Protecting rare plants protects us!

By Martha Marks, an elected Republican member of the Lake County (IL) Board

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This was Martha’s first environmental publication, a op-ed published on August 17, 1995 in the Chicago Tribune. At that time, Republicans for Environmental Protection was just a glint in her eye.


I wonder if Nassib Ghobril, who objected to your July 10 editorial supporting the Endangered Species Act, had read the newspaper articles about Nora McDonald, the Chicago girl whose leukemia has been in remission for years, thanks to an extract from the rosy periwinkle, an endangered plant. Had he read about 6-year-old Jaclyn Buckley of Philadelphia, for whom that same endangered plant means a 99% chance of living out her full natural life? Would he feel differently about the Act if his own child were a leukemia survivor?

It’s important that people hear about Nora and Jaclyn and the many other young survivors like them, especially since lawyers for logging, ranching, mining, and development industries have now been allowed to write legislation that, if passed, will gut national environmental-protection laws assembled over three decades by congressional leaders of both parties.

As the girls’ recoveries show, the Endangered Species Act isn’t just about wildflowers and owls. It’s also about human health and quality of life.

Forty percent of our lifesaving medicines come from plants and plant-dependent bacteria and fungi. Thousands of women now survive breast and ovarian cancers because of taxol from the Pacific yew, which generations of loggers burned as “trash.” The heart medicine digitalis comes from purple foxglove, aspirin from the bark of a willow tree, and oral contraceptives from a Mexican yam. Allergies are treated with an anti-inflammatory antihistamine from wheat fungus. Erythromycin, the world’s largest-selling macrolide antibiotic (which earns drug companies a billion dollars annually), comes from a different fungus. Without vancomycin, from yet another fungus, thousands of hospital patients would die of infection each year.

According to Cornell Unitersity biology professor Tom Eisner, only 5% of the 250,000 flowering plants known to exist on Earth have been chemically studied. Many of them hang on in our biologically rich ancient forests (which also shelter other endangered creatures such as the spotted owl). As with the rosy periwinkle and purple foxglove, some of these plants may hold the cures for Alzheimer’s, AIDS, heart disease, and other cancers. Who knows what the long-term cost will be if we casually allow hundreds of species to go extinct for the short-term profit of a few self-serving interest groups?

By protecting the full diversity of life on Earth, along with the clean air and water that we and all other species need to survive, we are actually ensuring our own health and that of future generations.

That’s the message our senators and representatives and folks like Nassib Ghobril should be hearing from the rest of us: The Endangered Species Act protects us!