Back in 1912, the British Ambassador to the United States once said “Your National Parks are the best idea America ever had.” That stirring phrase stands as a reminder — not only of how much we love this land of ours, but also of a national characteristic just as important: when necessary, we will take strong steps to pass on this heritage to those who follow.
For, wonderful as are our National Parks, Wilderness Areas, and Wildlife Refuges, these were not the only ideas which began here and now are firmly a part of our national culture.
After many years of working to secure protection of the best parts of this beautiful American Earth, I have come to believe that the greatest legacy and heritage protector of them all is the Endangered Species Act– enacted by Congress in 1973 by huge bipartisan majorities: 355-4 in the House, 92-0 in the Senate.
Why do I say the ESA is also so special, so – American, in its conception and in its implementation? Because its purpose, its terms, and its message take it a long leap beyond most other environmental laws. The Endangered Species Act is a moral law, in the very best sense of the word. “Moral” because it expresses the near-unanimous will of the whole American people that we must do our best to ensure that this rich diversity of plants and animals which live among us shall also stay here forever, just as we intend to do.
Think about this powerful moral expression — the essence of the Endangered Species Act — for a moment: in 1973, the legislators of a great Nation came together, and they said, in effect: “from henceforth, we, the American People, shall not permit any other species of plant or animal which shares the national territory with us, to become extinct. Not if we can help it…”
If that isn’t one of the most profound and powerful statements ever, of a Nation’s feelings about all its inhabitants, it’s hard to imagine what is. That’s what this is really all about.
President Nixon perhaps said it best, when he signed the ESA into law in 1973: “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed…. [the lives of] countless future generations will be richer…. and America will be more beautiful in the years ahead, thanks to the measure that I have the pleasure of signing into law today.”
This new law, the Endangered Species Act, had so much power and moral force because of two basic concepts which were written into it at the very beginning:
1. The Act declares that any species which science can prove is nearing extinction, shall be protected under the terms of the Act. Not ‘pretty please,’ not if it is politically safe, but “shall.”
2. The Act declares that not only must individual members of a species be protected, but also orders the government to protect that species’ “critical habitat,” the specific places each plant or animal needs for food and shelter, to reproduce – in other words, to help it become healthier and return from the brink of extinction.
To recover, because that is the true goal of this law: to lend a helping hand to our natural neighbors, to protect and nurture them back to full health. The Endangered Species Act, which my organization, the Endangered Species Coalition, is proud to defend — is our Nation’s ultimate safety net — its Emergency Room, for nearly all living things which share our boundaries.
It is not a perfect law, but it has been hugely successful: so many species on the brink 37 years ago are now flourishing among us: the pelican, condor, falcon, alligator, hundreds of flowers and reptiles too – given a fighting chance to survive. So too are their critical habitats: millions of acres of ancient forests, wild beaches, still-open meadows, sparkling rivers, rare places which would have otherwise be long since logged off, paved over. This is the true legacy of our unique Endangered Species Act.
There are some who have called it a job-killer, the exploiters’ favorite buzzword of these difficult times. Yes, there are instances where the requirements to protect rare habitats and the nearly extinct animals or fish which inhabit them, have prevented clearcut logging or massive dams or subdivisions. But our whole national experience over the past 37 years has been that these conflicts have nearly always been resolved; the proposed development is modified, or takes place in a different and more sustainable spot.
The fact that the ESA still stands tall and unweakened, after nearly forty years, is in itself a testament to the wisdom of a special American, “can-do” spirit, when it comes to our natural treasures: that we can have both: jobs, economic development, and natural beauty, wild places, endangered species too. It need not be one or the other.
We can ask: what would our country have looked like now, after four decades of heavy development, if this special law — the Endangered Species Act — was never enacted? How much poorer we would have been as a people, to have lost such a stunning heritage!
Given this already-priceless legacy, it is shocking to have to report that this week, House Republicans have opened up a major attack on the Act. Bills have been introduced, and pushed strongly, to remove the endangered Rocky Mountain Wolf — just recently brought back from the edge of extinction — from the Safety Net.
If this attack succeeds, we can be certain that other legislation, to “delist” many other species will follow. The guts of the Act — the parts that require scientific findings to determine which species will be protected — will be ripped out, replaced by “political science” that is, whoever has the biggest wallets and most lobbyists in Congress.
While we can all understand that some folks like Big Oil, or Big Sprawl Developers might like this result, we don’t believe the American people would stand for it.
So the environmental community has this suggestion to our Representatives and Senators in the Congress : don’t even try. Every American knows that Extinction is Forever.
Perhaps, upon reflection, this is the greatest idea – our Nation’s greatest gift – to the whole world — as well as to ourselves.