He Walks With the Animals

Maybe Jasper Carlton is a radical -- or maybe he's ahead of his time.

The act, as Carlton envisions it, would appoint a highly credible science organization such as the National Academy of Sciences to designate ecosystems--the complex interplay of organisms and their physical environment--that are in imminent danger of vanishing.

Biologists would determine which areas of the ecosystem should be off-limits to humans, which parts could tolerate passive recreation such as day hiking, cross-country skiing and photography, and which could allow more active recreation such as camping and motor traffic.

"We're not saying let's take every national forest and convert it to ecosystem protection," says Carlton. "From a scientific, cultural and spiritual standpoint, we're saying, let's set aside some representative ecosystems. It's the single largest thing we can do to stem the extinction crisis we're facing in this country today."

As an illustration, there's Yellowstone, the country's oldest national park and an icon as American as Yogi bear and apple pie. The park's boundaries were drawn 127 years ago, a good sixty years before a British botanist coined the term "ecosystem." An ecosystem act--designed not to replace the Endangered Species Act but to take over some of its work--would focus on public lands and encourage conservation easements, land trusts, tax deductions and other incentives to private landowners in the area. Under Carlton's plan, Yellowstone and its surrounding open space could eventually form an eighteen-million-acre protected region.

"You have to be fair to people," says Carlton. "If there's a grazing area in the middle of Yellowstone and the cows have got to go, how do you make that transition? Fairly. So you grandfather an agreement in. The rancher's been grazing his cows there his whole life. So you let him finish it out, and you buy the land after he dies."

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with carrying out the Endangered Species Act, is already strapped for cash and can't even buy the critical habitat lands that are up for sale today, says Jill Parker, the endangered species director for Fish and Wildlife's Prairie-Rocky Mountain region. With a $7 million annual endangered species budget for the eight-state region, "we're putting more species on the list, but we don't have money to help them," says Parker. The area's top priorities today: the grizzly bear, the gray wolf, Preble's jumping mouse, the black-footed ferret and the prairie dog, which Carlton wants to see declared endangered. "Jasper and company do generate quite a bit of work for us," she says.

Currently, Fish and Wildlife is trying to take more of an ecosystem approach, says Parker. The agency is making its third go-around to create "ecosystem teams" consisting of "an endangered species person, a fisheries person and a refuge person--all working for the same boss and with the same budget, so it's easier to set priorities and we're not each competing for the same money," she says. "Everyone's looking more globally."

Yellowstone, home to jam-packed public campgrounds, laundromats and souvenir stands, is already far from pristine. But Mark Peterson, Rocky Mountain regional director for the National Parks and Conservation Association, a nonprofit advocacy group, says it's possible to use national parks while "treading softly" on the resource. "We don't necessarily have to ban people," says Peterson. Making the heart of the park off-limits to most visitors "is not politically acceptable. We can't close out these areas, or I think we'd lose support for them. The public needs to see them to understand their value."

The BLF's proposal for an ecosystem act has struck a chord with the 400-some conservation groups that belong to the Endangered Species Coalition. Scientists have batted around the concept for more than twenty years, but the BLF's publication was the first to put some guidelines together in layman's terms, says Ray Vaughan, a national environmental attorney based in Alabama.

During the coalition's meeting in Washington two weeks ago, Vaughan volunteered to write the first draft of actual legislation that could head to Congress in 2000. He plans to consult with biologists and other lawyers over the next six months, using the BLF's outline as a guide.

"No one's ever actually done this before," he says, adding that the current "anti-sprawl" sentiments among Americans might give the legislation a boost. "Before you can curb sprawl," he says, "you have to have a handle on what you're sprawling into."

Yet if Congress cannot even agree on reauthorizing the Endangered Species Act--it's been up for renewal since 1993--it may not be ready for even broader environmental legislation. Not to mention the automatic objections from large and powerful industries like mining, logging, oil and gas and others.

"If this was done right, the effect of this legislation would vastly surpass the current Endangered Species Act," says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, which works closely with the Biodiversity Legal Foundation on many environmental lawsuits. "Is our current Congress going to allow that? Is any Congress going to allow that?"

"In this current Congress? No," Carlton responds. "With this current administration? No. But you have to start talking about it. The National Park Act was talked about twenty years before its passage."

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