THE Bush administration, which had avoided acting on stronger protection for endangered plant and animal species for most of its four years - even after being sued last April by wildlife organizations - has finally approved expansion of the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. With the election over, the White House agreed to an approach, long sought by naturalists, which will examine the need for protection of entire ecosystems rather than single species.
The matter of wildlife preservation will, however, remain political: The lumber and housing industries have already signaled doubt about a policy that, if implemented, could double or triple the number of plants and animals protected.
But a positive aspect of the changed approach even for commercial interests is that decisions as to whether to permit or ban timber cutting are expected to be made faster and affect larger areas than before.
If conservationists have their way, as many as 1,200 animal and plant species could come under protection. At present, 750 species are covered - almost 90 percent of them plants and most in Western states.
Wildlife proponents and specialists in the field say the ecosystem approach will make it much more likely that many species on the edge of extinction will survive into the 21st century.
Of course, any policy must take human needs into account. Lumbering, wood products, and housing are essential components of the human "ecosystem." The timber and housing industries, represented by organizations such as the National Association of Home Builders, are certain to put a lot of pressure on lawmakers when reauthorization and expansion of the Endangered Species Act is debated.
These interests can see the spotted owl situation multiplied manyfold; they envision having to wait for years while ecologists try to determine whether an area should be set aside to protect its plants and animals, and then losing the opportunity to "harvest" timber if a sector is put under protection. However, field ecologists say that the wider approach will result in quicker and more accurate assessments of the need for protection.
Doubtless, Congress and the Clinton White House face a difficult task in weighing the value of precious wild assets against the need to stimulate the economy - of which housing and other forest products-based industries are key elements.
But public statements by both industry and environmental representatives contain a note of moderation and of willingness to seek accommodation that has been absent in the past.