He Walks With the Animals

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

Jasper Carlton tends to follow every one of his rapid-fire questions with an equally quick answer.

"How many acres of grassland ecosystem do you think this country has saved since we began?" he asks without taking a breath. "Zero.

"The trend of the Clinton administration is to split up the pie. Logging gets this, mining gets this--but what happens to...the needs of all the species? What do you come up with?" he demands. "An intensively managed zoo."

With the cadence of a preacher--a phrase to set up his argument, a phrase that can circle back upon itself, a phrase that drives home his point--and a relentless insistence on what is morally right for the planet, Carlton is an environmental evangelist whose conversation, like his conviction, never slows down. He has a mission. He is out to save the world, one ecosystem at a time.

And he may have just set off a revolution in the environmental community.
Carlton is the director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, an environmental nonprofit with an impressive track record, but one that hardly anybody's heard of. Founded in 1991, the BLF has worked to save more than 400 endangered species and is currently battling on behalf of fifty more. In 1992, the BLF, with financial help from the Maryland-based Fund for Animals, sued the federal government on behalf of 443 plants and animals. It was the biggest suit in the history of the Endangered Species Act, and its settlement forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place more than half of the 443 plants and animals on the endangered species list. "I'm pretty hardcore as an environmentalist," says Carlton, proudly noting that he and his skeleton staff receive only subsistence wages.

Carlton's pulpit is a cramped Boulder office, where he confers on the phone with key scientists and pro bono environmental lawyers from around the country. The BLF's $100,000 annual budget comes from donors like the Turner Foundation, the Foundation for Deep Ecology and the clothing manufacturer Patagonia, as well as "a lot of little old ladies who send us twenty dollars."

The son of a horticulturalist, the 59-year-old Carlton spent his earliest childhood years in the Amazon rainforest while his father harvested rubber. Trained in business management but a naturalist by avocation, he has worked single-mindedly on behalf of threatened species for the past quarter-century. "But we're still losing," he says.

"My doctor," he adds later, "says I shouldn't be so angry."
Focusing on both "uncharismatic" critters, such as the striped newt and the western boreal toad, as well as high-profile species like the lynx, wolverine, grizzly and golden columbine, the organization was a major player in efforts to put the Preble's meadow jumping mouse on the endangered-species list. Last week it joined with other environmental groups in a lawsuit to protect the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

Carlton boasts a 90 percent success rate in court, which is more than he can say for the big-name, big-budget "limo environmental groups," whom he declines to name but whose compromises with industry have essentially turned them into "eco-weenies."

"These people who play into this big lie and say you can have your cake and eat it too are the ones who get the money," says Carlton. "I'm not a consensus person. I see us as agents of institutional change."

Some of the radical change he has suggested include abolishing the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management--which he calls an "unmitigated disaster"--in favor of a new U.S. Department of Conservation that would manage all public lands. Currently, the Forest Service has to juggle conservation with selling woodland resources to the highest bidder.

But now Carlton's group is at the forefront of a movement that could hugely alter the legal landscape of the environmental world.

Like many conservation groups, the BLF has primarily worked with the 26-year-old Endangered Species Act to win lawsuits and gain publicity. Savvy environmentalists have used it to make swaths of habitat off-limits to economic exploitation or development. But the law was designed to save only one species at a time.

Frustrated by this piecemeal approach, Carlton is now promoting an idea that conservationists have dreamt about but widely dismissed as impossible: a "Native Ecosystem Protection Act."

"We passed all this other legislation--the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Forest Management Act," he says.

"But what we've really learned is that the sum total is not adequate to protect all native plant and animal communities and the ecological health of our continental landscapes. The last undisturbed wildlife habitats in North America are now being degraded, fragmented or destroyed. We estimate that we have about 9,000--think about that, 9,000--native plant and animal species that are severely imperiled in the United States," yet only 1,200 are on the endangered-species list. "As a percentage, our native flora and fauna in this country is more threatened than the native flora and fauna of the South American rainforest. Now, how many Americans would realize that?"

Carlton envisions a group of respected scientists testifying before Congress, much as they did in 1973 to convince legislators to pass the Endangered Species Act. In the meantime, the BLF has commissioned a citizen's guide on the ecosystem proposal, authored by Oregon scientist Reed Noss, and last month sent it to 2,500 grassroots groups, scientific journals, major land-use planners and members of Congress. The guide has met with such an "overwhelming" response that Carlton's trying to scrape up funds to print up to 5,000 more copies.

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."

When Yellowstone became the first national park in the world, cutting off 2.2 million acres from development, he points out, "people yelled and screamed. Today, can you find any Americans who think that was a mistake?

"Once a species is gone, it's gone--and you've interfered with evolution. Nobody knows how many bricks you can take out of a house before it collapses."

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