For the week of December 30, 1998   thru January 5, 1999  

The Endangered Species Act: Nixon’s best legacy

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH


For those of us who view the environment we live within as something other and more than a free lunch for mankind and who did not trust, like, respect, admire, agree or sympathize with Richard Milhous Nixon, it is always a bit disconcerting to recognize that he is responsible for a truly noble and visionary piece of environmental law.

That law is called the Endangered Species Act. It was signed by President Nixon 25 years ago on Dec. 28, 1973, after passing the Senate 92-0 and the House 355-4. I don’t recall any Congressional voting numbers like that in recent days.

The ESA was given scant attention by the general public when it was passed, and those who noticed viewed it as a warm, fuzzy law filled with admirable intention, sort of like a Smoky the Bear billboard with Smoky saying "Help."

What sort of human monster could be against preventing the extinction of the bald eagle, the grizzly, the whooping crane, the condor, the alligator, and, closer to home, the salmon?

That, in my opinion, is a question worth pondering.

However, very few in 1973 realized the implications of the ESA protecting 107 species, including the snail darter, kangaroo rat, Delhi fly, black-spored quillwort and the furbish lousewort. It is unlikely that Nixon, threatened with impeachment and understandably suffering from depression and paranoia, understood those implications.

A few years later they first emerged when the Tennessee Valley Authority began building a dam on the Tellico River, the home of the endangered snail darter. Congress overrode the ESA and the TVA got its dam while the snail darter of the Tellico lost the habitat in which it lived, the way everything in the Wood River Valley would lose its habitat if, say, the Department of Energy decided to build a dam across the mouth of the valley at Bellevue. The difference, so far as I know, is that there are no immediately endangered species in the Wood River Valley, though in the long and larger view it is mankind that is endangered by the extinction of other species.

The ESA failed its first test at the Tellico Dam. Since then it has failed the cause of sustaining diversity of life on planet Earth more than it has succeeded.

Like many legal measures for tempering man’s excess and folly, it is only as effective as the will of its political system. Since the ESA would modulate the worst consequences and bring honest scrutiny and a summing up of such abstractions as manifest destiny, progress and the sanctity of private property, it has incurred the wrath of those who would pave the earth for a profit.

Two of its most active, vocal and powerful critics, Dirk Kempthorne and Helen Chenoweth, are Idaho politicians who exemplify why the ESA has not been more successful as well as why it was made necessary in the first place.

Still, the ESA survives for a simple reason: it is right. Driving species to extinction for the comfort, economies, hubris or ignorance of another species is an evil that the earth itself and all its creatures recognize as such.

The laws of man don’t seem to be having much success in slowing down the degradation of the biotic life of the planet we inhabit, but it is worth noting those that do.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called the ESA "...the most visionary environmental law that has ever been passed."

It is visionary because it recognizes and grants legal rights to those who cannot speak for and represent themselves when their very existence is imperiled by one species: the grizzly and the wolf, the snail darter and the furbish lousewort, the razorback sucker and bulltrout and the salmon all have legal standing in the courts of America because of the ESA.

Today there are 1,177 species listed under the ESA, 60 percent of them plants. Many of these listed species, along with innumerable others not listed, will surely fade into extinction in the near future. The ESA is only a law; it cannot change greed, ignorance and arrogance in those who would pave the earth in the service and name of progress.

There have been small successes because of the ESA, among them small increases in the populations of endangered species such as bald eagles, peregrine falcons, terns and plovers along the eastern seaboard, sea turtles, sea otters, brown pelicans, gray whales, Louisiana black bears, the Maguire primrose of Utah’s Logan canyon, the black-footed ferret, the wolf and the celebrity status spotted owl.

In the long view, the ESA’s more important contribution to the world than its immediate success/failure ratio is that it made the extinction of species part of the public dialogue among informed people. The ESA is the reason we are considering removing part of four Snake River dams to save a species of salmon from extinction; and it is the reason we are aware of our complicity in each extinction; and it is the reason we as individuals and as a species know, if only in our non-cerebral nervous systems, that we are diminished, demeaned and degraded by each extinction.

That such a gift of awareness and tool of survival should continue to shine 25 years later from the dark, twisted, star-crossed soul of Richard Nixon is a mystery as deep and vast and perplexing as, say, spawning salmon trying with all their lives to reach Redfish Lake before extinction overtakes them.

 

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