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

November 4, 2011

Air Date: November 4, 2011



Mining Jobs or Salmon in Alaska?

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Discovery of what could be $500 billion worth of gold and minerals near Alaska’s richest productive salmon fishery has sparked an epic fight in Alaska. The richest man in Alaska, fishermen, powerful mine interests, and native corporations all have something to say about the future of the proposed Pebble Mine. But now the courts will decide. Public Radio station KDLG’s news director Mike Mason has been following this battle for a decade. He speaks with host Bruce Gellerman from Dillingham, Alaska. (07:45)

Freezing the Arsenic in Giant Mine

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Canada’s Giant Mine contains one-quarter million tons of arsenic, a byproduct of years of gold production. To prevent the arsenic from leaking, the Canadian government plans to permanently freeze the area. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Dr. Joan Kuyek about making sure future generations continue to care for this poisonous problem. (05:30)

Bolivian President Caught in the Middle / Mary Stucky

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After months of protests, Bolivian President Evo Morales cancelled a major highway project that would have cut through indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest. But Morales is still intent on bringing roads and other development to Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America. As Mary Stucky reports, this push is putting his image as a pro-environmental leader in question. (07:05)

A Tree Falls in the Forest

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A 1,500 year old Sequoia tree fell across a path in Sequoia National Forest. Forest spokesperson Denise Alonzo tells host Bruce Gellerman that foresters are trying to figure out what to do with the 250 foot-long giant. (05:00)

Europe’s Stupidest Robots

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Europe’s stupidest robots just duked it out for the grand prize in Budapest. In this “survival of the dumbest,” 13 inventors presented their useless robots – robots that watch television, hesitate, and lick ice cream. Attila Nemes, the founder of Europe’s stupidest robot cup, tells host Bruce Gellerman about zany competitors. (06:00)

Cool Fix for a Hot Planet

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Listener David Lachman says we can save energy in the winter by iceboxing – freezing containers outside and putting them into the fridge so the compressor stays off. (01:30)

Building Music / Ike Sriskandarajah

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Humans have always been attracted to resonant spaces. The highest concentration of cave-paintings correlate with “acoustic sweet spots.” Filmmaker and musician, Oliver Beer, taps into this ancient affinity through his Resonance Project. He uses the natural resonant frequencies to turn architecture into instruments. Beer explains his sonic explorations to Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah. (08:30)

Gathering of the Great Egrets

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One early morning, a large group of wading birds came together in a small coastal marsh. Producer Mark Seth Lender watched closely as scores of Great Egrets challenged each other and searched for edible treasures. (03:15)

Great Egret Confrontation

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The strangled calls of a pair of Great Egrets as they confront each other at a Connecticut glacial pond. (01:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Mike Mason, Joan Kuyek, Denise Alonzo, Attila Nemes,
REPORTERS: Mary Stucky, Libby Arnosti, Ike Sriskandarajah, Mark Seth Lender


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. In Alaska, environmental concerns and Sockeye salmon go head-to-head with a proposed massive gold mine.

MASON: The sockeye run here is the largest on Earth, so there's a lot of concern that a development of the Pebble Mine could really impact the fisheries out here that have been sustainable for now well over 125 years.

GELLERMAN: Also, a remote gold mine in Canada is out of sight, but it will never be out of mind. Arsenic mining waste will have to be monitored and protected forever.
And underground music for real: tuning into tunnels and parking garages.

BEER: It's a very emotive experience really. To suddenly feel like you're in the belly of this giant architectural instrument - this great pair of lungs. It was a very immersive and actually quite a chilling experience.

GELLERMAN: Those stories and more this week, on Living on Earth. Stay with us!


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

Mining Jobs or Salmon in Alaska?

KDLG Reporters walk to an active exploratory drill rig. (Jason Sear, KDLG)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The name "Pebble Mine" might suggest something small. Fact is, if it was ever developed, Pebble Mine would be enormous.

The proposed gold and copper mine sits on the largest undeveloped deposit of its kind in the world. The site is 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, near remote Bristol Bay, and the largest Sockeye salmon run in the world. And, there’s the problem. Recently, the people of the region, in a non-binding referendum, voted to prohibit Pebble Mine from going forward.

But it’s just the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that began many years ago. Mike Mason, news director of public radio station KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska has been following the story since 2001. Mike, welcome to Living on Earth.

MASON: Thank you so much!

GELLERMAN: Now, in my lead, I said that this is a remote place - what does it look like? How remote is it?

View of the proposed Pebble Mine site. (Jason Sear, KDLG)

MASON: Oh, it’s just about as remote as you can possibly get. You cannot get there from here, other than by airplane. There are some small Alaskan native villages near the area, but very small populations, and a very economically distressed area. But someone went up there and apparently has found the Mother lode…

GELLERMAN: Boy, I was reading about this. This would be a very, very big mine. What is it, 50 million ounces of gold, 53 billion ounces of copper?

MASON: Yeah, it kind of depends on whose estimate you look at and who you believe, but estimates of 100-500 billion dollars - with a "B"- worth of mineral exploration up there. It’s going to be a massive endeavor. Perhaps the largest mine in North America. That is going to come with a lot of jobs. It’s going to come with a lot of infrastructure, perhaps, for the area up there.

GELLERMAN: I understand that they’ve got to build impounding dams to store the chemical waste and that these would be really gigundous. They're earthen dams. The largest is something like two and a half football fields high and nearly four and a half miles long.

MASON: Yeah, a few years ago, back in 2006, the people that are looking at developing this had to release some plans, basically, regarding water permits. And that is where we’ve gotten these pictures and these images of these great big huge massive earthen dams that would basically hold back the tailings. And though we don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like, that’s likely pretty close. They’re going to be massive constructions.

This is the approximately where toxic mine waste would be stored. (Jason Sear, KDLG)

GELLERMAN: And they’re near these salmon and the lake that they spawn in, I guess?

MASON: Yeah. Bristol Bay is a flagship for wild salmon production across the globe. The Sockeye run here is the largest on earth, so there’s a lot of concern among the people that live out here that a development of the Pebble Mine could really, at some point, impact the fisheries out here that have been sustainable for now well over 125 years.

And then you’ve got all of the other resource organizations in the state of Alaska - the miner’s association, which are very strong, the oil and gas organizations - that are in favor of that kind of resource development and what it could mean for the area up there. It’s a big fight here in Alaska.

[ADVERTISEMENT: “I’m here at the Pebble deposit where scientists have spent years studying everything about the environment from wildlife and habitat to water and wetlands. Their work represents one of the most extensive scientific research programs ever conducted in Alaska. The goal? Design a world-class project that protects the fisheries and benefits Alaskans. Because we don’t have to choose between fishing and mining - in Alaska, we could have both. Pebble could be part of the solution.”]

MASON: And then on the other side, you have the people that are looking at protecting the commercial fisheries, the sport fisheries, the subsistence fisheries - kind of the way of life out here in Bristol Bay.

GELLERMAN: On the side of opponents includes a big backer - the richest man in Alaska.

MASON: Yeah, Bob Gillam. For years he was kind of this shadowy figure. The wealthiest man in Alaska, started an investment group that was based in Anchorage. Apparently he was a very good friend of the late Senator, Ted Stevens. And he has been a strong backer of the opponents of the proposed Pebble Mine. Bruce, here is a portion of the interview that I conducted with Bob Gillam:

GILLAM: So the political fireworks is already started. And it really shouldn’t be mining versus fishing - it should be the Pebble Mine in this place issue. It’s not about mining at all. Most people in Alaska support mining, as do I. But not this one in this place.

GELLERMAN: So this is a battle of titans. You’ve got these mining concerns and you’ve got this billionaire, and they’re really going head-to-head then.

MASON: Oh, there’s way more than that. There are the Alaskan native corporations, which are … some of them are in favor of this kind of resource development, some of them are adamantly opposed. So you’ve got these big monied native corporations on either side.

A memo from the pro-mine Pebble Partnership posted on the exploratory drill rig. (Jason Sear, KDLG)

You’ve got the commercial fishing interest, which … the seafood processors, the trade organizations, the individual commercial fishermen, and you also have the sport fishermen which, traditionally in Alaska, there has been competition between those two interest groups. But in regards to Pebble, it looks like they have come together to oppose this.

GELLERMAN: Now, there was a public referendum there - the vote was, what? 280 to 246 in favor of banning large-scale extraction activities. So, at least on this vote, the people are opposed to it. But we should say that the state attorney general says it’s just a vote, it’s not enforceable as law.

MASON: Yeah, so you have the Lake and Peninsula Borough which is the area that is around the mine site, trying to regulate land that is owned by the state of Alaska. This site is state land, has always been open to mineral exploration and development. But if you look at the polling, it looks like in the region, 80 percent - somewhere around there - are opposed to the Pebble Mine outright. So this is likely going to be a very contentious issue, there's lots of legal ins-and-outs, and it’s definitely going to court next month.

GELLERMAN: Well, in some ways, this has actually gone to the court of public opinion. Several US and British jewelry companies including Tiffany’s and Zales have pledged not to buy gold from the mine, should that come to pass.

MASON: They’re not opposed to mining. And as you know, the jewelry companies, they’re not opposed to mining. The contention is this mine in this place because of the dangers that could be posed to the last great wild Sockeye run on earth and the subsistence of the lifestyle here in this relatively untouched area of the world called Bristol Bay.

But the people of the state of Alaska have yet to really weigh in on this. And that’s likely not going to happen because this is going to end up in the hands of the courts and regulators as opposed to the people getting to vote yes or no.

GELLERMAN: Boy, Mike, you’ve got an epic story on your hands.

MASON: Yeah, it can kind of take over your life in some respects. But as I try to tell people, this is going to be a very, very long process. We’re looking at likely seven to ten years before we even get to the point where they can begin operations - if we ever get to that point.

GELLERMAN: Mike Mason is news director of public radio station KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska. Mike, thanks again, very much, I really appreciate it.

MASON: Thank you so much. Bye now.

Related links:
- The Pebble Partnership hopes to win support from residents
- The Bristol Bay Alliance argues, “pure water is more precious than gold.”
- Follow more original reporting on the on-going Pebble Mine debate

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Freezing the Arsenic in Giant Mine

GELLERMAN: Well, in the 20th century, it was the Northwest Territories of Canada that was gold country. A king’s ransom was taken from a dozen gold mines in the remote region, but none was bigger than the Giant Mine. It was a bonanza. For more than half a century, miners dug deep into the ground in search of veins of gold, but all that glitters at Giant Mine came with a deadly by-product: arsenic trioxide.

The mine closed in 2004, but the arsenic will be a problem forever. Dr. Joan Kuyek investigated the arsenic pollution at Giant Mine for the environmental group: Mining Watch Canada. Dr Kuyek, welcome!

KUYEK: Thank you!

GELLERMAN: So a lot of people got very rich on this giant mine - eight million ounces of gold. I did some math, that'd be about 13 billion dollars today.

KUYEK: I wouldn’t say a lot of people got really rich on it, actually, I think a few people got really rich on it. And for the people whose land it was on - the Yellowknife Dene First Nation - they basically got nothing out of it at all.

GELLERMAN: Well, I guess they got a lot of arsenic, because this thing - in extracting the gold - they wound up with about a quarter of a million tons!

KUYEK: Yeah, they did. And there’s arsenic all over the surface too, which has changed the groundwater and the soils. From 1946 when the mine opened, until 1951 when it was finally recognized that some children had died from drinking melt water from the snow - they just pumped the stuff straight out the stack.

And so it spread all over the area. And after that they introduced a bag-house, as they call it, to capture the arsenic-trioxide. They were captured as powder, and then they were blown underground into the drifts and shafts of the Giant Mine. And of course, there is some leakage starting to happen. This mine goes under the town of Yellowknife and under parts of Great Slave Lake.

(Photo: Joan Kuyek)

GELLERMAN: Great Slave Lake is, what, the fifth largest lake in North America, I think?

KUYEK: I believe so, yeah.

GELLERMAN: So some of this arsenic seems to be leaking out. How do you keep it down underground?

KUYEK: So they’ve come up with a plan which isn’t a solution, but it’s an interim measure, to create a block of permafrost around and through where the arsenic is stored, and then maintaining that frozen block forever, or until some solution is found.

GELLERMAN: It’s the same kind of technology they use to make, like, ice rings- right?

KUYEK: Yeah, basically.

GELLERMAN: Well, it’s gotta be expensive.

KUYEK: Yeah, it’s expensive. The price that they’re talking about now is half of a billion dollars, but I’m pretty sure it will be a billion before they are done. And when you’re depending on permafrost, climate change becomes a huge issue.

GELLERMAN: The Canadian government is going to have to come up with the money. But if this is a problem that lasts forever, um, who is going to guarantee that the government is going to be around forever?

KUYEK: Well, we know it won’t be. (Laughs) Historically, the kind of civilizations we’ve built have only been around for 5,000 years. So it’s highly unlikely that anything that resembles what we have now will be there 5,000 years from now. And there are places that have been struggling with this - one of them being the Office of Legacy Management in your Department of Energy, which is having to deal with nuclear sites.

But we have no real experience with this. There’s a lot of really big questions about markers. When they were designing the waste isolation pilot project in New Mexico, they had panels of science fiction writers and archaeologists and others debating on the kind of markers that should be used so that future generations won’t see it as a challenge to disturb the site.

But one of the problems is most markers really say: ‘Look at me, we’re proud of this!’ This is one that's got to say: ‘Get away! Stay away; don’t touch this!' You know, it will kill you. And that attracts people rather than repels them most of the time.

(Photo: Marke Clinger, Flickr Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: Well, I’m thinking of the pyramids, you know, they’ve been around a couple of thousand years, but they put curses on those to prevent people from raiding the tombs.

KUYEK: Well, it didn’t work, did it? (laughs) The tombs have all been raided. They’re crumbling. I think there's always associated with these … the isolation of these contaminants - a sort of wishful thinking that the next generations will figure out what to do with it - that somehow technology will evolve and they will figure out what to do.

The problem is that we’ve opened Pandora’s box. We've created things that we can’t control. One of the things that you might want to know, Bruce, is that there's, in fact, 217,000 sites that will require perpetual care in the United States that we know about and there’s probably a lot more.

GELLERMAN: There are 217,000?

KUYEK: Yup. Roughly one in four Americans, including 10 million children, live within four miles of a toxic waste dump. And we just ignore it. Your culture and ours are the kind that just sort of say: "Oops! You know, we’ll figure it out later." We’re get it done people, right? And that means that we often just don’t pay attention to the consequences of what we do anywhere.

GELLERMAN: Well, Professor Kuyek, thank you very much.

KUYEK:You're more than welcome, thank you.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Joan Kuyek founded the environmental group: Mining Watch Canada.

Related links:
- Canada’s website on the Giant Mine Remediation Project
- Dr. Joan Kuyek’s report, “the Theory and Practice of Perpectual Care of Contaminated Sites”
- Alternatives North is the organization that contracted Dr. Kuyek’s report.
- Read, “Giant Mine cleanup concerns abound”

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[MUSIC: Tom Moulton/The Delfonics “I Told You So (Tom Mooulton Remix) from Philly Re-Grooved: The Tom Moulton Philly Groove Remixes (Harmless/Demon Music Group 2010).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead, the survival of the stupidest - choosing the dumbest, but funniest robot on the planet. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Bill Frisell/Vinicius Cantuaria: “La Curva” from Lagrimas Mexicanas (E One Music 2010).]

Bolivian President Caught in the Middle

Construction of a highway that would have gone through a 2300 square mile rainforest in the Bolivian Amazon was cancelled after thousands protested. (Photo: Libby Arnosti)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

GELLERMAN: In Bolivia, the people spoke and the government listened. For three months, a thousand people marched across the Andes Mountains, closing roads, enduring police crackdown and arrest. They were protesting the government's plan to build a highway through indigenous lands and Amazon forest.

Bolivian President Evo Morales gave in to the protesters and scrapped the project. But while demonstrators may have won this round, the fight over how to develop Bolivia's economy and protect its environmental future continues. Mary Stucky reports.


STUCKY: The proposed highway would have cut through more than 23 hundred square miles of Amazon rain forest in what’s called the Isiboro Sécure park, home to at least a dozen endangered species including fresh water dolphins and blue macaws, not to mention 15 hundred tribal people who live in relative isolation, surviving by hunting, fishing, and gathering food. Adolfo Moye is one of their leaders. He says his people have no need for highways.

The old road meets the new in Isinuta in Isiboro Sécure Park in the Amazon. (Photo: Libby Arnosti)

MOYE (via translator): Our way of life is sustainable and organic. The rivers are the highways of the communities. We have our own natural highways and have no need for roads.

STUCKY: Moye and the tribal people he represents won the battle over their land – for now. But Bolivia’s environmental future is far from decided. This is the poorest country in South America. And its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, is intent on developing the country’s rich resources, giving more of the proceeds to Bolivia’s poor. To do that, he says he needs roads.


STUCKY: In Bolivia, roads are either dilapidated or nonexistent. One province - the size of Great Britain - has just 150 miles of paved roads. The highway through the Amazon was meant to dramatically reduce the distance traveled between several major cities and is part of a network that would connect to Pacific ports. Bolivia has large natural gas resources that Morales has promised to exploit. But this presents a conflict, says John Zambrana, head of the environmental organization FOCOMADE.

ZAMBRANA (via translator): Basically the government wants to develop the country by taking advantage of natural resources. We don’t have any other type of income in Bolivia so hydrocarbons and petroleum are being exploited. And these things are generally inside environmentally sensitive, protected areas.

STUCKY: This pits two powerful forces against each other – Bolivians who want to protect and preserve the environment against those whose priority is to develop the country. Morales may have caved in on the road through the Amazon, but he’s still facing an almost irresolvable conflict, according to Kathryn Ledebur, head of The Andean Information Network, a Bolivian think tank.

LEDEBUR: Part of it is a difference in worldview and the vision between campesinos who are farmers who want to chop down chunks of forest and establish boundaries to the farms and then the indigenous people who have different visions of land use.

STUCKY: In that struggle, the country appears to be split. One poll showed nearly half the Bolivians supported Morales in his quest to run a highway through the Amazon.

This summer, workers began constructing the first section of the highway that was to cut through the Isiboro Sécure Park in Bolivia’s Amazon. (Photo: Libby Arnosti)

[MUSIC: Gato Barbieri “Bolivia” from Bolivia Under Fire (BMG Heritage Records 2003).]

STUCKY: Hundreds of people showed up this past summer to celebrate the president in his hometown Villa Tunari in Bolivia’s sub-tropics. These are Morale’s staunchest supporters – waving flags and showering him with confetti, a Bolivian tradition bestowing honor on an important person.


STUCKY: Morales told the crowd that he is determined to develop the country’s extensive natural resources. He’s planning to build dams, more roads and other infrastructure. Apolonia Sanchez Miranda, president of the Villa Tunari City Council, praised Morales and says he’s giving Bolivians what they need.

President Evo Morales is celebrated in his hometown Villa Tunari in Bolivia’s sub-tropics this summer. (Photo: Libby Arnosti)

SANCHEZ (via translator): He is doing what no other Bolivian president has done. This president is wanting to carry through with what has been promised.

STUCKY: It was here in Bolivia’s subtropics that Morales got his start in politics, leading the union of farmers who grow coca. He’s walked a fine line between meeting the needs of coca farmers who want more land and the traditional Amazon tribes. Morales’ policies have sometimes angered the country's wealthy class. He nationalized energy companies and tried to end government fuel subsidies, which drove up the price of gasoline and diesel.

And his push to develop the country’s fossil fuels is at odds with his statements at last year's Cancun climate summit where he chastised industrialized nations and warned that climate change will result in environmental genocide. Kathryn Ledebur says these contradictions have caused his image as one of the world's greenest presidents to suffer.

LEDEBUR: His own base - coca growers - places a lot of pressure on him to generate income, but at the same time, he needs to meet the need to comply with his international discourse, and a discourse that I think is well intentioned and well focused on protecting Mother Earth and the environment. It’s just been impossible for him to do so, and to reconcile these demands.

STUCKY: The victory, at least for now, has gone to Bolivia’s environmental activists like Pablo Rojas who explains what he thinks was at stake in the rain forest.

ROJAS (via translator): There is no radio, no Internet, none of the technology of the world which we have been convinced is happiness. There’s a different type of happiness: listening to the river at night, listening to the laughter of the children with their games and climbing trees. It’s the magic that we have forgotten in our jungles of cement.

STUCKY: In backing off the Amazon road project, Evo Morales may have bought a little time to protect Pachamama, what Bolivians call "Mother Earth," while also developing the country. The question is whether he can satisfy Bolivia’s many interests without further protest. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Stucky.

GELLERMAN: Libby Arnosti also contributed to our report from Bolivia.

Related links:
- Andean Information Network
- This story was produced in collaboration with Round Earth Media

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[MUSIC: Gato Barbieri “Bolivia” from Bolivia Under Fire (BMG Heritage Records 2003).]

A Tree Falls in the Forest

A huge fire scar on an old giant sequoia in Black Mountain grove. This gnarled old giant is still clinging to life after centuries of surviving forest fires.(Sequoia National Forest)

GELLERMAN: On September 30, two German tourists set off to hike the Trail of 100 Giants in Sequoia National Forest. The California coastal mountain air was cool and damp and towering overhead was the awe-inspiring sight of the largest trees on earth. Then, as the couple walked the trail, they heard a noise. It was a “crinkling sound.” They looked up, and their video camera recorded what happened next.


GELLERMAN: A Giant Sequoia, actually two Giant Sequoias fused at the base, came crashing to the ground. A tree fell in the forest and it definitely made a sound: here it is again:


GELLERMAN: The German couple is fine, but the trail was blocked and now the National Forest Service has to figure out what to do with the fallen giant. Joining me is Denise Alonzo – spokesperson for the Sequoia National Forest. Denise welcome!

ALONZO: Thank you!

GELLERMAN: Boy, big drama! Big tree. Does this happen often?

ALONZO: No, this doesn’t. We do have Giant Sequoias that fall in the woods, but not normally on top of a recreation trail visited by 5,000 people a week.

GELLERMAN: (laughs) Do you know why it fell down?

ALONZO: No, we don’t. We actually had some pest management specialists come and take a look at it. We’re looking for foreign bugs, and stuff like that, that may have contributed to the roots breaking, but we didn’t find anything. The only thing we can think of is there’s a stream running nearby the trees, and also the wet winter that we had, perhaps the soil was so saturated that the weight of the trees just brought them over.

GELLERMAN: How big was this tree?

ALONZO: They estimate the trees in this grove are roughly 250 feet tall and this particular tree measured about 17 feet in diameter at breast height.

GELLERMAN: So how old is this tree?

ALONZO: The trees in the Long Meadow Grove, where these trees are located, are estimated at 1,500 years old.

(Photo: Sequoia National Forest)

GELLERMAN: Wow! 1,500 years - that puts it back in medieval times! Knights!

ALONZO: Yes it does. It’s hard to believe that these trees have been there for so long and have survived so many different things. You can see the fire scars on these trees. Giant Sequoias are actually dependent on fire to open up their little cones and pop the seeds out of them. And you can see evidence of fires in the Trail of a Hundred Giants on the giant sequoias that are there.

GELLERMAN: These are extraordinary trees. I guess in terms of giant sequoias, this was a kind of mid-life tree.

ALONZO: 1,500 years is about mid-life for these giant sequoias. The General Sherman, I believe it’s over 3,000 years old.

GELLERMAN: So now you’ve got a problem - you’ve got this giant tree that’s cutting right across your trail.

ALONZO: We do! And what to do about it kind of up in the air right now, we’ve…

GELLERMAN: Or down on the ground, as the case may be!

ALONZO: (Laughs). Well, that’s true! We have asked the public for their suggestions, we’ve had a brainstorming field trip, and got quite a few suggestions from the public. Some folks want us to actually tunnel though it. Others want us to reroute the trail around it, and some want us to just close the trail where the tree lies on the ground, and that is a concern of ours, because we want to have this trail reopened to all members of the public, including those folks in wheel chairs, pushing strollers and walkers, and have this opportunity available for all people.

GELLERMAN: Well, there are some giant sequoias that do have tunnels.

(Photo: Sequoia National Forest)

ALONZO: Yes, there are. Some, actually, you can walk through. Others, you can drive through. We don’t have any here in the Sequoia National Forest, but there are some up in Yosemite and up in Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park.

GELLERMAN: In terms of mass, these are the largest living things on the planet.


GELLERMAN: That’s incredible. I was thinking maybe what we should do is kind of slice it up and give a sliver to every American to remind them of our natural heritage.

ALONZO: That is an opportunity and that's one of the suggestions that we’ve had.

GELLERMAN: So, who does decide what happens to the tree?

ALONZO: My district ranger will make a decision on how to get the trail reopened. When that decision comes out, we'll of course inform everybody and that’s the primary decision that we have to make right now.

GELLERMAN: If it’s called the Trail of 100 Giants, and now one fell, is it the trail of 99 Giants?

ALONZO: (Laughs). We’ve had that comment a couple of times. We actually have over 125 Giant Sequoias in the Long Meadow Grove that are over 10 feet in diameter. We have 700 that are under 10 feet in diameter. So we still do have way over 100 Giants on the trail.

GELLERMAN: Well, Deinse Alonzo, thank you so very much.

ALONZO: You're welcome. It's been a pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Denise Alonzo is with the Sequoia National Forest. So what do you think they should do with the giant tree? Let us know. Our Facebook page is PRI's Living on Earth.

Related links:
- Trail of 100 Giants
- Click here for a video of the falling sequoia

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[MUSIC: Andrew Brid “The Trees Were Mistaken” from Soldier On (Wegawam Music 2006).]

Europe’s Stupidest Robots

The Bacarobo 2011 champion, Fanbot Joey, won 2000 Euros. (Photo:Budapest Kitchen)

GELLERMAN: We’d be remiss if we didn’t report the results of this year’s Bacarobo contest - the search for the stupidest robot on the planet. You heard right! The search for the world’s stupidest robot started in Japan – Baca means stupid in Japanese.

For the past 2 years there's been a Bacarobo in Europe - this year the championship took place at the House of Contemporary Arts in Budapest. And the winner of the Bacarobo Cup is:


GELLERMAN: Well, in case your Hungarian is a bit rusty, joining us by phone from Budapest is Attila Nemes. He’s curator of the Bacorobo Europa Stupid Robot Championship.

NEMES: The specific rules are that the robot must be useless, it’s very important.

GELLERMAN: It must be useless, uh huh.

NEMES: And then they have to be stupid, so they have to make people laugh. And then the third one is they have to be robots, so they have to perform without any assistance. But, of course, you have to think of DIY style robots.

Attila Nemes curated this year's championship(Photo: Attila Nemes)

GELLERMAN: So, do-it-yourself robots, they’ve gotta operate automatically, they’ve gotta be useless and they’ve gotta be funny.

NEMES: Exactly.

GELLERMAN: Last year, you had something that looked just like a box - a robot box.

NEMES: Yes, and it sounded like a sheep. And it was running around.


NEMES: It was very funny.

GELLERMAN: And totally useless!

NEMES: Sheep-in-the-box, I think that was the title for it. It was a wooden box with some holes in it, and giving this sheep sound, and running around the room.


GELLERMAN: (Laughs). So, I saw one, it was a pair of shivering robots in a refrigerator.

Shivering robots in fridge. (Photo: Budapest Kitchen)

NEMES: Yes, that was a very nice one. Yeah, it was a few shivering hats sitting in a fridge, and when the guy opened the door of the fridge, they escaped from the fridge. So, they ran out, but were still shivering, but they escaped.

GELLERMAN: So, lets talk about this year’s winners. You had, what, 13 finalists?

NEMES: Yes, 13 finalists.

GELLERMAN: So, lets talk about some of the runner-ups before we get to the grand champion.

NEMES: Okay. So, we had this very interesting one, this puddle jumping robot which is holding an umbrella and actually creates water in order to make a puddle and then jumps over it. It was a very nice one.

GELLERMAN: The robot makes water and then jumps over the puddle.

NEMES: Yes, yes. It pours water all around, and then jumps over its puddle. It’s a very funny one. And then we had a very nice one: Love Me, Loves Me Not. Which is tearing leaves from a flower, and of course, when it says it love, then it smiles, then when it says loves me not, it cries. Also very nice…

Puddle Jumper robot. (Photo:Budapest Kitchen)

GELLERMAN: Well, hold it, that could be useful. You’ve got a heartbroken lover who is lazy and they just need a robot to do their hard work!

NEMES: Yeah, actually, one of the jurors said the same and he gave a reduced number of points because he said it’s a really useful one.

GELLERMAN: No, no, if I was there, I would deduct points, absolutely.

NEMES: (Laughs). But there was other ones, for example, I really liked the one called the Nutcracker, which, of course, replies to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, but it looks like the Nutcracker, a big one.

The "vicious" Nutcracker robot (Photo:Budapest Kitchen)

GELLERMAN: I’ve got a picture of this. So, it looks like a solider…

NEMES: It’s like one meter high.

GELLERMAN: And then?

NEMES: Then you give the nut to his mouth so to break it, because he has an open mouth. Instead of closing the mouth and cracking the nut…


NEMES: It raises its hand in between your legs (laughs).

GELLERMAN: Oh! And then…

NEMES: It’s a vicious one, yes.

GELLERMAN: (laughs) And the winner was a soccer fan robot.

NEMES: Yes, FanBot Józsi, it’s a football fan or I should say a soccer fan robot.

GELLERMAN: So, give me a picture of the soccer fan robot, what did it look like and what did it do?

NEMES: It’s sitting on a small couch in front of a 1980s style small TV.


NEMES: And the robot wasn’t very humanoid. It’s was a very technical looking robot. And it was eating popcorn, and then it was a goal…


NEMES: Then it picked up a flag. And it started raising it, and also shaking his head - it was very nice. He was also jumping on the couch if he was very excited. So it was very very funny.

GELLERMAN: Goal! And that was the winner!

NEMES: And that was the winner. We had very similar points for two robots - the puddle jumping and this one. But the audience points were higher for this one, so we decided the audience should decide, so this got the 2,000 Euro prize.

GELLERMAN: So Attila, are you going to have a 2012 stupid robot championship?

NEMES: I hope so! We are planning to have the third one and this is for Europe, but we are also thinking about having a global one. So, it would be very nice to global, I think, at this point.

GELLERMAN: I love it.

NEMES: Thank you. I hope that we meet again. In the US at the Global Championship…

GELLERMAN: Oh, we’ll beat you! Oh, we’ve got stupid robots galore, here. And if we don’t, we’ll invent them! (laughing)

NEMES: (Laughs). Oh, I hope so!

GELLERMAN: Well, Attila Nemes, thank you so very much.

NEMES: Thank you, thank you very much.

GELLERMAN: Attila Nemes is the curator of the stupid robot championship.

Related links:
- Kitchen Budapest’s Bocarobo Cup
- Kitchen Budapest’s website
- Videos Kitchen Budapest’s Bocarobo Competition

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[MUSIC: Various Artists “Mr. Roboto” from 100 Trance, Dubstep and Bass & Drum Workout Hits (Hypnotic Records 2011).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up, you’ve heard of tunnel vision - we take a look at tunnel hearing.

BEER: What I did in the old brick tunnels in London was to find the resident frequencies of these extraordinary Victorian tunnels that run under Waterloo station and stimulate them to sing and resound.

GELLERMAN: Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, welcoming students back to college with Sierra magazine's annual ranking of America's coolest schools. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Carla Bley: “Funnybird Song” from Dinner Music (ECM/Watt 1977).]

Cool Fix for a Hot Planet

GELLERMAN: It's Living On Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. In a minute - making beautiful music in very unusual places. But first, this Cool Fix for a Hot Planet from a listener who hears our show on W-A-M-C.


LACHMAN: My name is David Lachman and I listen to LOE in Western Massachusetts. I came across this idea last year and started using it. It’s a great way to save energy in the winter. It’s called ice boxing. Basically, you change your refrigerator, which runs on electricity, into an old-fashioned style icebox, which runs on ice. The great thing about winter is that ice is free, money-wise and energy-wise. So, fill up some plastic containers with water that will fit on the top shelf of your fridge, and put them outside to freeze.

When frozen, put them on the top shelf of the fridge. It’s that simple. With the ice cooling the fridge, the compressor will not have to come on, you can have refrigeration for free. Swap out the plastic containers every morning, or more often if you open your refrigerator a lot, and you will have a continuous supply of free cold where you want it. You can calculate the amount of the electricity you save and the cold part of the country can save if everyone did this.
GELLERMAN: Well, thanks a lot, David. And if you have a Cool Fix for a Hot Planet, send it our way. If we use your idea on the air, we’ll send you a cool blue and true tire gauge. Keeping your tires properly inflated saves you fuel and money, and takes pressure off the planet by reducing the emission of climate changing gases.

Email your ideas to us at: coolfix – all one word – at L-O-E dot org. That’s coolfix at L-O-E dot O-R-G. Or, post your ideas on our Facebook page – PRI’s Living on Earth.


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Building Music

Oliver Beer’s piece ,“Deep and Meaningful” stimulates sewer tunnels to sound like an immense pipe organ. (Courtesy of Oliver Beer)

GELLERMAN: If walls had ears they would certainly revel in the Resonance Project.
The project is a musical experiment - turning buildings into giant instruments - tuning into the acoustics of architecture, the natural resonance of spaces, to make them sing from cathedrals and parking lots to tunnels.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Old Vic Tunnels, 2011.]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah met the man behind the music.

BEER: My name’s Oliver Beer, I’m an artist and filmmaker, and I’m currently working in Paris, should I go on any further than that? (Laughs).

SRISKANDARAJAH: He’s also a musician whose instruments are buildings - big boomy sounding places. Beer taps into the resonant frequencies of a space, and can play, for example, a tunnel like a pipe organ. That’s what he did under London’s Old Vic theatre.

BEER: What I did in the Old Vic tunnels in London was find the resonant frequencies of these extraordinary Victorian tunnels that run under Waterloo Station, and stimulate them to sing and resound.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Unlocking the precise frequency of a tunnel takes some finesse and some training.

BEER: I taught the singers how to find the frequencies and you do that simply by singing a glissando from a really high register to a low register. And if you do it smoothly, when you hit a certain note, when you hit the right note, suddenly the room will sing back to you.

IKE: How do you find the exact place? Do you have like a sine oscillation box with a wav signal, or is it all just by ear?

Embed Video of “Deep and Meaningful”:

Oliver Beer - Deep and Meaningful, The Resonance Project 2009-10 from FOM 2 on Vimeo.

BEER: In this case, for this work, it's all just by ear. And it’s interesting, it’s almost like a key. Once you tell them that the notes are there, once you tell them how to find them, it becomes quite easy.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Once he found the resonant frequencies of the tunnels, Beer placed seven singers in different places. Then he invited an audience into the dark, mysterious tunnels.

BEER: And, as you say, they’re very dark, and I really exploited that for this performance. So, what I actually did was that I switched all the lights out and it was almost completely black and so the experience for the viewer … They moved very slowly through this space, finding their way, and as they did so, it resounded.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Old Vic Tunnels, 2011.]

BEER: You couldn’t at first identify there were even people singing.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Old Vic Tunnels, 2011.]

BEER: Out of that will grow just a single melody.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Old Vic Tunnels, 2011.]

BEER: It’s a very emotive experience, really to suddenly feel like you’re in the belly of this giant architectural instrument and this great pair of lungs. People have told me that it was a very immersive and actually quite chilling experience.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Beer is not exclusively an underground musician. His Resonance Project has reverberated in spaces both mundane and sacred.

BEER: One of the first ever pieces I did was in a chapel in Oxford where I used the text of the Lord’s Prayer and distilled it through the architecture.

SRISKANDARAJAH: A small choir repeated the words:

The Resonance Project takes choirs outside concert halls, into the resonant real world. A youth choir performs in a Birmingham garage. (Courtesy of Oliver Beer)

[SOUND: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven…”]

SRISKANDARAH: And Beer recorded the prayer and played it back over speakers. As the words bounced around of the marble floor and domed ceiling, he kept the microphone running, recorded that sound, and played it back.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Worcester College Oxford, 2008.]

BEER: And when that finished, I played that back and recorded it again. And so I made a recording, of a recording, of a recording.

SRISKANDARAJAH: As he did that, the natural frequencies of the chapel resonate more strongly and the overtones become more pronounced.

BEER: Then I asked the choir to match those notes as they appear. The room actually then causes that wineglass effect to happen. It amplifies their voices and starts to sing back to them. And then, when it's singing back to them, and they're singing in perfect unison, I then ask the choir to harmonize with it.

The words of the Lord’s Prayer are spoken and recorded. Then a recording of that is played, and rerecorded. The process repeats until the prayer resounds, not as words, but tones unique to the shape of the Church. (Courtesy of Oliver Beer)

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Worcester College Oxford, 2008.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: The words of the prayer echo continuously round the chapel and return as unintelligible vibrations.

BEER: One of the things that I love about this whole phenomenon - the whole project and its creative potential - is that no matter what words you say, no matter what words you sing, no matter what their meaning, no matter what their text, it will always bounce back indiscriminately. The mathematics of it and science of it is completely indifferent to the meaning of your words.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Worcester College Oxford, 2008.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Another Oliver Beer project finds music in a cement multi-story parking garage in the English midlands.

BEER: A really grim, tall, concrete building right in the center of Birmingham. I think its days are numbered. It'll probably be wiped out in the next phase of development. And I just love the idea that I could almost make a cast of the inside of this concrete monster before it gets destroyed. Obviously a cast not in a literal sense, but in an acoustic sense.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Pay and Display, 2010-11 .]

BEER: For the text, I used the mantra which is displayed on all car parks in Britain where it just says again and again "pay and display, pay and display" wherever you go in the whole place and all the qualifications of that, like "except on Sunday."

For the piece, “Pay and Display,” Beer scores one for a concrete car park. (Courtesy of Oliver Beer)

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Pay and Display, 2010-11.]

BEER: Why should we not have to pay to park on a Sunday?

SRISKANDARAJAH: For his ode to a car park, Beer worked with about 20 kids, ages 9 to 12.

BEER: These kids were incredibly sensitive to the sound. It was quite amazing and I never thought kids so young could be so tuned in to the idea and to the music. It was quite beautiful.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Pay and Display, 2010-11.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Just like in the Oxford chapel, Beer recorded the voices and played them back over speakers, and then looped that, and looped that. And as the words degraded, the natural frequency emerged.

BEER: Then I asked them to harmonize with it. And so it was this progression from speech, to music, and then from this single unique chord grew a harmonic progression.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Pay and Display, 2010-11.]

BEER: I began the whole shoot by having just silence. Having them listen. And at the end of it, I did it again - I asked them just to be silent. And after a day of using their ears in that way of tuning into all of the sounds around them, they heard so much more than they had in the morning.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Beer says once your ears tune into the resonant frequencies of the environments we walk through every day, it’s hard to turn them off.

BEER: Everyone probably thinks I’m mad. You know, any particular space that I'm in, I’ll be singing to make it resound back at me. And I think there’s a music inherent in every space.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And that makes Oliver Beer want to explore new venues for his concerts.

BEER: There’s a great new road tunnel that runs under the Bosporus which would be wonderful to work in, or even the Pantheon in Rome. It’s been there 2,000 years resounding in the same way, and I wonder how many people have ever heard it.

SRISKANDARAJAH: If Beer has his way, and can persuade the right authorities, perhaps more people will get a chance to hear it the future. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.

Related link:
See more Resonance Project videos

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[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Old Vic Tunnels, 2011.]

Gathering of the Great Egrets

(Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

GELLERMAN: In the prelude to winter migration, wading birds gather to make ready for their long flights to warmer climes. Sometimes, the combination of season and a concentrated food source brings Great Egrets together in an extraordinary way. Mark Seth Lender was lucky enough to witness the sight at a marsh along the coast of Connecticut.

LENDER: Flagged each to the other they unfold: blue-white in the green velour of marshland, whitish-blue against the straw green grasses that line the meanderings of the river shore. Stalking, the pads of their great feet step, soft as petals to the touch.

Their beaks, burnished yellow-bronze are sharp as thorns. As day descends, stilting at the edge of water their wings close like the petals of irises. Water lilies, in contemplation, they vanish into the dark.

They came at dawn, Great Egrets in great and upright numbers clean and white and bright as bone. They stalk and stab the glass shrimp and the little fishes. Hardly worth the effort, and the time. Bigger game is their calling. They are here to hunt for eels.

The eels thought they had come, wedged through the narrow opening, to a place of safety. They were wrong. They arrived at this brackish pond tiny as a child’s finger. Fed on the untapped wealth, they grew. Now, none can escape - the pipe too straight a jacket that no longer fits.

The great beaks of great birds strike between the water’s ribs, deft, not a ripple of disturbance, not a sigh, all deathly still. The heart they seek is the Long Fish, its fins behind the head like tiny arms, flailing. Only Great Egrets will perceive again the light of day.

Great Egrets, on a quest for broader victories now raise their swords in the air and salute in pairs, their calls hoarse with command, their intentions clear. Their throats bulge with these calls of dominance just as they bulged moments before with eels. Then a flinch, a flight, a brief pursuit, wings waving. No feathers torn. No blood is drawn. Dropping like camellias drooping after rain, all come to no harm, the winner forgetting instantly the reason he felt wronged and the loser left to live out his life.

For the eels - not so lucky- deep in the belly of the beast. And I wonder if I myself, born here - this blue oasis raging through the vast and emptiness of space – have not made the same mistake.

Related links:
- Back Story: Listen to a short conversation between Mark Lender and Senior Editor Eileen Bolinsky about the Great Egrets.
- Purchase an autographed copy of Mark Lender’s book “Salt Marsh Diary” and some of his photos, with proceeds going to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Mike Garson “Ashes To Ashes” from The Bowie Variations (Reference records 2011).]

GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender is the author of Salt Marsh Diary – A Year on the Connecticut Coast. To see a slideshow of the gathering of the Great Egrets, check out our website LOE dot org.

[MUSIC: Mike Garson “Ashes To Ashes” from The Bowie Variations (Reference records 2011).]

GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth, antibiotics are supposed to keep food animals healthy, but critics charge over use is enough to make you sick.

HANSEN: Our physicians are going back to antibiotics they discarded years ago because of the side effects we had in people. We’re coming to a point being termed a "post-antibiotic era."

GELLERMAN: The use and abuse of antibiotics in farm animals. That’s next time on Living on Earth.

Great Egret Confrontation

(Photo: JKD Atlanta)

GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with the letter B - for big birds. Great Egrets are big white birds with 40-inch wingspans. They're not especially noisy, except when they’re telling each other who’s boss.

Pairs of Great Egrets raise their necks and point their beaks in the air. The angry calls sound like someone's getting strangled. Wings flare, then one flies away and all is forgotten, until the next challenger comes along. Mark Seth Lender found the big birds going beak to beak at a glacial pond on the Connecticut shore.


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GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, and Helen Palmer, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Special thanks this week to Joanna Grubel and Nicolas Ortiz. Our interns are Raphaella Bennin and Jack Rodolico. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And we're on twitter - @livingonearth. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners; the Go Forward Fund; and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World, for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI, Public Radio International.


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