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By Julie Hauserman
In the last twenty years, bad news about the environment has been coming down like acid rain. It's everywhere, and there's no escape.
Except that sometimes wilderness can still surprise with miracles.
It happened last week, when ornithologists released the astounding news that an extinct bird has come back from the dead.
"It's kind of like finding Elvis," one bird watcher told the Los Angeles Times.
"Elvis" in this case is the ivory-billed woodpecker, which hasn't been documented in the American wild since 1944. The ivory billed is an impressive, hefty black and white bird with a three-foot wingspan that looks an awful lot like a pileated woodpecker. The females have a brilliant red crest on their heads. Scientists have now found one of the birds - a male - in the Arkansas wilderness. After a year's worth of paddling through river and swamp, they've found just the one bird, and even videotaped it. But they hope he's got a mate, and maybe a little clan.
Let's all hope. Because the discovery of the ivory-billed means our hard work of saving wild places for future generations is a wise investment. It means we can use our American ingenuity, our dollars, our science, and our technology to repair the planet. We all benefit from the biological powerhouses in wilderness - not just birds like the ivory-billed woodpecker. In our unimaginably diverse peninsula nestled in the Gulf, Florida's wild lands hold secrets that haven't yet been told.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers lived in the hardwood swamps that stood here B.O. - Before Orlando. In 1924, two ivory billed woodpeckers were found in northern Osceola County. It was a big deal, because the bird had been declared extinct just a few years earlier. Incredibly, the state of Florida gave a taxidermist permission to kill and stuff the pair, and the ivory-billed disappeared.
Or so we thought.
Over the years, sightings of ivory-billed woodpeckers continued. They were spotted in North Florida, in Louisana, and in Cuba. Most of these sightings were dismissed - it's easy to confuse a female ivory-billed with a pileated woodpecker if you don't know what you're looking for. The males are more distinct, since they don't have the red crest on their heads. Dick Hinson, 79, knew what to look for. In 1964, he saw a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers pecking at a stump on his land along North Florida's Chipola River.
"I've developed a little sympathy for someone who has seen a flying saucer. When you hold yourself out as someone who has seen an ivory-billed woodpecker," Hinson said, "you get the impression that they are wondering: Is this guy a nut?"
For birders, documenting an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting has been the Holy Grail. Now the Grail has been claimed in Arkansas. The lone ivory-billed is living on the 55,000-acre Cache River National Wildlife Refuge - land that the federal government wisely set aside in 1986 as an investment in the planet. If that land had been drilled, or chopped down, or paved over, we'd never have the miracle of this tenacious bird.
Florida has an impressive 3.8-million acres of public conservation land. We have patched together chunks of wildness: shadowy palmetto thickets where bear and panther lie; vast pale marshes where herons stalk the shallows; white dunes where ancient turtles nest. My daughter, now seven, will be able to see these things because we set them aside.
Florida's conservation land-buying isn't done. Scientists have identified about two million more acres that need to get in public ownership. We pay for Florida's conservation lands through growth, dedicating part of a tax on real estate deals to buy wildlands. It makes sense.
Our rare creatures in Florida deserve that investment, and not just because it will bring tourists, or cure cancer, or provide refuge for ivory-billed woodpeckers. We do it because it's the only Florida we've got. We protect it because there may be miracles we don't know about yet.
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Copyright© Julie Hauserman