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Computerized Ecology

UNITED States Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and the National Academy of Sciences, with the support of Vice President Al Gore Jr. and others, have launched an initiative that could change the tone and direction of the nation's environmental debates.

They envision a vast research database to help build common ground between those in the legitimate business of exploiting natural resources and those who seek to keep such activity in bounds.

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The academy has urged establishment of a central information bank on US plant and animal life, and Babbitt has established the National Biological Survey to oversee the Interior Department's nationwide research program.

These are sound proposals. Such a database could serve as a cross-check on claims by industries, environmentalists, and politicians as they argue their positions and evolve policy. It also could provide a repository for practical information on how others have fared in factoring environmental regulations into industrial and development planning.

Dr. Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and chairman of the project, makes the case for an all-out effort: ``We need to develop strategies for managing all kinds of activities, including conservation, across a big environment region.''

Babbitt, who earlier this year broke new policy ground in Western cattle-raising and mining states by raising fees, seeks to have naturalists and resource extractors be partners instead of adversaries. The role of the huge and growing ecological database is central to the undertaking.

Researchers will tackle diverse questions, such as seeking ways of harvesting timber more safely and efficiently, building shopping centers with the least amount of ecological impact to surrounding areas, and using biological organisms to develop new crops or industrial materials. The plan includes granting scholarships in ecological sciences. Several proposals involving a large number of projects already have been presented.

Financing and opposition from private natural-resource businesses are likely to challenge at least parts of the program. Some political and economic interests are not sure that such an inclusive, widely available information service should influence policy in areas they have long dominated.

But if conservationists and extractors can resort to a huge fund of information they can trust, more-satisfactory environmental policies can result.


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