National Biological Service Keeps Heads Out of the Sand

In Republicans' rush for less government, essential research may get swept away

CONGRESS is considering many good strategies to enable America to meet its environmental goals more efficiently, at lower cost, and with less burden on landowners. But momentum is also building for one approach sure to backfire. In a modern-day version of the trial of Galileo, the fate of the biological research arm of the Department of Interior -- the National Biological Service (NBS) -- hangs in the balance. The rationale? Renewed faith in the belief that what you don't know can't hurt you.

The NBS was created in 1993 by merging the biological research units of seven Department of Interior agencies -- including the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Park Service -- to streamline operations, save money, and strengthen the scientific base for resource management. With a budget of $167 million -- about 2 percent of the department's total -- the NBS undertakes scientific research needed to manage public lands wisely. It also provides state and local governments and the private sector with information that would be too costly for each to develop independently.

Among its many responsibilities, the NBS is charged with providing states with information to manage waterfowl and inland fisheries. It helps control invasive species like the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes and responds to public concerns about wildlife health. It is also helping figure out the cause of the death of a number of endangered bald eagles in Arkansas.

The 1995 Republican Budget Initiative proposes to abolish the service, cut research spending, and scatter remaining research among several agencies. Such an action could crack the scientific underpinnings for the management of the nation's natural resources. Perhaps that is precisely the goal. Imagine the possible savings and reduced need for government if we just didn't know what was amiss.

By the same token, would crime dominate headlines if studies weren't documenting the problem and seeking cures? Would homelessness? AIDS? Reported or not, these problems would be taking their sad toll. So will the economic and environmental problems that will gather force if resource management is not grounded in solid science.

Killing this messenger is not in our long-term interest. Because we didn't understand in the 1950s and '60s how DDT would affect wildlife, we have had to spend tens of millions of dollars to save species that it endangered, such as the peregrine falcon and brown pelican. In the absence of good research on how to clean up oil spills, the $3.4 billion spent responding to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill may have made the situation worse, not better. Because we didn't understand how to set safe levels for fisheries harvests, fishermen in New England collect welfare as they wait for fish stocks to rebound, and California's Cannery Row is home to knickknack shops rather than a vibrant fishing industry.

The NBS is a target for abolition principally because of the support it provides for the inventory and monitoring of our nation's biological resources. Detractors fear that this function, amounting to only one-eighth of its activities, will reveal more species in danger of extinction, resulting in more restrictions on private lands.

Never mind that a majority of Americans believe that protecting our natural heritage is important or that inventories often reveal species less threatened than scientists thought; critics miss a more basic point. Biological inventories are carried out almost entirely through state programs to meet state and local needs for planning, conservation, and management. The NBS helps coordinate state efforts and make them cost-effective. It administers inventories on public lands. State programs, not Washington, retain primary responsibility for data on species distributions.

Without wise management of biological resources, we jeopardize important values and the economic base of many local economies. Without sound research, management will be uninformed. Removing the biological research arm of the Department of Interior won't diminish the need for government, only our ability to meet economic and environmental goals.

Much of the postelection reform agenda reflects a vision of government that could be consistent with a sound environment and a sound economy. Cutting back on needed biological research that won't get done by others is fundamentally in opposition to that vision. Let's not repeat the mistake the Roman inquisitors made in jailing Galileo for discovering that Earth revolved around the sun. Willful blindness was folly then, and it is folly now.

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