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Biology versus politics: Saving species, protecting property rights By Dennis Murphy and Lynn Dwyer
STANFORD -- Thumbs down to the conventional wisdom that holds that to protect our nation's rich biological heritage we must make untenable economic compromises.
Members of the fledgling 104th Congress have come out swinging against the Endangered Species Act with a number of draft bills designed to lay waste to the law. The first of these to emerge, authored by Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and ghostwritten by industry interests, claims to balance the needs of humanity with the needs of other species.
Unfortunately, that is the very opposite of what Sen. Gorton's bill would achieve. A National Academy of Sciences panel recently released a scientific analysis of the Endangered Species Act and found that extinction is essentially inevitable unless the habitats upon which all species -- endangered or not -- depend are maintained. Gorton specifically proposes to reduce protection of the habitats that support imperiled species. His bill is designed to make political hay as opposed to biological sense.
What about the economic and private property interests that this legislation ostensibly seeks to protect? Maybe it isn't an either/or choice. The same Republican cadre that is the first to call for states-sponsored policy initiatives conveniently chooses to ignore the most farsighted such exercise to emerge to date, in our home state of California. Our state already is moving -- through a strategically designed ecosystem-based program -- to aggressively protect the property values of more than a million of the most valuable private acres in the nation and the habitat of myriad species at risk.
California has accomplished this unprecedented feat with little political grandstanding and much creativity, through an enterprising use of the provisions of the current Endangered Species Act. Led by the administration of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, the state is forcefully acting to protect a rare bird, the threatened California gnatcatcher, and other species at risk in Southern California's coastal sage scrub community. California's approach uses a new model for ecosystem planning called the Natural Communities Conservation Planning Program (NCCP).
This program, an exercise in nonpartisanship, has been embraced by Bruce Babbitt, secretary of interior for a Democratic administration, who calls it "a model for avoiding future environmental and economic train wrecks."
The pilot planning program includes most of five counties, from Los Angeles south to San Diego and east to Riverside, and more than half the state's population. Federal, state and local governments, private property owners and environmental advocates all are involved in a planning process that is guided by a set of interim conservation standards designed to be adapted as new scientific information accumulates.
The program's guidelines describe the areas of coastal scrub habitat and the landscape linkages between those habitats that will be best suited for a reserve. Habitat is ranked into high, medium and low values by its quality as a home for species. This interim designation -- similar to a "survival habitat" designation proposed in the National Academy of Sciences report -- protects biologically sensitive lands while scientists collect the data needed to inform final planning decisions.
Nobody has to sit around waiting for regulations and standards from on high. The guidelines provide more certainty to both municipalities and developers about which areas are not likely to be set aside for critical conservation purposes. Because planners are better able to delineate habitat value, much more land use becomes permissible than occurs with traditional species protection strategies. Development can continue on those lands while the shapes of future reserves are decided.
Despite the perception of Sen. Gorton, California's example shows that endangered species conflicts do not have to translate to a mutually exclusive choice between human needs and those of other species. Heated arguments over species protection continue apace -- witness the contention over the northern spotted owl, the Stephen's kangaroo rat and the desert tortoise. However, a number of changes in existing policy can help to measurably reduce sources of discord without gutting the world's most important piece of environmental legislation.
For example, it should be a matter of policy that public land serve as the core of habitat for conservation efforts wherever and whenever possible, alleviating pressure on private lands. A market-based system of tradeable preservation credits could bring real economic value to habitat on private land. Tax credits and other tools can be used to encourage conservation and shift the burden of species protection away from the individual and onto the public. The literature is replete with success stories of localities pursuing everything from mitigation banks to tax credits to meet community conservation or preservation goals.
Another method to conserve imperiled species and habitat would appropriately involve local government, without invoking another unfunded federal mandate in the style of the Gorton bill. Some localities, including cities and counties, have started to include consideration of species conservation goals in their general planning exercises alongside other aesthetic, safety and health considerations. Both the city and county of San Diego now include resource protection elements as part of their general plans, assuring that land management focuses on maintaining ecosystems rather than individual species, and on managing resources to spread costs regionally.
The National Academy of Sciences study, prepared in response to a bipartisan request from the previous Congress, lists other examples in which creative approaches to ecosystem management have worked well under the present Endangered Species Act. Not surprisingly, academy scientists say that instead of weakening the act, the time has come to strengthen it to slow a rate of extinction that is now as high as any in the entire fossil record of life on Earth.
Neither federal nor state endangered species laws are as effective as they should be, but the biggest problems are not necessarily within the statutes. If those laws are implemented broadly and flexibly, to encourage compromise rather than conflict, they can serve both human and non-human constituencies alike.
Intelligent and moderated voices in Congress, Republican and Democrat, must reject Gorton's endangered species bill as the blueprint for extinction that it really is.
Murphy is president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford. He served as chief scientific adviser to California's Natural Communities Conservation Planning Program (NCCP) and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Scientific Issues in the Endangered Species Act. Dwyer is a consulting scholar on endangered species issues at the Center for Conservation Biology.
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