Heading Off Clashes Over At-Risk Species

IN "A Sand County Almanac" and his other writings, Aldo Leopold had many practical and visionary things to say about the interconnectedness of life on Earth. One of the most important was this: "The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts."

This is the essential goal of the recently-announced National Biological Survey to be carried out over the next few years by the United States Department of the Interior. The idea is to consolidate biological research, which is now spread over eight federal bureaus, and to give it greater prominence. With more accurate and complete information, government land managers will be better able to foresee the protection-versus-development problems that loom over hundreds of millions of acres of public and priv ate land.

It's hard to find a place in the United States where such problems do not play a prominent political role. Some, like the encroached-upon Florida Everglades or the dwindling salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest, are well known. Hundreds more are local but no less important to those affected, such as Benton Township in southwestern Michigan, where the endangered Mitchell's satyr butterfly held up construction of a bridge that could bring commerce to an area of high unemployment.

The sum of all the tinkering that's been done to North America over the past two centuries has been the loss - or potential loss - of many of the biological parts. There are now 760 domestic plant and animal species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The federal government, under court pressure, has agreed that another 450 species should be listed within the next four years.

Seen in a global context, such numbers are even more troubling. E. O. Wilson, a Harvard University scientist and eminent American expert on biodiversity, estimates that the current rate of extinction worldwide is many, many times the normal "background rate." It's comparable, he says, to five earlier "major extinction spasms" that took millions of years to get over.

In his recent book, "The Diversity of Life," Professor Wilson concludes that within the next 30 years "a 20 percent extinction in total global diversity ... is a strong possibility."

Among lost plants and animals, warns Wilson, may be "keystone species" whose demise can cause habitat communities to collapse. The problem is, no one knows which are the keystone species until after an important part is lost in the tinkering that makes up civilization's impact on biological diversity.

The Endangered Species Act was passed 20 years ago as a safety net for biological resources. But as Congressman Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts points out, "You know something is wrong when the safety net begins to clog." Representative Studds chairs the committee that oversees endangered species and the landmark legislation up for reauthorization this year.

Congressional activity on reauthorization promises to be intense. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has called the act "probably the most revolutionary environmental law of this entire century." This is because once a species is listed, it's a criminal offense to harm either the species or its habitat. When it gets to the point of listing, political and economic clashes are inevitable.

On Earth Day this year, Studds introduced legislation providing the statutory foundation for the National Biological Survey. He calls it "a new and better way of thinking ... an early warning system, providing crucial information that the secretary of the interior needs to anticipate, avoid, and resolve conflicts arising in the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and other fisheries and wildlife conservation laws."

In two recent cases (involving the gnatcatcher in California and the red-cockaded woodpecker in the Southeast), the administration has signaled its intention to head off spotted-owl-type disasters by working with real-estate developers in the first case and the timber industry in the second to preserve habitat. Even better would be what Mr. Babbitt has called "dealing with these issues before a species reaches the emergency room."

Establishing the National Biological Survey is a good first step in this regard. It will help ensure that all the parts are at least accounted for as the inevitable tinkering continues.

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