October 29, 1993
Air Date: October 29, 1993
How Green Can the GNP Be?/ John Greenberg
John Greenberg reports from Washington on the trials and tribulations of building a Gross National Product that accounts for environmental change. Advocates of greening up the economic measure claim it is crucial to include costs and gains to natural resources when weighing our national wealth. (07:58)
The Future of the Barrier Island Horses/ Melinda Penkava
Melinda Penkava reports from the outer banks of North Carolina on the fate of the islands' wild horses. Horses roam freely on the barrier islands along the US southeastern coast, but for how long? Development is shrinking their range and the horses' destructive grazing habits may pose a threat to the delicate barrier islands themselves. (07:51)
No Roads Lead to Corova/ Adam Hochberg
Also from the outer banks, Adam Hochberg brings us the story of Corova Beach, North Carolina — a community without a road to the outside world. While many residents of the town feel they have as much right to a road as any other taxpayer, a nature preserve lies between Corova Beach and the nearest highway. (05:19)
Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.
HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Scott Schlegel, Don Gonyea, Jon Greenberg, Melinda Penkava, Adam Hochberg
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Bands of wild horses roam freely on the barrier islands off the Atlantic Coast. But the loss of fragile vegetation, and pressure from development, threatens the wild ponies' independence. On one island at least, their survival may depend on fencing them in.
DORMAN: We've invaded the horses, but the horses have nowhere else to go but that land. If we can't get them on the refuge land, I don't know where we could take them, 'cause we really feel like they've been here for 400 years and this is their home first.
CURWOOD: Also on the barrier islands, a controversy over building a road. Developers had promised access for a beachfront community, but a nature preserve stands in the way.
BROCK: How come that we're the only place in the United States that can't have a road?
CURWOOD: And accounting for environmental change in the Gross National Product, this week on Living on Earth, right after the news.
NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.
The US Justice Department is dropping its year-long probe of a Federal grand jury in Colorado. Investigators couldn't determine who leaked a secret grand jury report on environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Scott Schlegel has the story.
SCHLEGEL: In 1992, defense contractor Rockwell International paid the US Government $18.5 million dollars in penalties for environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Denver. But the Justice Department would not indict Rockwell executives for knowingly dumping toxic chemicals into the ground, as grand jurors say they recommended. Jurors' attorney Jonathan Turley says the investigation is being dropped, as Congress probes the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section.
TURLEY: So the Department of Justice is trying to diffuse the Rocky Flats case before these reports also blow up and reveal that this section often acted like a, more of a corporate public defender system than an actual office of prosecution.
SCHLEGEL: In dozens of environmental cases, Congressional investigators say that, although the Justice Department has allowed companies to pay hefty fines for environmental crimes, it rarely prosecutes corporate executives. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel in Denver.
NUNLEY: Every year, the Tokyo Electric Power Company dumps ten times more low-level radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan than Russia. The admission by a Japanese government official, reported in the Japan Times, follows a diplomatic spat between the countries over Russia's dumping practices. Both nations signed an international treaty which forbids the ocean dumping of radioactive waste, but observers say land-to-sea discharges, such as Tokyo Electric's, aren't covered by that treaty.
President Clinton has ordered Federal agencies to stop imposing regulations on local governments, unless there is Federal money to back them up. Paying for Federal compliance - mostly environmental standards - cuts into money for needed local services. That's according to Jerry Abramson, mayor of Louisville, Kentucky and president of the US Conference of Mayors. He wants the Federal Government to reorganize its funding priorities.
ABRAMSON: When the national government believes that there is an issue that is so important to our nation that it should be passed at the national level, then the wealth of America should stand behind those issues.
NUNLEY: But some fear the Federal Government will instead weaken environmental standards. Mark Smolosky of the Environmental Working Group.
SMOLOSKY: Congress is not reacting the way we think they should by trying to find a way to fund these mandates. They appear to be reacting in a way that would roll back some of the mandates and that would be dangerous.
NUNLEY: Smolosky says money from agencies such as NASA or the Defense Department should be diverted to ease the financial burden of local governments.
It will take decades for the Kuwaiti desert to recover from damage caused by the 1991 Gulf War. That's according to a new comprehensive report by a team of Boston University geologists. They say more than 240 lakes of oil remain on the desert surface.
This is Living on Earth.
The Big Three domestic automakers are hoping to halt the spread of strict, California-style clean air rules. In return, the car makers reportedly would promise to accelerate the introduction of more fuel-efficient autos with cleaner-burning engines. From Detroit, Don Gonyea reports.
GONYEA: The California law mandates that by 1998,electric cars must account for two percent of all cars sold by any automaker in the state. Adding to the companies' concern is the fact that 12 Northeastern states are planning to adopt the California clean-air standards. GM, Ford, and Chrysler argue that they have yet to achieve the technological breakthrough on an electric battery that would make such a car economically feasible. The American Automobile Manufacturers' Association - that's the lobbying arm of the Big Three - is reportedly looking to Vice President Al Gore for help in delaying implementation of electric-car requirements. Some see this as a tradeoff for the automakers' support of the Vice President's supercar project, under which the Big Three will team up with government scientists to develop clean-car technology. For Living on Earth, I'm Don Gonyea in Detroit.
NUNLEY: The US Treasury Department plans a joint Mexican-American development bank to fund environmental cleanup along the border. But the plan goes into effect only if Congress ratifies the North American Free Trade Agreement. Then each country would contribute $225 million dollars to establish the bank, which would eventually make $2 to $3 billion dollars in loans available for water treatment, waste disposal and other clean-up projects. But critics, including the Sierra Club, say a thorough border clean-up will cost at least $20 billion dollars.
Tokyo officials want a clearer view of their trash problem. So they've ordered citizens to use transparent plastic bags for all their trash. An earlier order to separate garbage wasn't always followed. So - city officials reason - if they, and the neighbors, can see who's throwing what where, people will be more careful. Some Tokyo citizens complain that's a clear invasion of privacy.
That's this week's environmental news, I'm Jan Nunley.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Putting up new buildings, harvesting crops, and gathering fish are all examples of economic activities that add to the gross national product, or GNP. Classical economists say more growth in the GNP means a better, more productive society. Or does it? Those economic activities also use up natural resources, and some economists now argue that the GNP should include the costs of changes to the environment. So earlier this year, President Clinton asked his advisors to recalculate the GNP with greener equations. From Washington, NPR's Jon Greenberg examines how the new greener GNP might add up.
GREENBERG: To get some idea of the intricacies of calculating a green GNP, consider these slimy, physically unattractive, delicious delicacies, as they make the ultimate contribution to GNP as we know it.
(Restaurant sound; Waitress: "What can I get for you?" Woman: "Umm, I guess to start I'd like half a dozen oysters on the half shell?" Waitress: "All right.")
GREENBERG: Now, the plate of oysters cost $5.75. Subtract how much the restaurant paid for them in the first place, the cost of the lemon wedge and horseradish sauce, and the remainder counts towards GNP. But there are economists who say there's something wrong with this picture. They say we can't figure out what's been gained by selling the oysters if we don't go back to the place where they breed.
(Sound of ocean waves, fades to gurgling sound)
GREENBERG: The International Institute for Ecological Economics sits on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. Inside, Dennis King stands by a gurgling tub of oysters and lays out this hypothetical case. Say oystermen dredged up $2.5 million dollars worth of mollusks last year. We knew the value of the oyster beds at the beginning of the year; now, we go back to the beds and see what's left.
KING: If, at the end of the year, we looked at the bay and there was $2.5 million dollars' worth of oysters less than there were at the beginning of the year, we didn't produce anything. We mined it. We essentially mined our resource and reduced our inventory by that amount.
GREENBERG: In other words, we cut into the oysters' ability to make more oysters. That's a cost that has no place within the framework of traditional GNP. Using the standard approach, the oysters are considered gifts of nature and technically the supply is unlimited. But with green GNP, the oyster beds in the bay represent capital stock. In traditional terms, capital stock is something that lasts, such as machinery, and that you must have to produce whatever it is you are making. One long-time advocate of green GNP is Herman Daly, a senior economist at the World Bank. He offers a humble example of the consequences of using up capital stock.
DALY: As a householder, you don't want to, let's say, sell your house, and then count that as income for this year, run out and spend it all and have a good time and then next year you're homeless. That's living on capital, not on income. And so the main idea behind green GNP then is really this very, very conventional, conservative idea of not consuming capital, but living on income.
GREENBERG: In the case of the Chesapeake Bay oysters, there's no question that capital stocks have fallen. At the turn of the century, the bay produced 15 million bushels of oysters. Last year, the harvest was a thousand times smaller. The situation is so critical, state officials may ban oystering to allow the population to recover. Hundreds of people could lose their jobs. Supporters of green GNP believe that policy makers would pay more attention to the depletion of natural capital if the losses showed up in the one economic measuring stick politicians watch so carefully. But many people see problems in measuring natural capital. Carol Carson is the director of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the government office that calculates GNP and is responsible for making it greener. One thing she's concerned about is sometimes it's unclear who owns the resource.
CARSON: Chances of your counting fish are pretty slim, just because the oceans are free and the fish that are attributed to any one country are very hard to measure. We feel that a good bit of thinking has to be done on the concepts of renewable resources.
GREENBERG: Carson plans to tackle green GNP in three steps. The first step deals with non-renewable resources such as coal, oil, and gold. She plans to publish, alongside the traditional GNP, a set of adjustments based on the non-renewable resources the economy has used up. The second step concerns renewable resources - oysters, fish, timber, and so on. Carson says it will be harder to come up with those numbers. There's no consensus yet on the basic ground rules for estimating their value. But if economists sputter over things like counting fish, the prospect of assessing the third kind of resources leaves many of them speechless. Clean water and air, the ozone layer, and wetlands are resources too. And human activity has begun to use them up. In economic terms, they are no longer free. However, there is a big, big problem in fitting these resources into the framework of GNP. We don't buy and sell them. So their value isn't measured in dollars. Things can get tricky. Let's go back to the oysters.
(Sound of bubbling water)
GREENBERG: When millions of oysters carpeted the Chesapeake, they filtered every drop of water in the bay every three to four days. As economist Dennis King explains, we know today that the oysters provided a valuable service.
KING: As there is more sediment and nutrients in the bay, because there's a lower oyster population and a higher load, the photosynthesis can't reach the bottom in as deep a water. So you wind up with less submerged aquatic vegetation than you would have had. That is habitat for rockfish, bluefish, lots of other fin fish.
GREENBERG: The question is, how could anyone put a dollar value on the invisible service the oysters provided? The same applies to water, air, and other environmental resources. Some economists say that no one can put an objective price on these things, therefore we should leave them out of GNP. The fans of green GNP say that's bad logic. Bob Repetto is an economist with the World Resources Institute.
REPETTO: I think it's a serious policy error to say that because it's difficult to measure a resource accurately, we should assume that its value is zero. Zero is a very precise number and it's a very poor approximation to the value of clean air and water.
GREENBERG: Repetto says clean air and water are worth something - and the information we have at hand could give us at least a high and a low estimate of their values. He agrees that many technical details remain. Repetto says Carson and her staff should take the easiest steps first, and come up with adjustments only when the data are readily available. Green GNP has its limits. The supporters of green GNP acknowledge that it is still only an economic measure and shouldn't be equated with the overall quality of life in the country. But in America, when GNP goes up, people have the habit of saying things are going well - and when it goes down, things don't look so rosy. In that light, President Clinton has taken on a difficult challenge. He has said his presidency should be judged on how well the economy performs. Rightly or wrongly, GNP is the yardstick people will use. And making GNP greener can only bring the numbers down. The first green GNP figures based on non-renewable resources will be out next April. For Living on Earth, this is Jon Greenberg in Washington.
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CURWOOD: Imagine for a moment that you are out for a walk along one of the great sandy barrier island beaches of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas or Georgia. You take a deep breath of the fresh salty air, and then in the distance you see them, heads down, tails gently snapping - the wild ponies. If you startle them, they're off, down the open sands, where the horses roam freely. But two forces may rein them in. Development is putting a squeeze on their territory, and at the same time, the appetite of the horses is taking a toll on the fragile vegetation of the islands. From Corolla, North Carolina, NPR's Melinda Penkava has our story.
(Sound of horses munching)
PENKAVA: According to local legend, wild horses have been roaming the northernmost section of the Outer Banks for 400 years. By some accounts, descendants of Spanish mustangs, the horses have adapted to the terrain, eating the dune grass. But a big change came a decade ago, when a two-lane highway was extended to Corolla, just south of the Virginia border. This brought a surge of development, and extensive beach homes now blanket the dunes.
(Whine of power drill)
PENKAVA: The development that has attracted thousands of vacationers has also attracted the horses. One herd of two dozen now grazes on the well-fertilized lawns, apparently preferring this to natural vegetation. This sight delights visitors, but it's made some homeowners disgruntled because of the damage the horses do to the ornamental grasses and shrubbery. And even for the horses' advocates, there's increasing cause for concern. Since 1989, a dozen horses have died as a result of car accidents. So to reduce the odds of that, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund formed. Volunteers such as Jane Webster drive for hours each day, monitoring the horses to make sure they're out of harm's way.
WEBSTER: We patrol from April the first through the end of October, the peak of tourist season, try to keep them off the road and keep people from getting too close. Well, I'm going to go ahead and move them now. Come on, girl. Giddap.
PENKAVA: Armed with a training whip and baby rattles, Webster herds the horses into a back yard. But for Rowena Dorman, with the Wild Horse Fund, this is only a temporary solution. Worried that still more horses may die, Dorman no longer thinks they should roam freely.
DORMAN: In the past I would have said definitely, I would have preferred them stay here. But now's the situation where with the growth - it's not gonna stop.
PENKAVA: It's ironic, Dorman says, that the horses are part of the allure for vacationers and homebuyers to come to Corolla. Now the only land that is not slated for development is a thousand-acre protected reserve, where the state of North Carolina runs an estuarine study. This is where Rowena Dorman and the Wild Horse Fund want to fence in the horses.
DORMAN: We've invaded the horses, but the horses have nowhere else to go but that land. If we can't get them on the refuge land, I don't know where we could take them.
PENKAVA: But the state of North Carolina nixes the idea of turning its protected research area into a grazing pasture. John Taggart is head of North Carolina's Estuarine Research Reserve program, and to him, the state is being asked to provide a convenient solution to a problem caused by development.
TAGGART: They allowed development up there in such a manner that the horses have really been sort of pushed out of their range and their habitat, and I think that perhaps the county or the developers up there should have taken this into consideration when they were doing the planning for what is now on the ground.
PENKAVA: The horses may have been there for centuries, says Taggart, but they are not native to the area, and so could upset the ecological balance. Taggart is concerned that if they were fenced in, their foraging would virtually kill off the June grass and spartina marsh grass there. That's a concern shared by Duke University geologist Oren Pilkey.
PILKEY: More than just the spartina, it's a whole assemblage of organisms, virtually dozens and dozens of species that are involved with this intricate ecosystem that makes up a salt marsh. And that system is just about completely wiped out when you eat 'em down to the nub.
PENKAVA: This is already evident further down the string of North Carolina's barrier islands, at Cape Lookout National Seashore, where 200 horses live on the Shackleford Banks.
(Sound of launch engine)
PENKAVA: On approaching the island, it appears as though the horses are drinking at the water's edge. But they're not. The horses are eating, munching on the tender shoots of spartina that would otherwise be waist-high. Here, though, the grass resembles a mowed lawn of toothbrush bristles. Oren Pilkey, a longtime critic of shoreline development by humans, says the horses also eat the dune grass that would normally trap sand and prevent erosion.
PILKEY: The damage is extreme. It depends on how important you consider a salt marsh and things like that, but they are doing, the horses are doing things on Shackleford that if a developer did, the developer would be in prison.
PENKAVA: Problem is, says Pilkey, you just can't come out against the horses.
(Sound of cruise tour guide: "If you look carefully at the surrounding islands during the cruise, you may notice wild horses grazing . . ." fade under)
PENKAVA: The horses are part of the tourist draw here - a tour boat gliding past nearby Kerritt Island repeats the legend that the horses are descendants of shipwrecked Arabian stallions. This prompts a laugh from Mark Hay, a scientists from the University of North Carolina's Institute of Marine Studies, who says the horses were actually abandoned decades ago by farmers. Hay's studies on the effect the horses have on the island found that the grass grew much thicker and three and four feet higher where horses could not graze. Still, Hay says it is sometimes tough to convince people that horses do have an impact.
HAY: If we have something that eats too much grass off this island, and if the grass traps sediment, and if the sediment is pushed during storms, and if the grass isn't there during the storm, if the island doesn't grow up with changing sea levels, then a couple hundred years from now it's gonna be underwater. It's a long-term sort of process to educate people about that and to make all of us think of the importance of events that happen over a scale of decades or centuries versus do we or do we not feed this large-eyed thing that's smiling at us today?
PENKAVA: On the other hand, Hay sees some benefit from the horses. People who come out to visit this estuarine reserve to see the animals may leave with a new appreciation for the fragility of barrier islands. So for Hay, a small herd is okay, so long as their impact on the ecosystem is not ignored.
HAY: I don't think there's anything wrong with making a decision that way. I think there's something wrong with making a decision in ignorance and saying well, horses have been there for 40 years and the island is still there so everything's okay. That's not true.
PENKAVA: Studies are underway at Shackleford and some other islands run by the National Park Service to gauge the horses' impact. Thinning the herds is one option; contraceptives another. In Corolla, North Carolina, meanwhile, there is agreement that the horses there need to be fenced in, but the question remains - just where? For Living on Earth, I'm Melinda Penkava, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
CURWOOD: Just a few miles from Corolla, North Carolina, is the island community of Carova Beach. But getting there isn't easy. Carova Beach is one of the very few towns in the United States that doesn't have a road. Some residents would like one, to make commuting easier. The problem is, the road would have to cut through a wildlife refuge. Adam Hochberg of member station WUNC in Chapel Hill has our report.
HOCHBERG: This is how Marlene Slate begins her afternoon commute from her real estate office in the town of Corolla to her home about thirteen miles away in Carova Beach.
(Sound of car engine starting up)
HOCHBERG: For the first mile or so, she travels down a nice two-lane highway that leads to the beach. Then, with her Nissan Pathfinder and four-wheel drive, she revs her engine and descends onto the sand.
HOCHBERG: So this is where the road ends?
SLATE: This is where the road ends, yeah. And life begins.
HOCHBERG: For the next half-hour or so, her commute is a rocky, bumpy drive down the beach. Often in the summer, she has to maneuver her Pathfinder around sunbathers, fishermen, horseback riders, even occasional hang gliders.
SLATE: I gotta watch up there, I gotta watch there, there - everywhere.
HOCHBERG: Some days it can be a nerve-wracking drive. Children and dogs dart in front of her car, a stray beach ball flies by now and then, old tree stumps that stick out of the sand make an obstacle course that she has to drive around. And beachcombers sometimes unknowingly wander out to the part of the beach that's supposed to be reserved for vehicles.
SLATE: That's our home, and a lot of them will park right out there and set up their chairs, and, you know, blah-blah-blah, and then some are parked up here and some are playing, you know, volleyball set up, some are playing horseshoes, sometimes you can't even get through.
HOCHBERG: When the Carova Beach community was first developed in the 1960's and '70's, homebuyers didn't think they'd have to drive on the beach to get to work or get to the store. Originally, developers planned for a road to be built that would connect Carova Beach with the rest of the North Carolina Outer Banks. But about ten years ago the area south of Carova Beach was purchased by the Nature Conservancy, a private group that buys environmentally-sensitive land and preserves it. Most of the land was turned over to the Federal Government for a wildlife refuge. But the Nature Conservancy kept a few acres for itself. Neither the Conservancy nor the Federal Government will allow a road to be built. Still, about a hundred residents settled in the Carova Beach area and the population increases to more than 300 in the summer. Some of those people, such as Micki Brock, feel betrayed that there's no road.
BROCK: How come that we're the only place in the United States that can't have a road? We're paying over a third of the taxes to Currituck County. I don't see what would be detrimental about having a decent way in and out. I do not see any reason for that.
(Sound of birds)
HOCHBERG: But the people who manage the wildlife refuge say a road would indeed be detrimental to the birds, animals and plants that live on either side of Carova Beach. Barb Blounder of the Nature Conservancy said this is one of the last undeveloped stretches of ocean front on the East Coast.
BLOUNDER: This is really a very special place. I mean, it's not just a piece of beach front that could be found anywhere, it's part of our heritage.
HOCHBERG: The nature preserve is an important nesting ground for animals like sea turtles and birds like swans and falcons and bald eagles. It's located right on the Atlantic Flyway, a travel path for migratory birds. During the spring and fall, hundreds of thousands of birds stop here to rest. It's one of the few places along the coast where they can go to get away from people, and from hunters. But Blounder says things would change if a road were built. Not only would animals be in danger of being hit by cars, but some species may decide to abandon the area entirely because of the noise and commotion that a road would bring.
BLOUNDER: It has all types of different detrimental effects, including interfering with nesting, including enabling more off-road vehicle activity to enter into the preserve and damage the dune systems, and in fact the whole ecosystem here would be impacted.
HOCHBERG: Environmentalists concede that there is some ecological damage now from people driving on the beach. Nests get run over by vehicles, and sea gulls often are scared away. But they say building a road would make things worse, if for no other reason than because there would be so much more traffic. And not all Carova Beach residents want the road. Charlie Pool says he thinks things are fine the way they are, even though he has to take his children to school every morning by boat across the Currituck Sound.
POOL: If they put roads in here I'd probably move away from here, because that's not what I'm here for. I'm here because there's not a road.
HOCHBERG: For several years, the Currituck County Commission has been on record in favor of constructing a road to connect Carova Beach to the rest of the county. They say it's essential if the government is expected to continue providing services like garbage collection, housing inspections, and emergency response. Still, any effort to build a road would probably face a strong challenge from the Nature Conservancy and from environmentalists. So for the foreseeable future, Carova Beach residents can expect to keep traveling through the sand to get to their homes. For Living on Earth, I'm Adam Hochberg in Carova Beach, North Carolina.
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