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

July 12, 1996

Air Date: July 12, 1996


Newt Gingrich: An Enigmatic Portrait / Terry FitzPatrick

Once an active environmental protectionist, House Speaker Newt Gingrich is better known these days as an advocate of environmental deregulation. Reporter Terry FitzPatrick provides this portrait of Newt's green contradictions. Come spend the speaker's 53rd birthday at the Atlanta zoo. (18:15)

Listener Letters

Reactions to recent Living on Earth segments. (02:15)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... railroads. (01:15)

Big Thirst in West Texas / Sandy Tolan

Going into its third year, comparisons are being made between the depression era dustbowl and the big drought circa 1996 in western parts of Texas. Producer Sandy Tolan lets us hear from some of the old timers who are experiencing a sense of deja vu as cattle and crops die off in the relentless heat, and they dream of wet cool days. (13:43)

Exotic Pets: Purchase With Care / Donna Fernandes

Steve Curwood speaks once more to zoologist Donna Fernandes about the interest in exotic pets, and what people might consider before deciding to take one into their home or family. (08:31)

Protecting Hybrids

Commentator Alston Chase questions the wisdom of including species on the endangered protection list which are genetic hybrids. (02:57)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Mark Huntley, Stephanie O'Neill, Terry FitzPatrick, Sandy Tolan
GUEST: Donna Fernandes
COMMENTATOR: Allston Chase

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Newt Gingrich unleashed the Republican assault on environmental laws last year. Now voters are angry and he's trying to change course. This week the House speaker's many environmental lives, from anti-pollution activist in the 70s...

GINGRICH: We're inflicting on our body an increasing number of radioactive and chemical abuses, which are likely to lead to all sorts of backlashes physically.

CURWOOD: ... to the deregulation leader of the 90s...

GINGRICH: The EPA may well be the biggest job-killing agency in the inner city in America today.

CURWOOD: ... to consensus builder today.

GINGRICH: I want a sound, good science, rational, incentive-based environmental program. I think we can create a new environmentalism that can be popular and deeper and stronger.

CURWOOD: Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the environment this week on Living on Earth, right after this news summary.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Czech police are cracking down on protesters who want to halt construction of the Timalin Nuclear Power Plant. The demonstrators also hope to force a national referendum on atomic power. From Prague, Mark Huntley reports.

HUNTLEY: Over 4 days, up to 300 protesters staged the largest and most concerted anti-nuclear protests ever on Czech soil. They were held at the gates of the Temalin Nuclear Power Plant close to the Austrian border. Activists blocked plant gates, formed human chains across access roads, and chained themselves to barrels filled with concrete, all to slow work at the plant and elevate the anti-nuclear issue on the Czech political scene. Their efforts may be paying off. The protesters were joined at the plant gates by ranking members of the powerful opposition Social Democrats, who say their party is now in favor of a national referendum on Temalin's completion. That was originally scheduled for September 1997, but repeated delays have pushed it back at least a year. The protesters are calling for Temalin's construction to be halted. The plant was originally started under Communist rule. Then work stopped after the country's revolution. Construction re-started 2 years ago. For Living on Earth, this is Mark Huntley in Prague.

NUNLEY: Seahorse populations have fallen by more than 50% in the last 5 years. A new study of trade in the fish found that more than 20 million seahorses are harvested each year. Most are used in traditional Asian medicines to treat problems that include asthma, heart disease, and sexual dysfunction. The report by the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce warns that seahorses are ill-suited to commercial fishing. The creatures mate for life and if one of the couple is caught the other won't breed again. Seahorses are easily caught in shallow water and can even be harvested by hand.

Spring has been arriving earlier each year in the Northern Hemisphere, and scientists at the Scripps Institute and the University of California say this may be due to the greenhouse effect. From Los Angeles, Stephanie O'Neill reports.

O'NEILL: The researchers have found the growing season in the Northern Hemisphere is about a week longer today than it was in the 1970's, according to a report in the journal Nature. The discovery of an early spring most pronounced in the upper reaches of North America, Europe, and Siberia, marks the first time that such a widespread increase in the growing season has been reported. The finding is considered highly significant, as it may be the first evidence of climate change and how it affects the growth of plants on a large scale. The San Diego researchers, who have monitored seasonal changes in the atmosphere since the late 1950s, base their findings on a link between rising temperatures and increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Publication of the findings coincided with the United Nations meeting in which representatives from 150 nations discussed ways to reduce carbon dioxide, which contributes greatly to global warming. For Living on Earth I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

NUNLEY: Meanwhile, at the UN conference being held in Geneva, insurance companies from around the globe called on the world's governments to reduce quickly the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. The call was part of a statement issued by some 60 insurers representing every industrialized nation except the US. The companies said their industry is most likely to be directly affected by climate change because they have to pay for damage from more frequent and severe storms believed to result from warmer weather. The cost of natural disasters to insurance companies has risen dramatically in the past decade, at the same time as average global temperatures have been rising.

China says a US company sold 78 tons of dangerously radioactive steel to a Chinese state corporation. According to a contract signed between the 2 last March the steel was to be high quality scrap from equipment used in the petroleum business, but the official Chin We News Agency says inspectors found radioactivity levels in some of the steel to be more than 20 times international limits. Government officials claim this is just the latest case of US companies trying to dump trash in China. In recent weeks the government says it has seized dozens of US containers of old clothes and used medical waste in shipments that were supposed to contain only wastepaper for recycling.

He's 5 feet tall, weighs 4,500 pounds, and he's the only guy she knows, but a rare white rhinoceros still refuses to mate with her half-brother. So Pittsburgh zoo officials are sending her and the rejected male all the way to Asia to find suitable partners. China's Chengdu Zoo is trying to diversify its herd's genes. The white rhino species is native to southern Africa. About 4,000 remain in the wild and their horns are popular with poachers who sell them to be carved into dagger handles or ground into folk medicines. The Pittsburgh pair were born in captivity 18 years ago and have lived at the zoo for most of their lives.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Newt Gingrich: An Enigmatic Portrait

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For the first time in 2 generations the GOP enters the general election as the majority party. And one issue with which many Republicans had hoped to make a big score has instead thrown them for a loss: environmental regulation. Congressional Republicans try to reduce air, water, land, and wildlife protections, but instead of getting points for trying to shrink government they were hit by public outrage. The Democrats then grabbed the environment as a major campaign theme. So, the Republicans are changing their game plan on the environment, and the man in charge is House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich may seem an unlikely choice. He was, after all, the architect of the Contract with America, which some called a stealth attack on environmental protection. But the House Speaker was also once a professor of environmental studies and a member of the Sierra Club. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick has our report.

(A milling crowd. A man sings, "Happy Birthday to Newt!" The crowd joins in. "Happy Birthday to you! Happy birthday dear Newwwwwt...")

FITZPATRICK: Newt Gingrich celebrated his 53rd birthday last month by inviting 2,000 supporters to a place you might not expect: the Atlanta Zoo.

(The crowd cheers after finishing the song. Man: "Now wait a minute, I got something for you...")

FITZPATRICK: This gathering raised thousands in contributions, but not for Mr. Gingrich or the Republicans. The money went instead to the zoo's campaign to protect endangered species.

GINGRICH: The Conservation Fund is part of what's going to allow your children and your grandchildren not just to see gorillas at a zoo but to see gorillas in the wild.

(A harmonica plays. A man sings "Happy Birthday to You...")

FITZPATRICK: As an elephant played the harmonica and unfurled a Happy Birthday banner, the event seemed straight out of the GOP playbook on the environment. Plant trees, pose with animals, all to soften the image Republicans have earned by trying to roll back laws like the Endangered Species Act. That's exactly what a group of demonstrators outside the zoo felt the Speaker was up to.

(A different milling crowd)

WOMAN: This man who's doing all that is making an absolute mockery of Zoo Atlanta by having this function here when he wants to kill all the animals for the greater corporate greed of his supporters.

FITZPATRICK: Actually, Newt Gingrich has been one of the zoo's biggest patrons for years. But the fact that environmentalists would picket his birthday party underscores a problem the Speaker has faced his entire career: balancing his ambitions and conservative agenda against a personal streak of true green environmentalism.

(Traffic sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Newt Gingrich was once an environmental crusader when he first moved to the small town of Carrolton, Georgia, 26 years ago. Inspired by the first Earth Day in 1970, he founded an environmental studies program at West Georgia College. Professor Gingrich took students on nature hikes and litter patrols. He criticized companies that polluted local streams and fought a proposed dam on Georgia's last free-flowing river. On the radio Mr. Gingrich predicted dire consequences if America didn't clean up its act.

GINGRICH: One of the grim possibilities and I think one of the likelihoods is that the cancer rate will go up dramatically by the year 2000 because we're inflicting on our body an increasing number of radioactive and chemical abuses which are likely to lead to all sorts of backlashes physically.

FITZPATRICK: The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and Environmental Protection Agency, were all created while Newt Gingrich was a college professor. He lectured these were good laws, and according to student Lee Howell, Professor Gingrich was quick to note these measures were enacted with a Republican in the White House.

HOWELL: He was teaching that his hero, Richard Nixon, was doing it. He favored these programs and he made a point that everybody understood that these were Republican programs and the Republicans really were the reform party, and they believed in -- in helping people in areas that concerned them: clean water, clean air, whatever.

FITZPATRICK: In 1974, Newt Gingrich jumped into politics, taking on an incumbent Democrat who resisted the wave of environmentalism that was sweeping the country.

GINGRICH: I'll be running in the Republican primary. I'm running against a man who's been there 20 years...

FITZPATRICK: The incumbent, Jack Flint, was an easy target for Newt Gingrich, who ran as a Green. Mr. Gingrich's bumper stickers were green; he even signed letters in green ink. He was endorsed by the Georgia League of Conservation Voters, and his campaign headquarters quickly filled with students from his environmental courses. The environment was not his only theme, but it was a constant, says Lee Howell, who joined the campaign as press secretary and speechwriter.

HOWELL: He used to talk about the future and talk about things we need to do. And so people saw Newt and reacted to Newt as somebody who was concerned about the future. And here's a young man who cares.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Gingrich came close in his first campaign but lost, and a rematch 2 years later brought the same result. Only on his third attempt, after incumbent Jack Flint retired in 1978, did Newt Gingrich win his seat in Congress.

(Applause and cheering)

GINGRICH: And we are going to fight here in the district and in Washington to be a model of the kind of representation that can make people proud to go vote and kill apathy in this country. (Cheers and applause follow.)

FITZPATRICK: Supporters cheered, but many had noticed a change during the '78 campaign, and in the years that followed. The environment had vanished as an issue in Mr. Gingrich's speeches, in his agenda for GOP ascendancy, and in his 1984 book on America's future entitled Window of Opportunity.

KLAXTON: I was surprised as I read through the book (laughs) -- found next to nothing mentioned about environmentalism.

FITZPATRICK: Bob Klaxton is a history professor at West Georgia College and worked with Mr. Gingrich.

KLAXTON: And of course a few years earlier he was teaching environmental studies here. Where did all this interest suddenly go?

FITZPATRICK: Professor Klaxton says Mr. Gingrich found other issues which were more popular to talk about. But other former supporters, like Lee Howell, see it more starkly: as a case of political opportunism.

HOWELL: He was sort of like a Pied Piper. He'd play his flute and all the -- all the hippies who were into the environment would follow him. He could quote to the people what they read and they said oh boy, he's one of us. Well, he wasn't one of them, he was just using them like he used everybody else.

FITZPATRICK: Still, the new Congressman did back key environmental bills. He co-sponsored reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act and brokered a compromise on acid rain. He supported the biggest public lands bill in US history. He even joined the call for the resignation of Interior Secretary James Watt, who tried to roll back environmental protections under President Reagan. These actions won Mr. Gingrich the endorsement of the Sierra Club, of which he was a dues-paying member. During this period the Congressman also befriended the director of the Atlanta Zoo, Terry Maple.

MAPLE: He told me a long time ago that he felt his party had to be educated on the issues of conservation, and had urged me and empowered me, really, to try to educate people utilizing the zoo in every way we can to see that people would be more astute about the importance of biodiversity in America.

(Bird calls)

FITZPATRICK: But Dr. Maple says things changed in 1989, when Newt Gingrich ascended to a leadership position as House Republican whip.

MAPLE: He's told me this, that when he became Whip he could no longer advocate just his position. He had to advocate the party's position, which is more conservative than his own.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Gingrich's voting record changed dramatically, and his scores with groups like the League of Conservation Voters plummeted. Publicly, Newt Gingrich maintains his core beliefs didn't change. He says his voting scores fell only because environmental groups were going too far. In a 1995 speech, he likened the situation to an ecosystem out of balance.

GINGRICH: The only way you can understand what's happened to environmental policy is to look at deer population on an island that has no predators. What you had is you had a non-feedback system in which the environmental groups went further and further out of touch with normal Americans and further and further out of touch with science, and further and further out of touch with economic cost benefits. And one morning it crashed.

FITZPATRICK: That crash came with the 1994 elections and the Contract with America, which catapulted Republicans to power. The Contract never explicitly mentioned the environment. What it did mention was creating jobs and relieving American business from excessive regulation. In practice that translated into efforts to scale back pollution controls; increase mining, logging, and oil drilling on public lands; weaken protection for endangered species; and cut the power of the Environmental Protection Agency. The agenda was laid out by one of the new speakers' chief deputies, a former Texas exterminator and current Republican Whip, Tom Delay.

DELAY: The critical promise we made to the American people was to get the government off their backs. And the EPA, the Gestapo of government, pure and simply has been one of the major clohogs that the government has maintained on the backs of our constituents.

FITZPATRICK: In the first 100 days of the Republican revolution, Gingrich deputies rocked the very foundations of America's commitment to environmental protection. And the Speaker himself helped set the tone.

GINGRICH: EPA may well be the biggest job-killing agency in the inner city in America today.

FITZPATRICK: Early in the new Congress, at a forum at the National Environmental Policy Institute, Mr. Gingrich assailed excessive environmental spending.

GINGRICH: We have spent far more money than we've gotten results. We've caused far more economic dislocation than we've gotten results. And we have a highly centralized command bureaucracy artificially trying to impose its judgment with almost no knowledge of local conditions and with a static rather than a dynamic model of life. Now that's exactly what we told Yeltsin to break down.

FITZPATRICK: This tough negative rhetoric was exactly what some had counseled the Speaker to avoid. Former Republican Congressman Don Ritter, who'd invited Mr. Gingrich to the forum, felt an attack on environmental controls without constructive alternatives would alienate voters.

RITTER: He had a chance to be positive and proactive, to lay out an environmental philosophy, which he had, I am convinced, but the timing was that the Republicans were just heady with power and they -- you know, they just went down into trench warfare as opposed to looking beyond, looking ahead, being a little philosophical about it.

FITZPATRICK: Was that a mistake?

RITTER: Oh, it was a terrible mistake. And I'm sure the Speaker realizes that.

FITZPATRICK: Just 6 months into Mr. Gingrich's tenure as Speaker, the Republican assault began to stall. Environmental groups had responded and voters were giving Republicans an earful. As environmental rollbacks came up for floor votes an increasing number of Republicans broke from their leadership. Among them was long-time GOP Representative Sherwood Boehlart of New York.

BOEHLART: They gave him lousy advice. I mean they didn't get it. They thought they were doing the business community a favor. They thought they were doing the American people a favor. I don't question their motivation. I think people like Mr. Delay really thought they were doing the right thing. I think they were dead wrong, and they were proven dead wrong.

FITZPATRICK: Early this year GOP pollsters discovered that even most Republicans did not trust their own party when it came to protecting the environment. Meantime there was open rebellion on the House floor, and President Clinton was seizing upon the environment as a major theme. It became clear Speaker Gingrich had made a major mistake. He began to distance himself from some of the harshest environmental proposals, saying he'd been too busy with other parts of the GOP agenda to pay close attention. No longer willing to leave the issue to others, the Speaker has begun to recast the debate. He's convened a special task force to forge a compromise on Superfund, safe drinking water, and coastal protection. And to present a more moderate view to voters, Mr. Gingrich has begun to pointedly speak out.

GINGRICH: I want a sound, good science, rational, incentive-based environmental program. I think we can create a new environmentalism that can be popular and deeper and stronger than the regulatory litigation-oriented model. Sometimes that's a direct disagreement over how do you get certain things solved.

FITZPATRICK: The Speaker explained his greener vision during a recent Capitol Hill interview with Living on Earth.

GINGRICH: You have to start with the understanding that much of what the environmental movement set out to do in the 70's actually worked. Now the question is what lessons can we learn out of a quarter century? Science has moved very dramatically. We have some real lessons about how to organize human society. Regulatory bureaucratic litigation adversarial systems don't work very well in a free society. They're very important if it's something vital. I mean if you're trying to dramatically change something very, very important, then you want to intervene decisively.

FITZPATRICK: But if those bills, as they were crafted in the 70's, have worked why change them now?

GINGRICH: Because the big things they worked on are mostly done. I mean everybody in America could agree, having the Cuyahoga River catch fire was just a sign of how far we'd allowed chemical pollution to get out of control. So when you clean up the Cuyahoga River and it's now a cleaner river, the next question becomes much more marginal and much more difficult to manage.

FITZPATRICK: Those difficult questions include how to clean up toxic waste sites without spending millions of dollars on lawsuits. And how to resolve the standoff between Federal authorities and property owners over endangered species. The Federal Government should play a role in situations like these, the Speaker says, but a limited role. He supports Federal standards but wants local authorities or even individual business' figure out how best to meet them. In trying to stake out more moderate ground, Mr. Gingrich seems to be pleasing few activists on either side. To Dan Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club, the Speaker's recent remarks are a smokescreen to divert attention from continued Republican efforts to cut environmental funding and enforcement.

WEISS: He has realized that the Republicans have completely overplayed their hand. So now they're trying to go under the radar. They're trying to do some things that will actually be good, like pass a compromise Safe Drinking Water bill. And also continuing to do bad things but do them more secretly.

FITZPATRICK: The criticism of Mr. Gingrich comes not only from the left, but from mining, ranching, and logging interests, who felt betrayed when the Speaker recently quashed a bill to loosen the Endangered Species Act. Bruce Vincent is a Montana logger who's president of the Alliance for America.

VINCENT: We think he's been too sensitive to the extremists who claim that any kind of reform is gutting the laws because the media and the extreme environmental groups that have largely strangled this debate have been very good at pointing out that anyone who tries to change any law is somehow a Neanderthal wanting to gut 30 years of progressive legislation. And we think that he's been too sensitive to that.

FITZPATRICK: Moderate Republicans, though, like Sherwood Boehlart, feel the Speaker's strategy is paying off. He thinks the recent compromise on the Safe Drinking Water Act and a GOP vision statement about ensuring a healthy planet for future generations have diffused the environment as a campaign issue for Democrats. Still, says Congressman Boehlart, there are limits to the Speaker's ability to bring his party together. He says things like the Speaker's Task Force can only accomplish so much.

BOEHLART: I don't think any panel is expected to reconcile all differences with diverse elements within their party. I mean, we are a majority now because we are diverse and I would say, suggest to you if we're monolithic we'd probably still be a minority. And to expect that this panel is going to reconcile all differences is just totally unrealistic.

FITZPATRICK: The bitter fights of the 104th Congress have left bad blood. Not only between Republicans and loggers and environmentalists, but also within the party itself. Despite this, Mr. Gingrich seems determined to persevere and recast the GOP's environmental image. To do this, he's asking questions that many feel he should have posed all along.

GINGRICH: How do we get free Americans to do the right thing by setting up the right incentives? How do we get government and citizen to work together as partners? And that's a very legitimate challenge for everybody who cares about the environment, is to have a positive environmental policy that is incentive-based rather than an adversarial policy.

FITZPATRICK: So far the Speaker isn't offering many specifics about how to build this partnership. As well, it's unclear whether a politician as unpopular with voters as Newt Gingrich can persuade both the Congress and the public to accept his vision for the future. But it is clear the speaker has recognized the environment is not only an issue of importance to the American people, but an issue that's key to maintaining Republican control of Congress. For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

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CURWOOD: What do you think of the environmental efforts of House Speaker Gingrich? Give us a call on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. Or write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238.

(Music up and under)

Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now it is time to hear from you, our listeners.

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CURWOOD: Our recent story about electric cars being developed by General Motors and Honda drove several listeners to comment. One took us to task for not mentioning what he calls the most exciting electric vehicle development. "Amory Lovens of the Rocky Mountain Institute has designed a high-mileage, high-range, ultra-light vehicle," the listener writes, "and the Institute has made the patent public domain so it can't be bought by General Motors and sent to the bottom of the river." Well thanks for the reminder. We've told that story before, but so far no one has put Mr. Lovens' car into production.

Dave Johnson of the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, began his letter about an Air Force plan to expand a training range in Idaho by writing, "Your report was intentionally biased to present an opinion." Mr. Johnson continued. "You cite supersonic flights as a major contributor to the drastic decline of sheep in Idaho, and only casually mention that the herd has been beset by intentional transplantings as well as winter thinning. In the research work that we have done on noise effects on bighorn sheep, there is little or no indication that supersonic booms affect the animals in any way."

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Our number again is 1-800-218-9988. Our address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. And you can reach us by e-mail at LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Please include a daytime telephone number.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Special thanks to NPR librarian Tom Tuzinsky, Emory University, and the University of Georgia, the National Environmental Policy Institute, and stations KPLU and WSB for their help on our Newt Gingrich profile. I'm Steve Curwood

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ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the Great Lakes Protection Fund.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: The soil isn't the only thing that's dry after 3 years of drought in West Texas. Farmers' bank accounts are running on empty, too. And as people watch the sky and pray for rain, they can only hope that they won't be the next victims of the dust bowl of the 90s. That story coming up in the second half of Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: One hundred and sixty six years ago, the first railroad timetable to be published in a United States newspaper appeared in the Baltimore American. It told when to catch the nation's first passenger rail line, which had just begun running between Baltimore, and Elliott's Mills, Maryland. Since then, both the Baltimore American and Elliott's Mills have disappeared, but railroads prospered, helping speed travel across the continent and sprouting cities and towns along the way. Today 169,000 miles of tracks crisscross the nation. Compared to highways, railroads are an environmental bonanza. Two sets of tracks can carry as many people as 16 lanes of highway. Shipping by rail generates 90% less pollution than trucks. And trains are 3 times more fuel-efficient. Still, few things can beat a truck for short-haul delivery or getting to an out of the way spot. Combining trains with trucks can get us the best of both, some transportation planners say. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Big Thirst in West Texas

CURWOOD: Recently the mayor of San Angelo, Texas, proclaimed a day of organized prayer. For rain. Hot, dry weather across much of the western and plains states and northern Mexico for the past 3 years has devastated the planting and livestock industries and brought new pressures to fragile landscapes and the aquifers beneath them. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan recently traveled to West Texas, where many people are comparing this drought to the devastating dust bowl of the 1930's.

TOLAN: In West Texas people love to watch the sky.

McLEAISH: That's something we sure have a lot of is sky. There's not a lot of things to block our view. And the sky can be incredibly entertaining, to watch a dust storm roll in from the north when it's got a 3,000-foot ceiling on it and it looks like a giant red rolling wave just coming at you. Or watch the big thunderstorms roll in. The lightning can be just -- fantastic to watch, beautiful. This is the time of year we get those storms.

TOLAN: Ordinarily. But for the last 3 years, says K.T. McLeaish, longtime resident of the West Texas town of Odessa, there have been precious few thunderstorms to watch. Almost nothing but hot, dry winds and clear, sunny skies, unrelenting.

(Hot, sizzling sounds -- insects?)

McLEAISH: I think it's really starting to grate on people's nerves. Everybody's -- testy. I think there's a prevailing bad attitude right now. You hear it constantly no matter where you go, the minute you step out of the nice air conditioned car and you're hit with the wind or the dust or just the heat, and somebody's going to say God, I'm so tired of this. It's constant.

(Sizzling sounds continue. Weather announcer: "And it's not a pretty sight. Mostly sunny the next 2 days, 103, 104, Thursday. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, partly cloudy skies, 102, 101, 103, so get ready for a baker.")

McLEAISH: And the wind has been relentless. And of course with all the dryness and then it instantly kicks up the dust.

(Guitar and singer: "A dust storm hittin', it hit like thunder. It dusted us over and it covered us under...")

TOLAN: It's bad enough in town, but out on the land 3 years of this heat and wind and no rain has brought devastation. Nothing will grow on the dry land farms, which rely entirely on the rains. Some are lucky enough to have a little income from small oil wells on their land. Other dry land farmers are completely out of business, and much of the topsoil is blowing away.

(Singer continues: "So long, it's been good to know you. So long, it's been good to know you. So long...")

TOLAN: And now the drought is threatening even farmers who irrigate their fields from the underground aquifers.

CHEVRONT: I've lived here all my life and I've never seen it this bad.

TOLAN: In the West Texas farm belt around Seminole, where big farms produce truckloads of chilies, peanuts, vegetables, and bales and bales of cotton, Jud Chevront says his family's operation is in deep trouble.

CHEVRONT: Our livelihood's at stake. It's all we do. I've seen our yields go down the last 3 years.

TOLAN: Sitting in the back office of Seminole's John Deere dealer, Chevront lays out his financial woes. His dealer Paul Condit looks on in sympathy. No rains mean more farmers have to reach deeper and pump harder from the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground lake which stretches down to West Texas from way up in Nebraska. Chevront's spending an extra $40,000 a month on electricity to pump water, and he's already laid out half a million since last spring on new wells. Costs like this, he says, may drive his family out of business.

CHEVRONT: It's a disaster right now and -- I don't know what'll happen. Just trust in the future. I guess I'll make it some way or other. Very stressful right now; we just had our first child in December and -- wasn't a good time to bring one in, I don't think, but you know, he's a joy in our life right now. (Laughs) It's good to come home and see him.

(Running water in a stream)

TOLAN: And so while they pray hard, the farmers of Seminole keep pumping the hidden waters into their fields, and the great Ogallala Aquifer drains down.

(Running water continues)

CHEVRONT: We ain't had the rains so we've had to run the wells all the time. Didn't run the wells would pull the water table down, and nothing's replenished it. It's very low, the aquifer has dropped extremely where I live. Even some of my good wells, they're starting to pull air instead of water.

(Running water continues)

TOLAN: A few weeks ago some precipitation finally came, in the form of golf-ball-sized hail.

CHEVRONT: We was in the house. Electricity went off due to the lightening and can't see outside, knocked out my lights. But next morning we woke up and it had shredded. There wasn't a leaf of cotton. The banker's calling and he's wanting to know what's happening.

TOLAN: The hailstorm destroyed 200,000 acres around here. Some farmers say God is testing them. The drought, the increased drilling costs, the big hailstorm, and last year's boll weevil infestation. All these, says John Deere dealer Paul Condit, have plunged farmers closer to ruin.

CONDIT: There's a world of tension here. The bankers are as nervous as they can be, because in most cases they've already used all their money that they set up to make this crop. Their budget is just about run out. And the banks are stretched.

TOLAN: Condit sells more than $20 million worth of tractors and combines and cotton strippers every year. He finances the purchases, too, handling more loans than the local banks do. Forty million dollars worth at the moment. One friend says he's got more money than God, but Condit says even he's getting worried.

CONDIT: We're going to get stretched. I will have defaults. See, basically I'm on the back of all the paper. We're looking at all ways to cut back.

TOLAN: With the prospect of bankruptcy, brought in part by the drought and the draining of the aquifer, I asked Condit whether farmers here are thinking of ways to save water. Like lining the ditches with concrete or putting in drip irrigation. He says these are expensive solutions especially in lean times. And it seems these Texans aren't seeking a solution from within. Condit doesn't put much stock in conservation. He wants to find a way to get water from somewhere else. He wants a mega-project like a huge ditch to pump the Mississippi River 700 miles over to West Texas.

CONDIT: If we can go to the moon and get off and walk around on it and get back on and come back to Earth, we can certainly figure out some way to replenish these aquifers, because of the billions of gallons that's going out into the ocean of fresh water every day, every second.

(Singer: "And then I jumped in the river but the doggone river was dry. She's looong gooone and noooow I'm loooonesome...")

MAN: I've got tree ranches in Bakers County, and all of them is dry. I've got one up toward the Imperial. It's a powder house.

TOLAN: West Texas families have suffered through droughts before, but 100 miles south on the ranches around Fort Stockton there's no issue about conserving water. Here there's almost nothing to conserve. It's dry and brittle as whitewashed bones in the desert.

WOMAN: It's just like it's been sandpapered.

TOLAN: Like the farmers in Seminole, ranchers here seem to believe that Mother Nature may no longer provide what's necessary in the future. On a blazing afternoon, old time ranchers cool off in the territorial courthouse in Fort Stockton. They seem almost resigned that the drought, combined with government bureaucracy, is going to put them over the edge.

MAN: They're going to wake up here one of these days, and they're going to wonder where the steak is in New York City. They're not going to have it, believe me. They're going to wonder where the wool is to make their clothes. They're not going to have it.

WOMAN: I went through the depression and drought of the 30's and the 50's and I'm feeling pretty bad about my neighbors because that's an impossible situation the way I look at it.

MAN: Our family come here in 1906. My boy is the fifth generation here. And we've seen '29 Depression, '52 drought, and this drought here. We survived them all, but we don't know whether we're going to make this one.

(Singer: "You can see that dust storm comin'. The cloud look death like black. And through our mighty nation it left a dreadful track...")

TOLAN: The ranchers here say these are the worst times since the dust bowl days when great black waves of earth miles high and wide would blow across the plains and into every crack and cranny, every sealed jar, every pore.

(Singer: "It covered up our fences. It covered up our barns...")

TOLAN: Back then the government killed livestock because they were starving. Now the hungry cows are dying again.

MAN: The cows are all dying because they're eating too many mesquite beans and no grain and I've got mesquite poison, I've lost about 25, 30 head out of 160 cows up there this year. Don't know what I'm going to do with them.

WOMAN: Right now I have 8 baby calves that's on the bottle at home because their mothers died in this drought. I gave $1150 a piece for those mothers. So we ship them, we get 20 cents a pound.

(A gathering and music. Man: "Anybody can live through drought if prices are high, but very seldom are they. But this deal here, things hit both at the same time, the dry weather and the cattle market broke...")

TOLAN: Beneath ceiling fans in a hot, dry West Texas bar, a couple of ranchers explain they can't feed their cattle because the price of grain is too high. And they can't sell the cows because the price of beef is too low.

MAN: Hell, it's better to let it starve to death on the range because time you haul it to town and everything and they take their cut and you pay taxes on there, then you've got nothing left. You might as well be sleeping and hope it rains.

TOLAN: Skip Woodward pulls on a Marlboro, sips from a bottle of Bud, stares straight ahead. He knows leaving cows out where there's not enough grass is bad for the land.

WOODWARD: I've got some country that's overgrazed, and I sure don't believe in overgrazing any country but I've got some country right now that I've sure enough grazed down till there ain't no good left in it.

TOLAN: Overgrazing means the cows eat the plants right down to the roots. Then there's nothing to hold the soil in place, and so often it blows away and can turn the land into a desert. But with cattle prices so low, Skip says, he doesn't know what else he can do.

WOODWARD: And I'm going to keep grazing it and keep feeding 'em until I just don't have no choice and have to just completely sell out.

MAN: Yeah, I think everybody's being forced overgrazing.

WOODWARD: And there ain't nobody like it. But -- I mean it's do or die. I mean you can't -- you just get by the best you can, you know?

MAN: I think the best you got is to try for the long haul.


(Singer: "She's looong gooone and noooow I'm loooonesome bluuues....")

TOLAN: In West Texas ranch country the cows are eating away at the rancher's bank account of grass. Up in Seminole farmers suck their underground reserves. In the last couple of weeks a little rain has fallen, but a drought doesn't start overnight and it's not going to go away with a couple of rains. As it continues, ranchers and farmers will pull harder at the resources. They know they're cutting into their long-term capital. But no one seems to be warning them not to. The only clear solution they see is to wait, and hope, and pray, for a good season of rain.

(Singer: "I'm gonna find me a river, one that's cold as ice...")

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

Back to top

(Singer: "I'm gonna find me that river, God I'm gonna pay the priiiiice, oh Lord! I'm goin' down in it three times, but Lord I'm only comin' up twice. She's loooong gooone and noooow I'm looonesome bluuuues...")

CURWOOD: Next week Sandy Tolan will take us along the Rio Grande to see the effects of drought on both sides of the border. The deserts are expanding near the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

(Singer: "I'm gonna find me a river, one that's cold as iiiice. And when I find me that river, God I'm gonna pay the priiiiice, oh Lord! I'm goin' down in it three times, but Lord I'm only comin' up twice. She's loooong gooone and noooow I'm looonesome bluuuues...")

CURWOOD: Coming up, exotic pets. Even if they're legal, you might not want to keep them. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Exotic Pets: Purchase With Care

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Once upon a time your average American family might have been made up of a mom, a dad, three or four children, a couple of cats and a dog.

Today the family's as likely to be a single parent, one kid, and a boa constrictor or an iguana. Our choices of pets change with our culture, and today exotic pets are hot. Chinchillas, ferrets, hedgehogs, macaws. You name it and you can probably get it. Of course, this demand for unusual pets can cause problems. The populations of many endangered animals have been decimated by the illegal wildlife trade. And even when exotic animals are legally imported or bred, unprepared owners can be in for a rude awakening. To find out which exotic animals can be bought legally and which make the best pets, I headed out to the Pet Club in Dedham, Massachusetts, with zoologist Donna Fernandes.

(Bird chirps up and under)

CURWOOD: Dr. Fernandes led me first to a swarm of parakeets, a long-time favorite.

FERNANDES: They are highly social. Parakeets do make excellent pets. If you wanted to get a bird, parakeets would be a good choice because they have been bred so long for pets that they are very used to the kind of domestic situation that most households provide. That would certainly be a bird that I would recommend.

CURWOOD: Okay. Well, let's meet this fellow over here. Now a moment ago he hopped, uh, right on our microphone. And this is a macaw?

FERNANDES: Yes. And they're very popular, some of these parrots, in that group. Macaws and cockatoos and things.

(Bird calls continue)

CURWOOD: These guys are quite the character. He has a neighbor here and they're both watching us very carefully.

FERNANDES: Yeah. I can see in some ways why they would be attractive, in that they do vocalize and they can mimic human voice. So you can teach a lot of the members of the parrot family to talk, as it were. Another thing to think about when you're considering a macaw is how long-lived they are. They can live 75 years or so. So you have to better be thinking about willing this to your children. It's not something that you can just sort of have for a few years and then it's going to pass away. It's a very long-term commitment. And also a lot of work to keep them active and happy.

CURWOOD: Any special consideration with the macaws? Do you have to keep their wings clipped, or --

FERNANDES: Most people do clip their primary feathers, which are their principal flight feathers. And that way they can move around but they can't take off and fly. Another thing you often have to do is cut their toenails. That can be a little stressful if you don't know what you're doing [birds screech in the background] but because they don't get the sort of natural activity and wear that they would in the wild, they can get overgrown, and nails have to be clipped. And even beaks have to be trimmed down. Again, they're not getting the normal activities that would cause them. They typically don't have to break down their food and crack nuts any more, so they don't get the normal wear and tear. So you have to come in and trim their beak down. So it's a lot of work, and you have to know what you're doing, because they can get stressed out if you don't treat them properly.

CURWOOD: This is quite a loud crowd over here.

(Birds screech)

CURWOOD: I'm wondering what we have over here. Now these guys have sort of -- well, they look like rabbits but their ears are a little short and their tails are kinda long.

FERNANDES: Yeah, these are chinchillas. If you want to give a lot of attention to a chinchilla they'll do okay as a pet. They're very shy, so you can't just sort of jump in there and expect them to respond to you. You have to really get them very used to you and handle them very gently. And they have certain requirements; they have to have a dust bath every day so you have to provide a cage large enough to incorporate several features into their home.

CURWOOD: A dust bath?

FERNANDES: Yeah. They sort of clean themselves kicking up this gray dust. It's what they do sort of with soil in nature and they really need to do that.

CURWOOD: So what kind of person really would like a chinchilla, do you think?

FERNANDES: Um, well, I think sort of a quiet person. A lot of elderly now are getting chinchillas and rabbits because there is scientific evidence that responding and touching mammals, small animals, can lower your blood pressure and heart rate and has positive health benefits. So that's why we are going into nursing homes on our education programs with a lot of these types of animals.

CURWOOD: Where are chinchillas from?

FERNANDES: Chinchillas are from South America, but they are pretty plentiful because they are captive bred. Techniques established of course during the fur trade, so they are pretty much available.

(Birds screech)

CURWOOD: Now, when I think of an exotic pet -- somebody having something that somebody else doesn't have on the block, I think of -- reptiles, you know, snakes or iguanas or some kind of lizard. So tell me about these, uh, these fellows here.

FERNANDES: Well, iguanas have increased in popularity tremendously within the last 5 or 10 years. They also pose very -- interesting problems you have to solve if you get an iguana. Their diet changes. When they're young they eat insects. And then as they get older they switch to fruits and vegetables, and I think a lot of people don't realize that and their iguanas die during that growth period when they switch over from their diet. They need very specific lighting requirements, full spectrum lighting, in order to synthesize several vitamins which they need. And people don't keep them under the appropriate lighting. And also, with an iguana, you should very much think about its ultimate size. I wish pet stores would include a fully grown adult specimen in their exhibitry, because I think if people saw a 5-foot iguana they would think twice about getting, you know, 8-inch baby iguana.

CURWOOD: Five -- foot -- iguana?

FERNANDES: Yes. They do get quite large, and -- and again, they can be handled, even at that size, if you invest the time in working with them, and if you want a pet iguana just understand you may have to devote half of one of your rooms at home to its ultimate cage if you really want to do right by the animal.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. Now what do we have here? We have two snakes together kind of in a snake dance.

FERNANDES: Oh, this entire exhibit is filled with boas. Boas are probably the most popular animal. I think about half of all reptiles brought into this country are boas. Supposedly, you know, current estimates are that about one million live reptiles come into the international pet trade each year, and about 300 to 500,000 of those end up in the United States, and they're often caught as small, young animals, and then they get to be quite, quite big animals. And there are requirements in some states, like Massachusetts, that if you have a snake over 8 feet long you need a special permit. And usually we get requests of finding a home for about a 7-foot, 8-foot snake. Just as they're getting really big, people are tired of them and there are some herpetological societies which will try to find homes for these animals. But again, you should really understand how long they live, how big they get. And also some of the hazards they can pose. They won't necessarily recognize that your pet rabbit is your pet rabbit and not food.

CURWOOD: And how do you take care of a boa constrictor?

FERNANDES: Well, they'll eat -- live prey. Mice when they're younger, pinkies, which are baby mice, and then rats when they're older. And that's, you know, that's a big economic consideration. You have to every week go to the pet store, or some individuals then decide they want to raise the mice, so then you've got a whole entire colony of mice that you're keeping to feed your snake. So it can be quite an economic consideration as well as time consuming to keep the food available.

CURWOOD: And in other words, it's just easier to go with a cat or a dog, huh?

FERNANDES: A cat or a dog, or parakeets. Mice make actually nice pets. Domesticated rabbits. There are a lot of animals that are used to being handled, respond well to human contact, have very simple husbandry, and are not super expensive to keep. And have, you know, a life span of 8 to 10 years.

CURWOOD: And are as much fun?

FERNANDES: Oh, equally as much fun. I mean I love my dog probably more than my skink or my tarantula.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Okay. Dr. Donna Fernandes is former vice president for programs at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo, and she's associate curator at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City. Thanks, Donna, for joining us.

FERNANDES: Thank you very much.

Back to top

(Bird calls continue. Music up and under)

Protecting Hybrids

CURWOOD: When it comes to protecting endangered species, the US wrote the book, which many other countries have tried to follow. Still, few laws are as widely criticized as our Endangered Species Act. Conservationists say it doesn't do enough to protect threatened plants and animals. Others say the law favors obscure weeds and critters at the expense of business and property owners. And commentator Allston Chase says the Act's credibility has been undermined by a misguided attempt to protect animals which really aren't species at all.

CHASE: Americans have good reasons for saving endangered species. But is it also in the national interest to preserve the wild kingdom's hybrids as well? Last spring, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marines Fisheries Service quietly inserted into the Federal Register a proposed rule to save creatures that result from interbreeding between species. It would permit agency experts to list hybrids deemed to resemble a threatened or endangered ancestor, and the breeding of such so-called intercrosses in captivity to increase genetic variability of a species at risk. The first stipulation would, for example, permit listing wolf-coyote cross-breeds if experts determined they resemble endangered wolves. The second might allow breeding California condors to non-native Andean condors to enhance the survival of the former. Additionally, the change would grant authorities the right to eliminate hybrids that these oracles decree threatened listed species.

This renders the Endangered Species Act virtually meaningless. The ESA is meant to sustain endangered species, not endangered mongrels. The variety of possible intercrosses is almost unlimited, and deciding which ones to save is inevitably subjective. It's difficult enough rescuing the approximately 1,000 creatures currently listed as endangered or threatened. Keeping track of hybrids boggles the mind.

In fact, this proposal isn't about saving endangered creatures at all. It concerns rescuing endangered reputations. Recently, the Fish and Wildlife Service was stung by geneticists' revelations that the red wolf and Florida panther, both listed creatures, are hybrids, not genuine species. And last year the agency was criticized for releasing 8 Texas cougars into Florida, putatively to enhance the genetic diversity of the Florida panther. Both efforts, some biologists argued, were both illegal and harmful. Introducing non-native genes into the Florida panther would further weaken its claims to species-hood. But having spent millions to introduce these so-called species, authorities sought the rule change to retroactively sanction their efforts. Now this edict is in place it's Katie bar the door. If you thought Star Wars was too complicated for the human mind to design, wait till you see hybrid preservation in action.

CURWOOD: Allston Chase lives and writes in Montana. His most recent book is In A Dark Wood.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Living on Earth's senior producer is Chris Ballman. Our senior editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. We also had help from Heather Kaplan, Paul Masari, and Jennifer Sangler. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Karen Given Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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