Jan. 7—This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, a product of 1973's far more functional and rational Congress working hand in hand with President Richard Nixon.
Although it's easy to find detractors of the law in the rural West, where it is blamed for declines in industrial logging and other economic woes, it is broadly supported by most Americans. Its successes are many:
—Half a century ago, bald eagles had nearly disappeared in the lower 48, victims of DDT pesticide that ruined their eggshells, along with other factors, including deliberate poisoning and shooting. From only 417 breeding pairs in 1963, by 2007 there were 11,040. On the lower Columbia River and adjacent areas, it's now possible to see several eagles in the course of a casual few hours on any shoreline. More eagles in the air help keep fish predators in check, in addition to other benefits — not the least of which is inspiration.
—Gray whales, though not without ongoing challenges, have greatly recovered in these past five decades since the law's passage and the end of commercial whaling. They and other species, including humpbacks, blue and fin whales, are again our neighbors in numbers that would have once seemed fantastical.
—Peregrine falcons, which had dropped to 324 pairs in 1975, can again be spotted patrolling the skies of the Long Beach Peninsula and other coastal habitat. They are small miracles of aviation, little apex predators that keep their environment in balance.
These species and many others are examples of how careful attention and protection can elevate cherished animals from the edge of extinction to sustainable numbers that no longer require federal and state nursemaiding.
As retired congressman Norm Dicks, of Bremerton, has observed, "The Endangered Species Act is the strongest and most effective tool we have to repair the environmental harm that is causing a species to decline."
At the same time, it's important to not minimize the extent to which the Endangered Species Act and its state-level equivalents can get in the way of things that are also important.
Although the late-20th century loss of logging jobs had many causes — not least of which were hard-hearted decisions by multinational corporations — protecting northern spotted owls definitely contributed to the hollowing out of far too many Northwest communities. Protecting marbled murrelets in Pacific County scuttled a wind-energy project that could have incrementally helped many other species by helping mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Safeguarding snowy plovers curtails recreational razor clam seasons. Reintroducing gray wolves has resulted in livestock losses and countless complications east of the Cascades. And the list goes on.
It is often argued, sometimes with validity, that the law's impacts disproportionately land on rural people whose prosperity is tenuous at the best of times. All levels of government must keep working to make sure the real-life costs of species protection are fairly distributed among all citizens.
We live in troubled times. There are those who believe our own species may face extinction-level challenges, while at the same time we preside over one of Earth's worst episodes of large-scale plant and wildlife collapse in the past billion years. Humans have become a comet like the one that killed off all the nonbird dinosaurs. We even now are inaugurating a new unofficially designated geological period, the Anthropocene Epoch, in which man-made alterations in climate, land forms and species are leaving permanent scars on the planet.
The Endangered Species Act has never been more important. As the human population just crossed the 8 billion mark, it's hard to see how we ourselves will be endangered anytime soon. But preserving the life all around us in all its glorious diversity and complexity has never been a greater moral or pragmatic imperative.
We not only alter the climate, we have in some sense become the climate. We are the lords of a fragile domain. It is up to us to maintain it in all its splendor. If we do not, impoverished future generations will be right to curse us.