Way back in 1973, when I was a pimply middle schooler living in a Chicago suburb, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law a bill that embodied America’s noblest conservation intentions. The Endangered Species Act set an amazingly ambitious goal: to conserve all of the imperiled plant and animal species in the country.
The act’s authors were fully aware
that Americans would have to change their behavior in order to
accomplish this goal. They acknowledged that "various species of
fish, wildlife and plants … have been rendered extinct as a
consequence of economic growth and development untempered by
adequate concern and conservation."
But I wonder if they
could have foreseen the magnitude of the growth and development we
face today. Back in 1973, for example, Nevada had a population of
just over 500,000 souls. Today, there are 2.4 million, with
demographers predicting another 2 million by 2030. Arizona had 2.1
million people in 1973; today, it is bursting with 5.9 million, and
is expected to top 10 million by 2030. This scenario plays out to
various degrees throughout the West.
endangered species and their habitats in an economy tied to
population growth — well, conflicts are bound to erupt. So it
comes as no surprise that some of our lawmakers —
particularly those like California Rep. Richard Pombo, R, who are
superglued to the growth machine — want to weaken the
Endangered Species Act.
As Tony Davis writes in this
issue’s cover story, the crux of the matter is the portion of
the law that calls for protecting "critical habitat" for endangered
species. A good case can be made that the critical habitat
designation process has already broken down under constant
political pressure and a steady stream of lawsuits. But broken or
not, it still serves an important function: It forces us to think
about endangered species in a concrete way. We have to look at the
maps, and study the habitat, and consider the consequences of the
decisions we make. We have to consider how much land it takes to
keep wild creatures alive.
Some of those who are eager to
gut the critical habitat provision frankly have no desire to
cohabit with thriving wild flora and fauna. To them, aquariums and
zoos are just as good as rivers and wildlands — better, in
fact, because they don’t compete for habitat with
homebuilders and loggers and ranchers. But the Endangered Species
Act’s authors valued authentically wild creatures living in
native habitat. They wanted their law to "provide a means whereby
the ecosystems upon which endangered species depend may be
That has never been an easy task, and
it’s going to keep getting harder. The odds are long that
this country can keep its ecosystems intact and healthy while
making room for another 80 million or so human beings. We will
undoubtedly lose some irreplaceable species, but that is no reason
not to try to save what we can. It is no reason to weaken one of
the only laws that makes us look at how the way we live affects the
other creatures on this planet.