SCIENTISTS have long hesitated to attach the word ``crisis'' to their findings, but it is now in common use to describe the increasing rate of extinction among Earth's species. A number of studies have concluded that, on average, several species are vanishing each day. Destructive human activity now accounts for virtually all of the decline, though a small number of species disappear naturally over time.
In political terms, preserving the range of living organisms may well have become an all-American, apple-pie sort of issue, one witness told a United States House of Representatives panel last week.
``I like to think that there are now two kinds of people in Washington - the ones who think it's important to conserve biological diversity for its own sake, and the ones who support biological diversity for its human benefits,'' testified Donald Falk, director of Boston's Center for Plant Conservation.
Indeed, each of the representatives of industry, federal agencies, and environmental groups who testified on the proposed National Biological Diversity Conservation and Environmental Research Act emphasized their enthusiasm for the idea, though not always the legislation.
The ``bio-diversity bill,'' as it is often called, reflects a scientific shift away from one-species-at-a-time protection, and toward preserving entire ecosystems along with the species they support.
The bill calls for $5 million in federal funds the first year after passage, and $10 million in each of the two following years. It would require environmental impact statements to assess the effects of any federal activity on biological diversity - the number and variety of species in a given location. It would also create a National Center for Biological Diversity and Conservation Research, and include a coordinated federal conservation strategy.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service oppose the bill. Spokesmen argued that the government already has authority to protect diversity, and that it is now a top priority.
``Numerous frameworks for dialogue, coordination, and strategy development on this issue already exist,'' said John Buffington, a Fish and Wildlife Service representative.
An Environmental Protection Agency representative, Dr. Peter Jutro, testified that the legislation is ``premature at this time.'' Agency chief William Reilly has not had time to study it, he said.
Two timber industry representatives also testified that current laws, properly funded and coordinated, are sufficient to guarantee protection.
``A key to conserving biological diversity is understanding ecological relationships,'' said John Heissenbuttel of the American Forest Council. ``The US Forest Service and other federal agencies have the necessary scientific network in place to improve this understanding.''
But spokesmen for the Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club said an enforceable version of the bill is urgently needed. Federal agencies have often ignored both scientific data and congressional mandates to protect biological diversity in the past, they said.
Though tropical rain forests often dominate discussions of biological diversity, the bill's focus on US flora and fauna is welcome, said Thomas Lovejoy, a Smithsonian Institution administrator.
``The example that this country sets is absolutely critical. If we cannot proceed to make a strong effort to do the right thing here, how can we possibly hope that the poorer countries - which have the vast amount of biological diversity - could possibly undertake similar efforts?'' he asked.
The US accounts for 10 percent of the world's plant species - about 25,000 species altogether, according to Mr. Falk. Twelve percent to 20 percent are considered to be at risk of extinction, 700 within the coming decade, he says.
Along with moral and aesthetic reasons, it is argued that the preservation of species may also serve countless agricultural, medical, and industrial purposes. Some potential uses for these species will never be known because man is destroying these varieties of life before they can be identified and studied.
``We consider species to be like a brick in the foundation of a building,'' Falk said. ``You can probably lose one or two or a dozen bricks and still have a standing house, but by the time you've lost 20 percent of species, you're going to destabilize the entire structure. That's the way ecosystems work.''