January 16, 1998
Air Date: January 16, 1998
Forest Roads Cut
Each year, the U.S. Forest Service loses millions of dollars subsidizing private timber operations in national forests. Much of the red ink is caused by a government program that builds roads into remote areas so that trees can be easily cut and trucked to mills. But the Clinton Administration will soon announce a temporary halt to the practice that some environmentalists and fiscal conservatives have called a textbook case of corporate welfare. The ban may face its strongest opposition in Congress from lawmakers in timber-rich western states. Joining us to talk about the road building moratorium is Jim Simon, a Seattle Times reporter who's been covering the issue. He joined us from the studios of KUOW in Seattle. (05:00)
Utilities Timber Land for Sale/ Reese Erlich
One place timber companies may find trees ready to harvest is on land owned by electric utility companies. Thousands of acres of utility owned property are expected to be sold off in the coming year as power companies get lean and mean in the ramp up to the deregulation of their industry. From the Sierra Mountains of California, Reese Erlich explains. (06:48)
Hot Air over Leaf Blowers/ Emily Harris
In Los Angeles, a move to ban leaf blowers has ignited a class struggle between gardeners and some homeowners. After years of wrangling, the Los Angeles City Council has voted to ban the use of gas powered leaf blowers within 500 feet of residences due to noise. The ban takes effect in just about a month. But, the split the issue has created between working class gardeners and their typically well-heeled clients may take much longer to repair. From Los Angeles, Emily Harris reports. (05:05)
... And Ban the Mowers
For some folks, banning leaf blowers is not enough. They want to get rid of the whole concept of manicured landscapes, including lawns. There are about 30 million acres of lawn in America. That's a grass carpet about the size of Alabama. And commentator Andy Wasowski says its just too much. Mr. Wasowski is the co- author of "Gardening with Native Plants of the South." He comes to us with help from KERA in Dallas. (02:50)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about...Saguaro cactus (01:15)
State of the World 1998
For 15 years, Worldwatch Institute has published "State of the World." It's the groups' annual report card on the health of the planet; noting some of the most pressing global problems and suggesting solutions. In this year's edition, Worldwatch President Lester Brown describes a global economy that's strong, but also straining the earth's natural systems. He calls for a new kind of economy that's both vibrant and sustainable, the antithesis, he says, of the current western business model. Lester Brown is president of Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.. (05:05)
Forest Canopy & Climate
Forests play an important role in regulating the earth's climate by filtering heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. They eliminate so much CO-2 that some governments are counting on better forest management to help slow down climate change that's been set in motion by the use of carbon based fuels. But, little is known about how specific types of forests, in specific areas, interact with the atmosphere. How much carbon do they absorb and hold? How much carbon is released when they are cut or destroyed by fire? How do the forests themselves respond to changes in the climate? Orlando De Guzman (de- gooz-MAAN) of member station KUOW in Seattle traveled to the old growth forests and research labs of the Pacific Northwest to talk with scientists looking for answers to these crucial questions on the fragile relationship between trees, the atmosphere, and the world's climate. (12:40)
Hungry Home Appliances
Sometimes, saving energy isn’t as obvious as turning out the lights when you leave a room. Many appliances, including TVs and VCRs, draw electricity, even when they’re turned off. Recently, major television and VCR makers and the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to design energy-efficient units that will cut this waste in half. To find out what else could be done to reduce household energy consumption, Laura Knoy invited energy- efficiency expert Alex Wilson over to her home to take a look around. Mr. Wilson is the editor of Environmental Building News, and the author of the “Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings.” (06:15)
HOST: Laura Knoy
REPORTERS: Reese Erlich, Emily Harris, Orlando De Guzman
GUESTS: Joe Simon, Lester Brown, Alex Wilson
COMMENTATORS: Andy Wasowski
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KNOY: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy.
the free ride may be over for timber companies. the Clinton Administration moves to suspend construction of new logging roads in most national forests.
SIMON: It's going to fall short of what environmentalists want, which is a permanent ban in some of these bigger, vast tracts of pristine wilderness. But it's a big victory for them.
KNOY: Also, how forests owned by electric companies could fall prey to loggers during the upcoming industry deregulation.
MILFORD: We have lands that have been generally unused for many, many years. But as the utilities sell of assets, there probably will be increasing pressure to use those lands for other development purposes.
KNOY: Those stories and the L.A. leaf blower controversy this week on Living on Earth. First news.
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KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
Each year the US Forest Service loses millions of dollars subsidizing private timber operations in national forests. Much of the red ink is caused by a government program that builds roads into remote areas so that trees can be easily cut and trucked to mills. But the Clinton Administration will soon announce a temporary halt to the practice that some environmentalists and fiscal conservatives have called a textbook case of corporate welfare. the ban may face its strongest opposition in Congress from lawmakers in timber-rich western states. Joining us to talk about the roadbuilding moratorium is Jim Simon, a Seattle Times reporter who's been covering the issue. Jim, thanks for joining us.
SIMON: Great to be here.
KNOY: Describe the ban. How extensive is it, and how long is it supposed to last?
SIMON: Well, first off, the final details of the ban have not been announced yet by the Forest Service. And in fact, there's a lot of tousling still going on over what's actually going to be in that. I think the basic outline of that will be a suspension of road building in to so-called roadless areas of the National Forest. Areas of over 5,000 acres. And it will be a moratorium that most people think will last a year or 2. It's going to fall short of what environmentalists want, which is a permanent ban in some of these bigger, vast tracts of pristine wilderness. But it's a big victory for them if that occurs.
KNOY: Will it affect all national forests, or are there some exceptions?
SIMON: Well, that's really what the tousling is about. Particularly in the Pacific Northwest: Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, there's a big push by the industry to exempt those so that they could still build new roads into those areas.
KNOY: If the Administration exempts the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and some of the bigger forests in the Pacific Northwest, what's the point? Because these are some of the biggest forests in the country.
SIMON: Well, that's a question that environmentalists are asking as well. But you would still have huge areas in the interiors in the Rockies that would be put off limits to roadbuilding.
KNOY: What about current roads?
SIMON: Current roads are really the sort of obscured issue in all this debate. there's 400,000 miles worth of roads into the National Forest right now. And the Forest Service says that they're going to come up with a plan as part of this other overall rule that would look at which roads to put out of commission, which roads to maintain, and, most importantly, where to get the money. And the money needs are actually quite staggering. there's actually a $440 million backlog simply to bring these existing roads up to environmental standards. And the Forest Service estimates the actual backlog for maintenance and really putting many of these roads to sleep, getting rid of them so we won't have more environmental damage, is a staggering $10 billion.
KNOY: How will all this affect the logging industry, Jim?
SIMON: I think the logging industry is going to be affected depending on where it is. I think the biggest effect will not be in the big, majestic forests of the Pacific Northwest that have had so much public attention, but really in the areas like Idaho, where there are vast, roadless tracts of really wild national forest; in eastern Oregon, in eastern Washington, and in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Montana. And these are areas that really were not so economical to log until recently, until we've started reducing so dramatically forestry on the coasts.
KNOY: Why this suspension of road construction now?
SIMON: Well, I think that's twofold. I think one, there really is a new Forest Service, or a new image of the Forest Service, that Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck and the Clinton Administration, which has taken a battering, really, on some environmental issues, would like to promote. But I think beyond that, much of the sort of energy of the environmental movement around forestry has really shifted to the roadbuilding issue.
KNOY: You mentioned a new attitude at the Forest Service. Where does that come from?
SIMON: I think it comes from 2 places. One, I think it clearly comes from public pressure and the public perception of what these forests are all about. In the old days the Forest Service was run on sort of a notion that management of these forests was really a rural economic development tool if nothing else. I think now that's quite changed in what our perception of what the national forests are all about. they're for recreation and sort of environmental values as well. And also I think you have a new generation of foresters who come from a more environmental ethos, and timber production is not what they were schooled in, and it is not what motivated them to get into the Forest Service.
KNOY: Jim Simon is a reporter for the Seattle Times. He joined us from the studios of KUOW in Seattle. Jim, thanks for joining us.
SIMON: Thanks for having me.
KNOY: One place timber companies may find trees ready to harvest is on land owned by electric utility companies. Thousands of acres of utility-owned property are expected to be sold off as power companies get lean and mean in the ramp up to deregulation of their industry. From the Sierra Mountains of California, Reese Erlich explains.
ERLICH: the South Fork of the Stanislaus River rolls gently through the Sierra Mountains, near Yosemite Park, on its way to a hydroelectric station. the power plant is owned by Pacific Gas and Electric, as are hundreds of acres of nearby forest. Thousands of old growth trees here help hold water and prevent silt from flowing into the hydroelectric turbines. Environmentalists, like John Buckley of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, say PG&E has been a good steward of the forest.
BUCKLEY: We've been pleased with the way that PG&E has managed their lands. They have had some logging that has taken place, but they have not done extensive clear-cutting or aggressive logging.
ERLICH: But this era of benign forest management may be ending, at least for some PG&E land. California is deregulating its electricity market, and PG&E will no longer be able to pass on to ratepayers all the costs of maintaining the forests.
SESSA: PG&E is getting ready for the competitive era by cutting our costs, reducing our assets.
ERLICH: Bill Sessa is a PG&E spokesperson.
SESSA: One of the ways that we can make ourselves more competitive is focusing on our main line of business, which is delivering electricity and gas, and selling off assets that don't directly help us in that business.
ERLICH: And that could mean selling off a lot of land. PG&E is the second largest landowner in California. In 1995, the latest year for which there are figures, the company sold off 10,000 acres of prime timber land, a pace likely to continue for several years. Environmentalists worry that the new owners won't take as good care of it as PG&E.
ERLICH: Environmentalist John Buckley walks onto a parcel of land owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, California's largest timber company. the tract has been clear-cut. It's completely barren except for 5 small trees. Sierra Pacific has bought some PG&E forest land and is expected to buy more. This isn't one of those plots, but Mr. Buckley says it is representative of SPI's approach o its new acquisitions.
BUCKLEY: they have done more clear-cutting than was ever done by the private lumber companies, and they also have taken trees that were left intentionally by the previous companies. So from the environmental community's perspective, SPI is very aggressive, and in many cases has less sensitivity to the needs of wildlife and watersheds.
ERLICH: SPI officials failed to return several requests for an interview about their acquisition of electric company lands. But PG&E's Bill Sessa says SPI or any other buyer can't just cut down trees willy-nilly.
SESSA: They clearly also have a responsibility to balance the finances on the one hand, so it makes economic sense to buy it, with environmental stewardship. They still have restrictions imposed on them by the same government regulators who governed us when we owned it. And that's where, I think, the safeguards are.
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YASSA: The government regulations actually don't go far enough to protect these forests lands.
ERLICH: Sammy Yassa, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, doesn't accept PG&E's assurances. He says the forests around hydroelectric dams are especially sensitive, and that there's a particular public interest in ensuring that they are well-managed.
(Footfalls and trickling water)
YASSA: These lands are crucial areas that protect watershed. This is a special circumstance, which requires a special level of protection.
(More footfalls and water)
YASSA: The roots of these trees provide sort of a natural sponge, which filters and regulates the amount of water that flows. This serves as a natural faucet so you don't have flooding. And again, you remove these forests at a rate that's too high, you encourage flooding.
ERLICH: The challenges presented by PG&E's land sales are likely to crop up in other states as energy deregulation sweeps across the country. Figures on exactly how much forest land utilities own are hard to come by, but PG&E's large holdings are not unique. Environmentalists worry that utilities will sell off large tracts of forest to timber companies and developers. Lou Milford is an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation of New England.
MILFORD: We have lands that have been generally unused for many, many years because the utilities had been essentially absentee landlords of thousands of acres of forest land. But as the utilities sell off assets, there probably will be increasing pressure to use those lands for other development purposes.
ERLICH: But Mr. Milford says there are good models for handling these transfers, including one in which his own organization played a role. Several years ago a New England utility agreed to significant protections for forest land surrounding one of its hydroelectric plants. Now the company is selling both the dam and the forest to another utility. Mr. Milford says those restrictions on land use are binding on the new owner and any future owners.
MILFORD: We've got limitations on use of lands near waterways. We have limitations on clear-cutting on these lands. We have prohibition of timber cutting in protected soils. We really have efforts to control the way these lands will be used, to try to keep them essentially in the state that they have been in for decades.
ERLICH: Mr. Milford says this shows that prospective buyers will accept restrictions on the use of land surrounding hydroelectric plants. Ironically, the new owner in this case is none other than Pacific Gas & Electric.
MILFORD: Perhaps, if PG&E is reminded of what it did in the East, maybe it will take a closer look at the same issue in the West.
ERLICH: For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Erlich.
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KNOY: In Los Angeles a move to ban leaf blowers ignites a class struggle between gardeners and some homeowners. the story is next on Living on Earth.
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KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
After years of wrangling, the Los Angeles City Council has voted to ban the use of gas-powered leaf blowers within 500 feet of residences. the ban takes effect in just about a month, but the split the issue has created between working class gardeners and their typically well-heeled clients may take much longer to repair. From Los Angeles, Emily Harris reports.
(Leaf blower noise)
HARRIS: For many in Los Angeles this has been the sound of lawn care. A team of gardeners using leaf blowers to clean up a yard. Gardener Terry James says he'd hate to work without them.
JAMES: It's the most efficient tool that we use that helps us to do as many houses as possible. In order to make money in this business you have to be able to do a lot of houses.
HARRIS: But many residents have been complaining for years about the noise, the dust, and the exhaust that come with gasoline-powered leaf blowers. Now, after 10 years of debate, Los Angeles has followed the lead of its neighbors, such as Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, and banned them. LA's move led dozens of mostly Hispanic gardeners to stage a week-long protest at City Hall, some going on a hunger strike to dramatize their plight. For organizer Alva Huerta, this fight represents a much larger issue.
HUERTA: the root of this fight is the right for the worker to make an honest living. And the fact that the worker does not have a voice in the city of LA. Those that influence city politics are people on the west side, people with money, who can develop these laws and implement these laws without the input of the majority of the gardeners who will suffer the consequences of an unjust law.
HARRIS: Gardeners say without leaf blowers it could take twice as long to clear a lawn. But they fear most clients won't pay more for the extra work. Gardening is a competitive business here. Many gardeners operate on the edge of the LA economy. Most work without health or retirement benefits, and their ability to charge what they see as a fair price is undercut by a constant stream of newcomers. But the people who fought to rid LA of the gas-powered leaf blowers are glad to see them go. City Council Member Cindi Misicowski says the dust and pollution from a leaf blower outweigh the value of a quick cleanup.
MISICOWSKI: It's not an instrument that -- that solves or helps create a solution to something.
HARRIS: Councillor Misicowski doesn't buy the gardeners' claims that they'll be hurt by the ban.
MISICOWSKI: They should be able to raise their rates. Although they may lose some customers, those that they will maintain they will charge more. So that at the very least, it should be economically neutral.
HARRIS: No one knows exactly what the economic impact of the ban will be, but supporters of the ban say the move will have a definite impact on the city's air. Gail Ruderman-Feuer, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the garden tools make a small but significant contribution to smog.
RUDERMAN-FEUER: If you take one small leaf blower or a hand-held piece of equipment, that can be the equivalent of driving a car somewhere between 300 and 2500 miles, just for operating that leaf blower for an hour.
HARRIS: Opponents of the ban don't dispute that blowers are smelly and noisy. But, they say, don't publish the gardeners. For Carlos Porras, director of the environmental justice organization Communities for a Better Environment, leaf blowers are a minor issue.
PORRAS: Certainly not a big enough problem to take such a Draconian action that would have immediate economic impacts on certain constituencies. We think that it would be more appropriate to take a look at this problem at the manufacturers' end and develop a regulation requiring certain thresholds for this type of equipment.
HARRIS: There are some quiet and exhaust-free leaf blowers on the market. Some gardeners use them, but the Gardeners Association says plugs aren't always available and extension cords are difficult to work with and dangerous around water. As part of the deal ending the gardeners' hunger strike, LA officials promised to support research into alternative energy sources. And the push for lawn-clearing tools that could please both sides may get a boost from state air quality officials. They're considering a crackdown across California on emissions for a wide variety of power equipment. Meanwhile, LA may not have heard the last of the old-style machines. Among some gardeners there is talk of civil disobedience, continuing to use loud leaf blowers, and challenging the city to strictly enforce the law.
(Loud leaf blowers)
HARRIS: For Living on Earth I'm Emily Harris in Los Angeles.
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KNOY: For some folks, banning leaf blowers is not enough. They want to get rid of the whole concept of manicured landscapes, including lawns. There are about 30 million acres of lawn in America. That's a grass carpet about the size of Alabama. And our commentator Andy Wasowski says it's just too much.
WASOWSKI: I've got an old friend in Texas who saw a lot of action in World War II and has a silver star to prove it. One day I asked him if the 2 fingers missing from his hand were combat wounds. He looked at me sheepishly. "No," he growled, "I lost them to my damn lawn mower."
Well, that got me thinking. Why do we mow in the first place? Well yeah, I know, because we have lawns. But why do we have lawns? And why do we insist they look like the tops of pool tables? Well for that you can blame a guy named Frank J. Scott, no relation to the seed company. In 1875 he wrote a book called The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds. It quickly became the landscaping bible for America's homeowners. In it, he said, a smooth, closely-shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban home. Today, we're still feeling the impact of Mr. Scott's book.
The typical American landscape is mowed, pruned, raked, weeded, and shaved to within an inch of its life. the dominant weekend sound in a typical suburban neighborhood is not kids playing, but the eardrum-shattering noise of power mowers, power pruners, power edgers, and perhaps the most diabolical of all, power leaf blowers. And yet, how has this overly-manicured landscape really benefitted us? It forces us to work long hours keeping it alive. This kind of landscape is on an artificial life support system; it can't exist without us.
For one thing, lawns have a drinking problem. On average they guzzle from 40% to 60% of our household water, which is crazy when you realize that most parts of this country have serious water shortages. We want our lawns to be perfect in every way, so we anoint them with an incredible array of chemicals that kill weeds and garden pests. Trouble is, these toxics also kill the soil itself and then get into our groundwater.
The typical lawn-centered landscape is also, frankly, boring. It's a clone of every other landscape from coast to coast. There's no sense of place, no celebration of the uniqueness and beauty of your own part of the country. So maybe after all these decades, we should take a hard, critical look at our lawns and finally figure out that life is a lot easier and better all around when we stop fighting Mother Nature and start working with her. A more natural looking landscape filled with plants native to your area will not only help our environment. It will also let you put that mower away in the garage and let it rust. After all, what's it ever done for you except give you blisters?
KNOY: Commentator Andy Wasowski is the coauthor of Gardening with Native Plants of the South. He comes to us with help from KERA in Dallas.
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KNOY: You can reach Living on Earth by calling our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or send us e-mail at LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the David and Lucille Packard Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity; www.wajones.org; and the Bullitt Foundation.
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KNOY: The fragile relationship between trees, the atmosphere, and the world's climate. A bird's-eye view of some treetop science in an old growth forest is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
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KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy
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KNOY: It's January, and in the Southwest the Sonoran Desert is already in bloom. This year's early flowering is being attributed to -- yep, El Nino. The Sonoran is home to a large and diverse group of plant and animal species, but its best-known inhabitant is the Saguaro cactus. In an average 200-year lifespan, the Saguaro can grow to 50 feet and weigh up to 9 tons. It also has an uncanny tendency to form human shapes, like 2 people hugging or a girl doing a handstand. Saguaros have been legally protected since 1933, but that hasn't stopped vandals from defacing them. So now, cactus cops patrol the desert. But some cacti can take care of themselves just fine. In 1982 a maintenance worker from Phoenix was using a 25-foot Saguaro for target practice, when he shot at one of its long spiny arms. the arm snapped off and fell on the man, killing him. It's still known as the Saguaro that fought back. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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KNOY: For 15 years Worldwatch Institute has published State of the World. It's the group's annual report card on the health of the planet, noting some of the most pressing global problems and suggesting solutions. In this year's edition, Worldwatch President Lester Brown describes a global economy that's strong, but also straining the Earth's natural systems. He calls for a new kind of economy that's both vibrant and sustainable: the antithesis, he says, of the current Western business model.
BROWN: We look at the growth in this economy. Since mid-century it's increased nearly 6-fold. And in the process, the demands of the economy have begun to outstrip the natural support systems on which it depends. For example, we see the demand for seafood exceeding the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries, and as a result fisheries collapsing. We see the demand for forest products exceeding the sustainable yield of forests, so forests are shrinking. In addition to the environmental trends, we can now see, in looking at China, that a country with 1.3 billion people simply will not be able to adopt the Western industrial development model, the fossil fuel-based automobile-centered, throw-away economy. It is not going to work for 1.3 billion people in China, even though it has worked in the United States. And over the long run it won't work for India, either, or the other developing countries, and indeed the industrial countries themselves over the long term.
KNOY: In the report you call for a new, different type of economic growth. What would that new economy look like?
BROWN: A sustainable economy would get most of its energy from renewable sources. That would be wind, solar cells, solar-thermal power plants, hydropower, biomass, geothermal energy, a number of sources of energy that are beginning to develop very rapidly. It would also be a reuse, recycle economy. It would not be a throw-away economy. It would be an economy that would take advantage of the latest technologies to reduce the use of materials. For example, some developing countries in developing phone systems are bypassing the traditional telephone poles and lines, wires to carry phone messages, and going directly to cellular phones and satellites, saving an enormous amount of material. There are many new opportunities now for technological leapfrogging that will permit us to do things far more efficiently in the developing countries than we did during the earlier stages of development in the now-industrialized societies.
KNOY: As you say in the report, you're optimistic. You mention new technologies, big companies that are taking a turn in that direction. Give us some of your favorite examples, and describe the philosophy that these companies are adopting.
BROWN: Well, one recent example was a speech given by John Brown, the CEO of British Petroleum, one of the world's largest oil companies. He said, "We at British Petroleum now take the risk of global warming seriously. We think we've got to do something about it." He said, in effect, British Petroleum is no longer an oil company. It is now an energy company. "We are committing," he said, "a billion dollars to the development of wind and solar energy resources." And incidentally, shortly after that, Shell followed with a major announcement of committing half a billion dollars to renewable energy resource development. So we're seeing some interesting changes here. We're seeing some exciting new technologies coming on the field. Advances in wind power, for example, are becoming quite attractive to oil companies because whereas the market for oil has been growing at 1% to 2% a year, and the market for coal at less than 1% a year during the 90s, wind power has been growing at 25% a year, and the market for solar cells at 15% per year. And that's going to accelerate sharply in the years immediately ahead. And if a company in the energy business, in the oil or coal business, wants to grow rapidly in the future, it will not be doing it in coal and oil. It has to move into these new areas. So we're seeing a lot of things happening that promise rapid changes in the years ahead. Societies tend to cross thresholds and suddenly change becomes not only possible but it comes very rapidly sometimes. And I sense that we could be on the edge of that in the environmental field based in part on some of these recent examples.
KNOY: Why do you think it's important that corporate leadership is there? Certainly environmentalists have been talking about these problems for a long time.
BROWN: They make the important investment decisions. You or I or the US government may wish we were investing more in wind power, for example, or in solar cells. But it's the corporations that actually control the capital and make the investments. I mean, the bottom line is that converting our existing fossil fuel-based automobile-centered throw-away economy into an environmentally sustainable economy, one based on renewable energy, efficient public transportation, one based on reuse, recycle economic system, represents the greatest investment opportunity in history. And at least some corporate leaders are beginning to sense that. And this I find very exciting.
KNOY: Lester Brown is president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC.
Mr. Brown, thanks for joining us.
BROWN: It's been my pleasure.
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KNOY: Forests play an important role in regulating the Earth's climate. They suck heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, so much CO2 that governments are counting on better forest management to help slow down climate change that's been set in motion by the use of carbon-based fuels. But little is known about how specific types of forests in specific areas interact with the atmosphere. Exactly how much carbon they absorb and hold. How much carbon is released when they are cut or destroyed by fire. Or how the forests themselves respond to changes in the climate. Orlando De Guzman of member station KUOW in Seattle traveled to the old growth forests and research labs of the Pacific Northwest to talk with scientists looking for answers to these crucial questions.
SHAW: Hey, Bill. It's Dave. Ready to come up on the load. So we'd like to come up to about as high as we can go and ...
DE GUZMAN: Deep in the shadows of an old growth forest in Washington's Cascade Mountains, a team of scientists boards the yellow steel cage of a construction crane, which rises from a concrete base and disappears into an umbrella of deep green needles and heavy branches.
(More clanking sounds)
DE GUZMAN: The cage shakes and then slowly rises up a narrow canyon of massive Douglas firs, passing silvery snags and ancient Gothic spires that jut into the crisp autumn sky. At 250 feet, the canopy is a delicate web of lichen-draped branches.
SHAW: You'll notice that the forest here is a very rough upper surface topography. there's a lot of dead wood in the upper tree crowns here. And you'll also notice that the foliage on the trees is very much vertically oriented; it's not like the flat tropical forests where you tend to get what's called a canopy roof. Here, the roof has an awful lot of holes in it. (Laughs)
DE GUZMAN: David Shaw is the site manager for the canopy crane, which is run by the University of Washington. there's been a lot of research on the ecosystems of forest canopies in recent years. But Dr. Shaw says this is the first to study the exchange of gases between the atmosphere and the forest. In this suspended world of emerald needles, photosynthesis converts vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the air into carbohydrates, which are stored in the trees' wood and foliage; and oxygen, which is released back into the atmosphere. It's a basic biochemical process that every green plant performs, and that has a profound impact on local and global climate. But in many ways, scientists are only beginning to understand it.
SHAW: What they'd like to do, Bill, is essentially have the jib pointed right over the top of the tree...
DE GUZMAN: The cage inches closer to the top of the tallest Douglas fir on the site, where forest ecologist Bill Winner has been conducting a Department of Energy study on leaf photosynthesis.
WINNER: We have basically 2 tripods here. One tripod has a chamber attached to it that allows us to measure photosynthesis and other physiological properties of needles. So we're going to put the branches into -- a branch tip into the chamber.
DE GUZMAN: Dr. Winner's instruments measure exactly how much carbon dioxide the needles are absorbing every second, providing a detailed transcript of how this branch is interacting with the atmosphere. He can then extrapolate how much CO2 this whole tree, with perhaps 60 million needles, might be drawing out of the air.
WINNER: If we understand the carbon use of an individual tree, we can begin to think about how trees aggregated together could represent a stand and how that stand or system could handle carbon. And as such, begin to think about how the forest as a whole plays into the global carbon cycle.
DE GUZMAN: Scientists need to know how much carbon is being cycled through the Earth's vegetation, because carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat form the sun, and increased levels of the gas from fossil fuel burning are causing the Earth to heat up slightly and disrupting global weather systems. We know roughly how much of the gas is being put into the atmosphere, but have only the vaguest estimate of how much is being drawn out. Dr. Winner hopes this project will help to fill in at least a small part of the picture.
WINNER: One of the questions, then, for this old growth forest stand is, is it a sink for carbon dioxide, which would mean that it's helping prevent further increases in atmospheric CO2? Or is this forest stand a source of CO2? That is, is it aggravating the problem of increasing CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere?
DE GUZMAN: This forest could be a source of CO2, because while trees absorb carbon while they're growing, they release it when they die and start to decay. Dr. Winner's initial measurements suggest that this particular old growth forest may be a sink for carbon dioxide, locking carbon away in logs, branches, roots, and soil.
(Clanking noises; footfalls and ambient voices)
DE GUZMAN: While Dr. Winner is looking up at Northwest forest canopies, other scientists are looking down at the forest floor.
HARMON: Well, the thing about forests is, of all the types of ecosystems there are on Earth, they store the most carbon.
DE GUZMAN: About 200 miles southeast in the Cascades, ecologist Mark Harmon clambers over the rotting remnants of gigantic moss-covered trees at Oregon's H.G. Andrews Experimental Forest. Dr. Harmon's research on dead wood has helped establish just how significant a sink for carbon these old growth forests are.
HARMON: they store it both in their living parts and in the soil, and in this detrital litter layer. That's what's bizarre. Not only is the living tissue of these forests gigantic, I mean, superlative on a world scale, but also the dead parts are just incredible.
DE GUZMAN: In fact, Dr. Harmon has found, the ancient Douglas fir forest of the Pacific Northwest can store 5 times as much carbon per hectare as a tropical forest. But because they hold so much carbon, these forests also pose a danger. When they're removed or altered, a massive amount of carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere. Dr. Harmon says intensive clear-cutting in the Pacific Northwest has turned the region from a carbon sink into a carbon source.
HARMON: Yes, it has been a source of carbon probably for well over 50 years. And a major source. Because the forests are so large and they store so much carbon, when you disturb them the consequences are quite large in terms of carbon flux.
DE GUZMAN: Dr. Harmon says that if you want to keep the largest possible amount of carbon out of the atmosphere, the best thing to do with at least these old growth forests is to leave them alone. He says his research contradicts the argument of some timber industry supporters that cutting and then replanting these forests could suck up more carbon dioxide.
HARMON: While it is true that young trees generally do grow faster than older trees, it isn't necessarily relevant to the issue. The issue really depends on which system stores more carbon on average. Then you look at a younger forest, some of them can accumulate carbon at fairly high rates, but the store is much lower.
DE GUZMAN: But the ability of these forests to hold onto carbon and help regulate the climate is complicated by the fact that forests also respond to changes in the climate. That's where our third researcher comes in.
DE GUZMAN: In her laboratory at the University of Oregon, paleoecologist Cathy Whitloc is hoping to get a handle on how forests might respond to the warming temperatures of the present by looking at the past. Specifically, at 21,000-year-old mud.
WHITLOC: We bring the cores here and we slice them open, and we take samples of them...
DE GUZMAN: At the end of the last Ice Age, Pacific Northwest forests moved north with the warming climate. Along the way, each tree species left distinct grains of pollen, which fossilized in lake bed sediments. Following this trail of pollen, Dr. Whitloc has calculated the ability of forests to move with the changing climate.
WHITLOC: When you look at any of these records, they suggest that species are able to move across the landscape at a rate of 300 to 900 meters per year. So something just under a kilometer per year to go from glacial conditions to the warm conditions of the Holocene.
DE GUZMAN: But temperatures are predicted to rise far faster in the near future than they did then. And Dr. Whitloc fears forests may not be able to keep up with the changes.
WHITLOC: You're asking species to move at rates that are maybe 50 times that fast to be in equilibrium with climate. We really have no evidence to expect that species will be in equilibrium with the sorts of climate changes that are predicted in the future.
DE GUZMAN: Finally, while the past is providing some clues about the fate of forests in the changing climate, computer projections of the future are providing others.
DE GUZMAN: At the US Forest Service Research Station in Corvallis, Oregon, bioclimatologist Ron Neilson is using a sophisticated computer model as a sort of crystal ball to see the future of forests. And the picture isn't entirely bleak. While some forests might shrink, others might grow.
NEILSON: the world could get greener, and we could see more vegetation growth and forests potentially expanding into savannahs and grasslands.
DE GUZMAN: That's because along with temperature, trees also respond to carbon dioxide itself, which is essentially a sort of fertilizer. One possible result of more CO2 in the atmosphere could be more and bigger trees. But it's not that simple, because along with higher temperatures, more CO2 in the atmosphere will bring more volatility to the climate, more precipitation and droughts, hotter heat waves, and colder freezes. Dr. Neilson's computer model shows that warmer temperatures will put forests under stress.
NEILSON: When the trees get stressed, then bugs come in and you get infestations that produce an overkill of vegetation. So perhaps the drought would only have killed a fraction of the trees in there. The bugs will kill much more than that. And than you have a setup potentially for large catastrophic fires, because you've produced a huge fuel load.
DE GUZMAN: And more dying forests and forest fires, Dr. Neilson's models predict, will only release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and increase the volatility of the climate still more, in what's called a positive feedback loop.
NEILSON: The hotter the average simulated temperature increase for planet Earth is, the larger is the area of simulated forest die-back. So we're in a bit of a concern with regard to how hot we actually let the planet get. The hotter it gets, the greater is the likelihood for these positive feedback mechanisms to kick in and make it even hotter.
DE GUZMAN: And Dr. Neilson worries that there's a frightening imbalance between the rate at which forests can help suck up more carbon dioxide on the one hand, and the rate at which they will be damaged by the effects of rising CO2 on the other.
NEILSON: You can kill off forests and burn them up and have what remains decompose and emit carbon into the atmosphere much faster than you can pull that carbon back out of the atmosphere by regrowing new forests somewhere else.
DE GUZMAN: Dr. Neilson's computer models, together with the research being done on the forests themselves, present a vexing dilemma. the more we learn about the importance of forests in regulating the global climate, the more we also learn about the forests' vulnerability to a changing climate. Governments are hoping that preserving and planting forests may help us regulate CO2 levels without having to drastically reduce fossil fuel use. But scientists seem to be suggesting that the only way to ensure that forests are vibrant and healthy may be to reduce fossil fuel use first. For Living on Earth, I'm Orlando De Guzman.
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KNOY: Some advice on what to do about that electric meter that won't stop spinning: hungry home appliances are just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
Saving electricity around the home helps reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, and it also helps bring down your energy bill. But sometimes, saving energy isn't as obvious as turning out the lights when you leave a room. Many appliances, including TVs and VCRs, draw electricity even when they're turned off. Recently, major television and VCR makers and the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to design energy-efficient units that will cut this waste in half. To find out what else I could do to reduce my energy consumption, I invited Alex Wilson over to my home. He's the editor of Environmental Building News and the author of the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings.
(A key turns in a lock.)
KNOY: Let's go on up.
(Footfalls up stairs)
KNOY: I'm a little bit mortified about what we're going to find out today, but let's go to the living room and see what we see.
KNOY: Here's my TV. And my VCR. Are they leaking electricity when they're off?
WILSON: Yes they are, Laura. they're using electricity all the time, whether they're actually on or not. They keep warm, so that when you go to turn it on, it comes on more quickly. They also use electricity to operate some of the electronics: the clock, the programming, things like that. It's not many watts, it might be up to 10 or 12 watts for a typical television. But that adds up when you look at the fact that it's on 24 hours a day 365 days a year.
KNOY: What could I do around here now, Alex, to make this place a little more energy-efficient? And I have to say, we have compact fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling.
WILSON: I'm impressed. Looking around here I see that you've done quite a bit to save energy, more than the average household. With the electronics, there isn't a whole lot you can do. You could unplug your television and VCR after use, but then you'd run into the problem of having to reprogram it every time you turned it back on. Some people with electronic equipment, if it doesn't need that reprogramming, will operate it on a power strip, which has a convenient on-off button which turns it absolutely off.
KNOY: I have a halogen lamp over here, Alex. And I've heard that these are really bad. Is that right?
WILSON: Well, they are one of the low points of the energy efficiency movement in the last 10 years. In fact, these halogen torchieres have used as much energy since they've been introduced as compact fluorescents have saved since they were introduced, and the halogen lamps have only been around for 4 or 5 years.
KNOY: Okay. Let's go into the study.
WILSON: Okay, great.
(Sound of power going on)
KNOY: Now, when we walked in here the computer was off. Was it leaking electricity when it was off?
WILSON: I don't believe so. Most computers don't use electricity unless they're actually on. But a lot of people have the mistaken impression that it's better to leave the computer on. They feel that it's going to results in less wear on the disk drive and somehow less damage to the monitor. That's not the case. It should be turned off if you're not going to be using it within the next half hour or so. Now, in the last year, most computer manufacturers have begun producing computers that are Energy Star compliant. And what an Energy Star computer does is go into a sleep mode after a certain period of time. It will continue using some electricity even though the screen has blacked out, but it's a lot less electricity than if the computer is left on.
KNOY: Let's go into the kitchen. That's where I have most of my appliances.
WILSON: Okay, great.
KNOY: Alex, I have 2 appliances here which I think are already going to come under the guilty column. I have a microwave oven that has the little clock. And I have a bread maker over here, which also has a little clock. Are these leaking electricity?
WILSON: Well, again, they use a little trickle of electricity to operate the clock, but it's really very minor. And actually, these are good energy saving appliances. When you use the microwave oven in place of a conventional oven, you're going to be using maybe 700 watts instead of 2,000 to 3,000 watts to cook your casserole or whatever. So you can save a significant amount of energy by using that microwave oven. Same with the bread maker. It's smaller, you're not having to heat up an entire oven to bake bread. So it's an energy saving appliance. And actually I see this crock pot here, that's a tremendous energy saver, because you're using just a very small flow of electricity over 6 or 8 hours, and cooking that food for probably only about 20% of the energy you would otherwise be using.
KNOY: So Alex, if people are out looking for new appliances and they want to buy the most energy efficient appliances possible, what should they look for?
WILSON: Well, they could examine the Energy Guide labels. Those are those yellow labels that you'll see on all of the appliances in an appliance store. And that gives you a sense of how much electricity that appliance is going to use compared with similar models on the market. And it's fairly easy using those Energy Guide labels to choose the more efficient model, whether it's a dishwater, a refrigerator, a washing machine, or a furnace.
KNOY: Well, Alex Wilson, thank you very much for the tour and for the advice.
WILSON: You're very welcome, Laura.
KNOY: Alex Wilson is editor of Environmental Building News and the author of the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings.
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KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production team includes Jesse Wegman, Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Liz Lempert, and Terry FitzPatrick, Peter Christianson, Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. We had help this week from Dana Campbell and New Hampshire Public Radio. Kim Motylewski is our associate editor. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Executive producer Steve Curwood returns next week. I'm Laura Knoy. Thanks for listening.
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