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The Trade-Off No One Wants : It's suicide to have to choose between jobs and the environment

March 21, 1993

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wants to change the tone and the substance of the debate over endangered species. The California gnatcatcher poses the first major test of his new and promising approach.

The 4 1/2-inch gray songbird has been the center of a three-year battle between local environmentalists and builders. About 3,000 pairs of the Southern California birds remain; they nest only in coastal sage scrub. As that habitat has dwindled amid encroaching coastal development, efforts have intensified to declare the tiny bird either an endangered or a threatened species, thus granting it federal protection.

Babbitt is reportedly taking a personal role in the controversy. But he also believes that the federal government must quickly shift its efforts away from such last-ditch attempts to save dwindling bird or fish populations and toward preserving entire ecosystems while they are still healthy. This is the only way to avoid what Babbitt has called "national train wrecks," such as the long-running dispute pitting the spotted owl and the logging that threatens its habitat.

He's right, but how to do that? Two constructive--and necessary--first steps are the upcoming Northwest forest summit (yes, another summit!) and Babbitt's announced plans to conduct a survey of plants, animals and natural habitat. The April 2 meeting in Oregon just may compel the industry, environmentalists and others involved to talk with--not at--one another. What's needed is a constructive approach to the dreary jobs-versus-owls debate.

Why are these steps important? Enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, has largely failed to solve the very problem that led to the act, that of dwindling natural habitat. Once the loss of habitat becomes severe enough to spark confrontation, as has happened in the Northwest forests and the coastal scrub ranges, there is little room to maneuver between protecting the ecology and protecting the economy. Better information and earlier planning should allow all parties more flexibility in land-use decisions and stronger species protection. That's Babbitt's admirable goal.

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