by Whit Gibbons

June 24, 2002

Two concerned citizens recently reported what seemed to be scary environmental problems. The eventual findings should make us consider whether we should stay constantly on red alert about environmental abuse.

The first incident was a call to a colleague of mine from someone who had observed a several-acre tract of mature pine trees with no needles. I had seen the trees myself and knew that the scene was abnormal for late spring. The pine stand was drought-summer brown and looked like it had been attacked by gypsy moths or some other biological pest that had denuded every branch.

The caller had a more conspiratorial explanation and wanted some confirmation. The pine forest was adjacent to a government site that housed chemical facilities and supported other industrial activities. His hypothesis was that human caused environmental contamination was responsible for the strange and sudden loss of pine needles.

Fortunately, my colleague knew the real explanation-a hailstorm the week before had caused intensive and widespread damage over a small section of the county. The damage could all be ascribed to unusually strong winds and to large hail that was concentrated for several minutes on a few acres of forest and residential areas. The intensity and localized nature of the storm during the previous month was well known by area insurance companies that have paid for dozens of "totaled" cars and damaged roofs. The barren pine trees can be explained unequivocally as the result of a natural storm; they were not denuded by any human impact to the environment.

The second incident was a report in Michigan of a large female map turtle found emerging from a lake in late spring with "scutes lifting off the shell." Scutes are the fingernail thickness plates covering each section of a turtle shell. Map turtles reach almost a foot in length and are found in large rivers and lakes from Alabama and Tennessee up through the Midwest to Canada. Many people in Michigan believe that aquatic habitats near areas such as the Kalamazoo River are capable of causing serious health problems in humans and wildlife. Regrettably, many rivers throughout the country once received extensive pollution from toxic chemicals and other environmental contaminants from industries that used the river water and then dumped the waste directly back into the river. The toxic substances remain in many of the sediments in and around such rivers.

Understandably, someone unfamiliar with turtles might become alarmed upon seeing a turtle with its shell peeling away. In fact, upon finding a second turtle with the same problem, concern would probably have increased and spread through the community. But even with one, environmental chemists and state regulators were being called upon to evaluate the situation. Could the strange illness spread in some way to humans? Who was to blame?

Fortunately, someone thought to ask a turtle expert, Jim Harding at Michigan State University, if he knew what the problem might be. Jim explained that "map turtles shed the outer layer of their shell as they grow, and the plates will appear 'lifted' (especially when the turtle is dry) until shedding is complete." Painted turtles, snappers, and many other hard shelled U.S. turtles do the same thing. In other words, as he put it, a "single turtle with 'lifting scutes' is not a problem."

Staying on permanent red alert for anything is unhealthy. The cumulative chronic stress of doing so is seldom compensated for. But criticism should not be leveled at a citizen who becomes concerned and inquires about environmental anomalies. Who can be surprised that the first suspicions of some people these days about perceived mistreatment of the environment are toward commercial projects or government programs? Historically, some private and even public agendas around the nation have not been especially forthcoming about the environmental downside of certain projects, leading to serious ethical questions.

Being on a distrustful and apprehensive environmental red alert may be detrimental to the individual. But having a country where activities that could affect the environment whether initiated by private industry or government entities can be openly challenged by anyone is as healthy an environmental situation as we can ever have.

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