Chief Executive Officer, Earthjustice
I can’t imagine what our country would be like without the Endangered Species Act, but I know we would be less of a people, and America would be less magnificent. The Act protects our fellow creatures, from the most famous and emblematic to the most humble and obscure. And the Act protects the landscapes and ecosystems they depend on—and thus benefits all the species that share those ecosystems. Among the most powerful and significant pieces of environmental legislation ever passed in the United States, the Act is our best bulwark against the global extinction crisis, and is key to protecting our natural heritage from the impacts of climate change.
Despite relentless attempts to gut or weaken the Endangered Species Act, it’s been remarkably successful.
The Endangered Species Act is a product of a time of tremendous environmental ferment in our country, when people were waking up to the horrors of industrial pollution and the devastation of landscapes for profit. Some of our iconic species had been hunted to extinction, and others were hanging on by only a thread. In 1969, Ohio’s polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire, and an oil well blew out in the Santa Barbara channel, spewing three million gallons of crude onto southern California’s beaches. The next year, twenty million Americans turned out for the first Earth Day, and they were ready for change. Practically overnight, we got the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
Earthjustice was also born of the ferment of those times, created by a small group of attorneys with a passionate belief that the power of the law could be used to preserve the environment. They helped establish the right of citizens to go to court to enforce environmental laws when the government couldn’t or wouldn’t. The new laws were the tools those attorneys needed to give teeth to environmental protection across the country—and they used them. Over the decades, we and our allies have enforced and strengthened the laws to stem the tide of environmental loss and build a different future for our country than the one it faced in 1969.
Using the Endangered Species Act, Earthjustice has protected Yellowstone’s grizzly bears and helped restore and sustain populations of Gray wolves in the northern Rockies. We’re using it in the fight to save the West Coast’s wild salmon runs and the fishing industry they support. And the Act allows us to challenge plans for destructive oil and gas development projects and other inappropriate uses of sensitive public lands that provide critical habitat for threatened species.
Despite relentless attempts to gut or weaken the Endangered Species Act, it’s been remarkably successful. Very few of the species it has protected have gone extinct, and many have recovered to the point where they no longer need its protection. Equally important, millions of acres of forests, beaches, and wetlands that provide habitat for at-risk species have been protected from degradation and development.
Now, more than ever, we need a strong, fully funded, vigorously enforced Endangered Species Act, to help our ecosystems withstand the worst impacts of climate change—and to help ensure that humans don’t become one of the species headed toward extinction.