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

December 13, 1996

Air Date: December 13, 1996


Pesticide Right to Know / Terry FitzPatrick

Active ingredients are listed on most pesticide containers, but the so-called inert ingredients have have not. That is all changing, as Terry FitzPatrick reports. Due to a recent Federal court decision, manufacturers will soon be disclosing more about their formulas, and consumers will know more about what they're using. (08:40)

Mudslides Happen: Clearcutting and the Timber Salvage Rider

Jan Nunley talks with reporter Alan Siporin about the recent mudslides in the western United States and how deforestation may, or may not, have any impact on this slippery soil erosion. (02:25)

Santa's Green Car / John Rieger

Just unveiled at a showroom near you: Santa's sustainable sled? Producer John Rieger spoofs auto industry marketing in this affectionate tribute to Santa Claus' favored mode of transportation, giving cylinders a whole other spin. (05:40)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... Christmas tree farming. (01:15)

Scallop Kids / Liz Lempert

Liz Lempert reports from the town of Westport, Massachusetts where Junior High school students have gotten involved with local bi-valves, and are trying to bring back the once-thriving scallops in this region. With a blend of awareness and activism, these students hope to help their community. (07:15)

On the Beach With Dr. Sylvia Earle

While on a recent trip to northern Jamaica, Steve Curwood spoke with eminent marine scientist Dr. Sylvia Earle about fishing and the state of the oceans. Ms. Earle likens current methods of fishing more to hunting or bulldozing than to the concepts of farming or harvesting. (05:28)

Brave Young Turtles / Sy Montgomery

Commentator Sy Montgomery tells of her admiration for the courage and wisdom of newborn snapping turtles. (03:09)

Hundred Dollar Christmas / Tatiana Schreiber

In upstate Johnsburg, New York, some church communities are actively spending less, and doing more, this Christmas. Tatiana Schreiber reports on some of the projects the townspeople are getting involved in, and how some area merchants and press don't like the idea. (06:35)

Holiday Special Storytelling Show Promo

Next week, Living On Earth presents our Third Annual Storytelling Festival, this year recorded in front of a live studio audience. A quick preview of the Winter Solstice themes of dark and light to come next week. (01:10)

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: Jan Nunley
NEWSCASTER: Aaron Schachter
REPORTERS: Owen Bennett Jones, Daniel Grossman, Terry FitzPatrick,
John Reiger , Liz Lempert, Tatiana Schreiber
GUESTS: Alan Siporin, Sylvia Earle
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley

Do you know what's in that pesticide being sprayed near your home or work? The label lists some of the chemicals, but others are trade secrets. They're called inert ingredients, and some say what you don't know could hurt you.

GRIER : People generally think that something that's an inert ingredient is going to be harmless, and that's hardly the case at all.

NUNLEY: Also, fresh on the heels or hooves of General Motors' foray into the electric car market, a competitor emerges with an ultra low polluting vehicle that's the talk of the season.

CLAUS: The vehicle, as you know, is pulled by reindeer, 8 or in some cases 9, and is capable of traveling enormous distances in comparison to the electric car.

NUNLEY: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. First, this news.

Environmental News

SCHACHTER: From Living on Earth, I'm Aaron Schachter. At the just concluded talks in Geneva on the International Convention on Climate Change, environmental groups are blasting the lack of progress in setting targets for fuel emissions. The international community has committed itself to agreeing on cuts by next December's meeting in Kyoto, Japan. From Geneva, Owen Bennett Jones reports.

JONES: Many environmentalists had high hopes that the Geneva talks would see significant moves toward establishing tough targets for reducing developed countries' fossil fuel emissions.

Last July, the United States provided a boost to the process when it called for legally binding targets to reduce the emissions which are thought to cause global warming. But in the event, there wasn't much progress. Australia, a major coal producer, continued to oppose a common global target, saying that there should be different targets for different countries. Environmentalists argue that that's a thinly disguised attempt to avoid significant reductions in emissions. The United States, meanwhile, irritated some developing countries by suggesting that they should start committing themselves to reductions as well. Hitherto, the international agreements on climate change have only concerned developed countries, partly on the grounds that they have to address their historical legacy as fossil fuel emitters. UN officials say that with 12 months to go before the deadline for final agreement, it would be surprising if a consensus had emerged at this point. For Living on Earth, this is Owen Benett Jones in Geneva.

SCHACHTER: The government's salvage logging program has cleared some forest areas of virtually all live trees. A report by the US Forest Service and other agencies says the clear-cutting was due to spotty enforcement of environmental safeguards. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman ordered the report after conservationists complained the salvage timber program was being abused. Environmental activists have asked President Clinton to cancel any pending salvage logging still planned under an emergency waiver said to expire at the end of the month. The waiver lifts normal environmental protections and blocks citizen appeals of logging to expedite removal of dead and dying trees that add to the fire threat in national forests.

Canada says it will take US military plutonium for use in civilian nuclear reactors. Canada's Environment Ministry made the announcement a day after Washington announced a $2 billion project to scrap 50 tons of plutonium. The plutonium, left over from the nuclear arms program, is to be encased in glass or burned in nuclear power plants. A spokesman for the Ministry says Canada should accept the highly radioactive plutonium to promote world peace and to finance the country's nuclear industry. He says any project would have to pass environmental assessment before being approved. Ontario Hydro, the government-owned utility in Canada's most populous province, says it may accept up to 100 tons of plutonium extracted from US and Russian nuclear warheads.

For the first time, a Russian official has admitted that a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine is leaking plutonium. Daniel Grossman reports.

GROSSMAN: When the Soviet K219 nuclear submarine sank 600 miles east of Bermuda in 1986, American and Soviet officials assured the world that the vessel's reactor and weapons remained intact and did not pose a health threat. But Stanislav Veznovsky, director of the radio chemical department of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, now says one or more of the sub's weapons broke open, releasing highly toxic plutonium into the Atlantic. Soviet scientists monitoring the crippled vessel as it went down heard several explosions and later detected traces of plutonium on debris floating to the surface. But this is the first time they've admitted to the discovery. Half a dozen American and Soviet nuclear subs lie on the ocean bottom around the world, but this is the first scientific evidence that any of the weapons aboard have leaked. Doctor Veznovsky and American experts say the sub, which sank in 18,000 feet of water, does not pose a health risk. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman in Boston.

SCHACHTER: People who want to develop small plots of wetlands are going to be facing tighter government scrutiny. Under new regulations, plans for building on wetlands parcels of 3 to 10 acres will have to pass a stricter review previously only used on larger-scale parcels. A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers says the new regulations would have affected 9,000 acres of land last year. Environmental activists say the change will increase protection for tens of thousands of acres of wetlands across the country. The older standards were implemented during the Reagan Administration to allow fast-track reviews of wetlands permits. They've long been attacked as a green light to developers to fill and drain wetlands with little or no review.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Aaron Schachter.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Pesticide Right to Know

NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. If you read the label on a package of hot dogs or a can of soda or a shampoo bottle, you'll see a list of ingredients. But if you look closely at containers of home garden pesticides and herbicides, you'll find few of the actual ingredients posted on the label. Federal law allows manufacturers to keep their formulas a secret, and environmental groups have been fighting this law for years. Recently, they won a major victory in Federal court. The decision may lead to greater disclosure about the potential hazards of using pesticides. We get the story from Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick of our northwest bureau in Seattle.

(A door opens)

FITZ PATRICK: At Swanson's garden shop in Seattle, you can find a spray or powder to kill just about anything: ants, weeds, fungus. Horticulturalist Alex Lavilla helps customers pick the right product for whatever is plaguing their garden.

LAVILLA: Weed Be Gone, you would use this in this spray application bottle around the bottom of plants...

FITZ PATRICK: Mr. Lavilla gets much of his information from product labels. Pesticide and herbicide manufacturers are required to list a product's active ingredients and identify the plants or insects it will kill. But Mr. Lavilla wants more information. Pesticides can sometimes inflict unintended damage. Horticulturalists often face unhappy customers who've returned with withered plants, the very plants they were trying to save.

LAVILLA: They'll come back and the leaves will be totally damaged, due to some element in the product that I didn't know about.

FITZ PATRICK: That happens.

LAVILLA: It happens all the time, yeah.

FITZ PATRICK: These other elements are compounds that help a pesticide stick to plant leaves or dissolve in water. They comprise the bulk of most pesticide formulations. However, because they're not the chemicals that directly kill bugs and weeds, Federal law does not require their disclosure on product labels. Manufacturers simply call them inert ingredients. The problem is, many of these chemicals aren't truly inert. Norma Grier directs the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides in Eugene, Oregon.

GRIER : People generally think that something that's an inert ingredient is going to be harmless, and that's hardly the case at all.

FITZ PATRICK: Some inert ingredients are flammable. Others are toxic. Some can cause allergic reactions and others might disrupt the hormone systems of humans and animals. Ms. Grier 's coalition wants to end the secrecy that surrounds these compounds and their potential side effects.

GRIER : Our goal is to get all ingredients listed on pesticide product labels. I think it's an issue of, you know, truth in labeling, where industry is obliged to provide adequate information so that consumers can make reasoned decisions about the consequences of using those consumer products.

FITZ PATRICK: The push for greater disclosure has sparked a complicated legal battle pitting a basic American value, the right to know, against a fundamental principle of American business, the right to protect trade secrets. Industry maintains that disclosing inert ingredients would lead to a flood of copycat products. John McCarthy is with the American Crop Protection Association, a pesticide manufacturing trade group.

McCARTHY: The reason the industry has the position of not listing their other ingredients, other than the active ingredient, on their labels, is for competitive reasons. They feel that this would provide their competitors with information that otherwise they wouldn't be able to get.

FITZ PATRICK: Environmentalists dispute that contention. They say a list of ingredients won't really help competitors copy a pesticide. Just like telling someone to buy flour and yeast wouldn't really tell them how to make a loaf of bread. Norma Grier.

GRIER : Pesticide manufacturers have made these sweeping claims that this information is trade secret, and we're convinced that it doesn't qualify as trade secrecy.

FITZ PATRICK: For the past 2 years, Ms. Grier has made this argument in court. Her coalition filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act. The case involved 6 popular brands of weed killer and details about them collected by the Environmental Protection Agency. The complete formulation of every pesticide sold in America is on file at EPA. But under the doctrine of trade secrecy, these records have been off limits to the public unless a manufacturer approves their release. In October, Federal Judge James Robinson ordered EPA to break the secrecy and give out nearly all the information the coalition wanted. It's the first disclosure of inert ingredients over the objections of manufacturers. The ruling was not a total victory for environmentalists. The judge left open the possibility that industry could put up a better legal fight over other products in the future. But according to the EPA's Lynn Goldman, her agency will no longer have to automatically honor requests for secrecy.

GOLDMAN: What happened in the case is that the entire industry kind of pulled together to support a position that we can't disclose any of the information at all. What the judge said is that no, that's not the case. That they have to demonstrate to us that there would be some kind of a substantial harm to them competitively, resulting from the disclosure of the information. Which I think actually pushes the balance on this issue much more toward the consumer who wants the information.

FITZ PATRICK: Although some companies may argue for secrecy in the future, one manufacturer has adopted a policy of openness. St. Louis-based Monsanto Corporation, maker of hundreds of pesticides including Round-Up Weed Killer, says it will give the names of inert ingredients to anyone who calls its toll-free hotline. Spokeswoman Lisa Drake.

DRAKE: We felt that if people wanted to know this information they should have a right to have it. We have made it our practice to provide these ingredients when people request them. We only get about 4 or 5 requests a year, just not very many.

FITZ PATRICK: Environmentalists, however, say voluntary programs are no substitute for government mandates. That's because the process of getting information from a company can be difficult.

(Dial tone. Touch tone sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: When Living on Earth contacted Monsanto's hotline, the company was less than forthcoming.

FITZ PATRICK: Yes, I'm calling to find out some information about Round-Up? On the label here it says that 99.04% of Round-Up is inert ingredients, and I'm wondering is there a way to find out what those inert ingredients are? There's really no way? Hmm. It's a secret recipe. Wow. It's Round-Up kills the root, ready to use...

FITZ PATRICK: The next day a Monsanto official apologized for the response to our call, saying the hotline operator made a mistake and the information should be available to people who call in the future. Round-Up's major inert ingredient is called etoxylated tallo-amine, and there's a running debate about its safety. Monsanto calls this compound a harmless soap. However, it's listed as hazardous by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. There have been other initiatives to provide more details about the chemicals used to make pesticides. Monsanto, for example, has responded to written requests, and all companies provide information to poison control centers. There's also an ongoing effort by EPA to force companies to remove some of the most dangerous inert compounds from their formulas. Still, environmentalists say they won't be satisfied until all inert ingredient are on the label, so shoppers can decide if they want to buy a product in the first place. The court decision this fall won't make that a reality, but activists say it's a big step in that direction. For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Mudslides Happen: Clearcutting and the Timber Salvage Rider

NUNLEY: Mudslides have wreaked havoc in Oregon. A number of people have been killed, homes have been destroyed, cars buried and roads covered over. Many people in the Pacific Northwest blame overzealous logging for creating a situation conducive to the destructive slides. Alan Siporin covered logging issues for nearly a decade. He joins us now from the studios of KLCC in Eugene, Oregon, where he's a commentator. Alan, how severe is the situation?

SIPORIN: I don't recall any deaths from mudslides in the last 20 years and we've had 5 in just one incident a few weeks ago, and several other deaths since then as well. A survivor who managed to get out of his home described how the slide actually ripped his home off the foundation and pushed it downhill before burying it under tons of rock and mud and debris. The deaths are the most tragic part of this story but certainly not the end of it. Many homes have been destroyed or severely damaged.

NUNLEY: Many environmental activists have tried to link these slides directly to logging. How strong do you think that connection is?

SIPORIN: There have been a couple studies, one by the Forest Service and another by environmentalists. The Forest Service study was done on its lands after the mudslides we experienced last winter; that was actually in February. That study showed a much higher incidence of landslides in clear-cuts than in areas that had not been logged. Some environmentalists also conducted their own study. There data indicates that mudslides are more prevalent and of greater magnitude on hillsides where logging has occurred in the past 20 years, and that's not just clearcuts but logging in general. What's really disturbing, though, is the direct link to the mudslides that cost several people their lives. Ten years ago a state forester said logging a unit above that home where the mudslides actually occurred and people died posed a risk because of unstable soils. The state agency, however, didn't have the authority to halt the logging, because it was done on private land. Now, I think one thing that needs to be added here is that common sense tells you that roots hold soil in place and prevent erosion, and what may be less obvious to people, if you think about it, this is going to be rather clear, though, is that trees suck up a huge amount of water. If you eliminate those trees when the runoff comes, then the earth just can't hold that much, and what you have is severe erosion and eventually mudslides.

NUNLEY: Now there are some, some of these slides happen in areas where there has not been logging, and my understanding is that some of the private landowners and some of the timber industry folks are saying you see? They happen even where there are trees. What is the timber industry saying about these slides and their part, if any, in the presence of slides?

SIPORIN: Well, I think the timber industry says, you know, mudslides happen, and they are right. Mudslides always have happened. It's part of -- you know, you've got steep hillsides and it's a rainy climate and so you are going to have erosion and mudslides. And timber people say they are happening more frequently because it's been a wetter year, the wettest year in recorded history. Now I haven't heard this argument directly from timber people, but as someone who's also covered forest fires I've noticed that we have more problems with people, because more people are living in these rural areas. This is part of what's happening now. There are more people in the path of the mudslides, just as there are more people in the path of the fires.

NUNLEY: Are people calling for more logging regulations now as a result of these slides?

SIPORIN: Well certainly environmentalists are, yes. You know, the thing is that people long before the slides were calling for various numbers of reasons for an end to clear-cuts, and we thought with the Clinton forest plan that we would see the winding down of really the logging of old growth. As I think most people who follow this issue know, the salvage rider opened this whole controversy back up again for timber people to be back
in there logging some areas, some logging sales. The argument certainly could be made that in an area that's already been devastated by fire become even more susceptible for causing mudslides, if any of those areas are in steep hillsides.

NUNLEY: Now as you said, under current law most of the logging now taking place is governed by the salvage logging rider, and of course that's set to expire at the end of the year. How big a role do you think these mudslides are going to have in the reauthorization of the salvage logging rider?

SIPORIN: That's hard to say at this point. But I think that when you've got people trying to protect something like the spotted owl, although environmentalists have always argued that it's not the spotted owl as much as the owl being an indicator species, you have something where you end up pitting the working person who's losing their job against a bird. I mean, that's the argument you hear from the timber side of the equation. With the mudslides you actually have people dying, not birds but people. And now you've got people pitted against people in terms of the negative effects, the consequences of this, of the logging. Now, one might argue, those who see these mudslides as a disaster in that they're caused by timber practices, might see a silver lining in these mudslides in that this may be the amount of evidence that will tip the scales in the favor of really halting this kind of logging forever.

NUNLEY: Alan Siporin is a commentator who joins us from the studios of KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. Thanks for joining us, Alan.

SIPORIN: Thank you.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: A promising new low-emission vehicle hits the California market just in time for the holidays. That news is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Santa's Green Car

NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. Earlier this month, General Motors began to offer for lease in southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico, the first mass-produced electric car. The move comes as many states faced with deteriorating air quality are pushing auto manufacturers to come up with non-polluting vehicles. The debut of GM's electric car was an important step in automotive history, but most of the media missed another likely more significant event taking place at about the same time. A little-known company called The Polaris Group was introducing an ultra-low polluting vehicle to the market. Living on Earth contributor John Reiger was as the unveiling in Los Angeles. He tells us that engineers are now ringing the bells for a traditional propulsion system that could become the wave of the clean air future.

(Milling, voices, applause)

CLAUS: I am pleased to announce that we have received approval to operate our new vehicle in the state of California.

(Cameras advance)

REIGER : This was the scene at the Airport Holiday Inn in Los Angeles earlier this month as Wilhelm Claus, 46-year-old head of The Polaris Group, announced that the family-owned toy and transportation giant would enter the zero-emissions vehicle market with a prototype vehicle that uses neither gasoline nor electricity.

CLAUS: We're extremely optimistic about the success of our design, which we have been developing for many years. The vehicle, as you know, is pulled by reindeer, 8 or in some cases 9, and is capable of traveling enormous distances in comparison to the electric car. By eliminating both the fuel tank and the battery array, we have allowed for really huge cargo space. And of course, there's no problem with parking, since even homes here in California have a roof. (Laughs)

REIGER : The dapper and sophisticated Claus makes a striking contrast to his affable white-bearded father from whom he took over the reins just 10 years ago. But it has proven to be a decade of remarkable change for The Polaris Group in many ways.

CLAUS: Of course there have been changes since my father's day. He was a jolly fat man, a beloved man. I am perhaps more of a businessman. And maybe I am not so beloved. Of course, we also now run fleets of these vehicles; it is no longer a one-man operation as it was in my father's day. However, I feel that The Polaris Group is continuing on in the tradition of my father's good work.

(A large door opens. Electronic sounds.)

REIGER : Nowhere is the spirit of change more apparent here. The state of the art vehicle manufacturing and animal husbandry facility in Anaheim, California, where Polaris will build the new vehicle. I toured the plant with American manager Bill Rudolph.

RUDOLPH: We chose Anaheim primarily for its workforce, which we felt would be able to adapt to what we are trying to do.

(Elves start singing: "Ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go..." followed by chaos and crashing sounds)

RUDOLPH: We're striving for a flatter organization with more room for worker input, and more than that, an environment in which worker creativity is nurtured and can grow and contribute to the process.

REIGER : Amid the optimism, a number of questions remain to be resolved, and Polaris's future in the vehicle industry is far from assured. Skeptics have questioned whether the vehicle, developed and tested in extremely cold conditions, will work in California, where there is little snow. The 8 reindeer that power the vehicle could require as much as 100 pounds of hay and grain each day. At present, neither fueling stations nor the vast delivery infrastructure to support a substantial number of vehicles exist. But California Department of Transportation spokesperson Lester Frank says that finding answers to questions like these is the purpose of a prototype program.

FRANK: It's true that a number of important questions about fueling, maintenance and so on, still do need to be answered. But the same is true of the electric car. We feel that as regulators, our job is to encourage the market to find solutions to California's need for a practical zero-emissions vehicle.

REIGER : But others are not so sanguine. Thea Hanson is a transportation specialist with the Washington-based consumer group Citizens Alarm.

HANSON: The market can only decide when all the costs are counted. And in this case, that can't happen because this is being sold as a zero-emissions vehicle when in fact it is not. Reindeer emissions include substantial amounts of methane, which is a significant factor in global warming, as well as large volumes of solid waste, which will be aerially discharged by these flying vehicles over a wide area. A prospect which we believe the public will view with genuine and justified alarm. Ultimately, we think a zero-emissions vehicle powered by flying reindeer is a fantasy. About as likely to materialize as cold fusion or the Easter Bunny.

CLAUS: (laughs) Well, of course every child can tell you that this will work. In answer to the second question, we are aware of a vocal minority that has been saying Not In My Back Yard. We think that the majority of Californians, however, are tired of this so-called NIMBYism standing in the way of meaningful progress. So we will go ahead, and we are prepared to go to court if necessary to make this revolutionary vehicle available to the maximum number of people both here in California and eventually in the United States as a whole.

REIGER : The Polaris Group has announced that the first California-built vehicles are expected to fly off the line in 1998. Meanwhile, the company says, several imported prototypes will be flying this December. For Living on Earth, I'm John Reiger in Los Angeles.

Back to top

(Music up and under: Christmas rock)

NUNLEY: We're always interested in hearing what you have to say about our program. You can call our listener line any time at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or you can write us.

Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. Tapes and transcripts are available for $12. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley.

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation for reporting on science and the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlitt 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 W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and Patagonia: a clothing company committed to making quality outdoor clothing with the earth in mind. For a free catalogue call 1-800-336-9090.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

NUNLEY: An assessment of the state of the world's oceans with noted marine biologist Sylvia Earle. That's coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

NUNLEY: Think you have to plan early to prepare for the holidays? Few of us need to plan as far ahead as Christmas tree growers. The average pine tree needs 6 to 8 years to grow before it's ready to be decorated. And Christmas tree farming isn't just a matter of throwing some seedlings in the ground and watering them from time to time. During spring and summer, growers must prune trees to give them that distinctive shape. Shearing also makes trees denser, and corrects defects and open spaces that most consumers don't like. Tree growers also fend off insects and diseases which can kill trees or damage their foliage and branches, making them about as popular as a skinny turkey at Thanksgiving. Only about 50 to 60% of planted Scotch pines ever reach market. Firs and spruces have a better survival rate. The National Christmas Tree Association says that Americans buy 34 million Christmas trees each year, enough to cover -- yes -- the state of Rhode Island. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Scallop Kids

NUNLEY: A century ago the West Port River estuary in southern Massachusetts was renowned for its shellfish. As legend has it the river once teemed with so many bivalves that you could walk across the water on the backs of clams. But no more. In recent decades health officials closed down large tracts of the river to clamming and quohoguing because of high bacteria counts. Scalloping continues, but after a bumper harvest in the early 1980s the population mysteriously crashed. A few years ago 6-generation Westporter Wayne Turner decided to lead an effort to clean up the river of his childhood and restore the scallops. And with the help of hundreds of local schoolchildren, he's having some success. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert has our story.

(A boat motor starts up)

LEMPERT: This river winds through the rural town of Westport, past dairy cows, gray clapboard houses, old fishing shacks. The water looks gray in the late autumn light, like the houses and the sky. It also looks clean. Twenty-seven year old Wayne Turner says he grew up believing the river was healthy.

TURNER: I didn't recognize the fact that the river was closed to shellfishing until I was around 20 years old. It was a shock to me that here's a 3,000-acre estuary, that three quarters of it is closed to shellfish.

LEMPERT: So 4 years ago he decided to do something about it. He launched the Bay Scallop Restoration Project. At the time, Turner dredged the entire estuary and pulled up just 150 scallops, a mere half-bushel. But a few years of hard work have made a big difference. This, season Westport scallopers are enjoying their best harvest in more than a decade. They've caught over 2,000 bushels worth.

(Clunking sounds on board a boat)

LEMPERT: Out on the Westport River, fisherman John Chase pulls up his metal nets and sorts through his catch. He's scalloped in these waters for 35 years.

CHASE: It's a pretty good year. Wayne's project, I think, is helping a lot. Everyone's doing their part now, the town's really digging in and helping.

LEMPERT: Back in 1992, when Wayne Turner started up the scallop project, he had a hunch that pollution from dairy cows and leaking septic systems had destroyed the river's eel grass, the plants baby scallops like to hold onto as they grow. To bring back the scallops, he'd need to bring back the eel grass, and that's just what Turner did, in a way. He tried a simple technological fix, developed in Asia and gaining popularity here on the eastern seaboard. He built fake eel grass out of fishing line and the mesh bags used in grocery stores to hold onions. They're known as spat bags.

DORIN: He would get monofiliment from the fishermen, get it, you know, we had 3 arm's length, we'd count out and cut it and scrunch it up pretty much, split it into an onion bag like this.

LEMPERT: That's Michaela DorIn, a junior at Westport High. She's one of hundreds of local school kids Turner has turned to for help. Under Turner's supervision, the kids have assembled thousands of spat bags. The students have also helped figure out the river's food chain. A group of eighth graders found that tautogs, a local fish, eat mud crabs, and that mud crabs eat scallops. Over-fishing has depleted the tautog population, and as a result mud crabs have multiplied out of control. Turner says the scallops were overwhelmed by their mud crab predators.

TURNER: Our research is starting to conclude that a good scallop year is not necessary a good scallop year but rather a bad crab year in disguise.

LEMPERT: Turner and his student volunteers soon discovered one more thing about mud crabs. They're small enough to squeeze through the holes of an onion bag. When Turner and his students sliced open the spat bags to release the scallops, they found some bags crawling with mud crabs. Barely any scallops were left uneaten. Last year, Turner switched to a bag with a finer mesh to better protect the scallops.

BAKER: The lab that you're going to do today is to compare sponges, to compare a manmade sponge with a natural sponge.

LEMPERT: Across town, teachers have used the scallop restoration project to help educate their students about the scientific method and their local environment. Jan Baker teaches seventh and eighth graders at Westport Middle School.

BAKER: I've been really surprised how many things I can integrate. It started out with the life cycle of the scallop and, you know, pollution and how that affects it. And then we learned about predators. They're solving a scientific problem when they go out there. The problem was there's too few scallops, and then how do we solve the problem?

LEMPERT: For their part, the students say unraveling this mystery and collecting data in the river is a lot more fun than staying in the classroom and reading a book. Eighth-grader Anthony Reyes.

REYES: You always think that some things you do in school, they're like for nothing. It's like why are we doing this? But this thing is like actually helping the community. If you record something wrong or you just make up stuff, it's going to mess up all their information.

LEMPERT: A classmate, Eric Rondo, says he's making a difference.

RONDO: We're learning with our hands. We're right there working on it, and so I don't think it's really just more of like a free day. You actually have to work hard on it.

(Flowing water)

LEMPERT: Despite this year's abundant scallop harvest, the forecast for next year looks shaky. Cold weather this summer led to a late spawn and the scallops are so small some may not make it through the winter. Judy McDowell, director of the Woods Hole Sea Grant Program, says weather plays a role in determining the amount of scallops from season to season. Last year's favorable weather may have contributed to their resurgence. But, she says, weather alone can't account for the scallop project's success.

McDOWELL: Other regions this year who do not have similar programs, other regions in southeastern Massachusetts, have had poor scallop harvests. And so I think you can point to this program as an example of how to revitalize the resource. So I think their project has had great success.

(Crows cawing)

LEMPERT: But the effort is far from over. Wayne Turner says he's heading upriver to get neighboring towns involved in the restoration project. As for the estuary, it's cleaner now than it was 4 years ago. Twelve hundred more acres have been reopened to shellfishing. And what the kids have learned in school seems to have percolated up to older residents in the community. One source of pollution was stopped when students fenced in the dairy cows of a farmer who agreed to supply them with materials. And in the last 3 years, over 100 local households reported broken septic systems to the Board of Health. More than half those reports came from families with kids in junior high school. For Living on Earth, I'm Liz Lempert.

Back to top

(Crows continue)

On the Beach With Dr. Sylvia Earle

NUNLEY: A few weeks ago, Living on Earth's regular host, Steve Curwood, was in Jamaica attending a conference about the state of our oceans. There, Steve met renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle at Dragon Bay on the north coast of the island. She was about to embark on a diving expedition. She talked with Steve about the collapse of many of the world's fisheries. Ms. Earle told Steve that in the 1960s the world's fish catch hovered around 60 million tons a year. It grew steadily, peaking in 1989 at about 90 million tons. Then the numbers started to decline. And now as fishermen come up short on the catch, they are turning to more powerful technology and dragging up much more than just their target species.

(Ocean waves in the background)

EARLE: The bycatch, the throw-away items, those fish that aren't regarded as keepers, represent a huge part of what is removed from the sea, but it's not part of this 90 million tons. Some call this the by-kill. When I look at a shrimp cocktail I think of this halo of creatures that the real cost, creatures that died in order to bring me 6 shrimp.

CURWOOD: Is this a -- an emergency? Is this a worldwide crisis?

EARLE: Is there time now? I don't know, I mean I really don't. If we stop taking all cod from the sea right now, will they ever get back to what they were in the 1800s? Probably not, because not only have we perturbed the cod, we have upset the things that the cod rely on in order to make more cod. We've taken the equivalent of bulldozers to their forests.

CURWOOD: What can we do to reverse the decline of fish stocks?

EARLE: We think of, often speak of fishermen as harvesting the sea, as if that somehow has to be equated with farming. It's not. Fishermen are hunters. It's wild caught game. We're removing without putting back anything to encourage the natural systems to become more productive. One possibility, of course, is looking to the sea for the source of individual kinds of creatures that lend themselves well to cultivation that might well be done in high concentrations in saltwater tanks, or cultivated ponds.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about fish farming. Some people say this is not a good idea. That aquaculture, as some call it, creates a whole host of problems of fish waste and disturbance of natural habitat to the skewing of the genetic pool. Does it make sense, fish farming?

EARLE: Aquaculture is not a panacea. Aquaculture is fraught with problems. For example, many criticize shrimp farming, aquaculture, because of the tradeoff in terms of mangrove areas. I mean, something like half of the mangroves that have been around in the last 50 years have been converted to shrimp farms in the tropics of the world. It seems like a horrendous number and a horrendous tradeoff of these great productive, essentially rainforests of the sea, bordering the sea, and converting them to monocultures of shrimp. But that doesn't mean that therefore shrimp farming is bad. It means that that approach is bad.

CURWOOD: Do you eat fish?

EARLE: No, I don't eat wild caught fish any more. I eat very few fish, period. But sometimes I do munch on a catfish or other farm-raised critter. I'm not opposed to eating fish, period, I'm not.

CURWOOD: Tuna's off your list?

EARLE: Tuna is definitely off my list. I recognize the high cost of tuna. To make a pound of tuna fish, a high-speed open ocean predator, a fish that eats a lot of fish that eats a lot of fish and so on down the chain, it may be 10 years or 15 years old by the time it comes to your plate, to your salad or your tuna fish sandwich. They represent an investment of 100,000 pounds of plants or more for one single pound of tuna fish. I won't eat tuna any more than I'd eat a lion or tiger. They are the predators that it takes to keep the wild systems healthy. There's another reason why I tend not to eat wild caught fish, and it's a selfish one but it's a reason that I think matters to a lot of people. I'm really concerned about the high levels of noxious substances that now occur in the tissues of wild caught fish from the sea, or bringing back to the tables of people all over the world. Our resiliency is impaired because of the levels of heavy metals, of PCBs, of pesticides that accumulate in the tissues of fish and shrimp and other creatures that are extracted from the sea, that then go on to become our legacy when we consume them. Everything ties to everything else. There is no escape. And there shouldn't be. I don't see that as a bad thing at all. I see that as glory be, we're tied to the system that supports us.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much, Sylvia Earle.

EARLE: Thank you, Steve. Great to be here.

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: Marine biologist Sylvia Earle speaking with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood on Dragon Bay in Jamaica.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Brave Young Turtles

NUNLEY: One aquatic creature that's been around nearly forever is the snapping turtle. Snapping turtles first appeared on the earth some 200 million years ago when ferns grew tall as trees and dragonflies were the size of crows. In all that time, commentator Sy Montgomery says the snapping turtle has learned some important lessons.

MONTGOMERY: Every fall I go out with my friend David Carroll, the turtle man, to look for baby snappers. David goes to study and draw and write about them. I go for a dose of courage to help me face the coming winter. Everyone knows adult snappers are tough, fearless creatures. You would be, too, if you had jaws that could snap a broomstick and a shell tough as a shield. Even the back end of an adult snapper can teach you a lesson if you try to mess with it. With its back feet the turtle will grab your hand and drag it across the serrated edge of the shell beneath the tail like a crosscut saw.

But baby snappers are even more inspiring. At only one inch long and only days or hours old, they're incredibly strong and brave and determined. They make great role models when you're feeling puny and helpless. Just by the simple act of hatching, these babies have overcome enormous odds. Some turtle experts estimate that 90% of snapper nests are dug up and eaten by predators like skunks. Newly hatched, the turtle faces a gauntlet of other predators: birds, dogs, snakes, cats, raccoons, weasels will all try to eat them. Cars can run them over. Children will harass them. And that's just on the way to the water. Once there, other dangers lurk. Bullfrogs, pickerel, other snappers. The trip ahead is so perilous that Henry David Thoreau compared their journeys to those of Ulysses in the Iliad.

Yet, if you watch one of those babies heading toward the water, there's nothing fearful about it. It's not running. It's crawling quickly but resolutely, as if absolutely sure of what it's doing. As we watch a baby snapper heading determinedly toward some destination we cannot see, I ask David how the babies know where to do. He says to me, "I think they're soil scientists, botanists, hydrologists. They know all about these things. They've lived so long on the earth."

Some folks would have us believe that baby snappers only seem brave because they don't have sense enough to fear their own doom. But David looks at it another way. These turtles are brave because they are wise. Because their wisdom stretches back millions of years. And I think that is where bravery and wisdom originated. Not in some creed some human made up. For true bravery and wisdom, we need to go back to turtle knowing. The ancient wellspring we, too, can draw upon, as we struggle to live bravely on the earth.

NUNLEY: Sy Montgomery is author of The Spell of the Tiger. She comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: In an age of rampant consumerism, the $100 holiday is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Hundred Dollar Christmas

NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. Each year the average American spends about $760 buying gifts and celebrating the holiday season. That's according to the Washington, DC-based National Retail Federation. In all, the group says $440 billion holiday dollars were spent last season, and the figure is expected to rise this year by 6%. We report these figures as solace, or perhaps a reality check for weary gift givers, as shopping days dwindle down to a precious few and the carols jingling over the mall PA system carry the subliminal message, "Buy. Now." But the Christmas rush is not happening everywhere. In the Adirondacks mountain region on the border between New York and Vermont, a number of small church groups are urging people not to buy more gifts, but to give more thoughtfully. Tatiana Schreiber reports.

(People singing at the piano: "I just keep trust in my Lord...")

SCHREIBER: It's Sunday morning and children at the Mill Creek United Methodist Church are warming up for their Christmas pageant.

(Singing continues)

SCHREIBER: The church is in the small Adirondack community of Johnsburg, the sort of place you'd expect to find a traditional approach to Christmas.

(Voices milling, chairs scraping)

SCHREIBER: But for the third year in a row, the children in this church are part of an alternative Christmas. They're encouraging people to cut back on gifts and instead help buy an ark of 30 animals that will be sent to families around the world who will use them for food or for wool or as draft animals. It's part of the International Heifer Project, and today the kids are making cards that people who donate can give instead of a regular present.

WOMAN: On the inside it looks like a regular card. And on the back, it says, "This card was decorated by the Mill Creek and North Creek Sunday Schools," and it has a little picture of Noah's Ark and all the animals going onto the ark.

SCHREIBER: The Heifer Project is just one of the new ideas the pastors have come up with as a way to celebrate the joy of Christmas and to think more deeply about the meaning of giving and receiving. Reverend Barbara Lemel remembers the craziness of the pre-Christmas rush from her teenage years in retail sales.

LEMEL: I know that people came in, especially as it got close to Christmas, literally saying, "I will buy this. I know it's not what they want, but I have to have something in a box on Christmas morning." To me that's -- Christmas is about celebrating the joy and the love of God, and that joy and love as we see it in the birth of Jesus. And it's not about giving someone something just because you're supposed to give them something.

SCHREIBER: Reverend Lemel and her spouse, Reverend Mitch Hay, started thinking about alternative giving. Several years ago, when they were working in low-income towns in northern Vermont, they joined with writer Bill McKibben to promote the idea of the $100 holiday, urging families to keep their total Christmas spending down while celebrating in other ways. Bill McKibben, also a Methodist, was struck by the difficulty of being a religious person in a society that worships in the temple of consumerism.

McKIBBEN: It is a powerful gospel that they're spreading, that the advertisers and the marketers, and it tends to shut out the other gospel, gospel meaning "good news." I mean, it's hard to get out the real good news about Christmas, about anything, when you're constantly being surrounded by happy talk from people trying to sell you things.

SCHREIBER: Bill McKibben says he knows people who regularly go into debt trying to provide a memorable Christmas for their children. So he and other Methodists in the region came up with inexpensive ways to celebrate the season, like recording a book on tape for grandkids, assembling a photo album, or drawing up a family tree. While most people seem to welcome these ideas, Mitch Hay and Barb Lemel, with son Micah, remembers some nasty columns in local newspapers.

(Happy sounds from Mica)

HAY: This was seen as a horrible attack on our American way of life. Christmas is what shop owners depended on to be able to make it through the year, and for us to be talking about non-commercial Christmases was an attack on -- on --

LEMEL: It was anti-American.

HAY: It was anti-American, it was anti-Vermont. It was anti-everything that we stand for.

SCHREIBER: This year a similar debate about whether reducing consumption would harm the economy took place in a Brattleboro paper. But Barbara Lemel sees Christmas and consumption in the larger context of stewardship.

LEMEL: Stewardship being the ways we use all the resources we have, and I don't mean just natural resources, but our time, our energy, our money, our lives, our gifts. You know, how do you give yourself instead of just your credit card?

(Milling voices)

SCHREIBER: Back at the Mill Creek Sunday School, some of the children tell me what they think Christmas is about.

CHILD 1: Christmas is about getting together, the whole family together, and just showing each other that you still care.

CHILD 2: Yeah.

CHILD 1: Even though you may not have seen each other all year.

SCHREIBER: So that's more important than the gift part.

CHILD 1: Yeah. It's more important just to have a present not because it was expensive but because it shows you people care.

CHILD 3: Not what it is, but just that they gave it to you.

CHILD 4: Just like a time of happiness.

SCHREIBER: One child thought his mother would love the idea of supporting the Heifer Project instead of buying as many gifts. Why?

CHILD 5: 'Cause she has 4 kids and that's a lot of presents. I think she'd like this a lot more.

SCHREIBER: You're willing to give up your other kind of presents?

CHILD 5: Some of them. Not all of them. (Laughter from the children)

SCHREIBER: Of course, it's not easy to convince children to give up Christmas presents, or even adults. Some parishioners said their friends reacted to alternative gifts -- well, politely. But the idea seems to be catching on anyway.

WOMAN: I think it's great because this is helping other people. You can't give a child anything nowadays that's going to mean anything to him unless you spend $30 or $40 on a gift. And you can't do that. It's going to teach them something, too. They're giving.

(Piano and singing: "Gloria! Gloria!...")

SCHREIBER: At the Mill Creek Church in Johnsburg, New York, I'm Tatiana Schreiber for Living on Earth.

Back to top

(More singing: "...voices raised. Gloria! Gloria! Glory to the newborn king!")

Holiday Special Storytelling Show Promo

NUNLEY: Usually on Living on Earth it's a reporter who tells us a story. Who uses words and sounds to take us on an audio journey through time and terrain. But once a year we follow the storytelling road less traveled these days, though our ancient ancestors wore the path well. We invite people to tell stories the old-fashioned way by weaving narratives of happenings real and imagined.

STORYTELLER: In the beginning times the earth was not as we know it today, for it was an earth of darkness. And there was trouble, trouble, in this dark place. There had to be another way.

NUNLEY: Next week, 3 storytellers will spin tales of the Winter Solstice and the unique way in which the world was divided between night and day.

STORYTELLER: And before the argument could erupt again, the Maker raised his hands and said, "This must be settled fairly. We will settle this, as many things have been settled, with a dance contest." (audience laughter) "There will be dancing and the winner, the one who creates the greatest, strongest dance, the one who stands at the end of the dance, that is the way it will be."

NUNLEY: Please join us next week, for more fiction, fable, and fantasy, with Living on Earth's third annual celebration of storytelling.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. Jennifer Schmidt edited this week's program. Our production team includes George Homsy, Liz Lempert, Susan Shepherd, Julia Madeson, Peter Shaw, Constantine Von Hoffman, and Kim Motylewski. We also had help from Michael Giammusso, Kim Chainey, and Jason Kral. And thanks to KPLU in Seattle. Our engineers are Mark Navin at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard University. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Executive producer Steve Curwood returns next week. I'm Jan Nunley. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

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 W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; and Patagonia: a clothing company committed to making quality outdoor clothing with the earth in mind. For a free catalogue call 1-800-336-9090.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


This Week's Books


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

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

Newsletter [Click here]

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

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

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

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

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

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