Our Living Resources

By Nicholas A. DiPasquale, Secretary, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control

You don't hear the term "biodiversity" used in everyday conversation, but, like the air we breathe and the water we drink, it is absolutely essential to our continued existence. According to the Ecological Society of America, biodiversity is defined as follows: "Short for biological diversity, biodiversity includes all organisms, species, and populations; the genetic variation among these; and all their complex assemblages of communities and ecosystems." In the most simple of terms, biodiversity refers to all plant and animal life and the ecological infrastructure that supports it.

Throughout human existence, we have relied upon our living resources to feed, clothe and shelter us. The earliest humans were able to sustain themselves by hunting and fishing and gathering nuts and berries. Later they developed agriculture and harvested crops for food and fiber. They used wool and cotton to make fabrics. They used wood timber for building homes and industry. They used herbs and botanicals for medicine. Although the world economy is now based largely on petrochemicals, these substances are not renewable and cannot sustain the economy or human life in the long run.

In addition to supporting life directly, biodiversity also provides indirect services to humans that are not so obvious. Various insects and plants help to break down organic matter to create fertile soils, filter water and clean the air. Birds and insects also help to pollinate fruit-bearing plants, food crops and flowers. Plants and animals also are used for medical purposes. Blood from the ancient horseshoe crab is used for testing the purity of medical substances. Extract from the common May apple is used to treat testicular cancer. Biodiversity also has an intrinsic and aesthetic value. Who can deny the beauty of blossoming spring flowers or the symphony of birdsong upon waking in the morning.

Other potential economic uses for biological resources are being explored. A biotechnology company recently entered into a controversial agreement with national park officials giving the company "bioprospecting" rights. The first-of-its-kind agreement would allow the company to prospect for biological resources within Yellowstone Park in exchange for a share of the profits and park employee training. Yellowstone's hot springs and geysers contain microbes that produce enzymes thought to have potential for use as industrial detergents and as a water treatment for oil spills. The agreement has been challenged and upheld in federal court.

Yet, as important as biodiversity is to sustaining human life, for its medical uses and applications and for its present and potential economic values, we really know very little about the variety of plant and animal life found on earth. What we do know is that these living resources are facing multiple threats from habitat alteration, loss and destruction due to development and poor land-use planning, from the introduction and proliferation of exotic and invasive species such as phragmites and purple loosestrife that choke out native species, from pollution and contamination that may impact benthic organisms and macroinvertebrates causing ecosystem disruption. Even ozone is being implicated as a potential cause of plant and animal mutations.

In 1999, DNREC, in collaboration with the Delaware Nature Society (DNS) and the Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Delaware, and with support and guidance from the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), conducted a review of a vast array of laws and programs for protecting and conserving the state's living resources. The final report, issued in December 1999 and titled "Protecting Delaware's Natural Heritage: Tools for Biodiversity Conservation", offers a clear and persuasive set of recommendations for using or modifying existing laws to promote biodiversity conservation. The report's recommendations were presented to the Cabinet Committee on State Planning Issues in May with a request that a Biodiversity Implementation Strategy Workgroup be formed to review and prioritize the recommendations and to develop an implementation strategy to act on them. The implementation strategy would be presented to an Executive Committee for consideration and endorsement. A conference is being planned for the Fall to inform the public and key decision-makers and to solicit their input on the implementation strategy.

The State of Delaware has done much to preserve open space and agricultural lands over the past decade. We have conducted inventories of plant and animal species through our Natural Heritage Program and have identified state resource areas for protection. We have a number of programs in place to promote biodiversity conservation. However, the present pace and historical patterns of development and the lack of effective land use planning have taken their toll on the state's ecological infrastructure. The value of protecting living resources, both locally and globally, is becoming increasingly apparent and critical. We are unable to reclaim or restore a species once it is lost to extinction. Biodiversity conservation provides a unifying theme for integrating our environmental protection programs with our natural resource management efforts. The ELI report provides us with a roadmap to the future.

Understanding Biodiversity

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