by Whit Gibbons

February 17, 2002

I was asked two challenging questions last week. One was, should we just give up trying to protect biodiversity as we have few examples of any improvements? The second was one of the most fundamental questions about conservation: why should we try to preserve natural biodiversity? Both are reasonable questions that need to be answered, not just now but again and again--because, like any other interest group, conservationists need to justify their actions.

Answering these questions will require two columns. Today's column addresses the question about whether we have made any positive strides in environmental protection. It's fairly easy, and all too common, to look at the downside, such as the species that have been forced to extinction during modern times by the actions of humans might. And it's true we are losing biodiversity in many regions of the world. But the question is whether there have been any improvements. The answer is yes.

One of the most obvious measures of success is the recovery of several U.S. species that hovered on the brink of extinction only three decades ago, before Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA). For example, enforcement of the ESA probably saved the American alligator. Its Asian counterpart, the Chinese alligator, without similar restrictions to protect the species is now virtually extinct in the wild.

Other species that have recovered in various degrees--or at least not gone extinct--due to protection of the ESA are black-footed ferrets, bald eagles, and California condors. Many other species also occur in greater numbers and are more widespread than in earlier times. American buffalo and whooping cranes persist today due to concerted conservation efforts. Conditions for each of these species have improved greatly from the trajectory of destruction they were once on, and all are species that have benefited from conservation measures directed at protecting a few remaining populations. To me, these are signs of improvement.

Another improvement that I have witnessed relates to water quality. Prior to the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972, I spent time on two rivers that I would probably not visit again if they looked and smelled like they did then. One was the Black Warrior River in Alabama, which was polluted by a paper mill and other industrial wastes. The river today is far prettier and definitely smells better than it did 30 years ago. I'd say that is clearly an environmental improvement.

Along the same lines, in the 1960s I was involved in a research project to test water quality conditions of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Along one stretch below the city, the river had more than 20 upstream paper mills! I remember setting nets for fish from a boat in a gray-colored river that had paper fibers floating throughout the water column. We never found a single fish; we saw no birds or mammals; and we pulled up only bright red, squirming midge larvae in the nets. Turtles were the only vertebrates in this part of the Kalamazoo River, and their primary food was midge larvae.

I went back to the same area two years ago. In addition to seeing an otter and a bald eagle nest with two babies, I saw people fishing from the bank. The river looked clean and clear. Problems may still exist because of contaminants that remain in the sediments, and perhaps locals are advised not to eat the fish. But today's river conditions are unquestionably an improvement from those 40 years ago.

Although many people find reasons to be critical of restrictions placed on us by the federal government, without such far-sighted and far-reaching laws as the ESA and CWA, our water would not be as clean as it is today, and we would almost certainly have lost such species as the whooping crane, the bald eagle, and the California condor. So in answer to the question should we just give up trying to protect biodiversity, I'd say the answer is a resounding NO. (Next Week: Can Anyone Give a Good Reason for Conserving Biodiversity?)

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