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

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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 sevendaysvt.com.)

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.

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