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

January 1, 1993

Air Date: January 1, 1993


Northeast Old Growth / Steve Curwood

Steve travels into the forest of western Massachusetts with old-growth hunter Bob Leverette. Leverette is documenting the large and small old-growth stands that remain in the northeastern US. (08:45)

Logless Mill / V.J. Gibson

V.J. Gibson of Oregon's Jefferson Public Radio reports from Mt. Shasta, California on the Pacific Northwest's first sawmill that re-mills used wood. (05:13)

Listener Comments

Letters and calls on our features on banana growing, Christmas tree mulching and pollution-free flying reindeer-powered vehicles. (03:33)

Catalogue Avalanche / Janet Reynolds

Commentator Janet Reynolds tells us how to put a stop to all those unwanted post-holiday catalogues. (03:10)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Peter Rief, V. J. Gibson
COMMENTATOR: Janet Reynolds

(Theme music)

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

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: Almost all of the virgin forest that once covered the Eastern United States long ago fell to development. But there are still a few pieces of the ancient forest left.

LEVERETT: We have something here that is really priceless. It's as much a piece of history as any item, any ship, any invention that we have.

CURWOOD: Searching out the East's old growth. Also, in the Pacific Northwest, where sawmills are rapidly running out of virgin timber, a mill that recycles old wood into lumber surprises some customers.

CARPENTER: They envision cracked, warped old siding that's coming off a fallen-down building and what we're offering to the public looks like new lumber.

CURWOOD: And your letters, this week on Living on Earth. First, the news.

Environmental News

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

Hazel O'Leary may have been chosen as Bill Clinton's Energy Secretary to wean the country away from carbon-rich fossil fuels. But O'Leary's most pressing challenge may be a task which has so far baffled the Energy Department -- defusing a potential nuclear powder-keg at a bomb plant in Washington State. Nearly two hundred tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation contain a million-gallon stew of plutonium, radioactive waste and toxic chemicals. The current Energy Department official in charge of the site says preparing the tanks for long-term storage will be "the biggest single engineering project anyone has ever worked on."

Meanwhile, Russia will help finance the cleanup of one of its most polluted leftovers from the Cold War, by selling plutonium to the United States. The US will buy up to 88 pounds of Russian plutonium for use as fuel in interplanetary spacecraft. The sale will earn Russia $57 million dollars, to be put towards cleaning up a weapons plant near the town of Chelyabinsk.

The owners of Long Island's troubled Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant hope to recoup some of the facility's $5.1 billion dollar cost by selling its barely-used nuclear fuel to France for reprocessing into plutonium. The move would require a waiver of US policy, aimed at stopping the spread of bomb-grade nuclear material. Leonard Spector, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that with the end of the Cold War, the world needs less plutonium, not more.

SPECTOR: The chord we should be striking is one which says, wait a minute, we really don't need this activity any more, it's taking us in the wrong direction, and we're going to do what we can to discourage it, certainly not sending our fuel over to be processed in these very facilities whose utility is being questioned.

NUNLEY: Spector says the fuel should be used at another nuclear plant in the US.

Two years after New York voters rejected a plan to buy key tracts of land in the Adirondack Mountains, the International Paper Company is donating one of those parcels -- 20 thousand acres of forest -- to the State of New York and a private conservation group. From Albany, Peter Rief has the story.

RIEF: The donation means permanent protection for the scenic corridor of the Rackett River, an area enjoyed by canoeists and naturalists. It's also the primary habitat for the spruce grouse. New York Governor Mario Cuomo says International Paper's Adirondack land donation fills a vacuum left by governmental failure.

CUOMO: We should be raising money to acquire property in the Adirondacks. We've tried, more than once. But the state does not understand the significance of it. That is a matter of shame.

RIEF: Cuomo says New York can overcome the embarrassment by establishing a fund to buy environmentally important pieces of land to be enjoyed by future generations.

CUOMO: It is for generations who will never have known your names. And that's the beauty of it, that we're giving ourselves up to something larger than ourselves here. And we should be better at that than anything, because that is what configures the soul of us as a people.

RIEF: In Albany, New York, for Living on Earth, I'm Peter Rief.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

Alaska Governor Walter Hickel wants the Federal Government to give control of lake and river bottoms on Federal lands to his state. By law, states control navigable rivers within their borders, but not the resources which may lie below them. A spokesman for Hickel says Alaska is trying to force the Federal Government to keep promises made during the statehood process. But some environmental activists fear that Hickel would open river bottoms in Federal lands to mining. Last summer, state officials approved a permit to mine gold from Moose Creek in Denali National Park, but Federal authorities refused to grant the miners access to the river.

Some in the wood products industry are saying lumber prices could skyrocket, because Northwest timber sales are tied up in Federal court. A report by the National Forest Products Association says harvest restrictions in old-growth forests -- the habitat of the endangered Northern spotted owl -- are stalling nearly 30 percent of domestic lumber production, while lumber futures are at a thirteen-year high. At the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, staff forester Andy Stahl says the answer isn't more timber supplies, but better use of wood.

STAHL: As these modest price increases go up, the incentive to find more efficient ways to use wood products will also increase.

NUNLEY: That includes using particle board instead of plywood paneling, and so-called "engineered wood" made from scrap lumber for beams and floor joists in housing.

Supplies of the Pacific yew tree, a source of the anti-cancer drug Taxol, should remain stable following the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the substance to fight ovarian cancer. US Forest Service officials say harvesting of Pacific yew bark is already conducted under conservation guidelines, and a draft statement of Taxol's impact on the yew will be released this month. Taxol's manufacturer, Bristol-Myers-Squibb, predicts they'll be able to make the drug in commercial quantities from the twigs and needles of the more plentiful European yew sometime this year. They say they won't need the rare Pacific yew at all by the end of 1995.

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

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Northeast Old Growth

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

Old-growth forests: usually one thinks of the Pacific Northwest, where the largest tracts of virgin forest in the continental United States still exist. But even such densely populated states as Massachusetts have patches of old-growth forest. Not much, just tiny artifacts of what originally covered much of the eastern United States.

LEVERETT: The colonial side of New England, which attracts so many people is great, but it misses something. There's a precolonial and to have it all here from presettlement forests to colonial America to post colonial America, we have it all in this state.

CURWOOD: Bob Leverett is a computer consultant in Holyoke, Massachusetts. But on weekends, and many days in between, he becomes a natural historian. He scouts out and documents stands of old growth trees. Here in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, they range in size from a couple of acres to a couple of hundred. On a cold winter's morning in the country town of Charlemont, a hundred miles or so west of Boston, Bob Leverett takes us into the Mohawk State Forest.

LEVERETT: This spot is the confluence of Black Brook and Cole River. There's somewhere between 3 and 5 hundred acres of what we would call the ancient or presettlement forest. We are going to be seeing trees like that up on this ridge.
CURWOOD: Now how late into the season do you do this? Do you go out all winter?
LEVERETT: Yes, except these ridges become treacherous once the snow falls. We are going to be cutting up actually---
CURWOOD: I am going to need both hands for this, aren't I . . .

(Sound of climbing)

CURWOOD: Hand over hand, searching for footholds, we pull ourselves up the steep side of the ridge. We grab onto thin tree trunks and shrubs which grow straight out from the nearly vertical face of the slope and then take a sharp turn skyward. Near the top we stop in what looks like a rather unassuming spot. But to the trained eye of a natural historian, it's easy to see that these trees have remained undisturbed for more than two centuries.

LEVERETT: Look at this one over here, Steve. The coloration is toward the cinnamon and I have not found any trees of sucacana canadensis with this coloration and depth of furrowing that have been under 150 years and typically they are over two. This is probably a 230 to 250 year old tree. If you look at the younger trees, you can find younger trees around, probably have to walk over this way a little ways because almost all of these are over here, so you've gotta -- now you'll notice that there the bark is thinner and thickness of bark is certainly an indication of age. Size is much much less so.

CURWOOD: Rooted only in a very thin layer of topsoil and on the exposed side of the ridge, the growth of the trees is stunted. But while that steep slope slowed tree growth, it also saved the land from being cleared. There are some big trees ahead, our guide says, though they make up only a tiny fraction of the ancient forest. We hike a little further along the backbone of the ridge and then down the inside the north slope of the gorge. Here protected from the elements, we find them.

CURWOOD: Hey hey, now, take a look at this size of this one. This is a pretty big tree here.
LEVERETT: Yeah, this is monster-sized. What I'm going to do here is get a circumference measurement on it . . .

CURWOOD: Too thick for two people to reach around, the huge hemlock towers more than a hundred feet above the forest floor. Leverett estimates the tree is 250 to maybe 300 years old, and there are five or six such giants scattered over an acre or two of land. And uphill, closest to the top of the ridge is a fifteen-foot high stump of a fallen hemlock.
(Climbing sound) Bracing ourselves against some debris left by the downed tree, we climb towards the top of the stump.

LEVERETT: Whoops -- you all right?
CURWOOD: I'm fine, it's just a little steep here.

CURWOOD: Once I'm back on my feet, Leverett uses the fallen tree to glean some history of this old growth stand. Although the stump is hollow with rot, he is able to count the tree's remaining annual growth rings and make a fairly accurate estimate of its age.

LEVERETT: Fifteen, seventeen, eighteen. That reflects a fairly fast growth. (counts silently) Now notice here you speed up again. This was probably water cycles, you know, wet years, dry years cycles. (counts silently) Okay, this is going to be probably about 230, to 240 years in age. And that makes me think that the larger one down there, that age of 250 to 300 is about right.
Now you notice over here on this ridge, you've got a big patch of hemlock. Now that is old forest in there and it's old forest right around in this bowl, but it is not all uniformly hemlock. A lot of it is yellow birch, black birch, sugar maple, white ash, red maple. As you look up that side you also see stems of white birch. If we start seeing too much white birch then that really spells major disturbance and opening. Toward the top it probably reflects colonial or post colonial fires coming from I would imagine clearing operations from the top. Slash catching on fire. But it comes to the edge and essentially then most of it stops. These north facing bowls just don't burn.

CURWOOD: The north facing slopes hold moisture better, so it was harder for settlers to burn away the trees and clear the land for pasture. Just as Brazilian settlers today make their way deeper and deeper into the Amazon, Americans worked their way out from the East Coast, slashing and burning as they went, leaving only pockets of virgin vegetation in their wake.

CURWOOD: Now with the vegetation are there other animals or other plants that can only be in this kind of old growth forest?
LEVERETT: probably not. These areas are far too small, too fragmented to harbor any species that are strictly associated with old growth. We haven't found any in Massachusetts.
CURWOOD: No spotted owl, is there?
LEVERETT: No spotted owl in these areas.

CURWOOD: Although no unique plant or animal species have yet to be identified in the tiny old growth stands in Massachusetts, there are other tracts of old growth forest in the East which Leverett says may be more important biologically. In the Adirondacks in New York and in northern Maine , for example, there are thousands of acres of ancient forest which Leverett says, are more than just historical curiosities, and which he says need protection.

LEVERETT: We have something here that is really priceless. It's a piece of America that existed before European colonization. It is as much of history as any item, any ship, any invention that we have. In a sense we've got one last chance to have a piece of our history, to be able to say we as a species can live at harmony with land, but to do that people have got to know about it.

(Sound of running water)

LEVERETT: This is the Black Brook, what we call the Black Brook hemlock stand.
CURWOOD: Just a few acres here.
LEVERETT: Just a few acres. And what's nice here is, people can drive up the road leisurely and see these ancient trees. One of my objectives is to find places that people can get to and see. Because obviously, not everyone is going to do what we just did.

CURWOOD: And for those who can't make it to the woods, Leverett is collaborating on book that will document the story of the surviving forests from southern Canada to the southern United States. A series of old growth stands, in places people never thought to look.

Back to top

(Sound of brook, fade under music)

Logless Mill

CURWOOD: When Europeans first began colonizing what would become the United States, there were over a billion acres of forest. A third was simply cleared away, and over time all but ten or fifteen percent of the rest was altered by logging. Most of our remaining virgin forest is in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, where increasingly, loggers are running out of logs and into determined opposition from environmentalists. The old-growth squeeze has put pressure on the Northwest's economy, and a number of sawmills have gone out of business. But one mill in Northern California sees a booming future without logs. V. J. Gibson of Jefferson Public Radio has our report.

(Sound of sawmill)

GIBSON: Jefferson Lumber, lying in the shadow of northern California's legendary Mt. Shasta, appears to be an ordinary sawmill. There's wood stacked everywhere, and forklifts shuttle it from pile to pile. But a closer look reveals two extraordinary differences. There are no raw logs and no log trucks. Instead of raw logs, huge reclaimed beams feed the saw, and what emerges is fresh, construction-grade wood.

(Saw sounds up and under)

Jefferson Lumber is the first and only mill in the Northwest that recycles old-growth wood -- wood that comes from sawmills built around the turn of the century, closed since the early '80's, and recently dismantled. Erica Carpenter owns Jefferson Lumber with her partner, Richard McFarland.

CARPENTER: The contractors who take buildings like this down often pay 50 to 100 thousand dollars in landfill costs per job to put this stuff into landfills where it just sits. And it's a resource that needs to be reused -- it's like 2x4 framing lumber and old windows and old doors, things that right now just get smashed in the wrecking process.

GIBSON: The mill's office receives constant inquiries from clients and the curious. Carpenter says the biggest part of her job is educating everyone, from demolition contractors to potential customers. Many people have never heard of recycled lumber. Often they imagine dirty old boards with nails sticking out of them.

CARPENTER: They envision cracked, warped old siding that's coming off a fallen-down old building and what we're offering to the public looks like new lumber.

GIBSON: Custom tools are the key to lumber recycling. A crew in one corner of the yard runs metal detectors over the wood, to sniff out buried treasure.

(Sound of metal extractor and detector)

GIBSON: Weird-looking tools, like nightmare dental equipment, pull nails, knife blades, and bullets from the ancient beams. Metal extraction makes the cost of recycled wood equal to or slightly higher than new lumber, but Carpenter and McFarland say the dryness and density make it a superior product. Forestry economist Paul Einger has been in the wood products industry for more than 30 years. He says the value of all wood has gone up, and that makes it worthwhile to reuse it.

EINGER: One only need look at the price of wood products today. With a very modest demand, very modest number of housing starts, we have the highest prices we've ever had in history, way above anything that would be justified by the market demands in a normal situation.

GIBSON: Einger says that's helped create a market for remanufactured materials that will be viable as long as the supply lasts. Jefferson Lumber's co-owner Richard McFarland believes recycling can bridge the gap between the high demand for quality lumber and the shrinking supply of old-growth timber in the forest.

McFARLAND: I see a time not too far off when it becomes real feasible to buy old 2x4's and turn them into flooring or paneling, old 1-by siding and turn it into cabinet-grade lumber, and I think there'll be a time in the future when they'll tear down a house that maybe is in the way of some development and they'll reuse all those 2x4's. They'll either use them for framing or they'll turn them into ornamental paneling, there would be a use for it.

GIBSON: And in a region where the forest-dependent economy is seriously depressed, lumber recycling can provide jobs for workers displaced by the timber crisis. For its part, Jefferson Lumber plans to start salvaging smaller and smaller dimensions of wood and to use more of its own waste wood for flooring, paneling and molding. McFarland and Carpenter say new interest in remanufactured materials is growing exponentially. They plan to manufacture their metal-extraction tools for others who see the potential of lumber recycling and the wisdom of developing environmentally sound industry.

In Mt. Shasta, California, I'm V. J. Gibson for Living on Earth.

Back to top

(Sound of sawmill, fade into music)

Listener Comments

CURWOOD: And now, comments from you, our listeners.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: In a recent interview, Lester Brown cited bicycle production as a significant economic indicator, prompting this call.

REID: My name is Brett Reid. I live outside Asheville, North Carolina. Those of us who could use our energy to pedal here, there and yonder on two wheels must get some worthy support. Something must be done to make the roads that exist now, and the drivers, good and healthy for the bicycle or we cannot use our bikes except off-road.

CURWOOD: Margaret Noll is retired and listens to us on WOI-AM out of Ames, Iowa. After hearing our piece on the negative impacts of commercial banana production in Costa Rica, she wrote: "One is told constantly not to be so concerned about things like this. But it happens (the) banana is one of the only raw fruits I can safely eat, but I don't want to eat it at the expense of lives lost in Central America."

Our 'Seasons Greetings' show sparked a few suggestions. Peter Tafuri is an amateur historian and food writer from La Plume, Pennsylvania. After hearing our interview with Marian Weinstein on the history of solstice rituals, he pointed out that the ancient celebration of the solstice was not limited to Anglo-Saxons. He writes: "The solstice was celebrated by all the peoples of the temperate zones. Our own continent is dotted with locations where Native Americans went to great lengths to create alignments to mark the solstices and equinoxes, and similar sites are to be found throughout the old world which antedate the Angles, Saxons and Jutes."

Another listener had a few words about our piece on Christmas tree mulching.

RABINOWITZ: Hello, Living on Earth, this is Mark Rabinowitz calling from Tacoma Park, Maryland. Why did you suggest that people continue to kill trees for Christmas instead of planting them? You cannot make organic mulch out of most Christmas trees, since they are sprayed with highly toxic herbicides that obliterate all other plant life. Why not encourage people to plant trees everywhere? After all, that is what we need to absorb the carbon emissions of the industrial age. Hope you get a little deeper coverage in the New Year. Bye-bye.

CURWOOD: And finally, an entrepreneur from Arkansas sees a bright future for our low-emission reindeer sleighs.

BEASLEY: This is Maryann Beasley in Vadeville, Arkansas. I listen to KAUF. I am extremely excited about these reindeer vehicles. I am a salesperson by profession, I believe that I could market this vehicle and there are certain details I need to know: what color are they going to come in, what sizes, I need to know if they're going to have air bags installed, and I need to know if the air-conditioning is going to be free of CFC's. I'm ready to go on this, I think I could earn a real good living selling reindeer vehicles. Bye-bye.

CURWOOD: So if you have any comments, questions or concerns, give us a call on our listener line, as 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238.

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(Music up and under)

Catalogue Avalanche

CURWOOD: As we emerge from the holiday season, commentator Janet Reynolds says she's glad for the convenience of shopping at home with catalogs, but she dreads what's next, now that she's on all those mailing lists.

REYNOLDS: First, let's get one thing straight -- I do not hate catalogs. I buy from them, I swap 'em, they're fixtures in all our bathrooms. But hey, even I have a threshold, and at thirty catalogs in just one recent week, I've reached it. And I'm just one member of one household. A call to Direct Marketing Association confirms my suspicions. Last year, 13.1 billion catalogs were mailed to Americans. See, these companies don't just send out four seasonal catalogs a year with maybe a couple of sale flyers in between. Many of these companies send out dozens of catalogs. Why? Because in the pseudo-science of Catalog 101, more catalogs mean more sales mean more profits. It also means they can sell or trade your name to other companies who then send you more catalogs.

Unfortunately, what's good for the corporate pocketbook isn't so great for the environment. Producing those catalogs consumes huge amounts of water and electricity and produces tons of sulfur dioxide and dioxin waste. Finally, there's the minor detail of catalogs' very long landfill life, or what happens when they're burned. The glossy paper they're printed on and the multi-color photographs that entice customers to cough up the cash make recycling them expensive. Most recycling centers don't do it, and when they do, most companies aren't particularly interested in decreasing their profits to pay for it.

Not surprisingly, company spokespeople prefer to emphasize the positive sides of armchair shopping. Fewer gallons of gas, less foreign oil, fewer tons of car exhaust in the air. Besides, what's a few catalogs compared to storing toxic waste or holes in the ozone layer? Good point, but working under the theory that every little bit helps, there are changes that can and should be made. Right now catalog companies get all sorts of perks: discount bulk mail rates, few -- if any -- sales tax obligations, and no financial stake in getting rid of discards. It's time, then, for some laws requiring catalog companies to use recycled paper and to help finance catalog collection and recycling. In the meantime, we consumers can take some steps.

Most companies will take you off the regular mailing list and send you only certain catalogs if you ask them. They'll also remove your name from the list they rent or trade with other companies. You can also register with the Direct Mail Association's Mail Preference Service and have your name removed from lists sent to subscribers for five years. Call your local library for the address.

Finally, if you're the activist sort you can also write the company and say something like, "Hey! What's wrong with you guys? Why don't you use recycled paper?" Remember, money talks. If companies are convinced recycled paper won't translate into fewer sales of hunting boots or slinky negligees, they just might change their paper stock.

CURWOOD: Janet Reynolds is a freelance writer and a commentator for Living on Earth.
She comes to us from Connecticut Public Radio.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our director is Debra Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Colleen Singer Cox and engineers Laurie Azaria, Doug Haslam and Jennifer Loeb. Editor and producer is Peter Thomson. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in co-operation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Theme music up and under funding credits)


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