IN about three weeks, a pair of juvenile California condors will
spread their wings and launch from a cliff above the Los Padres
National Forest. The flight is part of a $25 million project, and
it's being given all the buildup of a space shuttle venture.
Why the expense and attention? These two California condors are
the first born in captivity to be released, pioneers in a project
to save the species from extinction; their number dropped to 27
four years ago (when all were captured) and now is back up to 50.
This historic event is the result of the 1973 Endangered Species
Act, perhaps the strictest of all federal environmental laws. Up
for re-authorization in 1992, the act has become the focus of
intense politics. Environmentalists want to strengthen it. Business
groups, rural activists, and key figures in the White House want to
see it amended so that economic and social questions are more fully
addressed in the process of protecting endangered and threatened
Many agree with Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund
that the re-authorization effort "will be a donnybrook."
There are several reasons for this. One is how well the law has
performed over the years; while many species have been officially
listed, very few have recovered to the point where they are out of
danger. A second reason for the controversy is the widespread
potential impact on industries and communities. The northern
spotted owl and salmon here in the Pacific Northwest are just the
most obvious examples.
Third, and perhaps most important, there is a growing concern
among biologists and other wildlife specialists that it is not
simply individual critters like the red-cockaded woodpecker or the
San Joaquin kit fox or the Choctawhatchee beach mouse that are at
stake and ought to be protected.
The real focus of concern, Fish and Wildlife chief John Turner
told a conference last year, should be on "preservation of
ecosystems and biodiversity."
In its annual report this year, the White House Council on
Environmental Quality (CEQ) presented a goal for preserving
endangered species that has far-reaching implications for regional
economies and individual property rights: "Ultimately, it is not
species that humans will need to manage, but habitat." The recent
flap over protecting the nation's wetlands may be a hint of things
to come in deserts, forests, range lands, and other places where
Beyond the preservation of endangered plant and animal habitat -
which is biologically and politically more complex than just saving
the last few of a species Noah's-ark style - is the long-term
benefit to man.
"Although natural ecosystems - and the linkages among them - are
not completely understood," the Environmental Protection Agency's
science advisory board has reported, "There is no doubt that over
time the quality of human life declines as the quality of natural
ecosystems declines." More than half of all prescription drugs in
the United States, for example, derive from wild plant and animal
A look at the numbers of threatened and endangered species is
not encouraging. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service,
1,134 plants and animals are officially listed, with about 50 added
every year. Of those, 382 have recovery plans. Over the years, just
16 species have been removed from the list, seven of those (like
Florida's dusky seaside sparrow) because they had become extinct.
Thirty-eight percent of all listed species continue to decline.
Some 3,700 more species are considered candidates for listing, and
according to a 50-state survey by the Nature Conservancy 9,000
plant and animal species may be at risk.
CEQ makes some sobering observations:
* "In Texas, nearly one-third of the plant and animal
communities recently inventoried are at risk, as are over one-fifth
of such communities in California and nearly half in Florida. …