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A growing plant problem

When scientists mention endangered species, most of us assume they are referring to animals. That is not always the case. A recent scientific analysis offers strong evidence that many species of plants are now in peril. The most comprehensive of its kind to date, the study was the product of 20 years of work by a consortium of scientists and conservationists from around the globe. Its message ought to be a reminder that animals aren't the only creatures on the planet that need protecting.

Irresponsible development, agribusiness and logging are killing the world's plants at a rate that could do irreparable damage to the environment, members of the consortium concluded. Already, nearly one in eight plant species in the world _ and one in three in the United States _ is in danger of extinction. In addition, nearly 34,000 types of plants have been added to a list of those considered imperiled. These include several types of palms, coniferous trees, roses and lilies.

Environmentalists have long been concerned about the plight of owls, eagles and other animals facing extinction. It is time they started tuning in to the dangers of losing a large number of the world's plants, which many agree are even more important for nature to function properly. Plants produce oxygen, convert sunlight to food and provide raw material for medicine. When they disappear, scientists have noted, whole ecosystems can be thrown out of kilter, threatening the long-term survival of virtually everything within them.

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, addressed the problem of plant extinction, but not much has come of it. A treaty calling upon nations to develop conservation strategies has been ratified by 160 nations, but few have implemented its ideas. Members of the U.S. Congress have refused to ratify the pact, claiming the agreement would allow other nations to interfere with American environmental policy.

The authors of the treaty insist such fears are overblown. Unfortunately, a sudden change in attitude is unlikely, at least on the federal level. The Clinton administration's environmental issue of the moment is global warming, and its priority is to convince Congress to ratify a treaty on the subject drawn up last year in Kyoto, Japan.

Plants, meanwhile, will continue to vanish. At the least, it is something to think about.