US wildlife future 'not encouraging'

According to the National Academy of Sciences, the future for US fish and wildlife is ''not encouraging'' if more food, fiber, and lumber are demanded from continued or expanded intensive farming.

The pressure such methods put on the environment would destroy too much critical habitat to maintain a healthy and varied wildlife.

In saying this, the academy report on farming trends and wildlife habitat is not entirely pessimistic. It notes that fish and wildlife could fare better or worse depending on whether trends continue as they are or whether new public attitudes and policies intervene.

What it comes down to is whether we value wildlife enough to take action to save and foster it. Thus the academy study has correctly identified the issue as one of attitudes, perceptions, and values rather than a competition for land and resources in which humans can win only if wildlife loses.

The study was made for the National Research Council - the operating arm of the academy - by the NRS Committee on Impacts of Emerging Agricultural Trends on Fish and Wildlife Habitat.

As the committee notes, ''farmers are often unable to quantify benefits to themselves from improved habitat and for this reason ignore wildlife when making production decisions.'' What is true of farmers is true of the United States at large. Wildlife values, hard to define and measure, often are neglected in major land-use decisions.

The committee identifies a variety of trends that are of concern. Highways and urban sprawl claim millions of acres of prime farmland, forcing other land, previously available to wildlife, into cultivation. Wetlands are lost to draining and pollution. Forests shrink or are subjected to exploitation unfavorable for wildlife.

There is nothing new about such threats. What the committee is saying is that , if these threats continue and intensify, there soon will be little or no wild life to protect. Furthermore, it is saying that this need not be.

Over the long run, the committee foresees research, including the genetic tailoring of crop plants, bringing sufficient gains in agricultural efficiency to relieve pressure on the land. This won't come soon, however.

What is more urgently needed is wide recognition of what the committee calls ''the multiple values and benefits, including economic, recreational, aesthetic, and ecological, of improved stewardship of fish and wildlife.'' Agriculture, forestry, and fish and wildlife are interdependent with other sectors of the national economy. ''None is of such overriding importance that it can be considered independently of the others,'' the committee warns.

Such a warning has been given many times in the past few decades. To some extent, the warnings have been heeded. But nowhere near enough has been done to protect wildlife.

It is time for the academy and other expert bodies to fully identify the ''multiple values and benefits of wildlife'' in terms policymakers can use - and time to formulate an effective, long-term national land-use policy that will include them.

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