CAN a grizzly bear survive without old-growth forests or a salmon without free-flowing rivers?
In what may be its most far-reaching environmental decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that government regulators can restrict activities on private property in order to protect the habitat of endangered species.
The ruling represents a win for environmentalists and a setback for the growing property-rights movement. The victory for conservationists may be a short-lived, though: Congress is in the process of scaling back environmental laws. The 6-to-3 decision came in a case from Sweet Home, Ore., a timber-dependent community.
Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said the Endangered Species Act "entrusted the [Interior] Secretary with broad discretion" to protect threatened species - including the power to prevent "significant habitat modification or degradation that actually kills or injures wildlife." Partisans on both sides stressed the importance of the Sweet Home ruling.
"I don't think it's possible to retain or restore species without habitat," says John Osborne, president of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council, a forest conservation group in the Pacific Northwest. "Unless we're talking about zoos."
Chuck Cushman, head of the American Land Rights Association and a "wise-use" organizer, calls the case "a very big deal" in determining the extent of private-property rights.
The court ruling comes just weeks after a two-year study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that "the degradation and loss of habitat are causing extinctions at a rate that many scientists consider a crisis." In a friend-of-the-court brief for the case decided this week, 14 scientists wrote: "If the ESA does not protect habitat, wherever it be found, then it does not protect species, and it cannot succeed."
Even without Sweet Home - which in essence pitted one species's habitat against what another species considers to be its possession - the Endangered Species Act has become the focus of debate over the future of environmental protection in the US.
On one side are those who say preserving ecosystems and the habitat they provide are the key to preventing extinction. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, for whom yesterday's ruling was a big win, calls the act "probably the most revolutionary environmental law of this entire century."
The other side argues that the law has failed to bring about recovery of species in trouble while at the same time creating economic hardship for individuals, companies, and communities.
The Clinton administration has tried to apply the act more flexibly in hopes of avoiding "train wrecks" like the sharp decline in logging after the northern spotted owl was listed. Small-property owners have been given exemptions. State and local officials have greater say in designing recovery efforts.
But this has not mollified critics of the Endangered Species Act, which is several years overdue for reauthorization.
PROCEEDING steadily through Congress are bills that would halt the listing of any more species as "endangered" or "threatened" while also stopping the designation of "critical habitat" where development is strictly regulated.
Other proposals would require that economic and social impacts be given greater weight. Some would require compensation of affected landowners.
The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee this week cut the Interior Department's science budget by one-third and barred research on species and habitat protection.
There are 962 species of plants and animals officially "endangered" or "threatened," and about half are found only on private lands. Some 4,000 other species are considered "candidate species" for possible listing.