Smithsonian Perspectives

Our historic concern for conservation now leads us into many areas related to endangered species and biodiversity

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Inside the Castle, near the south entrance, hangs a 19th-century photograph of some bison grazing on the National Mall. Alarmed about the dwindling bison herds, the Smithsonian's William T. Hornaday had acquired the animals for breeding stock; they later contributed to bison recovery and formed the nucleus for what would become the National Zoo.

Indeed, from its earliest days the Smithsonian has been a leader in biological studies relevant to conservation and resource management. In its second decade, under the leadership of Assistant Secretary, and later Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, the Smithsonian published a series of studies on animal life to be found along the possible routes for a transcontinental railway. Later the Institution was central to and instrumental in the formation of the U.S. Biological Survey, a portion of which survives to this day in the National Museum of Natural History.

There, Interior Department scientists still have responsibility for curating the North American collections. Similarly, part of the Agriculture Department's Laboratory of Systematic Entomology is based in the museum, where it has ready access to collections. The museum continues to be one of the major forces in the field of systematic biology, which carries out studies of different life-forms and their relation to one another. This information is essential to the conservation and management of our biological resources and important for research in the new forms of molecular and genetic biology.

In his 1867 annual report the Smithsonian's first Secretary, Joseph Henry, felt impelled to quote a statement on baseline science from the president of the Linnan Society of London:

"The peculiar condition of the North American continent requires imperatively that its physical and biological statistics should be accurately collected and authentically recorded, and that this should be speedily done. . . . The larger races of wild animals are dwindling down. . . . Myriads of the lower orders of animal life, as well as of plants, disappear with the destruction of forests, the drainage of swamps, and the gradual spread of civilization. . . . in North America the change is going forward, as it were, close under the eye of the observer. This consideration may one day give great value to the reports of the naturalists sent by the government, as we have seen, at the instance of the Smithsonian Institution and other promoters of science, to accompany the surveys of new territories."

If that statement was true then, it is even more relevant today as soaring extinction rates threaten to eliminate countless forms of life, many of them still unknown to science, just at the moment when they are beginning to hold unprecedented economic promise. Indeed the very future of the biological sciences may be impoverished as wild areas around the world — the natural laboratories for our scientists — vanish.

A case in point is Suriname and Guyana, the location of our longstanding project on the biodiversity of the Guianas. These countries are now threatened by rapid and potentially destructive development. Accordingly, in his new Smithsonian post as Counselor for Biodiversity and Environmental Affairs, biologist Thomas Lovejoy is working with relevant parties in both countries to seek positive alternatives.

On other fronts, our research programs range from studies of the potential effects of climate change on biological communities to studies of tropical forest plots around the world, from investigations of habitat fragmentation in the Amazon to the biology of endangered species. Our exhibitions are equally wide-ranging: at the National Museum of American History, Jeffrey Stine curates materials having to do with environmental history, and the "Ocean Planet" exhibition opens at the National Museum of Natural History on April 22.

Recently we have created a Council on Biodiversity and the Environment with representation from all relevant parts of the Institution. Given the variety of activities throughout the Smithsonian, there should be opportunities for synergy and the prospect of useful initiatives. For example, along with the economic think tank Resources for the Future, the Smithsonian is planning a seminar series for interested parties focusing on the relationships between ecology and economics; an ecologist and an economist will be paired to conduct each seminar.

I believe that the Smithsonian can provide a useful neutral forum to advance dialogue and debate, a forum where difficult and complex topics can be discussed in a good-natured and balanced way. Accordingly, for the 25th anniversary of Earth Day in April we will host a conference on biodiversity and endangered species. Inevitably it must consider the Endangered Species Act, legislation that has generated much controversy. The conferees, who will include both ecologists and representatives of industry, will consider our experience with the Act and examine whether there are better ways, including use of the marketplace, to implement its purpose more effectively. The debate should be lively and constructive.

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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