Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Fact of Intact Habitat
distributed 5/13/05 - ©2005

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Mimi Farrelly, of Longmont, Colorado. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

Jesus told of the joy of the prodigal son's father: "this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!" Many of us felt a similar joy with the recent news about the discovery of a few Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Arkansas. The dramatic birds, with a three foot wingspan, had not been seen since 1944.

Let us give thanks that one of God's unique and magnificent creatures is still extant! But let's also use this news to gain some insight into the causes of extinction, and to mobilize for several urgent political issues.

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The Ivory-billed Woodpecker remains among the living for one very simple, practical reason. An adequate chunk of the bird's habitat remains intact. That's not an accident.

This remarkable woodpecker lives only in swampy bottomland hardwood forests, where dead and dying trees provide the beetle larvae that are its primary food. A single nesting pair of the enormous birds requires a large area -- about 2,000 acres, or three square miles -- of remote forest to survive. To keep a viable population going requires many pairs, and thus a huge expanse of contiguous forest. That sort of forest used to be abundant.

Before European settlement, 24 million acres in the Mississippi River delta were covered with the forests that are home to the Ivory-bill. Today, less than 1/5 of that forest remains, and even that surviving territory is scattered and fragmented. Through just a few centuries, the face of more than 20 million acres of forested land was transformed as timber was cut, land was cleared for agriculture, and rivers were contained behind levees and dams. An extensive, diverse ecosystem essentially disappeared at human hands.

The habitat problem was named a long time ago. In 1937, ornithologist James Tanner could document only 13 Ivory-billeds in a Louisiana forest. He, along with the Audubon Society, proposed turning that tract into a nature preserve, noting that clear-cut forests mean "less dead wood, fewer insect borers and less food for woodpeckers." That piece of forest land, though, was not preserved, and no woodpeckers are found there now.

The area where the surviving woodpeckers were found, the Big Woods of Arkansas, is a 550,000 acre corridor of floodplain forest. It remains only because the Nature Conservancy and a variety of public agencies have worked diligently since 1982 to safeguard the area, and to preserve the natural river flows through the wetlands.

The Arkansas Big Woods are necessary for more than the woodpecker. That habitat is essential for the survival of numerous species that are formally listed as "endangered", and it is home to 108 species of native fish, and more than 265 species of birds.

A few days after the woodpecker new broke, the Rutland (VT) Herald said, "In fact, the larger story regarding the survival and disappearance of species has to do with habitat. Species are indicators of how we are treating the world around us. When species start to disappear, it is a sign to us that we are ruining our world. That's why the Endangered Species Act requires more than merely saving species. It requires taking the steps to preserve habitats that allow species to survive." The federal government "would do well to recognize that the woodpecker is one piece of a vast web that increasingly is in tatters."

The federal government, though, does not seem to recognize that fact. Even as we celebrate the existence of the woodpeckers, which have survived because of habitat protection, public policy is headed in the other direction.

  • Last week, the Bush Administration finalized the overthrow of the federal Roadless Rule. Under their new policy, all of the nation's remaining acres of untouched national forests are now open to road building, possible logging, mining and commercial use unless a state's governor petitions to stop such incursions. For a variety of procedural and financial reasons, the deck is stacked against preservation.

  • A committee of the US House has dropped all money for land acquisition from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a crucial source of funding for states seeking to protect privately owned forest lands from development.

  • In Alaska's Tongass National Forest -- the largest intact temperate rain forest in the world -- the US Forest Service is subsidizing road construction to enable timber cutting. Last year, the USFS spent $48 million more on Tongass road construction than it received in logger's payments. (Congress will vote next week on a bill to prevent such wasteful subsidies.)

  • The heart of the Endangered Species Act itself is under assault. A bill by Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), would shift the focus of the act from ensuring the recovery of species to merely their continued existence, a change that would gut the provisions in the ESA for habitat protection. Cardoza's legislation makes the asinine assumption that a few individuals in a zoo are the same as viable populations in the wild.
The Henderson (NC) Daily Dispach wrote, "federal authorities seemed not to notice last week's lesson of the need to protect the wilderness in our nation. Obviously, all of the discussion last week abut the importance of the wild places we have not yet destroyed fell on extremely deaf ears."

If we have been thrilled by the good news of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, we also should be motivated to action for the protection of threatened habitats. Contact your governor to insist on the preservation of roadless lands in your state. Contact your Senators and Representatives to demand strong habitat protection within the Endangered Species Act, restored funding for land acquisition in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and an end to the subsidized destruction of the Tongass National Forest.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker has survived because intentional steps were taken to preserve its essential habitat. I urge you to act today so that other essential lands, and other threatened species, might remain.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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