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

July 18, 1997

Air Date: July 18, 1997



These days, of all the problems plaguing the Middle East peace process, none goes deeper than the dispute over water. Israel and the Palestinians disagree on how water is to be shared in this arid part of the world. New maps drawn up by the current Netanyahu government would give sixty percent of the land and water of the West Bank to Israel, but Palestinians reject these maps, saying the Israeli proposal deprives them of this key ingredient toward sovereignty. Always an important issue in a desert region, water now threatens to dissolve the peace. This Fall, Living On Earth will continue to examine the politics and culture of water in the Middle East with reporter Sandy Tolan in a series of reports from Israel, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank. (11:45)


Practical advice on how you can give more life to even the tiniest garden spot by simply adding water. (06:00)

FINE WEED LAWNS / Andy Wasowski

What if one day you received a letter from your town telling you that your neighbors had complained about the plants in your front yard, and you had ten days to get rid of them or be fined? As commentator Andy Wasowski tells us, this is happening a lot, as thousands of people across the country are going more natural in their front yard landscapes. Andy Wasowski is a freelance writer and garden photographer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (02:28)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... The 20th anniversary of the New York City electricity blackout (01:15)


The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska is a little known tract of federal land being looked at by the Clinton administration with consideration of opening it up to oil and gas exploration. Earlier this month Living on Earth's Peter Thomson travelled with Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt to the region, and in an interview with Steve Curwood, tells us what he discovered. (06:46)


Even defenders of the Endangered Species Act say it kicks in too late in the process of extinction because eco-systems along with individual species need to be protected to avert the loss of biological diversity. San Diego recently approved a land use system based on the conservation of habitat in which nearly two thousand acres of San Diego County have been designated as eco-sensitive areas off limits to development. In an exchange, developers can move forward with projects outside the reserves without worrying that some time in the future they will be blocked by an endangered species claim. Erik Anderson of member station KPBS in San Diego has our report. (09:35)


Scientists have long thought there is only one species of elephant in Africa. But earlier this year, DNA evidence suggested African elephants may well come from two separate and distinct species. For commentator Gwen Acton, that finding is just the latest example of a thorny problem. She says the lack of a clear way to define species creates a predicament not only for scientific research, but also for conservation efforts. Commentator Gwen Acton is a biologist at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. (02:30)


Most of us walk through the woods and see trees. But for ecologist and author Tom Wessel, a stroll through the forest is an historical journey; one that tells the story of fires, logging, settlements and storms. Producer Nina Keck recently spent an afternoon with Wessel and learned some ways to read the story of a forest. Tom Wessels'book "Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England" is published by Countryman Press. (06:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Stephanie O'Neill, Charlotte Renner, Jyl Hoyt,
Sandy Tolan, Erik Anderson, Nina Keck
GUESTS: Michael Weishan, Peter Thomson
COMMENTATORS: Andy Wasowski, Gwen Acton

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

As Israel and her neighbors in the Middle East inch toward a lasting peace, the issue of water in this desert region is threatening to derail the talks. Israel says it will give part of the West Bank to the Palestinians but not the aquifer below it.

SHARIF: You cannot say that we cannot, the palestinians cannot control the water. It means there will be no peace.

CURWOOD: Also, closer to home, Living on Earth's gardener has some tips on how to harness the power and charm of water in our own yards.

WEISHAN: Water's an extremely important aspect of gardens and one that is often overlooked. And certainly one that we are readily taking out of the natural environment, and that we need to think about putting back into our created environment.

CURWOOD: And the weed police come knocking, this week on Living on Earth. But first this round-up of the news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. It's being called the most sweeping smog control regulation of the decade: a rule by southern California's Air Quality Board that will reduce hydrocarbon emissions by 40 tons per day. Stephanie O'Neill has more.

O'NEILL: When exposed to sunlight hydrocarbon fumes turn into smog. The rule calls for removing 32 tons of hydrocarbons per day from LA area skies by 1999. By 2010 the amount removed will climb to 40 tons a day. The smog reduction will be achieved by requiring about 23,000 businesses from small machine shops to the aerospace industry to switch to water-based low- polluting solvents when removing grease and grime from metal parts. The rule, which passed 9 to 1, was widely endorsed by businesses, mainly because the nontoxic degreasers are now available and are considered a cost-effective way of cutting down on smog. The measure is the last to be adopted by the board before the departure of its chief, James Lence. Lence's 10-year career as head of the nation's premiere smog-fighting agency expires July 31st, because the newly comprised, largely pro-business board is deadlocked on whether to reappoint him. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

MULLINS: A committee of scientists met in Chicago recently to develop a new system for evaluating the possible dangers from hormone disrupting chemicals. Congress has asked the committee to come up with a new evaluation system by next spring. Manmade chemicals, including PCBs and pesticides, are thought to interfere with hormones controlling immune, reproductive, and other vital functions. Committee member Theo Colborn, a scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, says a more rigorous testing process is needed.

COLBORN: Our goal is basically to look at chemicals from an entirely new perspective, to avoid testing chemicals for cancer an assuming that chemicals were safe because they didn't cause cancer, and now we realize that we missed a lot of chemicals.

MULLINS: And Colborn says more than 70,000 chemicals in use today may need to be re-evaluated.

The Food and Drug Administration has halted shipments of chicken and eggs from hundreds of producers after some of their poultry was found to contain elevated levels of dioxin, a possible carcinogen. The dioxin was traced to chicken feed containing contaminated clay. The FDA says the chicken and eggs are safe to eat, but the Agency has ordered the poultry with elevated dioxin levels not be shipped. The tainted feed was also sold to catfish farms. The FDA has mandated that the fish not be sold until their dioxin levels drop.

Earlier this spring the Federal Government proposed a whale protection plan that would have forced fishermen to make costly changes in their gear. But the recently released final rules take many fishermen off the hook. Charlotte Renner reports from Portland, Maine.

RENNER: To help protect the 300 northern right whales left in the world, the National Marine Fisheries Service will ban fishing and large boats in critical habitat at certain times of year. But in most areas on the eastern seaboard, fishermen will have to make only minor changes in traps and lines. The plan also calls for Federally-trained teams capable of freeing whales entangled in fishing gear. Lobstermen and politicians are praising the new rules. But Max Strahan, a homeless advocate who has sued the Federal Government for failing to protect whales, says the Fisheries Service can't precisely predict when the whales will migrate, and Strahan believes the Fisheries Service bowed to political pressure, a charge the agency denies. New rules take effect January first. For Living on Earth, I'm Charlotte Renner in Portland, Maine.

MULLINS: The US Fish and Wildlife Service released its plan to reintroduce grizzly bears into remote wild lands in Montana and Idaho. >From member station KBSU in Boise, Jyl Hoyt reports.

HOYT: There are 4 alternatives in the new proposal. Government biologists prefer the one that calls for releasing 5 grizzlies a year for the next 5 years into the Selway Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana and central Idaho. A 15-member citizen committee would manage the animals, but government officials expect opposition. Chris Serveid heads the grizzly bear recovery team.

SERVEID: There's nothing we can do in Federal agencies to protect bears if the general public says that they don't want them.

HOYT: Idaho's governor doesn't want the bears, but Montana's governor likes the concept of citizen management. There are 3 other alternatives in the plan. One allows grizzlies to make their own way here. Another reintroduces bears with complete Federal protection. The third prevents grizzly bear recovery. Hearings are scheduled through August. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise, Idaho.

MULLINS: When the voters of Seattle approved a new football stadium, workers at the soon to be demolished King Dome stood to lose their jobs, but at least the worms will be re-employed. Thousands of composting worms were used to eat the King Dome's leftover food, turning it into compost for flower beds. Now the worms have been moved to a nearby alcoholic treatment center, and they're feasting on the scraps there.

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

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For decades, the deeply divided Middle East has slowly moved toward peace, but a final settlement keeps slipping from the grasp of negotiators. At the last minute, it seems, there's always something. These days, of all the problems plaguing the peace process, none goes deeper than the dispute over water. The talks between Israel and the Palestinians are in part snagged on how water is to be shared in this arid part of the world. New maps drawn up by the government of Benjamin Netenyahu would give 60% of the land and water of the West Bank to Israel. Palestinians reject these maps, saying without water they cannot fulfill their dream of an independent state. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan reports.

(Bird song)

KAM: Certainly at night, over that direction you can see the lights of Ashtod and Ashkelod. You can see all the way around the coastal plain...

TOLAN: The Israeli settler's face glows with a calm intensity. Mark Kam stands under a harsh sun, looking out from the edge of a cliff in the West Bank settlement of Dolev.

KAM: The view is absolutely terrific. This range here is the last range before the coast...

TOLAN: We gaze across at the terraced hills, dotted with olive trees and eroded down to bedrock. To the southeast lies Jerusalem; to the west Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean. Another Jewish settlement stands on a nearby hilltop, its orange roofs in sharp contrast to the white stone mosques and homes of the Palestinian villages below. Like the pioneers whose manifest destiny built the American West, Mark Kam, his wife and 5 boys cling to land long claimed by someone else. Their deed is found in an ancient text.

KAM: The Hill of Arik is described in the Book of Judges listing the border between the lands of the tribes of Benjamin, the lands of the tribes of Ephraim, just over here. And if you look around you, again, you've many other places, the Bet Choron, Emek Lod, the Lod Valley. All of them mentioned in the scriptures. The scriptures that talk about the land give the land a sort of ownership.

TOLAN: At stake here is not just ownership of the land but of the water beneath the land. Under the rocky hills of this settlement lies an underground lake. Most of this aquifer rests under Palestinian land in the West Bank, yet the vast majority of the water is used by Israel. Nearly half a trillion gallons a year, about a quarter of the Jewish state's annual supply, are pumped from a small tip of the aquifer that extends beneath Israel, helping Jewish farmers earn the reputation for making the desert bloom. It also helps Israelis enjoy water on par with some European nations. In theory, West Bank Palestinians could tap into this renewable supply, too, by sinking their own wells. But for 30 years, since the occupation the West Bank, Israeli military orders have required permission for new wells. Permission rarely granted. Jewish settlers, meanwhile, have drilled deep wells into that same aquifer. These facts help explain why the average Israeli uses 3 times as much water as a Palestinian. Now, under the final status map drawn up by Benjamin Netenyahu's government, this and other water-rich parts of the West Bank would be annexed by Israel. In the final settlement, Israel's hand would remain on the tap, permanently.

BEN MEIR: If we shall compete, pumping between each other, and everyone will pump deeper, to a lower level, we shall ruin this aquifer.

TOLAN: Meir Ben Meir is Israel's Water Commissioner. He says for years Israel has run a massive water delivery system, so it's the logical choice to manage the shared resource for Palestinians and Israelis. Ben Meir is speaking for his boss, General Ariel Sharon, whose hardline thinking has been crucial in drawing up the new maps. Sharon was out of power for years following the accounts of his indirect role in the massacre of a thousand Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Today, as Minister of Infrastructure, Sharon more than anyone is asserting the notion of permanent Israeli control over land and water in the West Bank. Sharon's deputy, Ben Meir, promises that even with that control Israel would not hold back water from thirsty Palestinians.

BEN MEIR: If it is for humanitarian needs, I don't see any way why Palestinians will have less water and Israelis will have more water, or vice versa. The most effective tool, of course, if one authority is responsible for managing the aquifer, an Israeli authority, and responsible for supplying water according to humanitarian needs, this is the best solution.

TOLAN: Essentially this means that Israel retains control over the water supply.

BEN MEIR: This is the best solution from the point of view of protecting the water supply.

TOLAN: Yet if Israel is such a good water manager, Palestinian critics wonder, why does it allow Israeli farmers to continue to over-pump the aquifers? Why do some Israeli kibbutzes in the desert use 20 times more water than a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza? Fadel Kawash of the Palestinian Water Authority.

KAWASH: What they are doing is a big mistake here. If they don't understand that people cannot live without water, they put themselves -- I have no words to say in English -- but it will be a very difficult future in the area. If they want really to live here in peace and to respect the right of the other people, water is a life. Without water, no life.

(Goats bleating)

TOLAN: Mohammad Barakat Daoud Laoul tends his goats from his back yard in Hebron. Face burnt by the sun, dark, neatly trimmed beard, flowing headdress, he could pass for Joseph in the Bible were it not for his gold watch and filter-tipped cigarettes. His father owned land in old Palestine, but now that's part of Israel. And so Mohammad's 70 goats are crammed onto this half-acre urban lot. In the summer he spends $150 a month just to water his goats. All the more important, he explains, to tell his children to save water.

LAOUL: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: Every day it's like a lesson in school. Don't waste water. Because we won't find any more to drink. If my sons spills a glass of milk, I won't scold him. But if he spills a glass of water I say, "What are you doing? Where I can water for you?" I ask my family, "Open the tap very slowly so we don't waste one drop."

TOLAN: The family catches the rain and stores it in barrels. They recycle their laundry water and use it on their plants. Even so, some of the garden is dead this year. The family is down to one bath a week in a place where summer time temperatures can reach 100 degrees. Mohammad Barakat says it's getting frustrating.

LAOUL: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: It's not because there's no water in Palestine. But this water is in the hands of those who don't want us to live. They save it for themselves. I have either to accept and keep my mouth shut, or leave my land looking for another place. The aim is to pressure me with all means to leave my land.

(Goats bleat)

TOLAN: In the interim agreement to the Oslo Accords, designed to guide both parties to a final settlement, Palestinians were supposed to get some relief. Israel pledged to supply additional water to Hebron and other parts of the West Bank and Gaza through additional wells and pipelines. The US Agency for International Development put up $50 million toward the projects, but those wells are yet to deliver any water. US and Palestinian officials say despite the Oslo agreement, Israeli officials have delayed final approval.

KAWASH: And they know very well that the Americans have the money. The Americans have the contractor. He's sitting waiting now 6 months to distribute the documents for tendering. They cannot, because no permits.

TOLAN: Fadel Kawash of the Palestinian Water Authority says by stalling in Hebron, the Israeli government and its Minister of Infrastructure, Ariel Sharon, have shown contempt for the Oslo Accords.

KAWASH: Now, because of the political, maybe international atmosphere, they cannot say we are against the agreement, the Oslo. But what they are doing now, in the implementation, it's a translation of what their position regarding these agreements. They are against totally.

TOLAN: In public, American officials are more diplomatic. Christopher Crowley is director of the US aid mission to Gaza and the West Bank.

CROWLEY: The agreement that was reached under the interim accords should be implemented. And we would hope that all of the parties would facilitate our ability to do that implementation in as quick a manner as possible, so that we can address this issue of insufficient water resources in the Palestinian territories.

TOLAN: In private, other American officials are more pointed. They say Ariel Sharon is trying to undermine the peace process. Sharon's spokesman says that's not the case. Israeli officials cite technical reasons for the delays, and they now say they'll grant the necessary permits for the Hebron wells. It's possible tensions over water there will ease in the coming months. The Israelis are withholding permission for another key well in the north. With peace talks broken off now between the 2 sides, no comprehensive water settlement is in sight. Scores of Palestinian villages will pass another summer without running water. And now, through its new plans to annex more than half the West Bank, Israel may be trying to change the Mideast bargain of land for peace, instead offering water for land. If the Palestinians would agree to give up half the West Bank and control over the joint water supply, Israeli Water Commissioner Ben Meir says his government would open the taps.

BEN MEIR: And then Israel, a firm, a rigid obligation to supply water according to humanitarian needs.

TOLAN: But Palestinians insist they will never accept such a shrunken reservation-style version of their territory as proposed in the Israeli maps, nor give up control over their share of the water. To do so, says Palestinian Water Authority Nabil Sharif, would be to give up the dream of an independent state.

SHARIF: You cannot say that we cannot, the Palestinians cannot control the water. The area is Palestinians and they are occupying us. They are in our land. Others want to propose that this land will go. It means there will be no peace.

TOLAN: Sharif says the dream of a sovereign nation called Palestine must include within it another dream: the use and control of enough water to prosper. At the moment both dreams seem like shallow ponds quivering in the distance, ready to evaporate like a desert mirage. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

CURWOOD: In the coming months, Living on Earth will take a closer look at water in the Middle East. Sandy Tolan will have a series of reports from Israel, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank, on the politics and culture of water in the lands that are holy for Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. That's Troubled Waters this fall on Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: how you can give more life to even the tiniest garden spot by adding water. Stick around for more of Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. I'm standing at the edge of a small pond with Michael Weishan, Editor in Chief of the journal Traditional Gardening and Living on Earth's gardening expert. And Michael, you're a gardening expert, so why have you brought us down to your pond?

WEISHAN: Water is an extremely important aspect of gardens, and one that is often overlooked. And certainly one that we are readily taking out of the natural environment and that we need to think about putting back into our created environment.

(Bird song in the background)

CURWOOD: So this pond does what for you in the summer time?

WEISHAN: Well, it provides a terrific home for the wildlife. We actually use the water from the property for irrigation as opposed to paying for town water. And right now, of course, its prime function is fishing. It's stocked with bass and as a matter of fact, this evening for dinner, I may pull a few out and have some fish.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Now, when you first got this house you had a problem with this pond, eh?

WEISHAN: Well, when we first got this house, it had been untended, and the algae was so think on it that a small child could literally walk across this pond.

CURWOOD: So, how did you deal with it?

WEISHAN: Well, my first response was to call someone who was supposedly an expert on ponds and came out and said that the only way to deal with it was to chemically treat the pond. To essentially poison all the living plant material out of it and then let it sit and then come and poison it again. I was not real excited about this prospect, as you can imagine.

CURWOOD: I guess not.

WEISHAN: I asked the man that was here. There was a lot of different kinds of algae, but principally there was something that we commonly call duckweed. And I said to him, "Well, is this weed not called duckweed for a reason?" I said, "Can we get some ducks and let them eat it?" And he said to me, and I remember distinctly, he said, "Ten dozen ducks wouldn't eat this weed in a month of Sundays." And I said, "Okay." But faced with no other option, really, I thought, I thought I'd try the ducks. And I'll tell you those ducks, there were 12 originally, and they ate their way through that weed in about 3 weeks.

(Ducks quacking)

CURWOOD: Well you have this beautiful pond. What other types of water do you have here?

WEISHAN: One is the old farm pond here, and the other type of water is a small, running stream.

CURWOOD: Let's go take a look.

WEISHAN: All righty.

(Much honking and quacking and splashing)

CURWOOD: So here we are up next to your stream, and this is small and it's loaded. It's very popular here, apparently, with your ducks.

WEISHAN: Yes, it's actually quite popular with the ducks, although it wasn't actually designed for them. It was actually built for the-- when I say built because once again we had to resuscitate it from its decrepit state -- it essentially functions as an ever-refreshed, continual bird bath. And it's amazing to sit here and watch on an afternoon. The other day, in a space of about 5 minutes, we had a family of cardinals, bluebirds, a pair of Baltimore Orioles, which are fairly rare in this part of the world, innumerable sparrows, on a fairly small space. I mean, this overall stream is perhaps 40 feet long here and 6 feet wide including the whole garden. It's a terrific bird population that is sustained, and they come from literally miles around to bathe here because there's not a lot of available open shallow water, which is the crucial issue, in the average landscape.

(Trickling water, bird song)

CURWOOD: Now, it takes a lot of space to have a 40-foot stream or a big pond on your property. What about those of us who live in the city or in small suburban areas? What can we do for water?

WEISHAN: Well, whether you're a rooftop dweller or whether you're in a tiny little suburban yard, one of the nice things that we like to do often when we design gardens is to put water features in them. And we have a small example of that in the upper terrace.

CURWOOD: Let's take a look.

(Splashing sounds)

WEISHAN: Here we are at the back door of a house, and we're standing on a, what used to be when I moved in here, sort of a patch of dirt, literally. There was a very tiny worn dirt path to the back door of this old 1852 farm house. And we're standing on a brick terrace, which is about, oh, I'd guess 12, 15 feet wide and about 20 feet long, and in the center of it is a rectangular pool, about 18 inches deep, with a fountain edged in bluestone, the terrace's brick. And this is really an essential feature for this garden, because we're quite near the road here and there's a lot of traffic sounds, and several doors to the house open out onto it. And it provides a wonderful sound, a very soothing noise that obliterates the traffic sound. And as you can see takes up a very minimal space.

CURWOOD: So you could even have a city house with a little walkway coming up, or a front walk. There's plenty of room for that.

WEISHAN: Absolutely, and there's even smaller versions than this. I mean, I've seen in rooftop gardens actual water gardens made out of half barrels with a small recirculating pump and full of beautiful water lilies and even a frog or two that somehow -- well, not on a rooftop, but in an urban garden frogs are there that somehow find their way in there.

CURWOOD: So, are there any down sides to having water?

WEISHAN: Very few. There are a few things to keep in mind. One is when you have any small body of water, needs to be somewhat of a complete ecosystem. If you have water in your garden and don't have fish in it, for instance, just your average even goldfish, you're prone to have mosquitos. So you can see there's a few fish swimming around in there now. And they are eating the entire mosquito population and really require very little other food.

CURWOOD: Hmm. Let's talk money for a moment. To put in a little fountain like this, what do you figure someone has to spend/

WEISHAN: At their least expensive -- a barrel, for instance, with a recirculating pump, you could probably do the whole thing under $100. As they get more and more elaborate, of course, the costs increase. Essentially, I think what I would say is that there is probably a pool or water feature you can have for any budget you have in mind.

CURWOOD: Well, Michael, as always, it's fun to come to your garden.

WEISHAN: Well, thank you. It's been fun to have you.

(Splashing sounds)

CURWOOD: Now, if you have a question for Living on Earth's resident gardener, Michael Weishan, you can reach him through our web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. Just click on the watering can. Or call us at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988.

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CURWOOD: What if one day you received a letter from your town telling you that your neighbors have complained about the plants in your front yard, and you had 10 days to get rid of them or be fined? Now, that's not a nightmare dreamed up by Franz Kafka. As commentator Andy Wasowski tells us, this is happening a lot, as thousands of folks around the country are going more natural in their front yard landscapes.

WASOWSKI: Not too long ago, Tulsa resident Evelyn Connors, an 82-year-old widow and avid gardener, got an official citation in the mail stating that she'd violated that city's weed laws. Seems a neighbor thought the native purple cone flowers she'd planted along the street were weeds, and complained. Well, Tulsa soon learned that they'd picked on the wrong 82-year-old widow. Evelyn called the local paper and the next day she was front page news. Local TV stations and DJs jumped on the story, all supporting her right to garden as the darn well pleased.

Soon Evelyn's story was getting national coverage and her mailbox was stuffed with hundreds of letters of support from all over the country. In the end, the mayor came out to her home, apologized, and rescinded the ordinance.

Weed laws exist all over the nation, and they basically serve a good purpose. They make sure slovenly neighbors don't let their yards get overgrown and trashy. The problem arises when municipalities and other home owners can't see the difference between an unkempt yard and a naturalistic landscape that attempts to be environmentally correct. Neighbors see plants they're not familiar with, so they assume they're weeds. What they're seeing in most cases is healthy native plants growing in harmony with their surroundings. These neighbors also freak out and think the area will soon be infested with vermin, which is nonsense. Vermin live in garbage, not healthy habitats. In fact, every objection to naturalistic landscapes the critics raise have been proven time and again to be without merit.

The problem is simply one of ignorance and misconceptions. The critics are out of touch with nature and just don't understand the many benefits of naturalistic landscapes, such as water conservation, elimination of toxic chemicals, and creation of wildlife sanctuaries, to name a few. Naturalistic landscapes also look very different from conventional landscapes, so of course that makes them highly suspect. The thing is, if we can accept the right of home owners to have plastic sunflowers, pink flamingos, and concrete bunny rabbits on their lawns, we should also recognize the right of other home owners to have environmentally friendly, natural landscapes that are both attractive and beneficial.

CURWOOD: Andy Wasowski is a freelance writer and garden photographer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for reporting on science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800- PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. CURWOOD: The Clinton Administration is considering opening up more of Alaska's wild lands to oil drilling. That story is just ahead on Living on Earth.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Twenty years ago this month, New Yorkers got a rare chance to stargaze when a few well-placed lightening bolts turned out the lights, all the lights, in the Big Apple. More than 9 million people went without electricity after power lines north of the city got knocked out and backup systems failed. It didn't help that temperatures had been in the 90s for a few days, so power usage was at a peak. The entire city, including both airports and Wall Street, shut down. It took 25 hours to restore full power. The blackout brought out the best and worst in people. Outlaws broke into more than 2,000 stores and did millions of dollars of damage. Meanwhile, without television and other such distractions, folks talked more to their families, friends, and neighbors. Some got to know each other very well while stuck in elevators. Today, a blackout of similar proportions is near impossible, officials tell us. That claim may soon be put to the test. Con Edison is predicting all-time record levels of electricity usage this summer. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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CURWOOD: You may have heard about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's far northeastern coast, but chances are the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska doesn't ring a bell. This little-known tract of Federal land is being looked at by the Clinton Administration, which is thinking about opening it up to oil and gas exploration. Earlier this month, Living on Earth's Peter Thomson traveled with Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt to the region. Peter just returned to his base in San Francisco, where he joins us, now. Hi there, Peter.

THOMSON: Hey, Steve.

CURWOOD: So tell me about this place, the National Petroleum Reserve. What's it like?

THOMSON: It's a huge tract on Alaska's northwestern coast, west of the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay. It's about 35 thousand square miles, that's almost the size of Indiana. Further to the east the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, which people are more familiar with, includes most of the coastline east of Prudhoe Bay. This includes even more of the coastline to the west of Prudhoe Bay. It was set up as a Navy petroleum reserve in the 1920s. I'll tell you, Steve, the landscape there is really otherworldly. It's vast, flat, pale green tundra stretching to the horizon. It's covered with lakes and rivers. It's saturated like a sponge in the summer time and frozen solid in the winters.

CURWOOD: And there's a lot of wildlife there, huh? Like big caribou herds and such?

THOMSON: Big caribou herds. Two caribou herds cross through the area well into the 7-figure range. It's also home to grizzly bears, polar bears, fish, dozens of species of shore birds and water fowl. At least 2 endangered birds, a couple of eider ducks.

CURWOOD: And people live there as well?

THOMSON: Yeah, about 5,000 Inupiat Eskimos have lived there for thousands of years, concentrated today in about 5 communities, the largest of which is Barrow, which is the northernmost community in the United States. They're no longer nomadic, but they're still dependent to a large degree on subsistence hunting.

CURWOOD: What led to the creation of this petroleum reserve somewhat 70 years ago?

THOMSON: Well, some early geological explorers found some oil seeps on the coastline there, and at the time of course all the Navy's ships were run on petroleum rather than nuclear power. Alaska was a territory then. The US Government could just basically just carve it out and say we're going to hold onto this. And they did. And it was transferred to the Interior Department in the 70s, still to be an oil reserve, although not for the Navy.

CURWOOD: Now, how much oil is there?

THOMSON: Well, nobody knows for sure. The best estimate is about 300 million barrels, although it's possible there's a whole lot more than that. It's nothing on the scale of the 12 billion barrels or so in Prudhoe Bay, but it's obviously worthy of attention. The problem is that the most likely reserves are concentrated in the same area as the most crucial wildlife populations.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now, it's been a reserve for the last 70 years. Why this year, right now, is Interior Secretary Babbitt talking about starting to drill there?

THOMSON: Well, that's the key question. The answer has to do with politics, technology, economics. Some leases were sold there in the early 80s, but they were never developed, in large part because the oil market collapsed. Since then, though, oil development on the state lands between the NPRA and the Arctic Wildlife Refuge has been moving west. New fields have been discovered and put into production. Also, the companies' ability to develop smaller and smaller deposits has improved. And the size or the footprint of every drilling platform has shrunken dramatically, which means that the companies have a stronger case now that they can develop the area without significant environmental impact. Meanwhile, Secretary Babbitt has basically told Alaska and the industry that the Arctic Refuge is off limits. They're not going to get in there as long as Clinton is President. And he's told them that they should look west for their new drilling sites. The reserve was set up expressly for petroleum development at the discretion of the Secretary of Interior. It's his call.

CURWOOD: Now, I have to guess that the Secretary of the Interior is getting a fair amount of political pressure to open up this petroleum reserve.

THOMSON: I think that that's fair to say.

CURWOOD: I mean, Alaska is so dependent on oil for its revenues. I mean, what does the state make, like 90, 85, 90 percent of its money on oil?

THOMSON: Something like that. There's no state income tax or sales tax. The huge majority of the state's income comes from oil revenues. And the end is in sight for Prudhoe Bay, and Alaskans are starting to get nervous. Their Republican delegation has been beating down the doors of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, trying to get in there. Meanwhile, there's a Democratic governor, and he's very pro-oil as well. He's convinced that Alaska can do oil development right, as he likes to put it. There is some talk that the Clinton Administration wants to do the governor, Tony Knowles, a favor, by giving him what the Republicans have been unable to get, which is more oil for the state of Alaska. Governor Knowles and Secretary Babbitt say that's just not true, but it's just a logical time to start looking in the area.

CURWOOD: So, what do you think? Which way do you think the Secretary is leaning on this?

THOMSON: Well, for the record, he says he stands absolutely perpendicular on the issue. That he has not made up his mind one way or the other. And I really don't think he has, but he did say several things repeatedly, which I think are important to mention. He's very impressed with the oil companies' success in reducing their impact on the land. He's at least as impressed by the subsistence culture of the Eskimos and the need to preserve the wildlife that that depends on. And he repeated several times that he was less convinced by the oil companies' assurances that they could develop there without harm than the Eskimos themselves were. I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that we're going to see drilling there. The Secretary could have made this decision very quietly. He could have commissioned an environmental impact study be done by agency folks in Alaska. He could have stayed home in Washington and not drawn much attention to it. But he went to Alaska, and he decided to make a big issue out of it.

CURWOOD: How soon does he decide?

THOMSON: Well, officially the process is going to take about another year. There's a draft environmental impact statement due out this fall, then 9 months of comment, review, etc. Decision expected next August. Most of the communities up there, though, while they support drilling, don't want to go so fast. The environmentalists certainly don't want to go so fast at all, so it could take a lot longer than a year.

CURWOOD: Hey, Peter, thanks for taking this time with us. We're all looking forward to the documentary you're going to produce on this material in the next few weeks.

THOMSON: Okay. Thanks, Steve.

CURWOOD: Peter Thomson is Living on Earth's western bureau chief, speaking with us from San Francisco.

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CURWOOD: Even the most ardent defenders of the Endangered Species Act say it kicks in too late in the process of extinction. Ecosystems as well as individual species, they say, need to be protected to avert the loss of biological diversity. That's why the eyes of the nation are on San Diego. The city recently approved a land use system based on the conservation of critical habitat. Nearly 2,000 of San Diego County's 640,000 acres have been designated as eco-sensitive areas that are off-limits to development. In exchange, developers can move forward with projects outside the reserves without worrying that somewhere along the line they might be blocked by an endangered species claim. So far, the plan is drawing mixed reviews. Erik Anderson of member station KPBS in San Diego has our report.

GOLDING: Mr. McCarty, as you know, I share many of your concerns, which is why I fought from the beginning to make this a different way to do things...

ANDERSON: San Diego mayor Susan Golding is facing a difficult political balancing act. She's leading the charge for an ambitious plan to protect threatened species and guide development in this rapidly urbanizing area, without alienating the moderate and conservative voters who've elected her twice, and who she hopes will help send her to the US Senate.

GOLDING: Call the roll. The vote is unanimous, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. (Applause)

ANDERSON: After 5 years of discussion and debate, the San Diego City Council approved the proposal known as the Multiple Species Conservation Program, or MSCP. Developed by US Government biologists with input from environmentalists, developers, local and state politicians, and residents, it would set aside a fifth of San Diego County's land as crucial habitat for 85 threatened plant and animal species. In exchange for this protection, the program allows development to continue elsewhere, even on land where one of the species may live. It is a major change from the old way of doing business under the Endangered Species Act, which puts no restrictions on private land until a species reaches a crisis point. Once that happens, though, lawmakers suddenly can't do anything that would compromise its habitat. Mayor Golding says that has hurt developers and landowners without really helping threatened animals and plants.

(People milling around)

GOLDING: All the old way has done is stopped development on pieces on property. It has not created habitat. So you create kind of a piecemeal or postage stamp kind of preservation. And the truth is that most plants and animals don't flourish in that kind of environment.

ANDERSON: Mayor Golding says by designating protected wildlife habitats and corridors ahead of time, San Diego's wildlife will be assured sufficient territory on which to thrive, and landowners will have a more predictable environment in which to build.

GOLDING: It is a new way to resolve the conflict between development and the environment, and we believe and mostly the environmental community believes that it is a better way to do it.

ANDERSON: The San Diego plan is the most far-reaching yet of a new type of tool favored by the Clinton Administration. Special agreements in which local and state officials promise they'll manage development before an endangered species crisis hits. And Washington agrees to ease up on some stringent wildlife protections. Many environmental groups have given the conservation plan at least qualified support. Even San Diego County's Building Trades Association, representing 1,000 contractors, has jumped on board, enticed by the promise of a simplified development process. But the local leaders who pushed the plan still have a big sales job ahead of them. San Diego County's 17 other communities have yet to sign on, and there's plenty of vocal opposition to the plan.

(Birds chirping)

ANDERSON: When 56-year-old Janice Zamudio left the farms of Wisconsin 22 years ago and moved to southern California, she brought with her the dream of owning a small farm. Four years after relocating, she found what she was looking for.

ZAMUDIO: It's very quiet. If you stop and listen, sometimes the only thing you can hear is the wind blow, or the birds sing. It is very pretty.

ANDERSON: Ms. Zamudio bought a mostly flat parcel of land on top of a coastal mesa, which at the time was pretty much free of zoning restrictions.

ZAMUDIO: The only thing you had to worry about in the way of development was floodplain and hillside review. So we ended up getting 32 acres that was mostly mesa top, and I thought I certainly would be able to use most of this land for a small farm or a horse ranch or a chicken ranch or whatever I wanted to use it for.

ANDERSON: But Ms. Zamudio's land has been designated a wildlife corridor. She can't build on three quarters of it, and although the city has promised to pay her for what she can't develop, she says that could take 20 years. It could cost 300 million to one and a half billion dollars to buy all the newly designated habitat from private land owners. But only a small fraction of that has been set aside. There's talk of a bond issue to raise the cash, but that may not happen for a few years. And there's no alternative in place if voters reject it. The lack of a compensation plan has also given some developers reservations about the conservation plan. Party Construction stands to lose a thousand acres, meaning they could have millions of dollars tied up for years. Party's Mike Madigan says that's old time thuggery.

MADIGAN: Al Capone and his friends used to go around to businesses in Chicago and say things like, "We could make it extremely difficult for you to stay in business. But for the payment of a modest fee, say, a third of your income, we will make sure that you're able to stay in business."

ANDERSON: The plan has also gained the ire of many scientists.

(Shuffling noises)

ANDERSON: In a crowded greenhouse complex, San Diego State University biologist Ellen Bauder is studying a Federally-protected plan which is struggling to survive in San Diego's increasingly urban environment.

BAUDER: And this is an experiment here that I have been doing for a year. This is on a rare plant called San Diego thorn mint. You can see...

ANDERSON: Dr. Bauder has studied the area's rare plants for more than 15 years. She says many species are uncommon to begin with, because of the region's semi-arid climate. The thorn mint, for instance, requires a soil mixture and environmental conditions that are relatively scarce here. Dr. Bauder says that in dry environments like San Diego's, watersheds are a crucial part of any management plan. But the Multiple Species Conservation Program ignores them. She also faults the plan for keying development decisions only to the habitat needs of certain plants and animals.

BAUDER: If this were really a conservation plan, people would be looking at deer and coyotes and skunks and things like that just as much as they are looking at the incredibly rare things, because they're all linked together. But none of that has been looked at because that will not stop a building permit. It's the rare plants and animals that will stop a building permit.

ANDERSON: Essentially, Dr. Bauder says the plan gives land owners a license to develop most of the county, diminishing the habitat for a broad range of creatures.

BAUDER: The few scientists who said they think it's good, it's basically because they feel some of the alternatives would be worse.

ANDERSON: The alternative that scares so many people is unplanned urban sprawl. Four hundred thousand more people are expected in the county by the year 2015. That's why San Diego's Sierra Club supports the habitat blueprint. Spokesperson Craig Adams says protracted and costly legal battles over endangered species listings aren't helping plants and animals already teetering on the verge of extinction.

ADAMS: We're almost in a triage setting. And what that means is that we have islands of habitat. And what science shows is that islands essentially are where species go to go extinct.

ANDERSON: The conservation plan doesn't take every plant and animal into account, but it does go far beyond the standard species by species approach, so common under the Endangered Species Act. Mr. Adams concedes there are no guarantees but says the plan does bring some reasonable basis for hope. It's that hope which motivates San Diego mayor Susan Golding. She says the Multiple Species Conservation Plan is an opportunity to preserve an important part of her community.

GOLDING: Of all the things that we've been involved in, this is the one that will be lasting. This is the one that will be there forever. And we can all, at some point in time, walk through, see a habitat preserve. And we can know that it would not be there if it weren't for us. And I can't think of a better legacy to leave.

ANDERSON: With the city, state, and Federal government on board, there is a lot of momentum behind the conservation plan. But San Diego is only the first of 17 municipalities to okay what's intended to be a county-wide habitat plan. And it'll be less effective if even one town fails to sign on. There's also a question whether it will stand up to expected legal challenges. That means the Clinton Administration could face, in San Diego, exactly what it was hoping to avoid: the costly legal battles that have become the bane of the Endangered Species Act. For Living on Earth, I'm Erik Anderson in San Diego.

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CURWOOD: Scientists have long thought there is only one species of elephant in Africa. But earlier this year DNA evidence suggested otherwise. African elephants may well come from 2 separate and distinct species. For commentator Gwen Acton, that finding is just the latest example of a thorny problem. She says the lack of a clear way to define species creates a predicament not only for scientific research, but for conservation efforts as well.

ACTON: One traditional approach to defining members of species states that if animals can mate and produce fertile offspring, then they are the same species. For example, horses and donkeys can breed, but their progeny, mules, are sterile. So horses and donkeys are considered members of separate species.

A difficulty with this type of classification is that there are many organisms, such as bacteria, that reproduce without mating. A second problem is that some organisms remarkably different from each other can interbreed. For example, wolves and coyotes can produce fertile pups with each other, but they are considered different species. Not to mention that practically speaking, biologists in the field cannot make 2 animals mate, then stand around waiting to see if they produce fertile offspring. While there are a number of other attempts at defining species that incorporate various factors, such as evolutionary history and geography, the truth is that a majority of the world's organisms have been classified simply by their appearance and body structures.

But here, too, there are problems. Recent DNA work shows that many microbes which look identical to humans under a microscope may be as different from each other genetically as maple trees and starfish. And the finding that savannah and forest elephants probably have been different species for at least the last 3.6 million years comes despite decades of intense research on elephants. One can only begin to imagine how many misclassifications there are in less well-studied creatures.

While new DNA technologies are aiding in classifications, scientists must find a less ambiguous definition of species, and fast. It will be important in measuring biodiversity throughout the world. In addition, many rare animals are protected by legislation or government treaties, such as the Endangered Species Act or bans on ivory hunting, that are vulnerable to change on the basis of species classifications. Unfortunately, given the current pace of research in this area, the organisms themselves may disappear before consensus is achieved.

CURWOOD: Commentator Gwen Acton is a biologist at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

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CURWOOD: A walk through some New England woods with a different set of eyes. That's coming up on Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Most of us walk through the woods and see -- well, trees. But for ecologist and author Tom Wessel, a stroll through the forest is an historical journey. One that tells a story of fire, logging, settlement, or storms. His new book is called Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England. Producer Nina Keck recently spent an afternoon with Tom Wessel.

(Bird song)

KECK: I met Tom Wessel at the entrance to New Hampshire's Wontasticat State Forest. Within minutes of shaking hands, he points to the hillside above us and begins describing what he sees.

WESSEL: You know, it's really neat to be out at this time of year, because you can see the different colors of green. The broad-leafed trees, which are just leafing out, are sort of a very light yellow green. And then sticking up through them and quite a bit higher are the pines, which are much darker. And that real difference in size, looking at these very tall pines scattered opening through this lower canopy, is telling me at last that something dramatic's happened on that mountainside over there. There's been some major disturbance, which has left these much older, bigger pines, but taken out many, many trees. I think we'll have to get in there and look around to figure out what happened.


KECK: Tom Wessel is director of the Environmental Biology Program at Antioch New England Graduate School in Keane, New Hampshire. He's a forest ecologist with a bushy beard and a warm smile. He says it was his students who convinced him to write the book. For almost 20 years he's been trekking through the underbrush and along winding trails, teaching people how to interpret the history of woodlands.


KECK: When you talk about reading a forest, it's kind of an interesting way to think about it. What exactly do you mean?

WESSEL: Well, I mean reading it the way you'd read a history book, although it's even more maybe like reading a mystery novel, I think. In my book I tell you about it being similar to being, to reading Sherlock Holmes, because you see that possibly something's happened to a forest. And then you start looking for the clues to try to figure out what has happened there.


KECK: Professor Wessel begins to unravel the puzzle of this place as we work our way up the hill. He points out various trees and stumps and explains that this forest was either logged, burned by a very hot fire, or hit by a hurricane or other strong wind storm.

WESSEL: This is a good place to stop because now we're starting to get some good clues here. If you look up here we see some huge white pines. Those trees have to be, you know, 3 feet in diameter or more.

KECK: Those are big.

WESSEL: Oh yeah.

KECK: How old would you say those are?

WESSEL: Well, these trees are well over 100 years of age. And actually these are small for the way white pine used to be around here. We used to have white pine that could get up to 8-foot diameters and 230 feet in height. These were giant trees that are similar to those found out in the Pacific Northwest. We don't have any more like that in New England because they're all clear-cut. But those trees, those really big ones, would have been about 400 years. These are probably 100, 150 years. And then if we look around us, most of the other trees are quite small and all about the same age. And what becomes noticeable is we're missing trees of sort of intermediate size. And we'd have to start to think about, well, what would probably take out medium-sized trees? Probably wouldn't be a wind event. The trees most liable to go down in a strong wind would be the really big trees that are left here. So we can probably already start removing a blow-down or a hurricane as the factor here. We sort of have to start looking maybe toward fire or logging possibly as what has happened on this slope.


KECK: Tom Wessel points to another important clue. Several red maples and white birch with more than one trunk. He says multiple trunk trees were either cut and the stump then sprouted, or they were heat-killed by a fire and the root system survived. So, how do you decide which it was? Well, if it was a fire, the author says, we'll find telltale scars at the bottom of the trees.

WESSEL: Oh, look at this. Right over here, there's a white oak and a red oak next to it. Both of them have scars, we can see those nice triangular-shaped wounds at the very base of the tree. And on both trees those wounds are on the uphill side. And that's really good, because when you find uphill basal scars like that, it's a sure sign of fire.


KECK: Dry sticks and leaves roll downward, and gather on the uphill sides of trees. During a fire, those piles of litter burn longer, and leave definite scars on the tree trunks.

WESSEL: So this is quite good. We're really seeing here the classic signs of fire.

KECK: It's not always so easy to figure out what happened. Professor Wessel says sometimes so many things have altered a landscape that it's hard to pinpoint one particular event. But even without the author to guide you, Tom Wessel's book makes doing your own sleuthing fairly easy. Each chapter begins with a detailed etching of a particular landscape, and those drawings are packed with clues. I found myself constantly flipping back and forth between the pictures and the text, trying to decode the signs of fire, agriculture, and disease in the forest before they were completely explained.

WESSEL: Most of us may know piecemeal fragments of the woods. We might know how to identify individual trees or wildflowers or birds. Or maybe we don't even know that and just enjoy the woods' beauty. But people really haven't, I don't think, learned generally to see things in an integrated whole.

KECK: The Vermont author says his readers often tell him that their experience of the woods changes dramatically as they learn to see patterns in the landscape.

WESSEL: Most people I find get really excited, because all of a sudden they see that the woods has history. It has stories that you can literally read. And that process becomes actually a dialogue. You go out and you start noticing changes in forest composition, say what happened here? You'll ask questions and the forest answers back. It provides the clues. You really all of a sudden start having a dialogue with your landscape.

KECK: In his book, Tom Wessel writes about New England. But he says the techniques he describes can be used anywhere. And he's already thinking about writing a second book on the forests of the southern Rockies. For Living on Earth, I'm Nina Keck.

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(Bird song)

CURWOOD: Tom Wessel's Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, is published by Countryman Press.

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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 Harvard University. Our production team includes Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Julia Madeson, Peter Christenson, Susan Shepherd, and Peter Shaw. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Our associate editor is Kim Motylewski. And we had help from Tom Kuo, Jill Hecht, and Emma Hayes. Jeff Martini engineered the program. Michael Aharon composed the theme. And I'm Steve Curwood. 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 W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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