Using Trees as Cleaning Tools

  • Argonne researchers and technicians are tracking how well poplar trees are containing and removing toxic solvents (such as Trichloroethane, 1,1-Dichloroethane, and 1,1,1-Trichloroethane, Trichloroethylene) from underground water. Pictured here are Cristina Negri, Lawrence Moss, John Quinn, Rob Piorkowski. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

When you think of cleaning up toxic waste, you might think of technicians digging huge holes
and carting off contaminated soil. It’s expensive, and they’re often just putting the soil and the
problem, somewhere else – say, to a hazardous waste landfill. Shawn Allee met researchers
who hope trees can clean some toxic waste, and leave the landscape in place:

Transcript

When you think of cleaning up toxic waste, you might think of technicians digging huge holes
and carting off contaminated soil. It’s expensive, and they’re often just putting the soil and the
problem, somewhere else – say, to a hazardous waste landfill. Shawn Allee met researchers
who hope trees can clean some toxic waste, and leave the landscape in place:

Argonne National Laboratory is a Big Science kinda place.

It’s a federal lab southwest of Chicago where they study particle physics, nuclear energy, and
advanced environmental clean-up.

The irony is, the place has been around so long, it’s now cleaning up its own environmental
messes.

In fact, it’s Larry Moss’s job. He takes me to a toxic waste site where trees help clean the soil.

More on those trees in a sec – first, here’s why Larry Moss needs them.

“This site was a very busy site back in the 50s and 60s. We had a large manufacturing process
for reactor components – did a lot of testing of reactor assemblies and different fuel mixtures. And to
do that you had to clean all that equipment and a lot of that solvent came down here.
There was a unit that was called a French drain, which basically was a trench filled with gravel. They would come down here and dump chemicals into this trench, and their theory was it would dissolve into the ground. They
thought it would just go away.”

Those solvents did not go away. They leeched into underground water.

The solvents potentially cause cancer and other problems, so the government said Argonne
needed to do something about the mess.

Researcher Christina Negri lays out what the options were.

“Put a parking lot on top of the pollution area
and basically leave it there forever. The other extreme, it would have been: dig out the soil, take it
somewhere – where you haven’t changed much. You’ve moved it from here to a landfill. That’s not the solution as
well.”

Those options – covering it up or carting it off – are also expensive.

So, Argonne researchers figured they’d try something new.

Negri says they hope to eliminate pollution on site – with the help of poplar trees.

Negri: “We’re taking advantage of a trait that these trees have to
go about finding water.”

Allee: “Let me get a closer look at a tree, here.”

Negri: “What you have to picture in your mind – See the height of the tree?”

Allee: “I’m looking at one that’s as tall as a three story walk-up building I live in.”

Negri: “You have to flip it 180 degrees and imagine the roots are going down that deep.”

Negri says they coaxed the roots into going straight down instead of spreading out. It seems to
work; the poplar trees are sucking water out of the ground and taking up solvent.

“Part of it is degraded within the plant. Part of it goes out into the air, which sounds like an
ominous thing to say, right? But if you do your calculations right, there’s much less risk when
these compounds are in the air than there is when they’re down 30 feet below.”

Negri’s team hopes the poplar trees will be more sustainable and cheaper than alternatives, but
they’re likely to be slower.

After all, it took years for the trees to grow. That’s fine for Argonne, because no one’s at risk – but that’s
not the case everywhere.

“Arguably, this is not the remedy you would adopt if you had, like, a tank spill or something that
you really need to go in right away, clean up and be done very quickly. It’s not a remedy if there’s
anybody’s at risk.”

This isn’t the only attempt to use plants to clean up toxic waste. The science behind it is called
‘phytoremediation.’

In other examples, scientists tried alpine pennycress to clean up zinc, and pigweed to suck up
radioactive cesium.

Negri says the trick is to use the right plant for the right toxin and know whether the plants stays
toxic, too.

Still, she says, toxic waste is such a big problem, it’s good to have lots of tools in your clean-up
toolbox.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Development Mangling the Mangroves

  • Mangroves at Mary's Creek, St. John (Photo by Frank Olivier)

If you were a tropical fish living in the
Caribbean, there’s a good chance you would have spent
your youth darting between the roots of mangroves.
Those saltwater plants guard young fish from predators.
Mangroves also protect shorelines from erosion and
hurricanes. But now it’s the mangroves that need
protection. Ann Dornfeld reports:

Transcript

If you were a tropical fish living in the
Caribbean, there’s a good chance you would have spent
your youth darting between the roots of mangroves.
Those saltwater plants guard young fish from predators.
Mangroves also protect shorelines from erosion and
hurricanes. But now it’s the mangroves that need
protection. Ann Dornfeld reports:

It’s a brilliantly sunny, gusty day on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Stanley
Berry has backed his motorboat into an opening in this quiet mangrove bay. He’s
one of the island’s traditional French fishermen. He’s lean, bronzed and bare-
chested.

“I going yellowtail snapper tonight. I’m doin’ night fishing. See if I can catch
something tonight, God spare life.”

Berry says the red mangroves that ring this bay serve as a sort of daycare for the
young fish he’ll eventually catch.

“If you have to snorkel around and check it out, you’ll notice that all these little
fishes are different type of grouper, snapper, you name it all comes and all the
baby ones come and hang around in there so the big fish don’t eat ’em. It protects
’em. It’s real good for the fish to come and spawn in here and stuff.”

Mangroves’ dry branches are home to birds and lizards. Their roots prevent sediment
from the land from seeping into the water. And mangroves provide a buffer zone that
protects inland areas from storms moving in from the ocean.

As important as they are, these mangroves are at risk. David Olsen is director of the
US Virgin Islands Division of Fish and Wildlife. He says island natives understand
the value of the mangroves. But he says developers aren’t as appreciative. One
company wants to rip out the red mangroves on this bay for new construction.

“They would basically line the entire area with condominiums, have docks
basically filling the entire bay, eliminate all the traditional use, and plant a little
fringe of black mangroves.”

Olsen says developers have to leave some mangroves in their plans, because the
islands have a no-net-loss policy for wetlands. But the black mangroves they want to
plant don’t grow in the water. That means they wouldn’t serve as fish nurseries.

This is hardly an isolated incident.

“We have lost, in the Virgin Islands, probably 50 percent of our mangrove areas
over the last half a century.”

Rafe Boulon is Chief of Resource Management for the Virgin Islands National Park.
He says mangroves are often filled with dirt for new construction.

“Anytime people fill land, typically they’re filling mangroves because they’re
selecting nice calm bays and that’s where the mangroves are.”

Boulon says mangroves are in much better shape here on St. John, a 30-minute ferry
from St. Thomas. That’s because most of this island is a national park.

If you want to see firsthand why mangroves are so important, all you need is a mask
and snorkel. The water is kind of murky and golden from fallen leaves. But it’s rich
with sealife.

“Okay, so we just got out of the water, and we saw probably a dozen different
species of juvenile varieties of the fish you see when you snorkel or dive out in the
deep water. And they’re darting among the mangroves and chasing each other –
really, really playful.”

Boulon says for people new to the islands, mangroves can seem like a swamp. They
release methane as leaf litter decomposes. And the roots collect trash that floats in
from sea.

“So hence, if they’re dirty and smelly there’s no really good purpose for them –
however, they’re very, very important ecosystem here.”

The trick is to convince the scores of people who are building new homes on the
Virgin Islands of the value of mangroves, including a new wave of retiring baby
boomers.

For The Environment Report, I’m Ann Dornfeld in St. John.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Farmland to Wetlands

  • Installing vast networks of underground drains, known as tiles, is a common practice on farms throughout the country. Farmers can get their machines onto the fields sooner, and crops grow better when their roots aren't wet. This field, near Sherwood, OH, was once part of the Old Black Swamp. (Photo by Mark Brush)

One of the Ten Threats is the loss of wetlands. A lot of the wetlands of the Great Lakes were
turned into cropland – farmland. But before farmers could work the fields in the nation’s bread
basket, they first had to drain them. So thousands of miles of ditches and trenches were dug to
move water off the land. Losing millions of acres of wetlands meant losing nature’s water filter
for the lakes. Reporter Mark Brush reports… these days some farmers are restoring those wet
places:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you stories about Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. On today’s report, the
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham introduces us to a story about how farmers are
getting involved in restoring some of the natural landscape:


One of the Ten Threats is the loss of wetlands. A lot of the wetlands of the Great Lakes were
turned into cropland – farmland. But before farmers could work the fields in the nation’s bread
basket, they first had to drain them. So thousands of miles of ditches and trenches were dug to
move water off the land. Losing millions of acres of wetlands meant losing nature’s water filter
for the lakes. Reporter Mark Brush reports… these days some farmers are restoring those wet
places:


We’re standing in the middle of a newly-harvested corn field in northwest Ohio. This area used
to be wet. It was part of the old Black Swamp – one of the biggest wetland areas in the country.
The Swamp stretched 120 miles across northwest Ohio and into Indiana. It filtered a lot of water
that eventually made its way into Lake Erie. And it provided habitat for all kinds of wildlife.


Today, the Black Swamp is gone… It was drained and turned into farmland.


“Is it o.k. to go?”


“Yeah, go.”


(sound of trenching machine starting up)


Lynn Davis and his crew are cutting a trench into the earth. The trench is about a half a mile
long and five feet deep. Workers trail behind the machine feeding black, plastic pipe into the
trench.


The underground pipe will drain excess water to a nearby ditch.


Davis says these drains help the farmer grow more crops. It’s a common practice that’s been
going on for more than a hundred years. Farmers can get their machines onto the field sooner,
which makes for a longer growing season. And crops grow better when their roots aren’t wet.


Years ago, wetlands were considered a bad thing – places that stood in the way of farmland
development – and places where diseases spread.


The federal government actually paid people to drain them. And by the end of the 20th century
more than 170,000 square miles of wetlands were drained.


Lynn Davis’s family has been in this business for close to a hundred years. Davis admits that his
family helped drain the Black Swamp. But he says much of what’s been done can be reversed:


“You know, there is no question that this was of course one of the largest natural wetlands in the
country. And what we’re doing here was responsible for eliminating that wetland. Now what
we’ve done is relatively simple to reverse. If for some reason it was decided that we don’t want to
farm and live in this area any more, why we can put it back to a swamp real quick.”


And some of that is happening today.


Instead of paying people to drain wetlands, the federal government pays people to restore them.


(crickets)


We’ve driven about fifty miles north to where Bill Daub lives. He was hired by the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife service to find suitable land for restoration. And he’s restored well over 500 wetland
areas in the fifteen years he’s been doing it.


Daub says nature bounces back. He says every time he’s broken an old drainage pipe, dormant
seeds of wetland plants stored in the soil popped open:


“What’s amazing with the wetlands is that you see all these cattails, and wetland plants growing
in here – that stuff was in a seed bank, even though they were growing corn here, there was a seed
bank of wetlands species, waiting for water.”


The federal government will pay a farmer to take marginal cropland out of production under the
Wetlands Reserve Program. And Daub says it’s worth the money:


“Every one of these wetlands is a purification system. The water that finally leaves this wetland
has been purified through the living organisms in the wetland.”


(natural sound)


Janet Kaufman lives just down the road from Bill Daub, and eight years ago, she had a crew dig
up an old drainage pipe on her farm. These days, on the back end of her property there’s a pond
with a tall willow tree draping over the water:


“So this wasn’t here before?”


“Not at all, not at all! I mean it’s just shocking. And when the backhoe hit that it was like a
geyser, the water just poured out it just flew up in the air. They had to crunch it shut. I mean the
quantity of water that flows underground is unbelievable unless by chance you see it like that.”


Kaufman says a lot of her neighbors have been signing up to restore wetlands on their property.
The wetter areas aren’t that good for crops… and with the government offering money to let
nature take its course… it makes financial sense for the farmers.


But because a lot of the old Black Swamp area is good for farming, it’s not likely that we’ll see
huge swaths returned to wetlands.


But even the restoration of a fraction of the wetlands will help improve the health of the Great
Lakes.


For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Farmers Upset With Opportunistic Cranes

  • Environmentalists are happy to see that sandhill crane populations are increasing. Some farmers, however, are not. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

At this time of year, one of the nation’s most exotic birds is nesting, and many wildlife lovers are rejoicing. Once close to extinction, the Eastern population of sandhill cranes has grown dramatically. In fact, their numbers are so big that they’re becoming a problem in some places – and there’s talk of starting a hunting season for cranes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sandy Hausman has the story:

Transcript

At this time of year, one of the nation’s most exotic
birds is nesting, and many wildlife lovers are rejoicing. Once
close to extinction, the Eastern population of sandhill cranes
has grown dramatically. In fact, their numbers are so big that
they’re becoming a problem in some places – and there’s talk of
starting a hunting season for cranes. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Sandy Hausman has the story:


(Sound of marsh and birds)


It’s a cool spring morning, just before dawn. Brandon Krueger is watching a stretch of marshland along a country road in Central Wisconsin. Krueger works for the International Crane Foundation. He’s taking part in the annual Midwest crane count. Celebrating its thirtieth year, thousands of volunteers have fanned out across parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa to look and listen for sandhill cranes.


“It’s a great sound to hear when you’re waking up. This is usually the earliest that I ever get up during the year. It’s a real struggle, but it can be worth it – for some of the things that you hear and the opportunity to see cranes.”


(Sound of crane call)


Krueger hears a breeding pair a half a mile away – exchanging what’s known as a unison call. The birds are big – up to five feet tall. A hundred years ago they made easy targets for hunters. In the 1930’s, naturalist Aldo Leopold lamented the loss of cranes – nearly hunted to extinction in Wisconsin. He knew of only 25 breeding pairs of sandhills in the state. But the federal government made it illegal to hunt cranes, and the state started working to restore bird habitat. Today, crane lovers celebrate an impressive comeback.


“I’ve talked with our leading field ecologist and he’s estimated upwards of forty-thousand sandhill cranes in the Midwest area.”


This year’s crane count is still being tallied, but Krueger heard nine birds and saw three flying by.


(Sound of cranes)


In the county next door, Troy Bartz claims to see many more birds than that on a daily basis.


“I’ll come home and it’s nothing for me to see two, three-hundred cranes in a field in one crack.”


Bartz has been farming for 13 years – growing corn, soy beans and alfalfa on nearly a hundred acres near Nina Creek.


(Sound of plow)


“Plants started disappearing out of the field with crane tracks right next to them. They go right down the row and they pull the shoots out of the ground and eat the kernels off the roots. I lose thousands of plants every year.”


The International Crane Foundation says damage in Wisconsin alone could total $100 million, and for family farmers, a year’s profit could be lost.


Bartz: “On the small acreage that I’m tilling, you can’t lose thousands of plants and not have some kind of an impact. That’s hundreds and hundreds of bushels I’m losing.”


Hausman: “And what’s the cash value on that?”


Bartz: “I figure anywhere between two to three-thousand dollars minimum every year.”


Hausman: “So what do you think the answer is?”


Bartz: “Shoot ‘em.”


Hausman: “Really?”


Bartz: “Yeah!”


There is some talk of having a hunting season for cranes, but that would require approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and many critics say the eastern population of sandhills is too small to permit hunting. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says there are alternatives for farmers – machines called banger guns that make explosive sounds every few minutes. Troy Bartz’ neighbor, Mel Johnson, tried that, but found the birds quickly got used to the noise.


“The DNR warden brought the guns out. He said the best way is to mix a few regular shells in with it, he said, because it won’t scare ‘em away, the guns. He’s been taking them out for years, and he said they won’t scare any wildlife away – them guns.”


They’ve also tried scarecrows and colored ribbons but they didn’t work either. Farmers have had success with a product called Kernel Guard – a pesticide that made corn seeds taste bad to cranes, but this year the manufacturer stopped making it because one of its active ingredients can be toxic. Crane advocates are now asking the EPA to allow use of another chemical that’s already sprayed on golf courses to repel geese, but approval is not expected this year.


(Sound of cranes)


So crane lovers are keeping their fingers crossed – hoping farmers won’t be breaking the law by shooting the birds.


For the GLRC, I’m Sandy Hausman.

Related Links

Rethinking Water Runoff Design

  • Rainwater that falls on paved areas is diverted into drains and gutters. If the rainfall is heavy enough, the diverted water can cause flash flooding in nearby rivers and streams. (Photo by Michele L.)

Some planning experts are worried that the rapid development in cities and suburbs is paving over too much land and keeping water from replenishing aquifers below ground. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
reports:

Transcript

Some planning experts are worried that the rapid development in cities and suburbs is
paving over too much land and keeping water from replenishing aquifers below ground.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


In nature… when it rains… the water slowly soaks into the ground and makes its way
through the soil and rock to eventually be stored as groundwater. Some of it makes its
way underground to be stored in aquifers. And some of it slowly seeps through the rock
for a while and then resurfaces as springs to feed streams during times when there’s not a
lot of rain. It’s a natural storage system and a lot of cities rely on that water.


But when we build buildings and houses and parking lots and roads, a lot of the land
where the rain used to soak into the ground is covered up. Instead the rainwater runs off
the hard surfaces and rushes to stormwater gutters and ditches and then overloads creeks
and rivers. Even where there are big expansive lawns in the suburbs… the rain doesn’t
penetrate the ground in the same way it does in the wild. The grass on lawns has shallow
roots and the surface below is compact… where naturally-occurring plants have deep
roots that help the water on its way into the earth.


Don Chen is the Executive Director of the organization Smart Growth America. His
group tries to persuade communities to avoid urban sprawl by building clustering houses
and business districts closer together and leave more natural open space.


“With denser development you have a much lower impact per household in terms of
polluted runoff.”


Chen says the rain washes across driveways and parking lots, washing engine oil, and
exhaust pollutants straight into streams and rivers instead of letting the water filter across
green space.


Besides washing pollutants into the lakes and streams… the sheer volume of water that
can’t soak into the ground and instead streams across concrete and asphalt and through
pipes can cause creeks to rise and rise quickly.


Andi Cooper is with Conservation Design Forum in Chicago. Her firm designs
landscapes to better handle water…


“Flooding is a big deal. It’s costly. That’s where we start talking about economics. We
spend billions and billions of dollars each year in flood damage control.”


Design firms such as Cooper’s are trying to get developers and city planners to think
about all that water that used to soak into the ground, filtering and being cleaned up a bit
by the natural processes.


Smart Growth America’s Don Chen says those natural processes are called infiltration….
and Smart Growth helps infiltration…


“And the primary way in which it does is to preserve open space to allow for natural
infiltration of water into the land so that there’s not as much pavement and hard surfaces
for water to bounce off of and then create polluted runoff.”


People such as Chen and Cooper are bumping up against a couple of centuries or more of
engineering tradition. Engineers and architects have almost always tried to get water
away from their creations as fast and as far as possible. Trying to slow down the water…
and giving it room to soak into the ground is a relatively new concept.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to get communities to give the idea
some consideration. Geoff Anderson is the Acting Chief of Staff for the EPA’s Office of
Policy, Economics and Innovation.


“Anything you can do to keep that water on site and have it act more like it does in its
natural setting, anything you can do to sort of keep that recharge mechanism working,
that’s helpful.”


The EPA does not require that kind of design. It leaves that to local governments and the
private sector. The Conservation Design Forum’s Andi Cooper says sometimes getting
companies to think about treating water as a resource instead of a nuisance is a hard
sell…


“You know, this is risky. People tell us this is risky. ‘I don’t want to do this; it’s not the
norm.’ It’s becoming less risky over time because there are more and more
demonstrations to point to and say ‘Look, this is great. It’s working.’ ”


But… corporate officials are hesitant. Why take a chance on something new? They fear
if something goes wrong the boss will be ticked off every time there’s a heavy rain.
Cooper says, though, it works… and… reminds them that investors like companies that
are not just economically savvy… but also have an environmental conscience.


“A lot of companies are game. They’re open. If we can present our case that yes, it
works; no, it’s not risky; it is the ethical thing to do; it is aesthetically pleasing; there are
studies out there that show you can retain your employees, you can increase their
productivity if you give them open spaces to walk with paths and make it an enjoyable
place to come to work everyday.”


So… doing the right thing for the environment… employees… and making investors
happy… make Wall Street risk takers willing to risk new engineering to help nature
handle some of the rain and get it back into the aquifers and springs that we all value.


For the GLRC… this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

RETHINKING WATER RUNOFF DESIGN (Short Version)

  • Rainwater that falls on paved areas is diverted into drains and gutters. If the rainfall is heavy enough, the diverted water can cause flash flooding in nearby rivers and streams. (Photo by Michele L.)

An Environmental Protection Agency official wants local governments to take a broader view when making land use plans for their communities. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

An Environmental Protection Agency official wants local governments to take a broader view
when making land use plans for their communities. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham reports:


Often planners don’t look past their own city borders when making decisions. Geoff Anderson
wants that to change. He’s the Acting Chief of Staff for the EPA’s Office of Policy, Economics
and Innovation. Anderson says city officials often look at land use planning one site at a time
instead of looking at how their decisions will affect the entire area…


“The two scales are very important and I think in many cases too much is paid to the site level
and not enough is given to the sort of broader regional or community context.”


Anderson says that’s especially important when planning for stormwater drainage. He says too
many communities think about getting the water to the nearest stream quickly without thinking
about how that rushing water might affect flooding downstream.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Part 1: Selling the Family Farm to Developers

  • A former farm field in Central Ohio ready for development. It's an increasingly common sight in this area. This land is right next door to a dairy. Worried about his new neighbors, the farmer is planning to sell. (Photo by Tamara Keith)

In the Great Lakes region, farmland is rapidly being developed into homes, office parks and shopping centers. Nationally, farmland is lost at a rate of more than 9-thousand acres a day. But in order for this development to happen, someone has to sell their land. In the first of a two-part series on farmers and the decisions they make about their land, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamara Keith introduces us to some farmers who have made the difficult choice to sell:

Transcript

In the Great Lakes region, farmland is rapidly being developed into homes, office parks
and shopping centers. Nationally, farmland is lost at a rate of more than nine-thousand
acres a day. But in order for this development to happen, someone has to sell their
land. Tamara Keith introduces us to some farmers who have made that difficult choice:


At a busy intersection in a newly suburban area, a red barn and white house sit back
off the road. Lush green pasture land hugs the old farm buildings. But the days are
numbered for this bucolic scene.


(sound of construction)


Across the street dozens of condos are under construction… and farmer Roy Jackson has
put this 216-acre farm in Central Ohio under option for development. As soon as the
developer gets approval to build, Jackson’s farm will be no more.


“I’m a third generation farmer and you put your roots down and to see your land be
developed is something I have seen coming, but to actually see it happen across the
road; it’s a sad thing, but it’s progress.”


Sitting on his front porch, Jackson looks our on a neighborhood where once there were farms.


Jackson: “At one point we farmed over 1500 acres and now we’re down to about 300.”


Keith: “What happened?”


Jackson: “We’ve lost a lot of it to development. In the estate of my mom and dad
we had to sell that to settle the estate and that was part of it as well.”


Like many in agriculture, Jackson didn’t own all the land he farmed. He was leasing
it and when the owner decided to sell for development, Jackson was out of luck. Now
he says there’s not enough land left to farm profitably.


“I have a son that wants to farm with me and to do it here, there just isn’t enough
land to sustain two families and make a living for both.”


So, he’s found a big piece of land down in Kentucky, in an area where land is still
plentiful and development pressures are distant. He’s leasing it with an option to buy.
Soon Jackson and his son will have the cattle ranch they’ve been planning for years.
It just won’t be in the state where his family has farmed for three generations.


(sound of heavy machinery)


Workers operate backhoes to grade the ground in an open field that will eventually
be home to some seven-thousand people in a new development. Retired farmer and
agriculture educator Dick Hummel recently sold a portion of this land, allowing
the project to move forward.


“I had some people critical of me because I was going to sell farmland, but on
the other hand, I really didn’t. I traded. You just have to accept that in this
community because that’s what’s going to happen. That’s what has happened. Plus
the fact, it’s been pretty tough farming and this has given a lot of farmers a
chance to sell some land for some excellent prices.”


Hummel sold about 100 acres of farmland and bought some new land – 77 acres –
farther out in the country. His father had bought what Hummel calls the “home farm”
in 1935, and that family history weighed heavily on Hummel when he was deciding what
to do.


“It was harder to decide to sell that land because it had been in my family for many
generations than it was the agricultural part.”


His father bought the land for 100 dollars an acre and Hummel was able to sell it
for a whole lot more. Asked why he sold, Hummel’s answer is simple.


“The offer. I hadn’t thought about selling at all. I didn’t even know that they
would want any of this particular land ’till all at once there were others that
were selling for a price. I heard about that, and first thing I knew, a heck of
a lot of land in this area was selling. So you compare notes as to prices, et
cetera and so forth, and that’s how it happens.”


Hummel says he wasn’t pressured to sell. He’s well past retirement age, and
he says it was the right decision personally. And such is the case for most
farmers who sell their land for development, says Sara Nikolich, Ohio director
with American Farmland Trust.


“You’ve got acres of farmland that can be sold for 20, 30,000 dollars an acre at times.
For a lot of farmers that’s their retirement they’re sitting on, and when you have
development surrounding you and you don’t have any public policy to promote agriculture
and perhaps you don’t have any heirs, you don’t have any options available to you other
than development.”


And so, the personal decisions of individual farmers are transforming some of the
nation’s rural landscape into suburban landscapes.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamara Keith.

Related Links

Ginseng Thieves Strike the Midwest

  • Wild ginseng is protected in the Great Lakes states, but poachers illegally dig up the herb because of high prices.

Conservation officers are starting to notice a demand for a threatened native plant. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kaomi Goetz reports on how wild ginseng might be smuggled out of the nation:

Transcript

Conservation officers are starting to notice a demand for a threatened native plant. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kaomi Goetz reports on how wild ginseng might be smuggled out of
the nation:


While other states have been hit by ginseng smugglers, this is something new in Michigan,
something they’ve never paid much attention to… until now.


Sergeant Ron Kimmerley and Officer Andy Bauer of the State Department of Natural Resources
are deep into the woods.


They’re scouting around Warren Dunes State Park next to Lake Michigan.


They spot what they’re looking for.


What they’ve found are wild ginseng plants, a threatened species that’s protected under Michigan
law.


What they’re also looking for are homemade flags marking the site and signs of digging.


Officer Bauer says they first noticed the flags last summer.


“There were felt flags stuck into the ground, and the rangers had seen those and thought it was
from an orienteering class. Later, we saw the flags were laid down and there were holes where
things had been harvested.”


Until then, Bauer says ginseng poaching had gone largely unnoticed.


More than 30 arrests were made last year and the scenario was often the same: A group would
act as a family of picnickers while one or two people slipped away to dig up ginseng.


Bauer says it was clear that most knew they were breaking the law.


“Some had plastic bags. Others, it was concealed much like narcotics would be, concealed under
their clothes. One woman, we found in the woman’s purse where the bottom was removed, and
there were at least 20 roots.”


Another similarity in the cases was that all those caught were of Asian descent.


Though separate instances, many of them had similar Chicago street addresses.


One man even came from Korea. He came on a 10-day tourist visa, apparently just to harvest
ginseng.


The officers suspect most of the wild ginseng was being taken back to Chicago to sell there or for
export to Asia.


Paul Hsu raises ginseng legally in Wisconsin. He agrees with the conservation officers that the
ginseng is being smuggled to Chicago or out of the country.


“They could have dug it and consumed there. But I don’t think that’s their intention. They dig it,
take it back to Chicago, sell it. They know the value of it.”


Hsu says ginseng roots have been valued in Asian culture for almost 3,000 years for its medicinal
properties.


“The Chinese believe it’s a cure-all…in the old-time, we don’t have antibiotics. It’s more like a
shot-gun approach. Can relieve stress, give you more stamina. To enhance the function of your
body, immune system…whatever.


Wild ginseng is considered more potent than cultivated ginseng, the kind Hsu grows.


And it’s lucrative. A pound a wild ginseng can fetch upwards of $350.


The fines in most Midwest states are fairly high. The penalties in Michigan range up to $5,000
for a first offense and could include jail time.


The poachers are aware of this and usually carry wads of cash. Officers say they suspect it’s
considered the price of doing business.


They’re taking the risk because ginseng is becoming increasingly scarce in Asia.
Environmentalists say that’s what’s behind the high demand and illegal harvesting of American
wild ginseng.


“It’s where there’s greater concentrations that have not yet been harvested.”


Dave Dempsey is a policy advisor at the Michigan Environmental Council.


“It’s more economical for harvesters to exploit here in Michigan and around the Great Lakes.”


Poaching has been going on in southern states for many years because of legendary stock around
the Appalachians.


More recently, poachers are targeting the Midwest because of rich soil. And ginseng has become
so rare everywhere else.


At Warren Dunes State Park, Sergeant Ron Kimmerley is organizing group patrols to try to catch
poachers.


There’s even plans to place plain-clothes officers as picnickers.


But he admits, it might not be enough.


“We’ve got a lot of poachers here, but what’s happening where we can’t be?”


So far, no one has been caught in Michigan this year. But Sergeant Kimmerley says the ginseng
harvest season is just beginning.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Kaomi Goetz.

Related Links

GINSENG THIEVES STRIKE THE MIDWEST (Short Version)

  • Wild ginseng is protected in the Great Lakes states, but poachers illegally dig up the herb because of high prices.

Wild ginseng has been poached in North America for years. American ginseng is considered among Asian herbalists to be among the world’s most potent. But a dwindling supply in the more common hunting areas and a global, increased demand for herbal medicine is putting many states in the region at new risk for poaching. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kaomi Goetz reports from Michigan:

Transcript

Wild ginseng has been poached in North America for years. American ginseng is considered
among Asian herbalists to be among the world’s most potent. But a dwindling supply in the more
common hunting areas and a global, increased demand for herbal medicine is putting many states
in the Great Lakes region at new risk for poaching. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Kaomi
Goetz reports from Michigan:


Wild ginseng is protected by some states as a threatened native species.


No one knows just how much ginseng is growing wild in the Great Lakes region. Yet incidents
last summer have law enforcement officers on the alert.


More than 30 people were caught trying to smuggle ginseng out of a Michigan state park next to
Lake Michigan.


Fines can go into the thousands of dollars with even possible jail time.


Even so, Sergeant Ron Kimmerley of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources says his
state is largely defenseless.


“There’s only about 200 officers, maybe a little less than that, in the whole state of Michigan. It’s
just not enough. I mean, some counties don’t even have an officer.”


This year, conservation officers are planning other tactics to catch poachers, such as using plain-
clothes officers. Other states such as Indiana and Illinois have also been targets for ginseng
poaching in recent years.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Kaomi Goetz.

Related Links