Week of 9/12/2004

Dear EarthTalk: How do hybrid cars get better fuel efficiency than traditional cars?

— David Walley, Framingham, MA

Hybrid cars get better gas mileage and pollute less because their highly efficient electric motors run on recycled waste energy generated during normal driving. These cars actually have two engines under the hood—a traditional gasoline-powered motor used for acceleration, and an electric motor that kicks in and out of service when the car is maintaining cruising speeds and when the car is idling or backing up. Excess power generated by the gasoline engine is stored in batteries and used to fuel the electric engine, so owners never need to plug the cars in.

Hybrids have two complex drive trains, so consumers can expect to pay a premium of $3,500 or more for one, depending upon extra options ordered. But, as with most new innovations, as demand for hybrids rises (there is a long waiting list for the Toyota Prius) and manufacturers increase production accordingly, prices are likely to come down. And the demand will surely rise as long as gas prices continue to soar.

Despite the price premium, owners can expect to earn back the extra investment of going hybrid within three to five years of ownership through savings at the gas pump—especially if their hybrids are replacing gas-guzzlers like big SUVs. Hybrid owners who drive the average 12,000 miles per year can expect to save anywhere between $600 and $1,000 each year on gasoline, depending upon their driving patterns. High-mileage commuters will see their savings mount even faster. Also, the federal government currently offers hybrid owners a tax credit of up to $1,500 for purchasing a "clean fuels" vehicle, though this incentive is set to expire after 2006. And several U.S. states—including Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Utah—offer their own incentives and tax rebates for hybrid owners.

Those ready to take the hybrid plunge have more options than ever at their disposal. The first two hybrids to hit the U.S. market in 2000 were the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, both of which claim fuel efficiencies of up to 60 miles per gallon and are available today in updated forms. In the meantime, Honda has also introduced a hybrid version of its popular Civic model, and is soon to introduce a hybrid Accord.

American automakers are slated to release new hybrid SUVs this fall, beginning with Ford’s hybrid Escape, which boasts 40 miles per gallon. Lexus is also offering a hybrid SUV, and a full hybrid Saturn Vue is coming. Meanwhile, Chevrolet has a hybrid version of its full-size Silverado pick-up truck for fleet buyers, though it only gets 10 to 12 percent better fuel economy over its standard GM 1500 pickup. Given all the choices—not to mention the savings at the pump—there’s never been a better time to get behind the wheel of a fuel-efficient hybrid.

CONTACTS: HybridCars.com, www.hybridcars.com; Clean Car Campaign, www.cleancarcampaign.org; GreenerCars.com, www.greenercars.com; Electric Drive Transportation Association, http://www.electricdrive.org.

Dear EarthTalk: How much land has Congress designated as wilderness since passage of the Wilderness Act 40 years ago?

—Maureen Langloss, New York, NY

When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, it designated 9.1 million acres across the United States permanently off limits to development. Since then, lawmakers have added an additional 96.5 million acres—including more than 50 million acres in Alaska alone—or a total of 105.6 million acres, spread over some 662 different areas and constituting roughly five percent of total U.S. land mass.

Only Congress has the power to designate lands as federally protected wilderness. Typically, parcels of land need to be 5,000 acres or larger to be included. The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service each oversee different areas of wilderness within their respective holdings.

It was a group of influential policymakers, scientists and outdoorsmen that banded together in the mid-1930s whose advocacy work ultimately led to the passage of the Wilderness act 30 years later. Calling themselves the Wilderness Society, they included: Benton Mackaye, known as "father of the Appalachian Trail"; Robert Sterling Yard, at the time a National Park Service publicist; visionary ecologist and author Aldo Leopold; and Robert Marshall, then chief of recreation and lands for the Forest Service. Today the Wilderness Society is thriving, with a quarter million dues-paying members and wilderness preservation campaigns running from Alaska to Florida.

Despite protections provided by the 1964 law, wilderness areas face many threats today. Excessive human recreational activity takes a toll, as do air and water pollution from sources that originate outside wilderness boundaries. Non-native plants and animals that have been introduced over time threaten the native species that have evolved over thousands of years. Wildlife habitat in adjacent "buffer zones" is shrinking as development moves closer and closer to the boundaries of these wild lands. And ill-advised land management practices—such as widespread fire suppression—disrupt naturally functioning ecological systems.

This year, numerous government agencies and non-profit organizations are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act and assessing how to best work together to protect wilderness lands in perpetuity. Conferences are exploring the important role wilderness plays in the American psyche, and "walks for wilderness" are scheduled on weekends this fall from coast-to-coast to raise public awareness about the role wilderness plays in the quality of life and the health of our environment. To find an event near you, log on to Wilderness.net.

CONTACTS: Wilderness Act of 1964, www.leaveitwild.org/reports/wilderness1964PF.html; Bureau of Land Management, www.blm.gov; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, www.fws.gov; U.S. Forest Service, www.fs.fed.us; National Park Service, www.nps.gov; Wilderness Society, (800) 843-9453, www.wilderness.org; Wilderness.net, www.wilderness.net.