AT a time when the list of endangered species and habitats seems to grow longer by the day, Americans have become accustomed to hearing environmental alarms. But who could have predicted that the latest candidate for protection is not a specific species such as the snail darter or spotted owl, and not a natural resource such as clean air or pure water, but the verdant landscape of an entire state?
Vermont, all 9,609 square miles of it, has just been placed at the top of the 1993 list of "Most Endangered Historic Places." The designation, made by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, reflects the nonprofit group's concern that a proliferation of megamalls and chain discount stores threatens the area's beauty and serenity.
"The whole state is under siege," Richard Moe, president of the National Trust, has said, using the term "Sprawl Mart" to sum up his fears.
Is this first-place standing a "gross overreaction," as the head of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce has charged? Or is it a legitimate way to help environmental and protection groups capture public support as they guard against overdevelopment?
Probably both. Critics of the "most endangered" label have been quick to point out that the state already has exemplary environmental and land-use planning laws in place. Retail developers also insist that stores and malls provide jobs and stability. Yet the governor regards it as an "accurate" description of a problem.
Whatever the local consensus, the dubious award carries a larger significance. It sounds a warning, not only for the small state of Vermont but for every other place where "progress" appears to involve backward rather than forward steps. It serves as a reminder of the permanence of changes wrought by development.
Once a rain forest has been felled, for instance, its ancient trees and complex ecosystems are gone - for good. Closer to home, once a pasture has been paved over for a shopping mall, bringing with it traffic and stoplights and crowds, there is no going back to a bucolic state.
"Save the cows" is hardly a message that ranks in urgency with "Save the whales" or "Save the spotted owl." But it is the nature of environmental decline that it proceeds at a creep and a crawl. A little in the way of overreaction is not out of place if it alerts people to a problem before it's too late for anything but regrets.