August 20, 2008
Risking the Galápagos
It’s hard to imagine an ecosystem better protected by nature " and man " than the Galápagos Islands. They lie some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Most of the land is included in a national park, and the waters surrounding the islands form one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. The Galápagos Islands have often been portrayed as an evolutionary laboratory, which is how Darwin came to understand them after stopping there in 1835. But in recent years, the islands have become a laboratory for conservation " an ongoing experiment in how to preserve a nearly intact ecosystem while still making it available to tourists.
Nothing has changed more in the Galápagos since Darwin’s day than the number of humans who come there. In 2006, 140,000 people visited the archipelago hoping to witness both the starkness of the landscape and their biological richness. Those visitors help support a resident population that has grown to roughly 30,000 people " a nearly fourfold increase in less than 20 years " most of them from mainland Ecuador.
Unfortunately, wherever humans go, unwelcome pests also go. Scientists have just discovered a parasite in Galápagos penguins that researchers fear might lead to avian malaria, which had a devastating effect on endemic bird species in Hawaii. It is likely that the parasite was introduced by what one scientist has called an exponential increase in invasive insects caused by the influx of humans.
Getting the balance right between access and protection is always difficult. In the past, the assumption has been that the best way to protect a natural resource was to create interest in it and a use for it. What’s at risk in the Galápagos, though, requires both scientists and politicians to think deeply about how to protect the islands and ensure that humans can still visit, learn from and glory in such an extraordinary place.
This is one of the last nearly complete ecosystems on the planet, which means more weight will have to be given to protection. New rules require incoming passenger planes and cruise ships to be fumigated in quarantine. That quarantine may have to be extended to all vessels reaching the island " by land and sea. Much will depend on how quickly scientists can discover the source of the parasite, and its danger, and whether they can eliminate it easily. These islands are a biological resource too precious to waste.
stradee, close your eyes and ears
August 21, 2008
There Ought to Be a Roadless Law
Among President Bill Clinton’s signature environmental achievements was a regulation that prohibited new roads " and by extension, new commercial activity " in nearly 60 million largely undeveloped acres of the national forests. For seven years, the Bush administration, egged on by its friends in the timber and oil-and-gas industries, has worked tirelessly to kill the roadless rule. Conservationists have worked just as hard to preserve it.
Rules devised by the executive branch are often challenged on grounds that they violate an underlying federal statute or have been rushed through without proper vetting. Environmental regulations are especially contentious. The roadless rule, in particular, has been caught in an endless game of Ping-Pong, with some courts upholding it, others overturning it.
The good news is that little has changed on the ground: In seven years, only seven miles of new roads have been built in protected areas in the lower 48 states. Legally, though, things are a complete mess. That means that there is no guaranteed protection for the roadless forests.
The Clinton rule has been thrown out three times by district courts in response to lawsuits from states and industries. The most recent injunction was handed down last week by Clarence A. Brimmer, a conservative Federal District Court judge in Wyoming. He issued one of the earlier injunctions and has supported the administration on whether to limit snowmobiles in Yellowstone, which is another long-running environmental dispute.
The roadless rule has been reinstated twice " once at the appellate level by the Ninth Circuit, and later by a federal magistrate judge in San Francisco, Elizabeth LaPorte. Judge LaPorte also slapped down a sneaky effort by the Bush administration to take advantage of all the confusion by replacing the Clinton rule with a much weaker alternative of its own.
Environmental groups will surely appeal Judge Brimmer’s latest ruling, which, of course, they should. But that still leaves too much room for mischief. Congress will have to intervene. Last year, more than 140 House members and 19 senators introduced the National Forest Roadless Area Conservation Act. It is past time to provide permanent protection for the forests by turning the Clinton rule into firm law.