CELEBRATE THREE DECADES OF PROTECTING SPECIES
by Whit Gibbons
December 28, 2004
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
year on ESA Day we can also consider whether our lawmakers today would
attain the level of commitment to the environment achieved on December
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