A Better Approach to Preserving Species

AS President Bush and Bill Clinton court voters in spotted-owl territory, we should ask what the next administration will do to resolve the escalating endangered-species crisis that is dividing many regions of the country. How we can avoid costly repetition of the spotted-owl controversy?

Critics of the Endangered Species Act, which is up for renewal by Congress, say it is excessively costly and ought to be scrapped. On the other hand, some environmentalists would like to halt development in its tracks to preserve the maximum amount of natural landscape.

Economic development and conservation depend on one another. Unless we disregard the fate of future generations, we have no choice but to become better stewards in protecting species from extinction. The Bush administration's own science advisory board said so in terms almost that stark.

Following his appointment to head the Environmental Protection Agency, William Reilly asked that panel of experts to identify the major threats to the environment and human welfare. In September 1990 the group's report noted the four "highest risk threats": ozone depletion, global warming, loss of species, and loss of natural habitat.

Avoiding the mistakes of the past means protecting the Earth from these major environmental disasters. Scientists and leaders in other countries have concurred. In the past three years we've seen international treaties negotiated on ozone depletion, global warming, and global biodiversity. The United States signed the first two, but, sadly, it did not sign the biodiversity pact (although all other industrialized nations, and 153 nations in total, did sign).

This urgent worldwide attention to conservation makes eminent sense. The economy and environment are flip sides of the same coin; we literally live off the natural resources of the planet, most of which are plant and animal species. We are eliminating those species at a rate perhaps as high as one-half percent per year.

The cost of our actions is already apparent in exhausted agricultural fields, fisheries, and forests. If our descendants are to have the economic opportunities and quality of life we enjoy, we must stop what scientist Edward Wilson calls the current spasm of extinction. How? Part of the answer is to reenact a strong Endangered Species Act. But that isn't enough. We must expand our view of conservation in order to preserve species and their habitats before they become endangered. This must become a goal o f developers and environmentalists alike. Developers should see that by planning ahead with conservation in mind, growth can proceed with more certainty.

Environmentalists also should support a planned approach to conservation, one that puts a priority on preserving as much of our biological diversity as is practicable while acknowledging the inevitability of growth. The number of species saved can be maximized by embracing a national program for species preservation, rather than continuing divisive battles for individual species.

When Congress reauthorizes the Endangered Species Act, we should insist that it also pass legislation establishing a comprehensive program to prevent species endangerment - a National Wildlife Habitat Stewardship Act. Here are its essentials:

First, the act should require a thorough inventory of our remaining habitat area and identification of those species-rich areas which are priorities for preservation. The Fish and Wildlife Service can accomplish this with its "gap analysis" program, which uses satellite imagery to map species and habitats across the country. By overlaying information on land-management practices, key ownership boundaries, and demographic trends, analysts can find the "hot spots" where protection is needed. Unfortunately,

Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan has curbed funding for the program.

Second, the Stewardship Act should provide for state or regional partnerships to draft conservation plans and conserve priority areas. Federal and state agencies should work with private development and conservation interests toward common goals. Federal involvement would help assure a coordinated nationwide system of habitat areas that cross state boundaries, and federal matching assistance could stimulate cooperation.

Finally, we need a mechanism to fund these conservation plans. Land acquisition will be necessary in some cases, but elsewhere easements or improved land management could suffice. Funding could be a partnership with federal, state, local, and private contributions. Voluntary tax check-offs, tax credits targeted to priority habitat parcels, corporate donations, gifts and bequests from individuals offer promise.

This kind of approach can work. If extinctions continue as forecast, some future generation will discover the most endangered species is homo sapiens.

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