The Butterfly Problem

Because the government doesn't have the means to preserve endangered species, let alone a coherent plan its decisions are haphazard—and private landowners often find themselves paying for the preservation of species they've never heard of
The American Way

Near the town of Mima, in Southwestern Washington State, an acre of rich dark soil is stitched with neat rows of small plants. From a distance the field seems to be growing a thriving crop of carrots. But these plants will not find their way onto a dinner plate. The field and nine more acres nearby contain a million seedlings of a tree, the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia).

Ten acres of seedlings is not a large tract by the standards of its owner, the Weyerhaeuser Company, of Federal Way, Washington, which plants almost 280 million seedlings a year. Nonetheless, this tree farm has attracted extraordinary attention. The bark, needles, and roots of T. brevifolia contain taxol, a potential treatment for ovarian cancer. Resistant to chemotherapy, cancer of the ovary is one of the most intractable forms of the disease; it has an overall five-year survival rate of less than 40 percent. This single crop of yew seedlings could yield enough taxol to treat a large proportion of the 20,000 women who are stricken each year with ovarian cancer.

The discovery of taxol is exactly what Congress had in mind when it passed the Endangered Species Act. "Who knows, or can say," asked one congressional report on the act, "what potential cures for cancer or other scourges, present or future, may lie locked up in the structures of plants which may yet be undiscovered, much less analyzed?" But the yew is also an implicit rebuke to the means Congress chose to safeguard those potential cures. A few years ago T. brevifolia was treated as a weed, burned on the ground as slash whenever bigger and more valuable trees were cut down. It was not officially endangered or threatened, but its numbers were decreasing. Now the species is flourishing as never before, but the recovery occurred by means so far from the Fish and Wildlife Service that one cannot help wondering if orthodox governmental plans to save biodiversity are asking the right questions, let alone providing the right answers.

The yew's journey to salvation started in the late 1950s, when the National Cancer Institute began randomly testing the cancer-fighting potential of thousands—nobody knows the full number—of plants, bacteria, fungi, and molds. The procedure now followed by the NCI Developmental Therapeutics Program is complex in detail but simple in principle: Researchers grind up a small sample of an organism and administer it to cancer cells. If the cells react, the sample is separated into its chemical constituents, which are tested separately in a procedure analogous to sifting through a set of ever-finer sieves. According to Michael Grover, the associate director of the program, approximately one quarter of today's cancer drugs were discovered through such random screening, either by the NCI or by private drug firms. Taxol, the latest example, emerged from the NCI's program in 1971.

Testing the compound was no easy task. One mature tree's worth of bark- about forty pounds—yields one twentieth of an ounce of taxol, not enough to treat one patient. A big research push would require tons of bark. The first, small-scale clinical trials, in 1983, produced such severe allergic reactions that many had to be abandoned. Researchers resumed them after discovering that patients had probably reacted to the medium in which the taxol was administered—a form of castor oil—rather than to the drug itself. Subsequent results showed that taxol might have power over breast and lung cancer as well as ovarian cancer. The trials were small because taxol was so scarce. Nonetheless, NCI officials told reporters last June that the drug "may be one of the most important anticancer agents discovered in the past decade."

The prospect created almost as much fear as elation. The yew and its cousins have been revered since the Stone Age, when spears were hewn from their tough yet flexible wood. The finest English longbows were made from yew. Growing often in cemeteries, they developed gnarled roots that were supposed to wrap the dead. In contrast, the modern timber industry has had little use for the tree, because it grows too slowly; unable to produce big logs, the yew was cut down and not replanted. Only in old-growth forests have yews survived long enough to grow tall (for a yew, forty feet is tall) and accumulate a lot of bark. When the NCI issued a call for large-scale taxol research, in June of 1990, conservationists feared that continued clear-cutting would wipe out the yew—along with the taxol it contains—and the mighty forests it lives in. The Environmental Defense Fund called for changes in the way timber is sold; Jerry Rust, an Oregon county commissioner, formed a Native Yew Conservation Council; the Oregon Natural Resources Council threatened legal action to force the government to prospect for yew logs in old clear cuts rather than relying on new ones. "The waste is appalling," says Wendell Wood, the conservation coordinator of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "They're still burning countless yews on the slash pile. It's like Ollie North on the shredder. They're burning the evidence and denying the problem ever existed."

To satisfy the demand for taxol, yew logs are now being plucked out of old clear-cuts by single mothers, laid-off loggers, and surly countercultural leftovers who live in the woods and make their livelihood by picking brush for flower arrangers, herb specialists, and plant stores. Piled high with gunny sacks of yew bark, their battered pickup trucks line up outside the taxol-extraction plant in Cottage Grove, Oregon. The procedure seems innocent enough, but the conversation in the line on the day we visited would have alarmed Wendell Wood. The trucks had anti-corporate and anti military bumper stickers. Despite these sentiments, the drivers joked about how they could drive into national forests and rustle some yews. "The bark's real loose," one man explained to us. "You can stick in a screwdriver and peel them like sausages." Another had his rig loaded dangerously high. "I got to get it now," he said. "Pretty soon there won't be any left."

These words exemplify the notion that extinction is an inevitable by product of what is called "the tragedy of the commons." Coined by the biologist Garrett Hardin in 1968, the phrase refers to the instructive tale of the communal pasture in medieval villages. All nearby herdsman were allowed, the story goes, to graze their cattle on this land. As individuals, the herdsman benefited by grazing as many cattle as possible; but the community as a whole was better off when herdsman restricted grazing enough to keep the grass alive. Because what one person conserved another could use, nobody had an incentive to conserve anything, and the commons was doomed. In general, Hardin argued, there is little incentive to maintain common property, for the costs may be borne by one while the benefits are enjoyed by all.

Similar reasoning applies to wildlife, which is owned, so to speak, by everyone. Society as a whole may benefit from its continued existence but few people are prepared to pay for it by themselves. Passenger pigeons, a favorite game bird in the nineteenth century, were driven to extinction because hunters had no incentive to stop taking them when their fellows could keep blasting away. Conservationists believe that the yew, being a common resource, is a future passenger pigeon. Before the benefits of taxol were discovered, humanity was indifferent to the tree's fate and its numbers declined slowly; now the yew is valuable, and its future, according to this reasoning, is bleaker still.

The customary response to this prospect is a law to protect common property. Few people oppose such legislation when it involves, say, anti poaching laws to protect bison in Yellowstone Park. Opinions change when the Endangered Species Act compels the Richard Schroeders of America to abandon their golf courses. These people are not profiting from rare animals; they simply want to build something on their property. In some cases the government pays for the land, as the Fish and Wildlife Service did for the St. Johns National Wildlife Refuge. More often the law simply limits what landowners can build or change, forcing them to bear the cost of saving the species while others reap the benefits. People who would ordinarily be neutral toward rare animals are thus converted into outright antagonists. "If they had just let the cows run loose and eat the [caterpillars' food plants] down, they would never have had a butterfly problem," says Dewey Youngblood, one of Schroeder's financial backers. "The problem was, we tried to work with the butterfly. But it became apparent after two years that there was no end in sight to the problem." Not everyone is so nice. In a case that may be a harbinger of the future, one developer is widely reported to have sped a project along by destroying one of the three known populations of the endangered San Diego mesa mint.

This hostility, economists say, shows that the Endangered Species Act works against people's incentives, not with them. Instead, the argument runs, we should compensate those who bear the brunt of saving a species. Gardner Brown, Jr., an economist at the University of Washington, points to the plight of the small landholders who live around Kenya's elephant parks. The parks are too small, and the roaming elephants eat up the crops outside their borders. Because the farmers cannot shoot the beasts, they must silently pay the price for their existence. "Why not give them something in return?" Brown asks. "Why should they suffer so that people in the developed world can feel good? What if we banned the importation of film by tourists, and awarded the farmers the exclusive Kodak franchise? Let them sell film at twenty dollars a roll! The tourists, who are the main beneficiaries of the elephants in any case, would be shelling out to save them. The farmers, who are being ruined by them, would have a leg up." This example, Brown cautions, is merely illustrative, but it typifies economists' approach to conserving biodiversity. If the benefits of saving a species are tangible and measurable, they point out, why not turn over the task to a private party who is willing to bear the cost in exchange for a share of those benefits?

In the best cases the method is simple: convert the commons into private property that can be marketed. Weyerhaeuser's five acres of yew seedlings embody this transformation. The nursery is the result of an agreement between the tree company and a drug company, Bristol-Myers Squibb. Bristol-Myers researchers were interested in taxol as soon as they learned of its novel properties, but they were dismayed by the obstacles involved in producing it. When the hopeful results from the first clinical trials appeared, the firm began thinking that production might be worth the effort. Last January the National Cancer Institute signed an agreement with Bristol-Myers to cooperate in the development of the drug. Bristol Myers had been investigating three major methods of increasing the taxol supply: synthesizing the drug, growing yew cells in the laboratory, and tree farming. For their part, Weyerhaeuser researchers had begun in 1987 to explore the chemistry, genetics, and husbandry of yews. After Bristol Myers Squibb concluded its agreement with the NCI, Weyerhaeuser quietly negotiated with the drug maker. Last August the two companies announced a joint project to learn more about yew trees. If research and regulatory hurdles can be overcome, the domesticated yew could become a renewable source for a cancer medicine. In that case, says Steve Hee, Weyerhaeuser's nursery manager, "growing yews will become something that a lot of different people get involved in—it's the American way."

In the next few years Weyerhaeuser will plant ten million yews, preserve yew seeds from the wild to ensure the tree's continued genetic diversity, open its land to yew-bark collectors in areas where the company is about to harvest its prime crop, Douglas fir, and search for ways to increase the taxol yield in the tree. Other forest-product companies will doubtless follow. No government agency ordered them to save the yew. Acting out of greed, that disquieting emotion, the same companies that burned yews indiscriminately only a few years ago will now spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to grow and protect millions of T. brevifolia. The yew will join the rose, the orange, and the cow—species that flourish because of the marketplace.

Economists concede that not all stories can have such a happy ending. Yews stay in one place, making them easy to own. When a species has a large range, however, establishing property rights isn't practical. No one person could own monarch butterflies in the wild, because they migrate from Mexico to Canada. Moreover, the number of species with medical potential is small compared with the range of the world's living things. Most of the useful ones, NCI microbiologists say, are likely to be protozoa, algae, soil fungi, and the like—millions of unlovable organisms that contain a staggering array of genetic diversity. Finally, as David Ehrenfeld, the author of the Noah Principle, has written, "economic criteria of value are shifting, fluid, and utterly opportunistic in their practical application." Again, the yew may be an example. Weyerhaeuser's investment in the tree is a gamble: the company is betting that nobody will find a cheap way to synthesize taxol. But in 1988 researchers were already calling the drug "the number one target today of synthetic organic chemists," and interest has only increased since then. From a patient's point of view, cheaper taxol is better taxol. If that taxol comes from a vat, Weyerhaeuser and other timber firms will drop the yew like a weed. The species will be on its own again.

"What exasperates me is the reluctance to try [the market] approach even when it is practical," says John Goldstein, an economist at the Department of the Interior. "Sure, markets won't save everything. But why won't people set them up when they can be useful?" One reason is that preserving the yew in a nursery is not the same as preserving it in the deep green-black shade of the forests that are the tree's natural setting. To conservationists, species are not sustained if they live only in zoos, on farms, or in seed banks. Biologists have scientific reasons for worrying about zoo populations—these tend to be small enough to risk losing genetic variability—but their larger distress is aesthetic and moral. Trained to view all living things as worthy, they are reluctant to assign high value to one species, because it implies assigning lower value to other species. "By assigning value to diversity," Ehrenfeld has argued, "we merely legitimize the process that is wiping it out." Markets, in this view, ineluctably sin against the Noah Principle. Our fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth should not be for sale.

To economists, this attitude is baffling. "We can't save every species out there," Gardner Brown says. "But we can save a lot of them if we want to, and save them in ways that make sense economically and scientifically. To do that, we have to make some choices about which species we're going to preserve. And nobody wants to do that! Nobody!"

Is that because they are dismayed by the prospect of playing God?

"Oh, sure. But in this case God is just sitting on His hands, which is a pretty dangerous thing for Him to do."

Presented by

What LBJ Really Said About Selma

"It's outrageous what's on TV. It looks like that man is in charge of the country."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


What LBJ Really Said About Selma

"It's going to go from bad to worse."


Does This Child Need Marijuana?

Inside a family's fight to use marijuana oils to treat epilepsy


A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.


Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In