Environmental stewardship is everyone’s
responsibility, including Congress’s. That
is why I worked so diligently … to protect
the Endangered Species Act.
—Newt Gingrich, A Contract with the Earth
Does the Endangered Species Act work? It depends on your definition of “work.”
Ask the members of Congress currently taking potshots at the law, trying to riddle it with loopholes, in an industry-spurred push to “modernize” it.
“The Endangered Species Act is not working today,” says one such senator, John Barrasso, R-Wyo, presenting his case against the famous landmark legislation. Why?
If you can find your way through the euphemistic fog occluding the effort, one fact grows clear. The historic ESA doesn’t work for those opposing it because it works too well.
The American bald eagle, Florida panther, North Atlantic right whale, wood stork, spotted owl, grizzly, peregrine falcon, American alligator and other iconic species are still alive today because of ESA protections.
The 44-year-old law is the only thing keeping many of its listed species alive in arks of livable habitat. The Center for Biological Diversity concludes that without the legislation, 227 American wildlife species would have vanished forever from Earth between 1973 and 2005.
Considered the world’s pioneering gold-standard for keeping imperiled species alive, the ESA protects more than 1,600 animals and plants.
And that’s the problem for some politically powerful industries. Because too many species listed under the ESA haven’t gone extinct, these petroleum, real estate and big timber interests have limited access to their vital habitats, including on public lands.
Clearly the law would work better for these corporations if such species disappeared from the list, either by political mandate or extinction, thus opening critical wildlife habitat to logging and mining.
What opponents don’t mention is that the ESA, by protecting watersheds, forest habitats and thus whole rafts of non-listed species, has helped to protect fisheries, tourism and human economies around the Chesapeake Bay, Shenandoah National Park, the New England coastal region and elsewhere.
The Congressional members attacking the ESA say they are doing so to protect “hard-working Americans.” This might be news to such Americans, were news of endangered species possibly able to compete this year with news of our own species’ dysfunctions, divisions and exciting political chaos.
After all, 90 percent of Americans across the political spectrum support the ESA, according to a 2015 poll by Tulchin Research. Another 68 percent say that they’d be less likely to vote for candidates planning to undermine the law.
So why are Barrasso and his colleagues working against these voters they say they are working for?
“Work,” it turns out, is the key clue to this info-clog.
“Jobs,” “livelihoods” and “work” have become code words for taking potshots at the environment — the water quality, wetlands, biodiversity and life-support systems that in fact undergird all human work, indeed livelihood itself.
The ESA actually protects work, not least the invaluable jobs of other species, without which all human employment would come to an end. Nobody can live on a dead planet, devoid of pollinators and soil microbes, marine species that enliven our oceans, forests that pump out oxygen and protect a climate conducive to life.
Not only does the ESA protect the vital jobs of other species, it demonstrates a human species also able do its unique job on the planet — a cooperative, intelligent “political species,” as Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson perceived our kind was intended to be.
The ESA, penned by Rep. John Dingle of Michigan, was passed in 1973 with cooperative bipartisan support — 390-12 in the House, unanimously in the Senate. It was readily signed by Republican President Richard Nixon.
Newt Gingrich later called it “an excellent example of the value of civility, consultation and collaboration.”
But if the ESA has worked so well, at all of these levels, for the greater good, what element today is suddenly “not working”? Again, ask Congress.
National Geographic recently inquired of Dingle if he thought he could get the ESA passed in today’s Congress. He said frankly, “I don’t think I could pass the Lord’s Prayer in that nuthouse.”
If Dingle’s assessment is accurate, it only shows that all Americans have work to do, not just Congress.
Restoring political participation, conservation support, local wildlife habitats and big-minded cooperation among our kind, we can all work to help the other species survive this period of human political turmoil on the planet.
As Jacques Cousteau put it, “Now as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat.”
Liza Field is a conservationist, tree planter and ethics teacher in southwest Virginia.