by Whit Gibbons

July 17, 2005

Are we in for another season of hurricanes smashing the coastal Atlantic and Gulf states? Will western wildfires cause more damage this year than last? Are attacks by alligators, bears, and other wildlife on the increase? No poll really measures how much the environment is a part of the interests and concerns of people across the nation. But newspapers give some idea of whether ecology and the environment are on the minds of the general public.

Natural disasters and negative interactions between people and wildlife always find a place in the news. But how often are everyday environmental issues reported? Rather than sample a dozen newspapers to calculate the frequency of environmental news, I find it expedient to use USA Today as a gauge because of their section called Across the USA in which a tidbit or two of news, often sensational, is given for each state, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Overall, the news is mostly bad or controversial, the kind many people like to hear about, especially when it is from another state. The emphasis of such news reports serves as a barometer of the interests and concerns of people across the nation. While traveling recently, I determined what proportion of the section was on matters that would involve ecologists.

Of the more than 150 news items published over a three-day period, more than two dozen dealt with the environment. Competing with the many social, political, and economic issues that generally top the list of state news items is difficult, but nonetheless pollution, wildlife, and other environmental topics made the list. Not unexpectedly some of the environmental subjects were more meaningful than others. A report from an area in New York where permission has been given by the state for the erection of a 104-foot cellphone tower could fall into either category, depending on whether other communities adopt such a plan. The proposal is that the tower, which is being constructed in a scenic area, will have the appearance of a giant solid white pine tree. The “Frankenpine,” as it has been called, could start a new wave of decorative cell tower building in the country, particularly once people realize how attractive a 100-foot artificial pine tree will be around Christmastime. Adding twinkling lights sounds like a must.

California is always a sure bet for memorable stories. Although California prosecutors had a bit of a problem using DNA evidence in a well-known court case a few years ago, they finally put the record straight on the potential for using genetic markers to track down a killer. Blood and fur of a deer that had been poached, presumably out of season or on the wrong tract of land, were found at the scene of the crime. Investigators matched DNA from the deer blood to that of a nice stash of venison in a hunter’s freezer. Unable to clear himself, the man ended up with a community service sentence plus loss of hunting privileges for three years. I wonder if the court has yet realized that lack of hunting privileges earlier had not posed a problem for the deer killer.

Californians are also beginning to experience something that may eventually outcompete mudslides and wildfires—fire ants. A vote is afoot in the Coachella Valley to raise taxes by more than a million dollars a year to eradicate the obnoxious little invaders with their vicious bites. Southerners have long dealt with, and have yet to solve, the problem of imported fire ants, which made landfall in the United States in Mobile decades ago. An approximately $15-per-person tax increase, the maximum being asked, to get rid of fire ants would probably be well received in any southeastern state. Unfortunately, no one has yet come up with an environmentally friendly solution, so I’m curious if California will actually succeed in this endeavor.

The remaining topics include dam-removal projects in Pennsylvania, plans in Michigan to generate electricity with windmills, and lawsuits by auto manufacturers to block stricter vehicle emissions in Vermont. The sampling from USA Today serves as a suitable indicator that in one way or another the environment is indeed on the minds of many Americans.

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