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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

February 26, 1999

Air Date: February 26, 1999

SEGMENTS

Are IV Bags Hazardous to Your Health / Rachael Gotbaum

Recent research shows that there may be toxic chemicals leaching from the plastics of IV bags. Life-sustaining fluids may not be all that IV bags deliver to your veins. (04:55)

Draining the Wetlands / Aileen LeBlanc

A ruling from the federal courts last June eased restrictions on draining wetlands for development. In southeast North Carolina, where new development has been especially vigorous, there's a cost for both the wildlife and taxpayers. (09:20)

Garden Segment

Living On Earth’s Traditional Gardener Michael Weishan has come indoors to help answer listener questions about gardening. (06:15)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the Grand Canyon, including some of the Park's lesser known attractions, on the 80th anniversary of the signing of the bill establishing this great National Park. (01:30)

Headwaters Timber Controversy / Sandy Tolan

Tree-sitters and raucous protests have long dominated the controversy over one of California’s last unprotected stands of virgin redwoods. But as Living On Earth’s Sandy Tolan reports from the tiny town of Scotia, it's the growing concerns of long-time local residents who live amid the falling trees which could tip the balance against Pacific Lumber Company and its absentee owner, Charles Hurwitz. (19:10)

Listener Letters

This week, a listener who was inspired by our story on the Gloucester fishery calls to read from Thoreau's journal following a visit to the town. (02:15)

Explorations in an Aquarium / Nancy Lord

As a fisherman, commentator Nancy Lord lives and works with the Beluga whales of Alaska’s Cook Inlet. But she didn’t really get to know the whales until a recent visit to an aquarium. (02:50)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Rachael Gotbaum, Aileen LeBlanc, Sandy Tolan
GUEST: Michael Weishan
COMMENTATOR: Nancy Lord

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

More and more protests are being raised about the tiny amounts of toxic chemicals found in the plastic bags and tubes that hospitals use to give intravenous drugs and fluids.

OZONOFF: You know, what's the standard here? Are chemicals innocent until proven guilty? The burden is not on consumers to show that these chemicals cause harm. There is enough probable cause to indict these chemicals.

CURWOOD: Also, a ban on draining wetlands was recently lifted by a Federal court, and that set off a development land rush and put rare species at risk.

JANHKE: In about the 6 months that the Tullock rule has been rescinded, they probably ditched about 3,000 acres of wetlands just in this area alone. Southeastern North Carolina.

CURWOOD: And your questions from the garden, this week on Living on Earth. But first the news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Are IV Bags Hazardous to Your Health

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We go to the hospital to feel better. But it turns out that some medical equipment there may in fact damage our health. The plastic bags and tubing used to administer intravenous drugs and fluids are coming under suspicion. New research suggests that some of these vinyl products can leach trace amounts of toxic chemicals into patients' veins. Manufacturers say their products don't pose health problems, but many people have growing doubts. Rachael Gotbaum of member station WBUR in Boston reports.

(Voices in a hospital)

GOTBAUM: Nurses and doctors are rushing around the narrow hallway of a major Boston hospital.

MAN: I'm just telling you, I don't care. You tell me they are normal, I don't care.

(Wheels on the floor)

GOTBAUM: They're pulling poles down the corridor with IV bags attached.

(Rolling continues)

GOTBAUM: About 25% of all plastic hospital products, including IV bags, are made out of a plastic called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. By itself, PVC is hard and brittle. But in the 1960s manufacturers began adding chemicals called pthalates to make their products soft and flexible. Most IV bags contain a phthalate called DEHP. In the mid 80s, the Environmental Protection Agency categorized DEHP as a probable carcinogen because it caused cancer in rodents. At that time the government asked toy manufacturers to stop using DEHP. Bill Ravenesi is with a group called Health Care Without Harm. Ravenesi says he no longer worries about his 3-year-old daughter being exposed to DEHP in toys, but he was concerned when she needed an IV recently.

RAVENESI: In the emergency room, she immediately got hooked up to IV bags, and I was put in the position of saying to myself, my God, here I am trying to help my daughter, and at the same time I'm watching her get infused with these pthalates that are probable human carcinogens.

GOTBAUM: Ravenesi says a recent study by his group shows that DEHP is leaching out of IV bags and into patients at an alarming rate. He says other studies show that the chemical is linked to organ damage and reproductive problems in rodents. Earl Gray is a biologist with the EPA who has conducted tests on how pthalates impact rodents' ability to reproduce.

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.

GOTBAUM: Dr. David Ozonoff is chair of the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health. Ozonoff acknowledges that years of animal studies have not been conclusive about the impact of DEHP and other pthalates on humans. But he says there's enough evidence to get rid of them.

OZONOFF: You know, what's the standard here? Are chemicals innocent until proven guilty? The burden is not on consumers to show that these chemicals cause harm. There is enough probable cause to indict these chemicals.

GOTBAUM: The Food and Drug Administration does not see DEHP as a public health threat, and there are scientists who agree with the agency's position. One of them is Dr. Steven Tannenbaum. Tannenbaum is a toxicologist and a professor at MIT. He's also a consultant for Baxter International, the country's largest manufacturer of PVC IV bags. Tannenbaum says rodents metabolize DEHP differently than humans, and he doesn't believe the chemical poses any danger to people.

TANNENBAUM: We've been exposed to this compound for, you know, for 40 or 50 years, probably. It's not like it's a brand new thing, so you would expect that if there was an effect, it would be emergent at this point.

GOTBAUM: Officials from Baxter say PVC is indispensable. But Europeans are beginning to phase out PVC, and Baxter sells them non-PVC IV bags. But the company says those products don't meet the sterilization requirements of the FDA. Many hospitals, including Boston's New England Medical Center, don't buy that argument. Several others are beginning to pressure Baxter and other manufacturers to sell non-PVC medical products in the US. Professor Margaret Quinn directs the Sustainable Hospital Project at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. She says hospital group purchasing organizations are likely to be pivotal in convincing manufacturers to sell non-PVC medical products.

QUINN: Many hospitals are making the changes, even with their group purchasing organizations, and starting a momentum that other hospitals are seeing that they can now make these same changes. However, this is a process that's going to take some time to implement.

GOTBAUM: Quinn welcomes more research on these chemicals, but she says it's market pressure that may be the deciding factor in the future of PVC products. For Living on Earth, I'm Rachael Gotbaum in Boston.

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Draining the Wetlands

CURWOOD: Last June, a Federal court gave developers and landowners greater freedom to drain and dredge wetlands without the usual government oversight. The ruling hasn't affected all wetlands equally because officials in different parts of the country have interpreted the court's decision in different ways. North Carolina has been especially hard-hit. Developers there have seized the opportunity to drain thousands of acres in the southeastern part of the state. Conservationists say the move is endangering unique forms of life. Others complain it's also running up a tab for taxpayers. Aileen LeBlanc reports from Wilmington, North Carolina.

(Bird song)

LeBLANC: This part of coastal North Carolina is famous for its southern charm, Civil War history, its beaches, and its hurricanes. The area's called Cape Fear, after the dangerous river mouth where many ships ran aground on the shifting shoals. There is an unsung hero here, a tiny plant, a carnivorous plant or insectivorous, actually. The Venus Flytrap. The plant only grows in the wild within an 80 or so mile radius of Wilmington. And some fear that it's not here for long.

WOOD: Here is a nice little cluster. And even though it's the middle of winter, these plants are still viable. On a warm day like today, these plants can still trap an insect.

LeBLANC: Andy Wood is curator of education at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. He's brought us to a buggy area behind an elementary school in Wilmington. Stepping stones keep our feet relatively dry and keep us from tramping on the flytraps, each no bigger than the end digit of your thumb. We have to stoop close to the ground to get a good look.

(Footfalls)

WOOD: It has a heart-shaped leaf when it first buds out, and then at the end, where the lobes of the heart come together, out springs this little trap. It looks sort of like a bear trap. It's shaped like a lima bean with each half very flat. And on the round edge of the leaf are little spikes, and those intermesh when the two halves of the leaf close together. There are 6 trigger hairs, 3 on each half of the leaf.

LeBLANC: Andy Wood plucks a blade of grass and tickles the inside of the trap, which is a crimson color.

(Gulls call)

WOOD: It's cold, so it's going to close very slowly. But by stimulating those hairs repeatedly.... See it closed down? It took all of about a second and a half to close to the point where an insect cannot get out of there.

LeBLANC: The flytrap is not out to catch flies for sport. Andy says this plant relies on insects for something it can't get from the soil, the sun, and the rain: nitrogen. And it lives with other bug-eating plants, pitcher plants, sundews, in the wetland areas of this part of Carolina.

WOOD: This is as unique an entity on the planet as you can find.

LeBLANC: So why is the flytrap in trouble?

WOOD: My opinion is that it's in trouble from habitat degradation, habitat loss. What is threatening them right now is ditching and pavement.

LeBLANC: Ditching and paving is just what has been happening on a huge scale here since a legal loophole opened and developers rushed in. It all began last June when a Federal judge decided that the US Army Corps of Engineers could no longer restrict wetland drainage. The state of North Carolina had hoped to step in quickly and fill the breach by adopting its own rules for protection of wetlands by October, but bureaucratic and staffing delays meant the state would wait until March the first to get the new regulations in place. Ernie Janhke of the Corps of Engineers says the amount of wetlands lost to draining since June is overwhelming.

JANHKE: It's massive. One of my staff estimated that in about the 6 months that the Tullock rule has been rescinded, they probably ditched about 3,000 acres of wetlands just in this area alone. Southeastern North Carolina.

LeBLANC: And another estimated 2,500 acres has been ditched since his staff fly-overs in December. The Tullock rule Janhke refers to is a rule that used to give the Corps power over the ditching of wetlands based on the Clean Water Act. The Act gave the Corps power to regulate the filling of wetlands in 1972. In 1993, a Federal court ruled that the Corps had jurisdiction over the draining of wetlands, not just the filling of them. But in June that law was challenged in court and rescinded. The court decided not to ask that it be reinstated, concluding that the current Congress wasn't in the mood to strengthen the Clean Water Act. So what power is the Corps of Engineers left with in their wetland protection program? Ernie Janhke.

JANHKE: Well, we're still left with regulating, you know, filling and, you know, discharge of dredge material. Outside of that, not a whole lot.

(Footfalls)

LeBLANC: A road runs along the banks of the Cape Fear River as it leaves Wilmington and heads for the Atlantic. Here a flurry of development is going on. This area is in the county's conservation overlay district, which means that nothing is supposed to be done to alter the natural environment. But a walk with Andy Wood down one of the newly-made roads proves that much is being done to alter these wetlands.

(Footfalls)

WOOD: This is natural flytrap habitat and look, that was a pond that had redfin pickerel, eastern mud minnows, mosquito fish. And it has been ditched. It is bleeding this pond and these wetlands to death.

LeBLANC: Draining wetlands used to be looked at as a way of making useless land useful. It's certainly not illegal. And though the Venus Flytrap is a protected species in the state, it is protected from poaching, not from draining its habitat. And if no draining and filling of wetland areas had ever been allowed, a lot of the current residents of Wilmington and New Hanover County would not have a subdivision to live in. Larry Cahoon is professor of biological science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Cahoon asks just how much ditching and draining can this area sustain?

CAHOON: Every body of water in Hanover County is compromised by storm water runoff. If we're going to drain more wetlands, we're going to pay for it in terms of poorer water quality downstream, and so we're going to wind up with more engineered solutions if we don't protect wetlands. Any policy that opens up more of these wetlands to ditching and draining and so forth is simply going to cost us more down the road. What I see as one of the mismatches is that the people who benefit from the ditching and draining generally are not the ones having to pay for the problems caused by that down the road. So there's a disconnect in there in terms of who pays. But if you live here, you're going to pay for it.

LeBLANC: And it's not just the water quality problem, either. It's flooding. Cahoon says that wetlands designed to hold rainwater, and if these wetlands are replaced by paved surfaces the result is water runoff to somewhere else nearby. And then, engineered ways of trying to fix that problem. David Mayes is stormwater services manager for the city of Wilmington.

MAYES: This map is a 1942 Army map service. This is what Wilmington looked like, Wilmington and New Hanover County looked like. Well, right here is where Pond Valley sits.

LeBLANC: That looks to me like it's all got blue lines on it.

MAYES: These little swampy lines that you see on maps, it was a very wet area at one time.

LeBLANC: Now it's a 600-acre subdivision with a lot of problems, Mayes says.

MAYES: We still have today flooding of streets out in that area that we're trying to correct. We're literally having to tear up the whole street to put in a new drainage system in this area. We've spent money, so far, on a retention pond and at least one phase of the drainage, the actual drainage piping.

LeBLANC: What's it all going to cost, just for Pond Valley?

MAYES: We have projected, in 1997 dollars, the total for Pond Valley is a little bit more than $10 million.

LeBLANC: And who pays for it?

MAYES: Taxpayers.

LeBLANC: According to the Corps of Engineers, Congress is not likely to give the Corps more power over the ditching and draining of wetlands any time soon. County lawmakers are reluctant to regulate beyond the Federal rules. The State of North Carolina, though, will impose new wetland protections on March 1. Under the new rules, anyone caught ditching in wetlands could face a $10,000 fine. But many think the state's regulations are coming too late. The bulldozers are digging now. The spiderweb of ditches is spreading. There are fewer pitcher plants, sundews, and Venus flytraps. And there are fewer wetlands here every day. For Living on Earth, I'm Aileen LeBlanc in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: your questions for our traditional gardener, Michael Weishan. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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Garden Segment

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Usually when it comes to gardening, we visit our traditional gardener, Michael Weishan, on his 1850s farmstead. This time we brought him to us here in the studio. Michael, welcome indoors to Living on Earth.

WEISHAN: Glad to be here. It's quite a change.

CURWOOD: Now, we dragged you in here to sunny Cambridge, Massachusetts, to answer some questions from our listeners. How many did you get over this last month, do you think?

WEISHAN: Oh, probably several hundred over the last month. One man wrote us from Nevada and wanted to know why his vegetables all tasted sort of bitter. And we did a bunch of research, and we finally came up with, there might have been a potassium deficiency in the soil, which can actually alter the way foods taste. It's complicated. It's kind of hard diagnosing things from a distance. But we give it a whirl.

CURWOOD: All right. Let's get to some folks who have these questions for us today. Matt Bell lives in Hunt Valley, Maryland. Matt, you there on the line?

BELL: Hi, thanks.

CURWOOD: You have a question for us about hydroponic plants, I understand.

BELL: Well, I've been doing some of that indoors in my apartment. I've been growing some sprouts and herbs. But I've been doing it in small flax baskets, which I like quite a bit. But I've been kind of thinking of upscaling the size a little bit, and I'm not really sure what I should put them in. Because I know they need something that they can root into.

WEISHAN: Well, actually, the seeds themselves can provide the rooting medium. And one of the easiest ways to grow sprouts of almost any type is to take a large jar and put your seeds in, whatever the sprouts, whatever you're starting. And add about a cup of water or so, and let them sit for, oh, I don't know, 3 or 4 hours, and they can soak up that water. And then rinse them out, and place the screening over them, and just fill them up with water again, and obviously you can pour the water right out of the bell jar. And then every day or so you want to go in once or twice and just give them a little rinse and make sure you drain the water. But the seeds themselves actually provide enough of a medium that they can sprout right in a jar like that.

BELL: Well thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

CURWOOD: Oh, well, thank you.

BELL: Yeah, you bet. Take care.

CURWOOD: Let's go to Louisville, Kentucky, now, Michael, where Mark Goldstein has a question for you about tree seeds that he's collecting.

WEISHAN: All righty, Mark, let's hear it.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, here is my question. As I travel and hike with the kids, we've often been in some places where we had opportunities to collect a variety of seeds from different trees and plants, maybe oak or maple. What's the best way to start these seeds at home for our yard?

WEISHAN: Tree seeds are hard to start yourself, because each type of tree is very different.

GOLDSTEIN: Mm hm.

WEISHAN: Some sprout very readily. Some need to sit for a number of years. And some trees, like some of the pines, for instance, are only...the seeds are only activated by fire.

GOLDSTEIN: Right.

WEISHAN: So, what you really need to do is consult a good book. There's one out by Michael Dirr. It's a little hard to find, but a library would have it. And Dirr, D-I-R-R, called The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. And it sounds like a rather daunting title, but he tells you how to start all these different types of tree seeds.

GOLDSTEIN: Okay.

CURWOOD: Michael, just for our information, how long does it take for, let's say, a little oak tree to go from that acorn to something that you could see?

WEISHAN: Well, it depends on how long it takes the actual acorn or chestnut or whatever it is to sprout. Sometimes they'll sit in dormancy, they won't want to do anything, for up to a year or two, even. But once they actually sprout they grow pretty rapidly. And I remember we've had acorns sprout, as kids, and chestnuts as well, and I think, as a matter of fact, there's a chestnut in my back yard that I threw as a child. You know, we were having a little battle out there with the chestnuts, and it landed and it planted itself, and I'd say that tree is probably now 30 feet high. So --

CURWOOD: Wow.

WEISHAN: They really can march up there pretty quickly.

GOLDSTEIN: Okay, thank you, I appreciate the help.

WEISHAN: Oh, my pleasure.

GOLDSTEIN: Okay, take care, Michael.

WEISHAN: Bye bye.

CURWOOD: Michael, our next question is about asparagus. I have to tell you I love asparagus.

WEISHAN: Me, too. My favorite vegetable.

CURWOOD: It comes from Herman Young in Riverdale, Maryland. Herman, are you there?

YOUNG: Yes.

CURWOOD: So what's your question about asparagus?

YOUNG: Well, my question is, I have a very small yard, and we want to start an asparagus bed. But I had a question about the soil requirements and whether or not it's feasible to have an asparagus bed in a garden box. And how much space do I need for, say, there are only two in the family?

WEISHAN: Well, that's a great question. Let me start with the easiest part first. Asparagus requires very rich soil, and as much organic matter and as much compost as you can possibly do.

YOUNG: Okay.

WEISHAN: The second easiest part of the question is how much to plant, because I'd say plant as much as you could. At my house we have a 50-foot row of it that's 4 feet wide, and I manage almost single-handedly to eat the entire crop every springtime. Now, granted, it does produce quite a bit. But remember, you can only eat approximately 1 out of every 3 spears, because you have to leave some maybe 2 out of every 3, but you have to leave some for the plant to gain energy for the next year. So you're only harvesting selectively. So it requires a bit of space.

YOUNG: Okay.

WEISHAN: And it requires very deep soil, which sort of answers the question about the box. Yes, it's possible, but it needs to be about 2 feet deep.

YOUNG: If I enrich the soil deep enough, and then I can just use the box to compensate for the difference?

WEISHAN: Exactly. That's actually how we did it for years. We had a box that was approximately a foot or so tall, and then we dug a foot or so down in the ground, because being in rocky New England that's as far as we could possibly get down.

YOUNG: Yeah, because I have a lot of clay.

WEISHAN: Exactly. The other thing about asparagus is that a bed lasts for about 20 years, so you really want to do it once and do it well and not have to do it again.

YOUNG: That sounds good.

WEISHAN: Thanks so much, Herman.

YOUNG: Sure. Sure. Bye bye.

CURWOOD: I think that does it for this week, Michael. I think that's what we've got for questions. I want to thank you for stopping by.

WEISHAN: Oh, it's been my pleasure.

CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is publisher of the journal Traditional Gardening. And if you have a question for him, you can reach him via our Web site. The address is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. And when you get there, click on the picture of the watering can.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: They grow over 300 feet tall, the giant California redwoods. And the circle of their defenders is growing as well. Environmental activists and ordinary citizens are finding common ground in Humboldt County, California. Stay tuned 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: If the planet's health isn't our business, whose is it?

(Theme music up and under)

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Eighty years ago President Woodrow Wilson signed the Grand Canyon Park Bill, creating one of the largest natural attractions in the world. An average of 12,000 people visit the Grand Canyon every day. While many of them flock to the North and South Rims, few travel to the lesser-known volcanic region called Toroweap. Lining the walls of Toroweap are stripes of lava, each reflecting a period in history. Here, scientists have been able to date the Canyon back millions of years. When explorer John Wesley Powell first saw Toroweap he boomed, "What a conflict of water and fire there must have been here!" The grotto, with its spectacular waterfall, is another Canyon highlight, which is off the beaten visitor's path. One place you can't visit anymore is Glen Canyon. Mr. Powell rode its roaring rapids in a boat in 1869. He took the precaution of tying himself to a chair to keep from drowning, but today the canyon and its white water are gone, sacrificed to form the lake that today bears Mr. Powell's name. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Headwaters Timber Controversy

CURWOOD: A long-sought effort to save a valuable region of old growth redwood trees is coming to a close. The US Government and the State of California want to buy the Northern California Headwaters Forest from Maxxam Corporation and its subsidiary, Pacific Lumber. Their goal is to set aside the giant trees to protect endangered species that can't live anywhere else. The Headwaters Forest has become the center stage for a bitter confrontation between the company and environmental activists. Last year one activist was killed by a falling tree in what Pacific Lumber officials called an unfortunate accident. Lately, though, the dispute has moved beyond the familiar confrontation between loggers and conservationists. Among long-time residents of Humboldt County, and even some Pacific Lumber workers, there's growing concern about the firm's timber practices, and uncertainty about the future of the company and the old company town of Scotia. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan has our report.

TOLAN: For generations, this town has answered to a whistle.

(Work factory whistle)

TOLAN: The whistle sends people to work in 2 huge mills, one for Douglas fir, the other for the giant redwood trees that get turned into boards, millions per year. This is fertile country in the moist shadow of the Pacific Gulf Stream. Since the first settlers arrived 150 years ago, the redwoods have given people here their living. In Scotia, the company town, Pacific Lumber owns every stick, every building, every clapboard house that has long been home to the company's loyal workers.

FRANKLIN: My name's Alan Franklin. I'm a third-generation employee of Pacific Lumber Company. My family started it here in the 40s, early 40s. I've worked my way up to a supervisor's job, and so I've lived in this town all my life.

TOLAN: Alan and Sandy Franklin live with their 3 kids on a hill above the mill, where Alan's worked since he got out of high school 22 years ago.

FRANKLIN: I don't think you could find a better place to be raised, actually.

S. FRANKLIN: As a mom, it's a great town when you have kids. You can stand out front and whistle for them, and if they're pretty close they can hear you.

A. FRANKLIN: You know, as a kid growing up, it just seemed like people were a lot more relaxed. You know, they knew what their life was and what was going to happen in the future. And they weren't worried.

S. FRANKLIN: Years ago, when people worked at PL, it was always secure. You never worried about anything. But --

TOLAN: But now the Franklins say Scotia's a different place, and Pacific Lumber is a different company.

S. FRANKLIN: It's kind of more uncertain. Any time, anything could happen. The whole place could fold up. And that's real scary.

A. FRANKLIN: You know, every day the company's name is in the local newspaper. It's just like a constant turmoil; it's a constant fester that doesn't seem to be healing. The reputation that Pacific Lumber Company used to have and that they have lost, definitely they've lost that reputation in the community.

(Helicopter choppers)

TOLAN: Ten miles south a helicopter sweeps over a ridge, 5 giant redwood logs dangling from its belly, and drops them on a staging area to be loaded onto a truck and hauled off to be seasoned and prepared for the mill.

MAN: All right, Chuck! I'll see you later, eh?

CHUCK: I'll see you later.

MAN: I'm going to head out. I'll see you later.

TOLAN: For most of this century Pacific Lumber was owned and run by the Murphy family, old foresters who practiced selective logging, cutting most of the old growth in selected areas but leaving many trees standing. The process held down the soil, reduced siltation of area streams, and gave the Murphys handsome tax benefits. The family gave up control of the company in the 70s but their conservative policy remained largely in place, ensuring old growth timber until well into the next century. But all that timber and the relatively low value of Pacific Lumber stock made the company ripe for a buyout. And in 1986, Houston multi-millionaire Charles Hurwitz and his Maxxam Corporation completed a bitterly-contested takeover of the company, with financing from junk bond dealer Michael Milken. Soon the new company's forests began falling at double the rate of the old Pacific Lumber.

(Heavy machinery, saws)

TOLAN: At Mill B in Scotia the giant logs float in on a pond, load onto a conveyor, and into the saw where the round becomes square.

(Sawing continues)

TOLAN: The prize is the virgin redwood whose heartwood can land nearly 3 times the price of younger trees. A single old growth tree up to 2,000 years old and 350 feet high can bring in $30,000, provides many a gorgeous redwood deck for demanding consumers.

(Sawing continues)

TOLAN: But the trees, the tallest in the world, which grow nowhere else, have their defenders. Over the last 10 years environmental activists have taken to the forest on Pacific Lumber's land, camping out in treetops, calling Charles Hurwitz a corporate raider, accusing the company of rape-and-run tactics. The new reputation is not welcome at the Scotia offices of Pacific Lumber.

CAMPBELL: It's very, very disturbing. I'm not comfortable with it because, you know, this company had a wonderful reputation for 130 years.

TOLAN: John Campbell is the president of Pacific Lumber.

CAMPBELL: The company's been demonized, and it was an icon of the environmental movement prior to the merger. Now it's become an icon for the wrong reasons.

TOLAN: Mr. Campbell, a 29-year veteran of the company, says there's been no major change in the company's harvesting policies. Others familiar with the company's history strongly dispute that statement. Mr. Hurwitz, by the way, would not agree to talk to us. He almost never gives interviews. But Mr. Campbell says his boss, and the new Pacific Lumber, are victims of a national environmental agenda.

CAMPBELL: I think the environmental community has raised an enormous amount of money off this company. Yeah, you don't have an Exxon Valdez take place every other week, so there has to be an environmental crisis somewhere. And I think we've been the crisis of choice in the woods for some time.

TOLAN: One media analysis agrees, concluding that the media portrayal of good old company versus bad corporate raider is misleading. Yet it's apparent the new company manages its lands far differently than the old company did. Pacific Lumber and its contractors have been cited with more than 300 forestry violations in the last 3 years. Most have been minor, but others include dragging heavy equipment through fragile stream beds, and cutting trees that provide crucial shade for threatened coho salmon. Late last year, in an unprecedented move, the California Department of Forestry suspended Pacific Lumber's timber operating license. The company is allowed to continue operations through the independent contractors. The company's care for the forest has become a major political issue in the area. One prominent Republican official recently called Pacific Lumber a renegade company, and more long-time local citizens are getting upset.

O'NEAL: We're a rock solid part of the county. We're not outsiders.

TOLAN: Mike O'Neal used to haul logs for Pacific Lumber.

O'NEAL: Hard-liners, people been here all their life, are standing up and going, "My God, who's in control of Pacific Lumber? What are they doing? We're shocked."

TOLAN: A cold drizzle falls outside Mike O'Neal's small redwood home in Stafford, the next exit down from Scotia. His house sits 1,200 feet below a steep hill where Pacific Lumber began clear-cutting in 1991. Back then, Mr. O'Neal says he and his neighbors warned the company that something bad could happen, and on New Year's Eve 1996 it did. Mike O'Neal was lying in his bed at 7 in the morning, and he heard something like an explosion.

O'NEAL: It sounded like bombs detonating, just BOOM! and I went, "What in the heck is that?" And I looked up out the window, and I could see huge trees, redwoods, snapping off and just slamming the ground.

TOLAN: Mr. O'Neal ran outside and noticed his creek was dry. He figured the water was backed up above him, behind the accumulating debris. He raced up the hill.

O'NEAL: And just in time to see a gigantic reservoir, like a dam on a lake, of logs, stump, trees, the lowest point was probably 20 to 25 feet high. It was the width of a football field. And finally it burst, and it come right at me. And there was a stump on top of this flow, as big as a Mack truck and just come whirling right at me. I knew this stuff was just going to take out the town.

TOLAN: He ran around warning his neighbors. They got out before the slide hit. Seven homes were buried. It just missed Mr. O'Neal's house.

O'NEAL: So now, my home is worth nothing. Nobody would want to live here. And every time it rains for us, it's just like, it's like a horror flick. It's like not knowing when the mountain's going to come down again. It's like being in a war zone; when's the next mortar coming through your window?

TOLAN: Mr. O'Neal and his neighbors are among several groups of citizens suing Pacific Lumber over flooding and landslides. Mr. O'Neal says the Stafford slide is the direct result of the clear-cut above his hamlet.

O'NEAL: They've cut so much wood since Maxxam's taken over. Yes, it's their land, and we understand that and we respect that. That's not a problem. If they want to remove trees, that's fine. We're talking about human safety here. There's human beings living on the border of Maxxam's property, and we're being trampled. And they're looking at profits in Texas. For them it works. For the people that live around Maxxam, it doesn't work.

TOLAN: Geologists say logging operations can and do contribute to landslides. No one has proved that this landslide was caused by Pacific Lumber's clear- cut. A state investigation was inconclusive. And Pacific Lumber president John Campbell says other factors led to the slide.

CAMPBELL: I think the combination of the earthquakes and the excessive precipitation probably...and our geologists tell us that's what caused the slide at Stafford, was not the act of harvesting of the trees. They said it was a deeply-seated slide that came out off a rock shelf, and was probably dislodged by the earthquakes back in 1992. We're in a more litigious society. I mean, people have grievances, and if they don't get their emotions solved they go to court.

NASH Clear prop.

(An engine turns over)

TOLAN: But looking at Pacific Lumber's holdings from above, it's clear it's not just about emotions.

(Plane engine)

NASH: Here's an overview from where we are right now. The Eel River drainage, the ridges in front of us, over beyond that is Eureka.

TOLAN: Is that the Pacific out there?

NASH: There's the Pacific Ocean off to our left.

TOLAN: Pilot Lou Nash banks low over snow-covered redwoods, drifting just above the treeline of Pacific Lumber's 200,000 acres.

NASH: One time, when I was lying here 10, 15, 20 years ago, all this was virgin forest that you can see in front of us now, except for the highland meadows.

TOLAN: Now the land is patchwork. A young stand of timber here, a clear-cut there. Brown lines of silt run into streams, clogging the spawning habitat for coho salmon. Redwood logs that look like toothpicks are piled alongside roads crisscrossing Pacific Lumber's vast holdings. Spotted across the lands are deep cuts into steep hillsides.

NASH: It kinda looks like a dog with mange. Where in the old days it looked like a nice full furry coat.

TOLAN: And then, just below us, a large grove of old growth redwood, frosted white.

NASH: Right along that ridge to the left is Headwaters Forest.

TOLAN: One of the last virgin stands of redwood in private hands, the Headwaters Forest has been at the center of more than 10 years of legal wrangling, environmental confrontations, and political negotiations. We gaze down into it, a dark thicket of thousand-year-old trees 300 feet high, amidst a spongy turf covered with ferns and 9-foot huckleberry bushes. Headwaters, a rare island of old growth on Pacific Lumber's property, is a refuge for endangered spotted owls and marbled murrelets. The Federal and State governments proposed to buy the grove from Pacific Lumber and Charles Hurwitz, nearly half a billion dollars for about 12 square miles, and set it aside to protect the rare ecosystem, as called for by the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists say the deal would allow for destruction of thousands of other acres of habitat for the endangered owls and murrelets and salmon. They want a bigger portion of land declared off-limits to logging, to protect additional old growth stands and a larger portion of the Headwaters ecosystem. Pacific Lumber says that would amount to an unconstitutional seizure of private property. But the passion of many in Humboldt County has nothing to do with the Headwaters old growth forest. It's about how the takeover of an old company has affected the local quality of life.

BERTAIN: This corporado, this jerk, has succeeded in extracting all kinds of money from the area, and disrupting so many lives.

TOLAN: Bill Bertain never considered himself a tree hugger. Reagan Republican, devout pro-life Catholic, he's a local boy who grew up in Scotia during the time of the old Pacific Lumber. Critics say he romanticizes that past. But ever since Charles Hurwitz took over the company, Mr. Bertain's been on a mission, poring over tens of thousands of pages on the takeover by Mr. Hurwitz, the company's financial filings, and environmental impact statements.

BERTAIN: And so the result now is a real wonderful company is on its last legs. I mean it can't even hold onto its timber operator's license. I don't think people would call me a raging environmentalist; in fact, I used to be the vice president of California Citizens for Property Rights. But it doesn't take much to notice that the watersheds around here are collapsing and that our streams and rivers are getting destroyed. The fish populations on PL's lands have just declined significantly. There's a lot of people that are really upset around here.

TOLAN: Desk piled high with briefs and depositions, Mr. Bertain says Mr. Hurwitz has transformed a reputable company into a cut-and-run operation. He predicts that when the big trees are gone, Mr. Hurwitz will move on.

BERTAIN: For 13 years we've been experiencing an occupation of this county, so that all the political, the economic, the social, the cultural, the environmental aspects of our lives here are, have been distorted by the control that he's exerted as an occupying power. You wonder, "Boy, how much more can he pull out of this company?"

TOLAN: Mr. Bertain says he's analyzed the company's public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He says since Mr. Hurwitz and Maxxam took over Pacific Lumber 13 years ago and doubled the rate of logging, the company's extracted $2 billion worth of timber and made hundreds of millions in profits. Pacific Lumber president John Campbell.

CAMPBELL: I don't know how they come up with these numbers. I don't know where they develop them, how they come with them.

TOLAN: The company's accounting practices make it difficult to pin down how much wealth it's taking out of the forest, but Mr. Campbell says Charles Hurwitz and Maxxam want the company to remain profitable for the long term.

CAMPBELL: We've invested enormous amounts of capital here at Scotia. I mean we built a new power plant, and we've got new computers. We purchased Britt Lumber Company. We purchased a saw mill in Carlotta, and we just finished a $10 million expansion out there. Here we are 13 years since the merger, and how they keep coming up and saying it's cut-and-run...it runs headlong into the facts.

TOLAN: John Campbell hopes that once the Headwaters deal is finally resolved, the focus on old growth will dissipate, and the company will be just like any other timber operation. He sees the company harvesting big stands of second growth timber, maintaining its high level of employment for generations to come. But that's not what the workers see.

BLAND: If you're a young man, and, you know, you want to get a job and you're looking for a career, the timber industry is really, really unstable right now. I would not suggest it as a career to retire from.

TOLAN: Tomas Bland sits watch in a 10 by 10-foot guard shack in front of the redwood mill. It's a raw day, and a little space heater warms his feet. Tomas says environmental groups and the regulations and restrictions on the land have eroded his job security.

BLAND: A lot of us workers were frustrated, because on the one hand we can understand where they're coming from. But on the other hand, you know, it's our livelihood. This is what helps us exist. This industry's what will send our kids to college, and what has kept us alive, and what has raised us through our parents, you know. And a lot of people just don't understand that. They figure well, you can just pick up and move, go to where there's other jobs. Well (laughs) that's kind of hard to do.

TOLAN: Tomas was an overhead crane operator until a few months ago, when he fell out of the crane and shattered his feet. Now the company has him in the guard shack until he gets better. But he wonders if he'll ever get back into the mill. And he admits that's not just because of the environmentalists. He knows how fast the company's been felling timber.

BLAND: We wonder, where, you know, where our wood's going to come from. I can remember days when I was a kid, about everybody telling me how they used to cut. They didn't do clear-cutting, they went out and selectively cut. And it was enough to sustain. And it seemed the way things happened over time, people's idea of how to run the timber industry kind of changed, figured they can cut it all and maybe replant it and stuff like that.

TOLAN: As we talk in the shack, a few workers walk out of the mill and through the chain-link fence. It's too early for lunch break, and the shift isn't over yet. Then a fellow guard comes in with the news.

GUARD: B mill just went down. The whole entire saw mill for B ream mill is down right now. They just shipped them all out. I was wondering why they were leaving all early times, because they've been leaving like after lunch and I'm like, wow. They just said they just shut them all down, they laid off about 6 of them.

BLAND: It's coming. It's coming. I've enjoyed my time working here. But I don't know when my time is going to be up.

TOLAN: The next day the company made it official: 60 people were laid off, and the operations at the old-growth mill were cut back. The company blamed bad weather, environmental pressures, increased regulations, and the ongoing lawsuits. The hope in Scotia is that somehow the Headwaters deal will settle everything. The woods will be safe again for endangered species, the protests will fade away, the lawsuits will be settled, the workers can get back on the job, and everyone can return to their normal lives. But there's no such sense of closure here. And environmental groups are already pledging more legal action, and activists are promising more actions in the forest. And beyond those high-profile confrontations, it is the pressure form local citizens concerned with how the timber-harvesting practices of Pacific Lumber affect them that may soon take center stage in the battle over the redwood forest. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now, comments from our listeners, or should I say in this case, listener. Of all the responses we received about a recent program, we thought one truly stood out.

ROUSE: This is Glenn Rouse in Maple City, Michigan.

CURWOOD: Like many listeners, Glenn Rouse called to tell us he was moved by Sandy Tolan's report on the hardships of America's oldest fishing community, Gloucester, Massachusetts. But Mr. Rouse, who hears us on WIAA in Interlochen, Michigan, didn't stop there. The story inspired him, he said, to dig up a much older report of Gloucester, a journal entry by Henry David Thoreau, following a visit to the fishing port.

ROUSE: "September 30th, 1858. In our late walk on the cape, we entered Gloucester at mid-evening, traveling partly across lodge till we fell into a road. And as we were simply seeking a bed, inquiring the way of villagers who we could not see, the town seemed far more homelike to us than when we made our way out in the morning. Yes, it was comparatively still, and inhabitants were sensibly or poetically employed, too. And then we went straight to our chamber and saw the moonlight reflected from the smooth harbor, and lighting up the fishing vessels, as if it had been the harbor of Venice. When entering the town in the moonlight, we could not always tell whether the roads skirted the back yards or the front yards of the houses. And the houses did not so impertinently stare after the traveler and watch his coming, as by day. Walking early in the day, and approaching the rocky shore from the north, the shadows of the cliffs were very distinct and grateful, and our spirits were buoyant. Though we walked all day, it seemed the days were not long enough to get tired in. Some villages we went through or by without communicating with any inhabitant, but saw them as quietly and distantly as in a picture."

CURWOOD: Thanks, Mr. Rouse. If our program moves you in any way, call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. And by the way, Living on Earth is looking for stories about how people mark the change of the seasons. If you have one or more, call producer Jim Metzner toll free at 877-785-7399. That's 877-785-7399 for your stories about the change of the seasons.

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Explorations in an Aquarium

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord lives close to nature in Homer, Alaska, and fishes in waters that are home to beluga whales. Her affection for the creatures encouraged her to learn a few things about whales, and herself, during a recent visit to Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

LORD: For 20 years my ideas about beluga whales have come from watching them while I fish. Gorgeous creatures, they rise from the silty waters of Alaska's Cook Inlet like smooth white arcs. I listen to the soft poofs of their breaths and pick out the bulges of their heads and the ribbed lines of their backs. But the water here is too muddy to see beneath the surface and the whales are always in traveling mode, moving on by. For all those years, I survived on glimpses and settled for mystery.

So when I visited Chicago recently, I decided to go for a close-up look. At the Shedd Aquarium, I found 5 beluga whales swimming lazily, round and round in clear blue water. I stood at a railing and observed every bit of their huge 15-foot whitenesses. I watched their blow holes snapping open and closed, and I scrutinized each dimple and dapple of skin.

On the lower level, through the glass walls, the view was even better. As the animals swam I watched their melons, the bulbous parts of their heads, changing shape. I knew they shifted the oily content of their melons as they echolocated. But I never imagined I could see it happen.

I watched them swim upside down and hang vertically and rub against one another. And for the first time I heard them broadcast over the aquarium sound system. They chirped, they clicked and tweeted and whistled. I felt like I was surrounded by birds in a tropical rainforest, only there was a submerged watery sound to all the chattering. I watched and listened to those whales for a long time. And I watched other people watching the whales. Most paused only long enough to say things like, "Look, belugas." Those who lingered for more than a few seconds tended to personalize the whales' movements, as in, "That one's trying to kiss me."

I started to feel discouraged. These magnificent animals sacrificed their real whale lives to swim in tanks for the elucidation of humankind, but were insufficiently appreciated. Then I remembered something I learned from the writings of Rachel Carson a long time ago. She wrote that understanding anything begins with the simple act of seeing. Who am I to say how much looking is enough? When it comes to knowing other creatures, we don't all find the same opportunities or share the same needs. Perhaps it is enough for people in our country's heartland to know the name beluga, and to be able to match it with a white swimming, even kissing, image.

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CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord is author of Fish Camp: Life on the Alaskan Shore. She comes to us from member station KBBI in Homer, Alaska.

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CURWOOD: Next week our entire program comes from Alaska. It's a special broadcast on the tenth anniversary of America's worst oil spill, the Exxon Valdez. Scientists, and people who fish, say the environment is still suffering.

MAN: Well, you know an anniversary is a time of celebration. This is more like a wake. You're just wondering when you're going to come out of this nightmare.

CURWOOD: The legacy of the Exxon Valdez next week on Living on Earth. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, Miriam Landman, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Bree Horowitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Alexander Davidson, Aly Constine, Anna Solman Greenbaum, and Mike Ginella. 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. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. 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 W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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