Will Babbitt's Bio Survey Violate Property Rights?

By Charles Oliver

In Los Angeles

Investor's Business Daily

October 22, 1993, Page 1


"Essentially, what they are proposing is that the government permanently

keep track of almost every living thing in the United State.  That isn't

physically possible."

Robert Gordon, Executive Director of the National Wildlife Institute.


Have you every wondered how many living things ther are in the U.S.?

How many plants and animals -- trees, squirrels, cockroaches, etc. --

share our homeland?

There are perhaps 500,000 species in the U.S., and there are easily

billions of living creatures.  No one knows for sure how many.

But if Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has his way, we may one day

know.  Not soon, certainly, but eventually.

Later this year, after Congress approves its final budget, the Interior

Department will begin the National Biological Survey, an ambitious, some

say impossible, attempt to catalog every nonhuman living organism in the

U.S.  The plan excludes only bacteria and other microorganisms.

That mammoth undertaking has already generated quite a bit of


Babbitt claims that the survey will both enrich our stock of knowledge

of the natural world and make application of the nation's environmental

laws more efficient.

But critics of the survey worry about that second point.  They fear

that, in order to conduct the survey, government researchers may invade

the privacy of private citizens.

And they also are concerned that the data generated by the survey will

make it easier for the federal goverment to take away the property

rights of landowners under the guise of environmental protection.

The National Biological Survey has sometimes been referred to as

an enviromental census.

But that label may not be quite right.

The survey will not be a singular event or even a recurring count taking

place evey 10 years like the census that counts the number of persons in

the U.S.

Rather, the more correct analogy would be to the National Geological

Survey.  Just as the geological survey is an ongoing effort to provide

ever more acurate maps of the nation's natural resources, the biological

survey will, its backers hope, be a perpetual effort to map the nation's


Hope is the key word.  The survey will be funded as an administrative

effort of the Interior Department, operating at the discretion of the


A bill that would make the survey a permanent federal agency with a

presidentially appointed head was approved by the House of

Representatives earlier this month.  But the Senate is unlikely to act

on the proposal until next year.

Babbitt has indicated that he considers the survey possibly to be the

most important program that he will initiate.

Some in the environmental community agree.

"Everyone stands to benefit from a more coordinated, more complete

database," said David Wilcove, senior ecologist at the Environmental

Defense Fund.

"We will get a much better picture of which species are in decline and

which are not," he said.

"We'll be more able to devote resourses to those that are endangered and

we can do so at an earlier stage when we have more options."

The survey will begin with a budget of about $170 million and 1,700

employees.  The bulk of its funding and most of its employees will come

from absorbing existing research projects from various Interior

Department agencies.

The first stage of the survey will involve compling and analyzing the

data already collected by the federal government, state governments,

universities and other private researchers and preparing a preliminary

inventory of living things in the U.S.

But eventually, the project will expand to count every organism on all

U.S. public and private lands.

With only one researcher for every 300 species, survey officials say

they will have to rely upon outside sources -- universities, state

agencies and various other think tanks -- for much of the actual


Still, the task remains daunting.

"We can't begin to overestimate the enormity of this project," said

Robert Gordon, executive director of the National Wilderness Institute.

Gordon contends that whatever data are gathered will be snapshots of

particular moments in time -- not a comprehensive, good-for-all-time


"The number of a given species in a given area is constantly changing.

It's influenced by so many different things -- the weather, the presence

of species that feed upon it or that it feeds upon.  Point data are

meaningless; what counts is direction," said Gordon.


But that, say the survey's supporters, is exactly why it should be an

ongoing effort, not a one-time count.

"Essentially, what they are proposing is that the government permanently

keep track of almost every living thing in the United States.  That

isn't physically possible," Gordon said.

The EDF's Wilcove concedes that it will be "a long, long time before we

have an accurate inventory of every plant and animal."

"But we'll be learning more and more about more and more species as we

go along, and that will be enormously helpful.  Information can be

significant, even when it isn't complete," Wilcove said.

Opponents of the survey worry about what that information will be used


"A lot of people are concerned that the survey will be used as a cover

for national land-use planning," said Ike Sugg, an environmental analyst

at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Not so, said Trudy Harlow, a spokesperson for the Interior Department.

"The survey is nonadvocacy and nonregulatory.  All it will do is collect

information.," she said.


But even something as benign as information is generated within a

context, says Robert Gordon.

"And the context of the national Biological Survey is a vast array of

federal environmental rules -- the Endangered Species Act, wetlands

regulations, the national Natural Landmark Program and other rules.  The

survey is obviously intended to strengthen the enforcement of such

regualtions," Gordon said.

"Ignorance isn't a tool," countered David Wilcove.  "The survey is

taking a lot of heat from people upset with the nation's environmental

laws.  But if those laws are their real concern, they should address

those laws and try to change what they think is wrong with them, not

attack information gathering."

In any event, Babbitt and the survey's supporters say, there's no reason

to suppose that the survey will lead to greater environmental regulation

until the data are collected.

In fact, they say, the data could lead to a relaxation of environmental

rules in some cases.

"It's certainly possible that we could learn that more species are

endangered than we thought and that they need protection, but it's also

possible that we could learn that some species aren't in as much trouble

as we thought,"  Wilcove said.


But the suspicions of the survey's opponents were strengthed by two

suggestions made by Interior Secretary Babbitt.

The first was that the survey be exempt from the Freedom of Information

Act.  The second was that those collecting data for the survey not have

to get written permission from private property owners before venturing

onto their lands.

Interior's Harlow says Babbitt's intent isn't secrecy at all costs.

"We want an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act simply because

it's difficult to protect a very limited species if people know where it

is," Harlow said.

"For example, if we announced that the last few members of, say, a given

species of cactus could be found in a certain location, someone would

try to dig them up.  We wanted to prevent those kinds of situations,"

harlow said.

And the survey has no plans to violate anyone's property rights, she


"We would abide by the same requirements that other researchers must,

and that's oral permission of landowners," Harlow said.


"Tracking some species can involve crossing numerous parcels of land.  I

know of one case in which researchers tracking a parrot species had to

cross 1,500 (individual private) parcels," she said.

"If you tell people what you want, they'll usually give you permission

and the work can be done quickly," she added.  "But having to get

written persmission fromeach and every property owner would slow things

down too much."

Earlier this month, a bill that would make the National Biological

Survey a permanent federal agency came to the floor of the House, where

members succeeded in adding several amendments addressing landowners'


One amendment requires the survey to catalog all federal lands before

looking at private property.

Another requires researchers to get written permission from landowners

before surveying private property.

And a third amenment forbids the survey from using volunteers to collect

field data on private lands.

While these amendments made the bill more palatable to those concerned

about protecting property rights -- enough so that it passed in teh

House -- they don't completely allay their fears.

Critics of the survey point out that they still have no idea what the

Senate version of the bill -- or more important the final law -- will

look like.  It may not incorporate the protections placed in the House


Moreover, their central concern -- that the data gathered by the

National Biological Survey will be used as the basis for further

restrictions on private property -- cannot be remedied by anything short

of defunding the survey.