When it became law 25 years ago this week, the Endangered Species Act seemed like a no-brainer. Who could argue against saving bald eagles and grizzly bears and gray whales from extinction?
Just four members of the House of Representatives voted against it, and in the Senate there was not a single dissenting voice. When then-President Richard Nixon signed the law, he declared that "nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed."
But since then, the measure Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has called "the most visionary environmental law" ever passed has stirred up enormous controversy. With its potential to impact virtually every land-use decision in the United States, it has challenged traditional notions of property rights and economic worth. And it has raised profound questions about the relationship of man to his natural surroundings, in the process changing the thinking of scientists, policymakers, and the public.
If there's one reason for the controversy, it's the fact that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) "doesn't protect just the famous and well-loved species," as US Fish and Wildlife Service director Jamie Rappaport Clark puts it. That means a fish called the shortnose sucker and a plant called Bradshaw's desert-parsley as well as the "charismatic megafauna" that we typically want to cuddle or tell scary stories about. Perhaps the most famous actor in the obscure category was the snail darter, a finger-sized fish that nearly prevented construction of the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River in 1977.
But it's not so much the kind of species protected under the ESA that rankles critics. Rather, they say, it just hasn't done its job. An initial list of 109 plants and animals protected under the law has grown to 1,179, with many more "candidate species" waiting to be listed. Over the years, just 27 species have been "delisted" - most because they went extinct or shouldn't have been listed in the first place rather than because they had recovered.
Some analysts claim that even the success stories can't be attributed to the ESA but are mainly due to other factors - the banning of the pesticide DDT was a major factor in reversing the decline of the bald eagle and the Peregrine falcon, for example.
"The ESA has failed to legitimately recover a single species," says Ike Sugg, an environmental analyst at the Washington-based think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute. "None of these species have benefited from the ESA's punitive regulation of private property."
Worse than that, says Jim Streeter, "In some cases the act has made recovery more difficult by entangling real conservation work in red tape and creating disincentives that discouraged participation." Mr. Streeter is policy director of the National Wilderness Institute, a private research organization in Washington, D.C., favored by many conservatives in Congress and private business.
But the ESA's defenders argue that the rate of decline and extinction would have been much worse without the law protecting listed species from harm and requiring recovery plans. They note that about half of listed plant and animal species are making a comeback because of recovery efforts, including habitat restoration.
Ten years ago, there were no free-flying California condors; today, thanks to a captive breeding program, 44 of the majestic birds soar over Arizona and California and more are being bred for release. The whooping crane, whose numbers had dwindled to fewer than 20, now numbers 200 in the wild with 200 more in captive breeding populations. Wolves reintroduced to their native habitat in Yellowstone National Park have formed into packs and begun producing offspring.
And while the Endangered Species Act appears not to provide the direct benefits to humans that clean-water and clean-air legislation does, that perception is changing.
"Forty percent of all medicines are derived from sources in the wild, our food crops depend on wild plants to maintain their heartiness and variety, and of course imperiled wildlife are our canary in the coal mine, telling us that something is wrong with our world," says Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation.
Until recently, most major species-protection efforts have impacted rural areas or park lands. These include the notorious northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest, gray wolves in Yellowstone, and the American alligator in Florida. These moves restricted the activities of some farmers, ranchers, loggers, and developers.
Within the next few months, however, a major metropolitan area could feel a direct impact as well. The federal government is expected to list several runs of wild chinook salmon, a species headed toward extinction whose traditional spawning habitat covers much of the Puget Sound area around Seattle.
Meanwhile, a new generation of "conservation biologists" and other scientists - prompted by the Endangered Species Act - is learning more and more about the importance of "biodiversity" in preserving natural balance. In the process, they are realizing how much they don't know about the numbers and kinds of species that exist and which ones may be the "keystone" species whose loss could precipitate the kind of "extinction spasm" seen in previous millennia.
"The basic message of the Endangered Species Act is something everybody understands: extinction is forever," says Interior Secretary Babbitt. "Once a species and its habitat are lost, they can't be brought back. The Endangered Species Act gives us one last chance to ... save some important living part of America for the future."