Is A Tree Worth A Life?

For most of the last decade, federal timberlands in the West have been held hostage in a bitter fight between environmental groups and the timber industry. The environmentalists want to save the forests and their wildlife occupants. The timber industry wants to cut trees and provide jobs in a depressed economy. Caught in the middle is the United States Forest Service, which must balance the conflicting concepts of sustained yield and multiple use of national forest land.

The latest pawn in this environmental chess match is the Pacific yew tree, a scrubby conifer found from southern Alaska to central California and in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Historically the yew has not been harvested for value but often has been treated as logging slash and wasted. Not any longer. An extract of the bark of the Pacific yew known as taxol has been found to have cancer-fighting properties, particularly with ovarian cancer. As many as 30 percent of those treated with taxol have shown significant response. Some researchers call taxol the most significant new cancer drug to emerge in 15 years.

For the first time, the environmental debate over the use of a natural resource involves more than a question of the priority of the resource versus economic considerations. At stake is the value of a species of tree and the habitat it provides for wildlife as opposed to the value of the greatest of all natural resources, human life.

When I was first diagnosed three years ago, no one had an inkling that I would become caught in the center of what may become the most significant environmental debate of my generation. Although as early as 1979 researchers had discovered that taxol killed cancer in a unique way, imprisoning malignant cells in a cage of scaffoldlike rods called microtubules, lab tests on animals were inconclusive. By 1985, however, a woman with terminal ovarian cancer was treated with taxol and had a dramatic response. Six years later, the once lowly yew tree is at the threshold of a controversy that challenges the fundamental precepts of even the most entrenched environmentalist.

It takes about three 100-year-old Pacific yew trees, or roughly 60 pounds of bark, to produce enough taxol to treat one patient. When the bark is removed, the tree dies. Environmental groups like the Oregon Natural Resources Council and the Audubon Society are concerned that the Pacific yew as a species may be decimated by the demand for taxol. But this year alone, 12,000 women will die from ovarian cancer. Breast cancer will kill 45,000 women. Is preservation of the Pacific yew worth the price?

It is sublimely ironic that my fate hinges so directly on the Pacific yew. As a federal attorney representing the Forest Service, I have witnessed the environmental movement in the West from its embryonic stages. I have seen such diverse groups as the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club challenge the Forest Service's ability to sell and harvest its trees. Win or lose, the forests are often locked up during the lengthy legal process.

The viability of the national forests does not rise or fall with the Pacific yew. But, unfortunately for cancer victims, the tree is most abundant on national-forest lands which are subject to environmental review by the public. Already challenges to the federal harvest of the yew have begun. In Montana, the Save the Yaak Committee has protested the Kootenai National Forest's intention to harvest yew trees and make them available for experimental use. The committee contends that the yew may be endangered by over harvesting.

I have news for the Save the Yaak Committee. I am endangered, too. I've had four major abdominal surgeries in two years. I've had the conventional chemo-therapy for ovarian cancer, and it didn't work. Though I was in remission for almost a year, last August my cancer returned with a vengeance. Taxol may be my last hope.

Because of the scarcity of supply, taxol is not commercially available. It is available only in clinical trials at a number of institutions. Bristol-Myers, working with the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., is asking the Forest Service to provide 750,000 pounds of bark for clinical studies this year.

The ultimate irony of my story is that I am one of the lucky ones. This May I was accepted by the National Cancer Institute for one of its clinical trials. On May 8 I was infused with my first treatment of taxol. Hospitalized in intensive care at NCI, I watched the precious, clear fluid drip into my veins and prayed for it to kill the cancer that has ravaged my body. I thought about the thousands of women who will die of cancer this year, who will not have my opportunity.

Every effort should be made to ensure that the yew tree is made available for the continued research and development of taxol. Environmental groups, the timber industry and the Forest Service must recognize that the most important value of the Pacific yew is as a treatment for cancer. At the same time, its harvest can be managed in away that allows for the production of taxol without endangering the continued survival of the yew tree.

The yew may be prime habitat for spotted owls. It may be esthetically appealing. But certainly its most critical property is its ability to treat a fatal disease. Given a choice between trees or people, people must prevail. No resource can be more valuable or more important than a human life. Ask my husband. Ask my two sons. Ask me.

Is A Tree Worth A Life? | News