Week of 5/22/2005

Dear EarthTalk: The organization American Rivers names 10 "endangered rivers" every year. Which ones are they for 2005 -and are there any success stories pertaining to past nominees?

– Carolyn Cacciotti, Bridgeport, CT

For 20 years now, the organization American Rivers, in its annual "Most Endangered Rivers" report, has highlighted rivers around the U.S. that have the worst chronic problems in need of attention. This year the organization took a new approach and focused on those "facing the most uncertain futures."

American Rivers" "10 Most Endangered Rivers for 2005" are: the Susquehanna River flowing through New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland; McCrystal Creek in New Mexico; Colorado"s Fraser River; the Skykomish in Washington state; Tennessee"s Roan Creek; the Santee River in South Carolina; Ohio"s Little Miami River; Utah"s Price River; and the Tuolumne and Santa Clara rivers, both in California.

These rivers face a variety of threats, mostly involving pollution due to runaway real estate development and poor sewage treatment, and water diversions from dam projects and from excessive near-shore development. McCrystal Creek faces the possibility of methane drilling in its coal bed, which will pollute the creek. And in Tennessee, Roan Creek is neighbor to a large dairy farm that plans to build animal waste "lagoons" near its shores that could eventually send waves of liquid manure downriver.

The Susquehanna is the most endangered on the list. Throughout the river"s watershed, aging sewer systems discharge enormous volumes of raw or poorly treated sewage that eventually flows into the Chesapeake Bay. "Unless lawmakers invest in prevention and cleanup, the Susquehanna will remain among the nation"s dirtiest rivers," reports American Rivers. Happily, on the day American Rivers released its report, the state of Maryland backed away from plans to weaken water quality standards for the river.

Other success stories abound as well. Six months after the Tennessee River appeared on the 2004 list, the Knoxville Utility Board committed to eliminating sanitary sewer overflows into the Tennessee River within 10 years. After Massachusetts" Ipswich River appeared on the 2003 list, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection issued new regulations to limit the amount of water that municipalities can draw out during low flow periods. And following American Rivers" inclusion of New York"s Hudson River on its 2001 list, then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman ordered General Electric to foot the bill to clean up tons of PCBs that were contaminating the river bed.

Besides issuing its annual report and lobbying for better clean water legislation and enforcement, American Rivers works directly to remediate watershed problems across the country. Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for example, the group is removing barriers to salmon, striped bass and other species that migrate between fresh and salt water in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and California. So far, they’ve removed 13 unwanted dams, and created fish bypasses for six others.

CONTACTS: American Rivers, www.americanrivers.org ; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), www.noaa.gov .

Dear EarthTalk: What exactly constitutes "Eco-Travel" or "Eco-Tourism"?

—Jeannette Peclet, Norwalk, CT

While tour operators and travel agents around the world may tout their trips as "eco-tours," environmentally conscious travelers take a variety of considerations into account when determining whether or not any given excursion qualifies as such. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines eco-tourism as "travel to natural destinations that minimizes impact, builds environmental awareness, helps fund conservation, and respects and sustains local cultures while supporting human rights and democracy."

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), eco-tourism is defined as travel focused on "the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas." UNEP emphasizes that eco-tours must contain educational features, be organized for small groups by locally-owned businesses, minimize negative impacts "upon the natural and socio-cultural environment," and support the protection of natural areas by generating income for the host communities to use in conserving and sustaining their natural and cultural resources.

Recent studies indicate that as much as seven percent of all tourism worldwide operates under some sort of "eco" label. One recent survey concluded that eight million U.S. travelers have taken at least one "eco-tourist" holiday, while another concluded that three-quarters of all Americans have taken a trip involving nature and the outdoors. In the Asia-Pacific region, ecotourism accounts for 20 percent of all travel. Meanwhile, in Africa, where most visitors travel to nature reserves and game parks, the figures are even higher. The Kenya Wildlife Service, for instance, estimates that 80 percent of visitors come to see wildlife.

But the debate over what types of travel constitute eco-tourism has meant that a wide range of dining, lodging and transportation vendors advertise themselves as "green" regardless of whether their operations meet the criteria defined by TIES and other groups. As Jim Motavalli writes in E/The Environmental Magazine, "A beachfront hotel tower built of imported materials with absentee owners and no local employees is not an eco-resort, even if it does offer its guests the option of not washing their towels."

And travelers should keep in mind that "adventure" travel or "nature-based" tourism trips are not necessarily environmentally friendly. In fact, tour operators offering access to remote scenic and wild locations need to take extra care so that their trips do not endanger the very flora, fauna and geological features they are offering to showcase. Sad stories of so-called "ecotourism" run amok-where over-visitation has led to trampled landscapes and damaged wildlife habitat-abound from the Galapagos Islands and Mexico"s Chiapas region to the coastal caves of Thailand, the reefs of Hawaii and beyond.

The moral of the story then, is buyer beware. Consumers should do their homework and ask travel vendors a lot of questions about how they operate in order to discern whether they are harming or helping local environments and cultures.

CONTACTS: The International Ecotourism Society, www.ecotourism.org; United Nations Environment Programme, www.unep.org .