Renewal Across Boundaries
by Ann Floor

University of Utah scholars are actively engaged in research involving international conservation designed to maintain and restore endangered habitats. Their projects ranging from birds to bats, and craters to mountain peaks have taken them to the far corners of the world. For William Newmark, Eric Rickart, and Robert Keiter and, they argue, for the rest of us environmental concerns are, by definition, global matters.

William Newmark

Bill Newmark's desk faces a three-foot square window that frames a fan circulating the air in his office on the third floor of the Utah Museum of Natural History. Big green leaves of ivy hang like feathers around the opening. It's a little noisy, but it brings the outdoors inside.

"I have always had an incredible attraction and love for the natural world. To see how much it's changed in my lifetime has convinced me that this is the most important thing I could do," Newmark says.

Researching extinction patterns of birds in forest fragments, and large mammals in Tanzanian national parks in East Africa has been his passion for the past 11 years. Because of the richness of its animal community and the rapid pace of environmental change, Tanzania is one of the easiest places on Earth to study extinctions. The principles he is discovering can be applied to extinctions in the rest of the world, including Utah.

"The Tanzanian parks are becoming 'habitat islands' engulfed by more and more cultural and human development. As the encroaching development diminishes the size of the parks, animal and bird populations in turn have become smaller and more isolated. Now we're starting to pick up extinctions within the parks," says Newmark.

Once the dynamics of the populations within protected areas are understood, strategies to temper the effects of isolation can be developed. Aside from more intensive management within the parks, the most effective strategy has been to link the parks to wildlife corridors habitats that permit the movement of wildlife between two ecologically isolated areas.

Newmark visited Tanzania after graduate school and was astonished by its exotic beauty. "There's no place in the world that has a greater diversity and number of large mammals. Ngorongoro Crater clearly is one of the most spectacular wonders of the world. It is a large caldera [a volcanic crater formed by collapse of the central part of a volcano] five miles in diameter. The top of the crater is almost a half mile above the crater floor, which is home to the highest density of large mammalian predators any place in the world lions, hyenas, cheetahs. It made a very distinct impression," he adds.

Newmark's research on the effects of forest fragmentation on understory birds (those living and feeding within two meters of the ground) is meant to gain an understanding of why certain forest bird species are becoming extinct. His research has ruled out food, competition, and microclimate (temperature, relative humidity, and light) and is now pointing toward the change in structure of the understory vegetation. When a forest is disturbed, the amount of light coming into the forest increases. This in turn stimulates the growth of low-lying plants, creating a physical barrier to the movement and feeding of the birds that reside in it.

Even while these discoveries are made and understanding is increased, concern remains among biologists worldwide who predict that 20 percent of the world's species will be lost in the next 30 years. "This is a crisis. It's not even on the horizon; it's something we're dealing with every day," says Newmark. He blames the exponential growth in human population in the last few centuries and an even more rapid increase in the rate of consumption of resources for the resulting extinctions.

"We know what to do. The science is good enough that we can make the recommendations that would significantly reduce this loss in the future. The real challenge is to the political will on the parts of governments, whether they really want to reduce this loss of species worldwide," says Newmark.

William Newmark is Research Curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah.

Eric Rickart

For the past 10 years, Eric Rickart has been part of a small team of conservation biologists involved in biodiversity projects in the Philippines. "Our initial goal was to document patterns of distribution and to understand the evolutionary and geographic history of how life has unfolded there. And that has helped develop an understanding of how local communities of animals are structured," he says.

Because the Philippines have never had a land connection to mainland Asia, everything on the islands has arrived either by air or water. Such isolation offers biologists an opportunity to study fundamental natural processes in the evolution and development of living systems. "What you find are endemic species. The largest bats in the world are there: fruit-eating flying foxes' that have dog-like faces they're as big as eagles," Rickart enthusiastically reports. Among the smallest bats in the world live there too.

In addition to bats and mega-rats, the Philippines also provide the opportunity to study how life unfolds in an island archipelago. "There are hundreds of islands in the Philippines, and there are as many independent experiments going on in the development of biological communities," according to Rickart.

Biologists have only recently begun conducting research in many of these areas. When specimens are found in previously unexplored regions, every animal captured needs to be identified. "In many cases we're finding things that nobody has ever found before. It is incredibly exciting here at the end of the twentieth century to be discovering new species. I've made five trips to the Philippines, staying from one to five months, and each time, we've discovered at least one new species."

The records of the Philippines are not complete. Rickart adds, "It takes time and resources to do things like basic biological inventories. But people are doing it because they realize it is critical. We need to understand what maintains biological diversity." Like Bill Newmark, Rickart believes that too many people and the exploitation of nonrenewable resources are the biggest threats to biodiversity. "We tend to think that we understand everything there is to know about the distribution of life, and nothing could be further from the truth. We may know something about the big patterns, but there are many small details that we don't yet understand."

Eric Rickart is curator of vertebrates at the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah.

Robert Keiter

During the fall of 1993, Bob Keiter spent five months as a Senior Fulbright scholar at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, India. While there, he helped develop the first university curriculum in environmental law in Nepal, conducted conservation research, and consulted with government agencies and conservation organizations.

"I wanted to understand how Nepal's conservation and national park policies have evolved over the short period of 25 years since its first park was established. And more importantly, I wanted to understand how Nepal, which is one of the world's poorest countries (with a per capita annual income of $160 per person), has been able to successfully address vital conservation issues when the human population living near its parks has very real economic needs associated directly with the land," says Keiter. Most of Nepal's rural residents engage in subsistence agriculture. Not only are inhabitants struggling to make a living, but their efforts take a heavy toll on the surrounding landscape; it's quite remarkable that the Nepalese have been able to initiate such strong conservation policies.

There are challenges, however. Conservation efforts are often met with skepticism and concern by the indigenous people of Nepal; government regulations interfering with how inhabitants go about making their living are perceived as threatening their existence. But in areas of Nepal where national parks and tourism have been established, local communities have become more accepting of conservation efforts, and some regard national park designations and the tourists they bring as an opportunity for economic development.

That has been especially evident in the Sherpa region surrounding Sagarmatha, or Mt. Everest National Park, located in the highest part of the Himalayas. The Sherpa communities flanking Everest have capitalized on Western tourism by guiding and providing other services and goods, and by building and maintaining lodgings for trekkers. "You see a number of the Sherpa people becoming financially dependent upon tourism, and where that has occurred, there has been general support for a strong conservation regime. But where that has not occurred, local people are a bit less accepting of the idea of a central regulatory authority governing their access to lands and resources," says Keiter.

So, in 1992 Nepal passed legislation to better integrate national conservation efforts with local concerns. Nepal's policymakers created incentives to encourage local people to support conservation efforts: they are returning to local communities some of the national park entrance fees collected from tourists. (Overall, tourism revenues account for the largest percentage of foreign income coming into the country.) The funds can be used to promote both economic development and conservation measures with the local people. "This gives the communities a meaningful link to the conservation effort," adds Keiter.

This same legislation enables park managers to designate buffer zones on lands surrounding national parks so that the full ecological realm that encompasses the parks can be better managed. It also created local advisory boards. This integration brings the villagers living in areas surrounding the park into the management picture and strengthens the comprehensive effort.

Keiter is also encouraged by Nepal's innovative concept of "conservation areas," which allows a careful combination of uses and functions somewhat like the multiple-use designation in the United States. With local residents involved in resource decisions, these conservation areas integrate preservation efforts with the use of the land and its resources, and offer a model for addressing conservation in other parts of the world.

One way these successful models can be shared is through academic programs. Keiter notes that one Nepali faculty acquaintance has since earned a master's degree from the College of Law, and is now finishing his doctoral degree in law on biodiversity conservation efforts in Nepal and the developing world. As the first Nepali ever to earn such an advanced law degree from an American university (University of Wisconsin), he intends to return to teach environmental law at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.

The University of Utah law school's master of law program recruits students internationally (and domestically) for its advanced program in natural resources and environmental law. "We've had students come from a number of countries ranging from China and Peru to Ghana and Croatia; all these students will return to their native countries with expertise in environmental and natural resources law," adds Keiter. His expectation is that these international students will take with them the skills necessary to remedy the environmental damage caused by past human activities, and to implement successful strategies for future conservation.

Robert Keiter is the Wallace Stegner Professor of Law