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

November 7, 1997

Air Date: November 7, 1997


Climate Control and Clean Air

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions would help control global temperature rise in the long term. A more immediate benefit would be cleaner air - especially with respect to soot and other airborne particles. Steve chats with Dr. Joel Schwartz, an epidemiologist at Harvard School of Public Health about his recent findings on this front. (06:00)

Renewable Energy Challenged / Reese Erlich

Alternative energy sources like solar, wind and biomass have never had an easy time in the marketplace. Deregulation could mean these technologies will have be even harder to sell. Reese Erlich reports from Sacramento. (07:15)

Powerboat Smoke / Trish Anderton

Some people call powerboats stinkpots, because many two stroke outboard motors burn a mixture of gas and oil that produces a thick and smelly exhaust. But one New Hampshire man says he has a practical answer to this marine pollution: power these boats with propane gas. New Hampshire Public Radio's Trish Anderton reports. (05:10)

Alone at Last? / Sy Montgomery

Commentator Sy Montgomery recalls a peaceful hike that turned techy. (02:22)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about compost. (01:15)

Maine Questions / John Rudolph

Environmental initiatives topped the ballot in several states. In Maine, voters rejected a controversial measure to manage the state’s forests. And over the objections of environmental groups, they approved an initiative to widen the Maine turnpike. Living On Earth producer John Rudolph explains the results to Steve. (03:42)

Colorado Votes No on Light Rail / Kelley Griffin

Kelley Griffin reports from Denver on rejection of a sales tax increase for a mass transit plan that included 125 miles of new train tracks. Critics say the vote proves light rail is dead for the region. But supporters insist the vote reflected confusion over the scope and cost of the proposal. (01:45)

Listener Letters


Clean Living

A community in Ithaca, New York has tried to model sustainable living in their new housing development. A year after the first residents moved in, they are finding that turning an ecological dream to reality is tricky business. (08:40)

Bird Talk / Kenn Kaufman

Orinthologist Kenn Kaufman joins Steve for a birding lesson. Mr. Kaufman's book, "Lives of North American Birds," is a reference to birds' breeding habits, migration patterns and population status. Meet the whip-poor-will, a bristle thighed curlew, and a white tailed kite in this talk. (07:50)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Reese Erlich, Trish Anderton, Kelley Griffin, Tatiana Schreiber
GUESTS: Joel Schwartz, John Rudolph, Kenn Kaufman
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

While the world debates the prospect of future dangers to public health from climate change, there's new evidence that cutting greenhouse gas emissions now would also avert a clear and present danger from particulate pollution.

SCHWARTZ: What's new here is, we are taking the global climate debate and we're saying, hey, wait a minute, there are immediate health benefits to these reductions in fossil fuel combustion and they're very large.

CURWOOD: Also, environmental concerns about the deregulation of electric power generation. We look at the California experience. And we meet a man who has an invention to clean up that stinky, shiny mess that motorboats leave behind.

SWANSON: (Motorboat in background) What we have to get rid of is the rainbows on the lake. They belong in the sky, but they don't belong in the water.

CURWOOD: And the monster from Mount Monadnock, this week on Living on Earth. First, the news.

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(NPR news broadcast follows)

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Climate Control and Clean Air

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Most of the studies which look at the possible public health effects of climate change consider future problems, like the spread of disease, unstable food supplies, and rising sea levels. But a research team assembled by the World Health Organization, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Resources Institute, has found there would be an immediate and large health benefit to cutting emissions from fossil fuels, especially coal. Along with carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, fossil fuels also produce deadly particulate pollution. Writing in the current issue of the British medical journal The Lancet, the researchers report that proposals by the European Union for the Kyoto negotiations to cut greenhouse gases in industrial countries would save an estimated half million lives in the United States over the next decade. At the same time, the researchers say, a 10% reduction in the growth of fossil fuel use in developing countries could save as many as 7 million lives there in the same period. Dr. Joel Schwartz is an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health and is one of the authors of the study.

SCHWARTZ: Forgetting about global warming, if you just look at the strategies on the table to deal with global warming and ask what are the benefits of the pollution reductions in terms of direct health benefits, how big are they and are they worthwhile in and of themselves? And what we found is that the health benefits both in the industrialized nations and in the developing world are tremendous from going forward with these steps.

CURWOOD: Now, the Europeans have proposed cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below 1990 levels by the year 2010. If that happened in the industrialized part of the world, how many excess deaths from particulate pollution would be saved, do you think?

SCHWARTZ: Well, we'd be talking about tens of thousands of deaths a year that would be avoided in the United States and similar numbers in Europe from strategies like that.

CURWOOD: This is a crass question, but what are these lives worth, do you think?

SCHWARTZ: Well, in the United States, if you look at how much extra money you have to pay people to work in occupations with a higher risk for accidental death, and you convert that into how many dollars you're paying per life, you get numbers on the order of $4 million a life. So, what we're talking about in the United States alone is tens of billions of dollars a year in economic benefits.

CURWOOD: Now, right now, the developing countries aren't part of the Kyoto arrangement. What are your assumptions there when you say that developing countries could have reduced mortality from cleaning up their air?

SCHWARTZ: They aren't part of the Kyoto agreement and that's in fact one of the problems in coming to an agreement. Basically, any time a country does something to achieve global climate benefits, those benefits accrue to everybody in the world, but you're paying for it. And so each nation says well, we don't want to pay for it. People in the US complain about economic advantages. People in the developing world say well, you know, we haven't had our chance to develop yet. When you start looking at these air pollution benefits, they're local. And that makes a big difference. What you can say to the developing countries is, yes, it's true, you don't use as many tons of CO2 per person as the United States does. But the ones that you're using are killing your citizens, and here's how many lives you could save in your country if you did something about that. And it's worth it to you. So it moves things from being a sort of fight between countries and who's going to pay for a common good to making it clear to these countries that they actually each have it in their own interest to do something.

CURWOOD: How many lives are you talking about saving in the developing world?

SCHWARTZ: When you move to the developing world, we're talking about much bigger numbers, because there's a lot of very dirty coal combustion in places like China and India and it's growing very fast. So you're talking about, you know, numbers up, like, hundreds of thousands of deaths per year that can be avoided.

CURWOOD: What are the big uncertainties about this study?

SCHWARTZ: If you were to take the study as how many people, how many lives will be saved under scenario X, there are big uncertainties because there are uncertainties about what the actual strategies would be to reduce CO2 emissions. There are uncertainties about what the pollution concentrations would be. But if you look at it more broadly, how uncertain is the conclusion that if you did something reasonable to control the use of fossil fuel and the buildup of CO2 emissions, that there would be health benefits that would be commensurate with that? Then I think there's very little uncertainty. You'd really have to think that, you know, the conclusions of WHO and the US government and the British government and all the people who have reviewed these studies linking particulate air pollution to mortality are wrong to come up with a different answer.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us.

SCHWARTZ: My pleasure.

CURWOOD: Dr. Joel Schwartz teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health. He's an epidemiologist and a former official of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

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Renewable Energy Challenged

CURWOOD: Reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases, experts say, means using less fossil fuels and certain other chemicals, and turning instead to alternative power sources. Nuclear emits no greenhouse gases, though many people don't like the waste problem it poses. Perhaps the most environmentally friendly electricity comes from solar, geothermal, wind, and biomass. California has led the nation in the development of such renewable energies. In the state capitol Sacramento, for example, the local utility actively promotes their use. But now California is deregulating electric utilities, and as Reese Erlich reports, green power faces an uncertain future.

(Motors and churning sounds)

ERLICH: Here along the Sacramento River Delta, 80-foot-tall windmills beat the air in the noonday sun. They provide pollution-free electricity to the hot, dry city of Sacramento.

OLMSTEAD: This facility here can accommodate about 1,200 typical Sacramento area homes.

ERLICH: Project manager Paul Olmstead of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, or SMUD, says these 3-year-old windmills have been a good investment because they provide power during times of peak usage, and thus offset the need for power from conventional generating plants.

OLMSTEAD: This site blows the most, in Sacramento, the most easy energy. That is, it cuts our peak load demands by blowing when most people turn on their air conditioners.

ERLICH: The seeds of this wind farm were sown in the oil crisis of the 1970s, when California regulators required utilities to invest in renewable energy such as wind, biomass, and solar. These new sources were more expensive than other forms of power. But Ralph Cavanagh, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says government regulators were willing to ask customers to pay a little more.

CAVANAGH: They believe, and I think they were right, that it was worth making some investment up front in the environmental and economic benefit of a diversified power supply, and in particular a renewable power supply that wasn't subject to the remarkable swings that we see in fossil fuel prices.

ERLICH: Today, though, with plenty of cheap fossil fuel available, the emphasis is on price, not diversity of energy supply. California is now leading the nation towards a deregulated energy market in which electricity customers will choose among various competitors. And in this new environment, many utilities have cut their investment in alternative power. Renewable energy still costs more because the technologies are still developing and they haven't yet reached the economies of scale of conventional sources. Also, most of the social cost of pollution isn't factored into the cost of standard electricity. Electricity generated by Midwestern coal or natural gas-powered plants, for example, costs about 2 cents per kilowatt hour. Wind power averages 5 cents, and photovoltaic solar averages a whopping 16 cents. So, deregulation puts renewables in a bind. They are too expensive to thrive in an unfettered free market, yet the costs won't come down without an expanding market.

(Voice gives directions over loudspeaker)

ERLICH: Here at SMUD's command center in Sacramento, executives think they've figured out how to resolve this Catch-22. They call it "green marketing." SMUD has invested more heavily in renewables than just about any other big utility in the country. Over half its power comes from hydroelectric stations. It has built geothermal, solar, wind, and biomass-generating facilities. So, in a competitive electricity market, the Sacramento utility plans to market itself as a "green energy provider." SMUD General Manager Jan Shorry thinks some consumers will pay 10 to 15% more for green energy.

SHORRY: We have developed new programs to target those consumers and meet their expectations by delivering green products to them. One is a program that will meet the customer's energy needs by offering them 100% renewable power, and they will pay one cent extra a kilowatt hour for that.

ERLICH: SMUD knows there's a market for clean energy. The utility has already installed photovoltaic solar panels on top of the houses of 400 customers who have volunteered to pay $50 more per year.

(Garage door opening)

ERLICH: Janet Wolf-Eshe walks out onto her driveway and proudly shows off her home's solar panels.

(Buzzing sounds)

WOLF-ESHE: And this is also from SMUD, in relationship to the solar panels, the PV panels.

ERLICH: She says buying green power helps the environment much like buying organic food helps maintain a healthy body.

WOLF-ESHE: I feel that if I eat healthy food now, in the long run I am going to be paying out less for health problems. So I see that our need for alternative energy that same way.

ERLICH: But while Ms. Wolf-Eshe and her husband can afford to pay extra, most people feel that they can't. So, the market for green energy may be small. California recognized this problem and provided for continued subsidies for renewables for 4 more years, during the transition to deregulation. But renewable advocates argue that given the hidden subsidies for fossil fuels, incentives to use renewables should remain in place longer, until the technologies become competitive. Gary Gerber is the owner of the Berkeley solar equipment company Sun Light and Power. He remembers the days of direct consumer subsidies for using renewables.

GERBER: When we had the tax credits in the '70s for solar systems, there was a tremendous growth in the industry. And as soon as those credits went away, the industry's all but died.

ERLICH: Free-market advocates strongly disagree with Gerber. They argue that the whole idea of deregulation is to get rid of expensive subsidies. If renewables can't compete, they say, then they should fall by the wayside. Supporters of renewables, however, are pressuring Congress to preserve alternative energy sources, especially in light of President Clinton's recent commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Several bills have been introduced in Congress to require all utilities to buy a certain amount of renewable energy. Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

CAVANAGH: We strongly support that approach. It's market-based. It's designed to minimize the cost of renewable additions while ensuring that the overall renewables base of the country continues to grow.

ERLICH: The bills are likely to be considered next year as part of a national electric utility deregulation package. For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Erlich in Sacramento.

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CURWOOD: One man's idea to clean up the nation's lakes. It's a gas, and his story is next on Living on Earth.

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Powerboat Smoke

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Lake Winnipesaukee is one of the most popular recreation spots in New Hampshire. Thirty-five thousand boats are registered on the state's biggest lake, and often in the summer marine harbor traffic rivals rush hour on a big city freeway. Some people call power boats stinkpots, since many two-stroke outboard motors burn a mixture of gas and oil that produces a thick and smelly exhaust. Until recently, even four-stroke marine engines had few pollution limits. The Environmental Protection Agency has unveiled new rules aimed at cutting these emissions, but one man says he has a better answer: get those boats to use propane gas. New Hampshire Public Radio's Trish Anderton reports.

(Rubbing sounds)

ANDERTON: When it's sitting at the dock here in Meredith, Wayne Swanson's 20-foot supra ski boat looks pretty much like any other motorboat on Lake Winnipesaukee. The obvious difference is a hand-lettered cardboard sign on the bow that reads "Propane Powered." When he fires up the engine, you instantly smell another difference: the boat doesn't cough up a cloud of exhaust fumes. And, Mr. Swanson proudly points out, there's no colorful streaks of gas and oil on the water around the engine.

SWANSON: (Motorboat in background) What we have to get rid of is the rainbows on the lake. They belong in the sky, but they don't belong in the water.

(Motor continues)

ANDERTON: Wayne Swanson is an unlikely crusader: a soft-spoken guy in a blue polo shirt with a wispy thatch of gray hair. He grew up on Lake Winnipesaukee, and remembers boating with his father as a child.

SWANSON: We had a small boat with an outboard motor, and the motor would just leak oil, gasoline into the lake. And even back then I said, Jeez, this isn't right, you know? And it really bothered me. So maybe this is my calling. I don't know.

ANDERTON: During the 1970s, Mr. Swanson got interested in alternative fuels for cars. He started tinkering with carburetor-based propane engines, which burn up to 70% cleaner than gasoline engines but aren't as fuel efficient. Mr. Swanson eventually patented a propane fuel-injection system he says is 20% more efficient than comparable gas engines. He tried to get the automobile industry interested, but the response from Detroit was cool.

SWANSON: After 10 years I got the message, and I've always loved boats, and I see the lake getting damaged by motorboat pollution. And I thought, well, here's another way to approach a similar problem.

(Motors continue)

ANDERTON: In fact, motorboats are in some ways a worse problem than cars. For years boats have operated without any restrictions on their emissions. Many carry inefficient two-cycle engines that inject as much as a third of their gas and oil, unburnt, directly into the water. Jody Connor of New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services says these pollutants create problems in the lake, especially under heavy traffic areas like marinas.

CONNOR: The hydrocarbons that are dropped down to the bottom of the lake affect the growth of organisms that are key to the aquatic food chain.

ANDERTON: While most people agree a clean lake is important, many balk at the idea of switching to Wayne Swanson's four-cycle propane engine. Some boaters fear propane's explosive power, even though propane tanks are heavier and stronger than gas tanks. They complain adding a propane tank to a boat uses up valuable storage space. And as Barry Dickson of the nearby Meredith Marina points out, there is no place to refuel a propane boat on Winnipesaukee.

DICKSON: You have to manage your fuel supply a little bit more than you would just normal gasoline. Inasmuch as when you are out, you're out.

ANDERTON: The American Petroleum Institute argues it would be more effective to pursue cleaner gasoline technologies than to try to switch reluctant boaters to propane. Barry Dickson confirms boat owners are resistant to change where their prized possessions are concerned.

DICKSON: It's really going to have to be a new adventure-type person.

ANDERTON: But Meredith police chief John Curran says he's not an adventurous person. He was nervous about converting the town's police boat to propane last year. Now he's glad he did.

CURRAN: I'm thrilled with it! It runs much better, much quieter, much cleaner.

(Motors continue)

ANDERTON: Wayne Swanson says that's a typical response. People who try his boat are impressed with its power and performance. On a recent weekend, when he took it to top speed with a full load of passengers, other boaters on the water got excited.

SWANSON: You know, waving, thumbs up, really got a lot of ovation and everything. One person yelled out, "Grill me a hamburger, too!" Which was really (laughs) interesting.

ANDERTON: Mr. Swanson has applied to the state of New Hampshire for subsidies to help boat owners switch to his four-cycle propane system. And he's working on setting up a propane boat fueling station. He hopes a decade from now, 5% of Winnipesaukee's boats will be running on propane power. For Living on Earth, I'm Trish Anderton in Meredith, New Hampshire.

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Alone at Last?

CURWOOD: About 70 miles southwest of Lake Winnipesaukee and 3,165 feet above sea level sits another of New Hampshire's scenic treasures, Mount Monadnock. Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery was there with some friends not too long ago. It was a peaceful day that lost its tranquility when they ran into, well, let Sy tell you what happened.

MONTGOMERY: We were just leaving the parking area when we found ourselves beset by the voice of commerce. Some guy was arguing into a car cell phone, "The order was supposed to be shipped yesterday and it didn't arrive! We may have to cancel the account!" Was this guy going to go up the mountain with a cell phone? He was. "I can't stand listening to this," I muttered. "Let's run away." We couldn't have moved faster if we'd been pursued by a swarm of bees.

Why did this guy and his cell phone on Mount Monadnock make us so angry? My friends and I discussed this on our way to the top. Howard the poet began, sheepishly, "I suppose it's too puritanical or elitist," he said, "but I'm against these gadgets."

I thought I should play Devil's Advocate. "Maybe if this guy didn't bring a cell phone today, he'd be stuck in his office waiting to hear from that supplier," I said. "Maybe this is a case when technology freed him to go up the mountain on a beautiful day."

Howard disagreed. "But was he really freed? No. He's imprisoned by his work. It even followed him up here. The tendency we have," he said, "is that everything should be available everywhere."

We walked uphill thinking about this. Why shouldn't we have everything available everywhere? Isn't this the appeal of cell phones and laptop computers? What's the danger in that? Howard knew. "Because then," he said, "everywhere becomes like everywhere else." And in too many places across our country, everywhere is becoming like everywhere else. The same strip malls, the same fast food chains, the same Wal-Marts and McDonald's. And everywhere the roar of highway traffic and airplane noise, and people talking business on their cell phones. From this Monadnock offers us refuge. This is why we escape to the woods.

Monadnock is the most climbed mountain in the world. When we got to the top there were perhaps 200 people up there. The crowd made a lot more racket than that one guy on his cell phone. But these human voices on the mountain are not noise. They are an affirmation. All these people chose, as we did, to make this pilgrimmage. To go to a mountain, not to a mall.

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CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.

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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the 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.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: The challenge of alternative development in the middle of a modern American city. That story is coming up 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: Farmers and gardeners call it "brown gold." It's celebrated by poets, even noted in the Bible. It's compost. And as leaves everywhere fall to the ground, it's time to get in on the action. The breakdown of organic matter occurs naturally over time. Composting just speeds up the process. The recipe relies on four easy-to-find ingredients: carbon, nitrogen, air, and water. Carbon comes from brown things like dry leaves, nitrogen from green things like grass clippings and food wastes. Combine brown and green about 30 to 1, add some water, turn occasionally, and then wait. The mixture cooks itself. Temperatures inside an average back yard compost pile can exceed 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The result is the best natural fertilizer around. Each year an average household can produce about 400 pounds of fertilizer. Otherwise, all that yard and food waste goes to a landfill, where it takes up more than a quarter of the space in the nation's dumps. As the poet Walt Whitman wrote, "Behold this compost. Behold it well." And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Maine Questions

CURWOOD: In the recent elections environmental initiatives topped the ballot in several states around the country. In Maine, voters rejected a controversial measure to manage the state's forests. And reversing an earlier vote, they approved an initiative to widen the Maine Turnpike. And here now to explain these election results is Living on Earth producer John Rudolph. Hi, John.

RUDOLPH: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, let's start with the forestry referendum that was rejected by Maine voters. I have to admit, I'm confused as to exactly what it would have done.

RUDOLPH: Well, so were a lot of the voters, and that's probably one of the main reasons why it was defeated. Its proponents said that it would limit the practice of clear-cutting through incentives and sustainable forestry practices. The opponents, however, argued that in fact it would increase clear-cutting by allowing land owners to clear-cut under the guise of sustainable forestry.

CURWOOD: Many environmentalists supported this, but not all of them, right?

RUDOLPH: That's right. The main opposition came from the Green Party of Maine. But it's important to note that they weren't the only ones who opposed it.

CURWOOD: Oh? Who else?

RUDOLPH: Well, the Green Party of Maine formed what you might call an unholy alliance with the Wise Use Movement, mostly small landowners, who want the government to take a hands-off approach to land management and land regulation.

CURWOOD: I mean, this is really pretty amazing to have this spectrum. I mean, what's this say? I guess politics makes pretty strange bedfellows, eh?

RUDOLPH: Well, the phrase that came to my mind was, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Now this issue goes to the state legislature, which has shown a great deal of reluctance to deal with forestry and forestry management issues. And it's anybody's guess what they will do, because in effect they're hearing two messages from this referendum vote at the same time. One message saying, "We want more regulation," and the other message saying, "We want less regulation." So what's a legislator to do?

CURWOOD: Well, that will be an interesting one to watch. Let's turn now to the highway. That was the other environmental-related measure on the ballot. And that was an initiative on widening the Maine Turnpike. It passed even though just a few years ago the state voted to block any widening of this highway. How come voters changed their minds?

RUDOLPH: Well, first of all, Steve, there's more traffic on the turnpike than there was in 1991 when that first referendum question passed. Second of all, the political landscape has changed. The 1991 referendum was promoted by environmental groups. It was coupled with something called the Sensible Transportation Act, which required the state to investigate all alternative methods of transporting people around the state before they widened the turnpike. This time, the referendum question was written by those who favor the widening, and they put it in terms of safety and the economic health of the state. And that gave a certain momentum to the question, which ended up in it being passed by the voters.

CURWOOD: So, does this mean now that these extra lanes will be put on the Maine Turnpike?

RUDOLPH: Even under the best-case scenario, in the eyes of turnpike-widening proponents, the wider road won't be a reality for 7 or 8 years. Before that happens, before any concrete is poured, the state needs to go to the Federal Government for permits. Right now, southern Maine, where the widened section of the turnpike would be, is out of compliance with Federal Clean Air standards. Opponents of the widening say that a wider turnpike will bring more cars to the area, thus exacerbating the air pollution problems. If they can make that argument to the Feds and make it stick, well, this turnpike widening project could be put off for a very long time.

CURWOOD: John Rudolph is a Living on Earth producer and a Maine resident. Thanks for the report, John.

RUDOLPH: You're welcome, Steve.

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Colorado Votes No on Light Rail

CURWOOD: While highways gained ground in Maine, trains lost out in Colorado. It's the latest defeat for light rail. Earlier this year, voters in Phoenix rejected a light rail plan, and voters in Portland, Oregon, turned down a plan to expand its trolley system. On November 4th, Denver voters said "no" to a sales tax increase of less than half a cent for a mass transit plan that included 125 miles of new track. Critics say the vote proves light rail is dead for the region, but supporters insist the vote wasn't against mass transit. They say it reflected confusion over the scope and cost of the proposal. From Denver, Kelley Griffin reports.

GRIFFIN: Guide-The-Ride would have added light rail service, more buses, a train to Denver International Airport, and more carpool lanes. The plan, sponsored by the Regional Transportation District, also would have required further study to determine how to serve some areas. Supporters conceded that made it seem vague. The price tag also was a problem: $16 billion. Supporters say the vote means the regional transportation district needs to refine the plan. They say when pollution worsens and more people get stuck in traffic as the population grows, light rail will get the green light. But opponents say voters want transportation officials to be more innovative. There are other proposals on the table: deploying smaller buses on more flexible routes, and lifting regulations on taxi service to promote competition for door=to=door transportation. Now, the Regional Transportation Board must decide whether to promote those options or continue fighting for light rail expansion. And the board itself is badly fractured over the issue. But with the region's population expected to grow by one third and traffic to increase by 50% in 20 years, both sides agree they have to do something. For Living on Earth, I'm Kelley Griffin in Denver.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now some words of response from you, our listeners. Patrick Lilly hears us on KRCC in Colorado Springs. He wrote to applaud our report on hemp farming. But he noted that we failed to mention that the Federal prohibition of marijuana immediately followed the invention of the hemp decorticator. Now, that's a machine which would have alleviated labor-intensive harvesting. Mr. Lilly writes, "This invention would have resulted in a great resurgence in the popularity of hemp as a fiber for clothing and other uses, but no one was ever allowed to use it. As Miss Piggy would say, 'What a coincidence!'"

Sandy Mitchell, a listener to KUOW in Seattle, was pleased to hear our coverage of environmental problems in Asia. But he added, "I was slightly appalled that your expert from Harvard was advocating we sell China nuclear technology, when there are far more effective and far safer technologies."

Louise Fabiani, a Montreal listener, heard our profile of chicken farmer Joel Salatin on Vermont Public Radio. A long-time vegetarian, she's intrigued with his philosophy of raising poultry in portable pens. Writes Ms. Fabiani, "Sure, the output is smaller than a factory farm's, but that's the point. If fewer people demanded meat at least once a day, the perceived need for dollar-cheap but environment-costly meat would decrease, and maybe the factory farm would go the way of legalized child labor."

And finally, our apologies to Boy Scouts everywhere. Vic Shelburne, a professor at Clemson University, and listener to WEPR in Greenville, South Carolina, wrote to correct commentator Andy Wasowski. A recent essay of his stated that a Boy Scout could receive a merit badge in forestry without learning about a single native tree. "Not true," writes Professor Shelburne, a scoutmaster for nearly 20 years. "The first requirement in this relatively difficult merit badge is to prepare a field notebook, make a collection, and identify 15 species of trees and wild shrubs in a local forested area. And that's just the first requirement."

Well, please help us keep brave and clean, but be friendly. You can call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. Tapes and transcripts are available for $12.

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CURWOOD: The life and times of North American birds is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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Clean Living

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When the Utne Reader Magazine named Ithaca, New York, one of the most progressive towns in the nation, one of the reasons cited was EcoVillage, an alternative model for development. EcoVillage was designed as a set of housing clusters that exemplify sustainable living. It's been a year now since EcoVillage's first residents moved in, and as Tatiana Schreiber reports, they're finding that turning a set of ecological dreams into reality is proving to be a challenge.

SCHREIBER: Things got off to a shaky start last November, just 2 months before the first neighborhood would have been completed. A fire ripped through the unfinished buildings, including the community's common house and Jay Jacobsen's home.

JACOBSEN: I happened to be driving here for, just past dinner, and got here about, before the fire engines did, and so I saw the whole thing. It was, oh, man, incredible.

SCHREIBER: An investigation concluded that the fire was a freak accident, and none of the residents were deterred from moving in. Jay Jacobsen, who's a retired plant physiologist, says the EcoVillage experiment in solving both social and environmental problems was compelling.

JACOBSEN: And here was an opportunity to start a community from scratch, to be a part of the planning process right from the beginning. Where the houses are going to go, how are we going to govern ourselves, what is our relationship to the land going to be? All of these things in a community of people that were going to work together cooperatively, and it was just fascinating to me.

SCHREIBER: Mr. Jacobsen had to double up with another family until his own house was rebuilt, and then had to contend with fumes coming from the new kitchen cabinets.

(Bird song)

SCHREIBER: Yet like everyone I talked to at EcoVillage, he's still excited about the long-term vision.

WALKER: I thought I'd start out by talking a little bit about land use.

SCHREIBER: Liz Walker, the group's one paid staff person, shows me a big colorful map with lots of green and blue areas pencilled in.

WALKER: This conserves 80% of the land as agricultural open space, as wetlands, as woodlands. We would like to develop the water on-site, slow it down, recharge the aquifer, cleanse it through biological action. So this is what I call our 50-year dream plan. (Laughs)

SCHREIBER: The 2 most significant ways that EcoVillage challenges conventional notions about housing development, Liz Walker says, are its tight clustering of 150 homes on only a fraction of the land, and its integration of agriculture into the community.


SCHREIBER: We're touring the 175-acre site on Ithaca's West Hill, about 2 miles from downtown.

WALKER: I love being in the country and yet being so close to the city. It's just perfect. It's a really good location.

SCHREIBER: But some neighbors aren't so sure. They question the need for such a large development in what had been a rural area. But it's great for farmers Jen and John Bokaer-Smith, who lease about 3 acres from EcoVillage for an intensive organic vegetable farm.

JEN BOKAER-SMITH: This is definitely the best soil in the county for agriculture. It's a fantastic soil. And if you turn around, you can see the fantastic view we've got here from the garden, and I think without this group there would be tract houses on this farm, for sure.


JEN BOKAER-SMITH: This block is fallow for this year. This is clover that we planted, there was squash here, and we planted the clover into the squash in the mid-summer. And then when the squash was done in the fall, the cover crop was already established. This is a red clover. We're going to plow it and let it sit bare for a couple of weeks while we try to get the wheats to germinate, and then cultivate them so that we reduce the weed seed load in the soil. And then we're going to plant buckwheat, which is a great smother crop and also helps pull up some micro-nutrients.

SCHREIBER: As the community takes shape, the farm will provide about half the vegetables used in EcoVillage's common house.

WALKER: So this is our community building, our common house, which is still under construction. And it's really the center, the heart of the community itself.

SCHREIBER: With shared cooking, there'll be prepared dinners 3 or 4 nights a week.

(Radio music in the background)

WALKER: Rather than air conditioning, we're using pond water cooling. We'll be bringing in water, cold water from the pond and then running it through a heat exchanger and circulating the cool water.

SCHREIBER: But there are some problems with the long-term plans for Eco- Village. A Cornell grad student recently studied the site and found there's a lot less water than would be needed for the cleansing marsh, aquiculture pond, and network of little lakes that were envisioned. And, though composting toilets and reusing gray water were considered, it turns out a project of this size within city limits runs into strict health regulations. So for now, Eco- Village is hooked up to town water and sewer.

WALKER: We've really tried to design this whole community in a very flexible way. We can't afford all the environmental features we'd like at the moment. But we've designed in the possibility for very easy retrofit.

SCHREIBER: EcoVillage director Liz Walker says there's a dual piping system so that gray water can be treated and reused in the future. The houses are super-insulated and have 14-foot windows built for maximum solar gain. But solar panels will have to wait because the group needed to keep costs down. Even so, the houses came in at $89,000 for a one-bedroom, up to $155,000 for a five-bedroom. That includes access to the common house with a guest room and laundry facilities, the pond, all the open space, and amenities like a shared wood shop.

(Wood being cut. Man: "You want it like that." Woman: "Like that? Yeah, like that, that's good." Man: "That's good?")

SCHREIBER: The social experiment at EcoVillage--living closely together and sharing resources--has a lot of support in Ithaca. But some conservationists in the community point out ecological contradictions. For one thing, the houses are at the center of the site, breaking up the open land and requiring a long access road.

HARRISON: The concepts that EcoVillage espouses are the kind of developments where people can actually walk to their jobs and walk to stores. And the reality is they can't even easily walk to the end of their driveway.

SCHREIBER: Ellen Harrison is on Ithaca's town board. She says the half-mile road to the first neighborhood had to cut through a small wetland. It will have to be paved, sanded, and salted, and required an extension of town services like water, sewer, and electricity.

HARRISON: So, one of the ironies was the fact that this development is really pushing that kind of infrastructure further out into the countryside. And so in fact, then, it ends up putting development pressure on neighboring properties.

SCHREIBER: A number of family farmers still hold the neighboring land. Once the infrastructure is there, some fear they'll be forced to sell out to other developers. And in that sense, EcoVillage will be contributing to sprawl. But, Ellen Harrison says, if the EcoVillage concept was combined with a comprehensive town plan and regional thinking, it could help to limit sprawl.

HARRISON: There are people who believe that the current owners have the right to do what they want with their piece of land. And there are others, like myself, who basically view the job of the town board as keeping in mind people who live here 100 years from now and several hundred years from now. And that it's our responsibility to think through how the land needs to be managed to accommodate that kind of long-term thinking.

SCHREIBER: The town has adopted rules to limit density in ecologically-sensitive areas. And following the EcoVillage example, they may require cluster development in some places. They're also trying to preserve the agricultural land around EcoVillage. Meanwhile, EcoVillagers are considering building 2 or 3 clusters instead of 5. They're trying to carpool more, and get a bus to serve the community. For now the first EcoVillage residents are focusing on reclaiming their land from the devastation wrought by construction.

MAN 1: Most of these things were planted with pick-axes.

MAN 2: Really?

MAN 1: Literally. I mean, people just, like they're hitting cement with a pick.

SCHREIBER: They're layering cardboard and various mulches to build up the soil, and planting fruit trees, perennials, and native grasses. They've planted clover all around the pond, and are enjoying the wildlife that's moving in.

(Bird calls)

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Ithaca, New York.

Back to top

(Bird calls; fade to music up and under)

Bird Talk

CURWOOD: There are no ordinary birds. So says Kenn Kaufman, a man who has seen just about every bird there is in North America. He knows their voices and names like old friends. Mr. Kaufmann has just published a natural history reference called Lives of North American Birds. But you won't want to take this 700-page, 3-pound hardcover for a walk in the woods. It's for after the hike. It's a book to pull out and thumb through while you relax in front of the fire or out on the porch. Here, with a few well-chosen words, you can learn more about a species you may have just seen or heard: how it breeds, where it migrates, or how it's surviving the epidemic of extinctions. Kenn Kaufman joins us now for some bird talk. Welcome, sir.

KAUFMAN: Well, thank you.

CURWOOD: Let's get to know a few of these feathery characters. Let's start with the whip-poor-will.

(Whip-poor-will calls)

CURWOOD: Boy, that whip-poor-will really can keep going, can't he, eh?

KAUFMAN: They can. I know some people who get tired of hearing them. But I really love the sounds of those night birds that call on and on. To me, it's a comforting sound. It's reassuring if I'm camping out, just to hear them all night.

CURWOOD: Well, we have a place in southern New Hampshire. When I was a boy I'd hear that every night. You know, I mean, that's how I'd go to sleep. Just at twilight, just at dusk, the whip-poor-will would begin and would keep singing until I'm sure I was asleep, because I don't think he would stop. But these days, I don't hear the whip-poor-will, at all. In fact, I don't think I heard one for maybe 15 or 20 years in this place until just this summer I heard one, and it was around for 2 or 3 days. It was like a major occasion; we all ran to the window and listened. What's happening to these birds?

KAUFMAN: Whip-poor-wills have declined a lot in some parts of their ranges. There are a few areas where they're doing well, and they've actually extended their range a little bit in the coastal parts of the Carolinas. But in most of the Northeast their numbers have dropped a lot. They feed on large insects that fly at night, things like moths and beetles, and a lot of those insects are probably becoming less common. Partly because of spraying for gypsy moths, which doesn't really affect the gypsy moth that much but it sure wipes out a lot of the beautiful native moths like luna moth. And so the indiscriminate spraying has really had a major effect on the night-flying insects and on the birds that eat them.

CURWOOD: Let's see, how about one more here? Let's play a tape of the bristle-thighed curlew.

(Bristle-thighed curlew call)


CURWOOD: Ooh, that's so mournful, isn't it?

(Call continues, is joined by others)

KAUFMAN: Oh, it's a wonderful sound. To me, it takes me back to the hilltops in western Alaska. You'd never see a bristle-thighed curlew without making a major attempt for it. But it's up in these beautiful places: hilltops in the tundra, flying around, making those clear whistles.

CURWOOD: Can you describe the bird for somebody who might not know what a curlew is?

KAUFMAN: Curlews are large sandpipers, with long bills that are curved downward. And there are several kinds of curlews, but the bristle-thighed is quite a scarce bird, and the bristles on the thighs, you don't see those in the field. It's just some elongated feathers. But it's mostly brown with some cinnamon color on the tail. So it's not very colorful, but they're very elegant, graceful fliers, fairly large birds. And they make this major migration across open water of the Pacific. They fly from Alaska to islands in the southwest Pacific, and they may be making a single flight that goes for 2,500 miles.

CURWOOD: Wow. That's a lot of fuel they have to take on for that, huh?

KAUFMAN: It's a lot of fuel and it's a pretty amazing feat of navigation, too.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that the bristle-thighed curlew uses a tool?

KAUFMAN: That's right. There aren't very many birds that are known to use tools. But where the curlew winters on islands in the Pacific, in some places there are nesting colonies of sea birds there, and they're mostly feeding on crabs and insects and things. But they will also eat the eggs of other birds there. If it's a small bird like a tern, the curlew can just break open the shell with its bill. But if it's a large egg, such as one from an albatross, those shells are pretty thick, and the curlew's been seen picking up rocks and actually hammering on these eggs with the rocks to break them open.

CURWOOD: That's pretty amazing. The curlew getting rarer and rarer still?

KAUFMAN: The curlew is dropping in numbers. It was never a very common bird, apparently, but it's got a problem in that where it winters on these little islands in the Pacific. Formerly that was a totally safe environment. If they made this long flight, once they got to the islands there were no potential predators at all. So in molting, in replacing their feathers, they would drop all the flight feathers at once, all the long wing feathers, and they would be unable to fly for a period of a few weeks. That was no problem as long as there were no predators there. But as humans and their domestic animals are moving onto these islands, it's a serious problem for the curlews.

CURWOOD: All right. I think I'm ready for a good news story. And I'd like to turn now to the white-tailed kite.

(White-tailed kite calls)

CURWOOD: I guess that's the sound that a mouse would not like to hear because it's a kind of hawk, isn't a kite?

KAUFMAN: That's right. There are a number of kinds of kites, and the term kite is sort of a catch-all for a lot of small hawks that are graceful fliers. The white-tailed kite may not sound like much, but it is a beautiful bird, very graceful in flight, and they do catch a lot of small rodents.

CURWOOD: And how are they doing? I mean, they were once a pretty rare bird, right?

KAUFMAN: That's right. The white-tailed kite was even considered endangered back in the 1930s. But it's been gradually increasing over the last few years, and even expanding its range. They're nesting in a number of states now, such as Arizona and Florida, where they were unknown just a few years ago.

CURWOOD: So these guys are making a comeback after their decline. What happened?

KAUFMAN: There are a couple of things that contribute to the success story for the kite. One thing is that people stopped shooting them, which (laughs) certainly helps.

CURWOOD: Yeah, it does help.

KAUFMAN: Another factor, this is still controversial and not totally proven, but one of their main food sources in the past, they ate a lot of voles, the little short-tailed rodents called voles. And vole populations tend to go up and down. They'll be in big numbers for a while and then there will be a crash. And whenever there was a population crash, that would be sort of bad news for the kites. With the introduction of the house mouse from Europe, there are always a lot of them, so the kites, they seem to have a more stable food source now.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. You know, somebody listening to this interview may be mildly curious about birds, but is sort of wondering what all the excitement is about. What would you tell such a person?

KAUFMAN: There are a number of things that enter into it. One thing is variety. There are just so many kinds out there. I mean, my North American book covers 900 species. If you take in the whole world, there are close to 10,000 kinds of birds. You never run out of variety there. Birds are beautiful to look at, I mean that's obvious. And they're mentally challenging, too. Going out and finding these birds and recognizing them and then finding out what they're doing can be a real mental challenge. It can be a physical challenge as well. I just think there's really nothing that's better. They are a part of the real world, and sometimes when we're surrounded by artificial things it's just really great to connect with something that's real.

CURWOOD: Well, Kenn Kaufman, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

(Bird calls)

KAUFMAN: Well, it's been a pleasure to talk birds with you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Kenn Kaufman's book is called Lives of North American Birds, published by Houghton Mifflin.

Back to top

(Bird calls continue, up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production team includes Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Roberta DeAvila, and Peter Shaw, Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Liz Lempert, and Jesse Wegman. We had help from Dana Campbell and Carolyn Martin. Kim Motylewski is our associate editor. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. And the senior producer is Chris Ballman. Thanks this week to KUAT in Tucson and Cornell University's Library of Natural Sounds. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Jeff Martini engineers the program. And Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for reporting of 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.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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