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Nature Calling 

Book reviews: Listed: Dispatches From America's Endangered Species Act; Shadows on the Gulf: A Journey Through Our Last Great Wetland

Published August 3, 2011 at 6:38 a.m.


With all of the focus these days on the coming devastation of global warming, it’s hard to remember that the natural world, however compromised, is still teeming with life. Two new books about conservation by Vermont authors remind us how extraordinary that life is, and what we need to do to keep it going.

In Listed: Dispatches From America’s Endangered Species Act, Monkton author Joe Roman, a University of Vermont conservation biologist, reports from around the country that things are actually looking pretty good for the ever-embattled law and the species it has protected through the years. Calais author Rowan Jacobsen focuses on the Gulf of Mexico in Shadows on the Gulf: A Journey Through Our Last Great Wetland. His book is a paean to the vitality of the Gulf’s marshes, despite the systematic abuse they’ve endured over the past century, and an impassioned plea for their restoration.

Roman’s purpose in Listed is ambitious: to determine if the Endangered Species Act has “worked” nearly four decades after its passage in 1973. Sweeping in its day, the legislation now protects 577 animal species and 795 plants. So the author’s approach is necessarily selective, yet stylistically depth plumbing — as if influenced by the creatures he wrote about in his previous book, Whale. “Dispatches” is the word to keep in mind while navigating Roman’s richly anecdotal, discursive style and penchant for superfluous, ironic detail.

Roman acknowledges that the ESA has its failings. With funding for listed species weighted toward the fuzzy and big, invertebrates — clams, insects, corals and the like — tend to get the short end of the stick. The listing process is so expensive and time consuming that some species die out while waiting to be declared endangered. And then there are all those outside the list. “Each year,” Roman laments, “about one out of every hundred animal and plant populations goes extinct. One out of a hundred!”

But the success stories are undeniable. One no-brainer is the Florida alligator. Once hunted nearly to extinction, it has come back entirely. It remains listed because it’s too easily mistaken for the still-endangered American crocodile. (To learn about another success, the red-cockaded woodpecker, read an excerpt of Listed online at

Some species have required more than habitat protection and a hunting ban. Inbred Florida panthers used to crossbreed with Texas cougars before human settlement closed that corridor forever. (Panthers are cougars are catamounts; they’re all just regional names for pumas.) In 1995, breeders flew some cats to the others’ territory, and now the panthers are back.

Peregrine falcons are among us because of genetic intervention, too. After the species native to the eastern U.S. went extinct, “a captive stock made up of seven subspecies from four continents was used to re-falcon the Midwest and East,” Roman writes.

The ESA has also been an economic success, he points out. Wildlife tourism in Florida, for example, supported 51,000 jobs in 2006 — “about as many as Walt Disney World.” Those workers earned $1.6 billion, “a figure comparable to all the money spent on golf equipment across the country.”

But perhaps the regulation’s biggest benefit for humans, Roman argues, is one of its side effects. To protect a species, you must preserve its habitat. Biodiversity thrives in protected areas, and it’s looking like chronic and devastating human diseases are held in check by letting the wide range of life do its thing. West Nile virus, for example, is transmitted between infected birds and humans by mosquitos. But regions biodiverse enough to support egrets and herons are lucky: The birds are “dead-end hosts — when a mosquito bites one of these birds, the disease stops there.”

The U.S. has a surprisingly good track record for setting aside land. “While the country comprises just 6 percent of the terrestrial world,” Roman writes, “15 percent of the planet’s protected areas lie within its boundaries.”

Roman’s meandering, philosophical style makes for slow going but rich description. He follows his “dispatches” out to their unraveled ends. How far should we go, he asks, with genetic intervention? Should conservationists be happy if scientists succeed in helping elm trees withstand future Dutch elm disease by introducing pathogens used in genetically modified foods into the trees’ DNA?

Roman’s ideas for what the rest of us can do include getting land-owning citizens to foster diversity in their own backyards, and establishing conservation trust funds funded not just by wealthy donors but visitors to national parks and companies that benefit from land conservation — which often include any that use freshwater. Of course, he asserts, firm legislation from the federal government is the key.

Jacobsen echoes this view in Shadows on the Gulf, a rhetorically powerful account of a region Americans tend to write off as a national dumping ground. We’re naturally drawn to the marshes and bayous of the Gulf, he argues, because of the unique vitality of plant and animal life that exists at that convergence of land and water. Saving the Gulf “isn’t simply a matter of livelihoods,” Jacobsen declares, in a style quite the opposite of Roman’s — more New Yorker columnist than depth plumber. “It’s a question of meaning, and beauty, and spirit.”

Early chapters sum up how the Gulf’s bayous and marshlands formed and how they work. Jacobsen covered this in more detail in his last book, The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World, which Seven Days reviewer Elisabeth Crean declared “a remarkable gem of environmental contemplation.” Next comes a history of the region’s oil industry and how it works — down to the number of abandoned offshore wells that have never been capped.

Depressing stuff, dispatched in riveting summaries. Oil was discovered under the wetlands in the 1930s; offshore drilling began in the late 1940s. Depletion of the shallowest reserves soon led to deepwater and, in 2004, ultra deepwater drilling. The latter extracts oil from underwater depths of 5000 feet or more.

Jacobsen then delivers a clear, full account of the BP disaster. The 2010 blowout, the biggest in American history, occurred while BP engineers were trying to cap the Macondo well, a site being explored by the rig Deepwater Horizon. The rig was owned by Transocean, a huge player in the oil-exploration industry. Its drill pipe was three miles deep. When does such a project ever go right? Very rarely, it turns out. The ocean floor is riddled with abondoned exploration holes, which deflate the ocean floor and cause Gulf land to literally sink.

Equally alarming is Jacobsen’s account of the inadequate and, in some cases, misguided efforts at cleanup — surface booms that ignored the deep swaths of oil, the environmentally disastrous use of dispersant, the false hope of oil-eating bacteria. The last, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration failed to recall, are eaten by larger organisms, which then pass it up the food chain — leaving “shadows” of the oil’s carcinogens, toxins and other contaminants in, eventually, humans. (The shadows of Jacobsen’s title are many things, not least the dark, shadow-like drifts of oil that will be turning up in the region for a long time to come.)

Jacobsen is keen to show how that media-blanketed event was only the latest in a long series of mostly ignored atrocities that have been visited on the Gulf. “The truth is that we have been screwing the Gulf for decades,” he writes. The two biggest culprits are the oil companies’ canals, cut throughout the marshes to lay miles of pipeline, and the Army Corps of Engineers’ “shackling” of the Mississippi River with levees, which prevent the natural influx of freshwater into the marshes.

Both have shrunk the Gulf Coast. Land that supported whole towns only a generation ago is disappearing underwater — in Louisiana, at a rate of 24 square miles a year. Fully a third of the Gulf’s 6000 square miles of wetland have succumbed to the ocean. No less harmful are corrupt politicians, midwestern industrial agriculture and even house owners along the Mississippi River who use Simple Green to clean their homes. The cleaner contains Corexit, the dispersant BP sprayed at the rate of 140,000 pounds a day — yet the same amount washes daily down the Mississippi, Jacobsen asserts, from household detergents used to break up grease.

Oddly, Jacobsen avoids the factor of global warming — a central point in Roman’s book — but on other points the authors’ concerns overlap. Both highlight the importance of people as participants within ecosystems. Both acknowledge the value of a “star” animal or plant for instigating habitat preservation; in Jacobsen’s account, when Gulf restoration has occurred, it’s been in the name of the oyster.

Both authors also bring up floating whale poop and its role in fertilizing phytoplankton on the ocean’s surface — the fish population’s primary food. Jacobsen sums up the 2010 discovery in a paragraph and a half as one example of the complexity of ecosystems. What he doesn’t mention is that Roman made that discovery — a fact not even made clear in Roman’s own account. In a rambling chapter called “Raising Whales,” the biologist touches on sloths’ defecation habits, the financial boon of bird watching, and a Rottweiler who can smell the difference, aboard ship, between humpback and right whale scat. Roman’s own game-changing idea — that whales may actually increase fish populations, not threaten them, as the Japanese whale industry has long claimed — is nearly lost in the shuffle.

The new field of ecological economics also informs both books. Financial calculations are now being made to assign actual dollar values to environmental costs, enabling a real comparison with industry profits. Such arguments are perhaps the only ones fit for combatting insanities such as the Rally for Economic Survival, put together by the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association in response to President Obama’s decision to impose a six-month moratorium on deepwater oil production in the Gulf shortly after the BP disaster.

These books do their best to foster hope. Yet the fact remains that all of our efforts to save nature may ultimately be undermined simply by humans’ tendency to exponentially reproduce. Roman captures the trend in a single, chilling snapshot of Florida. Five hundred people move there every day, he writes; the state is “expected to grow by another three million in the next decade. That’s three million more people needing shelter and showers, fresh produce, air-conditioned bedrooms and cars, and three million more desires for McDonald’s, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, day golf, night golf, even nature trails — and a whole lot of asphalt to take them to their dreams.”

But for now, at least, we have the Endangered Species Act, the potential for powerful additional legislation to save our natural world and effective, compelling advocates for both.

Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act by Joe Roman, Harvard University Press, 360 pages. $27.95.

Shadows on the Gulf: A Journey Through Our Last Great Wetland by Rowan Jacobsen, Bloomsbury, 232 pages. $25.

Excerpt from Listed

Ryan Garrison clawed at the base of a fifty-foot flattop pine, where a male [red-cockaded woodpecker] had been spotted entering a nesting cavity on a wooded lot. He banged his field notebook against the tree. When the bird flew straight into the mesh of an extendable net he had just placed over the hole, Garrison reached in and gently grabbed it.

"What are y'all doing?" a woman yelled. She was standing on her deck, awash in a pink housecoat. [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field biologist John] Hammond walked over. "You're not taking my woodpecker, are you?" He told her we were just banding it. We would place it back in a few minutes.

"Good," she said, "because I love having them around."

"People with houses love woodpeckers," Hammond said when he got back. "To owners of a lot, woodpeckers are Satan."

Garrison blew on the feathers of the bird's head, revealing a bright red cockade. He drew some blood, and spat some tobacco. The bird weighed 49 grams. He passed it to Hammond, who put two light green bands separated by a black-and-white one, the colors of cluster 14, on the right leg. On the left went a dark blue one and an aluminum US Geological Service tag. Wherever this bird flew, observers could now identify it with this tree.

"Hey, it could be worse," Hammond said of their efforts to protect the woodpecker. "It could be a butterfly." Butterflies were easy, I said. I would soon go see a couple of clam species that the governor of Georgia had accused of endangering the lives of his state's children.

Matteson laughed. "Woodpeckers are pretty, but mussels?"

And so it goes.

Once it was banded, I was given the honor of letting the woodpecker go. Shaken up from the nest rattling, the bird-catcher's net, and the several minutes under the pliers, it was still in my palm, light as a few thousand feathers. I placed it gently on the pine. For a moment, it eyed me across the taxonomic divide.

The bird embodied the hope, the surprising boldness of the Endangered Species Act. Without it, this male and many of the red-cockaded woodpeckers in Boiling Spring Lakes [North Carolina] (and throughout the South) would have been lost. It may be underfunded and at times mismanaged, but the Act is an unprecedented attempt to delegate human-caused extinction to the chapters of history we would rather not revisit: the Slave Trade, the Indian Removal Policy, the subjection of women, child labor, segregation. The Endangered Species Act is a zero-tolerance law: no new extinctions. It keeps eyes on the ground with legal backing - the gun may be in the holster most of the time, but it's available if necessary to keep species from disappearing. I discovered in my travels that a law protecting all animals and plants, all of nature, might be as revolutionary - and as American - as the Declaration of Independence.

As I opened my hand, the bird hesitated, talons tight on the rough bark. The moment passed. Through the trees, out of sight, he flew.

Excerpt from Shadows on the Gulf

Eleven thousand people packed the [Cajundome in Lafayette, La.] to hear the governor, lieutenant governor, and, of all people, the executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board rail against Obama for stealing their jobs. Nobody blamed BP or Transocean. Nobody wanted more safety regulations. Fire up the rigs, they cried. Drill, baby, drill. I listened in disbelief as the anger rose to a fever pitch and eleven thousand Gulf Coasters screamed for their own annihilation.

"Enough is enough!" raged Lieutenant Governor Scott Angelle in his thick Cajun accent. "It is time to stop punishing innocent American workers to achieve some unrealistic political agenda. Louisiana has a long and strong, distinguished history of fueling America, and we proudly do what few other states are willing to do. Each and every day ... we put on our hard hats and our steel-toed boots, we kiss our families good-bye, and we begin the tough work of exploring, producing, processing, storing, refining, and transporting the fuel to energize the great United States of America. While we too support the use of renewable and alternative energy, let's keep the conversation real. America is not yet ready to get all its fuel from the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees!"

True. But claiming that Louisiana fuels America is kind of like claiming that the gas station attendant supplies your gas. Of the six to seven billion barrels of oil consumed by the United States each year, about 10 percent comes from Federal Gulf of Mexico waters - the same amount that comes from the Persian Gulf. Louisiana itself is no longer a significant source of crude, onshore or offshore. It supplies only about 1 percent - on a par with Oklahoma or North Dakota. What it does supply is cheap labor and a pliant government. "Today, we tell Congress that we 'sacrificed' ourselves for the national good," Oliver Houck wrote in the Tulane Environmental Law Journal. "Never has there been such a willing, complicit sacrifice. We made a bundle of money, wasted most of it, and blackballed anyone who questioned what it was doing to the Louisiana coast. About 70 years ago, Louisiana made a deal with the oil and gas industry. The industry would get what it wanted; the state would get a piece of the take."

Today, it barely gets that. Of the more than $5 billion received by the federal government in offshore royalties in 2009, only $222,725 went to Louisiana. Terrebone Parish, for all its tough work exploring, producing, processing, storing, refining, and transporting the fuel to energize the great United States of America, received a whopping $3,744 in compensation.

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About The Author

Amy Lilly

Amy Lilly has been a contributing arts writer for Seven Days since 2007.


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