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

July 11, 1997

Air Date: July 11, 1997



In this traditionally dry late summer season, federal land managers out west are hoping to prevent the huge wildfires that plagued much of the region this past decade. One of their strategies is to set more "controlled burns" than ever before which is a big change from past practice, when logging was used to rid forest of potential tinder. Jyl Hoyt, from member station KBSU in Boise, Idaho accompanied one forest service crew on a recent prescribed burn and prepared this report. (08:30)

MICHIGAN TAKINGS / Keith Schneider

Conflict persists between the White House and a group of young Republican governors over clean air and water, and the next presidential election in 2000. According to commentator Keith Schneider, the White House's new aggressiveness may be a turning point in the pitched struggle over environmental policy. Schneider is an environmental writer and executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia. (02:35)

LONE ABALONE / Rosie Weiser

For most of this century, California's abalone fishery was a multi-million dollar enterprise. Coveted for their rich meat and colorful shells, these mollusks once lined the ocean floor like cobblestones. But their numbers have dwindled and several species reached the brink of extinction, until there was only one major commercial abalone fishery left in the state. This spring, state officials took a controversial step and closed this fishery down. From San Francisco, reporter Rosie Weiser explains. (08:05)

The Living On Earth Almanac

Facts about... It was 25 years ago this summer, that the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of the pesticide D-D-T. (01:15)

BEACHES VS. REEFS / Alexis Muellner

In south Florida, sand is why the tourists come. For years, hotel owners along Miami Beach appealed for federal help in keeping the beaches from eroding . A six million dollar beach nourishment plan is now underway in south Florida after 2 years of legal wrangling. But now, how not to repeat damage to the fragile coral reefs that lie next to the source of new sand. Five of the 17 projects that rebuilt beaches in south Florida since the 70's damaged or destroyed coral reefs. New monitoring efforts appear to be paying off, but that isn't making the projects any less controversial. Alexis Muellner reports from Miami. (06:25)


In Yellowstone National Park, bison are grazing anew as they migrate to their summer ranges in the park's interior. One of the worst winters on record took a heavy toll on Yellowstone's wildlife in which more than half of the bison population, around 2000 all tolled, was lost. But, nature wasn't the main reaper. Nearly 1,100 bison were shot by park rangers as they wandered near or beyond Yellowstone's boundaries in search of food. The official reason for the slaughter was to control a disease some bison may carry. But as Jane Fritz reports, it was only the latest chapter in one of the oldest stories in the west: how to enclose open range for private use; and control wildlife that once roamed free. (11:35)


In Manhattan there's a nightclub called "Wetlands Preserve" that has an eight-year history of green activism. The club was recently sold by its founder, but he had one stipulation requiring the club's new owner to continue channeling profits to the environmental movement. (06:25)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: John Rudolph
NEWSCASTER: Margo Melnicove
REPORTERS: James Jones, Michael Lawton, Stephanie O'Neill, Jyl Hoyt, Rosie Weiser, Alexis Muellner, Jane Fritz, John Kalish
COMMENTATOR: Keith Schneider

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

RUDOLPH: I'm John Rudolph.

Can destroying some trees save the forest? The controversial practice of controlled burns is put to the test in western woods to prevent another spate of wildfires.

McCARTHY: Fire is really the tool to restructure the forest to a way that was pretty close to the way it was when we first settled the west. And a way that really can work on its own without always having to have the heavy hand of man.

RUDOLPH: Also, the overfishing of abalone in California leads to a ban on harvesting the succulent seafood.

SEXTON: There's nothing in the wild in the quantity, the numbers that there used to be. The only thing that there's more of is people. And they all like abalone, it seems.

RUDOLPH: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. First, this news.

Environmental News

MELNICOVE: From Living on Earth, I'm Margo Melnicove. The House of Representatives has dealt a major blow to the Clinton Administration's efforts to protect 2 natural treasures. The White House has pledged to purchase the land from developers, but as James Jones reports, a spending bill passed by the House does not include funds needed to close the deals.

JONES: The failure of the House to include funds requested by President Clinton jeopardizes hard-fought land deals negotiated last year to protect ancient California redwoods and stop a gold mine near Yellowstone National Park. The White House claims Republicans backed out on promises made during budget negotiations to spend $700 million for special land purchases. But Republican representative Ralph Regula, who chairs the appropriations panel responsible for buying land, says he has other priorities for the nation's public lands.

REGULA: And before we go out and buy $700 million worth of land, let's use some money to take care of what we have.

JONES: Environmentalists say they will press for the funds when the Senate considers the spending measure later this month. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones in Washington.

MELNICOVE: Florida officials can continue to use the medfly pesticide malathion through September, but the Environmental Protection Agency has imposed stricter guidelines on aerial spraying. Some lakes and ponds in the Tampa area were found to contain levels of malathion, more than 200 times the amount allowed by state water quality standards. Officials are applying the pesticide in hopes of squashing an epidemic of Mediterranean fruit flies. The new EPA restrictions prohibit spraying the chemical within 400 feet of waterways, but local environmental officials say despite the new policy, malathion is still falling within the designated buffer zone.

The French government has banned fishing and recreational activity around its nuclear reprocessing plant on the English Channel after an independent German laboratory confirmed Greenpeace accusations of high radioactivity in the area. Michael Lawton reports from Cologne.

LAWTON: The radiation laboratory of the city of Hamburg has discovered massively high radioactive levels in water taken by Greenpeace divers near La Agues' outlet pipe into the sea. They found tritium levels 25,000 times higher than World Health Organization recommendations. The operators, however, said there was no cause for alarm. Greenpeace figures, they've said, were exaggerated, and pollution levels they claimed were normal. But reaction from the French Environment Minister was prompt. She banned fishing and recreational activity near the plant until a government study is completed. Greenpeace's action has 2 aims. Firstly, it's a protest against allegedly risky work to remove radioactive sediment from the waste pipe. But more importantly, it's designed to put pressure on the German government not to send nuclear wastes to La Ague for reprocessing. A Greenpeace expert said that since Germany would not allow such pollution levels on its own coasts, it shouldn't be contributing to French pollution instead. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Lawton in Cologne.

MELNICOVE: An international group of insurance companies has formed an association to influence environmental policy, and to improve the environmental practices of their clients. Members of the association plan to rate the environmental performance of their clients to assess their insurance risk. They've also pledged to make their own offices more energy efficient. The association, established with help from the United Nations Environment Program, plans to lobby nations at the climate change convention in Kyoto this December.

A controversial plan to increase logging in the Sierra Nevada has won overwhelming approval from the House of Representatives. Stephanie O'Neill reports from California.

O'NEILL: The plan is intended to reduce the threat of wildfire in the Sierra Nevada by permitting more logging in a heavily-forested 5-county region in northern California. The proposal was crafted by a small coalition of citizens, including loggers, county officials, and local environmental activists, all of whom share a fear of catastrophic wildfires. The plan would allow more logging, including some clear-cutting. At the same time, the plan protects the largest, oldest trees, and would provide funding to repair damage from previous reckless logging. The proposal, however, has been billed a dangerous precedent by nearly every major environmental group in California. They say the plan doubles the amount of logging, even though its effect on wildfires is uncertain. House leaders, meanwhile, say the plan, which is expected to pass easily through the Senate, will likely become a model for US forest management throughout the West. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill.

MELNICOVE: New York City authorities have ripped the grass out of Tompkins Square Park. Eighteen marijuana plants, some as tall as 5 feet, were removed after the Daily News alerted the Parks Department about the cluster of illegal weed. The paper quotes one park regular, a self-described marijuana expert, who says the plants weren't ready for harvesting.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Margo Melnicove.

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RUDOLPH: This is Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph, sitting in for Steve Curwood. In the western US, late July and August is the traditional dry season, a time of year when huge tracts of land are especially susceptible to destructive wildfires. This year Federal land managers have decided to fight fire with fire, in an attempt to curb the blazes that have plagued the region this past decade. The increased use of controlled or prescribed burns is a big change from past practice, when logging was the main technique for ridding the woods of potential tinder. Jyl Hoyt from member station KBSU in Boise, Idaho, accompanied one Forest Service crew on a recent prescribed burn.

(Kettles rattling; voices)

HOYT: Dirty patches of snow still spot the mountainside here in the Boise National Forest in south central Idaho, as 8 forest service workers, dressed in canary colored fire retardant clothes pull gasoline tanks from a truck.

(Metal on metal; gasoline spilling)

HOYT: They fill hand torches with fuel as team leader Irene Saffra measures the humidity, then radios a nearby helicopter crew.

(Voice on radio) SAFFRA: I don't think it would hurt to let the humidity drop a little bit, Terry.

TERRY: Okay. We'll give you about 20 here on the ground, then we'll lift off and come your way.

(Fire crackling; voices)

HOYT: The crew heads up the hill with lit torches, setting fire to piles of brush. The Forest Service's Frank Carroll stands on the edge of this 300- acre burn, watching the slow-moving fire kill lots of little fir trees.

CARROLL: Which is what we want it to do. The fir trees were not here for 10,000 years, and now they are because of the exclusion of fire for so long. And so by putting fire back into the environment, we're now going back through and doing what Nature used to do as a matter of course, which is killing these little trees. We want to kill most of them, leaving the pine trees to grow and prosper.

(Fire crackling)

HOYT: Mr. Carroll says Western Ponderosa pine forests, those most valued by loggers, started to decline around the turn of the century, when the government forced local tribes, like the Shoshone and Bannock, onto reservations. That prevented them from starting fires as they'd done for centuries.

CARROLL: The Indians used fire for 70 different documented purposes. Fire was a common tool among all of the tribes.

HOYT: But fire was considered an enemy by the US government, which ultimately began putting out all forest and range fires. To protect livestock grazing, and to leave more trees for loggers. That worked for a while. But without small, regular fires to cleanse the forest, bugs attack trees. And infested forests became tinder boxes that ignited into huge blazes in national parks, forest, and range lands.

(Fire crackling)

HOYT: Last year, more than 6 million acres burned: a symptom, says Frank Carroll, of an overall health crisis on Federal lands.

CARROLL: Everybody has to face reality about that. Something is broken, and people broke it. It wasn't one agency. It wasn't one group of evil little people hiding in a dark room someplace. It was a whole culture deciding that they didn't want fire here any more, and so they kept fire out for 100 years through various methods.

HOYT: The move to bring back controlled burns is part of a radical change in priorities at the US Forest Service. It's been brewing for some time, but came to a head with the appointment this past winter of the new Forest Service chief, Mike Dombeck. Mr. Dombeck says on his watch, the Agency's top priority will switch from harvesting trees to maintaining the overall health of forest ecosystems. Controlled burns, he says, will be returned to the Forest Service tool kit, alongside logging and thinning.

DOMBECK: I think what's changing is the balance in those programs. The important thing is that we use all the tools, and a fire is one of those tools that we have in the tool kit to maintain forest health.

HOYT: Mr. Dombeck says that new approach should save taxpayers a lot of money, too.

DOMBECK: The cost of dealing with an escaped fire can be many, many times higher than dealing with a prescribed burn. For example, sometimes we can do a prescribed burn for somewhere from, say, $15 to $50 an acre.

HOYT: While the average cost of fighting a wildfire is $1,000 an acre, and as much as $4,000 an acre where there are homes nearby. The Forest Service plans to do controlled burns on 3 million acres of Federal land by the year 2003. That makes the timber industry nervous. Loggers worry some prescribed burns might go awry and burn up valuable timber. As he sits in the glass-walled high-rise headquarters in Boise, Boise Cascade executive Doug Bartel says that judicious cutting can be just as effective as prescribed burning in improving forest health.

BARTEL: And we're certainly not advocating that the Federal timber sale program should be returned to the level that it was 10 years ago. But it should be well beyond what it is today, so that forest planners can again use logging as a tool.

HOYT: Many loggers say they can improve the ecosystem by thinning and logging, without the risk of prescribed burns.

(Wind chimes)

HOYT: For example, smoke from a fire could exceed air quality standards.

(Wind chimes)

HOYT: Smoke from forest fires already bothers people in Idaho City, a small mountain town an hour's drive north of Boise.

THIBODEAU: Some years the smoke has been so bad it's really hard on people with asthma and bronchitis, and even people without it are choking.

HOYT: Joan Thibodeau takes a break from gardening to roll a cigarette.

THIBODEAU: Well, it's like there's enough natural fires without them going in and starting fires purposely that then escape and become widespread fires.

HOYT: The Forest Service says none of the fires in the Idaho district have gotten out of control. But they admit others have.


HOYT: Prescribed burning is not an exact science, says John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League, as he walks along the Boise River. But he and other environmentalists strongly endorse it as a way to restore healthy forests, which also protects plants, animals, and nearby communities like Idaho City.

McCARTHY: And fire is really the tool to restructure the forest to a way that was pretty close to the way it was when we first settled the West. And doing that, we get a forest that can withstand wildfires and can function in a way that really can work on its own without always having to have the heavy hand of man.

(Helicopter whirring)

HOYT: Up at the controlled burn site, a helicopter drops ping pong balls filled with flammable fertilizer that ignite after hitting the ground. But the fire is moving slowly along the snow-packed earth. Irene Saffra radios her colleague to suggest they try again on a drier day.

(Helicopter, crackling flames)

SAFFRA: They may be able to get a few jackpots. There's just a lot of green grass in here, so it's not carrying all that well.

(Crackling continues)

HOYT: Getting this fire to burn on damp ground will be much easier than turning around a century-old policy of suppressing fire on Federal lands.

(Voices over a radio; flames)

HOYT: It likely will take longer than the 4 years this administration has to make forests healthy again, and bringing fire back to the forests will challenge land managers into the next century. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise, Idaho.

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(Helicopter and voices; fade to music up and under)


RUDOLPH: Here's a recipe. Take the question of protecting clean air and water. Add the politics of the upcoming Presidential election in the year 2000. What do you get? A battle over the environment between the White House and a group of young Republican governors. Recently, the White House is showing new aggressiveness in this struggle. And that may be a turning point in the debate over environmental policy. That's the view from commentator Keith Schneider in the battleground state of Michigan.

SCHNEIDER: Believing that business can regulate itself, Michigan's governor John Engler has transformed state government. Regulatory staffs have been slashed. A new law allows factories to inspect themselves. Developers are now freer than ever to subdivide open land. Lately, though, the governor's authority has come under challenge from an unexpected quarter: the Clinton Administration. Earlier this year, the EPA told the governor it is so concerned about the state's unwillingness to enforce environmental laws that the Agency may bring them under Federal control.

This is no idle threat. In January the EPA took over Pennsylvania's clean water program after years of neglect by the state and its Republican Governor, Tom Ridge. The Administration also is battling with Governor George Allen in Virginia, and in Texas, Governor George Bush. The face-off over the environment resembles the contest of wills more than 30 years ago when Deep South states defied US civil rights laws and invited Federal intervention.

At the core of the dispute are competing visions of government. It is an article of faith within the Conservative wing of the Republican Party that government has no business in overseeing business. The Clinton Administration, in contrast, has come to take seriously the polls, and now more firmly believes environmental laws must be enforced. Given such deep ideological differences, it's not difficult to view the struggle between Washington and these governors as a prelude to the next Presidential election. Engler, Ridge, Allan, and Bush are all rising stars of their party.

Politically, the momentum now seems to lie with the White House. Vice President Al Gore framed the environmental message that helped President Clinton win 2 terms, and clearly will use the issue to advance his own run for the Presidency. In contrast, Republicans who try to dismember environmental protections in the last Congress were hurt at the polls. Now there is evidence that the public's revulsion is spreading to state leaders. In May, a survey in Michigan found that half of those polled viewed Mr. Engler's environmental record negatively, a sharp reversal from a year ago. Voters in Michigan are sending an unmistakable message. Governor Engler has misjudged their concern about the environment, and it may cost him a third term in office. If that occurs, the state's long and dismal period of neglect for natural resources will have come to an end.

Given Mr. Engler's standing in the national Republican party, the same may be true for the nation.

RUDOLPH: Commentator Keith Schneider is an environmental writer and executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia.

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RUDOLPH: On the west coast abalone is a popular item on gourmet seafood menus. So popular that a ban has been imposed to prevent fishing the creature out of existence. The story is next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


RUDOLPH: It's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph. For most of this century, California's abalone fishery was a multi-million dollar enterprise. The large mollusks, coveted for their rich meat and colorful shells, once lined the ocean floor like cobblestones. But gradually their numbers dwindled and several species of abalone reached the brink of extinction, until there was only one major commercial abalone fishery left in the state. This spring, state officials took a controversial step and closed the fishery down for at least 4 months. From San Francisco, reporter Rosy Weiser explains.

(Motor running)

WEISER: It's a warm, hazy spring day a few miles off the California coast south of San Francisco, and Don Stripfel is getting ready to brave the chilly Pacific in search of red abalone.

(Motor continues)

STRIPFEL: I have all my gear on, I (inaudible beneath motor) the abalone iron and my supply of fresh air.

(Gusts of air mingle with the motor)

WEISER: He steps off the Quicksilver, his old 24-foot boat, and plunges deep into the water to look for the silvery-pink sparkle of the abalone shells. He'll find them attached firmly to rocks like suction cups by a big fleshy muscle. Meanwhile, Bob Sexton keeps watch on deck. In the past the hunting partners found scores of the large sea snails among these reefs. But lately their catch has been small: about 10 apiece on a good day. That's partly because of their age; both men are approaching their 70s and have been diving for almost 30 years. But Bob says there's also another reason.

SEXTON: There's nothing in the wild in the quantity, the numbers that there used to be. There's not as many abalone as there used to be. There's not as many salmon as there used to be. There's not as many condors, eagles. The only thing that there's more of is people. And people love the ocean, and they all like abalone, it seems.

(Motor continues; footfalls on deck)

WEISER: After 2 hours under the waves, Don floats to the surface and climbs back on board.

STRIPFEL: I have returned.

SEXTON: You have returned.

WISER: Weighed down with scuba equipment, he waddles awkwardly. But he's only carrying 3 8-inch abalone in his string bag.

SEXTON: Was it a successful quest?

STRIPFEL: Oh, I got just a couple. But it was fun.


WEISER: Despite the shrinking harvest, the 2 divers say they still find these outings exhilarating. And profitable. Abalone meat is gourmet fare, and as supplies have dwindled prices have skyrocketed. Just a few dozen dives a year can bring in about $100,000. So, it's no wonder divers are so upset about the state's closure of California's last wild abalone fishery, which took effect just 24 hours after Don and Bob's trip. Gary Verhagen is another of the hundred or so men affected by the ban. He says the prospect of losing his livelihood prompted him to put his coastal home up for sale.

VERHAGEN: It's really hard when you make decent money at what you do, then go out and work for McDonald's afterwards, is what we're talking about. I've been in the fisheries for 21 years, I'm 46 years old. I have to go out and retrain myself for another occupation.

WEISER: The emergency ban forbids all abalone hunting from San Francisco to the Mexican border: a $2 million a year industry. It follows new research indicating a 95% drop in the red abalone catch since the 1950s. Biologists found that pollution, disease, and competition from sea otters contributed to the alarming decline. But they ranked overfishing as one of the biggest factors. Dr. Mia Tegna is a research scientist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla. She studied abalone for 20 years.

TEGNA: Abalones have been so badly fished that stocks have collapsed in many of the areas that were productive beds for many years.

WEISER: Commercial diving in northern California was halted 50 years ago. Sport diving there is still permitted, but it's strictly regulated. And scientists say those red abalone populations are healthy. The southern fishery was also regulated, but biologists determined that any continued fishing pressure would prove too much for the imperiled species to bear. Dr. Tegna says abalone are particularly vulnerable to over-harvesting because they need dense populations to reproduce.

TEGNA: Abalones reproduce by releasing their sperm and eggs into the sea water. For fertilization to be successful requires a very high concentration of sperm. So if the male and the female are more than a meter or so apart, fertilization doesn't work.

WEISER: Abalone can live more than 50 years and it's the older, larger adults that divers like to catch most. But scientists say culling this population devastates stocks, because the fully mature females produce the most eggs.

(A boat motor revs up)

WEISER: Even divers like Gary Verhagen acknowledge that stocks may be suffering.

VERHAGEN: I know that there are some problems in areas with the resource. It doesn't come from us, from harvesting.

WEISER: Others, like diver Don Thompson, say the data have been exaggerated to further an environmental agenda that values preserving wildlife over the well being of citizens.

THOMPSON: It's a witch hunt, okay? The whole thing is a big lie about the fear of extinction.

WEISER: But some members of California's fishing community don't think this is a useful response to the moratorium. Zeke Grada is executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association.

GRADA: Don't get caught up in attacking the science of others. The denial tactics don't work. Let's take a good hard look at our resources and not not figure out well, there's still some more for us to eke out a living on. How do we increase the numbers? What do we have to do to make sure that the habitat is protected?

WEISER: Mr. Grada says abalone divers knew their resource was in trouble, but unlike many California fishermen who face collapsing fisheries, they didn't push for protections. But he says state officials were also slow to respond to the first signs of an abalone crisis. The abalone situation echoes a common trend. A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that US regulators often wait too long to protect fisheries. The report said that almost half of today's Federally managed fisheries are no longer sustainable because of over-fishing. The global pattern is even more serious. According to the United Nations about 70% of the world's marine fisheries are in trouble. Zeke Grada worries that even now, a cash-strapped agency like the California Department of Fish and Game still won't do enough during the moratorium to bring back the red abalone.

GRADA: If the industry collapses, and there's no longer divers about, who then is going to be putting pressure on the Department to do the research? It'll just be a resource that will be out there just kind of languishing.

WEISER: Mr. Grada says the state and the unemployed divers could benefit from working together. He suggests using the divers' expertise by putting them to work helping monitor and restore abalone populations. Fish and Game says it will spend the next few months looking into this idea along with others, and officials will meet in September to decide whether to extend the abalone closure.

(Boat motor running)

WEISER: But all sides speculate the fishing ban won't end soon. Some predict it could last as long as 20 years. For Living on Earth, I'm Rosy Weiser in San Francisco.

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(Motor continues, fades to music up and under)

RUDOLPH: 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 at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. Transcripts and tapes are $12.

It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. RUDOLPH: Efforts to halt beach erosion are underway in south Florida's sand and surf meccas. But conservationists say the state's fragile coral reefs are paying the price. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


(Theme music up and under)

RUDOLPH: It's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph

(Music up and under)

The Living On Earth Almanac

RUDOLPH: In her landmark book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson called the chemical DDT "a grim spectre that has crept upon us almost unnoticed." Twenty-five years ago this summer the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT. First used as a pesticide in the late 1930s, it quickly became the weapon of choice to fight malaria, cholera, and other insect-borne diseases. But DDT has an insidious nature. It's highly poisonous to birds, other animals, and humans. DDT was banned in the United States after years of scientific debate. Since then, many affected species are back in record numbers. There are now more than 5,000 pairs of bald eagles, a 10-fold increase since 1962. Peregrine falcons, which numbered less than 100 in the mid-1970s, have shown a 20-fold increase. And once-threatened populations of ospreys, brown pelicans, and sea lions, are rebounding dramatically. But DDT is not a distant memory. Because the chemical decomposes slowly, traces of it still exist in soil and water. And the ban did not stop US companies from exporting DDT to other countries, where it continues to be used to fight malaria. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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RUDOLPH: Sand is to South Florida what Old Faithful is to Yellowstone, Casinos to Las Vegas, and Disney to Orlando. It's why the tourists come. For years hotel owners along Miami Beach urgently appealed for Federal help to halt beach erosion. Now a $6 million beach nourishment plan is finally underway in South Florida, but only after 2 years of legal wrangling. At issue was how to protect the fragile coral reefs that lie next to the source of new sand. Five of the 17 projects that rebuilt beaches in South Florida since the 70s damaged or destroyed coral reefs. New monitoring efforts appear to be paying off, but that isn't making the projects any less controversial. Alexis Muellner reports from Miami.

(Mulling voices)

MUELLNER: It's dinner time for the 13-member crew of the Dodge Island, a 289-foot dredging barge.

(Silverware tumbles; voices continue)

MUELLNER: In the galley several crew members sit at yellow formica counters and dig into plates of beef ribs, occasionally glancing up at a TV sitcom.

(Mulling voices continue; fade to small motors whirring)

MUELLNER: After dinner the crew prepares to offload their cargo, enough sand to fill 200 dump trucks.

(Motors, clanking, sand tumbling)

MUELLNER: The sand is sucked off the boat through a pumping station and down a mile-long pipeline toward a heavily eroded section of Miami Beach.

(Radio voices)

MUELLNER: From the dimly-lit wheel house the ship's captain, Howard Hawrey, fiddles with some navigational equipment. At Hawrey's shoulder is a giant computer monitor. He turns some knobs and an image of the dredge appears on the screen.

HAWREY: We know exactly where our arms and our dredge-heads are going to be touching the bottom. Through different colors on the screen, we know exactly how deep the areas are and whether we've dug too much there already and we should stay away, or whether we've got plenty of material in that particular spot to keep digging it.

MUELLNER: There's a reason for this degree of high tech monitoring. Past sand dredging projects left longstanding environmental damage. In 1990, 25 acres of coral and countless other plants were buried in silt and sand. Two years earlier a dredge strayed, its 2 8-ton vacuum cleaner-like arms cutting a car-sized swath through a fragile reef. In 1994 legal challenges suspended all dredging. In order to resume operations, they have had to take greater precautions, including increasing the buffer between the dredge site and the reef, from 150 feet to 1500 feet. Now, every aspect of the project is scrutinized, something Captain Hawrey isn't entirely comfortable with.

HAWREY: It's a shame that I've got all these organizations looking over my shoulder all the time. And it's a little overkill with some of the inspections I think and stuff going on. But I -- it's for everybody's best interests.

(Music on the beach, surf)

MUELLNER: It's mid-morning at Miami Beach's famed Fontainbleau Hotel. The sunbathers lolling here probably don't know it, but their beach is widened overnight, in some places not too far down the shoreline. The effort has quadrupled the width of the beach, restoring more than 300 feet of sand. So far, according to county environmental officials, the new sand is coming without harm to the reefs.

FLYNN: Our monitoring reports have come in very favorable so far. In fact, some of those sediment levels that we're seeing closest to where the dredging is occurring are actually within the range of what you would get during a natural storm event. So right now we're real happy with the way things are going.

MUELLNER: Brian Flynn is in charge of the county's beach restoration program. He says his divers are out on the reefs checking sediment buildup daily.

(Chains shifting)

FLYNN: What we have been able to do is in cases where we have started to notice a localized buildup in, say, one particular section of the reef adjacent to where the dredging is occurring, is we're having periodic meetings with the dredging contractor and we're working together to shift the operations or modify them in such a way so that those areas are given a little bit of a break, and the sediment can move off naturally.

MUELLNER: Despite close monitoring and improved environmental impact statements, environmentalists say the coral reefs are still threatened and the projects should be stopped for good. Washington, DC, attorney Eric Litsenstein represented environmentalists and the small coastal town of Golden Beach in its 1994 Federal lawsuit, which delayed dredging for 2 years and won greater scrutiny for the project.

LITSENSTEIN: This is an inherently risky operation. They're once again smack up against coral reefs. And even if they do everything absolutely right, there are still invariably going to be sedimentation impacts on those reefs. The question is how severe they'll be.

MUELLNER: But Dade County officials like Brian Flynn say there are enough protections in place, and they'll stop the project if necessary. Flynn says beaches are critical to South Florida's tourism. He says he must strike a balance between the threat to the reefs and the need to protect the beaches.

FLYNN: In terms of the justification for them, it's really a piece of infrastructure, both in terms of protecting our tourism industry by providing a place for tourists to come, and also by providing a storm buffer for all of the physical infrastructure that we have on the shorelines here. All the hotels, all of the businesses. In terms of does it wash away? Yeah, it does wash away. Periodically we have to come back and we have to place additional sand here, but that's where the analogy of infrastructure comes in. You don't pave a road or build a highway on the assumption that you're never going to need to do maintenance work on it.

CUENCA: Our beaches never needed to be renourished even before they started renourishing north and south of us.

MUELLNER: Judy Cuenca is the Mayor of Golden Beach, the town that opposed the dredging.

CUENCA: We don't build that close to the erosion control line, which is one of the escalating factors in beach erosion. We don't have natural erosion. And the removal of that sand, even if they didn't hurt the reefs, is a concern.

MUELLNER: Mayor Cuenca says many of the town's 900 residents worry that the removal of the sand will increase wave action and threaten their beach.

CUENCA: We were told that the shoreline of Golden Beach was in jeopardy. That living coral reefs that were many, many, many years old could be destroyed and killed permanently. That's a concern for everyone. The fact that it sits due east of Golden Beach means we have an immediate concern. But for the rest of the world it's a concern. For the rest of the east coast of Florida it's a concern.

MUELLNER: That concern continues for Mayor Cuenca, even though the current project is winding down. She claims data used to convince a Federal judge to eventually allow the dredging operation to resume was flawed. Whether that's true, and whether the reefs have been damaged by the dredging, may take years to gauge. Meanwhile, Dade County plans to move ahead with other beach restoration projects. For Living on Earth, I'm Alexis Muellner in Miami.

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(Music up and under)


RUDOLPH: In Yellowstone National Park, bison are grazing the new grasses that have replaced the deep snows and thick ice of winter. The animals are migrating to their summer ranges in the park's interior. One of the worst winters on record took a heavy toll on Yellowstone's wildlife: more than half of the bison population, or about 2000 animals, died. But Nature wasn't the only reaper. Nearly 1100 bison were shot by park rangers as they wandered near or beyond Yellowstone's boundaries in search of food. The official reason for the slaughter was to control a disease carried by some bison, but as Jane Fritz reports this was only the latest version in one of the oldest questions facing the West: how to enclose open range land for private use and control wildlife that once roamed free.

(A gate opens)

FRITZ: Just inside the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park stands a temporary plywood structure of steel gates.

(Rusty hinges)

FRITZ: It was here this past winter that National Park Service rangers herded nearly 500 wild bison into horse trailers and cattle trucks destined for Montana slaughterhouses.

(Metal latch on metal)

BREWSTER: This is the alleyway that the animals come out of the shoot processing, and if they're being sorted or turned back they go down this way. And if they're being loaded and shipped to slaughter they go up this way.

FRITZ: Wayne Brewster is a wildlife biologist and National Park Service administrator. He says the bison were captured and slaughtered to keep them from moving out of the park onto range land in the state of Montana, and possibly exposing cattle to an exotic disease that some bison carry, called brucellosis. Animals that eluded capture and crossed over anyway were shot by Montana agents. All told, 1100 wild bison, nearly the entire northern herd, were killed. It's given Wayne Brewster a feeling of deja vu.

BREWSTER: I don't know if it's history repeating itself, but bison were at very low numbers at the turn of the century, and it was America's first attempt at saving a species and it happened here in Yellowstone.

FRITZ: By the late 1800s, hide hunters had nearly wiped out the wild bison, also known as American buffalo. By 1902, only 2 dozen remained, protected here within Yellowstone National Park. This remnant wild herd was eventually augmented by captive animals and by mid-century bison were back from the edge of extinction. But Wayne Brewster says the science of the times called for maintaining less than 500 animals.

BREWSTER: Bison were captured, were handled, shipped to slaughter, butchered in the 50s and the 60s. And the policy at that time was that you had to reduce these numbers to very low levels because of the belief that the range was overgrazed. We shot hundreds of bison every winter. As good as it was then, we know different now.

FRITZ: Ultimately, biologists proved that Yellowstone's range land could support many more buffalo. So in 1968, the park began letting nature take its course. America's largest wild and free-roaming herd would be controlled only by the elements. Since then, the herd has grown into the thousands. But all that changed last winter. Here on their winter range, severe weather put forage under thick ice and deep snow. Wayne Brewster says the bison's search for food brought them to Yellowstone's borders for the first time in large numbers, and into trouble with the park's neighbors.

FRITZ: They hadn't found their country; I mean it's as simple as that. This is the first time in recent history that bison have been captured here at the boundary and shipped to slaughter.

FRITZ: Like it or not, the Park Service abandoned its natural regulation policies under a court settlement with Montana. The state had claimed allowing bison to cross into Montana put local cattle at risk of brucellosis.

(An opening gate?)

FRITZ: Bison once represented Montana's wild and free past, symbolized by the state's taxidermy treasure, a white buffalo bull named Big Medicine, which resides in the State Historical Museum across the street from the Capitol Building in Helena.

PETERSON: I remember as a young boy having seen him alive, and it was quite a thrill to see this animal.

FRITZ: But today, Larry Peterson, director of the Montana Department of Livestock, says Montana has a multi-million dollar cattle industry to protect.

PETERSON: Now, we look at it from a disease control perspective. We need to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis to domestic livestock.

FRITZ: Mr. Peterson says the state wants to completely eradicate brucellosis, and is supported by an agency of the US Department of Agriculture known as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS.

PETERSON: APHIS tells us if the bison coming out of Yellowstone Park, which come from an infected herd, if they commingle with cattle we run the risk of losing our brucellosis-free status. Which economically would have a tremendous impact on the cattle industry in the state of Montana.

FRITZ: APHIS was once celebrated for combating ungulent fever in humans, a disease caused by the brucella bacteria that was contracted by drinking unpasteurized milk. Such cases are rare today. But the Federal Agency still spends around $60 million a year to eradicate the organism, since it can cause cows to abort their fetuses and diminish the value of breeding stock. Ironically, Yellowstone bison contracted brucellosis from dairy cows brought into the park in 1917. Today, nearby ranchers all vaccinate their herds against it, and there isn't a single documented case of bison in the field ever transmitting the disease back to cattle. But Montana and APHIS officials say the benefits of ensuring that it never happens are worth the cost of keeping the bison under strict control. Patrick Collins is an APHIS spokesman.

COLLINS: We reduce the need for a lot of testing, a lot of quarantining, a lot of vaccination of domestic cattle. This improves our ability to export beef and beef products. This helps our ag exports. This helps create jobs in the United States. This helps out the domestic economy. There are clear benefits.

FRITZ: Since APHIS wants complete eradication of brucellosis, the Agency is now seeking to expand its jurisdiction to include wildlife in the entire greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Elk also carry brusillosis, and other species do, too. That's left many wondering what the future holds for the park's other wild inhabitants.

TORBETT: Where do you draw the line? Short of total annihilation of the Yellowstone ecosystem? Can you truly eradicate the disease?

FRITZ: Steve Torbett is a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. In concert with 42 Indian tribes, the Federation has offered a plan to settle the grazing and brucellosis conflict, by changing the way both wildlife and livestock are managed. But neither the state of Montana nor APHIS has responded. Steve Torbett says the bison slaughter is part of an effort by fading bureaucracies to re-establish their control.

TORBETT: They have to subdue the West all over again. If they can get management authority over bison in Yellowstone National Park, what is next? You better believe it'll be the wolves. You better believe it'll be grizzly bears. Pretty soon, the elk, the deer, the moose, everything will exist at the whim of a very narrow special interest group of livestock bureaucrats. We think we can work with the ranchers, the people that are actually trying to make money off the ground. But the bureaucrats have no interest in solving the problem.

FRITZ: Livestock officials say they are interested in solving the problem. But Patrick Collins of APHIS says there are no quick answers.

COLLINS: It's going to take some years, it's probably, you know, a 10- or 15- year process, probably. It's going to require all the parties here to bend, to give a little. And we recognize that; we're prepared to do that. But again, we don't have the magic answer; we don't have the magic bullet.

(Latches click)

FRITZ: Thank you.

Back out on the Yellowstone bison's winter range, a chilly fierce wind buffets Wayne Brewster and my microphone as he surveys a heavily-grazed meadow that by next fall will rebound in new growth.

BREWSTER: It looks pretty, pretty used. This year more than ever. I mean, we've been marching bison back and forth, trying to keep them away from the boundary area here for 3 months now, so it's -- it's heavily used.

FRITZ: But even with adequate winter forage, it'll be tough for the bison population to recover. It's questionable whether they'll ever reach such high numbers again. But if they do, Wayne Brewster says they'll need additional winter range outside the park.

(High winds)

BREWSTER: You want me to get that door for you...

FRITZ: Thank you.

(More winds; fade to shutting car door and rolling on dirt)

FRITZ: As we drive along the Yellowstone River Valley into Montana, it's easy to see why during a hard winter buffalo might follow this natural corridor out of the park, ignoring Yellowstone's artificial, political boundary.

(Rolling continues. Metal clanking on metal. Footfalls)

FRITZ: Stopping at the border, we look down the road where hundreds of buffalo were killed. Just up the valley cattle are grazing. Wayne Brewster wonders aloud how the American people will ultimately strike the balance between wildlife conservation and livestock commerce.

BREWSTER: Yellowstone was this country's first national park. Buffalo were the first effort by a conservation agency, the American people, to save a species. And that effort was successful. And people associate a lot of importance and value with that. This is the only bison population that has been free-ranging throughout history in North America. There are limits beyond which they won't be tolerated. But that doesn't mean they can't be wild. They can be wherever we'll tolerate them.

FRITZ: For now, any buffalo leaving Yellowstone may continued to be captured while state and Federal agencies debate a range of management options. A draft environmental impact statement on these options is due out in late July. The public will then have a chance to share its views. For Living on Earth, I'm Jane Fritz in Yellowstone National Park.

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(Music up and under)

RUDOLPH: Coming up, a trip to an environmentally correct watering hole in the heart of Manhattan, on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


RUDOLPH: It's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph. Where do the hard- working environmentally conscious go to unwind, yet still be politically correct? Well, if they live in Manhattan, they could head to the trendy neighborhood of Tribeca. There's a nightclub there called Wetlands Preserve, that has an 8-year history of green activism. The club was recently sold by its founder, but he had one important stipulation: the deal requires the club's new owner to continue channeling profits to the environmental movement. From New York, John Kalish has this report.

(Man's voice: "Number is ... another letter to write...")

KALISH: The regular Tuesday night meeting of the Student Environmental Action Coalition is underway in the basement of the Wetlands night club. A human-powered vehicle sporting a Draft Ralph Nader sticker is parked a few feet from a bar strewn with stacks of leaflets promoting protests against the Yellowstone bison massacre and Texaco's environmental racism. Two dozen people sit on old couches listening to a facilitator, who goes by the name Markvarc.

MARKVARC: In case you're new to these meetings, and you're wondering what's up, one of the great things that we can do to effect change while we're all sitting around here is to write to the corporations and governments -- and there's a kind of fuzzy line between them -- that are screwing up the planet.

(Mulling voices)

KALISH: Saving the planet has been an integral part of Wetlands' mission since Larry Block opened the club in 1989. After 7 years of offering New Yorkers a night spot with an environmental consciousness, Block left the city for Vermont. It took him a year to sell Wetlands because he insisted the buyer agree to donate $100,000 a year from profits to maintain the club's environmental center, which has 2 fulltime staffers and a small office on the premises. Block says he turned down more lucrative offers than the one he eventually accepted.

BLOCK: It was essential if the club were going to continue as Wetlands that the environmental and social justice programs be supported and continued. And that was essential; it wasn't something that I was willing to part from at all. So I had to turn down different offers and interest from people that weren't able to be part of that vision.

(A singer on stage)

KALISH: It's a vision with roots in an era when most of Wetlands' tie-dyed patrons were not yet born. The 1960s are celebrated in the club's decor. There are black lights, psychedelic posters, and political banners everywhere. Not far from the bar sits an actual VW microbus, where a young woman sells buttons, bumper stickers, and T-shirts.

(Singing continues)

KALISH: At the Tuesday night eco-saloon, some club patrons bogie to Grateful Dead cover bands upstairs, while downstairs, in a thick haze of sweet-smelling smoke, others partake in another Dead tradition: the drum circle.


KALISH: Just a few feet away is a small office that houses the Wetlands Environmental and Social Justice Center. James Hanson is its director. He says mounting lobbying efforts in a nightclub has obvious advantages.

HANSON: We're putting out literature and petitions for the customers. We gather 50,000 petition signatures a year. We've got the New York Times with a coalition of New York City-based groups to stop buying thousand-year-old rainforest trees and using them in their paper. We got Heineken to pull out of the military dictatorship of Burma with a couple letters, a few meetings, and a few months of protests.

SHAPIRO: When they get a lot of petitions, they listen.

KALISH: Wetlands' principal owner is 24-year-old Peter Shapiro.

SHAPIRO: Because we are a bar, because the people here are 23-year-old college students from the suburbs, have a lot of buying power, are attractive customers, are future customers.

KALISH: There was a boycott on Budweiser, a boycott on Bass, a boycott on Heineken. What's left to drink?

SHAPIRO: (Laughs) Samuel Adams. It's a good beer.

KALISH: What if these guys get carried away and say no alcohol, alcohol is bad for you?

SHAPIRO: Well certainly there's going to have to be a fine line (laughs) because for the Environmental Center to continue we're going to have to sell some beer.

KALISH: The new owners will also have to have the transfer of the liquor license approved by state officials, a move some area residents oppose. Neighbors of the environmentally correct watering hole say the noise and trash generated by young people who congregate outside the club threatens the local ecosystem. They also note a shooting which took place at the club a few months back. The woman who represents Tribeca in the city council vows to shut Wetlands down. John Griefen is a painter who lives across an alley from the club.

(Traffic sounds)

GRIEFEN: It may sound like just a small issue but, you know, losing your sleep is a real pain. Every single night you're woken up. They're open. Once or twice a night from people yelling in the alleyway or playing bongo drums or something like that, on the outside.

(More traffic, construction drilling sounds)

GRIEFEN: We had really almost no problem with graffiti until this club opened, and then both sides of the alley are just covered with graffiti.

KALISH: But Peter Shapiro is confident his club will survive, even prosper. Shapiro wants to open a Wetlands in San Francisco. He also plans to start a film division and a Wetlands record label to capitalize on the club's knack for recognizing up and coming talent.

SHAPIRO: Each of the major labels, big six labels, has signed a band out of Wetlands. It's gone platinum. Hootie and the Blowfish, Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, Oasis, Joan Osborn. You go down the list, it's truly remarkable. Why can't we try- incorporatethe environmental issues that we talk about here into a record label? Packaging our CDs in recycled cardboard and addressing the environmental issues in our product.

KALISH: Whatever products come out under a Wetlands label may help support environmental activism, but they'll also benefit founder Larry Block, who still owns the Wetlands brand name. For Living on Earth, I'm John Kalish in New York.

EMCEE: Let's put our hands together and welcome live at Wetlands -- the Spin Doctors!

(The crowd cheers)

SPIN DOCTORS: Come on, say Yeah, yeah!

CROWD: Yeah, yeah!

SPIN DOCTORS: Welcome to the Wetlands, people.

Back to top

(Rock music up and under)

RUDOLPH: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes Liz Lempert, Kim Motylewski, Julia Madeson, Peter Christenson, Jesse Wegman, Susan Shepherd, Peter Shaw, Dan Grossman, and George Homsy. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. We had help from Jill Hecht, Tom Kuo, and Emma Hayes. Our engineer is Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm John Rudolph. Steve Curwood returns next week. Thanks for listening.

(Rock music up and under)

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-PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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