God Save the Endangered Species Act

No matter which manifestation of the original energy to which you pray–God, Buddha, Allah or Mother Nature–it’s time to hit your knees and put in a request to save the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Prayer may be the last hope of preserving the Act, which protects the endangered species and their habitat, upon which all life on Earth depends.

What has taken evolution three billion years to create, may take humanity only a few generations to destroy. Extinction means knowledge forfeited and opportunities lost, food sources never to be tapped, medicines never to be developed. The main cause of extinction is habitat loss. Think of habitat as plant and animal food and housing. Tragically, habitat which can’t support our planet’s animals and plant life is ill-suited to support humanity.

Don’t count on the national environmental movement — known in politically conscious circles as Gangrene — to come to the defense of the ESA, since they are the ones who laid tthe groundwork for the destruction of the Act in the early 1990’s. They bear full responsibility for the attempts at evisceration of the Act, which are taking place in the U.S. Congress today.

A History of Cowardice

During my tenure as Executive Director, from 1993-1994, the Endangered Species Coalition (ESC) became fully prepared to fulfill our mission of reauthorizing and strengthening the Endangered Species Act with a powerful, regionally-focused organizational infrastructure; a broad grassroots base and trained leaders in key districts. We had a Democratic Congress and U.S. President, adequate funding and a strategic plan that would have gained strength with the momentum of what commentators were predicting would be ‘the legislative battle of the decade.’

There was one obstacle–not right-wingers in Congress or property rights advocates out west–but the Steering Committee of the Endangered Species Coalition. They represented and were fully-backed by the nation’s premier, inside-the-beltway, environmental organizations — groups like Sierra Club, The National Audubon Society and Greenpeace USA*.

The fog of big money from wealthy foundations that remain invested in the status quo of the fossil fuel age and the bright lights of the power that comes from being players in the political game of compromise, caused Gangrene to lose sight of the path to true environmental protection. So, despite the loud outcry from the other 137 Coalition member groups and staff, the self-appointed Steering Committee, made the unilateral decision that the Endangered Species Coalition would not move for a vote on reauthorizing the ESA in 1994.

At the time, I explained to the Steering Committee that the party controlling the White House had lost congressional seats in all but one midterm election — and our job could range from slightly more difficult to nearly impossible in 1995 — with Republican control of Congress. Of course 1995 saw the realization of the Republican Revolution and the Contract on America , led by Newt Gingrich, which had a strong anti-environmental component.

But in the face of impending disaster — fully aware of the dire consequences of inaction — the Steering Committee held fast to its ‘do nothing’ strategy. That singular, short-sited decision sealed the ill fate of tens of thousands of threatened and endangered species and contributed to overall environmental degradation.

If the Steering Committee had acted in the early 90’s to strengthen the ESA, environmentalists would have been fighting a difficult, but winnable battle from an offensive position. Instead, the majority of the U.S. Congress today are opponents of environmental protection. Proponents of a strong ESA are relegated to fighting a weak, defensive battle, where clinging to the environmental protections we already have will be extremely difficult and advances will be nearly impossible.

Sadly, there is no way to recover from such a monumental, political miscalculation. We have not since — and may not in our lifetime — see a political opportunity to reauthorize the Act, like the one presented in the early 19900’s. The cowardice displayed by the ESC Steering Committee led directly, predictably and inexorably to the legislation which recently passed in Richard Pombo’s (R-CA) House Resources committee, designed to gut the Endangered Species Act.

The ESA Today

What we need is full enforcement and complete funding of all of the provisions of the Endangered Species Act including: listing of all species which are in danger of extinction throughout a significant portion of their range (endangered species) or likely to become so in the foreseeable future (threatened species); enforcement of critical habitat designation requirement, identifying and protecting the areas that need special management in order for the endangered or threatened species to recover; and mandatory recovery planning that offers a detailed plan as to what must be done in order to have an endangered or threatened species recover and be removed from the endangered species list.

What we have currently is an Act where many species that desperately need protection have not yet been added to the endangered species list. Many other species which are in need of listing and the full protection it provides, languish on a ‘candidate’ list or a ‘warranted but precluded’ list for years. Richard Pombo (R-CA) wants to make listing species more difficult than it is today.

Another bill sponsored by Dennis Cardoza (D-CA) recently passed in committee. Even before Cardoza’s bill makes it tougher than it is now to designate critical habitat for endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has not designated critical habitat for the vast majority of all listed species. Today, despite the fact that it is required by law, the Fish and Wildlife Service rarely designates critical habitat, unless forced to do so by a court order.

Most listed species have no recovery plans. Some of the species on the list have gone extinct, or suffered population decline while awaiting recovery planning and implementation. Even if recovery plans are written, they don’t have adequate detail for real recovery and are only advisory, without specific mandates to bring species back from the brink of extinction.

The two pieces of legislation by offered by Representatives Pombo and Cardoza passed in committee by comfortable margins and are expected to pass the U.S. House of Representatives. The Washington Post says that the bills are unlikely to pass the U.S. Senate prior to adjournment.

According to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, ‘the [House Resources] committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., offered a substitute bill that would have tightened the deadlines for making decisions and also required the [FWS] to address the backlog of 451 listed species that are awaiting critical habitat designations and 1,021 [of the 1,200] listed species without recovery plans.’ That bill failed in committee, but gives an idea of what is sorely needed to strengthen the ESA.

Contrary to the claims of ESA opponents, proponents of a strong Endangered Species Act support the rights of small property owners. Proponents have supported legislation that contains financial incentives to help enable individual private property owners to be stewards to endangered species. Proponents of a strong ESA do not support the destruction of critical habitat by large landowners and wealthy, corporate interests seeking regulatory relief and freedom from restrictions on their exploitation of our nation’s natural resources.

Americans know that we need long-term jobs that are part of a sustainable economy, rather than jobs based on short-sighted destruction of our natural resources, a scenario that will inevitably lead to economic collapse. We need to ensure that extractive industries work in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment, which sustains our economy. A strong ESA maintains our livelihoods by protecting natural resources, jobs and strengthening the economy.

The American public overwhelmingly supports the Endangered Species Act. They know that the Act keeps us healthy by safeguarding many of the species we rely on for life-saving medicines to fight cancer and other life-threatening diseases. It protects yet undiscovered cures for diseases like HIV-AIDS. The ESA protects forests, which are the lungs of the earth, purifying our air. It protects wetlands, which are the kidneys of the earth, filtering our water. A strong Act is an early warning system–like the canary in the coal mine–identifying threats to human existence.

Opponents of a strong ESA are fighting on behalf of a few wealthy corporations, not the people. They are serious, well-funded and organized. They are a formidable foe, skilled in the art of deception. They disguise the industry zealots they represent with coalition names which sound species-friendly. Among the members of the Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition in 1993 were: Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation, Chevron USA and Western States Petroleum Association. Their intent is to destroy the Endangered Species Act.

KARYN STRICKLER is former Director of the national Endangered Species Coalition. You can reach her at fiftyplusone@earthlink.net .


* Members of the Steering Committee of the national Endangered Species Coalition 1993-1994 included: Sierra Club, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now called Earth Justice), Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, The Wilderness Society, Greenpeace, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Center for Marine Conservation (advisory status), Defenders of Wildlife, Humane Society of the United States, the World Wildlife Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council (advisory status).