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

October 25, 2002

Air Date: October 25, 2002



New Hampshire Senate Candidates in Dead Heat / Steve Curwood

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In another race that may determine the balance of the next U.S. Senate, New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen and one of its Congressmen, John Sununu are in a virtual dead-heat for the seat. As host Steve Curwood reports, the environment may be a determining factor in the outcome of the race. (11:00)

Health Note/Airport Noise / Diane Toomey

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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a new study that shows children living near airports may have impaired reading and memory ability. (01:20)

Almanac/Don’t Fence Me In

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This week, we have facts about barbed wire. Back in 1874, an amateur inventor applied for a patent for the fences that changed the landscape of the American West. (01:45)

Public Enemy #1 / Jyl Hoyt

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Ranchers and wild land managers in the West say their biggest threat these days is neither disease nor predators but weeds beating out plants that animals need for food. Jyl Hoyt reports on the latest techniques for fighting the scourge. (06:15)

Kyoto Follow-up

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Now that it looks like the Kyoto Protocol will go into effect early next year, climate change talks are under way in New Delhi to discuss how nations will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Host Steve Curwood talks with Kilaparti Ramakrishna of the Woods Hole Research Center. (05:45)

A Gap in Nature

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In the first of an occasional series, we hear about an animal that is no more. We begin with the mamo, a Hawaiian bird known for its beautiful feathers. (03:00)

Animal Note/Tough Love / Maggie Villiger

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Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on why some fish fathers engage in filial cannibalism. (01:20)

Lake Tahoe Mansions / Willie Albright

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On the shores of Lake Tahoe, mansions are multiplying and mountain chalets are disappearing. Some local planners say the huge homes are out of place aesthetically, but wealthy homeowners take a dim view of any property limitations. Willie Albright reports. (05:00)

Dark Skies

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Backyard stargazers have been charting the skies for years, looking for the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Now technology has improved such that amateurs can see into space almost as well as professional astronomers. Host Steve Curwood talks with Tim Ferris, author of "Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril". (10:00)


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This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodREPORTERS: Jyl Hoyt, Willie AlbrightGUESTS: Kilaparti Ramakrishna, Tim Flannery, Tim FerrisUPDATES: Diane Toomey, Maggie Villiger


CURWOOD: From NPR News, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

A tight race for the Senate seat of New Hampshire has the environment in the spotlight. The Democrat, Governor Jeanne Shaheen, claims Republican Congressman John Sununu is in the pocket of polluters.

SHAHEEN: I think the difference is a senator who's going to work in the best interest of the people of New Hampshire or a senator who's going to vote his party line, going to vote with the big special interests.

CURWOOD: Congressman Sununu counters that his opponent is a puppet of environmental activists.

SUNUNU: Jeanne Shaheen can stand up for a Washington special interest that wants to hurt New Hampshire's economy and that wants to come in with a Washington one-size-fits-all environmental regulation. But that's not what New Hampshire is about.

CURWOOD: The New Hampshire Senate rate is so close, the environmental vote could tip the balance. That story, and a gap in nature explained, this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this.


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New Hampshire Senate Candidates in Dead Heat

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: On a crisp, blue sky day in Newmarket, New Hampshire, Sabrina McKenna holds her daughter Cassidy on her lap, and watches her son Andrew play soccer. The cool, clear weather is good news for Sabrina. It lowers the odds her son will need to use his inhaler today. Eleven year old Andrew has asthma. His condition was so worrisome that the McKennas moved here from New York to escape the smog. But they found that even New Hampshire can have bad air days.

MCKENNA: I was surprised at some of the days where the air quality does get bad, and the heat is so bad that Andrew must stay inside…


MCKENNA: …in air conditioning, while his friends play outside, and that is difficult. But because of that, we have to watch and he actually watches the Weather Channel every morning in the summer.

CURWOOD: Most people think White Mountains and green forests when they think New Hampshire. But when it comes to air quality the state sits at the end of the nation's tailpipe. Emissions from Midwest coal plants and pollution from cars and industry in the Northeast can settle here before heading out to sea. One result? New Hampshire had more bad air days this summer than in the past 20 years.

So when your air is fouled, your kid has asthma, and it's time to vote for a new U.S. Senator, the environment can be a make or break issue.

MCKENNA: Absolutely. That's pretty key for…


MCKENNA: …me and my family.

CURWOOD: Sabrina McKenna has only one vote to cast. But this year the Senate race between sitting governor Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Congressman John Sununu is so tight, both candidates can see that every vote counts. What's more, political analysts say Sabrina typifies the newcomers the Granite State has been attracting in droves during the last decade. Jeanne Fowler directs the Nelson A. Rockefeller Public Policy Center at Dartmouth College. She says these new residents like the state's relatively stable economy, its outdoorsy quality of life, and, of course, no income or sales taxes. And, she says, they're changing New Hampshire's political landscape from staunchly conservative to somewhere in between.

FOWLER: These high education, high income voters tend to be, often are independent, and they tend to be fiscally conservative, but socially liberal and pro-environment. So there is a potential vote out there on the environmental issue.

CURWOOD: And, so far, Jeanne Shaheen is the candidate tapping that potential vote. She's held a number of environmentally-focused media events and the environment is a strong theme in her campaign literature.

Her strategy is to solidify her base among Democrats and reconnect with those Independents and moderate Republicans who've given her the margin to take the governorship three times. And it may be paying off again.

GILLMAN: Hi. My name is Cindy Gillman, and I'm proud to be a Republican working for Jeanne Shaheen. I'll be working to help her win this election and send her to Washington.


CURWOOD: At this campaign event in the state capital Concord, Jeanne Shaheen rolls out a list of 100 registered Republicans she says will vote for her on November 5th.
Many of them, including former State Senator Rick Russman, will do so for environmental reasons.

RUSSMAN: There is no question that I would much prefer to have a solid Republican that truly believed in the environment and that the environment was a priority. But in this particular case, I can't say that I'm going to feel any regret at all because Sununu's past history in terms of his voting record has been clear and that has certainly been against the environment. And I think that for me, it will be an easy vote in terms of supporting Jeanne Shaheen in this particular race.

CURWOOD: John Sununu has impeccable Republican credentials in Washington as a Congressman and his father was a popular governor here who went to become chief of staff in the first Bush White House.

But that's not enough for these green Republicans. While they give John Sununu credit for his work on the House Appropriations Committee, sending land conservation dollars to the state, they say that doesn't make up for his support of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They also deplore his vote against tougher standards on arsenic in drinking water. And, they add, Sununu's failure to speak out against two Bush proposals that critics say could increase New Hampshire's air pollution will cost him votes.

FRENCH: I think people will cross party lines and I think you're going to see a lot of split tickets this time around.

CURWOOD: Jameson French is a registered Republican and president of Northland Forest Products, a specialty hardwood producer. He says John Sununu's policies on the environment are not in the best interest of his home state.

FRENCH: If we have smog in Portsmouth and you can't see the view from the White Mountains and our maple trees are dying because of acid rain from Ohio power plants and global warming, we're not going to attract the tourist-based natural resource economy, let alone the entrepreneurs that we want to have.

FEMALE 1: Talking about getting good directions?

FEMALE 2: He tried to give me directions.

SHAHEEN: Trying to clean things off here. Hi, Jeanne Shaheen.


SHAHEEN: Nice to meet you.

CURWOOD: Steve Curwood. How are you?

SHAHEEN: Good, nice to meet you. Hi, nice to see you again.

CURWOOD: Getting the message out that the environment is not John Sununu's top priority is a top priority here at Jeanne Shaheen's campaign headquarters. She says her opponent avoids the issue with good reason.

SHAHEEN: He has been silent on whether he would support the, President Bush's Clear Skies Initiative which would roll back major protections in the Clean Air Act. He's been silent about whether he would oppose efforts by the EPA to roll back the New Source Review provisions in the Clean Air Act which are very important to us because they address whether those dirty coal-fired plants in the Midwest are going to get upgraded to meet the same standards that other power plants have to meet today. So, he has not been there on issues of importance to the environment in New Hampshire.

CURWOOD: If Mr. Sununu were here I'm sure that he'd say--in fact, nobody would say that they're against clean air, or clean water, but that he has a different road to get there; that he feels that market-based mechanisms and incentives in the private sector are better ways to do this. What are the fundamental differences between your approaches and Mr. Sununu's?

SHAHEEN: I think the difference is a senator who's going to work in the best interests of the people of New Hampshire, who's going to put the people and what's important to us with respect to the environment first, or a senator who's going to vote his party line, going to vote with the big special interests on issues from land protection, to clean air, to clean water, to energy policy. On each of those issues there is a dramatic difference between John Sununu and me.

CURWOOD: To get John Sununu's version of the differences between him and Governor Shaheen, we meet the candidate in Portsmouth. With the Naval Shipyard as a backdrop, the Congressman accepts the endorsement of the local engineer's union.

SUNUNU: My opponent Jeanne Shaheen has accepted thousands of dollars in contributions from organizations and individuals that want to see defense cut in the United States, that want to kill important programs, and that want to reduce spending on national security. Now is not the time for that kind of an agenda and I think that's one of the reasons that the IFPTE and others at the shipyard have looked to me as a voice to stand up for our country's national security interests. Thank you very much. Thank you, Terry.


CURWOOD: Defense, security and the economy are the major themes of Sununu's campaign. But ask him about the environment and he's likely to start by telling you about his degree in engineering; the one he earned at MIT, and the one that, he says, helps him make smart policy decisions about environmental issues like clean air.

SUNUNU: I very much support strengthening the standards and tightening the standards on sulfur emissions, NOX emissions, and carbon dioxide emissions. I have supported tougher ozone standards in the past, breaking with my leadership, and certainly breaking with where the president might be on those ozone standards. And I do have concerns about changes to some of the existing requirements that do put limits on Midwest power producers. We want to make sure that those are based, any changes are based in sound science, and that they are changes that will improve emissions and bring technology to bear to reduce total emissions.

At the same time, as an engineer, I know there are a lot of regulations out there that are counterproductive, that might cause bad behavior, that might encourage people not to invest in new technology and I'm conscious of that as well.

CURWOOD: We've talked to a number of Republican voters who say they're going to vote for Jeanne Shaheen primarily because of your positions on the environment. What do you say to them to bring their votes back into your column?

SUNUNU: My environmental priorities have been New Hampshire's environmental priorities. And while Jeanne Shaheen may have the support of a Washington special interest group that supports shutting down the timber industry in New Hampshire, or destroying the small boat fishing industry here on the seacoast, I recognize that those are not New Hampshire priorities. And Jeanne Shaheen can stand up for a Washington special interest that wants to hurt New Hampshire's economy and that wants to come in with a Washington one-size-fits-all environmental regulation, but that's not what New Hampshire is about.

CURWOOD: If the environment plays a role in New Hampshire's senate race, it won't be because it's the top election issue. Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, says voters knew where the candidates stood on most issues before the campaign even began.

But the environment has become an eye opener in this moderately conservative state filled with conservationists. Consider, he says, the results of a recent Survey Center poll that asks the open-ended question "Why do you plan to vote for the candidate of your choice?"

SMITH: Now, with Shaheen, we found that about two percent of those people who say they're voting for Jeanne Shaheen say they're voting for her specifically because of her environmental positions. That doesn't come up at all for the John Sununu voters. And in an election that's likely to be as close as this one is, that two percent could tip the balance in the election.

CURWOOD: Thanks largely to a barrage of negative ads, some of them produced by the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, Andy Smith says Governor Shaheen has turned the race around. After trailing by as many as nine points, she now leads Congressman Sununu 47 to 44 percent; a statistical dead heat. In these final days of the race that could determine the balance of the U.S. Senate, three percent of New Hampshire voters still remain undecided.

[MUSIC: Stan Getz, “Serenade In Blue” QUIET NOW/BODY AND SOUL (Verve, 2000)]

CURWOOD: For more on the New Hampshire Senate race, and all of our midterm election coverage, go to our web site at loe.org. That's loe.org.

Related links:
- Jeanne Shaheen for Governor
- John Sununu for Governor
- Alabama Congressional Race
Colorado Senate Race">

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Health Note/Airport Noise

Coming up, the latest round of climate change talks aims to give developing countries a larger role. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: The reading and memory ability of children living under airport flight paths may be impaired because of noise exposure. That's the finding of a unique study done by a team of international researchers.

Past studies have suggested that long-term noise exposure interferes with a child's ability to learn. But these studies, for the most part, compared children living near airports with those that didn't.

This new research took advantage of the relocation of the airport near Munich, Germany. The situation offered scientists a rare opportunity to test how changes in noise level affected the same children.

All the children, ranging in age from eight to 12, were tested a few months before the airport switch, then one or two years after the move. Researchers found that children near the old airport had impaired reading and long-term memory ability when compared to a control group of kids that lived in the same region. But after the airport closed, these abilities improved. After the new airport opened, children in that neighborhood showed deterioration in their reading and memory skills.

Based on these results, the lead researcher on the study advises parents to choose schools located in quiet neighborhoods. He even suggested that schools should be rated for their noise levels. That's this week's Health Note. I'm Diane Toomey.


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

[MUSIC: Stan Getz, “Serenade in Blue” QUIET NOW/BODY AND SOUL (Verve, 2000)]

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Almanac/Don’t Fence Me In

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: David Byrne, “Don’t Fence Me In” (LIMEWIRE)]

MALE: To all whom it may concern, be it known that I, Joseph F. Glidden, of Dekalb, in the county of Dekalb and State of Illinois, have invented a new and valuable improvement in wire fences.

CURWOOD: One-hundred and twenty-eight years ago this week, the wild, wild West was tamed. In the late 1800s, most of the West was still wide open country. Settlers and Native Americans hunted what remained of wildlife on wind-swept prairies, and cowboys could drive their herds of cattle over hundreds of miles of range to the towns and railheads. There was plenty of grass and water for everyone.

But as farmers began to grow crops, they had a problem. A foraging herd of Texas Longhorns could trample and gobble a few acres of crops practically overnight. Wood was scarce and farmers couldn't get enough of it to build fences that would keep out marauding cattle. And wire fencing was just too flimsy to stop the burley longhorns.

But Joseph Glidden had sharpened his thinking to come up with a new and improved design. It called for two intertwining strands of wire that locked barbs, or sharp points, in place making a sturdy and painful barrier that stopped beast and man alike. Before long, hundreds of miles of the prickly barrier criss-crossed the West. The fences disrupted traditional cattle drive routes and even blocked water sources on what was once open range.

Bloody feuds broke out between farmers and ranchers. And because barbed wire prevented game from reaching hunting grounds, Native Americans dubbed it "Devil's Rope." By the mid 1880s, falling beef prices and the expansion of the railroads conspired with barbed wire to end the era of large-scale cattle drives. The wild, wild West was never the same.

And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Public Enemy #1

CURWOOD: Today, noxious weeds are invading the American West. They're depriving cattle and wild elk of food. These exotic plants also destroy recreational areas; choke out native grasses, and effectively kill off many forms of wildlife.

The problem has prompted the federal government, environmental groups, and ranchers, to work together against the growing menace in several localities. One place is Hell's Canyon on the Idaho/Oregon border. Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho reports.


HOYT: A metal jet boat holding a dozen people zooms up the powerful Snake River through Hell's Canyon National Recreation area. Oregon rises perpendicular to the west, Idaho to the east. When Hell's Canyon was set aside in 1975, no one imagined that one of the biggest threats to the place would be weeds.


KENDALL: Every value that this landscape was set aside for is going to disappear. This is a whole different enemy. This is war. This is war.

HOYT: It's an expensive war that's being fought all over the country: Kudzu in the East, Leafy Spurge in the Midwest, and many species across the West. The Federal Interagency Weed Committee estimates these alien weeds cost U.S. agriculture 20 billion dollars each year. Cattle won't eat most weeds, especially thorny ones like yellow star thistle, says rancher Ernie Robinson. So when weeds take over, cows can go hungry.


ROBINSON: Weeds is one of our biggest problems in cattle ranching. It's a constant fight. I know one ranch that used to run like 250 head of cattle, say 20 years ago, and they have yellow star so bad that now they probably, 50 head is about all they can run.

HOYT: That could be partly due to poor land management, but it's mostly because the weeds have no predators here. They left the predators behind in Europe where many weeds originally come from. Deer and elk don't like the weeds any more than cattle do. The weeds drive wildlife off protected lands and onto farms and even highways.
Art Talsma of the Nature Conservancy squints at movement across the canyon.


TALSMA: Wow. That's a five point mule deer buck, and he's in velvet, but he's almost acting like he's not wanting to walk through that star thistle. Look at that. He's high stepping.

HOYT: Weeds also degrade places that people like to visit like national parks and bird refuges. Jason Karl who hikes, bikes, and works in Hell's Canyon, calls yellow star thistle "nasty".

KARL: It just rips and tears at your legs if you have shorts on. Like on a mountain bike ride, I've ridden through it, and your legs will be bleeding by the time you're done.

HOYT: Environmentalists, ranchers, and land managers struggle to outwit the weeds. They pull them up by hand and spray them with chemicals. And, in one ingenious low-tech solution, the Idaho Fish and Game's Jim White grew the right kind of bugs in a lab and then air-dropped them onto canyon terrain so rugged he didn't want to send in workers.

WHITE: And we took little coffee cups. We taped rocks to the bottom of them. We put the bugs in the coffee cups and when we flew over a star thistle patch, we would drop those coffee cups onto that patch.

HOYT: But it takes ten years for this so-called biological control to work. So soldiers in this war on weeds are borrowing strategies from firefighters, testing cutting-edge technologies to map new infestations when they're still small.

KARL: We can start mapping it right here at the GPS cursor.

HOYTE: This work used to be done with pencils on paper maps. The slow, inaccurate result wound up in some small office. Now, Karl holds a palm-sized computer with global positioning and information mapping software attached. He pulls up an aerial photograph of Garden Creek Valley. The cursor on the computer shows where we're standing.

KARL: Which is incredible, really, if you can think about it, you know, that you can locate yourself on the globe to within a couple of feet, is a pretty phenomenal thing.

HOYT: As Karl walks around the outside of the weed patch, his hand-held computer draws a thick blue line wherever he walks.

KARL: Now, if I click this area and hit "Finish sketch" it basically completes this polygon that we just walked.

HOYT: Karl and other managers can now grab information from satellites circling the earth, quickly create their own weed maps in the field, and transfer them into office computers. Then by punching a few keys, they can share all this information with ranchers and everyone else in the weed wars. SWAT teams are then sent to attack the weeds mechanically with herbicides or bugs.

They're using two other high-tech tools; aerial photos taken by small planes flying low over Hell's Canyon, and satellite images that show where weeds have not invaded. That way, land managers can more easily preserve them. The best long-term way to keep weeds out is to return native plants to the area. Art Talsma walks chest deep through a restoration project of native grasses.

TALSMA: And it has really taken on strong. It kind of gives us some hope that we can do quite a bit.

HOYT: When Anglos traipsed into this wild land with European seeds on their boots, they sowed this battle and they've been slowly losing it ever since. Now, with new tools and determination, they hope to win back some of the lost terrain.

For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Hell's Canyon.

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Kyoto Follow-up

CURWOOD: Climate diplomacy watchers expect Russia and Canada to ratify the Kyoto Protocol shortly, joining Europe and Japan. And that means countries responsible for 55 percent of the world's industrial carbon dioxide emissions will have joined the treaty, putting it into effect early next year. This week negotiators are meeting in New Delhi to smooth out details of implementation, and to look ahead at how this agreement can evolve to include developing countries.

I am joined now by Kilaparti Ramakrishna. He is an international lawyer and deputy director of the Woods Hole Research Center and is attending the meeting. Tell me, what's the talk in the corridors?

RAMAKRISHNA: The buzz in Delhi is now that we know that the protocol is definitely going to enter into force, how do we ensure that countries meet those goals contained in the protocol?

CURWOOD: How well will these reductions be met and who do you think is going to have the most trouble meeting them?

RAMAKRISHNA: Well, the Kyoto Protocol basically mandated that amongst industrialized countries, they would reduce five percent of the emissions from the 1990 levels. The studies that are available right now are European Union level, but we can go into that and then look at it country by country. And barring Germany and the United Kingdom, I think we're going to have serious trouble with a large number of other countries including Ireland, Spain, Portugal and so on.

CURWOOD: And Japan, for whom the Kyoto Protocol is named?

RAMAKRISHNA: Japan, I think, will be able to meet its commitment, barely. But the society is already extremely efficient compared with either European Union or United States or any of the other industrialized countries, and, therefore, that should be taken into account before Japan is asked to take more commitments.

CURWOOD: How will participating countries meet their carbon reduction commitments?

RAMAKRISHNA: There are a series of measures adopted in the Kyoto Protocol. They have reached agreement on how to use what are called the flexibility mechanisms; emissions trading, joint implementation, and the clean development mechanism. These are mechanisms that an industrialized country with binding legal commitments can work with to reduce emissions in countries that can meet their commitment a lot more easily and take some credit for those activities in meeting their own commitments.

CURWOOD: What about developing countries? Once Kyoto goes into force, how will they participate?

RAMAKRISHNA: Well, when I mentioned about the buzz in the corridors, what I meant is that those coming from the industrialized countries would also be thinking about what can those countries who have become parties through the Kyoto Protocol do to bring the United States back into the fold? And one of the feelings amongst the industrialized countries is that if the developing countries come back to having binding legal commitments, there may be an opportunity to bring the United States.

But even without that, it is clear that any long-term strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize its concentrations in the atmosphere would require participation by all countries.

CURWOOD: What's been the response in Delhi to the news that California is going to go forward essentially with limits on greenhouse gases for its cars, that the New England states are looking at the emissions from power plants? How is that playing?

RAMAKRISHNA: This is playing very well. In fact, the reason why the United States is not completely ostracized in these negotiations is there is a strong feeling in many of these countries that the current trend in the United States of its position against the Kyoto Protocol is temporary; precisely because of what you've just mentioned about actions in different parts of the country in favor of mitigating the climate change.

CURWOOD: Come the end of this session in New Delhi, what do you think we will see?

RAMAKRISHNA: I think we will see, first of all, a lot of excitement that the Kyoto Protocol is going to enter into force. We will see the private sector that is closely following this initiative reaffirmed in their belief that the emissions trading and the joint implementation, and various other schemes that they were trying to talk about, are finally going to take off and then they're going to get money.

We're going to see those developing countries that are aware of what is to come, increasing their pressure, that any idea of they're taking legally binding commitments is contingent upon the industrialized countries meeting the commitments that they have undertaken, going back in time to 1992; which is additional financial support, technology transfer, capacity building, and various other items.

So, at the end of this conference, I think we will clearly see a renewed sense that we are on the right track, but we're going too slowly. Going into the World Summit on Sustainable Development, there was a big question mark whether multilateralism has any role in environmental governments.

This particular agreement, the climate, and the framework in the Kyoto Protocol are really going to pave the way not only that multilateralism matters, but that is the only way in addressing global environmental problems.

CURWOOD: Kilaparti Ramakrishna is ceputy director of the Woods Hole Research Center and an expert in international law. Thank you so much for taking this time.

RAMAKRISHNA: Thank you very much.

[MUSIC: William Orbit, “Water from a Vine” STRANGE CARGO]

CURWOOD: In the far Canadian Arctic on Devon Island, a group of scientists spend the summer studying a place that's more like Mars than anywhere else except Mars. Reporter Robin White visited this remote outpost recently, and kept a journal about his trip.

WHITE: Once I got going today, I went for a walk around town. It's a small, practical place, not much in the way of decoration. It's mostly Inuit, but it was founded in 1947 as a weather center. I kept an eye out for the telling details: two polar bear skins stretched out to dry in the sun, seal skins and bones, lots of them, all kinds, whale bones, reindeer antlers, musk ox skulls, and who knows what else?

CURWOOD: This week, Living on Earth's web site is currently featuring daily installments from Robin White's Arctic adventure. Please visit. It's loe.org. That's loe.org. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.


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A Gap in Nature

CURWOOD: Extinction is forever they say, but according to the World Conservation Union's 2002 list of threatened species, two creatures have made the rare journey back from the apparently dead. These so-called “Lazarus species” are the Bavarian pine vole from Germany and the Lord Howe Island stick insect from Australia. Tiny populations of each of these critters evaded detection for decades before their recent rediscovery. But usually, once an animal is listed extinct, it stays that way.

In the first of an occasional series we call "A Gap in Nature," author Tim Flannery profiles species we'll never see again.

[MUSIC: Roger Eno, “Aryis” SWIMMING (All Saints Records, 1996)]

FLANNERY: The velvet black and gold mamo was a robin-sized bird of the rain forests of Hawaii. Its long, down-curved beak was used to probe flowers, from which it got the nectar and pollen that were its food. The mamo's call, said to be a single long and mournful note, once echoed right through the forests of the island.

(Illustration: Peter Schouten)

At the time of Captain Cook's European discovery of the Hawaiian Islands, it was so common that the feathers of 80,000 birds went into a single cloak made for King Kamehameha the First. But the Hawaiians enforced strict conservation practices when it came to the mamo. They would cleverly snare the creatures, pluck the prized yellow feathers and release the birds unharmed. Not so with Europeans whose hunting of the mamo for feathers and for museum specimens contributed considerably to the bird's extinction.

The last known mamo was shot in 1898 by Mr. H. W. Henshaw who worked for the avid British collector Lord Walter Rothschild. Henshaw recalled coming upon a family of the birds in the woods above Kaumana. After stalking them, he shot at one while it perched atop a tall tree. He later wrote "It was desperately wounded, and clung for a time to the branch, head downwards, when I saw the rich yellow rump most plainly. Finally it fell six or eight feet, recovered itself, flew around the other side of the tree where it was joined by a second bird--perhaps a parent, or its mate--and in a moment, was lost to view."

CURWOOD: Tim Flannery is author of “A Gap in Nature: Discovery the World's Extinct Animals.” To see a picture of the velvet black and gold mamo, go to our web site, loe.org. That's loe.org.

Related link:
Click here to order "A Gap in Nature" by Tim Flannery">

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Animal Note/Tough Love

CURWOOD: Just ahead, the joy of exploring the night sky. First this page from the Animal Notebook from Maggie Villiger.


VILLIGER: Some fish fathers practice a brutal form of tough love. They eat some of their offspring while continuing to care for the rest of the brood. Scientists thought that eating some eggs would provide the fish dad with extra energy to care for the remaining eggs.

Researchers recently put this theory to the test. They fed supplemental meals to one group of male Beaugregory Damsel fish guarding eggs. Another group of fish had to forage for themselves.

After the sixth day, the fed fish were fatter, but just as prone to cannibalism. So the researchers set up another experiment with some fathers in a heavily aerated tank with lots of water flow, and a second group in an unaerated tank with little water circulation. This made a difference. The aerated fathers were much less likely to eat their young.

Researchers think the important factor influencing fish cannibalism is how much oxygen is available. With more oxygen in the water, embryos develop faster and healthier. It looks like cannibal dads randomly eat eggs throughout the clutch to reduce overall egg density. That way, remaining eggs have more exposure to oxygen and a better chance of survival. That's this week's Animal Note. I'm Maggie Villiger.

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

[MUSIC: Billy Strayhorn, “Take the A Train” THE PEACEFUL SIDE OF BILLY STRAYHORN (Capitol, 1996)]

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Lake Tahoe Mansions

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It used to be that a three or four bedroom house, 1,800 square feet or so, was a large home. Not anymore. Houses three times that size are the norm in many luxury enclaves these days. Scenic Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border is part of that trend, but a battle is brewing there over a proposed rule to limit these mansions. Willie Albright of member station KUNR reports.

ALBRIGHT: Lake Tahoe has always been home to extravagant mansions, but now regulators are concerned that what some critics call "monster homes" are increasingly wall-to-wall along the lakeshore. So the bi-state Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has drafted an ordinance that would regulate the visual impact of lake homes.

John Hitchcock is with the planning agency. Over the past year, homeowners have spied him 300 feet offshore in this boat, taking photos to analyze the visual effect of buildings in the shore zone.


HITCHCOCK: I can only speak on behalf of the agency and what the intent of our standards are and that's it. And the last three, the evaluation has indicated the scenic quality has been degrading, and it's been mostly contributed to highly contrasting structures in the landscape, and part of that is because the homes are getting bigger.

ALBRIGHT: But Hitchcock insists the purpose of the ordinance is not to limit the size of the homes, rather it's an attempt to get the buildings to blend into the Tahoe landscape. When a home is built or significantly remodeled within 300 feet of the shoreline, planners would give it a numerical value based on how much, in their view, it contrasts with the natural environment. A poor score could be improved if property owners cut back on their windows, significantly shrink the frontage of homes facing the lake, screen houses with trees or bushes, or paint in muted tones. Many property owners are outraged. They see the work of environmentalists behind the proposal.

One environmental group, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, has sued Tahoe planners in the past and would like to see the strict regulation of the size, color and landscaping of new buildings.

GALLOWAY: It is not the charter of the TRPA to decide whether someone has too big a house or in any other way to decide that they should be limiting what someone can do with their money.

ALBRIGHT: Washoe County commissioner and agency board member Jim Galloway says it is nothing short of class warfare.

GALLOWAY: This ordinance goes too far and it does it without justification. There was never a public perception study done by a cross-section of people who have ordinary values to say whether there is anything to this assumption that big is bad, that bigger is worse.


ALBRIGHT: Homeowners in Incline Village, where many of these mansions are located, have formed an opposition group called the Committee for the Reasonable Regulation of Lake Tahoe. Committee member Chuck Otto says for him, size limits are not the issue. He objects to screening the buildings from the lake, because it will block views of the lake from inside the homes.

OTTO: Once you reduce the view, you reduce the value. And then it becomes a property rights issue. And what you bought, and what you paid for could be taken away, and that has really been the genesis of all of the hue and outcry over this particular issue.

ALBRIGHT: Property rights issues at Lake Tahoe have already been litigated in the U.S. Supreme Court. Property rights advocates lost that case, but Otto says the Committee for Reasonable Regulation will still go to court, if necessary.

If the Committee does, it will be up against Dean Heller who heads up the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and is also Nevada's secretary of state. Heller says Tahoe's globetrotting glitterati are used to having their way, but he's not backing down.

HELLER: I have had homeowners come up to me and say "People don't come up here to Lake Tahoe to see the water, or the boulders, or the trees, or the majestic views of the mountains. They're here to see my home."

ALBRIGHT: Heller maintains that it's more important to protect the scenic quality of Lake Tahoe for all people for generations to come than to worry about the property rights of a few.

HELLER: You can build a monster home. You can build your 20 million dollar trophy home up at Lake Tahoe and still meet the requirements up here at the lake. All we're asking you to do is don't be the lake. Your home isn't more important than the basin itself.


ALBRIGHT: Negotiations have brought both sides closer together, but the matter will probably be decided in court. For Living on Earth, I'm Willie Albright at Lake Tahoe.


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Dark Skies

CURWOOD: The astronomy world was recently abuzz with news of a possible new planet on the other side of Pluto. It's about half the size of Pluto and it's the largest object identified in the solar system since the 1930s. The new planet is called Quaoar. It's a major discovery, not for the world of professional astronomy, but for the countless amateurs who are helping to advance the knowledge of the cosmos from their own backyards.

Writer Tim Ferris knows the culture and contributions of amateur astronomy intimately. He's an amateur himself, and has written several books, covering everything from the Big Bang to the search for the edge of the universe. His new book about the current revolution in amateur astronomy is called “Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril."

I met Tim recently at the cavernous and echoey recesses of the Harvard Smithsonian Observatory where he explained exactly what backyard stargazers are looking for.

TIM FERRIS: We know that the earth has been struck repeatedly in its history by objects large enough to cause catastrophic damage; in some cases, extinction of more than 90 percent of the species on land. And so it makes sense as an insurance policy to complete a census of the asteroids that are out there, and see if any threaten to strike us in the future. If they do, then it should be possible to move them to slightly different orbits so that the danger is avoided.

About half of the potentially dangerous asteroids have been discovered, we think, so half the task remains and amateurs have played a very useful role, both in discovering them and in helping to refine their orbits.

CURWOOD: What kind of near-misses do we know about?

FERRIS: Well, it depends on what you call a near-miss. You know, there was a kilometer class asteroid, an asteroid about 800 meters in diameter that flew by just a few weeks ago, not much further away than the moon. A kilometer-sized asteroid could destroy a city and render an entire state essentially uncivilized for a period of decades. A ten-kilometer class asteroid could extinguish the human species.

CURWOOD: Piece together for us, if you would, a representative composite of today's amateur astronomer.

FERRIS: I can't do that because there are so many different sorts of people. There are amateur astronomers who are into stargazing for the aesthetic rewards. They enjoy the beauty of seeing galaxies and nebulae, rings of Saturn through a telescope. And then there are amateur astronomers who are out to make a contribution to science, do serious scientific research in fields like discovering super novae, exploding stars and other galaxies, very useful in calibrating the size and age of the universe.

A new area where amateurs are contributing is in searching for planets of other stars. There was a NASA program just recently announced to enlist amateurs to look for stars that might have a planet orbiting on a plane such that it passes between us and that star. When this happens, the light from the star will dim just slightly because of the eclipse, so to speak, by this relatively tiny planet. And it turns out that that can be measured by the equipment now possessed by a great many amateur astronomers. So it's conceivable that the first planet beyond earth to be discovered that has life on it could be discovered by an amateur astronomer with a backyard telescope.

(Photo courtesy of Dan Bush)

CURWOOD: Tim, if you look back at all the amateur astronomers whom you have met, which one do you feel has done the most to popularize astronomy?

FERRIS: I think the two living amateur astronomers who probably have done the most to popularize their field are Sir Patrick Moore in England, who for over 40 years had a monthly program about the night sky on the BBC, who wrote something in excess of 50 or 60 books, and John Dobson, who figured out how to make telescopes much more cheaply than had been possible, thus opening up amateur astronomy to many people who couldn't afford it before and putting much larger telescopes in the hands of those who could. And indeed, when John meets, particularly, a younger person who seems to catch the fever of stargazing and wants to learn more, he will often just give away the telescope and go make another one.

CURWOOD: What's new about amateur astronomy today? What has technology, or society, or these times given to amateur astronomy?

FERRIS: Most of the great advances in science have been driven by technology in one way or another and that's true of amateur astronomy, too. And we're right on the edge of an era when an amateur or budding professional astronomer in Bangladesh, or Iran or South America, can begin doing observations within nothing other than a keyboard and modem.

CURWOOD: Nothing but a keyboard and modem?

FERRIS: And access to a telescope, and that's what's happening is that telescopes are becoming available on-line. We have a project at Berkeley called "Hands on Universe" that does this; allows school children to use the telescope at Leuschner Observatory. It's kind of an older instrument. It's not in tremendous demand. So using this telescope, two students in Oil City, Pennsylvania took the first image of a super nova, exploding star, in the Galaxy M51. And another group of students in New England discovered a trans-Neptunian object. This is an icy planetoid out past Neptune of which relatively few had yet been discovered, even by professionals.

CURWOOD: Recently I was in the southern hemisphere, saw the Magellanic Clouds really for the first time because I was out in the middle of nowhere, where it was really bright. That's amazing.

FERRIS: Magellanic Clouds are galaxies, satellite galaxies of ours, and that's an incredible thing to see. More incredible, I should think, is the view of us from one of the Magellanic clouds since they see the whole Milky Way Galaxy, a big spiral galaxy spreading halfway across the sky. Magellanic Clouds would be a great place to do astronomy from. But we have a pretty good location in space and time where we are. The human species happened to evolve at a time when the solar system was passing through a relatively clear place on the disk of our galaxy, a bubble blown out by an old super nova explosion long ago.

CURWOOD: So, I imagine you've seen countless images of space, but I'm curious. What are the sounds of space?

FERRIS: [Laughter] Well, I suppose that the nearest thing to sounds of space--of course, there aren't any real sounds since sound can't travel through a vacuum--but radio, because we listen to radio, is most often turned into an audio signal. Radio noise from the planet Jupiter, for instance, is routinely turned into audio signals by changing the speed, speeding up the playback. I've listened to those sounds. They're quite interesting. Some of them sound like wavering sheet metal the way it's done off-stage in one of Mahler's symphonies, and others sound like a low earthquake-like rumble, and others like whistles.

You can also hear, sort of, the sound of meteors. When meteors go through the atmosphere, they create an ionized trail. Signals from an FM station that you normally couldn't receive, will be picked up on your radio briefly as they bounce off this fresh bit of ionization, and then fade away again.

You know, there are radio telescopes all over the world, and they're kept occupied all day and all night charting radio noise from the universe. So we think of radio as an artificial device because we recently got into the radio business, but the universe has been in the radio business for over twelve billion years now.

CURWOOD: Tim, in your book you write about the feeling you had as a young man driving cross-country on the open roads. Could you read us this passage?

“In restless youth I crossed the country a half-dozen times driving by night, tuned to the ozone. But eventually, things changed. The highway back then was a symbol of freedom, and one still heard talk of the song of the open road. Now there are few genuinely open roads. The two-lane blacktops are pinched off by detours, and traffic can clog even remote stretches of interstate in the depths of night. Most of the time you drive as if in one car of an endless train, with taillights in the windshield, and headlights in the rearview mirror. Nowadays the only truly open roads go straight up through the ionosphere and the ozone, and onto the planets and the stars.”

CURWOOD: So, as a young man, what made you seek out the open roads of space?

FERRIS: I first got interested in astronomy through a book. I was given a book for my birthday when I was just a boy called “A Child's History of the World” and it came with an account of the formation of the earth. And I realized that wow, all of this stuff here on this planet, this soil that comes up between my toes when I walk across a plowed field, the oceans, everything, wasn't always here. It used to be out there. It got assembled through some astronomical process.

So I realized that first of all there wasn't any "out there" that we were in the universe, and secondly, that if I wanted to understand this part of the universe, I would have to learn astronomy. So I started reading books on astronomy and got a tiny little telescope, started stargazing.

FERRIS: And I've been at it ever since.

CURWOOD: Tim Ferris is a science writer and an amateur astronomer whose new book is called “Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril.” Thanks so much.

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

[MUSIC: William Orbit, “Water from a Vine” STRANGE CARGO]

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth.

Next week, technology advances are making it less expensive to remove salt from salt water and make it drinkable. And with southern California promising to use less water from the Colorado River, ocean desalinization could help quench the thirst.

MALE: As we look out to the future in developing new water supplies, sea water desalination is right on the cusp of being cost competitive with those new water supplies.

CURWOOD: Fresh water from the sea, next time on Living on Earth. And don't forget that between now and then you can hear us any time, and get the stories behind the news by going to loe.org. That's loe.org.

[MUSIC: Earth Ear/Lang Elliot & Ted Mack, “Blue Goose” WINGS OVER THE PRAIRIE (Nature Sound, 1995)]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a sound for the season. Lang Elliot and Ted Mack caught up with a flock of migrating blue geese resting on a flooded field near Brampton, South Dakota. But the flock soon gets wind of the intruders, and takes wing north to new waters.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org.

Our staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber and Jennifer Chu, along with Al Avery, Susan Shepherd, Jessica Penney and Carly Ferguson. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Andrew Strickler and Nicole Giese. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental Sound Art courtesy of EarthEar.

Our Technical Director is Chris Engles. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I am Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include: the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for coverage of western issues, the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's Expanded Internet service, the Educational Foundation of America for coverage of energy and climate change, the Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity, www.wajones.org, the Oak Foundation supporting coverage of marine issues, and The Town Creek Foundation.

ANNOUNCER 2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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