Forty years ago tomorrow — on December 28, 1973 — President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) into law. This landmark legislation has defined America’s commitment to wildlife conservation ever since. The ESA and other bedrock environmental laws such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts affirm for all Americans that we are a nation dedicated to conserving our natural heritage for future generations — through our national parks and refuges, through clean air and water, and by protecting our wildlife.
Photo by Pen Waggener
In the four decades since the ESA’s passage, more than 1,200 plants and animals in the United States have put been under the law’s protection. The act has been essential to a range of conservation success stories. The brown pelican, the American alligator, and the grizzly bear — along with our national symbol, the bald eagle — have all experienced amazing comebacks thanks to the ESA.
My home state, California, offers an inspiring example of the ESA in action. The Golden State may be the most populous in the nation — a place more often associated with freeways and traffic jams than with wildlife roaming the forests and deserts — but California is also the location of some of the ESA’s greatest successes. Some of the species that have been protected by the ESA call California home, including the El Segundo blue butterfly and the southern sea otter which are found only in California’s Central Coast and Southern regions, while the humpback whale, green sea turtle, peregrine falcon and bald eagle have ranges across California and its coastline.
Such success stories prove that we can protect imperiled species and improve California’s economy and infrastructure at the same time. And they also demonstrate that when we work together to protect our nation’s wildlife and public lands, we reap numerous benefits — tangible and intangible — in the process.
People travel from all across the United States and from around the world to visit California’s majestic parks and wildlife refuges — Yosemite, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. Our state’s iconic plants and animals are legendary — towering redwoods, spawning salmon, California condors and desert tortoises.
In California, we’ve proven that we can safeguard endangered plants and animals while simultaneously offering benefits to landowners. For example, in eastern Contra Costa County, we’ve developed a conservation plan that benefits the endangered kit fox, red-legged frog, and tiger salamander while accommodating increasing urban and suburban populations. The Lower Mokeleumne River is another example of a collaborative agreement, where wine grape growers agreed to a voluntary partnership to enhance habitat for the endangered valley elderberry longhorn beetle and other species along more than 20 miles of the lower Mokelumne River in San Joaquin County. At the same time, this agreement provides regulatory assurances to enrolled landowners so they can continue normal farming activities. These innovative agreements demonstrate the array of tools available to landowners and state and local officials when we work together to protect imperiled wildlife.
But in spite of the demonstrated success of the ESA in California and across the U.S., we are witnessing an unprecedented anti-conservation movement in Congress . Increasingly, the ESA seems to fall victim to the deep pockets of special interest groups who are more worried about today’s bottom line than tomorrow’s legacy. In addition, escalating environmental changes, including habitat loss and climate change, are creating new threats for our wildlife. These contentious political times, coupled with rapid environmental change, seem to leave the ESA itself imperiled, just like the species it is designed to protect.
Today’s diminished political support for endangered species is especially discouraging given the historic bipartisan enthusiasm for protecting wildlife. Here, for example, is Republican President Nixon’s statement upon signing the act: “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.”
We need that same kind of commitment today, and we need our politicians to embrace the same values our leaders showed when they passed the ESA forty years ago. We need to renew our commitment to conservation and to a natural world that evokes wonder, awe and reverence for America’s wildlife and landscape treasures. After all, protecting America’s natural heritage is as important now as it was four decades ago.