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Photo of a blue-spotted salamander
Thinking Like a Salamander

by Bruce Stutz

Q: What's black and blue, shares your backyard, and wishes you weren't there?

ANSWER: The blue-spotted salamander, whose modest living quarters are easily overlooked in the headlong rush of development.

Winter in the Northeast, when forest ponds freeze and no cold-blooded thing moves, can be hard on a herpetologist. So Michael Klemens, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx, New York, whose work on amphibians and reptiles has taken him around the world, looks for signs of spring sooner than most.

"There comes a time around the end of February," says Klemens, "when I really start to get a quickening, because I see the days are markedly brighter. I start to see the buds swelling, or I think they're beginning to swell -- wishful swelling -- and I start to think, 'Well, I've got to get my minnow traps and dip nets ready.' And I watch the jet stream. I watch the weather patterns. I start to prognosticate. I begin to think salamander thoughts."

Photo of Michael KlemensI've seen Klemens think such thoughts. When he worked in the herpetology department at the American Museum of Natural History, I often accompanied him on field trips in search of specimens. On a quick-paced stream or forest reconnoiter filled with his running analysis of habitat conditions -- as a naturalist he's a great play-by-play man -- he would halt midstride and midsentence, bend, turn a log or a rock, and make a discovery. When his research took him to Africa I'd hear tales of great finds and near-finds. But each time he returned he found himself faced with the fact that from New York City up the Atlantic Coast into New England, the widening urban corridor threatened the last open land. "They are moving into my refugia," he told me -- they being his fellow humans, and his refugia being the last remaining places where amphibians live and breed.

The facts make clear what was happening. From 1970 to 1990 the population in the New York metropolitan area increased by less than 10 percent, but during the same period the amount of developed land increased by more than 60 percent. Communities were no longer being clustered around village greens; rather, housing developments, roads connecting housing developments, and shopping malls with asphalt aprons big as airport tarmacs were sprawling across the landscape. While existing laws might protect the wetlands or woodlands on a particular property, no laws made it necessary to connect the protected lands on one property with those on another.

As a result, Klemens's creatures -- those whose lives depend on the connections between open water and open land -- and those species that need large tracts of woodland to survive were being trapped, isolated on smaller and smaller "protected" islands in a sea of sprawl. With their migration routes blocked, some species might disappear altogether. Each year, spring brought Klemens less joy.

So he came up with a plan. He would, he told me, take the kind of conservation he was promoting in Africa and apply it here at home. Get people to think beyond the boundaries created by private and public land; plan for wildlife preservation and economic development at the same time; work every angle and educate every special interest; make sure all the players know they have something to gain from intelligent growth. His aim, he says, was to change what he calls "the conversation" between the interests of development and the interests of conservation. For Klemens, development that preserved habitat for wildlife would also prove beneficial to people. Suburbs across the country were already experiencing the misery of sprawl -- jammed highways leading to more and more isolated cul-de-sacs -- and developers were beginning to create clustered communities that re-created the ideals of small village living. Klemens believed that encouraging such communities to connect their open spaces one to another would give wildlife a better chance to survive.

He left his job in the herpetology department of the American Museum of Natural History. "They said, 'Your job as a scientist is to record extinction and not get involved with it. It's a violation of the scientific method.' I said piffle" -- and moved to the Wildlife Conservation Society. In 1997, under the society's auspices, Klemens established the Metropolitan Conservation Alliance (MCA) and set up an office in Rye, New York, a respectable old suburb in Westchester County, just north of the city, now surrounded by highways leading to newer suburbs north and west. Klemens had grown up in the county and seen the disappearance of forests where he'd collected since childhood. He knew what needed to be preserved and now believed he had a way to do it.

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Bruce Stutz is the former editor-in-chief of Natural History magazine. His book Chasing Spring will be published by Scribner's in spring 2005.

Photos: Bill Foley
Map: Blue Marble Maps

OnEarth. Summer 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council