Saving endangered species Property vs. nature's rights: Gilchrest offers compromise to rescue threatened creatures.


TO PARAPHRASE the familiar real estate dictum, the three most important things in protecting endangered species are "habitat, habitat, habitat." Preserving suitable habitat is the best means for successful recovery of imperiled animals and plants; the Supreme Court and National Academy of Sciences concur. Robbing fragile fauna and flora of viable habitat is tantamount to a death warrant: their precarious status signals an inability to adapt to man-made changes.

That is why congressional legislation to reauthorize the 22-year-old Endangered Species Act must require habitat conservation for threatened creatures. Not beg it or buy it, but require it to preserve ecological diversity.

Banning the killing or "taking" of endangered species is not enough. Destruction of shelter, food supply and breeding ground surely promotes their extinction. Over 80 percent of the more than 900 species on the federal list are there mainly because of human encroachment.

But endangered species encroachment on human development seems to be the real problem, according to legislation pushed by congressional conservatives. Keep endangered species only in existing parks and refuges, pay landowners whose properties harbor these listed animals and plants, protect the endangered species but destroy its home at will -- these are the dangerous measures being promoted in the name of property rights.

Maryland's Rep. Wayne Gilchrest has come up with a sensible alternative that encourages cooperation and participation of landowners and of states in species recovery plans. His bill would increase incentives (tax breaks, cost-sharing) for conserving habitat of endangered species on private lands, easing the punitive approach of the current law, but still demand credible species protection measures.

As a leader of a GOP "green task force", the Eastern Shore congressman is committed to avoiding head-on collisions over environmental issues. His standing with the House leadership bolsters the chances of his success.

The Endangered Species Act has saved the bald eagle from extinction, along with the red wolf, gray whale, American alligator and other creatures. It has stabilized the populations of two-thirds of species on the original endangered list. The annual cost is less than building a mile of city interstate highway. That's a bargain for mankind and the ecosystem.

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