Week of 4/9/2006

Dear EarthTalk: President Bush recently replaced Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who resigned, with Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne. What was Norton's environmental legacy and what can we expect from her successor?

—Kiernan Romano, Ronkonkoma, NY

The U.S. Department of Interior is one of 20 individuals and departments, including the vice-president and the Departments of Defense, Justice, Education, Labor, the recently created Department of Homeland Security and others, that make up the president's Cabinet. The Interior Department is charged with protecting and conserving—in the interest of the American public—our land, water, energy and mineral resources, as well as the nation's fish and wildlife.

According to the White House, Gale Norton, the first woman to ever lead the Interior Department, was a rousing success in the influential position she held for six years. Upon accepting her resignation in March, President Bush praised her for an initiative to protect communities from catastrophic wildfires. He also told reporters that she helped lead efforts to restore offshore energy production after Hurricane Katrina, lauding her as "a strong advocate for the wise use and protection of our nation's natural resources."

But Norton's legacy does not look so rosy to most eco-advocates. For one, she spearheaded (as-yet unsuccessful) efforts to open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, an action green leaders say would yield little oil in relation to the large profits that already bloated oil companies would gain. She also opened more federal land across the American West to oil drilling and mining than any other Interior Secretary before her. Critics also say that her wildfire protection efforts, through the thinning of forested areas, were a veiled effort to hand over otherwise untouchable forestlands to the logging industry.

The New York Times called Norton "a key player in the Bush administration's efforts to exploit natural resources on federal lands." The League of Conservation Voters (LCV), in issuing a statement about her resignation, said, "Gale Norton's decision to leave the Interior Department provides the opportunity for President Bush to appoint an individual who believes that
America truly does have an addiction to oil and who will create policies to help wean America off that addiction. The new Secretary needs to understand our national treasures are to be protected, not exploited for profit
that America's public lands are not intended to be sold to the highest bidder."

But to those happy to see Norton go, Dirk Kempthorne is cold comfort. "As Idaho governor, Kempthorne led the charge to strip protection from 60 million acres of America's last wild forests and he's consistently fought against protection for wildlife like grizzly bears and salmon in his home state," said Todd True of the non-profit group Earthjustice. And Chuck Clusen, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called Kempthorne, "Gale Norton in pants," saying: "President Bush could not have made a more anti-environmental choice for his new secretary of the Interior. Dirk Kempthorne surely will continue this administration's "drill first, ask questions later" approach to public land stewardship."

Kempthorne racked up a dismal environmental record during his six years in the Senate in the 1990s, scoring a "0" on LCV's legislative scorecards in every year except one in which he scored "6" out of 100.

CONTACTS: Earthjustice, www.earthjustice.org; U.S. Department of Interior, www.doi.gov;


Dear EarthTalk: Are there any environmentally friendly alternatives to using chemical weed killers like Roundup?

—Wyatt Walley, Needham, MA

The active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup, glyphosate, is a known toxin. This is, of course, why it is so successful in eradicating pesky weeds. In fact, glyphosate is the most commonly used pesticide in the United States, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that over five million pounds of it are used in American yards and gardens annually.

According to Caroline Cox, staff scientist at the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP), gardeners wouldn't use Roundup if they knew about all of the problems attributed to its use. For instance, ingesting about three-fourths of a cup can be lethal. And symptoms of just casual contact can include eye and skin irritation, lung congestion and erosion of the intestinal tract. Monsanto's Roundup has also been linked to cancer, miscarriages and genetic damage in humans, so it's no wonder that NCAP and other organizations are pushing for safer alternatives. Environmentally, the product is thought to be implicated in immune system damage in fish and reproductive disruption in amphibians.

Over a recent eight-year study period in California, glyphosate was the third most frequently reported cause of illness related to agricultural pesticide use. And scientists from the National Cancer Institute and three prominent medical centers have shown the use of glyphosate herbicides by midwestern farmers to be associated with many cases of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Roundup also contains other non-active ingredients, contact with which can cause nausea, diarrhea, chemical pneumonia, laryngitis and severe headaches.

Luckily, reports Cox, "There are effective pesticide-free solutions to the weed problems in our yards and gardens." For instance, mulches made from wood chips, straw, grass clippings or shredded bark can be used to keep weed seeds from germinating. Quite simply, by keeping light from reaching weeds, a thick mulch layer naturally inhibits the growth of the chlorophyll that is the lifeblood of fast-growing weeds.

Cox also says that maintaining healthy, well-aerated soil is essential to a program of chemical-free weed control, and suggests using organic fertilizer where needed. Longer grass, between two and three inches tall, also helps keep weeds in check without chemicals. When weeds do appear anyway, Cox recommends non-chemical weeding tools such as hoes, string trimmers, weed pullers, flame weeders or radiant heat weeders. Local organic nurseries can help you determine which techniques will work best in your area.

One added benefit of giving up the Roundup habit might be the blossoming of beneficial plants, fungi and creepy crawlies in your yard. Since Roundup is toxic to a wide range of important ecological builders like ladybugs, beetles, earthworms and fungi, going without can help bring these species back to work aerating your soil and keeping virulent pests in check naturally.

CONTACT: Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) Healthier Homes and Gardens Program, www.pesticide.org/HHG.html.