"A Natural Progression: The Modern Sanctuary Movement"
Athens Banner-Herald
By Dr. Michael Tobias and Jane Morrison
Sunday, July 27, 2008

The musings of the prophet Isaiah evoke a vision of the wolf, lamb, leopard and goat nestled together in harmony. Such musings present tantalizing scenarios not entirely out of kilter with the best laid plan of conservation, namely, the protection of large ecosystems with their intact assemblages of plants and animals.

This was the dream of Abraham Lincoln, who worked to protect natural areas, beginning with the establishment of the Mariposa Big Tree Grove of Giant Sequoias and Yosemite Valley on June 30, 1864. This led to creation of the national park system, which some consider the best idea America ever devised.

The ideal commending the public's protection of ecological commons quickly became a global mandate, and one that surged from our deepest instincts of loving engagement and protection of the natural world. With more than 114,000 protected areas representing nearly 12 percent of the terrestrial Earth, there is reason to be guardedly optimistic about our collective conservationist resolve.

That said, one cannot deny the plethora of negatives - such as the scraping of mountains for coal, conversion of tropical forests into palm oil, zircon, soy or biofuels, global warming and the spread of nuclear weapons. The risk of losing precious lives and species has never been higher and this loss of biodiversity is by far the most pressing crisis - among many - that humanity faces.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is charged with identifying and listing threatened or endangered species in North America. At the Endangered Species Act's inception, 78 species appeared on the list. By the end of January 2008, the agency had designated 607 animal and 744 plant species as threatened or endangered. Today, the agency has recovery plans for an additional 1,116 species. It must be noted that only 22 species have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the list, while many others have declined in numbers.

Globally, the World Conservation Union has red-listed more than 16,000 species as threatened or endangered and has identified more than 40,000 species at risk of becoming threatened.

If current trends continue, many scientific organizations project the likelihood of losing between 40 to 60 percent of all life forms on Earth by the 22nd century. New findings released in May 2008 revealed that the species' extinction rate has escalated to an average 25,000 times higher than the natural background extinction rate of 3 species per million years on average.

What is positively startling about this predicament are the numbers themselves. Until recently it was believed by zoologists that there were a maximum of 10 million species on Earth. Research discoveries have pushed that number to more than 100 million. If human consumption trends are not modified, a consensus indicates a likely decline of 60 percent of all life forms during this century, or the loss of 60 million species. Most of these will be insects, spiders and crustaceans. But the number will include gorillas, whales, lions, cinnabar trees, orchids and wolves, among countless others.

Yet, there is hope. The combination of science, legislation, community and individual activism, increasing concern about animal rights and new tools for honing the science of conservation biology represents a 21st-century incarnation of the sanctuary movement.

For a thousand years in England, sanctuary from harm or arrest has been afforded anyone who could physically enter the confines of a sanctuary-designated church. In the last decades of the 20th century, the sanctuary ideal was applied by human rights and religious groups to provide safe haven for immigrants and political, ethnic and intellectual refugees facing deportation and possible death. Today, ecological circumstances have propelled another sort of outpouring of support for the at-risk underdog in the form of a rallying cry to save habitat and countless species from obliteration.

One potent data set used by governments to assess some of the most critical areas of high biodiversity is known as the "hot spots" methodology.

Effectively applied by Conservation International in Washington, this tool for shaping conservation policy recognizes an overwhelming share of the world's most diverse biological heritage actually is consolidated in 2.3 percent of the terrestrial Earth, as measured by the number of rare flowering plants found nowhere else. Comprising a known 35 domains - from Southern California to the Himalayas to Central Africa - these hot spots have become magnets for timely action to save the Earth's richest biological treasures.

Other ecologically redemptive approaches also have been initiated. For example, the World Wildlife Fund has come up with a priority list of 200 "global ecoregions" or areas "of the Earth's most biologically outstanding terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats" needing continued or newly formulated protections.

In the United States, as of April 2008, major bills were before Congress seeking to add acreage to, or designate new protected areas in Washington, California, Colorado, Georgia and elsewhere. U.S. consumer trends have looked increasingly to organics and cruelty-free agricultural products, as well as goods locally produced, bearing low-carbon trails. Everyone is flashing green, from catwalks at Cannes to the covers of nearly every magazine.

All these trends are part of the sanctuary movement, that long called-for reconciliation between humans and other species. Improving interspecies relations may also result in preserving that which is best about human beings: our innocence. After all, as biological timelines go, we are a young species, filled with hopes, dreams and idealism. Now it's time to go to work.

• Michael Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison are part of the California-based nonprofit Dancing Star Foundation are authors, ecologists and filmmakers. Their latest documentary, "Hotspots," will premiere nationwide in November on public television.

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 07/27/08