IN about three weeks, a pair of juvenile California condors will spread their wings and launch from a cliff above the Los Padres National Forest. The flight is part of a $25 million project, and it's being given all the buildup of a space shuttle venture.Why the expense and attention? These two California condors are the first born in captivity to be released, pioneers in a project to save the species from extinction; their number dropped to 27 four years ago (when all were captured) and now is back up to 50. This historic event is the result of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, perhaps the strictest of all federal environmental laws. Up for re-authorization in 1992, the act has become the focus of intense politics. Environmentalists want to strengthen it . Business groups, rural activists, and key figures in the White House want to see it amended so that economic and social questions are more fully addressed in the process of protecting endangered and threatened species. Many agree with Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund that the re-authorization effort "will be a donnybrook." There are several reasons for this. One is how well the law has performed over the years; while many species have been officially listed, very few have recovered to the point where they are out of danger. A second reason for the controversy is the widespread potential impact on industries and communities. The northern spotted owl and salmon here in the Pacific Northwest are just the most obvious examples. Third, and perhaps most important, there is a growing concern among biologists and other wildlife specialists that it is not simply individual critters like the red-cockaded woodpecker or the San Joaquin kit fox or the Choctawhatchee beach mouse that are at stake and ought to be protected. The real focus of concern, Fish and Wildlife chief John Turner told a conference last year, should be on "preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity." In its annual report this year, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) presented a goal for preserving endangered species that has far-reaching implications for regional economies and individual property rights: "Ultimately, it is not species that humans will need to manage, but habitat." The recent flap over protecting the nation's wetlands may be a hint of things to come in deserts, forests, range lands, and other places where wildlife live. Beyond the preservation of endangered plant and animal habitat - which is biologically and politically more complex than just saving the last few of a species Noah's-ark style - is the long-term benefit to man. "Although natural ecosystems - and the linkages among them - are not completely understood," the Environmental Protection Agency's science advisory board has reported, "There is no doubt that over time the quality of human life declines as the quality of natural ecosystems declines." More than half of all prescription drugs in the United States, for example, derive from wild plant and animal species. A look at the numbers of threatened and endangered species is not encouraging. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1,134 plants and animals are officially listed, with about 50 added every year. Of those, 382 have recovery plans. Over the years, just 16 species have been removed from the list, seven of those (like Florida's dusky seaside sparrow) because they had become extinct. Thirty-eight percent of all listed species continue to decline. Some 3,700 more species are considered candidates fo r listing, and according to a 50-state survey by the Nature Conservancy 9,000 plant and animal species may be at risk. CEQ makes some sobering observations: * "In Texas, nearly one-third of the plant and animal communities recently inventoried are at risk, as are over one-fifth of such communities in California and nearly half in Florida. In Hawaii, over half of all natural communities are at risk. * "Old-growth forests and tallgrass prairies - two diverse and resilient communities that once defined the US landscape - survive now only in isolated fragments. Since the 1700s the area of the lower 48 states has lost more than half of its wetlands to conversion and construction; seven states have lost more than 80 percent of their original wetlands. * "Commercial landings of fish and shellfish along Southeastern coasts have decreased by 42 percent since 1982. Between 1972 and 1982 habitat construction and incidental by-catch reduced bottom fish levels in the Gulf of Mexico by 75 percent. * "The Southeast is losing not just species, but whole groups of freshwater mussels that serve as key elements in aquatic food chains. Populations of estuarine-dependent fish species off US coasts are at an all-time low, and 30 percent of the freshwater fish in North America, north of Mexico, are considered at risk. * "Waterfowl populations have declined by 30 percent overall since 1969, and mallards and pintails, while not federally listed as threatened or endangered, are down by half or more since mid-century. Among the many US bird species experiencing sharp population declines or local extinctions are Kentucky warblers, wood thrushes, and scarlet tanagers." Most scientists agree that the rate at which species are disappearing is much higher than the historical pattern. "Today the US extinction rate is already unnaturally high when compared with geological records and [it] promises to accelerate," warns CEQ. There is some good news. Since the banning of the pesticide DDT, the bald eagle population has steadily grown. The whooping crane, the peregrine falcon, the American alligator, and the brown pelican all have made significant turnarounds under Endangered Species Act recovery plans. The California gray whale, whose numbers had fallen below 2,000 due to commercial whaling, is back up to more than 20,000. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month proposed delisting the whale.) Yet some observers look at the overall picture and see cause for much criticism. The federal government's species recovery record "is abysmal," says Robert Gordon, director of the National Wilderness Institute. "Rather than directing their efforts toward achieving the 'ultimate goal' of endangered species conservation recovery, the [Fish and Wildlife] Service seems to focus almost entirely on listing more species, keeping them on the list, acquiring land and budget increases, and, because the law mandate s, drafting past-due plans." Jon Holst, an attorney specializing in endangered species with Defenders of Wildlife, says if there has been any failure it's largely because of "political influence getting into the act." Often under court order, regulatory agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service are forced into "entering a crisis situation precisely because land-management agencies have refused to comply with federal lands legislation," he says. "Had the Forest Service been complying with the National Forest Management Act, there wouldn't have been any spotted owl controversy." Some opponents say the law has been used as a "first strike" by environmentalists who have no regard for those it affects and whose political agenda goes beyond saving species. "We're talking the 'ghost townification' of rural America, the systematic cultural genocide orchestrated by preservationist groups who are doing it on purpose," charges Chuck Cushman, head of the National Inholders Association, a group representing those who hold permits or leases on federal land or who own land surrounded by federal land. Others note that of the tens of thousands of government and private development activities screened under the act, fewer than 1 percent were blocked. "Considering how many species have been protected for so long, what is truly remarkable ... is not how many major conflicts it has spawned, but how few," says Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund. Roger McManus, president of the Center for Marine Conservation, calls the act "a great achievement" in that government agencies now regularly consult on preserving species that might be threatened by development. "We now have a national promise to preserve species," he adds. "It is our promise that we will not drive species - entire races of other beings - extinct."
Tomorrow: the science of deciding if a species is at risk.