All God's Creatures

SOLVEIG TORVIK

March 26, 1993|By SOLVEIG TORVIK

Seattle. -- Next week's timber summit in Portland is proof that the Endangered Species Act in and of itself is a weak tool for

staving off extinction of species.

Had the act worked, the president of the United States would not be coming to the Northwest to convene a meeting to save the northern spotted owl from extinction.

But there are 3,600 more candidates for the endangered-species list. The president cannot be expected to hold a summit to save every one of them. There must be a better way.

Of course, any law works only as well as it is allowed to work. For a number of years now, the government has thwarted the intent of the act. That, among other misguided machinations, has brought us to the eve of this unprecedented affair: a presidential summit to save old-growth timber, owls and loggers' jobs -- perhaps even corporate profits.

Three things are wrong with the Endangered Species Act: In using a species-by-species approach, it addresses ecological crisis too narrowly; it kicks in far too late, and it has been a prescription for rabid mistrust and polarization, political gridlock and endless, expensive litigation. All this has meant the act has done a poor job of saving species.

The Forest Service itself admitted as much last week when it said in papers filed in U.S. District Court that its plan to save the owl ignores the fate of 667 other species that depend on old growth for their existence. ''It is likely that continued reliance on a species-by-species approach to preserve biodiversity will fail,'' the report said.

The General Accounting Office concurs. In 1990 it estimated that, given the level of effort at that time, it would take 50 years to decide the status of all the candidate species approaching extinction. Since then, the Fish and Wildlife Service has doubled its classification rate.

But for many of these species, so few remain that it is doubtful the listings will come soon enough to save them.

By the time the service got around to listing the winged maple leaf mussel in 1990, for example, 99 percent of its habitat in the St. Croix River was lost and it was no longer reproducing. The Puerto Rican polo de jasmin plant was listed in 1991 when only one remained, and it was damaged by Hurricane Hugo. The Snake River sockeye wasn't declared endangered until only four returned to spawn in Redfish Lake in 1991; the year before, none had returned.

As long ago as 20 years before those last four fish swam home, the message was loud, clear and urgent: Only 891 returning Snake River sockeye were counted at the lower Snake dams in 1971. By any stretch of common sense, 891 fish should have triggered an immediate listing. But the tool at hand was not employed.

In hindsight, we are coming to understand that it was a fundamental mistake to rely mainly on the last-ditch safety net of a single-species, emergency-oriented Endangered Species Act for long-term, holistic ecosystem management.

Now scientists are talking about toughening up the act with an early-warning system, which makes sense. That, and management that takes a broader view of protecting all natural resources within a given ecosystem, promises better results and perhaps less strife.

Even the most ardent clear-cutter will affirm that he too would like to live on a planet with more, rather than fewer, of Mother Nature's creatures on it -- all things being equal. The perception in the timber towns, however, is that all things are not equal.

In communities where people have lost their jobs for reasons that may have had little to do with the fate of an owl, it is nevertheless held as an article of faith that conservationists and the government believe that what happens to an owl is more important than what happens to a human being. That perception is more proof of the act's failure.

Early intervention -- before an endangered population formally is listed as endangered -- might have prevented some of this grief. It would have given more flexibility and lead time to solve the conflicts that such listings trigger.

Early intervention not only helps God's creatures survive, it helps those who want to kill them plan their long-term killing strategies.

Nearly everyone now concedes, for example, that more aggressive efforts in 1971 to save the sockeye might have meant far less costly sacrifice than the Columbia River region now faces to save salmon. We might have had more choices on how to proceed than the miserable ones we now are left with.

''Once a species is on the list or about to be listed, the options are very limited,'' Michael Mantell, under secretary of the California Resource Agency recently told the New York Times. He oversees the Natural Communities Conservation Planning Program, which has been praised by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as a promising way to end gridlocks over habitat conservation and development.

A small songbird, the California gnatcatcher, which lives in 250,000 acres of the most valuable real estate in America, is the focal point of this new approach to preserving species. Thousands of construction jobs are at stake in a state reeling from economic shocks, but developers volunteered to stop further destruction of the bird's habitat on their land while a compromise is pursued to allow some of the bird's habitat to be destroyed for human housing.

The idea is a sound one: Save habitat for all species -- not just one -- in a given area, and do it by paying up front instead of later.

Solveig Torvik wrote this article for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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