Trampoline Earth

April 22, 1996|By 'Asta Bowen

SOMERS, Mont. -- Let me just say for the record that I own a fur coat. Of a condition that could kindly be called ''vintage,'' this beaver-pelt coat came into my possession on the occasion of my wedding, a time when my attitude toward nature could kindly be called ''urban.''

I remember thinking what a shame it was that the beauty of the Rocky Mountains should be troubled by all those grizzly bears, ++ and I wondered why anyone would want more rather than fewer of them.

After moving to Montana, however, neither my urban outlook nor my marriage stood the test of time, and the beaver coat, growing moth-eaten in its storage box, has outlasted them both.

I mention my coat because it was probably made at a time when the beaver population was declining. Lately, beavers have made quite a comeback -- so much so that in certain parts of the country they're considered the latest nuisance. Like the deer overruning parts of suburbia, the beaver's traditional predator is the wolf, a species whose recovery has not kept pace with that of its prey.

Bounce too hard

The balance of nature, one quickly discovers, is a multi-dimensional equation that operates less like the scales of justice and more like a trampoline: bounce on it, and your kid sister will feel the vibrations no matter where she sits. Bounce too hard and she'll fly off -- or else start bounding with you and send the neighbor kid flying.

For the past 22 years, the federal government has used the Endangered Species Act to limit the number of other species bounded off the trampoline by our ever-enthusiastic efforts to develop the continent. The act has been under scrutiny -- some )) would say attack -- for the better part of a year, with several proposals for change coming before Congress.

The chief complaint against it is its infringement on property rights. For example, the Barnum Timber Company of northern California feels its rights have been compromised by the endangered spotted owl living on its lands. According to congressional testimony, the Endangered Species Act has forced the company to adjust timber cuts, and to absorb an additional $40,000 a year in ''hooting'' costs.

Now, no red-blooded American likes the sound of that. Liberal or otherwise, few of us would disagree with House member and endangered-species reformer Richard Pombo, R-Calif., when he said, ''If you take away someone's property, you have to pay for that.''

It's here to stay

Although private ownership of land is a relatively new concept on this continent (I can think of some Indian tribes that could have used Mr. Pombo's help on property rights a century ago), let us assume it is here to stay. The problem is that neither our balance sheets nor our ledger books, very little of our science, and even fewer of our laws are set up to handle trampolines.

The land is a whole. It is one system with the air, water, weather and animals. We can draw property lines to our hearts' content, like schoolchildren with a new box of crayons, but the land obeys other laws: laws of physics and biology. Like gravity. Sewage from my line flows downstream to your water intake. Lobelia flowers in your planter draw hummingbirds from my feeder. The trees in my yard cast a shadow on yours.

Property rights are important, but they are not sovereign. We exist on this planet not because somebody's great-granddaddy purchased a deed to the earth, but because the balance of nature has a niche for us. How narrow that niche is, no one knows. No one knows how many species we can bounce off the trampoline before the whole structure gives out underneath us.

The National Academy of Sciences finds the Endangered Species Act ''well-grounded in science'' and wants new programs to protect habitat and even whole ecosystems. Last year the Supreme Court -- a body not known for liberal excess -- affirmed the importance of habitat, both private and public, in preservation of species. It should come as no surprise that the forest plan for spotted owls also helped out the salmon. Is it too much of a leap to imagine that what works for birds and fish will also work for us?

Government is not the bad guy here, and all the money in the mint will not, in the long run, preserve our niche in nature. On the other hand, if we feel as strongly about property rights as we ought to feel about leaving a livable planet for our children, we could always get together and pay old Barnum's hooting costs: Call it the Good Neighbor Clause and put it in the Endangered Habitat Act. I wonder if he'd take a fur coat for starters.

;/ 'Asta Bowen is a writer and school teacher.

Pub Date: 4/22/96

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