LAST week the Bush administration took action to protect the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest's old-growth forests - but it did so with a grimace.
In compliance with the Endangered Species Act, the Interior Department issued a "recovery plan" to restrict logging on 5.4 million acres of ancient forest in the Northwest that are the habitat of a species of owl designated "threatened" in 1990.
On the same day, however, the administration proposed an amendment to the law that would permit cutting on 2 million of those acres. Also, a panel of officials authorized by the act voted to override the law on 1,742 acres of old-growth forest in Oregon to preserve loggers' jobs.
Thus on a single day administration actions summed up the deep economic, political, and philosophical divisions in the country caused by the act.
Few Americans oppose in principle policies to protect species of animals and plants from extinction. When it was generally believed that the Endangered Species Act only prohibited the killing of rare animals or the despoiling of limited habitats, the act engendered little controversy.
But environmentalists have expanded the application of the act to restrict development or recreation on large tracts of forests, deserts, and wetlands deemed to be the fragile habitats of at-risk flora or fauna. The resulting conflict with economic interests has been especially intense in the Northwest - where loggers contend that steps to safeguard the northern spotted owls will throw 30,000 loggers out of work.
Whether Northwest logging jobs are themselves endangered owing to environmental restrictions or rather, as environmentalists insist, to automation and economic changes in the industry is debatable. But this bitter dispute between environmentalists and breadwinners may be a harbinger of other fights to come, as more species are added to the endangered list and as bioscientists identify more extensive and complex relationships between at-risk species and far-flung habitats.
When the Endangered Species Act comes up for renewal later this year, a rough political battle can be expected. Many citizens find themselves straddling the difficult issues. Most of us are, in varying degrees, environmentalists in that we favor a healthy Earth, and most of us feel a moral obligation to be good stewards of the world and its creatures.
At the same time, many are reluctant fully to endorse the "Noah Principle" - the idea that humankind must preserve and rescue every species, regardless of cost. Economic growth is essential not only to providing jobs in the US but also to eliminating poverty around the globe.
Striking a balance between stewardship and development isn't easy. The Bush administration, like its predecessor, often seems tone deaf to environmental concerns. Yet some preservationists seem equally insensitive to working people.
We need a sustainable environmentalism. Protecting species from extinction certainly deserves a high priority. But it's not a cost-free value. Treating it as such may set up snail-darter-type confrontations that ultimately could undercut environmentalism.