Biodiversity: Top Concern in Saving Species the Endangered Species Act, Hailed as the Strictest of Federal Environmental Laws, Is Up for Renewal in 1992. A Crucial Vehicle for the Preservation of At-Risk Species and Their Habitat, the Legislation, Biologists Say, Also Bears Apparent Significance to the Welfare of Man

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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 species.

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 wildlife live.

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 species.

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. …

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