environment and natural resources


CORVALLIS - A national plan to better utilize agricultural products and technologies for energy and other non-traditional uses would turn Oregon State University into a "Sun Grant" institution and regional center for the initiative.

Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the U.S. Senate majority leader, announced the plan, calling for a national consortium of centers within the nation's Land Grant system that would be led by South Dakota State University. This Sun Grant Initiative would create regional centers at OSU, the University of Tennessee, and Oklahoma State University. Two other regional partners would be added later.

These regional centers are aimed at developing research, teaching and Extension efforts in the use of agricultural products for energy and bio-based products, including plastics, lubricants, textiles, solvents and adhesives.

"This certainly is an area that is growing rapidly, yet we've only scratched the surface," said Thayne R. Dutson, dean of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the university's Agricultural Experiment Station. "There are ties to forestry, engineering and pharmacy, which dovetail nicely with Oregon State University's strengths."

A planning grant would allow the partnering institutions to develop the new Sun Grant system during the next year. Federal authorization and funding would be sought in October of 2002.

The Sun Grant Initiative, proposed by Daschle and leaders at South Dakota State University, is aimed at revitalizing rural communities and helping the U.S. address some of its energy needs. One goal is to help the country reduce its dependency on petroleum-based products by shifting to products that have an agricultural base.

OSU already is involved in some of those efforts, Dutson said, including fiber production and utilization, and development of new oilseed crops.

Steve Strauss, a professor of forest science, has become nationally known for his work with hybrid poplar trees - fast-growing hardwoods that can be used for paper and other products. These poplars are providing alternative crops for a growing number of farmers, and lessen the reliance on comparatively slow-growing Douglas-fir forests.

Steve Knapp, the Paul C. Berger Professor of Crop and Soil Science at OSU, is leading a national effort to use genetic engineering to control the types of oil produced by meadowfoam, cuphea, and other oilseed crops. The ability to alter the plants to affect the type of oil they produce is a key to making them viable for industrial use.

Oregon State has long been involved in the management of straw and other grass seed crop residue, the utilization of biomass, and other bioscience research. OSU also is emerging as a national leader in the study of natural plant products, with researchers from the colleges of Agricultural Sciences, Pharmacy, Forestry and Science involved in discovering important chemical compounds found in plants and working to purify, extract or synthesize those compounds in laboratories.

Among the reasons OSU was selected as a regional center, Dutson said, is the university's strength in collaborating with other states and agencies in the region, its close relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Agricultural Research Service, its experience with business partners, and a series of strong accountability measures, including Oregon Invests - a program that tracks the benefits of money invested in agricultural research.

The university already is a Land Grant, Sea Grant and Space Grant institution.

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Thayne Dutson, 541-737-2331


CORVALLIS - An Oregon State University research review and survey of water systems in many Oregon cities suggests that modern forest management can be compatible with a high quality and quantity of water, and challenges common assumptions about the impact of logging and other forest practices.

The report looked at both research studies and 30 major municipal water systems in the state that are served largely by forested watersheds, including those of Portland, Eugene and Salem. Sponsored by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, it will be presented on Aug. 23 in a public forum at Ashland, Ore.

"When people raise concerns about impacts of forest practices, one of the first things they mention is water quality," said Paul Adams, an Extension watershed specialist in the OSU Department of Forest Engineering. "In this report we tried to separate the facts from the myths to better understand how we get clean water."

One myth, Adams said, is the notion of pure water emerging from pristine forests.

"There is no such thing as pure H2O unless you buy distilled water at the grocery store," Adams said. "And while it's true that forested watersheds usually do deliver a very high quality of water, there's a wide variation even in nature. The Flynn Creek watershed in the Coast Range has been used as a control in research because it's a relatively pristine forest, but even there the suspended sediments have ranged from near zero to about 2,000 parts per million, when the water looks about like a chocolate milkshake."

Another myth, he said, is that trees store and release water to streams. Actually, a heavy forest canopy in most cases causes a net water loss of 15-20 inches a year in water volume. Trees consume water like any plant - it's actually the forest soils that store and filter the water, releasing it slowly like a sponge.

Adams said that protecting forest soils is the key to water retention, filtering and quality, and that from a water perspective the importance of forest cover is largely in protecting and nurturing the soils. Occasional timber harvest should not interfere with this process if done carefully with modern methods and good stream buffers.

Because much of the research on the effects of forest practices was done years ago, it can give an incomplete picture of the benefits of management tools and techniques now commonly used or required by law, Adams said. But this earlier research did help guide us toward these improved methods, he noted.

"Keeping forest lands intact is vital, but in general we've found that advanced harvesting practices with proper reforestation has little impact on water quality and quantity for municipal supplies," Adams said. "If you want to protect watersheds, the key is to protect the soils."

Among the other findings of the research review and survey:

  • The quality of water from forest lands in Oregon is generally very high, although some dissolved, particulate and biological constituents are often present.


  • Natural erosion can be an important sediment source and difficult to distinguish from management sources.


  • Changes in forest cover may increase or decrease stream flows, but only if this occurs on a large portion of a watershed within a short period.


  • Stream buffers during logging and other activities, as now required by law, can prevent many water quality problems.


  • Forest roads can increase landslide and other erosion in steep terrain, but improved design, location and maintenance can greatly reduce problems.


  • Logging and road construction between 1980-91 on 13 municipal watersheds in western Oregon did not result in sustained increases in turbidity at the water treatment facilities.


  • Agricultural, urban and suburban areas in the Eugene and Salem watersheds have become major sources of sediments.


  • High quality and safety of municipal water supplies are required by law, including careful treatment and frequent monitoring for contaminants.


  • City personnel who manage major water systems in Oregon have significant concerns about wildfire risk in their watersheds, as well as water quality, sedimentation and the effect of agriculture, forestry and urban use.

Among the most serious concerns at the moment, Adams said, is the potential impact of major wildfires, especially on watersheds like Portland's Bull Run or Bend's Bridge Creek - in each case, these water sources have no filtration systems to remove sediment. Some of the highest erosion and sedimentation levels ever recorded on forest watersheds have occurred after major wildfires.

And despite Oregon's reputation for perpetual rain, Adams said, maintaining an adequate water supply is becoming an increasing concern in many areas. The Ashland forum to outline the findings of this report will be open to the public. It costs $15, which includes lunch. Information about registration and the agenda can be obtained by calling 541-737-4966 or on the web. Among the topics are the survey results; social issues in drinking water, forests and watersheds; fire ecology and hazard reduction in forested watersheds; and a tour of the Ashland watershed.

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Paul Adams, 541-737-2946


CORVALLIS - A multidisciplinary team of scientists and extension educators from Oregon State University and the University of California has launched a baseline assessment of environmental, economic and social issues in the Klamath Basin, where farmers, conservationists, commercial fishers, Native Americans and others are struggling over water allocation.

The basin, which straddles southern Oregon and northern California, is home to a national wildlife refuge, an abundance and variety of migratory waterfowl, bald eagles and the Lost River sucker and shortnose sucker, endangered fish. The basin also is home to the Klamath Tribes, and home to more than a thousand farm families.

The commercial fishing industry in nearby coastal communities also has a keen interest in water usage in the basin because of its dependence on salmon that spend part of their lives in rivers that run through the basin.

During part of the current growing season many farmers were cut off from irrigation water from the Klamath Irrigation Project, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Partially because of a drought in the basin, the federal agency decided there was not enough water for multiple needs including irrigation, wildlife protection and power production.

The overall goal of the university team's assessment is to assemble information about the effects of the Bureau of Reclamation's water usage decisions on the basin's people and society, natural environment and economy, said Tom Gallagher, an OSU extension specialist facilitating the work of the team.

The assessment team hopes to help identify impacts that will assist local, state, and federal officials who may make decisions about the area's future, according to Gallagher.

Additional goals of the project include generating a "case study" that will be of value to communities elsewhere in the western United States. Examples of specific topics to be studied include soils, water, wildlife, fish, vegetation, air, social services and institutions, public policy, community histories and recent changes, and the local and regional economy.

The primary focus of the study is on the Klamath Irrigation Project, which was built by the Bureau of Reclamation. The project covers about 220,000 acres surrounding the communities of Klamath Falls, Merrill and Malin, Ore., and Tulelake, Calif. However, certain parts of the assessment effort will look at the entire Klamath River watershed, according to the researchers.

The assessment team includes economists, wildlife and fish ecologists, and agricultural and social scientists. The team, which will collaborate with residents and institutions in the Klamath Basin, hopes to generate a preliminary report in December 2001 and a final report in February 2002, according to Gallagher.


Tom Gallagher, 541-737-1573


CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has formed a new Institute for Natural Resources that will give the state an opportunity that's never before existed to effectively analyze, research and resolve some of Oregon's most difficult and controversial environmental issues.

The institute is one outcome of the Oregon Sustainability Act of 2001 recently signed into law.

For the first time ever, officials say, anyone wrestling with a natural resource issue - from a federal agency to a concerned citizen - will have an ally that can coordinate research, organize data, and propose policy options. Solutions will be based on the latest science and take the multiple needs of the environment, economy and local communities into consideration.

Clients of the institute will be able - at a single site - to ask questions, request information, propose studies, learn about natural resources and environmental conditions across the state, and gain help in developing opinions or policy proposals. Those same citizens will be deeply involved in the work and participate in development of the solutions.

"The institute will bridge a big gap in Oregon's ability to make sound natural resource policy decisions," said Oregon State Rep. Susan Morgan. "Presently, it is an impossible task to look down through all the available data layers and see what is known, or not known, about a specific region or subject. The legislative vision for the institute is to be a trustworthy and technologically capable repository for all of our natural resource related data."

Under the umbrella of the new legislation, the new institute will become a focal place for answering the tough questions and providing data, research, policy options and public communication on issues ranging from salmon recovery to forest management, agriculture, endangered species, the use of biotechnology, rangeland, coastal and marine issues.

"We believe this institute will become the turning point in Oregon's pursuit of a sustainable environment and natural resource base," said Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry at OSU and one of the leaders in organizing the new initiative. "The time has come to address all of the needs facing the state, look at the big picture and find solutions that help both our environment and our people."

OSU President Paul Risser, a strong advocate of the new center, said that only OSU has the range of international experts and reputation of scientific credibility to successfully tackle these issues.

"OSU has an incredibly diverse research faculty with expertise on everything from forestry to oceanography, agriculture, habitat protection, fisheries, soils and climate change," Risser said. "Oregonians will now have someone they trust and somewhere to turn for credible, scientific options to deal with the challenging issues we face. We'll find the answers this state so badly needs."

OSU is already heavily involved in many areas that will be a key to success of the new center. Extensive databases and sophisticated data management systems for natural resource and other issues have been set up by its ecological researchers and computer scientists.

The university leads the state in research on forestry, agriculture, marine resource management, fisheries, soil and habitat protection, and many other key areas. And OSU's Extension Service stands ready to contribute expertise from across the state and communicate findings.

Right now, officials say, about two dozen state and federal agencies - not to mention numerous local and tribal jurisdictions - carry some responsibility for research, regulation and policy making on environmental and natural resource issues. Many of these agencies have staffing or expertise to consider part of every problem - virtually none of them can address the whole picture.

"The challenge is to meet people's needs and expectations for a healthy environment, vital economies and livable communities," Salwasser said. "And we have to do this while dealing with rapid population growth, the forces of a global economy and increasing public concerns about environmental quality and protection. No institution in the state other than OSU can tap into the expertise necessary to consider all of those important, and sometimes competing objectives."

The new institute will be based and housed at OSU, and a national search is already under way for a permanent director. It will collaborate as necessary with other institutions and agencies around Oregon. At first it will operate on a very basic staffing level and later expand to include permanent scientists with expertise in appropriate areas.

Most of the work, Salwasser said, will be done on a project and contractual basis that could eventually entail millions of dollars of projects per year. Start-up funding of $145,000 for the first fiscal year will be provided by the OSU Research Office and 12 collaborating OSU colleges or programs, and the institute's goal is to become self-supporting within five years.

As designed, the new institute will include a research office, policy office and information office to accomplish such tasks as data acquisition, original studies, development of policy options, linking of databases, synthesis of information and communication of findings. Citizen participation in development of policy options will be encouraged. Customers could be anyone from a state agency to tribal government, natural resource industry, environmental group or involved citizen. The institute will also have an executive board of directors, an interdisciplinary scientific and scholarly advisory board, a stakeholder advisory board, and, as needed, ad hoc working groups.

Various state agencies have already inquired about projects, Salwasser said, affecting recreation, forestry, salmon research plans and other topics. The institute should be operational by this fall.

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Hal Salwasser, 541-737-1585


CORVALLIS - Willamette Valley vegetable growers are experimenting with new ways to grow vegetables while protecting soil and water quality. Their methods combine new ideas of conservation tillage with old ideas of cover crops.

The process begins right after harvest in the fall. Instead of leaving the soil bare and vulnerable to erosion over the winter, these farmers will plant a crop of vetch or low-growing oats to keep their fields covered through the winter.

"Cover crops capture residual fertilizers in the fall, and keep chemicals from leaching into groundwater," explained Richard Dick, professor of soil science at Oregon State University. Cover crops add organic matter that creates air pockets in the soil for water to penetrate and be stored. Erosion is reduced, protecting both streams and soil.

Come spring, the fields will be prepared for planting. But instead of plowing the entire field to bury all of the crop residue, farmers will till only narrow eight-inch strips for seeding and leave the ground in between undisturbed.

Sam Sweeney, a Dayton-area vegetable producer, has seen marked improvement in soil conservation in the two years he has been using this "strip-till" method. Planting on a slope with conventional methods, Sweeney had previously lost soil, water, and nutrients into the creek.

"Strip tilling on that slope creates a barrier of undisturbed soil at each row. These small terraces catch water so it can soak into the soil and not drain off," he said.

Strip-tilling has many advantages, according to John Luna, of OSU's Integrated Farming Systems Program. It minimizes the disruption of desirable organisms such as earthworms in the soil that keep plants healthy. Cover crop residue can help smother weeds. And it limits the impact of tractors and other heavy equipment.

"Soil compaction limits the yield in many Oregon soils," Luna said. "Compacted soil prevents water from moving through the soil and restricts root growth. With conventional tilling methods, farmers traditionally make four to 10 passes through a field. With strip-tillage, growers make one or two passes over a field, and they are ready to plant."

With fewer passes, and more plant material in place, strip-tilling should improve soil structure so it will retain moisture and require less irrigation. Increased organic matter from cover crops can improve soil fertility and may reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.

Strip-till methods were used to plant more than 3,000 acres of vegetable crops in the Willamette Valley this year, yet Luna and others have some reservations.

"Strip-till isn't best for every situation," Luna said. "There are some situations where conventional tillage outperforms strip-tillage, and visa-versa. We don't understand the whole picture yet."

Sweeney concurs. "With all new practices, there is an awful lot to learn," he said.

Strip-till requires growers to invest in new equipment and monitor performance against conventional methods. Sweeney has seen economic savings in labor and fuel from reduced tillage. But speaking for the handful of pioneering vegetable growers in the Willamette Valley, Sweeney said, "Our main motivation is conservation."

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Richard Dick, 541-737-5718

Fertilizers may be linked to amphibian deaths

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Researchers have discovered that a level of nitrogen-based compounds which the EPA says is safe for human drinking water - a level often found in agricultural areas as a result of using crop fertilizers - is enough to kill some species of amphibians.

A new study at Oregon State University, just published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, has shown that several frog, toad and other amphibian species, especially at their more vulnerable larval stages, can be highly susceptible to fa irly low levels of nitrate and nitrite exposure.

When exposed to moderate amounts of nitrates and nitrites, some tadpoles and young frogs reduced their feeding activity, swam less vigorously, experienced disequilibrium, developed physical abnormalities, suffered paralysis and eventually died. In contro l tanks with normal water, none died.

"I think this is clearly a significant problem," said Andrew Blaustein, a professor of zoology at OSU and expert on global amphibian declines. "Right here in the Pacific Northwest we're having localized extinctions of some amphibians and widespread decli nes in others. We now have clear evidence that nitrate and nitrite exposure at levels considered safe for humans or fish is enough to kill amphibians."

Blaustein has done pioneering research on the potential impact of UV-B radiation in sunlight as one possible cause of amphibian problems. He now says that exposure to nitrogen fertilizers - along with habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, patho gens and introduced predators - is probably another part of the answer to an international mystery that has alarmed ecologists around the world.

But this latest part of the puzzle goes to the heart of crop agricultural practices, he said, which depend heavily on the use of artificial fertilizers rich in nitrogen to produce the world's food supply.

In their study, the OSU scientists worked with five species of amphibians, including the Oregon spotted frog, red-legged frog, western toad, Pacific treefrog and northwestern salamander. In the past 40 years, the Oregon spotted frog has largely disappear ed from most of its known historical range - an area of lowlands with intensive agricultural use.

The scientists tested the sensitivity of the amphibians to environmental levels of nitrates and nitrites. The Oregon spotted frog was the most sensitive - three to four times more vulnerable to nitrates and nitrites than red-legged frogs and Pacific tree frogs. Not by coincidence, the scientists believe, the more-sensitive spotted frog is the species that has almost totally disappeared from these areas.

Levels of nitrites considered safe for human drinking water killed over half of the Oregon spotted frog tadpoles after 15 days of exposure. All five species showed a similar level of mortality at levels of nitrites that were higher, but still well below t hose that the EPA considers safe for warm water fishes.

Nitrates themselves are of low toxicity, the study pointed out, but they cause health problems when reduced to nitrites. Nitrite levels can become higher in specific areas such as shore sites with high contents of organic matter, and also be concentrated by ranch animal manures. And nitrate can be reduced to nitrite in the gastrointestinal tract - especially in younger animals.

The study results indicate that water quality criteria set up by the EPA does not guarantee the survival of some protected and endangered amphibians, the authors said in their report.

According to Blaustein, health effects such as those caused by nitrates and nitrites may also work in concert with other environmental insults, such as acid rain or UV-B exposure, to compound problems.

"Many people are looking for the one single thing that is causing all these amphibian declines, but in reality it's almost certainly a combination of causes," Blaustein said. "It's clear there can be a synergistic effect that causes higher mortality when you have different problems all occurring at once."

For instance, Blaustein said the furor that has arisen over frog deformities such as extra legs has been linked to a trematode parasite known as a fluke.

"But it's probably not that simple," he said. "These flukes have been around forever and we never observed the level of problem we're now seeing with deformed frogs. It's quite possible this fertilizer issue relates to that, along with killing tadpoles di rectly."

The flukes that can cause amphibian deformities live part of their life cycle in a snail, Blaustein said. Snails eat algae. And higher levels of nitrogen-based fertilizers can cause increased algal growth, increasing the snail populations.

"At one pond near Corvallis, we found 67 percent of the frogs had multiple legs," Blaustein said. "And this was in a wildlife management area, which was not intensively farmed but was only surrounded by agricultural lands."

Measurements of water there showed highly elevated levels of nitrate - up to 11 milligrams per liter - which is just above the EPA legal level for drinking water.

The researchers stated in their report that chemicals used for various purposes, including crop agriculture, may permeate lakes, ponds and streams, making them unsuitable for many amphibians.

One of the amphibian species that appears to be the least vulnerable to nitrates, they said, is bullfrogs - an introduced and voracious predator that in turn preys on other amphibian species and is tending to displace them in many agricultural areas.

"As we look for the cause of declining amphibians, we're going to find a lot of these types of interactions," Blaustein said. "But the fact remains that nitrogen fertilizers by themselves, used at levels considered safe in drinking water, are enough to ki ll some amphibians. So clearly that's part of the answer and a fairly serious concern in its own right. And it's pretty good evidence that we need to think again about the level of these nitrate compounds that we say is safe."

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Andrew Blaustein, 541-737-5356

Water issues solvable in Israeli-Syrian peace talks

CORVALLIS, Ore. - An old conflict over water rights and borders in the Golan Heights is one of the key sticking points holding up the resumption and possible success of peace talks between Israel and Syria, but some experts say it is a manageable problem that can be solved.

Geographers from Oregon State University and Haifa University, who have written several books on exactly these topics, say history has shown that the very seriousness of water disputes can help lay the foundation for firm agreements that lead to cooperation and peaceful settlements.

"Israel's need to protect its crucial water supplies does not have to be a fatal stumbling block to these negotiations," said Aaron Wolf, an assistant professor of geosciences at OSU. Wolf is an expert on the resolution of water resource disputes dating back almost 5,000 years, a consultant on some of the current negotiations, and author of the new book "Water in the Middle East: a Geography of Peace."

"There are a variety of ways we could work this thing out," Wolf said. "If history has taught us anything, it's that even the most serious water disputes can and usually are settled peacefully. You hear a lot about water wars, but in reality one of the last recorded wars over water was in 2,500 B.C."

Wolf is collaborating in OSU laboratories with Arnon Medzini, a visiting professor from Haifa University in Israel and author of two upcoming books on the geopolitics of the Jordan River and Tigris-Euphrates river system in the Middle East. Both scientists say that lessons from history can probably help point the way to resumption of talks and solutions acceptable to both Syria and Israel.

"Right now Israel is seeking a full peace agreement with Syria, considering the return of the Golan Heights to Syria and essentially working out a land-for-peace accord," Wolf said. "But the devil is in the details, exactly what land and under what conditions."

A sticking point, the researchers say, is dispute over a comparatively small amount of land - about 60 square kilometers - scattered in three tracts along the border between Israel and the Golan Heights. But those very small pieces of land , indeed the very creation of this border which dates back to 1923, are oriented to water rights.

In this case, those water resources include access to parts of the Sea of Galilee, the Banyas Springs that are part of the Jordan River headwaters, and control of both sides of the lower Jordan River.

"These water resources together comprise about one-third of Israel's total water supply, and they will insist that those rights be protected," Medzini said. "There are other considerations also about the Golan Heights region, such as military security, but a lot of the concern goes directly to this water."

Even when borders are finalized, the scientists say, Israel will probably demand access to some water, such as the Banyas Springs, that clearly will be on the Syrian side of the border. And the protection of water quality is also a consideration, as Israel will want to ensure that Syrian agricultural or industrial activities don't pollute the water that flows downhill into its drinking water supplies.

A fundamental key to the solution and part of the historical precedent, Wolf said, is to separate the issue of sovereignty over the land from the rights to, and use of, the water that flows through it.

"There are places where one side or the other will demand, with justification, sovereignty over certain tracts of land," Wolf said. "But the actual borders in some cases were drawn the way they were because of concerns about water rights and water resources. If we look at those concerns separately from the issue of sovereignty, there are usually ways that a compromise can be reached."

In the arid Middle East, the researchers said, it's becoming increasingly common to trade not only land for peace, but water for peace. Formal leases can and have been drawn up providing for purchase or exchanges of water. And bartering is possible, where a water rights concession is made in one locale in exchange for other water rights elsewhere.

"Once you get past the issue of sovereignty over the land, there are a lot of things we can do with the water," Wolf said. "For instance, Turkey and Syria have an ongoing water dispute on the Euphrates River. But Turkey and the U.S. are important NATO allies. Maybe Turkey could be persuaded to concede a modest amount of water to Syria in this different dispute, in exchange for some Syrian concessions on the Israeli border. That's just one of several possibilities."

The researchers said because of its very value and complexity, water rights can often be negotiated to produce "win-win" situations that both sides can live with. Wolf, in fact, has created a computerized database of 3,600 water treaties over almost 5,000 years that show different ways problems have been solved throughout recorded time - and how water treaties have been honored even as wars raged around them.

There's almost no such thing as a new type of water conflict that hasn't been seen, he said, and those ancient conflicts can point the way to modern solutions.

Some critics, Wolf said, are alluding to the problems over water as a final reason that Israel should not even consider giving up the Golan Heights or pursuing other peace initiatives with Syria.

"There are extremely strong feeling in this area that go back to conflicts of the past, and there may be people who don't want any type of treaty between Israel and Syria," Wolf said. "Those are different problems. But I can guarantee you the issues over water should not stop this peace process from going forward. These are problems we can solve, and history will show us the way."

Story By: 

Aaron Wolf and Arnon Medzini, 541-737-2722

Amphibian declines complicated, disturbing

WASHINGTON, D.C. - People who are looking for a magic bullet that will explain all of the amphibian deaths and declines around the world are going to be disappointed, a leading expert said Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

It's now a certainty that there are multiple causes contributing to this problem, said Andrew Blaustein, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University and one of the pioneers in this field of study. But the lack of a single, definite cause does not diminish the seriousness of this alarming ecological phenomenon, he said.

"At this point we can say for sure that there are several causes of amphibian declines, which include rising levels of UV-B radiation in sunlight, pathogens, pollutants, habitat destruction, introduced predators and most recently, crop fertilizers," Blaustein said. "But the overall result is that this group of animals which has been around since the time of the dinosaurs is now in serious decline all over the world. And some of the things that are killing frogs almost certainly have implications for other animal species, including humans."

The multiple causes of amphibian declines, in fact, helps to illustrate how ecological changes may have a synergistic effect to compound problems, Blaustein said. In various instances it might be that UV-B radiation, or pathogens, or high nitrate levels by themselves would not be enough to cause death or deformity.

Put them all together and you have far more serious impacts, he said, such as: The 14 species of amphibians that have disappeared from Australia in recent years. The five species of amphibians in the Pacific Northwest of the United States that are listed as candidates for the endangered species list. The extinction of the golden toad in Costa Rica. Massive egg mortalities of the Cascades frog in Oregon. Amphibian declines in Europe, South America, Asia, Africa. Even problems in the pristine confines of Yosemite National Park.

"This is an incredibly complex problem, a disturbing one, and there's no end in sight," he said. In 1997, Blaustein published a major paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which linked ambient but rising levels of UV-B radiation in sunlight to physical deformities in amphibians. This field study found that more than 90 percent of the salamander embryos not shielded from UV-B radiation either died or hatched with deformities, whereas practically all of those protected by special filters survived and were perfectly normal.

In 1998, Blaustein published a study which correlated an increase in UV-B radiation to retinal damage in the Cascades frog. The authors pointed out that the effect of solar UV radiation on the eye and retina are well known in animals and that the risk increases at higher altitudes. In frogs, this could lead to progressive decline in visual ability, impairment of visually guided behaviors, and less successful avoidance of predators. They concluded that increasing terrestrial levels of solar UV radiation represent a serious environmental threat to species across many ecosystems, including humans.

In late 1999, Blaustein published a study in the journal Environmental Toxicology that showed a level of nitrogen-based compounds the EPA says is safe for human drinking water was high enough to kill some species of amphibians. Levels of this type are often found in agricultural areas as a result of using crop fertilizers, the authors said. When exposed to them, some tadpoles and young frogs reduced their feeding activity, swam less vigorously, experienced disequilibrium, developed physical abnormalities, suffered paralysis and eventually died.

And problems such as that, Blaustein said, may go even further.

"The furor that has arisen over frog deformities such as extra legs has been linked to a trematode parasite known as a fluke," Blaustein said. "But these flukes have been around forever and we never observed the level of problem we're now seeing with deformed frogs. One thing we know is that these flukes live part of their life cycle in a snail. Snails eat algae. And higher levels of nitrogen-based fertilizers can cause increased algal growth, increasing the snail populations."

Those types of linkages, he said - intricate, complicated, sometimes even unproven - are starting to crop up more and more in the strange case of declining amphibians. It means that the Earth's ecological systems work in a delicate balance and that seemingly trivial impacts in one area can become magnified as they ripple through the ecosystem, with unintended results or consequences that are difficult to predict and sometimes frightening in their scope.

For some time, researchers have been referring to the dying frogs as the "canary in the coal mine," an early warning sign of environmental danger.

What's less clear, Blaustein said, is exactly what insult, or combination of them, killed these animals, or caused their diseases and deformities.

Or, he added, which species will be the next to fall.

Story By: 

Andrew Blaustein, 541-737-5356

OSU president to speak at Columbia River conference IV

CORVALLIS - Oregon State University President Paul Risser will speak on biodiversity and its role in maintaining ecosystems at the upcoming Columbia River Conference IV, the fourth in a series of conferences examining partnerships in the Columbia River Watershed.

The conference is scheduled for March 16-17 at the Skamania Lodge Conference Center in Stevenson, Wash. It is open to all persons interested in the future of the river system.

The two-day event will explore the roles of individuals, businesses, governments and organizations in solving problems associated with the river, said Bill Krueger, a member of the conference advisory committee. Krueger is also head of the Oregon State University Department of Rangeland Resources, which is co-sponsoring the conference along with the University of Washington's Sea Grant Program.

Keynote speakers for the conference include Bill Dietrich, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of books and articles on the Columbia River; Jack Ward Thomas, professor of forestry at Montana State University and former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and Jim Lichatowich, fisheries biologist.

The conference also features concurrent sessions on several topics including international and national indicators of sustainability affecting the Columbia Basin; climatic effects and changes relating to fisheries management; science in land management, and explorations into Columbia River curricula.

The registration fee is $150; a limited number of scholarships are available to cover registration fees. These awards are intended to assist individuals without agency, industry, business, or other sponsorship support.

For more conference information, contact Susan Hester, Washington Sea Grant Program, 3716 Brooklyn Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98105; telephone: 206-685-9117; e-mail: shester@u.washington.edu.


Bill Krueger, 541-737-1615

Asteroid devastation could even be worse than feared

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Researchers say in a new report that if a huge asteroid were to hit the Earth, the catastrophic destruction it causes, and even the "impact winter" that follows, might only be a prelude to a different, but very deadly phase that starts later on.

They're calling it, "ultraviolet spring."

In an analysis of the secondary ecological repercussions of a major asteroid impact, scientists from Oregon State University and the British Antarctic Survey have outlined some of the residual effects of ozone depletion, acid rain and increased levels o f harmful ultraviolet radiation. The results were just published in the journal Ecology Letters.

The findings are frightening. As a number of popular movies have illustrated in recent years, a big asteroid or comet impact would in fact produce enormous devastation, huge tidal waves, and a global dust cloud that would block the sun and choke the plane t in icy, winter-like conditions for months. Many experts believe such conditions existed on Earth following an impact around the Cretaceous-Tertiary, or K-T boundary, when there was a massive extinction of many animals, including the dinosaurs.

That's pretty bad. But according to Andrew Blaustein, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University, there's more to the story.

"Scientists have pretty well documented the immediate destruction of an asteroid impact and even the impact winter which its dust cloud would create," Blaustein said. "But our study suggests that's just the beginning of the ecological disaster, not the e nd of it."

Blaustein and colleague Charles Cockell examined an asteroid impact of a magnitude similar to the one that occurred around the K-T boundary, which is believed to have hit off the Yucatan Peninsula with a force of almost one trillion megatons.

The immediate results would be catastrophic destruction and an impact winter, with widespread death of plants and the large terrestrial animals - including humans - that most directly depend on those plants for food. That's the beginning of an ugly scena rio, the researchers say.

As a result of the impact, the atmosphere would become loaded with nitric oxide, causing massive amounts of acid rain. As they become acidified, the lakes and rivers would have reduced amounts of dissolved organic carbons, which would allow much greater p enetration of ultraviolet light.

At first, of course, the ultraviolet rays would be blocked by the dust cloud, which sets the stage for a greater disaster later on. Many animals depend on some exposure to ultraviolet light to keep operational their biological protective mechanisms agains t it - without any such light, those protective mechanisms would be eroded or lost.

During the extended winter, animals across the biological spectrum would become weaker, starved and more vulnerable. Many would die. Then comes ultraviolet spring, shining down on surviving plants and animals that have lost their resistance to ultraviolet radiation and penetrating more deeply, with greater intensity, into shallow waters than it ever has before.

"By our calculations, the dust cloud would shield the Earth from ultraviolet light for an extended period, with it taking about 390 days after impact before enough dust settled that there would be an ultraviolet level equal to before the impact. After tha t, the ozone depletion would cause levels of ultraviolet radiation to at least double, about 600 days after impact."

According to their study, these factors would lead to ultraviolet-related DNA damage about 1,000 times higher than normal, and general ultraviolet damage to plants about 500 times higher than normal. Ultraviolet radiation can cause mutations, cancer, and cataracts. It can kill plants or slow their growth, suppressing the photosynthesis which forms the base of the world's food chain.

Smaller asteroid impacts, which have happened far more frequently in Earth's history, theoretically might cause similar or even worse problems with ultraviolet exposure, the researchers say. The ozone depletion would be less, but there would also be less of a protective dust cloud.

"Part of what we're trying to stress here is that with an asteroid collision, there will be many synergistic effects on the environment that go far beyond the initial impact," said Cockell, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey who did some of th is analysis while formerly working with NASA. "Effects such as acid rain, fires, the dust clouds, cold temperatures, ozone depletion and ultraviolet radiation could all build upon each other."

During the K-T event, the scientists said, many of the animals may actually have been spared most of the ultraviolet spring they envision. That impact, oddly enough, hit a portion of the Earth's crust that was rich in anhydrite rocks. This produced a 12-y ear sulfate haze that blocked much of the ultraviolet radiation. But it was a lucky shot - that type of rock covers less than 1 percent of the Earth's surface.

So when the next "big one" comes, the scientists said, the ecological repercussions may be more savage than any of those known in Earth's long history. The collision will be devastating, the "impact winter" deadly.

But it will be the ultraviolet spring that helps finish off the survivors.

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Andrew Blaustein, 541-737-5356