Chaos in Washington is always legislatively dangerous, for there is no shortage of congressmen eager to capitalize on the confusion and enact bad bills. Witness Sen. Dirk Kempthorne's sudden attempt to pass his Endangered Species Act (ESA) bill.
The Idaho Republican's bill has been aggressively opposed by the environmental and scientific communities since it was reported from committee more than a year ago. It adds numerous burdensome procedural hurdles to the species recovery planning process. It ignores the recommendations of our nation's top conservation biologists by codifying the Clinton administration's controversial habitat conservation planning policies, which the administration itself has said need repair. It weakens the act's ability to ensure that the activities of federal agencies don't jeopardize listed species. And its implementation requires large funding increases that Congress will not provide.
But the temptation to take advantage of the chaotic legislative environment is too much for ESA opponents to resist. To many elected officials, after all, endangered species are but metaphors for hated environmental regulations, angry developers, and political controversy.
But before they emasculate the ESA, our senators should try a simple exercise. They should consider America without the imperiled grizzly bear, gray wolf, ocelot, Florida manatee, woodland caribou. The bald eagle, whooping crane, peregrine falcon, brown pelican, piping plover, spotted owl, wood stork, white-faced ibis, roseate tern. The desert tortoise, California red-legged frog, and American crocodile. Seven trout species and several chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon populations. A lengthening list of clams, snails, beetles, butterflies. Hundreds of wildflowers and other plants. Over 1,000 endangered or threatened US species in all.
And then they should consider another set of metaphors.
Endangered species are the warmth, joy, and glory of being alive amid a vast diversity of living things - big and small, delicate and mighty. They are the rhythm of the seasons. The migrating birds whose songs announce each spring, the wildflowers that scent and color the summer meadow, and the earth-toned leaves that fall on crisp autumn mornings.
Endangered species are the inspiration for books, song, poems, paintings, photographs, and sculptures. The essence of wild nature. The hunter and hunted whose behavior has determined the characteristics of countless animals, making bison tough, antelope swift, and mountain goats nimble.
Endangered species are the frontier challenges that shaped the American character. The at-risk survivors of the clash between ever-advancing civilization and constantly retreating nature, but also the salvation of that civilization which gains perspective, vitality, and balance from a world where nature's challenges still exist and where ultimate freedom and independence still prevail.
Endangered species are a warning that the margin between existence and extinction is narrowing. A warning that the web of life of the future will be much less rich and complex, with uncertain consequences for all species, including ours.
Endangered species are a reminder that all living things are part of creation and have dignity and intrinsic worth.
That's what endangered species are today. Their tomorrow depends on the Senate. Our nation's most noble environmental law, the Endangered Species Act doesn't deserve to be a victim of the chaotic final days of the 105th Congress.
* Rodger Schlickeisen is president of Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation organization based in Washington, D.C.