Smithsonian closing conservation research center

Move angers conservationists and alarms scientists

April 29, 2001|By Carol Kaesuk Yoon | Carol Kaesuk Yoon,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In a move that has angered conservationists and alarmed scientists, Lawrence Small, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, has announced plans to close several of its facilities, including the Conservation and Research Center, a 3,200-acre field station near Front Royal, Va.

Part of the National Zoo, which in turn is part of the Smithsonian, the center is internationally known for its work training conservation scientists and restoring endangered species, including the black-footed ferret and golden lion tamarin.

In documents announcing the closing, planned for the end of this year, the Smithsonian described the decision as part of the National Zoo's emphasis on "revitalizing the public exhibitions." The center is the heart of conservation science at the zoo.

"This is absolutely, irrefutably not a signal that we're getting out of the conservation business," said Dennis O'Connor, undersecretary for science at the Smithsonian, adding that one-third of the jobs at the center were now expected to be moved to the zoo. "This is not a change in emphasis, it is a change in venue."

But the move has already drawn criticism from many quarters, including the American Institute of Biological Sciences, an organization with a membership of 240,000 biologists.

Paul Ehrlich, president of Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology, said the decision was "a disgraceful move by someone who apparently does not understand the seriousness of the biodiversity crisis."

William Conway, senior conservationist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo in New York, said, "The Smithsonian appears in its direction to be stepping back from biological conservation."

The action also prompted a visit to the center by Gale A. Norton, secretary of the Interior Department, and staff members, who are now talking about the possibility of joint management of the center with the Smithsonian, said Marshall P. Jones, acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The closing is also of concern to researchers, who say they fear other well-regarded research units could be dismantled in the restructuring to be proposed to the institution's board of regents.

David Umansky, a spokesman for the Smithsonian, said details of the plan would not be divulged, even to scientists at the Smithsonian, until after the regents' meeting.

Small also announced the closing of the Center for Materials Research and Education, which is known for materials science studies such as the chemical analysis of archaeological finds.

"I'm concerned for the future of science at the Smithsonian," said Brian Huber, a paleontologist and chairman of the senate of scientists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

The senate signed a memo protesting the secrecy of the restructuring and expressing concern over the closing of the center.

Small said he had expressed strong support for the sciences from the start, adding, "We will continue to devote all of the necessary resources to science at the Smithsonian and make every attempt to increase those resources."

The Smithsonian is the world's largest research museum facility. It received about 75 percent of its funding from the federal government.

O'Connor said that he, and not Small, had decided, along with the zoo's director, Lucy Spelman, to shut the center down.

For now, rare and endangered species including Przewalski's horses and scimitar-horned oryxes continue to roam leisurely about the center's rolling acres of forest and field, while the Smithsonian's budget, which includes the closing of the center, rests in the hands of Congress.

"This is important," said James Dietz, a conservation biologist at the University of Maryland. "This goes beyond a few researchers doing esoteric research in the mountains of Virginia."

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