Holes in the Ark

Questioning Species Protection Plans

In the biblical story of the Great Flood, Noah built an ark to preserve samples of every living creature. Today, the rising tide of global extinction threatens to eliminate half of all species within 100 years (see the cover story this issue). The U.S. Interior Department, which has created more than 200 Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs), likens its detailed reports to modern arks. But critics charge that the plans are full of holes and taking on water fast.

Photo: CA Dep't of Fish and Game

The endangered cactus wren: will it be saved by a Habitat Conservation Plan?

HCPs, which run for 50 to 100 years, were first allowed when Congress revised the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1982. In the last six years, the number of plans grew rapidly, from 14 to 200, with approximately 200 more in preparation. Approved HCPs now cover more than nine million acres of U.S. territory.

The very first HCP saved 90 percent of the habitat for three rare butterflies on San Bruno Mountain, near San Francisco. It was a victory, but many doubts are now surfacing about the scientific soundness of later proposals. Nine prominent biologists delivered a white paper to President Clinton and Congress last spring, charging that HCPs were becoming “habitat giveaways that contribute to, rather than alleviate, threats to listed species and their habitats.” Scott Royder, conservation director for the Lone Star (Texas) Sierra Club, argues, “The main problem with these HCPs is that because of political reasons, they throw out the science.”

National Wildlife Federation (NWF) attorney John Kostyack notes that some HCPs allow landowners to destroy the remaining habitat of rare species and relocate the animals to preserve land elsewhere. In Texas, the highway department took habitat for rare migratory birds in exchange for funding scientific studies which documented their decline. Kostyack says “unproven experimental mitigation measures, along with the 'no surprises' rules which lock in the plans essentially forever, are what's causing us to ring the alarm bells.”

An NWF study of the HCP process conducted by University of Michigan researchers concluded that there were too many backroom deals that excluded the public. NWF calls for strengthening HCPS through more public input and scientific peer review, along with secure funding, more flexibility and better monitoring.

In spite of their flaws, however, most conservationists believe HCPs are needed to maintain endangered species on private lands. What remains to be seen is whether the holes in these latter-day arks can be successfully patched.

CONTACT:

National Wildlife Federation
1400 16th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036
Tel. (202) 797-6800
URL: http://www.nwf.org

—Stephen K. Beers


The Heifer Project: Cows 'R Us

In the small coastal city of Monte Christe in the Dominican Republic, mesquite trees, cacti, dusty roads and farms stretch as far as the eye can see. The region's nickname—“We die of thirst”—rings with dry truth as residents line-up to buy high-priced drinking water from tanker trucks. Monte Christe is not only parched, it's poor. But, 10 years ago, hope arrived in the form of a wooden corral which houses 120 goats kept by Emeliana Altagracia Veras and other members of her village.

Veras began the herd with two goats she received from the Arkansas-based Heifer Project International (HPI). For 50 years, HPI has been donating cows, chickens, pigs, oxen, water buffalo, honeybees, llamas, frogs and rabbits to millions of rural people in over 100 countries. For Veras and her community, two goats made the difference between barely surviving and thriving. “I am proud to say that now I have milk and meat for my family. We can have five quarts a day, with enough left for the baby goats.”

Heifer Project International

Animals from the Heifer Project allow families, like this one in China, to attain self-sufficiency.

Veras has 15 mother goats, and gives the offspring to her family and neighbors. It's called “passing on the gift” and HPI always builds in this unique sharing mechanism that strengthens community bonds and encourages accountability.

In the past, most people in this region scraped out an existence by illegally cutting trees from the nearly barren countryside to sell as charcoal—encouraging erosion and degrading the soil. This forced more people to move to cities seeking work as local opportunities burned away.

And in this tough climate, goats proved to be the best choice for producing food and income without further harming the forest. Their main diet is pods from the plentiful mesquite trees. But HPI's Carlos Zometa, an international program director who is also a breeding specialist, explains that animals are a means to an end. “We are not an animal project. We are a human development project,” he says.

HPI's emphasis on animals as “capital assets” has won it some critics in the animal rights community. Jennifer O'Connor, a cruelty caseworker with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has corresponded with HPI. “I applaud their efforts to help families who wouldn't have enough to eat otherwise,” she says, “but the land each cow grazes on could be used to feed 100 people if they were growing vegetables.”

Since 1984, almost 600 impoverished Dominican families, some 5,000 people, have achieved greater economic independence with assistance from HPI. Peter Mahn, the international coordinator for World Hunger Year, says HPI has earned a great deal of respect from the giants of international aid, such as the World Bank, USAID and the United Nations. These big institutions, Mahn says, have a one-size-fits-all approach to development, and are now looking to HPI and other smaller organizations for “small is beautiful” guidance.

“One of the real lessons we've learned is that you have to begin with where communities are,” Mahn says. “HPI has learned to work on the grassroots level to determine local needs, meet those needs, then get out of the way.”

CONTACT:

Heifer Project International
PO Box 808
Little Rock, AR 72203
Tel. (501) 376-6836
URL: http://www.heifer.org

—Evelyn Tully Costa


India's River of Death

The crusade against a polluting factory accused of breeding cancer in a cluster of villages in south India received a bitter blow when 57-year-old K.A. Rahman died in January. The man who led the protest campaign against Grasim Industries from the company's birth in 1963 may well have fallen victim to the pollution from its factory on the banks of the Chaliyar River.

Rahman's name now appears in the Cancer Death Register that he himself introduced as Vazhakad village president three years ago. The data collection effort, not common in India, was prompted by high cancer incidence in the verdant villages around the factory in southern Kerala.

Inspired by their leader's death, environmentalists united in the Chaliyar Action Committee have formed a legal team to fight the plant in court. They are also supporting an indefinite hunger strike launched at Grasim's gates on January 26—India's Republic Day.

K.A. Rahman, a campaigner against industrial pollution in India,
ended up on the Cancer Death Register he himself devised.
His funeral was a major political event.

K.A. Rahman, a campaigner against industrial pollution in India,<br> ended up on the Cancer Death Register he himself devised.Photo: Chaliyar Action Committee

The activists allege that, despite court strictures and government orders, contaminated effluent from the plant—which produces pulp and rayon from bamboo and eucalyptus, using mercury in the process—is often let out untreated into the Chaliyar. Grasim, with annual sales of 20 billion rupees ($39 million), is owned by the industrial giant Birlas. The Committee says the factory draws 28 million gallons of free water daily and, in return, pours back eight million gallons of effluent into the river, which is a lifeline for more than 200,000 people.

Photo: Chaliyar Action Committee

Rahman's funeral was a major political event.

Along with polluted effluent, toxic sulfur dioxide smoke from the factory is alleged to have claimed several hundred lives with cancer, respiratory diseases, kidney and heart ailments. A recent health survey recorded 215 cancer deaths in Vazhakad alone. (The town had a population of 26,000 between 1990 and 1995.) Another study by government physicians put the cancer death rate at 29 percent in the valley. “This shows that we are now facing the cumulative impact of the pollution over the decades,” says Dr. K.V. Hameed, who has rendered free medical service among affected people in 11 villages around Grasim Industries.

For its part, the factory denies everything. “Cancer death is a media baby,” says Grasim President R.N. Saboo. “No one has proven scientifically any link between our factory and cancer.”

The 30-year fight hasn't succeeded in closing the factory, which provides badly needed jobs. “They have cashed in on the acute unemployment in Kerala,” laments Professor K.T. Vijayamadhavan, who gave up his research career to fight what he calls an “environmental disaster.” The factory continues to churn out toxic smoke, despite a scathing verdict from Kerala's high court in 1984, declaring that “human life should not be so cheap in this country.”

CONTACT:

Chaliyar Action Committee
Pettah, Feroke
Kozhikode, Kerala 673-631
India
Tel. (011) 91-495-401709

—Anto Akkara


Inside The Rainbow

In People of the Rainbow, Michael Niman describes a collective survival instinct where “in the absence of any compulsory organization, unconsciously, organically, we become a tribe.” That process is the whole point of the annual Rainbow Family of Living Light's gatherings, which last year were held in Arizona's Sitgreaves-Apache National Forest.

Despite their decidedly peaceful aspect, the proudly countercultural Rainbow Family inspires mixed emotions. A year ago, the U.S. Forest Service's newly organized “National Incident Team” was upset because the Rainbows hadn't secured a permit for their gathering. There were no arrests, said one Forest Service officer, simply because of the “sheer numbers” of people on the site. It's that same growing attendance, 20,000 last year, that has some environmentalists worried about the group's impact on the land.

The Rainbow Family says its intention is to share lives in a totally free, non-commercial “Cathedral of Nature.” A week before the gathering, a “Seed Camp” arrives on-site to scout water sources. They lay out trails and dig latrines, which are constructed with environmental guidelines in mind. Colorful notices ask respect for the streams, grassland and forest, and a mammoth recycling effort goes into effect to handle the 25 tons of waste generated.

No private fires are allowed, and water sources are protected as the gathering's lifeblood. Still, in Arizona, water was a major point of contention between the Rainbows and the Forest Service, which claimed that the water belonged to the town of Springerville and two private owners. The Rainbows said that since the water is in a national forest, at least some of it belonged to the people, so they “borrowed” it.

© S. Capen

Drumming circles are a big part of Rainbow Family gatherings, but these neo-hippies take part in clean-ups, too.

Such misunderstandings have, unfortunately, been commonplace in the Rainbows' dealings with the outside world. After the 1996 gathering in the Mark Twain National Forest, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sniffed that “firewood was provided by mother nature, and so were the toilet facilities.” Part of the problem is the Rainbows' refusal to seek permits. Another is the bills they sometimes leave local officials, such as the $60,000 it cost Missouri hospitals to deal with a bacteria infection at the Mark Twain camp. Rainbow cars sometimes tear up the landscape when they're illegally parked, and then there's the dogs. After the 1998 gathering in Oregon, 100 were left behind.
Everyone agrees that a lot of progress has been made. Meagan Boltwood, a former Forest Service intern, says she helped clean up a huge mess the group left behind in 1994. But these days, a few hundred Rainbows stay behind, backfill latrines, replant native grasses, break up hardened ground and attempt to return the site to its natural state.

This summer, the Rainbow Gathering will be in the Allegheny National Forest of Pennsylvania, but details are scarce—because the celebrants like it that way. “Our fear is that the gathering will become total chaos,” says one longtime celebrant. “There are no leaders of Rainbow, and what we have can't easily be classified, catalogued or referenced.”

CONTACT:

Rainbow Family
URL: http://www.welcomehome.org.rainbow.html/.

—Hank Rosenfeld


Conservation Tag…You're It

When Adelita, an endangered loggerhead sea turtle, swam the Pacific Ocean this past year from Baja to Japan, thousands of students across the country cheered her on. They were able to follow her journey, from start to finish, thanks to satellite telemetry and the World Wide Web.

High-tech tracking in the name of conservation has become common practice for wildlife biologists across the globe. Radio and satellite transmitters are now being implanted or attached to species ranging from eagles and tuna to caribou and manatees. “The days of doing biology by sitting on a rock with a pair of binoculars are over,” says Daniel Mulcahy, wildlife veterinarian with the Alaska Biological Science Center (ABSC).

Over the years, transmitters have gotten smaller and designs more efficient. But not everyone sees this as progress. Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, cites one scientist tagging a gray whale in Neah Bay, Washington by extracting more than 30 plugs of tissue from it. “The cases we've observed have demonstrated that tagging is an over and over again process that causes undo harassment of animals for very little result.”

“Everyone's trying to improve and work toward least-invasive methods,” counters J. Nichols, the researcher behind Adelita's historic journey, the first to document the migratory path of loggerheads. Mulcahy agrees, asserting human interaction is already pervasive without scientific research, and tagging data, he says, may demonstrate how to minimize that contact. &#

8220;If it was a perfect world, none of us would have to do anything.”
Besides location, transmitters can be designed to collect sensory data, such as when a polar bear enters and leaves its den, whether an arctic fox has spent a lot of time resting or running, or how long and deep a seal has been diving. David Douglas, wildlife researcher for the ABSC, says such knowledge gives field biologists valuable insight into the behavior of animals where direct observation is otherwise impossible.

“If what we're doing effects [an animal's] behavior than our work is meaningless,” says Andrew Read, associate professor at Duke University's Marine Laboratory. Read is trying to determine where the range of harbour porpoises, the species with the highest bycatch rate of any marine mammal in the U.S., may overlap with fishing activity. “When dealing with highly mobile animals that cross international boundaries and travel thousands of miles, there's simply no other way of getting this kind of info.”

California researchers tag a Northern elephant seal. Is the knowledge gained worth hassling the animals with tranquilizer guns and skin implants?

CONTACT:

Alaska Biological Science Center
East Tudor Road
Anchorage, AK 99503
Tel. (907) 786-3512
URL: http://www.absc.usgs.gov

—Jennifer Bogo