In Search of Quiet Places

  • Gordon Hempton uses a mic stand shaped like a human head to accurately capture the sounds we hear. (Photo by D Harrington)

There are very few truly quiet places left in this country. There’s noise pollution even in the wildest, most remote national parks.

Gordon Hempton has been traveling to some of those last quiet places and he wants to protect them. He’s an Emmy-winning professional sound collector. He’s traveled the world to record everything from city streets to howler monkeys. He’s the author of One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet. He’s joining me from Olympia National Park in Washington State.

You’ve said that you’ve found just 12 places so far in all of the U.S. where there’s an interval of at least 15 minutes without human noise. What do you think we’re missing out on if we lose those places?

AUDIO EXTRA: Hear more from Gordon Hempton

The Sound Tracker

Hempton on WBUR’s On Point

Hempton in Newsweek


HEMPTON: In a quiet place in nature not only are we listening to many, many square miles, but we are connecting, we are re-connecting, with where we come from, who we are and how our bodies have evolved to take it all in.

RW: A documentary has been made about you – called Soundtracker – and in it, the thing that struck me the most was when you talked about having to trust your gut feeling. You were in Sri Lanka, it was dark and you were recording…

(sound of Hempton’s Sri Lanka recording comes up under)

HEMPTON: Right, I learned a very important lesson that morning in the Sri Lanka rainforest of Sinharaja. And I was there to record morning bird song and that means getting up early, so I was walking into the forest, in the dark, and started to roll. And then my good feeling changed to panic. I could honor my panic and simply leave my equipment running, and so I walked away. Months later, I’m sitting in my Seattle studio reviewing the tape… I hear my footsteps disappear and moments later, there’s the guttural growl of the leopard.

(leopard growling)

RW: I have to tell you I found that sound to be terrifying!

HEMPTON: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, I know. I hate to think what would’ve happened if I’d remained there.

RW: So you’ve recorded all over the world for 30 years. How do you find these true quiet places?

HEMPTON: You know, I’ve been looking at Michigan. The very first thing I do, I look at the nighttime view of the United States, and I looked in this case at the nighttime view of Michigan. The upper half of Michigan was surprisingly dark. Then I went to the FAA chart to see all the airways that are charted and I could see that most of Michigan was covered. But there were two areas that were not. So I went to Google Earth and zoomed in on those places and I could see there were quite a few roads. But there were two locations: Manitou Island, particularly a site on that island that is Perch Lake. And also Lily Lake on Isle Royale National Park.

RW: So what can we do to protect these places?

HEMPTON: There’s one action we can all participate in to save the vanishing quiet places of this country. And that is to pass a single piece of legislation that will create for the very first time these areas off limits to all aircraft over our most pristine national parks.

RW: Gordon Hempton is a professional sound collector and the author of: One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet. Thank you so much.

HEMPTON: Well, all right, thank you Rebecca.

RW: You can hear some of Gordon Hempton’s work and his favorites on our website: environment report dot org. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Underground Diner Supports Local Farmers

  • Breakfast volunteers: Lisa Gottlieb, Shana Kimball, Bridgette Carr, Jeff McCabe, and Maria Bonn. (Photo by Myra Klarman)

So what would you think about opening up your home to 120 people every week? Letting them come in with their shoes on, sit anywhere they wanted… oh and by the way they’ll be expecting a full breakfast.

Selma Cafe

Underground Eats on Selma

Myra Klarman blogs about Selma Cafe


That’s what happens at Jeff McCabe and Lisa Gottlieb’s house in Ann Arbor. From 6:30 to 10am every Friday, their house is transformed. It’s kind of weird… you walk in and you know you’re in someone’s home, but it feels like you’re suddenly in a little diner.

“We call it a breakfast salon… because we’re not a restaurant. We’re making food for family and friends, people who are interested in supporting the local food economy, who want to come and have a good time on Friday morning before they go to work!”

The idea is, it’s locally grown food, cooked for you by local chefs, with all the proceeds going to support Michigan farmers.

Selma Café is on Ann Arbor’s west side. You can’t miss it. Their whole front yard is a giant garden, with onions and sweet potatoes and beets.

(sound of café)

And in case you’re thinking it’s just toast and eggs… here’s my server, Amy Moss.

“We have braised pork with polenta napoleon, rhubarb chutney with poached egg and we also have a strawberry bread pudding, so that’s on the menu today.”

(sound of kitchen: “Order up!” plates clanking)

There’s a hunk of prosciutto on the counter… and a guy with a little blow torch caramelizing the top of the bread pudding. Claire Rice is here for breakfast… and she also sometimes volunteers to wait tables.

“The food is fabulous, if the food was crap no one would ever come back!”

When you’re done, you pay for your meal by putting a donation into one of the jars on your table. In the winter, local fresh fruits and veggies just don’t happen in Michigan. With the money from the jars, Jeff and Lisa are trying to change that.

“We got a little crazy and decided to just start doing something regularly that we could do to try to change the food system here, create more four-season farming.”

Lisa and Jeff have raised 90-thousand dollars. A third of the money goes to buy the food from local farmers for the breakfasts… and the rest goes to build hoop houses. Those are lightweight greenhouses that allow a farmer to grow food year-round.

These hoop houses don’t have to be on farms. A couple have even been built in downtown Detroit. Kate Devlin is the master gardener at the Spirit of Hope church. Most of the food she grows goes to the church’s food pantry. She’s hoping her new hoop house will help get more fresh food to people in Detroit.

“There are no major grocery chains in Detroit anymore and even where there were, they were so spread out, people couldn’t get to them. Sounds crazy, but in the Motor City, 40% of the people do not have cars.”

Devlin built her hoop house with a loan from the money raised at Selma Café. Her hoop house, like all the others, was built in one day by volunteers recruited at the Café.
And some of the food grown in the hoop houses comes back to the Café. You might see greens on your plate in February.

Lisa and Jeff are both pretty unphased by the hundreds of diners who come into their house every week.

“It does open up its unique challenges of where does public and private begin and end (laughs) so we’ve had people kind of wander in at any time of day and say, is this the place? But in general, I think it’s been a really nice fit.”

And they say they’re happy to have even more people come over for breakfast.

Rebecca Williams, The Environment Report.

Emotions Run High Over Dam Removal Questions

  • The Argo Dam was first built as a hydroelectric dam in 1914. Detroit Edison decided it wasn't worth the investment and sold it to Ann Arbor in 1963. (Photo by Mark Brush)

There are close to two hundred hydroelectric dams in Michigan, and almost half of those stopped making power a long time ago. Many of these dams are getting old and they need attention. The communities that own these dams are faced with a decision: pay to fix them, or pay to take them down. As Mark Brush reports it’s a decision that often stirs people’s emotions.

Map of Hydroelectric Dams in Michigan (pdf)

The Ann Arbor Chronicle on Argo Dam

The City of Ann Arbor on Argo Dam

More about Rowing on Argo Pond (pdf)

“Why remove Argo Dam?” from the HRWC

“The Ballad of Argo Dam” by Dave Barrett


(Sound of Argo Dam)

The controversy around Argo Dam in Ann Arbor started when the State’s Dam Safety Program said there were problems were with the embankment next to the dam. The repair costs were estimated to be up to $300,000.

Laura Rubin is standing next to the dam on the Huron River. Rubin is the executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, and she wants to take this dam out. She says taking the dam out would save the city money in the long run. She says it will also return the river to a more natural state, and would be better for fish and wildlife. Rubin says when she looks at the pond made by the dam, she doesn’t see good things.

“When I look at Argo Pond I see really a stinky, stagnant, non-oxygenated pond. It’s not really functioning. Other people look at it as, you know, this beautiful pond that they go down to. And it’s really, that’s just one of perspective, and sort of your background and your training.”

The people who like the dam accused Rubin and the Watershed Council of overhyping the problems with the dam, and with Argo Pond. The people most outspoken were the members of a local rowing club.

Rubin and others in favor of taking the dam out said the rowers could find better places to row on the Huron River, and the city could pay for the move.

Mike Taft is a coach for the Huron High School rowing team. He and many of the other rowers said the other places just wouldn’t work.

“You know my kids grew up here and this is where we spent our time. So, you can find what you want on various stretches of this river, and this is a one of a kind the way it is.”

Some environmentalists accused the rowers of digging their heels in – of not considering other options. Taft feels that accusation is unfair.

“I think this is not about the rowers. I think it’s about the Watershed Council pursuing their absolute aim here, which is to take out this dam.”

People with the Watershed Council say they do want the dam out, but they say they respect the rowers concerns.

The city of Ann Arbor put together a committee to help them with the decision. They held meetings and heard from some experts. They came to agreement on a lot of other issues about the river, but on the Argo Dam they just couldn’t agree.

Steve Yaffee is an expert on ways to manage environmental conflicts. He’s written extensively about the Spotted Owl case out west and he facilitated some of the Argo Dam meetings. He says in hindsight, he felt like the process could have been better informed. He thought it would have helped to have outside experts weigh in on the questions about science and about the alternatives for rowers.

“Because I think the rowing interests weren’t convinced that there were environmental benefits. And the environmentalists weren’t convinced that there weren’t options for the rowers. And if you’re not convinced of that, why work with that.”

Yaffee says for communities facing these big controversies it’s important for all the parties to first sit down and talk broadly about what they want for their community. He says it’s also important to have some creative thinkers at the table. People who can articulate a vision for the future and can come up with solutions.

For now, the city is planning to keep the dam. If it does, taxpayers will probably have to pay close to half a million dollars in repair and maintenance costs in the next several years, and for many cities with tight budgets money is often what ultimately drives their final decision of whether or not to keep a dam.

For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

Invasive Species and Toxic Chemicals

  • The round goby is an invader in the Great Lakes... and now scientists are discovering that toxins called PCBs are accumulating in round gobies... and then those toxins are getting into fish that we eat. (Photo by David Jude)

Invasive species and toxic chemicals…

This is The Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

There are these chemicals called PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls. They were found to be toxic decades ago. The Environmental Protection Agency considers them to be probable human carcinogens. They were banned in the 1970s, but they’re still all around us. They’re buried in the sediment at the bottom of some of our rivers and lakes. Now researchers are finding invasive species are passing these old, toxic chemicals up the food web.

David Jude is a research scientist and a fish biologist at the University of Michigan.

So you found that zebra mussels and round gobies are driving this problem. How so?


“Well, the zebra mussels and the quagga mussels, which is a cousin of the zebra mussels, are filtering the water of algae and sometimes other detrital material and PCBs will absorb to that material. Therefore, they accumulate high concentrations of toxic substances including PCBs. So any organism that eats those organisms are going to accumulate PCBs in their bodies.”

RW: So the zebra mussels and quagga mussels are accumulating the PCBs…the round gobies are eating them and they’re stockpiling the PCBs in their bodies (DJ: “Exactly.”) and then here come the walleye and they eat the round gobies (“Exactly.”):

DJ: “So any walleyes that spend a lot of time in the Saginaw River eating round gobies are going to pick up a lot of PCBs because those fish are contaminated.”

RW: You studied Saginaw Bay in particular. Is this same zebra mussel, round goby, walleye connection happening in other parts of the Great Lakes?

“Yes, sometimes there may be a different top predator involved but all the Great Lakes have places where this particular food web is in operation, except for Lake Superior. And, the other point I think I should make is that, again, this study was done in a highly contaminated area. In other areas of the Great Lakes, for example in Lake Michigan, you would not see this sort of uptake of PCBs. It’s only in these contaminated areas of concern across the Great Lakes that we’re seeing this sort of a pattern.”

RW: So what does this mean for people who like to catch and eat walleye?

“The bigger the fish, which we found in this study, the more contaminants that they’re going to have. So you should be eating smaller fish and you should do everything you can to get rid of the fat.”

RW: And that’s because PCBs collect in fat, right?

DJ: “Yes, exactly right.”

RW: So this applies, what you’re finding applies to other kinds of fish as well?

“Well, I would think so. You could, by analogy, suggest that other fatty fish are probably picking up a lot higher levels than what we’re seeing in the walleyes.”

RW: So if I’m at the fish market, what kinds of Great Lakes fish would I be best off buying?

“Well, small fish. I’d get small fish first and then I would get yellow perch if I could do that. They would probably be the lowest contamination level of the ones that are there. Lake whitefish probably would be another good one for you to eat. They’re fairly low on the food chain and unfortunately they are starting to eat a lot of quagga and zebra mussels, but again, they’re eating them in areas where they’re not as highly contaminated as they would be in an area of concern. So, you possibly could get some that were eating these zebra mussels and quagga mussels in an area of concern so they could be contaminated but in general, I would say lake whitefish might be a good species to eat.”

RW: David Jude is a research scientist and a fish biologist at the University of Michigan. Thank you so much for coming in.

“My pleasure.”

That’s The Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Selling Asian Carp to China

  • Commercial fisherman Gary Shaw shows off his silver and big head Asian carp, just before handing them off to Big River Fish, an Illinois company that has landed a major contract to send carp to a Chinese food company. (Photo courtesy of Ross Harano)

This little Asian carp went to market….

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

You probably know Illinois wants to stop Asian carp from getting into Lake Michigan. Biologists say one solution would be to fish the carp out of the Illinois River at a big, commercial scale. That way they won’t expand their feeding range to Chicago, the Great Lakes and beyond – at least, they hope. Entrepreneurs in Illinois want to get rich off Asian carp.

A draft plan to control Asian carp
An Environment Report story about another Asian carp entrepreneur

More info about the new carp deal


Shawn Allee tells us about the company that’s closest to grabbing the brass ring.

Last December, biologists got scared Asian carp were getting close to Lake Michigan, so they poisoned rivers near Chicago.

That’s when Ross Harano got a call. Harano is an international trade agent in Chicago.

“A friend of mine was in China, working for the largest beef processing company. He read about these fish being killed, poisoned, and wondered what the heck is going on because they’re a delicacy there.”

Harano’s friend works for the Beijing Zhuochen Animal Husbandry Company – it’s like the Kraft Foods of China.

“The company in china had decided to do a marketing study and they felt there was demand for a high-end, wild asian carp. Shawn: ‘Why would that be?’
All these fish they are getting now are raised in these rivers that are polluted and the farm-raised taste muddy, evidently. Shawn: ‘At least in China.’
At least in China. And so, they liked the idea of a fish that jumps out of the water and has all this energy.”

Harano’s friend asked if he could send Illinois’ perky Asian carp to China.

Harano just happened to know Big River Fish, a processor in Southwestern Illinois.

Harano said, have your company come see our fish.

“They sent a representative over who’s a food expert for their company and we cooked some Asian carp for him, according to his recipes.
Shawn: Down in southwestern Illinois.
Down in Pearl, Illinois. Mr. Yang is his name. He said this is the best Asian carp he’s had since he was a child. So, based upon that, Mr. Yang signed a memorandum saying, yes, we want to look into this further. They’re very interested in 30 million pounds of the fish. I said we don’t have that capacity, we could probably do ten.”

This meant trouble.

Harano says the Chinese company was firm: deliver thirty million pounds of carp – or no deal.

But Harano’s client, Big River Fish, would need a new factory.

And right here, Harano’s client hit a problem other Asian carp entrepreneurs hit: they’ve got ideas to sell Asian carp, but they don’t have money to expand or even start their business.

Big River Fish only had half the money … so it asked Illinois’ state government for two million dollars.

The state gave it.

“There was a gap and that’s where we step in to help meet the gap.”

This is Warren Ribley – the head of Illinois’ Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

“Anything we can do to help reduce those populations is just a good thing not only from an environmental point of view, but helps create jobs.”

Well, Ribley’s dead-on with the jobs part, but he’s kinda right on the environmental argument.

Biologists say commercial fishing can help control Asian carp, but Illinois needs huge operations, and lots of them.

The Big River company’s deal with China starts this fall. It’s a big deal, but it’s the only deal.

In fact – it’s the only company on the Illinois River that’s gotten this much state help … even though other companies hope to turn carp into pet food, fertilizer, even carp patties to feed state prisoners.

“Those are not yet as proven… this was a case with a contract they had to be ready to enter into and to deliver as many fish as you can.

Ribley says his agency is conservative with grant money because it doesn’t want to subsidize carp businesses that will fail.

But there’s no other help for Asian carp start-ups.

So for now, any Asian carp gold rush in Illinois is just gonna have to wait.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

A lot of environmentalists wonder whether it makes sense to build a business on a fish a lot of people hope disappears.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Oil Spill Creates Manufacturing Boom

  • A truck loaded up with boom for the Gulf spill cleanup. (Photo by Nikki Motson)

The Gulf oil spill and a manufacturing boom…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

When the BP oil spill started polluting the Gulf three months ago, a lot of unemployed workers in Michigan might not have guessed it would affect their daily lives.

But BP reached out to some Michigan companies to build oil boom for containment and cleanup efforts down in the Gulf.

Nikki Motson has more:

A related Environment Report story on the Kalamazoo River oil spill
An Environment Report story about seafood and the Gulf spill


Marysville, Michigan in St. Clair County was once part of the thriving manufacturing belt. Now the region is scattered with empty factories that once supplied the auto industry.

The operations that are still running have found ways to innovate and be flexible to changing trends. Fagerdala USA is among them.

Fagerdala received good news last year when Wham-O toys moved their manufacturing of kids’ products from China back to the US.

The Marysville plant was chosen to take over production of items like the pool noodles kids play with in summer. But they still struggled.

In Grand Rapids, Prestige Products had a modest staff of five employees making vinyl awnings for businesses and homes. But in the depressed economy business was down.

Then oil started gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP oil spill. As the bad news was hitting residents along the Gulf states, good news came to Michigan.

BP was looking for people who could make enormous amounts of boom, and that meant Prestige and Fagerdala would hire as many people as their factories could hold.

The word spread quickly, and many unemployed workers in Michigan responded.

Each company hired about ten times more workers than their usual staff – within days. They moved quickly to transform themselves into major oil boom producers.

Charlie Cronenworth is plant manager at Fagerdala, USA.

“You know as unfortunate as it is, there’s also a bunch of people that are now working to help clean the thing up. We all feel for them, no differently than I’m sure they felt for us when the automotive industry went upside down.”

Josh Gierman was among the new hires. He has 2 kids, with another on the way. He had been looking for work since last winter.

“I was collecting unemployment. I really don’t have any free time anymore. Usually by the time I get home I’m pretty wore out. I don’t do much other than hang out with the kids.”

But Gierman says he didn’t mind working 56 hours a week, and doing work that might help the situation in the Gulf states.

Brian Rickel was the guy who first received the call from BP. He works in emergency response and leak repair. Rickel says he brought the multimillion dollar contract to Michigan because the manufacturing workforce is so strong.

“It’s hard to believe but you can go other places in the country and you can’t find the labor force. The labor force here has been phenomenal. And they all want to work. They really wanna work.”

As news of the BP oil spill worsened, production ramped up at both companies and boom was being pumped out 24/7.

Then the wellhead of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig was finally capped.

Brian Rickel had been watching the massive cleanup efforts in the Gulf and he was sure the demand for boom would continue. But the contract with BP was up in the air.

Last week, a second oil spill happened even closer to home. An oil pipeline from Enbridge Energy burst and released an estimated 1 million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.

Some people thought the new spill might be an opportunity to keep these Michigan companies hard at work. But Enbridge and the EPA reached out to a list of predetermined contractors for the boom needed to contain the spill.

Then the Michigan companies got more bad news. BP did not renew its contract.

Today, most of the new hires are once again among Michigan’s abundant unemployed.

But Fagerdala and Prestige now have all the equipment they need and a list of hard working people they can contact, if they have the opportunity to build boom again.

For The Environment Report, I’m Nikki Motson.

Rehab for Oil-Covered Animals

  • A team feeds a bird that's recovering from exposure to the Kalamazoo River oil spill in Michigan. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Canada geese and mallard ducks and turtles and muskrats… covered in oil.

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

A lot of birds and animals can get caught up in one million gallons of crude oil. No one knows yet exactly how many birds, mammals, turtles, frogs and fish have been affected by the Kalamazoo oil spill. But more than 90 animals have been brought into a wildlife rehab center in Marshall.

How to volunteer for the cleanup
How to report oil-covered wildlife
More about the oil spill from


More than half of them are Canada geese. There are more than 30 turtles, and there are several muskrats, swans, and mallard ducks.

(construction sounds)

In a matter of days, workers turned this old casino into an animal hospital. When I visited last week, the decontamination room was still under construction. This is where the birds and animals are being washed this week – in Dawn dish soap.

(sound fades under)

When the birds and animals are brought in, they’re first taken to the intake room – that’s what you’d think of as the emergency room. There, the animal caretakers draw blood, and take vital signs. This area is library-quiet. The workers don’t want to bother the animals… and the animals aren’t making much noise either.

Linda Elliott is with Focus Wildlife. It’s a company that specializes in emergency wildlife rehab after oil spills. They’re the group heading up the animal rescue here. She says people sometimes assume you can just bring animals in and clean the oil off. But she says they’re stressed out… and sometimes in big trouble.

“Sometimes we see anemia problems, dehydration, usually because they’ve been oiled they haven’t been feeding in a while so they’re nutritionally deprived. So we need to get that all taken care of before we put them through the process.”

There are veterinarians here and other volunteers… and everyone’s wearing white zip-up Tyvek suits to protect themselves from the oil. The middle room is full of plywood cages covered in white sheets. Across the room, three people are tube-feeding a swan.

Linda Elliott says they’ll feed the birds the same stuff little kids get when they’re dehydrated: Pedialyte and Ensure, both plain and vanilla flavors.

“And then depending on the species a kingfisher loves live fish, and geese, we hope to get them on grains and dry food and greens.”

After the animals are stable, they’ll go through the washing process… and then on to the drying room. Then they’ll go to the outdoor recovery area to get their strength back. Then, when biologists say the animals are ready, they’ll be released.

Linda Elliott says they hope for a 100% survival rate. But it depends on a lot of things… the weather, how quickly the animals were brought in, the type of oil.

“We’ve had responses with 100% success rate and responses where it’s been in the teens but I think this one is looking very good and we’re looking at hopefully having a high success rate here as well but we won’t know until it’s over.”

Two turtles were released to Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek yesterday. Biologists are still figuring out where the rest of the animals will be released.

Michael Sertle is a biologist with Ducks Unlimited for Western Michigan. He says it can be tricky to relocate birds, especially Canada Geese.

“There’s numerous studies that show if you move Canada Geese, you can move them states away literally and as soon as they can fly they’ll return right back to the wetland you took them off of, and ducks exhibit those same characteristics not quite as strong as Canada Geese.”

Sertle says hopefully, the oil will be cleaned up by the time the birds try to return home. He’s also concerned about the fall migration. He says all kinds of migratory birds might try to land and look for food on the oil spill site… and even if the spill is largely cleaned up… the birds’ normal food sources might not be there.

Experts say if you see an oiled animal, the best thing you can do is to leave it alone… but call the oil spill hotline and report where you saw it. You can find that number on our website, environment report dot org.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.