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

April 11, 1997

Air Date: April 11, 1997


Presidio Houses: LANDMARKS OF CONTROVERSY / Peter Thomson

A few months ago we reported on a controversy at the former military base in San Francisco called the Presidio which has just become a national park that is attempting to be financially self-sufficient. Now, there's an intrigiung sub-plot to the story that concerns a cluster of abandoned military quarters at the Presidio. A plan to tear down the houses has drawn protests from advocates for the city's large homeless population and spawned a contentious battle between them and Bay area enviromentalists. Living On Earth's Senior Correspondent Peter Thomson prepared our report. (09:10)

Fuzzy Forensics! / Terry FitzPatrick

Murders and robberies have been on the decline recently, but officials report that one category of violent crime has not gone down: crimes against wildlife. Illegal hunting is a major problem in the U.S. as is the black-market trade in exotic pets, and the importation of products made from endangered species. The problem is so severe that officials have turned to the high-tech tools of human crime fighting to catch poachers and smugglers. They've built a forensic laboratory that's so sophisticated it's been dubbed the "Scotland Yard" of wildlife law enforcement.Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick spent a day at the lab in Ashland, Oregon. (07:30)

Minks in the Chicken Coop / Sy Montgomery

The discovery of dead animals put commentator Sy Montgomery in hot pursuit of an unidentified culprit. It all began early one Friday morning when Sy and her husband went to feed and water their eight chickens; and found only two of them alive. (03:27)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... an ammonium nitrate induced shipping disaster. (01:15)

Victory at Ironbound / Kim Childs

For nearly twenty years, residents of Ironbound, a largely immigrant section of Newark, New Jersey have fought the citing of incinerators, landfills and superfund sites in their community. Today, they're claiming an important victory after state officials put on hold plans to site a sludge treatment plant there. The state decision is based, in part, on meeting the requirements set out in President Clinton's executive order on environmental justice. From member station W-B-G-O, Kim Childs reports. (05:30)

Always, Rachael

Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" made her a household name, but her private life has been kept just that, very private. A book of correspondence between Rachel Carson and her intimate friend, Dorothy Freeman now gives insight into Carson's convictions, and a remarkable friendship. Host Steve Curwood spoke with the book's editor, Martha Freeman, Dorothy Freeman's granddaughter, about the genesis of "Silent Spring". This segment first broadcast two years ago in April 1995. (11:45)

Migration of Cranes / Becky Rumsey

One of the oldest rites of Spring is the migration of cranes from their southern wintering grounds to nesting areas in the north. America's largest population of Sandhill Cranes migrates up the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Montana, and on the way they take a long break in southern California's San Luis Valley where they rest, feed and court before continuing their journey. Becky Rumsey took in the sight at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and sent us this report. (07:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jill Kaufman
REPORTERS: Nancy Marshall, Ley Garnett, Susanna Capelouto, Scott Schlegel,
Peter Thomson, Terry FitzPatrick, Kim Childs, Becky Rumsey
GUEST: Martha Freeman
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
In San Francisco's Presidio, there are old army barracks and other buildings slated to be demolished to make way for a national park. But some folks say use them to house the city's homeless.

GALVIN: When you think about families living under freeways right now, isn't it incredible that they want to tear this down?

CURWOOD: While some say the buildings should be recycled, others say returning the site to nature is more important.

ALEXANDER: The Presidio is a world class place. We ought to be using it for world class purposes. We weaken that argument if we just turn it into an easy solution for the city of San Francisco's social or other problems.

CURWOOD: The debate over the Presidio and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

Environmental News

KAUFMAN: From Living on Earth, I'm Jill Kaufman. The US and Canada signed a series of environmental agreements during Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien's recent visit to Washington. But environmentalists say the accords don't go far enough. Nancy Marshall has more.

MARSHALL: The Great Lakes Agreement will coordinate Canadian and US policies on eliminating toxic spills, runoff, and emissions. Another accord calls for reducing cross-border air pollution. But it's the accord Unendangered Species Protection that environmentalists have criticized most strongly. They say it would do little to protect habitat, especially since Canada doesn't have an endangered species law. But Canada's Minister of the Environment says endangered species will be better off under the agreement. The Canadian legislature is now considering endangered species legislation, but Parliament needs to act quickly because Canadian elections may be called within the month. For Living on Earth, I'm Nancy Marshall in Washington.

KAUFMAN: After 5 years of court battles, the US Fish and Wildlife Service says it intends to list the Columbia and Clamath Basin bull trout under the Endangered Species law. The Agency recently disclosed its plans in Federal court. Ley Garnett of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

GARNETT: A Montana-based environmental group brought the case, arguing the fish are long overdue for protection. The US Fish and Wildlife Service admits bull trout should be protected, but wants to push back the listing until August. In its court documents, the government says a listing could close fishing for all species in a huge area, including parts of Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. But Mike Bader, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, says a blanket fishing ban is unnecessary.

BADER: We've already closed fishing for bull trout in these states without affecting any of the other fishing seasons. So I think they're just trying this wedge politics, divide and conquer fear tactics at this point.

GARNETT: The Fish and Wildlife Service says the bull trout are in trouble because of logging and dams, but it wants extra time to analyze new data before a final ruling. For Living on Earth, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.

KAUFMAN: Girls in the US appear to be reaching puberty earlier than they did in the past. A study appearing in the April issue of Pediatrics reports that by age 8, 48% of African American girls and almost 15% of whites have begun developing breasts or growing pubic hair. The University of North Carolina researchers don't know the reason for the earlier onset of puberty. One possibility is improved nutrition. They also suspect hormone disrupting chemicals found in some plastics, insecticides, and hair products may be the cause.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is criticizing the DuPont Corporation for its plan to mine titanium near South Georgia's Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. From Peach State Public Radio, Susanna Capelouto reports.

CAPELOUTO: Babbitt toured the Okefenokee Swamp and urged the DuPont Corporation to withdraw its mining proposal.

BABBITT: It's a messy dredging and strip mining operation, which would take place right along the shores of Okefenokee. And I just don't think that that's a good match.

CAPELOUTO: But DuPont spokesperson John Symborski says Babbitt's reaction was premature.

SAMBORSKI: It was a surprise and a disappointment to us to see the Secretary come out with that strong of a position this early on. We would rather have sat down with him and discussed what his concerns were.

CAPELOUTO: Although Babbitt's agency has no jurisdiction over the proposed site, he's concerned the operation would lower water levels in the swamp and harm the area's wildlife. DuPont says it can mine near the Okefenokee with minimal impact, and says it plans to start mining in 2002. For Living on Earth, I'm Susanna Capelouto reporting.

KAUFMAN: State Green Parties are forging a federation in an effort to gain national party status. The party which nominated Ralph Nader as president last fall elected 3 national co-chairs at a recent conference in Portland, Oregon. Scott Schlegel reports.

SCHLEGEL: Federal election commissioners are refusing to give Greens national party status until they raise more money and develop a national party structure. Green Party leaders say their federation will be based on, quote, "a paradigm of their own invention," rejecting the centralized hierarchical structure favored by Democrats and Republicans. Patrick Mazza is one of the new Green federation co-chairs.

MAZZA: Like Tip O'Neill said, money is the mother's milk of politics, and you need some money to make politics work. We won't be taking corporate donations. We will be looking for small donations from people.

SCHLEGEL: Greens will also have to hold election primaries if they hope to gain national party status and receive Federal matching funds for Green candidates. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel in Portland.

KAUFMAN: Tired of ball gowns and bikinis? The latest Barbie doll under consideration by the Mattel Corporation is no bimbo. Ranger Barbie would sport a National Park Service uniform and come packaged with information on park ranger careers for women.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jill Kaufman.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Recently, we reported on a controversy at the former military base in San Francisco called the Presidio. The Presidio, which has just become a national park, eventually has to wean itself off government funding. And there are concerns that the scramble for dollars may compromise the park's mission. Now, there's more to the story. It concerns a cluster of abandoned military housing units at the Presidio. A plan to tear down the buildings has drawn protests from advocates for the city's large homeless population. And it sparked a battle between them and some Bay Area environmental activists. Living on Earth senior correspondent Peter Thomson has our report.

(Footfalls. A woman speaks, voice echoing, about preparing troops)

THOMSON: Bernie Galvin is excited. She's trespassing on Federal property, and she's about to enter one of San Francisco's rarest places: a vacant apartment.

GALVIN: Solid oak floors. Hardwood floors. Two big hall closets. Tiled bathroom.

THOMSON: Bernie Galvin isn't a realtor hoping for a big commission. She's Sister Bernie Galvin, a Catholic nun and an advocate for San Francisco's homeless. And this flat isn't even on the market. Sister Bernie is here to draw attention to its planned fate.

GALVIN: When you think about families living under freeways right now, isn't it incredible that they want to tear this down?

THOMSON: In a city with one of the tightest housing markets in the country and more than 10,000 homeless people, Sister Bernie is appalled that this apartment and the 465 other units in this modest subdivision are destined for demolition. In fact, several buildings have already been torn down, sparking protests in which the diminutive nun in jeans and an open collar shirt has been arrested 4 times. Sister Bernie wants the apartments to be used as housing for homeless and low income families. The problem is that the houses are in the Presidio, a former Army base at the northwest corner of San Francisco that's now a national park. It's prime real estate high on a hillside with a spectacular view of the Pacific.

(A window opens; fade to wind)

THOMSON: Opening a west-facing window, the scent and sound of the ocean rush in.

GALVIN: That's part of the reason that they don't want homeless people here. It's considered to be too good for poor people.

(Wind and waves sound)

THOMSON: The US Park Service took over the Presidio 2 years ago with the plan to restore this area, along with hundreds of other acres of forests, hills, and beaches here, to its natural state.

O'NEILL: This is one of the most significant areas of the Presidio in terms of historically the native plant communities that were there, and the proposal and the plan proposes to restore this 75-acre area.

THOMSON: Brian O'Neill is the superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. He recites a litany of other reasons why the 40-year-old houses should be demolished. They have no historic or aesthetic value, he says, and they weren't built to last.

O'NEILL: In doing our analysis of that housing, the life cycle cost of that housing did not make it economically feasible for its reuse.

THOMSON: After years of discussions, a plan to remove the housing and restore the natural habitat has gained broad support in the Bay Area, especially among environmentalists.

(Clanging bells)

THOMSON: Michael Alexander lives and works above the cable cars on San Francisco's fashionable Nob Hill, in a spacious apartment with a panoramic view of the Bay. He doesn't need to worry about housing, although he realizes that others do.

ALEXANDER: In the San Francisco Bay area, it is always a very difficult issue to talk about removing any housing whatsoever.

THOMSON: But Mr. Alexander, who chairs the Sierra Club's Task Force on the Presidio, says the park is the wrong place for low-income housing. The Presidio is a time capsule of the region's natural and social history. It embraces the entire southern rim of the dramatic Golden Gate, with its rugged hillsides plunging hundreds of feet into the Pacific. And it boasts historical treasures from the time of Spanish control, through the Civil War and the 2 World Wars. Mr. Alexander says Presidio supporters worked hard to convince Congress that it's valuable to the nation and the world, not just to San Francisco.

ALEXANDER: We weaken that argument if we just turn it into an easy solution for the city of San Francisco's social or other problems. We need to -- I think we need to be thinking bigger than that. The Presidio is a world-class place. We ought to be using it for world-class purposes.

THOMSON: But for people like Arlee Peters, the highest purpose which a small corner of the Presidio could serve is shelter for the poor.

PETERS: A place for people who don't have any money, a place for them to live. It means -- means their sanity, it means their health, it means their life.

(Ambient street noises)

THOMSON: Arlee Peters is a veteran who's been on and off San Francisco's street for 6 years. He lives here in the Tenderloin District, where each day hundreds of the city's homeless eat in soup kitchens and sleep in doorways. He recently joined the campaign to save the Presidio apartments.

PETERS: We're going to tear down the houses that's already built, that's already been paid by the taxpayers over the years, already been used by the people. Let's see if that makes logic. Let's see if that makes decent sense.

THOMSON: Homeless activists say they see a cruel irony developing. Under an edict from Congress, the Presidio will have to pay all of its own expenses within 15 years. To do that the park will rent out many of its other former military buildings to businesses and nonprofit groups and their employees. That means that middle class and wealthy people will be allowed to live in the Presidio, but poor people may not. Supporters of the plan to remove the houses say their motives aren't selfish. They say it's just an especially difficult case of conflicting needs for the same piece of land. But some environmentalists don't see a conflict. Carl Anthony has been an advocate for economic and environmental justice in San Francisco as head of the Earth Island Institute, and he's long been involved in Presidio planning.

ANTHONY: The notion of tearing down $80 million worth of buildings in order to restore it to its original grasslands while we have 100 people dying from hypothermia in San Francisco, while we're also asking to protect our ancient forests from being torn down, is conceptually, in my view, contradictory to the basic premise of the environmental movement, which is to recycle what you have, and to use it wisely.

THOMSON: Mr. Anthony supports a solution which he says could meet some of the needs of both sides. Let the city or an independent agency lease the complex, with a promise to tear it down and restore the habitat some time in the future. In the meantime, low-income families could rent the apartments, and the Presidio would get badly-needed income now to pay for restoration elsewhere in the park. Michael Alexander of the Sierra Club suggests another solution.

ALEXANDER: Does the housing need to be where it is now?

THOMSON: So you're suggesting that it's possible that this housing could end up someplace else.

ALEXANDER: Well, it's possible. I think, you know, it would certainly be worth taking a look at.

THOMSON: The Park Service says moving the buildings to another spot may be a feasible alternative. And the idea of leaving the houses in place and leasing them from the park has been getting serious attention as well. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown recently endorsed the leasing plan and promised to push hard for it.

(Footfalls, voices)

GALVIN: You sewe this? They've got this in every house, ha, -- not even a nail, I can't pull it out; it's a screw.

THOMSON: So they've screwed them shut where the locks have been broken.

GALVIN: Yeah. Yeah.

THOMSON: After more than a year of demonstrations, the battle over the Presidio housing appears to be moving into a period of negotiation. But the issue probably won't be settled soon. So for now, the site will sit vacant, occupied neither by needy people nor by native plants and animals. Park managers aren't likely to tear the houses down in the absence of a new agreement, but if they do, Sister Bernie Galvin says homeless activists will be ready.

GALVIN: When there's a bulldozer that shows up, there are going to be plenty of us right in front of that bulldozer.

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in San Francisco.

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CURWOOD: The tools of ace animal detectives. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

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Fuzzy Forensics!

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Murder, rape and robbery have been on the decline recently, but officials report that one category of violent crime hasn't gone down, crimes against wildlife. Illegal hunting is a major problem in the United States. So is the black market trade in exotic pets and the importation of products made from endangered species. The problem is so severe, officials have turned to the high-tech tools of human crime fighting to catch poachers and smugglers. They've built a forensic laboratory that's so sophisticated, it's been dubbed the Scotland Yard of wildlife law enforcement. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick spent a day at the lab in Ashland, Oregon.

(Creaking, fans. Voice: "This is lab item one dash zero one. Our species is Inca dove, age adult. Weight is 48 grams...")

FITZ PATRICK: Veterinarian Rhoda Ralston is preparing for a grim experience in the battle against wildlife crime. Before her on a stainless steel table are the bodies of 5 small doves that died mysteriously. Dr. Ralston must determine what killed them.

(Small motorized sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: The process begins with X-rays and photographs. Then, with surgical scissors and a scalpel, Dr. Ralston cuts through the delicate feathers of one bird to examine its internal organs.

Does this work get to you?

RALSTON: In a way it does, as far as you're seeing the dead animals. I guess I was just naive and was ignorant to what goes on out there.

(Instruments clatter)

FITZ PATRICK: This autopsy uncovers the cause of death when Dr. Ralston slits open the dove's throat. It's packed with tiny green pellets that the bird has eaten.

RALSTON: Preliminary diagnosis is suspected poisoning, strychnine.

FITZ PATRICK: Before the US Fish and Wildlife Service opened this lab 8 years ago, field agents lacked the scientific expertise to solve a crime like this. To make an arrest, agents had to catch a criminal in the act. Now, they can build a case by collecting physical evidence that links a suspect to the scene of the crime. State and Federal agents from around the country send the evidence here for analysis. The cases cover everything from mischievous teenagers who've killed a hawk to an angry rancher that stalked and shot a wolf. In incidents like these, investigators often find mangled feathers or a bloody clump of fur in the woods. Poachers are notorious for leaving clues behind, unaware that wildlife agents now employ the same tools that homicide detectives use to solve a murder.

(Metallic sounds, or broken glass)

The forensic lab has gotten so good it can crack a case with a drop of blood from a hunting knife. This kind of analysis isn't easy. Geneticists like Peter Dratch can spend days trying to prove that the victim was a protected animal.

DRATCH: We don't just deal with one species as they do in other crime labs, where they're basically dealing with human blood most of the time. Our job is to actually determine species.

(A buzzing sound)

FITZ PATRICK: To make that determination, the lab has collected 20,000 blood and tissue samples from around the world. They're kept in a freezer at 65 degrees below zero.

(Scooping sounds, buzzing in background)

FITZ PATRICK: These specimens allow Dr. Dratch to identify the protein and genetic signature of evidence sent to the lab. He can even tell if it comes from a male or a female.

DRATCH: And the reason why gender is important is because there are different laws for shooting males and females, bucks and does, or bulls and cows in the case of elk. And so very often law can be broken because somebody has shot an animal of the wrong sex.

FITZ PATRICK: Dr. Dratch can determine if meat found in a hunter's home comes from a protected species. And with DNA testing, he can match the blood from a hunter's clothing or boots to a carcass left behind in the woods. This laboratory is the only facility of its type in the world, dedicated exclusively to solving wildlife crime. The 28 staffers here are constantly developing new techniques and equipment for a discipline that didn't exist just a decade ago. Some scientists like Mary Jack Mann feel it's more rewarding to solve crimes against animals than crimes against people.

MANN: For 6 years I worked homicides and really nasty crimes that humans do to humans. And more often than not, these were relationship battles of some kind or another. You took my woman. You took my money. But the animals out there are truly victims. They are truly blameless. They're not asking to have a violent act perpetrated upon them.

FITZ PATRICK: Throughout the lab, you see evidence of humanity's mistreatment of wildlife.

(A latch clicks)

FITZ PATRICK: Chief Scientist Ed Espinoza brings visitors to a warehouse packed to the ceiling with thousands of items.

ESPINOZA: One doesn't realize how many items are used from wildlife for decor or for personal use until you see this kind of stuff.

(Knocking sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: There's a stool made from the foot of an elephant. Shoes made from python or cobra skin. Asian medicines made with tiger bone, rhino horn, and the gall bladders of bears.

(A stringed instrument plays)

FITZ PATRICK: There are even musical instruments.

ESPINOZA: We have a guitar made from the shell of a sea turtle.

(Knocks on shell, strums)

FITZ PATRICK: These items were seized by customs inspectors under a treaty that bans importation of anything made from an endangered species. Scientists like Dr. Espinoza verify the object is illegal so the customs service can bring a suspect to trial.

(Clanking sounds)

FITZ PATRICK: Back in the autopsy room, work continues on those 5 poisoned doves.

RALSTON: The heart is normal. The liver is pale and friable.

FITZ PATRICK: Field agents in the state where these birds were found will determine if the poisoning was intentional or an accident. But without a proper autopsy here, they'd never have the option to prosecute.

(A camera takes photographs)

FITZ PATRICK: The work is tedious and it's easy to see how this single lab has been overwhelmed by the endless flood of bears and eagles and other dead animals shipped here for analysis. Their bodies are piling up in freezers. There is a 4-month backlog of cases. It's also easy to see why the people here, many of whom built their careers working with live animals, consider this work to be so important.

RALSTON: Even though I'm working with dead animals, it's a much more fulfilling thing as far as knowing that I'm doing something for critters that are really unable to protect themselves.

FITZ PATRICK: Dr. Rhoda Ralston of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

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Minks in the Chicken Coop

CURWOOD: The discovery of dead animals put Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery in hot pursuit of an unidentified culprit. It all began early one Friday morning, when Sy and her husband went to feed and water their 8 chickens and found only 2 of them alive.

MONTGOMERY: They perched as if shellshocked over a scene of struggle and panic. Black and white bodies lay in piles of feathers, throats slashed. The feeder and water had been knocked over. From the position of the bodies, we could see one chicken had desperately tried to hide beneath a nest box. Another had tried to shield her neck by wedging it into a corner. In the past we'd lost members of the flock to foxes, skunks, dogs -- but we had never seen carnage like this.

A thin trail of blood led from a busted open little hatch door and over the snow. The culprit's tracks had been erased by the feathers of the victim as the body dragged behind. But even without tracks, we knew it must have been some weasel. A fisher, perhaps. We had known and loved these chickens since they'd been a day old, still shaped like eggs. The first few weeks of their lives they lived in my office. They were smart. They were free-ranging and they knew about predators. After a fox had carried off one of the flock last summer, 2 of the chickens insisted on roosting in trees all summer and deep into the fall.

That winter, afraid their combs would freeze, my husband and I finally convinced them it was safe to sleep in their coop. But we were wrong. They were right. The weasel, or whatever it was, was probably still around. So even though we would otherwise have let them spend the day free, we closed up the broken door real tight, thinking the survivors would be safer there. Again, we were wrong. The predator came back, not through the broken door but tunneled through the dirt. It killed the survivors before sundown.

We were too demoralized to even move the bodies that night. The next morning, early, we woke to a fresh snow. I went out to the chicken coop. And there in the gathering flakes were prints so fresh and perfect Scotland Yard would have loved them. Each of the 5 toes showed in perfect detail including the imprint of the nails. In the snow we could see the creature's grace and its joy. It had bounded playfully in the new snow from the barn yard into the woods. It had tunneled under fallen logs, skirted tree trunks, cleared a low stone wall. Finally, it came to the brook, slipped beneath the break in the ice, and swam away. It was a mink.

Later that day I retrieved the bodies of the last 2 chickens who I had loved. I couldn't begrudge the mink its appetites. I lay the bodies at the edge of the water, where the mink's tracks had disappeared: an offering on the altar of nature's mystery, where beauty and cruelty twine tight.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery comes to us courtesy of New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord.

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

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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 Presidential edict on environmental justice gets put to the test in New Jersey. That story is ahead on Living on Earth

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(Theme music up and under)

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: April 16th marks the 50th anniversary of one of the worst and most bizarre disasters in US history. It points out one of the risks of handling agricultural chemicals. In the oil port of Texas City, Texas, the freighter Grandcamp had just finished taking on 1,400 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer bound for France when deck hands noticed smoke coming from the hold. While spectators gathered along the pier, tug boats tried to pull the massive ship and its highly volatile cargo out to sea. It was too late. A few minutes past 9 in the morning, the freighter exploded. The ship's crew, the plant workers, and most of the onlookers were killed instantly. The blast set off a chain reaction of explosions and fires engulfing the area, which included a huge chemical plant and other ships loaded with flammables. At least 576 people died, and more than 3,000 were injured. Damages ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. What caused the blast? One theory is that the ship's crew, unfamiliar with the dangers of the fertilizer ammonium nitrate, had been smoking on deck. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Victory at Ironbound

CURWOOD: For nearly 20 years residents of Ironbound, a largely immigrant section of Newark, New Jersey, have battled the toxic threats of incinerators, landfills, and Superfund sites. Today they're celebrating, after state officials decided to hold up plans to locate a sewage treatment plant in their community. The state decision is based in part on meeting the requirements set out in President Clinton's executive order on environmental justice. From member station WBGO, Kim Childs explains.

(A train horn blares; bells ring)

CHILDS: Newark's Ironbound community is named for the railroad tracks that separate it from the rest of the city, and for decades the Ironbound has been on the wrong side of the tracks for environmental health. Today, Tiwana Steward Griffin is standing outside a garbage transfer station in the community, surveying the old tires, abandoned vehicles, and cardboard shelters that dot the landscape.

(A dog barks)

STEWARD GRIFFIN: Really, this is almost a dumping ground, you know. You have homeless people living here.

CHILDS: But when Steward Griffin turns around, she points to a school and a tidy row of houses just a few blocks away. She says that's why she opposes a plan to site a sludge treatment plant in the neighborhood.

STEWARD GRIFFIN: The emissions and also the smells that would just come from such a facility, you know, being, infringe upon the human rights of these home owners suggests, you know, have a good quality of life.

CHILDS: Steward Griffin heads the Ironbound Committee Against Toxic Waste, a group locked in battle with Wheelabrator Technologies. Wheelabrator is under contract with the local sewage commission to treat tons of sludge for reuse as landfill. Sludge is the substance that remains when liquid is removed from raw sewage. Two years ago, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection gave Wheelabrator the initial go-ahead for the Ironbound plant. Now, the state has denied the final permit, citing objections from community groups, Newark officials, and the US Environmental Protection Agency. Dennis Hart directs the state's Division of Water Quality.

HART: The grounds for the objection so far have been that based on the number of environmental problem sites in that community, adding another one is not something that should be allowed under the President's executive order.

CHILDS: In 1994, President Clinton ordered Federal agencies to consider the issue of environmental justice when making decisions about poor or minority communities with a disproportionate share of environmental hazards. The US EPA says the Ironbound qualifies because it's home to a large minority population, and it already has one sewage treatment plant, a county garbage incinerator, scores of contaminated properties, and a Superfund site loaded with dioxin. State agencies are not ruled by the President's order, but Dennis Hart says the EPA's concerns are enough to halt the project while New Jersey formulates its response.

HART: By saying that I'm not laying out any particular conditions because this is something really new to us in New Jersey, how to deal with environmental justice. There are no regulations on it, there aren't any hard and fast tests to apply. I don't know of any other cases that I could look at and say yeah, this fits into it, some other cases. So we're sort of in uncharted territory with this.

CHILDS: New Jersey is the first state to formally deny a siting permit based on the President's environmental justice order. And Rachel Godsil says she hopes it sets a precedent. Godsil coordinates the environmental justice program at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York. She says the issue is being raised across the nation to protect low income and minority residents from toxic hazards.

GODSIL: What I hope will happen is that companies will now look for places to site facilities, not for political expediency but for using environmental criteria. They'll look for places where they'll have the least effect on human health, and they won't make the calculus with the notion that some communities will protest and some communities won't.

CHILDS: Wheelabrator officials say they're confused and frustrated by the state's reversal. Pam Racey is a vice president in the company's Bio-Grow division. She says Wheelabrator has made a concerted effort to meet environmental standards and address community concerns about the Ironbound plant.

RACEY: We've gotten all of our permits. We have an air permit. We have an operating permit. This is the final construction permit. And, you know, it's taken us 3 years to get these permits. Now all of a sudden they say oh, you know, just start over somewhere else.

CHILDS: Wheelabrator is appealing the state's ruling and meeting with environmental officials to try and understand their objections. Ironbound activists are also meeting with state officials to try and parlay the recent decision into a formal environmental justice policy for New Jersey. Joseph Nardone is a lifelong resident of the Ironbound.

NARDONE: A lot of people will think twice about coming in here because of the activism of the community, that they know that they just can't come in and set up facilities. That they will be challenged. This victory over the sludge facility is really a major one that even government went along with us. So it gives us incentive that we do have an effect beyond our community.

CHILDS: A final decision on the Ironbound sludge treatment plant is expected by the end of the year. For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Childs in Newark.

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CURWOOD: We're always interested in what you have to say about our program. Call our listener line any time at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or write us 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our Web page at www.loe.org.

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CURWOOD: Rachel Carson remembered just ahead on Living on Earth.

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

Always, Rachael

CARSON: We spray our elms, and the following springs are silent of robin song. Not because we sprayed the robins directly, but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf-earthworm-robin cycle.

CURWOOD: The voice of Rachel Carson, who died of breast cancer on April 14th, 1964. Ms. Carson's death came shortly after she published perhaps the most famous ecological book of modern times, Silent Spring. Silent Spring sounded the alarm about the dangers of the widespread use of pesticides and changed the way we think about our relationship to nature. It's also credited with helping to spawn the modern environmental movement.

Trained as a zoologist, for many years Rachel Carson worked for the US Fish and Wildlife service before she achieved fame and relative fortune with the publication of her 1951 bestseller, The Sea Around Us. She had always wanted to live at the shore and write about nature, so she took some of her royalties and built a summer home on Southport Island on the Maine coast.

Dorothy Freeman, a teacher who summered a few houses away, made a concerted effort to meet her celebrity neighbor. Quickly the two women found they were kindred spirits in their love of the Maine seashore, and they developed the most intimate of friendships. And as Rachel Carson conceived and wrote Silent Spring, Dorothy Freeman became her most important source of support. Rachel Carson's earlier literary success ensured that Silent Spring would have a broad audience; indeed, the book debuted in The New Yorker, and was quickly the subject of comments from President Kennedy and CBS News.

Rachel Carson was a private person, and little was known of her personal experiences and beliefs beyond her public writings. But during the 12 years she and Dorothy Freeman knew and cherished each other, they exchanged about a thousand letters. When Dorothy Freeman died in 1978, she left several hundred of these letters to her granddaughter Martha, who published them in a collection called Always , Rachel. On this 33rd anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson, we take an opportunity to rebroadcast an interview we did with Martha Freeman in 1995. As Martha Freeman told us, her grandmother and Ms. Carson shared a passion for birds, cats, classical music and the ocean, with each other and with her.

FREEMAN: I remember them as my guides to that beautiful place, to tide pooling on Rachel's beach, to walking in the woods with the both of them, to having them just want me to experience the beauty of the sun through the trees, the salt in the air, the moss under feet, the little starfish and periwinkles in tide pools.

CURWOOD: These letters go through so many aspects of Rachel Carson's life and your grandmother's life. And there's a section that they talk about the creation of Silent Spring itself. I'm wondering if you could take us back to February 1, 1958, when Rachel first tells your grandmother Dorothy about her idea for the book.

FREEMAN: Sure. Rachel writes, "About the book. It was comforting to suppose that the stream of life would flow on through time in whatever course that God had appointed for it. Without interference by one of the drops of the stream, man, and to suppose that, however the physical environment might mold life, that life would never assume the power to change drastically or even destroy the physical world. These beliefs have almost been part of me for as long as I have thought about such things. To have them even vaguely threatened was so shocking that as I have said, I shut my mind, refused to acknowledge what I couldn't help seeing. But that does no good, and I have now opened my eyes and my mind. I may not like what I see, but it does no good to ignore it. And it's worse than useless to go on repeating the old eternal verities that are no more eternal than the hells of the poets. So it seems time someone wrote of life in the light of the truth as it now appears to us, and I think that may be the book I am to write. Oh, a brief one, darling, suggesting the new ideas, not treating them exhaustively. Probably no one could; certainly I couldn't."

CURWOOD: From these letters, Martha, what is it about Rachel Carson, what was it about her character, her being, that allowed her to have this insight that no one else, up until her time, had?

FREEMAN: My feeling is that part of Rachel's genius was that her understanding derived from the point at which intellect and intuition, thinking and feeling intersect in a person. That she brought a wealth of scientific knowledge to bear on the problem, but also her deep feelings for nature, her real understanding of the lives of the sea creatures on her beach, of birds and fish, and her love for nature, and her love for people as part of nature, too.

CURWOOD: Now your grandparents were at first quite worried about this project of Rachel's. It was called the poison project.

FREEMAN: The poison book.

CURWOOD: The poison book. Can you tell us about their thoughts?

FREEMAN: Well, my grandfather worked for a large agricultural feed company; he was an executive. And so he was, they were concerned for her personally, that the message she was going to deliver would not be taken kindly by some pretty powerful interests in this country. And they wanted the message out but they were concerned that their friend Rachel was going to be the one to take it on.

CURWOOD: There was this enormous backlash against the publication of Silent Spring. Indeed, as your grandfather worried and your grandmother worried, there was outcry from the chemical companies and other people as well. Did Rachel and your grandmother write much about this at all?

FREEMAN: They did write, yes, they did write some about it, and it's amazing. Rachel was just not daunted by the attacks. They did not seem to throw her off-center. She just replied to them. She kept getting her message out in speeches, in articles. She just was very certain of what she understood.

CURWOOD: All right; let's hear a bit from some of these speeches. Now here's a talk that she gave to the National Women's Press Club in 1962.

CARSON: Now, I don't want to belabor the obvious, because anyone who has really read the book knows that I do favor insect control in appropriate situations. That I do not advocate the complete abandonment of chemical control. That I criticize modern chemical control not because it controls harmful insects but because it controls them badly and inefficiently. And because it creates many dangerous side effects in doing so.
I criticize the present methods because they are based on a rather low level of scientific thinking. We really are capable of much greater sophistication in our solution to this problem.

CURWOOD: The years in which she was writing Silent Spring, 1958 to 1962, were trying for both Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman. Ms. Freeman's mother was dying and her husband's health was beginning to fail. Martha Freeman says illness and death were also ever-present for Ms. Carson.

FREEMAN: For Rachel, Rachel's elderly mother also lived with her and her health began declining in that period. Rachel's niece died, a woman that Rachel had supported throughout her life, and Rachel adopted the niece's 5-year-old son. So Rachel was taking care of a youngster and an elderly mother in ill health at the time when she was trying to write Silent Spring, and also discovering that she herself had cancer.

CURWOOD: The book is finally done, she sends off what will be printed in The New Yorker. And she gets a letter back from The New Yorker magazine editor, William Shawn. And the letter that she writes to your grandmother about the acceptance from Shawn and what it all meant to go through this is very powerful. I'm wondering if you could read that for us now.

FREEMAN: Yeah, I'd be happy to. There are 2 names mentioned in here that I should clarify for people. One is Roger, her grand-nephew who is now her adopted son; and Jeffy, her cat. So Rachel writes to my grandmother, "I longed so for you last night to share my thoughts and feelings. It was odd. I really had not been waiting breathlessly for Mr. Shawn's reaction. Yet once I had it, I knew how very much it meant to me. You know I have the highest regard for his judgment, and suddenly I knew from his reaction that my message would get across. After Roger was asleep, I took Jeffy into the study and played the Beethoven Violin Concerto, one of my favorites, you know. And suddenly, the tensions of 4 years were broken and I got down and put my arms around Jeffy and let the tears come. With his little warm, rough tongue, he told me that he understood. I think I let you see last summer what my deeper feelings are about this. When I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song, if I had not done all I could. And last night, the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures, and all the loveliness that is in nature, came to me with such a surge of deep happiness that now I had done what I could. I had been able to complete it. Now it had its own life. And those are the thoughts I would have shared had you been here. I wish you were."

CURWOOD: Ultimately, Congress, President Kennedy acknowledged Carson's ideas and they had great staying power over these last 30 years. And by the Spring of '63 it was pretty clear, at least to your grandmother, and she wrote to Rachel to tell her so. I'm wondering if you could read from this letter of May 15th. And bearing in mind now that Rachel's pretty ill by this time, that her health is going down pretty fast.

FREEMAN: My grandmother wrote to Rachel, "A thought struck me last night, that suddenly the dear old Sea Around Us had been displaced. I never dreamed that could ever happen. That now I think your fame will rest on Silent Spring. When people talk about you, they'll say: Oh yes, the author of Silent Spring. For I suppose there are people who never heard of The Sea Around Us, strange as that may seem to us. But surely I doubt if there is a household in this country where your name is unknown. How could it be from Peanuts to CBS Reports not to mention all the lawns which have become a major concern now, what to do for crabgrass because Rachel Carson says. Oh darling, the wood thrushes and orioles have been sounding your praises while I've been writing. This spring is far from silent, and because of you there is a chance now that future springs need not be. Bless your heart. I don't suppose you can put into words how you feel about all this. So I shall just try to feel with you."

CURWOOD: Eleven months after Dorothy Freeman wrote that letter, her good friend Rachel Carson died of breast cancer. Ms. Carson had told almost no one of her own illness, but she had spoken loudly about the poisoning of the planet, and the world had listened. In 12 years of friendship, Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman had exchanged over a thousand letters. Many of these are collected in the volume Always, Rachel, edited by Dorothy Freeman's granddaughter, Martha Freeman.

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Migration of Cranes

CURWOOD: Some of the oldest rites of spring include the mating dances and migrations of cranes. One of the most traveled routes for the endangered whooping crane and its more populous cousin, the sandhill crane, is up the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Montana. A favorite rest stop along the way is Southern California's San Luis Valley, where the cranes feed and court before continuing their journey. Becky Rumsey took in this site at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and sent us this report.

(Crane calls)

SCHNADERBECK: And just watch some of these from up real high. They'll be a half a mile away; they'll just lock their wings and they won't flap a beat. Isn't that neat? I can just sit and watch those birds land like that all day long.

(Crane calls continue)

RUMSEY: As assistant manager of the 14,000-acre Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Rick Schnaderbeck doesn't usually have time to sit and watch sandhill cranes. But when he does, he's clearly thrilled by these stately birds that stand 4 feet tall and have a wing span of 2 yards. Sandhill cranes are gray. They have red crowns and long bills, and they've come to the San Luis Valley to eat.

SCHNADERBECK: They're actually going through like, oh, what good marathon runners do. They carbohydrate-load before a big event. That's what those birds are doing here now.

(Air thick with crane calls)

RUMSEY: Decades ago, hungry cranes were a problem for farmers in the San Luis Valley. So in 1953, the Federal Government created the Monte Vista Refuge to help alleviate crop losses. Today the situation's almost reversed. The refuge produces about 40% of the barley and wheat the cranes depend on, and it actively works with surrounding land owners who make up the difference. Many of them try to leave as much waste grain in their fields as possible for the birds.

SCHADERBECK: The whole San Luis Valley kind of functions as one ecosystem. And both -- that's why these refuges just seem to fit so well into this agricultural community.

RUMSEY: Agricultural development once dried up a lot of the valley's natural springs and wetlands. So the Refuge recreates water fowl habitat by pumping ground water and running it through an elaborate system of dikes, ditches, and shallow ponds. Biologists say it's efforts like these that have enabled this population of greater sandhills to rebound from 500 birds earlier in the century to about 20,000 today. Because of its wetlands and plentiful food supplies, the cranes stay in the San Luis Valley longer and are more concentrated here than anywhere else on the migration route.

(Running water; fade to bus engine and woman: "Hi, I'm Margie. I am your driver today. We're going to be flying low enough for you to see the birds, the bees, and other assorted things. Maybe we'll run into an elk or two.")

RUMSEY: Marge Simmering's been driving bus tours for the Monte Vista Crane Festival since it began 14 years ago. It's a volunteer-run event that draws thousands of bird lovers to this small Colorado town. The people on this bus have come to watch sandhill cranes leap and dance in ritual courtship. They've also come for a glimpse of another kind of crane. Three whooping cranes are part of this sandhill flock. It's easy to pick them out. They're a brilliant white, with full red and black face masks. And when they show their wing tips, you can see 9 strikingly black primary feathers.

(Man: "The second one is further north about a hundred yards from this one." Second man, "Oh, yeah.")

RUMSEY: These whooping cranes are the only survivors of an experiment. In 1975, as part of a recovery plan for the endangered whoopers, Federal biologists began placing whooping crane eggs with wild sandhill parents. They hoped the sandhills would raise the whoopers as their own and teach them to migrate, which they did. The problem was that when it came time to make, the whoopers were more attracted to the sandhills than to each other. In 1988 the program was discontinued, but other recovery efforts have been able to bring the whooping crane population back from just 16 birds in the 1940s to more than 300 today. The whooping crane is still endangered, but it's become a national symbol of conservation.

(Ambient voices, camera shutters clicking)

RUMSEY: This year, many Monte Vista visitors will take home photographs of sandhill and whooping cranes, and as it turns out, people have been making pictures of cranes in the San Luis Valley for thousands of years.

(Footfalls, voices)

RUMSEY: On a windy spring day, I join a small group of hikers. We follow US Forest Service archaeologist Ken Frye up a canyon ridge to see an unusual rock art site.

FRYE: The site was discovered in about 1985 by a range technician from the forest who was looking for lost sheep. And he stumbled onto the site.

RUMSEY: The petroglyph we've come to see is on the upper surface of a well-hidden alcove.

FRYE: We think the site is a couple thousand years old by the style of this particular petroglyph.

RUMSEY: It's a large bird in flight. The long arc of its neck incorporates a fine ridge line in the rock. It meets the outstretched wing in a vee. From the tip of the wing, 9 vertical lines fall: a clue that the artist was depicting a whooping crane with its distinctive black primary feathers.

(Crane calls)

RUMSEY: Throughout the world, there's a long history of people honoring cranes in art, dance, or story. Part of our fascination could be that cranes are relics of the Earth's previous incarnations. They're one of the most ancient bird families on the planet, dating back 40 to 60 million years.

(Crane calls continue)

SCHNADERBECK: It's such a primitive call. It's like you want to look over your shoulder and see if there's a dinosaur behind you.

(Crane calls continue)

RUMSEY: Back at the Monte Vista Refuge, Rick Schnaderbeck describes how every spring pairs of sandhills reaffirm their lifelong bond.

SCHNADERBECK: There's probably going to be some dancing straight out. Now, there's 2 of them looking at each other, facing each other. Now they're starting to bounce. If it really gets intense they'll pick up some sticks and throw them in the air and then they'll jump, they'll jump probably 4, 5 feet off the ground.

RUMSEY: The cranes face each other, necks arched, wings agape, and leap. They pirouette, toes pointed down, as if this were some kind of bird ballet. As if the time had come to leave the San Luis Valley and fly on, to Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, to build nests and rear their young. For Living on Earth, I'm Becky Rumsey in Monte Vista, Colorado.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Dan Donovan at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Julia Madeson, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, and Peter Shaw. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. We also had help from Colin Studds, Jesse Wegman, and KPLU in Seattle. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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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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