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

March 12, 1993

Air Date: March 12, 1993


Court Investigates God Squad / Henry Sessions

Henry Sessions of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on the investigation by a Federal court into possible Bush administration interference with the Endangered Species Committee. The special committee decided last year to allow logging in 13 tracts of Pacific Northwest forest that had been set aside as habitat for the endangered northern spotted owl. Environmental groups say the Bush administration illegally tampered with the committee's deliberations. (05:50)

Michigan Tackles Biodeversity / Doug Johnson

Doug Johnson of Michigan Public Radio reports on the brewing battle over implementation of Michigan's first-in-the-nation biodiversity protection law. (05:33)

How to Protect an Ecosystem

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. (06:18)

Be an Environmentalist - Buy a Possum Coat / Ruth Page

Commentator Ruth Page tells the tale of the Australian brush-tail possum. The animal was introduced into New Zealand to develop a fur trade in the 1800s. Now the bottom has fallen out of the fur market and the animal is running roughshod over New Zealand's unique plant communities. (03:09)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Michael Richards, Pye Chamberlaine, Lynn Thierry, Henry Sessions, Doug Johnson
GUESTS: Steve McCormack

(Theme music up and under)

NUNLEY: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley.

As the Clinton administration looks forward to breaking the jobs-versus-owls gridlock at an upcoming forest summit, a court looks back at possible misconduct in the decision to allow logging in spotted owl habitat.

SHER: The issue is whether or not the Bush White House impermissibly interfered with the deliberations of the God Squad last May.

NUNLEY: Also, a new way of looking at species protection, where preserving the whole is greater than saving some of the parts.

McCORMACK: 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.

NUNLEY: The do's and don'ts of biodiversity . . . this week on Living on Earth. First, this news.

Environmental News

BADER: I'm Ken Bader with this week's environmental news roundup.

President Clinton is downplaying expectations for his Northwest Forest Conference, scheduled for April 2nd in Portland. The conference will bring together environmentalists and loggers from Oregon, Washington, and California, to begin resolving long-standing disputes. Michael Richards reports.

RICHARDS: The Clinton campaign called for a "forest summit" to unravel the legal gridlock over land management in the Pacific Northwest. But that viewpoint has changed, and Presidential press secretary DeDe Meyers noted that this one-day conference won't settle anything, only start the process. It's a process all sides say they support. The Clinton administration wants to move away from the notion that there's an inherent conflict between economic and environmental concerns, and the process being launched next month will test that approach. But this is largely uncharted territory, and the fact that the administration has moved away from the notion of a summit to settle decisively such nagging issues as the spotted owl controversy, seems to indicate how much work lies ahead. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Richards in Washington.

BADER: Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wants to reduce the amount of federal land passing into the hands of mining companies. Babbitt has stripped the Bureau of Land Management of its authority to issue so-called "land patents." Under current law, if granted a patent, miners can purchase mineral-rich public lands for as little as two dollars and 50 cents an acre. While Babbitt says he won't block legitimate patent claims, his office will give all requests a thorough review, at least until the antiquated 1872 Mining Law is changed.

New Attorney General Janet Reno says she'll make environmental crime a top priority. That's a commitment some say was lacking in the Justice Department under the previous two administrations. Pye Chamberlain reports.

CHAMBERLAIN: Janet Reno told senators that she will prosecute environmental crimes vigorously. She also noted that even before her confirmation, she had started working to coordinate with the fellow Floridian who now runs EPA.

RENO: I look forward to building an environmental and lands division in the Department of Justice that can pursue these cases vigorously, can work with other agencies.

CHAMBERLAIN: House Commerce Committee chairman John Dingle has been conducting hearings on what he calls the "undermining by high authority of prosecutions of environmental criminals." He says the hearings will continue with a view toward strengthening the position of the attorneys who do the "real work of tracking criminal damage to the earth, air, and water." Dingle plans to hold the next round of hearings on the Justice Department within a few months. For Living on Earth, I'm Pye Chamberlain in Washington.

BADER: The National Academy of Sciences will reportedly recommend that the Clinton administration not elevate the EPA to Cabinet status. According to US News and World Report, an Academy study due out next month will instead propose that a new Council on the Environment be created. It would monitor environmental activity in all federal agencies. The study will reportedly contend that the EPA's focus on regulation and enforcement isn't comprehensive enough for a Cabinet-level post.

This is Living on Earth.

Unresolved environmental issues could jeopardize Congressional passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to lawmakers who went on a fact-finding mission to the US-Mexican border. The six Democratic representatives toured industrial and residential areas of Tijuana. Oregon Representative Ron Widen says he was struck by the apparent lax enforcement of environmental laws, one of the most important issues outstanding in the trade negotiations.

WIDEN: It's very clear to me that environmental protection is the Achilles' heel of this whole agreement.

BADER: But the Clinton administration appears unlikely to force Mexico to upgrade its environmental protection. US trade representative Mickey Kanter told the Senate Finance Committee that the United States shouldn't be able to impose sanctions against Mexico for not enforcing environmental laws.

Recent opinion polls in France show that environmentalists are gaining ground, and in the upcoming legislative elections, they could do almost as well as the ruling Socialist party. From Paris, Lynn Thierry reports.

THIERRY: Environmentalists made their first big electoral breakthrough in the regional elections last year by winning about 14 percent of the vote. In the legislative elections at the end of the month, they could do even better, scoring as much as 20 percent of the vote. Their new-found popularity has as much to do with the growing unpopularity of the ruling Socialists, who've been tainted by corruption and rising unemployment, now at ten percent. The Socialists have tried to win back voters by making environmental protection a major part of their platform. The Greens have also influenced the policies of the Conservatives. In fact, even the extreme right-wing National Front party is now talking about environmental protection. But while they've managed to capture attention during the campaign, environmentalists probably won't get many seats in Parliament, since the electoral system in France favors larger parties. For Living on Earth, this is Lynn Thierry in Paris.

BADER: That's this week's environmental news. I'm Ken Bader.

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Court Investigates God Squad

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood.

The economy versus the environment. The Clinton administration will try to resolve the long-standing conflict between the two in the Pacific Northwest in a few weeks, when the new President referees a one-day "forest summit." The event will bring the timber industry and environmentalists to the same table as part of an effort to work out a legislative solution to their differences. But as they're meeting, attorneys for each side will also be arguing in a San Francisco court over whether the last White House occupant had improper influence over decisions on the Northern spotted owl. Henry Sessions of Oregon Public Broadcasting has our story.

SESSIONS: Last May, the seven-member, Cabinet-level Endangered Species Committee, nicknamed the "God Squad," decided to allow logging on 13 tracts of Bureau of Land Management timberland in Oregon that had been set aside for the threatened Northern Spotted Owl. It was only the second time in the history of the Endangered Species Act that economic concerns were put above preservation of a threatened species. Not long after, environmentalists began quoting "unnamed government sources" as saying that decision had only come about after months of back-room arm-twisting. Victor Sher is an attorney with the Seattle office of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

SHER: The issue is whether or not the Bush White House impermissibly interfered with the deliberations of the God Squad last May.

SESSIONS: To find out, environmentalists have challenged the committee in a federal appeals court in San Francisco. They charge that if all the talks between the White House and the God Squad had been out in the open, the 13 exemptions never would have happened. Victor Sher:

SHER: It's an extraordinary thing for the President of the United States to lean on decision makers, and it runs the risk that what you'd have set up is essentially two sets of books. You'd have the public record, which is the trial that occurred and all the evidence that was present and the testimony on the one hand, and then you'd have the secret negotiations or secret conversations between the White House and the members of the God Squad, which would reveal what really went on, but the public would never know that.

SESSIONS: The God Squad process was set up by Congress as a sort of safety valve on the Endangered Species Act. The committee is appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, and is made up of six federal officials and one member from the state where the disputed land is located. Environmentalists have argued that the God Squad is set up like a federal court, and the President has no business tampering with its proceedings. In February, the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco agreed, and ordered an investigation into whether secret communications took place. If the investigation finds that there were off-the-record communications, the court could reinstate the logging bans that were lifted by the God Squad. Timber industry advocates and US Justice Department lawyers who are defending the God Squad decision say they don't know if any secret communications took place. But the attorney representing the timber industry in this case says off-the-record communications would be a proper part of the President's role in shaping the nation's environmental policy. Perry Pendley is with the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation.

PENDLEY: The President, with regard to an important decision like the God Squad, cannot simply sit off to the side and say, "I'm out of the loop." Or, "This is something in which I cannot become involved." The President of the United States' interest is not different from the interest of the American people, and that is that laws be faithfully executed and that the public interest be done. And we must take it on faith that the President of the United States is trying to serve the public interest in the decision that he makes.

SESSIONS: Environmentalists say especially in the case of the Bush administration they're not willing to take that on faith. They say the administration, and in particular Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan made no secret of their contempt for the Endangered Species Act. And they charge Bush and Lujan were trying to circumvent the act by invoking the God Squad, and then trying to influence the panel's vote. Though the amount of timber involved in the God Squad's decision is relatively tiny, the way the process was conducted and the court cases that have followed may shape the way the Clinton administration approaches forest issues. Dan Rolfe is an adjunct professor at Portland's Lewis and Clark Law School. He's written a guide for environmentalists on using and protecting the Endangered Species Act.

ROLFE: I think maybe a message to the new administration is if you're uncomfortable with the status quo under the Endangered Species Act, if you're uncomfortable with some of the limits that may put on timber, or other sorts of human activities, then it's conceivable you can alter that, but you're going to have to publicly change the rules. Take it to Congress, and if Congress passes it, well, then we have a new rule. But we're not trying to sort of circumvent the old ones that we don't like.

SESSIONS: Perry Pendley and other timber industry supporters hope the current court case will lead to the 13 timber sale exemptions being upheld, or at least a new God Squad hearing, which could result in some of the exemptions being reinstated. But it's unlikely the new Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, would reconvene the God Squad. Babbitt and others hope instead to come up with a package of forest legislation at the Northwest Forest Summit, striking a balance between timber interests and environmental protection, in a process the administration has promised will be open to everyone. Those on both sides of the forest issue say they're willing to give the summit a chance, and the long, costly, and so far not very productive God Squad process could spur them on to a compromise. For Living on Earth, this is Henry Sessions in Portland.

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Michigan Tackles Biodeversity

NUNLEY: While the Clinton administration weighs the plusses and minuses of the way the Endangered Species Act is currently enforced, a new strategy for species protection is gaining attention in Michigan. Over the next two years, a new commission will develop ways to protect and maintain the diversity of plants and animals in the state. But as Michigan Public Radio's Doug Johnson reports, the new biodiversity law may be running into trouble.

JOHNSON: Forty miles west of Detroit lie the rich mud bogs of the Sharon Hollow Preserve. There was a time when much of Michigan's Lower Peninsula resembled Sharon Hollow's silty swamps. That, however, was before logging.

In the 1800s, Michigan's wetlands were drained and forests completely logged over. Only a fraction of untouched lands remain. Yet here in Sharon Hollow, says Preserve ecologist Laura Matte, live an amazing variety of native plants and animals. The trillium, green violet, and hepatica are just a few of the over 260 species of plants on the preserve.

MATTE: There's oak barons to the west, forest, there's wetlands, there's vernal pools, so there's a lot here.

JOHNSON: Spurred by the damage caused by clear-cutting and development, environmentalists in the state have worked hard to save what's left of Michigan's native habitats. For instance, Michigan's Wetlands Protection Act is one of the toughest in the country.

Now the state has taken a new step in order to preserve the state's natural heritage with the passage of the Michigan Biodiversity Act. State Senator Dr. Vernon Ehlers, a co-sponsor of the act, says the new law is based on an old premise that environmental managers are beginning to rediscover.

EHLERS: It's impossible to talk about saving single species without talking about the whole habitat and maintaining the biodiversity.

JOHNSON: The new law requires that by late 1994, all decisions made by the state that affect land and water must take into account the impact on the local ecosystem. Management, development, and construction plans all will have to be carried out in ways that not only protect existing plant and animal life, but encourage the return of species native to the area, as well.

The problem is that the act only sets goals; it does not address the specifics of how to reach them. And it's in the details of implementation that the consensus which helped pass the bill may start to fray.

SCHWARTZ: Taken to its extreme, some people have proposed that it's really civil rights for microbes and viruses.

JOHNSON: Lee Schwartz is vice president of the Michigan Homebuilders Association. The association supported the biodiversity bill's passage, but Schwartz warns that support could evaporate if the act is used to stop development in the state.

SCHWARTZ: When you look at biodiversity as it's defined in the bill - ecosystem diversity, species diversity, genetic diversity - that's a lot of things to cover and it could potentially throw a lot of unnecessary roadblocks in the way of any sort of development here in the state.

JOHNSON: It's unclear just what would happen if one of more of the groups involved in the biodiversity commission were to walk out of the discussions. Senator Vernon Ehlers recognizes the importance of giving all groups, including developers, a voice at the table, but says the state will have to play a greater role in land use decisions - decisions historically made at the local level. Ehler says the looming battle over control of development could be the toughest fight brought on by the biodiversity law.

EHLERS: Land use planning is part and parcel of this whole thing and the difficult there - frankly, it's a political quagmire that is worse than any swamp I've ever been in. Every community wants to do its own land use planning, and they're very resentful of any efforts by the state to come in and say, "This is what you have to do." So I do plan to get involved in that. It may mean the end of my political career."

JOHNSON: Other potential opponents include farmers who may be forced to change what they grow and how they grow it, as well as the state's powerful hunting lobby. Hunters fear that efforts to restore a naturally balanced ecosystem will mean less hunting in the state. Dennis Knapp is a wildlife biologist with the hunters' group, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. Knapp asserts the act was meant to educate, not regulate, and he warns that any attempts by "special interest" groups to create another spotted owl controversy will not be tolerated by his organization.

KNAPP: We would be very cautious about that situation here. We don't want to see biodiversity legislation creating de facto wilderness. That would not be an acceptable outcome of this - that it would be a finding that no management is the way to go.

JOHNSON: Still, few of the groups that may be affected by the law are talking publicly of their concerns. Knapp says he hopes all the interest groups can agree on the best means of maintaining and protecting the state's biodiversity. Not just because it's important to Michigan, but because the rest of the nation is watching to see if laws like the Michigan biodiversity act can work

KNAPP: I think the other states are sitting back and looking to see what's going to happen here. And a lot of the states are looking to us to see how or where not to stumble, or what are the positive aspects coming out of here.

JOHNSON: Over the next two years, Michigan will become a national laboratory which may help shape the very concept and definition of biodiversity in a highly developed part of the world. But unless an agreement can be reached on how to implement the new biodiversity act, places like the Sharon Hollow Preserve may become the only reminders of what once was biodiversity in Michigan.

For Living on Earth, this is Doug Johnson.

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How to Protect an Ecosystem

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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Be an Environmentalist - Buy a Possum Coat

One of the hardest lessons many environmentalists have had to learn in recent years is that sometimes, preserving an ecosystem can require eliminating a species, rather than protecting it. Commentator Ruth Page explains.

PAGE: Suddenly we learned that it's practically our duty to buy fur coats if we want to be good environmentalists. Thousands and thousands of us should order them, to help save many species of animals and plants that are now in desperate straits in New Zealand. We're told this in a recent Smithsonian magazine by an outstanding authority, Noel Veetmeyer, one of the most respected plant researchers in the world, a native of New Zealand, and author of some 40 books. All of those coats I mentioned must be made of the fur of the brush-tailed possum. That's a mere six-pound critter that can raise a baby every six months, has no natural predators in New Zealand, and along with her buddies, is producing 20 million young a year - a passel of possums, no matter how you look at it!

The little critters were introduced in New Zealand, purposely, a hundred and fifty years ago by residents who wanted to establish a fur trade. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Now, though, the bottom has fallen out of the fur market, and the possums have proliferated by the millions. Some 70 million possums consume about 20 thousand tons of New Zealand plant material every day - devastation no ecosystem can sustain. New Zealanders are in an uproar. Some of their favorite, unique and most beautiful plants are threatened. Two splendid trees, pohuticala and ratta (???), grow along the island's northern coastline. They've stood for 400 to 800 years, but they can't survive browsing by the brush-tailed possum and are dying fast.

Trappers would be glad to return to their trade and help keep the possum populations down, but at only two dollars a pelt they can't sustain the work. Moreover, things have gone so far, now there's doubt that even widespread trapping can save various environmental treasures from the possums.

The government is experimenting with poison pellets. They allow shooting of the possums on sight, they still encourage trapping, and they hope - sometime before it's too late - that they can control possum populations by a contraceptive agent. Pretty hard, though, to sterilize 70 million animals that move from trees at night. And scientists haven't been successful yet in creating the contraceptive.

This is one more of the many true stories that prove humankind, when we interfere with nature, blow it just about every time. Introducing, by mistake or on purpose, plant or animal species to an environment that never had them before, always gets us into trouble. From zebra mussels to Eurasian millefoil, from pigs shipped into Hawaii by early settlers, to common garden weeds brought to the United States by immigrants from Europe, we've all seen how easy it is to disrupt an ecosystem that nature has spent ages getting into proper balance. Sometimes we carry our love of nature's creatures too far. Maybe sale of New Zealand possum furs could help pay to rescue those gorgeous, threatened trees. This is Ruth Page, talking with you about Earth's gardens and the environment, from my home in Burlington, Vermont.

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(Music up)

NUNLEY: Let us know what you think about our program. Give us a call on our listener comment line, at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are ten dollars.

Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team this week included Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Reyna Lounsbury, Colleen Singer Cox, David Baron, James Thomson, and engineers Laurie Azaria, Andy Cook, and Doug Haslam. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. Steve Curwood is the executive producer - he'll return next week.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Jan Nunley.


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