Who hasn't returned after many years to a favorite childhood haunt, a farm, a woodlands or even a weedy vacant lot, only to find it gone - paved over with roads, dotted with houses or leveled for a shopping mall?
Such a sight may
have shocked us once, but as with any type of violence, repetition
numbs the senses. We have come to expect the loss of landscape. We
assume virtually every acre of private land in the country will
eventually be altered for human purposes. Day by day, America
becomes more like Europe, a developed land with a few remnant,
though tamed, natural environments.
As the land
changes, so do its animals and plants. Species that love
disturbance thrive, while the ones that need privacy and large
tracts of undisturbed habitat hang on by a thread or
Most of us accept the loss because we
accept the idea that has led to it: The right to own and develop
property is as basic and unassailable as the right to vote or
attend or not attend a church.
But not everyone
accepts the ecological decline caused by the exercise of private
property rights. Some organizations fight it by embracing the
system, buying up still-undeveloped private lands. Others focus on
the public domain, working to save chunks of the land as
wilderness, parks and wildlife refuges.
isn't enough money in the world to buy up more than a few critical
patches of habitat. And the public lands, even if they were to be
managed exclusively for biological diversity, can't carry the whole
load. Habitat provided by the privately held valleys is essential
to the health of the higher-elevation public lands.
That's where Habitat Conservation Plans come in.
They are the latest, and for some the most hopeful, attempt to
balance property rights and land protection for rare and endangered
Habitat Conservation Plans are not new.
They are a 1982 addition to that most powerful environmental law,
the 1972 Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the "take," either
directly by killing or indirectly through habitat destruction, of
an endangered species, wherever it lives.
the government has seldom wielded the act as a weapon against
private property owners. Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
has convicted people for illegally killing bald eagles, grizzly
bears and other high-profile species, it has rarely enforced the
law's prohibition of the destruction of habitat (see page
Because of the unwillingness of every
administration to go after landowners - or perhaps, more
accurately, to enforce strict prohibitions in the law - Congress
amended the ESA in 1982, giving the agencies the Habitat
Conservation Plan as a tool for private-land
Jon Margolis writes (above) that
HCPs are long-term deals between landowners and the federal
government. They allow a landowner to move forward with development
projects that will "take" an endangered species in exchange for
some conservation commitments, such as the setting aside of some
habitat. The landowners get immunity from the law, sometimes for as
long as 100 years.
Between 1982 and 1992, the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved just 14 HCPs throughout the
country. Then the Clinton administration came to Washington looking
for a way to work with corporations and other large landowners
while still attaining some conservation
The HCP pot was sweetened for landowners,
and they rushed to the table.
Today, nearly 19
million acres are "protected" under HCPs for the benefit of
hundreds of species, both listed and unlisted. The largest and most
controversial plans are in California and in the spotted owl
country of the Pacific Northwest (see page 15). HCPs have not
penetrated the inland West, though there are plans in Nevada, Utah
and Arizona. Many say it's only a matter of
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt hails HCPs
as the next wave in conservation and a win-win scenario for both
landowners and endangered species. Without them, he says, we will
surely lose most of the remaining private-land habitat for
endangered species. "Amen," say The Nature Conservancy, the World
Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defense
Other environmentalists aren't so sure.
Anything so attractive to timber corporations and land developers
must be flawed, they reason, and plans are coming too quickly to
figure out what they mean for species. As Tara Mueller, an activist
who has read dozens of HCPs, put it: "My stomach turns when I hear
Babbitt proclaim that 19 millions acres are protected under HCPs.
For me, those lands are largely lost."
debate over HCPs has spilled into the halls of Congress. In
mid-July, Babbitt announced that the administration was ready to
broker an agreement on the rewrite of the Endangered Species Act,
which has been surviving on a year-to-year basis since it formally
expired in 1993. This was big news; last year, the Interior
secretary led the charge against Republican efforts to gut the
This time, Babbitt believes the cards are in
his favor. The anti-environmental fervor has died down and the
administration now has a whole arsenal of HCPs with which to show
Congress and the public that the law works for private-property
owners. Babbitt is pushing for a bill being drafted by a bipartisan
team of senators - John Chafee, R-R.I., Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho,
Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Max Baucus, D-Mont. It would basically
codify the new, "user-friendly" law he has already created without
In the House, environmentalists
say they will counter with a bill from Rep. George Miller of
California; his bill will not do away with HCPs but will require
higher scientific standards and more secure sources of money for
monitoring and altering plans.
Thus it appears
that HCPs are a permanent part of the political landscape. But what
does that mean for the physical landscape and the forms of life
that have evolved in it?
Reading the list of
species covered under HCPs in the West is like taking a refresher
course in evolution. There are the species - primarily at the top
of the food chain - we all identify as endangered: the bald eagles,
northern spotted owls, grizzly bears and gray wolves. But a host of
little-known wildlife is also there: the mission blue butterfly,
Stephen's kangaroo rat, surf thistles, sheath-tailed bats, Santa
Cruz long-toed salamanders, black legless lizards, Southwestern
arroyo toads, hundreds more.
remind us that diversity is not an abstract concept. The names on
the list are our living, breathing relatives, and we still have a
shot at saving them. n
Larmer is HCN senior