Podcast | WA group brings science to the legend of Sasquatch

To find the mythical beast, members of the Olympic Project first analyze the evidence.

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Forest trail with Bigfoot warning sign

Washington state is home to more reported Bigfoot sightings than any other state in the nation. (Katee Dee/Getty)

Bigfoot, Sasquatch or whatever your favorite nickname; this giant, apelike cryptid is cemented in the minds of many Americans — and nowhere is that more true than in the Pacific Northwest, where reports of strange things afoot in the woods are relatively common.

The beloved legend has given rise to enthusiasts galore, but it has also helped create a different kind of Bigfoot buff: one that takes a more scientific approach. 

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For this episode of Crosscut Escapes, we suspend disbelief to join The OIympic Project, a local group of scientists and seekers who collect, vet and analyze the mysterious physical evidence they find, from stray hairs to large footprints to unexplained sounds. 

With a particular focus on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the group aims to amass the data that just might, eventually, either prove or disprove Bigfoot’s existence once and for all.


Transcripts for Crosscut Escapes are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.

[00:00:00] Anonymous: Crosscut escapes is sponsored by John S. Adams, CFP, and UBS.

[00:00:06] Ted Alvarez: Shane Corson is a guy who loves the wilderness. He's been camping and fishing cross the Pacific Northwest since he came here in the 1990s. And he's long been riveted by legends of mythical beasts.

[00:00:19] Shane Corson: I was born and raised in Scotland. Uh, moved over to the states in 93, and growing up, I was heavily invested in or interested in cryptids in general. You know, in Scotland, you got Nessie.

[00:00:30] Anonymous: New clues are emerging this morning on just, what, if anything is living in Scotland's famed Loch Ness.

[00:00:37] Shane Corson: But I was really interested in like things like the Yeti and specifically Sasquatch.

[00:00:41] Anonymous: Someone came across a lengthy trail of extremely large footprints.

[00:00:46] Ted Alvarez: But it wasn't until about a decade ago that Shane had an encounter in the woods that he'll never forget.

[00:00:52] Shane Corson: August of 2011. I and two other buddies were out hiking around. Um, we had, um, found this area we wanted to camp in and explore, a bunch of different lakes on this high mountain area, up in Mount Hood. Um, we get set up, you know, finish setting up, make a meal, build a big fire. Um, around 11, 11:30, we call it a night and go to bed. About 1:30, 2 in the morning. I'm awoken to what sounds like rocks, being clanked together. It’s getting closer and closer from, you know, maybe 75 yards away, but getting closer and closer. And my buddy Mitch wakes up and goes, do you hear that? And I said, well, yeah, I hear that. What do you think it is? And neither one of us could figure it out.

I'm thinking, could it be like elk antlers or, you know, a deer, you know, but it's sounding loud. It's getting closer. And then it stops, uh, fairly close to our camping area. And I can hear something moving around and it's sounding at the time bipedal.

[00:01:48] Ted Alvarez: In other words, whatever it was walked on two feet, not four.

[00:01:53] Shane Corson: But that lasted, you know, a couple of minutes. And then this thing retreated making that sound again and takes off. And that was it. That was it that night.

[00:02:01] Ted Alvarez: Shane and his buddies thought, okay, this is kind of strange, but stuff happens in the woods all the time. Things that you can't quite figure out, you forget about it. So they went back to bed.

[00:02:10] Shane Corson: We just kind of talked it off. It's like, well, that was weird. That was weird. We go back to sleep and wake up next morning. We kind of talk about it, like, eh, let's go find these lakes, which we did. We hike all day, hit three more lakes, catch our fish, come back to our camp, cook the fish up. And um, so we go to bed by 11:30 that night again.

And once again, 1:30, 2 in the morning, I hear that same dang knocking, clanking sound, and it's getting closer and closer and closer. So I'm waiting. And then we started hearing the brush move at something above us. And it's circling around us. At the time, I couldn't tell if it was just stepping on branches or whacking stuff off the tree.

And my buddy, Mitch, is hearing something off his left. I'm hearing something off to my right. And so I'm thinking, is there two or whatever the heck, this is? My wheels are spinning. You know, cause I never experienced anything like that in the woods ever. California, Oregon, Washington, you name it. Well, it's stomping around and then it stops right above, right up on this hill. 

It is so quiet. You could hear a pin drop. And we hear, I get five knocks on a tree in a row, but they were so powerful. They echoed in this canyon. You could feel them in your tents, the vibration of how the amount of power to hit this tree. The blood was just pumped in my ears. I can remember the pounding because I was like, oh man, this is, what is going on. And there’s silence.

And then out of the tree, up above us from a distance, I hear something coming through the trees and it's just hitting branches. And then, thud, right next to my buddy Mitch's tent. And he was closest to the lake and there was a little muddy area. And instantly, I knew what it was, something had thrown a rock at us. Mitch said that was a rock.

I said, I know. So now I'm like, oh crap, where, this is escalating. And I'm, you know, I'm, you know, I felt paralyzed at one point. Just from fear. I walked myself out of it, but I was, I was paralyzed on my back. Be honest with you. I didn't want to get out of tent, but I, I get the courage up to sit up and unzip my tent and I'm looking out and I'm just hoping I don't see something.

And then all of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye I see movement behind a tree and the tree’s, you know, maybe 30, 40 feet away. And what I see is I see a hand, an arm shoulder, and then every once in a while, a head, cause it was swaying back and forth behind this tree. It had its arm on the front of this tree, a large, uh, Douglas fir, and it swayed back and forth and this thing just looks massive. It looks massive.

Well, I sat there for a second and I watched it and I don't know if it heard me, but it took its arm off the tree, just turned around and went up this trail, this little game trail. And that was it. It was gone.

[00:04:56] Ted Alvarez: The next morning, all three of the guys, without even speaking, started packing up their camp. The plan had been to stay for at least another night or two.

[00:05:04] Shane Corson: But none of us felt good about it. We, um, we didn't want to have a third night of that.

[00:05:08] Ted Alvarez: A little while later, Shane did some research on this section of forest close to the Oregon, Washington border.

And he learned that he and his friends weren't the only ones with this kind of frightening experience.

[00:05:19] Shane Corson: I started researching an AR, like, gun forums, um, hunting forums, hiking forums, and good God. There was a lot of reports in this area. People going to the local ranger station, saying there's some crazy bear throwing boulders at us from a hill.

Uh, there was, uh, a father and a daughter that hiked into this area to fish and they were supposedly chased out by a screaming Sasquatch. I mean, just many reports. And I, I had no idea accidentally stumbling into this area. Not doing any research, fishing, like happens with most encounters. It's average people doing average things. And right there, it solidified the existence for me.

I knew they were real.

[00:06:05] Ted Alvarez: Hi there. This is Crosscut Escapes. I'm your host, Ted Alvarez. And it turns out Shane is one of many people who say they've seen evidence of a gigantic creature in the woods so unusual that they just don't know what else to call it. Between six and 10 feet tall, they're usually described as enormous, hairy apes who haunt the edge of wilderness while eluding the grasp of science.

Bigfoot, Sasquatch. These words have become household names, running jokes, the stuff of legend and lore all over North America, really, but nowhere more so than the Pacific Northwest. In fact, according to the Bigfoot Field Researchers organization, a group that keeps a running database on these kinds of things, there are significantly more Bigfoot sightings reported in Washington state than any other state in the nation. Over 2000 a year.

[00:06:51] Anonymous: According to some reports, Washington has the highest number of Bigfoot sightings since records began.

[00:06:56] Ted Alvarez: Most people around here just lean into the fun of it, selling Bigfoot tchotchkes, calling their roadside coffee stand Bigfoot Java or naming their brew pub Sasquatch Brewing.

[00:07:08] Anonymous: What is it? It's a major discovery.

[00:07:11] Ted Alvarez: Harry and the Hendersons, that cheesy movie from the eighties about a family who adopts a Bigfoot, that was set in Seattle. And a few years ago, the Washington state legislature even held a hearing to consider making Sasquatch our official state cryptid, what Merriam Webster defines as quote, “an animal that has been claimed to exist, but never proven to exist.”

You don't have to dig around too much to find hundreds of these stories of bizarre ape-like creatures all over the region. And while no one has put a definitive finger on the origin of the tale, it does have roots in Native legend. Many tribes in Washington state, as well as First Nations in Canada, have Sasquatch stories that go back generations, often involving a very large and powerful, but usually benign, hairy hominid.

In fact, the word Sasquatch, scholars say, is derived from a Coast Salish word, Sasq’ets, meaning wild man or hairy man.

So given the preponderance of stories, sightings, and just overall recognition of the creature in the Pacific Northwest, one might be tempted to think there's something to it.

But it can't be real, right? No one's ever actually conclusively determined that there's a giant primate living in the Northern woods. People just think they see it or hear it or find some kind of evidence of it. It's still officially a cryptid. So if this animal is more legend than science, what exactly did Shane see?

Shane believes he knows the answer to that question, but first he wants to find the evidence. So in 2013, Shane joined a local organization known as the Olympic Project. It's an eclectic group of Bigfoot enthusiasts who over about a decade or so have amassed a body of material that just might support the existence of a large primate-like species living somewhere in our region, specifically in the dense evergreen forest and mountains on the Olympic peninsula.

But members aren't out there chasing and promoting every single witness report or leaning into conspiracy theories. They say they're taking a scientific approach. They collect and analyze the physical evidence they find, from stray hairs to footprints to even recorded sounds.

[00:09:29] David Ellis: The Olympic project is not out to prove the existence of Bigfoot. That is not our goal.

[00:09:34] Ted Alvarez: This is David Ellis. He was one of the first members to join the group back in 2010 and like all good scientists...

[00:09:41] David Ellis: We, we try to debunk our own observations.

[00:09:44] Ted Alvarez: The group starts with a so-called null hypothesis. In this case, “there are not large, hairy hominids, roaming the Olympic forests of Washington.”

From there, they observe and document a variety of phenomena that's not too easily explained. And then they investigate.

[00:10:00] Shane Corson: We're out there to collect as much data and, you know, collect as much data, vet that data, and store that data, compare that data for patterns of predictability. So we just want to learn as much as we can about Sasquatch. That's the bottom line.

[00:10:14] Ted Alvarez: Data related to Sasquatch is scattered everywhere. There are quite a few alleged traces all across Washington and all over the Northwest, but I wondered why the group focuses in particular on the Olympics. Why concentrate on the Olympic peninsula out of all possible habitats?

[00:10:31] David Ellis: Well, it's a very diverse, uh, habitat. It's a unique location and it's also mostly remote, not a lot of people in the interior of the Olympics. And you go where the stories tell you, you find a stream on the Olympics and I can guarantee you there's stories.

[00:10:54] Shane Corson: We’re not ambulance chasing. Uh, we don't go after this report and that report, we kind of stick to areas. And that's important because, uh, you know, the longer you're in an area, the more you're going to learn about that area, you know put Sasquatch aside, but you're gonna learn like what animals are coming through there at certain times of year, what noises they’re making, what they're capable of making. Is it the same individuals? What are they eating? What's the weather like? So it's, it's patterns of predictability and, and it's very important I think in research in general, I don't care if you're studying mountain gorillas to hyenas, uh, stay in one area for a lengthy period of time and conduct solid research, experiments over years and years and years.

[00:11:34] Derek Randles: My name is Derek Randles. I'm the co-founder of the Olympic Project.

[00:11:37] Ted Alvarez: Olympic Project members come to the table with different kinds of expertise, such as hair analysis or making plaster castings of giant tracks.

[00:11:44] Derek Randles: Camera trap work throughout the Olympic national forest in hopes of getting crystal clear pictures of Sasquatch.

[00:11:50] Ted Alvarez: They lead occasional multi-day expeditions for the public teaching people all about their approach.

[00:11:55] Derek Randles: What we're really trying to do is make the attendees part of the research.

[00:11:59] Ted Alvarez: David Ellis is particularly interested in sounds. His specialty these days includes studying audio recordings, using a specific technique called spectrographic analysis.

It's a way to visually analyze the wave patterns of the sound he or another researcher collects and find anomalies therein.

[00:12:16] David Ellis: So, uh, we identify creatures, known creatures, through their voice prints. That's a known, and then we compare some unknown sounds to those voice prints and, you know, try to find a match. And if it doesn't match, then it goes into a suspicious pile.

You know, I never claimed that I've got a Sasquatch recording. I just have a suspicion. And then I'll tell you why I believe it's suspicious.

[00:12:46] Ted Alvarez: David's appetite for strange sounds may be in part because his first Sasquatch encounter was one that he heard when he was about 11 years old in a small town north of Vancouver, Washington.

He saw a big rustle in the bushes and then a powerful unidentifiable kind of bellow or scream coming from the woods.

[00:13:04] David Ellis: And all of a sudden, the bushes exploded. The alder started swaying. And then the next thing I realize is that limbs are being broken off at about 10 to 12 feet off the ground. And then whatever was back there cut loose with a scream that I later described to my parents as a cross between an elephant trumpeting and a lion roaring.

[00:13:31] Ted Alvarez: Many years later, as an adult while attending a Bigfoot conference, David heard that sound again.

[00:13:36] David Ellis: Uh, subsequently in 2005, I was at a conference and John Andrews, another researcher, had recorded a sound that was exactly what I had heard.

[00:13:47] Ted Alvarez: Since then David's been recording and processing a whole lot of audio.

[00:13:51] David Ellis: And so I started recording literally from the time I would get to where I was going until I would leave.

[00:14:01] Ted Alvarez: Lots of Sasquatch skeptics will note that the diversity of sounds supposedly made by Sasquatch doesn't really match what most primates do.

But there are a few patterns that have emerged among the files in David suspicious folder. There the mysterious, loud wood knocks, similar to what Shane heard that night in the mountains in 2011. And then there's a category David calls singing.

There’s a barking noise, remarkably similar to the kind of baboon makes. Even though of course, baboons don't live in the Northwest.

Then there are those long haunting bellows.

But David and Shane both believe that by far the most exciting find over the past five years or so has been a physical one. Something they call the nest area.

[00:15:06] David Ellis: How it all came about was we were on an expedition. And, uh, Derek Randles, uh, received a telephone call from an owner of a timber company.

[00:15:18] Ted Alvarez: Derek Randles is one of the co-founders of the Olympic Project.

He'd done some landscaping for this timber company owner, so they knew each other some.

[00:15:26] David Ellis: And he called up Derek and said, “Derek, I got something for you that may be a little bit interesting. We don't know what it is. And we were hoping that maybe you could take a look at it and give us some ideas.”

[00:15:39] Ted Alvarez: A timber cruiser working for the company had been driving somewhere out on the land marking trees.

[00:15:44] David Ellis: And he was way in the hell and gone out there. Um, pretty far away from everything, when he came across a series of circular huckleberry branches that have been formed together to kind of make an oval or, and in some cases, just a, looks like a Robin's nest, if you will. On the ground. And he noticed that the, that they had been woven, you know, like if a bear came through, it would rip things off with its teeth and its arms and just, you know, smash things down.

It wouldn't form it in a pattern. Subsequently a bear biologist did make it to the location and confirm for sure that those were not bear nests.

[00:16:32] Shane Corson: The nests are over a foot in depth and, you know, three feet across to eight and a half, almost nine feet across. Massive, some of them. And when Derek Randles started doing some research online, the closest thing he could find to, to what he was looking at was a gorilla nest. I mean almost a mirror image, different material, different setting, but that same sort of shape.

[00:16:54] Ted Alvarez: So I haven't seen these nests myself. From what Shane and David describe, it seems possible that a human could have been the culprit, right. But Shane says he combed through some of those mysterious nests looking for any extra evidence he could find of what creature made these things.

And he did find some hairs that at least he and David say haven't been matched with any known species.

[00:17:14] David Ellis: Cindy Dosen is our go-to person within the Olympic Project. She can identify anything living, what type of hair, uh, may have been left behind. And she was the one that told us that we had several hair follicles that matched unknown hair follicles from other locations.

And actually I have provided her with some of those samples from a location, 25 miles away.

[00:17:45] Ted Alvarez: Turns out this wasn't the only location with some very similar nests made out of huckleberry branches that Shane, Derek, and others say that they found. We wanted to go visit and other journalists have, but because of COVID, we weren't able to. We don't have time to get into all the details here, but suffice it to say their research continues.

[00:18:05] Shane Corson: It's like a rabbit hole. A rabbit hole that maybe there is an end to it.

[00:18:20] Ted Alvarez: We'll be right back.

[00:18:32] Anonymous: The Arbor Group at UBS has a straightforward mission, to help you make the world a better place. Through personal financial planning and sustainable investment management, the Arbor Group works with each of their clients to pursue that client's specific goals. Learn more by visiting ubs.com/team/thearborgroup.

[00:19:04] Ted Alvarez: So I know what most of you are probably thinking. Sasquatch isn't real. There's got to be some kind of rational explanation for all of this. Confirmation bias can get pretty strong if you're this dedicated to something. So I asked them, what do you say to all the skeptics out there? So I'm just curious, what's the, what's the rebuttal to the skeptics argument of like, well, if we have all of this type of compelling evidence, why have we just not seen it yet?

[00:19:29] Shane Corson: Yeah, no, I mean, it's a, it's a great question. The first thing I always tell them like, well, what do you know. What do you, what do you know, how much research on the subject matter have you looked into? I mean, have you read any books on the subject matter? Have you watched any lectures on subject matter? Have you actually looked at the physical evidence out there?

Have you actually sat down and talked to witnesses? No, I mean, and so, I mean, that's just, that's just like a kickoff point. Most people, they haven't really done any homework cause they're not invested in it. To them, it’s a myth.  

[00:19:56] Ted Alvarez: And those of us out there who think it's a myth. Well, we might fall into one of two categories, according to Shane and David. Skeptics or “scofftics.”

[00:20:04] David Ellis: I'm not against, uh, skepticism. Um, I don't have much time for scofftics if you will. And there, there is, there is a difference. Like I said, we're into collecting evidence and vetting it. Um, if we can be shown that our methodology is incorrect, then we will make measures to change that, but you know, there's always the gotcha comment.

Where's the body. Aha. Gotcha.

[00:20:37] Ted Alvarez: For David and Shane, the gotcha isn't compelling. They've dug pretty deep in at this point and talked to a lot of people. Professional scientists included.

[00:20:45] Shane Corson: There are actually a lot of scientists in the Sasquatch closet as I call it that are there working with us, they’re talking with us, they're brainstorming with us.

[00:20:53] Ted Alvarez: For example, one of the members of the Olympic Project, Amy Bue, started a group called Project Zoobook.

[00:21:01] Amy Bue: Project Zoobook. What it is is it's a collaboration between Bigfoot researchers and scientists.

[00:21:07] Ted Alvarez: Where zookeepers and wildlife biologists, and other professional researchers and academics can team up with Bigfoot enthusiastic to have serious conversations about this.

There is a field called speculative zoology after all. And it shares a lot in common with cryptozoology, the study of cryptids. Plus, David and Shane argue that science is always discovering new things, unexpected species, new to biology heretofore unknown. They do make themselves known as we encroach on what little remains of the natural world.

[00:21:36] Shane Corson: In 2017, the Tapanuli orangutan was discovered.

[00:21:40] Anonymous: These fuzzy-headed orangutans are the latest species to join the great ape family.

[00:21:45] Shane Corson: The scientific world was rocked by this.

[00:21:48] Anonymous: The primates on Sumatra Island in Indonesia are the first to have been discovered by scientists in nearly 90 years.

[00:21:54] Shane Corson: And there was a quote from Newsweek, something along the lines of, primates being the one most studied animals out there, and there were 200 years of studying primates, how did this species, this pocket remain hidden from man? Well, they weren't hidden from man. All the people who live in this area, they knew about it. They all knew about it and it was nothing, but Western culture and Western science said, no, there's nothing there.

Well, they were proven wrong and they were brought into fruition. Exposed and yeah, so I mean, things can be discovered. Um, but a lot of times people are stubborn and they don't want to look at the evidence, so they just want to go, okay, there's no way that can happen. There's just no possibility. We would have found one. We would have killed one, but, um, that to me is complete arrogance.

When it comes to skeptics and scofftics, I say, actually, sit down, sit down with me and I'll show you something. I'm not trying to convince you. I just want to open your mind up. I'll show you a ton of stuff. And then, you know, after you spend some time in the subject matter, some real serious time, then come back in and we'll talk some more, so.

 [00:23:02] Ted Alvarez: I've spent some time with the subject matter, but I've only just scraped the surface. In this episode, my goal has been to suspend disbelief to the best of my ability. But I'll admit it, I'm much closer to being the skeptic in the room here, if not quite a scofftic. I'm loath to write off Sasquatch entirely. But the list of obstacles to belief is pretty long.

Here's a few. The wide dispersal of sightings would suggest a population that moves between ecosystems. And yet there's never been visual confirmation from wilderness photographers, hikers, or passive camera traps. The best visual evidence to this day remains grainy footage shot in the late sixties in California.

You've seen the one, it's known as the Patterson-Gimlin film. This seems increasingly unlikely given the ubiquity of high definition filming tools in everyone's pockets. Even hyper elusive animals, like the snow leopard, eventually get captured by BBC film crews. The new orangutan species discovery that Shane described seems like a shocking development until you dig a little deeper. That particular population was already known.

It just hadn't been identified as a genetically distinct species. That's a bit different than encountering a completely new North American great ape with no close genetic relatives nearby. There's no representation of these big apes in modern bones or the fossil record of North America. Most of all, while Shane David and the Olympic Project all say they apply the scientific method and are beginning from a place of null hypothesis, most of them already believe they know the truth about Bigfoot. That can't help but color the evidence.

And yet whatever you believe about all this, I just want to say there's an argument to be made that now is a pretty good time to keep your mind open. Take UFOs for instance. Long a beloved conspiracy theory, relegated to those corners of society that are a little too obsessed with visits from extraterrestrials.

But this June, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an official report.

[00:25:03] Anonymous: The long-awaited Pentagon report on UFOs has finally been released. Report on unidentified flying objects.

[00:25:11] Ted Alvarez: Even created a task force to study with the federal government is now calling unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs.

[00:25:18] Anonymous: The federal government is unable to explain as many as 143 objects encountered by military aircraft.

[00:25:24] Ted Alvarez: The report was inconclusive. Sure. But the fact that UAPs have now received publicized, systematic study from the Department of Defense, that marks a potential sea change in how mainstream culture approaches these sorts of things.

[00:25:36] Anonymous: And suddenly everyone from senators to scientists, to presidents, to journalists are talking seriously about a topic once thought to be more science fiction than actual science.

[00:25:47] Ted Alvarez: Maybe, just maybe, an officially sanctioned study of Bigfoot is just around the corner.

I asked David and Shane what they thought about that and what David said surprised me.

[00:26:00] David Ellis: I'm not quite sure if I want the aha moment. I've always thought about, well, what happens then? You know, does that mean that the government gets involved to the point of controlling how we access the woods? So, uh, I'm a little bit concerned about, uh, the discovery process. That doesn't stop me from going forward, but, uh, I I'm perfectly content with, uh, people not, not necessarily thinking this is real.

[00:26:37] Ted Alvarez: So this quest for knowledge, the search for evidence to prove or disprove a hypothesis, you might think its end game would be some kind of official validation. The kind that UFO enthusiasts out there might be celebrating right now. But for David, at least, that isn't really the point. Maybe Sasquatch being found would actually ruin it.

And I think I finally understand where he's coming from. Maybe despite all this evidence, despite the scientific approach, the natural world needs its mysteries. And we do too. Certainly the Pacific Northwest wouldn't be what it is without its unanswered questions, without the whiff of the unknown, just around that dense stand of Douglas firs. If we truly understood everything that's out there.

We would certainly lose some of the magic that makes living here truly special. And so for that, I'm glad Sasquatch is still around.

That's it for this week's episode. Many thanks to Shane Corson and David Ellis and the work of all the members of the Olympic Project. This episode was produced by me and Sara Bernard. Our executive producer is Mark Baumgarten. Our theme music is by the Explorist. And a lot of the extra sounds in this episode came directly from David Ellis’ own suspicious folder.

You can subscribe to Crosscut Escapes on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen. For more on Crosscut Escapes, go to crosscut.com/escapes. And if you like the show, please review us. It helps other people find us. Crosscut Escapes is a product of Cascade Public Media.

I'm Ted Alvarez, and we'll be back with another episode next week.

About the Hosts

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.