News briefs on oxygen for people, alcohol for bears, solar speed record, consumer's handbook and wildlife pesticide poisoning.
Hold That Soil
Two environmentally identical farms near Spokane, Washington, are providing ideal conditions for studying the comparative effects of organic and chemical-based farming techniques on soil. One farm has been operated naturally, using only crop rotation to maintain native soil fertility, since it was first plowed in 1909. Directly adjacent to it, another farm, first cultivated in 1908, has been receiving the recommended amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides since 1948, when many farms made the switch to inorganic techniques. Studies of the two farms have shown not only that the organically farmed soil holds more moisture, has a softer surface crust, and contains higher levels of organic matter and soil microorganisms and enzymes, but also that the topsoil is on the average six inches thicker than on the neighboring farm. "All that change has taken place since 1948," says researcher John Reganold of Washington State University in Pullman.
In 1985, a Burlington Northern train carrying corn to market derailed in northwest Montana. Railroad crews, in a hurry to repair the tracks, simply buried much of the corn—about 400 tons—under a layer of topsoil. But by last year, two years after the event, the corn had become well fermented and was sending out a sweet, pungent odor. Unfortunately, the site happens to be in the area with the highest density of grizzly bears in the contiguous U.S., and the bears—both grizzlies and blacks—hit the buried brew hard. The animals' drunken antics were a popular attraction along U.S. Highway 2 last summer, but possible consequences could be far from amusing. Intoxicated bears and people don't mix well. Flathead National Forest officials closed the area to the public, but even so two black bears were killed by poachers and four were hit by trains. In the fall, quick lime was mixed into the spiked soil to break down the corn and reduce odors, and wildlife officials are hoping the bears won't return to their watering hole when they emerge this spring from hibernation.
The only real wild animals many people see are road kills: creatures that have lost not only their lives but also—thanks to the flattening effect of car and truck tires—their third dimension. To help us identify the victims and give us a glimpse into their former lives, biologist Roger M. Knutson has published Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets and Highways.
Knutson writes, "Why an animal is on the road and what it was doing there a few hours or days earlier are recorded in its flat remains as surely as the history of a tree is recorded in its annual rings."
The 88-page paperback, illustrated with sketches of ironed-out animals, provides fascinating information on the eating, mating and territorial habits of more than three dozen North American roadside animals, and discusses roads as habitat. It's available for $4.95 from Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.
Rails to Trails
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has published two excellent books on converting abandoned railroad beds to trails for recreational use. A Guide to America's Rail-Trails ($6.50) is a directory of the 125 existing rail-trails in the U.S., which together total over 1,900 miles of trails ideal for hiking, running, biking, horseback riding and other activities. The guide lists each trail's location, length, surface type and suitable uses, and the name, address and phone number of the trail's manager. The second book, Converting Rails to Trails: A Citizen's Manual ($15), offers how-to information on effective trail construction methods and provides advice on such subjects as negotiating with the railroad and dealing with public officials. Both are available from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Washington, DC.
Taking a Breather
Shoppers in Tokyo, Japan, can refresh themselves at any of several O2 bars, increasingly popular hangouts where oxygen is served instead of drinks. For the equivalent of less than one dollar, a customer can breathe for three minutes through a face mask hooked up to an oxygen tank. The bars are spin-offs from a marketing venture that began with the selling of oxygen in cans to athletes, to be used as mid-game pick-me-ups.
Wildlife deaths due to pesticide poisoning are on the rise. In an attempt to track the extent of the problem and substantiate the need for controls, Defenders of Wildlife has established a Poison Patrol hot line. Anyone in the continental U.S. who encounters a suspected wildlife poisoning can report the incident to an operator at a toll-free number. The information you provide will be recorded and forwarded to the Environmental Protection Agency, which will use the data to help identify areas of the country where pesticide problems are most severe. For a brochure that provides guidelines to help you determine whether a bird or animal may have been poisoned, contact Poison Patrol, Defenders of Wildlife, Washington, DC.
Solar Speed Record
Last fall, on an overcast day in Mesa, Arizona, a car looking like a huge flattened bug and sporting 7,200 solar cells broke the world's speed record for a land vehicle powered solely by the sun: 35.227 mph, a significant jump over the previous 24.74 mph record set in 1984. Later, in November, the vehicle sped to victory in a 1,950-mile race across the middle of Australia, making the journey in 44 hours and 54 minutes at an average speed of 41 mph. Called the GM Sunraycer, the 360-pound vehicle is nearly 20 feet long, six and a half feet wide and a little over three feet high. On sunny days, it has been unofficially clocked running solely on solar power at 45 mph; on the road, it uses a high-efficiency battery to help it accelerate and climb hills, and can reach 60 mph. Its electric engine weighs only 8.1 pounds, but produces two horsepower.
According to the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, one in four purchases results in some kind of consumer dissatisfaction. Yet nearly 70% of unhappy buyers fail to complain to the companies involved—in many cases, simply because they're not sure where to take their grievances or whom to complain to. Solution: the Consumer's Resource Handbook, a government publication that lists more than 2,000 names, addresses and phone numbers where consumers can get answers to questions or help in resolving complaints. Included are Better Business Bureaus, trade associations, corporate consumer contacts, dispute resolution programs and local, state and federal government agencies. The 1988 Consumer's Resource Handbook is available free from the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009.
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