December 31, 2013, 2:35 pm
By ROBERT B. SEMPLE JR.
In this season of birthdays and holidays, on Saturday the environmental community rightly celebrated the 40th anniversary of the passage of one of the most ambitious of the Nixon era’s landmark environmental statutes: the Endangered Species Act. The act is at once the noblest of those statutes — aimed, in President Nixon’s words, at protecting “an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage — threatened wildlife”; and also the most controversial, detested by loggers, developers and other interests for elevating the needs of nature over the needs of commerce. Approved by huge margins in both chambers (the vote on the House was an astounding 355-4), the act would stand zero chance of passage in today’s poisoned political climate.
Right-wing critics of the law like to point out that less than 2 per cent of the 1500 or so animal and plant species listed as endangered or threatened under the law have actually recovered to the point that they can be removed from list. But this is a nutty way of measuring success; most of those species, once headed for extinction, can hardly be expected to rebuild healthy, sustainable populations overnight. A much better measure is that only about 30 species have gone to their doom, 37 species have been or will soon be removed from the list, and well over half are deemed stable or on the road to recovery. The act is credited with saving the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, the California condor, the American alligator, the Florida panther and the grey wolf. Individual species aside, the act’s provisions requiring the preservation of a threatened animal’s habitat has resulted in enormous gains for the environment as a whole. A succession of tiny birds listed as endangered or threatened — the spotted owl, the marbled murrelet, the coastal California gnatcatcher — have, over the past 20 years, saved millions of acres of old growth forest and open space along the Pacific coast from logging and commercial development. Efforts to save the wood stork and the Florida panther have helped nourish the Everglades. And given sufficient political will, the endangered salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest may yet lead to the removal of dams that impede fish passage and cause huge mortality rates on the Lower Snake River.
Presidents Clinton and Obama have improved the way the act is administered, encouraging governments, landowners and industry to collaborate on conservation plans before an animal is formally listed as endangered. The number of lawsuits from environmental groups has likewise declined. Since the act has widespread public support, it seems unthinkable that Congress would roll it back. But with this Congress you never know.
Some very tough and inevitably controversial decisions lie ahead for Sally Jewell, the Interior Secretary. The biggest of these will be whether to protect the Greater Sage Grouse, a pretty little creature whose habitat not only ranges over nearly a dozen western states but is also believed to contain considerable reserves of oil and natural gas. Thus the stage is set for either a knockdown fight between the forces of nature and commerce, or a negotiated solution that gives industry some access without threatening the bird. As long as a compromise achieves the latter, we’re for it.