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

March 14, 1997

Air Date: March 14, 1997


Superfund: Billion-Dollar Battle / Jennifer Schmidt

Close to a billion dollars is at stake in a trial that continues this week in Montana over the nation's largest superfund site, a copper mine. Atlantic Ritchfield Oil Company now owns the mine site previously owned by Anaconda Copper, and Montana is suing ARCO for clean-up funds. Living On Earth's Jennifer Schmidt reports on the case that has ramifications for reauthorization of the Superfund law. (05:10)

Fatal Pine Needle Disease: A U.S. Concern / Ley Garnett

An outbreak of forest disease is causing concern in the Pacific Northwest where the fungus called Swiss Needlecast is beginning to infect the nation's most highly productive forests. Ley Garnett reports from Portland, Oregon on the disease without a remedy. (06:40)

Saw Mill Museum: Logging for History? / Terry FitzPatrick

In the mountain town of Monroe, Oregon, the Hull-Oakes lumber company still runs one of America's last steam powered saw mills. A recent proposal to make this historic site a working museum includes the request for federally-supplied timber for logging at the mill. Terry FitzPatrick reports on reaction to the proposal. (05:55)

Audience Letters

Audience response to LOE's recent segment on natural pest removal. Listeners share their successes with everything from baby powder to geckos and guinea fowl. (02:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... calendars, and the earth's revolutions around the sun. (01:15)

The End of Banana Republics? / Richard Schiffman

Richard Schiffman reports from Costa Rica on various recent developments in the banana industry concerning land use and pesticides in Central America. (12:45)

Sweet Sign of Spring: Maple Syrup Starts Its Run / Susan Carol Hauser

Commentator Susan Carol Hauser on the spring harvest of sap from the maple trees in northern Minnesota where she lives. (03:10)

Soap Opera of the Future?: Environmental Place

In a tribute to two new television soap operas airing in Chile with environmental themes, Living On Earth's staff presents its version of what an environmental Hollywood soap opera might sound like. A satire for the funny bone - but not the faint of heart. (09:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1997 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
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: James Jones, Luke Burbank, Jennifer Schmidt, Ley Garnett, Terry FitzPatrick, Richard Schiffman
GUESTS: The LOE players
COMMENTATOR: Susan Carol Hauser

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. The mighty Douglas fir, the most prized species for timber in the Pacific Northwest, is under attack from the Swiss Needlecast fungus. It spreads quickly where the Douglas fir have been planted close together, and kills by cutting off air circulation.

JOHNSON: In the heavily infected needle, the needles can't breathe because it's all stuffed up. It's got a bad cold.

CURWOOD: Also, operators of a steam-driven Saw Mill Museum in Oregon have come under fire for asking for a steady supply of large, ancient trees from Federal forests.

HEIKEN: We don't go out there and slaughter whales in order to entertain and educate people about the history of whaling. We simply don't need to continue to log old growth in order to understand and remember Oregon's heritage of logging.

CURWOOD: And we have your letters and more on Living on Earth, but first the news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. Satellites are providing evidence that atmospheric temperatures are going up, not down, as researchers had previously thought. Since 1979 satellites sensitive to microwave emissions have reported a cooling trend in the layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth's surface. This had confused scientists because the Earth's surface and other regions of the atmosphere had warmed over that time. Now, researchers examining 2 decades of data believe they know the cause of the discrepancy. A report in the journal Nature says most of the errors occur when a new satellite arrives in orbit to replace the old one. For a short time both satellites transmit data together. If scientists do not perfectly match data from both, temperatures can register lower than they actually are. After adjusting for this error, climatologists say the long-term trend is actually a small temperature increase in the troposphere.

A Federal appeals court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its authority in enforcing some auto emissions standards. The court ruled that the EPA could not apply strict regulations designed for California to states in the northeast. From Washington, James Jones reports.

JONES: The Washington, DC, appeals court ruled that the EPA acted illegally when it said that 12 northeastern states joined in a clean air compact must adopt California style auto emissions standards. The decision could prompt several states in the region to scale back clean air plans and deal the blow to efforts to market electric vehicles in the east. California's plan requires that new cars sold in that state be equipped with systems that cut emissions by up to 75%. The program seeks to encourage the use of electric cars by 2003. The EPA had ruled that all states in the Northeast Ozone Transport Commission should impose those same standards. The ruling will not affect northeast states that voluntarily adopt the California standards but would remove EPA sanctions against states that reject the program. Environmental analysts say the decision will make it more difficult for states to address regional auto pollution problems. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones in Washington.

MULLINS: The White House says it has offered to pay more than $60 million to stop a proposed mine near Yellowstone National Park. The offer was made to carry out an agreement reached last August with Crown Butte Mines to exchange assets worth up to $65 million to protect the Yellowstone and Clark's Fork Rivers from mining pollution. At that time Administration officials talked about exchanging land for the planned copper, gold, and silver mining complex, but they now say the cash deal makes more sense. The funds will come from coal, oil, and natural gas royalties from existing Federal leases in Montana. Crown Butte has 30 days to agree to the plan. The company says it's pleased to receive the offer, and is reviewing whether or not to accept it. Even if the company accepts the deal, Congress must still approve it. House lawmakers are already complaining about giving up the royalties. They also say they're concerned about a plan to offset the revenue loss by delaying the enrollment of 2 million acres of land into the conservation reserve program, which pays farmers not to plant on fragile land.

The Forest Service logged about one third more dead and dying timber under an 18-month waiver of environmental laws than it would have otherwise. The Forest Service, acting under a rider signed by President Clinton in July of 1995, offered nearly 5 billion board feet of salvage timber for sale. That's a billion board feet more than the Forest Service had planned to harvest before the measure passed. The General Accounting Office says a total of nearly 6 billion board feet more would have been logged if Agricultural Secretary Dan Glickman had not placed tighter environmental restrictions on the salvage harvest last summer. It takes about 10,000 board feet to build a typical single family home.

West Coast hydroelectric managers say it will cost a billion dollars to prepare power plants for an expected invasion of zebra mussels. From KUOW in Seattle, Luke Burbank reports.

BURBANK: Scientists say it's not question of if the mussels migrate to the West Coast, but rather when. The organisms have already been spotted as far west as Oklahoma. In preparation, power companies say they'll need to spend a billion dollars to build more turbines on their dams. That way, when the mussels do come, the water can be diverted while workers clear out the clogged pipes. Since the late 1980s, the tiny freshwater mollusk has caused millions of dollars of damage to power plants, drinking water systems, and other facilities in the Midwest. Scientists believe zebra mussels arrived in America from Europe, and when boats with the mussels on their hull moved to a different body of water, the organism spreads quickly, growing into a thick mat: a mat that coats almost any hard surface. For Living on Earth, I'm Luke Burbank in Seattle.

MULLINS: And speaking of alien species, police in central Poland say 2 kangaroos missing from a circus should be considered armed and dangerous. They say the Russian-trained male kangaroos, named Gin and Tonic, are skilled boxers and could turn violent. The animals either fled or were stolen from a traveling circus when it stopped for the night. They belong to the Russian State Circus and were brought by their trainers to Poland.

And that's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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Superfund: Billion-Dollar Battle

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

Close to a billion dollars is at stake in a trial that continues this week in US District Court in Great Falls, Montana, over the nation's biggest Superfund site. It's a giant copper mine in Butte that was once operated by Anaconda and later the oil giant Atlantic Ritchfield. The state of Montana has sued ARCO, demanding massive amounts of pollution abatement and natural resource restoration. But ARCO says the state wants too much, and as Living on Earth's Jennifer Schmidt reports, the case is also influencing the battle over reauthorization of the Superfund law in Congress.

SCHMIDT: From the 1880s through the 1950s, over 13 billion pounds of copper was excavated from the Anaconda mine. Most of it was pulled from underground mine shafts. But when the high-grade ore began to run out, Anaconda bulldozed most of Butte's original neighborhoods to make way for a new type of surface mining. John Sesso is a local county planner and long-time resident.

SESSO: In 1955, the Anaconda company decided to switch to open pit mining and proceded to build, you know, what is the largest open pit mine in North America, you know, within a 9-iron of the uptown commercial area.

SCHMIDT: Today life in Butte continues in the shadow of the mine. But most of the riches are gone. What's left is an open pit slowly filling with toxic groundwater and a costly cleanup bill. Under Superfund it's ARCO's responsibility to pay because it bought the mine from Anaconda in the late 1970s -- a decision it would come to regret. In 1983, the area was declared the nation's biggest Superfund site. ARCO General Manager Sandy Stash says to date the company spent over $300 million on clean-up. They've capped mine waste, planted vegetation, even christened a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course built on top of an old smelter site.

STASH: We've done nothing in Montana but spend considerable amounts of money and effort on clean-up.

SCHMIDT: But the state of Montana says this isn't enough. State officials won't comment during the trial, but have maintained the law requires companies not only to get rid of pollution that's threatening human health but also to restore soil, water, and other natural resources. But ARCO's Sandy Stash says asking the company to hand over $700 million to cover natural resource damage is unprecedented and unfair.

STASH: The state of Montana is asking us to pay twice. They should take into account what has been accomplished in the field. The remediation, the cleanup that we are doing, is restoring the resources back to the people of Montana and in many cases improving upon what was here to begin with.

SCHMIDT: But environmental activists, including Jim Jensen, executive director of Montana's Environmental Information Center, says ARCO hasn't done enough.

JENSEN: To date, ARCO's cleanup has been on the cheap. They have tried to do the least that the EPA could get away with requiring them to do. If they would do more reclamation and do it right, remove materials from the floodplain rather than trying to cap them, then maybe the natural resource damage claim, and undoubtedly this natural resource damage claim would be for less money.

SCHMIDT: Much of the soil surrounding the pit remains polluted with poisonous heavy metals. It's unlikely the area will ever be completely cleaned up. For example, the cost of pumping up contaminated groundwater, filtering out heavy metals, and returning it underground would be so expensive the price tag has never been seriously calculated. County planner Jon Sesso says even if the cleanup were attempted, local residents would still be wary.

SESSO: In my view, you'd never get it to the point where you'd feel comfortable letting your kid drink the water anyway.

SCHMIDT: The state has acknowledged these hurdles. So in some instances, it's seeking restoration money from ARCO with the intention of protecting groundwater and cleaning up mine tailings elsewhere. For many, this case is a sign of how much Superfund needs fixing. As reform minded lawmakers like to point out, much of the money that could be spent on cleanup is now spent on lawyers. With close to a billion dollars at stake in this case alone, the mining industry is lobbying hard for changes that would limit their liability. Still, Congress is stalled on the issue, and some western lawmakers want to keep it that way, at least until the Montana case is over. Jeremy Bernstein has been covering the Montana ARCO case for Superfund Report.

BERNSTEIN: I think the biggest impact probably is going to be in the way Congress considers any future changes to the Superfund law. Senator Max Baucus who's the senior Democratic senator from Montana has been very concerned that any changes to the law not interfere with Montana's case.

SCHMIDT: The possibility remains that the state of Montana and ARCO can reach a last minute settlement. But for now, ARCO is vowing to let the court decide whether it will be the company or taxpayers who must face the consequences of this environmental disaster. For Living on Earth, this is Jennifer Schmidt.

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CURWOOD: Should the Federal Government allow some old growth logging to keep a saw mill museum in operation? That story is just ahead on Living on Earth.

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Fatal Pine Needle Disease: A U.S. Concern

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The fungus called Swiss Needlecast was first discovered early this century in Switzerland on Douglass fir trees imported from the Pacific Northwest. And now there is concern in the Pacific Northwest itself about the spread of this deadly blight. While it has hampered US Christmas tree growers the past 2 decades, the disease is now beginning to affect many trees in the nation's most highly productive forests. And as Ley Garnett reports, scientists don't yet have a remedy.


GARNETT: In the Columbia River Valley near Cathlamet, Washington, 3 foresters from Willamette Industries, a large Northwest timber company, walk through the woods inspecting trees.

JOHNSON: This tree here's just a classic Swiss Needlecast tree. All the lower limbs are barren, and as you go up to the top where you'd expect to see a full crown, all you see are last year's needles.

GARNETT: This grove ranges from 25 to 40 years old and has a mix of trees dominated by Douglas fir. Most of the Douglas fir have thick, green, healthy branches. But others are almost like skeletons, with only a few needles on every branch. Greg Johnson, a forest biologist for Willamette, uses a magnifying glass to check for black dots on the needles, one sign of Swiss Needlecast. He says the disease, a type of fungus, damages trees by smothering them.

JOHNSON: So, in the heavily infected needle, the needle can't breathe because it's all stuffed up. It's got a bad cold.

GARNETT: Eventually, these needles fall to the ground prematurely. Without them, trees aren't able to photosynthesize sugars needed for normal growth.

(A ratcheting tool)

GARNETT: Using a device that looks like a modified lug wrench, Willamette company timber manager Tom Holt drills a small hole in the trunk of an infected Douglas fir and pulls out a core sample the size of a thick pencil. The tree rings are tightly packed, a sign the fir isn't growing as fast as it should.

HOLT: Telltale pop of the metal.

(Ratcheting sounds continue)

HOLT: This when you get a significant decrease in the growth, very dramatic.

GARNETT: Swiss Needlecast spreads through spores, and moisture facilitates dispersal. Rain, or even foggy air, helps them move from branch to branch and tree to tree. Unusually heavy rain in the Northwest over the last few years is thought to have triggered the outbreak. While the disease can be controlled with fungicides, widespread spraying would be too expensive and would endanger the area's many streams and rivers. For timber companies the key question is whether to cut the sick trees and replant. Again, forester Greg Johnson.

JOHNSON: One of the challenges is to determine when you've suffered enough, and (laughs) a stand like this has pretty obvious visual symptoms but we're still getting growth here. And it may be the best thing to do economically may be to hold onto it, let it grow some more.

(Traffic sounds)

GARNETT: Outside the offices of the Oregon State Forestry Department in Salem, a massive stump of a 600-year-old tree, 10 feet in diameter, rests on a pedestal. It's a monument to the Douglas fir, Oregon's official state tree. The Douglas fir is the most important tree in North America to the timber industry, and it has made Oregon the nation's leading producer of wood products. Never before have the coastal fir forests of the Northwest faced such a potentially serious threat from a contagious disease. Inside his forestry office, state tree pathologist Alan Kanaskie leads Oregon's battle against Swiss Needlecast. He says the recent spread of the disease is a mystery.

KANASKIE: We've known about it for a long time. It's been fairly well studied. However, it's never reached these kinds of levels in a native Douglas fir forest before.

GARNETT: Mr. Kanaskie suspects that Needlecast thrives on Douglas fir trees planted from non-native commercial seed stocks that haven't developed immunity to the disease.

KANASKIE: It's like when we travel to a foreign country, we're not quite adapted to all the different diseases and things that occur there, so we're susceptible. And that's kind of what's happening with the Douglas fir from a genetic standpoint, is that kind of movement.

GARNETT: State foresters are pushing hard to unravel this mystery and halt what they say could be a devastating blow to the northwest timber economy. So far 130,000 acres of Douglas fir forest have been stricken in Oregon alone. But foresters suspect new surveys will show the infestation has spread even further. Environmentalist Chuck Willer, who heads the Coastal Range Association, calls Swiss Needlecast nature's response to industrial over-management of forests. He runs through a long list of examples.

WILLER: Genetic seedling selection, nitrogen fertilization, all kinds of site prep activities, an astronomical amount of herbicides and other chemicals put on the ground. We feel that perhaps natural processes are being circumvented or ignored in an attempt to maximize the fiber output from the land.

GARNETT: Mr. Willer and other environmentalists support efforts to stop the spread of the disease as long as the solution does not call for more logging. At this stage there are more questions than answers about Swiss Needlecast. Greg Filip, a forestry professor at Oregon State University, says he thinks to stop the spread of Swiss Needlecast the region may have to move away from its most prized timber source.

FILIP: And until we are able to pinpoint the types, the genetic stock that is more resistant and we can actually use those for planting, I think the safest thing right now if someone is planting is to actually use some other species besides Douglas fir.

GARNETT: For now, state and Federal agencies and several timber companies have formed a Swiss Needlecast Research Cooperative. The co-op is eagerly awaiting results from a new aerial survey extending from northern Washington to Oregon's border with California. The survey should disclose how fast Swiss Needlecast is spreading, and whether it's about to reach large inland commercial forests of Douglas fir located near the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon. For Living on Earth, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.

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(A buzzsaw hums and cuts)

Saw Mill Museum: Logging for History?

CURWOOD: There's a piece of western history still at work near the mountain town of Monroe, Oregon. The Hull-Oakes lumber company runs one of America's last steam-powered saw mills. The rustic facility was listed last year on the National Register of Historic Places, and its owners are developing a unique proposal to make their mill a working museum with tours and exhibits. There's just one catch: as part of the plan, the company wants the US Congress to guarantee a steady supply of timber from Federal land. As Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports, the proposal has sparked a buzzsaw of complaints.

(Buzzsaw continues)

FITZPATRICK: The Hull-Oakes mill hasn't changed much since it opened in the 1930s. Many of the company's 85 workers still wrestle logs through the saws by hand.

(Buzzsaw continues. Fade to the sound of flames)

FITZPATRICK: In the boiler room a burly man with a pitchfork stokes a hot burning fire with sawdust and bark. Steam generates enough power to run virtually everything inside the plant. Wherever you look there's antique machinery at work. Company spokesman Wayne Giesy points to the oldest equipment with pride.

GIESY: This is a wooden pulley that was built in 1938. It's been on there ever since. So we have a little saying here at Hull-Oakes: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

(Buzzsaw continues)

FITZPATRICK: A steam-powered mill is a dinosaur in today's highly competitive industry, where automated plants now use computers to squeeze every inch of lumber from the Northwest's dwindling supply of Federal timber. But rather than modernizing its facility, the Hull-Oakes company is seeking to turn its aging equipment into an asset. The company volunteered for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and is proposing to become a working museum where tourists can see lumber made the old-fashioned way. In return for this public service, says Mr. Giesy, the company wants a guaranteed supply of trees from Federal land for the next 20 years.

GIESY: We are asking for the privilege to buy, at market value, a source of timber that will continue the longevity of this plant. We have an obligation, then, to continue giving free tours, which we always have. We have the obligation to build an interpretive center, where there'd be educational material for the benefit of all people that would come.

FITZPATRICK: Hull-Oakes is a small facility. It saws as much wood in a year as modern mills go through in a month. The company says a dedicated supply of trees would allow it to survive in an era where multinational corporations can easily outbid independent mills at Federal timber auctions. The plan has tentative support from Oregon's governor. However, environmentalists are enraged. Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council feels the proposal is a clever timber grab. He says a museum doesn't need to operate at full industrial capacity.

HEIKEN: Whaling museums exist in Boston, but they aren't working whaling museums. We don't go out there and slaughter whales in order to entertain and educate people about the history of whaling. And we don't have a slavery museum in Atlanta which continues to enslave black people against their will in order to educate people about the history of slavery in America. We simply don't need to continue to log old growth in order to understand and remember Oregon's heritage of logging.

FITZPATRICK: The company disputes that it's after old growth timber, though this claim leaves environmentalists suspicious. The mill is specially tooled to cut extremely large trees. In fact, its hallmark are beams up to 85 feet long used for masts on sailing ships and the ceilings of ski chalets. The proposal has environmentalists so suspicious they've begun to investigate the company's compliance with air and water regulations. Activist Doug Heiken has alleged some serious violations involving a manmade pond used to sort logs when they arrive by truck.

(Rushing water)

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Heiken claims water from this holding pond is polluting an important watershed for native cutthroat trout.

HEIKEN: The Hull-Oakes log pond sits in the middle of a stream. There's a dam blocking the passage of fish. And they discharge 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

FITZPATRICK: Hull-Oakes has operated the log pond without government permits for more than 17 years. The company calls it an oversight, but environmentalists are asking officials to impose millions in fines and require the mill to clean up the pond or shut it down. This environmental hardball has left Hull-Oakes spokesman Wayne Giesy a bit shellshocked. He says he never expected his museum proposal would touch such a nerve.

GIESY: I had no idea. (Laughs) That as small as we are, that we'd even catch any attention. (Laughs) We're almost national news now. (Laughs) I don't understand it. We're country kids. We still get dirt under our fingernails working, you know. (Laughs)

FITZPATRICK: It's unclear whether the bid for America's first working saw mill museum stands much chance in Congress. The proposal is still being drafted, but Oregon representative Peter DeFazio questions if the plan is fair to other independent mills who are also struggling to survive. And Oregon senator Ron Wyden wants the American Association of Museums to endorse the project before he'll give it support. For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

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Audience Letters

CURWOOD: And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners. Two weeks ago we interviewed Mississippi rancher Barbara Bird, who eliminated a terrible rat problem in her barn by moving in a snake. Her success story sparked many calls. Cockroaches plagued John Phlug when he lived in Hawaii. He said he tried many things, including poisons, to rid his apartment of the pests. Then his neighbor suggested he try bringing in some geckos.

PHLUG: So I did. Little lizards that have suction cup feet and who walk all over the place. I got 3 or 4 of those, turned them loose in the apartment, and the cockroach problem was gone. Plus the geckos are really cute and they chirp nicely.

CURWOOD: Edith Chase, who listens to WKSU in Kent, Ohio, wanted ants out of her house. Her solution came from a book.

CHASE: And it suggested using talcum powder. So I got some talcum powder off the shelf, shook it around in the area, left it there for a day, and they went away and never came back. Told my sister about it and she tried it and it worked on some ants that she had. Well then, last fall I had trouble with some larger ants and I thought I'm not sure this is going to work, but at least I'll try it. So I put down some talcum powder and left that there for a week before I vacuumed it up. They've never been back.

CURWOOD: Our last environmental solution for today comes from Wayne Terry, a listener in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father had a garden that had bug problems year after year. He tried going the pesticide route. When that didn't work he turned to a chicken-like flightless fowl called a guinea hen.

TERRY: The guineas actually, the first year he had them, went to the garden and ate the bugs. Ate the potato bugs, and he had no problems at all with any of the bugs that year. And his neighbor, on the other hand, had big problems. All his garden was pretty much ate up. So my father just uses these guineas, now.

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CURWOOD: If you have any questions or comments about anything you've heard on Living on Earth, give us a call. The number is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our mailing address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. That's 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. And our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. You can also check out the Living on Earth web site at www.loe.org.

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

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800-PRO-COWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; and Jennifer and Ted Stanley.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: A new push for pesticide-free bananas in Costa Rica. The story is next on Living on Earth

(Music up and under)

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: While most scientists will tell you that time travel is impossible, one man proved them wrong. Four hundred and fifteen years ago, Roman Catholics went to sleep on October 4th and woke up the next morning on October 15th. It was all the idea of Pope Gregory XIII, and he did it because the Julian calendar, named after its inventor Julius Caesar, had gotten out of whack. You see, the Earth revolves around the Sun every 365.2422 days. But that's not a whole number. So, to keep the calendar on track, we must adopt a variable year length. Caesar's calendar had a leap year every 4 years, making for 365.25 days, only slightly more than the actual length of the year. But over the centuries the difference mounts up. By the 16th century the spring holiday of Easter was slipping into summer. Pope Gregory reset the clock and made one significant adjustment. There would only be a leap year at the end of a century if the year were divisible by 400. And so, the average year of the Gregorian calendar is exactly 365.2425 days, which gains just 3 days every 10,000 years. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Related link:
Timeline of interesting calendar facts

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The End of Banana Republics?

CURWOOD: It wasn't so long ago when the fate of 6 Central American nations hung from a single stem: the stem of the banana plant. For years the United Fruit Company of Boston dominated the politics of the region, and more than one US president intervened militarily to keep up the steady supply of one of North America's favorite fruits. Today the countries of Central America are no longer the banana republics that they were once called. But the cultivation of the fruit has left the landscape deforested and polluted. Now these nations, including Costa Rica, are looking into more sustainable ways to grow this lucrative cash crop. As Richard Schiffman reports, even the big banana companies are gradually changing the way they do business.

(Musicians, and vendors calling on the street)

SCHIFFMAN: On the street outside San Jose's central market there are lush piles of vine-ripened tomatoes, crates full of miniature green squashes, mounds of ripening papayas and avocados. And there are cart after cart of bananas of all sizes, shapes, and colors. There are petite finger bananas, plump red-skinned varieties, large green plantains for cooking. Many of these have scars on their peels, though they're generally smooth and tasty inside. Few of these bananas, however, ever make it to North America. Costa Ricans are fond of a wide variety of banana flavors and textures. But for the most part, they send us only one: the standard thick-skinned variety, which travels well and is uniquely suited to the high-yield, chemical-intensive agriculture of the modern plantation. That's the kind Vokker Ribbnigar grows on his 250-acre farm near the Panamanian border. Over breakfast at a sidewalk cafe, a few blocks from the market, he talks about why he came to Costa Rica 15 years ago.

RIBBNIGAR: When I started banana farming, I thought there must be another way to produce bananas. Because my reason to come to Costa Rica was to live in another way than in Germany. To grow my own vegetables free of pesticides, for example.

SCHIFFMAN: Since nobody in Costa Rica had any experience growing commercial bananas without agro-chemicals, Vokker Ribbnigar had to develop his own methods from scratch. He still hasn't succeeded in totally eliminating pesticides from his pest-rich plantation. But environmentalists now regard his low-impact farm as a model plantation, and some of the eco-friendly techniques pioneered there are now being adopted by the industry giants.

(Music. Woman's voice-over: "Hello amigos. I'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say, bananas have to ripen in a certain way...")

SCHIFFMAN: Chiquita, the current trade name for the old United Fruit Company, means "little" in Spanish. But the multinational is anything but little. Chiquita is one of the largest landowners in Central America. And until as recently as 7 years ago, Chiquita and the other big companies Dole and Del Monte were clearing tens of thousands of acres of virgin rainforest in Costa Rica to make way for expanding plantations. In the 1970s the growers' use of the pesticide DBCP was implicated in the poisoning and permanent sterilization of thousands of banana workers. These ecological abuses led some in the environmental community to call for a boycott of bananas. But the Rainforest Alliance, a New York-based group which focuses on tropical conservation issues, disagreed.

WILLE: Thousands, tens of thousands of people, depend on the banana industry.

SCHIFFMAN: Chris Wille is the Rainforest Alliance's regional director in Central America. I spoke to him at the headquarters of Fundacion Ambio in San Jose, the Alliance's Costa Rican partner.

WILLE: It at that time was the leading source of revenue here in Costa Rica. So you can't kick a pillar like that out from under a country's economy without causing a lot of human hardship, and in addition a lot of environmental damage that you didn't want.

SCHIFFMAN: So the Rainforest Alliance decided to try another tack.

WILLE: So instead of a boycott, we invented what amounts to a "buycott". We decided to set standards and reward the people who can meet those standards with a green seal of approval.

(Rain, bird calls)

SCHIFFMAN: It's raining on the Coca Bola Farm, one of Chiquita's huge plantations on the coastal plain. We're standing on the bluff above the Rio Sucio. The Dirty River as it's called in Spanish runs yellow from the sulfur minerals it leaches from a nearby volcano. But until recently, the Rio Sucio was dirty in another sense as well. Locals remember how the banks used to be draped with untold thousands of discarded plastic bags used to protect the skin of growing bananas. Bags that eventually washed into the Caribbean and clogged the beaches and the coral reefs. But these days, those bags are being put to a new use. On a walk through the plantation, Dave McLaughlin, the director for environmental affairs for Chiquita Brands, gestures toward the blue paving stones lining the trails between banana plants.

McLAUGHLIN: All plastics are picked up. The twine, the bags, and they're all recycled. As you can see, the paving blocks here have all been made from recycled tree bags and recycled twine.

(Rain, bird calls)

SCHIFFMAN: And they've made other changes as well. They're growing deep-rooting sotocabayo trees along the riverbank to prevent erosion and to protect the Rio Sucio from contaminants. And they're planting native seedlings in other areas of the plantation not suitable for growing bananas. Nowadays, McLaughlin claims, his company is creating forest, not cutting it.

McLAUGHLIN: Chiquita has committed to, in its charter, an environmental code of conduct that it will not clear any rainforest for the establishment of banana plantations. We will not take down a tree to plant bananas.

SCHIFFMAN: Still, large scale environmental problems remain. A witches' brew of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers are used to grow bananas. And Katherine Wessling, an epidemiologist who works at the National University in San Jose, says the effect on human health has been equally harsh.

WESSLING: You can see it when you map, for example, poisonings in the country. It's the banana areas that's -- that have the highest incidence rates for both poisonings and demolitions. And we also have -- well, we have studied cancer among banana workers and found an excess risk compared to the general population of Costa Rica for several cancers, several types of cancers.

SCHIFFMAN: Some people question whether these dangerous agro-chemicals are really necessary. But industry officials argue that the large-scale production of cosmetically perfect bananas requires strict chemical controls.

(A man speaks in Spanish)

SCHIFFMAN: Back at the plantation, a worker measures the width of a banana with a steel calibrating pole to see if it's ready for harvest. After he determines that the fruit falls within precise industry standards for size, he pads the stem with foam rubber to protect it from bruising, and then cuts it.

(Falling fruit. A man speaks in Spanish)

SCHIFFMAN: The huge stems of over a hundred bananas are then loaded onto a cable way and transported to this processing area, where they're washed and then fumigated -- again, to protect the peel.


SCHIFFMAN: Every phase of banana production from planting to post-harvest preparation of the fruit involves the application of industrial chemicals. But Chris Wille of the Rainforest Alliance says they're trying to change this.

WILLE: We're working with the banana companies to get them to look at every bit of chemical use to see if it can be avoided or somehow made less threatening to the environment and to the workers.

SCHIFFMAN: In particular, they're encouraging the plantations to adapt integrated pest management. That's a system of applying pesticides and fertilizers only when and where and in the amounts that they're needed. Chiquita hopes to earn a greener image for itself by meeting these standards. But some critics are not investing all their hopes in the enlightened self-interest of the banana companies. They're turning to smaller growers, and also to places like this for hopeful developments.

(People milling)

SCHIFFMAN: Young people from all over tropical America learn sustainable agricultural practices here at Earth University in the heart of Costa Rica's banana growing area. After breakfast the students go into the fields with their professors, like banana expert Panfilo Tabora.

TABORA: That is a Sigatocca disease, the black leaf burning. That is a Sigatocca disease. Twenty-five percent of the cost of growing bananas, that is the cost of Sigatocca control.

SCHIFFMAN: Professor Tabora is pointing to some wilted leaves in the crown of a banana plant. If allowed to progress unchecked, the Sigatocca fungus can wipe out an entire banana plantation. That's why aerial spraying of fungicide is done several times each year. But here at Earth, they've been developing ways to control this disease by biological rather than chemical means. They're also working on developing disease resistant strains of banana, and they're experimenting with native ground cover that will help control soil erosion on plantations. Professor Tabora is optimistic.

TABORA: We can have organic banana production, totally organic banana production within 5 to 10 years as a technology.

(People milling)

SCHIFFMAN: Back in San Jose, grower Vokker Ribbnigar says he expects that he'll be producing organically even sooner. Up until now, even this environmentally conscious grower has conducted aerial spraying against the dreaded Sigatocca fungal disease. But later this year, those flights will be ending.

RIBBNIGAR: We are starting in September a new project with an international investing group to plant other varieties to look forward to produce without any fungicides of bananas.

SCHIFFMAN: The biggest barrier to growing eco-friendly bananas is no longer technical, Vokker Ribbnigar says. It's the consumer demand for fruit with an unblemished peel.

RIBBNIGAR: They were educated by the big companies to look for nice banana and not for a good banana. And I think now the companies must make another effort to educate the consumer on the other side to say no, you have to look for a good banana, and therefore we can protect more environment.

SCHIFFMAN: Vokker Ribbnigar adds that if we're willing to try some new banana varieties, to pay a few pennies more for cleanly grown fruit at the checkout counter, and to overlook some harmless brown spots on the peel, we can go a long way toward creating a greener environment for Central America. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman reporting.

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(Music up and under)

Sweet Sign of Spring: Maple Syrup Starts Its Run

CURWOOD: Even in the northern reaches of Minnesota, winter is finally threatening to come to an end. As commentator Susan Carol Hauser reports, one of the surest signs of spring is maple sugar time.

HAUSER: It is sugar time in northern Minnesota. Below freezing at night, above 40 during the day, the thermal pump handle that begins the flow of sap up from the tree's roots and into the trunk of the tree and even on up into the branches. And as long as the temperature cooperates, the sap will flow not only up but out if given the opportunity. My husband and I give 20 trees the chance to spill their gift into our buckets. A few days ago the temperature reached 50 for the third day in a row, and we went to the garage and Bill picked up the drill and 2 pails, and I put a handful of taps into my jacket pocket, tucked the hammer under one arm and gripped a pail in each hand. And we traipsed out to the sugar bush and drilled holes in the 2 maples closest to the house.

We wondered if we were too eager, too early. But even as I pulled the drill bit out of the hole a few tears of sap wept out of the wood. I pushed the tapered end of this vial into the hole and tapped it in with the hammer, and then held my palm under the tip and caught the clear drops as they sought ground. On my tongue they had no taste, but I know their secret.

Bill hung the bucket on the tap hook and we stood and listened. Ping, ping, ping, ping. The standard two drops to a heartbeat. By afternoon they had gathered into a gallon or more. The next day we tapped the rest of the trees, and today we make rounds, pouring the sap into holding pails and then into a massive black iron kettle. The kettle hangs above a fire that we adjust regularly to keep the sap at a boil, and slowly, slowly, today's 20-gallon harvest reduces to one half gallon of amber syrup. It takes all day and is like waiting for spring itself. We do not mind. In this cusp between seasons, between winter and spring, we rise in the morning to the clock of the sun and work all day to the calendar of the sap flow. As water pumped through maples reduces to syrup, so our work in the company of trees yields the sweetest gift of the sugar run.

CURWOOD: Susan Carol Hauser is author of Full Moon: Reflections on Turning Fifty, published by Papier Mache Press. She comes to us via Minnesota Public Radio's KMBJ in Bimidji.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: the first episode of Environmental Place: the biodegradable soap opera from the players of Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Soap Opera of the Future?: Environmental Place

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Two Chilean television stations recently began airing a new soap opera. That's not so unusual, but the plot is. It revolves around the defense of the nation's natural heritage. Taking its cue from real life forestry conflicts, state-run Television Nacional's Green Gold soap opera depicts citizens protesting plans by the timber industry to exploit native forests. We here at Living on Earth think that's a great idea and can't wait for Hollywood to follow suit. So with that in mind, we present Environmental Place, where the hip, cool, and young do battle with the old, entrenched, and powerful.

(Dramatic music. Ambient voices. A phone rings.)

ASHLEY: Hello. Green Resources Advocate Sierra Society, can I help you? No... No! No! What will I tell Billy?

(A door opens)

BILLY: Hey, Ashley, here's your double decaf organic cappuccino -- what's wrong?

ASHLEY: (tearfully) I don't know how to tell you this, Billy. It's -- Miranda!

BILLY: My fiancee?

ASHLEY: She's -- she's dead!

(The coffee cup crashes to the floor)

BILLY: No! It can't be! She just returned from being held hostage by the Brazilian iguana hunters.

ASHLEY: Yes. She went there to protect the indigenous people, right after she recovered from the amnesia caused by that toxic waste spill? (Billy gags) And now this! Melted inside a nuclear waste disposal plant!

BILLY: (Crying) Oh, Ashley! What'll become of me now?

ASHLEY: Is there anything I can do to help?

BILLY: You've -- been so kind --

ASHLEY: (seductively) I'd do anything, Billy.

(They kiss. A zipper unzips. The door opens.)

AMANDA: Billy! Ashley! How could you?

(The door slams)

BILLY: Oh no!

ASHLEY: It's the boss. Hi, Amanda.

AMANDA: You know we have a ban on fraternization. What if someone at Snyde, Satan and Brown got a hold of this?

ASHLEY: Those horrible lobbyists for the resource extraction industries? What would they do?

AMANDA: They'd leak it to the press and derail our plan to save endangered species everywhere.

ASHLEY: You're right! I've been such a fool! I'm sorry, Billy. I never would do anything to hurt what Miranda gave her life for. I'd better get on the phone and put the best spin possible on her death.

(Typing sounds; a door slams)

BILLY: I thought she'd never leave.

AMANDA: I know. Me, too. Oh! (A zipper unzips) Billy!

(Dramatic music up and under. A phone rings.)

MARIA: Hello. Snyde, Satan and Brown. Hold, please. Yes, Ms. Snyde?

SNYDE: Maria, get Senator Craven on the phone. Our clients at Chainsaw Incorporated have some national parks they want to despoil.

MARIA: (Sniveling) Yes, Ms. Snyde.

(A phone rings)

CRAVEN: This is Senator Craven.

SNYDE: Zelda Snyde here, Senator.

CRAVEN: Hello, Zelda.

SNYDE: Senator, the environment committee you chair is scheduled to hold hearings on the future of the National Wildlife Reservation.


SNYDE: Well, we think it would be a great place for a mall.

CRAVEN: What? But it's home to 17 different endangered species and 3 shrines holy to Native Americans.

SNYDE: Well, that's very nice. But we have a dream. And it's a dream that involves a lot of money. Picture it. An eco-theme mall. The floors will be Astroturf. The shopping bags will be recyclable. We'll have nice paved paths through the woods and lots of trees around the parking lots. Think of how much money it will generate for the park.

CRAVEN: What about nature?

SNYDE: We'll have a petting zoo.

CRAVEN: I won't stand for it, Snyde.

SNYDE: Yes you will, Senator. Unless you want the world to know about your -- fondness for escort services.

CRAVEN: How -- how did you know?

SNYDE: Well, some people call her Madam. But I just call her Mom. (Slams down the phone and laughs.) Maria, what do you say we engage in a little sexual harassment later?

MARIA: Yes, Ms. Snyde.

(Dramatic music up and under. Fade to clattering dishes.)

WAITER: Are you ready to order, miss?

AMANDA: How's the tofu today?

WAITER: Very fresh.

ASHLEY: Amanda! Waiting for someone?

AMANDA: Oh -- hi, Ashley. What brings you here?

ASHLEY: Bad news. Senator Craven has capitulated on protecting the National Wildlife Preserve.

AMANDA: Not dad!

ASHLEY: Yes, dad! He's a two-timin' little piece of Washington trash, just like his daughter.

AMANDA: How dare you say that!

ASHLEY: Oh, Amanda -- you and Billy should really turn off the copying machine before you lie down on it!

AMANDA: Oh you little --

(Scuffling, slapping, broken dishes)

BILLY: Ashley...

ASHLEY: Billy!

BILLY AND ASHLEY: What are you doing here?!

ASHLEY: Billy! You ignorant slut!

AMANDA: Stop it! Stop it! Sure we've got our problems. But you know, the problems of people like us don't amount to a hill of organic coffee beans compared to the threats posed daily to our wildlife and ecosystems. We've got to save the National Wildlife Preserve!

BILLY: What'll we do?

AMANDA: Let's chain ourselves to the trees!

ASHLEY: I know some famous musicians I can get to help us out!

BILLY: That's a great idea!

(A helicopter rotor)

BICKELHOFF: Live, from the standoff at the National Wildlife Preserve, I'm Bix Bickelhoff. Celebrities and radical extremists from an eco-terrorist group known as GRASS have chained themselves to a dozen trees here at the preserve. With us is Zelda Snyde, chief spokesperson for Friends of the Preserve and a partner in the lobbying firm of Snyde, Satan and Brown. Ms. Snyde, what do you make of this protest?

SNYDE: They're radical liberal extremists who want to deny the preserve to the rest of us.

BICKELHOFF: But isn't it true that the Nature Center is just a mall?

SNYDE: Well of course there's a shopping component, but we view it as a way to get the preserve to pay for itself.


BICKELHOFF: Oh, hey, what are those loggers doing?

SNYDE: I think they're sick and tired of these eco-terrorists interfering with their right to earn a living and feed their families.

BICKELHOFF: We send you now to Sue Sudelman, who's in the trees with the protesters.

(A tree falls)

SUDELMAN: Thanks, Bix! Up here at 300 feet it's a whole different world! You're really at one with nature. I'm talking to Ashley Whitebread, executive senior director of GRASS. Ashley, what do you make of all this?

ASHLEY: It's horrible! They're killin' the animals. They're hurtin' the trees!

SUDELMAN: Well look, on the next tree over -- it's Sting! Sting! Sting, play something for us.

(Sting plays: "Free free, set them free. Free free, set them free." Intercut with buzzsaw. "Free free, set them free..." A scream. The tree falls.)

BICKELHOFF: They've cut down the tree with Sting in it!

AMANDA: Oh -- my -- God! I don't believe it!

ASHLEY: It doesn't surprise me. They're heartless.

SUDELMAN: No, down there, standing next to Zelda Snyde! It's --it's Miranda!

BILLY: My late fiancee? What's she doing?

SUDELMAN: Taking notes. It's like she's her secretary or something.

BILLY: Give me those binoculars!


SEVERAL AT ONCE: They're cutting down our treeeeeeee!

(A tree crashes. Dramatic music up and under)

CURWOOD: On the next Environmental Place...

OFFICER: All right, Snyde, put down the chainsaw and come out with your hands up.

SNYDE: Don't work too hard, officer. I'll be back on the streets before your donut gets cold.

BILLY: Miranda! I thought you were dead!

MIRANDA: I can see you spent a lot of time mourning. Now I'll get my revenge!

(Gunshots. Fade to dramatic music up and under)

CURWOOD: Environmental Place was written and produced by Constantine Von Hoffman.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: If you have any comments or questions about what you've heard on Living on Earth, give us a call. The number is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Our mailing address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. That's 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. And our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. And for transcripts and a preview of upcoming stories, check out the Living on Earth web site at www.loe.org.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes Julia "Ashley" Madeson, Peter Shaw, Constantine "Craven" Von Hoffman, Kim "Miranda" Motylewski, George Homsy, Susan "Snyde" Shepherd, and Liz "Amanda" Lempert. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. Jennifer "Sudelman" Schmidt edited this week's program. And Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. We also had help from Colin "The Waiter" Studds, George "Boy Toy Billy" Preston, Walter "Bix" Dixon, and KPLU in Seattle. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Mark Navin at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; 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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