The Folly of Owning Nature

April 20, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- The problem is that the spotted owl has no respect for private property. Birds are like that.

A toddler can be taught not to step on a neighbor's lawn. A schoolchild can learn not to chase a ball over the fence. Adults can carve a rambling topography into square subdivisions, and allot ownership over mountains, valleys, prairies.

But birds claim territory by an entirely different set of rules. The rules of nature. The rules of their nature. And when those rules are broken, they disappear.

So it is that two ideas, about property and about the use and ownership of nature, came into conflict before the Supreme Court Monday.

The case pitted the timber industry, the private owners of millions of acres of forest, versus the government, the public protector of the environment. The issue was whether the 1973 Endangered Species Act -- itself an endangered species of law -- was meant to protect only animals or their habitats as well.

On the face of it, the debate played out like the theater of the absurd. The law had made it a crime to ''take'' an endangered species. The government regulations said that ''taking'' a creature meant killing it, harassing it, harming its ability to breed or find food and shelter.

But the question before the court was whether chopping down a forest was the same as killing the creatures that live there. Justice Scalia seemed to believe that the law was intended to penalize people who harm animals by hunting, not by logging.

The lawyers for the timber industry argued that felling a forest that houses an animal was not the same as deliberately shooting down the animal. You could destroy the habitat without destroying the species that live in it and off it. They argued for a neat, legal way to separate what nature had put together. The beauty of their legal argument might be lost on an owl, though.

If the case of Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter is widely accepted as a crucial one, it's because this is a moment when environmental laws are at risk. So is the movement.

Today the adjective ''environmental'' comes with a ready-made noun: ''extremist.'' As Earth Day approaches this weekend, many Americans seem to love the environment and scorn the environmentalists.

Every business colors itself green while ''the greens'' are caricatured as government intruders, bureaucratic busybodies. The new crowd in Washington has found it easy to attack the Endangered Species Act while portraying themselves as the protectors of the little guys, not the agents of big business.

But the case is also crucial because it brings up again the conflict between our desire to protect the environment and our belief that someone can do whatever he wants with his own property. It raises the question: What does it mean for a person to own 400-year-old trees, or a mountain, or a forest?

In his book ''Slide Mountain,'' Theodore Steinberg writes about ''the folly of owning nature.''

He describes it in terms of our desire to control the whole world, to possess something as fluid as water, as ephemeral as air, as enduring as land. He details legal battles over water rights to underground streams, air rights to buildings in the city, property rights to the moon. He talks of the dilemmas of ''living in a culture in which the natural world has been everywhere, relentlessly, transformed into property.''

Indeed, in the 25 years of a full-scale environmental movement, we've had difficulty moving from a concept of ownership to one of stewardship, from possession to caretaking. Property rights are still, in Mr. Steinberg's word, our religion.

Human beings who live less than a century claim land that has been there since the dawn of time as ''ours.'' We maintain the right to ''develop'' this land, to behave as if the only time frame that mattered were our own lifespan.

It isn't just big businesses that want to pave Paradise and put up a parking lot. It's also homeowners who feel outraged if their back lot is designated as a wetland when they want to use it for a garage. And it's workers whose jobs are threatened by another species' protection.

But in the end, we don't own nature any more than we own the birds at the feeder. Or the owls in the forest. Whatever fine points the lawyers for the timber industry can draw in a court, nature draws other laws. We can't save the owl and cut down the forests, any more than we can destroy our own habitat and survive.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote in words fit for any Earth Day, ''Man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.''

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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