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

July 16, 2005

Air Date: July 16, 2005



Whither NEPA?

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The landmark National Environmental Policy Act faces a possible rollback as energy legislation is currently being debated in Congress. Opponents say the environmental review the act provides is sometimes unnecessary and repetitive, while proponents counter the act provides the public crucial environmental oversight of federal projects. Host Steve Curwood explores both sides of the issue with a Wyoming cattle rancher who favors stronger environmental review and an energy industry advocate who says the act is often misused as a stalling tactic. (05:30)

Sailing into Space

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Space engineers are looking for new ways to power spacecraft, especially once they’re launched into orbit. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks to host Steve Curwood about advances in space propulsion technology, including the recent Cosmos 1 mission that was designed to use sails powered by the pressure of sunlight. Artist image of Cosmos 1 in flight, reflecting the Earth. (06:30)

Disappearing Wildflowers / Nancy Cohen

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Biologists in some states around the country say that the number of wildflowers and wildflower species is declining. As Nancy Cohen of WNPR reports, they believe that deer are the primary cause of the problem. (06:00)

The Lady and the Panda

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In 1936, the most sought after prize among the world’s adventurers was catching the rare and elusive panda bear. That the winner was a well-known New York dress designer and socialite, seems nearly impossible. She was, after all, the person who once famously quipped, “the two things I hate most in life are going to bed at night and getting up in the morning.” Author Vicki Croke unravels this improbable tale in her biography of Ruth Harkness called “The Lady and the Panda,” and she is interviewed by host Steve Curwood. Ruth Harkness and Su-Lin in the United States. (Photo: Mary Lobisco ©) (11:00)

Emerging Science Note/Cultivating Meat / Sarah Williams

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Living on Earth's Sarah Williams reports on a new product that could soon hit the deli department: lab-grown meat. (01:20)

The Green Screen / Guy Hand

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People who make environmental films say it's too difficult to find airtime on television. So, as Guy Hand reports, they're taking advantage of the advances in digital media to find new ways to reach viewers. San Francisco environmental filmmaker Frank Green. (Photo courtesy of midwestfrogs.com) (11:00)

March of the Penguins

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The documentary "March of the Penguins" has become a surprise hit among moviegoers this summer. Host Steve Curwood talks with Sea World bird curator Lauren DuBois about the appeal of these Antarctic waddlers, and about the almost impossible journey they take to make a family. (Photo: Jérôme Maison. © 2005 Bonne Pioche Productions / Alliance De Production Cinématographique) (04:50)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Marjorie West, Lee Fuller, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Vicki Croke, Lauren DuBois
REPORTERS: Nancy Cohen, Guy Hand
NOTE: Sarah Williams


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. If you’re one of the folks who find Living on Earth on the internet as well as public radio, some nature filmmakers would like to find you. As television markets change, including public TV, more and more nature filmmakers are finding an audience through the web.

MCGOWAN: I've had programs on PBS. They air and then they go away (laughing). And even I forget about them. But the web site, you know we're getting like 4500, 5000 visits a month. I think we'll probably hit about 60,000, 70,000 people by the end of this year and that's a decent viewership in a decent PBS market. Yet what's cool is that people keep coming back .

CURWOOD: And people also keep coming back to the sleeper movie hit of the summer. “The March of the Penguins” and more. This week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

[NPR NEWSCAST (MUSIC: Boards of Canada “Zoetrope” from In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ (Warp Records – 2000))]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Whither NEPA?

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Since 1970, the federal government has been required under the National Environmental Policy Act to assess the impact of federal actions. In recent years, some activists have used this law to challenge the rapid expansion of oil, and especially gas drilling in the West. This year’s version of the energy bill passed by the House includes provisions to limit the environmental impact reviews of certain oil and natural gas operations. Proposed changes would affect reviews of individual drilling sites of less than five acres and disposal of wastewater from coalbed methane wells, if states have already allowed it.

These states include Wyoming, where Majorie West raises hay and cattle on 13,000 acres in the Powder River Basin. A number of coal bed methane wells abut her property, and she says wastewater runoff with high levels of sodium has destroyed one-quarter of her hay meadow and left much of her best grazing land covered with salt-tolerant weeds her cattle won’t eat. Majorie West, what’s your opinion of efforts to limit disposal of coal-bed methane wastewater from review under the National Environmental Policy Act?

WEST: I think it is absolutely horrendous. To my way of thinking, there are not enough laws protecting the environment in place right now. And if these companies are exempt from what laws there are, it’s going to devastate the land.

CURWOOD: How would you respond to people who say that the National Environmental Policy Act that requires environmental impact statements, is often used as a stalling tactic by environmental activists just to tie up vital energy projects?

WEST: See, I do not believe this at all. I belong to several environmental groups and we are not against coal bed methane gas development. You know, we realize our country needs the energy. However, we are for it being done right. Powder River has a very unique ecosystem. If much more of this methane gas water is dumped into Powder River, it is going to destroy that ecosystem.

CURWOOD: So, what would you like to see Congress do about this?

WEST: I would like to see them have retroactive, much more stringent laws, require these companies to either re-inject the water, treat the water so that it can be used, and this can be done. You know, this water can be treated and yes, it does cost the companies money to do it. However, right now they are making more money than they have ever made in the history of the oil and gas industry. I think they can afford to take care of this water and do it so it’s not a hindrance.

CURWOOD: Marjorie West has been a rancher and farmer in Spotted Horse, Wyoming for the past 51 years. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

WEST: You’re very welcome.

CURWOOD: And now let’s turn to Lee Fuller. He’s vice president for government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Lee Fuller, now how do you respond to complaints from ranchers like Marjorie West that rather than less federal environmental review, practices like disposal of coal bed methane wastewater should actually be more tightly controlled under the rules imposed by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA?

FULLER: I’d say that if they look at the number of opportunities that they have to raise those environmental issues, they are more than adequate. There’s probably at least two times in the planning process by the federal government and then there’s opportunities at the permitting stage where there are points to be raised. The purpose of NEPA is not to deal with minor events like this, but to deal with much larger ones and I don’t think that simply trying to keep expanding the role of NEPA is the solution.

CURWOOD: This House bill would exempt seven oil and natural gas activities from environmental impact assessments. Why is it necessary to specifically exempt these activities from an analysis of their impact on the environment?

FULLER: Well, I think it’s first important to recognize that this is one step in a larger process and that these actions have gone through NEPA processes before they ever reached the stage that this section affects. They would have either gone through the process once at the point of resource management plan and a second time at the leasing phase. These are really minor actions that most likely shouldn’t even be under the scope of the NEPA process because that effects major federal action.

The reason why I think they’ve been identified is that there have been efforts to try to broaden the application of NEPA, in our view, to principally to try to delay decisions on projects and this would essentially say one or two reviews is enough, the permitting process on top of that is enough, NEPA is not needed in a third round.

CURWOOD: I see then, so perhaps those critics would say that this process limits the ability of the public to try to intervene in a project along these lines that they think may not be appropriate.

FULLER: Well, the purpose of NEPA is to try to make sure that all these issues get aired and then the government makes its decision. That’s been done prior to reaching this stage of the actions that are affected by this language. So that there’s been ample opportunity for the public to make their case and to have the government adjust the requirements accordingly.

CURWOOD: Lee Fuller is with the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Thanks for taking this time with me today Lee.

FULLER: You’re welcome.

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Sailing into Space

Artist image of Cosmos 1 in flight, reflecting the Earth. (Photo: Rick Sternbach, The Planetary Society ©)

CURWOOD: Since the beginning of human time, people have traveled the waters of the world by drifting and paddling. But then, centuries ago, when European explorers set out to travel the globe, they mastered a comparatively new technology, riding the wind. Now, once again, riding the wind is a new frontier of technology, but this time for space travel. The modern day equivalent of oars and sweat is the chemical rocket, which we use to launch spacecraft like the shuttle into orbit, and then for the most part we drift. But last month, a privately funded mission, Cosmos, was launched, this time with sails designed to catch the solar wind. The expedition failed when a launch vehicle failed to fire properly. Yet the prospect of solar sailing and other new ways to power space craft still intrigue scientists.

With me now is Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and a regular contributor to our program. Neil Tyson, welcome back.

TYSON: It’s always great to be back. Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: Solar sail technology is pretty amazing. So, just how does a sail work when it’s attached to a spacecraft?

Engineers watch a zero-gravity simulation of the sail deployment of Cosmos I and test its mechanical configuration. This photo was taken in January 2001 at NPO Lavochkin, the world's largest manufacturer of robotic spacecraft. (Photo: Louis Friedman, The Planetary Society ©)

TYSON: The Cosmos 1 sail is, I don’t know if anyone has ever seen pictures of it, but in a fully deployed state, it’s a hundred feet across with its sails spread out like a daisy, each were maneuverable so you can change the angle just the way a person sailing on a sailing ship would change the angle of their sails. Of course, you have to be able to do that to control which way you’re going, but this technology which was simply large mylar, reflective sails was, tended to be a demonstration of the pressure of sunlight.

CURWOOD: Yeah, so what is the pressure of sunlight? I mean, people think of outer space being just space, being a vacuum. I mean, that’s what we learned in elementary school--that there’s nothing there, but there is something there apparently.

TYSON: Yeah, well light moves through space. Of course, we see the sun from earth so that means the sunlight reached us through the vacuum of space. So what you do is you exploit that fact and you calculate how much pressure, how much little impulse you’ll get from each of the photons of light that comes from the sun. And the sun emits a lot of photons of light and as each photon strikes the reflective sail and bounces back off, that little recoil of the photon forces a response to the spacecraft and pushes it into another orbit. So the way you do this is, you don’t get into orbit around earth and then line up your sails and then head towards Mars, that’d be too easy actually if that’s all it was. (laughter) The way this works is, the energy from the sun, you keep pitching the sails in such a way that the sunlight pushes on your craft into higher, and higher, and higher orbits… until you get an orbit that’s so large that it intersects the orbit of Mars and then you just go to Mars or you go to the moon or whatever would be your destination.

So the drawback is it’s slow. If you wanted to do this and get to the moon, it would take you a couple years, whereas ordinary rockets that we know and love will get there in three days. So, it might not be your first choice of propulsion for astronauts, but maybe you have a supply ship that carries food of high shelf-life (laughter). You know like rice, or breakfast cereals, things like that. You can send that long in advance of your trip and land where you need it to land and then you come in on your few day trip and there you have it. And so it’s an important auxiliary tool for the exploration of space.

CURWOOD: Now, the standard technology to get something to space is to use chemical reactions, burning either liquid fuel or solid fuel or whatever. But once in space there are no gas stations up there, Dr. Tyson. So, how do we keep our spacecraft first powered up to handle just all the electronics that we have on board to do the things that they do?

TYSON: That’s an excellent question. We take for granted that when you want to drive across country, that you don’t have to carry a tanker truck with you to give you all of your fuel because there are places to stop and load up.

CURWOOD: You just have to take lots of money with you these days.

TYSON: Lots of money to buy the fuel at three dollars a gallon or whatever it’s costing in some parts.


TYSON: And so, without fuel stations, filling stations across the solar system or the galaxy, you have to bring all the fuel you’re going to use with you and hence this tremendous pressure on the frontier of space exploration to come up with an efficient fuel source and chemical energy is just not efficient. You might remember the Saturn 5 rocket from the 1960s. It was 32-some odd stories tall and waaaaaay at the top there’s a little place, that’s where the astronauts were, and all the rest of what they were sitting on, is basically fuel tanks just to get them to the moon and back. So this is a problem and it’s a challenge and so you have to be creative about this. So, one way is you have solar panels, that gives you sort of electricity on board, that’s what the space station has, but now if you want propulsion, you’ve got to be even more clever than that and the most efficient means of propulsion we know involves getting energy from nuclear reactors. Of course, that’s the n-word and there’s a lot of knee-jerk resistance to putting nuclear reactors in space, but let me just say that if you can imagine that you have people working on this to make it a safe technology so that we can continue our exploration, there’s a whole branch of NASA that’s tasked with just figuring out this problem. It’s called the Prometheus Project. So, that’s the next frontier in space propulsion.

Artist image of Cosmos 1 in flight, reflecting the Earth. (Photo: Rick Sternbach, The Planetary Society ©)

CURWOOD: What form of space propulsion would you like to see in the future?

TYSON: I like the warp drive concept. I’d first seen it in “Star Trek.” I don’t know if it predates that, but you are what you are and there’s your destination really far away and you figure out how to manipulate the fabric of space and time so that the space between you and your destination is warped. And then you cut a hole through that warp and then you basically tunnel from where you are to where you’re going, bypassing the otherwise warped distance that is otherwise warped out of your view. And then you land where you are, you unwarp space, you cross the galaxy during the TV commercial which is what happened during “Star Trek.” And what would otherwise take you hundreds of thousands of years to make this trip, you can now do in just a matter of minutes. That’s to me the most intriguing frontier of science and, of course, as well as engineering that I can’t even imagine when that would be real, but it’s fun to dream about because in that case the sky’s the limit.

CURWOOD: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium. His latest book is called “Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution.” Neil, thanks for taking the time today.

TYSON: It’s a pleasure to be here again.


CURWOOD: Coming up. Oh dear, where have all the wildflowers gone? Keep listening to Living on Earth.

Related links:
- Cosmos 1: The First Solar Sail
- “Fueling up: to travel from the Earth to the sky requires propulsion. Propulsion requires energy. Energy requires fuel” by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Natural History, June 2005
- Neil deGrasse Tyson’s webpage
- “Origins: 14 Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution” by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith

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[MUSIC: Daniel Lanois “Frozen” from ‘Belladonna’ (Anti - 2005)]

Disappearing Wildflowers

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Let’s face it, there’s probably no more appealing creature than a baby white tailed deer. The eyes of a fawn are especially friendly, so as the population of deer has exploded in the suburban eastern U.S., people have hesitated to limit their numbers, even as deer have been linked to the spread of Lyme Disease. Now there’s another problem that may put more deer into the cross hairs of hunters: they are being blamed for a sharp decline in wildflowers. From WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut, Nancy Cohen reports.


COHEN: It’s a warm sunny day at the Mianus River Gorge Preserve which straddles the border between New York and Connecticut. Executive director Rod Christie is standing on the edge of the preserve’s old growth forest. He remembers leading wildlife walks here 20 years ago when the plants were tall and dense.

CHRISTIE: The understory vegetation was up to my waist when we were walking along the trail and you just don’t see that now. Now there’s nothing when you’re walking along.

COHEN: The preserve once had nearly 230 species of wild flowers. Christie says the increase in the deer population over the last two decades parallels a decline in certain wildflower species.

CHRISTIE: Some species we don’t see at all any more. Some species we see rarely and they’re small pockets. Some species we see, but they don’t flower and they aren’t in healthy condition. So what we wanted to make sure is that we didn’t lose everything forever.

COHEN: In the early 1900s there were hardly any deer in parts of the northeast due to hunting and deforestation. Some states tried to bring deer back by restricting hunting, which worked maybe a little too well. Today, there are an abundance of deer in the region and they’re being blamed for decimating wild plants. Christie and his colleagues have set out to discover what would happen if deer were kept away from wild flowers.


COHEN: Christie walks through a stand of red maple, white oak and hemlock. He stops at a seven-foot black plastic fence surrounding a half-acre plot. Christie points out purple trillium growing inside the fence.

CHRISTIE: When I first started in this exclosure, I had seven individual plants. Now I have close to 300 plants. So that’s a dramatic change.

COHEN: Not only are the numbers increasing, both trees and wildflowers are taller inside the exclosure than outside.

CHRISTIE: There’s the wild geranium you know that’s flowering in here, trillium is going by, but you can see the size of the plants and how robust they are. There’s a basswood. A little basswood, that would be candy to a deer.

COHEN: Outside the exclosure where the deer roam free the plants are short and sparse, but the wildflower decline isn’t unique to this preserve. Scientists are observing a similar trend in many parts of the country. In Maryland and Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, usually in forests near suburban areas where deer populations have increased.

Richard Goodwyn was one of the first presidents of the Nature Conservancy. He says deer have been feeding on the native flora where he lives in southeastern Connecticut for at least twenty years.

GOODWYN: I have a list here of some of the things that I have observed that have been chewed up in flower and then not in flower.

COHEN: The 94-year old botanist sits on a living room chair and picks up a lined piece of paper. In careful script he’s noted the nearly 25 species deer are eating in Bernibum Preserve in East Hatham, his home since 1956. Lillies and orchids are the hardest hit.

GOODWYN: Wood lily, is one, when it’s gone, I haven’t seen it in flower. Ladies’ tresses is another orchid, little white orchid that grows out in the fields, full bloom, then chewed up.

COHEN: Without flowers, a plant can’t produce seeds and without seeds there are no new plants. Goodwyn is worried about the loss of biodiversity and he says with fewer flowers the world would also lose a bit of its beauty.

GOODWYN: It’s an emotional thing and a lot of people would feel very deprived if they weren’t able to go out in the woods and they weren’t able to pick a flower. And if you have a diversity of flowers, it makes the whole thing much more interesting.

COHEN: Back at the Mianus River Gorge, Rod Christie tells me he doesn’t want to lose the preserve’s diversity of flowers. But right now, deer seem to have the upper hand. As if on cue, one makes a cameo appearance.

CHRISTIE: There’s a deer coming up around the edge there (laughter).


CHRISTIE: That’s a white-tail deer actually looking at us right now, outside the exclosure, fortunately.

COHEN: Looking at us with those big, Bambi-like eyes, raising the question of what to do about all these deer. Some states like Connecticut, have a long hunting season and allow hunters to use bait in some areas. Birth control for deer is still under research. It’s illegal to trap and move them. At a nature preserve hunting is perhaps the most effective method, but it’s controversial. Christie says the least intrusive and the most effective option is to use predators.

CHRISTIE: We’re trying to encourage coyote populations, bobcat populations, is it possible to reduce the deer population to a level that the coyotes could keep it under control.

COHEN: However the deer are managed inside and outside the preserve, fewer of them could give wildflowers the chance to rebound. For Living on Earth, I’m Nancy Cohen in Bedford, New York.


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The Lady and the Panda

Ruth Harkness and Su-Lin in the United States. (Photo: Mary Lobisco ©)

CURWOOD: In 1936, New York socialite and dress designer Ruth Harkness, who once said she wouldn’t walk a block in Manhattan if she could take a cab, set out on an impossible journey to do an impossible task. She traveled to the most rugged and remote terrain of China to capture one of the planet’s most elusive creatures, the panda bear.

She walked up to thirty miles a day in her quest, amid the dangers of China’s raging civil war. Winning the race to be the first person to bring a live giant panda to the west, she set off a national sensation in the U.S. upon her return.

Joining me now is author and Living on Earth contributor Vicki Croke, who’s written a biography of Ruth Harkness, called “The Lady and the Panda.” Vicki, good to talk with you again.

CROKE: Steve, thank you for having me on.

CURWOOD: Now, how did she get into this? Obviously, a dress designer doesn’t set out in life to go bring back the first live panda.

CROKE: She had always fantasized about visiting exotic places and she fell in love with a man named William Harvest Harkness, Jr. You can tell just from that name his background. He was an ivy league educated rich boy, an adventuring rich boy and he joined in this great race which was very hot at the time to try to be the first person to bring a giant panda back to the States. He went over to China, spent two years there and died very young, 34 years old, of throat cancer. And amazingly, at that moment, Ruth decided she did not want his mission to die with him and that she would take up his cause.

Caption: Ruth Harkness helps introduce Su-Lin to Mei-Meil at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. (Photo: Mary Lobisco ©)

CURWOOD: Tell me more about Ruth Harkness. What was she like as a person, do you think?

CROKE: Very intriguing person and what we know today from the few people who are alive to tell the story of having met Ruth Harkness is that she’s the kind of person who would just light up a room. Very charismatic, very striking. Every man wanted to romance her. Every woman wanted to be her best friend. She’d already transformed herself once before. She came from a small town in western Pennsylvania, and when she moved to Manhattan she became a dress designer and a socialite sought after for every party. She was a quintessential flapper. She said that there were only two things she hated to do: go to sleep at night and get up in the morning.

CURWOOD: A lot of people were trying to get pandas in China. Some pelts have been brought back. No one had brought a live one back and all these adventurers were men. How is it that a woman is able to succeed here? And why, in fact, do you think from your studying this story do you think that being a woman perhaps gave her an edge to succeed?

CROKE: Even at the time, people began to say that she had not succeeded despite being a woman, but because of it. Many of the western adventurers, all male, would come into a country and they’d lay out the maps, they’d hire porters and they would direct themselves to wherever they thought the prize would be. Ruth Harkness took a very different tack. She came to Shanghai. She decided she did not want to work with fellow westerners. She wanted to work with a Chinese partner who was Quentin Young, 21 years old, and she listened to what he had to say. He had explored in that area before. He spoke the language and he told her he could bring her to where the pandas were.

CURWOOD: Okay, she goes to the edge of China, way up towards Tibet, to look for those pandas. How does she find one?

CROKE: It’s an interesting story. Soon after they got to the mountains, the Qionglai Sagan, they had three camps set up and within days of being in the second camp she went out with Quentin Young, the hunters and the porters. It was extremely foggy up at that elevation, which was probably about 10,000 feet. And that morning they were hiking through the wet bamboo forest, soaking wet from head to foot, couldn’t see more than a foot in front of them, and a rifle was fired and Harkness was petrified. She’d given orders that no panda was to be shot; she was afraid of what was happening around her, but she couldn’t see. It was absolute chaos and confusion and then they all heard a baby cry and Quentin Young ran over to the hollowed out rotted tree nearby and he pulled out from that hole in his hands a tiny little black and white ball of fluff which was a young panda.

CURWOOD: Now, originally the notion of going to China to bring back a live panda was, I gather, to bring back, you know, a big one. Because they’re giant pandas. So, how did bringing back a baby panda fit into that vision?

CROKE: It’s interesting. It solved a problem that a lot of people had thought about and that is that bamboo is the diet of an adult panda. Also, pandas are rather large, pretty ferocious animals. They want to be left alone. So all of the western hunters who came in brought traps and chains and cages in order to subdue these animals they assumed they would catch. Ruth Harkness in Shanghai one night thought, was thinking about the bamboo problem--how do you keep feeding a panda when you take it away from the bamboo forest? And she had an epiphany and she turned on the lamp next to her bed and she wrote down on a list, “baby bottle” and “formula.” And so she had with her the most important equipment she could have brought and that is a means of feeding a baby panda. And as luck would have it, that is exactly what she got.

CURWOOD: So, how does she manage to get this animal across the world? I mean, one that’s still very difficult to keep in the zoo and nearly impossible to breed… And why do you suppose that she was thus the first able to do this?

CROKE: Today, just this week, we know that a baby panda was born in the National Zoo and everyone’s very excited about it. If that panda survives it will be only the third, young panda, infant panda, born in the U.S. to survive into adulthood and that really highlights how incredible Ruth Harkness’ accomplishment is because she took her little baby panda from deep inside the forest between Tibet and China to Shanghai, then on a luxury liner across the ocean to San Francisco. She went from there to Chicago and on to Manhattan and then she kept the baby in Manhattan in her flat, went from cocktail party to cocktail party, rode around in taxi cabs with him.

CURWOOD: With this baby panda in her arms?

Ruth Harkness and Su-Lin in the United States. (Photo: Mary Lobisco ©)

CROKE: Yes, it was a well-socialized baby panda. He went to the best parties and teas that New York could offer.

CURWOOD: Oh, my.

CROKE: And what we believe today is that she was just intuitive. She kept that baby on her body basically the entire time. She never let him go. She said she was going to learn how to raise a baby panda from him. And he told her when he was hungry and she fed him when he was hungry. And then, even later once he had been placed in the Brookfield Zoo, I came across a letter that Ruth wrote to the zoo and she said to them, “I’m no biologist, but I think this baby should not be fed,” and he was being fed at the time boiled vegetables exclusively, she said, “I think he needs bamboo and also other, what she said, “flinty substances.” He needs to chew on something and it’s remarkable in this day and age to think that just her simple logic and intuition made more sense than these zoologists who consider themselves experts in animal care.

CURWOOD: This story is on page one, what, how many days running in New York City?

CROKE: She made the front page of just about every newspaper in the country from coast to coast for weeks. She was in every newsreel on every radio station and Time magazine proclaimed her capture a scientific prize of first magnitude.

CURWOOD: Vicki, there’s this memorable scene, one that almost seems like a second turning point in the life of Ruth Harkness that she takes a panda that she’s captured in the wild back to the wild where she found her and let her go. Could you tell me that story, please?

CROKE: On her third expedition in 1938, she had in hand a very young panda that she named Su-sen and her, Ruth’s entire future would depend on her returning to the United States with a panda. She’s in Chang Dao and she realizes that the valleys where she had been before are now empty of pandas. There’s been a gold rush of other panda hunters and they are hunting and trapping as many pandas as possible. Many of them, dozens are dying along the way, either in the process of hunting them or bringing them back to Chang Dao and keeping them in cages. And she becomes heartsick. Her original vision was that she would bring back mated pairs of pandas to the United States and we would be sure that we have a population here. And what she’s seeing instead is that too many pandas are dying, that they’re not mating in the United States and so she is sitting in a Chinese pavilion in the city of Chang Dao with little Su-sen and she makes an incredible decision and that is to put her expedition in reverse as she says and she brought Su-sen back up into the mountains where she had been caught and she sets her free.

CURWOOD: Vicki, tell me, to what extent do you think that the work of Ruth Harkness ended up being beneficial to pandas? Which I think you’d say in the end, was what she cared the most about.

CROKE: It’s interesting to me that the World Wildlife Fund, Desmond Morris, and other historians have credited Ruth Harkness with making a tipping point in the history of animal capture and that is she was doing her work in a time when men went into the forest and blasted away. She brought back this little baby panda that the world fell in love with and she made the world panda-conscious. As one historian said, she did more for the giant panda that day when she hit the docks of San Francisco with Su-lin than most wildlife biologists can do in a whole lifetime. So I think what Ruth did is pretty remarkable. And to the American public it was an important point in time where they fell in love with an individual animal. An animal that seemed to them to have a personality and a right of its own to live. And so never again would it be considered romantic to go off and kill animals in the forest and bring back their pelts.

CURWOOD: Vicki Croke’s book is called “The Lady and the Panda: the True Adventures of the First Explorer to Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal.” Thanks you Vicki, for taking this time.

CROKE: Sheer pleasure, Steve. Thank you.

Related link:
“The Lady and the Panda” by Vicki Croke

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[MUSIC: Billie Holliday “Got To Love Me” from ‘Ken Burns Jazz’ (2001)]

Emerging Science Note/Cultivating Meat

CURWOOD: Just ahead, the greening of the internet. Nature films moved to the web. First this Note on Emerging Science from Sarah Williams.

WILLIAMS: If the thought of slaughtering an animal makes you queasy at the sight of meat, but soy burgers just don’t do it for you, you may have an alternative. Using new tissue engineering technology, researchers from the U.S. and the Netherlands have found a way to grow tissues from cattle, pigs, poultry, and fish.

The scientists first isolate a single muscle cell from an animal, and allow this cell to divide and form a tissue. Then they grow sheets of muscle tissues on a thin membrane and stack the membranes together to form a slab of meat.

Researchers can also grow the muscle cells on tiny beads to make processed meats, such as chicken nuggets or ground beef. Under the right conditions, researchers say cells can proliferate so fast that, in theory, a single cell could produce enough meat to feed the world for a year. This “cultured meat” could be healthier for consumers than meat from factory-farm-raised-livestock, which can contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria, hormones, and unhealthy contaminants.

Researchers say they can also manipulate nutritional content. For example, healthy omega-3 fatty acids, the kind found in fish oils, could replace the less desirable omega-6 fatty acids typically found in most meat. The team claims their meat has just as much flavor as what you get at the local butchers. It’s the texture that’s the problem. Meat grown in the lab is tough compared to the meat off living animals that constantly stretch their muscles. To get a more tender texture in the lab, researchers will literally have to find a way to exercise their cultured meat. That’s this week’s note on Emerging Science. I’m Sarah Williams.

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

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[MUSIC: David Ross McDonald “Old Nacs Tractor” from ‘Southern Crossing’ (2002) ]

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The Green Screen

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Bullfrog courtesy of midwestfrogs.com website

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

If you go looking for shows that address environmental issues on television, you may be disappointed. There just aren’t that many. Some environmental filmmakers are disappointed, too. They say much of nature television has become a kind of reality TV with fangs that shuns environmental controversy and scientific complexity. Until recently, these frustrated filmmakers had few outlets for the nature films they believe audiences want. But that's changing. Producer Guy Hand reports some are burning new paths to your screen, thanks to that most unnatural of landscapes--the internet.


GREEN: This is a whole wall of nothing but videotapes lined up and each one is catalogued and archived. Some of it is spotted owls, some of it is rivers, some of it is big horn sheep.

HAND: San Francisco environmental filmmaker Frank Green is standing in front of a wall of videotapes, hundreds he's shot over a long career.

GREEN: This is tape number 24 from the big horn sheep film.

HAND: His latest film, "Counting Sheep," follows the last big horn sheep through the precarious heights of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.


GREEN: To study sheep in the Sierra Nevada, I mean, I couldn’t ask for a higher privilege.

HAND: It won the People's Choice Award at the 2004 Wild and Scenic Film Festival and has aired on public TV in the San Francisco Bay area. But Green and dozens of filmmakers interviewed across the country say that getting environmental films on television is increasingly difficult. Green blames that, in large measure, on TV executives.

GREEN: They wouldn't know a tree if it fell on them. They have absolutely no connection or understanding of the natural world. And these are the people who are making programming decisions for the whole country.

HAND: Commercial television programmers counter that shows containing the word “environment” suffer low ratings. They say audiences are interested in nature mostly as adventure and light entertainment, not conflict. Green disagrees.

GREEN: Because when I show my films to audiences, when I rent a theater, publicize a film and fill a theater, people invariably say why can't we see this on television?

San Francisco environmental filmmaker Frank Green. (Photo: Guy Hand ©)

HAND: Filmmakers fear that even PBS might succumb to political pressure, softening or eliminating well-regarded shows like "Nature" and environmental documentaries like the recent "Strange Days on Planet Earth."

GREEN: If we continue the current trajectory in the media, you won't be able to air natural history films because they all implicitly have this underlying, underlying structure that says evolution was possible. You'll have natural history films that have to be given with the disclaimer that God created everything you're about to see.

HAND: Green is so frustrated, he's leaving the business.

GREEN: I'm getting out of it because I'm just tired of fighting people. It would be one thing if you kind of beat yourself up to make a film and then once you got the film made if there was some reward. But it's more a case of beating yourself up to make the film and then beating yourself up to get anybody to see it. So I've just had enough.


HAND: But as the aperture appears to narrow for environmental stories on TV, some people are trying to open opportunities through new forms of media.

HARLE: The green revolution will not be televised. It's on DVD.

HAND: That's the slogan for Suzanne Harle's new distribution company, Green Planet Films .

HARLE: Welcome to Eco-a-Go-Go, you guys. Thanks for being here!


HAND: Harle has put together a party she calls the Eco-a-Go-Go here in Corte Madera, California to raise funds and awareness for Green Planet Films. Harle got the idea for the company three years ago, at a time when she was considering becoming a filmmaker herself.

HARLE: I thought there wasn't enough wildlife films made because they weren't on TV. So I had to go to this film festival to see how I could become a wildlife filmmaker . . . only to determine that there were a lot of films already made. I just didn't know they existed. And so I changed my mind right there in the audience, thinking, “Okay, instead of being another person who can't get their films out, why don't I turn into a distributor?”

HAND: Harle now hopes to make her company a sort of green Netflix, delivering nature films right to your mailbox. You can rent or purchase them via the internet. Although sales of her 60 some titles are modest, they've doubled in the last quarter.

HARLE: What really surprised us was the international buyers which probably goes to show that there's just not a lot of programming available worldwide. We get emails saying, “Thank goodness we found you.” You know, this is from Germany.


HAND: Filmmakers who make environmental advocacy films, films with a point of view, predictably have had an even harder time getting their messages on the air.

CONGRESSMAN: There's more oil in ANWR than there is in all of Texas

HAND: That's from the soundtrack of “Oil On Ice,” a film project that focuses on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

DJERASSI: In America, you gotta use less.

Filmmaker Dale Djerassi (Photo: Guy Hand ©)

HAND: Filmmaker Dale Djerassi knows it’s difficult to get films with strong environmental opinions on conventional television. That's why he decided to bypass the broadcast and cable television gatekeepers. With the help of the Sierra Club and others, he and his partners distributed “Oil on Ice” directly to viewers as DVDs.

DJERASSI: The market penetration of DVD and DVD players is huge, it's unprecedented.

HAND: Djerassi believes that DVDs can not only reach a large audience on their own, but can also convey far more information than a traditional film ever could.

DJERASSI: Our DVD has a number of special features, special video features in addition to the one hour film. There's the four hour video. There are interviews with some of the people, there's music, there are kids talking about the issues. This is a web-enabled DVD and allows you to launch directly to web links. So it really is ultimately an activist tool-kit as well as just a home video.

HAND: Some environmental filmmakers see so much potential in this new digital media, they've abandoned conventional filmmaking altogether. Academy award nominee and Chicago filmmaker David McGowan has given up TV documentaries in favor of web documentaries or "webumentaries."

MCGOWAN: I've had programs on PBS. They air and then they go away (laughing). And even I forget about them. But the web site, you know we're getting like 4500, 5000 visits a month. I think we'll probably hit about 60,000, 70,000 people by the end of this year and that's a decent viewership in a decent PBS market. Yet what's cool is that people keep coming back .

HAND: Not only do McGowan's web documentaries live on and evolve, they allow him to focus on the kinds of subjects that cable channels like Discovery and National Geographic might view as too small, too tame, or too technical.

MCGOWAN: Their programming tends to have the most dangerous snake or the most poisonous spider. But, a lot of stories that are around us every day aren't getting told. I can't go to Java and film the pygmy rhinoceros and I can't go to Rwanda and do gorillas. So what I've done instead is to look around me and find out what's spectacular in the animals that are here. So that's when I thought “frogs.”


HAND: With his initial webumentary, midwestfrogs.com, McGowan still takes his cameras into the field, but focuses on creatures close to home.

Bullfrog, courtesy of midwestfrogs.com website

MCGOWAN: At first I'm like anybody else. I thought a frog was a frog. And this would never have gotten played on TV. What we're doing is looking at some tiny creature like a peeper, but there are people who study the peeper, and have found out there's all sorts of communication going on in the peeper world. And it may seem insignificant but once you start looking at it, it gives you stories about where animal communication comes from, where communication, in general, comes from. There are a lot of great stories there just right underneath our noses. I think we really do the public a disservice by not focusing more attention on that. And that's why this whole thing with the internet is just so incredible.

HAND: McGowan's web documentaries include film with sound, interviews with scientists, and lots of background information, including relevant web links.

HAND: His audience includes school children in Denmark, academians in Ecuador, and conservation groups in Africa.

MCGOWAN: For me as a filmmaker, none of my programs showed globally before and that is kind of cool.

HAND: McGowen thinks the ability to get environmental information to viewers via the internet is going to explode in the next few years. At first, technology restricted his films to a few seconds of postage-stamp sized footage.

MCGOWAN: Two years from now I think it's going to be the entire screen. It's kind of like a mirror of the movie industry. You know, in the turn of the 19th Century you had to look in these little nickelodeons, put in a nickel and you'd see a little clip. Ten years later they were doing "Birth of a Nation" at theaters. So I think the technology is just going to continue to improve. It's going to become a major alternative to broadcast.


HAND: Like a frog's call, it's all about communication: perceiving the world and communicating that perception to other members of the species. Frustrated environmental filmmakers say that's all they're trying to do. If they can't broadcast a varied view of the environment on national television they'll do it somewhere else. Like the internet. After all, even a frog knows that there's an evolutionary advantage in speaking your mind. For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand.

Related links:
- Green TV
- Green Planet Films
- “Oil On Ice”
- Frog “Webumentary”

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March of the Penguins

(Photo: Jérôme Maison. © 2005 Bonne Pioche Productions / Alliance De Production Cinématographique)

CURWOOD: There's one nature film that's making a surprise splash in theatres these days. "March of the Penguins" is a documentary by filmmakers who spent more than a year tracking the birds along their seasonal migration across Antarctica. And although the journey itself is a miracle of science, it’s the story of just two penguins that has captured the heart of summer moviegoers.


TRAILER: In the harshest place on earth, love finds a way. This is the incredible true story of a family's journey to bring life into the world.


(Photo: Jérôme Maison. © 2005 Bonne Pioche Productions / Alliance De Production Cinématographique)

CURWOOD: And here to talk with me about the stars of the movie is Lauren DuBois.
She's assistant curator of birds at Sea World in San Diego, and is a big fan of the film's emperor penguins. So much so that you've seen the movie twice, is that right?

DUBOIS: That is correct, and I'll probably see it a third time, as well.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] Okay. What do you think is the appeal of this nature documentary versus others in the past? I mean, I'm told that in the theatres where it's playing now, it's actually outselling blockbusters like “War of the Worlds” and “Batman Begins.” I mean, how do you think it is that a nature film is making such an unprecedented showing?

DUBOIS: Well, of course, working with penguins I can always say that penguins have a big appeal, but I think really the life history of the emperor penguins is so fascinating, and because they're found in such a remote area that nobody has really heard the story before. So penguins, a lot of people equate to looking like people. As you see them, really one of the first opening shots of the movie is, you see these figures walking along the ice, and they look like people walking along a trail. And when you get up closer, you realize “oh my goodness, these are not people, these are animals, and beautiful penguins, making this tremendous trek to go find a mate to breed, to have chicks,” and it's something that in a way I think we can all sort of appeal to. We all want some sort of companionship, we all want to be, you know, in a large group of people sometimes. And I think that's one of the appeals. And when you have all these other movies that have all these big flashy bombs going off and things like that, you have something that's very simple, and very, kind of back down to earth, and take a look at something that's just wonderful.

CURWOOD: We have another clip from the movie that we'd like to play now.


MOVIE NARRATOR: It is March. Summer is over, and another long polar winter is about to begin. The birds have been feeding on the ocean water for three months. Now, their bellies full, it is time to find a mate.


(Photo: Jérôme Maison. © 2005 Bonne Pioche Productions / Alliance De Production Cinématographique)

CURWOOD: Lauren DuBois, what does it take for these penguns to find a mate and start a family?

DUBOIS: Oh, it takes a tremendous amount. They have to--one, travel almost 70 miles to their breeding grounds. And that's a very long walk, or a very long toboggan. And once they get there, they have to find the perfect mate. Females are actually looking for a male that's fairly large, and is going to be able to sustain close to two months sitting on an egg. And it takes a lot of sort of competing and looking just for the right mate to be able to know that bird is going to be able to survive a very harsh winter, while she takes off. And when she comes back, she's going to be wanting to have that mate that's going to come back to help her raise that chick.

CURWOOD: And the biggest guys win?

DUBOIS: And the biggest guys win. Isn't that unusual? You know, instead of looking for that slim, trim Mr. Muscle, they're looking for that rather chubby guy that's going to be able to sustain an entire winter in harsh conditions: 100 mile winds, minus 50 degrees, so yeah, she wants that big portly guy.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] And there's this moment in the movie where the penguin family is finally together for the first time, and I want to play a little bit of this right now.


MOVIE NARRATOR: The couple has found one another. The mother sees her chick for the first time and at last, the family is together.


CURWOOD: Lauren, what are the images that you remember of the scene? And I'm wondering, what might this scene tell us of the species as a whole?

DUBOIS: Well, it's funny because I can see that image and that whole scene very vividly where it's the recognition of the chick, and both of them are sort of recognizing, “yes, this is what we've sort of been, this is what I've incubated and this is why you came back.” And there's this chick, and the chick is just beautiful, you can't imagine how beautiful these chicks are. And it goes out, and who knows, in five or seven years, that chick's going to come back to that same area and do the same thing and start the whole cycle over again. It's just incredible.

(Photo: Jérôme Maison. © 2005 Bonne Pioche Productions / Alliance De Production Cinématographique)

CURWOOD: Lauren DuBois is assistant curator of birds at Sea World in San Diego. Lauren, thanks for taking this time with me today.

DUBOIS: You're welcome, it was my pleasure.


CURWOOD: We leave you this week in the land of the penguin. Douglas Quin recorded these sounds in, under and around the icy waters of Antarctica’s Weddell Sea.

[EARTHEAR: “Weddel Space” from‘The Dreams Of Gaia’ recorded by Douglas Quin (EarthEar - 1999)]

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Steve Gregory, and Ingrid Lobet, with help from Jennie Cecil Moore and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Max Thelander and Sarah Williams. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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