The Many Facets of Environmental Conservation
By Dorothy Wright
"We have a choice: we can see ourselves as dominators of the earth or as loving stewards," observes Roxanne Bogart '87, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working on the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI). Effective stewardship requires a broad-based effort that includes research and knowledge transfer, government regulation, organizational initiatives and, increasingly, collaboration — sometimes among unlikely allies — to reduce pollution, preserve habitats and promote biodiversity.
Consider the lowly tick. Reviled by humans for its bloodsucking feeding habit, it heaps pathological insult upon injury when it transmits the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. But could the tick also become an ally in efforts to contain suburban sprawl and reduce forest fragmentation? The results of a study on urban-landscape ecology by Laura E. Jackson '84, a research biologist in the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Research and Development, contribute to the rationale for "smart growth."
Laura E. Jackson '84
The Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi , lives in the bloodstreams of mice and other small rodents. When a black-legged tick feeds on an infected mouse, it picks up the bacterium. The tick may also feed on white-tailed deer, which do not become infected, but maintain and transport tick populations. However, if the tick bites a human, the person may contract Lyme disease. Although Lyme disease is not fatal, it has long-term debilitating effects if not diagnosed and treated early.
Most Lyme disease sufferers are exposed in the area surrounding their homes. Indeed, land with herbaceous cover at the edge of the forest is very attractive feeding ground for deer and mice. Jackson examined land-use patterns and their relationship to Lyme-disease incidence in central Maryland , which comprises land uses ranging from urban areas to agricultural communities interspersed with tracts of forest. "I was looking for quantitative metrics that we can give to land-use planners that would show patterns and scales of development that are either conducive to or preventive of Lyme disease," she explains.
The results of Jackson's study suggest that landscapes with high forest-herbaceous interspersion facilitate contact between humans, the vector tick and its wild hosts. "Most cases of Lyme disease occur where land cover is half forest and half herbaceous, which are highly interspersed," she says. "Exposure and disease are limited in landscapes with sufficient high-density development to preclude a large percentage of forest-herbaceous edge."
The results have implications for land-use planning and public health, as well as environmental conservation. "It would seem that retaining large blocks of forest and concentrating development at medium to high density would prevent people from having casual contact with the Lyme disease vectors," Jackson says.
This planning approach would also reduce forest fragmentation. "What is disturbing from an ecological perspective is that the loss of biodiversity caused by forest fragmentation could be increasing the infectivity of ticks," Jackson says.
That is, as other food sources disappear from the forest, the black-legged tick increasingly focuses on deer and mice. "Most people don't care enough about forest fragmentation and the loss of biodiversity to change their lifestyle," Jackson observes. "But if we can tell them that they may get very sick as a result of certain housing choices, then they may see the value of forest preservation."
As an EPA researcher, it is not Jackson's role to advocate for change. However, by publishing research in scientific journals and disseminating it to planners, policymakers and the public through EPA's regional offices, she and her colleagues are transferring the knowledge required to make informed decisions.
Tina E. Levine '69
Meanwhile, in the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, scientists are evaluating manufacturers' test data on the health effects of pesticides to determine whether they can be used without undue risks to human health or the environment. Health Effects Division Director Tina E. Levine '69 and her colleagues use a four-step process to determine the human health risks of conventional pesticides: identifying toxic effects, calculating dose-response levels, identifying exposure routes and, finally, characterizing the risk. The agency bases licensing decisions on their analyses.
The office counts more than 865 active ingredients currently registered as pesticides. Manufacturers formulate these into thousands of pesticide products for agricultural, commercial and residential uses, among others. EPA estimates about 350 pesticides are used on our foods, in and around our homes, and on our pets.
"The Office of Pesticide Programs is quite different from the rest of the EPA," Levine observes. "We are a licensing program, and many of the products we license are designed to have an effect on some part of the environment, be it an insect or weed or fungus.
"We see it as our mission to make licensing decisions that are as protective of the environment as they can be," Levine continues. "The creation of our office's Biological and Pollution Prevention Division reflects the fact that the pesticide programs are trying to help users move toward safer, alternative pesticides."
Levine's office is required to measure its efficacy in reducing the load of toxic pesticides on the environment. "It's not enough for us to say we took a certain number of registration actions," she explains. "We have to say how that affected the quantities of toxic residues in food, and the percentage of organophosphates that are being used versus the newer, more specific, less generally toxic pesticides."
Inevitably, there are trade-offs. "All pesticides have risks," Levine says, "so we may be trading one risk for another, and we have to make value judgments. For example, compounds that affect chitin — the polysaccharide exoskeleton of insects and crustaceans — adversely affect shellfish, but they are not particularly toxic to people. Sulfanilurea herbicides are not particularly toxic to humans, but they are toxic to plants, including endangered species of plants."
The office must take into account the often-conflicting interests of powerful stakeholders. "Agriculture is a major component of our economy, and a very big political driver, but environmental protection is also very important," Levine observes. "The growers, pesticide companies, consumers and environmentalists each have a different angle on things. It is a balancing act."
For example, a few years ago, Levine participated in developing a solution to a thorny issue the U.S. agriculture industry had with the Montreal Protocol Treaty. A landmark international agreement governing ozone protection, research, and the production and use of ozone-depleting substances, the treaty was signed in 1987 and amended in 1990 and 1992. "The treaty requires the phase-out by 2005 of methyl bromide, a pesticide that is used as a soil sterilizer and post-harvest fumigant," Levine explains. "Our office is reviewing alternatives. The closest thing to a 'drop-in' alternative has been under review, although it is not registered yet," Levine says. "It does not deplete the ozone layer, but we need to be sure it does not pose other risks to human health or the environment."
Meanwhile, Levine's team successfully developed an argument for the continued use of methyl bromide for several years under the critical-use exemption provision of the Montreal Protocol. But, she notes, "The solution does not please everyone."
Sarah Connick '84
Increasingly, solutions to environmental problems are being developed through collaboration among public, private and nonprofit organizations. Take the problem of invasive non-native plant and animal species, for example. Invasive species are not only one of the most serious threats to biodiversity as they compete with natives for resources and alter ecosystems; they also exact a yearly damage of $137 billion in the United States, according to Sarah Connick '84, associate director of Sustainable Conservation, a San Francisco-based environmental organization.
Recently, Sustainable Conservation developed a partnership among members of the horticultural industry, state agencies and environmental groups to prevent the sale of invasive plants that damage California ecosystems. "There is tremendous opportunity to leverage the resources and capacity of the private sector to solve environmental problems, and to shift businesses to more sustainable practices that are better for the environment, improve their businesses and strengthen their bottom lines," says Connick. "We create partnerships among industry, government and nonprofits to address critical environmental problems. Over time, we have had significant successes using this approach."
The approach acknowledges the contributions and limitations of regulation in solving environmental problems. "We've made huge strides in this country through environmental laws enacted in the 1960s and 1970s," Connick explains. "The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act both initially focused on point sources of pollution, such as a smokestack or pipe. Now that the government has done a pretty good job of regulating those sources and developing treatment systems, we recognize that 'nonpoint sources' of pollution, such as stormwater run-off from lawns, streets and parking lots, are a significant problem.
"It is clear we need additional tools to meet our environmental challenges," Connick continues. "Voluntary, collaborative initiatives that develop appropriate incentives to do the right thing are a good way of moving forward."
Connick says the invasive-plant problem is not amenable to a regulatory solution because species and impacts vary by region. "Something that is invasive in the Sierra Nevada mountains is not necessarily invasive along the Los Angeles coast," she says.
So Sustainable Conservation is working with representatives of all parts of the horticultural industry to voluntarily stop growing and selling invasive plants. The partners include plant wholesalers, small retailers, "big box" retailers such as The Home Depot, seed companies, mail-order plant companies, environmental groups such as the California Invasive Plant Council and The Nature Conservancy, and academic institutions such as the University of California Cooperative Extension .
The partners have agreed on how to evaluate invasive plants, and they are developing educational strategies for the horticultural industry and the public. "By the end of next year we anticipate rolling out an initial list of invasive plants to remove from the shelves, and a list of alternative plants," Connick says.
Sustainable Conservation's approach works because the economy and environment are interlinked. "Our work is based on the understanding that a healthy environment and a healthy economy go hand in hand," Connick maintains. "In the case of invasive plants, the nurseries and retailers will sell safe alternative plants to their customers, while protecting the environment and saving untold sums of money and effort by preventing plant invasions."
Sarah Ahmad '86
The connection between the environment and economy is not globally understood, however, especially in developing nations like Pakistan. "A root cause of environmental degradation in Pakistan is a poor integration of environmental concerns with those of the rest of the economy," says Sarah Ahmad '86, a consultant on nongovernmental organization issues and former policy manager of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)- Pakistan, Lahore. "One reason for this may be that we do not give value to our natural resources."
Paraphrasing Oxford economist Partha Dasgupta, Ahmad says, "National wealth must be seen as something much more comprehensive than merely GNP. A nation's wealth comprises the value of manufactured assets, human capital, institutional capital and natural capital — that is, ecosystems, mineral wealth and fossil fuels. It is only when wealth increases relative to a country's population that you can have sustainable development.
"In Pakistan, we have been boasting high growth rates over the past two decades, but all of our social development indicators are abysmal, and there has been no investment in either our people or our institutions," Ahmad continues. "If we valued our environment and included this natural capital in assessing our national wealth, we would see this clearly. Instead, we are using up all our resources — the forests are disappearing, the waterways are polluted, and species are being depleted."
Yet, environmental issues are not a high priority among most Pakistanis. "Conservation for conservation's sake is not something that Pakistanis either grasp or believe in," Ahmad says. "There are many other, more significant issues in people's everyday lives. Fifty percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line."
Indeed, WWF has been most successful in Pakistan when it has linked environmental issues with local economic concerns. For example, in the 1990s WWF initiated an effort to preserve the endangered Himalayan ibex by developing a trophy-hunting project in northern Pakistani communities. Hunters from around the world paid a price to kill older male ibex.
"Imagine thousands of dollars coming into the hands of a community living at the subsistence level," Ahmad says. "It worked. Over the least 10 years or so, the ibex population has increased tenfold because there is a direct economic incentive for the communities to preserve ibex habitat."
Ahmad says the challenge for conservation organizations now is to remain connected with their grass-roots constituencies while developing linkages with government and industry. "It is increasingly clear that partnership is the way of the future," she says.
On April 28, Science magazine announced the discovery of a male ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas, more than 60 years since the last confirmed sighting — indeed, long after many ornithologists had concluded the bird was extinct. The evidence was gathered during a yearlong search in the Cache River and White River national wildlife refuges involving more than 50 experts and field biologists working together under the Big Woods Conservation Partnership, led by the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University and The Nature Conservancy.
The survival of this magnificent species of woodpecker can be attributed, at least in part, to more than two decades of coordinated efforts among conservation groups, government agencies and private landowners to conserve more than a half-million acres of swamps and hardwood bottomlands comprising the Big Woods, which is inhabited by seven endangered species, more than 250 species of birds, and 1,000-year-old cypress trees. In 2005, $10 million in federal funds was earmarked to further protect the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Roxanne Bogart '87
"With the ivory-billed woodpecker, we got lucky, and yet we never would have been able to conserve and rediscover this bird without the work of partnerships that are setting priorities and conserving habitat at the landscape level," observes Roxanne Bogart '87, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working on the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI). "We need to conserve species before they become imperiled by developing more sustainable land-use plans that take into account both the needs of wildlife and people."
This is NABCI's broad goal. Formed in 1999, NABCI is a coalition of government agencies, private organizations, academic institutions and private industry leaders in Canada, Mexico and the United States working to achieve integrated bird conservation — conservation of all birds in all habitats — through regionally based, biologically driven, landscape-oriented partnerships.
NABCI coordinates implementation of four major bird-conservation plans — the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, U.S. Shore Bird Conservation Plan, the North American Water Bird Conservation Plan and Partners in Flight Continental Land Bird Conservation Plan — as well as regional plans.
Overall, the initiative focuses on strengthening and facilitating coordination among existing partnerships and initiatives, for example, independent public-private migratory bird joint ventures (JVs) that arose in 1986 as a regional delivery mechanism to meet population objectives of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The JVs have since broadened their scope to conserve habitat for water birds, shore birds and land birds in their regions, Bogart says, "working across programmatic, taxonomic, geopolitical and sociocultural boundaries" to conserve habitat.
For example, "Many of our JVs are starting to provide technical help and funding to similar groups in Mexico, which is one of the most important wintering grounds for migratory birds," Bogart says. "NABCI is also helping Mexico develop regional partnerships, which provide the foundation for their conservation efforts."
In May, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton signed NABCI's North American Bird Conservation Initiative Declaration of Intent "to conserve North American birds throughout their ranges and habitats." Norton also announced $3.9 million in grants to partnerships working to conserve migratory birds in 18 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and 25 Latin American and Caribbean countries. The partners will contribute nearly $18 million in matching funds. Other countries can sign on if they wish and add their migratory species to the list of those covered by the declaration.
This is an example of support for NABCI's holistic approach to bird conservation. "We have conserved millions of acres of wetland habitats through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and the passing of the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 2000 was a huge step in getting money to conserve and manage upland habitats throughout the hemisphere for the land birds that depend upon them," Bogart says. "The act is significant because it recognizes that all bird species have intrinsic value as threads in our ecological tapestry as pollinators, predators and prey. We are shifting to a holistic approach for all birds."
Within the last 10 years, Bogart says, there has been "a profound evolution of thought and a paradigm change in how one conserves habitat for migratory birds," Bogart says. "As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, 'The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.' I believe this. I believe there is no going back."
About Our Sources
Sarah Ahmad '86 is a consultant on nongovernmental organization (NGO) issues. Among her recent projects, she is developing management and governance guidelines for NGOs as part of a project to establish technical accounting guidelines for these organizations. As a policy manager and research officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Pakistan, Lahore, Ahmad worked on projects relating to sustainable development, conservation, trade and the environment, as well as institutional-development issues. As a research officer with the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, she conducted research on oil-related issues for developing countries. Ahmad earned her master's degree in international economics at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, Switzerland .
Roxanne Bogart '87 is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Essex Junction, Vt., working on the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI). As a member of NABCI's migratory bird strategic plan steering committee, she was lead writer of the plan. Bogart worked on the update of North American Waterfowl Management Plan and served on the U.S. review team for the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act. She earned her master's degree in conservation biology and sustainable development at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Sarah Connick '84 is associate director of Sustainable Conservation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that partners with business, agriculture and government leaders to find practical ways for the private sector to protect clean air, clean water and healthy ecosystems. In addition to supporting all Sustainable Conservation projects, Connick leads the Sustainable Business Program, which includes the Brake Pad Partnership, California Partnership for Prevention of Invasive Plant Introductions Through Horticulture, Auto Recycling, and Wastewater to Wetlands projects. She joined Sustainable Conservation as a Switzer Leadership Fellow researching watershed restoration. Connick's background in environmental science and policy includes six years as a study director with the National Academy of Sciences' Water Science and Technology Board. She earned her M.S. at Stanford University and her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley.
Laura E. Jackson '84 is a research biologist in the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Research and Development, Research Triangle Park, N.C. Jackson specializes in the impact of landscape and land-use change on ecological resources. She has also held posts with the Wilderness Society, The Nature Conservancy and Southern Environmental Law Center. Jackson earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Tina E. Levine '69 is director of the Health Effects Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Pesticide Programs, the largest division in the agency. Levine joined the EPA in 1979 in the Office of Toxic Substances. In 1986 she moved to the Office of Pesticide Programs, where she has served in various posts. A member of the Society of Toxicology, she was instrumental in developing EPA's neurotoxicology program, which uses behavioral measures to detect early, subtle effects of environmental pollutants. Levine earned her Ph.D. in toxicology from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rochester, N.Y.
Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general-interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.