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Would the Endangered Species Act Pass Today?

by Patrick McGann
Lewiston Tribune, January 2, 2004

This week, the Endangered Species Act turned 30. It was signed into law 1973 by Richard Nixon after sailing through the Senate 92-0 and passing by a landslide of 391-12 in the House. It was probably the smartest thing the Republicans ever did.

Far from being controversial, once upon a time protection of endangered species was universally accepted as sensible and necessary. The act was passed as the bald eagle, and hundreds of other species, were literally winking out of existence before our eyes, and to a substantial majority, that was unacceptable.

Maybe you think this law wouldn't see the light of day today, but that's not true. If it hadn't been passed at all, the hue and cry to pass it again would be just as widespread, just as pervasive as it was in the 1970s.

It was Ronald Reagan's administration that decided to demonize the Endangered Species Act. Western conservatives found it easy to convince normally Democratic working people that their economic interests were better served by weak or nonexistent environmental laws.

They drove a wedge through the western Democratic Party with the maul of jobs, blaming employment losses on the ESA, rather than on the loss of the species the ESA was designed to protect.

The tactic worked well. The Western sagebrush is Republican today, largely as an anti-environmentalist movement.

The Bush administration makes no secret of its desire to change the act. But to what?

Would we be better off without it? No. We would not have more jobs. We would just have fewer species of fish and wildlife. Without these dramatic machinations wrought by the ESA we probably would not have salmon and steelhead swimming through our valley. Our lives would not be better.

It is not the Endangered Species Act that costs jobs. What costs natural resource jobs is human activity, business activity, that takes species to the brink of extinction. It is the ESA, and only the ESA, that forces businesses to change the way they do things so that species will not be wiped out.

In the absence of the ESA -- and the presence of falling dominoes of fish and wildlife species it protects -- it would not take very long for the American people, especially outdoors-loving Westerners, to find themselves in the same common agreement as they did in 1973, that wholesale extinction is not an option we are willing to live with.

The irony is that the smartest thing the Democrats could do is show people what it would be like without the ESA. But that wouldn't be right, would it?

Patrick McGann
Would the Endangered Species Act Pass Today?
Lewiston Tribune, January 2, 2004

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