: We disagree strenuously with the President's statement in that regard. In fact, we think that the Presidio is an anomaly in terms of national parks.

THOMSON: Ann Notthoff is a senior planner with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. The NRDC backed the Presidio plan, Ms. Notthoff says, because the Presidio can support itself without sacrificing its essential qualities. But she insists it shouldn't be seen as a precedent for running more traditional parks like Yosemite in California, Big Bend in Texas, or Acadia in Maine.

NOTTHOFF: We would lose the very values of those parks that we treasure so much if we imposed the type of self-sufficiency and expectations that we've imposed on the Presidio on other units of the National Park System.

THOMSON: If they're forced to pay more of their own way, most park units might either have to hike user fees exponentially or bring in more and more commercial enterprises to help pay the bills. And Ann Notthoff believes there's reason to be concerned. In an era of crushing debt in Washington, budget cutting and revenue raising ideas that once seemed beyond the pale are now getting a serious hearing. In the last Congress, for instance, a measure to review park units for possible closure, transfer to states, or even sale to the private sector, received significant support in the House. The effort ultimately failed, but Ms. Notthoff expects more efforts to tinker with the park system.

NOTTHOFF: It's the incremental changes that are harder to fight in the political process. Those same people that came up with the extreme proposals are now, are still in charge of the resource committees in both the House and the Senate, and we fully expect to see more incremental proposals made in this next Congress to whittle away at the integrity of the National Park System.

(Wind and sea, voices)

THOMSON: On the parade grounds of the Presidio, sitting across from a column of trim red brick barracks, Joel Ventresca says he fears too much ground has been given already. He laments that with a mandate established for this one park to pay its own way, the firewall separating national parks from the market has been breached. Mr. Ventresca is haunted by the specter of a Presidio under pressure to pay the bills, filling its buildings with shopping centers and corporate headquarters. He's been leading a lonely battle against the trust plan. He testified against it before Congress 4 times and he's not giving up now. He believes there's a fundamental principle at stake.

VENTRESCA: Park areas are supposed to be outside the private marketplace. They're not supposed to sink or swim based on how much money is made. It's a whole different environmental ethic that a lot of people have lost in the context of this debate. But if you introduce market forces into a park area, you're going to have a very strong shift from preservation to development.

PELOSI: Well, with all due respect to the few people who object to our proposal --

THOMSON: Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi doesn't share Joel Ventresca's dire vision.

PELOSI: Yes, we have to produce revenue; we have to reduce the cost to the taxpayer. That is the reality of life. But all of that has to be in keeping with the vision of the Presidio as a national park.

THOMSON: The people in charge of the park say this new pragmatism won't bring sweeping changes. Whatever the critics say, whatever even the President may say. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says that at least for now, the idea of a self-sustaining park starts and stops at the Presidio.

BABBITT: I think that the existing models for running Grand Canyon, the Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite are important and correct and time-tested. So no, I don't think this is a model that has much application outside the specific circumstances of where I believe it is a really worthwhile and important experiment.

THOMSON: The Presidio is quiet these days. The Army's gone and the flow of new tenants has barely begun. What this place looks, feels, and sounds like in a generation, whether it will be a sanctuary from the clamor of the modern world or one of its latest conquests is up to the new government board that will run the trust, Congress which will oversee it, and ultimately the people who care about it.

(Foghorns)

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in San Francisco.

Back to top

(Foghorns; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: The world's biggest environmental group tries its hand at development. That story is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Nature Conservancy

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Since the 1950s The Nature Conservancy has been protecting plant and animal diversity around the world by buying land. Lots of land. The group has purchased about 10 million acres in the United States alone. It's the largest and richest environmental group in the world. But recently the Conservancy has had to concede that controlling land isn't enough to save species. Human activities outside its preserves are affecting the life within. And so, under John Sawhill's leadership, The Nature Conservancy has been thinking more about ecosystems that include human beings.

SAWHILL: We realize that people live in and around the areas that we're trying to protect. That people have to extract value from the land. We just want that to be done in a way which is compatible with protecting the ecology in the area. So if we don't accommodate the needs of people, we're not going to provide for the needs of nature.

CURWOOD: So you say you work with the people in a community to get them involved in this, the economic aspect of ecological protection. How do you do this? Can you give me an example?

SAWHILL: Well, one of the things we've tried to do at our Virginia coast reserve, that is a 70-mile stretch of barrier islands off the east coast of Virginia that the Nature Conservancy owns, where we've tried to sit down with the community and go through what we call a visioning process. That is, we try to talk with them and understand what they feel their long-range goals and objectives for the area might be. And then we work with them to try to achieve those goals. And so we started a venture capital corporation.

CURWOOD: Venture capital, from Nature Conservancy?

SAWHILL: Venture capital. We raised several million dollars and we said these funds would be available to entrepreneurs who are trying to start new business ventures.

CURWOOD: Okay, so what's an ecological business you've got going?

SAWHILL: Well, let me give you a good example. That area probably represents the cleanest fishery on the eastern coast of the United States. So we decided maybe we ought to start a seafood packing plant. And we could brand the oysters and the clams and the other seafood coming from that area with a brand that would identify it as coming from the Virginia Coast Reserve, and maybe we could even get a little extra markup for that product.

CURWOOD: Well, okay the water's clean right now. But you guys only own the islands. That's an estuary.

SAWHILL: Yes.

CURWOOD: That's a broad bay there. Development continues there, it's going to be polluted as any other part of it.

SAWHILL: Well, no, it won't be, you see, because what we've done is we've bought up a lot of the farms on the mainland, and we've put conservation easements. That's a legally binding agreement not to subdivide the land on these farms. And then we've resold them. So more and more of that land is under conservation restrictions. So it will never experience high-density development.

CURWOOD: Did you feel really welcome in Virginia? I mean, The Nature Conservancy had this reputation that hey, once you guys bought the islands local folks couldn't go there and do some of the things they used to do, and you weren't too popular there.

SAWHILL: We weren't popular when we originally came into the area, and that's another reason why we felt that this community outreach is very important for us.

CURWOOD: Now, The Nature Conservancy is what? The largest environmental organization I think in this country.

SAWHILL: Yes. As a matter of fact, we're the fifteenth largest charity in the United States. The next environmental organization is about 160 on the list. So we're by far the largest environmental organization in the world, really.

CURWOOD: What is exactly The Nature Conservancy model? How does it work to such financial and territorial success?

SAWHILL: Well, I think the best way I can answer that question is to tell you the 3 guiding principles that drive our work. The first is, we believe in good science, and we use the science to tell us what areas to protect and how to take care of them once we get them protected. Secondly, we have what we call the non-confrontational approach, and that is we try to work with the business community to accomplish our objectives. And the third principle, I guess, is entrepreneurialism. We try to be very creative and so that the state directors of The Nature Conservancy have a lot of authority and responsibility because conditions are different in different places.

CURWOOD: In terms of being friendly with business, one issue we might look at is energy and energy extraction.

SAWHILL: Yes.

CURWOOD: Now, Nature Conservancy, you have lands that people would like to drill for oil on, right?

SAWHILL: Yes, we do.

CURWOOD: So do you let them drill for oil?

SAWHILL: Well, a few years ago we wanted to try to buy from Texaco 35,000 acres that they owned in southeastern Texas. Well, they weren't sure they wanted to sell it. So we came up with a deal where we bought the surface rights, they kept the drilling rights, we agreed on a drilling plan. So they're extracting oil, but their oil extraction does not interfere with the bird habitat we were trying to protect. So we got what we wanted, they kept what they wanted, everybody's happy.

CURWOOD: So, I'm wondering if you could extrapolate that to someplace like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Do you think it would be safe ecologically to drill for oil there? There's a big controversy over that.

SAWHILL: Well, there is a big controversy and I'm really not equipped to know the answer to that question. I do think that you can often, by sitting down and working with people, find out ways to accomplish both economic and environmental objectives. And that's the way The Nature Conservancy tries to work.

CURWOOD: So if we were to start drilling at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with the appropriate safeguards, you wouldn't be alarmed.

SAWHILL: Well, I just don't know the answer to that question. I mean, I can give you another example from another industry, and that is timber extraction. We worked with Georgia Pacific. We wanted to protect an area, and we went to Georgia Pacific and we said we'll buy it from you. Well, they didn't want to sell it. But they did agree to sit down with us and work out a plan for extracting that timber in a way that wouldn't harm the environment, and basically what they're doing is logging by helicopter rather than building roads into the area.

CURWOOD: So far today we've talked about rural, wild areas. Is there any way that your models can be applied to more urban areas, the urban edge where sprawl is such a problem, or the inner city itself?

SAWHILL: Well, you know, we're beginning to work on, in more urban areas. We have a project in Illinois, it's called the Chicago Wilderness. And what we're trying to do is link up the forest preserves around Chicago in a way that can really begin to restore that ecosystem.

CURWOOD: Now, is it worth your while to protect areas that may not be at all original? They may be second or seventeenth growth for all we know, but it is the green space, especially in a city.

SAWHILL: Well, that -- it's important for that to get done. I don't think that's The Nature Conservancy's niche. We establish our priorities by looking at those areas that are habitat for rare and threatened species. And, you know, our resources are so limited that we've got to really keep them focused on the most biologically diverse areas.

CURWOOD: All right. Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us. John Sawhill is president of The Nature Conservancy. Thank you, sir.

SAWHILL: Thank you.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Franklin Tree

CURWOOD: In 1765, John and William Bartram were traveling on horseback through Georgia's Buffalo Swamp when they noticed a group of trees with brilliant burgundy red and orange colors. The father and son naturalist team was so impressed with the tree's fall display that they collected some seeds and sent them to nurseries in England and Philadelphia for commercial production. They called the plant the Franklin tree in honor of their good friend Ben Franklin. But each time they returned to collect more seeds they found fewer and fewer trees until there were no more. Today the Franklin tree lives only in private gardens and arboreta. One has to wonder if the explorers saved it from extinction or hastened its demise. Horticulturalist Lou Anella has some thoughts on that and some advice for gardeners.

ANELLA: I would hate to think that plant collectors finished off the wild population of Franklin trees. It is more likely the species lost its competitive edge. With its numbers falling, the Bartrams may have stumbled upon the last isolated population of Franklin trees. The forces of nature took it from there, and it is possible the Franklin tree was wiped out in a flood. The story comes with a moral for gardeners. When you buy native or rare plants for your garden, make sure they were propagated in the nursery and not collected from the wild. Although we do not know if wild collecting caused the demise of the Franklin tree, we do know that wild collecting threatens the existence of other native and rare plants.

But how do we know what plants are endangered, and how can we be sure that the plants we purchase are propagated in a nursery and not collected from the wild? One way is to look them up in Nina Marshall's excellent book The Gardener's Guide to Plant Conservation. In it she gives us the history behind plant exploration and collection, advice on how to avoid wild collected plants, and which species are particularly threatened. She also tells us to look for the term, "Grown from cultivated stock." This is especially important when buying bulbs, since bulbs are often collected from their native habitats.

Why should we be so concerned about collecting plants from the wild? There are probably more Franklin trees in the world now than there were when the Bartrams first discovered it. Haven't we improved its lot? Well, not exactly. Plants are integral members of ecosystems. The Franklin tree plucked from the wild no longer feeds the insect that chewed on its leaves, or shelters the bird that nested in its branches. That doesn't mean we can't have native or rare plants in our gardens. It just means we have to make sure the plants we buy were propagated in a way that respects the plant's continued survival in the wild. The Franklin tree can remind us of how delicate ecosystems are, and how permanent are the consequences of extinction.

CURWOOD: Lou Anella studies at Cornell University's Urban Horticulture Institute, and he's got some growing tips for gardeners.

ANELLA: If you want to plant a Franklin tree, it will flourish in USDA hardiness zone 6 through 8. For the best fall color and floral display, plant the tree where it will receive full sun in a moist but well drained slightly acid soil. The earliest flowers appear while the leaves are still green, but the tree will continue to flower as the foliage turns orange and burgundy red, making a striking background for the beautiful floral display.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; and Patagonia: a clothing company committed to making quality outdoor clothing with the earth in mind. For a free catalogue call 1-800-336-9090.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: One of America's favorite Alpine lakes, Lake Tahoe, is in trouble. That story is just ahead on Living on Earth

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Sixty-six years ago, Julian Hill, a research scientist for DuPont, discovered a formula that has truly changed the world: nylon. Today we take plastic fiber for granted. It's in everything from clothing to suitcases to cars. So it's easy to forget that nylon was the first completely synthetic fiber. DuPont unveiled nylon to the public at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. The company hyped it as "strong as steel, as fine as the spider's web," and the perfect replacement for the costly silk used in women's stockings. Sixty-four million pairs of nylon stockings were sold their first year on the market, and today the average American woman buys 15 pairs of nylon hose every year. As for Julian Hill, he seemed less than thrilled with the synthetic boom he helped spark. He died last year at the age of 91. In 1988 he told an interviewer, "Mankind will perish by being smothered in plastic." And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Lake Tahoe

CURWOOD: Visiting Lake Tahoe in 1861, Mark Twain wrote, "The water is clearer than the air, and the air is the air the angels breathed." But Lake Tahoe's famous crystalline purity has been declining since Twain's day, largely due to human activity. Every year the lake is visited by millions of people from around the world who come to gamble, ski, and admire the clarity of its water. Situated in the High Sierra on the California/Nevada border, Lake Tahoe is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful Alpine lakes in the world. It is also one of the deepest in North America. And as Willy Albright reports, concerns about Lake Tahoe are growing.

(Clinking sounds)

ALBRIGHT: Dense forests and high mountain peaks surround Lake Tahoe. Ski resorts, expensive homes, and casinos like this one compete for space along its shores. Last year Lake Tahoe was visited by 5 times as many tourists as visited Yosemite National Park. Although 75% of all land here is Federally owned, Tahoe does not enjoy the same protections as Yosemite.

(Boat motor)

ALBRIGHT: As a result, many people say the lake is on the verge of environmental collapse. The research vessel John LeConte, with its distinctive array of cranes and winches, has been a familiar sight on Lake Tahoe for over 20 years. The unpainted aluminum trawler is used by the Tahoe research group to study algae, the primary cause of the lake's declining clarity.

(The motor revs up)

ALBRIGHT: Today the John LeConte is headed out to the 1800-foot deep water in the middle of the lake. The goal is to measure the lake's clarity using a circular piece of white plastic called a secchi disk. The disk is lowered to the point where it just disappears, and then raised to the point where it just becomes visible again. The 2 depths are averaged, yielding what Dr. Charles Goldman, the founder and director of the Tahoe research group, calls secchi depth. Today's secchi depth is 20 meters.

GOLDMAN: When I began my studies in the late 50s at Tahoe, the average reading was 30 meters. So in effect, we've lost about a third of the transparency in a little over 3 decades.

ALBRIGHT: In fact, Lake Tahoe is losing its clarity at an average rate of a foot and a half each year. Back in his lakeside laboratory, Dr. Goldman says the explosive growth of algae is fueled by nitrates that pour into the lake from fertilizers and car exhaust.

GOLDMAN: In the early days lots of flatland technology was applied to construction activities of both roads and buildings in the Tahoe basin. And also, there's been a steady increase in air pollution with more automobile traffic around the lake as well as pollutants wafted up by the prevailing winds from the valley.

ALBRIGHT: As a result of Dr. Goldman's research, Congress created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, or TRPA, in 1969 to regulate development through rigorous permitting and enforcement procedures. The bi-state agency is supposed to enforce conservation measures while encouraging economic growth. But this twin mission has often plunged TRPA into controversy. The agency has drawn criticism from environmental groups who say it bows to local business interests, while many property owners and businessmen say TRPA regulations make it too difficult to develop their own land. But TRPA spokesman Pam Drum says the need for regulation is real.

DRUM: To some extent, yes. We do do business differently at Lake Tahoe. It is more expensive to build at Tahoe than perhaps other places. But there is a reason for that. We're trying to protect a natural resource that is unique, and that is our charge from the state of California as well as the Federal Government.

ALBRIGHT: Many of TRPA's harshest critics belong to the Tahoe Preservation Council, which is suing TRPA and several other agencies for $27 million. This week the US Supreme Court will hear arguments related to one case in that suit. Mary Gillanfar is a realtor and director of the Council. On a golf course outside her Tahoe city office, she says the lawsuit is an effort to get compensation for landowners who are effectively barred from developing their property because of what she describes as questionable concerns over water clarity.

GILLANFAR: It hurts me to read in the media and other places that when we say the lake clarity is declining we mean that we've lost a few feet of visibility, and they think we mean it's all green and full of algae. The lake is absolutely beautiful: pristine, crystal clear, absolutely wonderful. The air is incredibly pure, and this is what draws people here.

ALBRIGHT: But Dr. Goldman says there is more at stake than just clarity. He says he has noticed a sharp decline in the oxygen layer that holds the sediments at the bottom of the lake in place. Once this layer is gone, the lake's ecology will be changed forever.

GOLDMAN: I'd say that the next 10 to 20 years are extremely crucial. And if we don't turn around the process, the game will have been lost.

ALBRIGHT: A recent TRPA report says algae production in the lake has more than tripled since the agency began regulating development 27 years ago. Nearly everyone agrees that something must be done to save the lake and the community is struggling to work together. They have even called on the Clinton Administration to convene a summit here to address the problems facing the lake.

(A boat cutting through water)

ALBRIGHT: For Living on Earth, I'm Willy Albright at Lake Tahoe.

Back to top

(Boat cutting through water continues)

Sprawl Commentary

CURWOOD: Parking lots. Strip malls. Cookie cutter subdivisions. Sprawl continues its march further and further into the American countryside. While the issue prompts an old debate about land use, commentator Keith Schneider says it also represents an opportunity to transform the American environmental movement.

SCHNEIDER: Even though Americans truly care about fresh air and clean water, polls show that issues like crime, jobs, and quality of life take precedence. What's needed to energize the environmental message is a new angle, one that combines care for resources with the urgency that motivates people. It just so happens that such a story is unfolding. It's in the traffic jams, in the big box stores surrounded by asphalt prairies. In the fast food fry pits and one-story lube joints being built ever further from city centers. It is the story of expensive, unsightly, and environmentally damaging suburban sprawl.

Such wasteful use of land is no accident. Since World War II, misguided tax policies, transportation subsidies, and economic incentives encouraged investment on the cheapest land. Cities were hollowed out, suburbs paved over. The consequences have been enormous. Violence, declining education standards, and a wave of other cultural problems are now seen by social theorists as linked to this damaging pattern of development.

Sprawl has also become one of the principal challenges to keeping air and water clean. In short, the problems associated with sprawl affect millions of Americans. Their unease represents a golden opportunity to recruit new supporters by defining environmentalism as encompassing the full arena of human experience.

To understand the power of the sprawl issue to compel people, consider what is happening in fast growing northern Michigan. Here, sprawl has become the centerpiece of the civic conversation. Residents grimly predict that growth will accelerate the pace of life, that national chains will supplant home-grown businesses, and that the region's sparkling environment will become polluted. The local discussion about how to respond has become quite sophisticated with environmentalists leading the way. They act as researchers, facilitators, and advocates.

For example, they say, keeping the air clean may mean designing new neighborhoods with stores and offices close by to encourage people to use their cars less. Environmentalists also have publicized the importance of forests and transportation in the debate. New questions are being asked about $600 million in proposed sprawl-encouraging freeways that would carve up the forest. Bobcat and threatened Curtlan's warblers need those trees to survive. So do the multi-billion-dollar timber and recreation industries. By actively participating in the sprawl debate, environmental groups in northern Michigan have raised their stature and realized dramatic increases in membership. Here, curtailing sprawl has become the central organizing idea to improve people's lives, enhance the economy, and protect resources. A new focus on reigning in sprawl nationwide has just as much potential to reshape American environmentalism.

CURWOOD: Commentator Keith Schneider directs the Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Confessions of an igloo dweller. A white man's experience in the far north is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Carved from the Arctic

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the far north of Canada, north of Hudson's Bay, lies Baffin Island. The area is home to hundreds of Inuit, but was largely untouched by modern society until shortly after World War II, when a young artist, Jim Houston, became so intrigued with the area that he hitched his way into the backcountry on a Medevac plane and decided to stay. His story of life in Canada's north country from 1948 to 1962 is told in his book Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. He recounts how he began the worldwide trade in Inuit art by collecting their carvings and helping them form an artist's cooperative which continues to thrive under local control. He also became a government administrator for the region. Jim Houston started his journey into the northern wildlands after he got out of the Canadian army, by packing up his sketch pads and sleeping duffel and taking a train to the end of the line at the southern tip of James Bay. It was a tiny town called Moose Factory.

HOUSTON: There were no roads, no nothing out there. So I stayed and made drawings of Swampy Cree for about 3 weeks and stayed around with them and so on, and I came to know a bush pilot and a doctor. And so, they, one day the bush pilot came into my room quickly and he said, "Hey, how'd you like to fly up north?" I said, "You bet." I didn't quite know what he meant or how far. He said, "I've got to take the doctor in on a medical emergency right now. It's never happened; we're going to a strange place. And if you promise that you'll help woggle the gas and, you know, push the aircraft into the shore when we need to -- "

CURWOOD: Woggle the gas?

HOUSTON: "And jump in the water -- "

CURWOOD: Woggle the gas?

HOUSTON: Woggle the gas. Yeah, we used to put a pump down there and make it go back and forth like a cistern pump. And it would pump the gas up out of the barrel and into the airplane. So he said if I'd promise to do that I could go free. That was the principal word.

CURWOOD: Free. Now how far north did you go?

HOUSTON: Well, I was already a thousand miles or more north of anywhere and I went another thousand miles north. I was in wonderful Inuit country. I was surrounded by laughing short brown people. After a summer their skin was like mahogany and they were dressed in skin clothing. I thought my goodness, this is my own country and look at these people, I had no idea they existed. I didn't know anything about them. By the way, I didn't tell you that a mother had been sitting in a tent, and she heard the dogs in the front of the tent grabbing meat. And so the mother went out to drive the dogs out of the tent and she had to bend over and the dogs grabbed the baby out of the hood and started to eat it.

CURWOOD: Oh!

HOUSTON: The mother wrestled the dogs away, getting bitten badly --

CURWOOD: How horrible!

HOUSTON: She got hold of it, and that was the reason for our going.

CURWOOD: That's such a dreadful story.

HOUSTON: Sure it is. It's all right; the little girl in the hood is a grandmother.

CURWOOD: You went there to rescue her with the doctor, and you stayed behind.

HOUSTON: Yes. Because I had a sketchbook. I started drawing madly because that was the purpose. He'd said he was going to stay 4 days, but he got a hold of the baby and the mother behind him and he said, "We're leaving right this minute. I don't know how this baby's alive." So they jumped in the plane and I said, "Well, I'm not going. I'm staying. I'll never get into a place like this again in my life," which I'm sure was right. He said, "What will your mother say, when she hears that I've left you up here?" I said, "She won't mind. I've been away in the war for 5 years. She's used to it." Well it turned out my mother wasn't used to it and she gave him hell for leaving me up there. (Laughs)

CURWOOD: But of course you got back --

HOUSTON: Yes.

CURWOOD: And thrived. And how did you get involved with collecting the carvings of these people? This is what you're so famous for.

HOUSTON: Well, on the very first day, I think that's honest to say, or the second day if it was not the very first, this is 49 years ago, I made a drawing of a man and I made a drawing of his sister. Well, it took me years to know that it was his sister; I didn't know a single word of Inuititut. I knew kayak and igloo; those are the only 2 words I knew like everyone else down here. And so I made the drawing of him and of his sister and he went away to his tent and he returned and he opened his hand. Well, first of all he held out his clenched fist and I thought he was going to probably punch me in the nose. But they're not that kind of people at all. So he opened his hand and he had a small caribou, I think it is, it could have been a bear but I think it was a small stone caribou. So he gave it to me. I thought, my goodness, this is a museum piece. This is something that he's giving me that his great grandfather carved or some early person. I was so excited. I got 2 more that were like it. And on the following day, after I had 3 of them, I hurried south to the Hudson's Bay post, which was some distance to the south. When we got there, I went into the Hudson's Bay post manager, whose name was Norman Rossa Scott, from the north of Scotland, and I opened my hand, as the Eskimo had, and I said, "Look at that." He looked at it. I said, "How old do you think that is?" He said, "I think it was probably carved last night or this morning." I said (laughs), "You're kidding! I mean you can't mean that." I thought wow, you mean these people are able -- this man is able to do that right now. This isn't something from the past. This is right now. So that excited me enormously, much more than if they'd been old pieces."

CURWOOD: I'm looking in fact at your book and some sketches that you've made of some of these carvings. They're exquisite, absolutely exquisite.

HOUSTON: Thank you.

CURWOOD: And I'm wondering, do the carvers think of their work as art?

HOUSTON: No, they don't. They don't have a word for art.

CURWOOD: Really.

HOUSTON: Shnomwak. Shnomwak is the closest they come, which means something you do with your hands which would cover a harpoon head or a little toggle for a kayak or anything. It's hard to stretch it to mean art, you cannot do it. Of course, Inuit are butchers, like anatomists. They take a seal or walrus or bear, they cut it up, and so they understand it. They understand the sheaths of muscle and the bone and how the bear rolls when he runs, the big weight of walrus and the flight of birds. They have examined those. Those are life's blood to them. So they're able to portray those things in ways we can't. We -- we'd make awkward conceptions of animals because we don't know the animals any more. We've given up on the animals. These people are part of it.

CURWOOD: You've come to believe that the Inuit understanding of art is living in harmony with nature. What do you mean by that?

HOUSTON: Well, I -- there's many ways that I might explain that. It -- if you shoot a tarmagen, you draw the tail features out of the tarmagen and you plant it in the snow so another tarmagen will grow. Because you took the -- the tarmagen gave you his flesh. The tarmagen did not give you his inua, his soul. He kept his soul, and he was able to carry on with that, either in a visible form, the same form. He may have changed it or she may have changed it. But that being, that soul, continues.

CURWOOD: Over and over in this book you have these stories that have you just completely amazed at how your Inuit friends could read the land. Can you tell us about that? I mean, how did these hunters know where they were going? You can't use a compass this close to the North Pole, can you? I'm sure they didn't have them.

HOUSTON: They didn't have them, and if you have one you're very best off to stick it in the bottom of your kit or throw it away, because you'll only confuse the whole picture and perhaps kill yourself by having these things. Most would agree with that. But quite apart from that, these are nomadic people. They do not -- excuse me, I should call them semi-nomadic people. They don't go off into just nowhere without knowing where they're going. That's busey onituk, they say, that's not the custom. You can't do that, it's too dangerous. They follow the routes of their grandfathers and their great grandfathers. And when the grandfathers made those routes, they -- they tell their sons and others in the camp exactly the marks that they should follow. And it's just as clear as going along Fifth Avenue and saying 52nd Street and such and such. It may be clearer, actually, to me. We went out in a helicopter once and we were left off in the middle of a huge, the Fox Peninsula. And he said to me, "If you wanted to get home now," this was in Inuit, and the 2 of us -- unlike dog team traveling we were just standing there on the land, having been left for a little while at our request. He said, "If you wanted to get home again," it was gray and overcast, no sun, nothing to help, "how would you go?" "Oh," I said, "gosh, I don't know." I really didn't know. He said, "Well let's walk around and look for a minute, a little while." So we walked around a little while. He said, "I know how to get home. I can get home right now. I know how." I said, "How?" Everything looked bleak and a little tundra and some rocks and so on. And he said, "Well see that rock over there?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Well, what do you see about it?" I said, "Well, it's a black rock. It's good-sized, like a barrel. But there's a great white patch on it." "What made it white?" he said. I said, "I don't know." He said, "Dog teams have been urinating against that rock for 100 years or something, and they've worn all the lichen off. So many dog team, many men have passed this way, hunters have passed this way. Now all we have to do is go to the next rock with the urine and we've got it, we've set up our whole sight line to go back to that particular camp."

CURWOOD: I'm wondering. You spent all this time with these people, and their sense of belief in the land and in their connection to the animals. Did you acquire some of that belief? Did you get those connections to the animals?

HOUSTON: I think so. I hope so. I don't own a dog or a cat, and I used to have 42 sheep but I don't have them any more. Because I think things should have a wildness. I think things should have the right to have a wildness about them. I'm not sure that animal husbandry appeals to me, any more than it appeals to Inuit. I think that you should have, try to have a kind of connection with free, wild free animals if you can. And I've had the luck to do that, and I think it works out wonderfully. I've never said that to anybody before in my life.

CURWOOD: Well thank you for telling us about that. And what I'd like to do now is to move from spiritual matters to commerce. Your work after you got up to the Arctic was to really collect these carvings, this art, and bring it to the outside world, help create a market for the Inuit for this.

HOUSTON: Right.

CURWOOD: And at first you'd offer them goods in exchange for their work. And later you offered them money, but what do you think money did to the Inuit? You brought them plenty of money.

HOUSTON: Right. Well, one could be concerned. There are 2 ways to think of it. I mean, one is to think of them in a primordial way, the gorgeous way that they had lived and died before and been so connected with the land. But on the other hand, they're not museum pieces and they don't want to be museum pieces. I mean, look how quickly we turned in the horse and cart for an automobile the minute we saw it. We couldn't wait to have an automobile. The minute Inuit started to see a snowmobile, they couldn't wait to get rid of the dog teams and get the snowmobile. And suddenly, when that changed, money started to come into the picture. An unknown thing to them. And it just happened at the right minute by a piece of luck, because all of a sudden they had a snowmobile and they needed to buy a gallon of gasoline, which can cost as much as $4.25 a gallon even at that time, because it usually had to be flown in or dog teamed in and all kinds of things. So -- money almost magically seemed to replace the need of gathering meat. Walrus that we fed the dogs at all times, the walrus were almost running out. The whalers had been at them, everybody had been at the walrus to use as dog food and human food, and they were becoming very short. Now I go into the Arctic 40 years later and there's a heck of a lot of walrus. They're burgeoning because the Inuit aren't after them any more. They're after a gallon of gas.

CURWOOD: You entitled your book Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. Why is it confessions? You feel guilty about something?

HOUSTON: Perhaps a little. I mean, it's -- some people like to say I had more to do with the Arctic changing than anyone else. That's widely said in Canada. And I can't totally disagree with that although maybe I would wish to. But I don't -- I'm not, I'm a mixture of being extraordinarily proud and somewhat nervous about -- after all, I helped to develop an art and get it going 49 years ago. And it's working much more strongly now than when I got that started and lived with it for the 14-year period. You know, non-objective art hasn't lasted that long. Lots of art forms have not.

CURWOOD: And what would you change, then, if you could, about your personal --

HOUSTON: What would I change now?

CURWOOD: Yeah. What might you have done different so that you wouldn't feel you had to write your confessions?

HOUSTON: People are -- the Arctic has changed. Was that inevitable? It changed in Alaska, it changed in Greenland, and I had nothing to do with those changes. But the juggernaut of civilization was moving towards them. The minute World War II ended, change was, I think, inevitable. I just pushed it a little further, and my job was to be interested in them in every conceivable way that I could be interested in them and to help them if I could. I thought of myself as a civil servant and I tried to act in that way.

CURWOOD: Well thank you. Jim Houston's book is called Confessions of an Igloo Dweller: Memoirs of the Old Arctic.

HOUSTON: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: And how do you say goodbye in Inuit?

HOUSTON: K'bau'ciel alunacy. You know, that's for your whole audience. For you, t'bautik actuala. Farewell for now.

CURWOOD: Farewell for now.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes Liz Lempert, Susan Shepherd, Julia Madeson, Peter Shaw, Constantine Von Hoffman, Kim Motylewski, and George Homsy. We also had help from Kim Chainey and Colin Studds. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Jennifer Schmidt edited this week's program. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Mark Navin at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major support from the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and Patagonia: a clothing company committed to making quality outdoor clothing with the earth in mind. For a free catalogue call 1-800-336-9090.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

This Week's Books


 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.