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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Noah's Choice: Important Decisions Ahead

Air Date: Week of May 12, 1995

Host Steve Curwood interviews Charles Mann, co-author of the recent book Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species. Mann discusses how the current law heightens conflict between species protection and ordinary human activities. Mann suggests some difficult choices lie ahead, including the loss of some species.


CURWOOD: The story of Noah's Ark tells how 2 of every animal on Earth was saved from the ravages of God's Great Flood by the ingenuity of one man. Today, as human activities cause another great wave of extinction, the Endangered Species debate reflects the decisions that a democratic society must make about what we will save. Writer Charles Mann and economist Mark Plummer address this dilemma in Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species. Mr. Mann says the current law is an idealized fiction which ought to be tempered with some hard realities.

MANN: Right now, we are in the position where under the law, we are saying, essentially, we are pretending that we are going to save everything. And yet if you talk to scientists, biologists, ecologists, and conservationists, nobody believes that we can actually do that. To begin with, we don't know how many things are out there, so if we save something we don't know what we're missing. So the task is actually, in a sort of a practical level, impossible. But also given the burden of the growing human population, we also think that there's just going to be not enough room for everything.

CURWOOD: In your book you talk about a number of communities that clash with and over endangered species. Can you give us an example of these conflicts?

MANN: Well, there's many of them. In eastern Oklahoma we talk about the Choctaw Nation Indian Hospital, which wanted to have an access road built to it, essentially. And that went through some beetle habitat. In upper New York, near Albany, we talk about a group of communities that wanted to spray their areas for mosquitoes and couldn't do it for a variety of reasons to protect a butterfly. What the problem is, is that the law pretends that the reasons that we endanger species are trivial, and that's just simply not the case. We endanger species for very human reasons: we want a nice place to live, we want to be able to go to the hospital, we want to be able to have an outdoor barbecue. These are not bad things. But they have an impact on biodiversity. And when people are suddenly slammed down and told they can't do those things, they say hey, I'm not a bad guy. And it suddenly transforms these people, who would otherwise either love the nature that's around them or not care about it one way or the other, into the enemies of the species that we're supposedly protecting.

CURWOOD: So what do you do in that New York community? How do you keep the butterflies and yet spray for black flies?

MANN: Well, what happened there is that the butterflies had to be protected when they were in vacant lots that happened to be in recent subdivisions. What we would argue is that perhaps what we should do is simply write off the butterfly in those tiny, isolated spots, and concentrate our money, our efforts in the big pine-bearing preserve that is just there outside Albany, working to expand that and manage that. And we should also consider that the biggest areas for the carner blue are in fact Western New York, where the land is cheap, they're in private hands, and maybe we should say, hey, let's buy up those first rather than taking the fast-growing area around Albany and deciding to make a stand there.

CURWOOD: Okay, so what do you want, then? What kind of mechanism do you think would work instead of the present Endangered Species Act?

MANN: Essentially, what we suggest is something like this: we propose a swap. On the one hand, you scale back the Endangered Species Act. You restrict its protections. You might say that not all habitat everywhere - there's a whole bunch of ways you could scale it back. On the other hand, you make up for it by creating a big pot of money and have advisory boards that are biologists and ecologists and, you know, local governments and all these sort of interested stakeholders, and say look, we've got a big pot of money; how can we best use this to preserve the biodiversity that we in America all want to preserve? And they could use this money in many, many ways. We personally believe that one of the best ways that they could use it would be a strong public education campaign, and with this they could encourage local communities to save as much of their own land as possible. In other cases they could back up programs like that from the Defenders of Wildlife, which pays people in the upper Midwest $5,000 for every wolf den that they have on their property. It could also arrange for conservation easements in much the same way that the Nature Conservancy now does. In other cases, when the land is particularly crucial, we can simply ask people if they'll be willing to buy it, you know, for the market rate.

CURWOOD: A key to doing this, you say, is money: creating trust funds to spread to burden of the Endangered Species Act. But you also complain in your book that we haven't spent much money to implement the Endangered Species Act as it is today.

MANN: Absolutely.

CURWOOD: That the Interior Department is just woefully under-funded. If we're not willing to pay for the present law, why would the public be willing to pay more in the future in this area?

MANN: This is a really good question, because it ultimately addresses the question of public values. Right now, we have a law that sort of sweeps the costs under the table by dropping them on individual, private landowners who are unlucky.

CURWOOD: But we're not appropriating for the Interior Department, either; now that's an explicit cost that people aren't willing to pay.

MANN: Right. Right. The Endangered Species Act as now constituted is attracting major opposition, and right now, for example, the law is enforced essentially randomly. The system is driven by lawsuits. But if we had a trust in a central coordinating committee, we could say gee, what is ecologically the best thing to do? We could say what's going to cost us the most money, what's going to give us the most preservation for our dollars? I think the big sign of hope that we saw is there is a broad reservoir of good will in Americans for this issue. At the same time there is a deep reluctance to be told what to do and told that they are bad. And our hope is that the reservoir of good will can be tapped without hitting the other.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much. Charles Mann is author of Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species, along with Mark Plummer. Thanks for coming in.

MANN: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.



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