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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

November 5, 1999

Air Date: November 5, 1999
(stream/download) as an MP3 file

SEGMENTS

Climate Change Talks

Living On Earth’s Jesse Wegman talks with host Steve Curwood about the latest United Nation's Conference on Climate Change held in Bonn, Germany last week -- and how the negotiations might impact the chance for ratification of the Kyoto Protocol next year. (6:00)

River-Horse

Steve Curwood and author William Least Heat Moon discuss his newest book River-Horse. The author reads from his work and talks about the discoveries he made traveling by water across America. (6:50)

Bear Suit / Miriam Landman

Inventor Troy Hurtubise (HURCH-ooh-beez) is designing a suit of armor, inspired by the movie Robocop, that will protect him against grizzly bear attacks. He wants to study the bears up close in the wild, something researchers have been unable to do. Miriam Landman reports. (7:40)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about the African elephant, classified as an Endangered Species in 1990. (1:30)

Listener Letters

One listener responds to our commentary on the population boom; another says we need to do a better job covering the biotech revolution. And a nun from Alabama shares her own story about reconciling religion and the environment. (1:55)

The Point of No Return Series, Part 4: Salmon Saga / Sandy Tolan

The story of one salmon, and its journey from the high mountain streams of the northwest to the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean and back again, as told by producer Sandy Tolan, with original music by Dorothy Wang. It's the final installment in our series "The Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest". (23:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTER: Miriam Landman, Sandy Tolan
GUESTS: Jesse Wegman, William Least-Heat Moon

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Some of the world's major industrial nations say time is running out to fight climate change. They may move ahead without the U.S. to implement the Kyoto Protocol. We'll have results on the latest round of negotiations. Also, borrowing a prop from the movies to safely study grizzly bears up close in the wild.

HURTUBISE: And I said, wow, if I had the money and the time and I exclude the, you know, Hollywood superhuman capabilities and that, it could be a research vehicle for me to go in and do close-quarter research with grizzly bears.

CURWOOD: And the man who gave us the bestseller Blue Highways takes us on another trek across America, this time on blue waters.

MOON: I started trying to connect those rivers to see if I might go from sea to sea by water. It took me 20 years to find a route that had a chance of making it.

CURWOOD: Those stories this week on Living on Earth, right after the news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Climate Change Talks

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Delegates from around the world have just finished meeting in Bonn, Germany, for the fifth annual conference of the parties of the United Nations Climate Change Convention. More than 5,000 representatives from governments, businesses, and environmental organizations met to try to tie up some contentious loose ends on the document known as the Kyoto Protocol. And they have a deadline. Next year they must finalize this document aimed at curbing the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Among the contentious issues: how developing countries will be involved, and how flexibility mechanisms will be used. That is, how one nation might trade emissions with another. Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman is in Bonn. He attended the negotiation, and he speaks to us now on the line. Hey, Jess.

WEGMAN: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Jess, I understand that there was talk in Bonn of going ahead and putting the Kyoto Protocol into force without the United States.

WEGMAN: Yes, Steve. The U.S. has always been seen as the main foot-dragger in these ongoing climate change talks. And this year's negotiations didn't do much to dispel that. Add to that, the fact that U.S. emissions continue to rise. Some estimates were putting them nearly 40 percent above their reduction target by 2010. And you get a lot of people beginning to wonder if the U.S. will really be able to ratify this protocol on anywhere near the same time frame as the rest of the industrialized world.
Of course, the U.S. insists that it is committed to Kyoto and that ratification will happen in due course, as soon as the questions over those flexibility mechanisms are ironed out. But those are big and contentious issues, and most of them didn't get much closer to resolution at this conference. So, groups from a few European countries, Germany in particular, have started to look at the possibility of going ahead with the protocol without U.S. involvement.

CURWOOD: Is this possible, Jess? I mean, the U.S. is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

WEGMAN: Yes, it's true. And whether it can succeed really depends on whom you talk to. As you know, for the protocol to go into effect, it needs to be ratified by 55 countries representing 55 percent of industrial greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Now, conventional wisdom has long been that without the U.S., ratification would simply be impossible. But a paper just released by the Heinrich Boll Foundation here in Germany has crunched some numbers. And it argues that if the European Union and Japan can get together with Russia and what are known as the economies in transition, the Eastern European countries, they will just meet that 55 percent requirement. Whether or not this is realistic, and the U.S. delegation here, as well as business representatives, certainly thought it wasn't, it's an intriguing idea. And it perked up a lot of ears here. One U.N. representative told me it was the most exciting thing he head during the whole meeting.

CURWOOD: Okay. It's one thing for a foundation to make this kind of proposal or issue a study. But it's another thing for governments to say they're willing to go along. What do the governments say, in particular Germany and Russia?

WEGMAN: Well, everyone treaded pretty lightly at the conference. They know that for the Kyoto Protocol to be at all effective in the long run, it's essential that the U.S. be involved. No one disputes that. But right on the first day of the conference, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder came in and he said, "We're absolutely committed to getting this protocol into force by 2002." That prompted the same commitment from a number of other countries around the world, including most of the rest of the European Union and Japan. So, while that's not explicit, it definitely represents a collective will here among many of the bigger industrialized countries to get the ball rolling. I did speak with a member of the Russian delegation who said that while they're certainly supportive of U.S. involvement in the protocol, they would be willing to join whether or not the U.S. does. And I think that's the feeling on the part of many of the developed countries here, that they're not going to wait.

CURWOOD: Well, Jesse, if this happens and the protocol goes ahead after next year without the U.S., do you think the U.S. might then move more quickly?

WEGMAN: Well, some people suggested that the idea alone will push the U.S. to move faster toward ratification. Of course, the U.S. delegation keeps insisting they are completely committed to ratifying the protocol. But you know, there was a fair deal of skepticism here about that. In fact, there was a funny moment the other day, during the high-level ministerial sessions, that I want to play for you. What happened here was that each country was coming up and giving a speech for about three minutes, and then the president of the conference was saying goodbye and introducing the next speaker. And that was it; it was a very formal process. But here is what happened when Frank Loy the head of the U.S. delegation finished giving his speech.

LOY: Much needs to be done. Let us muster the political imagination and the determination, so that we may meet this great challenge, and so that we may pass on a healthy, livable planet. Thank you.

(Applause)

CONFERENCE PRESIDENT: On behalf of the conference, I thank the distinguished representative of the United States of America for his statement. Mr. Loy, you will have noticed that we very carefully listened to what you said, and that we all have noted down the implicit commitment in your statement.

(Audience laughter)

CURWOOD: Boy, that's about as pointed as things get in a diplomatic situation, huh?

WEGMAN: Yeah. And as you can tell, Steve, people were pretty wary of the U.S. here. On top of that, the Senate's recent rejection of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty did not play well here at all, and it created a real sense that maybe the U.S. is not in a position to negotiate this protocol to its completion.

CURWOOD: Okay, Jess, it's about time for us to go. But quickly, next year, when the conference of the parties meets in the Hague, in the Netherlands, will there be a document that the world's nations will start to ratify, do you think?

WEGMAN: Well, I think there's a lot more optimism about that than there was, say, last year, after the fourth conference of the parties in Buenos Aires. I think that there was a real positive feeling that countries were able to talk to each other substantively this time, rather than flipping into the procedural morass that has plagued a lot of the earlier conferences. And I think that alone just signifies that things are moving ahead, and there is a good sense that next year in the Hague, they might actually get this thing finished.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks, Jess.

WEGMAN: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman reporting from Bonn, Germany.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Just ahead, one man's plan to look a wild grizzly bear in the face and live to tell about it. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

River-Horse

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Americans have long felt the romance of transcontinental treks from the east coast to the west, whether by covered wagon or station wagon. Author William Least-Heat Moon made the trip along the nation's back roads for his bestseller Blue Highways years ago. Now, he chronicles his latest voyage across the continent, by water, in his new book River Horse. Most of the way he traveled aboard the 22-foot flat-bottom C-Dory called Nikawa, or River Horse in the language of his tribe the Osage. When the passage was too narrow or shallow, he took to a canoe. In all, William Least-Heat Moon covered more than 5,000 watery miles in what he describes as a quest for a new vision of America.

MOON: I'm always trying to memorize the topographical face of America since, I don't know, maybe I was ten years old when I got interested in learning what the place looked like. So, as I get older, I try to find new ways to do this. And I began looking once again at a road map, and noticed that there were some blue lines on there. These were not the blue highways, the back roads that I used in my first book, Blue Highways. These were little blue lines that meant rivers. And I started trying to connect those rivers to see if I might go from sea to sea by water. It took me 20 years to find a route that had a chance of making it.

CURWOOD: So quickly tell me the route that you took.

MOON: The route began in New York City, went west along the Erie Canal. I'll skip some of the smaller bodies of water. To the Allegheny River, the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri, which was more than two-fifths of the route. Over the Rocky Mountains, the Snake, Salmon, and Columbia Rivers.

CURWOOD: And the hardest part to get through?

MOON: Well, it could be anywhere. We had a hell of a time on Lake Erie.

CURWOOD: You write about that in the book. Could you read from that section for us, please? I think it's on page 76 there.

MOON: This is after we came off of the lake, and we wanted to make sure that if we got into more water like this, that Nikawa could withstand this kind of a beating. (Reads) I telephoned the builder of Nikawa to ask whether she could continue to take such beatings. And he said, "The C-Dory can take it. The question is whether her crew can." When I sat down to a hot bowl of Greek lemon soup and a stack of a sandwich, I wished I'd heard his words a day sooner. To have understood that the only weakness lay in me, and not also in Nikawa, would have cut fear by half, and also laid out a challenge to lift a kitten-hearted sailor. We had no celebratory toasting, because merely drawing breath was elation enough, and there was still Chautauqua Lake waiting in the warm afternoon. Seamen should hold off a week before trying to convey to a landsman what a hard voyage was like, but we didn't. And the photographer, an excellent fellow but a worrier of the highest caliber, said, "Do you realize after ten days you're still in New York?" I said, "Do you realize after another revelation like that, you'll die in New York?" (Curwood laughs)

CURWOOD: When you left New York and you were along the Erie Canal and then down the Allegheny and the Ohio, when you get to the Missouri, you're heading upstream. So, you say in your book that the Missouri was really quite a challenge and it was, what, 40 percent of your trip. I'm wondering if the troubles you had with the Missouri didn't in fact come from the fact that you were going upstream. You were really having to work.

MOON: Oh, that was very much a part of it. The lower part of the Missouri was in flood, and although that made it risky at night trying to find a place to get the boat off the river, through the day, in many ways, it made things easier for us because there was so much water. We could go anywhere we wanted in the river in this shallow boat and not have to worry about it. But once we got beyond the flooded sections and got into other aspects of the river, then we were faced with the current going against us. With the 22-foot C-Dory it wasn't much of a problem, but when we were in that canoe with the little four-horse motor, we were really working to make that thing move against the current. And as we got toward the headwaters in Montana, we finally had reached the limits of what that little motor could do. The river there was pouring down so hard, that at times we would move at the rate of about, oh I don't know, two or three inches every half a minute or something. We were just creeping slightly beyond the current.

CURWOOD: And so what happened then? Did you get out and push?

MOON: Well, we had one horrible day in which we spent a lot of time pushing with the paddles, pulling essentially, and grabbing onto overhanging willows to try to gain some headway in certain difficult channels. But that was the end of the Missouri. It saved all of that part for the very last. I've talked about rivers becoming human as you deal with them in this way. And I think we all felt that the Missouri was like a cross great-uncle that had wanted to pull tricks on you and wanted to make things difficult. But it didn't really want to kill you or defeat you. It wanted you to get there but you had to earn its respect to let you pass. This may sound quite mad to people to talk about rivers in this way, but when you've been on a river like that for six weeks, you certainly see and feel about them differently.

CURWOOD: So, what was the reward? What was the greatest success of this trip?

MOON: Well, I think the greatest thing for me was seeing America in a way that I had never seen it before. I knew rivers primarily before this from crossing them on bridges, in which you approach them laterally. Well, that doesn't really give you the sense of what a river's like, because rivers flow the other way. To see them with their current or against their current, to follow their lines, the country looks radically different. And I must say, in most ways it looks, it's a more handsome country. I felt more optimistic after this trip. When we would come into a city, even something, say, as big as Pittsburgh, we would come in and there would be, for miles and miles and miles, a screen of trees along the river. And then the trees would fall away and suddenly the city was there; we were right in the heart of things. It's not like arriving in Pittsburgh or Utica or any other place in the United States by car, in which you have to go through these miles of sprawl, you have to see the billboards, you have to see the businesses and metal buildings, you've got to go through all the franchises, the chains. You arrive by river, typically, in what seems to be a natural world. Although that's a bit of illusion, because behind that screen of trees the city is there. But suddenly it opens up and there it is. Kind of like Dorothy coming out of the dark into the light before the city of Oz.

CURWOOD: Will, thanks for joining us today.

MOON: Thanks, Steve, for having me by.

CURWOOD: William Least-Heat Moon's newest book is called River Horse.

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(Music up and under)

Bear Suit

CURWOOD: Wildlife biologists have studied grizzly bears for a long time, but much about them is still a mystery. Mostly because researchers can't get close enough to the animals without risking their lives. To make it possible to study grizzlies up close in the wild, a Canadian man has invented a special bear suit, and it's not the fuzzy kind. Through a series of macho stunts, Troy Hurtubise has demonstrated that the suit's high-tech metals and plastics could protect him in the event of a bear attack. Though some people question his suit pursuits, Mr. Hurtubise's obsessive interest in grizzlies remains unwavering. Living on Earth's Miriam Landman has this profile of the man who would be bear.

LANDMAN: Troy Hurtubise is crazy about grizzly bears. His passion was sparked about 15 years ago, when he had a run-in with a grizzly while trekking in British Columbia.

(Bird song)

HURTUBISE: It was a very young bear about three or four years of age, and I was directly in its territory. I was about 50 feet off from scratch marks. That's where my tent was.

(Bear calls)

LANDMAN: The bear knocked him to the ground with its snout, but then ambled off, leaving him shaken but alive. After the encounter, he became fascinated with grizzlies, but he discovered that many things aren't known about the ferocious bears because researchers can't get close.

HURTUBISE: So, I put it aside for a year, because I couldn't, you know, break that barrier that nobody else could, until I watched a viewing of Robocop. And I said wow, if I had the money and the time, and I exclude the, you know, Hollywood superhuman capabilities and that, it could be a research vehicle for me to go in and do close-quarter research with grizzly bears.

(Soundtrack from Robocop: "You are under arrest." Man: "You better take me in." Robocop: "I will.")

LANDMAN: He'll need the armor of a superhero to fulfill his dream: to film a grizzly cub birth in the wild, something no one has done before. But then, Troy Hurtubise isn't your typical bear researcher. He built the suit in a shed behind his house, sinking all of his savings into the project. Meanwhile, his scrap metal business went belly-up. But though the suit may have cost him a fortune, it has also brought him some fame.

(Music and merriment)

LANDMAN: Especially in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was honored at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. At the annual event celebrating wacky scientific achievements, audience members gathered around the seven-foot-tall white plastic suit on display. There are red and black designs on it and a drawing of a grizzly bear on each leg.

(Milling crowds)

WOMAN: It looks early caveman combined with astronaut combined with duct tape.

MAN: It looks like something you'd probably find on Mars.

WOMAN 2: It's just utterly magnificent. (Laughs) It's a spectacle.

LANDMAN: The bear man has gained a cult following since appearing in the campy documentary film Project Grizzly. At the awards ceremony, the audience watches a clip of the film showing a two-ton pickup truck pummeling the suit-wearing inventor at 35 miles per hour.

MAN: Are you ready, Troy?

HURTUBISE: I'm ready.

MAN: Here it comes.

VOICE: Look out, look out, look out!

(Crash; the audience whoops and applauds)

LANDMAN: As ridiculous as it looks, Troy Hurtubise considers it serious testing to make sure that he could withstand an actual grizzly attack. He's called on his buddies in northern Ontario to help him test the suit. In addition to hitting him with the truck, they've hit him with bats, attacked him with a chainsaw, and even shot him with a gun to simulate a grizzly mauling. His ingenuity has earned him some fans, like Ig Nobel organizer Mark Abrahams.

("Oh Canada")

ABRAHAMS: Troy to me represents the finest in the tradition of inventors. When you say the word inventor to many people, the word that comes up immediately is "crackpot." Because who on earth would spend all the time and effort and care that's necessary to come up with something new that works? You have to have that crackpot element in you to do that.

("Oh Canada")

LANDMAN: The inventor has faced his share of setbacks. A couple of years ago, after the battery of ballistic tests, he went to the Canadian Rockies to find a grizzly. He found one, but it turned out he couldn't walk up to it because his suit was too heavy and rigid for hiking through the rugged terrain. This difficulty was captured by the Project Grizzly film crew.

(Footfalls; panting)

HURTUBISE: Walking uphill is -- ooh! Going to be, very, very difficult.

LANDMAN: But he refused to give up. He has now drawn up blueprints for a more streamlined and flexible suit, which he calls the G-man. He explains that the G stands for Genesis, the beginning of something new.

(Suspenseful music up and under)

HURTUBISE: It's literally bulletproof. You see the outside world on the inside of the visor, and it comes into a hologram. It has robotic hands, 100 percent dexterity, that works off a touchpad system with your real hand. Has a lot, a lot of gadgetries on it.

LANDMAN: The high-tech suit will not be cheap to build. He's currently trying to drum up almost $1 million in funding to bring the G-man into being. He plans to get funds by selling spinoffs from the suit, like a hockey helmet that he's patented. He also plans to sell a spray that he calls the Hurtzy, as in Hurtubise. He claims that the formula can make materials stronger and lighter than today's bulletproof body armor.

(A gunshot with suspenseful music up and sirens and under)

LANDMAN: Eventually he also hopes to sell the impervious suit itself, to fire departments, riot control squads, and maybe even the United Nations for land mine extraction.

(Sirens, gunshots, heartbeats, explosions)

LANDMAN: But Troy Hurtubise says the suit and its spinoffs are just means to an end.

HURTUBISE: I just want to do grizzly research, you know? The preservation of the grizzly bear and its habitat is my main goal.

LANDMAN: He believes the public will be more prone to set aside land for the threatened bears if they see how grizzlies can help people. Scientists say that a better understanding of grizzly hibernation could provide insights into human metabolism, muscle atrophy, and bone loss. But Troy Hurtubise acknowledges that he is not a scientist. So he says he'll bring credentialed biologists along with him when he goes to see bears in their dens. Still, many mainstream bear researchers question his methods. Dr. Chuck Schwartz is a government biologist for the inter-agency Grizzly Bear Study Team in Bozeman, Montana.

SCHWARTZ: We do everything possible not to disturb or displace the bear. So, we don't go into the bear's dens and we certainly don't try to confront bears in close situations.

LANDMAN: But Troy Hurtubise points out that bear researchers have never had qualms about going into black bears' dens, because black bears are relatively non-aggressive. And he wants to learn more about grizzly aggression to help develop better techniques for deterring attacks.

(Bird song)

LANDMAN: But until his new suit is built, he can't get close to wild grizzlies. So for now, he watches them from afar. The Project Grizzly crew filmed him and his friends on one of their annual expeditions to the Rockies.

MAN: (on radio) Everybody stay alert, because we're got one in the area. Out.

(Suspenseful music)

HURTUBISE: (Whispering) Spotted the old man coming down up the trail there, saw his tracks. He's not huge but he's a half decent size. Might have been 500 feet away. He swung back around. He might have been spooked because there are too many people up in the hills, so we'll have to wait him out. But he might come in.

LANDMAN: Troy Hurtubise feels a rush of excitement and awe come over him whenever he gets anywhere near a grizzly. His reverence for the bears made me wonder if, on some level, he wishes that he were one. So I asked him.

HURTUBISE: Oh, absolutely. You know, I'd be the king out there. Sure, no doubt about it. I love the solitude. I'm not a city person; I like the bush anyway. So to be a grizzly bear would be great.

(Bear calls)

LANDMAN: For Living on Earth, this is Miriam Landman.

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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 Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up: To the sea and back, the magical rhythm in the life cycle of the salmon. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Barrett Communications, delivering strategic marketing communications and design for business worldwide: www.barrett.com.

The Living on Earth Almanac

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Twenty-five years ago this week, the world's largest land animal was slaughtered in Mocusso, Angola. The creature, an African bush elephant, weighed more than 13 tons and stood 13 feet tall at the shoulder. At the time an international debate was brewing whether the African elephant should be classified as an endangered or a threatened species. Nations that depended on ivory sales to boost their economies wanted the lesser protective classification of threatened so they could continue to sell tusks. Other countries, alarmed by the rapid population decline, wanted the animal marked endangered, and a ban on international trade. It wasn't until 1990 that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species classified the African elephant as endangered. This status hasn't kept poachers from killing elephants, but it has lowered demand for ivory and curbed the population decline. There have been a few recent attempts to repeal the African elephant's endangered status and open the ivory trade again. But for now, at least, the creature that John Donne once called "nature's great masterpiece" is relatively safe. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Listener Letters

CURWOOD: A salmon's journey is just ahead, but first a quick look in the mailbag. Our recent analysis of Monsanto's decision not to pursue its "terminator seed" technology drew criticism from Tim Hughes, a biochemist who listens to us on KUOW in Seattle. He says we need to do a better job distinguishing between agribusiness genetic engineering and biotechnology as a whole. "I am very concerned about the potential misuse of genetic technology," he wrote, "but I think you do NPR's listeners a disservice by implying that biotech is such a narrowly-focused sector. It's not all sheep cloning and genetically-modified foods."

Brenda Walker, who hears us on KQED in San Francisco, found our commentary on the six billionth baby superficial. "How can you discuss human overpopulation," she wrote, "without mentioning the major extinction that our reproductive profligacy is causing? Isn't Living on Earth supposed to be an environmental information show? We are destroying life on the Earth, and the best you can do is person on the street interviews."

Finally, sister Genevieve Saxey wrote to thank us for our feature on the Michigan Interfaith Global Warming Campaign. "Your program concerning the role of environmental questions in religion was most appropriate for me at this time. In my small town in Alabama, midway between Birmingham and Huntsville, we can recycle aluminum and paper but not plastic or glass. As director of the physical plant of our monastery, I and the other sisters here are very concerned about the moral implications of environmental problems."

Your comments are always welcome. Call us any time: 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address: letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15.

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(Music up and under)

The Point of No Return Series, Part 4: Salmon Saga

CURWOOD: For thousands of years before Lewis and Clark arrived in the Pacific Northwest, salmon were making rivers run red. Cohos, spring chinook, fall chinook, steelhead, all choked the streams with their return from the ocean. So many, it was said, you could cross a creek on their backs. Some swam just a few miles inland; others traveled for weeks back to Idaho, Montana, even Nevada, to the streams where they were born. Today we continue our series, Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest, with the story of the journey of just one salmon, a lucky one, whose bed has not been silted by logging operations or trampled by cattle. A salmon who has survived concrete barriers and polluted waters and changing ocean temperatures and predators, to go downriver and back up in an ancient and now rare odyssey. Salmon's Journey is produced by Sandy Tolan.

(Music up and under)

WOMAN: You think if they could talk, the stories they would have, and talk about persistence and patience and perseverance. I mean the salmon is it. They're just kind of like my heroes. I wish I had that toughness and persistence to carry on.

(Music up and under)

WOMAN 2: When we see pictures of salmon, they're frequently trying to cross some barrier, like a waterfall or something. And when we look at that, we like to say, "That's me. Against all odds, I'm that persistent, I'm that strong, I'm that graceful." I think it embodies everything that we would like to be ourselves, here in the northwest.

(Music up and under)

MAN: I've tried living other places, but I just spend too much time being homesick. So I keep coming back. And I think the salmon offer us something like that. A sense of absolute home. And on the other hand, they range all over the world. So, it's hard to imagine being a human being without having someone like the salmon as an example.

(Music, fading to flowing water and under)

TOLAN: In the beginning there is the egg in the streambed, a reddish-orange bead against the gravel. The embryonic fish is curled up inside its membrane. Soon a black point forms at the center. The salmon's eye, peering out. And then a tiny fish hatches, bursting through its membrane, and stays hidden in the cobbles, until it swims out as a fry. Here we journey with a single female spring chinook salmon from birth to death. Michelle DeHarte, fisheries biologist and salmon advocate, and Kim Stafford, Oregon writer and teacher, will help us describe and imagine the salmon's journey, from a bed of gravel in a tributary of Idaho's Snake River and back.

(Music up and under)

DEHARTE: They'll emerge from the gravel at the beginning of the year and be very tiny fry, and live in these tributary streams, until the following year. Winter, you know, will bring the freezing temperatures, will bring snow pack. And when the migration cycle begins, it is attuned to the natural weather cycles of the Earth.

STAFFORD: I imagined a little salmon waking up under the gravel, and all surrounded by this sustaining motion. And being tumbled along down the stream, rolling along and turning and catching itself in an eddy, and then going on at the mercy of momma, the river, that gets bigger and bigger. And down in the dark in the cold and then up in the light, and how would you orient yourself as you tumble through the first chapter of your life?

(Flowing water with music up and under)

TOLAN: The days grow longer and warmer, and our small fry becomes a smolt, changing her physiology. Preparing for a transition to salt water. At the same time, the snow pack melts and the waters rise, and she is swept downstream, toward the mouth of the great Columbia and open ocean beyond.

DEHARTE: All of this fits together. It's perfect. It's a perfect fit.

TOLAN: For millennia it was a perfect fit. Sixty years ago it changed, when young salmon coming downstream began to meet a new challenge made of concrete.

(Humming)

MAN: The fish are coming down the river. They approach the power house from that direction. And they're going to be intercepted by that, what we characterize ...

TOLAN: The first dam is called Lower Granite. It's operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Over the years the Corps has spent a billion dollars trying to make the dams friendly to fish. Special screens and diversion channels for the power turbines, where the fish can get dazed and disoriented. Monitoring systems at the spillways, where the rush of bubbles can give them the bends. The Corps wants to usher them safely through the dams and into the pools on the other side. Still, many die going through the dams. Sometimes their scales are ripped off despite the government's high-tech efforts.

(Humming)

MAN: And so, fish come to that behavioral guidance structure, and that thing extends 80 feet into the water, near the power house, 55 feet on the far end, 1100 feet in length.

TOLAN: Our fish is destined for another place. Along with tens of thousands of other spring, summer chinook, she is captured, put under anaesthesia, and pumped into a holding tank. From there, she comes down a kind of metal water slide and into a trailer, where 20 women in smocks sit waiting with syringes. At the helm is a government fish biologist.

(Beeps and fans)

MAN: Once they come down these lines a pit tag is injected, it's a little computer chip with an antenna on it. And it gives each fish its own social security number, basically; it's a unique character for each one of these fish.

TOLAN: The women in smocks insert the chips by hypodermic needle.

MAN 2: That's fish number 5277332941.

(Music, with beeps, fans, ambient speech and splashing water, up and under)

TOLAN: Now our fish can be tracked for her journey through the Pacific. And, if she's very lucky, back again.

(Music, with beeps, fans, ambient speech and splashing water, up and under)

STAFFORD: Well, for the salmon it must be mysterious, because so much surrounding them and buoying them up is as old as ever was. The river and the sunlight and the stones shaped by the river that they slip past as they go down. But then to have a gauntlet of obstacles that your body doesn't know, your body doesn't know how to help you, it would be like a human being in a foreign landscape, where you don't know where the poisons are, and who the thugs are. And if someone smiles, does that mean you're about to die?

(Music, with beeps, fans, ambient speech and splashing water, fade to water streaming)

TOLAN: When our fish wakes up, she'll be in a holding pen on a barge headed downriver, to speed her trip to the sea. Others continue their journey through the turbines, the pipes, and the spillways. Those smolts, no longer flushed to the ocean by snow pack, head slowly through the warmer slack-water pools, biological clocks ticking. The ocean they're adapting to is still hundreds of miles away

DEHARTE: Again they pass that dam, go another 30 or 40 miles, and then they get to Lower Monumental. Bypass, turbine, transportation, spillway. Again. And they go on down a ways, and they get to Ice Harbor Dam. Then they get to the confluence with the Columbia, they go a ways down the Columbia, and they get to McNeary Dam. And again at McNeary they've got...

(Rushing water)

TOLAN: And finally, the last of the Columbia dams, Bonneville. For the salmon who have been swimming downstream, it's dam number eight to navigate and survive. Barely half have made it down from dam number one. Our female chinook, who was captured upstream, continues her ride down on a barge, making one last trip through the locks of an engineered river.

(Fans)

TOLAN: The steel gates close. A man in a control room pushes a button. And the water in the locks drains, lowering the vessel. Then the great steel doors swing slowly open. The federal barge moves into open river. And the federal caretakers of young salmon get ready to dump their load.

(Sprays; fade to water dripping and music up and under)

TOLAN: And our young Spring Chinook, fish number 5277332941, heads out with 200,000 fellow smolts, and the others that have made it over the dams, toward the mouth of the Columbia and Astoria and the great open ocean.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

STAFFORD: Then you're spit out into the salt sea, and how do you find your way? You are with your kind, you are with your enemies, you are with your prey. There is that big deep out there, and you're swept by currents and tides and the moon, and you don't know anything but your own strength and your own confidence.

(Surf)

TOLAN: Our Chinook turns north, following the currents in a great counterclockwise arc. We can't be sure how far she'll go, but her kind from the Snake River have been found up on the Puget Sound, off of British Columbia, and well into Alaskan waters off the Aleutian Islands, up to 3,000 miles away by river and sea. For two, three, maybe four years she'll stay out there. Along the way always, there have been threats: lurking predators, elusive prey. Earlier this century there were fishers who took too much. More recently, some scientists believe, the ocean has grown warmer, making the salmon's prey ever more elusive. Others say no, the North Pacific is following common patterns of fluctuating temperatures. No one disputes the salmon's numbers have been plummeting. In the best of times, of the smolts who left their home streams, perhaps one in 20 lived long enough to return. Now for some runs, it is one in 250. Let us say our salmon is one of those 250, and that her life, spent in the ocean from youth to old age, reaches a point where she is called back home.

(Surf and music up and under)

STAFFORD: And then there comes a turning, as there is for any creature, when it's time to go back. It's time to go on by returning. And through some little thread, a few molecules of stone from where you began, you begin following and finding your way.

(Music up and under)

TOLAN: Our female Snake River salmon, who has traveled thousands of miles, knows how to head toward home. Her genetic clock has told her it's time. After her second or third winter in the ocean, she's come in to feed near the coast. And then it seems her incredible sense of smell takes over. Scientists say freshwater plumes from the great rivers can go hundreds of miles out to sea. And so it may be that our female chinook, swimming through such a plume, can detect the differences in salinity and temperature. Can essentially sniff her home river. So she heads toward it, toward the memory of the smells of her youth and all that awaits her.

(Flowing water.

STAFFORD: And then when you're coming home, it's not only that you're going to give all and die to get there. You may not get there. (Laughs) There are too many impossible things that you're contending against. So it's a stranger in a strange land, and it's your own land. What are you going to do?

(Flowing water and music up and under)

TOLAN: At the mouth of the Columbia our salmon stops feeding. She is all muscle and fat now, strong but aging, pointing her snout toward the place of her birth. She heads upriver, and finds concrete where she bangs her head before finding the fish ladder, a narrow passageway of steps around each dam. Bonneville, the Dalles, John Day McNeary, Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and at last Lower Granite. Past the big windows where people peer out and a tabulator counts off the returning fish. Some salmon are sucked back into the dams and have to repeat their upstream climb. It does appear the dams built with fish ladders make the journey upstream easier than the downstream trip of the smolts. The dams built with no ladders, like the Grand Coulee, simply exterminated entire salmon runs. At Lower Granite, where she began her journey three years before on a barge, our salmon is finally beyond her concrete obstacles, and facing new ones.

DEHARTE: If your home stream has been affected by people, the riparian habitat has been destroyed so the water temperature is high, there is a dam on your home stream and it affects the water temperature. Maybe it's polluted. Maybe there is agriculture. Maybe there is cattle. Maybe there is logging and it's silted up. All those things could affect you and could cause you to expire, to cause the fish to expire, before it gets a chance to spawn. We don't know.

TOLAN: In times past, incredible numbers returned, perhaps 15 million to the Columbia Basin. They sustained cultures and a native fishery for 10,000 years. Thousands of salmon would return to single, narrow stream beds. Horace Axtell, elder of the Nez Perce tribe.

(Flowing water and bird song)

AXTELL: They said when they come, you could hear them come up. You could see a mist from the water that they splashed coming up the creek, almost like misty water. They made a lot of noise. And when they get right to the creek there where they were, where the Indians would camp, they were so thick they said you could, just imagine, you could just walk across their backs and glide across the creek. They were that thick.

TOLAN: It was a gift. That's how the Columbia River tribes always saw it. Salmon were choking the rivers, expiring on the bank, where bears waited and raccoons. And all along the river, people with spears and nets, waiting for the salmon to give themselves.

AXTELL: They thought of it as the Creator has made these creeks and the rivers for all these fish that come up and bring their life up to us. And when they got it, they really give a blessing to that fish. So more would come. And that's why it was considered a sacred food. Because the Creator, through the creation of what the Creator made, the land and the water and the streams and everything. And that's considered like a high priority, because they have to travel so far to bring food to us, the way they did. It's like giving life, to us, with what they give to us, their life.

TOLAN: Salmon brought nutrients from the sea not just for people, because they brought phosphorus and nitrogen to the banks of the streams. Animals would feed and then fertilize the forests. In this way, sea elements have been traced to Douglas fir, to insects, to animals. The sea, a thousand miles away, was part of the forest. And the fish brought it there. The salmon was part of the trees and the animals and the people.

(Flowing water)

TOLAN: At her natal stream, our battered chinook arrives. White bruises from rocks and concrete, claw marks from sea lions, flesh peeling off. She drifts upstream and down, looking for good gravel in which to lay her eggs. With her powerful tail and the strength she has left, she begins digging, moving cobbles, kicking up silt, making ready her red, or nest, for the future of her race. She is the doe. When the red is prepared, she waits for her buck.

(Flowing water, fade to music up and under)

STAFFORD: And to see the male salmon ready below and all that power and purpose, just before the end. Imagine being a dancer unencumbered by hands or feet, unencumbered by gravity, buoyant. Completely free to, with the one long muscle of your body, shake everything. That's what I felt I saw when I looked down at that salmon spending all the coins of her life in one last dance.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

WOODY: My uncle took me up to this creek, where they were spawning up on our reservation.

TOLAN: Elizabeth Woody is a poet and a member of the Warm Springs tribe.

WOODY: We walked up real quietly to this doe, and he was saying that she was just waiting. And he said, and he goes, "It's real amazing," he said, "about these salmon, is that they come up and, if two bucks come up here and they fight for her, they won't fight too long. Because they don't have much time to waste. And so, the victor will stay with her, she'll build her red, he'll provide the milk. You know, he'll die. As long as she's alive she will protect those eggs. And then she would die." And he looked at me and he said,

"Now, isn't that a love story?"

(Flowing water and music up and under)

STAFFORD: You spend all that you have gathered in your life to get back to that place. And give up everything. And then disappear. That's a good circle to live. It has everything.

TOLAN: The circle is weakening. The factors are many. Across the northwest, salmon decline is linked to silted stream beds from logging, estuaries plowed under for urban growth, the dams, and possibly ocean temperatures. Recovery remains elusive. But still, every year some make it back.

JACKSON: You see it come back and it's been through a tough road. It's been through thick, thick, thick, and thick…

TOLAN: Quincy Jackson is a member of the Nez Perce tribe.

JACKSON: It's like, then you reflect back on your life and all, see I've been through some hard stuff. I bet that fish has been through even worse. Like an older person, older man or woman, handing down their ways of life, passing their knowledge on to their children, great-grandchildren. It's like, you know, planting their seeds, their own seeds, through their heart. It's like a big ball, just hope it keeps rolling. Just keeps rolling.

TOLAN: The hope for now, for some, lies in fish hatcheries. The tribes and the states are trying to pour so many young salmon into the river that enough will return to recovery the fishery. It has its share of controversy. But young Quincy Jackson feels he's doing something when he brings the young salmon, born in green plastic tubs, to begin their life in the streams.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

JACKSON: See, you actually drive out to this stream or creek, river, or whatever, and pull that plug for them to be dumped into the river. Just like you've kind of accomplished something, to see them come back. I mean, I made that contribution to the future, to the little ones that down the road might catch that fish. Who knows? Who knows what will happen? It's like hope, for one, to come back. Please come back. Me I say a little tiny prayer, you know: have a safe journey to the ocean. Just hope you come back. Just hope you come back. Please come back.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

CURWOOD: A Salmon's Journey was produced by Sandy Tolan. Original music was composed and performed by Dorothy Wang. Our series Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest was edited by Peter Thomson.

Back to top

(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 production staff includes Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Maggie Villeger , 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, Russel Wiedeman, Hanna Day Woodruff, and KPLU Seattle. 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 Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Surdna 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.Copyright © 2001 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

 

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