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

March 20, 1998

Air Date: March 20, 1998


Sierra Club: Tangling Itself in the Immigration Debate / Deirdre Kennedy

A faction in the nation's oldest environmental group, Sierra Club, argues that to protect the environment the US should keep its numbers down by limiting immigration, saying most of America's population growth comes from immigrants and their children. Others say that immigration pressures reflect the world's population problem. And since many immigrants today are Hispanics, the call to lock the gates to foreigners smacks of racism. The Sierra Club is holding a poll on the issue, but already more than a thousand members have walked out in protest. Deirdre Kennedy has more from San Francisco. (06:30)

Mexico's Spoils Forcing Immigration?

As the Sierra Club wrangles over immigration limits, another group is probing the link between environmental degradation in Mexico and the high rates of migration. More people emigrate out of Mexico each year than from any other country in the world, although many do so only seasonally. This is according to a study by the Natural Heritage Institute, a California based environmental think-tank. They also say that many of the migrants might not be here if Mexico's environment, especially its forests and agricultural fields, were not so badly damaged. Steve Curwood spoke with Michelle Leighton, co-founder and senior legal counsel of the Natural Heritage Institute. She says their survey shows that the $2 to 3 billion dollars the U-S spends each year for border enforcement might be better used to help make Mexico's forestry and farming more sustainable. (04:50)

Low Flow Woes / Wendy Nelson

Most people talk more readily about their personal finances than they do about what goes on in the bathroom. But nowadays toilets are the talk of many towns and the countryside as well, as some chafe at the federal mandate requiring all new commodes to flush with no more than one point six gallons of water. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson has this report. (05:30)

Nostalgia for Depression Era Conservation / Ruth Page

The modern environmental movement is only about 30 years old, but conservation has been around as a way of life for a long time. That reminder comes from our elder commentator Ruth Page who began conserving early in this century. Commentator Ruth Page live in Burlington, Vermont, and comes to us from Vermont Public Radio. (03:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... It's time once again for lady green sea turtles to do what they've done every year for the past 200 million years or so, trundle ashore to lay their eggs. (01:15)

Transportation Dollar Boom / Jim Jones

Capitol Hill veterans say an election year is the perfect time to approve big transportation bills. That used to mean more highway construction and less open spaces. But, that may be changing. The Senate recently passed a 214- billion dollar transportation package predicated on the belief that in economic boom years, environmental stewardship and development can go hand in hand. Jim Jones reports from Washington, DC. (03:00)

Green Car Rating

The money spent on roads is only one part of the transportation equation. Another major factor is the type of vehicles that use those roads. A new report aimed at consumers examines the pollution potential of new cars and rates them on a scale of one to one hundred. Steve Curwood spoke John DeCicco who co-authored the report The 1998 Green Guide to Cars and Trucks from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington, DC. (04:00)

Cliffhangers / Neville Eschen

In Oregon, the impact of El Nino has contributed to severe beach erosion that is reshaping the coastline and threatening the homes of people who once thought they loved the drama of the sea. In one community west of Portland, residents who gambled on buying a home close to the ocean’s edge are in danger of losing that bet, and have found that the state isn’t willing to cover them. Neville Eschen reports from Oceanside, Oregon. (07:00)

Phenology: Plantwatch and the Science of Spring

Keeping track of nature's sense of timing is how the plants say "spring." Elisabeth Beaubien, a researcher based at the University of Alberta's Devonian Botanic Garden, has one of the most unusual jobs you'll find; she directs a project that documents the arrival of spring. Now in its third year, Plantwatch is a network of student scientists and teachers who share their observations of the bloom dates of certain plants and then compile the info on a world wide web site. Ms. Beaubien spoke with Steve Curwood from Edmonton, Alberta in Canada. (05:00)

Farewell to Winter / John Rudolph

In winter when the ice is thick on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee, some folks take snowmobiles, cars, even airplanes onto the ice. They set up tiny shacks called bob houses complete with wood burning stove and a hole in the floor for a fishing line. Living on Earth marks the end of winter with this audio postcard of life on the ice, soon to thaw, from John Rudolph. (04:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Deirdre Kennedy, Wendy Nelson, Jim Jones,
Neville Eschen, John Rudolph
GUESTS: Michelle Leighton, John DeCicco, Elisabeth Beaubien

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
An insurgent movement in the Sierra Club is calling for strict limits on immigration to protect the environment. Opponents say the move is racist. But supporters say it's time for the Sierra Club to be practical.

KUPER: We cannot think the way politicians do. They think short term and they avoid hard choices, but hard choices not made now become much harder choices that must be made in the future.

CURWOOD: Also, the low-flush toilet. If you have one, you know everything doesn't always go down on the first try. Some folks say it shouldn't be the law.

KNOLLENBERG: I'm not making this up when I say that thousands of people have complained about this. And I'm talking about Florida, I'm talking about California, and these folks are mad as hell about this.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Sierra Club: Tangling Itself in the Immigration Debate

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Behind much of the sprawl and loss of open space here in the US is a growing economy and a growing population. Some worry that if we keep having more and more children and developing more and more land, little will be left of the environment that attracted European settlers years ago. Most of our population growth comes from immigration. And now, among other groups, some members of the Sierra Club are calling for tight limits on immigration. Others say pressures on the US borders reflect the world's population problem, and since many immigrants today are Hispanic, some interpret the call to lock the gates as racist. The Sierra Club is taking a vote on the issue, and more than a thousand members have quit the group in protest. Deirdre Kennedy has more from San Francisco.

KENNEDY: For decades, environmentalists have warned that overpopulation is over-burdening the world's natural resources. Many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have actively supported global population control through family planning and education. But now, some club members are saying it's time to think globally, but act locally.

OBERLINK: Right now the US population is already the third largest in the world at 265 million. It's projected to hit 400 million by the middle of the next century.

KENNEDY: Ric Oberlink is a Sierra Club member and long-time advocate of population control.

OBERLINK: According to Census Bureau projections, over two-thirds of that growth is coming from immigrants and their descendants.

KENNEDY: According to Federal statistics, during the 1990s more than 5 million legal immigrants have moved to the United States, the highest number since the immigration peak at the beginning of this century. And the birth rate among immigrants is higher than among native-born Americans. Oberlink and others point out that Americans consume a disproportionate amount of the world's natural resources and produce more than 20% of its carbon dioxide pollution. So, they argue, more immigrants to the US means greater strain on the global environment, along with more congestion and environmental problems here at home. It's concerns like these that motivated Sierra Club member Dr. Alan Kuper to call for the club to back immigration limits.

KUPER: All this information is what must be out before the public, and it must come from the environmental movement, which has the credibility to talk about these limits.

KENNEDY: The Sierra Club is the nation's oldest environmental organization. So, Dr. Kuper argues, it could be especially influential on the issue of immigration. But, he says, tat influence is undermined by what he calls its current inconsistent position, which urges the Federal Government to stabilize US population but is silent on how to meet that goal. That's why the retired engineering professor from Cleveland gathered more than 2,000 signatures to put the issue before the club's membership. But the effort has drawn angry criticism from immigrant rights advocates. Some, like Ernaldo Garcia of the Urban Habitat Program in San Francisco, call it racist. Mr. Garcia says immigration limits almost always target poor people of color and rarely white- collar workers from industrialized nations. He agrees that Americans are draining the world's resources at an alarming rate. But, he says, targeting immigrants is disingenuous.

GARCIA: You can't compare, for example, the consumption patterns of a migrant farm worker to someone like ourselves that are maybe professional, you know, that are lawyers or doctors. Who's driving, who's taking the buses? Who's being exposed to pesticides? They say well, they're going to come here and they're going to become like us. And we don't want them to become like us. Well, maybe we should change. And that question isn't being addressed.

KENNEDY: The Sierra Club's top brass agree with this argument and have urged members to reject the anti-immigration initiative. Executive Director Carl Pope says immigration to the US pales next to the country's one-and-a- half million unplanned pregnancies a year. And he suggests that immigration to urban areas in the US, where most new residents go, may be preferable to some of the alternatives.

POPE: It's when people are moving into wild areas, either here in the United States or in the Peten Rainforest in Guatemala, or in Indonesia where tens of millions of people are moving from densely-populated islands like Java to areas like Borneo and Sumatra, which are some of the world's remaining reservoirs of biological diversity.

KENNEDY: More importantly, though, club leaders clearly want to avoid the divisive racial and class tensions of an anti-immigration stance. The club's board adopted a policy 2 years ago to remain neutral on the immigration issue, and coming out for immigration limits could threaten the club's newly-forged alliances with minority and immigrant groups. Sierra Club President Adam Werbach.

WERBACH: The Sierra Club has traditionally been a white organization. It has traditionally been suburban; it has traditionally been older and middle-aged. That's something that's been changing; we've been trying to change over the last years. And what people are now mis-perceiving about us is that we have turned around. We have now gone to a place that talks about environmentalism is nationalism, instead of talking about environmentalism is something that can actually bring us together.

KENNEDY: Even some prominent club members who are concerned about immigration don't think their organization should be taking on the issue. Anne Ehrlich is the co-author of several books on population and the environment, and a member of the Sierra Club's board.

EHRLICH: I think the Sierra Club, first of all, is not ready. There is no consensus within the club to deal with it. Therefore, it would not be appropriate for us to attempt to make out a policy until we do have that consensus.

KENNEDY: Backers of the immigration vote balk at the suggestion that it's negatively affecting the club. Dr. Alan Kuper says the members shouldn't shy away from the debate just because it's a political hot potato.

KUPER: The Sierra Club has made hard choices before, and we cannot think the way politicians do. They think short-term and they avoid hard choices, but hard choices not made now become much harder choices that must be made in the future.

KENNEDY: Of course, the real choices on immigration are ultimately up to politicians. But people on all sides agree that the Sierra Club's position will help color the debate. Members are voting this month and the club will announce its results in April. For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.

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Mexico's Spoils Forcing Immigration?

CURWOOD: As the Sierra Club wrangles over immigration limits, another group is probing the link between environmental degradation in Mexico and high rates of immigration. More people emigrate out of Mexico each year than from any other country in the world. That's according to the Natural Heritage Institute, a California-based environmental think-tank. Michelle Leighton is the group's co-founder and senior legal counsel. She says the $2 to $3 billion the US spends each year for border enforcement would be better used to help make Mexico's forestry and farming more sustainable.

LEIGHTON: Land degradation is so severe in Mexico that it's reducing the ability of people to survive in these rural dry land areas. And they are forced to leave whether they like it or not, whether they've ever given thought to making higher wages in the US or moving to the big cities. They are forced to leave and they leave and come and find jobs seasonally and try to go back, actually, to the lands that they left to try and harvest what they can. And then they're forced to leave again as the lands become more and more eroded, in order to keep their families alive, really.

CURWOOD: What's happening that's new, now? I mean, there's always been drought, there's been dry weather for -- for eons, presumably. Why is this land in Mexico becoming so unfarmable today?

LEIGHTON: Well, it's one of those exponential factors. You get more and more people on the land having to eke out an existence. You get more and more livestock grazing in unsustainable ways. Decades and decades of fertilizers that eventually leach out all the nutrients. And you've got drought, periodic drought that then exacerbates that problem. So we're looking in the 90s at a phenomenon that's going to carry us well into the year 2000.

CURWOOD: Well, what's the Mexican government doing to try to fight these trends?

LEIGHTON: Well, as far as we can tell, they've actually pulled resources from programs that could help address this, and have cut many education and training programs. So the agencies that could be helpful in working with local farmers in these very affected areas are just not there. There aren't any resources.

CURWOOD: Well, why did they do that? Why would they pull those resources?

LEIGHTON: The government has put most of its money into industrialization of Mexico as a means of trying to create greater economic prosperity in Mexico that would eventually trickle down to all of these people who are forced to leave the rural areas and search for jobs. They're going to have to create about a million jobs a year to keep up with the population trends. But if you've also got a million people a year leaving these dry lands, which is the case now, they may have to double that. That will be almost an impossibility for them, but I think the government has thought that export and economic growth in those sectors would be the way to change this dynamic.

CURWOOD: But it's not working, you're saying.

LEIGHTON: It's not working yet, and we're not sure that it will in decades to come. The economists cannot predict whether or not the severe economic reforms undertaken by the government will actually have the kind of impact they want. This is all sort of economic speculation. Meanwhile, we've got a lot of people who are forced to leave these dry land areas and who will continue to leave.

CURWOOD: What percentage, do you think, of the migration from Mexico into the United States is due to environmental degradation?

LEIGHTON: That is very difficult to estimate. No one has yet documented how many people are crossing the border because of this phenomenon. They may go into the cities first; they may displace others from jobs who may then cross the border, or they may go directly across the border.

CURWOOD: And you wouldn't be surprised if the research showed it was 20, 30, 40 percent.

LEIGHTON: Not at all.

CURWOOD: What should the United States do to help Mexico deal with this problem, make its land more productive?

LEIGHTON: It should work with the government to ensure that the Mexican government has the expertise and resources it needs to go out into these rural areas and help farmers change the management practices of the lands. Because in actuality you can address some of these desertification problems through better management practices, rotating lands, rotating livestock patterns. And that's not being done. We have a great deal of expertise in this country that is untapped and not being used in cooperation with Mexico. And our government has not seen that as a priority.

CURWOOD: Michelle Leighton is the co-founder and senior legal counsel for the Natural Heritage Institute in San Francisco. Thanks for joining us.

LEIGHTON: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

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CURWOOD: Tell us, what do you think about immigration? Should we curb immigration to help protect America's natural resources? Call our listener line any time and let us know. The number is 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG.

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CURWOOD: Coming up, the tempest over low-flush toilets, right here on Living on Earth.

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Low Flow Woes

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
It's one of the most private parts of our lives. In fact, most people talk more readily about their personal finances than they do about what goes on in the bathroom. But nowadays toilets are the talk of many towns as some complain about the Federal mandate requiring all new commodes to flush with no more than 1.6 gallons of water. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson has this report.

(A door creaks open)

SAVARD: Hi. Come on in.

NELSON: Barbara Savard has lived in this ranch-style house surrounded by woods for the past 11 years. In that time she's redecorated many of the rooms, but she's not quite sure what to do with one of the bathrooms. Mrs. Savard desperately wants to replace her avocado-green toilet, a relic of the 70s.

SAVARD: Well, I never did like the color, but I never (laughs) thought I would like it as much as I do now, compared to what's out there on the market.

NELSON: That's because if she replaces this toilet, Federal law says she has to install a low-flush toilet. Mrs. Sevard says she had her first experience with these toilets when she visited her mother at a senior citizen complex.

SAVARD: Everybody in the building has complained about them there: so noisy you can hear them from one apartment to the next. You can hear them with the bathroom door shut, you know. When you flush it, paper comes back up, so that says to me if paper's coming back, then other germs and et cetera must be coming back.

NELSON: In 1994, a law went into effect mandating a Federal flush standard. New toilets can't use more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. That's a fraction of what's consumed by older toilets like Mrs. Savard's that use from 3-and-a-half to 7 gallons of water. Barbara Savard says she was so upset to learn about this law, she wrote a letter to the editor of her local paper. Then she wrote to her Congressman. And now she's found an ally in Republican Congressman Joe Knollenberg. Mr. Knollenberg represents a suburban Detroit district and is serving his third term in Washington. He says his disgruntled constituents urged him to take leadership on te toilet issue.

KNOLLENBERG: I'm not making this up when I say that thousands of people have complained about this. And I'm talking about Florida, I'm talking about California, I'm talking about -- even the Northeast, where you would think there would be more of a concern about this whole thing. And these folks are mad as hell about this.

NELSON: So last summer, Joe Knollenberg introduced a Federal bill to repeal the toilet regulation. Since then he's been traveling all over the country proposing that the mandate should be scrapped.

(A toilet flushes)

NELSON: Mr. Knollenberg says he's all for conserving water. But, he says, the low-flush toilets simply aren't powerful enough to whisk away waste.

KNOLLENBERG: I flushed one Saturday morning. I had to do it twice.

(A toilet flushes. Twice.)

KNOLLENBERG: If the math on this doesn't change, it's 1.6 times 2, that's 3.2 gallon, that's very, very close to 3.5. So where are you saving the water?

NELSON: Low-flush supporters admit design problems did plague some early models. And now, the biggest obstacle they have to overcome is this bad reputation.

HARVEY: Be comforted by the fact that typical models that are on the shelf today perform a lot better than they did just a couple of years ago.

NELSON: Leroy Harvey is executive director of Urban Options, a nonprofit group specializing in household energy efficiency. Mr. Harvey says almost 40% of the water used inside an average household is flushed down the toilet. The toilet regulation will conserve about half of that water and save energy by reducing the amount of waste that needs treatment. Mr. Harvey compares the low-flush law with mandatory fuel efficiency standards for cars, which were unpopular but necessary for change in the auto industry.

HARVEY: Would it have happened if the marketplace pushed for that added efficiency? Or did the Federal standards make an impact?

NELSON: But shopping for a toilet isn't like buying a car. You can't just take it for a test drive. And that makes a lot of people nervous. Leroy Harvey says the key is to choose the right type of low-flush fixture for your plumbing.

HARVEY: This is a pressure-flush toilet that was installed several years ago. As you can see, we don't have a plunger in here. There's no need for one.

(The toilet flushes)

NELSON: These units work by increasing pressure in the water tank, with some using compressors to create the strong flush. Many plumbers say these toilets are a good choice for older homes, while newer homes with updated plumbing can often accommodate the less expensive gravity flush toilets, which work like the old-style commodes we're all familiar with. Prices on low-flush toilets range from around $100 up into the thousands. But Mr. Harvey says often the higher price has more to do with color and styling than the toilet's flushing ability.

HARVEY: It's like when you're making any other major household purchase, shop around and do a little bit of research before you purchase.

NELSON: Consumer Reports, the independent product testing service, came out with their low-flush toilet ratings in 1995. More current information is available in home-building magazines and on the Internet. But Congressman Joe Knowlenberg says he's hearing from people with brand new toilets that say they just don't get the job done. And he vows to continue his fight to repeal the low-flush law. For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson in Cascade Township, Michigan.

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Nostalgia for Depression Era Conservation

CURWOOD: The modern environmental movement is only about 30 years old, but conservation has been around as a way of life for a long, long time. That reminder from commentator Ruth Page, who began conserving early in this century.

PAGE: I was in my teens during the Great Depression of the 1930s, so I'm an expert at conservation. We all grew up assuming: make it do, wear it out, use it up, or do without was an ironclad law older than the Golden Rule. We never thought broken, not even in school, where each piece of paper had better have words or numbers filling both sides before it hit the wastebasket. Back then, it was an unbreakable habit never to leave a room without turning off the lights. Still is. Who turns off the lights in your grown kids' houses these days? Their parents, right?

Everybody always turned off water as faithfully as they turned off lights. Water and electricity cost money. My sister and I turned off the shower while we got soaped, than back on for a quick rinse. When we washed the family car, we didn't hook up a hose. We hauled pails of water from the basement spigot so gallons of water wouldn't run off down the street. At home, we didn't flush the toilet after every use. Nowadays you'll see 2-year-olds flush with 3-and-a-half gallons of water after producing 4 ounces of liquid. Now that's waste.

During the Depression, mending socks was also standard procedure. An inevitable question, fun to toss around with friends, was: at what point are there so many mends they're really new socks? Shortly after World War II, when I wasn't looking, some idiot decided it was simpler to throw socks away than to mend them with darning cotton, so manufacturers stopped making it. That still frustrates me. I've kept my old wooden darning egg, hoping mending cotton will reappear.

Perhaps the most environment friendly different from today is that in the 30s everybody walked: 2 or 3 miles to school or to a 25-cent Tom Mix movie was nothing. We used the car, known as the machine, only for special trips. Did we worry about the ecosystem? Never entered into our heads. But with half America out of work, nobody wanted to make any holes in the family purse. And that meant we made fewer holes in the environment.

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CURWOOD: Commentator Ruth Page lives in Burlington, Vermont, and comes to us from Vermont Public Radio.

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

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Surdna Foundation; and the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Find out just how green are the driving machines. The best and the worst of 1998 cars and light trucks. That's coming up in just a minute right here on Living on Earth.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund, and Stonyfield Farm Yogurt's profits for the planet, supporting initiatives that protect the Earth.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Some call them greenbacks, others cropmays krapes, and still others the aruanas. By whatever name, green sea turtles usually range from Alaska to South Africa. But each year at this time, when the sun is directly over the equator, the females head for the beaches of the tropics to lay their eggs. They've done that every year for the past 200 million years or so. The sea turtle might be the best survivor of the vertebrates, but for the hatchlings nothing is certain in the early going. As they seek the bright horizon that marks the way to the sea, many turtles are distracted by lights from beachfront developments and get lost and die. And even reaching the sea is no guarantee of long life. Each year, more than 150,000 sea turtles get caught in shrimp nets and drown. And while the green sea turtle's size or color may be unremarkable, it does have one distinction: it's tasty. Which might account for its other moniker, the soup turtle. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Transportation Dollar Boom

CURWOOD: Capitol Hill veterans say an election year is the perfect time to approve a big transportation bill. It used to be that meant more highway construction and less open space, but that may be changing. The Senate recently passed a $214 billion transportation package. It's predicated on the belief that in economic boom years, environmental stewardship and development can go hand in hand. James Jones reports.

JONES: The Senate bill provides $41 billion for mass transit, $1.3 billion to fight traffic congestion in cities with the dirtiest air, and over $600 million to fund projects like new bike paths and park improvements. Spending in each of these areas would go up by over a third. There's also new money to restore wetlands destroyed by earlier Federal highway projects, and new tax incentives for mass transit riders. James Corless, spokesman for the Surface Transportation Policy Project, says the Senate vote signals a new set of priorities.

CORLESS: And one of those national priorities is now environmental protection, in with an understanding of community preservation and enhancement, and alternatives in how we move around our cities and towns.

JONES: Mr. Corless also points out what's not in the Senate bill. Amendments that would have allowed money for environmental projects to be spent on road building and proposals to delay strict new EPA clean air regulations for smog and soot failed in the Senate. Activists say a strong environmental stance is essential as Congress pours more money into the entire transportation system. again, James Corless.

CORLESS: If we don't get a handle on how this money is spent, we could see continuing sprawl, continuing development over farm land, worsening traffic congestion and air pollution.

JONES: Environmental activists believe the House, like the Senate, will respond to these concerns. The House Transportation Committee has already crafted a bill that has the support of environmental groups.

BOEHLERT: It is going to be the most environmentally friendly, comprehensive transportation bill that the republic has ever seen.

JONES: Representative Sherry Boehlert, a moderate Republican from New York, authored the environment section of the House Committee bill. He says his colleagues have changed since 1995 when they voted to weaken several environmental laws.

BOEHLERT: I've tried to pull the committee over more toward being more sensitive to the environment. And to the credit of the committee, they have demonstrated that they have listened and they have learned and they are very sensitive now to the environment.

JONES: But that doesn't mean the environment will get a free ride in the House. Some members think states should be able to shift funds meant for air quality programs into road building. And the controversial clean air rules may come up again, but Representative Boehlert thinks most of his colleagues are now ready to accept those rules.

BOEHLERT: I think more and more people are looking at that and saying it makes sense, we're going to go forward. I know I was an early supporter, and I have enough of my Republican colleagues who are of like mind, combined with our Democrat colleagues, so that we can protect those standards against any assault.

JONES: Democrats say with more money available this year for transportation, it's much easier for conservative Republicans to balance road building and environmental concerns. In fact, the committee's ranking Democrat, Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota, says bipartisan support for the bill is so strong that he's not concerned about anti-environment amendments.

OBERSTAR: When that bill does come to the House floor we will stand united, and when our committee is together, we prevail.

JONES: House and Senate leaders hope to have a bill ready for the President to sign by May first. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones in Washington.

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Green Car Rating

CURWOOD: The money spent on roads is only one part of the transportation equation. Another major factor is the type of vehicles that use those roads. A new report aimed at consumers examines the pollution potential of new cars and rates them on a scale of 1 to 100. The 1998 Green Guide to Cars and Trucks was put together by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington, DC. The Council's transportation director, John DeCicco, co-authored the report. He says the most environmentally friendly car, with a score of 56, is General Motors' electric car, the EV-1.

DECICCO: Electric vehicles always do very well because they avoid tailpipe emissions, the kind of in-your-face pollution that is among the most damaging to public health. Natural gas vehicles do very well. In fact, the second vehicle on the list is a version of the Honda Civic, the GX compressed natural gas or CNG vehicle. Then, as we go down, say, the top 12, we have the small subcompact cars that have very high fuel economy. Things like the Chevy Metro and Suzuki Swift, and a Mitsubishi Mirage and a Honda Civic. Sprinkled in there, we also have one large car, amazingly, and that's Ford's Crown Victoria in the CNG compressed natural gas version.

CURWOOD: Now, you said the electric cars that top you list only get a rating of 56 out of a theoretical 100. What could they do to get a better rating?

DECICCO: Well, to provide sufficient energy, you need a lot of battery and it's very heavy. That added mass drags down the efficiency of the vehicles.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about money for a moment. What does it cost to have a clean car technology? What does it add to the price of a car?

DECICCO: Well, it depends on the technology. To go into, say, a zero emission level, with an electric vehicle, right now the only really commercially available technology is a pure battery. And batteries are inherently very expensive. So that boosts the cost of the car quite a lot. But as you look down the road at what's happening in technology, hybrid vehicle options that can get by with a lot less battery are under development. In fact, Toyota has started selling one in Japan. And then fuel cell technology is something in which many of the auto makers are now investing heavily and holds promise of really having, in the long run, costs little or no different than what we see today.

CURWOOD: Now, we want to hear about your dirty dozen. The worst cars.

DECICCO: Well, of course.

CURWOOD: Of course.

DECICCO: What we have in the 12 worst vehicles for the environment list are 10 large sport utility or heavy-duty 4-wheel-drive pickup vehicles, plus a couple of Italian exotic sports cars. The Ferrari 550 and a Lamborghini Diablo. The vehicle that tops the list this year is actually the Lincoln Navigator, in the 5.4 liter, 8-cylinder 4-wheel-drive version. It's important to remember, when we highlight, say, in this case the 12 worst vehicles, we're talking about particular models there. You can buy Navigators or the similar Ford Expedition without 4-wheel-drive. You don't need to get the largest engine option. It's important to consider what your actual requirements are and not let yourself be oversold on features that you don't really need, because many of those features create a lot more pollution.

CURWOOD: John DeCicco is co-author of the 1998 Green Guide to Cars and Trucks from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

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CURWOOD: Floods and mudslides in California. Tornadoes in Florida. Deep freezes in the South. This winter's El Nino-driven weather may be a preview of what's in store as the planet's climate slowly heats up. In Oregon, the impact of El Nino has been less calamitous, but severe beach erosion is reshaping the coastline and threatening the homes of people who thought they loved the drama of the sea. In one community west of Portland, residents who gambled on buying homes close to the ocean's edge are in danger of losing that bet and have found that the state isn't willing to cover them. Nevill Eschen reports from Oceanside, Oregon.

(Sounds of surf, people calling out)

ESCHEN: Residents of the exclusive gated community known as The Capes in Oceanside, Oregon, have the beach close by, and from their homes a dramatic view of the coast. Lenora Lawrence says she's felt very fortunate to live in a place where the ocean, the landscape, and the sky fill her windows.

LAWRENCE: (In a shaky voice) When I first moved in I would get up several times a night and look out to see what the ocean and the sky were doing, you know. You can see constellations here that you don't see in town. And I still do that sometimes.

ESCHEN: But recently, the view has become too dramatic. The sandy bluff on which the development sits is giving way, threatening to toss as many as 32 gray-shingled townhouses onto the beach 170 feet below. Lenora Lawrence and her husband Jim fear losing everything.

LAWRENCE: Our second home is not in our garage. I think we'll be living in our car if we don't (laughs) if we lose our house or if it's condemned for some reason.

ESCHEN: The threat to some of the Lawrence's neighbor's homes is even more immanent. Many were built just 10 feet from the edge of the bluff. Now the edge is creeping even closer to Null Nord's house.

NORD: It makes one feel rather uncomfortable, and also having a yellow sign on the front of your door: Dangerous, Do Not Occupy.

ESCHEN: Along with more wind and rain, the El Nino weather system has brought higher, stronger tides, and changed the current along the Oregon cost.

(Surf and voices)

CASEY: You see where the surf and the waves have eroded the dunes here. There were dunes, a big dune mass out here --

ESCHEN: All the way, yeah --

CASEY: Probably out to where we're standing here now.

ESCHEN: Down on the beach, Capes homeowner Jim Casey points out how the bigger waves are scooping away the base of the bluff.

CASEY: All these trees that are on the beach here, you'll see them all the way down here, they were up on that banking up in front of the Capes. And they've all, as that sand came down, the trees fell out and were all swept down here.

ESCHEN: In February, homeowners asked the state to allow them to build a rock wall on the beach to protect the bluff. But unlike many states, Oregon's beaches are owned by the public, and a 20-year-old law meant to discourage building in risky coastal places prohibits most new rock walls and other beach structures. To the bitter disappointment of Capes homeowners, Governor John Kitzhaber denied an emergency exception. The Governor's Chief of Staff Bill Wyatt says that as grave as the homeowners' plight is, the state could not bend its rules to protect private property from extreme weather.

WYATT: It's a part of the natural process. Beachfront protected structures are not part of the natural process. You can cause erosion in ways that really do change the character of the beach. The purpose behind this rule was to maintain the beaches in a natural state to the
greatest extent possible.

ESCHEN: Other residents tend to support the Governor's decision not to allow a rock wall. In fact, many feel the houses themselves never should have been built.

JOHNSON: Being an Oregonian, you always think this will never happen to your state, because we protect our coastline so much. But when, I guess when you think coastline you don't realize the hills right next to the coastline aren't really that protected.

ESCHEN: Sharon Johnson, her husband, and her sister are among the many curious onlookers who have been going to the beach to look up at the threatened houses.

JOHNSON: They've kind of desecrated the coastline with all these stupid houses that shouldn't have been built this close to the edge anyway. You don't build a house on a sand dune, for crying out loud. Where's your head?

ESCHEN: But developer Dr. Frank Piacentini, who owns one of the houses himself, defends the decision to build so close to the edge.

PIACENTINI: We wanted to do a development within the county that everyone would be proud of, and we felt we did that. Unfortunately, through an act of God and severe extraordinary conditions, things have changed.

ESCHEN: The dune that this year's El Nino storms have washed away had been there thousands of years. Dr. Piacentini says the experts he hired to study the bluff years ago all agreed that it was stable.

PIACENTINI: We felt very comfortable with their report. And that report was accepted by the county, not only once but numerous times.

ESCHEN: Some local residents and state officials had expressed concerns that the land was unstable when the project was proposed 15 years ago. But county officials say they did not have the resources to argue with the developer's experts. The county's okay of the project led prospective buyers Jim and Lenora Lawrence to feel they had nothing to worry about, despite the state law against beach reinforcements and the fact that landslide insurance is not available.

J. LAWRENCE: We felt that we were protected by the county and the state, and also by the builder's board. We were wrong.

ESCHEN: Now the Lawrences and other Capes residents are scrambling to protect their homes themselves. New studies suggest they might be able to stabilize the slope and save most of the houses without building a rock wall. But any such effort likely would still need state or county approval. Homeowners association spokesman Brian Chapin warns what could happen if something is not done soon.

CHAPIN: The environmental catastrophe that would unfold if one of these homes were to fall 170 feet from its current perch down to the beach is something that I don't believe we've seen in Oregon's history, in Oregon recent history. The number of nails in a structure of this, the amount of glass, the shingles that would break free, the insulation that would be in the foam or in the surf.

ESCHEN: But other homeowners worry about liability if their houses do fall onto the beach, and they don't want to risk harming the very thing which brought them to The Capes in the first place. The owners have at least one of the houses closest to the edge might even take it down. Homeowner Noel Newhard moved out. He says he's learned a very old lesson.

NUARD: I guess we should have listened to that place in the Bible where it says not to build on sand.

ESCHEN: It's a passage from Matthew that a lot of people here quote these days. It refers to a wise man who built his house on rock and a foolish man who built his house on sand. When rain, floods, and winds beat against the house built on sand, the passage says, great was its fall. For Living on Earth, I'm Nevill Eschen in Oceanside, Oregon.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth has a page on the World Wide Web. You can find us at www.livingonearth.org. Coming up, keeping track of nature's sense of timing. How the plants say, "Spring!" Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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Phenology: Plantwatch and the Science of Spring

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Elisabeth Beaubien, a researcher based at the University of Alberta's Devonian Botanic Garden, has one of the most unusual, and if you like plants you might even say one of the most enjoyable, jobs you'll find. She directs a project that documents the arrival of Spring. Now in its third year, Plantwatch is a network of student-scientists, and teachers, who share their observations of the bloom dates of certain plants, and then compile the info on a World Wide Web site. Ms. Beaubien joins us from Edmonton, Alberta. Welcome.

BEAUBIEN: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: The calendar calls March 20th the Vernal Equinox, the start of Spring. But not for you, Elisabeth Beaubien, I mean not all the way up there in Edmonton. What singles the arrival of Spring for you?

BEAUBIEN: I call the biological beginning of early Spring for Canada the full bloom of the aspen poplar; in Latin it's called populus tremuloidis. Some people call it white poplar, some people call it trembling aspen or aspen poplar. It has quite a few names.

CURWOOD: Now, you expect the poplars to be out on what? March 25th?

BEAUBIEN: Well, March 25th is when they started to bloom in Edmonton back in 1992, which was our last El Nino event, and we had a warm spring, a dry spring, and that's what we're predicting for this year as well. So, I think that's probably when flowering will occur. But it does depend on how many Arctic systems slump down from the north and give us cool weather.

CURWOOD: Poplars are one of your indicator species. You've also chosen 2 types of trillium, or is that trillia? Common purple lilacs, and several others. If I were one of your citizen scientists, what would I do on an outing?

BEAUBIEN: Well, if you had a lilac that was in your neighborhood or near your house, but not too near to your house we want to make sure that the lilacs are at least 3 meters away from a wall of a building and the early lilac is recognizable before it leafs out. They're the old fashioned kind. They produce suckers, little shoots that come up around the base of the mother plant. And they have heart-shaped, smooth leaves, and they flower relatively early.

CURWOOD: So then what do I do?

BEAUBIEN: Well, once you've found your lilac bush, you can take a piece of masking tape and mark one of the branches with a number so you know that you're watching that plant as time goes by. Then keep an eye on the buds. First bloom means that half of the flower clusters have at least one floret or one bloom open, one of those buds is open. And then as the flowering continues and more flowers open, the date that you want to report for full bloom is when about 95% of the florets or little flowers are open, but not too many have withered.

CURWOOD: And it smells just wonderful.

BEAUBIEN: Oh, it does smell absolutely fragrant! That's the delightful thing about lilacs in the spring.

CURWOOD: Isn't that amazing? And I'm allergic to them.

BEAUBIEN: Oh dear!

CURWOOD: Yeah. Really. So every year I go out, I see them, I smell them, and then I sneeze! (Laughs) Now, what's the use of knowing that lilacs are blooming in Boston, or there's trillium that has sprung in the Sierras, or really that any of these have come out?

BEAUBIEN: There's lots of interesting ways that the information can be used, both in tracking response to climate changes or weather variability. But also another neat another way to use the information is in providing best timing predictions for agriculture and forestry. You see, the way it works is that plants and insects in the springtime are both responding to heat, and they develop in a certain sequence. So if you can develop the information, for instance, to say that when lilacs start to bloom, then this certain insect which is attacking your crop will be at its most vulnerable stage 6 days later, then that can help predict the best time to control that insect using an absolute minimum of impact on the environment, chemical and expense.

CURWOOD: How else might this information be used?

BEAUBIEN: Also, in medicine, say that you're someone who's wildly allergic to lilacs.


BEAUBIEN: Yes, well then you may want to know when they're going to bloom in your town so that you can be in Arizona that week and have a holiday somewhere different.

CURWOOD: And miss all the color?

BEAUBIEN: And miss all the color --

CURWOOD: Oh, no!

BEAUBIEN: Well, it would be a different color in Arizona. Or plus, if you're someone who needs to set the hunting quotas or is interested in just knowing how much wildlife there's going to be, or if you're a fly-fisherman. Well, knowing the flowering times and what the usual sequence is can tell you when that weekend is that you want to head out to that stream, because that's when the trout will be rising to your fly.

CURWOOD: Elisabeth Beaubien is a researcher at the Devonian Botanic Garden at the University of Alberta, and she directs the garden's Plantwatch program. Thanks so much for taking this time with us, Elisabeth.

BEAUBIEN: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: To learn how you can participate in Plantwatch, check out our Web page at www.livingonearth.org, and click on the lilac.

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Farewell to Winter

CURWOOD: In the towns that rim Lake Winnipesaukee, the largest lake in New Hampshire, the arrival of Spring means that bets are being placed for the day and time of the big Ice-out. Ice-out comes when the cruise ship Mount Washington can, theoretically at least, make all its ports of call. That's usually about mid-April. But this year's mild winter has the odds on Ice-out nearer to the end of March. Ice-out marks the close of a season that begins when the ice thickens to a foot or more. Then folks bring snowmobiles, cars, even airplanes onto the ice. They set up tiny shacks, called bob houses, with wood-burning stoves and fishing holes in the floor. John Rudolph recently visited Winnipesaukee, and he sent us this audio postcard of life on the ice.

(Whipping winds)

RUDOLPH: You know, I'm a sailor. In the summertime I do quite a bit of sailing on these lakes. And I think in the wintertime we just miss this action, we miss being out in nature and this is just a reason for us to get out here. It's not too often you get this vantage point, and I've got my vehicle here next to us and here we are parked out on the lake.

(Footfalls, a door opening)

MAN: Come on in, Bob.

BOB: Just to tell how specially nice it is at night out here.

MAN: Oooohhhh....

BOB: Oh, yeah, quiet, and the stars you can see the Milky Way and everything when it's nice and clear --

MAN: Yeah.

BOB: I like it, yeah.

MAN: Away from the lights.

BOB: Yep, it's beautiful.

MAN: When the ice starts talking to you, too.

BOB: Yeah.

MAN: Late at night when it gets crackin', you know, it's expandin' all the time. You hear it. Yeah. (Laughs) You hear the ice cracking through here sometimes, even though you know you've got a foot and a half, 2 feet of ice under you, you hear it.

BOB: It moans and groans.

MAN: The lake's talkin' to you.

(Airplane engine overhead)

MAN 2: We fly float planes in the summer and love being out here on the lake. So that's part of it. The other part of it is, just, I think people like to walk a path a little less traveled, and when it comes to aviation there's a very limited number of people that actually do get a chance to land planes with wheels on the ice. So it's braggin' rights or something. It's just fun.

MAN 3: We were here --

WOMAN: A few years ago.

MAN 3: Gee whiz, more than a few. But and that particular year there were a number of skimobilers who were quite active. And they were being challenged by a few sections of open water.

WOMAN: Oh my goodness.

MAN 3: And they were trying to jump the open space. And with each jump the space --

WOMAN: Got bigger?

MAN 3: Got a little bigger. They kept nibbling away at it. And at that point we decided that we were going to leave, because we didn't want to witness a tragedy, you know --

WOMAN: Yeah.

MAN 3: They were they were persistent.

MAN 4: There's a name for that, what do they call that?

MAN 3: Stupidity, I think. (Others laugh)

MAN 4: Skimming. Right, skimming.

MAN 3: Skimming, yeah.

(Laughter continues)

MAN 5: You've got to pay attention, you know. You pretty much have got to keep an eye on things. I've driven out here when there was 3 feet of water out here (laughs), you know, to get the ice all so often, all the gear off, you know. And it can be tricky, you know. I've seen people lose vehicles through the ice, been out all night trying to tow somebody out of the ice, you know, that's no fun, you know, everybody's freezin'. Especially at night, it gets cold out here at night.

(Wind whips)

MAN 6: I think it's a different kind of people out here in the wintertime. I think a lot of people tend to shut in for the winter and wait for the spring. And it makes for an awfully long winter that way. We made decisions like that earlier on with our children, that if you're going to live in New England you have to embrace the seasons and get what you can out of them, you know? I think the end of each season brings you a longing for the next season, and I look at winter the same way.

CURWOOD: Our audio postcard from Lake Winnipesaukee was produced by John Rudolph.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, Daniel Grossman, and Liz Lempert, Peter Christianson, Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson. We had help from Jeremy Jurgens, Vanessa Melendez, and Miriam Landman. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Our associate editor is Kim Motylewski, and the senior producer is Chris Ballman. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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