President, Endangered Species Coalition
I did not pay much attention to the proposed Endangered Species Act when it was proceeding through Congress in 1973. That was the year when I moved to Washington from Seattle to become the new Director of the Sierra Club’s DC lobby office; my mandate was to elevate the lobby’s scope and influence to a level commensurate with the Club’s growing power on the national environmental scene.[pullquote]Our Endangered Species Act is perhaps the most unique law of its kind in the entire world because it is so strong, comprehensive, and enforceable. Our country is blessed to have such a law, which really really protects those other animals and plants in our national territory, who of course cannot speak for themselves.[/pullquote]
So it was the other great issues of the times – the Alaska Oil Pipeline, the “Timber Price Crisis” (an effort to increase logging on all National Forests), and the nation’s first energy crisis (after the Arab embargo in October 1973), which occupied all my time. The Endangered Species Act seemed so – well – obvious, and needed. It was not controversial at all in 1973, so I never even bothered to read it. It passed the Senate 92-0, and the House 355-4.
Ho Hum, I thought. “Totally noncontroversial. As it should be,” I also thought. The publicity and focus of all the scientific and laypersons’ testimonies that whole year had been on calling attention to the fact that a number of animal species which Americans had cherished but taken for granted – like the brown Pelican, Peregrine Falcon, California Condor, the alligator, and many others, large and small – were rapidly sliding towards extinction, along with many different and increasingly rare plant species.
Noncontroversial – of course! This seemed so obvious.
The larger, more controversial, struggles of the times occupied my complete attention. Especially in retrospect, glorious years they were, in those heady times (1967-73), when the nation’s young seem to catch – be a part of – the rising tide of what became the American Environmental Movement.
It was not until I was named Executive Director of the Endangered Species Coalition, in 1997, that I first actually read the whole Endangered Species Act from beginning to end. As I did so, the enormity and power of this amazing law revealed itself; “this is the strongest law I have ever seen,” I thought to myself. Not only does it require that any species in danger must be placed upon the endangered list; it also requires protection of their habitats, and establishment of a recovery plan. And best of all, in these contentious times, it can be enforced¸ and by ordinary citizens, even when the concerned government agencies drag their feet.
Our Endangered Species Act is perhaps the most unique law of its kind in the entire world because it is so strong, comprehensive, and enforceable. Our country is blessed to have such a law, which really really protects those other animals and plants in our national territory, who of course cannot speak for themselves.
But there is something else. By my count, since 1997, there have been well over 100 specific attempts in Congress or hostile administrations to either repeal or seriously weaken the Endangered Species Act. But all have failed; why is this so?
I believe it is because the Endangered Species Act is something more, much more, than just a wildlife protection statute – good as it is at functioning as that. It is also a moral law, and it makes a profoundly moral statement about how we Americans really feel about our land.
Think about it for a minute: in 1973, the legislators of a great nation got together and they (almost unanimously) said: “From now on and henceforth, we the American People, shall not permit any other living native plant or animal which shares the national territory with us, to become extinct…”
Now if that isn’t a most noble testament to our love for our land, I don’t know what is.