Air Date: April 9, 1999
Uranium Bullets in Kosovo
Steve talks with Gulf War veteran Dan Fahey about the U.S. military’s use of ammunition made from depleted uranium. The bullets can penetrate tank armor, but they leave behind a fine dust which has been shown to have health effects on both soldiers and local populations. (05:15)
Hunting the Rare Ibex/ Richard Galpin
In some developing nations a few good animals are being sacrificed for the many. It's part of a controversial plan by conservation groups to let big game hunters bag a few rare animals in order to save the species. Richard Galpin reports from northern Pakistan. (15:00)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about... George Perkins Marsh, dubbed the "father of the environmental movement" with the publication of Man and Nature 135 years ago. (01:30)
The New Yorker Gets Fact Checked
Steve talks with Paul Brodeur, who was a staff writer at the New Yorker for almost four decades. Mr. Brodeur contends that several recent articles in that magazine and major U.S. newspapers contain factual inaccuracies that reflect an anti-environmental bias. (06:50)
Christmas Comes Late to Costal Lousiana/ Jesse Wegman
The rich and vital wetlands south of New Orleans are disappearing faster than almost anywhere in the world. While the state struggles to find a way to stem the erosion, local residents are taking matters into their own hands -- literally. They’re donating used Christmas trees to help save the wetlands. Living On Earth’s Jesse Wegman reports. (07:30)
Another Flood Season/ Broyce Rosenberger
Science writer Boyce Rensberger explains why this spring, we can, once again, expect so many hundred year floods. (02:25)
A Bug Lover's Life/ Sue Hubbell
Author Sue Hubbell gets up close to the creatures which crawl, creep and slither past us each and every day. (07:00)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Richard Galpin, Jesse Wegman
GUESTS: Dan Fahey, Paul Brodeur, Sue Hubbell
COMMENTATORS: Boyce Rensberger
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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
They're toxic, radioactive, and difficult to clean up after use, but there's nothing like a depleted uranium bullet when it comes to stopping a tank. The US has them in the Balkans and veterans groups are worried.
FAHEY: It has a radioactive half-life of four and a half billion years, so the real danger here is not the existence of the bullet itself, but the contamination that it creates.
CURWOOD: Also, a controversial program of certain conservation groups to save rare species by killing a few of them in high-priced trophy hunts.
PITTS: This will be probably one of the highlights of your hunting career, in that this is a very important trophy and everything, that very few people can claim to have come to this country to hunt. (Shotgun blast)
CURWOOD: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. First the news.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the conflict in Yugoslavia the US military's arsenal includes some controversial weapons. One such armament is radioactive ammunition made with depleted uranium. Super-dense uranium rounds are highly effective at penetrating armor and are known for stopping tanks in their tracks. The US military used them in the Gulf War in 1991 and again in Bosnia in the mid-90s. But veterans groups say as a result, they and local civilians were put at risk, and hundreds of square miles of Iraq and Kuwait were likely contaminated. Dan Fahey is a veteran of the Gulf War who works with Swords to Ploughshares, a San Francisco-based veterans rights group. He says the weapon compounds the horror of war.
FAHEY: The danger with depleted uranium is, after the round has been shot and it impacts a target, we know that US Army testing has found that 18 to 70% of that round will burn up into extremely fine uranium dust that's scattered in and around the target, mostly within 50 meters. But it can also, this dust can also be carried downwind. So the real danger here is not the existence of the bullet itself, but the contamination that it creates. And if local populations or soldiers and marines come across these vehicles that are contaminated, that if they inhale or ingest the dust they can suffer health problems, including respiratory problems, kidney problems. And in addition to that, we know the longer-term effects include cancers of the lung and bone.
CURWOOD: Okay, it's eight years after the Gulf War. Are there signs of any health effects from that war on either US troops or the civilian population there?
FAHEY: Yeah, there have been signs for several years among US and British troops. In some cases, people who the US Department of Defense acknowledges had heavy exposures to depleted uranium, who've developed kidney problems and respiratory problems. But the Department of Defense continues to today to deny that even one American veteran could be sick from this exposure. We have also heard from Iraq of increased rates of cancers and leukemias in southern Iraq, where literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of depleted uranium remains on the battlefield.
CURWOOD: Let me see if I've got this right. If people use depleted uranium ammunition on a battlefield area, they're throwing large amounts of a highly toxic metal that is going to get into the food chain and the water and people in the area are going to suffer for, what? Generations afterwards?
FAHEY: Yeah, unless it's cleaned up. But it has a radioactive half-life of four and a half billion years, which means on the one hand that its radioactivity is relatively low, but it also means that the danger persists for literally generations after it's used. And in the Persian Gulf you can say, well most of it was shot in the desert so the risk is less. But in a place like Kosovo, where you do have farm land, you do have animals grazing, where it's far more lush, the danger for contamination and the spread of the contamination is much greater there.
CURWOOD: Now, what does the Pentagon tell its soldiers about the danger that uranium bullets could cause?
FAHEY: Well, it's interesting. Before Operation Desert Storm, there is expressed in several Army reports the need to inform soldiers so that they can take protective measures such as donning mop gear, protective suits, to avoid exposure. But in the Gulf War, for reasons we still don't know, there was no training provided to the ground troops who were sent out into these contaminated area. The Pentagon has acknowledged that thousands of people were unnecessarily exposed. We believe that number to be up into the hundreds of thousands.
CURWOOD: Are civilians being warned about the use of this weaponry?
FAHEY: To the best of our knowledge, they're not. We haven't received confirmation either way about that. But I doubt it would happen, because they are concerned about the Serbs using this against the United States, to say look, you know, here we are, the victims. They're releasing a radioactive and toxic waste on our land, you know, as part of their combat operations. And so, it's a very sensitive political issue.
CURWOOD: Dan Fahey, what do you see down the road here? Is the Pentagon likely to move away from reliance on depleted uranium?
FAHEY: Not in the foreseeable future. It proved its effectiveness during the Gulf War. And despite the health and environmental dangers that it presents, the Department of Defense has expressed that they plan to continue to use it, and they've expanded the use of it within our own arsenal. But I need to just state, too, that the Pentagon continues to assert that if we were shooting anything but depleted uranium, the rounds would be bouncing off of the enemy's tanks. And we want to see some independent analysis of that assessment, because there are statements in various Army reports contradicting the -- basically stating that there are alternatives to the use of depleted uranium.
CURWOOD: Dan Fahey is an outreach worker at Swords to Ploughshares, a San Francisco-based veterans rights group and a veteran of the Gulf War. Thank you, sir.
FAHEY: Thank you.
CURWOOD: The US Defense Department says Air Force A-10 tank killer jets flying combat missions in the Balkans are loaded with depleted uranium rounds. But Air Force officials won't confirm or deny whether or not they're being used.
What do you think? Should the US use depleted uranium shells in the Balkans, since they are highly effective against tanks? Call our listener line right now at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or send us an e-mail at LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can find our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth -- all one word -- .org.
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CURWOOD: When we return, big game hunting at a big price and, some say, a big benefit for rare species. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It sounds like a page from a Hemingway novel: wealthy hunter treks to exotic locale to bag rare prey and bring home the trophy. Some hope this is passe, but big game hunting for rare species is making something of a comeback. In some developing nations, conservation groups are experimenting with a controversial scheme that they hope will help protect many rare animals by letting big game hunters shoot some of them. Reporter Richard Galpin has our report from Pakistan, where he traveled with trophy hunters stalking the rare Himalayan ibex.
GALPIN: The dramatic landscape of northern Pakistan, where the world's great mountain ranges, the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and Karakoram, all meet.
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GALPIN: These huge mountains are home to many extremely rare animals, from the snow leopard to the exotic blue sheep. Over the years many of these species have been hunted almost to extinction, both by the local population in search of food, and by sport hunters from Pakistan and abroad.
GALPIN: And yet, after being banned from this area for many years, foreign big game hunters are now once again being encouraged to travel up the legendary Karakoram Highway, from the Pakistani capitol Islamabad to the mountains of the north.
GARSTANG: The incidence of major landslides and land slips --
GALPIN: And those promoting and organizing the hunting expeditions here are none other than the Worldwide Fund for Nature, WWF, and the World Conservation Union.
GARSTANG: -- flash floods, dams are damaged downstream. The water, instead of oozing out slowly in the dry period and providing people with good water, all comes in the form of a flash flood that is destructive.
GALPIN: This is Richard Garstang, conservation advisor to WWF in Pakistan. His talk on the fragility of the environment in this part of the country is to a group of big game hunters from the United States and Argentina. They've spent thousands of dollars for the privilege of coming on this expedition to hunt the Himalayan ibex, a rare wild mountain goat only found in this region of the world. The hunters have been on many such trips around the world, and have shot all kinds of big game, including even polar bears. But one of the party, Ron Pitts, has no doubts about the significance of this particular expedition.
PITTS: This will be probably one of the highlights of your hunting career, in that this is a very important trophy and everything, that very few people can claim to have come to this country to hunt. Years ago it was pretty big on the international scene, with a lot of the kings and people of wealth used to hunt here quite a bit. Now, it's opening it up to the average hunter.
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GALPIN: Soon after arriving in northern Pakistan, Ron Pitts and the other hunters are out with their high-velocity rifles for a little target practice. They want to be sure their rifles are properly sited before the hunt begins.
GALPIN: Once this is done they move up to the villages of the Hunza Valley, deep in the Karakoram Mountains, where they'll be based during the hunt.
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GALPIN: Here in Bar Village, they are given a reception worthy of kings and princes.
MAN: ... because especially cheering for our honorable guest...
GALPIN: But there's good reason for this particularly warm welcome. The foreign hunters represent a new and substantial source of income for this area, which is still extremely poor with most people surviving through subsistence farming. Under the scheme developed by the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the World Conservation Union, the hunters have each paid $3,500 for the permit to shoot just one Himalayan ibex. And most of this money is given directly to the villages where the hunt takes place. In return the local people have agreed to maintain a ban on hunting ibex themselves for food. Richard Garstang of WWF says this subsistence hunting was so widespread it was threatening to wipe out the species.
GARSTANG: WWF has been monitoring this ibex population for around nine years. Initially, what we saw happening was a dramatic decrease. This was occurring because the villagers here were using these animals as a source of food. They were taking a random number, anything from 15 to 20 animals per annum, to feed themselves. We've persuaded them to stop that, to exchange those 20 animals for the life of just one animal, which would be taken by a trophy hunter.
GALPIN: For the hunters who have been brought in under this scheme, it's the perfect justification for their controversial sport. Howard Pollock is a former US Congressman from Alaska, and former president of the National Rifle Association.
POLLOCK: I'm very, very interested in wildlife. I'm interested in bringing back species that have become depleted by improper management. And so, if you're very selective in the trophy hunting, normally you're taking animals that really are past their breeding stage and oftentimes they've been run out of the herds by the younger males.
GALPIN: Not surprisingly, though, there are many critics of this controversial scheme. And these are not just people who are opposed to blood sports in principle. Take, for example, Vaqar Zakaria of the Himalayan Wildlife Project in Pakistan. He believes the assumptions on which this scheme is based are wrong. He says it won't stop many local people from hunting, and it's not the only solution to the problem.
ZAKARIA: In the very short term, it will bring in some revenues. That is all it's going to do. But in the long run, there's no guarantee what will happen. To look at more sustainable alternatives, for example, wildlife viewing and eco-tourism, would be much softer and gentler on the nature and would involve communities in a much better way, and would probably distribute the income in a much better way within the communities, as well, and contribute more to the broader objectives of wildlife preservation.
MUHAMMED: [Speaks in foreign tongue]
GALPIN: Guda Muhammed used to be one of the most famous hunters in Hunza Valley. Now he says he's put his gun away and become a guide for the foreigners who have taken over his sport. He says he's happy to do this, as he and the other men in his village have learned from the conservation organizations about the need to nurture natural resources in the area. Richard Garstang of the Worldwide Fund for Nature argues the trophy hunting scheme, which has been running for many years in Africa and southern America, is the only realistic way of saving rare species in the developing world.
GARSTANG: What we have to find is a way to make conservation work in the context of an environment that has none of the support mechanisms that conventional wildlife conservation has in the West. There is no government infrastructure here that can support this to any great degree. There's no large sums of money available. So we have to build a program that is self-sustaining.
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GALPIN: With the welcome ceremony now over, the hunters split into two groups. I joined Ron Pitts in a village in the far north of the Hunza Valley, close to the border with China.
GALPIN: (Breathing hard) Well, we've now left Khyber Village. We're about two hours from it, heading up a steep snow slope towards our camp for the night. And we'll staying there about 10,000, 11,000 feet. And then up early tomorrow morning. Already we've spotted the ibex quite close to where the camp will be. And the hope is that the hunt will take place first thing tomorrow morning and be successful.
Our base camp that night is at 11,000 feet in the heart of the Karakoram Mountains. It's bitterly cold, and next morning Ron Pitts is not feeling well. But he pushes on up to where he thinks the ibex are.
GALPIN: As we walk up, suddenly animals appear on the ridge above us.
PITTS: Ah. There's the ibex.
GALPIN: The ibex herd have been disturbed by a snow leopard and have run straight into our path. But Ron Pitts, already suffering from the altitude, the cold, and a bad stomach, is caught unprepared. He has little time to load his rifle and take aim.
(Loading, shot blast)
GALPIN: The shot is not good. Even though it was less than 200 meters away, Ron Pitts has hit the ibex in the stomach and it's been able to escape further up the mountain.
PITTS: Are they going to go up there and tell me if there's blood, or if I missed?
GALPIN: Ron Pitts, who all along was clearly not fit enough to cope with this harsh mountain environment, has to leave the local guides to climb further up the mountain to try and track down the wounded ibex.
PITTS: I feel real bad about this. I mean, this is not what I came for. I haven't done this in ten years.
GALPIN: You've not missed before.
PITTS: Well, I haven't wounded an animal ten years. So.
GALPIN: It's two days before he can finally march in triumph through the local village with his ibex trophy. The animal was eventually killed by the local guides more than 24 hours after it was first wounded. Even then, ropes had to be fetched from the village so it could be retrieved from the cliffs where it had died.
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GALPIN: The curved horns are measured and found to be even bigger than first thought. Ron Pitts may even get a place in the record books. He pledges an extra $2,000 as a gift to the village conservation committee.
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GALPIN: And it seems the money is generally well-spent. This women's training center is being run with money paid by one of the international hunters. Dozens of women have been trained here to make handicrafts, which are sold in Pakistan and abroad. Elsewhere in the Hunza Valley, the money's been spent on infrastructure projects, including even building bridges. WWF and IUCN want to expand the scheme now, especially as they believe surveys are already showing a marked increase in the size of the ibex herds. But Vaqar Zakaria of the Himalayan Wildlife Project believes this is extremely dangerous.
ZAKARIA: One or two trophy hunts, it's very easy to regulate or watch what's going on, and it's under the careful eyes of, say, representatives of some organizations like WWF and IUCN. But the moment you spread something like this to the whole northern areas, there's just no way that the regulatory agencies will be able to watch and see if malpractices don't take place. In the remote areas there's just really no control in place, and anything can happen.
GALPIN: Of course the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the World Conservation Union deny this. They say there are sufficient safeguards to prevent the system being corrupted, and to prevent illegal hunting. And there's already talk of including other rare species in the trophy hunting scheme in the northern areas of Pakistan. Most surprising were the serious discussions between some of the conservationists and foreign hunters about the possibility of getting special permission from CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to shoot a snow leopard. Some conservationists believe there are sufficient snow leopards in the area to justify hunting them. Even though they are an endangered species. It's estimated a snow leopard hunting permit could sell for $150,000. Vaqar Zakaria of the Himalayan Wildlife Project is horrified that this could even be a topic for discussion with the international big game hunters. And he's highly critical of the assumption that because snow leopards are attacking farm animals in the area, this means there are sufficient of them to hunt.
ZAKARIA: If they are coming down to kill sheep and goat, is that because they are not getting, they're running out of the conventional or natural food supply? Or is that because there are just too many of those leopards around? My guess is right now, they come down to hunt when they don't get food where they're supposed to get food. I think we need to do, think a lot more steady, a lot more, before we even start touching things like a snow leopard.
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GALPIN: The high mountains of northern Pakistan are now the focus of a critical debate on how best to conserve rare species found in the developing world. The trophy hunting scheme is clearly one answer. It does seem to work, and bring benefits to the people of the area. The question is whether it's the only answer, and whether there are too many inherent risks to make it acceptable. Conclusions need to be drawn, as already many other countries in the region, particularly in central Asia, may soon start their own hunting schemes.
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GALPIN: For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Galpin in the Hunza Valley, northern Pakistan.
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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.
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CURWOOD: Coming up: saving Louisiana from the encroaching ocean. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, profits for the planet, supporting initiatives that protect the Earth.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: A book called Man and Nature was published 135 years ago, and with the subtitle "The Earth as Modified by Human Action," its author, George Perkins Marsh, broke new ground by showing how people affect the environment. Witnessing damage done by farmers who cleared their land in his native Vermont, Mr. Marsh urged that streams and rivers be kept clean, and that wildlife soil and crops be protected. His teachings inspired Arbor Day, the establishment of forest reserves, and earned him the title, "father of the environmental movement." Mr. Marsh worked as a sheep farmer, teacher, lawyer, and businessman, and served as a member of Congress. And after a trip to Egypt and Arabia, Mr. Marsh became obsessed with camels. He thought them superior to horses and even convinced Congress to press the animals into military service. In the late 1850s, 74 camels were shipped to Indianola, Texas. The South captured them during the Civil War and they were used to haul cotton to Mexico. After the war, the camel cavalry was phased out, and the Army sold most of the beasts to a circus. Still, for years afterwards, camels could be seen roaming the western desert. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: Environmental reporting by one of the nation's most prominent magazines has come under fire from one of its most famous alums. For almost 40 years, Paul Brodeur covered the environment for the New Yorker. In that time he helped to introduce the American public to such issues as asbestos poisoning and ozone depletion. But he's come out of retirement to write his latest story, which isn't about something in the air, it's about something on the page. In the May issue of Brill's Content, a media watchdog magazine, Paul Brodeur argues that at least twice this year the New Yorker made serious errors of fact in its environmental reporting, errors he believes that come from anti-environmental bias. One of the articles, for example, argues that most residential cancer clusters, like the one in the book and the movie A Civil Action, are not caused by toxins in the environment but occur by chance. Mr. Brodeur calls that ludicrous.
BRODEUR: First of all, you need to back up and understand what the statistics in the United States are about cancer that you never read about in the newspapers. Today, according to the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, one out of every three American men and one out of every four American women is developing cancer in his or her lifetime. Now there's a word for that. It is an epidemic of cancer. Sure, it's true, and the main point of that article in the February issue of the New Yorker was that clusters can happen by chance. Of course, if you have a million people developing cancer, naturally some clusters are going to develop by chance. But also, many clusters are going to develop because people are being exposed to chemical carcinogens all over the nation.
CURWOOD: Well, now, is part of the problem here that the science of statistics will look at a situation like a cancer cluster and say, because of its constructs, that you don't have significant results? Now, that doesn't mean that people aren't getting cancer. It simply means that using standard statistical methods, you can't prove that there's a cancer cluster there.
BRODEUR: Well, the last I heard, chemical carcinogens did not have constitutional rights. In other words, they do not deserve the extension of the presumption of innocence. The asbestos companies used to defend themselves in court by saying, "Well, how can you prove that your man who developed lung cancer breathed our asbestos?" Well, there was no way, absolutely no way. But in a famous case, Sindell v. Abbott, the judges said, "Look, you're all guilty. You make asbestos, people breathe it. It doesn't matter who makes it. It doesn't matter who breathed what fiber." This is also true with chemicals. This is now becoming a matter of common sense. The cancer rate in this country is just too great not to continue to try to say well, we can't absolutely prove. When I was--
CURWOOD: Okay, so then what do we do about this? Because traditionally, in this country, legislators, writers, you can go back to the tobacco controversy, have said, "Look, we need scientific proof to act on things," and that has been the standard in the society for good or ill. And you're saying it's for ill, in fact that it's making us sick. How should we change?
BRODEUR: I'm saying that with a cancer rate of one out of every three men and one out of every four women, something's wrong. And tobacco, by the way, is a very good example; I'm glad you brought it up. We knew that tobacco was dangerous in the 30s and the 40s. There are editorials in the Journal of American Medicine saying that tobacco is a cancer-producing agent in the 40s. Look how long it took for the American tobacco companies and the nation's legislators and the people of the nation to recognize that this, the most deadly carcinogen ever known in our time, was that bad.
CURWOOD: Do you think that the downplaying of environmental health concerns is a larger trend in journalism today?
BRODEUR: Oh, yes.
CURWOOD: Do you have some examples?
BRODEUR: Well, the Washington Post certainly comes to mind. Under the Washington Post, and particularly under Ben Bradley, the environment became almost a dirty word. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell, in the early 1990s, wrote a half a dozen pieces absolving dioxin. Now, dioxin is the number one cancer-producing agent on the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States Government's list. It is the number one contaminant in the country. So what is Malcolm Gladwell doing and what is the Washington Post doing publishing a half a dozen articles in the early 1990s about dioxin, no problem at all? You've got the New York Times, never explained the asbestos litigation to any of its readers in the whole first 10 years it was going on. And when it did, it did so on the business page. So did the Los Angeles Times. So did any number of other newspapers. And, I mean, the examples are legion of newspapers simply not responding to environmental concerns nationwide. And that's partly the problem of the newspapers, partly their fear of offending powerful industries, offending their advertisers. And it's also partly a problem of the public perception.
CURWOOD: Okay, and the problem with the public perception is?
BRODEUR: The problem with the public perception is that where there's pollution, be it chemicals, be it asbestos or whatever, the property values are going to drop there, and people want to keep that quiet.
CURWOOD: So, what's your take? Is the criticism of environmental journalism and unwillingness to run this getting worse from years ago? Or are things getting better?
BRODEUR: I think things are getting better to this extent. I think there's much more interest on the part of the public in environmental concerns. Parents are marching into schools and saying, "Hey, you cannot just fog these schools up with insecticides to stop the roaches in the dining halls. Stop making our children walk through a fog of pesticides." That was an editorial in the Los Angeles Times the other day. I think that the reflection of people's concern about the environment is reflected in the newspapers, but I think you're also having this counter-movement that we talked about today, and that's why I've gone public with it. I'm retired from the New Yorker. I've been keeping my head down, writing fiction and fly-fishing for bass on Cape Cod, until these articles came out in the New Yorker. And then I decided well, somebody needs to point out that this is not right.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with me today.
BRODEUR: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Paul Brodeur was a staff writer at the New Yorker for almost 40 years, and he continues to write about the environment today. His article, "Cop Out at The New Yorker," appears in the May issue of the magazine Brill's Content.
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CURWOOD: For the record, we asked The New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post to respond to Mr. Brodeur's charges. All declined comment.
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CURWOOD: When we return, the sometimes wacky and beautiful world of creatures without backbones. A conversation with writer Sue Hubbell is just ahead on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Louisiana is disappearing. The wetlands along the state's Gulf Coast are eroding faster than almost anywhere in the world. And we're talking here about a coastal zone that supports two thirds of the state's population, the nation's largest fishing industry, and provides up to a quarter of the country's oil and natural gas supply. Decades of mineral extraction and levee construction have seriously altered the nature of coastal Louisiana. While the state scrambles to put a recovery program in place, some citizens are starting in small ways to fend off the rising tide. From Jefferson Parish, Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman has our story.
(Boat motor runs)
CORMIER: That's a shrimp boat, and that guy lives there. I mean, that's his home, which is in the true tradition of the Cajun. Live on the Bayou.
WEGMAN: In Goose Bayou south of New Orleans Art Cormier stands on the back of a swamp boat pointing out the sites. With his white goatee and deep belly laugh, Cormier could pass for a Cajun Santa Claus.
CORMIER: Wow, look at the ducks. [Inaudible] give him a duck call, man, look at them birds in there! (Laughs)
WEGMAN: There's a warm, gentle breeze on the water as Cormier and his friends motor slowly through the murky waters of the bayou, inspecting the erosion of the region's wetlands. On the shore strings of Spanish moss drape over the branches of cypress trees. Art Cormier is retired, now, but he's hunted and fished these wetlands since he was a boy. He points out how much land has already disappeared as the boat enters a waterway that's maybe 200 yards wide.
CORMIER: I'm estimating this thing, this may have been 50 yards across. So you can see the difference, you see the land loss we've had. It's incredible.
WEGMAN: Stretching south from New Orleans down to the Gulf of Mexico, the wetlands of the Mississippi River Basin are one of the fastest eroding regions in the world. Since 1930 a quarter of the state's coastal wetlands, more than one million acres, have dissolved into open water. And they continue to disappear at rates of up to 35 square miles a year.
WEGMAN: As the boat pulls up to a long, straight channel of water, Art Cormier leans over and points to a key cause of the erosion.
CORMIER: Is that a pipeline? It might be.
MAN: Yeah, that's one of them.
(Climbing from boat)
WEGMAN: Over the past 50 years, straight, manmade waterways and navigation channels have seriously altered the natural flow of fresh water to the wetlands. To get at the vast mineral reserves lying just below the surface, oil and gas companies have dredged more than 10,000 miles of canals like this one.
CORMIER: A lot of times they just abandon them and leave them there. And all of this is what exacerbates the loss of land, because then it gives a way for salt water to come in and kill the freshwater interior, and that's a big part of your erosion right there.
WEGMAN: Add to this the fact that the wetlands are slowly sinking. This is a natural process, and in the past it had a natural check. When the Mississippi flooded its banks every spring, its sediment replenished the wetlands. But today, levees keep the river from overflowing, so almost all that sediment, more than half a million tons every day, empties directly into the Gulf.
WEGMAN: Louisiana began coordinated efforts to protect and restore the marsh just over a decade ago, and today it uses some of the most advanced technology available. But one of the most well-known techniques was borrowed from the Dutch, who have been using it to protect their coasts since the 1920s.
SMITH: Hold on, hold on, again.
WEGMAN: Jason Smith, coastal program supervisor for Jefferson Parish, pulls our boat up alongside a stretch of submerged wooden fences stuffed full with old, brown Christmas trees.
SMITH: Jeez, that's way over 1,000 feet. (Other man speaks, inaudible) Yeah, I like this one, this one's doing good.
WEGMAN: The trees protect existing marsh by acting as a wave buffer, and their tangle of branches and needles trap sediment, directing it into calmer water on the other side of the fences. This site is only a couple years old, but you can already see the results.
SMITH: See the vegetation behind it? Well, that was solid water. You can see it works. Last year I didn't see that vegetation; it wasn't there last year.
WEGMAN: Growing marsh. That's the idea of the tree fences, which after nine years hold almost a million trees. In a region known for its environmental laissez-faire, the program has inspired public awareness and involvement like nothing before, at a fraction of the cost of larger-scale projects.
HOUCK: Dead trees don't save the coast.
WEGMAN: Oliver Houck directs the Environmental Law Program at Tulane University. He says efforts like the Christmas tree program, as well as larger projects, are steps in the right direction, but they're nowhere near enough. A major problem, Houck argues, is Louisiana's historical over-reliance on the oil and gas industries and its reluctance to make them pay for their mistakes.
HOUCK: Yeah, and now it's letting the oil and gas companies walk away from the table without paying a dime toward the restoration. And these are companies that have bled Louisiana out of oil, I mean dry out of oil, for 40, 50 years.
WEGMAN: Energy companies say they already pay enough in taxes and royalties to compensate the state. And that river levees have already caused much more erosion than dredged canals ever will. For the state's part, assigning blame is not a road it wants to travel.
CALDWELL: Frankly, we don't have the time to sort out who's liable and who's not.
WEGMAN: Jack Caldwell is secretary of Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources. Whatever the primary cause, Secretary Caldwell says, Louisiana simply doesn't have the billions of dollars it's expected to cost to protect and restore the wetlands.
CALDWELL: We know how to do it. Give us the money. We will do it. Without the money it can't be done.
WEGMAN: And money isn't the only obstacle. The region's ecology has been altered so drastically, Oliver Houck says, real restoration must include full-scale diversions of the Mississippi, known as letting the river out. But wherever you try to do that, people get in the way.
HOUCK: And that's tough. You're going to have to move people. You're going to have to move towns. You're going to have to decide that this gets developed and that doesn't. And nobody has come near making those rather mega-political decisions.
WEGMAN: And, it seems, no one will be coming near any time soon. Natural Resources Secretary Jack Caldwell.
CALDWELL: I doubt seriously if they're going to find any major population displacements in the name of building diversions. I don't think it's a politically attractive alternative.
WEGMAN: Attractive or not, displacement is already happening. In wetlands less than 10 miles from downtown New Orleans, hunters and fishers like Art Cormier have built small camps with names like Bayou Therapy and Gator Hole. Cormier points to one that's up on stilts.
CORMIER: Right here, the guy moved this camp 4 times, back and back and back, to try to save a place for himself. I'll show where he finally rebuilt, he give up. This camp here is not long for this world...
WEGMAN: Even in this quite enclave, the New Orleans skyline looms on the horizon. And coastal scientists say, what's happening here is an omen for the city. If current trends continue, some say, New Orleans could one day be beachfront property. That's not far-fetched. After all, half the city's metropolitan core already sits below sea level. Without the wetlands there to absorb storm surges, New Orleans can flood in a matter of hours, as it did last floor during tropical storm Frances.
CORMIER: The Gulf is at our door right now. If we don't do anything to save that we'd just as well start building houses on stilts in New Orleans, just like you see these camps up high. Because it's coming this way, it's just moving moving moving moving.
WEGMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Jesse Wegman in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.
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CURWOOD: High water is not just a Louisiana phenomenon this time of year. Spring rains and melting snows mean lots and lots of water for much of the nation. And commentator Boyce Rensberger says that with all that water comes flooding, and the annual confusion about something called the 100-year flood.
RENSBERGER: It happens every spring. Somewhere a flood-swollen river will spill out of its banks and devastate towns and farm lands. Often it will be called a 100-year flood. Then just a few weeks later, another river will go on a rampage and we'll have another 100-year flood. Then the next year, or the year after that, the same river may experience yet another 100-year flood. Clearly, you might think something has gone wrong with the weather. Lots of people point to global warming theory, which does predict more weather extremes. But government scientists say that's not the case here.
The US Geological Survey is the agency that created the concept of the 100-year flood. And monitors water levels around the country at thousands of points. Recently, its scientists checked the records for nearly 400 of the most climate-sensitive rivers. They found that the amount of water flowing in them has increased by about one third. But most of that increase has come in seasons when the water is normally low, so it doesn't cause any flooding. In fact, scientists say over the last 50 years, the trend has been toward less flooding.
They say the main reason is that instead of coming in major deluges, rain is falling more evenly around the year. So, what about all those 100-year floods? Well, the confusion stems from a common misunderstanding of the term. A 100-year flood is an amount of flooding that has a 1% chance of happening in any given year. It does not mean that after a river has a 100- year flood it's safe for the next 99 years. The next year the same river still runs a 1% chance of severe flooding. Even if it floods two years in a row, there's still a 1% chance of it flooding in the third year. Compounding the confusion is the fact that if you watch 100 rivers for one year, you can expect to see a 100-year flood. With several hundred major rivers around the country, that means we're just about certain to have a number of disastrous floods every year. And of course, with today's disaster-driven television, you can expect to hear about them over and over again.
CURWOOD: Former Washington Post science writer Boyce Rensberger heads the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program at MIT.
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CURWOOD: Not many of us take the time to appreciate the tiny little wonders of the animal kingdom, which crawl, buzz, and slither past us each day. Well, fortunately, Sue Hubbell has. Ms. Hubbell has spent years studying and writing about the lesser-known invertebrates. Some of the results are her books. Broadsides from the Other Orders, and a book of bees. And her article "Bug Art" in The New Yorker. Ms. Hubbell's journeys have taken her from graveyards in Michigan to a cabin in Maine, where she found the inspiration for her newest book, Waiting for Aphrodite. But she told me her career in championing invertebrates actually began on a sprawling homestead in Missouri.
HUBBELL: It began when my first husband and I started keeping bees out in the Ozarks. And we didn't know much about bees, which is proof of how silly we were to do it. But we were the kinds that when you started something new you got a book, and you'd read about it. So we did, and the more you know about their biology, the better beekeeper you are, and therefore the better living you'll be able to make from them. So, I was sort of the designated one to figure out about bees, and I started reading about bees and I was hooked. Insects were just it as far as I -- I can remember specifically when it happened. I was reading about the insect's circulatory system. They have what is called an open circulation system, where the hemolymph flows freely in the body cavity, and it gets pumped to either end. That's how it moves around. And I thought, you know, wow. (Laughs) How different can you get? So I just started off trying to learn something more about insect physiology, where insects fit in. And pretty soon I began to realize we were the ones that were different, because we were in such a minority.
CURWOOD: And then you discovered camel crickets?
HUBBELL: Yeah, we had a lot of camel crickets in Missouri, probably because I lived in kind of a damp house. They tend to like damp places. And I was doing a book a few years back just on insects. And for the book, I was selecting ones that I didn't know very much about. That's because if you're going to spend two years, which is what it takes me to do a book, I want to have something that's interesting to do, which means learning something new. So I've always been curious about these camel crickets. They're great big pale, light tan crickets. They don't make any noise, they're not like the cheerful little black chirping ones. And they have a kind of a humped back, which is why they're called a camel cricket.
CURWOOD: But don't they invade people's houses?
HUBBELL: Oh sure. They're everywhere. Different species, not the species I had in the Ozarks, but so little is known about them that the only way I could answer any questions was to start keeping them. Which is what I did. And so, that became kind of a passion with me for a while. Something I think I may return to up in Maine. I want to find out what the Maine camel crickets are up to.
CURWOOD: Are you one of these 8-year-old girls who'd come in with a cricket or an ant or a butterfly or a worm or a--
HUBBELL: Well (Laughs) I'm ashamed to say this, but I was actually terrified sometimes by those things. (Curwood laughs) I had been taught at an early age that those thing were -- as most children are, most of those are creepy. And I can remember, I was seven exactly, I can remember when this happened. My parents had a summer cottage at a lake and they had just enough money to build either a garage or a playhouse for me. And kind, generous parents that they were, they decided to build a playhouse, which they were calling a dollhouse. And they got all done with it, and there was -- I went into it for a first time and there was a daddy long legs in it, and I ran out shrieking and would never go in there again. (Curwood laughs) And it became a storage shed. No, I did not have a very distinguished early career.
CURWOOD: Taxonomy. This is the science of identifying and classifying. What's the fascination here?
HUBBELL: Well, it was kind of the fascination, I wrote some about it in that other book I did, which is called Broadsides from the Other Orders. That was sort of the main idea in back of that, ordering systems. It's what our brains are very good at, and our ordering systems often shape the way we look at the world. We mistake the ordering system for the real world. And that happens in everything, all human endeavor. The way we categorize becomes the reality rather than dealing with the reality. And I thought that was a pretty intriguing thing. So I was looking at the kinds of pickles we as humans get ourselves into when we mistake that order for reality. And using insects as the examples of it.
CURWOOD: We're just about out of time here, but before we go, I'm wondering if you could talk to us about the presents that you got when you left Missouri, gave up your honeybees and your camel crickets, and headed for Maine and Washington, DC.
HUBBELL: Oh, well, that's kind of -- yeah, that's kind of neat. I had a family that were really good friends of mine out there, some of the best friends I've ever had. And the father and husband of the family gave me a sack of red oak acorns. And they're both red and white oak out in Missouri, but there were beautiful red oaks on my place. Now, the place where I am right now in Maine has no oaks on it. It may be that oaks are not going to grow there very well, but that's not stopping me. I'm planting oaks, acorns, all over. And I've been there a couple of years now, and last summer I had the first little red oaks shot up from the soil. So I'm very hopeful, maybe I can get them to grow there.
CURWOOD: I wonder if you could read from the end of your book about these oaks, these acorns that you planted.
HUBBELL: (Reading) I'll not live long enough to see those slow-growing Ozark red oaks as stately trees. But those children, and our grandchildren honorary and biological, may. And after all, that's no small thing. It's as good a reason for planting acorns as any I know.
CURWOOD: Sue Hubbell's book is called Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bones. Thanks for joining us today.
HUBBELL: Thank you.
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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, tough economic times in some western states are bringing together old adversaries. Ranchers and environmentalists are finding common ground in eco-tourism and predator-friendly products.
MAN: Years ago, I -- I saw the environmentalists as a threat. And I felt well, maybe instead of fighting with them, if we just communicate. And so I spent a lot of years just talking to people. And I've had literally thousands of environmentalists come out for tours of the ranch. And I've learned a tremendous amount from them. A lot of ranchers are seeing that now is the time to make some changes and realize that these people are not our enemies.
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CURWOOD: How the West was wooed, next week on Living on Earth.
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