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

December 12, 1997

Air Date: December 12, 1997


What Happened at Kyoto Summit / Steve Curwood

Years of negotiations over a climate change prevention treaty are over, and the world has begun to absorb the impact of the unprecedented deal. The Kyoto accord establishes a new world currency, of sorts: tradable emission reduction credits, that nations and private companies can trade. And while developed countries have reduction targets, the developing countries will not have binding limits in this phase of the climate convention. Parties to the treaty will meet again next year to review the pact. Living On Earth host Steve Curwood attended the Kyoto talks and has reports this assessment of the outcome. (07:40)

Pollution Credits in LA / Emily Harris

Trading smokestack credits are one market-based way to curb pollution. But people who live near industrial areas say they're paying the price. In Los Angeles, activists say a key component of at least one pollution-trading program is unjust and perhaps illegal. And for the first time, officials are beginning to listen to their concerns. Emily Harris reports. (06:35)

Every Breath / Neal Rauch

When officials talk about reducing air pollution and combating global warming, they usually mean reducing the burning of fossil fuels. But commentator Neal Rauch says focusing the blame on industry alone isn't fair. When it comes to curbing CO2 emissions, he thinks we should all share the burden. Commentator Neal Rauch breathes lightly in New York City where he works as freelance producer. (02:29)

Listener Letters

And now, comments from our listeners. (03:15)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the impact of the patented golf tee. (01:15)

This Winter's Bison Plan

The bison of Yellowstone Park suffered huge losses last winter between starvation and being shot by Montana Department of Livestock agents out of fear of brucellosis -- a disease that affects some bison and could potentially spread to local cattle. Todd Wilkinson is the western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He says despite protests against the bison policy last year, the plan remains largely the same for this winter. (03:59)

At ANWR: In Search of Caribou / Peter Thomson

The issue of oil drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska will be decided upon next summer, and this possibility hasn't yet generated much public debate. But efforts to open another nearby tract of federal land to development have been the subject of heated battles for years. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge terrain hugs the Arctic Ocean and the Canadian border. Much of it is officially designated as wilderness. But a slice of the refuge's coastal plain was long ago left without such protection, because it harbors significant oil deposits. For years, oil interests have tried to open it to exploration, and every time preservationists have beaten them back. Earlier this year, Living on Earth's Peter Thomson traveled to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for a first-hand look at the place and the people, and the caribou, at the center of the long-running debate. (00:21)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Laura Knoy
REPORTERS: Steve Curwood, Emily Harris, Peter Thomson
GUEST: Todd Wilkinson

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy.
A deal is struck in Kyoto to combat climate change. Industrialized nations make a binding pledge to cut greenhouse gases in the coming years. An emissions trading scheme is a big part of the plan.

SCHIFFLER: What we have here is the creation of a new environmental commodity. A commodity market that may be approaching several hundred million dollars in value very shortly.

KNOY: But when emission credits are traded, communities located near factories that buy the right to pollute say they lose out. A tale from Los Angeles.

PORRAS: What basically you have allowed to happen is to improve the air quality on the backs of these poor people living in san Pedro/Wilmington. It's unjust. It's unfair. And it needs to be remedied.

KNOY: Those stories and your letters this week on Living on Earth. First, news.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

What Happened at Kyoto Summit

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
Years of negotiations over a climate change prevention treaty are over, and the world has begun to absorb the impact of the unprecedented deal. Under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, most industrialized nations are legally bound to cut collective emissions of 6 greenhouse gases by an average 5% below 1990 levels. Their deadline: the year 2012. The US will reduce emissions by 7%, Japan by 6%, and the Europeans by 8%. The Kyoto Accord also establishes a new world currency of sorts: tradeable emission reduction credits that nations and private companies can trade. But developing countries will not have binding limits in this phase of the climate convention. Parties to the treaty will meet again next year to review the pact. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood attended the Kyoto talks, and has this assessment of the outcome.

(Ambient conversation)

CURWOOD: Even as the final wording of the accord was being worked out in Kokusaikaijijo, the giant convention hall here in the ancient capitol of Japan, it was clear that what was agreed to in Kyoto will continue to evolve and remain controversial in the months, if not years, ahead. There are many players who must implement the goals and timetables set out in this agreement to combat global warming. Consider the business community, which is of 2 minds on the measure. On the one hand is Fred Smith, president of the think tank The Competitive Enterprise Institute. He sees the Kyoto accord as simply bad for American business.

SMITH: I think it's one of the most disastrous moves that has ever been made in US foreign policy.

CURWOOD: On the other hand, you have Ron Schiffler, executive director of International Utility Efficiency Partnerships, an emissions trading group working with business. Emissions trading is the key element of the US-backed market approach to reduce greenhouse gases, that was adopted by industrialized nations, and Mr. Schiffler is excited about the possibilities.

SCHIFFLER: What we have here is the creation of a new environmental commodity. A commodity market that may be approaching several hundred million dollars in value very shortly.

CURWOOD: But emissions trading is one of the issues that developing nations balked at while considering the accord, with the loudest objections coming from China, India, and Saudi Arabia. They say it lets rich nations simply buy their way out of cutting emissions. Developing nations came to the Kyoto conference angered by a last-minute attempt by the United States to force them to accept binding limits, even before industrialized societies had made a clear commitment themselves. The developing nations see it as a matter of equity. For example, your average American emits 10 times the amount of greenhouses gases as does your average Chinese. Gaining cooperation from the less-developed countries won't be easy, says Phil Clapp, who heads the National Environmental Trust in Washington.

CLAPP: The most important piece is that we have to work with the developing countries to bring them in, in a way that recognizes their level of economic development, the aspirations of their people for an improved lifestyle. I felt one of the most apt statements at this conference was someone said that what we really had here was the nations of sport utility vehicles telling the nations who rode bicycles that they could never even have a scooter. And that, in essence, is a very, very serious limitation on their ability to improve their lifestyles. And what we have to do is put together a package that really recognizes their state of development.

CURWOOD: Mr. Clapp says lending policies that encourage sustainable development and the sharing of technology with the developing world will be key. When all is said and done, he suggests, energy efficiency standards, rather than emissions caps, may be the more appropriate way to ensure that development does not overwhelm the Earth's atmosphere. K. Sakura, Minister of the Environment of Indonesia, one of the 4 largest developing nations, says in time Indonesia will make firm commitments to control greenhouse gases if 2 conditions are met.

SAKURA: First is the seriousness and sincerity that we sense here from the developed countries. It's a very important precondition.

CURWOOD: You mean, in terms of implementing the Kyoto Accord.

SAKURA: Implementing the Kyoto Accord. And then the second thing is the economic advantage, yeah, of joining the wagon, so to speak. I'm not pessimistic on these 2 counts, because basically this is the direction that the world has to move to in the first place. There's no getting away from that, because climate change is not good for anybody.

CURWOOD: Without binding limits on emissions from the developing nations, the Kyoto Agreement could be rejected by the US Senate, which must ratify any deal. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, came to Kyoto and told a press gathering here it doesn't make sense for President Clinton to seek ratification right away. Senator Kerry says the US should seek bilateral agreements with key developing countries such as China, Brazil, and Indonesia first.

KERRY: I would actually counsel the President to go very slowly with respect to ratification. I'd say sign it, let us try to begin to implement, let's assume our responsibility as a nation to do the best we can. And as we go down the road, we can bring other nations in and put it into a position so that hopefully it ultimately were to get 100 votes in the United States Senate.

CURWOOD: And more time, Senator Kerry says, will let public opinion build in favor of climate protection. Recent polls show a majority of Americans favor a hike in the gas tax if it will help prevent global warming. Delay will also allow the Kyoto accord to become a campaign issue for Democrats in the election next fall. Senator Kerry claims Republicans in business too often exaggerate the cost of environmental protection.

KERRY: When we did the Clean Air fight in the Senate back in, I think it was 86, I remember the automobile industry and coal industry and others telling us that the price of reducing one ton of emissions at that point, SO2, would be $1,500. And that it was going to radically alter the economy of our country. In point of fact, because of the technology curve and the implementations of that technology, it cost $6. This is an opportunity to create jobs, to create new technologies for new companies to be born for a major transition. And I think that that is a fight I'm willing to fight in the United States Senate.

CURWOOD: Clement Mahlin, a vice president of Texaco and chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce, says there are good reasons for business to be concerned about the Kyoto agreement. Climate protection is important, Mr. Mahlin says, but meeting the accord's timetables could jeopardize jobs.

MAHLIN: Long-term, I'm a very confirmed optimist about the world's, the US economy in particular, to be able to meet a challenge of this sort. Short-term, we're going to have some very, very substantial transaction costs.

CURWOOD: One of those costs Mr. Mahlin may well be concerned about involves the American automobile fleet. Adam Werbach, president of the Sierra Club, says it's time President Clinton followed his own staff recommendations and used his executive powers to raise fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks.

WERBACH: Domestically we need to take the biggest single step we can do to curb global warming, which is working on CAFE standards. We need to be at 45 miles per gallon for cars. We also need to move up on light trucks as well, because light trucks are a huge loophole right now and the United States is really paying the price for that.

CURWOOD: In the end, the work done in Kyoto is only a beginning, but it marks a milestone. The accord is perhaps the most complex set of international negotiations ever conducted. And it will have a massive impact on the world's economies and ecologies. To halt global warming, scientific studies point to the need for much sharper reductions in greenhouse gas emissions than what was called for in Kyoto. But many delegates, observers, and activists here say at least the first step has been taken. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood in Kyoto, Japan.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

KNOY: Trading smokestack credits is one market-based way to curb pollution, but people who live near industrial areas say they're paying the price. Their story is next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Pollution Credits in LA

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
The world conference on greenhouse gas emissions in Kyoto, Japan, has focused attention on the notion of owning and trading the right to pollute. The Clinton Administration, a strong supporter of domestic pollution credit programs, is pushing the practice internationally. But what about the people who live near the factories that buy the right to keep polluting? In Los Angeles, activists say a key component of at least one pollution trading program is unjust and perhaps illegal. And for the first time, officials are beginning to listen to their concerns. Emily Harris reports.

(Fog horn)

HARRIS: The port of Los Angeles is the world's second busiest port, just behind its next door neighbor, the port of Long Beach. Tens of millions of tons of cargo move through the 2 facilities annually. Millions of containers, hundreds of tankers full of oil, and industry spreads far inland from the piers.

(Motors running)

JOHNSON: There's off-loading of tankers. There is an incinerator that is owned by the City of Long Beach on Terminal Island. There are 5 refineries in the area. There are scrap iron depositories.

HARRIS: Laurie Cook Johnson taught elementary school for 27 years in Wilmington, a working-class LA neighborhood adjacent to the ports.

JOHNSON: We have the sulfur piles and the coal and I understand coke piles, down by the harbor also.

HARRIS: Ms. Johnson is now on illness leave from her job. She says a series of toxic exposures last year damaged her nerves. Other residents complain of bad smells, gritty air, frequent headaches, sore throats, and breathing problems. Some say that for years they've gotten more answering machines than action when they try to track down the right government agency. But now officials are starting to pay attention because of a lawsuit filed by a grassroots environmental group.

PORRAS: The Civil Rights Act of 1965 is being violated in terms of protecting people's health in these communities.

HARRIS: Carlos Porras is Southern California Director for Communities for a Better Environment, or CBE.

PORRAS: The Air District has allowed certain oil companies in the South Bay Harbor area to circumvent an existing regulation regarding the requirement to install vapor recovery technology.

HARRIS: Vapor recovery technology is used to keep toxic compounds from escaping into the air when petroleum products are loaded or unloaded from tankers. In the early 1990s, California's South Coast Air Quality Management District mandated its use as part of a new regional smog control program. Several oil companies promptly complied, but for those who felt the new equipment was too expensive, the Air District provided a way out. Instead of reducing their own toxic emissions, the District allowed companies to find and eliminate other sources of air pollution elsewhere in the region. For every unit of pollution they continued to produce, companies would have to eliminate that much plus another 20%. Backers of this pollution credits trading program say it's made the air in the LA basin cleaner overall, but Carlos Porras of CBE says if there's been any improvement, the neighbors of the ports of LA and Long Beach haven't seen it.

PORRAS: Even if you were to take at face value that there is some benefit to the air basin, what basically you have allowed to happen is to improve the air quality over that 4-county basin on the backs of these poor people living in San Pedro Wilmington. It's unjust, it's unfair, and it needs to be remedied.

(Industrial clanking)

HARRIS: That's the sound of the pollution credits program: old cars being crushed by a huge hydraulic press. Older cars pollute more than newer ones, so you can get a big improvement in air quality by taking them off the road permanently. Buying up and crushing old cars is the main way oil companies and others have compensated for their own pollution. The concept was developed by Unocal, one of the 5 oil companies named in the civil rights complaint. Unocal eventually spun off a subsidiary, Eco-Scrap, to manage pollution credits for its and other companies. Eco-Scrap's president, Ron Mertz, says he's sympathetic to the complaints about the program.

MERTZ: There is some logic to the argument that says wait a minute, the pollution is happening in a particular area, and the credit that you're using is in a larger geographical area.

HARRIS: But Mr. Mertz says solving pollution problems is always a matter of trade-offs.

MERTZ: I think the key would be whether or not the solution, alternate solutions, are so much more onerous on whoever the operator might be. You might get into a situation where people just throw up their hand and don't do anything, and that's not good for anybody.

HARRIS: The conflict over the emissions trading program puts the Clinton Administration in an awkward position. It's been a strong supporter of both the pollution credit programs and the concept of environmental justice. Officials in the EPA's Environmental Justice Department say they think civil rights should take precedence over market approaches to pollution problems, but they acknowledge the conflict represented by the LA case has yet to be addressed at a high level. They say their office will be watching the case closely. The Federal Government has increasingly relied on markets to help solve social and environmental problems. But environmental justice advocates like Carl Anthony of the Earth Island Institute are wary of the trend.

ANTHONY: The problem, of course, is that one of the reasons that people are poor is because of failures of the market. So there needs to be direct intervention on behalf of those communities and their problems of public health directly and not just simply to keep the market functioning smoothly.

HARRIS: For the time being, at least, the LA region's pollution trading program continues unchanged. But the challenge by Communities for a Better Environment is already having an impact. The South Coast Air Quality Management District has announced a million-dollar study of health problems near the ports of LA and Long Beach and other heavily-polluted areas, and has promised to review the pollution credits program when the studies are done. Meanwhile, a statewide air pollution agency has temporarily suspended approval of any new pollution credits programs in the state, pending specific guidance from the Federal EPA. For Living on Earth, I'm Emily Harris in Los Angeles.

Back to top


Every Breath

KNOY: When officials talk about reducing air pollution and combating global warming, they usually mean reducing the burning of fossil fuels. But commentator Neal Rauch says focusing the blame on industry alone isn't fair. When it comes to curbing CO2 emissions, he thinks we should all share the burden.

RAUCH: Politicians are always blaming the poor factory, car, and homeowner for causing havoc with global warming. Well, what about exhaling? We breathe out carbon dioxide an average of 16 times a minute. That's 8,409,600 times a year, or 8,432,640 times in leap years. I'll bet you that every time you breathe out, the Earth's average temperature rises by .1 trillionth of a degree, Celsius. Multiply that by the almost 6 billion people on the planet, and that's a lot of hot air.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we become mirror images of President Clinton and not exhale. But if we could all just reduce our rate of breathing by say, a mere 10%, global warming just might cease to be a problem. If certain self-centered people would stop jogging and cycling, just slow down, sit still, and watch more TV, why we'd be halfway there. And more sexual abstinence might also cut down on CO2 emissions, not to mention the positive effect on overpopulation.

Another simple solution: exhale into balloons. Not only would you be reducing global warming, but think of all the pleasure you'd be bringing to the children of the world. And we could use the balloons to create floating cities on lakes and oceans.

Unfortunately, I'll admit, there are some drawbacks to the balloonology method. If terrorists were to find a way to pop millions of these balloons simultaneously, it could be the equivalent of nuclear war. It might even knock the Earth off its axis. Or, worse, terrorists could find a way to cause the balloons to do this.

(A high balloon squeak as air is let out)

RAUCH: Multiplied millions of times over, this could cause the world's entire human population to go instantaneously insane. So, I guess we'll just have to aim at those cars and smokestacks after all. (Exhales deeply.)

KNOY: Commentator Neal Rauch breathes lightly in New York City, where he works as a freelance producer.

Back to top

(Music up and under: The Police's "Every Breath You Take")

Listener Letters

KNOY: And, comments from you, our listeners. Our story on the plastics fire in Hamilton, Ontario, provoked a range of responses. Diane Wang, a listener to KALW in Oakland, California, said the piece left her in tears. Ms. Wang worked in an oil refinery. When a large leak at that plant contaminated the town, Ms. Wang, like the people of Hamilton, believed the company's claim there was no danger. She writes, "I felt foolish and guilty afterward for my credulity. Unfortunately, the experience of catastrophe and duplicity is likely to happen again in too many communities. Thanks for the program as a warning.

Michael Saunders, a listener to WBUR in Boston, was not so convinced. Mr. Saunders, a Boston Globe reporter, criticized our journalistic ethics.

SAUNDERS: Nowhere in this story did the reporter mention if tests had been done to determine whether there were elevated levels of dioxin in the soil. If there weren't, then this is an amazing bit of scare tactic.

KNOY: Scary, indeed. Up to a month after the fire, soil tests near the site showed dioxin at 66 times acceptable levels. Four months later the measures had returned to normal.

Our story on how drastic temperature fluctuations affected ancient civilizations led Bill Fischer of Boston to ask whether we underestimated the human element in the climate change equation.

FISCHER: Perhaps we ought to think about what made those climate changes in earlier times, and look at man's activity and see if perhaps the things that those developed societies were doing actually may have caused it.

KNOY: Finally, Kristin Prinzing wrote to us from Billings, Montana, where she hears us on Yellowstone Public Radio. Ms. Prinzing took issue with John Shanahan's commentary on global warming. Mr. Shanahan mentioned 85 scientists who endorse a go slow approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Ms. Prinzing writes, "Ninety-eight percent of these scientists are funded by the corporate interests that would be most impacted by a reduction of greenhouse gases. When making an effort to expose both sides of an issue, please do it in a way that you are not actively assisting the disinformation campaign of the corporations and the politicians they pay for."

Let us know what you think. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Tapes and transcripts are $12. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1- 800-PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment; www.wajones.org;

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

KNOY: After last year's scenes of slaughter and starvation, we'll consider the fate of Yellowstone bison for this coming winter. The story is coming up; stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


(Theme music up and under)

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

KNOY: Ninety-eight years ago this week, the golf tee was patented. The obscure anniversary marks a popular sport. Today nearly 16,000 golf courses blanket the United States. Combined, they would cover more than 2.5 million acres, roughly the size of, yes, Rhode Island, and you can throw in Delaware as well. In the US alone, a new golf course opens on average every day. The growth has led to concern over the environmental impact of these highly manicured tracts of land. In 1990 the Audubon Society began rating courses on water use, pesticide use, and habitat preservation. Most courses haven't adopted Audubon's best practices, but some have responded by planting grass that reduces water and chemical spraying, and by using recycled carpeting in sand traps. Others have incorporated extensive wildlife habitats in the design of their links. And one course has taken the innovative step of heating its clubhouse with methane gas. The gas is tapped beneath the course, which is built on a landfill. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

This Winter's Bison Plan

KNOY: The bison of Yellowstone Park suffered huge losses last winter. Hundreds of the animals, unable to find food beneath the deep snow, died of starvation. More than 1,000 bison approached the park's boundaries in search of food. There, Montana Department of Livestock agents shot hundreds of them. Yellowstone rangers rounded up the rest and sent many to slaughter. The reason: Montana ranchers fear of brucellosis, a disease which affects some bison and could spread to local cattle. Todd Wilkinson is the Western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He says despite protests against the bison policy last year, the plan remains largely the same for this winter.

WILKINSON: We're still in a holding pattern and many environmentalists have claimed that should winter conditions turn harsh, we could have a repeat of what happened last year. For the long term there are a couple of things that are being considered besides the land acquisition and the quarantine. One is the development of a vaccine to protect livestock which co-mingle with wildlife. And another one, which is sure to create some more controversy, is that in 1999, when the Montana legislature reconvenes, it will consider authorizing another sport hunt of bison outside the park.

KNOY: There's an effort to keep bison within the park by scaring them away from the boundaries. How do you do that?

WILKINSON: Well, it's called hazing, and the Park Service, in cooperation with the Forest Service and the Department of Livestock, this year plans to have rangers and other staff members on horseback and using cracker shells and other sorts of things that once bison move beyond the boundary, that they would be driven back inside the park. Another part of this is that those animals which insist upon going to lowlands beyond the park will then be captured and tested for brucellosis. Those which test positive will be shipped off to slaughter, while those which test negative will be corralled and then turned loose in the spring.

KNOY: Does it work, this tactic of trying to scare them?

WILKINSON: Well, it can, as long as the numbers are low. Last year it was like a tide of bison that swelled along the border and then poured over, and it proved not to be very successful. But this year, after 1,100 were shot or shipped to slaughter, we have about 2,400 in the park. And so far, at least on the northern side, where many of the animals died, there hasn't been that great exodus.

KNOY: Describe the concern that local ranchers have about bison going out of the park.

WILKINSON: The concern is based on an assumption that cows will come down with brucellosis, that a quarantine will be imposed upon individual ranchers, and that will have economic implications for the livestock industry in Montana, which is about a $1 billion a year industry.

KNOY: And has this happened?

WILKINSON: No, it hasn't. Despite claims and a little bit of hysteria, there has not been one documented case of brucellosis being transmitted from bison to domestic livestock in the wild. In fact, the primary suspected means of transmission is when a beef cow comes in contact with an aborted bison fetus and actually licks the placenta. While the possibility for that occurring exists, it is extremely remote and is one of the reasons for this controversy. The State of Montana's been criticized for embarking upon a policy of killing bison when the actual risk to livestock doesn't appear to support such extreme measures. Now an interesting note is that this past week the National Research Council, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, released a report that had been prepared over the last 6 months assessing the actual risk of brucellosis transmission. The findings have certainly disarmed those who have created an environment of hysteria, and basically debunk those who say that the risk of transmission is high.

KNOY: Todd Wilkinson is the western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Thanks for joining us.

WILKINSON: It's been a pleasure.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

KNOY: In search of caribou and their place in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A reporter's notebook is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

At ANWR: In Search of Caribou

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. In a highly unusual move, the US Interior Department has released a draft environmental impact statement on oil drilling in Alaska's national petroleum reserve without naming a preferred course of action. The report lays out 5 alternatives, ranging from leaving the land untouched to opening 4 and a half million acres to commercial exploration. Much of the area is important wildlife habitat, and over the next few months the government will solicit public input on whether development is appropriate. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has promised a decision by next summer. The issue of oil drilling in the petroleum reserve hasn't yet generated much public debate. But efforts to open another nearby tract of Federal land to development have been the subject of heated battles for years. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a barren terrain that hugs the Arctic Ocean and the Canadian border. Much of it is officially designated as wilderness. But a slice of the Refuge's coastal plain was long ago left without such protection, because it harbors significant oil deposits. For years, oil interests have tried to open it to exploration, and every time preservationists have beaten them back. Earlier this year, Living on Earth's Peter Thomson traveled to the Arctic refuge for a first-hand look at the place and the people at the center of the long-running debate.

(Running water)

THOMSON: We call it the frozen North, but summer does come to the Arctic.

(Running water continues)

THOMSON: A stream of water is pouring off a thick ice slab into a shallow pool on a gravel bar in the middle of a broad riverbed. The ice slab is maybe a quarter of a mile square. Its layers of turquoise and white suggest it's been here for years. But with the temperature near 70 and a warm rain brewing, it's hard to imagine it holding out much longer.

(Footfalls, cracking ice)

THOMSON: I'm standing on the gravel at the edge of the ice, lurking to the south of the Gray Mountains, where the river begins as glacial runoff, and the gap where it slips out of its valley onto the vast coastal plain. I follow the stream as it sidles past the ice field, cuts through the barren green tundra, and heads for the ocean 30 miles away. Alone on the Arctic Plain, I feel like I've traveled not just thousands of miles from home, but also eons back in time. The familiar elements are all here: earth, air, water, and sun. But they haven't yet been forged into the world I've known.

(Torrential rains and thunder; fade to plane engine)

THOMSON: To get to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, you have to fly on a series of ever-smaller planes.

(Plane engine continues)

THOMSON: In a jet from the Lower 48 to Fairbanks, over the convoluted coastline of southeast Alaska. Then a small cargo hauler that grinds over an untouched landscape of scrub forests, lakes, and rivers, to a gravel runway in an isolated village. Finally, a tiny bush plane that floats over the ghostly peaks of the Brooks Range, down the valley of a meandering river, and more like a dragonfly than a machine, onto the river's grassy floodplain.

(Propellers coming to a halt. A door opens.)

THOMSON: I step from the plane onto a landscape of muted colors and contours. The sides of the valley slope gently up toward rounded ridges, yellow-green giving way to gray-brown.

(Bird calls, some voices)

THOMSON: The sky is pale blue, and soft rays from the low sun play tricks with distance and scale. The only sounds are the hushed flow of the shallow Aichilk river and a few summering birds. I've come to the Arctic refuge with members of a Congressional delegation. They want to see the place that's become a perennial issue in Washington. There's oil here. The oil companies want in. Environmentalists want to keep them out. And the argument just won't die.

(Footfalls and rushing water)

THOMSON: But it's hard to think about politics here.

(Footfalls and rushing water, bird calls continue)

MILLER: What makes me want to come back again and again is the feeling that one gets from the sheer vastness of the landscape and a feeling of timelessness in the summer. Where you have the constant daylight.

THOMSON: Debbie Miller is a teacher and a writer from Fairbanks. She's been coming here every summer for almost 15 years. Her camp is 30 miles off to the east, and she's flown over to greet us. Sort of the welcome wagon lady of the Arctic Refuge.

MILLER: This is one of the few places we have in America where we don't have the manmade features. We don't have manmade trails. You know, you walk along caribou trails that have been etched in the tundra for thousands of years. You have a sense when you're climbing these mountains that gee, maybe I'm the first person that walked up this slope. And the silence. The silence is so great. You're able to just feel the pulse of the land.

THOMSON: What was the most perhaps amazing thing you first saw here when you first started coming here?

MILLER: The most dramatic spectacle we've ever witnessed was the porcupine caribou herd. About 30,000 of them walked by us one day. My husband and I were out alone on the coastal plain, and we looked over our shoulder and the whole horizon was filled with these silhouetted caribou. Before we knew it we were just surrounded by just thousands of animals swarming around us. And the sounds, I think, were the most overwhelming. Their hooves were clicking and they grunt and they snort, they bellow. The calves were bleating. Some people think of it as a river of life moving across the tundra, because you can't see a blade of grass. The land just becomes full of life. Animals, sound.

(Footfalls and rushing water continue)

THOMSON: Debbie Miller tells me there's a chapter on the caribou of the Arctic Refuge in her book Midnight Wilderness. I'll read it some day but right now, I want to see the animals.

(Footfalls over bones)

THOMSON: A little ways down the riverbed there is a small bone field, a partial spine, a femur, a shoulderblade. It's the remains of what looks like a young caribou stripped clean by a succession of animals and insects. The bones are starkly white against the dark soil. There are signs of caribou everywhere here: discard of antlers, well-worn paths, even fresh hoof prints. But without the eyes of an eagle, or the nose and ears of a wolf or a grizzly, I can't find them.

(Footfalls and bird calls)

THOMSON: There are lots of rare and wonderful animals in the Arctic Refuge. What conservationists jokingly call charismatic mega-fauna. There are polar bears and musk oxen, wolves, and birds that migrate from as far as Argentina. But it's the caribou to which defenders turn first, whenever there's talk of going after the oil here. Caribou are among the last great migratory herds in North America, and the porcupine caribou herd, which migrates between the Porcupine River in Canada's Yukon Territory and the coastal plane of the Arctic Refuge, is one of the largest in the world. It's also a main source of food for the Gwich'in Indians, who live in a handful of communities to the south and east of the Refuge.

(Rattling sounds)

FRANK: This traditional hunting tools, this one here. You rattle this and follow the caribou, and the caribou will think you're a caribou, so you can just walk up to them.

THOMSON: A set of caribou hooves laced together with caribou hide. It's a simple but effective hunting tool that Kenneth Frank shows me in his small wooden house in the tiny Gwich'in community of Arctic Village.

FRANK: For a thousand years the porcupine caribou herd feed the people. They just keep going back and forth, so that's how we survive here for 10,000 years.

THOMSON: Back and forth the caribou move, between their winter range to the south and their summer calving grounds in the Refuge to the north. Passing Gwich'in hunters along the way.

(Various sounds. Frank: "Watch your head.")

THOMSON: The air in Kenneth's house is thick with the smell of cooking meat. Across the room his wife Caroline tends the stove.

C. FRANK: I'm cooking the caribou heart. (Laughs)

THOMSON: Oh. How are you preparing it?

C. FRANK: I'm just cooking it. Has vitamin A, B, and C.

THOMSON: It smells delicious.

C. FRANK: Yeah. (Laughs)

THOMSON: Little goes to waste when the Gwich'in bring down a caribou. It's woven into virtually every part of their lives.

(Objects falling)

THOMSON: Kenneth rummages through a large box next to a rack of videotapes and CDS. He shows me a drum, a fur parka, a pair of snowshoes. Everything's made with caribou parts.

K. FRANK: You know, all the stuff that we have like the cloth, string, the bone we use for tools, and even tendons we use to make snares for small game. And how we sew our boots together, we use stuff from the caribou.

C. FRANK: The wisdom in the culture, the knowledge comes from the caribou.

THOMSON: Caroline Frank is a preschool teacher. Kenneth works at the village's center for substance abuse prevention. They've watched their community pass through difficult times recently. There are few jobs, little money for schools or health care, and all but 2 of their elders have died. And Gwich'in youth are increasingly drawn by the seductive lure of mainstream culture and city life to the south. But the Gwich'in still have the caribou and the stories and traditions that the hunt keeps alive. Gwich'in leaders believe the caribou is the social glue that holds their community together.

C. FRANK: Everything that we believe in comes from the caribou, and that's the only thing that the kids are hanging onto right now.

THOMSON: The Gwich'in strongly oppose oil drilling in the refuge. They fear it will harm the caribou and ultimately the future of their children.

K. FRANK: Their freedom will be taken away from them. Their freedom to live, you know, how they want to live. And then they will have nothing left, and that is really a scary thing for our generation.

(Treks through grass. Wind.)

THOMSON: You came up in May of 71?

MAUER: Twenty-six years, I guess. Since 81 I've been working in the Refuge.

THOMSON: Outside the Gwich'in community, if you want to learn about the porcupine caribou herd, people say Fran Mauer is your guy. He's a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and he's joined our group for a hike along the Aichilik River form our camp site. I want to know why the Gwich'in and others are so concerned about oil drilling. After all, the coastal plain, where the oil is, is just one small part of the caribou's range.

MAUER: Well, we know from the experience in the Prudhoe Bay area to the west of the Arctic Refuge that females with young calves are displaced by human activity. As a result of that displacement, we are now seeing reduced productivity in that herd. In the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, we have 10 times as many caribou using this landscape for habitat. And the area available to them is only one fifth as big.

THOMSON: Fran Mauer says the problem isn't pollution or any other direct threat to the caribou. The problem is mosquitos. The coastal plain is where the caribou go to escape the huge swarms of bugs. The cool sea breeze can keep the mosquitos away, Fran says, and if the air is still the caribou can run across the flat open tundra to make their own wind. But oil fields can make the caribou more vulnerable to the bugs.

MAUER: They're unable to obtain insect relief because they're blocked by roads and pipes and works of man, it may interfere with their ability to get fat for the winter. And if they're not fat enough for the winter, the cows either will not get pregnant at all, or they give birth to lightweight, weak calves that don't survive.

THOMSON: Are there other animals that would be affected by development in that small part of the Refuge?

MAUER: Well, there are. While it's appropriate to focus on the potential impacts of the porcupine caribou herd, I think an even greater impact is the effect that industrialization would have on the entire system. The entire predator-prey complex would stand to be affected here. So there's a lot at stake, more than just the caribou.

THOMSON: Fran Mauer has spent years alone with the animals of the Arctic Refuge. But it seems that he never gets tired of watching them.

MAUER: (Panting while hiking) We once saw a wolf hunting in the willows, and eventually it flushed a ptarmigan out of the willows. And as the ptarmigan flew up through the willows and it got into clear going, an eagle appeared out of nowhere like a streak of lightning and caught the ptarmigan, knocking feathers out as it carried it away. And the wolf sat and watched it go. Probably thought, there goes my meal. Obviously, the eagle was watching the situation and timed its dive perfectly. The ptarmigan was distracted by the ground predator, not watching for an aerial threat. And got caught.

THOMSON: Down by the river we'd spotted wolf tracks in the mud, as sharp and clear as if they'd been made within the hour. And grizzly bear prints, older but startlingly large, maybe 9 inches across. Still, no sign of caribou. Now we're heading up a hillside. It's a relief to move from the lumpy wet tundra to the dry loose rock. Just over the top, our group suddenly stops.

(Buzzing sounds)

THOMSON: There's a band of lean gray creatures moving toward us. We squat down amid the mosquitos to make ourselves as invisible as possible.

(Buzzing continues)

THOMSON: We watch silently as they approach: 7 caribou, a big dark male with a full rack of antlers leads the way. Smaller, lighter ones pull up the rear.

(Buzzing continues)

THOMSON: The animals take little notice of us. They pass 50 yards or so away, up over the hill and out of sight. It's hardly the huge mass of caribou we've heard about, but even this small band has sent a charge through the group.

(Buzzing continues. People laugh)

WOMAN: That was something. Wow. That was great.

MAN: That was scheduled.

MAN 2: Yeah, damn it Fran, next time I want em here on time.

(The group laughs)

THOMSON: We pick up our gear and head off down the hill.

(Clanking sounds and conversation)

MATUMIAK: I was very skeptical at first when oil was first discovered. As time goes by, myself I saw that oil industry and the wildlife can coexist.

THOMSON: Four hundred miles away, to the west of the Arctic Refuge, Warren Matumiak sees the prospect of oil drilling very differently than Fran Mauer or the Gwich'in Indians. He's an Inupiat Eskimo, a native of the Arctic slope and a resident of the city of Barrow. Warren is almost 70 years old, a former planning and wildlife director for the Inupiat regional government. He's watched the oil industry at work in Inupiat territory in the Arctic Plain for 25 years. Like the Gwich'in, the Inupiat also hunt caribou, and Warren says the Gwich'in have nothing to worry about.

MATUMIAK: We have invited Gwich'in people to come up here and visit our town, because we knew that they still think that industry will destroy anything, and we wanted them to see what we went through, how things have changed developing oil.

THOMSON: Warren agrees with the oil industry that carefully built and well- managed oil fields have little impact on Caribou or other wildlife. And the Inupiat government is eager to see the Arctic refuge opened up to drilling. They stand to reap millions of dollars in income and taxes from oil development there, as they have from the fields at Prudhoe Bay. Warren Matumiak grew up in the days before oil, and he has no doubt about the importance of that money.

MATUMIAK: I know what poverty is like. We're enjoying the benefits, now. A lot of things that we never have, especially clean water. You know, we've got roads. We've got health clinics in all the villages. Everything has been changed for the better. You can't it's like heaven, you know, but the living has been good.

THOMSON: Oil money has transformed the lives of the Inupiat, and their leaders want to keep as much of it flowing as possible. But their neighbors, the Gwich'in, who live across the mountains from the oil deposits, wouldn't share in the bounty. They stand to gain nothing and fear losing everything. For now, the issue has reached a stalemate. The Refuge will likely stay closed to drilling as long as Bill Clinton remains President. He's consistently threatened to veto any attempt to open it up. But efforts to put the entire Refuge permanently off-limits to oil have also gone nowhere.

(A motor gurgles)

THOMSON: Back at the air strip by our campsite, one of the rickety little planes which brought us here touches down.

(Motor comes to a halt)

THOMSON: It's returning from a flyover of the easternmost reaches of the Refuge, looking for the main part of the caribou herd.

WOMAN: So how many caribou do you think we saw?

MAN: It was in the thousands.

WOMAN: Yes. (Laughs)

MAN: Tens of thousands, I'd say.

WOMAN 2: So, it was fabulous, eh?

MAN: Yes it was.

WOMAN 1: Yes.

WOMAN 2: Oh, that's so good.

WOMAN 1: It's amazing.

WOMAN 2: That's great.

THOMSON: There was only enough room in the plane for some of the Congressional people from Washington, and this was the only trip. We're heading home tomorrow. I'm disappointed, to say the least. The massive caribou herd is so close, but I won't get to see it.

(Bird calls)

THOMSON: But that wasn't the point of my trip here. And more importantly, anyone getting to see the caribou herd isn't the point of the Arctic Refuge. I remember something Debbie Miller told me the day before, out on the river.

MILLER: I feel incredibly fortunate that our family has had the opportunities we've had up here. We've learned a tremendous amount from the land. It's given us a lot. But the true reason why this place is here is really to protect the wildlife and the habitats that these creatures need to survive. I have received letters from people that live in the Midwest, or in Florida. They write to me that they're so happy that there is a place like this in America, even though they'll never visit it. They may never get here, but they're glad that there are places like this left on Earth. We've lost so many.

(Wind and flowing water, bird calls. Fade to rain)

THOMSON: Two AM. A steady rain beats down on my tent. It's still daylight, even under the heavy gray sky. We'll fly out in the morning, through the clouds and over the mountains to the south. Tonight, I drift back asleep as the hypnotic rhythm of the rain becomes the clicking of 100,000 hooves.

(Rain continues)

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.

Back to top

(Rain and bird calls, fading to music up and under: a Native American song)

KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We are produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production team includes Jesse Wegman, Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, and Liz Lempert, Peter Christianson, Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. Kim Motylewski is our associate editor. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. We had help from Dana Campbell, New Hampshire Public Radio, and the NPR Science Unit in Kyoto. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Michael Aharon composed the theme. And the executive producer of Living on Earth is Steve Curwood. I'm Laura Knoy. Thanks for listening.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Surdna Foundation; and the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth