Earlier this week it was announced that GOP lawmakers intend to scale back the Endangered Species Act in an effort to deregulate logging and oil drilling operations. The Endangered Species Act is considered one of America's "most powerful conservation tools" and was passed almost unanimously. Its passing is what largely saved the Bald Eagle, one of the most distinct symbols of our country, from extinction. So what are the implications of amending the Endangered Species Act? Before answering that question, it's important to understand the history and the purpose of the act.
The 60's and 70's were a time of intense evaluation of human actions in relation to their effects on the environment and are referred to as the years that encompass the Green Movement. This eco-centric way of thinking is what led to the passing of various pieces of legislature that to this day protect natural places and the species within them, including the Endangered Species Act.
Congress passed the first prong of the ESA in 1966 which allowed for native species to be classified as "endangered" and placed limited protections upon them. Protections included preservation of the environments of endangered species and the ability to acquire land solely as a habitat for them. In 1969, an amendment was made that prohibited the capture and sale of endangered species within, or across, borders. An international committee convened in which many countries agreed to the stipulations put in place and adopted their own conservation plans.
1973 ushered in another amendment for the Endangered Species Act after a convention referred to as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (of Wild Flora and Fauna), or CITIES. Among many things, the new Endangered Species Act explicitly defined "endangered" and "threatened," made plants and invertebrates eligible for protections, and prohibited federal agencies from acting in any manor that may further impede an endangered species or its habitat.
There have been multiple amendments since the one made in 1973 but the underlying framework has been kept much the same.
The Endangered Species Act as we know it today has been in place for almost 44 years. During that time, it has protected thousands of species with only 10 going extinct, most of which were likely extinct or very close to extinction before they were protected. This means that the ESA is over 99% effective in staving off extinction. Additionally, the act has stabilized 93% of the species it protects. Without it, specialists predicted that 227 species would have gone extinct from the years 1973-2012.
Today, the Endangered Species Act protects at least 1,600 species and has 287 candidate species so there's still a lot of work to do but 2/3 Americans support the act's efforts and either wish for it to be left as-is or strengthened.
The Counter Argument
To many, the goals and benefits of the Endangered Species Act are clear and advantageous but not everyone agrees. Opponents of the act claim that it unnecessarily impedes development and economic success.
It is true that in certain areas around the country operations such as constructing new housing developments, logging and drilling are limited or outright prohibited but this is not done arbitrarily. Furthermore, logging and drilling (two activities specifically mentioned by GOP lawmakers as being stymied by the ESA) are not sustainable. Oil reserves will eventually run dry and trees take too long to grow to be considered a renewable resources. To expanded these enterprises and base our country's fiscal success on them is, in a way, economic suicide.
A more worthwhile action plan would be to invest in the health of all species, and therefore the entire environment, so that we might reap benefits from them. Every year, hunting, fishing and wildlife watching usher $108 billion dollars into the economy and provide at least 2.6 million jobs. (This doesn't include money brought in via eco-tourism, natural medicines.) When these activities are done responsibly and the environment is protected, they, and the income they provided, are fully renewable.
Additionally, healthy ecosystems that protect against flooding and erosion can save the US millions of dollars every year.
The Big Picture
Although a healthy environment can supplement our economy, the notion that the earth is only as valuable as what it directly gives to us undermines the importance of the idea of connectedness. When one part of the world starts the crumble, the rest — even humans — will feel the effects. If we change the Endangered Species Act to make it less strong, hundreds of species will become extinct. This loss of biodiversity isn't just sad, it's directly harmful to the health of our planet and to us, as humans.
Right now, the well-being of our country and world is very much so at stake, but it's not lost yet. You can make a difference. It's as easy as doing your own research, donating to vetted organizations or even planting and caring for local species of plants. But, most importantly, if you're not okay with endangering the environment, use your voice to convince lawmakers to respect endangered species and natural places.
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