To hell with yew?

William Safire

May 17, 1991|By William Safire

HARPER'S FERRY, W. VA. — I LIKE TREES, and respect other people who like trees. Tree people are stalwart.

As a certified city boy at the Bronx High School of Science I used to stay home to observe Arbor Day, which some of the superachievers uncharitably thought was a tricky way to curry favor with the botany teacher.

As a political partisan, I winced when Ronald Reagan argued that trees were partly responsible for acid rain, and secretly enjoyed it when press wags derided this with a sign tied around a tree reading "Chop me down before I kill again."

As a weekender in West Virginia's mountains, I get a guilty twinge at the way the previous owners of the land sacrificed trees to improve their view of the Shenandoah River. So I bought 20 fruit trees at the local Food Lion and planted them as replacements.

In a deciduous world, where too many plants and people drop their leaves at the onset of a cold blast, I especially admire the yew -- an evergreen of the genus Taxus, friendly and hardy the year round. In the West the yew grows up to 80 feet tall, its wood so hard and supple that archers prefer it for their bows; in the Northeast the yew is often just a creeping shrub but it cheers the place up in the winter, and it tends not to die as so many supermarket fruit trees do.

Along has come an ethical dilemma. Scientists searching for cures for cancers have discovered remarkable properties in the bark of the Western yew. They call the substance "taxol," from the Latin name of the yew (they couldn't call it "yew-ol"), and find it helpful in controlling some forms of cancer.

The problem is the cancer-curbing substance is found in the Western yew, specimens often 100 years old, home to the spotted owl. Some ecoradicals say the felling of many of these trees would be an environmental mistake: Knocking down forests would endanger the habitat of the birds and perhaps lead to their extinction.

People with cancer and their families don't give a hoot about the spotted owl; they see the use of the trees to help save human life as the first priority, and take any objection by environmentalists to be the ultimate example of conservationism gone wild.

To stop industrial development to save the snail darter may be worthy of argument, but to save trees and birds at the cost of human life seems crazy. How would the environmentalists feel, say writers of letters to the Wall Street Journal, if one of their children could be saved by knocking down a stand of trees?

This is a one-sided example of the new conflict of values. Most ethicists would agree human life takes precedence over animal life, and certainly over vegetable life; John Q. Public would order the trees cut down: woodman, spare that child.

Thus, scientists on television win any debate about what they delicately call the "harvesting" of the yews (as if they planted them as a crop a century ago). Human survival comes first; the scientists are right to press ahead, and the green activists in this case look like a bunch of inhumane zealots.

Now let's change the basis for the argument a little. Few would begrudge the trade of a stand of trees and a few nests of birds for the precious life of a child, but what of a different trade? How about extending one old man's life against harvesting a thousand yews?

OK, you'll still go with the man. One more step: How about producing a useful but less than lifesaving drug -- a pain-reliever, or a wrinkle-smoother -- that called for cutting down giant redwoods 1,000 years old?

No way, we say; suffer the pain but save the trees. At some point, our balance of judgment shifts. Would we be willing to destroy all the great sequoias to provide a medicine to cure a malady that takes 100 human lives a year?

Most of us would avoid making that close call, turning on the scientists to quickly develop a synthetic from the bark to save both the people and the trees and us from having to make a Sophie's Choice.

That's why we should resist the temptation to clobber the environmentalists on this, their worst case. The greens, for all their collectivist arrogance in protecting what they like to call "the planet," force scientists to come up with ways to save individuals without destroying the yews that grace the place in which the race must live.

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