Ward Stone Speaks

by Tom Ellis


ALBANY, NY: Saying “I am very happy to be here,” Ward Stone launched into a very interesting and wide-ranging lecture at the December 16th SPB dinner.  Using deadpan humor, he said, “I spent a very environmental evening” last night watching the Republican presidential candidates.  Later he said “These Republican candidates are not good for the environment . . . We need to educate the politicians.”

Ward Stone, who is 77, was the NYS Wildlife Pathologist from 1969 to 2010.  He was a rare New York State government employee competent to investigate the environmental impacts of toxic pollution and report what he found, no matter what it was, even if his conclusions contradicted official DEC policy.  He said he met Rezsin Adams in 1970 at the first Earth Day, and Lynne Jackson when she was 19 at one of Lou Ismay’s environmental classes as the University at Albany.

Listen to Ward Speak

There were thousands of Karner Blue Butterflies (KBB) and Lupines in the Pine Bush in 1970, he said.  Vladimer Nabakov personally named the KBB.  He said without SPB, the Pine Bush would be “much smaller and the Karner Blue Butterfly might not exist.”  He added, the Pine Bush Discovery Center is a great place to learn about the Pine Bush but that “we are going to have to keep it [our environmental advocacy] up”  and “There will be more battles at the Pine Bush.” He said, “We need a lot more looking at flora and fauna in the Pine Bush.”

Ward mentioned  two of his children, Montana, now about 18, who had made a brief appearance at the dinner, and Ethan Alan.  He said Ethan Alan, his youngest son, found and identified a buck moth in the Pine Bush at age two-and-one-half.

 Ward said he is a little bit worried about New York State.  DEC, he said, is too prone to being led by politicians and people with money.  The Rapp Road Landfill should be closed, he said, the sooner the better, and it may take 30 to 40 years post-closure to determine the dump’s long term impacts.   He said, “most state workers buckle under.  It is one of the sad realities of science being tied to government.”

 Ward spoke about Monarch Butterflies saying their population has dropped from a billion or two or perhaps more to about 56 million.  Their migration from the US to Mexico is multigenerational.  He said their Mexican homeland is only a few hectares.   The Monarch Butterfly has also been impacted by genetic engineering.  He said Monsanto has genetically engineered corn so it can withstand weed killers “but at what cost to the 60 million acres grown in the United States.”  He said their are millions fewer acres of milkweed for the Monarch Butterflies and “some genetic engineering may be useful but what about their total impact.” 

Turning to bats, he said the ones he has observed in recent years are much skinnier than formerly.  He said hard data on insect populations in New York are no longer being collected. 

Now an avid gardener, Ward said he observed few insects and no Monarch Butterflies.  He said this is a personal loss to him as well because he used to love seeing them.   Regarding the KBB, he said it is not yet self-sustaining; some are being imported from New Hampshire.  Their future is uncertain due to climate change, new pesticides, and genetic engineering. 

Ward said honey bee populations are way down too.  “Not too many insects are flying around any more,” he said. “These insects,” he said, “are telling us we need to take a hard look at what we’re doing.”  He said many crops in New York are sprayed with pesticides and asked, “Where have all the pesticide researchers gone?” 

Ward said he is not yet finished looking at the Lafarge Cement factory in Ravena.  He said Harvard researchers came and departed but not him.  He found high levels of cadmium and mercury.   During the Q&A he added that years ago he picked up dead wildlife and has good data.  He first became familiar with the cement plant in 1969 when he flew over it in a Piper Cub.  Fallout damages the paint on vehicles.  “There never has been a good scientific study done on this plant yet,” he said. “Even if the rock has low levels of pollutants, if you burn hundreds of millions of pounds yearly, you put out a lot of pollution.”  

He said, “We need a strong bureau of insecticides within DEC to see what these animals are doing.  Insects are a good indicator of overall environmental health . . . . We will have more endangered species in the future.  We are really waging war.  The most important battle is not with ISIS but that which mankind is waging with the world itself.”

Despite their advanced age, he said Jane Goodall and Jimmy Carter are still working.  He said his daughter, Montana, wrote to Carter who wrote back saying he opposes fracking.

He said we do little about endangered species.  “We need,” he said, “scientists with the power to speak up and act.”   He asked, “What do we hear about Native Americans?  Not much.  They have suffered for hundreds of years and have gotten a raw deal that is continuing.”

He concluded his opening remarks sounding like the Ward Stone many of us remember, saying, “Now I am back and can get them again.”

During the Q&A, Ward spoke about the recently concluded Paris conference that “I am glad we had it but it does not have any enforcement backing it.  It is a step in the right direction but a shaky step.  Corporations will say, ‘We cannot compete if we take steps to minimize climate change.’”

Lou Ismay asked Ward if he had any guiding environmental principles such as in medicine to do not harm.  Ward responded that, “We must, more of us, live by the ideals we say we have.  Indians are great role models on this.  We must teach our kids to respect nature.  Most of us do not do as much as we should.” 

Many General Electric PCBs went down the Hudson River, he said.  The Lake Champlain canal needs a cleanup.  He said he took samples there himself.  The PCBs went from the landfill into the canal.  He said Monsanto produced the PCBs General Electric put into the capacitors.  Former SPB attorney Lewis Oliver said people and towns who have lost the ability to use the canal would have standing to sue, but the costs would be very high to finance the litigation and expert witnesses.

One man asked about people who got eye cancers from PCB exposures. Ward responded saying more sampling is needed.  He said, “Look at the deer.” Many PCBs evaporate and volatilize making the goldenrod oily.  The deer eat the goldenrod.  “This type of research,” he said, “does not fit into state work hours”  He said he does not encourage people to work in government because workers will be told they can not form hypothesis and investigate to see if the hypothesis is correct.  Brian Bush said PCBs are not being looked at by government any more. 

Lou Oliver asked if DEC would be better off if split into a standards setting and a permitting divisions.  Ward responded saying splitting is “absolutely necessary in some cases” and he was lucky to have an independent unit within DEC.  “Government is lumping more and more things together,” he said, a step in “the wrong direction.”   He said that after his experiences, DEC employees will be careful in what they do, making sure they get proper permissions.

Regarding nanotechnology, he said there are not enough studies yet to prove it is safe, as the industry claims it is.  He said the way scientists ask questions has a lot to do with what they can find and often research questions are overly influenced by funders.

A final question concerned how do we get federal and state governments to listen to us.  Ward responded, “Be a squeaky wheel.  We need many squeaky wheels”  He said he heard no environmentalism during the presidential debate the prior evening.  The candidates “were all about Muslims.  This will put Muslims on edge . . . These candidates say they are willing to kill children . . . I think we have done enough of that.  We have to get along.”


Published in January/February 2016
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