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Endangered Plants and Ecosystems - Plant Conservation

species percent medicinal forest

Protection under the Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 protects listed plants from deliberate destruction or vandalism. Plants also receive protection under the consultation requirements of the act—that is, all federal agencies must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine how best to conserve species as well as to ensure that no issued permits will jeopardize listed species or harm their habitats.

However, many conservationists believe that plants receive less protection than animals under the Endangered Species Act. First, the Endangered Species Act only protects plants that are found on federal lands. It imposes no restrictions on private landowners whose property is home to endangered plants. Critics also complain that the Fish and Wildlife Service has been slow to list plant species. Hundreds of plant species first proposed for listing in 1976 are still awaiting action. Critics also charge that damage to plant habitats is not addressed with the same seriousness as for animal species. The Fish and Wildlife Service only rarely designates critical habitat for plant species, and only rarely acquires national wildlife refuges to protect plants. Finally, of all Fish and Wildlife Service funds spent on threatened and endangered species, about half goes to a handful of listed animal species. Plants typically receive less than 3 percent of the total, and about 15 percent of plant species receive no funding at all—twice the proportion of animals that receive no funding.

In June 2000, in an effort to bolster conservation efforts for plants, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced an agreement with the Center for Plant Conservation, a national association of botanical gardens and arboreta. The two groups will cooperate in developing conservation measures to help save North American plant species, particularly those listed as threatened or endangered. Central to the effort will be the creation of educational programs aimed at informing the public about the importance of plant species for aesthetic, economic, biological, and medical reasons. The Center for Plant Conservation will also aid in developing recovery plans for listed species.


Wildcrafting describes the harvest of forest resources for profit or recreation without damaging habitat. Wildcrafting has enjoyed a resurgence since the government and courts curtailed logging on public land in the early 1990s. The wildcrafting industry brings in hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

In 1995 American exports of commercial moss and lichen alone amounted to $14 million, according to U.S. Forest Service scientists. Mushrooms—matsutakes, chanterelles, and morels—also bring good prices. Burls, hard woody growths on trees, which become unusually attractive when sanded and polished, can be used for furniture, cabinets, and trims. Ferns and shrubs for floral arrangements, Christmas greens, and more than 100 medicinal herbs are also collected.

The U.S. Forest Service, which issues permits to wildcrafters on public lands, is still examining how much wildcrafters can harvest without causing damage. Some rangers and environmentalists worry that forest products may be over-harvested, causing habitat damage, or that trampling will damage the forest floor.

Plant-Derived Medications

Numerous plant species have medicinal uses—in fact, the global market in plant-derived medications is worth $40 billion annually. Unfortunately, less than 1 percent of plant species have been evaluated for potential medical use. With as many as 50 plant species disappearing daily, botanists calculate that the planet's diversity could be reduced by 10 percent by the year 2015. Extinction will deprive future generations of potentially powerful medications. The rapid destruction of tropical rainforests is particularly alarming, as 60 percent of higher plant species occupy those ecosystems.

Between 25 and 40 percent of all prescription drugs in the United States contain active ingredients derived from plants. For example, Cinchona ledgeriana is the source of quinine, the oldest malaria medicine. The Madagascar periwinkle, found in a country that has lost 80 percent of its vegetation, provides two potent compounds used in the treatment of cancer. Vinblastine is used to treat Hodgkin's disease, and vincristine is used to treat leukemia. Sales of these two drugs exceed $180 million a year. Wild yam is the source of diosgenin (a key ingredient in some oral contraceptives), steroids, and muscle relaxants used in anesthesia. Morphine, a powerful pain medication, comes from the opium poppy. Scopolamine, a drug used for motion sickness, is derived from a plant called Hyocyamus niger. Taxol, a drug used to treat ovarian cancer, comes from the Pacific yew.

Numerous plants are also found on the non-prescription medicinal herb market. In the United States, some 175 North American species alone are available on the non-prescription market. In North America and Europe, herbal medicine markets have increased by 10 percent per year for over a decade. Examples of medicinal herbs include mullein, which is said to relieve asthma, and ginseng, which is claimed to boost vitality.

The use of medicinal plants is even greater in non-industrial societies, where large segments of the population rely on traditional medicine. Traditional healers in South Asia use nearly 2,000 plant species. Over 5,000 species are used by traditional healers in China. Over 1,300 species are used by healers in Amazonia. Furthermore, nearly 100 commercial drugs derived from plants were originally discovered by traditional healers.

Medicinal plants are declining in many areas as a result of habitat degradation and non-sustainable use. In fact, a report from the New Scientist ("Herbal medicine boom threatens plants," 8 January 2004) suggests that, of the 50,000 medicinal plants in use, two-thirds are harvested from the wild, and 4,000–10,000 of these are now endangered. Because health fads change constantly, causing demand for certain plants to change to over time, herbal remedy companies have little incentive to harvest in a sustainable way.

The African cherry, used by traditional healers in Cameroon, has declined so much due to overexploitation that the market has now collapsed. Much of the African cherry harvested had been exported to Western Europe, where the plant is used to treat prostate disease. In North America, medically valuable species such as the Pacific yew, a "trash" evergreen found in old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, have been cleared to make way for tree species profitable to the timber industry. The cessation of logging in the Pacific Northwest—in order to protect northern spotted owl habitat as required by the Endangered Species Act—has protected the Pacific yew as well.

In 1990 the National Institute for Biodiversity in Costa Rica entered into a landmark deal with Merck, a pharmaceutical company, in which the institute would provide rights to drug exploration, while Merck would fund tropical forest conservation and research. Tropical forests have produced at least forty-seven major pharmaceutical drugs, and scientists estimate that several hundred more plants with medicinal properties have yet to be discovered. This agreement became a model for other such arrangements. However, no deals were attempted in the United States until 1996, when the idea caught the attention of U.S. conservationists. That year Dr. James Tiedje, director of the National Science Foundation's Center for Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University, reported that a single gram of temperate forest soil could harbor as many as 10,000 species of bacteria. By 2000 a group of drug manufacturers had agreed to support a 270-acre pharmaceutical preserve in upstate New York, the first preserve outside the tropics set aside specifically for chemical prospecting. Scientists already have discovered a mold that produces a substance called cyclosporin, which is used to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs.

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