An Ecological Expert's Tiny Sins Still Nag at Conscience

I confess.

Sometimes, I catch myself committing some appalling crimes. Appalling not because of their gravity, but because I know better.

Most of my ecological misdeeds are petty crimes. Slight blips on the Earth's screen. But I have covered environmental issues in Orange County for six years, and I've spent much of my career writing about others who do such insensitive things. So if I'm sloppy, selfish or forgetful, what can be expected of the general public?

Last fall, while on a breathtaking 10-mile hike along the rim of Yellowstone's canyon, I picked a few colorful tufts of wheat-like plants. As I returned to the lodge, a stranger scolded me. "You really shouldn't pick the flowers," she said.

I felt as if I had been slapped. And I rationalized to myself that it wasn't flowers, just a few harmless straw-like strands that certainly weren't endangered. But here I was, an environmental writer in one of America's national treasures, taking a precious piece of it for my own selfish reasons.

Once, I spilled a cup of antifreeze in the street near my home. I still feel guilty about that whenever I write about some company caught doing something illegal with its hazardous waste. Like when Disneyland sent thousands of gallons of paint thinner and other waste to an illegal plant for disposal. If someone had driven by and caught me dropping that antifreeze, I would have been just as mortified as Disneyland was when it was nabbed by the EPA.

Perhaps my most heinous crime was when I almost wiped out the Santa Ana woolleystar. I was researching the impact a new dam in San Bernardino would have on the environment, and forestry officials were showing me the site of a rare, endangered plant. I stepped backward from a patch, and accidentally stepped squarely in another, flattening the pretty little woolleystars.

The forest ranger laughed about it, and I joked about how I was hired by the dam builders to sabotage the plant. They were slightly scrunched, yet alive. But if the woolleystar ever becomes extinct, I'll know I played a slight role in its fate.

As California withers away in its fifth year of drought, I ponder my personal role in environmental issues more and more.

Writing seemingly endless stories about the seemingly endless drought has made me realize how much I waste water, even though I was keenly aware, long before the shortage, that most of it is a scarce and costly supply that travels hundreds of miles before it flows out our faucets.

All good citizens in Southern California are now finding ways to conserve water, and I'm struggling right along with them. Our house doesn't have a lawn or garden, so I can't ease my conscience by letting it turn brown. I've already put water-savers in the toilets and shower. So it comes down to things like taking fewer showers and washing fewer clothes, and other unsavory things. A friend told me she stopped flushing her toilet every time. But frankly, I can't seem to remember to stop flushing--although I feel a pang of guilt every time I do it.

My other environmental crimes are numerous.

I don't car-pool.

My car once failed a smog check.

I don't buy the more expensive emission-control gasoline.

And I don't boycott the oil companies that have been charged with environmental crimes. As one of my sources recently said, if he did that, he couldn't fill his tank at all because there isn't one major oil company that hasn't been in some sort of ecological trouble--and that's just in Orange County.

I've thrown away countless aluminum cans during my lifetime. I only started to save them in the past few years, and now I hoard them in a big shopping bag at home for recycling.

I still use disposable plates and cups. One recent day when I bought lunch at the cafeteria and brought it to my desk, I realized they had given me two plastic plates, a paper cup, a small plastic-foam container, and a disposable knife and fork. All of them were thrown away within five minutes of getting them.

I scold myself about all these things, but I'm no different than anyone, and changing lifelong habits is a slow process.

I try not to fool myself into believing that recycling a can means I am doing my bit for ecology. Taking care of your own back yard is a start, but it isn't enough.

And that brings me to the most disturbing dilemma of all.

One of the thorniest issues in our own back yard is the clash between development and wildlife. Biologists and conservation groups say Orange County's ecosystems are rapidly being destroyed. But developers say the biggest endangered species in the county is the first-time home buyer.

Now, for the first time, I'm looking for a house to buy in Orange County. And I can't help but feel like the Destroyer. What wetland used to be here? What patch of coastal sage scrub?

I suppose the best I can do is hope that it wasn't a woolleystar.

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