• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

March 24, 2000

Air Date: March 24, 2000


New Organic Food Standards / Amy Bernstein

Amy Bernstein reports on the federal government’s new proposed standards for organic foods. The standards come after a decade of planning and a record level of public involvement. The feds say they’re the strongest organic standards in the world, and supporters of organic foods seem to agree. This is the first of a two-part series on the emerging organic industry. (06:21)

Africa Fooding Aftermath

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, about the devastating floods in the southern African country of Mozambique. (06:35)

Entertainment Farms / Nancy Cohen

Nancy Cohen reports from Massachusetts on the rise of Entertainment Farming, also known as Agro-Tourism. Enterprising farmers, looking for a way to supplement their income, are turning their farms into tourist destinations for city folk yearning for an authentic rural experience. (06:14)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about migratory birds. (01:56)

Earth Day Countdown / Keith Seinfeld

Keith Seinfeld, of member station KPLU, in Seattle, reports on efforts to make Earth Day 2000 make a bigger splash than the event has in recent years. Earth Day Organizers say this year’s events, will be more than the litter patrols and tree-planting parties of years past. Instead, they’re trying to focus public attention on energy and on global climate change. (04:23)

The New Wild West / Alan Weisman

Alan Weisman reports on a local revolt against federal authority in Nevada, where a clash over endangered species protection has led to the abrupt resignation of a rising star in the National Forest Service. Residents of the remote area say they are defying the government in an effort to protect their property rights. But former National Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora says the situation has escalated to a dangerous level, and that she resigned to reduce the likelihood of violence. (05:58)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Amy Bernstein, Nancy Cohen, Keith Seinfeld, Alan Weisman
GUEST: Raymond Offenheiser

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Southern Africans are reeling from the worst floods in memory. More than a million people in Mozambique are homeless in the latest of a series of unusually heavy storms around the world.

OFFENHEISER: We're getting in excess of what would be one or two years worth of rain in a period of two weeks. The apocalyptic sort of scale of this particular emergency leads one almost instantly to think that something extraordinary is going on here.

CURWOOD: Also, after an uproar from consumers, the federal government toughens its new standards for what can be called organic foods.

DIMATTEO:This is a good regulation. It really does capture the principles and practices that the organic industry has been developing over the last 20 years.

CURWOOD: Those stories, plus the rise of tourism on the farm, this week on Living on Earth, but first the news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

New Organic Food Standards

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. After years of debate, the federal government has proposed strict new standards for what foods can be sold with the label "organic." The market for organic foods is six billion dollars, and growing by 20 percent a year. But until now there has been no consistent definition of exactly what the term "organically grown" means. When they go into effect, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new standards will cover everything from seeds to processing. From Baltimore, Amy Bernstein has our report, the first of a two-part series on the emerging organic foods business.

(Beeps at a checkout counter; bags being filled)

BERNSTEIN: At the Fresh Fields supermarket in Baltimore, half of everything sold in the gleaming upscale store is organically grown or produced, from macaroni and cheese to salad dressing to tomatoes. But many shoppers here may not realize that foods labeled organic don't all meet the same standards. Under current law, states set their own criteria for organic certification. In Maryland, that means farmers can grow genetically-modified crops and still claim they're organic. But in neighboring Pennsylvania, that practice is prohibited. The disparity is a problem for Maryland farmers like Drew Norman, who runs a 200-acre organic farm in Baltimore County. Norman grows organic vegetables and hay without using any man-made pesticides or fertilizers.

(Roosters crow; hens cluck)

NORMAN: I can't sell product into Pennsylvania as a Maryland-certified grower.

BERNSTEIN: Under the USDA's proposed national organic standards, Drew Norman's problem would vanish because every farmer would have to meet the same criteria to earn the organic seal of approval.

NORMAN: The advantages are obvious. Then I can sell, or any grower can sell his product anywhere, and it would be accepted by anybody else. And so that opens up your markets a lot more.

BERNSTEIN: By all accounts the USDA has set the bar high for organic certification. The use of genetically-altered crops, irradiation, or fertilizer treated with sewage sludge are all prohibited. In addition, cattle and other livestock must eat only organically-grown feed. They must be allowed to roam freely on pasture land, and they cannot be treated with antibiotics. Catherine Dimatteo of the Organic Trade Association, which represents organic growers and others, says the USDA has hit the mark with these regulations.

DIMATTEO: This is a good regulation. It really does capture the principles and practices that the organic industry has been developing over the last 20 years.

BERNSTEIN: Many businesses disdain government intervention, but the organic industry had been calling for federal standards for more than a decade. And with the passage of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, many believed those standards would soon follow. But the agency knew little about organic agriculture at the time. As a result, some USDA officials spent the 90s polling farmers, certifiers, and consumer groups to find out just what the organic label should mean. The USDA's Kathleen Merrigan admits the agency faced a steep learning curve.

MERRIGAN: Certainly there was some time lost at USDA when people struggled to figure out what this monster was all about. There was not a significant in-house expertise on organic agriculture at USDA. So a lot of it was a learning process.

BERNSTEIN: Indeed, in 1997 the USDA's first attempt at setting organic standards met with vigorous opposition. In marked contrast to the current ruling, the agency would have allowed growers to use genetic engineering, irradiation, and sludge, all of which the USDA deems safe, but most organic farmers and consumers oppose. The agency logged more than a quarter million comments protesting that regulation, the most ever received by a government agency. The current proposed standard represents an about-face for the USDA. Merrigan says she's confident it will win widespread support, but not everyone is cheered by the prospect of a USDA organic seal of approval. Gene Grabowski is with the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing food giants like Pillsbury. He says the organic label could mislead consumers.

GRABOWSKI: What we have to be careful of is making the organic seal some kind of safety seal. It is not. As a matter of fact, organic foods are no safer, and in some cases you have to take more care in handling organic foods than you do with processed foods.

BERNSTEIN: Organic farmers may also experience a downside under the new law. As it's now written, the USDA will authorize state and private agencies around the country to carry out the certification process. Eventually, those agencies will have to pay fees to the USDA that could amount to thousands of dollars. At least a portion of that expense could then be passed on to local farmers. And Catherine Dimatteo of the Organic Trade Association says because the new USDA standard is so strict, some farmers and food processors might have difficulty finding enough organic seed and other approved ingredients to meet certification.

DIMATTEO: There will have to be a lot of work done on the part of the industry to source adequate supplies to meet the growing demand for organic products. And this may mean initially that there may be no expansion in the organic industry until more farmers and more processing suppliers develop the types of products that meet this organic regulation.

BERNSTEIN: Still, despite such concerns, the long-awaited national organic standard is looking like a sure thing. In addition to spelling out production methods, the standard also includes a number of firsts for the industry, such as five million dollars for research into organic farming methods and a pilot study to improve crop insurance. The 90-day public comment period on the proposed regulation ends June 12th. A final ruling is expected before the end of the year. Farmers will then have an additional 18 months to prepare for certification. For Living on Earth, this is Amy Bernstein in Baltimore.

Back to top

CURWOOD: Next week, growing pains in the booming market for organic foods.

MAN: There used to be 50 market chains, and now there's eight or ten market chains. People that have been loyal to us have dropped out. We're taking a beating on our end. The guys that started it all might be out of business soon.

(Music up and under)

Africa Fooding Aftermath

CURWOOD: In southern Africa, the rains continue to fall, drenching areas that still haven't recovered from the destruction left by a series of devastating storms over the last few weeks. Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and South Africa all have been hit hard, but Mozambique has borne the brunt of the flooding. More than a million people are crowded into what amount to refugee camps, waiting for a chance to assess the damage to their inundated homes, schools, and businesses. The storms have also taken a tremendous toll on the country's infrastructure, wiping out roads, railroads, and telephone lines. Raymond Offenheiser, president of the aid and development organization Oxfam America, was in Mozambique when the floods first hit. He says the region was ill-prepared for a radical change in the weather.

OFFENHEISER: Mozambique is an arid country for the most part, and actually, Oxfam, which has been there for much of the last 20 years, has funded many projects that have been dealing with the issue of trying to provide water supply for rural agricultural production. Normally what you would find in a region like this are alternating seasons of dryness and wetness. What's proven to be the extreme here is that we're getting in excess of what would be one or two years' worth of rain in a period of two weeks. And indeed, in the case of Mozambique and Zimbabwe and so forth, the rains are still coming down, in spite of the fact that the rivers have gone down a bit. So they may rise again in certain areas and continue this problem.

CURWOOD: I have to say that these kind of conditions are what a number of scientists have predicted in connection with climate change -- with global climate change, global warming -- although they say you can't pick one event and say this is a function of that. And yet, one has to wonder. What do you think?

OFFENHEISER: Well, the apocalyptic sort of scale of this particular emergency leads one almost instantly to think that something extraordinary is going on here. The initial flooding, one could say, was based on a rain storm that swept through southern African and poured more than the normal levels of water onto that countryside. But then, a first cyclone hit, raising the water levels even further. Then a second cyclone hit. And the rains have continued even to today, so we're actually almost a month and a half into this period of erratic rainfall. The level and scale of these current events are such that they really raise the question as to whether something more systemic is going on in the broader sort of climactic system.

CURWOOD: Tell me what this looked like, this flooding.

OFFENHEISER: Basically, what one saw in the capital city were streets washed out. You saw people sort of up on the pavement, who were basically trying to stay out of washed-out squatter settlements. When one went 20 miles or so north of the city into the rural areas, one found that the roads simply ended where they had been washed away, and you looked out at a sort of vast sea of water. It was actually 100 miles inland from the ocean, and was covering large areas of banana plantations or peanut fields. And the populations that would normally be working in those fields were on high ground, basically with whatever possessions they could have taken out of their homes. In one case I was in a refugee camp in which a family had actually settled down on the side of a large warehouse with what few possessions they had, and one of the things they'd chosen to take from their house were books. And they literally had about ten books that were soaking wet that were on their backs open with their spines to the sun, drying. And I just thought that was a rather, sort of profound sort of symbol of what decisions people had to make about what they chose to save or not save as the waters rose.

CURWOOD: Mozambique struggled for many years. First there were hostilities with the Portuguese that had it as a colony, and then there was a lengthy civil war. And really, that civil war has just been over for the past few years. What does this disaster mean for this country that had started to get back on its feet economically, and was actually starting to look pretty good?

OFFENHEISER: It presents it with an extraordinary challenge. As you said, I mean this is a country that was undergoing a civil war for much of the last -- for up to about 20 or 30 years -- and it was basically undergoing a process of democratic transition. Only last year had democratic elections, elected a new president, or elected a president, and had been undergoing a tremendous amount of economic reform activity. So there was a great deal of optimism in the country about what was happening, and there was a great deal of optimism in the international community about the potential for Mozambique as a star performer in Africa. The tragedy, I think, in this emergency is that it undermines a lot of that potential by destroying so much of the country's social as well as physical infrastructure. So it basically will mean that, presuming that Mozambique can secure the funding to rebuild that infrastructure, it will probably be set back by at least five to ten years as it tries to rebuild an infrastructure that it already had in place.

CURWOOD: What do you think is going to happen now, and what responsibility do people like us in the affluent countries have here? What should we do in terms of aid to the people of Mozambique?

OFFENHEISER: I think one of the important lessons from these kinds of emergencies for the public in general is to actually think beyond the pictures in the New York Times that show the immediate tragedy, and actually think more seriously about the long-term development needs of these countries, and particularly about the reconstruction costs that obviously Mozambique is going to face. We've learned from the major cyclone in Central America last year, Hurricane Mitch, that the short-term assistance is valuable for basically providing relief to people in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane or a cyclone. But in fact, for a country really to get back on its feet, it needs more substantial aid to help with the rebuilding of that infrastructure. One of the major elements of that, we're finding particularly in Africa, can be debt relief. Over the last year or so, there's been a consensus in the international community that donors should pull together and attempt to enable African nations to get out of the debt trap, so that that revenue can go into schools, can go into health clinics, can go into environmental improvements that might even contribute to mitigating the impacts of these kinds of emergencies.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with me today. Raymond Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America, and he was in Mozambique when the floods first struck. Thank you, sir.

OFFENHEISER: Pleasure to be here.

Back to top

CURWOOD: Just ahead, taking the old roadside farm stand to a whole new level. Agro-tourism comes to America's family farms. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Entertainment Farms

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. All across America, family farmers are being squeezed by high production costs and low producer prices. So, small farms that want to keep working their land have to be more and more creative in finding ways to make ends meet. In the latest twist on the rural economy, some farms are selling not just food but a whole farm experience to folks from the cities and suburbs. Reporter Nancy Cohen recently visited two family farms in Massachusetts that are making what's known as agro-tourism a year-round enterprise. Her report begins among the sugar maples of North Hadley, in the rural Connecticut River valley.


COHEN: Twenty-four-year-old Joe Boisvert, who farms with his brother John in North Hadley, is out collecting the first sap of the season.

JOE BOISVERT: Yeah, I don't know what's in these buckets. See, not much. See, that's hardly running because they didn't freeze last night. Yep. See, not much at all.

COHEN: But even though the sap is slow, business at the North Hadley sugar shack is brisk.

(Milling crowd)

WOMAN: It's going to be a wait, five, 20 minutes to half an hour for a big group.

COHEN: The Boisverts not only make syrup, they serve it on top of pancakes, waffles, and French toast, to hundreds of people every weekend. They opened their sugar shack and farm stand four years ago. Since then they've built two additions and doubled their seating for their maple breakfasts, which they serve only during maple syrup season. People waiting to be seated can watch the sap boil in the evaporator room.

(Boiling, a door swings shut)

COHEN: Twenty-six-year-old John Boisvert is stoking the wood fire. He demonstrates how the old-time sugar makers could tell when the syrup was done, by the way it drips.

JOHN BOISVERT: It scoops them up. See how fast it's running off. When it gets ready, it'll start hanging right on there, almost like glue. See how it's kind of getting thick there?

COHEN: Massachusetts farmers like the Boisverts don't have the large fields and long growing season that Midwestern and Western farmers enjoy, but what they do have they're taking advantage of: proximity to a hungry market -- consumers who live in cities and suburbs, who crave the authenticity of a farm experience. Tending the coffee pot is Joe and John's mother, Martha, who grew up on this farm.

M. BOISVERT: My father would not understand entertainment farming. He would not understand that people come to the farm and they want to see how things are made. They want to see how things are done. He would not understand cooking breakfast to try to push your maple syrup. He thought that there was going to be a market for all his vegetables forever. That is simply not the case any more.

COHEN: When the weather gets warmer, the Boisverts hope their maple syrup customers will stop by for fresh asparagus, strawberries, corn, and squash. They'll hold a corn festival and sell fresh strawberry shortcake to draw people in. Throughout Massachusetts, agricultural tourism is helping many farms survive, and it's not only young farmers who see a future in it.

D. LEOB: Well, one thing about milking cows is, you always have a lot of time to think.

COHEN: Sixty-year-old Don Leob has had a lot of time to think about ways to improve his farm. He and his wife Judy milked cows on their Berkshire County farm in Hancock for three decades. But a few years ago, when milk prices were low, they thought there might be a better way to make a living.

D. LEOB: We were not satisfied with what the future looked like. And at the same time, my son was ready to come back to the farm and he didn't want to milk cows anyway, no matter what the price was.

COHEN: So in 1996 the Leobs sold off their herd: 120 milkers, 250 cows in all. They sank a quarter of a million dollars into converting their farm into something better suited for people. Judy Leob.

J. LEOB: The room we're in now is called the calf barn. There were baby cows in here from ages birth to about three-and-a-half months. Now it's a cafe where we serve pancakes and syrup.

COHEN: This former calf barn sports checkered curtains, black and white cow tablecloths, and a floor stenciled with pictures of maple leaves. Outside, one of the farm workers answers the questions of curious customers.

MAN: I wanted to know how tapping the trees affects their growth.

WORKER: It really doesn't bother the health of the tree...

COHEN: Education is a big part of this new farm operation. In the summer time, Don Leob runs a program just for kids. He calls it Uncle Don's Farmyard. For about five dollars each, children can feed farm animals, jump on hay bales, ride around on pedal-operated tractors, and learn to milk a cow -- a wooden cow, that is, complete with a tail and rubber teats.

D. LEOB: They all have teats here to be able to milk. They're hooked up in the summer time to water, to a steady flow of water. So you could milk them by hand, or it's just like milking a cow, or it feels like milking a cow. Or you can put the machines on and milk the cows with the machine.

COHEN: The Leobs still do what they call real farm work. They grow 250 acres of crops, 125 acres of hay, and board 100 head of cattle. They sell Christmas trees, pumpkins and strawberries direct to the public. But how does it all compare to making milk?

D. LEOB: This is our fourth year now that the cows have been gone, and no, we're not making as good a living as we were milking cows. But it looks a lot more futuristic. The cows, we knew how far we could go. We didn't see an opportunity to improve that any further than where we were. This leaves more opportunity for more growth.

COHEN: When you drive up to the Leobs' red barn, there are a group of cow faces looking out the window. But their eyes don't blink and their heads don't turn. Although it may seem like a sad day when real cows are replaced by wooden ones, the people coming to visit don't seem to mind. After all, the coffee's good and the syrup is sweet. And getting near a working farm is becoming a rare enough experience that people are willing to pay for it. For Living on Earth, I'm Nancy Cohen in Hancock, Massachusetts.

Back to top

(Milling crowds; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: If you missed any part of this week's program or want to hear it again, you can listen in Real Audio on our Web site at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, you can direct your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988.

(Music up and under)

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

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the 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 in the second half of Living on Earth: a high-stakes battle over a backcountry road. Residents of a remote corner of Nevada vow to defy the federal government and rebuild the road with their own hands.

HOWARD: Father, at this time, guide us in our efforts to turn back the attack of evil socialism against the good things of our nation. And Father, we are thankful for all those who have sent their shovels and sentiments to support us in this great cause.

CURWOOD: Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


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: "Come Fly With Me")

CURWOOD: As the days grow longer with the arrival of spring, the skies of the Northern Hemisphere are a-jabber with migrating birds heading north from their wintering grounds. For some birds the migration from winter to summer habitat is as simple as moving a few miles up a mountainside. For others, the journey can be thousands of miles from the tropics, or even further. One of the champion long-distance fliers is the Arctic tern, which travels over 10,000 miles each spring from the Antarctic to the Arctic Circle. No less spectacular is the pilgrimage of the ruby-throated hummingbird. It weighs only one tenth of an ounce, yet crosses the Gulf of Mexico in one 500-mile-long flight. Then there's the rock-hopper penguin, which can't fly at all, but migrates anyway by swimming hundreds of miles through the ocean. For many birds, the seasonal journey is more challenging than it used to be. A whole range of environmental pressures, from changing temperatures to shrinking habitats, is reducing both the food supply and places to roost along the way. Migrating birds are often squeezed into small areas, increasing the competition for food and the risk of disease. And why do they fly? The urge is probably triggered by changes in the amount of daylight and the weather. Each species uses its own special map to find its way, including stars, the earth's magnetic field, odors, landmarks, even seasonal breezes. And just as birds use natural cues to mark the rhythms of their lives, humans use migrating birds to mark the rhythms of our lives. When we see the flocks heading south again, we'll know that winter can't be far behind. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Earth Day Countdown

CURWOOD: The birds and the calendar say it's spring. So it's not too early to start making plans for Earth Day on April 22nd. In fact, the official organizers of Earth Day 2000 have been working on their plans for years. They're hoping to use the millennium as the theme to bring new life to an event that's lost a bit of its edge since the first Earth Day 30 years ago. In recent years, Earth Day celebrations have focused on tangible things close to home: recycling, tree-planting, and Earth-friendly products. This year the focus is on energy and the connection to global climate change -- and on a technological revolution which could bring us cleaner power for our daily lives. From Seattle, Keith Seinfeld of member station KPLU has our report.


CHILD: Whoa. (Shouts)

SEINFELD: Over the years, Earth Day has become foremost a national occasion for volunteerism, a time for neighbors to clean up creeks and plant trees. That's what these Seattle residents did on Earth Day a few years back. Thornton Creek flows from a parking lot through culverts and into a ravine.(Flowing water)

CHILD: We are picking up Styrofoam out of the creek, because it will get all brownish and go down the creek. Animals don't like it.

MAN: It's kind of an opportunity to actually get in and get your hands dirty and do something.

SEINFELD: Neighbors are still fighting to revive this urban stream, but it won't be a major focus for Earth Day 2000. Instead, organizers want people to address a global problem: climate change caused by greenhouse gases that come from the burning of oil, gas, and coal.

HAYES: What we're trying to do this year is to take these issues of clean energy and climate change and focus the spotlight on them for perhaps a month.

SEINFELD: Dennis Hayes is chairman and chief strategist of the campaign.

HAYES: A really successful Earth Day will focus public attention on some issue for long enough that it actually penetrates the public consciousness and gets catapulted to a different level of priority.

SEINFELD: If anyone knows Earth Day's potential to provoke change, it's Dennis Hayes. He helped organize the very first event back in 1970, which generated the political energy that led to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. This year, Mr. Hayes hopes to force a showdown over our ever-growing appetite for energy.

HAYES: The only way that that fight can be won on behalf of sustainable energy is if the public rises up and demands it.

(Voices; a phone rings)

SEINFELD: The nerve center for the campaign is a storefront office near Seattle's downtown waterfront. Activists here are finalizing plans for what they hope will be massive rallies in about 40 U.S. cities. The main event will be April 22nd on the Mall in Washington, D.C., headlined by actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The donated desks here are a bit dingy, but the operations are state-of-the-art. Everywhere is the hum of new computers linking activists worldwide via Web sites and e-mail. There's even an online Earth Day store run by James Urbati.

URBATI: We're scoured the country and outside the country, looking for the products that have the best message. The toys are big sellers. The hemp teddy bears. The frisbee's a fairly big seller.

SEINFELD: It might seem funny that there's an official Earth Day stapler, toilet paper, and frisbee, but Mr. Urbati says the products are raising money. And some actually make arcane energy policy more accessible to the public. While there's great optimism for Earth Day 2000, organizers concede achieving their goal won't be easy. Media coordinator Michelle Ackerman says despite the sudden jolt of high gas prices, energy policy is not the sexiest topic for rallying the public.

ACKERMAN: Energy is a tough issue. It's very complicated, you know, it takes big plants burning stuff, you know, that's how we've done it in the past. And in a way it's kind of a mystery. You flip a light switch, the light goes on, and you know, you're just glad it does but you don't really think about why it does.

SEINFELD: And getting people to ponder over power lines is just a first step. Ms. Ackerman and other Earth Day activists would like to persuade the Senate to break its deadlock and ratify the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Whatever their success, they plan to tackle other themes in future years. They say Earth Day will no longer be something we hear about every five or ten years on nostalgic anniversaries, but rather an ongoing voice for change. For Living on Earth, I'm Keith Seinfeld in Seattle.

Back to top

CURWOOD: Living on Earth and NPR will bring you a special live program on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22nd. We'll have in-studio guests as well as live reports from Earth Day events around the country and around the world. You can join the conversation about energy, climate change, and the future of the planet with yours truly, Steve Curwood, and co-host Alex Chadwick. Check your local listings for details.
Coming up: A high-level federal official is run out of town by a local backlash against environmental regulations in rural Nevada. The story of Gloria Flora, and what it could mean for the future of public lands in the West, just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

The New Wild West

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It was just an ordinary flood that knocked out an ordinary road in an ordinary stretch of backcountry in Nevada. But the tale of what happened after the Jarbidge River flood of 1995 has taken on the flavor of an epic western, with fierce battles over the land and who owns it, and fierce "this town ain't big enough for the both of us" rhetoric. And the stakes are high. The question is whether or not to rebuild a road in a sensitive ecosystem. For local residents it's a last-stand crusade to protect the basic values which define their communities. For the federal government, it's a test of a major shift toward protecting natural resources on public lands in the West. And the battle has already claimed one significant casualty: the career of a rising star in the U.S. Forest Service, whom many thought could become the first woman to head the agency. From northern Nevada, Alan Weisman has our report.

WEISMAN: Northern Nevada's Jarbidge wilderness is so remote that much of the year you can't get here from anywhere else in the state. Instead you have to drive into Idaho, cross a snow-swept grassland so big that the sky itself can't seem to put a lid on it, and then dip south toward a black slash that suddenly splits the horizon.

(Flowing water)

WEISMAN: This is the Jarbidge River Gorge, formed back in glacial times. Its steep, rooster-comb ridges and glowing granite spires tower over a cold, clear river that snakes through stands of black cottonwoods, mountain mahogany and tall, conical fir trees. Jarbidge Canyon is home to martens, wolverines, several kinds of trout, about 30 year-round human residents, mostly retired, and, lately, to controversy.

(An engine tries to start)

JOYAL: You didn't prime it, did you?

SMITH: I primed it once and it started right up.

(More engine attempts)

WEISMAN: The old gold mining settlement of Jarbidge is a tiny jumble of wooden cabins and tin buildings. Phil Joyal and Butch Smith, dressed in fleece-lined denim rough-outs and snowmobile pants, mount their Skidoos and ride to the end of the line. Now in his late 70s, Phil Joyal remembers driving on South Canyon Road as a boy. It used to lead three miles upriver to the trailhead of the Jarbidge wilderness. Now, it only goes half that far.

(Water flows)

JOYAL: Now this is where the problem started. The river, you can see how it comes around, it got diverted up here about, oh, 900 feet or so. And here's where the road was.

WEISMAN: In 1995, a flood obliterated South Canyon Road, as it had done many times before.

JOYAL: Right. And we said to the Forest Service, we'd like to have it back in. And they did a study and said fine, we will put it back in, we have the money. Wonderful.

WEISMAN: In fact, over the years the U.S. Forest Service had often repaired the road. But not this time.

JOYAL: They said they're going to do it next spring or whenever. And then along comes the bull trout issue and that stopped the whole thing.

WEISMAN: Before the Forest Service made good on its promise, a conservation group called Trout Unlimited protested. The Jarbidge River, they claimed, is the southernmost habitat for the bull trout, a living Ice Age relic considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act. After two years of study, the Forest Service decided not to restore the road after all, but instead to build a hiking and horse trail above the canyon bottom.

JOYAL: So you've got people up at the higher level of government that are not listening to the people. They're not even coming over here to find out what they're talking about. They're accepting what they're getting from one or two people as gospel. And that is one of the things that makes us pretty unhappy.

WEISMAN: The river's fish have coexisted with the road for more than a century, residents argue. The road is needed, they said, for rescue and fire protection. And without it, how can people too old to hike or too poor to rent horses reach favorite campsites they've always used for hunting and fishing and picnics? But the Forest Service held firm. So the Elko, Nevada, county commissioners decided to take matters into their own hands.

JOYAL: So they came in and they put it back in. They diverted the river back over where it belongs, and then fixed the road. Took them two days. They were just getting good and started. Then a federal stop order stopped them.

FLORA: I went to Jarbidge after the county did their little -- their little work. And let me describe briefly what I saw.

WEISMAN: Gloria Flora had just taken over as forest supervisor in July 1998, when Elko County sent two bulldozers into Jarbidge canyon.

FLORA: Nine hundred feet of river channelized in what could be classified as a shallow irrigation ditch. The curves were straightened out of the river. There were no rocks, debris, pools, ripples, nothing. And now, the road, the attempt to rebuild the road, what an embarrassment. The surface of the road was below the bottom of the rechannelized river. It was an abortion. It was horrible.

WEISMAN: So Gloria Flora contracted a team of habitat experts to restore the stream bed, and to bury the road under tons of dirt. That took three months and cost over $400,000, which the Forest Service billed to Elko County. The county refused to pay.

(People sing the national anthem)

WEISMAN: Elko, Nevada, the county seat, 100 miles south of Jarbidge, January 29, 2000. Nearly 4,000 citizens gather at a courthouse rally following the biggest parade in history.

(A crowd cheers)

MAN: Our invocation will be given by Kent Howard.

WEISMAN: Retired rancher Kent Howard stands in front of a 30-foot shovel inscribed with thousands of names.

HOWARD: Father, at this time, guide us in our efforts to turn back the attack of evil socialism against the good things of our nation. We'll do everything we can to protect our private property rights and our national heritage. And Father, we are thankful for all those who have sent their shovels and sentiments to support us in this great cause.

(Metal clanks)

WEISMAN: Last October, hundreds of Elko citizens, led by county commissioners and a state assemblyman, descended on Jarbidge Canyon with shovels and horse teams. They aim to defy the Forest Service and reopen the road yet again. At the last minute, a temporary federal restraining order stopped them. Since then, tensions have soared over who really owns the roads running through national forests: the federal government, who already controls 87 percent of Nevada land, or local counties? The citizens brigade has now vowed to reopen the Jarbidge road on the Fourth of July, no matter what the courts decide. And they've been stockpiling shovels.

HEARST: From this day on, the definition of a shovel will no longer be an instrument used for turning dirt. It will be a symbol for kindness, caring, camaraderie, and hope.

WEISMAN: Jim Hearst was invited here to be the parade's grand marshal. The Montana sawmill owner had read about Elko County's uprising against federal control of public lands. He offered to round up and send the Nevadans a few shovels as a gesture of support. Word spread rapidly, and within two weeks the Elko County courthouse was flooded with shovels: 11,000 in all, from 16 Western states and as far away as Michigan and Florida.

HEARST: So here we are, surrounded by thousands of shovels from thousands of deeply concerned Americans, rural Americans. This grassroots movement has generated a phenomenal amount of national support. It has put our adversaries on notice that we mean business. They haven't seen anything quite like this before.

WEISMAN: Adversaries, he means, like forest supervisor Gloria Flora, who has been referred to in the local press as a Fed Nazi. But last November Gloria Flora shocked the national forest system by resigning. She was fed up, she said, with watching Forest Service employees be refused service in restaurants, kicked out of motels, subpoenaed by the local grand jury, and afraid to wear their uniforms in public. The hostilities they routinely endured were encouraged, she claimed, by elected officials who had made Fed-bashing a spectator sport.

FLORA: What it came down to was, I knew that there needed to be attention drawn to the situation. And I was afraid that that attention would be drawn by a bomb, by one of my employees getting hurt. But the third choice was my resignation, the far better alternative than the other two. I mean, obviously, one doesn't chuck a twenty-two-and-a-half year career just because you're having a bad day.

WEISMAN: Gloria Flora sits in her home in the Warm Springs Valley, 25 miles northeast of Reno. She and her husband will soon be leaving here. Ms. Flora gathers and twists her long dark hair as she reflects on her dramatic professional sacrifice. She sits poised and erect, but her eyes reveal exhaustion and the anguish of her decision. A recent Forest Service inquiry into her allegations was inconclusive. That report is now gleefully cited by her opponents, such as Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons.

GIBBONS: The Forest Service could not produce documented evidence that would justify the complaints of Ms. Flora, who said that she had been intimidated and threatened. There was no evidence to show that any justifiable cause of action from any type of threat, of intimidation or threat of harm to any employee occurred. That clearly raises the issue of why all the hysteria on the behalf of the Forest Service over this issue.

FLORA: I know the report said that they didn't think it was an unsafe situation. Well, how do you evaluate what is not a violent situation or potentially violent situation? You know, people will say well, hey, there were no prosecutable threats, so there's not a potential for violence. But, when you see things like people saying, again, "Remember Waco," "God is on our side," "God loves patriots," "We're patriots fighting for freedom against the occupying government," I think back to the last person that remembered Waco in a very visible manner, and that was Timothy McVeigh. And about 180 people lost their lives. Did any of those people receive a prosecutable threat prior to him doing his deed? No.

WEISMAN: The FBI, the Department of Justice and the county sheriff, she adds, warned her not to travel to Jarbidge because they couldn't guarantee her safety.

FLORA: Just five years ago we had three bombings between the BLM office, the Forest Service office and the private residence of a Forest Service employee. Now, to me, that's a serious issue.

WEISMAN: In early March a memo surfaced, written last year by Elko’s district attorney to county officials. The memo recommended spending taxpayers' money on ads that would read, "This is message is brought to you by the Elko County Commission, who encourages you to let the Forest Service know what you think about this by not cooperating with them. Don't sell goods or services to them until they come to their senses." Although the ads were never run, some county commissioners now grudgingly admit that the D.A.'s letter strengthens Gloria Flora's case. Ms. Flora herself says that vindication isn't the point. The land is.

FLORA: The issue of what has happened in the past does not need to be discussed in depth. But what people should be doing is using that issue as an entree to the real discussion: How are we going to best manage these public lands when we have such a divergence of opinion?

WEISMAN: Over the past several years, the need to protect critical ecosystems has become better understood. Agencies like the Forest Service are now shifting priorities from resource extraction to resource preservation. Traditions such as ranching may one day be the stuff of bygone memories. But many Westerners still detest restrictions on the region's forests and open spaces. They crave places to flex their muscles and still taste a sense of freedom in a shrinking, crowded world. So-called sagebrush rebels and environmentalists are increasingly polarized over policies such as one recently announced by President Clinton, an initiative declaring 50 million more acres of forest land off-limits to new roads. Some predict that incidents like Jarbidge could escalate into civil war.

LANDRETH: The last thing we want to do in these cases is make martyrs out of the protesters.

WEISMAN: Katherine Landreth is a United States attorney in Las Vegas. She has often been criticized for not filing more criminal charges against Nevadans who violate federal laws by running their cattle illegally on Forest Service lands. Or by scorning roadless area designations.

LANDRETH: Our history in the areas of civil protest tells us it's imprudent to turn these kinds of events into a situation where the individual is perceived to be a martyr, a victim of a large and oppressive system.

WEISMAN: The federal government is leery of heavy-handed law enforcement that might ignite another Waco or Ruby Ridge. Instead, says Ms. Landreth, the strategy is to treat such cases as civil violations, and try to exhaust the offenders with expensive litigation. But frustrated federal workers like Gloria Flora argue that letting people think they can escape criminal penalties for flaunting the laws will simply encourage them to do so. If the Justice Department strategy won't change, Gloria Flora believes that something else will have to.

FLORA: Let's look at that from the perspective of the glass being half full rather than half empty. We as citizens of the rural West enjoy some fantastic scenery, resources that most Americans only see on their one-week vacation. And it's in our back yard. And we have 260 million other people who are paying for it to be maintained in a way that we can use it, we can visit it, we can jump on our horse or stride out from our back yard and walk for miles unimpeded. And yet, when I speak with people, it's, "Oh woe is me, oh this is horrible that we have this federal presence here."

WEISMAN: It's understandable, she says, that Westerners protest when a distant government back East makes decisions about their surroundings. But maybe it's simply a matter of getting people to consider the alternative.

FLORA: Do you want federal presence and all this open land to enjoy and enjoy the benefits that come from it in terms of habitat and wildlife, fish? Or, would you rather that it was all privatized, and you could look at it, but it could be a scenic view and a nice habitat today or a strip mine tomorrow, and you wouldn't have any say over what happened. Nor would you have the right to go on that land unless you negotiated with the landowner. I think the choice is pretty clear. I think all of us would opt for having public land.

(Flowing water)

WEISMAN: Although Nevada's Jarbidge Road is not part of the President's recent roadless initiative, for many Westerners it's become its symbol. They're outraged by polls that Gloria Flora cites, which show that a large majority of Americans favor this new Executive Order. Angrily, they complain that since the West's wide open spaces are the country's least populated areas, the majority mainly lives east of the Mississippi. Easterners aren't the ones losing control of their own back yards, so why should they dictate what the West needs? Resource managers like Gloria Flora agree that locals must be heard. But in a world that increasingly recognizes that the environment is an interconnected global issue, more than just local concerns are at stake. Meanwhile, the stakes just keep rising. For Living on Earth, I'm Alan Weisman reporting.

Back to top

(Flowing water; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Living on Earth is a production of the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our staff includes Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, and Maggie Villiger. We had help this week from interns Hannah Day-Woodruff, Stephen Belter, and Emily Sadigh, and our administrative staff includes Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert heads up our Western bureau. And our science editor is Diane Toomey. Terry FitzPatrick is the acting senior editor. This week's program was produced by Peter Thomson. The senior producer is Chris Ballman. 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.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth