by Whit Gibbons

June 21, 2009

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and I both made comments last week about the environment. My observations were on a topic that affects all of us on a global scale. His were focused on a specific location concerning a specific endeavor, but they reflect what I believe is an unhealthy environmental mind-set. In my opinion we should both revise our statements: I, to clarify an assertion; he, to adjust his attitude.

My clarification is easy. I stated that some scientists remain skeptical about whether global warming and climate change are an issue to be concerned about. I also said that other scientists "stake their reputations on their belief that it is a problem and that people are the cause." I should have said that I was referring to virtually all reputable climatologists and other scientists. The point is an important one. In a subcommittee meeting of the Committee for Science and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives last week, every scientist on the panel agreed that global climate change was real and that it can be attributed to human causes, including the burning of fossil fuels, changes in land-use patterns, and agriculture.

Coburn has criticized the use of federal stimulus funds for a variety of local projects scheduled for support under President Obama's economic recovery program. One of the programs under attack last week was development of under-the-road crossings (ecopassages) for wildlife, a topic I have written about before.

Wildlife ecopassages are designed to counter the proven negative environmental impact of highways. Millions of animals are killed annually on U.S. highways that fragment the habitat into compartments that may be too small for some species, which then try to cross the road in search of more suitable habitat. Over the past few years, various wildlife species have benefited from hundreds of successfully constructed ecopassages, including those designed for spotted salamanders in Connecticut, toads in England, and desert tortoises in California.

The proposed use of funds at Lake Jackson near Tallahassee, Fla., is one Coburn doesn't care for, and it is indicative of an environmental attitude that, in my opinion, needs adjusting. Matt Aresco, while a student at Florida State University, constructed a guide fence to lead turtles and other animals to a culvert beneath a highway that bisects Lake Jackson. Prior to the fence's construction, highway deaths of more than 9,000 individual animals comprising more than four dozen different wildlife species were documented over a three-year period on a half mile of highway. By making the local community aware that on average more than 50 animals died each week on the highway, Aresco inspired action. The Lake Jackson Ecopassage Alliance was formed by a group of environmentally concerned citizens intent on developing a permanent ecopassage to connect the two parts of the lake.

Now, stimulus money has been allocated for building two major under-the-road waterways so turtles and other wildlife can move safely between the two bodies of water. I spoke with Aresco to confirm that the proposed amount of the stimulus money was $3.4 million (a trivial amount in overall road construction spending). The reconstruction would make right the bad decision, made years ago, to build a highway through a wetland. In addition, the changes will address a traffic safety problem. As Aresco said, "Would you want to hit a 12-foot alligator or a turtle the size of a cinder block as you zip along the highway?"

Economists and politicians clearly cannot agree among themselves on the best way to get the U.S. and world economies back on track. Minimally funded local projects may make handy scapegoats amid strident cries of "earmarking!" But eliminating such funding is neither a reasonable nor an effective means of addressing the greater economic problems. Matt Aresco worked single-handedly against steep bureaucratic odds to protect the environment. It would be appropriate if the bureaucracy came to his aid--and the turtles'--with the stimulus money allocated for ecopassages.

I have now corrected the omission I made in last week's statement about the environment. How gratifying it would be if the senator were to adjust his environmental views and retract his objection to using stimulus funds to save the turtles and other animals at Lake Jackson.

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