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

November 2, 2001

Air Date: November 2, 2001


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Robert Putnam's book, "Bowling Alone," describes the decades-long decline in American civic life. But have the events of September 11th changed all that? Host Steve Curwood speaks with Prof. Putnam about how, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Americans might find a new sense of solidarity and purpose. (09:00)

Flu Shots / Diane Toomey

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Because the early symptoms of anthrax can mirror those of the flu, some officials say everyone should get a flu shot. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that's bad advice. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports. (02:30)

Animal Note: Desert Beetle

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Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports on a desert beetle that can teach people a lot about collecting water in a dry environment. (01:15)

Almanac: Bald Eagles

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This week, facts about the world's largest gathering of bald eagles. Every year around this time, Haines, Alaska hosts more than 3,000 eagles on the prowl for their favorite catch: chum salmon. (01:30)


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Host Steve Curwood talks with author Jeremy Leggett about the business implications that could come out of talks on climate change this week in Morocco's Marrakesh meetings. (05:55)

Pimm's World

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Book reviewer Bruce Barcott examines an author's environmental audit of the world, in "The World According to Pimm." (02:30)

Whale Sounds / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports on a new technique that scientists hope will help ships avoid colliding with northern right whales. (04:15)

Geologist on bin Laden Whereabouts

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With the right expertise, a forensic geologist can identify any spot on earth. Jack Shroder from the University of Nebraska at Omaha tells host Steve Curwood what he could see from watching Osama bin Laden's videotaped statement. (03:00)

Health Note: Stress

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Living on earth's Diane Toomey reports that low levels of stress can boost your immune system but only if you can play an active role in dealing with that stress. (01:20)

Farm Bill / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

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Washington lawmakers are writing the next Farm Bill. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum travels to South Dakota to see what's at stake for the people and the prairie. (15:30)

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Flu Shots

CURWOOD: Once again the flu season is upon us. But nowadays, the decision to get vaccinated has taken on new meaning when one considers bioterrorism. Living On Earth's Diane Toomey explains why.

TOOMEY: At a press conference late last month, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani rolled up his sleeve and got a flu shot, and he encouraged all New Yorkers to do the same. "It's good for you," he said, "and it's really good for the city." Giuliani isn't alone in his opinion. The Governor of South Dakota has said everyone in his state should get the shot. And the Postal Service in Boston will offer flu shots to all of its employees there. That's because the early symptoms of anthrax disease-- fever, body aches, and

headaches-- are similar to those of the flu. And as the flu season enters high gear, some fear that anthrax false alarms could overwhelm the nation's health care system. There are already reports of people with coughs and colds flooding emergency rooms. On the other hand, there is concern that people actually exposed to anthrax may delay getting treatment in the belief that all they have is a simple case of the flu.

But the Centers for Disease Control strongly recommends against widespread flu vaccination in the face of anthrax fears. First of all, the vaccines can't fight the many non-influenza diseases that also cause flu-like symptoms. Secondly, the flu shot doesn't always work. Estimates of its effectiveness run from 70 to 90 percent. And the CDC says there's simply not enough vaccine to go around.

The agency fears that a panic run on the shot would prevent those who need it most, such as the elderly and the chronically ill, from getting it. Twenty thousand people die each year from flu complications. Normally all of the vaccines would have been delivered by now, but for the second year in a row there are fewer companies making the shot, and that has meant shipment delays. At this point, those manufacturers have delivered a little more than half of the total number of doses due.

Recently, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, summoned executives from the three manufacturers to Washington. The Secretary was one of those calling on all Americans to get a flu shot, but retracted that advice when the CDC issued its recommendations. After the meeting, Thompson said he persuaded the vaccine manufacturers to ramp up production by about 10 percent, bringing the total number of doses scheduled to ship this year up to 85 million.

Thompson expects the remaining vaccines to ship by the first week of December, still in time to protect the public against the peak flu season. For Living On Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

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Animal Note: Desert Beetle

CURWOOD: Coming up, the Climate Change Summit reconvenes without a U.S. presence. Some business people say this could hurt American companies. First, this page from the Animal Notebook with Maggie Villiger.


VILLIGER: Water is hard to come by in Southern Africa's Namib Desert. It's so dry there that rainfall is considered negligible. But stenocara beetles use an ingenious technique to collect water from the early morning fog that rolls in just a few times per month. Their wings are made of a bumpy field of mounds that attract water and waxy valleys that repel water. And when the beetle bends down and positions his wings leaning into the wind, the incoming fog collects as tiny water droplets on the wing's bumps.

The droplets grow until they detach and roll with gravity down the waxy pathways into the beetle's mouth. Through evolution, stenocara beetles hit upon the perfect bump pattern. If they were more spread out, the wing surface would fill too quickly and not be able to catch enough fog. If the bumps were any closer, the droplets would be too small and would blow away.

It's an elaborate way to get a drink of water, but researchers say humans could replicate this fog collecting technique in dry regions. Scientists envision bumpy coverings for tents or buildings that could trap water for drinking or farming. Thanks to these desert beetles, they already know the perfect bump ratio. That's this week's Animal Note. I'm Maggie Villiger.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living On Earth.


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Almanac: Bald Eagles

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


CURWOOD: Getting a gander at a wild bald eagle can be a once in a lifetime experience for many folks. So imagine seeing about 3,000 of the majestic birds in a day. If you head up to Haines, Alaska this week, you'll be just in time to observe the world's largest gathering of bald eagles.

As winter begins and lakes and rivers freeze over, eagles migrate south to find their favorite food: fresh salmon. One five-mile stretch of the Chilkat River is the perfect stop-over for a salmon feast. It's here in the ice-free shallows that the king, sock-eye, and silver salmon come to spawn. And when they do, thousands of eagles wait on sandbars and in cottonwood trees, poised to snatch breakfast, lunch, and dinner out of the water.

Last year, one Haines resident reported seeing as many as 10 eagles perched on a log, wing to wing. Another witnessed as many as 20 eagles in a single tree. And you can leave your binoculars at home. Recently, from just 40 yards away, one ranger counted up to 800 eagles in one sitting. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.


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CURWOOD: Delegates to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change are gathered in Marrakech, Morocco. Their task this time around is to find ways to implement details of the Kyoto Accord to fight global warming. The general principles were settled in Bonn, Germany last summer. The U.S. government pulled out of the talks in Bonn and is not participating in the current round either.

The Bush administration says restrictions under Kyoto would hurt the nation's economy. But some analysts say that if the U.S. continues to sit on the sidelines, its businesses will lose a competitive edge. Jeremy Leggett joins me now. He's author of "The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era". He also directs Solar Century, a solar power company in the United Kingdom, and says the treaty will change the global energy markets.

LEGGETT: An argument that I think is so germane in all this is the argument of DuPont. DuPont, you might think, is a company that, you know, might be tending to drag its feet over all this. That's not the case at all. And DuPont's argument to the Bush administration is "Guys, you know, it's inevitable that one day we're going to have to join this show. And if you leave us out of it at this point, European and Japanese companies are going to be developing all the new technologies, getting all the efficiencies and cost reductions that come from saving energy, saving greenhouse gas emissions, and we're going to have to play catch up. So you will place us in a situation of competitive disadvantage."

CURWOOD: What about American multi-national companies that operate not only in the United States but in other countries of the world? How will a multi-national company be able to maneuver when it's under carbon restrictions in one country but not in another?

LEGGETT: It's going to be incredibly difficult for American multi-nationals with different regimes at home and abroad. And there is going to be a whole new area of economic activity. There's going to be a whole new section in the capital markets to deal with the value of carbon and carbon trading. A colleague of mine works at the biggest law firm in the world, Baker and McKenzie. And after the success in Bonn, which many people didn't expect, he was jammed with calls the next day from corporate clients saying, "My goodness me, we didn't think this carbon economy, this carbon trading, was going to happen after all, when America pulled out of the climate negotiations. Now it is. Can you advise us?" And with all these things there is a sense in which opportunity opens up.

CURWOOD: There's a lot of talk about ratification here. I believe that 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of industrial emissions have to sign up for this.

LEGGETT: For it to come into force. That's correct.

CURWOOD: What's necessary to be done in Marrakech for that ratification process to go forward, if it's going to go forward?

LEGGETT: Well, the real political game in Marrakech will involve three countries who have been historically allies of the United States: Japan, Australia and Canada. These are the foot draggers now. I mean, they haven't gone so far as America and pulled out of the process. They've gone along with the rest of the world. But these countries need to ratify if we're to get that 55 percent of the emissions. And they're playing a game of brinkmanship, trying to squeeze as much latitude as they can. To, for example, be allowed to count sinks, that is, forests which can take carbon dioxide down out of the atmosphere and be offset against the cutting of emissions from the primary sources of fossil fuel burning, coal, oil, and gas. So, Australia and Japan and Canada will be arguing for "get out" clauses, essentially. And the more progressive countries, particularly the Europeans, will be trying to reign them back.

CURWOOD: At the end of the day, what do you predict will happen here?

LEGGETT: Well, you know, I thought the whole thing had come off the rails after President Bush announced that he was going to withdraw. I didn't think they would have the success they had in Bonn, and I think the fact that they did speaks volumes for the level of concern in all other industrialized countries and many developing countries over this issue.

CURWOOD: The public in the United States is very much focused on the horrific events of September 11th and the war in Afghanistan. What impact do those events have on this diplomatic process and this Environmental Summit on Climate Change?

LEGGETT: I think that it's lucky that the summit is going ahead at all. I think it's not just America that people are worried about these horrific events, of course. And if you look at how the geo-politics is playing out, I think that you can only see situations that are going to favor the renewable micro-power technologies at the expense of fossil fuel, particularly oil and gas. You can't imagine anything much more vulnerable to terrorism than oil and gas pipelines coming out of the new frontier area in the Caspian Sea. All of those are going to have to go through, shall we say, difficult countries.

And then, there's bigger geo-politics. There is a case that every bomb that falls on Afghanistan is throwing petrol on a fire that can lead to all sorts of reactions in the Muslim world, including the fall of the Saudi royal family. And that will introduce a whole new dimension in security threat, threat to the security of supply in oil.

And, you know, over here in Europe-- I don't know so much about the United States-- but here in Europe, many people in the Armed Forces, in politics, are saying, as though global warming wasn't a reason for speeding up the commercialization of these renewable micro-power technologies, we've got a whole new dimension of reason for doing that now. And I think if we can move fast away from over-dependence on oil in the Middle East, you can also make a case that we're less likely to get into conflict situations that will breed more terrorists, the way many people believe this bombing is doing currently in Afghanistan.

CURWOOD: Jeremy Leggett is author of "The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era." Thank you so much, sir.

LEGGETT: Thank you.

Related link:
Order "The Carbon War" from Amazon.com

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Pimm's World

CURWOOD: From climate change to loss of species, one author has decided to tally every environmental assault he can find into a new book. Bruce Barcott has this review of "The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth."

BARCOTT: Stuart Pimm makes his living as a biology professor at Columbia University. But within his white lab coat beats the heart of an accountant. In "The World According to Pimm," a terrific book with a terrible title, he attempts nothing less than an environmental audit of the planet Earth. Using estimates published in the most rigorous scientific journals, Pimm calculates how much stuff the planet grows and how much of it humans consume. The figures are not pretty.

Every year we harvest about 42 percent of the fresh bio-mass grown on land, we use 60 percent of the planet's fresh water run-off, and we catch 35 percent of the ocean's fish. The six billion of us, writes Pimm, are inflicting continuing damage on the Earth.

This is nothing we haven't heard before, but Pimm makes it newly compelling with vivid explanations of the facts behind his figures. In the Tennessee woods, he measures the amount of tree litter that collects every year by letting the leaves and branches fall into plastic buckets. Off the coast of Costa Rica, he helps inventory dolphins, tuna and sea birds in an effort to calculate the productivity of the deep blue ocean. In Siberia, he chokes on industrial pollution while checking the health of the world's largest single block of boreal forest. Pimm's writing can sometimes be more pretentious than charming, but he's smart enough to realize that his readers approach the book like math teachers. We aren't interested in the final answers so much as how he got them. And Pimm does an excellent job of showing his work, producing a book that grounds the global environmental debate in solid figures. Those figures indicate that we're using more than the Earth can give. But Pimm's reaction isn't all whine and wail. If we correct our ways, he says, the fisheries can recover and the forests can regenerate.

When it comes to the planet's rising rate of extinction, however, he can't hide the red ink. For example, there are 10,000 known species of birds, and Pimm estimates their historical rate of extinction at one per century. In the past decade, however, birds have gone extinct at a rate of one per year. Stuart Pimm has also calculated the chance of those lost species ever coming back. That figure is zero.


CURWOOD: The book is "The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth." Reviewer Bruce Barcott writes about environmental issues for Outside Magazine.


Related link:
Order "The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth" from amazon.com

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Whale Sounds

CURWOOD: There are only about 300 northern right whales left in the world. And one of the biggest threats to their continued existence is collision with passing vessels in the busy shipping lanes of the North Atlantic. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, researchers are hoping to use sound waves to help prevent these often fatal encounters. Living On Earth's Cynthia Graber reports.


GRABER: The ocean is a noisy place. It's filled with the rumblings of boats, the calls of marine creatures, and the din of churning water. But sometimes, amidst the white noise of the sea, a sound stands out.


GRABER: That's a northern right whale calling out near the well-traveled shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy, between Maine, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.


LAURINOLLI: The first sound there was sort of a higher pitched-- sort of, we might call, like, a crying sound.

GRABER: Marjo Laurinolli is a graduate student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

LAURINOLLI: And we heard a couple loud, banging noises. We've been designating those as, we're calling them gunshot sounds. We don't really know how they're producing them. They could be from slapping a body part on the water or a vocal sound; we don't know that yet. And then, there was some really low sounding moaning and groaning sort of sounds.

GRABER: Laurinolli is part of a team trying to use these sounds to pinpoint whale locations in the open ocean. Alex Hay oversees the project.

HAY: The idea was that if we deployed an array of hydrophones and used those hydrophones to detect right whale sound, that we would be able to locate them.

GRABER: And once the whales are located, their coordinates can be sent to ships to help them avoid hitting the animals. Hay says the system can work because sound travels through water at a given speed.

HAY: Therefore, if you have hydrophones that are separated by several miles, the sounds will arrive at different times.

GRABER: So, using a series of hydrophones-- or underwater microphones-- and marking the time each one picks up a whale sound, scientists can figure out where the whale is. But it's tricky science. Sound changes speed with water temperature. In addition, some sound waves can be absorbed or reflected, depending on the ocean floor and surface.

Researchers have had to develop computer programs to account for these variables. So far, Hay says, the results are promising. They've been able to pinpoint a whale's location to within 300 feet within a range of six miles.

HAY: It's been easier than we thought. So that's been the most rewarding thing.

GRABER: A team from Cornell University has also been testing this whale detection technique off the coast of Massachusetts. They've reported similar success, but the system would be expensive to operate. You'd need a computer station in the ocean to recognize whale sounds. Then you would have to transmit the information down a cable to a control center and relay it to ships. But this high tech traffic control network alone won't save the right whale, according to Scott Kraus, a researcher with the New England Aquarium.

KRAUS: Because of the human causes of mortality and the lack of increase in reproduction, the population does appear to be on a knife edge of survival. My guess is that it's going to be much more complicated; that we're going to end up with some complicated mix of technology and basic management strategies-- either closures or rerouting ships or something like that-- that's going to lead to the survival of the species.


GRABER: Scientists hope that the whistles, moans and pops of the whales might help provide one more technological tool for that mix. For Living On Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber.


CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living On Earth.

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Geologist on bin Laden Whereabouts

CURWOOD: When most of us saw Osama Bin Laden's videotaped statement on TV a few weeks ago, we probably didn't notice the sandy colored terrain in the background. But Jack Shroder did. He's a professor of geology and geography at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who spent time in Afghanistan mapping the topography there. Jack Shroder, what did you think when you saw this tape?

SHRODER: Well, I looked at it and, of course, like everybody else, I was just watching Osama. And then I realized as they panned around, I said, "My goodness. I think I know where that is." Because every place in the world has a somewhat unique signature of vegetation, land forms, rock structure, rock attitude, lithology, and so on. Then you can pin it down. It can only be a few places.

CURWOOD: So, what were the criteria that told you pretty much where this is?

SHRODER: Well, you realize, I've been asked by Washington not to be too explicit. The video showed Osama sitting down in front of some rocks. Those rocks have been sheered and faulted. They're soft, which means they've been weathered. The video also shows some sky. Underneath the sky are some rounded rocks, and those particular rocks are very ancient and they have quartz veins, and they're weathered in a particular shape-- it's called spheroidal. Putting all those things together and knowing that he couldn't be in other parts of the country that somewhat resemble what I've just said, I figure that he was in a rather small area when that picture was taken. But, of course, he's known to move all the time.

CURWOOD: So, where was Bin Laden when he was filmed?

SHRODER: Well, he was southwest of Jalalabad, southeast of Kabul, northeast of Khowst, and northwest of Gardez, if you know where any of those places are.

CURWOOD: Gee, I'm weak on my Afghani geography. But you figure you placed him within, what, 10, 20 miles away?

SHRODER: Oh, probably within 20 miles.

CURWOOD: From what you know about the geology of this area in Afghanistan, how difficult is it to smoke out someone like an Osama Bin Laden, who's got strong financial resources and, presumably, people who know the locality very well?

SHRODER: Finding Bin Laden is going to be a very, very difficult job, because he's not in that locality anymore. The bigger story is the other places he could have gone. The Afghans dig holes to find water, called karesh. There are literally thousands upon thousands of these holes in the ground. Plus, the fact that Bin Laden's an engineer, and is known to have constructed holes in the various kinds of rocks there anyway. So, to get Bin Laden out from one of these holes is going to be the real problem. We haven't even talked about the natural caves in Afghanistan, which is also littered with limestone, and limestone makes excellent caves in its own right, naturally.

CURWOOD: Jack Shroder is a professor of geology and geography at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective with us, Dr. Shroder.

SHRODER: You're quite welcome. It was a pleasure.


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Health Note: Stress

CURWOOD: Just ahead, a look at how tax dollars sometimes protect and sometimes harm the land that feeds us. First, this environmental health note from Diane Toomey


TOOMEY: Studies done in the 1980's proved that long periods of stress could weaken immune systems. Then, in the 1990's, researchers discovered that short periods of stress could actually boost the immune system. Now, new research shows that a short period of stress is only good for us when we can take an action in response to it.

Thirty-four male students at Ohio State took part in two experiments designed to compare the effects of active and passive coping with stress on the body's immune system. In the first experiment students memorized material, then took a test. In the second they watched a video on surgical procedures. Both of these activities were considered stressful, but memorizing and taking a test is active, in that you actually do something to relieve the stress. The passive act of watching a stressful video can leave you feeling helpless.

Researchers examined the presence of immunoglobulins, proteins in our bodily fluids that help fight disease. After the active stress test there were more of these proteins in the subjects' saliva. After the passive experiment these numbers dropped. Researchers think challenges such as deadlines at work may keep our immune systems functioning in top form. On the other hand, watching something distressing, such as the World Trade Center tragedy, researchers say, could make us more susceptible to illness. That's this week's health note. I'm Diane Toomey.


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Farm Bill

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. The U.S. Congress is writing its first Farm Bill of the 21st century. Last time around, the goal was to wean farmers off crop subsidies. But a market collapse has left farmers without a safety net and more dependent than ever on the government, and some want to see crop subsidies restored. But others say the money might be better spent on conservation. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum visited South Dakota to find out how the Farm Bill could effect the land, and the people there.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's the sound of corn, working its way toward harvest in White Lake, South Dakota.

C. GILLEN: Each one of these is a little piece of pollen and it has to touch the silk to fertilize the corn, and each silk has to have a piece of pollen to make a kernel of corn.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Carol and David Gillen walk me through one of their cornfields. Ten years ago, we'd be standing in grass and cows. But the Gillens, like many ranchers in South Dakota, have stopped ranching, and started raising crops.

D. GILLEN: The whole corn belt's moving west, and it's pushing the cattle out.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The Gillens made the switch after comparing spreadsheets with farmers from around the state.

D. GILLEN: The cow-calf guy, which we were doing, the last five years profit on our farm was four dollars an acre. And the last five years profit of the grain operation, the grain farmer was 25 to 35 dollars an acre.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: David says the main reason farmers are outpacing ranchers is government price support for the crops they grow.

D. GILLEN: The Farm Bill is written to protect the corn and soybean and wheat farmer, and the cotton farmers. So they're protecting us, so what do we do? We increase production, create more bushels, and lower the cost.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The market price for grain has dropped so low in recent years, the government's been forced to bail farmers out. This year, five and a half billion dollars were doled out, a testament to the cycle of rural welfare. Not an ideal situation, David admits, but one he can raise his family on. Ranchers meantime get little in the way of government support.

D. GILLEN: So when the financial thing starts folding up on the cattle guy, he sells out or does something. Where the grain guy, he doesn't have to worry about a huge loss next year; at least he'll be able to maintain next year with the government help.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Today's farm programs go back to New Deal legislation. Farmers who grew staples like corn, tobacco and cotton formed a lobby powerful enough to convince Washington to support them. Livestock were not included, and the reasons to plant, rather than graze, grew stronger. And the subsidies kept flowing, decade after decade. Now, half our grasslands are gone. The fertile, tall-grass prairie, is down to one percent of its original size. Medium and short grasses are declining, too. All this on a continent where grass once covered the giant middle. And so, we've started doing what we usually do when we've run a fish down almost to extinction, or mined a mountain until it's poisoned. We try to fix it. We've started replanting the prairie.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Just west of David Gillen's farm, is Dave Konechne's place. Dave grew up here. He raised wheat and oats and corn, and eighteen children, too. Now, he's raising grass.

KONECHNE: Right now we're going to look at a planting, that was planted the 20th of June. Steve is going to do a status review...

AUCH: I need to look at it, and do a status: how it's doing, has the practice been successful?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Steve Auch works for the federal agricultural office that oversees conservation programs out here. He gets down on his knees, fingers the barely-sprouted blades of grass. Most of what there is to know about the prairie, he says, you can't even see.

AUCH: The community of bacteria, fungus, living organisms like ants. They say within a section of land -- a section is about 640 acres -- there's probably more living organisms in that section of land than there are people in the whole world --

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: This ground is enrolled in the government's Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to seed cropland back to grass. Dave's also involved in a program that helps his cattle graze the land more gently. Then there's WHIP: the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program. In the fall, Dave opens up his land to pheasant hunters, most from out of state. It's a lucrative business. Dave can take in about four thousand dollars a day during hunting season and the government programs that help him help the grass also help the pheasants.

KONECHNE: This here is big blue-stem, Indian grass, and switch grass.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Dave's goal is to plant all his land back to native grass. It takes patience, he says, but where grass grows, it holds the soil, which keeps sediment, pesticides and fertilizer from running into rivers, which protects drinking water. Native grasses help keep invasive species out. We need corn and wheat and soy, Dave says, but not everywhere.

KONECHNE: Tilling some of the fragile lands like this out here, just doesn't look to me like it's good for the land. They say it takes a hundred years to build an inch of top soil, and one good heavy thunderstorm can wash away an inch.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But how do you begin to reverse a trend toward monoculture when monoculture is where the money is? Last year, the USDA spent more than 20 billion dollars to help farmers grow crops. That's about 16 times what it spent conserving land. In South Dakota, and across the nation, there's a backlog of farmers who want to join conservation programs, but not enough technicians or money to help them. Even if there were, it would be a game of catch-up. Every time one acre of South Dakota land goes into conservation reserve, almost half an acre in some other part of the state is newly plowed for crops.

Grassland advocates want to see a new Farm Bill that stops the loss of prairie before it starts. And they're trying to be heard in Washington. There the debate has turned bitter over which is more important: conservation, or production. Those who know the prairie well, however, say conservation and production can coexist. Their meeting place is with the cows, and the ranchers who keep them.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: According to Jim Headley, the secret to staying in ranching is to keep it simple.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Like with this little tractor he drives around, to save gas. Jim's won awards for good management. He runs 300 cows on about 3,000 acres of land, rotating them among his many fields. He keeps them out of new pasture with fencing.

HEADLEY: Now, when I move them into this area, that grass will grow back.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: If taxpayers knew more about farm programs, Jim thinks they'd rather pay for policies that support the land and the people on it. He says even well-intended programs, like conservation reserve, can go awry if they're misused. Some farmers have plowed up native grass and planted crops just so they could enroll it in the program and re-seed it for government payments. It takes hundreds of years, if ever, for the new grass to function like the prairie it was before. Jim points out a neighbor's field, former cropland now idle in reserve. It's crowded with Canadian thistle, a noxious invasive weed. Across the road, in Jim's field, all we can see is grass.

HEADLEY: You see, that guy gets 40 dollars an acre and I get nothing. See, if they could change the programs and say, "O.K. Your cross-fencing or your rotational grazing is just as valuable as this CRP." You see what I mean?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Jim likes one proposal he's seen in the Senate that would put more money into conservation on working lands. If it became law, Jim thinks he could get as much as 50,000 dollars to help protect everything from wetlands to prairie dogs: work he now does for little in return. And, he says, the bill would help other ranchers who are on the edge of giving up.

HEADLEY: If we could turn the dollars around; in other words, if I could get a government payment on grass acres like I would for corn acres, then you go into your banker and you've got a whole different scenario. Most anybody can understand that.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Ranchers may not warm easily to accepting government help. They are, by their own account, a hard-headed, independent bunch.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Jack Freeman is one of these ranchers.

FREEMAN: We're setting at Faith, South Dakota, and this is the final day of the three-day rodeo.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Jack is 72, with two gold teeth up front. His family came to South Dakota in the days when the grass seemed endless. Back then, ranchers just wanted to be left alone.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But, Jack says it can't work that way anymore. Not when a grain farmer can buy up grassland with government loans and turn it under for government payments. After the rodeo, we head out to his ranch with one stop on the way, at a wheat farm planted a couple decades ago.

FREEMAN: Every time I get up on a high point on my ranch, even though I'm fifteen miles away from this farm, and the wind's blowing, I can see this dust cloud in the air five hundred to a thousand feet. And it's blowing away. It's not the first piece of ground that blew away, and it won't be the last.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Jack grew up in north Texas, during the dustbowl of the 1930s. Here in South Dakota he's seen too much fragile land plowed under. Pick up the soil, he says.

FREEMAN: See how fine that is? Just throw a handful up in the air.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The soil scatters like sand. For the prairie to survive, Jack says, government policy towards ranchers must change. Otherwise people will scatter, too.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's Friday night at Ray's Bar and Grill in Highmore. This county's been hit hard by the dramatic conversion from grass to crop. Farms keep getting bigger. The people, fewer.

GREG: I remember when I was a kid, Saturday night. I mean that was it. And now on Saturdays every business in town closes except the grocery store.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Max Greg is at the bar, nursing a beer and a gauze-wrapped hand he hurt in a farming accident.

GREG: We've got at least 30, 40 thousand acres in this county that are farmed by guys that pull in here with their own fuel trucks, their own groceries. They show up for a week or two in the spring and plant their grain, a week or two in the fall, and they don't spend any money in this town. When it's all small farms, everybody bought everything in town

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Ranchers can't keep up, Max says, with the rent prices that crop farmers can afford. They don't get payments, and they can't get loans or insurance. He points to Mike, standing in the corner by the popcorn machine. He says Mike's hiding from me. Mike is the federal crop insurance agent.

GREG: Mike! We want to know what federal crop has to do with this deal! Get up here and talk to her!

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Mike says he has to go home, but then he ambles over.

GREG: Here he comes.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: He's been in crop insurance for more than 20 years.

MIKE: What's really changed most is that the government subsidizes more of the premiums, you know. And more people start growing crops and breaking up more land, and getting better yields. It's just been a good program for them.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Whether crop subsidies continue to dominate farm policy, rests now with lawmakers in Washington who are working on next year's Farm Bill. If it remains unchanged, more prairie and more ranchers will be lost. So far, the House has passed a bill that gives even more money to grain farmers. There's a little more money for conservation, too, but in the Senate, more radical changes are being proposed. One would replace crop payments with a system that would benefit almost all farmers, including ranchers, based on need and conservation practices rather than on how many acres they plant. The Bush administration has endorsed this idea. But it warns, too, that the budget left behind by September 11th may leave less money for farm programs. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle wants to finish the Farm Bill soon, before the money disappears.

DASCHLE: We've got to make the economics of agriculture, especially small farm agriculture, better.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The majority leader's home state is South Dakota, which means he's beholden both to ranchers and environmentalists who want more money for conservation, and to farmers who want more for their crops. On the way to the Rapid City airport, Senator Daschle tells me that a new Farm Bill should set minimum prices for grain, so farmers can rely more on the market, and less on the federal government. And Congress, he says has to stop letting the seed and chemical and equipment companies, run farm policy. He admits that will take a revolution of sorts in the way he and his colleagues do business.

DASCHLE: Well, I guess that's the question, is how do you deal with the many conflicting pressures one feels. Sometimes I think we let the special interests, or the ones with the biggest bucks, or the greatest lobbying force make at least indirectly the decision made by lawmakers in Washington.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's not just ranchers who get hurt by the expansion and concentration of agribusiness. Even farmers who benefit most from the farm programs --the ones who get crop payments, and insurance, and loans-- they, too, are finding there's something being lost along the way.

GILLEN: These leaves, on the corn plant, are starting to curl. They're protecting themselves from the heat.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For David and Carol Gillen, survival means planting more acres every year. And those acres most often come from neighbors who had to sell. I ask Carol what that's like in a tiny community like White Lake. She backs away from my microphone.

C. GILLEN: Let's not talk about that.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: David smiles at her, and explains.

D. GILLEN: A piece of land comes up for rent. Three farmers around want it, and there's hard feelings if two people don't get it and the other one does. The problem is, the three farmers who bid on the same land, if there's hard feelings, our wives see each other every day in town. We go to the same church, our kids to the same school. And it's tough, it is tough. It's either expand or go to the city and take a job. Some of us choose to expand, because it's taking more, more acres to provide a living for our families .

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In the weeks after my visit, Carol Gillen and I emailed each other. She'd tell me about the weather and how the harvest was going and about her eldest son, who jokes he can run a tractor 25 hours a day. She also asked that I not use the interview I did with her. She didn't want the neighbors to hear it. Later, though, she changed her mind. The farming story, she said, was too important not to tell. The story of farmers who feel they must choose between their livelihood, and the prairie, between their livelihood, and the community. Carol understands why people want rolling prairie to drive by, and thriving little farm towns to visit, but she says those are myths people remember from books as children.

C. GILLEN: It was that way a hundred years ago, or a hundred fifty years ago, but people bought this property and this land, and this is our business. And we don't own a business just for somebody to drive by on the road and say, "Isn't that cute," or "There's a wildflower should we go pick it?" People love nostalgia. I like nostalgia, but who's going to pay for it?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For Living On Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.


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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living On Earth. Next week: from Asian long-horn beetles to zebra mussels: a primer on invasive species and the havoc they can wreak on their unsuspecting hosts.

MAN: On a species by species basis, we can sort of make the good animal-bad animal judgement. But to the extent that we value native ecosystems, every introduction represents some kind of loss.

CURWOOD: It's nature's unwelcome guests, next time on Living On Earth.



CURWOOD: We leave you this week with sounds, mostly the sounds that birds make as they fly over or stop to rest in the prairie near Nebraska's Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Lang Elliot's recording comes with the following claim: "No human sounds or electronic manipulations were used in this production."


CURWOOD: Living On Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu, and Gernot Wagner, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Milisa Mu–iz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Jessica Penney and Jonathan Waldman. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. . Liz Lempert is our western editor, Diane Toomey is our science editor, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening,


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the Educational Foundation of America for reporting on energy and climate change; the Oak Foundation supporting coverage of marine issues; the Turner Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity--www.wajones.org; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation supporting coverage of western issues.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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