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

July 16, 1999

Air Date: July 16, 1999


Pesticide Review

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing the use of a pesticide called B. cepacia, that can be fatal to people with Cystic Fibrosis. Dr. John LiPuma, a professor of pediatrics at MCP/Hanneman University, joins host Steve Curwood to talk about the risks B. cepacia poses and the chemical’s use in the agriculture industry. (03:55)

Fresh Kills Shutdown / Neal Rauch

New Yorkers are preparing to shut down the world’s biggest landfill, and as Neal Rauch reports, the closure presents a heap of practical and political problems. No one in or out of state seems to want New York trash, and the city’s minority communities say they’re not prepared to be dumped on again. (08:55)

Wendell Berry Poem / Wendell Berry

Writer Wendell Berry reads his short poem, The Wild, about finding nature even in the most urban setting. (01:05)

Nature in American Pop Culture

From car commercials shot in scenic locations to plastic pink lawn flamingos, pop culture representations of nature are everywhere. Author Jennifer Price talks to Steve Curwood about what these things reveal about how we connect with nature, and she reads from her new book, entitled Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. (06:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... watermelons, the succulent summer fruit that Mark Twain has described as "chief of this world's luxuries." (01:30)

Southern States Water Crisis / David Pollock

As the sprawling capital Atlanta gobbles up green space, it’s also siphoning off a critical portion of the region’s water supply. As David Pollock reports, officials in Alabama and Florida are duking it out with Georgia in a conflict that pits the interests of area farmers against local fisher folk. (07:05)

Merrimac River Changes / Jane Brox

Along the banks of the Merrimac River north of Boston, old mills have been converted into apartments, office space and museums. They still symbolize the past industrial glory of the area. But now a new power plant is slated to go in and commentator Jane Brox worries that the new industry will become obsolete before it has a chance to become historic. (03:10)

Trust Lands Deal / Tom Banse

Tom Banse (BAHN-see) reports from Seattle on an unusual deal to preserve 25 thousand acres of forest habitat for the rare lynx in Washington state. Environmentalists raised 13 million dollars from high-tech professionals at Microsoft and other local companies, and used the money to pay the state of Washington not to clear-cut the area. (06:05)

Yellowstone, One Hundred Years Ago

Diane Smith's novel, Letters from Yellowstone, traces a fictional scientific journey into Yellowstone Park in 1898 and the experiences of a young female botanist, Alex. Ms. Smith speaks with host Steve Curwood about her novel and its relevance to the park today. (07:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Neal Rauch, David Pollock, Tom Banse
GUESTS: John LiPuma, Wendell Berry, Jennifer Price, Diane Smith

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

New Yorkers throw out 13 tons of garbage every day, and the city is facing a crisis when it shuts down the nation's largest dump in 2001. Nobody knows where all that trash is going to go, but just about everyone says, "Not in my backyard."

MAN: We have anywhere between 4 to 5 times average of asthma in this community already. We have everything: asbestos, you name it, they already dumped it on us. And they want to dump more.

CURWOOD: The New York garbage crisis, plus calls for the EPA to ban a bacteriological pesticide that is a special threat to people with Cystic Fibrosis.

LiPUMA: People with Cystic Fibrosis can acquire this bacteria in their Lungs; and some of them will go on to die.

CURWOOD: And nature goes pop, this week on Living on Earth But first, this news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Pesticide Review

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. On July 20th, a panel of scientists will meet in Arlington, Virginia, to assess the risk of a naturally-occurring bacteria that acts as a pesticide. It's called B. cepacia, and it can be fatal to any of the 30,000 people in the US with cystic fibrosis. B. cepacia is found in several agricultural products. Last year, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation called for a ban on its commercial use. So, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency blocked all new applications to use B. cepacia, but left intact existing permits. Now, even those old permits are up for review. I asked Dr. John LiPuma, a professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and one of the scientists on the upcoming panel, why B. cepacia is so important to industry.

LiPUMA: Interestingly, it produces a number of substances that are quite useful commercially. It produces certain things such as compounds that inhibit certain fungal organisms that can damage crops, and other companies are interested in it because it also produces compounds that can degrade certain toxic substances.

CURWOOD: Mm hm. Now, what's the special risk that it poses to people with cystic fibrosis?

LiPUMA: Well, for reasons that are not at all clear, people with cystic fibrosis can acquire this bacteria in their lungs. And when that happens, they can develop a very severe pneumonia, and some of them will go on to die.

CURWOOD: So, if B. cepacia is sometimes lethal to people with cystic fibrosis, then why should this stuff be let loose in the environment at all? I mean, aren't there alternatives?

LiPUMA: Well, that's the crux of the debate right now. The alternatives that are currently used are toxic substances that are carcinogenic and are difficult to degrade. And so, it would certainly be nice to find safer alternatives, and B. cepacia, producing some of these compounds that can naturally inhibit these fungus, are attractive from that point of view. The downside, of course, is that this bacterium causes real problems in this particular patient population.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, then, there are a number of plants that get bugs -- pests, really. We're talking about soybeans, ginseng, other commercial crops that B. cepacia is pretty effective against. And today, if I were growing these crops, I could buy B. cepacia or I couldn't?

LiPUMA: There is a licensed product that contains B. cepacia. So, to answer the question, yes. If you looked for this product, you could buy a product that contains viable B. cepacia.

CURWOOD: And yet, we have heard that a company called Good Bugs isn't being allowed to use B. cepacia.

LiPUMA: That's correct.

CURWOOD: I still don't get it. Why not take away the license from the other company?

LiPUMA: My understanding of the way EPA works is that essentially, once a license is granted, then the onus is on the consumer to prove harm due to the use of that product.

CURWOOD: One has to wonder if they're willing to address this essential truth that they're denying this license on the basis of danger to one company, yet letting another company proceed with selling the substance.

LiPUMA: I agree. And I think this is something that EPA is also struggling with and considering, and I think it is a topic that we hope to address next week when we meet in Washington.

CURWOOD: John LiPuma is a pediatrician at the Medical College of Pennsylvania at Hahneman University. Thanks so much for joining us.

LiPUMA: You're quite welcome.

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(Music up and under)

Fresh Kills Shutdown

CURWOOD: New York City is preparing to close the world's largest garbage dump. The massive landfill on Staten Island, called Fresh Kills, has been processing the city's [trash] for the past 50 years, and its bags of garbage and debris are taller than many office towers. And when it shuts down at the end of 2001, it will leave a big problem: what to do with the 8,500 tons of trash Fresh Kills now handles every day. Neal Rauch reports.


RAUCH: The Fresh Kills landfill sits on the westernmost edge of Staten Island, a semi-rural stretch 15 miles from midtown Manhattan. Four mountains of rotting trash here cover 1,200 acres, with the tallest one expected to rise as high as a 25-story building.

GLEASON: They reported to us that you can see it from outer space.

RAUCH: Phil Gleason, Director of Landfill Engineering for the New York City Department of Sanitation, says there are 2 main environmental problems created here as at any landfill. There are the gases produced by decomposing trash, and rainwater that percolates through the garbage and leaks out as a brown, foamy, smelly liquid. These will linger for decades after Fresh Kills closes.

(Spraying water)

RAUCH: Water flows into this multi-stage treatment plant. From a catwalk above a pool, Phil Gleason says it's a challenge to keep the polluted water, called leachate, from leaking into the surrounding waterways, because older landfills like this one weren't required to have a lining.

GLEASON: The equivalent of what we've done here is make use of a lot of natural features, which are these underlying clay deposits beneath the landfill, as well as putting in a cutoff wall, a subsurface wall around the perimeter that ties into this clay. So that actually keeps the leachate from escaping.

RAUCH: The leachate is then collected from the landfill through a system of subsurface pipes. Six to seven hundred thousand gallons of it are pumped into the water treatment plant each day.


RAUCH: Workers install a gas collection well. There are already 500 wells here, with another 200 on the way.

GLEASON: When garbage decomposes, it lets off 2 principal gases, methane and carbon dioxide. In addition, there's a little more of -- there are other trace compounds that are also let out, and that's what really creates the odors.

RAUCH: Which are quite prevalent.

GLEASON: Oh yes, very prevalent. (Laughs)

RAUCH: The landfill puts out upwards of 35 million cubic feet of gas a day.

GLEASON: We mine the gas. We have a plant that processes the gas, and separates out the methane from the carbon dioxide. It's sold as natural gas on Staten Island.

RAUCH: Right now, about a third of the gas is used for cooking and heating by some 14,000 households. Eventually, most of the gas will be mined and sold in this way.

(Gas flames)

RAUCH: In the meantime, the excess gas is burned off through a system of 6 flares, 50-foot chimneys around the landfill. Without this, the odors would be much worse. There are no foul-odors on this mountain of trash, 1 of 2 that was closed in the early 90s. Now, the third of the 4 mountains is in the process of being shut down.

GLEASON: As part of the closure work, what we have to do is put in what we call a final cover over the landfill. And that consists of multiple layers of material.

RAUCH: The first would be a layer of plastic, to keep the gases from getting out into the air and to keep rain water from getting in. To keep water from accumulating on top, the next layer, called the drainage net, is placed on the plastic.

GLEASON: We then put about another 2 feet of soil down, followed by 6 inches of topsoil over that, followed by seeding the area, maybe plantings.

RAUCH: Grasses and shrubs can be planted here, but not trees. The roots could tear into the plastic cover, or interfere with the gas collection pipes. So the land won't be able to return to anything like it's natural state, and buildings can't be constructed here, either. Much of the material in older landfills consisted of cinders from coal and trash incinerators that was stable enough to support structures, but here it's estimated that the tallest mountain, 250 feet of decomposing garbage, could eventually sink by as much as 50 feet. A likely scenario, therefore, would be to create recreational areas, such as parks, ball fields, and even trails.

(Bird calls)

RAUCH: Natural wetlands still exist on parts of the Fresh Kills property that were never filled in, while other sections that were filled but not piled with garbage have returned to a wetland state. Endangered red-tailed hawks, long-eared owls, and harbor herons nest here. Phil Gleason points out that these areas have become a wildlife refuge because the landfill keeps people away.

GLEASON: If you take a look around, you'll find out we have access to the waterways. The waterways here are actually part of the significant coastal habitat area, so they do have a high ecological value. That's something that you don't find lots of those areas around in New York City.

RAUCH: It will take 5 years to close Fresh Kills. The final cost will be about $1 billion. That's in addition to the millions more it will cost to dispose of New York's waste after Fresh Kills closes. Each day 8,500 tons of trash is still delivered here, though 3 times as much came here a decade ago.

(Garbage trucks)

RAUCH: Now, most of that garbage, produced by the business sector, goes to transfer stations like this one in Red Hook, a low-income neighborhood in south Brooklyn. Residents in this densely-populated area have to put up with rumbling, odorous garbage trucks delivering the trash, which is then loaded onto larger, even more intrusive trucks that take the garbage to out-of-town landfills. As Fresh Kills closes down, the Sanitation Department has an interim plan to divert more and more of its refuse to these transfer stations, mostly located in poor neighborhoods around the city. Community activists fear that this plan will become permanent. But in Red Hook, they're even more unhappy with the long-term proposal, to build a new state-of-the-art transfer facility here. John McGettrick is co-chair of the Red Hook Civic Association.

McGETTRICK: The city is attempting to impose on us the largest garbage transfer station on the east coast.

RAUCH: Although it would be an enclosed facility in which trash would be shipped out of the city in enclosed containers by barge or rail, refuse would still arrive here in smaller, open barges. At a Sanitation Department hearing at City Hall, New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez says minority neighborhoods have dealt disproportionately with the city's garbage for a long time.

VELAZQUEZ: If you look at the statistic, it is obvious that waste transfer facilities are highly concentrated in communities of color. This plan proposes to increase the environmental inequity by potentially diverting more than 65,000 tons of additional waste through them each day. Where is the fairness in that?

HIRST: That's not at all what's happening.

RAUCH: Martha Hirst is the Sanitation Department's Deputy Commissioner for Solid Waste.

HIRST: Those facilities are clustered in communities that are zoned to have them. They are located in industrial and manufacturing areas of the city. Is it also the case that there is housing that is lower-income housing, and that therefore developed around these locations, which have always been zoned in that way? That's the case.

RAUCH: Hirst points out that the number of transfer stations has gone down substantially in recent years, and she sees the new barge-fed facility leading to even more closings of the older, truck-fed kind. She says the city is trying to cut the amount of garbage it produces through a waste reduction program, and New York hopes to expand recycling to 25% of the waste stream, though that's nowhere near the 40% and more that environmentalists are calling for. The city also has to deal with strong resistance to the plan to send trash that would have gone to Fresh Kills to out-of-town dumps, even though garbage from city businesses has been disposed of that way for years. Martha Hirst says the recipient communities actually stand to gain.

HIRST: There is certainly an economic benefit to having such facilities. The people in Charles City, Virginia, talk about that all the time. And you see the schools that have been built, and you see people talking about the tax base that has been enhanced. That's not to say you don't have to do it right.

RAUCH: But most potential recipients don't seem convinced. Yet while no one wants New York City's garbage, including New Yorkers, officials promise that the last tonnage to be dumped here at Fresh Kills will arrive on December 31st, 2001. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.

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(Garbage truck motors; fade to Pete Seeger singing: "Garbage. Garbage! We're filling up the land with garbage. Garbage! Garbage! What will we do when there's no place left to put all the garbage?"...)

Wendell Berry Poem

CURWOOD: Many people think of New York City as a mass of concrete and steel, with few places beyond the parks where nature can flourish. Writer Wendell Berry found one such place. It was back in the 1960s in a vacant lot in the Bronx. And it became the subject for one of his short poems called "The Wild."

BERRY: In the empty lot,
A place not natural but wild,
Among the trash of human absence,
The slough and shamble of the city's seasons,
A few old locusts bloom.
A few woods birds fly and sing in the new foliage.
Warblers and tanagers. Birds wild as leaves.
In a million each one would be rare, new to the eyes.
A man couldn't make a habit of such color, such flight and singing.
But they are the habit of this wasted place.
In them, the ground is wise.
They are its remembrance of what it is.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Wendell Berry's poems are an occasional feature of Living on Earth. Coming up, we'll meet you at the intersection of Madison Avenue and nature. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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(Music up and under)

Nature in American Pop Culture

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. You may remember a television commercial for Nissan Motors' Infiniti that ran several years back. Though it was selling a car, the ad never showed an image of the car, just a flock of geese in flight and this narration.

MAN (Voice-over): An automotive designer looks at the shapes of nature. The soft lines. And because he sees things a certain way, those lines suggest an automobile design that is honest and natural. Where the driver is more important than the car itself. And what is discovered, just watching nature, is an ancient Japanese notion of what is beautiful. It's called Infiniti.

CURWOOD: Author Jennifer Price writes about this Nissan ad and other examples of what she calls "representations of nature in popular culture," in her new book Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America.

PRICE: There's been a real greening of TV commercials in the 90s. What Nissan did is sort of the logical extreme of this trend, which is they just took away the product entirely.

CURWOOD: No Infiniti, no car, no nothing.

PRICE: No Infinity, no leather, no petroleum, no highways (laughs), no traffic. I think the point is actually to dissociate the car from consumerism, from modern life. And so, it kind of naturalizes the car: this is the natural way to build a car.

CURWOOD: To have no car at all. I mean, if they tell us that it's natural, does it make it natural?

PRICE: No, of course not. But I think this is a lie that we tell ourselves very often. I mean I think it's very easy to criticize TV commercials, and the problem is that we do exactly what the Nissan commercial asks us to. Which is that we sort of cherish nature as this place apart from modern life. And yet, in modern life, we dis-consume nature voraciously. I think that we want to live sustainable lives, and I think we want to consume as much as we possibly can. You know, you can have as many SUVs and TVs and you can also have this beautiful, pristine wilderness out there. And there's a sense, there's no better place to look than TV commercials for this conviction that you can have as much of both as you want and you don't have to compromise.

CURWOOD: Can I ask you a personal question?

PRICE: Yeah, sure.

CURWOOD: Where do you live?

PRICE: I live in Los Angeles, which is the last place I ever thought I would live. I sort of pictured myself in a cabin in Alaska. Before my ideas of nature made me quite uncomfortable when I returned to the cities, because they seemed to be places where we were destroying nature and desecrating it just ceaselessly. In the course of writing the book, I began to redefine nature as something in fact that we use to make cities, and to think not just in terms of wilderness preservation but in terms of how to use nature in the cities better. Which I think has actually been a trend, now, of 90s environmentalism.

CURWOOD: Your book is called Flight Maps, and on the cover I'm looking at some birds, including -- I've got to say, this is pretty tacky looking plastic -- flamingo, here. And although your book is not just about birds, you've got a lot of stuff in here about birds, including the whole passenger pigeon story, and another piece on women's bird hats from the 1800s and the starting of the Audubon Society. Okay, so why is this all about birds?

PRICE: I was a bird girl as a kid. I think that, like a lot of people who love nature and love nature experiences, we get into nature through something. You know, it could be caves, it could be snakes, it could be rock climbing, and for me it was birds. I got into bird watching in high school.

CURWOOD: Okay, I get this part of it, but I don't get the pink flamingo part of it. (Price laughs.) I mean, pink flamingos are plastic and they have these little metal things on them that rust, and you -- well, you're really into the pink flamingo. In fact, there's a section here. Would you read a passage for us here from your book?

PRICE: Sure.

CURWOOD: The one on plastic pink flamingos?

PRICE: Okay, sure. (Reads) What can a pink flamingo mean? If you visit the Union Products factory, you see outsized Mobile and Phillips 66 boxes that contain the raw ingredients of plastic flamingos: polyethylene crystals flecked with pink petroleum-based dye. Workers paint the bills with black and yellow petroleum-based paints and cut lengths of rolled steel, made from iron and other ores, for the legs. The plastic pink flamingo is literally real and wholly natural. It's the nature that's been mined, harvested, heated, shipped. It is the nature we lose track of: newspapers, computers, Armani suits, art museums, breakfast and chicken. Like a lawn and even a wilderness area, it is nature mixed with artifice. Would you believe that the history of the pink flamingo has a moral? The symbol of artifice is actually nature incarnate.

CURWOOD: So, what do you think they symbolize? What do they tell us?

PRICE: I think in order to answer that question you have to go back and look at its history a little bit. The ratio of plastic to real flamingos in the US is 700 to 1. So most of us have far more experience with plastic flamingos than real flamingos. So I think this question, what does a pink flamingo mean, is actually worth asking. Well, in 1957, this plastics factory outside Boston invented the pink flamingo, and working class people bought it and put it on their lawns, because they thought it was beautiful and it sort of conjured the glitz of south Florida. And then, over the next 10 years, highbrow critics come along and they just bash the flamingo, and they say, "That's the most unnatural object we've ever seen." And then what happens is the baby boomers, like John Waters, who makes this disgusting movie, Pink Flamingos, use it intentionally to cross boundaries of taste and to transgress boundaries. And then by the 80s, the baby boomers are doing remarkable things with it, like traveling with it, putting it on wedding cakes, giving it as birthday presents. It becomes a symbol of gay culture. And I think it's that, in the 90s, in an age when it seems like no boundary ever stays put any more, you know, with the Internet, multi-culturalism, post-modernism, there's really only 1 boundary that we really haven't challenged to any significant degree. And that's the boundary that we draw between nature and what is not nature.

CURWOOD: Jennifer Price is a writer and a historian. Her new book is called Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. And she came to us from member station KCRW in Santa Monica, California. Thanks for joining us.

PRICE: Thanks so much.

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(Music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: the eastern states may be rich with water, but sometimes even the wealthy can come up short. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Barrett Communications, transforming ideas into powerful marketing, communications, and design solutions: www.barrett.com.

(Theme music up and under)

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: On a hot summer day, at a picnic or on the porch, you're likely to see someone savoring the sweet taste of watermelon. It's no surprise watermelons make a refreshing snack. This fruit contains more than 90% water. In fact, watermelon, which is native to Africa, is a good source of portable and potable water for desert travelers. Egyptian hieroglyphics depicting watermelon cultivation date as far back as 2500 BC. And though popular everywhere, watermelons have become the quintessential summer fruit for Americans. In his book Puddin' head Wilson, Mark Twain penned this tribute: "The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart, and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world's luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the Earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a southern watermelon that Eve took. We know it because she repented." By the way, the heaviest watermelon on record, weighing in at 262 pounds, was grown in Tennessee. Another watermelon record was set by a Texan: 75 feet 2 inches is the number on the books, not for watermelon size but for watermelon seed spitting distance. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Southern States Water Crisis

CURWOOD: Raging debates over rights to water are well known in western states but rare in the east, especially in the southeast, where water is generally plentiful. That's all beginning to change. Thanks to rapid growth and more large-scale farming, southern water is increasingly at the heart of some complex and bitter conflicts. David Pollock reports from Atlanta.

(Clicking sounds)

GREEN: Here we're testing for fluoride levels. We add fluoride to the water.

POLLOCK: In Atlanta's central water plan, supervisor Tommy Green watches water swirling in a beaker and waits for a digital readout of the sample.


GREEN: Of course, there's a certain level that we have to maintain, and manage it on an hourly basis.

POLLOCK: Atlanta's rapidly growing population gets much of its water from the Chattahoochee River, and purifies it here and at 2 other plants before piping it out to the city. Over 3 million people from Atlanta and outlying areas depend on this river basin for water. In fact, no other river system of a similar size in America handles a greater demand; and the area's thirst for water, says supervisor Green, is hardly waning.

GREEN: We anticipate growth. We've increased our holding capacity, our storage capacity, so that we are preparing for future growth. We've also modified our filters here at the plant so that we can produce more water.

POLLOCK: Atlanta's rapid expansion has drained its roads and dirtied its air, and now there is increasing concern about its need for water. Bob Kerr represents Georgia in its interstate battle over water rights.

KERR: Georgia and the southeast have been fortunate. For many, many years, as had more water than we knew what to do with. And that's one of the reasons that so many people have been attracted here. High quality of life, a lot of greenery, beautiful lawns, and so on. But there is a limit to how much we can do with the amount of water we have.

POLLOCK: Residents of neighboring Alabama and Florida have similar worries, and they've gone to battle with Georgia over 2 river systems which begin in Georgia and end in Alabama and Florida. Water Stevenson is one of Alabama's chief negotiators in what some here are calling the Water Wars.

STEVENSON: If the flows into Alabama are reduced, it will have significant economic and environmental consequences to the river system and to the citizens of the state of Alabama.

POLLOCK: Officials in both Florida and Alabama say Georgia residents shouldn't be allowed to take more water out of the rivers that originate in Georgia but flow out of the state. But in southern Georgia, some say economic survival is at stake.

(Truck engine)

BRIDGES: When it gets on up to where it's fruiting, you need more water, and we know that. This from past experience.

POLLOCK: John Bridges, Jr., and his family farm several thousand acres in south Georgia. As he rides through one of the cornfields, the tall, healthy corn stalks strike the mirrors on his truck. He says commercial farming these days is expensive and risky. And, he says, he couldn't make it without irrigation.

BRIDGES: It is essential. Basically this crop, and most of the other crops we grow, we just couldn't grow without irrigation.

(Door shuts; a pump runs)

POLLOCK: An irrigation pump sits in the middle of the cornfield.

(To Pollock) Now, on a day like this, when the threat of rain is around, do you sit around watching the weather channel and hoping and praying?

BRIDGES: We take what comes, and we make a decision when we get rain what to do with irrigation. But because there's a 50% chance of rain today doesn't mean a whole lot till you see it.

POLLOCK: To battle this uncertainty, farmers like Bridges depend on elaborate irrigation systems like this one.


POLLOCK: Large pipes held up in the air by frames on wheels slowly move around the field. The whole system pivots around a well that draws on an aquifer fed by the increasingly strained rivers that start in northern Georgia.

BRIDGES: We don't see the wells going dry and the problems with water, but they certainly might be there in other parts of the state or in other parts of the southeast. But in this general area, we haven't seen it yet.

POLLOCK: But the constant and growing drain on supplies, especially during the drought-prone summer, has increased tensions. Florida residents are especially worried about the effect on the Appalachicola River and the bay it flows into in the Gulf of Mexico. They fear that when Georgia farmers take water out of the system that feeds the river, they'll damage the ecosystem and the economy of the area.

(An engine starts up; chains)

POLLOCK: Here on the shore of Appalachicola Bay, the biggest industry is fishing, oystering and shrimping mostly. Levar Sullivan, who's fished here for 35 years, is at a dock working on his boat's new motor.

SULLIVAN: If you don't get enough fresh water in this bay, it -- you're in a hearse the whole day [phrase?]. You've got to have a certain amount of fresh water.

POLLOCK: Sullivan says the river water carries algae and other nutrients down to the bay, feeding the oysters and fish.


POLLOCK: Further down the shore, 2 of Sullivan's fellow fishermen are unloading bags of oysters into a warehouse. They blame Georgians for threatening their way of life.

MOORE: They've got the water so backed up, we don't get no river water now.

POLLOCK: Oyster fisherman Chris Moore says much is at stake.

MOORE: You take the fresh water away, you're going to lose your oysters. You lose your oysters, you're going to start losing the little fish. You start losing the little fish, you're going to start losing the big fish.

POLLOCK: And that, the fishermen say, could mean the end of the area's major industry. Florida officials say they foresee a time when Georgia's water needs threaten the economy and the ecology of the area. But Bob Kerr, Georgia's water negotiator, says officials in his state are acutely aware of the need to conserve water and plan for the future, for their sake as well as for neighboring states.

KERR: We have already informed all of the metro governments, all the water managers, that the year that we're looking at where the demand would exceed a reasonable supply is about 2030. So we have about 30 years in which to develop new infrastructure, new sources of water in the metro Atlanta area.

POLLOCK: But Florida officials have proposed a plan to hold Georgia consumption at its current levels until the year 2010, and in the meantime collect more data about how much water is in the aquifers and where it goes. Georgia officials object, saying the plan would give away their right to future growth. The Federal government had given the 3 states until last December to work out the disagreement. Officials are now negotiating under an extension which expires at the end of this year. There is little sign that the states are moving closer to their own solution. If progress doesn't come soon to resolve the water wars, the region's residents may have to turn to the Supreme Court to impose a settlement. For Living on Earth, I'm David Pollock in Atlanta.

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Merrimac River Changes

CURWOOD: Rivers are valuable resources of water for drinking, irrigation, power, and transportation, and they can also help define a city's past and shape its future. Commentator Jane Brox recently took a closer look at the relationship between her home town of Dracut, Massachusetts, and the Merrimack River, which runs through it.

BROX: In the 19th century, each rapid or waterfall on the Merrimack River presented an opportunity to build a red brick city and harness power for the manufacture of cotton, then wool. Those mills granted prosperity to the few and gave work to the many, who endured 100 years of slowdowns, accidents, and strikes, in order to put bread on their tables. Then synthetics came in and the companies went south for cheaper labor.

Some of the factories stand now as crumbling monuments. Others have been renovated for apartments, warehouses, and museums of textile history. Whatever the current purpose, it's by those brick factories the cities are still known.

During those mill years, my town Dracut sat where the currents flow sluggish and wide and could not be exploited. Folks here lived a quieter history, mostly to do with farming. The mill clocks and smokestacks stood in the distance, and the farmers slept in the belief that geography was destiny.

But technology changes the possibilities of geography, as we have found out in the wake of the deregulation of the power industry in Massachusetts. Our quiet stretch of river, it turns out, is much sought after these days. A Baltimore company wants to build a 750-megawatt gas-fired power plant along the bank here. The site is uniquely suited, they say, since there's immediate access to transformer lines and gas lines coming up from Texas and down from Nova Scotia.

The river will provide the 2-and-a-half to 4 million gallons of water they'll need daily for their cooling system. The proposed plant is huge. It would be one of the largest ever proposed for a Massachusetts community. It also promises prosperity, $3 to $4 million of revenue to the town yearly for 20 years.

But what's 20 years these days? In our time, technology can make mincemeat of 20 years. Already, hydrogen powered fuel cells are being tested as an alternative to grid-supplied power. This, on top of rapid advances in solar technology and windpower, makes me think we're banking on a dinosaur.

I imagine our new power plant obsolete before it is finished, remaining outsized on our bank, neither picturesque nor useful in its abandonment. It will not have had time to become historical. Though surely weeds will begin to soften the base of its cooling towers, and birds will nest in its nooks. Lichen will begin the deliberate work of breaking down what we've so lately built up. A power plant, serving no human purpose, except perhaps to remind us that technology is destiny.

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Brox's latest book is called 5000 Days Like This One: An American Family History.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: new fiction in the form of letters from Yellowstone National Park. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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Trust Lands Deal

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The practice of buying up development rights to environmentally sensitive land is common, though expensive these days. It is a way to protect land and wildlife while letting its owners cash in on at least some of its potential economic value. But one of the latest land buys is turning heads because of who's putting up the money for the purchase, and who's getting paid not to use their land. Tom Banse reports from Seattle.

(Many voices speaking at once)

MAN: Why don't you all grab some pizza, a salad, and then I'll start the slide show.

BANSE: It's lunch time at Microsoft headquarters outside Seattle. Some programmers have torn their eyeballs away from their computer screens long enough to watch an old-fashioned, low-tech slide show.

(Projector fan, slides changing)

SKATRUD: This is a map of what the DNR wants to do in there...

BANSE: A tall, rugged fellow at the front of the room discusses wildlife he's tracked in his favorite remote corner of Washington State. Mark Skatrud is clearly not from here; he's a small-town carpenter and a leader in the drive to keep the chainsaws out of an area known as the Loomis Forest. His group needs to raise a lot of money in a hurry. Rightly or wrongly, the new software millionaires of the 90s have earned the label of being tight-fisted. But Mr. Skatrud knows he's come to the right place.

SKATRUD: All we usually hear about, this young, rich crowd that's coming out of the high-tech industries, how selfish they are. And for me to go in and meet many of these people and find out there's a lot of generosity there.

BANSE: Mark Skatrud's pictures of threatened lynx, bears, and rolling pine forest convinced software test engineer Atziano Olson [name?] to give $3,000.

OLSON: It is incredibly important that things such as the Loomis Forest be preserved from the rapaciousness of mankind. That we can't get along without the unspoiled wilderness and the endangered animals.

BANSE: Some other pledges have been eye-popping. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife gave a quarter million dollars. Other cyber barons toured the forest and then donated stock in their high-flying companies, including Microsoft, Amazon.com, Infoseek, and Real Networks. The high-profile push to preserve the Loomis Forest has been one of the first to tap into the Seattle area's computer-generated wealth, and though it was a nail-biter, the appeal has succeeded. It met the early July deadline to raise $13 million to protect 25,000 acres of forest. But it's not just the source of the money that's unusual here. It's also who owns the land. The Loomis is what's known in the west as state trust land, areas set aside with a mandate to generate money for public schools, universities, or local governments, through logging, mining, or grazing. It was already public land, but there was conflict over what kind of use was in the public interest.

(Footfalls in snow)

BANSE: The Loomis Forest sits high in the Cascade Mountains along the Canadian border 250 miles northeast of Seattle. Even in June, snow lingered in the woods, and the best way to get around was on snowshoes. Mark Skatrud scanned the trail for animal signs, most notably for the prints of a rare predator, the lynx.

SKATRUD: They're here. Lynx are here.

BANSE: Do you see the lynx much?

SKATRUD: I've been tracking lynx for about 6 or 7 years and I've never seen a lynx.

BANSE: Mr. Skatrud's never seen one because the shy, long-legged cat shuns humans. The high-elevation forests of northern Washington State support the highest concentration of lynx in the continental US. Still, that's only 25 or 30 animals.

SKATRUD: Lynx are forest animals. They don't like openings where there are clear-cuts, or alpine areas, or natural meadows. So the best lynx habitat is going to be that area that is continual rolling forest, like we have here.

BANSE: Two years ago a local environmental group sued to stop a state logging plan for the Loomis. A court ordered the case to mediation, and the 2 sides struck a deal. The state agreed never to log the area, and the environmentalists agreed to pay for the value of the uncut trees and for replacement income-producing lands for the trust. Washington Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher says the deal sets a great example.

BELCHER: Private citizens are donating money to the state to do this, and I think that's an unbelievable commitment of the people of this state to their natural resources. I mean, what they're saying is they're willing to put their money where their philosophy is.


BANSE: But in the rural areas near the Loomis Forest, people are alarmed by this turn of events. They argue plenty of wildlife habitat is already protected in the north Cascades. They're concerned that conservation groups funded by far-away software millionaires could shut down their timber-based communities. Mary Lou Peterson and Bonnie Lawrence live in the nearby towns of Oroville and Okanagan.

PETERSON: If there are no jobs, this is not a job market, it goes from logging to truck repair to gasoline sold to groceries sold in the stores. It affects the whole community.

LAWRENCE: We are very concerned with the precedent that this can set.

BANSE: Some conservation groups are also concerned that the Loomis deal could set a bad example of having to pay governments not to mismanage public land. Mitch Friedman is with the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance.

FRIEDMAN: We're not trying to set a precedent that says send us the bill for every wasteful, short-sighted, destructive plan that's out there that threatens our heritage.

BANSE: Mr. Friedman says the successful drive to ransom the trees in the Loomis should signal government leaders that people want environmental values to inform management of trust lands. The Loomis deal is one of the first successful efforts to use the market to protect state trust lands in the west, and it likely won't be the last. Activists in New Mexico and Idaho are fighting for the right to bid against ranchers for state grazing leases. They're all examples that environmentalists are starting to pay more attention to these millions of acres of previously obscure public lands. For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Banse in Seattle.

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Yellowstone, One Hundred Years Ago

CURWOOD: One hundred years ago, Yellowstone National Park was a largely unexplored destination for a wide range of adventurers. Vacationers came to explore the wilds. Business folks looked for ways to cash in on the park's natural resources, and scientists investigated unknown life forms. That setting is the backdrop for Letters from Yellowstone, a novel by science and environmental writer Diane Smith. Told through correspondence written by the book's characters to friends and family back home, Letters from Yellowstone is a scientific exploration of the park's plant life in 1898. As author Diane Smith explains, the story revolves mostly around the experiences of a young woman named Alex and her attempts to be accepted as a scientist.

SMITH: What I tried to do with her personally was have her come from the East, with a very strict notion of what is science, and what is scientific method, and how you properly look at the natural world from this perspective of an academic from Cornell. And using the environment of Yellowstone Park, ways that she sees that natural world in new ways and views science in new ways, and maybe even views herself and other people in new ways.

CURWOOD: Now, this is not your kind of heart-racing suspense read. It's a rather gentle explication of this young woman's encounter with this exquisite place. Why did you pick the voice of this young woman?

SMITH: Well, I tried to actually introduce several voices. She is certainly one, and she is certainly one that I can relate to. But what I wanted to do by using the form of correspondence, the book is all written in the form of letters from different perspectives, I wanted to sort of overlay the various perspectives of these individuals. So you have her perspective as a Cornell medical student coming west. You have Professor Meriam's perspective, being an academic from the West, being in the park. And then all the various other individuals, the people from the Smithsonian, for example. Their perspectives on the park and on the science and on the natural world that they're seeing. So what I tried to do was overlay those various perspectives.

CURWOOD: You have a number of sections that describe the reaction of Alex. Could you share one of those with us now?

SMITH: Sure. This is a short passage, when she first arrives in the park. And the weather has been horrible. They can't do much work. And she's writing home to her friend Jessica at Cornell. And after complaining about the weather she says (Reads): That is not to say I have not started collecting. I have. The hot springs area above the hotel is the diverse landscape of multi-leveled terraces, of hot waterfalls, Steamy semi-circular pools of red and green and yellow, And singular underground springs, which percolate from the earth like a pot put on the fire to boil. As you can imagine, the sulfurous water is deadly to animal and plant life. Pale white tree skeletons stand like sentries marking where the water once engulfed them before retreating. But even in such poisonous and dangerous conditions, much richness and diversity of life is beginning to reveal itself in the land adjacent to the hot pools. I could spend the entire season just chronicling the emerging flora as it adapts to changing conditions. If ever I am to understand the plant kingdom in all of its complexity, and truly internalize the lessons Darwin had to teach us all, it is here, where all of Creation constantly changes and struggles to adapt and survive, even me.

CURWOOD: Without giving away sort of the story line, and I hate that when reviewers tell me what happens in the book -- why bother to read it after that? -- I just say that the book is a lot of fun. You learn a lot about science, and you learn a fair amount about people as well, or your perspective on people. My question is this: why do this in the form of fiction?

SMITH: It allows you a little bit of flexibility, certainly with using the history of the park for the background of these questions. Most of the events that are not related to the people themselves, in other words, the interpersonal relationships of these people are all fictional. But if you step outside those relationships and look at the history of the park, what I've done is I've compressed several issues of things that have happened there. But I've kind of blended it all into one summer.

CURWOOD: The picture you paint here is a wild, completely unexplored place. Really, very foreign to the characters in your book. I'm wondering, how similar is Yellowstone today, compared to the wildness that's portrayed in the 1898 version here?

SMITH: You know, that's an interesting question, because I suspect in many ways the park is very much the same as it was 100 years ago. You have to understand that although they do spend some time in the back country, they also spend time either in or on the outskirts of major hotels. And the park was actually developed as a tourist destination, so even 100 years ago you could go and there were grand hotels. There were ballrooms. So much of the infrastructure that you experience in the park today are not dissimilar to the kinds of things that you would have seen there 100 years ago. The same would be true in the back country and in all the thermal features of the park. Those are experiences that you still could very much have today that they would have had 100 years ago. The only difference, I would have, is the problem with automobiles, because I think the park now is managed for automobiles. And I think that's a shame.

CURWOOD: One of the tensions about Yellowstone National Park that you deal with in your book involves various personal and business interests there. And those are ongoing issues today. I'm wondering how much you were thinking about this as you wrote, how relevant are some of these issues that your characters face.

SMITH: Well certainly, when you look back and read the history of the park, certain issues jump out of you because of our contemporary concerns. There was much pressure in those days from individual entrepreneurs who wanted to exploit the resources of the park for their own financial gain. And you look today at those outlying communities in Montana and Wyoming and the pressure they're trying to exert today on the park. It is very, very similar. As you're probably aware, there is a great controversy right now, for example, about the use of snowmobiles in the park.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering: at the end of the day, what motivated you to write this novel? Here you're having this wonderful, successful career writing about the environment and writing about science. And as one knows, novels, especially first novels, are usually much more of a labor of love than they are of something to help your pocketbook. Why do this?

SMITH: I often sit and think about the times, like 100 years ago, when they introduced the cavalry into the park because it was threatened. And looking back at that period of time, you know, I wonder now why we don't have someone to step in the way the cavalry did. Why we don't have the political will to step in and really save that resource for the next 100 years. And that certainly was one of my motivations.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today, Diane Smith. Your novel is called Letters from Yellowstone.

SMITH: Thank you.

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week we go underground, twisting and turning through the thermal tunnels beneath Arkansas' Hot Springs National Park. Following a man who's discovered microscopic creatures that thrive in extreme conditions, and may provide clues to life on far-away planets.

MAN: If you put your hand in that water, you'd have a third-degree burn in a very short period of time. But to the bacteria it's home. Nature has found a way to protect them. And that's what makes this world so alien and so interesting to explore.

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CURWOOD: Journey to the center of the Earth, next week on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our staff includes George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, James Curwood, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Allison Dean, Maggie Villiger, Chris Berdik, and Mahri Lowinger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. 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 Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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