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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

September 17, 1999

Air Date: September 17, 1999

SEGMENTS

New York City Battles Encephalitis / Amy Eddings

New York City has begun a program of spraying malathion to control mosquitoes, responsible for an outbreak of encephalitis. Health officials say the pesticide is safe, but some residents worry that the cure may be worse than the disease. Amy Eddings reports. (04:05)

DDT Ban Debate

Living On Earth’s science commentator Janet Raloff speaks with host Steve Curwood about the negotiations concluded this week at the United Nations Environment Program’s third conference on persistent organic pollutants (or POPs). A particularly contentious point was the use of DDT to control malaria. (05:00)

Skin Cancer on the Rise / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

Skin cancer is one of the few cancers still on the rise in the United States. And while scientists say ozone depletion may be a contributing factor, the major culprit is our behavior. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum has the story on our cultural obsession with the sun. (09:00)

Runaway Pig / Sy Montgomery

Chasing an escaped pig was not on commentator Sy Montgomery’s list of ways to while away a sunny late summer afternoon; but when Christopher Hogwood, her 700-pound porcine (POR-sign) companion, decided to bolt his pen, she had to come up with a way to stop him before he reached the highway. (02:45)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about...poet John Keats who 180 years ago paid tribute to the coming season in his ode "To Autumn." (01:30)

Point of No Return, Part 1: A River Tamed / Sandy Tolan

Producer Sandy Tolan travels the Columbia and Snake Rivers for the story of the transformation of these rivers, with gigantic hydroelectric dams replacing dozens of salmon runs. There are now intense debates going on in Idaho and Oregon and Washington about what may have been lost as well as gained. (13:20)

Point of No Return, Part 1 Continued / Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan’s journey through the Columbia River system and its dams picks up in Lewiston, Idaho, an inland port for cargo ships that may have to make way for salmon. (11:53)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Amy Eddings, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Sandy Tolan
GUEST: Janet Raloff
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
An outbreak of encephalitis in New York City prompts widespread spraying of Malathion. Health officials say the pesticide is being used safely, but some folks are skeptical.

SEPULVEDA: They make it sound like I could put it in my son's bottle and he could drink it. (Laughs) They make it sound like it's so safe. But I don't believe them. I don't think they even know.

CURWOOD: Also, skin cancer. It's on the rise in the U.S.

WEINSTOCK: In the late 1930s, in a typical town of 100,000 people, you'd have about one melanoma a year. And now you have about 15 or 20. So it's been a huge, huge rise over those 60 years or so.

CURWOOD: In some countries, the spike in skin cancer is linked to thinning of the ozone layer. But the biggest problem seems to be deliberate overexposure to the sun. Those stories this week on Living on Earth. First news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

New York City Battles Encephalitis

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. New Yorkers are bracing for the next round in the war against encephalitis, the mosquito-borne and potentially fatal disease which attacks the central nervous system. At least 3 people have died since the outbreak was first identified earlier this month. And about a dozen more people are infected. City officials have embarked on an extensive pesticide spraying campaign, using Malathion to kill mosquitos. But as Amy Eddings of member station WNYC reports, some folks are more worried about the pesticide than the disease it's designed to combat.

(Ambient voices)

WILSON: Right now we've got one sector left, right?

EDDINGS: It's almost midnight in Battery Park, the site of an old fortress on the tip of Manhattan, and the prefect setting for an attack against the city's number one menace: Culix pipiens, the mosquito that carries the St. Louis encephalitis virus from infected birds to humans. WILSON: Who's going to take Sector Three?

MAN: I'll take it.

EDDINGS: Bob Wilson, with the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, deploys his troops. Men will drive ten trucks carrying canisters of the pesticide Malathion through the streets of Manhattan, spraying as they go.

(Engines)

EDDINGS: Encephalitis is a potentially deadly disease of the spinal cord and brain. Children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable. This is the first time New York City has had an outbreak, and health officials were caught off guard. Mosquito experts and pesticides had to be borrowed from nearby counties that had more aggressive programs against disease-bearing insects.

(Engines)

EDDINGS: City officials use trucks and helicopters to apply Malathion in Queens, where the outbreak was first reported. But as the number of cases grew, so did the spraying campaign. At a recent news conference, Dr. Robert Nasci of the Federal Centers for Disease Control assured New Yorkers that the pesticide posed no health threat.

NASCI: Malathion is a toxin. It's a nerve toxin. We've known that. It's nothing that anybody's trying to keep secret. But because of the small concentration and the dynamics of the metabolism of Malathion in humans, the toxicity is very, very, very low.

EDDINGS: Despite these assurances, many New Yorkers such as Anthony Sepulveda were wary.

SEPULVEDA: It's probably the truth. But they make it sound like I could put it in my son's bottle and he could drink it. (Laughs) They make it sound like it's so safe. But I don't believe them. I don't think they even know.

EDDINGS: Malathion has been the subject of controversy before. In California, in 1981, Malathion was used to battle Mediterranean fruit flies. People evacuated their houses to avoid aerial spraying. Follow-up studies did not find any significant health problems. A similar spraying campaign in Florida last year had different results. There were 230 reports of health problems, including asthma attacks, nausea, dizziness, and headaches. Florida officials concluded 123 cases were probably caused by the spraying. Dr. Gina Soloman, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco and an expert on Malathion, says the city did the right thing by acting quickly to control the encephalitis outbreak. But she thinks people should be fully informed about potential risks.

SOLOMON: There have been episodes in the past, particularly among children, where children have had acute poisoning symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, sweating, and skin and eye irritation from exposure to Malathion drifting through the air or else accumulating on surfaces.

(Engines)

EDDINGS: Right now Malathion is poisoning its intended target. Ninety percent of the city's mosquitos are dead, according to Mayor Rudolf Giuliani. And he says spraying will continue to make sure the skeeters, and the disease they may carry, don't come back. For Living on Earth, this is Amy Eddings in New York.

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(Engines)

DDT Ban Debate

CURWOOD: On September 11, the United Nations Environment Program concluded their third conference on persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. As the name suggests, once these chemicals get into the environment, they stick around for a long time, even showing up in animal and human tissue thousands of miles from where they were first used. Conference participants attempted to develop an international treaty to eliminate the worst 12. Janet Raloff, senior editor at Science News and Living on Earth's science commentator, joins us now from Washington, D.C.Hi, Janet.

RALOFF: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: I understand that DDT was one of the more contentious points of the conference, as it's still being used around the world to fight malaria.

RALOFF: Right. And the major issue is that no one questions the toxicity of DDT. It's contributed to a host of wildlife problems from eggshell thinning in birds to a number of endocrine problems in wildlife, like those male alligators in Florida that appear to be females. The big fear has been that DDT might cause cancer, although the latest data suggest that it probably doesn't. But notwithstanding, DDT is certainly a threat to many forms of wildlife, and the problem is that many small countries with a raging malaria problem also find DDT to be an inexpensive and quite effective way of killing disease-carrying mosquitos.

CURWOOD: So malaria is still a big problem.

RALOFF: Oh, huge. The disease strikes people in more than 90 countries today. These are nations home to 40 percent of the world's people. Each year some 500 million people get malaria, and it kills 2.7 million people, mainly preschoolers. The problem's worse in Africa. There, up to 23 percent of infants are born with the parasite, and each day an average of 2,800 kids die from the disease in Africa, or roughly five percent of the continent's children.

CURWOOD: Where does DDT fit in?

RALOFF: Well, it's become the preferred pesticide for treating homes in many countries that suffer from diseases carried by mosquitos. And we're not just talking malaria here, but also sleeping sickness and river blindness. Typically, individuals spray the walls or floors of their homes, anyplace a mosquito might land. Now, when it's used in the home, they don't use the same kinds of concentrations that have traditionally been used in the past for agricultural applications, but it all adds up. More importantly, the DDT that's sprayed indoors doesn't stay indoors. One study's calculated that up to 80 percent of it can get out, where it begins leapfrogging around the globe. And some of the stuff that is leapfrogging continues to do so for decades. It turns out that U.S. cotton farmers, for instance, used DDT to kill boll weevils, for example. Much of it ended up in the soil, and now, 27 years after DDT was banned in our country, farm lands throughout the cotton belt are still releasing an estimated 100 tons of DDT or its breakdown products each year.

CURWOOD: So, what alternatives are there, then, to DDT?

RALOFF: Well, there are a host of other pesticides, such as the Malathion that was sprayed in New York this week to combat the encephalitis problem there. While these tend to be less toxic or less persistent than DDT, many of them are also much more expensive. The World Wildlife Fund also has been looking into a number of case studies to see what other kinds of approaches can be used, and in a report that was released at the POPs meeting last week, they showed that you could get substantial malaria control through very simple things, sometimes, like sleeping under pesticide-treated nets or eliminating breeding grounds for mosquitos. In some cases, they are considerably more costly, these alternative approaches, or more time-consuming than just spraying that old standby, DDT.

CURWOOD: Now, what about developing a vaccine?

RALOFF: Well, there's been plenty of talk about pharmaceutical options, and lots of activity. But vaccine development is very difficult. It takes an awful lot of time, often decades. And while this going on, thousands of children die from malaria each year.

CURWOOD: Wasn't there a lot of controversy about the deadline for DDT phase- out?

RALOFF: There sure was. The World Wildlife Fund spearheaded that effort to talk about a complete global phase-out by 2007. The target date was pretty arbitrary. They chose the date that Mexico had agreed to phase out its production and use of DDT. The tactic seems to have worked. What World Wildlife Fund had wanted was to get people talking about DDT and alternatives, and it did. However, it also raised the hackles of the malaria control community. In the end, the World Wildlife Fund backed down from that target date, and just got people to agree that they need an ultimate phase-out. When will be determined at some later date.

CURWOOD: So what's next?

RALOFF: Well, the parties meet again next March to iron out further details. The negotiations from that should result in a final treaty, or at least the language for that, being offered up to government officials next November.

CURWOOD: And we're going to eventually see DDT phased out, you think?

RALOFF: I think so. Right now, no one is digging in their heels about fighting POPs phase-outs for any of these compounds. It's just a matter of when.

CURWOOD: Thanks, Janet.

RALOFF: You're welcome, Steve.

CURWOOD: That was Janet Raloff, senior editor at Science News, and Living on Earth's science commentator.

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Coming up: Loving the sun, with deadly consequences. America's sun worshipers are seeing a rise in skin cancer. The details are next here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Skin Cancer on the Rise

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Summer is unofficially over. The kids are back in school. Leaves are turning. And for those of you who've worked all summer to get them, luxurious summer tans are, alas, fading, too. But the consequences of spending too much time in the sun may be lasting, and potentially fatal. Skin cancer is on the rise in the United States, and a new study in New Zealand raises concerns that depletion of the ozone layer is one cause of high rates of skin cancer there. But perhaps just as important a factor is behavior. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum explains.

(Surf and ambient voices)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Ten-year-old twins Diana and Jacqueline Patchin summer on Rhode Island's Narragansett Beach. The sky and the sea seem endless here, and the sun is bright. But even these girls know too much sun can quickly ruin a vacation.

D. PATCHIN: It hurts.

J. PATCHIN: A lot.

D. PATCHIN: And you can't sit down, you can't touch your arms, and no one can touchyou and you can't go to sleep at night.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Diana and Jacqueline also know a peeling nose can mean troubles ahead.

D. PATCHIN: You might get skin cancer.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The Patchin twins are of a generation in which shampoo and makeup come with built-in SPF, and the UV index comes with the daily forecast. Today, sunscreen options are as numerous as ice cream flavors. There's waterproof or water-resistant, blue or red, glitter or fruit-scented, spray or gel. It's a far cry from the days when the sun was touted for its health benefits, and baby oil and reflectors for speedier tanning were standard beach equipment.

(Music. Man's voice-over: "Don't hide it, flash them, your Coppertone tan!" Sings: "Flash them, the dark tan. Flash them, the fast tan. Flash them, the Coppertone tan.")

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In the last few years, major health groups, including Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Dermatology, and American Cancer Society, have begun warning the public about the dangers of the sun. The reason? Skin cancer is the fastest growing cancer in the United States. Most cases are basal or squamous cell carcinomas, and are usually treatable if detected early. But its deadliest form, melanoma, kills more than 7,000 Americans a year.

WEINSTOCK: We know that going back as far as we have accurate measures of melanoma incidents, which is back to the late 1930s, that ever since then it's been rising quite substantially to the present day.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Dr. Martin Weinstock is a professor of dermatology at Brown University and chair of the American Cancer Society's Skin Cancer Advisory Group.

WEINSTOCK: And in the late 1930s, in a typical town of 100,000 people, you'd have about one melanoma a year. And now you have about 15 or 20. So it's been a huge, huge rise over those 60 years or so.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Dr. Weinstock attributes the increase in melanoma to shifts in cultural, economic, and fashion mores. At the end of the last century, the elite stayed indoors and pale while the working classes labored out in the fields. The Industrial Revolution turned the tables. Workers moved into factories. The wealthy took up sunbathing, and bronze skin came into vogue. More people began exposing more of themselves to the sun more often. Sometimes with dire consequences.

FAHNLEY: I did not even know what melanoma was when the doctor called me, but then found -- I had a surgeon calling, on the heels of that phone call, saying he needed to see me right away. He had just lost a patient, same age as myself, two weeks earlier. So I went into a complete panic.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Kim Fahnley was 29 when she was diagnosed with melanoma. One year later her friend Ruth Ann Molyneaux also got the bad news.

MOLYNEAUX: Your first reaction is that you will be extremely, you know, cautious. You will never let this happen to you again. You will do whatever you have to do not to have it happen again. And so, when it's time to go get the mail, or it's time to go out and get your newspaper, you think you just need to cover up from head to toe, because you're so struck with fear.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Kim and Ruth Ann always spent a lot of time outdoors. Kim owns a horse farm. Ruth Ann gardens. After their diagnoses, Kim and Ruth Ann didn't stop going outside, but it wasn't the same. They felt compelled to apply sunscreen every few minutes, and wore longsleeved shirts in the middle of August. Worse, they say, people just didn't understand.

FAHNLEY: I very early on learned not to talk to anybody about skin cancer,
because people, their attitude, well that's you, so sorry about you and your situation, but I've got to get off to the beach now or get on with my day. Because I tan. I look okay.
(Speaking to a customer) Yeah, here are some of the designs that we have, and you can just feel the fabric...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Today Kim and Ruth Ann run their own company, called Sun Solutions. They make protective clothing, designed to let people be sun smart without looking like fashion geeks.

MOLYNEAUX: ... because this has venting in the back ...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Even with the reality of cancer, Ruth Ann says it's difficult getting used to the idea of not getting brown come summer time.

MOLYNEAUX: For the first few years, actually, after I had my diagnosis, I did the sunless tanning, the lotions. And actually, this is the first year that I have not done that. And that has taken a comfort level for me, to feel comfortable about who I am and how I look. And yet, I would not wear a pair of shorts because I still feel self-conscious, not to myself but out in public, that I would definitely feel as though I would stand out.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It isn't always easy to change people's habits, even if they know the facts about skin cancer. But scientists say 80 percent of melanoma cases could be prevented with adequate sun protection before age 18. Lifeguards at Cunningham Park in Milton, Massachusetts, teach young swimmers the basics of safety in the sun.

(Children's voices and splashing)

WOMAN: So who needs to protect their skin from the sun? Just me, just you, or like everybody?

CHILDREN: Everybody.

WOMAN: Everybody, that's right.

CHILD: Everybody in the whole universe.

WOMAN: That's right, sweetie. Awesome.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: There is some evidence that sun smart programs can work. You can find it down under.

SINCLAIR: Australia has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Our levels of ultraviolet radiation here are as high as they are in the Sahara Desert. Yet we have a population that is predominantly fair-skinned.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Craig Sinclair manages the Sun Smart Campaign for the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria. Two out of three Australians, he says, will get some form of skin cancer during their lifetime. And a national effort is underway to bring those numbers down. In an area of the world where the protective ozone layer is thin, tree plantings have increased shade at schools and parks. Sun protection policies for outdoor workers are standard in many precincts. And sunscreen is now tax-free. The initial results are promising. In Victoria, the Sun Smart Campaign reports a 50 percent decrease in sunburning since 1988, and rates of non-melanositic skin cancers in some age groups have dropped by 11 percent since 1985.

SINCLAIR: It's an intrinsic part of our lifestyle here, and it's now as commonplace for parents to tell their child to put on sunscreen as it is to make sure they brush their teeth.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It can take up to 20 years for melanoma to develop, so it's too early to tell if sun protection campaigns in the United States are working. Some of the current evidence isn't encouraging. Sunburn rates in the U.S. have increased by a third in the last decade. In 1997, Americans paid more than $500 million to treat newly-diagnosed melanoma. And while sales of SPF 15 or higher have increased considerably since 1991, the tan enhancer brands that offer little or no SPF protection are doing a brisker business. Meanwhile, some scientists worry that continued ozone depletion will only boost melanoma-related deaths. Still, Dr. Martin Weinstock of the American Cancer Society says Americans are headed in the right direction.

WEINSTOCK: I do see change happening here in the United States already. We are seeing signs that the models in fashion magazines are not as tanned as they used to be, and that is an indicator that there is the beginnings of a cultural change. We certainly have a long way to go. So I'd say the change will be gradual, but I do think it will occur, and I do think it's starting to occur.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

CHILD 1: Mermaids need sunscreen. There's a thing called -- you know the stuff that you can hear the ocean from?

CHILD 2: The shell?

CHILD 1: Yeah.

CHILD 2: A conch shell.

CHILD 1: Conch, yeah. And before that, the thing that makes the shell is
like these little icky huge snail. And then the mermaids put it on them when they go up to the surface and become human. So --

WOMAN: And that's for sunscreen?

CHILD 1: Uh huh.

WOMAN: Really! Where did you hear that?

CHILD 1: Oh, we made it up.

WOMAN: I like that.

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(Music up and under)

Runaway Pig

MONTGOMERY: It was one of those achingly beautiful days on the cusp of summer and fall, when the sun pours out golden crickets singing in the goldenrod and the air smells like ripening apples. Unfortunately, I was inside. Working.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery.

MONTGOMERY: I work at home, so the worst part was I could have been outside. But there were phone calls and e-mails and deadlines. So I was stuck. Until, that is, the pig escaped.

Actually, he didn't escape. I let him out, which normally takes just a minute. The problem was, he didn't go where he was supposed to. Usually led by food, Christopher Hogwood walks obediently to his rooting grounds, where I leash him to a long tether. On this day, though, he had other plans, and I had a 700-pound pig on the loose.

This is no small problem. A pig of that size on the loose is kind of like having a bulldozer roaming randomly through the neighborhood. Not that he's dangerous, per se. He's a calm pig. He knows I'm a vegetarian and my husband is Jewish. And like the conductor who is his namesake, he's a cultured individual with an appreciation for the finer things in life.
Unfortunately for Chris, the finer things in life sometimes include rooting up the neighbors gardens and prying the clapboards off the house with his nose disc. And in fact, he was heading toward the next door neighbor's manicured lawn. I couldn't stop him. Even though he was plodding at a stately pace, he weighs substantially more than I do, and this fact has not escaped him. All I could do was follow.

Luckily, he decided to root up a portion of our side yard. Then he walked to the side porch and bit off a chunk of the floor. And then, with the top of his nose, swung open a gate I can't lift and entered the pasture. On the other side of the pasture is Route 137, a place I particularly didn't want him to go. If he were to collide with a car, neither would benefit.
The pig started strolling in the direction of the road. I tried to deflect him. I offered him grain. He still wasn't interested. Just as I was about to despair, the solution came to me. On a warm, sunny day like this, all I have to do is rub Christopher's belly and he flops over on his side, grunting blissfully. So, this I did. And then I lay down beside him, beneath an apple tree. We stayed there about an hour together. I watched the clouds and butterflies and the undersides of leaves. I patted his fur as it grew warmer with the sun, and he grunted with pleasure. I hadn't planned on spending an hour that way, but then there are worse ways to spend a gorgeous late summer afternoon than lying with a pig beneath an apple tree.

Some say that happiness lands lightly on you like a butterfly. But
serenity is perhaps another matter, and it may come lumbering toward you. Like a 700- pound pig.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery and her pig Christopher Hogwood live in Hancock, New Hampshire. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up: The story of Lonesome Larry and the other disappearing salmon. Our series Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest begins in just a minute. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: A hundred and eighty years ago this month, John Keats returned from a tour of Northern England and Ireland to write his Ode to Autumn. At the time, Keats was caring for his brother, who was dying from tuberculosis, and the poet found himself immersed in the end of two life cycles: his brother's and the season's. Keats found solace in his work. Here's an excerpt:

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom friend of the maturing sun, conspiring with him how to load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch leaves run. To bend with apples the mossed cottage trees and fill all the fruit with ripeness to the core. Then in the wailful choir, the small mats mourn among the river sallows, borne aloft or sinking as the light wind lives or dies. And full-grown lambs now bleat from hilly born. Hedge crickets sing. And now, with treble soft, the red breast whistles from garden croft, and gathering swallows twitter in the skies."

Indeed, during his all too brief career, Keats devoted many poems to the seasons. In his eyes they mirrored the human condition.

"Four seasons fill the measure of the year," he wrote, "and there are four seasons in the mind of man." And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Point of No Return, Part 1: A River Tamed

CURWOOD: A few years ago, in the Sawtooth Mountains of Central Idaho, a single Sockeye salmon made its return from the sea. It had traveled hundreds of miles up the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon Rivers, to a place named after a species, Redfish Lake. Locals called the fish Lonesome Larry. In times past, Larry would have had thousands of companions, but this fish died without helping a mate to spawn. Nature dictates that many species of salmon must return to the very stream where they were born to breed. No other place will do. Like the Snake River Sockeye, dozens of the salmon runs throughout the Northwest that were once key to both indigenous and settler communities are already gone or endangered or threatened. Salmon have been displaced by everything from logging, fishing, and agriculture to urban growth and hydroelectric dams. This week, Living on Earth begins a special series: Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest. In our first report, Sandy Tolan travels down the Columbia River system and considers its transformation by ribbons of concrete.

(Flowing water)

TOLAN: Jay Minthorn was a young man when the waters began to rise.

MINTHORN: And as we was fishing, you could begin to see, below the fall, as to where the water begin to back up, and the waters begin to slow down. You didn't seen the beautiful boiling waters. You didn't see that.

TOLAN: At Celilo Falls, back in the 1940s, Mr. Minthorn's father taught him to fish for salmon. Perched on wooden scaffolds, they'd reach into the raging Columbia River with dip nets made of hemp. Spring Chinook Salmon would jump at the falls, flashes of red leaping up in silver froth. They were returning from the Pacific, finding their way home to their natal streams to spawn and die. They were called the June hogs, 40- and 60-pound fish.

MINTHORN: They were a pretty pink color, as they were going up the river to spawn. I remember seeing what they called the silver sides, the blue backs, many Steelheads, the little Jack salmon.

TOLAN: Jay Minthorn's father had learned to net the Chinook from his father, and he from his, and on and on back in time. Columbia River Indians fished here for at least 400 generations, until the waters rose behind the Dalls Dam, barely one generation ago.
(Lapping water)

MINTHORN: And you could see these people, knowing the water was coming, you could begin to see them get their nets and begin to leave. But they left their scaffolds, just like a grave marker. And they pulled out and they got up on the bank to witness, as the water come up. Then you could see some of the scaffolds begin to tear off and float down the river. And when it got close to where I was fishing, I just threw my net in the river, and that was it. I walked off.

TOLAN: Celilo Falls was drowned on March 10, 1957, over the protests of nearly all the region's natives: the Nez Perce, the Umatilla, the Yakima, the Warm Springs tribes, and others. This part of the Columbia had been a center of native commerce for thousands of years. In its place, a new vision was rising to harness the Columbia with a chain of dams. To provide work and growth and security and power for the new residents of the region.

(Guitar; Woody Guthrie sings: "Green Douglas fir, where the waters cut through. Down the wild mountains and canyons...")

MINTHORN: Everybody thought that was a wonderful song. It used to be on the radio and everything. There was records and everything. Roll on Columbia, the mighty Columbia. It's a manmade Columbia River today. It isn't anything that the original "Roll on Columbia River" is.

(Guthrie: "Roll on Columbia, roll on. Roll on Columbia, roll on..." Fade to radio communication)

TOLAN: Five thousand feet above the gorge carved out by a wild Columbia, in Jane Niccolai's one-engine Cessna, we look down upon the engineered river. Lake Celilo, one of a series of long pools, backs up behind concrete, a long resting snake stretching into the distance.

NICCOLAI: The river is dammed all the way across. There are some islands in the river that all the dams kind of hook up across to, and there's ...

TOLAN: Below, on the downriver side of the Dalls Dam 80 miles east of Portland, white water spills from spinning turbines, making power for the entire Columbia Basin and beyond. The Columbia and its tributaries drain a region larger than New England and New York State combined, from Canada to Northern California, from the Rockies in Montana to the Pacific, most of it powering through this dam. Today the churning waters below are a small suggestion of what the river was like when Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805. William Clark was appalled by the river's horrid appearance: this agitated gut swelling, boiling and whorling in every direction. When the expedition rode down the Dalls in their dugout canoes, the Indians thought they were crazy.

NICCOLAI: You can see there's not a lot of water movement, and the shoreline is right up to the edges.

TOLAN: Today, behind the monolith of the Dalls Dam, it's still and glassy, a mirror in which we can see our own reflection. But we cannot see what was drowned, Celilo Falls, beneath the tranquil surface.

NICCOLAI: The bathtub is full.

(Guthrie: "On up the river, a grand little dam. Mightiest thing ever built by a man...")

TOLAN: Woody Guthrie's ballad was an anthem for a new era, and to the working men who made real President Franklin Roosevelt's vision. The Columbia's steep drop was perfect for hydropower, ten times steeper than the Mississippi and just over half the length. The river, FDR said, must be developed by the nation and for the nation.

(Guthrie: "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, roll on Columbia, roll on...")

TOLAN: Electricity from the Columbia built American war planes during World War II. It fueled the top secret atomic weapons project at Hanford nuclear reservation. President Truman said without that power, winning the war would have been almost impossible. After the war, ever more taxpayer financed dams provided cheap power, fueling growth for Boeing, aluminum companies, and millions of new migrants to the Northwest. The dams made the Columbia River system navigable, sending wheat down the Snake from Lewiston, Idaho, to the Pacific. And water pumped from the tame river turned half a million Northwest acres from a desert to a bread basket.

(Sprinklers)

TOLAN: On moist dirt at TNR Farms a mile from the Columbia, we stand before a 400-foot sprinkler, a giant metal centipede, arched silver back, creeping across the land on feet of black tires.

REIMAN: This will be sweet corn. We're just working this ground, yeah.

TOLAN: Before the dams, Ron Reiman's 5,000 acres were called Poverty Flats. No longer.

REIMAN: These are potatoes here. These are some Ranger Russets. You see them starting to push through the ground.

(Wind)

TOLAN: Mr. Reiman takes us toward the river. Patches of desert poke through. Cheat grass and sagebrush and rock. It's treeless, but for a lone juniper on a far hill. We move down low, irrigated hills, tan, dark brown, rust, all freshly planted. At the bottom, we reach the source of the abundance.

(Humming)

TOLAN: We get out at an irrigation pump house above the pool formed by Ice Harbor Dam.

REIMAN: I think it would be great if everybody had a river system like this, because this is put to a lot of different uses. It's not just for a farm or for irrigation. It's for everybody.

TOLAN: The dream of a harnessed river is embedded here. The pumps churn the Columbia into an underground irrigation web, 30 miles of mainline. Mr. Reiman's family spent two-and-a-half million dollars installing it when the reservoir filled back in 1975. Now, Mr. Reiman works the pumps with the click of a mouse in his office. Infrared aerial photography monitors his watering patterns.

(Humming and fans)

REIMAN: The water is very important, and I'm not sure if it was Teddy Roosevelt said that we only have just enough out in the West to fight over. Unfortunately, that's true.

TOLAN: But here in the Columbia Basin, the biggest fight was decided long ago, in favor of the dams.

REIMAN: There's disadvantages to the dams, absolutely. You've created some slower water than there was before. But you've created a whole new ecosystem that supports a lot more people and wildlife than it ever did. The dams are what built this. Our hydroelectric power is what's built the Pacific Northwest. Washington, Idaho, Oregon, clear into Montana.

TOLAN: And the power is cheap. For decades, Federal subsidies have brought water and power to farms and industry at a fraction of their real cost. Farm lobbyists say these benefits are crucial to help farmers grow food for America and the world. TNR's wheat alone, Ron Reiman says, is enough for three-and- a-half million loaves of bread. Their potatoes would feed a city of 400,000. But Mr. Reiman and his neighbors who irrigate from the lower Snake represent just a tiny portion of the farm lands watered by the Columbia system. Yet the four lower Snake dams are increasingly blamed for salmon decline. And now, a generation after the last dam went in, shifting values in the region prompt a new battle. Advocates for endangered species and tribal treaty fishing rights and commercial and sports fisheries ask: Are the benefits to farm and industry worth the loss of the Steelhead and Chinook salmon? And the culture and livelihoods of the people who depended on them?

RAMSEY: You look at the Columbia, and what's happening on the Columbia, with all the dams and all the other habitat problems that exist, you think, well gee, we're talking about extermination. And that's forever.

TOLAN: Sixty miles downstream from Ron Reiman, in a fishing tackle factory along the river bank, Buzz Ramsey and Phil Jensen spell it out. Wild salmon populations have plummeted since the era of dams began. Some runs have declined 90 percent, others have been wiped out completely. Ask a dozen people in the Northwest and you might hear as many reasons why. Logging above the stream banks, urban development, over-fishing, changes in the ocean. But many biologists, along with sports fishing businessmen like Phil Jenson, say the biggest problem is the dams.

JENSON: When we pinpointed it, it's habitat. It's habitat for the salmon and we've destroyed where they live. How can we expect the runs not to diminish when we block the spawning grounds, we silt it in, we destroy it with pollutants?

TOLAN: We look at the picture window to the lethargic river. In front of us stands a display of fishing lures. Phil's father built this company, Lure Jenson, and put it here to make tackle for salmon. But Buzz Ramsey says for most runs of Columbia and Snake River salmon, he hasn't been able to fish from these banks for decades.

RAMSEY: When you see it slipping out of your fingers, and you think that I'm never going to be able to experience that again, and my children are never going to be able to experience this, you feel a tremendous loss of that. And you wonder, what's going wrong with this world? I mean, if the fish stock is in jeopardy, we're willing to stop fishing and put it on hold. But after a fishery has been closed for 20 or 30 years, you start asking yourself, shouldn't somebody else maybe stop what they're doing and let these salmon recover? And those industries need to change how they're doing business. Every citizen in the Northwest needs to change how they're doing business. And we need to recover salmon.

TOLAN: Wild salmon still come back to a few select places like the streams near the Hanford Reach, the only major undammed portion of the Columbia. In many places, though, it's too late to save the runs. The human impact is irreversible. But sports fishermen like Buzz Ramsey and commercial fishers, the Columbia River tribes, and environmental groups say there's at least one place where changes to the dam's system could make a big difference to the salmon. Many scientists say the best opportunity for recovery may lie along a crucial 140-mile-long stretch of the lower Snake River. They want the government to breach the four lower Snake dams, restoring a free-flowing river. The proposal is causing an uproar in the inland Northwest.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: When we return, Sandy Tolan travels to Lewiston, Idaho. Nearly 500 miles upriver from the Pacific, dams have made Lewiston an inland seaport. But cargo ships on the Snake River may one day have to make way again for salmon. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Point of No Return, Part 1 Continued

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The dams that turned the Columbia and Snake Rivers into almost boundless sources of electricity and irrigation also made a seaport out of Lewiston, Idaho, nearly 500 miles inland. That's where Sandy Tolan picks up the story of the transformation of the Columbia River system, as Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest continues.

DOERINGSFELD: This old building right over here, this little blue building, and these containers that are staged right here, that building is full of nothing but bentonite --

TOLAN: David Doeringsfeld, director of the Port of Lewiston, drives us around stacks of containers ready to be loaded onto barges: wheat, wood chips, clay.

DOERINGSFELD: These are containers --

TOLAN: Through the window of his truck we watch a blue crane lifting and swiveling. Fork lifts darting like worker ants. Down the Snake go Western Forests, paperboard for Japanese sake boxes or Australian milk cartons, and wheat from Montana and Idaho to be made into noodles in China. The cargo moves by barge down the engineered river. In a conference room, Mr. Doeringsfeld points to rows of white men in frames on the wall, in business suits and fedoras: architects of the vision to make the river a highway to an inland empire. Ten percent of the wheat grown in the U.S., he says, moves down the lower Snake by barge.

DOERINGSFELD: Out of the Port of Lewiston we move about a million tons of wheat. And if we just talk about tearing out these dams, I guarantee you we will not be moving that kind of wheat through this area.

TOLAN: Without those four dams, river traffic would stop. Dry land farmers on the margins fear they'd be unable to ship by more expensive rail or truck and would go out of business. Shipping or salmon, it's a dividing line.

(Traffic)

TOLAN: A crossroads of metal sheds and crisscrossing power lines on bare brown hills above the Columbia. Roosevelt, Washington. There's a post office, a bar, a mini-mart.
(Cash register clinks)

TOLAN: Behind the counter, Bud Stokes says the few jobs here are almost all in garbage, which comes upriver by barge to local landfills. Take out the Snake River dams, he says, and the local economy goes with them.

STOKES: It would be total disaster. Not just around here, the toll booth
companies based out of Portland, they're wiped out. They have to rebuild their roads for increased truck traffic. Increased production of trucks to make them available. Decrease of farmers, because they can't get water for irrigation. It would be total disaster.

TOLAN: Mr. Stokes used to fish for salmon in Alaska. Salmon are beautiful fish, he says, but things come and they go.

STOKES: It wouldn't make any difference at all if the salmon weren't here. How many times a year do you eat salmon? There are no more dinosaurs; do you want them brought back? Times change.

TOLAN: But also changing is the idea that dams are everlasting.

(Wind)

BOSSE: Now when you're talking dams, you're talking about sacred monuments in this part of the country.

TOLAN: A wind powers down a Snake River canyon, whipping across a concrete slab wedged into the river. We're standing on Lower Granite Dam with Scott Bosse, a biologist with Idaho Rivers United. This is one of the four contested dams on the lower Snake. A Federal scientific panel and a group of 200 scientists have both concluded that allowing the river to bypass just these four dams would create the best opportunity for bringing back salmon. Mr. Bosse agrees.

BOSSE: There's really only one way to get our fish back, and we're standing on top of it. And one thing that we're trying to convince people of is that, you know, dams aren't religious monuments. They're industrial tools that are built to serve society's needs. And when they no longer provide benefits that outweigh the costs, then we have to re-evaluate whether they should be there or not.

TOLAN: A huge problem, Mr. Bosse says, is when the young salmon or smelts move downstream toward the oceans. Many die coming through the dams. Among the survivors, their finely-tuned biological clocks may be upset. Born in freshwater, the bodies of salmon change during their downstream journey to allow them to live in the sea. But instead of a week riding a swift, cold current, the trip through slack water now takes some young salmon a month in warmer water they're not adapted to. To speed up that journey, river managers now capture nearly half the young salmon in the lower Snake and haul them downriver in barges and trucks. This has improved their survival rate getting downstream, but it may not do the trick. Only one in 250 transported juvenile salmon comes back to spawn as an adult, at best a fifth of the minimum level needed for healthy runs.

(Lapping water)

BOSSE: We can either continue to pursue that path and know with a great degree of certainty where it's going to end up, in extinction for these fish. Or we can really tackle the real problem and restore this chain of reservoirs back into the river that it once was.

TOLAN: Farmers, barge operators, the aluminum industry all say we don't
know enough yet to take such drastic action. Breaching the dams might not bring back salmon, they say, but it would bring havoc to the economy in the inland Northwest. And all that lost power, they say, will bring up electrical rates. Anglers, commercial fishers, environmentalists respond. Think about the new money and jobs from sports fishing and river running, a revitalized commercial fishery. As for power, they say, those four lower Snake dams generate barely five percent of the Northwest's annual use, and the average monthly electrical bill might only go up a dollar or two. A Federally- sponsored economic analysis confirms there would be winners and losers if the dams were breached, but suggests there would be a net job loss in the region. But some legal experts warn, if we don't breach and these salmon vanish, there will be billions of dollars in lawsuits based on the Endangered Species Act and tribal fishing rights. This kind of debate was never supposed to happen.

DEHART: When we looked at the Columbia and the development of the Columbia and the Snake River, there was never any intention to destroy this great natural system.

TOLAN: Michelle DeHart is director of the Fish Passage Center, a Federally- funded effort for Columbia and Snake River salmon mitigation.

DEHART: These fish supported economies, supported cultures. Now what happened was, when we as a society fell into this pattern of delusion that we could have it all, we wanted to keep the salmon, we realized how important they were, and we though that we could have it all by using technology. We set this pattern of delusion and denial, and now we're in a predicament. The predicament is, we've gone too far. We've developed beyond a balance point. So now, what are we going to do?

TOLAN: For the first time, the Federal government is seriously considering removal of the four lower Snake dams. Also on the table is increasing the river flow during the migration of the smelts by drawing down some of the upstream reservoirs. Or, the government may choose simply to increase the barging and try to make the dams safer and hope for the best. Breaching the dams would signal a radical change in the economic culture of the Northwest, but there is no going back to the way things once were.

(Bird song)

AXTELL: A lot of us shed tears over that place. It was such a beautiful place to gather, meet friends, make friends with all different tribes. But the water has covered the whole thing.

TOLAN: At home, under a back yard maple tree, Nez Perce elder and tribal historian Horace Axtell remembers the great Columbia River fishing grounds. Celilo Falls, behind the Dalls Dam. No one is talking about taking that dam down. It generates too much power. Celilo will remain underwater.

AXTELL: To me, it kind of felt like they wanted to take our fishing place away from us, so they built the dam. That's the way I feel about it. And as I get older, it seems like they built that dam just so they could cover that Celilo Falls. I've been kind of bitter about that for a long time.

TOLAN: Celilo Falls was not only a center of native culture and belief, it was what one tribal leader called an Indian Wall Street, a center of economic prosperity. The Columbia River tribes lobbied hard for its preservation and lost. And while they've won landmark Federal Court decisions in affirming their fishing rights, it's unlikely any court decision will bring back the great Celilo Falls. Today young people can hear only of the memory of the centuries at Celilo. Jay Minthorn is the Umatilla Indian leader who watched Celilo disappear.

MINTHORN: I've lived the life of the abundance of fish. I've lived the traditional way of dipping for salmon. I've seen the beautiful June hogs. I've seen the most colorful spring Chinooks. I've seen all the species at the Celilo Falls. And I carry these memories with me, but I've lived these things. I lived the great Celilo Falls.

(Ambient voices echoing)

TOLAN: Before we left the Northwest, we went to visit the man who allocates the hydropower generated by the Columbia dams. For weeks we've been hearing how crucial all this power was for the region. But the hydropower man told us that overall, the dams generate much more power than the region can use, and a lot of it is sent to California and Phoenix and Las Vegas. Then he told us Northwest power users pay a third less than the rest of the country. And we learned later, they use a third more. That night I had dinner with a friend in Portland. "Cheap power?" he asked. "Yeah. I pay nine bucks a month to keep my hot tub at 104 degrees, 24-7. You never know when you might want to jump in."

(Atmosphere inside plane cabin)

TOLAN: The next night I flew home to Boston via Las Vegas. I stared out at black Nevada desert. Suddenly, across some unknown boundary, there appeared a thicket of lights. White, yellow, green, and purple, blinking and beckoning. Lights powered in part from the Columbia River, in part from the excess power of the Dalls Dam. I thought of the Umatilla leader, Jay Minthorn, and glistening salmon falling into dip nets. And I stared down, at the ghost of Celilo Falls.

(Lapping water)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

Back to top

(Lapping water and music up and under)

CURWOOD: Next week, our series takes us to Seattle, where for the first time an entire city is under the scrutiny of the Endangered Species Act. Federal officials are out to see if urban environments can be turned into fish-friendly habitat, and that's making some Seattle residents furious.

MAN: I see this as some kind of eagle-topia, that somebody in Washington, D.C. would like to see the Pacific Northwest have to experiment around with. Come up with a nice little plan that we're going to do everything in the world, everything, regardless of economics, to control the environment.

CURWOOD: Salmon in the city, next week as our series Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest continues.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our staff includes Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Brent Runyan and Russel Wiedeman. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert is our western editor. And Peter Thomson is special projects editor. Terry FitzPatrick is the acting senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

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

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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