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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

July 24, 1998

Air Date: July 24, 1998

SEGMENTS

Phthalates in Plastics / Daniel Grossman

Plastic baby toys are soft, cuddly, and chewable, but the chemicals used to do that are possible health hazards and the subject of growing controversy. They are called phthalates (THALL-ates), and some European nations want to ban all toys that contain them. There is a chance that the United States may soon follow. It's not just toys, either. Researchers are coming up with evidence that chemicals in some of today's most common products could prove harmful to the human endocrine system. Living On Earth's Daniel Grossman has the story. (10:30)

Steve's Essay on Chemicals and Behavior / Steve Curwood

Host Steve Curwood reflects on the growing body of evidence that numerous endocrine disrupting chemicals are dangerous in many ways. (02:40)

Androscoggin River Recovery / Andrea De Leon

Forty years ago, Northern New England's Androscoggin river was cited as one of the nation's ten dirtiest waterways. This was no surprise, considering that the surrounding towns and industries had been using the river as a waste-removal system for generations. More recently, the Androscoggin has been making a steady comeback. Wildlife is returning to the area. Ironically, however, the renewal of the river may bring with it a new set of potential environmental problems. Maine Public Radio's Andrea De Leon has the story. (06:50)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... Agent Orange. (01:30)

Mexico Fires / Janna Schroeder

Environmentalists say that the recent fires in Mexico represent the country's "biggest ecological disaster of this century." That's no overstatement. Authorities are still trying to assess the damage to a million and a half acres which included virgin rain and cloud forests. Living On Earth correspondent Janna Schroeder tells us of her recent, first-hand look at the damage, as well as her exploration of the region's new problems. (10:40)

Land Use Taxes / Andy Wasowski

It's no secret that unspoiled land is often destroyed in this country, usually for someone's financial gain. Unfortunately, state tax laws often encourage this destruction. Commentator Andy Wasowski tells us why. (02:15)

Grassland Birds / Brenda Tremblay

How often do you see open stretches of grassy fields? Probably not very frequently. That's because grasslands are becoming more and more endangered in this country. That means more than the loss of plant life. The birds which make their homes in the grasslands are finding fewer and fewer places to go. Some call the loss of these birds "America's most neglected conservation problem." Brenda Tremblay of member station WXXI has the story. (10:25)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Daniel Grossman, Andrea De Leon, Janna Schroeder, Brenda Tremblay
COMMENTATORS: Steve Curwood, Andy Wasowski

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Phthalates. They're the chemicals that make plastics soft and flexible, but they may also wreak havoc on our hormone systems. European countries have begun to ban them from toys that go into children's mouths, and the US may some day follow suit.

JACKSON: I think the day will come that we will look at some kind of requirement that toys that contain high levels of phthalates, that we will see these kinds of products being removed from sale.

CURWOOD: And years ago, the Androscoggin River in New England was one of the nation's dirtiest. But now it's cleaner and wildlife is coming back.

(Rowing through water)

MAN 1: Right up there is the osprey nest. Can you see right there?

MAN 2: Yeah.

MAN 1: Yeah, there it goes.

(A bird calls)

MAN 1: Wow.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Phthalates in Plastics

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In recent years scientists have begun to understand how certain industrial chemicals can disrupt the body's communication network that controls reproduction, immune response, and mental functioning. Many of these chemicals, like PCBs and DDT, are no longer used in the United States. But river sediments remain laced with PCBs and DDT continues to blow across our borders from farm fields far away. And now researchers have evidence of
a more immanent threat. Some of today's most common consumer products, they say, could be harmful to health. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman reports.

MAN 1: All right, ready?

MAN 2: Yep. Ready as I'll ever be.

(Sound of a large object moving)

GROSSMAN: Two men in jeans are completing a kitchen renovation in a Boston suburb. With practiced efficiency they glue down the last sheet of a new vinyl floor. The pungent odor of adhesive and a newly-minted flooring mingle in the small room.

(Various small construction sounds: moving, hammering, pulling)

GROSSMAN: Half a billion square yards of this durable material are rolled out each year. Even more vinyl is used in most every imaginable consumer product, from car seats to shower curtains, making vinyl, or polyvinyl chloride, the second most common plastic in the world.

FINNEY: Vinyl is an incredibly useful plastic.

GROSSMAN: Dean Finney is a spokesperson for the Chemical Manufacturers Association.

FINNEY: It's low-cost, it's easily manufactured, it adds significantly to our enjoyment of living.

(A beach ball being blown up)

GROSSMAN: Manufacturers like vinyl because it has multiple personalities. It can be stiff and brittle like a vinyl record, or soft and pliable like this beach ball.

(Blowing continues)

GROSSMAN: What makes vinyl soft are chemicals called phthalates. The demand for these softening agents is so great that phthalates are among the world's most common synthetic chemical. The problem is that phthalates don't stay put, but seep out of vinyl products. And they're turning up in some unexpected places.

(Sound of a jet flying overhead, and lab sounds)

GROSSMAN: On the outskirts of Atlanta at the Centers for Disease Control is one of the world's premier laboratories for measuring toxic chemicals in humans.

(Beeping sounds)

GROSSMAN: Inside, chemist John Brock watches a machine take a tiny sample of blood from a vial.

(Beeping continues; other lab machine sounds)

GROSSMAN: The specimen is analyzed in a nearby machine. Five years ago Dr. Brock made a surprising discovery using this same set-up.

BROCK: I was asked to develop a new method to look for PCBs and pesticides in people. In the process of doing that, I found a bunch of other compounds that were there, that I didn't really expect. And these compounds that I found were at much higher levels than the thing I was asked to do. Turns out they were all phthalates.

GROSSMAN: And he found them in concentrations roughly 100 to 1,000 times greater than the levels of the PCBs and pesticides he was studying.

(A printer, beeps)

GROSSMAN: Why would there be phthalates in the blood?

BROCK: Phthalates are being used in floor coverings, in wall coverings, in paints, in perfumes. So phthalates are being used constantly around us. If you breathe them in your lungs are wonderful about picking up these compounds. And, you know, anything that makes it to your lungs goes in your blood. If you eat them, they're going to wind up in your blood.

(More printing and beeps; fade to sheets of paper being riffled)

GROSSMAN: Dr. Ted Shetler is seated in a cramped examining room of a clinic in East Boston. He's flipping through a dog-eared copy of Gray's Anatomy, an atlas of the body.

SHETLER: Here we're getting -- here we're getting -- this is an illustration of the male genitalia, showing the penis, scrotum with the testicles in it, the prostate gland, the urinary...

GROSSMAN: Dr. Shetler is a member of a government panel that's looking into how to test synthetic chemicals for their ability to interfere with the body's endocrine, or hormone, system, for chemical messaging. The panel came together after researchers began turning up birth defects in animals and problems connected to the reproductive system in humans. To illustrate, the doctor points to his reference book's drawing of a penis. Normally, a duct carrying urine and semen ends at the tip. But not always.

SHETLER: There is a condition called hypospadius, where this tip is actually somewhere back here, either on the underside of the shaft at this point, or all the way back at the base of the penis. That is a condition that has actually doubled in the United States over the last 20 years.

(A phone rings. A woman answers, "Urgent care, this is Gracie. How can I help you?")

GROSSMAN: Dr. Shetler says he himself sometimes sees this condition. And the doctor says there's also been a disturbing increase in cancer of the breast, prostate, and testicles, all organs connected to the reproductive system.

SHETLER: We're seeing changes in the frequency of a number of diseases, or birth defects, which could plausibly be associated with exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals. So that's the big picture, and phthalates sit in the middle of that, because they are a large family of chemicals that we are all exposed to at some level. And they have not been adequately studied for all of the things that we ought to be worried about that a chemical might cause.

GROSSMAN: Even so, there's already evidence that some phthalates could be causing a problem. The phthalate DEHP causes liver cancer in rats. And 2 recently published studies show that the male offspring of pregnant rats fed another phthalate are seriously deformed. Earl Gray is a biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency.

GRAY: The males are malformed, infertile, have low sperm counts, misshapen nonfunctional penises, hypospadius, missing parts of the reproductive system so the sperm actually can't get from the testes to the penis. So these are serious malformations.

GROSSMAN: Dr. Gray has confirmed these results in his own study. He says the phthalate is blocking the action of the male hormone testosterone during fetal development of the rats. And there are human implications.

GRAY: We have a pretty good idea that the action of the male hormone in human development is very similar. So there's some concern that these chemicals would produce the same types of effects in humans.

GROSSMAN: But Dean Finney of the Chemical Manufacturers Association says the research is not cause for concern.

FINNEY: Rodents are not little people.

GROSSMAN: Mr. Finney is a top executive at one of the 5 major phthalate producers.

FINNEY: It turns out that the rodent is a uniquely sensitive species to some of these phthalate esters. And it has to do with the metabolism and absorption in that species being radically different from that of a human.

GROSSMAN: But experts like Dr. Earl Gray say these differences between
rats and humans do not mean that phthalates have a clean bill of health.

(Beeping, many people milling)

GROSSMAN: Some experts say we should limit our exposure to phthalates. But that's not easy, because they're almost everywhere.

(More milling sounds)

GROSSMAN: When you buy food in the grocery store, you may be getting more than you bargained for. The softeners have recently been found in many brands of cheese. They're even found in the air you breathe. Children are at special risk.

(A child sings and twangs: "Twinkle twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are...)

GROSSMAN: A group of barefoot toddlers are hard at play in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. The room is strewn with colorful plastic toys. A sandy- haired 2-year-old holds a flute in one hand and a plastic truck in the other. When not tooting the flute, he's sucking the truck. And many chewable plastic toys are softened with phthalates. Even teethers and pacifiers.

(Singing finishes; toys rattle)

GROSSMAN: Dr. Erik Dybing of the Norwegian National Institute of Health has studied childhood exposure to phthalates.

DYBING: What we found is that the levels of phthalates in toys that young children may chew on are at a level that the dosages are higher than what we will want to see. This is an indication that you maybe expose your child to levels that are higher than what is deemed safe, given a reasonable margin of safety.

GROSSMAN: US companies contacted for this story, including Hasbro, and Mattel, refuse to discuss phthalates. They referred questions to David Miller, head of the Toy Manufacturers of America.

MILLER: The quantities of phthalates that leach out from vinyl toys do not put children at risk, and all of the scientific evidence that we have, and we have research that goes back into the 1980s, establishes conclusively that this is the case.

GROSSMAN: But the research shows some amount of the chemical is leaching out. And high-ranking government health officials, like Dr. Richard Jackson of the Centers for Disease Control, wonder if these chemicals belong in a baby's mouth.

JACKSON: I think the day will come that we will look at some kind of requirement that toys that contain high levels of phthalates, where a child is likely to put those in their mouth, that we will see these kinds of products being removed from sale.

GROSSMAN: The US Consumer Product Safety Commission is studying phthalate leaching from toys. It has the power to ban the softeners in toys for young children. However, few observers expect it to take such a dramatic step. But a ban is likely in some European countries. Austria, Denmark, and Sweden are poised to pass laws removing these products from the shelves. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.

Back to top

 

Steve's Essay on Chemicals and Behavior

CURWOOD: From the very first story Living on Earth did on hormone disruptors back in 1993, I have been impressed with how dangerous these substances can be. And at first I thought of the risks in physical ways. Thanks to these chemicals, the researchers tell us, human sperm counts are down by half over the past generation. And apparently just about everyone's immune system has been weakened.

But the risks go beyond reproduction and immunity. It also turns out that these industrial toxins may be having a profound effect on the ways we think, act, and feel. Why? Because they can also mess with the body's own mental messengers, what biologists call neurotransmitters. So, we need to entertain the possibility that these chemicals may play a role in a number of social problems, including crime, violence, and perhaps even divorce and family breakdown. Certain synthetic chemicals in lab rats cause their offspring to grow up more violent and aggressive, abandon their young, and act as poor parents. And in humans, studies show that the children of mothers exposed to PCBs are less intelligent, more aggressive and disruptive, and less emotionally resilient to stress
than other children.

We also know that exposure to lead, which, like synthetic chemicals, disrupts the proper functioning of the mental messaging system, is linked to higher rates of learning disabilities, school dropouts, juvenile delinquency, and crime.

Now, we all agree that human behavior can be affected by chemical substances. After all, drunk drivers kill thousands every year and chemical dependency can destroy marriage and family life. But we don't generally recognize that industrial chemicals can also affect our behavior, and that just about all of us have 500 or more synthetic chemicals in our bodies that our grandparents never grew up with.

Now, how do these chemicals make us feel and behave? A lot more research is needed to say precisely how. Still, the preliminary studies suggest these toxins can make us more distractable and impulsive, less tolerant, and more easily angered. So, maybe the next time we hear about yet another divorce, or a kid walking into a school yard and opening fire with a gun, we will think a little differently. Yes, we will wonder about pressures on the modern family and yes, we will consider our culture of domestic and media violence. But we also need to think about what could be happening when we have our entire population exposed to hormone disrupting and mind-altering industrial chemicals.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: We'd like to know what you think of our program. So please call any time: 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or send us an e-mail. Our address is LOE@NPR.ORG. And you can check out our Web page. We're www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. Coming up: canoeing one of Maine's latest success stories: the revitalized Androscoggin River. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Androscoggin River Recovery

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Forty years ago, northern New England's Androscoggin River was officially designated as one of the nation's 10 dirtiest waterways. The listing was no surprise to the Maine and New Hampshire residents who live in the Androscoggin Valley. For generations their towns and industries had dumped their waste directly into the river. But today, the Androscoggin is staging a quiet comeback. And as Maine Public Radio's Andrea De Leon reports, the river's revival brings with it a new set of concerns.

(Voices)

DE LEON: On a muggy early morning, a group of canoeists gathered at a public boat launch in Bath, Maine, prepping their canoes and kayaks for the last leg of a trip that even a decade ago would have been almost unthinkable. They have traveled the Androscoggin River from its headwaters in northern New Hampshire to its meeting with the Kennebec River in southern Maine. Now, they were ready to complete a journey intended to highlight the recovery of Maine's dirtiest river.

MAN: Welcome everyone. I can't believe that this is all sort of coming to fruition and end after 19 of the best days of my life. (Laughs with others) And tomorrow I'll sleep.

DE LEON: The river is broad and fast, its currents changing with the tide as about 2 dozen paddlers head out from the municipal dock for the 12-mile journey to the sea. Their tiny boats incongruous in the shadow of a state-of- the-art destroyer under construction at nearby Bath Iron Works. For the paddlers who have made the entire trip, the shipyard is just the latest of many reminders of how New England's major rivers have served industry for more than 200 years.

(Horn honks; boats lowered into water)

DE LEON: But downstream from the shipyard there is remarkably little evidence of civilization. The tall waving grass along the banks is backed by a curtain of dark trees. A few homes and small lighthouses dot the bank. Seals and eagles fish in the brackish water.

MAN 1: Right up there is the osprey nest. Can you see right there?

MAN 2: Yeah.

MAN 1: Yeah, there it goes.

(A bird calls)

MAN 1: Wow.

DE LEON: Looking at the river today it is easy to forget the past. Once the Androscoggin ran red or blue with the dye waste of textile factories and tanneries upstream, its surface littered with the bark of the millions of logs it carried to paper mills and lumber companies. Bob Cummins is a retired journalist who's lived at the mouth of the waterway all his life. He wrote about the Androscoggin during the years in which it functioned as Maine's largest sewer.

CUMMINS: The waste decayed in the river and used up all the oxygen. And once the oxygen was gone the fish died. And the river went anaerobic, no oxygen, which meant that it stunk and fumes, sulfur dioxide fumes, would come off the water.

(Rowing continues)

DE LEON: At times in the 1960s, Mr. Cummins says those fumes coming from the paper mill waste that was discharged into the river got so thick that they reacted with the lead paint on the houses near the water. It was not unheard of, he says, for a white house to turn brown overnight. In 1970 historian Bud Warren was hired to ferry some boats up the Androscoggin. He can still point to the spot on a nautical chart where the filth of the river overwhelmed him.

WARREN: It was a very hot summer and a humid day like this. The end of the low, the ebbing tide. And there were bubbles, big bubbles and not froth but just something was working, and it would explode, and there were fumes coming out of the river. I got sick, physically sick, and vomited over the side of the boat at the smell, right up here.

DE LEON: With that kind of advertising it's no wonder few people built houses near the river, and that even today virtually all of the homes and businesses in the towns along the Androscoggin face away from the water. Mr. Warren says things began to change for the better after Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, a man born in the Androscoggin River mill town of Rumford, introduced the Clean Water Act. Its most immediate effect was to require treatment of municipal sewage. With surprising speed, the raw sewage began to disappear and industrial users were forced to clean up their effluent. But the Androscoggin's bad reputation remains. Mike Worthley works at the Mead Paper Mill. Growing up in Rumford, he says he avoided the river.

(Rowing continues)

WORTHLEY: I've never been around the Androscoggin till this trip, you know. I see it every day, I ride by it every day, but I never bother going in it.

DE LEON: Pollution remains a problem for the Androscoggin. Though its waters are cleaner and the smell is gone, dioxin and other persistent toxics remain a concern. Anglers are advised not to eat much of the fish they catch. Dams prevent the restoration of some of the historic fish runs upriver. And the Androscoggin's long-standing reputation as a flowing sewer means it may be decades before people trust it enough to make it a destination for swimmers or a cause for the anglers, who have lobbied to restore fish passage on Maine's other major rivers. But ironically, all those years of pollution have given the Androscoggin a kind of wilderness protection, leaving its banks largely free of camps and other development. Marcel Pollock of the Appalachian Mountain Club says cleaning up the river now leaves it vulnerable to other threats.

POLLOCK: That's because of the potential for development that is going to occur on the river as people can't afford any more, or the lakefront property is all developed or non-accessible. People will start focusing on the river. And we're seeing that already in some sections where we're seeing large houses go up.

(Oars returned to body of boat: wood on wood. A man sighs.)

DE LEON: The participants of the trek wrap up their journey at a dock in Phippsburg, inside of the spot where Samuel De Champlain first explored the waterway in 1605. Marcel Pollock hopes seeing canoes like these on the river will show residents of the Androscoggin Valley that the river, and the wilderness along its banks, are a treasure. But the communities all along the nearly 200-mile waterway need to work together to complete its recovery without opening the door to the kind of development that could destroy the river's wilderness quality. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea De Leon.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

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

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Just ahead, the cloud forests of Mexico are almost never dry. This year was different, and this year they burned. That story is ahead here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, dedicated to your health and the health of the planet.

(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: It's been 5 years now since the National Academy of Sciences released its findings on Agent Orange. Agent Orange is best known for defoliating the jungles of Vietnam. American and South Vietnamese soldiers sprayed it to destroy the crops and jungle cover of enemy troops. First used in 1961, it was discontinued in 1971. By then, 36% of all mangrove forests in South Vietnam had been denuded. There was a cost to humans as well. Agent Orange was contaminated with dioxin. Researchers have blamed it for Hodgkin's Disease and prostate cancer in veterans, and spina bifida in their children. For years the Pentagon dismissed veterans' claims of Agent Orange- related illnesses. But after the Academy study, the Clinton Administration did finally extend benefits to all veterans and their families who could have suffered from exposure.Vietnamese citizens and soldiers have received nothing, although a high rate of birth defects in Vietnam is widely attributed to Agent Orange. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Mexico Fires

CURWOOD: The smoke is finally clearing from the more than 200 separate fires that swept across Mexico this spring and sent plumes of haze as far north as Wisconsin. Some call it Mexico's biggest ecological disaster of the century. Authorities are still taking stock of the damage, especially in the hard-hit areas in the southern state of Oaxaca. There the fires ravaged the Chimalapas, a unique region of a million and a half acres, including vast stretches of virgin rain and cloud forests. Reporter Janna Schroeder ventured into the forest with local villagers to get a first-hand look at the damage.

(Engines running; a vehicle over terrain)

SCHROEDER: A turn off the Pan-American Highway leads us onto a rocky dirt road that slowly curls up the mountainside. It's one of the few passages into this vast forested area known as the Chimalapas. We're heading into a region that's a unique mosaic of tropical rainforest, pine and oak forests, and also examples of one of the scarcest ecosystems in the world: cloud forests that team with biodiversity. Because the region is so rugged and immense, most of it is unexplored. Our journey comes only weeks after fires devastated the area, and local residents are still struggling to grasp what's been lost here, and what can be recuperated.

(More rolling across terrain and hard rain)

SCHROEDER: We find the humble community of San Antonio tucked into the hillsides. We arrive in time to be drenched by a sudden cloudburst. It was rainshowers like this one that finally brought the fires to an end. San Antonio is one of the few communities on the edges of the Chimalapas. About 50 families live here in dirt floor homes with no electricity. The Zoque Indians who claim the land as their own have given the villagers small plots to grow corn and beans. In exchange, the villagers attempt to serve as gatekeepers to the forest, to hold back the creeping expansion of civilization. Maria Garcia is a robust middle-aged woman with a confident stride, who struggled to raise 3 sons here. She walks down a dirt path to greet us. She says for the community it's been a year of tears. As the fires blazed her sons, the youngest only 14, risked going into the forest to try to douse the flames with the water they could carry on their backs.

GARCIA: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Everything we've been protecting for so many years, to pass onto our children, all of a sudden we saw it was being destroyed.

SCHROEDER: Members of the community agreed to help us make a journey into the mountains to see what's been lost. Although the villagers rarely venture deep into the forest, they organize a team to help us make the difficult trek.

(A horse snorts; footfalls)

SCHROEDER: The skies have cleared, so our guide, Miguel Maya, prepares the horses to take us up the mountain. Villagers like Mr. Maya and Maria Garcia have developed a special connection with the forest around them. They say they coexist with the forest. They use it without using it up. They've had to fight to keep their place here.

GARCIA: (Speaks in Spanish)

SCHROEDER: Maria Garcia has lived part of a turbulent history of conflicts over land in this part of Oaxaca. Farm land has long been scarce, and powerful interests have feuded over this area so rich in natural resources.

GARCIA: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: We're not taking care of it for ourselves, but for everyone. We know these forests are important for the world. They are the source of water, of life. Forests like these in other places have been destroyed.

(Footfalls)

SCHROEDER: We set off on our journey accompanied by a Mexican biologist. Our procession of 2 tired pack horses and 5 villagers begins the long, winding climb.

(Horses snuffle; more footfalls and voices)

SCHROEDER: After passing through an open area of scattered pine trees, we're suddenly enveloped in a lush, dense forest where exotic red-blossom bromilia shoot from the branch of tall trees. They're epiphytes that grow on the surface of trees and get their moisture from the rain, their nutrients from the air.

(Bird song)

SCHROEDER: We've arrived in a cloud forest. This ecosystem, known for its diverse vegetation, was the most damaged by the recent fires in the Chimalapas.

MAYA: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Sometimes, where we're standing right now, it's covered with clouds. And you can hardly see in front of you. That's why these forests are called cloud forests. It's because we are up so high.

SCHROEDER: Our guide, Miguel Maya, knows this area well. He says cloud forests are usually wet and humid all year long. They aren't expected to dry out. But during this year's drought they did, to the astonishment of scientists. And that's why the fires were so devastating. Elsa Ramirez, a biologist with the local environmental group The People's Forests of the Southeast, catches up with us on the trail. She says little scientific research has been done in cloud forests, partly because these areas are so hard to get into.

RAMIREZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: In cloud forests, we find a lot of endemic species that are exclusive to a certain area and can't be found anywhere else. That's one of the reasons they are so important to preserve.

(Footfalls)

SCHROEDER: Leaving the horses behind, we walk along a narrower path and quite abruptly the green gives way to an eerie forest of dead, leafless trees with no sounds of life. Miguel Maya squats down to show us that what seems to be dirt under our feet is actually a thick layer of ash left from the fire.

(Footfalls)

SCHROEDER: He pokes around in some of the ash and uncovers a burned snail. He believes many larger animals, some threatened with extinction, also burned in the fires.

MAYA: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: The jaguars, ocelots, mountain lions, and deer. Those animals that could run away were safe from the fires. But others couldn't, like all the baby animals, those still in their nests. Even the snakes.

SCHROEDER: On the edge of the burned mountain ridge, we pass around the binoculars to get a glimpse of the distant slopes. What was a continuous stretch of green is not interrupted with patches of white limestone rock. In the week since the fires, any organic material left in the burned patches was washed away with the first rains, leaving rocky bald spots. Biologist Elsa Ramirez explains why the fire seems to have jumped from one place to another.

RAMIREZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: In some places, the fires spread underground, burning the roots of the trees. So from a distance, you could not even tell the fire was spreading. But all of a sudden, trees would just begin to fall over. It was one of the most amazing things people had ever seen.

SCHROEDER: In other areas the trees are still green and standing, but their roots were destroyed from the underground fires. And in the months to come they'll dry out and die. That's why some experts are still hesitant to make final estimates of the fire damage here.

(Footfalls)

SCHROEDER: As our weary group trods down the mountain, Elsa Ramirez says she's worried about the forest's future.

RAMIREZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: In order for areas like these to go back to how they were before, it's going to take many, many years. Some say between 100 and 200 years.

(Footfalls)

SCHROEDER: Those who live and work in the Chimalapas are still stunned by what's happened and continue to ask what caused all the fires. They know that farmers and ranchers set fires every spring to burn their crop and grazing land. And this year, because of the drought, those fires burned out of control. And some local residents say drug traffickers have moved farther into the jungle to burn areas for marijuana crops. But just how the fires started even deeper in the forest remains a mystery. Local villagers don't talk of global climatic changes as a cause for the fires. Instead, they fear the government wants to take their land away. They suspect someone set some of the fires in order to make it easier to push through projects for constructing dams and highways in the region.

(A car door slams. A motor starts up.)

SCHROEDER: After we reach the bottom of the mountain, we head to another part of the Chimalapas, taking another winding dirt road to the Zoque community of Santa Maria. Heriberto Hernandez, a slight gentle Zoque Indian man who is usually soft-spoken, is angry because so much forest has been destroyed.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: It's a loss for the community. It's as if we wiped out a part of our generation. A lot of people are not aware of what we've lost. But for me, it's as if part of my family is gone.

(Bird calls)

SCHROEDER: Mr. Hernandez says the government should help fund small businesses in the Chimalapa communities, so people have options for making a living without cutting down trees.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: If this kind of aid isn't sent here, people have to figure out how to survive. They see the thousands of acres burned out there,and they think about the surrounding trees that can be salvaged for selling. Plus there will, of course, be people coming in with plans that turn burnt areas into grazing land. The trees are gone, so it's easy, and instead of recuperating, the areas will be totally destroyed.

SCHROEDER: This concern is also shared by scientists, like Leo Schibli, a researcher from Switzerland who studied the Chimalapas for a decade from his base in Oaxaca. He says fires are not the worst threat here.

SCHIBLI: The biggest danger to Chimalapas is not the fire. The biggest danger to the wilderness of Chimalapas is the change of land use. So if because of the fire the use of the land is changed, then we lost it. If not, It's still a wilderness. A bruised one, but it's still a wilderness.

SCHROEDER: The Chimalapas are one of the last remnants of the forests that once blanketed this part of Mexico. Agriculture and logging have already plundered the region. Unpredictable climate changes now bring an added uncertainty for these virgin forests.

(Bird calls)

SCHROEDER: Heriberto Hernandez says it's the local communities' and the government's responsibility to protect the forests from the growing threat of droughts and fires in the coming years.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: Because who knows what would happen to the climate? A drought could happen again next year. That's what we should be worried about right now.

SCHROEDER: For Living on Earth, I'm Janna Schroeder in the Chimalapa forests of Mexico.

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(Music up and under)

Land Use Taxes

CURWOOD: When unspoiled land is irrevocably destroyed, it's usually at the hand of humans and almost always for a financial gain. Commentator Andy Wasowski says it doesn't help that in many communities some tax laws provide incentive for this destruction.

WASOWSKI: A while back my wife and I were visiting a friend's ranch in the beautiful Texas hill country southwest of San Antonio. One day my wife looked out the window and called to me. "Come here!" she said. "You want to see a rape in progress?" I looked out and saw a bulldozer working its way up, down, and around this hill about a quarter mile away. It was clearing out a forest of juniper trees and leaving scraped earth in its wake.

"What you're seeing," explained our hostess, "is a fine example of bad legislation." What she meant was, the state tax laws encourage this kind of destruction by offering tax breaks for clearing the land and turning it into pasture. The irony is that that land would never be pasture. It was far too steep for cattle and the soil was too thin to grow grass. And without those junipers the soil would erode away.

Now, that rancher isn't a bad person. He just saw an opportunity to save on his taxes and he took it. My own in-laws even benefitted from similar tax laws. Back in the mid-60s they purchased 180 acres of mixed wood forest and meadow in east Texas. They were told that if they planted commercial pine trees in the meadow, they'd get substantial tax savings. So they did. And a once healthy and thriving 40-acre meadow habitat was turned into an environmentally sterile tree farms with hundreds of slash pines lined up like cadets. Back in those days few of us were thinking about conservation. Besides, it would take a saint to say, "Thanks, but forget those tax savings. I'll just preserve the landscape and pay through the nose for the privilege."

The point is that too many states have antiquated tax laws that encourage the degradation of the land and discourage conservation. But there is hope. In Texas there are now several new programs offering tax incentives for the protection and restoration of natural lands. And in North Carolina, their recently revised tax laws are widely regarded as models for other states to follow. Similar legislation is currently pending in other states, including Delaware, Colorado, Hawaii, and Wisconsin. But the truth is, many of them don't seem to be moving very fast. Unfortunately, all too often conservation is still an uphill battle.

CURWOOD: Commentator Andy Wasowski lives in the forests of northern New Mexico, and is coauthor of the book Native Gardens for Dry Climates.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: To order a tape or transcript of Living on Earth, please call any time 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988 for tapes and transcripts. Coming up: a look at the changing balance of nature and the birds of the grasslands. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Grassland Birds

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The next time you're driving down the road, look around for some open stretches of grassy fields. You may not see many. Grasslands are disappearing from Maine to California, and because the fields are vanishing, so are the birds that live in them. Brenda Tremblay of member station WXXI in Rochester, New York, has looked at what some call America's most neglected conservation problem. She reports on the recent sharp decline of grassland birds and the debate about what can be done to restore the shrinking populations.

(Bird song and footfalls)

TREMBLAY: Since birds get up with the sun, so does biology graduate student Carla Balent. Every morning she wakes up before dawn to drive to a field outside of Rochester, New York. It's a green and gold meadow dotted with wild blackberries, honeysuckle, milkweed, and grasses. Sunlight glints off the dew-covered spiderwebs spun between tall stalks of goldenrod.

BALENT: Most people drive by and say, "What a great place for a house!"

TREMBLAY: Carla Balent comes here to look for a certain kind of bird called a grasshopper sparrow. She's collecting data for a study of these birds and their nesting habits. To attract them, she pulls out a tape recorder and plays the sparrow's chirp through a loudspeaker.

(Chirp through loudspeaker)

BALENT: Is that him?

WOMAN: Yeah, he came out from the woods.

BALENT: Yeah, that's where we flushed him last time.

(Chirp through loudspeaker continues)

TREMBLAY: After she spots one brown, streaky sparrow, she sets up a fine net and crouches in the grass nearby, waiting for the bird to fly into it. Instead, this sparrow keeps flying over the net. Carla Balent grimaces and eventually gives up hope of catching the bird to stick a band on its leg.

BALENT: Come on. This bird is very crafty. I think this is the same one we tried to catch one morning, and he flew over the net so many times it wasn't funny.

(A long chirp)

TREMBLAY: It's getting harder and harder to find grasshopper sparrows. Since the 1960s, their population has plummeted by 96% in New York State. And throughout the country, the bird's population is only a third of what it used to be. And other grassland birds are disappearing, too: eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, and the quirky little Henslow sparrow with its odd song. According to Dr. Robert Askins, a zoologist at Connecticut College, 15 of the 19 species of America's grassland birds have declined since 1966.

ASKINS: So a lot of these birds are in severe trouble, and we're in danger of at least losing them from major regions of eastern North America. And eventually some could be in danger of extinction throughout the world.

TREMBLAY: There are plenty of reasons for the decline, and there's plenty of debate about when in US history grassland bird populations were best balanced with their surroundings. In the east, the story starts with the arrival of European settlers. Back then, folklore says, a squirrel could have hopped from tree to tree all the way from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River. Though that may be a slight exaggeration, the forest shrank dramatically when settlers began to cut down the trees and clear fields for farming. And that's when grassland birds began to thrive. While forest birds like the wood thrush found fewer and fewer trees to nest in, grassland birds like the bobolink found more and more good habitat in the fields and pastures of 19th century America. By the middle of the 1800s, grassland birds were widespread. Even poet Emily Dickinson wrote about the bobolink that sang in her garden in Amherst, Massachusetts.

(Birds chirping)

WOMAN: (Reading Dickinson)

Some keep the Sabbath going to church --
I keep it staying at home --
With a bobolink for a chorister --
And an orchard for a dome.
Some keep the Sabbath in surplus --
I just wear my wings --
And instead of tolling the bell for church
Our little sexton sings.

(Mechanical sounds)

TREMBLAY: Then around the turn of the century, the landscape in the east began to change again. Cities and towns expanded into the surrounding countryside. As small farms began to decline, trees started to reclaim the land. Hunters killed the birds for sport. Dr. Robert Askins says the first grassland bird to feel the effects of the changes was the heath hen.

(Heath hen calls)

ASKINS: The heath hen was a subspecies of the greater prairie chicken, a species that's still found on the Great Plains. Unfortunately, the heath hen became extinct in the 1930s. The last relic population was on Martha's Vineyard, where valiant efforts were made to save it. But it eventually became extinct.

(Calls continue; fade to bird song and waving grasses)

TREMBLAY: What's happening to grassland birds in the East is also happening to them in the Midwest. But in the Midwest, more aggressive agricultural development is to blame. Dr. Jim Herkert works for the Illinois Endangered Species Board. He's an expert on grassland birds. He says the Midwest used to be covered with natural prairies. When 19th century settlers dug up the prairies for farms, the birds adapted pretty well. The problems for grassland birds, Dr. Herkert says, started here after World War II, when farmers stopped letting their fields and pastures remain fallow. They wanted to grow a new crop: soybeans. And growing soybeans required intense row cropping that's unwelcoming to birds.

HERKERT: Now, that's about a 10-million acre crop in the state here, and the kind of fields that came out to put in the soybeans were the pastures and the hay fields. We've seen almost a 50% drop in acreage, millions of acres lost. We know the birds were in there and so it's not really too surprising, perhaps, that some have declined.

TREMBLAY: In response, wildlife managers in the Midwest have begun to look for ways to recreate habitats. In Illinois, biologists are establishing a vast, new tall grass prairie near Chicago. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is planning a national wildlife refuge covering 70,000 acres of prairie across Iowa and Minnesota.

(A car honks. An engine starts up.)

TREMBLAY: Even in the East, wildlife managers have decided to try to hold onto the few small grasslands that remain here. At the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in central New York State, biologist Tracy Gingrich oversees an elaborate effort to maintain fields that will appeal to birds like the grasshopper sparrow. He mows 500 acres every couple of months and he has to mow in synch with the bird's nesting habits.

GINGRICH: And that's similar to what a homeowner would do when they're mowing the grass on their lawn, is that you're trying to encourage the grasses and discourage weeds, like dandelions or plantain in his lawn. And by mowing it you stress those plants so they're not as able to compete as well with the grasses that are adapted to frequent mowing.

TREMBLAY: After he mows, Mr. Gingrich applies pesticides to kill certain shrubs and weeds. Next spring he'll burn these fields to simulate a natural brush fire. He says it costs about $75 per acre per year to maintain the fields at this refuge. And by doing all of this, Mr. Gingrich is deliberately preventing this field from reverting to what was probably its natural state, a forest. And that's where some scientists are questioning the point of preserving open grasslands in the East. Dr. Robert Askins says 80% of Connecticut used to be farm land. Now much of the state is covered with trees.

ASKINS: To a certain extent it is not a cause for concern, because the return of the forest brings us back to a landscape more like what the first European settlers saw in the 1500s and 1600s.

TREMBLAY: But Dr. Askins is afraid that we've allowed the forest to reclaim too much grassland.

TREMBLAY: And we're in danger of ending up with a very monotonous landscape that's characterized by a young forest or development, without any of the tremendous diversity of habitats that once characterized the area.

TREMBLAY: Scientists are at odds. They want to maintain diversity, but their inability to agree on a goal or a historical benchmark for the birds' population has slowed the effort to protect the birds' habitat. Still, some plans are going forward. Congress has renewed the Crop Land Reserve Program, which helps farmers maintain empty fields for nesting birds. And biologists working for the Federal Breeding Bird Survey are watching the birds closely. Dr. Jim Herkert of the Illinois Endangered Species Board is troubled, he says, because scientists don't really understand what the repercussions of a drop in the birds' population might be on the larger ecosystem. That's why he thinks it's important to hang onto the meadows and prairies that still exist today. It'll serve as a template for the future.

HERKERT: In several of the eastern states we've got so little left. We've got, you know, much less than 1% of the native prairie, a habitat that in Illinois covered 21 million acres. We've got only a few thousand acres of high-quality stuff left. So it's really important to maintain that, just as a sort of a template as we get into restoration, and so that we can use them as guides for our prairie restorations.

(Bird song)

TREMBLAY: A grasshopper sparrow makes a short, sputtery flight from a low shrub to a mullen plant in a field in upstate New York. Most of the people driving by this field probably don't even notice the little brown bird. But a few years down the road, this sparrow and its companions may be far more conspicuous by their absence. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay in Rochester, New York.

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(Bird calls; fade to and combine with music up and under by the Paul Winter Consort)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Daniel Grossman, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, and Miriam Landman, along with Peter Christianson, Roberta De Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. We had help from Jim Frey, Elsa Heidorn, and Rebecca Slatick-Knowles, Jody Kirchner, and David Winickoff. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau, Joyce Hackel is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Surdna Foundation; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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