AmeriScan: August 31, 2001


PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - Local climate may be more important than carbon dioxide levels in determining what types of plants thrive and what types do less well, a team of scientists reports in today's issue of the journal "Science."

Their findings suggest that rising global carbon dioxide levels tied to global warming may not be as crucial in determining the composition of plant communities as other, localized climate shifts, such as droughts or temperature changes.

"Nobody really knows what the increases in carbon dioxide are going to entail in terms of future changes in vegetation types," said Mark Brenner, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Florida, and coauthor of the paper. "But it looks like climate changes in different areas may be more important than carbon dioxide, at least carbon dioxide by itself."

The team, composed of six geologists and geographers from around the world and led by geologist Yongsong Huang of Brown University, based their conclusions on an analysis of sediment from two lake bottoms, one in northern Mexico and one in northern Guatemala. The researchers used new techniques that allowed them to analyze only the remains of land plants, specifically their leaf waxes.

By measuring the isotope composition of the leaf waxes, the researchers were able to distinguish two broad categories of plants living in these areas - so-called C3 and C4 plants. Many C4 plants are tropical grasses, while most tropical trees are C3 plants.

The researchers analyzed sediments deposited over the last 27,000 years, from the last ice age to the current geological period. During this period, there was a worldwide, uniform increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

Brenner said that if carbon dioxide played the major role in determining plant composition, one would assume that analysis of the sediments would reveal similar changes in the relative abundance of C3 and C4 plants in the two research sites over the study period.

In fact, the researchers found that trends in C3 versus C4 plants were quite different at the two locations -- and that the changes were correlated not with carbon dioxide levels, but with shifts in rainfall.

"The result appears to be that climate factors, especially moisture availability, determine whether C4 or C3 plants dominate in an area, not carbon dioxide," Brenner said.

Many scientists believe global warming will cause variation in local climates worldwide, with some wet areas becoming dry and vice versa. If that occurs, it could have more impact on relative C3 versus C4 plant distribution than the rising carbon dioxide levels, researchers said.

"The study suggests that if the climate gets drier worldwide today, then we may see more C4 grasslands appear," said Huang, an assistant professor of geological sciences at Brown.

* * *


WASHINGTON, DC, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will make up to $150 million in payments to commercial bioenergy (ethanol and biodiesel) producers that increase their production from eligible commodities between October 1, 2001, and September 30, 2002.

Sign up for the Bioenergy Program will begin on September 4 and end on September 28, the USDA said. The program stimulates industrial use of agricultural commodities by promoting their use in bioenergy production.

"President Bush's energy policy calls for increased production of renewable energy sources," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "This program provides incentives for agriculture to be part of this nation's energy solutions and we expect even greater production levels this year."

Last year, ethanol producers committed to expanding production by 246 million gallons, and biodiesel producers by 36 million gallons. Increased bioenergy production helps strengthen the income of soybean, corn and other producers and lessens U.S. dependence on traditional energy sources.

"The program boosts ethanol and biodiesel production at a time when the transportation fuel market is tight, helping keep fuel prices competitive," said USDA chief economist Keith Collins. "It also expands demand for corn and other grains used in ethanol production and creates new markets for oilseed crops. The program means increased net returns for ethanol and biodiesel processors, which will encourage expanded production capacity for these fuels."

Eligible commodities for fiscal year 2002 are barley, corn, grain sorghum, oats, rice, wheat, soybeans, sunflower seed, canola, crambe, rapeseed, safflower, sesame seed, flaxseed, mustard seed, and cellulosic crops (such as switchgrass and short rotation trees) grown on U.S. farms for use in producing fuel grade ethanol and/or biodiesel.

More information is available at:

* * *


WASHINGTON, DC, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - In its first action since a landmark agreement was announced between conservation groups and federal officials this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed listing the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly as an endangered species.

The Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly is restricted to the vicinity of Cloudcroft in the Sacramento Mountains in Otero County, New Mexico. The species is threatened by destruction and fragmentation of habitat from private and commercial development, habitat degradation and loss of host plants from grazing, encroachment of conifers and non-native vegetation into non-forested openings, over collection, and, due to its limited range, vulnerability to extreme weather events or catastrophic wildfire.

On Wednesday, the USFWS agreed to rapid action to help the checkerspot and 28 other species of rare plants and animals as part of an agreement with several conservation groups. The pact will ease some of the legal pressure placed on the agency through dozens of environmental lawsuits.


A Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly (Photo courtesy )
The USFWS said its decision to propose listing the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly as endangered was made in response to a petition filed by the Center for Biodiversity in January 1999.

The public will have 60 days to comment on any aspect of the proposal, which also includes a proposed designation of 5,000 acres of critical habitat in Otero County.

The Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly inhabits mountain meadows and other openings within the mixed conifer forest between an elevation of 8,000 to 9,000 feet. The butterfly is found only within a 33 square mile area, inside of which the butterfly's distribution is patchy and unconnected.

The USFWS's best information shows that many areas of suitable habitat may be small, supporting few numbers of butterflies. Local extinction of these small populations could already be occurring because isolated populations are more vulnerable and less likely to survive over the long term.

Much of the butterflies' remaining suitable habitat and its long term existence are threatened by residential development, maintenance projects on its habitat in the Lincoln National Forest, highway reconstruction, off highway vehicle use, trampling, and overgrazed range conditions.

More information will be available soon at: under Hot Topics - look for the butterfly link

* * *


SEATTLE, Washington, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - A study released by the Washington State Attorney General's office concludes that the wave action from high speed ferries running between Seattle and Bremerton is causing environmental and property damage along Rich Passage.

The study recommended the Washington State Ferry System (WSF) slow the ferries from 34 knots to 12 knots through Rich Passage during their 24 daily passes.

The study was ordered by King County Superior Court Judge Glenda Hall on July 26, 1999. Judge Hall also ruled that the ferries should be slowed while the study was conducted. The state Supreme Court overturned a portion of Judge Hall's ruling, allowing WSF to resume the high speed service while studies were conducted.

The original lawsuit filed March 9, 1999 by Rich Passage residents claimed that powerful waves generated by the Chinook are removing or destroying beach aggregate, kelp beds, shellfish, topsoil, concrete bulkheads and other structures and vegetation along the Seattle to Bremerton ferry run.

"This is a ringing vindication for the homeowners who stepped up to challenge the state," said Steve Berman, the attorney representing residents. "For years now, they have watched as the ferry's wave action has nibbled away at their property while devastating wildlife. Today, their claims were validated."

"The ferry system first argued that they didn't need to follow the state's environmental laws and the court told them otherwise," Berman added. "Then the ferry system said the high-speed ferry wasn't causing damage, but the court-ordered studies sank that argument. The study says loud and clear: stop destroying Rich Passage - slow down the high speed ferry."

Berman said the WSF experts maintained that the high speed ferry could not be the cause of damage, although the agency had not conducted any formal investigation.

"They turned a deaf ear to every complaint the Rich Passage residents brought to them, telling them the damage had to be completely unrelated," Berman said. "Even after we filed a lawsuit and provided them with expert evidence, the WSF wouldn't listen. In my opinion, it was this stonewalling approach that led to 29 months of continued damage."

* * *


MIAMI, Florida, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - Miami International Airport (MIA) has become the first airport in the United States to receive international certification for environmental stewardship.

The certification, ISO 14001, was given to MIA for operation of its fuel storage facility. ISO 14001 is a standard established by the International Standards Organization that defines the elements of an Environmental Management System necessary for an organization to manage its impact on the environment.

The certification is an international indicator that an organization takes a serious approach to its environmental management. Its key components include establishing a department wide environmental policy statement, a systematic approach to monitoring operations, checking and corrective action processes, and periodic management reviews.

To receive the ISO 14001 certification, the Miami Dade Aviation Department (MDAD) developed written procedures for all operational areas that are likely to handle potential pollutants and trained its employees to manage these substances. These procedures were reviewed and approved by ERM-CVS, an authorized international ISO certification firm.

"The ISO 14001 Certification Process is intended to provide organizations with Environmental Management Systems that comply with international standards by doing the 'right thing' (environmentally speaking) and by striving to achieve continuous improvement in their operations," explained Pedro Hernandez, MDAD manager of environmental engineering. "Perhaps the biggest challenge we face at MIA is to insure that our operations, as well as, our tenants' and contractors' operations comply with regulations in order to minimize, and eventually prevent, environmental impacts and their resultant burdens.''

The MDAD action was prompted by soil and ground water contamination created by the release of petroleum products and chemicals used in operations by many airlines, aircraft maintenance and equipment service companies, and the U.S. Department of Defense over the past several decades. Miami-Dade County has undertaken legal proceedings against these entities to recover the costs of remediating the effects of these pollutants.

Since 1993, the remediation has included the following:

"We can be proud that we are not only cleaning up past pollution, we are also insuring that our operations are conducted in an environmentally responsible manner to leave a safer and cleaner facility for the future," said MIA aviation director Angela Gittens.

* * *


BERKELEY, California, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - A new disease, known as Sudden Oak Death, is ravaging oaks and other plant species along the California coast.

Thousands of oak trees have died, or are dying, from the disease, which has never been seen before in the U.S. At the annual meeting this week of the American Phytopathological Society (APS), the world's largest organization of plant health scientists, researchers unveiled the findings of the first major study on the effects of this devastating new disease.

"To say we're concerned is an understatement," said David Rizzo, a plant pathologist with the University of California in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, and author of the research that will be presented at the meeting. "It was just last year that researchers finally gave this disease a name. That's how new and unknown it is."

Having discovered that the disease has spread from California to Oregon, researchers began to wonder whether eastern oak trees would be susceptible to the disease as well.

To find out, Rizzo and his colleagues grew two eastern oak species in greenhouses and infected them with the fungus that causes the disease. The eastern oaks were just as, if not more, susceptible to the disease. The disease also seems to attack other plants such as rhododendron.

"Since we have yet to even understand how this disease works it terms of how it's spread, we have no idea just how great a problem it might create for oak forests in this country," Rizzo said.

Because trees grown in greenhouses can react to infectious diseases differently than those in a natural forest, or even in an urban setting, Rizzo's research does not prove that eastern oaks will succumb to the disease in the same way that the California oaks have.

"We suspect that there are other factors at work that have made California oaks particularly vulnerable to this disease, like the weather patterns along the coastal forests for example," Rizzo said.

But plant health scientists prefer to err on the side of caution.

"We're not saying this is the next Dutch elm disease, but we are stressing the need for research support," Rizzo said. "We need to do more work like the project we just completed if we are to stay one step ahead of what appears to be a pretty aggressive disease."

More information is available at:, and at: http://www.CNR.Berkeley.EDU/comtf/

* * *


CLEAR LAKE, South Dakota, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - This summer The Nature Conservancy of Minnesota helped ranchers in South Dakota who own more than 20,000 acres of native pastureland battle leafy spurge by collecting spurge eating flea beetles and releasing them on ranch land.

Staff from The Nature Conservancy, together with local ranchers and other land owners, swept through tracts of leafy spurge collecting tiny flea beetles with heavy canvas nets. The beetles were then transported to pastures and grasslands where they will spread the fight against spurge.

Leafy spurge, imported from Europe, overtakes prime livestock pasture, chokes out native grasses and seems impervious to conventional attempts to eliminate it. Cattle and many other grazing animals will not eat it.

The Department of Agriculture estimates the leafy spurge plague costs ranchers in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming more than $144 million a year in losses.

"Sometimes agricultural interests and conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy find themselves on opposite sides of the fence on some issues," said Pete Bauman, the Conservancy's land steward for eastern South Dakota and southwestern Minnesota. "But when it comes to fighting leafy spurge, everyone is on the same side. We're hoping these beetles are the long desired solution to the leafy spurge problem. This biocontrol program helps us find common ground with our ranching neighbors and opens the door to further discussions about protecting private land."

The flea beetles not only feed on the leaves, flowers and stems of leafy spurge but also lay their eggs at the base of the plants. In spring, the next generation of beetles begin eating the plants' roots and boring into the stems. The insects have been imported from Europe and Asia where spurge also originated.

Leafy spurge first spread to the Great Plains about a hundred years ago during westward expansion. It establishes what biologists call a monoculture, often eliminating other plants in its growing area.

The Conservancy has been controlling leafy spurge through chemical spot treatment for more than 15 years, trying to help native plants and animals survive in compromised grassland habitats of the northern Great Plains.

* * *


WASHINGTON, DC, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - The musical group Crosby, Stills and Nash is offering special tickets for its latest concert tour to benefit efforts to protect bison in Yellowstone National Park.

Proceeds from these special benefits ticket sales will be used to support the work of the Buffalo Field Campaign, the only organization that works in the field 365 days a year. The Field Campaign works to prevent the Montana Department of Livestock and other agencies from hazing bison which leave the protection of Yellowstone while seeking food in the winter.

Only 10 tickets for each of the following concerts are available for this special program. Six for $100 include after show backstage passes and four for $200 include after show backstage passes and a meet and greet with members of Crosby Stills and Nash.

The special tickets are available for the following concerts:

* * *


VESTMANNAEYJAR, Iceland, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - Keiko, the killer whale turned movie star, seems reluctant to return to the wild, despite the best efforts of his caretakers in Iceland.

Keiko, the orca star of the film "Free Willy," spent much of the last three months interacting with wild orca in the North Atlantic. With the orca whale pods now migrating from the area and the onset of the severe winter weather, Keiko has now returned to Klettsvik Bay.

Although reintroduction to a pod of wild whales will not occur this summer, his caretakers say Keiko has made great strides this summer in the open ocean environment. Since reinitiating ocean walks this past May, Keiko has been observed to interact often with wild orcas.

In August, two major milestones were reached. The first occurred when Keiko separated from the walk boat at his own initiative on a number of occasions. In addition, Keiko located wild whales on his own, following and interacting with them.

"This is the most comprehensive effort ever initiated to return a marine mammal to the wild," said Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of Ocean Futures Society. "It is striking how significantly we have improved the quality of Keiko's life by returning him to the natural ocean environment and, at the same time, we have learned a tremendous amount about these intelligent, complicated marine mammals."

Keiko, which means "Lucky One" in Japanese, was captured in Icelandic waters more than 20 years ago at the age of two. Taken to perform in the marine park industry, Keiko was first sent to Canada for a few years and then transported to Mexico City, Mexico where he became the only killer whale to perform in Mexico or Central America.

Housed in an inadequate facility, Keiko nevertheless became the star of the hit film, "Free Willy" where more than 1.2 million individuals worldwide learned of his plight and demanded, through an outpouring of letters, emails, drawings and donations, that he be set free.

Ocean Futures Society, a nonprofit marine conservation and education organization, has been responsible for Keiko's rehabilitation and the historic, first ever effort to reintroduce an orca, or killer whale, to a natural ocean environment, a process that began in 1996.

Researchers say two major milestones have not yet been reached. Researchers have not observed Keiko to be with any one pod for a consistent period of time, socializing, foraging and feeding.

Researchers have also not observed Keiko to be foraging on his own to a degree that they can be confident that he can sustain himself in the wild.

"Given what we have observed this summer, we must now turn our attention to the future," said Charles Vinick, executive vice president of Ocean Futures Society. "Keiko has clearly demonstrated his interest in wild whales. At the same time, he has not yet demonstrated an ability to sustain himself in the wild. With the challenges of a short and difficult summer season in the North Atlantic, we need to carefully assess what we have learned and how best to serve Keiko going forward."

* * *


WASHINGTON, DC, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - Walk into the new Forest Service information center and an animatronic Smokey Bear raises his head from reading his fan mail and greets you with his familiar phrase "Remember…only you can prevent forest fires."

Smokey Bear is one of the center's many interactive exhibits designed to educate visitors about the national forests and grasslands and inspire them to take an active role in caring for them.

"Our national forests and grasslands are a part of our country's precious heritage," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who oversees the Forest Service as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The Forest Service information center is a good way to give families, schoolchildren, and tourists who visit Washington, DC, educational information on how we as individuals can be good stewards of the land."

The center's exhibits are housed in a lodge in the Forest Service's national headquarters. Firefighting gear is displayed for viewing and touching and children can take home Smokey Bear coloring and comic books.

In the lodge store, called "Earthsmart," visitors use interactive touch screens to make choices about their everyday actions and learn what they can do to conserve our national forests and grasslands.

In the hall of the lodge, visitors can view videos and see old photographs of lands and how they changed over time through use and care. The photographs are from the agency's collection, which was started in 1876 - the same year the forest reserves were established.

Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, was a photographer, and began the collection of photographs of activities on national forests.

"It is exciting to be a part of this center where people can learn the history of our forests and grasslands and the many benefits that come from them," said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. "We want the public to have a better understanding of the important role our natural resources have played in the life of our country."