National Geographic : 1990 Apr
N P A A Snowmobile Trail: Wyoming Controversy As part of centennial celebrations this year, Wyoming residents planned a snowmobile trail through some of the state's most spec tacular regions. Environmental groups are raising questions about the plan. Some 250 miles of the proposed Wyoming Continental Divide Snow mobile Trail were marked for use last winter, from Lander to the Togwotee area just outside Grand Teton Nation al Park. The National Park Service is studying a request for a 30-mile-long corridor through the park so that the Gardiner . MONTANA I *B~^^S!*'" ^!^^ WYOMING! route can link up with trails running over the unplowed winter roads of nearby Yellowstone National Park. Several environmental groups are ask ing the Park Service to consider the corridor's implications-whether, for example, it is needed or would endan ger wildlife -in preparing a winter-use plan for Grand Teton and Yellow stone, to be presented this summer. Some also want the U. S. Forest Ser vice to assess snowmobile impact on trail portions that are on its land. Linda Hewitt, chairman of the trail association, says her group has worked with others to avoid causing environ mental damage. Trail markers are put out in winter and taken down in spring, she says, leaving no sign of use. Analyzing Old Air: Inconclusive Results In 1935 the Explorer II balloon soared to 72,395 feet-a manned altitude record that lasted nearly 16 years-in a flight sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the Army Air Corps. Its two balloonists JIM RICHARDSON,WESTLIGHT collected air samples from the strato sphere, some of which were analyzed using the best equipment and tech niques known at the time. The remain ing air was stored in two glass flasks. Equipment and techniques for ana lyzing air are now far more sophisti cated. Could the "archived" air reveal more about what the stratosphere was like in 1935? Could it, for example, provide a benchmark for studying later increases in air pollution? The Society shipped one of the flasks to the Nation al Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminis tration's Environmental Research Laboratories in Boulder, Colorado, for testing (above). NOAA scientists suspect that the unusually low levels of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide were produced by a 1935 "drying" process that was sup posed to remove only water vapor. Further contamination probably re sulted from exposing the flasks to light. While meaningful comparisons were impossible, the effort taught them a lesson. "We have now become some what skeptical of finding reliable old air samples in places other than in gas bubbles trapped in ice cores," says team leader Pieter Tans. Corn on the Cob, 2,200 Years Old n science, as in most things, it pays to be lucky. Stephen A. Hall, a University of Texas geologist, was in New Mexico to find out more about the early environ ment of today's Zuni Indian Reserva tion. He spotted some charcoal in deposits buried 23 feet deep but ex posed in the wall of an arroyo. Hall and his colleagues with the Zuni archaeolo gy program began to dig out the char coal and found corncob fragments. The fragments proved to be about 2,200 years old--the oldest corn ever found on a Zuni site and among the oldest samples in the American Southwest. Hall, whose work was supported by the National Geographic Society, says that the cultivation of corn began in Mesoamerica at least 5,000 years ago. Little is known about the path that corn followed northward into what is now the United States. The combination of charcoal, corncobs, and clumps of pol len grains suggests that what Hall found was a field site of some sort, per haps one where harvested corn was roasted. The absence of any other arti facts indicates that the harvesters lived elsewhere, perhaps in caves or in the open not far away. Decoding Mysteries of the "Slime Hag" he hagfish has been around for at least 350 million years, but scien tists don't know very much about its biology, its life-style, or its evolu tionary history. They're learning, but it isn't easy-or even pleasant. John B. Heiser, director of the Shoals Marine Laboratory, is leading a study of Atlantic hagfish in the Gulf of Maine. Last year he and members of his team sought out the fish with a manned NOAA submersible. At first they found few specimens. But when they set out bait-"If it's fish and it smells and it's rotten, it'll work," Hei ser says-hagfish by the hundreds swarmed all over the sub. For the scientists, if not the fish, it was no picnic. The hagfish produces copious quantities of slime as a defense mechanism; New England fishermen call it the slime hag. "The term is usu ally preceded by several expletives," Heiser notes. All the expletives may be justified, because hagfish strip the bait from lob ster pots or prey on other fish trapped in nets. When the fishermen retrieve their nets, they find "an unmarketable bag of bones and skin," says Frederic Martini, co-leader of the team. Some fishermen, however, are get ting even. Korean tanners make wal- TOMMcHUGH,PHOTORESEARCHERS lets and checkbook covers from hagfish skin, marketing it as eel skin. But because hagfish seem to live long lives and reproduce slowly-research sug gests that they alternate periods of high activity with periods burrowed in the mud-they can quickly be overfished. Hagfish are now scarce in Asian waters, and Korean buyers are paying well for fish caught off U. S . shores.