Interior chief to shift focus of wildlife protection Change involves whole ecosystems

February 17, 1993|By New York Times News Service

In a policy switch intended to head off conflict over endangered species, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is preparing a major shift in the Interior Department's focus on wildlife protection.

To avert what he calls "national train wrecks" in clashes like the spotted owl controversy, Mr. Babbitt hopes to avoid emergency measures to protect suddenly endangered species by moving instead to preventive medicine based on long-term protection of whole ecosystems and all their inhabitants.

"We need to step back and look at the entire ecosystem and ask, 'Is it possible to intervene before the crisis?'" Mr. Babbitt testified yesterday before the House Natural Resources Committee in Washington.

And in an interview last week, he declared his intention to try to devise ecosystem conservation and recovery plans that would stop the decline of species before it became necessary to list them as threatened or endangered. This, he said, might avoid "the downward spiral of listing, and then the long, contentious legal process that is triggered when the Endangered Species Act takes hold."

The theory of such an approach, which has been advocated by several conservation groups, is that both conservation and business interests can be better served by negotiated settlements that plan the future of an entire ecosystem before any individual species are endangered.

There is more leeway for compromise, according to this view, than when an ecosystem is severely degraded and options for protecting threatened species shrink.

Some approaches like this have been tried with reasonable success so far. In one, for example, the Nature Conservancy has brokered a plan in the hill country of Texas outside Austin to protect ecologically healthy islands of wildlife habitat while allowing development to proceed around them.

Some destruction of habitat by developers is to be allowed, with the most important areas reserved for wildlife. In some cases, developers' land is purchased in a swap agreement that lets them build elsewhere in the county. The larger strategy is to accommodate both the ecology and the economy of the entire region.

If ecosystems are to be the focus of federal conservation policy, Mr. Babbitt said, a national scientific assessment of ecosystem health -- a map, as it were, of the nation's biological diversity -- is required to spot problems before they get out of hand.

Mr. Babbitt said he is considering the establishment of a National Biological Survey to map species and ecosystems with the same scientific accuracy as the U.S. Geological Survey maps the country's geology.

In any case, he said in the interview, "everyone agrees we're going to need to revisit the concepts of the Endangered Species Act" and determine "if we can't find some way to look at ecosystems on a multi-species basis and ask how it is we can take reasonable steps" to "deal with the economic tradeoffs," before a crisis erupts.

To avoid contention and lawsuits resulting from "repeated eleventh-hour listings" of species as endangered, Mr. Babbitt told the House panel yesterday, "we're going to have to manage the Endangered Species Act pro-actively by anticipating the problem, while we still have the flexibility to manage the problem."

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