Pre-empting Endangered Species

March 03, 1993

Preserving habitat is the best way to preserve endangered plant and animal life. It's an even better way to preserve species before they become endangered, if the habitat is wisely chosen.

Choosing the Florida Everglades as "the ultimate test case," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wants to adopt that idea to protect potentially endangered species by managing entire ecosystems to avoid last-minute conflicts between environment and economic interests. It's not just a proposal to lock up more land from human use, but to identify ecosystems for pre-crisis management before species there become endangered.

Public lands would be the primary focus. As the Everglades illustrates, farming and development around that huge national park have changed the ecology and threatened survival of wildlife.

The snail darter, the Furbish lousewort and the spotted owl became causes celebre when their belated discovery as endangered species held up dams or prevented logging of old-growth forests.

With more foresight based on a National Biological Survey that maps fragile ecosystems, Mr. Babbitt says such sudden, costly "national train wrecks" could be avoided. Both conservation and business interests could profit from negotiated settlements on land use before species become endangered. That type of planning could protect multiple threatened species in targeted areas.

The 1973 Endangered Species Act has succeeded in rescuing numerous forms of wildlife from the brink of extinction, bolstering the nation's environmental diversity. The law enjoys a broad base of legislative support; thousands of decisions on wildlife under the act have never caused a stir.

Ecosystem preservation has been employed by private organizations, from local land trusts to the Nature Conservancy, in trying to protect diverse species under threat. The concept could work to better effect on the nation's vast public lands.

The cost of this new policy approach to the environment is unclear. Various agencies within Interior already conduct such ecosystem studies and they could be better coordinated to sight problems sooner. If it involves new large expenditures, however, and imposes further burdensome restraints on private lands, the plan itself could become a quickly endangered species.

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