Energy & Environment

Taking Green for Granted

A few states are finally concluding that they can profit by preserving the diverse biological life of their landscapes.
by | July 2001
 

From my new office in the hills above Livingston, Montana, I can look across the Yellowstone River to the snowy Absaroka Mountains. Ranchers say there's a grizzly living in a drainage high on the range's north flank that's visible from town. It's one of anywhere from 200 to 600 or so of the formidable and reclusive 9-foot-tall bears that move at will through Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding wild forests. Someday I'll venture up into the grizzly's terrain, but it would be better for both of us if we don't encounter one other.

Yet it occurs to me that the grizzly and I share something of immeasurable value. The presence of grizzlies makes the Greater Yellowstone area the nation's largest ecosystem outside Alaska that still functions with all its essential components. They're an integral part of plant and animal communities that keep the air fresh, watersheds whole and life-renewing mechanisms going. Ultimately, those natural bio-systems keep Montana healthier for human beings who drink the water and breathe the winds that surge down the Yellowstone and its valley.

Most state governments take their vital "green infrastructure" for granted. Far from maintaining it, they acquiesce in its ruin. But at least a few states are finally concluding that cities and towns can profit more by preserving the diverse biological life of the landscapes that surround them. "The health of our ecosystems will eventually determine the health of the human species," says Nicholas A. DiPasquale, Delaware's environmental secretary. "It amazes me that we haven't made the connection before."

Delaware, which has lost a higher percentage of its native plant species than any other state, is drafting a strategy for enhancing ecological variety. In Maryland, Governor Parris N. Glendening this spring launched a $35 million "Greenprint" effort to map and preserve the state's interconnected forest, wetland and stream-bank ecosystems. And in Massachusetts, the Office of Environmental Affairs enlists 10,000 schoolchildren every June to explore neighborhood woods and streams for "Biodiversity Day." Last year, they identified 2,800 species that live in 136 towns and cities.

Those states are stepping in where the federal government doesn't go. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency handles pollution control while other federal agencies manage wildlife protection; fragmented federal programs can't do nearly enough to keep ecosystems intact on private lands beyond the boundaries of national parks and refuges. States are in a better position to establish the connection between preserving biological diversity and maintaining life-support services for even the most cosmopolitan cities.

Most states are large enough to take in ecologically distinct regions. State laws set the terms for local government land-use planning that can preserve--or tear up--crucially important habitat. Some states are experimenting with crosscutting approaches for controlling air, water and soil pollution, and nine states entrust environmental policy to natural resource agencies responsible both for protecting citizens against contamination and for managing wildlife and its habitat.

Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources, one of the most effective in the country, has organized itself along watershed basins so wastewater engineers, drinking water hydrologists and fishery managers work together in the same offices. Every lake in Wisconsin has posted advisory signs warning the public against eating fish possibly contaminated by mercury, and the state now is moving more quickly than any other to set mercury emission standards for utilities. The interrelationships should be obvious, but some Wisconsin legislators persist in trying to break the DNR back up into separate wildlife and pollution agencies.

Too many politicians dismiss biodiversity as a feel-good notion that's never as important as, say, one more mine, a little more logging or another subdivision. Following Boise Cascade Corp.'s lead, Rocky Mountain state governors are trying to stall federal plans for safeguarding roadless national forest watersheds.

Stoking public fears about marauding "flesh-eating" bears, Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne has dug in his heels against reintroducing federally protected grizzlies to the Bitterroot Mountains, even though federal officials plan to turn managing the Bitterroot grizzlies over to a committee appointed by the governors of Montana and Idaho.

Kempthorne depicts that as just another federal assault on Idaho's sovereignty. To me, it looks like a showcase for environmental federalism. Two states would take charge of re-establishing a keystone species that needs all the room it can find to replenish its genetic variety. They'd refurbish a compelling natural endowment that most of the country has lost forever. To conserve those assets is not to indulge useless sentiment. It's farsighted and provident governing that benefits people as much as grizzlies.

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