January 23, 1998
Air Date: January 23, 1998
Avalanche - Logging Connection/ Terry FitzPatrick
This winter has seen an alarming number of avalanche fatalities with at least 30 people in the U.S. and Canada buried alive in snow. Experts say a lack of training among skiers, snoeshoers and snowmobilers is responsible for most avalanche disasters. But, some experts are also concerned that logging has made the situation worse. All this is happening at the same time that funding for avalanche forecasting centers is being squeezed. From our Northwest Bureau at KPLU in Seattle, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports. (08:10)
The Ice lady Cometh/ Bob Carty
Along with claiming more than 20 lives and causing billions of dollars of damage to human structures, the greatest impact of this winter's terrible Canadian and border storm may be on trees. In some parts of Canada, the forests may not be the same again for decades. Near the town of Merrickville, south of Ottawa, one woman is on a mission to save a rare biological museum a sort of treasure-house of living things she wants to preserve for the future. And she has been braving the elements to realize her goal. Living On Earth contributor Bob Carty paid her a visit and sent this report. (12:50)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about...rogue waves. (01:15)
Swordfish Restaurant Boycott/ Steve Curwood
Swordfish isn’t on the menu where it usually is. Hammersley’s Bistro in Boston is one of more than 25 restaurants along the East Coast and Texas that are taking swordfish off their menus for the next year. Chef m says it’s an effort to restore the fish whose stocks in the North Atlantic have dropped close to commercial extinction. Steve Curwood reports from the kitchen of one of Boston's finest bistros, which has joined the boycott. (05:00)
Spider Magic/ Sy Montgomery
When she's not writing commentaries for us, Sy Montgomery is often busy making trips around the world researching and recording nature. But, recently she realized that some of the best encounters can take place right at home. Commentator Sy Montgomery comes to us courtesy of New Hampshire Public Radio. (02:20)
Hudson Riverkeepers/ Richard Schiffman
In the U. S., more than twenty waterways, from the Delaware River to Puget Sound have their own corps of volunteers called "Riverkeepers." They say their mission is to preserve and to protect these bodies of water for all people and wildlife . Richard Schiffman reports on one group on the Hudson River which has revived this ancient tradition of stewardship. (10:10)
Florida's Winter Birds
Around 160 different species of birds live year round in Florida and around another 160 varieties arrive in the winter for nesting. But, the bird count in the Sunshine state has been hit with steep declines in recent decades. Some of their wild places have been paved over, and water-flows for the giant marshes and wetlands have been disturbed and polluted. Still, Florida is a popular spot for birding, and Kenn Kaufman, our guest ornithologist, Steve Curwood identify and discuss a few of Florida's flyers and waders. (07:00)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Terry FitzPatrick, Bob Carty, Richard Schiffman
GUESTS: Gordon Hamersley, Kenn Kaufman
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
MAN: Please note that backcountry travel and avalanche terrain is not recommended on Tuesday.
CURWOOD: More and more people in North America are dying in avalanches these days. Some blame the rising popularity of winter sports. Others point to loggers who clear-cut mountainsides.
LA CHAPELLE: There's a lot of naturally created avalanches out there, but there are quite a few that have been artificially created by removing the timber cover.
CURWOOD: Also, the clean-up continues in ice-bound central Canada. Among the many heroes, one woman who has hunkered down without electric power in a bid to preserve biodiversity. She's keeping rare medicinal plants safe and warm for future generations.
KROGER: We may not need them from a health point of view this year or next year, but your child and my child might need these in the times to come.
CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.
(NPR News follows)
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Outdoor winter sports experts are saying that this season they're seeing an alarming number of avalanche fatalities. If the pace continues it will set a record. So far more than 30 people in the US and Canada have been buried alive in snow. Backcountry experts say a lack of training among skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers is responsible for most avalanche disasters. But some experts are also concerned that logging has made the situation worse, and all this is happening at the same time that funding for avalanche forecasting centers is being squeezed. From our Northwest Bureau at KPLU in Seattle, Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.
(A phone rings. A man's voice answers: "This is the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. The zone forecast for the Olympics and Washington Cascades near and west of the crest, an avalanche warning. High avalanche danger below 7,000 feet Tuesday and Tuesday night...")
FITZ PATRICK: Every morning meteorologists in Seattle let people know if it's safe to head into the mountains. Lately, the advice has been: stay home.
MAN: Please note that backcountry travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended on Tuesday.
FITZ PATRICK: Severe swings in mountain weather, with heavy snowfalls, stiff winds, and rapid temperature changes, have made this a particularly deadly winter. Extreme conditions have created an unstable snowpack.
BRILL: Okay, so we're going to start heading up the hill here. It looks like I'll have to go this way.
(Footfalls crunch on snow)
FITZ PATRICK: High in the Cascade Range, backcountry guide Gary Brill tries to teach people to spot avalanche warning signs.
BRILL: We're not used to being in charge of our own survival. But in the backcountry in skiing, snowshoeing, whatever, you definitely are.
(Squeaking sounds of fabric, followed by more footfalls on snow)
FITZ PATRICK: Bundled in Polarfleece and Gortex, Mr. Brill and 9 students are making their way through an Alpine meadow. It's a picture-postcard scene. Until Mr. Brill digs a pit and discovers what every guide dreads.
(A shovel digs)
FITZ PATRICK: Layer upon layer of different kinds of snow.
FITZ PATRICK: Dry, fluffy layers. Firm, wet layers. They're easy to spot.
FITZ PATRICK: You can even hear the layers as Mr. Brill wiggles a thin metal gauge through the snow.
BRILL: There's a little bit of a crusty layer in there, and it might be a sliding point. And notice how right here, right underneath this ice layer, it falls apart. That's what will tend to avalanche.
FITZ PATRICK: An avalanche is caused when layers of snow fail to bond together. A weak layer can begin to slide naturally or when a person travels across it. Most avalanches involving people are actually triggered by people moving over the snow. This realization was an eye-opener for class member Karen Arkin.
ARKIN: It's beautiful out here and you think hey, let's go skiing. You look at it and you think wow, this is awesome powder, and that's what I thought when we got out here. And then the first time Gary stopped us, he said, "This is really cruddy." (Laughs) And I was shocked.
FITZ PATRICK: Classes like this have become more common with the growth of backcountry sports. Although these students are learning basic skills, Gary Brill sometimes wonders if a single field trip creates a false sense of security.
BRILL: I think I'm part of the problem if I let people have the feeling that once they learn these things they've got them down, and that then they're safe. I think as long as I preach caution and talk about probabilities and that it can happen to you, then I'm not.
(Calling to the group) Start moving down! Let's watch and see what happens.
FITZ PATRICK: The concern over avalanches goes beyond the level of training among backcountry adventurers. It also involves one of America's most controversial environmental issues: clear-cut logging.
LA CHAPELLE: There's a lot of naturally-created avalanches out there, but there are quite a few that have been artificially created by removing the timber cover.
FITZ PATRICK: Ed LaChapelle, a retired geophysics professor from the University of Washington, says clear-cutting has turned many hillsides into avalanche zones.
LA CHAPELLE: Removing the timber in the first place removes the stabilizing effect of all the tree trunks that anchor the snow. But as soon as you open up a slope which was previously covered by timber, you change the character of the snow deposition and the way the weather affects it.
FITZ PATRICK: Mr. LaChapelle says that hillsides exposed to the weather tend to have weaker snow packs and are prone to avalanches and mudslides. It's uncertain how many avalanche zones have been created by logging. The first effort to establish a number is now underway in Canada. Timber companies we contacted about this research either hadn't heard of the concern, or dismissed it.
(A phone rings.)
FITZ PATRICK: Regardless of whether avalanches occur naturally or are caused by people, the Northwest Avalanche Center in Seattle attempts to predict them.
(Various electronic sounds)
FITZ PATRICK: Meteorologist Mark Moore monitors regional snow conditions through a network of remote weather stations.
(To Moore:) So what's going on here?
MOORE: This shows the last 24 hours worth of mountain weather information we have from an automated site at Stephens Pass.
FITZ PATRICK: So they got hammered, it looks like.
MOORE: They got hammered last night, yeah.
FITZ PATRICK: In a 5-hour period, Stephens Pass received a foot of new snow. This prompts an avalanche alert on the Center's hotline.
MOORE: Avalanches are expected on mainly northeast- through southeast-facing slopes, and travel in avalanche terrain not recommended for Wednesday. Periods of light snow...
FITZ PATRICK: Two thousand people a week call the center to check the latest mountain weather conditions. The companion web site logs more than 20,000 hits per week. However, budget cuts nearly forced the facility to close this year. Washington legislators cut the state's contribution in half. Representative Maryann Mitchell says those who benefit from the forecasts, such as skiers, should pay more of the costs.
MITCHELL: They should participate. We did not expect them to pay all of it. If they care about their sport, they should be willing to help make sure that it's safe. We require that in other kinds of things. You know, boaters help to pay for water safety. And the same should be true in the mountains.
FITZ PATRICK: This philosophy has prompted budget cuts affecting avalanche centers throughout the western US over the past several years. Most of the facilities already receive funding from ski areas, snowmobile associations, and private donors. But forecasters say it's been a scramble to survive. Some have relied on bake sales and charity banquets. The US Forest Service is hoping to enlist outdoor equipment manufacturers and major corporations to help. Supporters, like Brooke Drury of the Mountaineers Club in Seattle, say the challenge is to demonstrate that avalanches threaten highways and rail lines that are important to everyone.
DRURY: It's not just backcountry users that benefit from the avalanche center. It's basically anyone who travels over the pass during the winter season. If we don't know what is going on up in the mountains with respect to not only avalanche conditions but also winter mountain weather, we're going to be in big trouble.
FITZ PATRICK: An emergency grant from Washington's governor has kept the Northwest Center alive this year. And Ms. Drury is forming a friends organization to solicit donations. For now, though, the future of avalanche forecasting in one of America's most popular winter recreation areas remains in doubt. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick in Seattle.
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CURWOOD: One woman braves the worst ice storm in memory to help preserve biodiversity in Canadian forests. Her story is next on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Canadian climate scientists say the ice storm that battered parts of the northeast US and central Canada had a clear El Niño signature. Instead of the usual cold wave from Canada assaulting the United States, a dramatic change in circulation patterns caused moist air from the US to invade Canada. The resulting storm has so far claimed more than 20 lives and caused billions of dollars in damage to human structures. And electric power has yet to be restored to all areas. But in the long term, the greatest impact of the storm will be on trees. In some parts of Canada, there is damage to every deciduous tree. Entire sugarbushes have been wiped out. And the forest may not look the same again for decades. Near the town of Merrickville, south of Ottawa, one woman has steadfastly refused to give in to the elements. She's been constantly stoking a wood stove in order to save a rare biological museum, a treasure house of living things she wants to preserve for the future. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty paid her a visit.
CARTY: It looks like something out of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and I feel a little bit like Ichabod Crane. The farm lane is darkened by a canopy of trees, and they are covered by a 2-inch coat of ice. They creak inside their crystal chains. The wind howls and branches reach out toward you like tortured limbs.
(Footfalls in snow)
CARTY: It took 16 men a full day to clear the broken trees from the farm road and the lane so that the owners of this farm could get out. If they wanted to. But at the end of the lane, where it opens up to a snow-covered garden by the farm house, the owners are surveying the damage.
KROEGER: Oh my goodness, look at this. It's just a devastation zone here with the trees. It's like they're like toothpicks. The elm, the ash, the hickories are probably the worst hit, I would think. (Ice tinkles) Lift the weight of this ice. You can't lift it. The Manchurian apricots, they're absolutely down, down on the ground. It's just a disaster zone, look at it.
CARTY: The disaster is what Diana Beresford Kroeger and her husband Chris call Carrigliath, Gaelic for Grey Stones Gardens. Diana Beresford Kroeger is no ordinary gardener. She's a classical botanist, with a PhD in molecular biology, plus a background in heart research and some experience as the host of a radio gardening show. Nor is hers an ordinary garden. Every year, thousands of plant lovers and agriculture students come here to see one of the biggest organic gardens in Canada.
KROEGER: What is special about this is the huge collection of endangered and rare and heritage species that I have here. Like, I have collections of old varieties of gooseberries, cherries from Siberia, the chocolate peony, chocolate-smelling black peonies.
CARTY (Laughing): Smells delicious!
KROEGER (Laughing): They are, they're wonderful! Wonderful species.
CARTY: Diana Beresford Kroeger has been building her garden for 20 years. She scouts the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes forests looking for rare tree or plant species long thought lost to deforestation. She's been breeding them here and giving out the seeds to try to rebuild natural populations. But then, the ice storm of '98 hit.
KROEGER: When it first started freezing rain I thought well, this is all. Heck, this is going to be one horrible day, it's going to be very difficult to get out of here. But when it kept going for about 10 hours, no this was not normal freezing rain. The partridge were trying to walk up the walls of the house, and they don't do this. There was an ocean of wildlife, of birds, in front of the house, and they were behaving in a very extraordinary way. They had lost their territoriality towards one another. They were all coming together in a great group of flying creatures, and I saw this phenomenon, and I have only seen it personally once before when we had a small tornado coming through here.
(High winds, footfalls on snow)
C. KROEGER: See the cedars in through the forest. You see how the tops have broken and split right down. This stand of cedars in behind here are in excess of 125 to 150 years old, and it seems 90% of the cedars, the tops are broken out. And unfortunately it will take another 150 years to grow them again.
D.B. KROEGER: Course, the wind catches them, swings them, and off they go. They're snapped.
CARTY: It's cold, that wind!
D.B. KROEGER: It is freezing cold.
C. KROEGER: Let's get you back inside.
CARTY: Botanists say the forest is where we will see the long-term consequences of the ice storm. Damage to the crowns of trees could mean that traditional varieties will not be the ones to reproduce. It may take 100 years before the forest looks like it did before. There's little Diana Beresford Kroeger can do right now about the damage outside. The reason she has stayed here without electricity is the plants and seeds inside the house.
(A door creaks open, shuts. Fade to a roaring fire)
D.B. KROEGER: A nice big old clock [word?], no, that's a bit of maple. All right, that will burn well, got to keep that fire going. (Laughs)
CARTY: Inside, it's only 43 degrees. You can see your breath. We take off just one layer of clothing, and then Diana reaches into the oven and pulls out a towel.
D.B. KROEGER: There are no, you see, look now here.
CARTY: What are you doing? Oh!
D.B. KROEGER: Onto your carotids.
CARTY: That's lovely! What did you just do?
D.B. KROEGER: I put a warm towel around your neck and I held it tight so that your carotid arteries would be warmed.
CARTY: That feels wonderful.
D.B. KROEGER: Aha! And I'm going to do it to myself.
CARTY: It's just like a wave of warmth.
D.B. KROEGER: Yes, 10% of the flow in your body is going up there.
CARTY: The view from the woodstove is a traffic jam of chairs and a row of large buckets of melting snow and water. Over in the adjoining room, the floor is covered by potato sacks and plants. Hundreds of plants. When the ice storm hit, Diana could only sit by her window and watch her precious trees fall to the ground. But inside, she and Chris divided their farm house in half, sealing off the bedrooms to keep all the heat in the 2 rooms near the fire. Then they marshalled all the plants and seeds from storerooms, porch, and bedrooms into the area that gets some glow from the stove. Diana takes me on the tour.
D.B. KROEGER: And now we're going into the, into my garden room. It's totally packed. In fact, you probably can't walk around here. In fact, it's been an awful lot of work looking after all of these and getting them in and making sure that they're in the right position so they don't freeze. So the species that I know that I can hang about plus 5, plus 4, plus 5 degrees are in a 4 or 5 degree area. That's the area right in front of you. Those that are nearer the windows can take a degree of frost, like the cacti can take a few degrees of frost.
CARTY: And you have some very rare plants here.
D.B. KROEGER: Yes. I've got some geraniums which are 150 years old. These are very, very old geraniums. And next to this, then, we have the gladiolas that I have bred. They are insect-resistant gladiolas. They are resistant to thrips, those beautiful white daisies, that's from South Africa and it is also a medicinal plant. In fact, coming to think of it, everything in here is medicinal.
CARTY: And this is the main reason Diana has been putting up with the cold and the lack of electricity. As a botanist she loves her plants. But it is her medical background that makes her passionate about preserving and propagating rare and old species. There are potato sacks and plastic bags on the floor. Diana opens one up to show me the nuts of a black walnut tree.
(A bag opens)
D.B. KROEGER: Black hennae, hen's eggs. Now, what --
CARTY: They're enormous!
D.B. KROEGER: They're enormous, yes. They're like, they're bigger than an egg, actually they're about a 3-ounce nut. And the oils in this nut are very, very good for heart metabolism. Very, very good for young children. Very, very good for brain development in children and in older people.
CARTY: Why are you keeping them going?
D.B. KROEGER: Because I think it's important that we have genetic material. We keep genetic diversity going from year to year. We may not need them from a health point of view this year or next year, but your child and my child might need these in the times to come. Fifty percent of all of the medicines in the multinationals come from vascular trees and plants, and that's why I am keeping these.
CARTY: And there's one more reason Diana is putting up with the heated towels and lack of a good shower. She's put a lot of effort into finding and breeding species that are disease-resistant, like the damaged elm tree in the front yard that is impervious to Dutch Elm Disease. She believes her collection could help Mother Nature through another ice storm. Ice storms are natural. But the forest they affect is not. In this part of the country a lot of tree cover has been cut. Almost none of what remains is virgin. And everywhere, species diversity has been highly reduced. That lack of biological diversity should be a concern, Diana Beresford Kroeger contends. Because global warming could dish out weather like we've never seen before.
D.B. KROEGER: What I worry about is the unpredictability of the climatic changes. Today may very well be the ice storm. Maybe in a week's time we'll have the grid down again. So consequently, what we have to have, is we have to have an eye to this variability. So you cannot plant, for instance, trees in this area which will not take frost. We have to put in disease-resistant and frost-resistant species back into the forests. Because if we don't do that, everything will go.
CARTY: Shall we get warm?
D.B. KROEGER: Yes, let's go and get warm. Go by the fire again. (Calling) Okay, Chris, coming up another cup of tea. Orders for tea.
CARTY: Are you getting tired?
D.B. KROEGER: Yes. I have battle fatigue. I think my brain cells aren't working very well, such as they are. Right now my feet are like lumps of ice, and I'm going to have to make another hot water bottle to warm them up. And my kidneys are getting cold, so I'm going to have to wrap myself again.
(A fire roars. The wind howls outside)
CARTY: Diana and Chris accompany me back outside to the wind and the ice. I apologize that I'll be getting into a warm car while they go back to a 43- degree home. They are tired, but their spirits are still high. They invite me back in the summer. And as we walk down the lane, Diana notices that not all is lost.
D.B. KROEGER: These are all walnuts called Gananoque walnuts.
C. KROEGER: A few branches off.
D.B. KROEGER: A few branches down but I'm very pleased with how the walnuts have stood. So you know, I'm -- there are disasters, there are things that warm your heart. And all and all you just have to take the good with the bad.
CARTY: Will the garden survive?
D.B. KROEGER: Nature has a second hand, and the second hand of Nature is greening. The first hand is destruction, and the greening of Spring is really my one hope.
(The wind howls)
CARTY: For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in eastern Ontario.
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It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: Swordfish is coming off the menu at many of the finest restaurants. The reason is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: Fifty-six years ago the Queen Mary, pressed into wartime transport service, was nearly capsized off Scotland by what her captain called "one freak mountainous wave." Scientists call them "rogue waves." Sailors call them "non-negotiable waves." And they are thought to be responsible for the more than 40 big ships that are lost at sea each year. A rogue wave happens when many small waves get in step with each other and pile up to form one giant wave, often more than 70 feet tall. By comparison most ocean waves are under 12 feet. The other big difference with rogue waves is their unpredictability. Unlike tidal waves or tsunamis, which need a trigger, say an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, rogue waves can occur with little or no warning. While scientists don't know for sure what causes the waves, some areas of the globe see them more often. For example, the Cape of Good Hope off South Africa is notorious for titanic waves. But obtaining reliable data is difficult. After all, the biggest rogue waves tend to silence their only observers. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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(Sizzling sounds, the clang of a pot)
CURWOOD: So can I ask you what you're making here?
HAMERSLEY: Yeah. Making a kind of a combo, seafood combo plate with salmon and scallops. And we're going to put a little lentils and some other vegetables, a little salsa pea and some carrots with it, and serve it with a nice green salad.
CURWOOD: In the kitchen of Hamersley's Bistro, an upscale eatery located in Boston's South End, chef and owner Gordon Hamersley is preparing an array of seafood dishes for his hungry clientele. But swordfish isn't on the menu here. Hamersley's Bistro is one of more than 30 restaurants along the East Coast and Texas that won't be offering swordfish for the next year. Chef Hamersley says it's an effort to help restore the fish. Swordfish stocks in the North Atlantic have dropped close to commercial extinction.
HAMERSLEY: We're giving swordfish a rest, if you will, a chance to come back in the kind of numbers and the kind of poundage that they have been known in the past for.
CURWOOD: Are you telling your customers that you're not serving swordfish for this reason?
HAMERSLEY: When they ask, yeah. And many times we don't serve swordfish on our menus and people don't ask. But when they ask, "Gee, where's the swordfish?" or "I thought you had swordfish on this particular menu," I'll definitely tell them why. And this is one way that a very small person like myself can make the dining public aware of the fact that certain species are in danger sometimes.
CURWOOD: Swordfish aren't the only fish in trouble. Have you taken other fish off your menu as well?
HAMERSLEY: I have, actually. We don't serve wild striped bass in this restaurant. We serve a different version. We serve a farm-raised striped bass. And the reason is that even though it's available to me, I think that the stocks are such that they need to be rested even more than the government says so. It was very clear about 10 years ago that the striped bass was considered practically extinct in Massachusetts waters, and today sport fishermen are reporting record numbers of catches as well. I think it's somewhere 500,000 and 700,000 pounds of striped bass can be harvested by the commercial fishermen. So, you know, with a little bit of conservation, a little bit of planning, we can bring a species back without any problem.
CURWOOD: Did somebody ask you to take swordfish off your menu for a year? Or was this your own idea?
HAMERSLEY: This was not my own idea. A fax was sent probably to thousands of restauranteurs around the country, making us aware of what some of the problems were and what some of the facts were with regard to swordfish. There are very few of us in this industry who are not aware of the northeast fishing problems. I think we've been negligent sometimes in our past of over-fishing. We need to have a policy of conservation, so that the fishermen are able to continue to do well, as well as the public being able to enjoy this incredible resource that we have here.
CURWOOD: What's the proportion of people who come to eat fish versus other parts of your menu here?
HAMERSLEY: Interestingly, it's beginning to change. Five years ago, I would have said that meat sales outdid fish sales a solid 2 to 1. Today it is about 50-50. And I think that the reason for that is twofold. First of all, I think I cook fish better today than I did numbers of years ago. I work on it harder. I think that people are more aware of the health benefits of eating fish and want to try to do the most they can to put good things into their bodies.
CURWOOD: So this loss of swordfish from your menu is not just a casual thing that you're doing.
HAMERSLEY: I don't think it's a casual thing at all. New England is a place that was made a famous place because of the fishing industry. It is sadly depleted now. And I just hope, as a restauranteur and as a chef and as a cook that I'm able to continue to serve wild fish in the future. And I think that having a sense of conservation about fish is an important part of that.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us.
HAMERSLEY: It's a pleasure. Thanks for coming in.
CURWOOD: Chef Gordon Hamersley owns and operates Hamersley's Bistro in the South End of Boston, Massachusetts.
(Sizzling and the sounds of pots and pans continue)
CURWOOD: One thing that radio cannot convey is the sense of smell, and whoooo! does it smell good here!
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CURWOOD: When she's not writing commentaries for us, Sy Montgomery is often busy making trips around the world researching and recording nature. But on one recent journey she realized that some of the best encounters can take place right at home.
MONTGOMERY: In a little bunk house on the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh, my friend Diane woke me up suddenly at 2AM. "Sy," she cried, "look at this!" She shined her flashlight on the mirror. The object of her alarm nearly covered the opposite wall. It was the giant shadow of a spider. The actual spider was only about the size of my fist, and once I got over the shock of being awake I was delighted to see it. We'd come here trying to watch predators tigers, actually but despite many days of searching hadn't seen a single one. Now, here, right in our room, was a predator par excellence. I knew if we watched it for just a few hours, we would see an extraordinary hunter at work.
In 4 trips around the world I've only seen 4 tigers, 3 of whom were just lying there. But in the safety and comfort of your own house you can witness some of nature's most dramatic moments. In an hour, usually early morning, you can watch a typical spider weave its web from start to finish. It's made of liquid protein changed to solid silk by the very action of pulling it out of its body with its back legs. To make it sticky, some spiders lay down drops of glue here and there. Others fluff up certain strands to make a natural velcro to tangle the hairs and legs of insects.
The spider doesn't get caught in its own web because of oils on its feet, and it's careful to stay on the non-sticky part. Spiders eat the sticky strands and re-make them every day.
Admittedly, some people find spiders unappealing. Their heads are covered with eyes, fangs, and legs. To make things worse, the spider's sucking stomach is located in its head, not its abdomen. As Winnifred Duncan put it in her book Webs in the Wind: “A spider's face is pretty awful until you get fond of it.” In fact, in the 1940s, Duncan herself grew so fond of spiders she took to capturing outdoor spiders to let them loose inside her house. That way she could more easily observe them as they wove their webs and stalked their prey in her bedroom curtains, on the hat rack, and along her bedside table.
Seeking hints for better spider watching, I called up Herbert Levi, author of Spiders and Their Kin. His advice for good spider-watching: “Don't keep your house too clean.” That's another reason to love spiders. They provide an excellent excuse for not vacuuming.
CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery comes to us courtesy of New Hampshire Public Radio.
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CURWOOD: Upstream from America's biggest city is a core of conservationists that's not afraid to get hands dirty or wet. A profile of the Hudson Riverkeepers is coming up right here on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In Merry Old England, kings used to appoint people to maintain their royal fishing grounds. They were called “riverkeepers.” Today in the United States, more than 20 waterways from the Delaware River to Puget Sound have their own keepers. They say their mission is not to preserve these bodies of water for a privileged elite, but to protect them for all the people and wildlife. Richard Schiffman reports on one group on the Hudson River, which has revived this ancient tradition of stewardship.
(Music with banjos)
SCHIFFMAN: Hundreds gather to support the watchdog environmental group Riverkeeper. From this high bluff across the river from the US Military Academy at West Point, it's easy to see why the Hudson has attracted such a devoted following. Below, a reed brown marsh patrolled by a solitary red- tailed hawk. Further on, the glistening river narrows as it passes the rounded peaks of the Hudson Highlands, rising sheer from its banks.
(Sheep bleat as music continues)
BOYLE: It's very easy to fall in love with a river. I mean, a river symbolizes human life. It has a beginning, it has a middle, and it has an end in the oceans. Rivers are very compelling. No question about it. But what we've done to rivers, we've got to turn around and do better by them. And do better by ourselves in doing better by the rivers.
(Ambient conversation, many people out in the open)
SCHIFFMAN: Robert Boyle's love affair with the Hudson began when he was a boy growing up along its banks. He left the area to pursue journalism. When he returned to the Hudson in the early sixties, he was shocked to see what he called “an open sewer”, unfit for swimming or fishing.
BOYLE: At the time the Hudson River was the butt of jokes on late night television. The laws were there, they simply weren't being enforced, and that's what we did.
SCHIFFMAN: Robert Boyle had a unique idea. He trained a group of commercial fishermen to be the eyes and ears of the Hudson: the Hudson River Fisherman's Association, created to track down polluters and bring them to justice.
BOYLE: They had to be organized and they had to be informed about what laws were being violated. And then they said, “Hey, look at that plant over there, do you know what that SOB is doing? Every day when I go out there he's putting this stuff out, and that's against the law. Let's go after him." So that's the way it was very grass roots. Very grass roots.
SCHIFFMAN: The Hudson River Fisherman's Association evolved into The Riverkeeper, one of the region's largest and most aggressive environmental groups. John Cronin is the current Riverkeeper. The former Hudson River fisherman works with his small staff in a converted 19th century farm house near Garrison, New York.
(Voices, a phone rings)
CRONIN: The yellow pins represent power plants. The blue pins represent industries. And the red pins represent sewage treatment plants.
SCHIFFMAN: Pin-studded maps mounted on plywood give the Riverkeeper office the appearance of a war room.
CRONIN: What it's going to do in an ecosystem like the Hudson River, if anything, is not going to be some one large polluter. It's going to be a collection of small polluters. You know, the Hudson River, if it ever dies, and it's true of most water bodies in the country, will die the death of a thousand cuts. So this helps us focus on where those concentrations of small polluters are, where they might be having a collective impact on some important habitat.
(A motor starts up)
CRONIN: That's a big old Cummins diesel.
SCHIFFMAN: To help monitor the small and not so small offenders, John Cronin cruises the Hudson several times a week. We head downstream, toward the telltale dome of a nuclear reactor.
CRONIN: This is the Indian Point Nuclear Plant right here. It's a power plant that uses Hudson River water for cooling, and one of the problems with power plants that use open water for cooling is that they kill millions and millions of fish. And they kill them mechanically. They actually suck the fish into the plants and kill them, and that's happening here. Here at the Indian Point plan they kill easily tens of millions of fish a year, at all different life stages from eggs to larvae to juvenile fish, even some large fish.
(The motor quiets)
SCHIFFMAN: The boat idles before the plant's massive intake pipes, which suck in up to a million gallons of river water a minute. The pipes are fitted with fish saving equipment, installed after Riverkeepers sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency to create nationwide standards for power plant intakes. But young fish pass through the screens and die.
SPAHL: What our studies tell us is that the fish population within the river is very healthy.
SCHIFFMAN: Mike Spahl is the spokesperson for Consolidated Edison, the company that runs Indian Point. He concedes that the Indian Point plant destroys some young striped bass. But he says that this species is currently thriving in the Hudson.
SPAHL: Recently, we worked with the environmental and natural resources groups to close down a striped bass hatchery because there were so many Hudson striped bass in the river that it was not necessary to produce them any more at a hatchery.
SCHIFFMAN: Mike Spahl says he respects the Riverkeeper organization, which has been negotiating with Con Ed over a range of issues for the past 17 years. But other industry sources say off the record that the media-savvy Riverkeeper is more interested in grabbing headlines than in solving difficult environmental problems. John Cronin answers that it's fish and pollution and not publicity that interests him. He's especially troubled, he says, by a decades-old discharge of the chemicals PCB from two General Electric plants north of Albany. Contaminated sediments continue to pollute the Hudson, forcing New York State to ban most fishing on the river. The irony, John Cronin says, is that while stocks of many species are actually increasing, the PCB problem has pushed the once thriving fishing industry on the Hudson to the verge of extinction.
(Boat motor runs)
CRONIN: When I was a commercial fisherman on the river back in the late 70s, there were still probably about 150 fishermen left. This season in 1997 shed season, there's probably only 25 fishermen left. It's an honorable industry and it shouldn't be allowed to die, and there's no good reason for it to die. This is not part of economic evolution that it's dying. It's dying because of environmental abuse.
(At a meeting) Stacy, where do we stand with the Yonkers sewage treatment plant?
WEISENFELD: Right now we're looking at this plant to see what they're discharging, if it's in compliance with their permit. And we're getting ready to send out a notice of intent to sue or our “lois” (letter of intent to sue) letter at this point. And...
SCHIFFMAN: Stacy Weisenfeld is a student at Pace University in White Plains, New York. She's a member of Riverkeeper's Environmental Law Clinic.
WEISENFELD: And what the clinic does here is say look, we're prepared to go to trial. We've got all these students working around the clock on your case, and we're going to get you. So why don't you come to the table and we'll get an environmental mitigation program set up. We'll get environmental benefit funds set up. And instead of wasting the efforts and the time and the money and the expense on a trial, we'll channel that into fixing the pollution, to preventing the problem.
SCHIFFMAN: And if persuasion doesn't work, the students litigate. Attorney Robert Kennedy, Jr., oversees their work.
KENNEDY: We have 10 students who are allowed to practice law under our supervision. We give them each 2 or 3 polluters to sue at the beginning of the semester. They go into court and argue their cases and they've been extraordinary successful. We've brought over 150 polluters to justice since we opened our doors at the clinic. We have forced polluters to spend somewhere around half a billion dollars on remediation of the Hudson.
(A train clanks, horns blow)
SCHIFFMAN: Not only polluters draw the lawyers' attention. Both banks of the Hudson are owned by railroads, which severely restrict public access to the river. Student lawyer David Steimber has been negotiating with the railroads.
STEIMBER: We're now working with Metro North to actually locate where on the river we're going to build safe crossings so that people can continue to use the traditional fishing spots that their families have used for generations.
SCHIFFMAN: Pace Law Clinic has inspired similar programs as far afield as the Chattahoochie River in Georgia, and on the Santa Monica and San Diego bays in Southern California. Robert Kennedy.
KENNEDY: This community was blessed since the early sixties with an extremely vigorous, aggressive, sophisticated environmental movement that was willing to go to war to save this river. That was willing to show up at the planning board meetings and the permit hearings and the zoning boards of appeal, and ultimately to go to court when they had to, to find the attorneys, and defend the river.
SCHIFFMAN: Robert Kennedy adds that the river now flows cleaner than it has in decades. Robert Boyle agrees, and he claims that the Hudson is today the healthiest river system on the Atlantic seaboard.
BOYLE: This is the only major estuary on the East Coast of the United States that still retains viable populations of all of its original fish species. We have become sort of the Noah's Ark for estuarine river systems elsewhere in this country that want to restore their missing fish species, for example, striped bass that are now in the Kennebeck River are of Hudson River origin. Shad restoration going on in the Susquehana River in Pennsylvania. Shad are from the Hudson River.
SCHIFFMAN: But Robert Boyle cautions against taking the Hudson's recovery for granted. There are still many threats to the water quality of the river, he says, and only vigilance will keep it clean. Robert Boyle is looking forward to the day, he says, when every significant river bay and lake in America will have its own watchdog organization to serve as its eyes and ears and champion. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Many birds and birdwatchers alike are in Florida this time of year. Perhaps 160 different species of birds live year-round in Florida, and that many again show up in the winter for nesting. But the bird count in the Sunshine State has been hit with steep declines in recent decades. Wild places have been paved over, and water flows for the giant marshes and wetlands have been disturbed and polluted. Still, Florida is a popular spot for birding and Kenn Kaufman, our guest ornithologist, is here to talk about a few of Florida's flyers and waders. Welcome.
KAUFMAN: Thanks, Steve.
CURWOOD: Kenn, you say the wood stork is one of the most beleaguered and beloved birds of the Sunshine State. Let's listen to its call.
(Wood stork calls)
CURWOOD: Boy, that's quite a racket. I thought that was maybe an editorial meeting here at Living on Earth. But it turns out to be young wood storks? Because I didn't hear the adults make much noise.
KAUFMAN: That's right. The adults are virtually silent most of the time, but you get around a nesting colony and there's quite a bit of noise going on.
CURWOOD: It's a very impressive bird. It's what? mostly white but it's got black underfeathers on it and some sort of is it spotted on the head? Or what is it exactly on the head?
KAUFMAN: Well, they don't have any feathers on the head, so what you're seeing is the gray skin with black mottling. They were called flintheads by the locals.
CURWOOD: Now, there are not too many of these wood storks, right? I mean, it's less than what? Five or ten thousand or something?
KAUFMAN: It's thought that the total population in North America now is down to around 10,000.
CURWOOD: Wow, not many birds. I've seen a few in the cypress swamps. These giant nests in the trees, it's quite something.
KAUFMAN: They're really impressive, yeah. They'll nest in a variety of situations. They'll be in mangroves or they'll be in big cypress trees. But they're really sociable in their nesting. Like a lot of the wading breeds are.
CURWOOD: Now why is it that they're disappearing? This has something to do with the water quality changing in Florida, like in the Everglades?
KAUFMAN: It's more a matter of water levels. They do their foraging by touch. They walk around, they wade around in shallow water and just swing their heads back and forth with their bills open. And when they encounter something they snap their bills shut. And so they do their most effective hunting when the water level is dropping and the fish are more concentrated. And so, at one time there was a, just a natural cycle. But with the manipulation of the water levels with all the canals and things in Florida, it's changed that annual cycle of water levels. So some years they don't have the good hunting conditions, so they won't nest at all.
CURWOOD: Is it just fish they eat?
KAUFMAN: No, they'll eat crayfish and crabs and insects and snakes and they'll eat small turtles, they'll eat baby alligators.
CURWOOD: Alligators? Birds eating alligators?
KAUFMAN: Yeah, well, turnabout is fair play. (Curwood laughs) A baby alligator isn't that large, so it's not that much of a challenge for a huge bird like a wood stork.
CURWOOD: All right, let's listen to a couple of other birds here. Let's listen to the limpkin and the snail kite.
(Limpkin call, followed by snail kite call)
CURWOOD: Well, very different calls, very different lifestyles. But they share one very important thing, according to your book. That is their main food source. Tell us about that.
KAUFMAN: That's right. They both feed heavily on the pomacius snail, the so- called apple snail, which is really a large snail, has a lot of meat in it. But it's hard to get out, and they've both got adaptations for digging that snail out of its shell.
CURWOOD: But their hunting styles are very different, right?
KAUFMAN: Oh, completely different. The snail kite, it's a kind of hawk. It doesn't fly fast like a lot of birds of prey. It's a snail in more ways than one. It soars around slowly over the marsh and it will just, when it sees a snail, well it sort of swoops down and picks it up in one foot.
CURWOOD: Hmm. And the limpkin?
KAUFMAN: Limpkins will wade around and pick up snails either from the surface or from underwater and then carry them back to shallow water to extract them from their shells.
CURWOOD: Now, they have pretty interesting beaks, both of them, for eating these snails. Can you describe these for us please?
KAUFMAN: Well, I should describe the snail first. There's a lot of meat inside the shell of the apple snail, but it's attached to the inside of the shell with something called a columeler muscle. And then the snails get sort of a doorway called the operculum, and so when it pulls up into the shell it's hidden inside there. The snail kite, the upper mandible is long and very narrow and very curved, it's like a long hook. And it can hook it around inside that operculum and pry it open, and then use that hook to cut the muscle to get the snail out of the shell. On the limpkin, its bill actually curves slightly to the right at the tip. They're all right-handed. And the snails are also right-handed. If you have them with the opening up, they curve around to the right. So, when the limpkin jabs into that opening, its bill goes naturally around the corner to cut the muscle.
CURWOOD: Boy, they've had this relationship for a long time, huh?
KAUFMAN: Apparently so.
CURWOOD: Now, the limpkin has a long plaintive call. That's pretty easy to recognize, and kind of scary, really.
KAUFMAN: Yeah, yeah, wonderful call. It's often described as being sort of a banshee call. And then you have to back up and say, well what's that? And in Irish mythology, the banshee was a female spirit that would come wailing around the outside of the house if there was going to be a death in the family. So obviously not something that you wanted to hear. But when you're out in the swamps at night in Florida and you hear the limpkins, it can really be a blood-curdling cry.
CURWOOD: Ooh. I guess if you're a snail, you don't want to hear that call, either.
KAUFMAN: Definitely not.
(Limpkin cry continues)
CURWOOD: Well, Kenn, thanks for taking all this time with us today.
KAUFMAN: Well, happy to talk with you.
CURWOOD: Kenn Kaufman is author of Lives of North American Birds. And today's bird calls came from the CD Florida Bird Songs, by Jeffrey Keller. That's a production of Cornell University's Library of Natural Sounds.
(Woman's voice: "Osprey," followed by osprey call. Fade to music up and under)
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production team includes Jesse Wegman, Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Liz Lempert, and Terry FitzPatrick, Peter Christenson, Roberta de Avila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. We had help this week from Dana Campbell. 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 our theme. I'm executive producer Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
(Music up an under)
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