America, home of the wild

"There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot...Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free."

Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac

When Leopold published these words in 1948, the "progress" he referred to was already driving numerous plant and animal species to the brink of extinction. By 1973, mounting concern about industrial and commercial development's negative impact on wildlife and plants led to the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (16 United States Code Sections 1531 - 1544). The statute's enactment showed that our nation's citizens had committed themselves to conserving enough habitat so that imperiled wildlife and plants would recover and thrive for future generations. The act sets out three goals: stop extinction, stabilize endangered populations, and recover them to the point where the act's protection is no longer needed.

The law's preservation of our natural heritage benefits the American people. Healthy ecosystems that protect water and air quality -- such as wetlands that remove pollutants from water -- serve our society well. According to a recent article in U.S. News and World Report, nature provides $33 trillion in services each year, including: crop pollination from insects, bats and birds; recreational fishing, wildlife and bird watching; commercial uses of wild fish and plants; animals and insects controlling crop pests; and medicinal derivatives from rare plants and insects.

In the 27 years since its enactment, the statute has developed staunch friends and foes. Conflicts between the interests of private landowners and ESA proponents have been common, especially in areas where suburban sprawl is pushing into sensitive habitat areas.The opposition to the ESA is sparked by the fact that under this statute and several related state laws the presence of an endangered species on a property may result in restrictions on activities undertaken on that land that may be harmful to that species.

One example of a group that seeks to limit the ESA is the National Endangered Species Reform Coalition. It hopes to reform the law through several proposed amendments. These include incentives to landowners to conserve habitat, more citizen participation in the ESA decision-making process, safeguards ensuring the primacy of state water law and compensation to landowners whose land use is restricted by the presence of endangered species. In contrast, the Endangered Species Coalition is an active ESA proponent that is currently urging Congress to provide an additional $7 million to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administer its critical habitat designation program.

The ESA is but one of several plans to protect America's natural resources. One new approach is being promoted in a promising piece of legislation, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which at press time was before Congress with both a House bill and a Senate bill. CARA will provide nearly $3 billion each year for the next 15 years for a variety of conservation purposes. The majority of the funds will flow directly to the states, cities and tribal governments. Two of the major categories of CARA funding provided by the House/Senate versions include $350 million to the states for wildlife conservation, recreation and education, $150 million/$100 million for conservation easements and (House bill) endangered species. For more information about CARA, go to /www.nwf.org/naturefunding/summary.html.

Another encouraging approach is offered in safe harbor agreements. In this arrangement, landowners commit to help endangered wildlife by restoring or enhancing habitats for them and the government pledges that the landowners won't incur any new restrictions on the use of their land if their actions result in endangered species taking up residence. These agreements, however, don't affect any preexisting restrictions that may apply to a property as a result of endangered species already living there. Since the first safe harbor agreement was developed in 1995 to protect the red-cockaded woodpeckers in the Sandhills of North Carolina, both landowners and environmentalists have praised the idea that is helping to increase critical habitat for endangered species.

To learn more about these agreements, check out www.environmentaldefense.org.

Over the next 25 years, America's human population is forecast to increase by 60 million people, which will undoubtedly translate into increased demands on land and resources. We need to shift our focus from just individual species to protecting and recovering entire habitats such as returning the natural water flows to the Everglades.

Now, in the beginning of this new century, we should pay heed to the well-known naturalist and Harvard entomology professor, Dr. E.O. Wilson. He points out that while most human-caused catastrophes can be quickly repaired, the one process that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. "This," Wilson warns us, "is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us."


Angela Neville, JD. REM is Editor-in Chief of Environmental Protection. She can be reached at aneville@stevenspublishing.com.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.

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