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

November 20, 1992

Air Date: November 20, 1992


Yellowstone Development / Cy Musiker

The nation's oldest and most spectacular national park has been a model for other nations for the preservation of wild places. But reporter Cy Musiker reports on recent mining and geothermal drilling on Yellowstone's borders which may threaten the park. (10:10)

Buffalo Commons / Scott Schlegel

Scott Schlegel reports on a plan to reclaim the ecology of the wild West by turning the Great Plains into a commons where the buffalo roam. The plan has cattle ranchers, farmers and ecologists divided. (06:25)

High Stakes Environmental Poker / Tom Harris

Former Sacramento Bee reporter and commentator Tom Harris looks for changes in how the new Administration plays high stakes poker when it comes to global warming. (02:35)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Scott Schlegel, Lynn Terry, Stephanie O'Neill, Cy Musiker

(Theme music intro)

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

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Yellowstone National Park was the first and is now perhaps the most famous US national park, and now the area around it is seeing tremendous growth. Some say the whole region needs a lot more protection.

VARLEY: It will be society's choice, whether to preserve this place, or to turn it into some giant family fun farm. We can do that. We can make this the Disneyland of the Rocky Mountains.

CURWOOD: Also, a proposal to fight to the decline of the great prairie by bring back the buffalo.

JONJAK: Most of the plants on the Great Plains need regular grazing in order to be in good health and the bison do provide that grazing.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this roundup of the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this round up of environmental news.

A federal grand jury in Denver has taken the rare step of going public to call for a special prosecutor in the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant case. Sources on the grand jury have told reporters that the government gave Rockwell International only a slap on the wrist for serious environmental crimes, and that the plea bargain with the US Justice Department should be investigated. From Denver, Scott Schlegel has the story.

SCHLEGEL: Grand jurors say that after a two and a half year investigation of environmental crimes at Rocky Flats, there is enough evidence for the government to prosecute Rockwell executives and Department of Energy officials who violated US environmental laws. The jurors have told Denver newspapers that the government may be protecting itself and Rockwell by refusing to prosecute individuals. But US Attorney for Colorado Mike Norton says there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute.

NORTON: In this case, we did everything we think that we could do and should do, and we've brought about the right result for the right reasons. There wasn't any direction or interference, or instructions from any higher level or any authority to go soft or go hard.

SCHLEGEL: The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, as well as Congress, are investigating the grand jury's charges. By speaking out, jurors are risking prosecution for violating a Federal secrecy order on the case. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel in Denver.

NUNLEY: The EPA is eliminating most field studies of pesticide safety . An agency spokesman says the testing of birds and fish is redundant, claiming most ecological risks can be detected in the laboratory. The EPA says the move will halve the present 6-year process of risk assessment. But critics say the shortcut will lead to the certification of pesticides without full knowledge of their toxic effects. They say the EPA is feeling the pressure of a 1997 deadline for the re-registration of about 600 pesticides in use. Only about 30 of these have been safety tested so far.

In France, where ecology is becoming an increasingly popular issue, two rival environmental parties have merged in the hopes of winning parliamentary seats this March. But as Lynn Terry reports from Paris, the alliance has more to do with political maneuvering than ecological awareness.

TERRY: The two parties -- Generation Ecologie and the Greens -- do not see eye to eye on environmental issues. The Greens tend to be more radical, while Generation Ecologie, which is led by a former environment minister, is more politically pragmatic. He wants the environmentalists to become a mainstream political force in France. And with the public becoming increasingly disillusioned with the major political parties, environmentalists could make an impact in the next election by getting as much as 20 percent of the vote, which would give them a swing vote in Parliament. But it's not yet clear what their combined policies would be. So far they've yet to talk about environmental issues. For Living on Earth, this is Lynn Terry in Paris.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.
The first clear link between air pollution and cancer has been reported. Researchers, writing in the journal Nature, say they were able to single out people at risk of developing cancer by measuring the damage to DNA caused by air-borne chemicals. Columbia University professor Frederica Perera, who directed the research, says the technique makes the dangers of air pollution immediately apparent.

PERERA: We can do better than simply scoring how many people go on to develop cancer, get sick from it and die from it as we have been in the past. We can actually very early on identify health risks before clinical disease is locked in.

NUNLEY: Perera says cancer-causing pollutants leave chemical fingerprints on genetic material that could help identify the most dangerous components of air pollution.

The promising anti-cancer drug taxol, has moved a step closer to market. An FDA panel has recommended the drug for final approval, which is expected early next year. But taxol is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, and some say mass production of the drug threatens the survival of the species. The drug's maker, Bristol-Myers-Squibb, says it is developing ways to extract taxol without killing the trees.

Water experts predict a seventh dry winter for California. It's the worst dry spell since the 16th century. From Los Angeles, Stephanie O'Neill reports.

O'NEILL: Scientists used historical data, including tree-ring measurements, to establish a weather pattern that suggests California's six year dry spell is well on its way to a seventh year. And while Southern California has experienced longer droughts, it would mark a historical first for Northern California, which supplies most of the state's water. Already California's parched reservoirs are down to emergency level supplies. The drought, coupled with recent environmental restrictions aimed at protecting endangered species, means the state's 30 million residents may be facing rationing and mandatory water use cutbacks. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

NUNLEY: That's this week's environmental news. . . I'm Jan Nunley.

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Yellowstone Development

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

One hundred and twenty years ago, Yellowstone became the first US national park, and perhaps our most famous, with Old Faithful the geyser and huge herds of buffalo and elk. Yellowstone is still one of the most spectacular wild places that is accessible to many visitors. But now, some say it's being degraded by mining and other development at its borders. From Yellowstone, Cy Musiker has our story.

(Crowd noises, walking sound)

MUSIKER: This has been a record year for tourism in Yellowstone National Park. More than three million people have already entered its borders, and the crowds come from around the world.

(More crowd noise; speaking in German, Chinese, French)

MUSIKER: Each hour during the summer and fall tourist season, a parade forms at Old Faithful Geyser. Hundreds of tourists march along paved paths to benches encircling the attraction that for so many epitomizes the wonders of the American West.

(Sound of geyser eruption; crowd reaction)

MUSIKER: As you negotiate the crowds around Old Faithful, you might think the most serious threat to Yellowstone is that it will be loved to death. It's astonishing that so many people manage to visit this isolated volcanic plateau in the Northern Rockies. Park staff worry about the impact of the crowds, but they're also worried about other pressures from outside Yellowstone.

(Sound of river)

MUSIKER: LaDuke Hot Springs tumbles down a short bank into the Yellowstone River, just seven miles north of the park's north entrance. The spring belongs to the Church Universal and Triumphant, a controversial band of Christian survivalists who established their world headquarters here in 1986.

FRANCIS: It's one of the reasons we bought this property. We're a religious community that believes in natural healing of all sorts and the medicinal properties of this geothermal water are well known. They were appropriated for that purpose.

MUSIKER: Ed Francis is vice president of the church. He's sitting in a powder-blue farmhouse, converted to church offices, about a mile downstream from LaDuke. Francis says the church wants to tap the hot spring for a swimming pool, and to heat a planned office building. About four hundred church members live here year round, four thousand during summer conferences. The church's plans have sparked opposition from a wide range of groups, including environmentalists and Yellowstone officials. They fear that drilling outside Yellowstone could affect the area's elaborate geothermal plumbing. But Francis notes that a study by the US Geological Survey concluded the well would not affect geothermal features inside the park.

FRANCIS: What this shows is that the various interest groups are attempting to create an emotional issue here, and to use our small use as some kind of Chicken-Little-the-sky-is-falling type scenario, and convince people the park will be seriously impacted because they want to achieve some legislative goals.

MUSIKER: Francis is referring to what was dubbed the Old Faithful Preservation Act, a bill that died in Congress this fall. Sponsored by the Park Service and environmentalists, the bill would have banned all geothermal drilling within fifteen miles of Yellowstone's borders. The church lobbied hard against the bill, and Francis says that if it ultimately does pass, he thinks the church is due about half a million dollars in compensation for the well's loss. At heart, the issue is one of property rights. The church and other local landowners recent the compromises they're asked to make on their private lands to accommodate Yellowstone.

FRANCIS: The crown jewels of this country are not the National Park System, as great as that may be. The crown jewels are the individual rights embodied in the constitution that we all enjoy. If we get to the point of ignoring those then we're gonna lose all the rest eventually.

MUSIKER: But Yellowstone's director of research, John Varley, thinks the resources in Yellowstone are too precious to allow any threats.

VARLEY: Three out of eleven geyser basins in the world are left pristine, and untouched. The rest have been destroyed by development, either in the geyser fields themselves or peripheral to those geyser fields. And so when various interests propose to develop these geothermal features for economic reasons, then we're going to protest.

MUSIKER: Varley acknowledges that the USGS study showed no risks to Yellowstone from tapping LaDuke Hot Spring. But he says the real danger is that the church could set a precedent, and touch off a rush of geothermal drilling. And Varley worries about other threats as well. The park, he argues, is just the central component of a greater ecosystem encompassing 18 million acres, with the most diverse set of animal species in the lower 48 states.

So Varley worries that ranchers would like him to fence in and manage the last wild herd of bison in the world, because the animals can spread disease to cattle outside the park. Varley worries about loss of grizzly bear habitat because of clearcutting in the six national forests on the park's borders. And Varley worries about population growth in cities seventy miles away.

VARLEY: Because if you drew a line around the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and called it a state, it would have the fastest rate of growth in the lower 48 states and that's just an extraordinary figure. And it's the encroachment of civilization to this park's boundaries that will eventually be its undoing.

(Sound of heavy equipment)

MUSIKER: On Yellowstone's northeast border, the Canadian based Noranda Company is planning to dig for gold and copper at ten thousand feet in the Absaroka Range. The noise is a hydraulic excavator, a house-sized machine that cuts roads onto these steep slopes. Allan Kirk, supervising engineer for the New World Mine, is showing a visitor around the site.

KIRK: This big mountain over here is called Mount Abundance, and this is Wolverine Pass here, and the northeast corner of Yellowstone Park sits just over there, just over the divide in that pass. And so we're about two miles from Yellowstone Park boundaries and about a mile and a half or two miles from the wilderness boundary here.

MUSIKER: Allan Kirk says Noranda is aware that the mine is controversial because it's so close to Yellowstone. That's why the company's promised to revegetate the mine site when it's played out and to reclaim hundreds of acres of abandoned open pit mines which scar nearby hillsides and leach sulfuric acid into local streams. But Kirk admits it might be a hundred years or more after the mine is closed before restoration is complete, and the mine could bring a thousand new residents to the tiny community at the park's northeast entrance. Kirk thinks these are necessary compromises.

KIRK: If people don't want to read newspapers and if people don't want to live in wooden houses, then we can stop logging in this country. If people don't want to use copper wiring in their houses any more, or they don't want to use gold for the electronic portions in their computers, that's fine, but right now it's a supply and demand type system, and it's the society itself that's putting the pressure on the companies to meet a need.

MUSIKER: The conflicting demands in the borderlands around Yellowstone were the subject last year of a lengthy study by all the US agencies that administer the area. The Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife, and the Forest Service, plus state and local agencies, conceived a set of goals for managing the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. "The Vision Document" called for severe limits on development around Yellowstone. But park officials who prepared the plan claim it was sabotaged by top officials at the Department of the Interior, after intense lobbying from ranching, timber and mining interests. In its absence, environmentalists in the area have stepped up their fight to save the park.

LEWIS: Yellowstone, greater Yellowstone is truly under siege.

MUSIKER: Ed Lewis is executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental group based in Bozeman, Montana.

LEWIS: This is where the concept of public lands, these very critical national parks and national forests, this is where this idea began , and what happens in Yellowstone always has been a bellwether for what happens in wildland areas and to wildlife populations all over the country and indeed all over the world. Everyone from all over the world keeps coming back to Yellowstone to see how it's doing, and if we can't protect and preserve Yellowstone, there's a very strong sense and feeling that we can't do it anywhere.

MUSIKER: The coalition has embraced a series of recent economic studies which suggest that protecting the Yellowstone ecosystem isn't just good ecology, it's the best way to protect local jobs. While logging and mining may once have driven the local economy, studies show that retirement income, tourism and self-employment in the service sector now provide the most jobs.

LEWIS: The future of the economy here is dependent upon protecting the natural environment. What is bringing millions and millions of visitors here each year, what is attracting people to come to the communities and to set up business and to thrive economically here, what's doing that is the wildland ecosystem magnet.

MUSIKER: Bill Clinton's victory in the presidential election means changes in the Department of the Interior, and a chance that his administration will do more to protect the environment around Yellowstone and other national parks. The Old Faithful Preservation Act will likely be reintroduced in the new Congress, and environmentalists and many local residents say they'll push for changes in mining and other laws to protect other park resources.

Back inside Yellowstone, director of research John Varley is standing at the open window of his office. He points to a bull elk bugling its mating call on the lawn outside. Soon, Varley notes, the bull may well be herding his harem of cow elk onto winter range outside the park, not far from the Church Universal and Triumphant's ranch. It's a reminder, he says, of how arbitrary the borders of the park are for its wildlife, and how Yellowstone as we know it won't survive if it becomes an island surrounded by development.

VARLEY: It will be society's choice, whether to preserve this place, or to turn it into some giant family fun farm. We can do that. We can make this the Disneyland of the Rocky Mountains. I would argue that its greater value is to preserve it in much the same way that it's been preserved for the last 120 years.

MUSIKER: For Living on Earth, I'm Cy Musiker in Yellowstone National Park.

Back to top

(Cry of bull elk; fade into music)

Buffalo Commons

CURWOOD: During the thousands of years that the ecology of the Great Plains developed, great herds of buffalo -- perhaps 80 million head or more -- began to thrive. In the Wild West, buffalo were well-adapted to the frigid winters and long droughts. Then came white settlers , the hunting to near extinction of the buffalo, and cattle ranching.

But in recent years cattle ranching has hit hard times, and a few ranchers are switching to buffalo. And as Scott Schlegel reports, some feel we should reclaim the ecology of the Wild West by turning the plains into a buffalo commons.

SCHLEGEL: During the 1800's, the first wave of white homesteaders pushed west onto the Great Plains to farm and raise cattle. The vast girth of America that reaches across ten states, from Canada to Mexico, became part of America's agricultural heartland. But for more than a decade, the people who once prospered on farms here have been leaving and small towns have been shrinking, in what's been dubbed the great reverse land rush. Frank Popper has been observing this transformation.

POPPER: They're depopulating because of difficulties in the agricultural and energy economies, they're depopulating because of draw-downs in the aquifers, particularly the Ogalala Aquifer, they're depopulating because of soil erosion, they're depopulating basically because they have difficulties holding young people.

SCHLEGEL: Frank Popper teaches urban studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He and his wife Deborah, a geologist, have produced a controversial plan for preserving some measure of economic prosperity on the Great Plains. The Poppers say the Federal Government and private consortiums should buy out failing farms, pull up their fences, and return the plains to their original inhabitants, the buffalo. In the process, they say, rugged plains earth stressed to near desertification by decades of intensive grazing and agriculture would be restored by the great herds. The Poppers call their plan "The Buffalo Commons."

POPPER: Think of the Buffalo Commons as midway between present agriculture and wilderness. It's a way to find an intermediate form of land use between conventional agriculture that has all the difficulties we know about, and wilderness, that at the same time yields an economic return sufficient to actually keep people in the neighborhood.

SCHLEGEL: The Buffalo Commons would engulf abandoned towns and unused farmland, and turn the communities that remain into islands on a sea of prairie grass, connected by fenced-in roadways. The Poppers contend that the Buffalo Commons would restore prosperity to the region's small towns by attracting tourists from around the world, who'd come to see great herds of buffalo as they roam the plains. They say the process would take a long time, perhaps as much as 20 to 30 years, but that the foundation for the Buffalo Commons already exists on the multitude of western Federal lands and Indian reservations.

(Sound of bison)

SCHLEGEL: Paul Jonjak thinks there's something to the Poppers' argument. Several years ago Jonjak sold his Wisconsin cranberry farm and moved west to raise buffalo, also known as American bison, on a four-thousand acre ranch on the western edge of the Great Plains north of Denver.

JONJAK: The Great Plains are where the bison developed and they evolved there, the plants evolved along with them.

SCHLEGEL: Jonjak explains that bison are better for the land because they graze over much larger areas than beef cattle. Beef cattle also feed on large amounts of grain, which require machinery, additional land, fertilizer, and often irrigation to grow on the plains. Bison forage for themselves on indigenous grasses and plant life.

JONJAK: They select those plants that are good for their health, and it's also good for those plants to be grazed. One of the things people often don't realize about grazing is that most of the plants on the Great Plains need regular grazing in order to be in good health and the bison do provide that grazing.

SCHLEGEL: Jonjak says that by grazing over a wider area than beef cattle, bisons' hooves break up more ground, encouraging the re-seeding of plants. Of course, Jonjak and other ranchers who are raising buffalo on the plains aren't just doing it to help restore the ecology. They're raising the animals for their meat, something which is not necessarily part of the Poppers' proposal. Although Jonjak thinks buffalo can be both better for the land and more profitable for ranchers, he questions whether the Poppers' grand scheme would work.

JONJAK: Most everybody that I've talked with who's changed from cattle to bison has been happy with the switch. But I'm not sure it's economically feasible to go and buy up everybody's land and take out all the fences and turn it back into the Wild West that it once was. It's a romantic idea, I'd love to see it and so would lots of people.

SCHLEGEL: However, many Great Plains ranchers are much less open-minded about the Poppers' idea.

STULP: I think it would be virtually impossible and ridiculous to try to put this back into a Buffalo Commons.

SCHLEGEL: John Stulp raises cattle and feed grain on the eastern plains of Colorado, near Lamar. He's disturbed by the "Buffalo Commons" concept, and resentful of what he calls Eastern academics who presume to understand the workings of Plains agriculture. Stulp says the Poppers are ignoring the fact that despite years of drought, many people are still prospering in the area.

STULP: It offers a lot of opportunities for a lot of people and to think that it would be ecologically the thing to do is beyond my imagination, and I think they have a very active imagination to even propose the idea.

SCHLEGEL: Stulp and other Plains ranchers say the Poppers have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is that's pushing people off their land. What the region's ranchers and farmers need, many say, are better prices on world markets, more Federal subsidies, and help developing new technologies for irrigation and soil conservation to make Plains agriculture work better. However, the Poppers contend that sooner or later, many Plains residents will have to face reality. Geologist Deborah Popper.

D. POPPER: Some places they've been able to make adaptations, which make the farming much more workable, but in other places it is unsustainable, or it is unsustainable unless we come up with some new brilliant idea.

SCHLEGEL: Despite the anger their Buffalo Commons idea is stirring, the Poppers hope they're encouraging useful debate about the future of the Great Plains. And they say the dialogue they've engaged in as they've traveled the area speaking and writing has helped them sharpen their proposal, and helped soften some of the reaction to it. However, so far no one's taking steps to make the Buffalo Commons a reality. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel.

Back to top

(Music up and fade out)

High Stakes Environmental Poker

CURWOOD: Some may see reviving the economy as the high stakes for the incoming Clinton Administration, but environmental reporter, author and commentator Tom Harris says the new president faces an even bigger wager.

HARRIS: Now that "those two Bozos" are headed for the White House, and the author of that unflattering sobriquet sent packing for Kennebunkport, look for changes in how America plays high-stakes environmental poker on a global scale. No mistake: gambling is the right word for our country's approach to global warming for the past twelve years. The White House raised the stakes every time scientists came up with more evidence of carbon dioxide buildup. Instead, it kept "betting on the come," unjustifiably hopeful that tomorrow would bring a different result or at least more time to decide how to play the ultimate end game.

I don't know for certain which scientific camp is exactly right here. But gambling with our childrens' future, if not our own, is ludicrous by anybody's rules. Virtually no scientist disagrees with the general hypothesis, and a majority think we are in the eye of the affect already, or uncomfortably close to it. There are differences, true, over how warm and how fast, but those are narrowing. Yes, some scientists still disagree. I met one recently who thinks that more CO2 might even be good for us. Well, you know what happens in a greenhouse, he said. Things grow better there.

But in a normal greenhouse, someone controls temperature and watering. In our planetary version, no one will be at the controls. What good will more nutrients do if the soil is hot enough to soft-boil an egg or dry enough to choke a camel? "Well, no one can predict precisely how hot or dry it will get in any given place," said the scientist. "There will be some areas where crops will do better than others. We'll just have to adjust." Tell that to the wheat farmers in Kansas, says I.

Who gave some dissident academic or misguided politician the right to make such a bet in the first place, to wager their profit against our survival? Do we grant anyone that license, bozos or not? I don't think so. But if that is electorally granted, I hope we side with those who acknowledge uncertainty but want no part of bluffing on such a grand scale. You know, I think we just did. We dealt ourselves a new hand the first week of November. Now, we'll just have to sit back and see how Mr. Ozone and that Spotted Owl crowd play our cards after January 20th.

CURWOOD: Tom Harris is a former writer for the Sacramento Bee and a commentator for Living on Earth.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: If you have any questions or comments about our show, give us a call on our listener line at 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us at Living on Earth. . . Box 639. . . Cambridge, Massachusetts. . . 02238. Tapes and transcripts are ten dollars.

Our editor and producer is Peter Thomson. Deborah Stavro directs the program. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and we had help from Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, and Colleen Singer. Our engineer is Laurie Azaria. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in co-operation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Theme music up and out)


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