by Whit Gibbons

November 1, 2009

Newspapers serve as indicators of the extent to which ecology is on the minds of Americans. Tallying up the number of environmentally related articles in a paper would be one way to quantify the level of interest. USA Today makes the job easy with a one-page section called "Across the USA."

Catchy news tidbits for each state and the District of Columbia are given every day. Noting where the emphasis lies in such news reporting reveals the interests and concerns of people across the nation. While traveling this week, I decided to see what proportion of the news items over a two-day period dealt with environmental matters.

Economic issues were not surprisingly the news items for various states. For example, the number of bankruptcies in Connecticut has almost tripled since 2007. And state workers in Nevada protested outside a mental health facility in response to furloughs by elected officials trying to cope with budget shortfalls. Among the reports difficult to categorize was one about fifth-grade students in New Hampshire spearheading an effort to have the legislature declare apple cider the state beverage. Another, this one from Indiana, revealed that Indiana University ranks sixth in the nation among college users of Twitter. If that statistic prompts a "so what?" reaction, I don't blame you. (And if news of which schools were ranked fifth through first was reported, I missed it.)

But to return to the topic at hand: 18 of the 102 news items were about the environment, on topics ranging from energy issues to pollution to flood control to interactions with animals. Some of the items should make us pause and think about where we are headed environmentally. In Ohio, a treatment facility for hazardous waste, which could presumably enter drinking water, was not properly closed down according to the state. The Ohio attorney general stated that the defendants should be held in contempt for not accepting responsibility for their "inaction." In other words, the companies involved simply polluted the landscape and then walked away from the mess they had created. The $14.7 million that has been awarded the state of Ohio in the ensuing lawsuit sounds well deserved to me. When the owners and managers of such companies were children, did they learn nothing about the evils of littering?

An adjoining state, Michigan, provided a new twist on water quality concerns. The city of Grand Rapids has instituted a program called "Take Back the Tap" in which citizens are being encouraged to drink tap water. The city has even stopped buying bottled water for events, the mayor declaring that water out of the tap is healthier and cheaper, not to mention better for the environment. Ever wonder where those thousands upon thousands of plastic bottles go? How refreshing to see a city official acknowledge that the community's water is safe to drink. Bottled water is a Band-Aid that sends a clear signal--if you have to drink it to stay healthy in your community, you have serious water quality issues that need to be addressed.

Other environmental news flashes this week included the discovery in South Dakota of an Asian mosquito that is cold resistant and is active during the day, further evidence that we should be concerned about introduced species. Oregon was accredited under the National Organic Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to certify agricultural areas for organic farming. This is a positive step, as the fewer environmentally harmful pesticides and herbicides we use in food production, the better off our country will be. Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, meanwhile, is making an intensive search for a fish known as the Maryland darter that some say is the rarest fish in the world. The species, believed by some to be extinct, occurs only in small streams in the state. It was last seen in 1988. The fact that wildlife officials in the state are concerned enough to search for it is a good sign.

These and other snippets from USA Today indicate that environmental issues are important throughout the country. In only two days some aspect of the environment emerged as the most noteworthy news topic in more than one-third of the states.

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