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War against nature threatens humankind.

During the campaign when President Bush, somewhere between a whine and ridicule, attacked "the spotted owl crowd," Bill Clinton, more astute, chose to attack the issue. "I started reading all the legal documents," he recalled in late December, "and I discovered there was a lot more than the Endangered Species Act involved. ... There were six separate government agencies involved, and they had five different positions, under the same administration."

Compared with gays in the military, Haitians and immigration or other looming domestic policy walls that Clinton is hurtling into, the protection of endangered species promises to be a political, economic, moral and environmental brawl likely to go unsettled for much of the next Congress. The reauthorization of the act, passed in 1973 and amended in 1978, is scheduled for debate early this year.

The record of the past 20 years confirms that humans are not especially humane to the fish, wildlife and plants with whom they share the earth. Developers, poachers, hunters, gunners, miners, pavers and sprayers are among those causing declines in 38 percent of the estimated 600 species protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the main enforcers of the act. The numbers of only 10 percent of protected species were increasing; 31 percent remained stable.

The earth itself - the global habitat - is an ecological war zone in which human beings, when they aren't killing each other in wars and homicides, are obsessed with doing in nearly everything else. Less than 5 percent of the earth's land surface is preserved in national parks or other areas, legally off-limits to exploiters. If not stopped, the violence means that as many as 15 million plants and animals are likely to vanish in the next few decades as the competition for space increases. For human predators, it's always "one more land grab and well be happy."

It's asked by those who put human progress first and all else last: So what if a few spotted owls or snail darters don't make it? Without waiting for the day when the last owl nests in the last pine in the last forest next to the last pond where the last fish swims, an answer is available: Human progress isn't possible unless all other forms of life have their progress.

An example of human dependency on plants is reported by the National Audubon Society in its 1992 book, Rebirth of Nature: "It is increasingly clear that the (world's) rain forests are like huge medicine chests whose doors have hardly been opened. A single survey of 1,500 plants from the Costa Rican rain forest revealed that some 225 of them could potentially produce anticancer drugs. Researchers believe that as much as 10 percent of the 90,000 plant species thought to grow in Latin America will yield anticancer drugs."

In the United States, the collision between jobs and development, as one force, and endangered species and habitat preservation, as the other, has meant a test of power between opposing lobbies and interest groups. As arbitrators, federal officials enforcing the 1973 law have consistently favored leniency and indulgence: protection, yes, but let's not get emphatic about it.

On Dec. 22, The Los Angeles Times reported, "Of 1,989 federal projects affecting endangered species from 1987 to 1991, only 23 were rejected." Most species, The Times said, "diminish because of loss of habitat, and the law has not substantially stemmed the development of their lands, particularly private property."

Without the power of the law to stave off biological impoverishment, only the power of reason is left. There, fortunately, enormous strength can be found. In The Diversity of Life, Edward 0. Wilson writes: "In democratic societies, people may think that their government is bound by an ecological version of the Hippocratic oath to take no action that knowingly endangers biodiversity. But that is not enough. The commitment must be much deeper - to let no species knowingly die, to take all reasonable action to protect every species and race in perpetuity... . The more that other forms of life are used and saved, the more productive and secure will our own species be."

In the months of congressional wrangling ahead, Wilson's though ought to be the perimeter of the debate. Every piece of research in the past quarter-century says that we have entered the age of extinctions. We are roaming in a danger area without a clue, it seems, that the destruction to animals and plants is really self-destruction.
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Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 22, 1993
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