America has many worldwide firsts in conservation: we were the first nation to establish a national park, the first to create a national wildlife refuge, the first to approve a law protecting endangered species and the first to create a national day dedicated to conservation, Earth Day.
These celebrated accomplishments were achieved by overcoming grave threats to our natural heritage. When our natural resources were in jeopardy, time and time again, committed and visionary activists and political leaders stepped forward and led our country in adopting laws to protect the natural world around us, clearly reaffirming our nation’s commitment to a legacy of conservation.
The first of these great conservation milestones began with America’s westward expansion in the mid-18th century. As transcontinental railroads and telegraph wires began to crisscross our natural landscapes, no laws were in effect to protect our nation’s wildlife, habitat and extraordinary landscapes. President Lincoln, who grew up with an affinity for forests, rivers and prairies, intervened and demanded that Americans begin to protect some of our treasured natural resources. Lincoln established protections for Yosemite Valley, long before the concept of national parks or wildlife refuges had even been imagined on a national scale. Lincoln also signed legislation to create the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Academy of Sciences, laying a foundation for federal support and stewardship of our natural resources.
In the early 20th century, amidst rapid development and escalating species extinction, a second visionary leader stepped forward to reinvigorate America’s commitment to conservation, President Theodore Roosevelt. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the unregulated killing of wildlife for food and fashion was destroying America’s natural heritage at an alarming rate. One of the most famous examples of human-caused extinction was the passenger pigeon, believed to be the most numerous bird species in the United States – numbering as high as 2-5 billion birds. Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, died on September 1, 1914.
Theodore Roosevelt heeded nature’s warning signs and took dramatic action to reverse the decline. Some of Roosevelt’s most celebrated achievements as the “father of conservation” were his declaration of the first national wildlife refuge in 1903. Pelican Island in Florida was an ambitious decision to protect numerous bird species, including those that were being hunted for their feathers. He also established the U.S. Forest Service, over 50 federal bird reservations, 150 national forests, and five significant national parks. By signing the Antiquities Act into law in 1906, Roosevelt proclaimed 18 national monuments. In his words: “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.” (Theodore Roosevelt, Osawatomie, Kansas, August 31, 1910).
It wasn’t until the early 1970s that America’s conservation heritage would once more be redefined by the acts of courageous leaders, those who recognized our nation was again in dire need of environmental reform and protection. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Americans witnessed a series of environmental catastrophes that sounded the alarm about the plight of our important natural resources. Americans watched aghast as the water pollution in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caused the river literally to catch on fire. On the other side of the country, the nation’s then largest oil spill was occurring off the coast of Santa Barbara. And, on a national scale, some of the nation’s most iconic species like the bald eagle, American alligator, and whooping crane, were headed towards extinction. The realization that we were, once again, severely degrading and losing many of our treasured natural resources prompted millions of Americans, led by the late Senator Gaylord Nelson and organizer Denis Hayes, to establish the first large-scale environmental “teach-ins,” a nationwide series of peaceful and educational demonstrations calling for environmental reform. These programs would later be officially recognized as Earth Day.
Thankfully, our political leaders heard the widespread voice of public concern, and in response, we enacted our nation’s bedrock conservation laws – the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA was adopted to protect many of our nation’s most imperiled species, including the peregrine falcon, which had completely disappeared from the eastern United States by 1970. The banning of DDT, along with the additional protections provided by the ESA, made the recovery of the peregrine falcon possible. Other species, such as the southern sea otter, were hunted by fur traders down to a population of only 50 animals by the early 1900s. Now, there are approximately 2,800 southern sea otters off the coast of California. Brown pelicans and the American alligator have been delisted and the wild populations of Steller sea lions, grizzly bears and California condors are once again expanding. Thus, the ESA has been the nation’s last chance safety net for more than 1,400 native species, and for the past 40 years, it has been the defining model for imperiled wildlife conservation in the United States and abroad.
But today, we are experiencing another period of crisis in America’s commitment to conservation. Accelerating climate change, invasive species, accelerating habitat destruction and development, along with intense pressures to increase energy production are among just a few of the present threats to imperiled species. Some of our nation’s most endangered species like the Mexican gray wolf are still too close to the brink of extinction. But as serious as these threats are, none are as great as the hostility and unrelenting opposition to the ESA from anti-environmental extremists in Congress. At a time when our nation’s imperiled wildlife are still in need of protection, the political will of many in Congress to conserve these species is disappearing.
When did conservation become a polarizing political issue, when it has been, for the past century, a defining characteristic of American values and the American spirit?
Too often during the historic past of this country, Americans have witnessed dramatic and alarming periods of environmental degradation and waste. Our political leaders responded by offering protections, embodied in our current conservation laws. If there was ever a time we needed to recommit ourselves to our nation’s defining values on conservation, it’s today – it’s now. Our country’s air, land, water and wildlife are what make America worth fighting for. The ESA works. It has saved hundreds of species from extinction – humpback whale, apache trout and Florida manatee – but, our job is not finished.
Gandhi once said, “There go my people. I must hurry for I am their leader.” Even if many in Congress lack the political will to protect our native species and the habitat critical to their survival, let the American people show them the way by giving renewed meaning to Earth Day this year.
— By Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife
Originally posted in the Huffington Post