by Whit Gibbons

February 27, 2011

We hold certain truths to be self-evident . . . among them is the fact that the U.S. Congress has changed its makeup considerably since the last election. Meanwhile, most environmentalists would agree that three of the best things any Congress ever did for the environment were the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, all passed in the 1970s during the Nixon administration.

Most members of the general public who are aware of the way we used to treat the environment would agree that all of those changes were in the best interest of the general public. Will the current Congress keep this environmental progress intact? Is there any way such admirable advancements in environmental policy, which benefit the citizenry of an entire country, could be threatened? Can anyone come up with a reason why a politician would propose diluting strong environmental laws that are good for the country? Read on.

Another current self-evident truth is that times are tough economically, although a wide range of opinions can be found about exactly when they started and who should shoulder the blame. But whatever the perceived cause of our economic adversity, the new Congress will be expected to improve the situation. Unfortunately, during economic hard times, some officials elected to fix economic problems make environmental issues the scapegoat. People with self-serving agendas begin to attack environmental rules and regulation. Beware of rhetoric that uses slogans like "creating jobs," "reducing the national debt" or "being good for the economy" while undermining environmental safeguards. Such catchphrases are presented as if they are incompatible with protecting the environment. They are not. But we are already beginning to hear of moves afoot to weaken the laws that ensure clean water and clean air, and that protect our native species. Political efforts to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency are another red flag, usually a corporate agenda seeking unrestrained use of environmental resources that belong to all of us.

Attempts to change environmental laws that are good for the nation become especially noticeable when commerce intrudes on our common assets: air, water and the natural resources of our native plants and animals as well as their habitats. These commodities, all of them, belong as much to any one of us as to any other, regardless of wealth, land holdings or social position. Free enterprise should be lauded, but not at the cost of weak environmental laws that will benefit a few financially while being detrimental to the rest of us.

Less than four decades ago the House and Senate acted wisely and decisively with regard to safeguarding air, water and wildlife. The passage of that powerful environmental legislation has benefited the whole country. We have the highest water standards of any country in the world. This would not be true were it not for the Clean Water Act (1972). The Clean Air Act (1977) enacted strong measures against air pollution, focusing on the question, whose air is it anyway? The Endangered Species Act of 1973 saved several species from certain doom, and the program remains one of the ecological success stories of the last century.

Significant environmental gains have been achieved through these laws, without dire economic consequences. Yet some people persist in wanting to weaken the regulations in all three of these nation-saving legislative acts. Anytime you hear someone, whether politician, industrialist or just plain folk, talk about the need to curtail any of these laws, take a careful look at who is going to benefit. I guarantee it will not be you.

One thing is certain--the congressional zenith of passing the environmental laws of the 1970s to protect our natural heritage will be hard to follow. But for other senators and representatives to weaken them would be to reach a congressional nadir. Let's not stand for it. Let's make it clear to all that to truly realize life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in America, we must do so with clean air and water and with our biological communities and natural habitats intact.

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