by Whit Gibbons

February 11, 2018

Among the three best things that have ever happened for the environment in this country have been the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act. Most people who remember the way things used to be would agree.

Many of us are opposed to excessive government regulations, but unchecked free enterprise can also work against the common good. This becomes especially true when commerce begins to intrude on our common assets: air, water and wildlife. These natural resource commodities belong as much to any one of us as to any other, regardless of wealth, power or social position. In the 1970s, with bipartisan support, the House and Senate approved certain regulatory changes regarding breathable air, drinkable water and our native plants and animals – changes intended to protect our common assets. Approval was not unanimous in the halls of Congress, but the three acts were approved. The laws that resulted have benefited all Americans.

In 1973, when the Endangered Species Act became law, much of our wildlife was in a downward spiral with no good ending in sight. The American alligator was so rare that most herpetologists had never seen one in the wild. The closest most people came to seeing a bald eagle was looking at the back of a quarter. And to most people, wolves were a mythical animal from fairy tales. Today, thanks to the ESA, if you are in the right region of the country, you might well see one of these impressive animals or one of many others that were put on the endangered species list. The mission to protect our vanishing species was accomplished, despite resistance from some economic quarters that claimed protecting species in such a rigorous manner would quell progress. It did not. The protection afforded by the ESA saved several species from sure doom, and although other species need to be added to the list, the program has been an ecological success story. Talk of diluting the Endangered Species Act is disquieting.

Meanwhile, as native wildlife disappeared, our nation’s waters became despoiled to levels that may be hard for some people to imagine today. We can only look back in dismay at the pollution of public waterways that was permitted a half century ago. One can only wonder who was in charge. Apparently not the general public. The turnaround came in 1972 with the Clean Water Act. The details were debated, and some may still not be exactly the way they should be, but the whole package established strict guidelines about how our nation's water should be used, and disposed of. Industries, federal facilities and urban centers were held accountable for their actions. Today, the American people have the highest water standards of any country in the world. We could not say this were it not for the Clean Water Act. Do we actually want to go backward by weakening regulations?

Finally came the question, whose air is it anyway? Fortunately, Congress realized we should all be guaranteed a breath of fresh air whenever we like. The Clean Air Act of 1977 established strong restrictions on air pollution from many sources. Anyone visiting Gary, Ind., or Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s saw and smelled an industrial miasma. Colors in the air ranged from gray to yellow to red, and odors, from acrid to putrid. The pollution was horrible. No one wants to return to that.

These laws have been successful. Yet some political forces propose weakening regulations in all three of these nation-saving legislative acts. If a politician talks about curtailing any of these laws, take a careful look at who is going to benefit. I guarantee it will not be you. Watch out for rhetoric such as "saving jobs" or "good for the economy." These catchphrases are not incompatible with laws to protect the environment – as we have seen. And one thing is certain – such laws are tough acts to follow.

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