On one side of the street, a clutch of about 20 sign-toting property rights activists gathered to chant: “What do we want?” “Private property rights.” “When do we want them?” “Now.”
Across the street, 200 or more environmentalists, some clutching stuffed animals, listened to speaker after speaker talk about the peril facing many species across the nation.
The scene, near the State House in Annapolis, was a sign that the endangered species debate was alive in the Chesapeake Bay region. The specific event was a June 26 town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md.
Gilchrest is a member of a House task force charged with reviewing the Endangered Species Act and recommending new legislation for consideration later this year. The Senate is also considering new measures.
The act is considered one of the strongest environmental laws on the books, but most of the proposals being floated in Congress would weaken the protection given to plants and animals, particularly if they impact private property. Gilchrest, who generally supports the law, which he considers a “biological diversity act,” made his case for finding a way to resolve problem areas of the act while preventing extinctions.
“There are some people that I have run into that want to manage the planet as if there were no people,” Gilchrest said as the meeting began. “Well, there are about 5 billion of us. By the same token, there are people who want to manage the planet as if there is nothing else but people, and only people are important. We’re going to have to find some middle ground because we have people, and people rely on the diversity of life on this planet to sustain their existence.”
Unlike the West, the act has sparked few controversies here. That is at least partly because some state acts — such as Maryland’s endangered species law — are tougher than the federal law. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the law, the act has only halted two projects in the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia area in the past six years. About half a dozen other projects, out of 3,419 projects reviewed by the USF&WS’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office, required modification before proceeding.
Still, the threat of having the federal government impose restrictions on their land raises the concern of many property owners.
“I think part of the problem with some of the property owners is that we’re not anti-environment or anti-species,” one woman said at the town meeting, “we just have a terrible taste left in our mouths from the nontidal wetlands issue.”
While most people who spoke strongly favored the act, those who spoke against the law — as currently managed — included fearful property owners who believe the government will take over the management of their land if they are unlucky enough to find a rare species.
“If I find a worm that is listed as endangered,” another woman asked, “what kind of trouble am I in? Are you going to buy my farm, or am I going to work a worm farm?”
Larry Liebesman, an attorney who represents the Maryland Builders Association and has been involved with some endangered species cases in the West, said too many “train wrecks” involving the act occur because of the haphazard way the law is implemented, often leaving landowners and other interested parties out of the decision-making process.
In particular, he said the USF&WS was often lax in identifying “critical” habitat for endangered species. The designation of critical habitat is made based on scientific information, but the process allows for public input and the consideration of economic factors. (By contrast, the actual designation of an endangered species does not allow for the consideration of economic factors).
Until critical habitat is identified, the fate of all potential habitat for that species is cast in doubt. That, in turn, can affect the value of property that someone may wish to sell. Liebesman, citing a federal study that showed only 24 percent of all endangered species have had their critical habitat identified, said the USF&WS should have to identify critical habitat in a “timely fashion.”
“That’s another area where this process has broken down,” Liebesman said. “There’s not been an effort to get the private property interests, and other interests, involved in that designation process, which is so essential.”
But USF&WS officials, who are charged with enforcing the act for most species (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service enforces the law when it concerns marine species), say the act has kept many species in jeopardy from passing over the brink into extinction, including such notable Bay-dwelling species as the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon and the brown pelican.
Further, they argue, problems facing many endangered species — such as the impact of the pesticide DDT on bald eagles and other birds of prey — serve as an “early warning signal that something major is wrong with the environment.
“The bald eagle, the osprey, the peregrine falcon — they were all going down the tubes,” Andy Moser, an endangered species biologist with the USF&WS’ Chesapeake Bay Field Office, said in a recent interview. “And they would have kept going down. The problem was most dramatic in those birds, but we would have been affected next.”
Likewise, the Northeastern beach tiger beetle, a threatened species, is still found along the Bay after having disappeared along Atlantic Coast beaches from the Chesapeake north. Its habitat is destroyed as the result of beach erosion, shoreline development and other activities that disturb natural beaches.
“I sort of think of them, in a way, as an indicator species,” said Judy Jacobs of the USF&WS. “If some of the things that happened to Atlantic Coast beaches were to happen to the Bay beaches, we would lose them here as well."
Heavy beach use along the coast has caused the piping plover, which lays its eggs on open, sandy beaches, to become endangered as well. Development, heavy beach use by people and vehicles, and excessive disturbance are all factors that put the bird at risk.
To protect the beach, biologists several years ago began fencing off areas where piping plovers were nesting.
“The interesting thing that happened, in addition to the piping plovers being able to nest in there,” Jacobs said, “is that incredible numbers of other birds flocked into these areas even though people in vehicles were not on other parts of the beach. So there was something going on there that we are not aware of, but the birds were cuing into.”
Protecting species is generally considered important, in part, because ecosystems with great biodiversity are generally more stable than systems where the diversity has been greatly disrupted.
“The community, the ecosystem, has been under siege,” said John Wolflin, head of the USF&WS Chesapeake Bay Field Office. “What we have currently are a few species that are telling us this is a real sensitive habitat."
Species protection is also considered important because of their potential medical and scientific use to mankind.
A compound derived from the rosy periwinkle found in Madagascar is used to treat childhood leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease. The Northwest forest’s once-discarded Pacific yew yields the drug taxol, which is used to treat ovarian and breast cancer. Aspirin originally came from the bark of the willow tree.
About 25 percent of all prescription drugs used in the United States are based on substances derived from nature. The World Health Organization has estimated that 80 percent of the world’s health problems are treated by plant-based medicines. But only a fraction of the world’s known plant species have been investigated for pharmaceutical properties.
The upcoming debate over the Endangered Species Act is expected to be one of the most heated environmental battles of the year, though most of the bills dealing with the issue have yet to be introduced. But Gilchrest said he thought Congress would avoid “gutting” the law as many environmentalists fear.
“I think that intelligent people can sit down and work on these issues and make progress toward solving them.” Gilchrest said. “I don’t think anything that we do in this Congress, or the next Congress, is going to find a utopian solution to everyone’s position. But it’s something that we all have to get together and work on.”