A Silly Little $5 Billion Salamander

H. Bruce Rinker
H. Bruce Rinker

Virginia Sneezeweed and the Cow Knob Salamander. Their common names sound like droll Dr. Seuss characters.

Their scientific names, on the other hand, resonate with conservation significance: Helenium virginicum and Plethodon punctatus, respectively.

For this column, let’s just call them Helenium and Plethodon.

Though the first is a plant, and the other an animal, they both have two unfortunate features in common. Both are endangered species. And both have stood, or are standing, in the way of development in western Virginia.

Helenium is a kind of “stop sign” for the residential development of farmland and the expansion of roads into four-lane highways. Plethodon is an economic nuisance for a natural gas pipeline projected to cost $5 billion.

Both species are teensy weensy Davids in the battlefields of growth against the Goliaths of industry and politics. Sadly, as history attests, these little warriors do not always win the day.

No matter how you view them, Helenium and Plethodon are both diminutive slivers of Creation (the former probably 45 million years old, the latter 150 million) with regrettably derisory common names – a handy thing to be presented if you’re a dodgy developer, corporate executive, or politician.

Why in the world don’t taxonomists think about this when they’re assigning official names to species? Instead of Sneezeweed, for example, why didn’t they pick “Tears of Helen of Troy” (thus the genus name, Helenium) or “Queen of the Wetlands” (where it often grows)? But Sneezeweed?

Why would you slow down a $5 billion project for a silly little thing called Sneezeweed or Cow Knob Salamander? It harkens back to the Snail Darter controversy at Tennessee’s Tellico Dam in the late 1970s. In case you’ve forgotten, the Snail Darter (christened “a stupid little fish” by pro-developers) lost and the dam was built. Fortunately, remnant populations of the fish were located later in other streams in the region so the species did not go extinct globally. Thank God.

Yes, thank God. Given the litany of species in North America that we humans have jettisoned into oblivion since the days of Columbus – the Passenger Pigeon (d. 1914), Carolina Parakeet (d. 1939), Dusky Seaside Sparrow (d. 1987), and Ivory-billed Woodpecker (d. 1994) among them – it has always perplexed me that a Nation founded plainly on Judeo-Christian principles has so nonchalantly turned its back time and again on the Biblical call for stewardship. It’s curious how we’re stirred more by the enchantments of Mammon than by the mutterings of our Prophets and Martyrs, no matter how adamantly we profess those selfsame principles.

Throughout my career as a scientist and conservationist, I have witnessed policymakers laugh out loud (otherwise all good Christian people, no doubt) when I’ve referenced Sneezeweed, Cow Knob Salamander, or similar species as reason why we should halt, or alter, the tide of progress. A stupid little fish. A stupid little flower. A stupid, and slimy, little amphibian. Once it’s demonized, and pitted against jobs, revenues, or even unborn children (I actually heard that argument in Florida years ago), the plant or animal in question doesn’t stand a chance.

Further, an inelegant name can actually help to accelerate its demise.

The late Aldo Leopold, a noted conservationist, once wrote that the key to intelligent tinkering is to keep all the cogs and wheels. We love to tinker with Nature. As a species, we seem unable to resist plowing, bulldozing, fragmenting, shoveling, burning, knocking down, and raising up every conceivable feature of the Natural World. But, like any smart tinkerer, we need to protect all species native in our landscapes as important parts of ecosystem health.

What novice builder of airplanes would toss out one kind of bolt or screw simply because he did not recognize its value to the overall integrity of the plane? Similarly, what smart policymaker would knowingly condemn a species to extinction because he did not appreciate its role in the economy of Nature?

Yes, we will continue to tinker with the Natural World, but there’s no excuse for doing so imprudently. Not today with the plethora of tools in our toolbox for wise resource management.

We can argue endlessly about the economic benefits of development versus the protection of “stupid little species” at taxpayers’ expense. Ultimately, it will be a question of ethics. Is it right or wrong deliberately to wipe out a species, or a significant remaining population of an irreplaceable living thing, because it stands in the way of progress?

Is $5 billion enough of a temptation for politicians and corporate executives to look the other way when it comes to responsible stewardship of lands, waterways, and biodiversity held in the public trust?

How about a dubious promise of 8,000 jobs, $15 million in new tax revenues, stable electricity and home heating prices, and significant regional air-quality benefits? Would these be enough to tempt you as a voting citizen or decision-making policymaker to lower the axe on a few silly salamanders?

How can we regard a type of organism over 150 million years old merely as a commodity to be tossed aside for convenience or profit? Let us consider that salamanders have been on Earth 300 times longer than humankind – so who’s the elder species? Which type of organism figured out long ago how to co-exist successfully with its surroundings?

As a scientist and educator, I’m OK with a chuckle over a silly name or a clownish behavior among God’s creatures. Not because the quality will help me peg the species as an article of commerce, but because the quality is instructive or simply endearing. And, yes, perhaps evocative of a Dr. Seuss character.

Let’s embrace the Sneezeweeds and Cow Knob Salamanders in our marvelously diverse Natural World as points of pride for western Virginia: yet further reason to protect our legendary landscape for its continuing role in American history. Like the sad downfall of Truffula trees in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, such slivers of Creation will continue to vanish UNLESS someone cares.

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
Ecologist, Educator, and Explorer
[email protected]

[Dr. Rinker is an ecologist and educator and, since July 2014, the Executive Director of the Valley Conservation Council in Staunton.]