Thirty years ago, I was pleased to stand at President Nixon’s side as he signed the Endangered Species Act into law. It was tough legislation, but also popular in a way that is all but unimaginable today: The Senate passed it unanimously and only a dozen of my colleagues in the House opposed it.
In the last three decades, the act has done much to protect eagles and other endangered species by protecting their habitats. I’m proud of what the law has accomplished.
I’m not so proud of my Republican Party and its current attitude toward this landmark statute.
Back in 1973, the environment was a bipartisan issue. Both parties strongly supported the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act and many other bedrock laws that have done so much to make our lives enjoyable. Yet today, the Newt Gingrichs and Tom DeLays and others have led the Republican Party to abandon the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt. There are a handful of pro-environment Republicans still in the Congress, but they are outnumbered by people who put corporate campaign contributions and business and development interests ahead in their priorities.
The Endangered Species Act -- which turned 30 on Dec. 28 and remains a visionary piece of legislation -- is a public commitment by a great democracy to care for the rest of the creatures with which we share the planet.
The act has been remarkably effective. Peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, American alligators and many other species, once on the verge of disappearing, were aided by the law and now thrive. Still-protected species -- black-footed ferrets, California condors and manatees among them -- would almost certainly be extinct if not for this law. Just last month, I was privileged to see a pair of young condors circling in the Santa Lucia Mountains below Carmel. Twenty years ago, there were no wild condors in California.
Now, however, the administration and its congressional allies are in a pitched battle against the act. The administration has moved to exempt the military from the law.
I once was in the Marine Corps. We do not need to drive species to extinction at Camp Pendleton or Guantanamo Bay or Hunter Liggett to keep our armed forces adequately trained and prepared for combat.
The administration has stopped designating “critical habitat” for listed species except under court order. It has stopped adding to the list of threatened and endangered species unless ordered to do so by a judge. It has moved to exempt the Forest Service from abiding by the law on the pretext of fire prevention. It is working to weaken the requirement that endangered species be protected from pesticides.
And that list barely scratches the surface. The assault on the law is widespread and relentless.
The administration and its comrades in arms argue that the law is ineffective, expensive and in need of drastic overhaul. In truth, they are acting as agents for the timber industry, the mining industry, land developers, big agriculture and other economic interests that sometimes find their profits slightly decreased in the short run by the need to obey this law.
These points are key: Species-protecting measures can have economic consequences on narrow interests in the short term, but in the long term the economy overall -- along with the public and the natural world -- benefits from a healthy ecosystem.
When I served in Congress, conservatives and conservationists worked together in friendship. Something dark and onerous has happened since the Republicans took over the House. It’s time for Republicans to stand up and try to keep the party true to its historical concept that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness include the preservation of endangered species.
If we stand back and allow Democrats to be identified as the sole preservers of environmental values, the GOP could soon return to the minority status it occupied for most of the last 70 years. And that, however unfortunate for the party, would be a good thing for eagles, turkeys, ducks and rainbow trout.