Assessing the Nation's Biological Resources

By Cracraft, Joel | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Assessing the Nation's Biological Resources


Cracraft, Joel, Issues in Science and Technology


We need a new strategy for implementing the visionary National Biological Survey.

Bruce Babbitt took charge of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) determined to expand the role of science in federal land-management policy and thus avoid, as he put it, "train wrecks" between environmentalists and traditional users of federal lands, both armed with more opinion than data. One of his first actions was to create the National Biological Survey (NBS). Although little-mentioned amid controversies over grazing and mining rights and other land-use disputes that have marked Babbitt's tenure, the NBS could be his most enduring legacy--if formidable obstacles to its effective implementation can be surmounted.

As conceived by DOI officials, the NBS's mission is broad and vital: "to gather, analyze, and disseminate the information necessary for the wise stewardship of our nation's natural resources and to foster an understanding of our biological systems and the benefits they provide to society." The NBS will be neither advocate nor regulator; it will simply provide accurate scientific information on the nation's biotic resources to any interested party. The appointment of respected University of Georgia ecologist H. Ronald Pulliam as director of the NBS underscores Babbitt's commitment to its scientific mission.

The importance of biological diversity is reflected in its obvious usefulness in providing food, shelter, clothing, and medicines, as well as in its less obvious functions, such as regulating climate, creating and maintaining fertile soils, and purifying water and air--not to mention contributing to humans' spiritual and psychological well-being. Given the life-sustaining and economically critical role of the species around us, having a deeper scientific understanding of them is essential for sound management and conservation action. The NBS represents the most comprehensive means so far proposed for accomplishing this.

Currently, however, the NBS's future effectiveness is a major question mark. Does it have the necessary research capabilities to fulfill its mission? Will it be able to integrate its work with that of the many institutions involved in researching and protecting biodiversity? Will it lead to the cooperation between research scientists and resource managers that will be necessary to translate Babbitt's vision into reality? Perhaps most important, will it ultimately make it possible to overcome the significant political roadblocks to the sustainable use of our nation's biotic resources?

Challenging agenda

For more than a century, the United States has sought to discover and document its living resources. The Division of Biological Survey, originally established within the Department of Agriculture, was transferred to DOI's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 1939. Over the intervening years, the survey languished. The escalating loss and degradation of biological resources, as well as heightened conflict over whether to exploit or preserve them, have now focused public attention on the urgent need for better scientific information.

In 1993, DOI set out to consolidate the biological research functions of its three lead bureaus--FWS, the National Park Service (NPS), and the Bureau of Land Management--under the aegis of the NBS. In addition to inventorying and monitoring the nation's biotic resources, the NBS will undertake basic and applied biological research intended to provide a strong scientific basis for management and policy decisions. This is a challenging agenda.

In a seven-month study requested by Babbitt, the National Research Council (NRC) laid out a wide-ranging analysis of the nation's research priorities in the area of biological diversity. Its report, A Biological Survey for the Nation, concluded that the magnitude of our pressing research and information-management needs far outstrips the capabilities of the new NBS. For example, a crucial first step is to inventory the nation's biotic resources, which, among other things, will provide the framework for monitoring short- and long-term change. …

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