by Whit Gibbons

December 28, 2004

Most Americans consider Earth Day, which takes place in April, as the pinnacle of the nation's environmental focus. I have no quarrel with observing Earth Day. But the truly significant date in the United States' environmental progress was December 28, 1973. That was the day President Richard M. Nixon signed legislation creating the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Without a doubt the ESA is the most powerful environmental law ever passed. Perhaps it's time to celebrate that event. We can call it ESA Day.

Before we give President Nixon too much credit for forging ahead with this far-sighted and beneficial legislation, consider that only four members of the House and no senators voted against the ESA. The public wanted the ESA. And their elected representatives heeded that message. Thirty years later, we all owe a vote of thanks to President Nixon for signing the law and to all but four representatives who voted "no" and eight senators and some House members who failed to vote.

To receive protection under the ESA, a species must be placed officially on the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife. How a species is listed depends in part on the level of threat to its existence, ideally without regard for economic considerations. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), an "endangered" species is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A "threatened" species is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. Before a species makes the list, we can be assured that many government and university wildlife biologists have made a painstaking effort to reach a careful, well-considered decision.

The USFWS also maintains a list of plants and animals native to the United States that have already been proposed or that are candidates for addition to the list. Currently the list has almost 300 species on it, including the Camp Shelby burrowing crawfish of Mississippi. I mention this animal to emphasize that the USFWS recognizes that all species, however seemingly insignificant, are important. We should appreciate the agency for doing so.

But here's the scary part, and we should all be aware of this: the ESA itself is being threatened. Some groups, which unfortunately include members of Congress who were clearly not among the 1973 heroes, want to weaken the ESA. Their position is that certain enterprises should be immune from constraints designed to protect wildlife. Some government agencies, of course, with upper level administrators who are appointed, not hired or elected, are reluctant to challenge such environmentally damaging attitudes. However, if they did so under the light of public scrutiny, I believe protection of wildlife would emerge as a priority. In this arena the will of the people is often diametrically opposed to that of corporate America and wealthy, influential landowners who care more about profits and personal autonomy than about the environment.

The USFWS is the organization most people think of as the primary government agency responsible for administration of the ESA, but the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is equally involved for marine organisms. One of its missions is the "stewardship of living marine resources through science-based conservation and management, and the promotion of healthy ecosystems." An event on ESA Day should be for USFWS and NOAA to present a list of decisions they have made during the past year. I realize that most individuals in government agencies like to keep the peace politically by keeping a low profile, but these would make good stories. They would also provide assurance that both agencies are placing our national wildlife ahead of political or economic considerations that benefit the few not the many. The will of the people--not the money and influence of special interests--should be the determining factor in protecting our environment.

And each year on ESA Day we can also consider whether our lawmakers today would attain the level of commitment to the environment achieved on December 28, 1973.

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