Air Date: July 2, 1999
On July 1, the 995-foot-wide Edwards Dam was breached in Augusta, Maine, allowing the Kennebec River to run free for the first time in 162 years. This marks the first time that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied an application to re-license an operating dam. Margaret Bowman, Senior Director of the Dams Program for the group American Rivers, spoke with Steve Curwood about the precedent set by the Edwards removal. (05:10)
Yellowstone River Threat/ Jyl Hoyt
Jyl Hoyt from member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho, reports on threats to the future of the Yellowstone River. Stretches of riverfront in Montana are being lined with hard walls and boulders to protect new homes from flooding. But these barriers are threatening the river's natural flow. (08:55)
Sounds from the Sea/ Eileen Bolinsky
The world beneath the sea is filled with mysterious sounds - from grunts and crackles and croaks to bleeping ship sonar and the roar of jet skis. "Sounds of the Sea," an exhibit at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts, uncovers some of the sound-rich secrets of the underwater world. Living On Earth’s Eileen Bolinsky joined Aquarium Director of Education Billy Spitzer for a tour. (04:50)
Wendell Berry Poetry Reading/ Wendell Berry
Farmer and writer Wendell Berry reads his poem, "The Peace of Wild Things." (01:05)
The Living on Earth Almanac
This week, facts about...the largest advertising sign in history. In 1925, an electric sign for the Citroen car lit up the Eiffel Tower and brightened the City of Lights. These days, artificial outdoor lighting has created a problem for star-gazing people and migrating animals in urban areas. (01:05)
Gold Rush Legacy, Part I/ Cheryl Colopy
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. Cheryl Colopy of member station KQED in San Francisco reports on the legacy of the Gold Rush on a landscape that was virtually untouched before gold was discovered. (08:50)
Gold Rush Legacy, Part II/ Cheryl Colopy
Cheryl Colopy continues her report with the impact of the Gold Rush on Native American peoples. (07:25)
In an attempt to deal with excess phosphorus in pig manure, scientists at the University of Guelph , Ontario, have invented an "Enviropig." Some high-tech gene splicing has produced a pig which does a better job of processing phosphorus in its feed. Cecil Forsberg spoke with host Steve Curwood about the development. (05:05)
Solar Pig/ Linda Tatelbaum
Commentator Linda Tatelbaum describes the dilemma she faced when her son wanted a computer. She didn't want to say no, but her house is powered by solar electricity, and the computer was using more than its fair share. (02:30)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Jyl Hoyt, Cheryl Colopy
GUESTS: Margaret Bowman, Billy Spitzer, Wendell Berry, Cecil Forsberg
COMMENTATOR: Linda Tatelbaum
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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living On Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
More and more of the nation's dams are coming down in favor of free-flowing rivers. The Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River is the largest and latest in this growing trend.
BOWMAN: It used to be considered a radical, infeasible concept to remove a large dam. Now it's being considered doable from the economic and engineering standpoint, and it is a way to restore healthy fishery populations.
CURWOOD: But on Montana's Yellowstone River, efforts to restrict flood control barriers are being called un-American.
O'HARE: When you've passed rules and regulations that stop people from protecting their private property, then you're going down the other road.
CURWOOD: Also, creatures of the deep speak up.
(Grunts and croaks from undersea creatures)
CURWOOD: And we listen this week on Living On Earth, but first this round-up of the news.
(NPR News follows)
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CURWOOD: This is Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Over the decades, at least 75,000 dams higher than 5 feet, and countless smaller ones, have gone up across the US. Dams generate power, control floods, regulate water flow for navigation, and divert water for irrigation. But they also block fish migrations and degrade water quality. So, with many dams growing old and becoming obsolete nowadays, some are coming down.
(Large water flow)
MAN: (Shouting) The water will rise progressively until it gets to the top of the bank, but the Kennebec is now running free.
CURWOOD: On July 1, the 990-foot long Edwards Dam in Augusta, Maine, came down, allowing the Kennebec River to run free for the first time in 162 years. It also marked the first time that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ever denied an application to re-license an operating dam. Margaret Bowman is with American Rivers, one of the groups whose work led to the breaching of the dam.
BOWMAN: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses the Edwards dam. And when the dam owner sought to renew that license when it expired, we intervened and recommended that dam removal be considered as an alternative. And there was a lot of scientific review of that alternative and economic review of that alternative. And we believed and the powers that be agreed that the fish restoration needs were much more important than the power generation that was provided by the dam.
CURWOOD: I'm wondering, though, if restoring the Kennebec River at this point won't destroy some habitats that have developed upstream and downstream based on the dam being there.
BOWMAN: Well, creating a reservoir creates a different habitat than you had when the river was free-flowing. You are going to lose a few wetlands upstream, but you're going to gain some downstream. You are going to lose some flatwater recreation behind the dam, but this is in the Lake District of Maine, where there are many other lakes that people can recreate on and that the fish species in lakes abound.
CURWOOD: How did this go over with the local population in Maine?
BOWMAN: This was an effort supported by almost everybody. The Governor of Maine is firmly behind this, the full Congressional delegation, and most of the grassroots community. And it's going to benefit the local fishing community, the local recreation community. And the City of Augusta is going to get a city park out of it. There are some opponents that are still out there that are worried about taking away something that they have looked at their whole lives, but that is definitely the minority in the state of Maine.
CURWOOD: I'm going to ask you to adopt another profession for a moment: historian. How important was removal of the Edwards Dam in the sweep of ecological history, do you think?
BOWMAN: Dams have been removed in the past, and dams will be removed in the future. But this dam has received a lot of attention. It's the largest dam that has been removed in the past 25 years, and it has really turned the tide in how dam removal is viewed in our country. It used to be considered a radical, infeasible concept to remove a large dam. Now it's being considered a reasonable alternative. That doesn't mean it is the solution in every situation, but it is doable from the economic and engineering standpoint, and it is a way to restore healthy fishery populations.
CURWOOD: Now, it's your job at American Rivers to pay attention to dams all over this country. So tell us: what other large dams are being taken down these days?
BOWMAN: Well, we are aware of about 121 dams that have been removed across the country. Many of those dams have been removed in the last decade. There have been 86 removed since 1990, and a full 27 removed just last year. A lot of those were in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Many of these are very small dams. They have no remaining purpose. They were very important in fueling our leap into the industrial age, but their use has expired and they are now simply blocking fish. They may have some historic value, and that is considered in dam removal, but the best use of rivers is often, with abandoned dams, to remove those.
CURWOOD: I'm wondering about Washington State's Snake River system. There are 4 dams on the lower Snake. There's a lot of lobbying to have them removed, to bring the salmon back there. Looking at the politics of the situation on the Snake River, does it seem unlikely, possible, highly likely, those dams will go?
BOWMAN: Well, I think you have to be a fortune teller to be able to predict that at this time.
CURWOOD: So how are your tarot cards?
BOWMAN: (Laughs) My tarot cards are giving it a 50-50 chance right now. But clearly, one thing that must be addressed before the dams on the Snake River will be removed is how to mitigate for the impacts that dam removal will cause to the shipping industry and to others. We need to come up with a mitigation package for those people to make sure that everybody is made whole if dam removal is considered the best scientific solution for the endangered species.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time today. Margaret Bowman is Senior Director of the Dams Program at American Rivers. Thanks.
BOWMAN: Thanks, Steve.
CURWOOD: While some dams are coming down, other impediments to the free flow of rivers are going up. New home construction along the Yellowstone River in Montana is now at an all-time high, and many homeowners eager to protect their property from flooding have been lining stretches of riverfront with hard walls and boulders. But scientists say the barriers are disrupting the river's natural cycles and threatening its future as a wild river. Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho, has our report.
PAIGE: Okay, are we ready, you guys?
MAN: Ready to go.
PAIGE: Okay. Good.
HOYT: Outfitter Julia Page pushes her raft into the Yellowstone River just north of Yellowstone National Park in Montana, and rows out to the icy current. Majestic purple mountains march across the horizon, throwing jagged shadows over broad green meadows. Eagles, geese, and hawks fly overhead. Great Blue Herons lift off their nest at the top of a cottonwood. Julia Page points to something else at the top of the trees.
PAGE: Look at how high all that driftwood and stuff is stacked in those cottonwoods. It was amazing, '96 and '97. You'd come down here and you couldn't believe how much water was coming down this river.
HOYT: In the spring of 1996, then again in 1997, record floods raged for more than a month when the river, bloated with melting snow, roared out of Yellowstone National Park. Gravel-filled waves dug entirely new river channels, swallowing houses, forest, and pastures. Montana hydrologist and environmental consultant Scott Gillilian says the floods were dramatic, but not that unusual for rivers like the Yellowstone.
GILLLILIAN: Gravel bed rivers don't have predictable boundaries. They scroll across the landscape, form new channels, abandon other ones. That's the natural behavior of a river, and thereby that much more difficult to try to control and engineer.
HOYT: As we float around a bend we pass a bulldozer digging up cottonwood trees at the river's edge. The Paradise Valley, as this is called, is in the midst of a building boom. And in order to protect their investments, newcomers have been bulldozing trees and hauling in rock, trying to keep the floods away with levees, berms, and rip rap.
GILLILIAN: There are people moving in with enough wealth that they can afford million-dollar river training projects.
PAGE: It's not going to work in any kind of long term sense, and it does such harm to the river.
HOYT: The rip wrap is destroying important fish spawning areas, and damaging cottonwood forest that border the Yellowstone River, where song birds rest on their migration from South America. Susan Leonard, a biologist with the Montana Audubon Society, says that as the river is hemmed in from its natural floodplain, the vital cottonwood forests are disappearing.
LEONARD: Flood control structures prevent a lot of the deposition that cottonwoods need. They need to find silt soil and sand that comes downriver, and adequate moisture in order to germinate. Cottonwoods support more species of breeding birds than all other western habitats combined.
HOYT: And it's not just the environment that's suffering.
(River sound into sound of truck rolling on the road)
HOYT: A few miles south of Livingstone, rancher Jerry O'Hair gestures from behind the wheel of his white Dodge truck as he passes through a pasture. His family has lived along the Yellowstone for 125 years. He says he's never seen anything like what he calls the “vicious” floods of 1996 and '97.
O'HAIR: That rock bank that you're looking at over there is where the river cut a channel through when the river finally abated and went down along in August. The estimate was almost two thirds of the river was running down through Spring Creek.
HOYT: The river had jumped to a new channel, right through Jerry O'Hair's ranch. Over the next 2 years he spent nearly a million dollars in a largely losing battle to protect his pastures from the river.
O'HAIR: I hired a couple of bulldozers and put those in here, and they worked for 2 weeks 24 hours a day, and they were working in water and mud and fighting the river at that time. And that's when this road was built in here, the early part of '97.
HOYT: The road acts as a new levee and keeps the river at bay, for now. Jerry O'Hair blames the recent floods on the fires in Yellowstone National Park 11 years ago, which he says reduced the forest's ability to hold water. But many others say the major reason is all the impoundments built to protect new houses in the floodplain. In the 2 years between 1995 and '97, the Army Corps of Engineers issued 82 permits for riverbank barriers along the upper Yellowstone in Park County. More than twice the number approved in the previous 2 decades. Hydrologist Scott Gillilian says in the past few years, the river became caught up in a vicious cycle. Every flood control structure just increased the chances of flooding downstream.
GILLILIAN: You could look down on this piece of river and what you essentially had going on was dueling bulldozers. People frantically building a dike and levee on this left bank when in fact building that levee and dike put a great deal of pressure on the right bank around the corner, so those people, to defend their property, started throwing up a large levee and dike.
HOYT: So, this stretch of the Yellowstone is becoming less and less like a natural river, and more and more like a fire hose. And it's not just environmentalists that are concerned. Park County commissioners tried to pass a tough new zoning plan, and floated a flood mitigation proposal that would have strictly regulated further development on the floodplain. But both plans met strong opposition from land owners like rancher Jerry O'Hair.
O'HAIR: I can't tell my neighbor what to do or how to sell his property. It's the American way. It's the capitalistic way. When you pass rules and regulations that stop people from protecting their private property, then you're going down the other road. That's the way it is across the water in the Soviet Union.
HOYT: Ranchers are facing low commodity prices, and selling land for development sometimes is the only way to make a profit. The dilemma has left Park County Commissioner Dan Gudibeer almost despairing for a solution.
GUDIBEER: I guess you could say that the financial situation is the worst enemy, you know. People want that right to see and do what they want to do. But maybe we're destroying our history in doing so.
HOYT: The state and Federal governments are worried, too. The Montana legislature and the US Geological Survey have funded a study of the problem. And Montana's governor has created a task force on it. But it may be 3 years before the task force even issues a report. Meanwhile, houses and river barriers will continue to be built, and environmentalists like Dennis Glickman of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition are looking for ways to break the cycle.
GLICKMAN: One of the reasons that we feel like we need a time out is not just to protect the river and the riparian habitat, but basically to protect private property from the effects of what other private property owners have done. Or what the state or communities have done. Some of their bridges and some of the rip rapping they've done have backed up water and flooded other people's property.
HOYT: Recently, Mr. Glickman's group filed suit against the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for reviewing construction on the Yellowstone and other rivers. They say the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not studying the cumulative effects of river barriers before approving permits. The case is awaiting its first hearing. And meanwhile, the Army Corps says it will continue to issue permits.
(Bird calls, flowing water)
HOYT: Back on the Yellowstone, Dennis Glickman says it would be a tragedy if nothing were done soon to stop the piecemeal destruction of the river. Despite all the problems, he says, it's not too late.
GLICKMAN: It's really America's last best river, and I think we have a tremendous opportunity here to protect what's left and even restore a lot of what has been damaged. And I really hope that we as citizens of Montana have the guts to move forward and do that.
HOYT: For Living On Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt on Montana's Yellowstone River.
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CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are most welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15.
Coming up: Fish talk. Keep listening to Living On Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
(Crackles and beeps)
CURWOOD: Snap. Crackle. Pop. No, this isn't the sound of your morning cereal. It's just some of what you might hear if you put your ear to the underwater world.
(Coos and crackles)
CURWOOD: Mating calls, territorial grunts, thunderstorms, and earthquakes make the ocean a pretty noisy place before one even considers boats and other human activities. So scientists are now studying how sea creatures use and respond to sound. Some of what they've learned so far can be heard in Sounds of the Sea, a display recently opened at the New England Aquarium in Boston. Living On Earth's Eileen Bolinsky toured the exhibit with Aquarium Director of Education, Billy Spitzer.
(Thunderous sounds and gravelly calls)
SPITZER: We call this first part our sound tunnel, and it allows you to follow the migratory journey of a humpback whale from Greenland down through the north and mid-Atlantic down to the Caribbean. And on the way to hear the sounds like that whale would hear on that kind of migration.
(Whistling and songs)
SPITZER: Some of the most intriguing sounds for me have been the sounds that we've gotten from the Arctic regions, because they're really other-worldly. For example, the sounds of ice creaking and groaning as it cracks and pieces rub together, and then some of the sounds, for example, of bearded seals, which are these very eerie, trilling calls that really sound like they're from another planet.
SPITZER: The sounds that we've used in the exhibit have all been collected by research scientists whose job it is to study underwater sound. And they've been all collected using underwater microphones called hydrophones.
(More thunderous sounds)
SPITZER: Some of the most intriguing whale sounds, for example, the finback whale and the blue whale, have these very low frequency calls that you really feel more than you hear.
(More thunderous calls)
SPITZER: I feel like when you're listening to those sounds, it gives you some impression of how resonant the ocean is.
SPITZER: Many people believe, in fact, that whales may be communicating across entire ocean basins, for example, one side of the Atlantic to another.
(Low call continues; waves)
SPITZER: In the mid-Atlantic, after kind of taking a deep breath, going underwater with a whale, you get to hear some of the sounds of some other marine mammals like dolphins and so on.
(Dolphin whistles, followed by thunderous call)
SPITZER: And hearing some of the sounds, as well, of ship noise, for example, the sound of a big container ship, which is really pretty dramatic. It's got a kind of a nice beat to it. But you can hear it really overpower some of the sounds of the animals.
SPITZER: One of the things that's hard is to directly measure the impact of noise in the ocean. One of the reasons that it's tough is that you have to find a way to see that impact on animals, and some experiments have been done, for example, where people have tracked marine mammals and found that they either avoided or didn't avoid a particular sound source in terms of their swimming behavior. But in a lot of cases we can only speculate. We don't know exactly how whales are using their calls to communicate. We don't know whether the noise we're adding to the ocean, for example, is making it harder for them to hear each other, and perhaps making it harder for them to find each other and find mates. But I think, particularly in the example of coastal areas, where there are a lot of small engines around, you know, jet skis and slow motor boats and so on, it's something we ought to be paying attention to. And I think if there are nonessential sources of noise that we can eliminate, that's something we certainly should be thinking about.
(Whale calls and waves)
SPITZER: And sound is so important as a tool in the ocean, because light doesn't travel very far in the ocean. Radio waves don't travel very far. It's only sound that allows you to probe very far in the ocean. And that's one of the reasons why so many scientists are using it.
CURWOOD: Our audio tour of Sounds of the Sea was produced by Eileen Bolinsky. The exhibit continues at the New England Aquarium through the spring of next year, and then starts touring the nation.
CURWOOD: Even from the highest point on his farm in the hills of Kentucky, writer Wendell Berry can't see the ocean, but he can still keep his ear to the natural world. He's been telling us about the experience in a series of poems. Here's another. It's called The Peace of Wild Things.
BERRY: When despair for the world grows in me, and I wake in the night at the least sound, in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free.
CURWOOD: Wendell Berry, reading from his poem The Peace of Wild Things. You're listening to NPR's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living On Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.
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CURWOOD: Just ahead: the legacy of California's Gold Rush. Stay tuned to Living On Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living On Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Barrett Communications, delivering strategic marketing communications and design for business worldwide: www.barrett.com.
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CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: Seventy-four years ago this week in Paris, the City of Light, the largest electric advertising sign was turned on. The Art Deco work spanned the length of the Eiffel Tower. Designed for the Exhibition of Decorative Arts, the sign had 200,000 electric lights and needed its own power plant. Its message, touting the Citroen automobile, could be seen 24 miles away. And its glow became a harbinger of widespread light pollution. According to the International Dark Sky Association, so-called “urban sky glow” caused by billboard lighting, streetlamps, sports stadiums, and the like, not only obscures our view of the stars, it also interferes with the signals that nature sends to many plants and animals. Consider baby sea turtles, for example. When they hatch at night out of beach sand, they head for the brightest spot, which under natural conditions is the horizon over the sea. Artificial light confuses them, making it harder to find the water in time to avoid predators. Migratory birds are also affected, veering off their normal routes and sometimes crashing into towers and buildings. And to help address this problem, even the world's most famous skyline made some changes. New York's Empire State Building reduces its illumination during migratory bird season. And for this week, that's the Living On Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: This year, California is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada. The Gold Rush of 1849 turned a barely-explored US territory into a promised land of sorts. But the wealth it generated is only part of the story. The gold diggers also degraded the environment and decimated native peoples. Cheryl Colopy of member station KQED in San Francisco has this special report on the legacy that remains 150 years after they went for the gold.
COLOPY: The banks and skyscrapers of San Francisco are literally built atop the rubble of a boom town. Each time a new building goes up, archaeologists swoop in first and unearth coins, pots and pans, sometimes even entire rooms relatively intact from a century and a half ago. In 1847 this was the tiny village of Yerba Buena, but in 1848 gold was discovered in the foothills of the nearby Sierra Nevada, and within a year a quarter of a million people were headed to California by wagon train, by ship, even on foot. Almost overnight the Gold Rush transformed Yerba Buena into the teeming port of San Francisco. And soon after, California became a State, well on its way to becoming what it is today: the world's seventh largest economy and a global symbol of wealth and opportunity.
COLOPY: But the Gold Rush also cast a shadow over California. All around San Francisco Bay, men cast fishing rods into the water next to signs that warn in 6 languages that the fish here contain chemicals at levels that may harm your health. One of those chemicals is mercury, washed downstream from gold mining operations more than a century ago. It's just one part of the environmental legacy of the Gold Rush.
It all began at Sutter's Mill on the American River.
MUSEUM TOUR VOICE: My eye was caught by a glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. I reached my hand down and picked it up. It made my heart thump. I felt certain it was gold.
COLOPY: An audio tour of an exhibit on the Gold Rush mounted by the Oakland Museum of California recreates the moment when James Marshall found that first nugget of gold not far from present-day Sacramento.
MUSEUM TOUR VOICE: This tiny piece of gold would inflame the world with gold fever.
COLOPY: The first miners could pluck gold right from the river beds, but that was soon gone and they turned to more destructive mining methods.
(Walking on gravel)
COLOPY: At Malakoff Diggins State Park, visitors stride up to the edge of a wide canyon ringed by rusty red cliffs. With its pillars and spires, it looks like parts of Utah or Arizona. But before the Gold Rush, this would have looked like the rest of the region: rolling hills dotted with trees.
HUIE: The pit that we're looking at is about a mile long, and three quarters of a mile wide. During the mining period from about 1865 to -- oh, around the turn of the century, they took out 41 million cubic yards of soil.
COLOPY: Ken Huie is a ranger at the park. He says this was once the largest hydraulic mining operation in California. Miners blasted the hillsides with huge water cannons.
HUIE: It was almost deafening, I guess, the sound that they had just walking to the rim and listening to all the water, and the rocks, you know, flowing down the sides of the hills and down through the sluices. The gold concentration was about 12 cents per cubic yard, so hydraulic mining was the only efficient way of moving enough soil to get gold of any value out of it.
COLOPY: And then came the mercury. In a process still used in some parts of the world, miners used mercury to bind together the tiny flakes of gold jarred loose from the hillsides, then heated the amalgam to remove the gold and dump the waste in the rivers.
COLOPY: Spring runoff rushes through an old tunnel built to carry the polluted water away. Throughout gold country, mining companies spent millions of dollars on operations like this. They cleared the hillsides of trees, built dams, and dug thousands of feet of tunnels. According to some estimates, this kind of hydraulic mining unearthed hundreds of millions of dollars in gold, but it also led to its own demise.
FRY: The river bottoms filled up, and you couldn't get large ships up the river.
COLOPY: Tom Fry is the director of the sesquicentennial Gold Rush Project at the Oakland Museum.
FRY: Which meant that the grain farmers and others who depended on ships for the grain trade couldn't move their produce, and it created the epic battle between the farmers and the miners in California.
COLOPY: In 1884 a judge ruled that the dumping of mining waste in rivers was illegal because it threatened the state's burgeoning agricultural industry. Gold mining was never the same after that, but it had already rearranged California's landscape. Entire forests had been cut. Rivers were dammed. Plants and animals that had thrived for eons struggled to survive. And San Francisco Bay was smothered by millions of cubic feet of sediment contaminated with hundreds of tons of mercury. About a third of that sediment remains today, and mercury continues to threaten wildlife and people here.
BROWN: All right. Now, we're at the front gate of the mercury mine. This is a Superfund site. It was put on the priorities list in 1990.
COLOPY: Raymond Brown, Jr., is an EPA field representative. He's also a member of the Elem tribe, whose ancestral home is here at the edge of Clear Lake, north of San Francisco. Some of the mercury mined to extract Sierra gold came from here. An 8-foot fence surrounds the old mining area, but Mr. Brown says kids sometimes climb over it. Except for a few scrubby patches of grass, the ground is bare, too poisoned, he says, for plants to grow.
The EPA has removed more than 3,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the nearby Elem reservation, but a lot more remains. And a huge mining pit is filled with a toxic soup of mercury and arsenic. During the rainy season it sometimes overflows into the lake.
BROWN: I haven't ate fish out of this lake for probably the last 10 years. We used to eat the tules, which is a root that grows out of the water.
COLOPY: Raymond Brown says his tribe's been warned to limit consumption of fish and plants from Clear Lake.
Here are some new ones coming up.
BROWN: These are the shoots right here that you can peel right here. You just peel them down. Do you want to try it?
BROWN: Try it.
COLOPY: Oh, yeah. It's nice.
BROWN: My grandfather used to always take salt, and…
COLOPY: A few bites of food from Clear Lake seem harmless, but too much could be dangerous. Mercury damages the brain and nervous system and exposure is particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women.
BROWN: Our tribe, the Elem Indian Pomo people, are no longer water people because of the fact of the contamination.
COLOPY: It will be years before the contamination is cleaned up here. In the meantime, Mr. Brown worries about the future of his tiny tribe. The mercury contamination of Clear Lake and San Francisco Bay, and the manmade canyons in the Sierra foothills are all tangible legacies of the Gold Rush. Some historians say another legacy persists in California's culture. Heather Huxley is the co-director of the Gold Rush Project at the Oakland Museum of California.
HUXLEY: There was this spirit of an extractive nature. You could come and you could rip the land apart. You could tear out whatever was valuable there, whether you found it in the metal gold, or whether you found it in some commercial venture, or whether you found it in cutting down all the trees. And I think that's an attitude that continues to color our attitude towards the environment today.
COLOPY: That attitude may be the dark side of the California dream. But the Gold Rush reflects the bright side as well, and that dream still draws millions of immigrants to the state. J. S. Holliday is the author of Rush for Riches, a history of California in the Gold Rush era.
HOLLIDAY: This wonderful image of opportunity, of freedom, of wealth, of no constraints, of acceptance of eccentricity of behavior. What a place to go to. California is today, was then, has been ever since, a place where you can come and make a new beginning, and where the rules are different than those at home. You leave your family and you come out here. The freedom of anonymity.
COLOPY: It may be one of California's essential contradictions, and it's one that the state is still trying to resolve, 150 years after the Gold Rush.
CURWOOD: Our story continues in just a moment, with a look at how the California Gold Rush forever changed the lives of native peoples. Stay tuned to Living On Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When new settlers poured into California 150 years ago to cash in on the Gold Rush, they laid waste to a land that up until then had been largely untouched by Europeans. But it wasn't only the environment that affected. The influx all but destroyed the region's native groups as well. The killing and scattering of Native Americans wasn't new to America, but in the settlement of California it was exceptionally swift and ferocious. Cheryl Colopy continues now with the second part of her special report on the legacy of the California Gold Rush.
(Native American singing and clapper sticks)
COLOPY: In the Sierra foothills not far from the American River where gold was discovered, members of the Maidu and Miwok tribes are holding their traditional big time festival. Three Maidu singers play clapper sticks while 4 men dance in eagle feather skirts.
(Singing and clapping continue)
COLOPY: But there's a bittersweet quality to this year's festival. Though Indians once thrived in these hills, the land now belongs to the city of Auburn, and the dancers celebrate their ancient traditions on the city's fairgrounds alongside a recreation of a mining encampment which also features a demonstration of blacksmithing and even a mock stagecoach holdup.
MAN: All right! Keep that out, I want that gun! Get out of there! (Yelling)
COLOPY: It's all part of a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush. The Gold Rush launched modern California, but it also marked the beginning of the end for thousands of years of native culture here. The Indian traditions on display here today are reminders of what was once a rich tapestry of life for native Californians. April Moore is a member of the Nisenan Maidu nation.
MOORE: We are the descendants of survivors. The survivors were the ones that were the keepers of all this information, the language, the culture, the religion, how to live. You take that survival knowledge from your forbears and put it into practice today, and that makes it so much easier for you.
COLOPY: There were once more than 300,000 native peoples in California. Diseases introduced by Spanish missionaries cut that population in half by the time gold was discovered. In the years that followed, settlers enslaved or slaughtered most of the rest. By the turn of the twentieth century only 15,000 Indians remained. The festival at the fairgrounds may suggest that Indians and settlers lived peacefully here, but that is largely a fiction.
RAWLS: It really is a dark and bloody ground that we are walking on today. Most of us are not aware of that at all.
COLOPY: Jim Rawls has written 20 books on California history. He says few Californians know about laws which allowed Indians to be sold at auction, and Indian children to be forced to work as apprentices until they were 30 years old. Mr. Rawls says he spent years in libraries sorting through accounts of white men wearing scalps of Indians sewn to their pants legs. But the brutality of such stories didn't fully hit him until one day, after a lecture he gave in the northern California town of Ukiah. There, a local rancher said his great grandfather had made more money selling Indian children than cattle.
RAWLS: And as he was explaining that to me, a couple of Pomo Indian women, also very elderly, came forward. And one of them said that her great-grandmother had told her about this practice. And this was a secret in their family that they had kept for generations, and was now sharing that with this, listening to this white rancher talking about a similar family secret from his side.
(Native American singing)
RAWLS: The Pomo woman told me that her great-grandmother remembered when some whites were chasing them across the Navarro River, trying to steal the children. The mother got away, leaving behind only her youngest in a cradle board. They circled back around after the whites left and found the smallest child, the infant, still in the cradle board. But the child had been pinned to the earth with a knife. And when she told me that story, she was crying. And this white rancher looked me in the eye, and he said to me, "You better believe her. She's telling you the truth."
COLOPY: Jim Rawls says Indians coped with the invasion of settlers in different ways. Some retreated into the hills. Others got jobs working for miners. Edward Castillo, a historian at Sonoma State University, and a Cahuila Indian from southern California, says his own ancestors by turns tried fight, flight, and accommodation.
CASTILLO: If you put yourself in the shoes of an American Indian who experienced the Gold Rush, you have to see it, that the world has simply exploded in madness around you. That mayhem and mass murder is the stuff of your daily life.
COLOPY: Mr. Castillo compares the Gold Rush to wartime. He says its chaos and brutality were the result of vagabond men arriving in California without the constraints of wives and families. Within the first 2 years of the rush, 100,000 California Indians died or disappeared.
CASTILLO: If you're a little 9-year-old girl and you become somebody's sex slave and then you die during childbirth, you disappeared. Or, if you happened to be fortunate enough to survive, you have no idea who your parents are. So you just become a brown lower-class member of nineteenth century California society, and lose your identity as an American Indian.
COLOPY: But Edward Castillo says far more natives died violently at the hands of paramilitary groups with names reminiscent of today's sports teams. The Placer Blades and the Eel River Rangers. They killed Indians under the authority of the first governor of California, who sanctioned the murder in his first message to the new state's legislature in 1850. The legislature appropriated money to pay bounty hunters, then got reimbursed from the Federal government.
MAN: Oh! Come on, get down with this, this is the rabbit dance. Oh!
COLOPY: Back in Auburn at the Big Time, Maidu dancers invite members of the audience to join in the rabbit dance.
MAN: You know, if you refuse me, it gives you bad luck. Excuse me.
COLOPY: All right. All right, I'll leave my tape recorder running.
(Singing and clapping sticks)
COLOPY: The dancers wear headbands of woodpecker feathers that cover their eyes. April Moore says they must know their dance steps well and play their instruments blind. Ms. Moore teaches California school children about Indian history. She says the state of California has been embarrassed to acknowledge the bloody history of the Gold Rush era crusade to eradicate Indians, and that she still encounters skepticism from teachers when she visits local schools. But she says she's not interested in stirring up old animosities, or making today's Californians feel guilty. She just wants to make sure that the history of what happened to her people isn't forgotten.
MOORE: The truth is, it never really hurts anybody. It just broadens your knowledge about what happened to a group of people or a race of people. And it's not meant to hurt anybody, it's just to show the truth. Nothing you can do about it. That's then, this is now. Now is to learn and accept what did happen.
COLOPY: For Living On Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy in California's gold country.
(Singing and clapping sticks continue up and under)
CURWOOD: Pig farms stink, and when all the pig manure they generate isn't contained, it can get into surface water and cause health and ecological problems. In particular, high amounts of phosphorus found in pig manure contribute to algal blooms in water bodies that kill other life forms. But 3 scientists at the University of Guelph, Ontario, say they have a partial solution. They've created a pig -- well, 3 pigs in fact -- who were injected with a spliced bacterium and mouse gene while they were embryos. The gene allows the pigs to better digest phosphorus in their feed, in effect creating environmentally friendly…poop. Dr. Cecil Forsberg, one of the lead scientists and inventors of the “enviropig,” explains why the usual menu of pig feed causes problems.
FORSBERG: The cereal grains, for example, the barley, the oats, the corn that the pig eats, contains this indigestible material called phytate. And the pig is unable to digest it normally, so that they, the farmer will add in a mineral phosphorus material to get the right proportions of nutrients in the ration. Now, our invention is to modify the pigs who can actually utilize this indigestible plant phosphorus, and as a consequence the farmer won't have to add in that additional mineral phosphorus. And also, when it can utilize this indigestible plant phosphorus better, what it means is that there's less excreted in the manure.
CURWOOD: So, your invention, the “enviropig,” cuts the amount of phosphorus that comes out of the back end of the pig and thereby helps the environment.
FORSBERG: That's what we hope we will achieve.
CURWOOD: Well, how do pig farmers handle the problem of phosphorus today? I mean, if they have runoff and it causes pollution, they must, you know, get into a fair amount of trouble. We've covered stories about this, in fact. So how are they handling the phosphorus right now?
FORSBERG: Currently, farmers feed the enzyme phytase to reduce the level of phosphorus pollution in the manure, so that's a current solution. And our innovation is actually to have the animal synthesize this phytase enzyme themselves.
CURWOOD: Why not just feed them the phytase?
FORSBERG: Well, that's a very good option. The one aspect is that it's more expensive to feed phytase to pigs than to have them use that small amount of incremental energy and nutrients required to synthesize their own. The other aspect is that this way, all of the pigs will have it all the time, and the farmer can simply forget about the feeding of this additional component in the ration.
CURWOOD: So, you took some bacterium, you took a salivary gland gene out of a mouse, you put this into the genetic structure of a pig. Now, if this genetic modification interferes with the ordinary metabolism of the pig, might it otherwise cause metabolic problems?
FORSBERG: That is always a potential and an aspect that we are, as everyone else, very concerned about. And that will also be part of the research to check to see if it has any influence on the behavior or the metabolic characteristics of the pig. And obviously, if it does have any deleterious effects on the pig, the research won't, or this aspect of the research won't go any further. However, in defense of that, I can say that we have 3 piglets born so far. The oldest one is almost 3 months old now. And all 3 piglets look extremely healthy, and they're growing at normal rates.
CURWOOD: Have you drawn any protests or concerns from people who worry about the consequences of genetic engineering?
FORSBERG: So far, I have heard no criticism of our research or the ethical aspects related to it, although I am very well aware of a lot of criticism of genetically modified crops, and I expect there will be dissenters.
CURWOOD: How easy will it be for you to get approval from the Canadian government to market these pigs?
FORSBERG: That's something we don't know at the present time. And I can't speak to it in any great depth, because the actual regulations on transgenic animals here in Canada, they are in fact in the formative stages.
CURWOOD: Well, I wanted to ask you, how soon do you think that these pigs will be ready for market and will get through government approval?
FORSBERG: We are currently saying some 5 to 6 years if the pigs do in fact have the capacity to decrease the phosphorus in the fecal material and yet maintain their productivity in terms of growth rate and meat quality. Although it may be premature to reach these conclusions, since we are not certain yet all of the government hoops that we will have to jump through before we get to the point that they can be released.
CURWOOD: All right. Well, I want to thank you very much for taking this time with us today.
FORSBERG: You're very welcome. It's most enjoyable to chat about the Enviropig.
CURWOOD: Cecil Forsberg is a microbiologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario and one of the inventors of the Enviropig. Thank you, sir.
FORSBERG: You're welcome.
(Music up and under; fade to pig grunting)
CURWOOD: Up in rural Maine commentator Linda Tatelbaum has a pig that poses a dietary dilemma, but hers eats kilowatts, not slop. It's one of the little ironies that can complicate life despite one's best efforts to make it simple.
TATELBAUM: When our son Noah was 10, he wanted a computer. My husband tried to find a low power consumption model, but one industry techie after another advised him: just plug it in. Well, we couldn't just plug it in. We have solar electricity, which is like having a non-interest-bearing bank account and no credit. You put in, you take out. When it's gone, it's gone.
With grid power, who thinks about limits? You can make unlimited withdrawals without even calling the bank. We didn't have any electricity at all when we first came to Maine in 1977. We built one of those hippie-style houses with lots of south-facing glass for solar heat. But after 4 years of hauling water and lighting with kerosene, solar electricity became an appealing alternative.
Watching 2-year-old Noah toddling around a house with oil lamps clinched the decision. Soon we had a water pump and lights, and we could use power tools to add on to our 1-room house. Noah had no problem growing up in the family tradition of solar budgeting. That first computer he got was an energy-saving laptop.
But now Noah's in college, and last year, when he purchased a big, new computer, he wasn't thinking about efficiency. He'd just plug it into the wall like everyone else in his dorm. Come summer, he brought it home, banking on the bountiful solstice sun. But it turns out his new computer, which we call “the pig,” eats as much in 3 hours as it takes to power the refrigerator for a whole day. To make matters worse, while he was gone, the oak tree by his bedroom got bigger, same as he did, shading the solar panels in the afternoon. A month of rain didn't help, either.
We'd nearly regressed to candles when we came to a decision: our son could stay, but either the tree or the computer would have to go. Luckily fall arrived. Noah and the pig returned to college and the oak leaves dropped. Now here it is, summer again. Noah knows we don't have the heart to cut down the oak. So this year, he's come up with a different solution. The pig, after all, really has earned its keep. It taught Noah enough that he's off to a summer job in Silicon Valley, to build up his own bank account. The pig will stay home with us. In its box. Unplugged.
CURWOOD: Commentator Linda Tatelbaum lives in Appleton, Maine. Her new book is called Writer on the Rock: Moving the Impossible.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living On Earth. Next week, school kids from East Los Angeles explain the art and science of a unique way to grow food in warm weather climates. They call it tunnel gardening.
WOMAN: What makes it a tunnel garden?
CHILD: Well, there's holes all around in perfect rows, and as soon as all the trees grow up, it's going to pretty much look like a tunnel. It's going to have shade and plants on the floor are going to have enough moisture because of these plants.
CURWOOD: It's gardening made in the shade, next time on Living On Earth. Our staff includes George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, James Curwood, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Alison Dean, Maggie Villiger, Chris Berdik, and Mahri Lowinger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Living On Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening, and tune in again next week.
(Music up an under)
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