THERE ANY EVIDENCE THAT ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION WORKS?
by Whit Gibbons
November 2, 2008
I wrote about an email I got from someone who proposed eliminating all
wildlife that was a nuisance to anyone in any way. The following question
addresses the issue of protection for wildlife and the environment.
Q. We have
many environmental and conservation programs in this country. Can you
think of some examples of increased biodiversity, effective wildlife species
protection, or habitat improvements that have occurred in the past few
decades? In other words, does environmental protection work?
other interest groups, conservationists and environmentalists continually
need to justify their actions. So the question is a reasonable one.
too common and fairly easy to look at the downside of any environmental
issue. Many species have been forced to extinction during modern times
by the actions of humans. We continue to lose biodiversity in many regions
of the world on a consistent basis. But the question under consideration
is whether any positive strides have been made in environmental protection.
One of the
most obvious measures of success is the recovery of several U.S. species
that hovered on the brink of extinction less than four decades ago, before
Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. For example,
enforcement of the ESA probably saved the American alligator. Its Asian
counterpart, the Chinese alligator, which did not have comparable protections,
is now virtually extinct; fewer than 200 individuals are estimated to
exist in the wild.
in the United States that have recovered to various degrees--or at least
not gone extinct--due to ESA protection are black-footed ferrets, bald
eagles, and California condors. Many other species also occur in greater
numbers and are more widespread than in earlier times. American buffalo
and whooping cranes persist today due to concerted conservation efforts.
Conditions for each of these species have improved greatly from the trajectory
of extermination they were once on. All are species that have benefited
from conservation measures directed at protecting a few remaining populations.
In terms of environmental protection, these are definite signs of improvement.
improvement relates to water quality. Prior to the Clean Water Act (CWA)
of 1972, I spent time on two rivers that I would probably not visit again
if they looked and smelled like they did then. One was the Black Warrior
River in Alabama, which was polluted by a paper mill and other industrial
wastes. The river today is far prettier and definitely smells better than
it did 30 years ago. Clearly that's an environmental improvement.
same lines, in the 1960s I was involved in a research project to test
water quality conditions of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Along one
stretch below the city, the river had more than 20 upstream paper mills!
I remember setting nets for fish from a boat in a gray-colored river that
had paper fibers floating throughout the water column. We never found
a single fish; we saw no birds or mammals; and we pulled up only bright
red, squirming midge larvae in the nets. Turtles were the only vertebrates
in this part of the Kalamazoo River, and their primary food was midge
I went back
to the same area in the late 1990s. In addition to seeing an otter and
a bald eagle nest with two babies, I saw people fishing from the bank.
The river looked clean and clear. Problems may still exist because of
contaminants that remain in the sediments, and perhaps locals are advised
not to eat the fish. But today's river conditions are unquestionably an
improvement from those 40 years ago.
are critical of restrictions placed on us by the federal government. But
without such farsighted and far-reaching laws as the ESA and CWA, our
water would not be as clean as it is today, and we would almost certainly
have lost many more species than we have.
So in response
to the question of whether we have made progress in protecting biodiversity,
wildlife, and our environment, the answer is clearly yes. Could we do
better? Certainly. Will we do so? The answer to that question is still
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