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

August 11, 2000

Air Date: August 11, 2000


Point of No Return, Part 1: A River Tamed / Sandy Tolan

Producer Sandy Tolan travels the Columbia and Snake Rivers for the story of the transformation of these rivers, with gigantic hydroelectric dams replacing dozens of salmon runs. There are now intense debates going on in Idaho and Oregon and Washington about what may have been lost as well as gained. (11:30)

Technology Update / Cynthia Graber

Cynthia Graber reports on websites that bring wild animals right onto your monitors. (00:59)

Point of No Return: A River Tamed, Continued / Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan’s journey through the Columbia River system and its dams picks up in Lewiston, Idaho, an inland port for cargo ships that may have to make way for salmon. (08:59)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about Rocky Mountain Locusts. One hundred twenty-five summers ago, a plague of locusts chewed its way across the American West. (01:30)

The Elusive Fossa

Host Steve Curwood talks with Boston Globe reporter Vicki Croke about her search for a very hard to find animal. Fossa (fue-sa) live in the wilds of Madagascar, and may be the evolutionary link between the mongoose and cat families. But research on these creatures is difficult because they are extremely hard to find. (05:45)

Health Update / Diane Toomey

Diane Toomey reports on a promising new treatment for bacterial infections as antibiotic-resistant bacteria reach crisis proportions. (00:59)

Gold Rush Legacy / Cheryl Colopy

More than 150 years ago, gold was discovered in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. Cheryl Colopy of member station KQED in San Francisco reports on the legacy of the Gold Rush on a landscape that was virtually untouched before gold was discovered. (09:20)

Gold Rush Legacy, Part II / Cheryl Colopy

Cheryl Colopy continues her report with the impact of the Gold Rush on Native American peoples. (07:25)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Sandy Tolan, Cheryl Colopy
UPDATES: Cynthia Graber, Diane Toomey
GUEST: Vicki Croke


(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The dams of the Pacific Northwest are among the great technological monuments of the twentieth century. They harness the mighty Columbia River system to run a high-power engine of economic growth. Irrigation became easy and electricity became cheap. But the dams have nearly wiped out another resource, the region's salmon.

DE HART: These fish supported economies, supported cultures. And we thought that we could have it all by using technology. We set this pattern of delusion and denial, and now we're in a predicament. We've developed beyond a balance point. So now, what are we going to do?

CURWOOD: Salmon versus dams, the great divide in the Pacific Northwest. We'll have that story and more this week on Living on Earth, but first the news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Point of No Return, Part 1: A River Tamed

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth. A few years ago, at Redfish Lake in the mountains of Central Idaho, a single Sockeye salmon made its return from the sea. It had traveled hundreds of miles up the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon Rivers. Locals called the fish Lonesome Larry. In the past, Larry would have had thousands of companions, but this fish died alone. It's becoming a familiar story. Over the last century, fewer and fewer salmon have returned from the Pacific to spawn. Many runs have disappeared completely. People have caught too many of the fish, destroyed their habitat, and blocked their way with dams. And with the fish, a vital part of the culture and economy of local communities has gone, too. This week, Living on Earth begins a special rebroadcast of our series Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest. In our first report, Sandy Tolan travels the Columbia River system and considers its transformation by ribbons of concrete.

(Flowing water)

TOLAN: Jay Minthorn was a young man when the waters began to rise.

MINTHORN: And as we was fishing, you could begin to see, below the fall, as to where the water begin to back up, and the waters begin to slow down. You didn't seen the beautiful boiling waters. You didn't see that.

TOLAN: At Celilo Falls, back in the 1940s, Mr. Minthorn's father taught him to fish for salmon. Perched on wooden scaffolds, they'd reach into the raging Columbia River with dip nets made of hemp. Spring Chinook Salmon would jump at the falls, flashes of red leaping up in silver froth. They were returning from the Pacific, finding their way home to their natal streams to spawn and die. They were called the June hogs, 40- and 60-pound fish.

MINTHORN: I remember seeing what they called the silver sides, the blue backs, many Steelheads, the little Jack salmon.

TOLAN: Jay Minthorn's father had learned to net the Chinook from his father, and he from his, and on and on back in time. Columbia River Indians fished here for at least 400 generations, until the waters rose behind the Dalles Dam, barely one generation ago.

(Lapping water)

MINTHORN: And you could see these people, knowing the water was coming, you could begin to see them get their nets and begin to leave. But they left their scaffolds, just like a grave marker. Then you could see some of the scaffolds begin to tear off and float down the river. And when it got close to where I was fishing, I just threw my net in the river, and that was it. I walked off.

TOLAN: Celilo Falls was drowned on March 10, 1957, over the protests of nearly all the region's natives: the Nez Perce, the Umatilla, the Yakima, the Warm Springs tribes, and others. This part of the Columbia had been a center of native commerce for thousands of years. In its place, a new vision was rising: to harness the Columbia with a chain of dams. To provide work and growth and security and power for the new residents of the region.

(Guitar; Woody Guthrie sings: "Green Douglas fir, where the waters cut through. Down the wild mountains and canyons...")

MINTHORN: Everybody thought that was a wonderful song. It used to be on the radio and everything. There was records and everything. Roll on Columbia, the mighty Columbia. It's a manmade Columbia River today.

(Guthrie: "Roll on Columbia, roll on. Roll on Columbia, roll on..." Fade to radio communication)

TOLAN: Five thousand feet above the gorge carved out by a wild Columbia, in Jane Niccolai's one-engine Cessna, we look down upon the engineered river.

NICCOLAI: The river is dammed all the way across. There are some islands that all the dams kind of hook up across to, and there's ...

TOLAN: Below, on the downriver side of the Dalles Dam 80 miles east of Portland, white water spills from spinning turbines, making power for the entire Columbia Basin and beyond. The Columbia and its tributaries drain a region larger than New England and New York State combined, from Canada to Northern California, from the Rockies in Montana to the Pacific, most of it powering through this dam.

NICCOLAI: You can see there's not a lot of water movement, and the shoreline is right up to the edges.

TOLAN: Today, behind the monolith of the Dalles Dam, it's still and glassy, a mirror in which we can see our own reflection. But we cannot see what was drowned, Celilo Falls, beneath the tranquil surface.

NICCOLAI: The bathtub is full.

(Guthrie: "On up the river, a grand little dam. Mightiest thing ever built by a man...")

TOLAN: Woody Guthrie's ballad was an anthem for a new era, and to the working men who made real President Franklin Roosevelt's vision. The Columbia's steep drop was perfect for hydropower, ten times steeper than the Mississippi and just over half the length. The river, FDR said, must be developed by the nation and for the nation.

(Guthrie: "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, roll on Columbia, roll on...")

TOLAN: Electricity from the Columbia built American warplanes during World War II. It fueled the top secret atomic weapons project at Hanford nuclear reservation. President Truman said without that power, winning the war would have been almost impossible. After the war, ever more taxpayer financed dams provided cheap power, fueling growth for Boeing, aluminum companies, and millions of new migrants to the Northwest. The dams made the Columbia River system navigable, sending wheat down the Snake from Lewiston, Idaho, to the Pacific. And water pumped from the tame river turned half a million Northwest acres from a desert to a bread basket.


TOLAN: On moist dirt at TNR Farms a mile from the Columbia, we stand before a 400-foot sprinkler, a giant metal centipede, arched silver back, creeping across the land on feet of black tires.

REIMAN: This will be sweet corn. We're just working this ground, yeah.

TOLAN: Before the dams, Ron Reiman's 5,000 acres were called Poverty Flats. No longer.

REIMAN: These are potatoes here. These are some Ranger Russets. You see them starting to push through the ground.


TOLAN: Mr. Reiman takes us toward the river. It's treeless, but for a lone juniper on a far hill. We move down low, irrigated hills, tan, dark brown, rust, all freshly planted. At the bottom, we reach the source of the abundance.


TOLAN: We get out at an irrigation pump house above the pool formed by Ice Harbor Dam.

REIMAN: I think it would be great if everybody had a river system like this, because this is put to a lot of different uses. It's not just for a farm or for irrigation. It's for everybody.

TOLAN: The dream of a harnessed river is embedded here. The pumps churn the Columbia into an underground irrigation web, 30 miles of mainline. Mr. Reiman's family spent two-and-a-half million dollars installing it when the reservoir filled back in 1975. Now, Mr. Reiman works the pumps with the click of a mouse in his office. Infrared aerial photography monitors his watering patterns.

(Humming and fans)

REIMAN: The water is very important, and I'm not sure if it was Teddy Roosevelt said that we only have just enough out in the West to fight over. Unfortunately, that's true.

TOLAN: But here in the Columbia Basin, the biggest fight was decided long ago, in favor of the dams.

REIMAN: There's disadvantages to the dams, absolutely. You've created some slower water than there was before. But you've created a whole new ecosystem that supports a lot more people and wildlife than it ever did. The dams are what built this. Our hydroelectric power is what's built the Pacific Northwest. Washington, Idaho, Oregon, clear into Montana.

TOLAN: And the power is cheap. For decades, Federal subsidies have brought water and power to farms and industry at a fraction of their real cost. Farm lobbyists say these benefits are crucial to help farmers grow food for America and the world. But Mr. Reiman and his neighbors who irrigate from the lower Snake represent just a tiny portion of the farm lands watered by the Columbia system. Yet the four lower Snake dams are increasingly blamed for salmon decline. And now, a generation after the last dam went in, shifting values in the region prompt a new battle. Advocates for endangered species and tribal treaty fishing rights and commercial and sports fisheries ask: Are the benefits to farm and industry worth the loss of the Steelhead and Chinook salmon? And the culture and livelihoods of the people who depended on them?

RAMSEY: You look at the Columbia, with all the dams and all the other habitat problems, you think, well gee, we're talking about extermination. And that's forever.

TOLAN: Sixty miles downstream from Ron Reiman, in a fishing tackle factory along the river bank, Buzz Ramsey and Phil Jenson spell it out: wild salmon populations have plummeted since the era of dams began. Some runs have declined 90 percent, others have been wiped out completely. Ask a dozen people in the Northwest and you might hear as many reasons why. Logging above the stream banks, urban development, over-fishing, changes in the ocean. But many biologists, along with sports fishing businessmen like Phil Jenson, say the biggest problem is the dams.

JENSON: When we pinpointed it, it's habitat. We block the spawning grounds, we silt it in, we destroy it with pollutants?

TOLAN: We look at the picture window to the lethargic river. In front of us stands a display of fishing lures. Phil's father built this company, Luhr Jenson, and put it here to make tackle for salmon. But Buzz Ramsey says for most runs of Columbia and Snake River salmon, he hasn't been able to fish from these banks for decades.

RAMSEY: When you see it slipping out of your fingers, and you think that I'm never going to be able to experience that again, and my children are never going to be able to experience this, you wonder, what's going wrong with this world? I mean, if the fish stock is in jeopardy, we're willing to stop fishing and put it on hold. But after a fishery has been closed for 20 or 30 years, you start asking yourself, shouldn't somebody else maybe stop what they're doing and let these salmon recover? And those industries need to change how they're doing business. Every citizen in the Northwest needs to change how they're doing business. And we need to recover salmon.

TOLAN: Wild salmon still come back to a few select places like the streams near the Hanford Reach, the only major undammed portion of the Columbia. In many places, though, it's too late to save the runs. The human impact is irreversible. But sports fishermen like Buzz Ramsey and commercial fishers, the Columbia River tribes, and environmental groups say there's at least one place where changes to the dam's system could make a big difference to the salmon. Many scientists say the best opportunity for recovery may lie along a crucial 140-mile-long stretch of the lower Snake River. They want the government to breach the four lower Snake dams, restoring a free-flowing river. The proposal is causing an uproar in the inland Northwest.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: When we return, Sandy Tolan travels to Lewiston, Idaho. Dams have made Lewiston a seaport nearly 500 miles inland, but they've also blocked the way for salmon. And now there are calls to bring the dams down. Our story continues in a moment here on Living on Earth.

First, this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

Technology Update

GRABER: You may have heard about those slightly risque Web cams, the ones that let you watch the intimate details of someone's daily life stream onto the Internet. But how about Web cams for real wild animals? Today, many Web sites offer real-time video or regularly-updated still photos to bring the natural world right into your living room. Web surfers can check out the development of the spectacular and elusive baby Quetzal birds in the wilds of Costa Rica, or watch the birth of American Peregrine falcons. And some zoos use hidden cameras to let us get close to animals we should probably steer clear of in the wild, like elephants and tigers. For listings and links to many of these animal Web cams, you can check out our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And that's this week's Living on Earth technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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(Music up and under)

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

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Point of No Return: A River Tamed, Continued

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The dams that turned the Columbia and Snake Rivers into almost boundless sources of electricity and irrigation also made an inland seaport out of Lewiston, Idaho. That's where Sandy Tolan picks up the story of the transformation of the Columbia River system, as Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest continues.

DOERINGSFELD: This old building right over here, this little blue building, that building is full of nothing but bentonite --

TOLAN: David Doeringsfeld, director of the Port of Lewiston, drives us around stacks of containers ready to be loaded onto barges: wheat, wood chips, clay.

DOERINGSFELD: These are containers --

TOLAN: Through the window of his truck we watch a blue crane lifting and swiveling lifts darting like worker ants. Down the Snake go Western Forests, paperboard for Japanese sake boxes or Australian milk cartons, and wheat from Montana and Idaho to be made into noodles in China. The cargo moves by barge down the engineered river. In a conference room, Mr. Doeringsfeld points to rows of white men in frames on the wall: architects of the vision to make the river a highway to an inland empire.

DOERINGSFELD: Out of the Port of Lewiston we move about a million tons of wheat. And if we just talk about tearing out these dams, I guarantee you we will not be moving that kind of wheat through this area.

TOLAN: Without those four dams, river traffic would stop. Dry land farmers on the margins fear they'd be unable to ship by more expensive rail or truck and would go out of business. Shipping or salmon, it's a dividing line.


TOLAN: A crossroads of metal sheds and crisscrossing power lines on bare brown hills above the Columbia. Roosevelt, Washington. There's a post office, a bar, a mini-mart.

(Cash register clinks)

TOLAN: Behind the counter, Bud Stokes says the few jobs here are almost all in garbage, which comes upriver by barge to local landfills. Take out the Snake River dams, he says, and the local economy goes with them.

STOKES: It would be total disaster. They have to rebuild their roads for increased truck traffic. Decrease of farmers, because they can't get water for irrigation. It would be total disaster.

TOLAN: Mr. Stokes used to fish for salmon in Alaska. Salmon are beautiful fish, he says, but things come and they go.

STOKES: It wouldn't make any difference at all if the salmon weren't here. How many times a year do you eat salmon? There are no more dinosaurs; do you want them brought back? Times change.

TOLAN: But also changing is the idea that dams are everlasting.


BOSSE: Now when you're talking dams, you're talking about sacred monuments in this part of the country.

TOLAN: A wind powers down a Snake River canyon, whipping across a concrete slab wedged into the river. We're standing on Lower Granite Dam with Scott Bosse, a biologist with Idaho Rivers United. This is one of the four contested dams on the lower Snake. A Federal scientific panel and a group of 200 scientists have both concluded that allowing the river to bypass just these four dams would create the best opportunity for bringing back salmon. Mr. Bosse agrees.

BOSSE: There's really only one way to get our fish back, and we're standing on top of it. You know, dams aren't religious monuments. They're industrial tools that are built to serve society's needs. And when they no longer provide benefits that outweigh the costs, then we have to re-evaluate whether they should be there or not.

TOLAN: A huge problem, Mr. Bosse says, is when the young salmon or smolts move downstream toward the oceans. Many die coming through the dams. Among the survivors, their finely-tuned biological clocks may be upset. Born in freshwater, the bodies of salmon change during their downstream journey to allow them to live in the sea. But instead of a week riding a swift, cold current, the trip through slack water now takes some young salmon a month in warmer water they're not adapted to. To speed up that journey, river managers now capture nearly half the young salmon in the lower Snake and haul them downriver in barges and trucks. This has improved their survival rate getting downstream, but it may not do the trick. Only one in 250 transported juvenile salmon comes back to spawn as an adult, at best a fifth of the minimum level needed for healthy runs.

(Lapping water)

BOSSE: We can either continue to pursue that path and know with a great degree of certainty where it's going to end up, in extinction for these fish. Or we can really tackle the real problem and restore this back into the river that it once was.

TOLAN: Farmers, barge operators, the aluminum industry all say we don't know enough yet to take such drastic action. Breaching the dams might not bring back salmon, they say, but it would bring havoc to the economy in the inland Northwest. And all that lost power, they say, will bring up electrical rates. Anglers, commercial fishers, environmentalists respond. Think about the new money and jobs from sports fishing and river running, a revitalized commercial fishery. As for power, they say, those four lower Snake dams generate barely five percent of the Northwest's annual use, and the average monthly electrical bill might only go up a dollar or two. A federally-sponsored economic analysis confirms there would be winners and losers if the dams were breached, but suggests there would be a net job loss in the region. But some legal experts warn, if we don't breach and these salmon vanish, there will be billions of dollars in lawsuits based on the Endangered Species Act and tribal fishing rights. This kind of debate was never supposed to happen.

DEHART: There was never any intention to destroy this great natural system.

TOLAN: Michele DeHart is director of the Fish Passage Center, a federally-funded effort for Columbia and Snake River salmon mitigation.

DEHART: Now what happened was, when we as a society fell into this pattern of delusion that we could have it all, we wanted to keep the salmon, we realized how important they were, and we though that we could have it all by using technology. We set this pattern of delusion and denial, and now we're in a predicament. We've gone too far. We've developed beyond a balance point. So now, what are we going to do?

TOLAN: For the first time, the Federal government is seriously considering removal of the four lower Snake dams. Also on the table is increasing the river flow during the migration of the smelts. Or, the government may choose simply to increase the barging and try to make the dams safer and hope for the best. Breaching the dams would signal a radical change in the economic culture of the Northwest, but there is no going back to the way things once were.

(Bird song)

AXTELL: A lot of us shed tears over that place. It was such a beautiful place to gather, meet friends, make friends with all different tribes. But the water has covered the whole thing.

TOLAN: At home, under a back yard maple tree, Nez Perce elder and tribal historian Horace Axtell remembers the great Columbia River fishing grounds. Celilo Falls, behind the Dalles Dam. No one is talking about taking that dam down. It generates too much power. Celilo will remain underwater.

AXTELL: To me, it kind of felt like they wanted to take our fishing place away from us, so they built the dam. It seems like they built that dam just so they could cover that Celilo Falls. I've been kind of bitter about that for a long time.

TOLAN: Celilo Falls was not only a center of native culture and belief, it was what one tribal leader called an Indian Wall Street, a center of economic prosperity. The Columbia River tribes lobbied hard for its preservation and lost. And while they've won landmark Federal Court decisions in affirming their fishing rights, it's unlikely any court decision will bring back the great Celilo Falls. Today young people can hear only of the memory of the centuries at Celilo. Jay Minthorn is the Umatilla Indian leader who watched Celilo disappear.

MINTHORN: I've lived the life of the abundance of fish. I've lived the traditional way of dipping for salmon. I've seen the beautiful June Hogs. I've seen the most colorful spring Chinooks. And I carry these memories with me, but I've lived these things. I lived the great Celilo Falls.

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(Native American flute music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org;

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You're listening to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Music up and under)


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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: A hundred and twenty-five summers ago, a plague of biblical proportions hit the North American heartland. That's when hordes of Rocky Mountain locusts chewed their way across the Great Plains. "A large black cloud suddenly appeared high in the west," one Minnesota farmer wrote, "from which came an ominous sound: the scourge of the prairies was upon us." Locusts are grasshoppers which swarm together to migrate. The name "locust" comes from the Latin for "burnt place." And that's how the landscape can look once the insects have had their way. In 1875 a doctor in Nebraska estimated that one swarm moved over an area of almost 200,000 square miles with an estimated twelve-and-a-half trillion bugs. And could those bugs ever eat! They devoured any and all vegetation, along with wooden tool handles, clothes drying on the line, even wool off the backs of sheep. The bugs returned in lesser numbers after 1875. And then suddenly, around the turn of the century, the locusts disappeared. It might have been the unwitting revenge of the settlers. They converted land for agriculture and may have destroyed the grasshoppers' habitat. There is one place you can still see some of these ravenous insects. A few of them are preserved in the ice of Knife Point Glacier in Wyoming. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

The Elusive Fossa

CURWOOD: If you haven't heard of an animal called a fossa, you're not alone. Until recently, even zoologists knew little about these ferocious creatures live in the wilds of Madagascar and eat, well, just about anything they can get a hold of, even if it's as big as they are. Vicki Croke, a writer for the Boston Globe, recently journeyed to Madagascar with fossa tracker Luke Dollar, to follow her obsession with these pint-sized killers.

CROKE: The fossa is a bit of a Holy Grail for me. I came across the name of the fossa years ago, when I was working on a book about zoos. I became intrigued, had never heard of it before. And started to rummage around the scientific literature, and I couldn't find anything about it. Very little. And eventually, I interviewed Pat Wright, who is a lemur expert. She had an undergraduate student at the time, Luke Dollar, and she said his focus is the fossa and she got the two of us in touch.

CURWOOD: So, what exactly do they look like?

CROKE: They weigh less than a cocker spaniel. They're not as friendly as a cocker spaniel.


CURWOOD: I guess not.

CROKE: They're very long. And their tail is the same length as their body. They have enormous feet and claws on those feet. They have outsized canine teeth to do the job. And they're chocolate-covered with a little bit, some of them have a cream blaze from their throat down along their bellies. They look like a cat, and for years scientists did think that they were cats. In fact, they are in the mongoose family. Though there was a time in history, in the far past, in which the mongoose and cat families were joined, and the fossa may represent that individual.

CURWOOD: So what was it like tracking these fossa?

CROKE: We hiked about 20 miles a day through very rough terrain. There were itchy vines and we had to come crashing through them. Steep ridges. There were two fossa that Luke had previously radio-collared, so it sounds like a breeze to find them.


CROKE: However, the telemetry equipment had a range of two miles, the fossa a range of 12 miles.


CROKE: So we had a hard time. You'd start out in the morning, and you'd hear these very promising tocks over the radio. And within several miles of tracking them, you'd lose that signal. And we found that very often, when we were up on top of a ridge, to retrace our tracks we would definitely lose the animal. So, the fastest way down a ridge often was just to fall. Luke was the first one to discover that. We looked down a steep ridge and he fell down, I think by accident. But Roy, the photographer, Roy Toft, the photographer, and I looked at each other, laughed, held hands, and just jumped down. (Both laugh) And the three of us landed in that red Madagascar dirt up our noses, in our ears, streaking our clothes, and just had to laugh at each other. But when you're tracking a fossa, that's what you have to do.

CURWOOD: So how many days are you out tracking a fossa before you see one?

CROKE: We tracked for about seven days. We also had had about 20 traps set out with live chickens in them to try to catch the fossa. And the day we were to leave, a fossa hit one of the traps and actually, it pulled the legs off of a chicken in there. The chicken had to be put to sleep humanely. But once she had hit a trap, we thought she would return and try to get the chicken again, and so we stayed an extra day, hoping against hope that she would hit that trap. And she did.

CURWOOD: So what did you think the first time you saw it?

CROKE: To tell you the truth, I had tears in my eyes when I saw her. We got to see her, we tracked her in the morning and actually saw her from a great distance. And she was as elusive as the shadows of the forest. We saw her for one second. And it was a moment of incredible beauty. And you could see -- you know from seeing how the lemurs are so aware of any movement, and you think this animal hunts lemurs, it's able to get up to them in a flash. And what the fossa does is it grabs a lemur by the face with its canine teeth and eviscerates the lemur with its front claws.


CROKE: Fearsome animal.

CURWOOD: Now, Madagascar is an area that people never got there until fairly recently. And when they got there they found all these endemic animals and plants that are just found on Madagascar. But most of the wilderness that people found is gone. I mean, how much is left on Madagascar, of the aboriginal, unique ecosystem that it was?

CROKE: It's actually frightening. Ninety percent of the original forest is now gone from Madagascar. The island is about the size of Texas, 1,000 miles long. The ten percent of original forest that's left is mostly in a ring around the outer perimeter. And from the air, or even when you're driving through Madagascar, it's so apparent, the degradation of the environment. It's like a victim of war. It's battered, it's burned, it's scarred, and the red soil of Madagascar is just bleeding into the ocean.

CURWOOD: Now, how does this degradation of the environment, how does this affect the fossa?

CROKE: It's not known how many fossa there are. We do know that they can live happily in most every environment around the island. But what Luke is discovering is that the moment there's some disturbance in the forest, the fossa falls out. In the forest where we were, he expected, because of the prey density and the environment, that he would trap lots of fossa. He only trapped, in his three months there, two. There are lots of lemur researchers in the forest disturbing it. There are people collecting firewood, which they're not supposed to. Honey cutters actually cut down whole trees to get at the combs. And fossa, Luke now believes, are the first ones to leave the forest when there's disturbance.

CURWOOD: Vicki Croke writes the Animal Beat column for the Boston Globe. Her article about the fossas is in the April issue of Discover magazine. Thanks, Vicki, for taking this time with us.

CROKE: Thank you, Steve.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: 150 later, Californians look at the dark side of the Gold Rush. The story is just ahead right here on Living on Earth.

First, this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: It's a kinder, gentler way to treat bacterial infections. That's the way researchers describe a plant enzyme that prevents bacteria from sticking to cells. Researchers at Miami University in Ohio found a potato extract can prevent both strep and e-coli bacteria from attaching to their targets. They think it's the same enzyme that makes fruits and vegetables turn brown. But in this case, the enzyme disables the amino acid that allows bacteria to adhere to cells. Standard antibiotics kill those micro-organisms outright, but in the last few years the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has reached a crisis. So scientists are looking for alternatives. The researchers, who presented their study at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, say a number of herbal medicines may also fight bacterial infections through this anti-stick mechanism. And that's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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Gold Rush Legacy

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States capped its ambition to become a continental power when California joined the Union. The U.S. had snatched the territory from Mexico in 1848. And the push for statehood was virtually assured when gold was discovered in Sierra Nevada in 1849. The Gold Rush of 1849 and '50 turned a territory barely known by white people into a promised land, where some miners got fabulously rich and people who sold supplies to the miners got even richer. And it set the tone for the California we know today, a global economic and cultural powerhouse. But the wealth the Gold Rush generated is only part of the story. It also had a powerful impact on California's environment and native peoples, which is still felt today. Cheryl Colopy of member station KQED in San Francisco has this special report on the legacy of the Gold Rush 150 years later.


COLOPY: The banks and skyscrapers of San Francisco are literally built atop the rubble of a boom town. Each time a new building goes up, archaeologists swoop in first and unearth coins, pots and pans, sometimes even entire rooms relatively intact from a century and a half ago. In 1847 this was the tiny village of Yerba Buena, but in 1848 gold was discovered in the foothills of the nearby Sierra Nevada, and within a year a quarter of a million people were headed to California by wagon train, by ship, even on foot. Almost overnight the Gold Rush transformed Yerba Buena into the teeming port of San Francisco. And soon after, California became a state, well on its way to becoming what it is today: the world's seventh largest economy and a global symbol of wealth and opportunity.

(Lapping waves)

COLOPY: But the Gold Rush also cast a shadow over California. All around San Francisco Bay, men cast fishing rods into the water next to signs that warn in six languages that the fish here contain chemicals at levels that may harm your health. One of those chemicals is mercury, washed downstream from gold mining operations more than a century ago. It's just one part of the environmental legacy of the Gold Rush.

It all began at Sutter's Mill on the American River.

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MAN: My eye was caught by a glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. I reached my hand down and picked it up. It made my heart thump. I felt certain it was gold.

COLOPY: An audio tour of an exhibit on the Gold Rush mounted by the Oakland Museum of California recreates the moment when James Marshall found that first nugget of gold not far from present-day Sacramento.

WOMAN: This tiny piece of gold would inflame the world with gold fever.

COLOPY: The first miners could pluck gold right from the river beds, but that was soon gone and they turned to more destructive mining methods.

(Walking on gravel)

COLOPY: At Malakoff Diggins State Park, visitors stride up to the edge of a wide canyon ringed by rusty red cliffs. With its pillars and spires, it looks like parts of Utah or Arizona. But before the Gold Rush, this would have looked like the rest of the region: rolling hills dotted with trees.

HUIE: The pit that we're looking at is about a mile long, and three quarters of a mile wide. During the mining period from about 1865 to -- oh, around the turn of the century, they took out 41 million cubic yards of soil.

COLOPY: Ken Huie is a ranger at the park. He says this was once the largest hydraulic mining operation in California. Miners blasted the hillsides with huge water cannons.

HUIE: It was almost deafening, I guess, the sound that they had just walking to the rim and listening to all the water, and the rocks, you know, flowing down the sides of the hills and down through the sluices. The gold concentration was about 12 cents per cubic yard, so hydraulic mining was the only efficient way of moving enough soil to get gold of any value out of it.

COLOPY: And then came the mercury. In a process still used in some parts of the world, miners used mercury to bind together the tiny flakes of gold jarred loose from the hillsides, then heated the amalgam to remove the gold and dump the waste in the rivers.

(Flowing water)

COLOPY: Spring runoff rushes through an old tunnel built to carry the polluted water away. Throughout gold country, mining companies spent millions of dollars on operations like this. They cleared the hillsides of trees, built dams, and dug thousands of feet of tunnels. According to some estimates, this kind of hydraulic mining unearthed hundreds of millions of dollars in gold, but it also led to its own demise.

FRY: The river bottoms filled up, and you couldn't get large ships up the river.

COLOPY: Tom Fry is the director of the Sesquicentennial Gold Rush Project at the Oakland Museum.

FRY: Which meant that the grain farmers and others who depended on ships for the grain trade couldn't move their produce, and it created the epic battle between the farmers and the miners in California.

COLOPY: In 1884 a judge ruled that the dumping of mining waste in rivers was illegal because it threatened the state's burgeoning agricultural industry. Gold mining was never the same after that, but it had already rearranged California's landscape. Entire forests had been cut. Rivers were dammed. Plants and animals that had thrived or eons struggled to survive. And San Francisco Bay was smothered by millions of cubic feet of sediment contaminated with hundreds of tons of mercury. About a third of that sediment remains today, and mercury continues to threaten wildlife and people here.


BROWN: All right. Now, we're at the front gate of the mercury mine. This is a Superfund site. It was put on the priorities list in 1990.

COLOPY: Raymond Brown, Jr., is an EPA field representative. He's also a member of the Elem tribe, whose ancestral home is here at the edge of Clear Lake, north of San Francisco. Some of the mercury mined to extract Sierra gold came from here. An 8-foot fence surrounds the old mining area, but Mr. Brown says kids sometimes climb over it. Except for a few scrubby patches of grass, the ground is bare. Too poisoned, he says, for plants to grow.

The EPA has removed more than 3,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the nearby Elem reservation, but a lot more remains. And a huge mining pit is filled with the toxic soup of mercury and arsenic. During the rainy season it sometimes overflows into the lake.

BROWN: I haven't ate fish out of this lake for probably the last 10 years. We used to eat the tules, which is a root that grows out of the water.

COLOPY: Raymond Brown says his tribe's been warned to limit consumption of fish and plants from Clear Lake.

Here are some new ones coming up.

BROWN: These are the shoots right here that you can peel right here. You just peel them down. Do you want to try it?


BROWN: Try it.

COLOPY: Oh, yeah. It's nice.

BROWN: My grandfather used to always take salt.

COLOPY: A few bites of food from Clear Lake seem harmless, but too much could be dangerous. Mercury damages the brain and nervous system and exposure is particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women.

BROWN: Our tribe, the Elem Indian Pomo people, are no longer water people because of the fact of the contamination.

COLOPY: It will be years before the contamination is cleaned up here. In the meantime, Mr. Brown worries about the future of his tiny tribe. The mercury contamination of Clear Lake and San Francisco Bay, and the manmade canyons in the Sierra foothills are all tangible legacies of the Gold Rush. Some historians say another legacy persists in California's culture. Heather Huxley is the co-director of the Gold Rush Project at the Oakland Museum of California.

HUXLEY: There was this spirit of an extractive nature. You could come and you could rip the land apart. You could tear out whatever was valuable there, whether you found it in the metal gold, or whether you found it in some commercial venture, or whether you found it in cutting down all the trees. And I think that's an attitude that continues to color our attitude toward the environment today.

COLOPY: That attitude may be the dark side of the California dream. But the Gold Rush reflects the bright side as well, and that dream still draws millions of immigrants to the state. J. S. Holliday is the author of Rush for Riches, a history of California in the Gold Rush era.

HOLLIDAY: This wonderful image of opportunity, of freedom, of wealth, of no constraints, of acceptance of eccentricity, behavior. What a place to go to. California is today, was then, has been ever since, a place where you can come and make a new beginning, and where the rules are different than those at home. You leave your family and you come out here. The freedom of anonymity.

COLOPY: It may be one of California's essential contradictions, and it's one that the state is still trying to resolve 150 years after the Gold Rush.

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CURWOOD: For the region's native people, the California Gold Rush transformed something close to heaven into something close to hell. Cheryl Colopy's special report continues in just a moment on Living on Earth.

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Gold Rush Legacy, Part II

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When new settlers poured into California 150 years ago to cash in on the Gold Rush, they laid waste to a land that up until then had been largely untouched by Europeans. But it wasn't only the environment that was affected. The influx all but destroyed the region's indigenous cultures as well. The killing and scattering of native peoples wasn't new to America, but in the settlement of California it was exceptionally swift and ferocious. Cheryl Colopy continues now with her special report on the legacy of the California Gold Rush.

(Native American singing and clapper sticks)

COLOPY: In the Sierra foothills not far from the American River where gold was discovered, members of the Maidu and Miwok tribes are holding their traditional Big Time festival. Three Maidu singers play clapper sticks while 4 men dance in eagle feather skirts.

(Singing and clapping continue)

COLOPY: But there's a bittersweet quality to this year's festival. Though Indians once thrived in these hills, the land now belongs to the city of Auburn, and the dancers celebrate their ancient traditions on the city's fairgrounds alongside a recreation of a mining encampment which also features a demonstration of blacksmithing and even a mock stagecoach holdup.

MAN: All right! Keep that out, I want that gun! Get out of there! (Yelling)

COLOPY: It's all part of a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush. The Gold Rush launched modern California, but it also marked the beginning of the end for thousands of years of native culture here. The Indian traditions on display here today are reminders of what was once a rich tapestry of life for native Californians. April Moore is a member of the Nisenan Maidu nation.

MOORE: We are the descendants of survivors. The survivors were the ones that were the keepers of all this information, the language, the culture, the religion, how to live. Did you take that survival knowledge from your forbears and put it into practice today? And that makes it so much easier for you.

COLOPY: There were once more than 300,000 native peoples in California. Diseases introduced by Spanish missionaries cut that population in half by the time gold was discovered. In the years that followed, settlers enslaved or slaughtered most of the rest. By the turn of the twentieth century only 15,000 Indians remained. The festival at the fairgrounds may suggest that Indians and settlers lived peacefully here, but that is largely a fiction.

RAWLS: It really is a dark and bloody ground that we are walking on today. Most of us are not aware of that at all.

COLOPY: Jim Rawls has written 20 books on California history. He says few Californians know about laws which allowed Indians to be sold at auction, and Indian children to be forced to work as apprentices until they were 30 years old. Mr. Rawls says he spent years in libraries sorting through accounts of white men wearing scalps of Indians sewn to their pants legs. But the brutality of such stories didn't fully hit him until one day, after a lecture he gave in the northern California town of Ukiah. There, a local rancher said his great grandfather had made more money selling Indian children than cattle.

RAWLS: And as he was explaining that to me, a couple of Pomo Indian women, also very elderly, came forward. And one of them said that her great-grandmother had told her about this practice. And this was a secret in their family that they had kept for generations, and was now sharing that with this, listening to this white rancher talking about a similar family secret from his side.

(Native American singing)

RAWLS: The Pomo woman told me that her great-grandmother remembered when some whites were chasing them across the Navarro River, trying to steal the children. The mother got away, leaving behind only her youngest in a cradle board. They circled back around after the whites left and found the smallest child, the infant, still in the cradle board. But the child had been pinned to the earth with a knife. And when she told me that story, she was crying. And this white rancher looked me in the eye, and he said to me, "You better believe her. She's telling you the truth."

(Singing continues)

COLOPY: Jim Rawls says Indians coped with the invasion of settlers in different ways. Some retreated into the hills. Others got jobs working for miners. Edward Castillo, a historian at Sonoma State University, and a Cahuila Indian from southern California, says his own ancestors by turns tried fight, flight, and accommodation.

CASTILLO: If you put yourself in the shoes of an American Indian who experienced the Gold Rush, you have to see it, that the world has simply exploded in madness around you. That mayhem and mass murder is the stuff of your daily life.

COLOPY: Mr. Castillo compares the Gold Rush to wartime. He says its chaos and brutality were the result of vagabond men arriving in California without the constraints of wives and families. Within the first 2 years of the rush, 100,000 California Indians died or disappeared.

CASTILLO: If you're a little 9-year-old girl and you become somebody's sex slave and then you die during childbirth, you disappeared. Or, if you happened to be fortunate enough to survive, you have no idea who your parents are. So you just become a brown lower-class member of nineteenth century California society, and lose your identity as an American Indian.

COLOPY: But Edward Castillo says far more natives died violently at the hands of paramilitary groups with names reminiscent of today's sports teams. The Placer Blades and the Eel River Rangers. They killed Indians under the authority of the first governor of California, who sanctioned the murder in his first message to the new state's legislature in 1850. The legislature appropriated money to pay bounty hunters, then got reimbursed from the Federal government.

MAN: Oh! Come on, get down with this, this is the rabbit dance. Oh!


COLOPY: Back in Auburn at the Big Time, Maidu dancers invite members of the audience to join in the rabbit dance.

MAN: Excuse me. Excuse me, now look.

WOMAN: All right. All right, I'll leave my tape recorder ready.

MAN: Okay.

(Singing and clapping sticks)

COLOPY: The dancers wear headbands of woodpecker feathers that cover their eyes. April Moore says they must know their dance steps well and play their instruments blind. Ms. Moore teaches California school children about Indian history. She says the state of California has been embarrassed to acknowledge the bloody history of the Gold Rush era crusade to eradicate Indians, and that she still encounters skepticism from teachers when she visits local schools. But she says she's not interested in stirring up old animosities, or making today's Californians feel guilty. She just wants to make sure that the history of what happened to her people isn't forgotten.

MOORE: The truth is, it never really hurts anybody. It just broadens your knowledge about what happened to a group of people or a race of people. And it's not meant to hurt anybody, it's just to show the truth. Nothing you can do about it. That's then, this is now. Now is to learn and accept what did happen.

COLOPY: For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy in California's gold country.

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(Singing and clapping sticks continue up and under; fade to song: "This California's a humbug place, out in the world in the bushes. Where to meet with the poor man's faith many a poor devil pushes. So haul off your overcoat, roll up your sleeve, mining is a hard kind of labor. Haul off your overcoat, roll up your sleeve, mining is a hard kind of labor I believe...")

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, and Maggie Villiger, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, and Bree Horwitz. We had help this week from Nicole Kalb, James Curwood, Jennifer Chu, and Jenna Perry. Alison Dean composed the theme. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is science editor. And Peter Thomson is special projects 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.

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