Commentary: Save the Species--but Add Incentives
It looks good on the back of the quarter or the dollar bill, but the bald eagle isn't an animal you would like to meet face-to-face. It's a fierce predator, with a six- to eight-foot wingspan, razor-sharp talons, and pale, menacing eyes. In 1782, when the bald eagle became the American symbol, it ruled the skies--25,000 to 75,000 patrolled what would become the lower 48 states. By the early 1960s, however, fewer than 450 nesting pairs remained. Defenseless against human predators, the bald eagle was approaching extinction.
Twenty-five years ago, on Dec. 28, 1973, President Richard M. Nixon took decisive action to prevent that. He signed the Endangered Species Act, which had rolled through Congress on a vote of 92-0 in the Senate and 355-4 in the House. "Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed," Nixon said.
Despite the overwhelming support for the new law, it quickly became the most reviled piece of environmental legislation ever enacted. Almost immediately, it threatened to shut down construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee, because the dam would flood streams containing a small, endangered variety of perch known as the snail darter.RILED RANCHERS. With his signature, Nixon had protected not only the bald eagle but also scores of other weird animals and plants unlikely to show up on American currency--including the giant kangaroo rat, the Tooth Cave pseudoscorpion, and the furbish lousewort. There are now 1,177 species on the threatened and endangered lists.
Environmentalists seized on the act as a powerful weapon to protect sensitive habitats; meanwhile developers, loggers, and cattle ranchers, to name a few, howled in pain. Congress had to pass a special exemption to the Act to allow completion of the Tellico Dam, but no sooner had it done so than the next crisis appeared: controversy over protecting the spotted owl threatened to close down logging on millions of acres of forest in the Pacific Northwest.
"The Endangered Species Act is the most visionary environmental law that we have ever passed," says Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "It goes in a really comprehensive way straight to the issue: How do we live, utilize, and develop in harmony with the landscape and creation?"
Conservative critics have denounced the Act, arguing that it gives Fish & Wildlife Service biologists unlimited power to block development--without paying for it. They say that if the government cuts land values by blocking development, it should compensate the owners.
Environmentalists criticize the Act for doing too little, too late. They have filed numerous lawsuits to force the Fish & Wildlife Service--part of Babbitt's Interior Dept.--to tighten and speed enforcement.ECO-COMPROMISE. The Fish & Wildlife Service protests that it has been given an impossible task: Its current budget for endangered species is $129.9 million, perhaps one-tenth of what it needs to do its job, says Gerry A. Jackson, assistant director for ecological services.
Babbitt has done a lot in recent years to find a compromise. Flexible interpretation of the Act now allows landowners and developers to destroy some endangered-species habitat if they agree to preserve or restore habitat for the species somewhere else. "Biologists need to appreciate that you can't reach perfection," Babbitt says. Adding more incentives, such as tax breaks, could also ease critics' concerns.
For all its shortcomings, the Act has slowed the decline of imperiled species. A few have been saved, including the bald eagle, which is likely to be removed from the list of threatened species this summer. (The banning of DDT was also critical to the eagle's survival.)
The Act has also helped preserve vital patches of natural habitat that would otherwise have surely been destroyed. And it has helped ensure the safety and comfort of human life, casting a cold light on those weird little creatures that, like miners' canaries, might help us foresee what we need to protect.By Paul Raeburn