By Michael W. Shurgot / For The Herald
“The Earth is like a vessel so sacred
That at the mere approach of the profane
It is marred.
And when they reach out their fingers
It is gone.”
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when is tends otherwise.”
— Aldo Leopold, The Land Ethic in “A Sand County Almanac”
A small boy and his father, walking on a trail in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest hear the call of a bald eagle soaring above them. They are awed by the bird’s majestic flight. A young woman, kayaking off the far northwest coast of British Columbia, sees gray whales breaching ahead of her. A young couple, hiking at twilight in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, hear wolves howling. Tourists in Yellowstone National Park see dozens of bison grazing in a valley below, and in Washington’s Olympic National Park gigantic western red cedar and hemlock testify to the endurance of native flora.
All of these encounters with formerly endangered species are now possible because of the passage and enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, which President Richard M. Nixon signed into law 50 years ago on Dec. 28, 1973. This federal law, which followed numerous earlier versions in 1966 and 1969, as well as the Lacey Act in 1900 limiting animal markets; the Migratory Bird Conservation Act; a 1937 treaty that limited whaling; and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, have resulted in the preservation of innumerable species that had been close to extinction.
Among the flora and fauna preserved by the Endangered Species Act are the bald eagle, whooping crane, peregrine falcon, gray wolf, grizzly bear, San Clemente Indian paintbrush, Hawaiian goose, and black-footed ferret, and, indirectly through federal laws like the Roadless Rule, millions of old-growth trees in our national forests and national parks.
The act is administered by two federal agencies: United States Fish and& Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Its stated purpose is to protect not only species but also their “critical habitat,” a provision that has expanded significantly the amount of territory that can be reserved for species’ recovery. Equally crucial is the “taking clause,” which prohibits any industrial or federal action that may result in “taking,” i.e., killing or imperiling, an endangered or threatened species.
Throughout its conflicted history the act has been attacked by numerous polluting industries, and also by Republican presidents. Both George W. Bush, and most egregiously Donald Trump, attempted to eviscerate several major provisions. Nevertheless, the law stands.
While the act’s technical provisions are crucial, its ultimate value is philosophical: fostering coexistence within this “sacred vessel.” To profane is to destroy. And to preserve bio-diversity is to preserve ourselves.
Michael W. Shurgot is a retired professor of humanities at South Puget Sound Community College. He is an active member of Snake River Savers. He lives in Seattle.