Friday, October 24, 2008

The next president's challenge: Extinction and protection


As if the next president and the next Congress weren't facing enough challenges, economic and military, they'll find themselves with the environmental wreckage of this century's beginning.

Earth. Sky. Water. You name it; the makings of our planet are in bad shape or worse.

And, of course, the animals: Among the sobering testimony from experts at a meeting early this month of the International Union for Conservation of Nature was the warning that a quarter of the world's mammal species are headed for extinction _ soon.

And not just rats and mice: Heaviest threatened are the primates _ yes, our close relatives, creationism to the contrary. In the southern and southeastern parts of Asia, said scientists at the Barcelona gathering of conservationists, 80 percent of primate species are immediately threatened.

As in hunters, fingers to trigger, having monkeys and orangutans in their sights?

No. And until their extinction is that imminent, today's leaders here and in other parts of the world will go on scoffing at scientists' and conservationists' concerns. But it's just that kind of cavalier approach to nature _ the negligence and the havoc being wreaked by us fellow primates _ that'll hasten the end of so many.

Habitat is where so much of it will happen, and not only on the ground: Nearly half of North America's freshwater fish are falling victim to chemically polluted water. And birds are declining just about everywhere.

And amid that unhappy non-news _ we've seen it coming at least since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 and Stewart Udall's The Quiet Crisis in 1963 awakened a complacent and materialistic America to a few consequences _ comes this news from Washington:

Interior Department lawyers are memoing their wildlife people that greenhouse gases have no provable impact on species or habitat _ so don't go invoking global warming when you try protecting them under the Endangered Species Act.

So there: No longer will other government agencies have to consult with the department's wildlife experts when they issue permits for things like, oh, coal-fired power-generating stations.

Until this latest round of opinions came out of Interior, the Endangered Species Act could prohibit any federal actions that would either jeopardize species listed under that law or even ``adversely modify'' critical habitat.

That act is credited with saving the bald eagle, the grizzly bear, the manatee and other high-profile animals and many others more crucial to nature's balance.

These memos freeing greenhouse gases from responsibility for what they do to animals and habitat, have the effect of new rules _ so conservationists are understandably upset.

It's hard to imagine much can be done between now and January to restore the old rules; it'll probably take environmental lawyers filing injunctions to stop an end-of-a-presidency rush for construction permits and other commitments to destruction.

But the challenge is clear to 2009 Washington: It's time for a new era of environmental protection.

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