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“Endangered Species,” America’s other great idea


Dear Woods-N-Water News:

In 1912, the British ambassador said, "Your national parks are the best idea America ever had." In fact, our parks were just the first step in America's great commitment to safeguard our natural heritage for future generations.

We know because we were among the authors and defenders of what many believe to be one of America's greatest legacies for the natural world - the Endangered Species Act, enacted by Congress 37 years ago this week by huge bipartisan majorities: 355-4 in the House, 92-0 in the Senate.

Why is the Endangered Species Act so special, so - American, in its conception and implementation? Because its purpose, terms, and message take it a long leap beyond most laws. The Endangered Species Act is a moral law, in the very best sense of the word. "Moral" because it expresses the near-unanimous will of Americans that we must do our best to ensure that this rich diversity of plants and animals that live among us shall stay here forever.

In 1973, the legislators of a great Nation came together, and said, in essence: We, the American People, won't let any animal or plant in our nation go extinct. Not if we can help it.

If that isn't one of the most profound and powerful statements ever, of a nation's feelings about all its inhabitants, it's hard to imagine what is.

President Nixon said it perhaps best, when he signed the ESA into law in 1973: "Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed…. [the lives of] countless future generations will be richer…. and America will be more beautiful in the years ahead, thanks to the measure that I have the pleasure of signing into law today."

That is how we felt too leading up to final passage. That is why we wrote two basic concepts which make it so powerful and so moral:

The Act declares that any species which science shows is near extinction, shall be protected under the terms of the Act. Not if it is politically expedient, but "shall."

The Act declares that not only must individuals of a species be protected, but also orders the government to protect its "critical habitat"--the places each plant or animal needs for food, shelter, and reproduction to recover from the brink of extinction.

To recover is the true goal of this law: to lend a helping hand to our natural neighbors, and nurture them back to full health. The Endangered Species Act, which we authored and are proud to defend, is our nation's ultimate safety net - its emergency room - for all living things, which share our boundaries.

It is not a perfect law, but it has been hugely successful. So many species on the brink 37 years ago are now flourishing among us: the pelican, bald eagle, falcon, alligator, hundreds of flowers and reptiles too - given a fighting chance to survive. So too are their habitats: millions of acres of ancient forests, wild beaches, open meadows, sparkling riverscapes. This is the true legacy of our unique Endangered Species Act.

The fact that the Act still stands tall, after nearly forty years, is in itself a testament to the wisdom of a special American "can-do" spirit, when it comes to our natural treasures: that we can have jobs, economic development, and natural beauty, wild places, and endangered species too. It has never been one or the other.

We ask: what would our country have looked like now, after four decades of heavy development, if this special law -- the Endangered Species Act, had never happened? How much poorer we would have been as a people, to have lost our stunning heritage!

If we are careless in safeguarding the wildlife we have now - if we turn our backs on the great heritage of wildlife and our commitment to protecting it for our children and grandchildren- it is as if we are being careless with a great treasure, a great wealth that nature has provided us.

We have this suggestion to our many colleagues and friends in the next Congress: don't take chances with this legacy. Every American knows that extinction is forever.

Perhaps, upon reflection, this is the greatest idea - our Nation's greatest gift - to the whole world, as well as to ourselves.

Written by U.S. Representative John D. Dingell, (MI-15) the longest serving member in the history of the US House of Representatives (having served 55 years). Rep Dingell is an original author of the Endangered Species Act and Senator John Melcher: John Melcher (D-Montana) served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1969-1976) and two terms in the U.S. Senate (1977-1988). He is a veterinarian and writes from Missoula.n


January 26, 2011

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