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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

How to Protect an Ecosystem

Air Date: Week of

Host Jan Nunley talks with Steve McCormick of the Nature Conservancy about his group's efforts to protect entire ecosystems from development. The model they have developed addresses political and economic considerations at least as much as ecological ones.


NUNLEY: The notion of preserving an entire ecosystem - instead of protecting individual species, one-by-one - is at the root of a new approach to the problem of endangered species, being pushed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. This new approach would involve protecting plants and animals before they become threatened, and in this way avoiding repeated political battles.

Steve McCormack is the Nature Conservancy's California Regional Director, and an architect of "eco-system wide" preservation programs. McCormack says protecting an entire ecosystem doesn't necessarily mean putting huge areas of land off-limits to human activity.

MCCORMACK: What we're trying to do is demonstrate that if we take an ecosystem approach - or maybe it's better described as habitat approach - that we can address bigger landscapes and accommodate the preservation of habitat at the same time that we allow compatible human uses.

NUNLEY: How does this approach avoid the political battles we've had over the owl and the snaildarter and single species?

MCCORMACK: Well, I think the approach has merit in a lot of regards, but what we're going to have to accept, frankly, is some habitat loss to pay for the sufficient amount of habitat to preserve the species permanently. The single-species approaches have, in most cases, been done on a case-by-case analysis, and the result has been that at best we'll get a small patch of land set aside, but it's not big enough to preserve an animal or even a plant species over time. And with this approach, we can look at an entire ecosystem, and through the development of some of that habitat, derive fees that can pay for the preservation of the balance of the habitat. But it does acknowledge that there will be some habitat loss.

NUNLEY: Now Steve, might this mean that some species might be expendable at some point?

MCCORMACK: I hate to say that a species as a whole is expendable - some populations and some individuals at the edge of a current range within a habitat may be lost. But the alternative is that if we go about this in the sort of piece-meal and small-scale approach that we have been, the species is most likely doomed as a species, rather than individual populations.

NUNLEY: What advantages are there to the business community, who were upset with the Endangered Species Act?

MCCORMACK: One advantage to the business community in the broadest sense is that they hate uncertainty. When a species is endangered, everything stops. And time is money, quite literally, for any kind of economic enterprise. And our experience has been that what business wants - business in the broadest sense - is some certainty. What's this going to cost, how long is it going to take? And if they're given that, they'll go along with it.

I started this process in the early 80s, in the Coachella Valley of California, which is the desert region that supports the resort communities of Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. There was a small lizard that had been listed as federally endangered and it stopped the real estate development in its tracks, and that at the time was regarded as a multi-billion dollar industry. And we had the environmental community trenched in, saying that this animal was endangered and they weren't going to allow any development, and we had the real estate interests saying that over their collective dead bodies would they allow this to happen. And we brought everybody to the table, and I remember at the first meeting there was a great deal of acrimony and finger pointing. But we started from common ground, and we all agreed that habitat in the Coachella Valley was worth preserving, whether you thought it was pretty, or you thought it was biologically significant. And we agreed that we should charge everybody a little bit - the developers should pay, the community at large should pay, the state should pay, and the federal government should pay. And after six tough years we put together a program that resulted in the proverbial win-win. And the developers got to continue to develop; the environmentalists and we got a very large preserve, not just for that lizard but for all the desert species that live down there, and today it's a very popular recreation area, and it's regarded as one of the great amenities in the Coachella Valley.

NUNLEY: We're still learning what human beings' activities do to certain environments and habitats. How do we make sure that we're - in the regulations that we're using - that we're effectively protecting an ecosystem . . . that something's not going to pop up 20 years from now and we're going to say, "Oh, I wish we'd thought of that."

MCCORMACK: One of the limitations that we are aware of right now is that we really don't sufficiently understand how ecosystems function as ecosystems. The Nature Conservancy has been involved for years in the creation of nature preserves, but they've been relatively small and the design of those preserves, quite frankly, in many cases hasn't been done with an eye toward how that particularly small area fits in with adjacent natural areas and with even more distant natural areas. So we are refining our understanding of how systems work by doing what we call "ecological modeling" and looking at all the dynamics and interrelationships within an ecosystem so that we can start with that understanding before we do any planning.

NUNLEY: Now Steve, you're a lawyer - this whole approach raises an interesting question about how do you put ecosystem-wide preservation into federal regulations? Because each ecosystem is different, are the standards going to be so broad that it's unenforceable, or on the other hand, so strict that it seems Draconian?

MCCORMACK: We actually feel that the best approach to this idea of ecosystem preservation and human use into place is from the local level up, and not through federal regulations. I think federal and state regulations are a little too rough-edged and blunt to work, as you suggest, in every case. And what we're trying to promote is an acceptance and an understanding of the need to preserve ecosystems by and from the people that live in the communities that these ecosystems occur, because they will understand the value of doing that and the desire of maintaining a sustainable economic environment as well as natural environment. So quite frankly, at this point we really don't envision too many federal regulations to put this into place.

NUNLEY: Steve, thank you for joining us. Steve McCormack is the California regional director of The Nature Conservancy.



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