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COMMENTARY ON THE ENVIRONMENT : Killing Off Our Flora and Fauna Endangers Our Quality of Life : Unchecked development of natural treasures and the assault on already inadequate laws threaten our very democracy.

December 17, 1995|ROBERT FRASER | Robert Fraser is an attorney and a longtime Orange County resident

Last July, House Speaker Newt Gingrich took the podium to plead with his fellow Republicans for continued funding to save three endangered species in Africa. Gingrich's personal plea may have signaled that the anti-environmental mood in Congress has peaked and is declining. Indeed, there are many signs that the "develop and pollute at any cost" message always has been more shrill than popular, and that many voters increasingly are tired of it.

Since the spring, the polls (including Princeton Survey Research Associates, the Harris Poll and ABC News/Washington Post) have found that Americans want more protection of our ecosystems, not less. These polls posed their questions in a variety of ways and the response ratios have been impressive: between 3 to 1 and 4 to 1, they want to strengthen environmental laws.

Right here in California, citizens recognize the best way to protect our own magnificent creatures is to save the animals' homes: the natural habitat of Southern California. Sadly, less than 6% of California's interior woodlands, 10% of coastal sage scrub and only 5% of our native grasslands remain. We the people benefit from habitat preservation as well. Our natural wetlands and open spaces have been gobbled up to the point of extinction. Here in Orange County between the toll roads and the Metropolitan water tunnel, the foundation is being laid to extinguish what little is left. What has been done to our national forests will be done to Orange County.

Some people are motivated by a sense of responsibility and stewardship to keep a portion of Southern California in its natural state. They want to let their children and grandchildren see part of the beauty that attracted us here to begin with.

Think about your own favorite open space. It may be the hillside or arroyo or grove that first attracted you to the home you bought; maybe it is an empty field you drive by every day, or it could be Trabuco or San Juan creek side which could provide a natural playground for kids. In most cases, losing that piece of nature is only one zoning decision away. If the area is protected as wildlife habitat, it can be enjoyed forever.

People who have seen developments fill up those prized empty spaces suddenly, and all too late, value protection of habitat areas. Developers have seen that by preserving sections of their property, they can enhance the value of the homes they build. It is simply a matter of economic common sense.

Besides the aesthetics of habitat protection, looking out for the long-term health of the plants and animals provides other direct benefits. Healthy ecosystems filter air pollution, slow down rain water runoff, reduce water pollution and help replenish ground water for wells. For example, wetlands such as Back Bay and Bolsa Chica are the most efficient filters known for cleaning pollution out of water. And we need this filtering power, because a heavy winter storm can wash tons of oil and pollutants from our streets and roads into the ocean, untreated.

Saving habitat makes sense as a way of rescuing endangered species. It also pays dividends in terms of human health and our quality of life.

A case in point: a promising cancer fighter developed from the humble yew tree. Traditionally, the yew was regarded by the lumber industry as a "trash" tree. It took up space, got in the way of logging operations and, unlike many other trees in the Pacific Northwest forests, was unsuitable for lumber. The yew was regularly piled up and burned. Only within the last few years have doctors had the technology to exploit the genetic information in the yew's bark. From it has been produced the drug taxol, a new weapon in the fight against cancer.

The medicinal potential of plants and animals found in Southern California's scrublands, including chaparral, are just beginning to be understood. We owe it to ourselves and our children to guard this resource and make sure that an adequate amount is kept intact. How can anyone calculate the cost-benefit ratio of preserving the raw material for a yet-undiscovered medicine?

Many people believe that the genetic information of native Orange County plants contains the bases for more medical breakthroughs. Elsewhere, there are other plants that people may wipe out before science develops a way to utilize them. Humanity is in a crucial race with itself: Can we tap into a storehouse of scientific information before we destroy the plants that hold the data?

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