Thursday, April 28, 2005

I Love Woodpeckers, but Hope is Overrated

This is one of my least favorite kind of cultural-ideal-meets-government fiascoes, wherein we celebrate another species promoting its own while using it as an excuse to oppress ours.

In amazing news, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker has the unmitigated chutzpah and sheer moxy to keep existing and reproducing despite damning P.R.
The title of the story is Sightings Spark Rush to Save "Extinct" Woodpecker. I find birds wonderful creatures. I delight in their aesthetic variety and the amphibian and aerodynamic triumphs of their engineering. But does it occur to anyone else that after surviving 60 years of extinction on paper, there isn't that much a rush and the birds don't need us?

The Mark Twain of birds (as in "reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated") was sighted in a remote part of Arkansas, therefore, is not immediately threatened by human development, et al. Unless there's a unique tree variety or geography where it lives, it may, without bother, continue to build in numbers and expand its territory. But species actually become extinct without human intervention every year. Diseases, climate drift (don't get me started on ozone holes and global warming), and cataclysms of weather or geography occur naturally, and make it impossible to guarantee any species' (including our own's) continued fitness in the wild. New species are discovered all the time, too, but don't expect a lot of prime time coverage about that fact of life on this planet. Anyhoo, to mandate an unguaranteeable outcome for the prototypical rara avis, the government is here with its "second chance" to save wildlife that doesn't need the extra paperwork.

"Today we are commiting to a multiagency, multimillion-dollar, multiyear program to provide hope for this bird's continued survival," Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced at a news conference.

If your perceptions about U.S. forests are based on the scary Environmental (big E, as in The Cause) reporting in popular media, you may not know that the U.S. is more forested than it was 60 years ago, when the bird was declared an ex-woodpecker, if judged by standing timber volume and growth per acre. The U.S. is at least as forested as it was 60 years ago if considered by acreage. A full third of America is forested and that number hasn't declined for almost a century despite our rising population. Big Ups to high-yield modern farming methods, anyone? Still, in the flurry of delight amongst ornithologists, whose passionate myopia I forgive since it makes such wonderful discoveries possible, the Department of the Interior is maximizing the opportunity for money-grubbing and land-grabbing.

According to this story, the bird was spotted principally in a 16-mile area. The DoI's new CORRIDOR OF HOPE conservation plan will cover the Big Woods of Arkansas, an area about 20 miles wide, but 120 miles long! And perhaps you're encouraged to hear how "Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said landowners in the area could become eligible for $13.5 million in rental payments over the next 15 years to maintain the trees that ivory-billed woodpeckers use as their habitat." But, if you know anyone who owns property adjacent to govermentally "protected areas", just ask them how lucrative it is.

Most likely, the people who privately own property next to Arkansas' Corridor of Hope are not as wealthy or influential as Sam Walton. Among cases of governmental overreach in the cause of nature, the anecodotes of which are more numerous and ridiculous than you can imagine, the welfare of a single tree can (and does and will) override an owner's private property rights. People with normal, lawful, reasonable desires are forced to plead for, and are often refused, government approval to improve their living conditions through building improvements, pursue prosperity through starting businesses on their own land, or secure their families with fencing or other boundaries. As if dealing with multiple zoning regulations, approval boards, and inspectors weren't migraine-causing enough, this additional environmental bureaucratic overhang tends to depress propery values since any new buyers will be similarly limited in how they can use their own property.

The Corridor of Hope will likely be a detriment to adjacent humans and do significantly less to protect the birds than they've done for themselves. It is, however, an unmitigated improvement in the size and scope of public-funded government intrusion.

My rationale goes like this:
1) Respect for individual and property rights is an essential part of successful capitalism as well as healthy democracy, from which every Arkansan can benefit.
2) This bird has already survived its demise, and it's not clear what we can do to "save" it if we haven't doomed it yet.
3) More prosperity tends to lead societies to environmentally "cleaner" and more careful development. Government interference can short-circuit that process.

So, consider me an unabashed admirer of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker and a cynic when it comes to Hope.

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