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Key steps taken to preserve the U.S.'s marine heritage

In the relatively short time since Issues published two articles on the state of marine conservation ["Saving Marine Biodiversity," by Robert J. Wilder, Mia J. Tegner, and Paul K. Dayton (Spring 1999)] and my article ["Creating Havens for Marine Life" (Fall 1999)], there have been potentially significant advances in protecting this country's marine heritage. The conservation of coastal and open-ocean areas has now become a top priority for U.S. government agencies, environmental groups, and states and municipalities.

Arguably the most significant of the changes is the executive order signed by President Clinton on May 26, 2000, creating the framework for a national system of marine protected areas. This historic and ambitious policy statement sets the stage for better interagency cooperation in protecting the U.S. marine environment, though it does not stipulate new appropriations or regulations. The order calls for strengthening management of existing marine protected areas, creating new protected areas that conserve a full range of representative habitats in a systematic and strategic network, and preventing harm to marine ecosystems by federally approved, conducted, or funded activity.

The president's declaration directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of the Interior to convene a group from a variety of federal departments and agencies to work together in creating the new national system of protected areas. An advisory committee of nongovernmental scientists, resource managers, and environmentalists will work with the agencies to help identify priorities for future habitat protection in U.S. waters. At the same time, NOAA has been directed to establish a Marine Protected Areas Center to provide information and technology to governments at all levels so that they may adequately protect marine and coastal areas. All in all, the order will move the country in the direction of valuing marine areas as much as we value our national parks and other areas on land, and it is precisely what was advocated by the two Issues articles.

In March 2000, President Clinton, following up on a 1998 executive order that established the interagency U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, adopted an action plan for U.S. coral reefs. This statement of intent to protect the country's reefs, which are found near Florida, Hawaii, Guam, the Northern Marianas, and America Samoa, arose from the task force's finding that reef ecosystems under U.S. jurisdiction were not being adequately protected. The plan calls for strengthening the management of U.S. coral reefs through the creation of protected areas and for taking measures to stem degradation from land-based pollution sources and other threats that affect reef ecosystems.

In an action that has created much controversy, the plan would set aside 20 percent of currently existing coral reef protected areas as no-take fisheries reserves. This somewhat arbitrary target is troubling for a number of reasons: 1) the 20 percent figure is based on a limited number of studies of certain fish species in a few places; 2) rigorous scientific studies have shown that in most marine ecosystems, a much higher proportion of area must be set aside as no-take if the goal is to use the protected area to maintain the production of fish and other marine life; and 3) quantitative targets give no guidance whatsoever about what kind of areas should be protected and how. Like other marine scientists, I fear that in the rush to meet the 20 percent target, policymakers, seeking to avoid controversy, will establish these no-take zones in places where they are least needed. Yet in order to maximize the benefits of marine protected areas, it is crucial that the most biologically important areas be set aside. Ultimately, how the Coral Reef Action Plan gets played out, and the extent to which federal agencies cooperate in working to achieve its goals, will inform the future of marine conservation in the United States and elsewhere.


Property rights debate cools, but does not end

In "Takings Policy: Property Rights and Wrongs" (Issues, Fall 1993), Sharon Dennis and I argued that the rise of the "takings" or "property rights" agenda represented a significant threat to the public's ability to adopt and enforce environmental laws.

The takings issue derives its inspiration from the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides that "private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation." Originally intended to apply only to outright appropriations of property, such as for the construction of roads or public buildings, the amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to also apply to regulations that are the functional equivalent of appropriations. Takings advocates contend that the legislatures or the courts should expand on the protection provided by the Fifth Amendment. This could ultimately undermine regulatory authority if the government had to pay property owners each time it acted to protect the environment.

Since 1993, dozens of state legislatures have debated takings legislation. About 20 states have adopted measures, most of them largely symbolic, requiring state agencies to assess the potential effects of their actions on property rights. Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas have enacted laws mandating public payment for certain regulations over and above the constitutional "just compensation" standard; although the Florida law in particular has had a significant chilling effect on local land use regulation, the effects in the other states are either more modest or uncertain.

In 1994, a takings measure adopted by the Arizona legislature was rejected by the voters at the ballot box by a margin of 60 to 40, and Washington voters rejected a similar measure by the same margin in 1996, resulting in a significant cooling of political interest in the takings issue at the state level. (On the other hand, a takings measure has been placed on the November 2000 ballot in Oregon.)

In Congress, expansive takings legislation was a centerpiece of the "Contract with America" promoted by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in the 104th Congress. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate. Takings measures have been debated in Congress every year since, but support for the takings agenda has gradually waned. Today, the primary federal takings bill, being championed by the National Association of Homebuilders, would permit developers to bypass local administrative procedures and sue local governments earlier and more often in federal court.

Although aggressive takings measures have stalled in Congress, the takings issue certainly remains an important legislative issue. The property issue is the primary obstacle to the reauthorizations of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, which have both been pending for a decade. In addition, the influence of the takings agenda is reflected in the environmental community's present emphasis on conservation funding measures, such as the proposed Conservation and Reinvestment Act, which would provide billions of dollars to land owners for conservation purposes.

In the courts, the takings issue is in equipoise. In general, the Supreme Court, and most lower federal and state courts, refuse to find a taking a taking unless a law eliminates essentially all of the property's value. Because even land that is highly regulated for conservation purposes likely has some significant market value, takings are few and far between in the courts. Thus, the hope of takings advocates that the Fifth Amendment could be converted into an important new sword for striking down economic regulation has gone unfulfilled. However, the future course of the takings issue, like that of many other issues, could be significantly affected by the next president's appointments to the Supreme Court.

At different times in our history, the United States has debated the property rights issue; for example, when minimum wage and maximum hour laws were introduced or when local governments first adopted zoning laws. Taking the long view, today's debate over property rights and environmental protection will likely turn out to be another transitory moment in the evolving conception of property rights and responsibilities in an increasingly complex and crowded society.


Is the nation's top talent opting out of science and engineering?

The "Real Numbers" section in the Spring 1997 Issues analyzed data collected by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST) ( in its Best & Brightest report about the quality of students pursuing education in science and engineering. The study found that undergraduate programs in science and engineering (S&E) were attracting more than their share of National Merit Scholars and of students with grade point averages of A­ or better. The study also found that interest in doctoral programs remained high among S&E majors, although there was a net outflow of top talent from S&E in graduate school, particularly among students in the biological sciences who moved to medical school.

CPST, in cooperation with the University of Washington, has since taken a deeper look at quality issues at the graduate level. The second study, Best & Brightest: Are Science and Engineering Graduate Programs Attracting the Best Students? found that there was a notable decrease during the 1990s in the numbers of U.S. citizen and permanent resident students with high GRE quantitative scores indicating their intent to pursue graduate study in all the natural sciences or engineering fields except the biological sciences. The number of students with a GRE quantitative score of 700 or above indicating intent to pursue graduate S&E studies fell 22 percent between 1992 and 1998. The decrease was 37 percent in mathematical sciences, 34 percent in engineering, 18 percent in computer science, and 11 percent in the physical sciences. The number expressing an interest in the biological sciences increased by 42 percent. The results were essentially the same for students who scored above 750. The number of high scorers indicating their intention to pursue graduate study in non-S&E fields changed hardly at all over this period. Thus, S&E evidently lost significant ground in attracting its share of the "best and brightest" U.S. students. These declines were concentrated among men and among whites. The numbers of high-scoring women and minorities interested in graduate study in S&E fields showed modest gains.

The apparent decline in interest in S&E graduate study did not have a measurable effect on the proportion of top students among newly enrolled cohorts of U.S. students in the top universities. Data on a limited sample of S&E disciplines and institutions from the Association of American Universities, the organization of the major research universities, reveal no sign of such declines through 1996. However, absolute numbers of top U.S. students generally fell along with total enrollments in these departments.

Overall, graduate enrollment in S&E in Ph.D.-granting institutions declined between 1993 and 1997, but in general those departments ranked highest by the National Research Council experienced average or smaller than average declines. Top departments in chemistry, chemical engineering, and electrical engineering experienced greater than average declines in enrollment of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Enrollment of noncitizens followed the pattern of decline of citizens, except in the fields of computer science and electrical engineering.

Although it does not appear that the supply of top students going into S&E at the undergraduate level is declining, there is evidence that fewer of the best and brightest U.S. students are entering graduate S&E programs.