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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

November 13, 1998

Air Date: November 13, 1998

SEGMENTS

Buenos Ares Climate Talks Results: President Clinton Signs Up U.S. to Cut Emissions / Steve Curwood

Tangible progress has resulted from the climate change talks in Buenos Aires. President Clinton has signed the United States on to the Kyoto Accord, agreeing to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. Now it is up to the U.S. Senate to ratify the decision. Steve Curwood has our report from Argentina. (08:15)

Hurricane Mitch's Central America Disaster: The Human Contributions

The devastation to Honduras and Nicaragua from hurricane Mitch is being called the worst of its kind in two hundred years, taking thousands of lives and leaving the region's food supply, landscape, and economy in ruins. Laura Knoy talks with Jim Barberack about what land use decisions and practices may have contributed to the extent of the damage. Mr. Barberack spent more than twenty years working in Central America where he helped set up Honduras’ national park system. He now works with the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in Gainesville, Florida. (05:30)

Pesticide Reform Stalled

Progress has stalled on carrying out the Food Quality Protection Act, aimed at curbing pesticide use on the foods identified as eaten most by children. Amy Eddings from member station W-N-Y-C reports on the stop-and-go since Congress' unanimous passage of the bill two years ago. (04:10)

Audience Letters

Response on our recent winter bike riding segment. (01:45)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... Fifty years ago, a small mill town near Pittsburgh suffered the worst air pollution disaster in U.S. history in Donora, Pennsylvania. (01:30)

Sparing Yellowstone Bison: An Update

In winter, the migratory bison herds which reside in Yellowstone Park often follow snowmobile trails out of park boundaries foraging for grass away from the snowy plateaus. In recent years, bison that wander off park grounds have been shot by Montana State rangers, fearing the animals might spread the disease brucellosis (broo-cell-LOW-sis) to cattle. After much protesting and controversy, this year the government plans instead to capture wandering bison, shoot those that test positive, and quarantine the rest before shipping them to Indian reservations. Laura Knoy speaks with Jeffrey St. Clair, the environmental editor for Counterpunch magazine who has been covering the bison controversy at Yellowstone for years. (05:00)

Bears and Berries / Geo Beach

The competition for autumn berries is another example of how loss of habitat has created conflict between bears and people. Bears both intrigue and frighten humans in Alaska, according to commentator Geo Beach. Poet and author Geo Beach is at work on a book about Alaska called: "Light at the End of America." He comes to us from K-B-B-I in Homer, Alaska." (03:55)

Estuary Series Part 4: Where the Tijuana River and the Pacific Ocean Meet / Peter Thomson

Residents on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border are working to save a coastal habitat that's vital to both countries. The Tijuana River Estuary is a natural oasis in the midst of a growing metropolis that is in trouble. Like dozens of other Estuaries in the U.S., it's being choked by sediment and pollution from development upstream. Addressing these problems can be difficult anywhere, but complicating the situation in Tijuana is the fact that while the Estuary is entirely within the US, the river which feeds it and its watershed, are in Mexico. Living on Earth’s senior correspondent Peter Thomson reports in the latest installment in our series on estuaries. He says residents on both sides of the border are working together to save the coastal habitat. (15:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Laura Knoy
REPORTERS: Steve Curwood, Amy Eddings, Peter Thomson
GUESTS: Jim Barberack, Jeffrey St. Clair
COMMENTATOR: Geo Beech

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy.

At the climate change talks in Argentina, developing nations tell the industrialized world that when it comes to reducing levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the 2 who do the tango must start on the same foot.

NARAIN: In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, one US citizen is equal to 25 Indians, 125 Bangladeshis, and 500 Nepalese.

KNOY: Also, hard lessons in how to better manage a fragile environment. Some blame deforestation and population pressures for the extent of Hurricane Mitch's destruction.

BARBERACK: If we don't tackle these issues of what to do with these millions of people who are living in absolute dire poverty on hillsides, these poor land management decisions will continue to haunt us.

KNOY: That's this week on Living on Earth. First, news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Buenos Ares Climate Talks Results: President Clinton Signs Up U.S. to Cut Emissions

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. In a long-awaited move, President Clinton has signed a climate treaty designed to combat global warming. The move bolstered the efforts of international delegates gathered in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for a climate change summit. At the conference, US Undersecretary of State Stewart Eisenstat described the US endorsement as one of several important efforts essential to protecting the Earth's climate.

EISENSTAT: Each of these steps represents real progress. Our job here is to build on this momentum.

KNOY: The accord, originally struck last year in Kyoto, Japan, sets binding limits on industrialized nations' greenhouse gas emissions. US Senate ratification of the agreement is needed but is unlikely at this point unless more developing nations voluntarily accept limits. Though a rift between rich and poor nations has stymied progress at the conference, Living on Earth's Steve Curwood reports that the recent tragedy of Hurricane Mitch has infused the delegates with a new sense of urgency.

WOMAN (on microphone): Distinguished delegates, before we turn to the business of the day, I would like to refer to the humanitarian disaster in Central America caused by Hurricane Mitch.

CURWOOD: Hurricane Mitch struck Central America just as the fourth conference of the parties of the UN Climate Change Convention began.

WOMAN: The representative of Indonesia. You have the floor, sir.

INDONESIA REPRESENTATIVE: On behalf of the group 77 and China, I would like to call and invite all brothers and sisters to give the moment of silence for the tragedy that hit our brothers in Central America and also in other parts of the world.

CURWOOD: When the silence ended, many, including Melinda Kimball, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the US, wondered if climate change could have played a role in fostering the lethal hurricane.

KIMBALL: I think it should give us all very careful pause, because I think that while it's impossible to connect single weather events at this stage to climate change, it is this type of event that we would expect to occur if what we are predicting about climate change comes to pass. And it's horrible.

(Milling sounds)

CURWOOD: Delegates didn't need to follow media reports to feel the impact of the weather. At one point torrents of rain fell on the conference center and flooded several office suites, including those of the Global Climate Coalition, a group of oil, coal, and other fossil fuel and manufacturing executives who doubt that climate change is a problem. When I stopped by, the Coalition's John Grasser was in the office.

(To Grasser) We understood that there was quite a flood back here.

GRASSER: (laughs) There sure was. You'd go like this and it would splash up. Just this whole area.

CURWOOD: Now you don't think this rain has anything to do with climate change, do you?

GRASSER: I think it's all part of natural weather variation.

CURWOOD: John Gummer, a member of the British delegation, as well as consultant to the government of Argentina, went head to head with climate change skeptics during his recent tenure as a conservative Secretary of State for the Environment. He continues today as a member of Parliament. I asked Mr. Gummer if the hurricane added any urgency to the negotiations.

GUMMER: Well it has, because it shows that what we're getting is extreme weather more regularly than before, and we will see more of this. It seems to me that in the end, the United States, for example, will only react when they discover that what has happened in Managua, what has happened in Tegucigalpa, could happen in the middle of Florida or in the middle of California. It's then that people will tell Exxon to forget their stories and get out there and do something about it.

(Music plays, whistling and clapping)

CURWOOD: Like the young adults gathered in a park across from the conference hall, Argentina is seeking its place in the world a decade and a half after ending military rule. Argentina agreed to host this year's session in part as a way to showcase its development. In recent years it's had remarkable economic Groth, but claims its greenhouse gases have risen very little if at all. And while India, China, Brazil, and almost all of the other developing nations are insisting that the US and other industrialized nations reduce their emissions first, Argentina became the first to break ranks and respond to the call from the US for meaningful participation in the Kyoto Protocol. As he spoke to the delegates, Argentine President Carlos Menem alluded to the fierce resistance he faced in making the pledge to limit greenhouse gases.

MENEM: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Argentina does not wish to make its effort outside the system. We want to establish targets within the framework of the convention. We have not been able to do it so far. But we shall continue to work to be able to do so at the fifth meeting of the conference.

CURWOOD: The White House and the US delegation applauded the move. Todd Stern is President Clinton's top advisor on climate change.

STERN: I think President Menem's speech is a major breakthrough. I think this is exactly the kind of thing that will constitute meaningful participation in such a way as to allow us to submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate.

CURWOOD: But Senate critics of the Kyoto Accord, including Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, were far from satisfied.

HAGEL: This isn't even close to meaningful participation. What participation? There is no participation. He said that they would voluntarily do something, but we're going to talk about meaningful participation, then let's ask questions like what are you going to do? When are you going to do it? How are you going to do it?

CURWOOD: It is indeed unclear how Argentina might subject itself to limits on greenhouse gas emissions. President Menem suggested creating a new category of participants in the protocol, perhaps made up of the wealthier developing countries. But he offered no further details. A number of open-ended aspects of the protocol have yet to be nailed down. Perhaps the most contentious concern the flexibility mechanisms for achieving emissions limits. One, called the Clean Development Mechanism, would give industrial countries credit for emissions reductions in exchange for investing in the environmentally-friendly projects of emerging nations. Other mechanisms would let developed nations trade emissions rights among themselves. With so much to be decided in the future, there was no rush of other developing nations to join Argentina with a pledge for a voluntary limit on emissions, save for the tiny Central Asian republic of Kazakstan. Indeed, many developing nations said such a move was premature, and that while any country should feel free to impose limits on itself, no developing nation should be forced to accept limits before the richest countries have acted. China and India are the major proponents of this position. Together, they represent almost the half the people on the planet, but emit a much smaller fraction of the world's greenhouse gases. Suresh Prubhu is India's Minister of the Environment.

PRUBHU: Those countries which contribute the most to global environmental degradation must bring down their emission levels first, start implementing that. So if they implement all that first, then obviously we can always move forward.

CURWOOD: In essence, then, the large developing countries argue that the North is not playing fair, and that any scheme that eventually involves the poor nations must be based on principles of equity. Sunita Narain is Deputy Director of the Center for Science and the Environment in New Delhi.

NARAIN: If you look at the current inequalities in the world, it's quite amazing. Because in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, one US citizen is equal to 25 Indians, 33 Pakistanis, 42 Moldavians, 85 Sri Lankans, and 125 Bangladeshis, 250 Butanese, and 500 Nepalese.

CURWOOD: Ms. Narain and many others suggest that if the US wants to involve developing nations under an emissions cap, the goal should be a single worldwide per-capita standard. Over time, the developed world would reduce its emissions and the developing world could increase them until the levels are equal. Britain's John Gummer says without a system that deals with equity, efforts to get the large developing nations to agree to limits are doomed.

GUMMER: Since the decline of Empire, industrially and economically, we have assumed that rich countries out of their riches can help poor countries. But we've always done it from the position of superiority. We've been the donors; they've been the receivers. Now, we've both got to give. That is a totally different relationship. So it really is the first time that we're in this boat together, not just for philosophic or theological reasons about brotherhood of man or fatherhood of god, it's about something quite different. It is the practicalities that if you want China on board, you've got to treat China like a partner and not treat her as a kind of recipient of imperialist donations.

CURWOOD: Delegates agreed to set up a plan for working on the remaining issues in the years ahead, recognizing that grappling with the complexities of climate change could take a very long time. Although nature may not wait.

(A tango plays)

CURWOOD: In some ways, the process is reminiscent of the tango. It seems you can't smile and perform its intricate steps at the same time. One must suffer a little to achieve. In Buenos Aires, I'm Steve Curwood.

(Tango continues up and under)

KNOY: Our report on the climate change conference in Buenos Aires was brought to us with help from producer Daniel Grossman.

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Hurricane Mitch's Central America Disaster: The Human Contributions

KNOY: While progress at the climate change negotiations in Argentina moved at a gradual pace, the aftermath of severe weather further north in Central America was rapidly coming to light. Hurricane Mitch, the fourth most powerful hurricane ever recorded, took thousands of lives and left the region's landscape and economy in ruins. Honduras alone lost 70% of its agricultural production, including much of its lucrative banana industry. Poor land use practices exacerbated damages to the hardest hit regions. That's according to scientists and land management specialists like Jim Barberack. Mr. Barberack spent more than 20 years working in Central America and helped set up Honduras' national park system. He's now with the Wildlife Conservation Society based in Gainesville, Florida. In terms of environmental damage, he says, Hurricane Mitch chose an extremely vulnerable target.

BARBERACK: Central America has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the tropics. The region is losing about 3% of its remaining forest cover every year. A study that was just published by the Central American Government's Joint Environmental Commission this week estimated that the amount of deforestation per year in Central America is right about 1 million acres per year. And this is a very small region. It's only 5 times the size of Ohio.

KNOY: What caused this deforestation?

BARBERACK: Several combined causes. One of the most important is that the region, particularly Honduras and Nicaragua, have one of the highest rates of population Groth outside of sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, a large percentage of these people are peasants who depend on migratory agriculture, often on steep hillsides that really aren't appropriate for agriculture or grazing at all.

KNOY: Can you explain that a little bit more? You know, why those practices are so devastating, or are so harmful to the land?

BARBERACK: When done by indigenous cultures, for example, in the Amazon, on relatively flat soils where the fallow period is measured in decades, slash and burn is actually a very appropriate type of land use. However, in areas like Central America, with a dense rural population, where fallow periods are very short and where soils, particularly in Honduras, are very poor, after only 1 or 2 years the high rainfall and steep slopes contribute to erosion and loss of soil fertility, so the farmers have to move on. Usually, after this happens, they invade remaining forest nearby and also the agricultural lands are converted into pasture, which just continues the downward spiral in land productivity.

KNOY: What about shrimp farming? That is also an important type of farming to the area.

BARBERACK: Particularly in southern Honduras, in the Gulf of Fonseca, which is a mangrove-rimmed bay along the joint borders of Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador, much of the remaining mangrove has been converted to shrimp farms over the past 20 years. Unfortunately, much of the dikes and the engineering works that are necessary for this type of shrimp production were affected by the hurricane.

KNOY: What role do international corporations have in promoting these agricultural practices that you're talking about?

BARBERACK: In general, I think that the major issue regarding, for example, the banana companies right now is that they're going to have to do massive layoffs, and that is going to have a tremendous economic impact in the coastal areas. And concern to somebody like me, who tries to set up and protect national parks is going to be, there are going to be tens of thousands of unemployed people without a way of making a living that are probably going to feel it is necessary to invade remaining forest, return to subsistence agriculture, hunt game, extract forest products to eke out a living until things like the banana farms get up and running again within a year or two. They have to make major investments in engineering works before they can hire back their workers. So I think that that is going to be a major post-hurricane disaster affecting the remaining patches of forest throughout the affected areas.

KNOY: So, what lessons are there, Jim, if any, after Hurricane Mitch?

BARBERACK: Well, obviously, so soon after a major tragedy like this, it's not an appropriate time to be pointing too many fingers. The loss of life and economic hardship to 2 of the countries that were already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua and Honduras, is great. And that should be the focus of most people's efforts for the foreseeable future. But as aid agencies begin to plot out a road map for what many hope will be a sort of mini-Marshall Plan to aid particularly these 2 countries, and also El Salvador and Guatemala and Costa Rica, that were affected to a lesser degree, that investments in agriculture and in helping the rural poor, particularly orient these people toward crops and locations that are actually suited for agriculture and livestock growing. If we don't tackle these issues of what to do with these millions of people who are living in absolute dire poverty on hillsides, these poor land management decisions will continue to haunt us.

KNOY: Jim Barberack is with the Wildlife Conservation Society. He's based in Gainesville, Florida. Jim, thanks a lot.

BARBERACK: Thank you very much.

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KNOY: Coming up: how to reduce pesticide residue on the 9 fruits and vegetables most kids eat most often. A consumer's report is next here on Living on Earth.

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Pesticide Reform Stalled

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Two years ago Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act, a law aimed at reducing the public's exposure to pesticide residues. At the time, consumer and industry groups hailed the act as a landmark effort to set safe pesticide limits, especially for infants and children. But so far, the Environmental Protection Agency has not said what pesticides it hopes to reduce or by how much. It's all been a bit frustrating for farmers, pesticide manufacturers, and environmentalists alike. But now one consumer's group is trying to break through the logjam. From member station WNYC in New York, Amy Eddings reports.

EDDINGS: Carrying out the Food Quality Protection Act is proving to be a far trickier job than passing the original legislation. Before the Environmental Protection Agency can set new residue levels, it has to consider all the ways consumers are exposed to pesticides, from bug spray to lawn care to snack food. It has to evaluate the cumulative effect of exposure to members of the same pesticide family, and it must complete this work on about 3,000 residue limits by next August. Since April, the EPA's progress has slowed after farmers and pesticide manufacturers complained the Agency was moving too quickly and too haphazardly. Consumer's Union, a nonprofit research organization that publishes Consumer Reports magazine, is hoping to get things moving again with its latest report, Worst First. Biologist Edward Groth, who co-authored the study, says it helps focus EPA's priorities by asking 3 questions.

GROTH: One is, what foods do children eat a lot of? Two is, what pesticides are used on those foods in ways that tend to leave residues? And three is, of those residues, which are the most toxic residues? Because not all pesticides are equally bad.

EDDINGS: Consumer's Union selected 9 fruits and vegetables that are most popular with kids: apples, pears, peaches, grapes, oranges, green beans, peas, potatoes, and tomatoes. It then identified 40 pesticides used on the 9 foods that they say account for 95% of a child's overall dietary risk. The report says that if the EPA banned or limited their use, there are other methods farmers could effectively use, like preventing the bugs from mating, or using less toxic pesticides. But Bruce Crenning, an apple farmer near Buffalo, New York, and a board member of the New York Farm Bureau, says these methods are too risky to be used commercially.

CRENNING: We've tried mating disruptions with leaf rollers and -- very ineffective, however. You must realize that if I miss and my apples are damaged, I've lost my income for the whole year. And so, I have to be pretty well assured that it's going to work before I try it.

EDDINGS: Crenning says he doesn't like to use pesticides. He thinks they're expensive, and he, too, is worried about their health risks. But Crenning does not want the EPA to limit the number of pest-fighting tools he can use. The American Crop Protection Association, which represents pesticide manufacturers, says the 40 pesticides Consumer's Union targets are typically a farmer's first line of defense against crop damage and disease. And it criticizes the Worst First report as being based on anecdotal evidence, not sound science. What does the EPA make of the report? Spokeswoman Loretta Ucelli says the Agency is currently evaluating the study's suggestions about pesticide alternatives.

UCELLI: We believe that that report is a serious effort for proposing one way of doing that, one type of transition strategy. And we are giving it careful evaluation.

EDDINGS: Although the report was intended to get things moving, it doesn't appear to have succeeded. The Consumer's Union accuses the EPA of dragging its feet and bowing to pressure from growers and pesticide companies. It asserts that the Agency has all the scientific data it needs to start acting on the Food Quality Protection Act. But the EPA, along with farmers and pesticide manufacturers, says more input is necessary, as the nation's agricultural industry gears up for some of the most sweeping pesticide reforms in decades. For Living on Earth, this is Amy Eddings in New York.

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KNOY: And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners.

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Audience Letters

KNOY: Our story on preparing yourself and your bicycle for winter commuting drew a wide range of responses. One listener wondered why we would report such a story in the relatively toasty climate of New England. "Why not take us to the experts in biking in the worst possible weather," he writes, "the Dutchmen? My mother, 85 years young, still rides her bike through Holland's snow, ice, and rain, without whining about what tires she has. You guys make a big deal about nothing."

On a different note, Bruce Clark, who hears us on KUHF in Houston, said the story made him happy to know he has some company out there. He writes, "I've been bicycle-commuting for many years in a city that's generally unfriendly to bicyclists. So when I heard your interview, I was pleasantly reminded why I chose to commute by bike years ago. Ms. Weisman brought a smile to my face, and in the future, when I see other bikers, I'll remember to smile at them, too."

Did you hear something on Living on Earth that got your wheels spinning? Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG.

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It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

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; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

KNOY: Just ahead: science and politics lock horns out where the buffalo roam. A story of bison and government is coming up. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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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.

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KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy

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The Living on Earth Almanac

KNOY: Fifty years ago a small mill town near Pittsburgh suffered the worst air pollution disaster in US history. It was caused by a weather event in which cool air over an area becomes trapped by a blanket of warm air that moves in above it. These so-called atmospheric inversions collect pollutants and create smog. In 1948 in Donora, Pennsylvania, one inversion turned deadly. The entire Pittsburgh area had been fogged in for a week. In Donora, fumes from the local zinc works containing sulfur dioxide and other toxic gases became trapped close to the ground. After 3 days rains finally cleared the air, but not before 20 people were dead and nearly 6,000 sickened. Citizens who gathered recently in Donora to commemorate the event found some solace in the tragedy. With Donora on their minds, members of Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, devoting nearly $100 million to air pollution controls nationwide. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Sparing Yellowstone Bison: An Update

KNOY: Winter's coming, and that means the annual migration of hungry bison down from the snowy plateau of Yellowstone Park. In recent years the Federal Government has shot bison that wander off park grounds, fearing the animals might spread the disease brucellosis to cattle. The slaughter, though, proved to be a public relations nightmare for wildlife officials, so this year the government plans instead to capture wandering bison, shoot only those that test positive, and quarantine the rest before shipping them to Indian reservations. Jeffrey St. Clair, the environmental editor for Counterpunch magazine, has been covering the bison controversy at Yellowstone for years. He says ecologists are now proposing an alternative plan, one that doesn't kill any bison.

ST. CLAIR: They call it Plan B for the bison. And it's a very simple one. You vaccinate the cattle in the area against brucellosis. There is a vaccine, and this would cost maybe $4-$5 per shot. It would be very easy to vaccinate all the cattle, and then there would be a long-term plan of vaccinating the bison inside the park. Virginia Ravendale, who is probably the foremost expert on bison in the United States, has estimated that within 15 years brucellosis could be eradicated from Yellowstone.

KNOY: What's the concern about brucellosis? Is it a legitimate concern?

ST. CLAIR: I don't think it's a legitimate concern. Brucellosis is a disease which the Yellowstone bison contracted from cattle about 80 years ago. But there's been no evidence that the disease has been transmitted from bison to cattle grazing around Yellowstone. What brucellosis does is it causes the fetuses of pregnant cows and pregnant bison to abort. And it's been used by the livestock industry in Montana as a kind of scare tactic, I think, ushering up specters of kind of cow AIDS or a kind of a mad cow disease for bison. In Grand Teton National Park, which is just south of Yellowstone, cattle and bison have been grazing together for I believe 40 years, and there's never been an instance of brucellosis being transmitted to cattle from bison.

KNOY: Supposedly, the people who would be most affected by any spread of this disease would be the cattle ranchers. What's been their reaction to all this?

ST. CLAIR: Well, I think there's a division between the cattle ranchers. Some of the long-time people in Yellowstone like the notion of having bison out there. Some of the others want to use the bison and the issue of brucellosis to preserve, I think, their own political power. And you have an added factor, which is that the price of beef is at an all-time low, and there's kind of protectionism going on. For example, here on Oregon, the cattle ranchers are saying, "We don't want any Montana beef coming into Oregon if it's got brucellosis." And it's a way of, really, for the Oregon cattle ranchers to keep their prices up, by keeping Montana beef out of Oregon. That same trend has happened in Alabama, Mississippi, and Colorado, where those ranchers are saying, "We don't want that brucellosis-contaminated meat coming in." It shows you that the conflict is really more at a political level than it is at a scientific level, or at a geographic level.

KNOY: What does this conflict say to you, Jeffrey, about the future of wildlife management in Yellowstone and other National parks?

ST. CLAIR: This is really not about bison and brucellosis, this conflict. It's really a conflict between the old West, which is dependent on the ranching, the mining, and the timber industries, and the new West, which is dependent more on tourism and recreational activities. And Yellowstone has become the symbol for this ongoing conflict between the new West and the old West. And the very symbol of Yellowstone, of course, is the bison, and that's why it has become the sort of rope in this grisly tug-of-war.

KNOY: Jeffrey St. Clair is the environmental editor of Counterpunch magazine. He's based in Oregon. Jeffrey, thanks a lot.

ST. CLAIR: Thank you very much.

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Bears and Berries

KNOY: Bison aren't the only animals coming into contact with humans in the waning days of fall. Bears and humans are also in competition for the last ripe berries. The race for berries is just one example of how loss of habitat has sparked conflict between bears and people. For most of recorded history, bears have both intrigued and frightened humans. That's still true in Alaska, according to commentator Geo Beach, who's trying to learn from his bruinly neighbors.

BEACH: There's a bear outside my house. It doesn't take much to figure it out. Shrouded in spruce, the ravens are spelling out a black curse, hurling slanders into the sun-dappled glen. The ground squirrels have set off a chatter like a persistent alarm clock. And there is the sound, every minute or so, of brush crashing.

During the intervening silence you can imagine the munching of berries. Yesterday morning Joanie told me she could see yellowing stalks of spiny Devil's Club felled in the field of tall grass. She is sure the bear has tackled them to get at the red pom poms of berries at the top. I am sure I don't want to scrimmage against anything that eats Devil's Club for a pre-game snack.

There are bears everywhere this year. There are people everywhere this year. This bear comes here in the spring and about this time in autumn. I think it's the bear that lives on the hill behind the hospital, and I think he comes down along the creek that runs by the house. In the spring, he is sleepy and looking for new greens.

In the fall he has a lot more energy. I don't know if he has found a place to catch fish, but he knows where there are salmon berries and watermelon berries, and the raspberries we tried to get to first. At night when you hear the dogs howling down the road and you hear the bear sounds in the woods, you are reminded to clean up your mess and pack your trash out every day. That's not a bad lesson.

And late in the afternoon when I take the shortcut home through the woods from the playing fields at the high school, I remember to be on my best bear behavior and sing out loud, so we don't have any improvisational meetings. Some of those songs come from deep inside. (Sings) The bear went over the mountain...

But more often it's spontaneous compositions that are sparked on the shortcut. Mr. Bear's Blues berries, and What'cha Doin' Bruin? and other ad-libbed tunes. This is also a good lesson. The bear reminds me we are on the edge of wildness. I keep a close inventory of the people and animals who reside here. I try to stay aware of the territories and domains, and where there is a seamless boundary line between our civilized selves and our grunting, carnivorous histories.

I'm scared of the bear because in some way I'm scared of the primal parts inside of me. But I'm also proud of myself in animal ways, and I'm proud of the bear outside my house. I think this is why sometimes bears get shot, and sometimes they don't.

Last night, northern lights. It's turning cold. The bear will not be here for long. Two weeks of relearning those lessons, basic and essential. That's some good adult education. I'll be doing my homework, singing and trying to clean up my human mess. And when he wakes up next spring, this bear will walk back right outside my house.

KNOY: Poet and author Geo Beach is at work on a book about Alaska, called Light at the End of America. He comes to us from KBBI in Homer, Alaska.

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KNOY: Coming up: hands across the US-Mexico border are working to save a coastal habitat that's vital to both nations. The story of the Tijuana Estuary is just ahead on Living on Earth.

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Estuary Series Part 4: Where the Tijuana River and the Pacific Ocean Meet

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. At the southwestern corner of the United States there's a little patch of land notched between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. It's the estuary where the Tijuana River meets the Pacific Ocean. It's also a natural oasis in the midst of a growing metropolis. But the Tijuana Estuary is in trouble. Like dozens of other estuaries in the US, it's being choked by sediment and pollution from development upstream. Addressing these problems would be difficult anywhere, but a solution is more elusive in Tijuana. That's because while the estuary is entirely within the US, the river which feeds it and its watershed are in Mexico. Living on Earth's senior correspondent Peter Thomson reports in the latest installment in our series on America's estuaries. He says residents on both sides of the border are working together to save the coastal habitat.

(Wind)

THOMSON: (speaking softly) The boundary of the United States. Jeez, you can't even read it.

(Louder) On a windswept bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean a few miles south of San Diego, there's a little stone monument. Its inscriptions are worn and weathered by decades of Pacific storms.

(Softly) Something or other to the treaty dated at the city of Guadalupe, Hidalgo, February 2, AD 1848.

(Louder) This is the southwestern-most point of the United States, the beginning of the country's 1,500-mile border with Mexico. At the bottom of the bluff a heavy steel fence rises out of the Pacific. It marches up the bluff, right over the monument and off to the east as far as the eye can see, slicing in 2 the mesas and canyons of the Tijuana River Watershed. This is a story about 2 countries and 1 troubled ecosystem, and it starts just a few miles to the east of here.

(Traffic sounds)

ROMO: The city used to be up to here.

THOMSON: Oscar Romo stands on the shoulder of Mexico's Route 1D in a small canyon literally feet from the border. This is the main artery connecting downtown Tijuana to its booming new suburbs to the west.

ROMO: The neighborhood on those mesas were on the outskirts, and all that was undeveloped. We now have lots of residents here. These are some of the most populated areas of Tijuana.

THOMSON: Economic turmoil and poverty elsewhere have sent hundreds of thousands of Mexicans streaming toward the new factories of the border area. But Oscar Romo, an architect, environmental activist, and advisor to Mexico's president, says this unchecked growth is putting tremendous pressure on the environment, and that some of the problems are literally spilling over the border into the US. Mr. Romo says the new neighborhoods here are destabilizing the thin, sandy soil of these hillsides.

ROMO: When it rains, there's a lot of water coming here. Because they built on the slopes, erosion is a big factor here.

(Traffic continues)

THOMSON: Dust from the highway swirls around Mr. Romo, settling on his slight shoulders and his thinning black hair. His dark eyes follow the path of the eroding soil, down the steep canyon, through a channel under the border fence, to the broad, flat expanse beyond. The Tijuana River Estuary in the US.

(Crickets)

THOMSON: Less than a mile away the landscape is radically different. The scrubby canyon walls of the Mexican side of the border have suddenly given way here in the US to meandering dry channels and dense thickets of willows. Only a crane from a small construction site breaks the horizon.

ROPER: We are standing here at the entrance to Border Field State Park. The pavement road is completely covered with sediment, sand, dirt.

THOMSON: This is where the stuff that's eroding off Tijuana's hillsides comes to rest, in the Tijuana River Estuary, literally at the feet of Tessa Roper. Blonde, tanned, Tessa Roper looks the part of a classic California surfer. Instead, she splits her days between the local California State Parks Office, which manages part of the estuary, and a small environmental group which looks after it. And she's up to the ankles of her hiking boots in hard, caked sand.

(Footfalls on sand)

THOMSON: So this is -- this is thick.

ROPER: Yeah.

THOMSON: I mean, I'm digging --

ROPER: Yeah, in some areas --

THOMSON: --through 2, 3 inches of sand here to get to the road.

ROPER: Right. In some areas it can be as deep as 3 feet, maybe even 6 feet potentially.

THOMSON: So what does this kind of sedimentation do?

ROPER: The biggest problem is that it fills in lagoon areas or small estuarine tidal creeks, so that those no longer have any kind of sea water coming in. The tidal flushing effect.

THOMSON: The erosion from Tijuana is slowly destroying one of California's last largely intact estuaries, the vital ecological zones where rivers meet the sea. California has lost 90% of its coastal wetlands, so threats to any of the remaining scraps is cause for alarm. And Tessa Roper says the sediment isn't the only threat here.

ROPER: I think the one that everyone talks about the most is sewage coming into the estuary. There are many people in Tijuana who don't have any kind of municipal sewage hookup at their house, so a lot of that gets washed downstream when it rains. There are also leaks and breaks in the pipelines that go downstream into the estuary.

(A bird calls)

THOMSON: As we talk, the sun sinks lower over the Pacific, flashing off Tessa Roper's mirrored sunglasses and casting an orange glow and long shadows over the marsh. Even people whose eyes glaze over at phrases like estuarine habitat and tidal flushing can probably still see that this is a place worth saving. The 2,500 acres of the Tijuana Estuary are a vast green expanse. No buildings, no highways, no crowds. The last refuge for people from the encroaching concrete sea of a Tijuana-San Diego metropolis. It would be hard enough to protect this place even if the entire watershed were in the US. But Tessa Roper says the fact that it's carved up between 2 countries makes it a conservation problem of a whole different order.

ROPER: It's almost like a diplomatic issue. It's almost something that should be between Washington, DC, and Mexico City, right? International kind of issue. But if you work in that way, everything takes forever. Nothing gets done.

THOMSON: That's because in the big picture of the wary relationship between the US and Mexico, the Tijuana Estuary is barely on the map, and distrust between the 2 countries means that agencies often can't work together, or even spend money on the other side of the border. So Tessa Roper, Oscar Romo, and others who are concerned about the cross-border problems have to be savvy and resourceful. They scrape together money from a few small government agencies, pair up with private environmental groups, and try to educate people on both sides of the border about what they can do to help protect the estuary. But they try not to point fingers at Mexicans for the damage that's being done. After all, the new residents aren't filling up the estuary and dumping sewage into it on purpose. Besides, the Mexicans could point right back, because not too long ago Americans were filling up the estuary and dumping sewage into it, and they were doing it on purpose.

(Bird calls, footfalls)

P. McCOY: You can see the Mexican border there. The Coronado Islands, which are in Mexico, and that is an incredible view.

THOMSON: Patricia McCoy peers out from behind her glasses and points south, across the Tijuana Estuary, from the edge of a subdivision in the city of Imperial Beach. When she and her husband Mike moved here 30 years ago, the view wasn't so nice.

M. McCOY: If you look over to the east here, this area used to be a series of sewage ponds for the city.

P. McCOY: This was a city dump. It used to be all washing machines and car parts.

THOMSON: The estuary was being used as a dump, poisoned by sewage and filled in for farms and neighborhoods. And a project that might have finished off the estuary was literally on the drawing boards.

M. McCOY: This picture conjured up in my mind the end of a very important ecological system that was very poorly understood at the time.

(Gulls calls, followed by other bird calls)

THOMSON: Mike McCoy holds a drawing of a luxury marina that was planned for this part of the estuary in the late 60s. Hundreds of homes and docks, high-rise apartment buildings, all clustered around a broad channel leading to the ocean.

M. McCOY: And when I saw this picture, it just enhanced my desire to make sure this never did happen. I fought it. People here felt that I was almost a Communist. This was against motherhood and apple pie.

THOMSON: Mr. McCoy says his fading red hair and bears suggest his sometimes feisty temperament. And it may have served him well in the long and bitter fight against the marina. At one point, he says, his car was sabotaged, and another opponent was shot. But eventually --

M. McCOY: We won. More than I'd ever dreamed we'd win.

THOMSON: Today the dumps and sewage ponds are gone and the contested land has won government protection as a national estuarine research reserve and a national wildlife refuge.

(Footfalls)

THOMSON: From the subdivision a sandy trail leads through tufts of deep, green marsh grass, and thin ribbons of blue snake through channels of chocolate brown mud. Hundreds of birds feed in the mud flats, seemingly oblivious to the nearly constant stream of helicopters from a nearby naval training station.

(Distant helicopter rotors)

COLLINS: There's a green heron right over there, feeding, along with a group of willets and dowitchers

THOMSON: Brian Collins is a wildlife biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

COLLINS: And I see a snow egret over there. An osprey flew by a few minutes ago. To our left over here is some marbled godwits.

(Birds chirp loudly)

COLLINS: Those are light-footed clapper rails, and it's really an honor to hear them, because they're one of the most critically endangered bird subspecies in the world. They're just right across the channel from us right now.

(Splashing amidst bird calls)

THOMSON: The water in the channel is cool and clear, but after splashing my hands in it I'm told to wash them off. There could be bacteria in the water from the sewage flowing down from Mexico. A lot of progress has been made in restoring this part of the estuary, but the people responsible for it, like Brian Collins and Tessa Roper, fear their efforts here in the US could be swamped by the pollution and sediment from across the border. So, while they try to get Washington and Mexico City to start paying more attention, they're also at work in the local communities.

(Children shouting and running; a dog barks)

THOMSON: Back in Mexico, in one of the canyons outside Tijuana, kids fool around after classes in a dusty schoolyard. A few months ago, fourth and fifth graders here planted trees in the schoolyard and at their homes as part of an environmental education project.

CHILD: [Speaks in Spanish]

ROMO: He's saying that at class they learn about how to reproduce plants, and how the plants and the trees serve the environment by providing with moisture to the soil and to protect the slopes from being eroded.

THOMSON: Oscar Romo, the architect and Mexican presidential advisor, organized this project, together with Tessa Roper from the US. He admits it's only one tiny part of the solution, but he's an optimistic man and he's got bigger plans. He hopes that over time, a lot of little projects like this will help stop so much sediment from washing downstream into the estuary.

(Children laugh)

THOMSON: Oscar Romo says that when kids and adults here learn about the estuary just across their border, they want to help protect it. And he's confident that projects like this will catch on, because they won't just help the estuary. They'll also help make life better right here. More trees holding down the soil means fewer houses crumbling down the hillsides, and fewer roads becoming impassable with mud when it rains. And he knows that by teaching these kids to plant trees, he may also be planting the seeds of a bigger change.

CHILD: [Speaks in Spanish]

ROMO: He's very proud of the trees he planted. He said that in the spring time he planted some trees and he felt like the rainbow was coming out of the trees, filling the ambience with colors. I was really amazed hearing this kid stating about planting a tree brings the rainbow to my home. Through his eyes, the city changed, because he put a tree on his home, and that's amazing. That's -- I can really rely on them to see that our city would be transformed.

THOMSON: Oscar Romo believed that transforming Tijuana and its sister cities across the border into more sustainable communities is the only way to save the estuary. And he and his colleagues on the US side are also working on other projects to make it happen. For instance, they've built a low-tech biological sewage treatment plant in Tijuana. It keeps some of the city's untreated sewage from flowing into the estuary, and it also keeps the valuable water and nutrients from the sewage in Tijuana.

(Tijuana music plays)

THOMSON: They hope it'll become a model for dozens more like it on both sides of the border.

(Music continues; horns honk. Fade to footfalls and wind)

WOMAN: Hello

WOMEN: Hi!

(Various voices exchange greetings, laughter)

THOMSON: Back at the border monument, a small group of women are gathering at the fence, greeting each other and embracing. Three of the women are standing in the US; one of them is in Mexico. Here on this bluff overlooking the estuary is the only place where the border fence is actually transparent. Instead of solid corrugated steel, it's made of steel mesh. You can touch people on the other side, look into their eyes, even pass things through a couple of small holes.

WOMAN: This is the one where we met.

WOMAN 2: Yeah.

THOMSON: These women started meeting here a few years ago to avoid the hassle of crossing the border. They're part of a group of environmental educators. They work with hundreds of students and teachers a year in both countries, with a special focus on the Tijuana Estuary.

DURASO: The estuary is the sensitive spot where you can actually see and touch and smell the impacts of what goes on in the rest of the watershed.

THOMSON: Laura Duraso, standing on Mexican soil, says that seeing the estuary and learning about its problems changes the way people here think about the relationship between the 2 countries. And she says it's even helped change the way she and her colleagues see the fence itself.

DURASO: What we've tried to do, and I think the estuary has been the inspiration for this, is to see the fence not as a point or a source of conflict, but a point where solutions can be figured out. And not as the place where things come apart, but where things come together.

THOMSON: As Laura Duraso and her colleagues talk, a handful of white US border patrol trucks prowl back and forth behind us. Clearly, there's a long way to go before the border stops being a source of conflict. But the idea that the Tijuana Estuary joins the 2 countries together, and that they'll have to work together to save it, is starting to catch on. The women gathered here at the border even say some government people are looking for ways to work with their counterparts across the border, and have started to talk about the estuary as an area without a fence. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson at the US-Mexico border south of San Diego.

Back to top

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KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, and Miriam Landman, along with Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, and Julia Madeson. We had help from David Winickoff, Alexandra Davidson, New Hampshire Public Radio, and the British Broadcasting Corporation. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Steve Curwood returns next week. I'm Laura Knoy. Thanks for listening.

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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; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

Our series on estuaries is funded in part by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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