The Endangered Species Act turns 40 this year. It’s provided our country and its wild places with a lot of benefits. It’s also been the target of attacks from committed opponents, including some of my House colleagues.
Although the act is best known for saving bald eagles and grizzly bears, it’s put hundreds of species on the road to recovery over the past four decades, including many in my home state of Arizona.
The law has meant full recovery for condors and many other species that were on the verge of extinction.
This landmark law — signed by President Richard Nixon when protecting the environment was less controversial in Washington — has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals under its protection because it takes a big-picture approach. When we protect species, we also protect the wild forests, deserts, rivers and streams where they live. This means more biological diversity, cleaner air and water, a healthier climate and more sustainable natural resources for which future generations will thank us.
Sustaining rivers, forests and deserts is good for our economy. We can’t survive as a purely mechanized society or a nationwide chemical plant. We need green spaces and ecological balance.
Keeping lethal pesticides out of rivers populated by endangered species isn’t just good for those species — it’s good for everyone. There are benefits to protecting species that go well beyond those species’ survival.
Many years ago, as chairman of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, I helped initiate the process — guided all the way by the Endangered Species Act — that led to the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. This successful effort sets aside many of our region’s critical conservation areas while identifying sites best suited for building homes, businesses and industries. The plan goes a long way toward protecting the Sonoran Desert.
One of the keys to our success has been a peer-reviewed study of the region’s most imperiled species, including 16 protected under the Endangered Species Act. Science really can show the way to better public policy, despite what some people want to tell you. The Endangered Species Act established the science-based habitat management rules that showed us how to write our conservation plan. It can provide the same guidelines elsewhere.
Without the protections set forth in the Endangered Species Act, it would have been impossible to get the region’s diverse conservation, political and business interests to sit down and negotiate a long-term sustainable solution to the future of growth in our region. It’s a useful framework for deciding what will fit where and how different interests can coexist. Rather than running roughshod or taking a my-way-or-else approach, everyone sat down and had to examine the effects of their decisions carefully. We could use more of that in Washington, but that’s another story.
Unfortunately, some people want to do away with the law even now. Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator and presidential candidate, sounded a common theme when he complained last year that the law prioritizes “critters above people” and was part of “a truly radical environmental agenda.” Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Oversight, has complained, “As a tool for advancing other special interest policy goals, it has certainly been very influential, but I’m not sure that was the act’s original intent.” With all due respect, I think he’s misunderstood the law.
The Endangered Species Act is too valuable to shred for the sake of a pesticide company’s bottom line, a sweetheart mining deal or any other grab for money at the environment’s expense. Let’s keep up the good work rather than turning back the clock.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva is a Democrat from Arizona.