Protected Areas: Preserving the Best Remaining Habitat

Several weeks ago, a couple of thought-provoking stories came out: Paul Greenberg's Tuna's End in the New York Times and Adam Frank's Inventing the Fish: Science and the Collapse of Ecologies on NPR. Both explore the limits of natural resources and, consequently, the limits of science to recover what we've lost.

Writing about the bluefin tuna, Greenberg movingly observes:


All fish change color when they die. But with tuna the death shift feels more profound. Fresh from the water, their backs pulsing neon blue, their bellies gleaming silver-pink iridescence, they seem like the ocean itself. And in a way they are, which explains the second reason bluefin have come to possess such totemic power. For bluefin tuna and all species of tuna are the living representation of the very limits of the ocean. Their global decline is a warning that we just might destroy our last wild food.

It's a story we know all too well in the Pacific Northwest as we struggle to bring back salmon, our own iconic fish.

In 1988, The Northwest Power and Conservation Council adopted a proposal designating some 44,000 miles of Northwest streams as protected areas because of their importance as critical fish and wildlife habitat. The amendment was a major step in the region's efforts to rebuild the fish and wildlife populations damaged by hydroelectric development, in no small part because it acknowledged the fact that in order to meet the Council's goal of increasing salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River Basin it would be necessary to protect the best remaining habitat.

The Council adopted a single standard of protection: no new hydroelectric development should be allowed in protected areas. While the Council doesn't license hydroelectric development, federal agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Bonneville Power Administration have a legal obligation to take the Council's action into account in their decisionmaking.

In his piece, Frank quotes a student plaintively asking, "Can't we just invent a new fish?" And he subsequently notes that, "Put simply: We believe that whatever the problem science will fix it." But ecologies are not so easily fathomed, much less controlled.

Designating an area as protected is a decisive act, affirming the value of a resource apart from human benefit and an admission that it is perishable.