The specter of litigation

A federal judge in Arkansas halted on Thursday, July 20, an ambitious Army Corps of Engineers plan to pump water out of the White River to help farmers in Arkansas’ Grand Prairie region irrigate crops. The suit was brought by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Arkansas Wildlife Federation (AWF), two groups that have battled the controversial project for over a decade claiming that it would do irreparable damage to the southern bottomland habitat along the White and Cache Rivers.

The twist in this last-ditch effort to stop the dredging is the “plaintiff.” The suit claimed that the project could disrupt the habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which they claim is endangered. Others claim it’s extinct.

The conservation find of the century was unveiled in April 2005 when Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO), The Nature Conservancy and their partners announced at a press conference in Washington, D.C., the rediscovery of the, long thought to be extinct, ivory-billed woodpecker. According to CLO, the bird had been rediscovered a year earlier but information was withheld so they could verify the sightings. But after a year of searching the only verification they had, which was published in the journal Science, was a murky out-of-focus four-second video from the backwaters of Bayou De View. A video which has since been rebutted in Science by a group of birding experts and ornithologists as simply being an out-of-focus video of a common pileated woodpecker.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of the we-can-dam-and-straighten-and-dredge-any-river Corps of Engineers. And southern bottomland hardwoods are indeed nearly non-existent and endangered ecosystems. Most have been converted to rice, soybeans and other agricultural uses. They are worth preserving on their own merit. The giant cypresses, the round-bottomed tupelos, stagnant sloughs and black backwaters surrounded by primordial ooze are fecund melting pots of biological diversity and surely warrant our protection. But I wonder about putting all of our conservation eggs in the nest of a likely extinct species.

According to a Corps’ Web site regarding the Grand Prairie Area Demonstration Project, they followed all NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) protocol before getting the go-ahead for the project. The web site ( /grandprairie/) notes that state and federal agencies like U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Arkansas Game and Fish as well The Nature Conservancy all signed off on the project and construction was under way when the ivory-billed woodpecker miraculously turned up in the vicinity.

The court ruling requires the Corp to evaluate any ivory-billed nests and or forage sites within 2.5 miles of the project. Now, unless the NWF and AWF have some kind of ace up their sleeves, this is a slam dunk for the Corps. An army of over a hundred searchers including volunteers, biologists and ornithologists marshaled and directed by CLO have spent thousands of man-hours over three seasons trying to find any verifiable proof of the existence of said bird in the area and have come away empty-handed. Now the Corp, who may not be too keen on finding the bird even if it does exist, is gonna look?

The environmental movement rode a ground swell of public support that began in the hippie days of the 60s and probably crested in the mid- to late 70s. It resulted in monumental environmental legislation like NEPA, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act but then we fell asleep at the wheel. Politicos and their corporate cronies have chiseled away at these laws for decades proving that statutes alone cannot protect our environment.

The battle for our environment is a battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. Neo-conservative radio jocks like Rush Limbaugh have screamed “environmental whacko” into their microphones so loud and so often that it’s almost impossible to disassociate the words in the minds of the public. I don’t believe making a ghost bird the substance of environmental lawsuits is going to help convince the public that environmentalists are of sound mind and sensible spirit.

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