Forty years ago, on December 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. The “ESA,” as we commonly refer to it today, was one in a series of cornerstone environmental laws enacted in response to public concern over a series of unfolding environmental crises. The plight of iconic species in the face of those crises — including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, gray whales, grizzly bear, manatee and alligators –- helped catalyze that public concern.
Gray whales were was one of the first whales protected from whaling. Photo by Merrill Gosho/NOAA
When it was enacted, it had near unanimous political support, but today, the ESA is, in many regards, the embodiment of the current political divisions that define a national and global struggle between environmental protection and economic development. Aldo Leopold taught us that the essence of “intelligent tinkering” is to “save every cog and wheel.” It sounds so sensible, but we know that as humans occupy more and more of the planet’s ecological space – consuming more of its resources, altering habitat, moving species, changing the climate itself – that we are far beyond any notion of intelligent tinkering.
And yet, here is this elegant law, asking us to pause and contemplate the biological consequences of our planetary conquest. And maybe that’s the real rub. It’s another inconvenient truth. We know, in our heart-of-hearts, that we can’t ask the planet to continue giving more people more food, more fuel, more fiber and more fulsome bank accounts, without leaving less and less for the remainder of what we call biological diversity. Wish that it wasn’t so, but it really is.
And into this chasm, the ESA has thrust the women and men of two small but capable organizations: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and NOAA Fisheries. Over the past 40 years, they have made all the difference. Succeeding where success seemed improbable – like bringing wolves back into the American landscape. They have, quite literally, held life in their hands and minds – like those last few California condors and black-footed ferrets pulled from the wild and into captive breeding. It’s beyond amazing. Actually, it’s inspiring.