Since President Nixon signed it in 1973 — nearly half a century ago — the Endangered Species Act has been a resounding success story. Now the act itself is endangered, in the latest attack in the Trump administration’s war on the environment.
This legislation has been the nation’s bedrock conservation law, the government’s most effective way to protect wildlife, fish and plants and, often in the process, irreplaceable lands that are their habitat.
It’s credited with saving the American symbol — the bald eagle — as well as the American alligator, gray wolf, buffalo, grizzly bear, Florida manatee, humpback whale, peregrine falcon and other species. It has kept many other threatened species from moving onto the endangered list. You like monarch butterflies? Be prepared to say goodbye.
Like law, it needs to be enforced with common sense, and occasionally there’s a questionable call. But overall, it works well. Most people love it. Over many years, polls have shown that about four in five of us support it. It’s popular in Congress, too. Hardly a far-left tree-hugger law, it was passed with strong bipartisan support and signed by a Republican president.
But some business people, more concerned with short-term gain than long-term protections for our planet, don’t love it. Bills have been introduced to modify the law, but they don’t go anywhere, not even when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress during President Donald Trump’s first years in office.
So the Trump administration has decided to gut the law on its own, by rewriting the rules of its enforcement. Unless something is done, less than a month from now, there will be fewer protections for threatened species. It will be easier to remove species from the endangered list. It will be easier for mining, drilling, logging and other business activities to proceed even if they will harm species.
Regulators will now be able to take into account “economic factors” when deciding if a species merits protection. That strikes at the heart of the law, which rightly has weighed science-based judgments taking the long view over immediate profits.
Equally bad, the changes would make it harder for regulators to consider effects of climate change on wildlife. Trump doesn’t believe in human causes of climate change anyway, so his administration isn’t likely to value scientific projections looking 20 or 30 years down the road. A recent U.N. report estimated that human activity is pushing 1 million species toward extinction.
But this is the administration that pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate change agreement, supposedly to help our economy
And this is the administration that’s prolonging our dependence on coal and other polluting fuels rather than promoting the development of cleaner fuels. It’s the administration that works against clean water and slashes funds for protecting estuaries and green spaces. It opens up as much public land as it can to mining and other development.
One of Trump’s rallying cries is about removing the “regulatory burden,” as if all regulations are bad. Sure, bureaucracy can be frustrating at times, but sensible regulations are needed to make sure that the self-interest we pursue is the enlightened kind.
Some states, members of Congress and environmental groups are gearing up to fight Trump’s move to cripple what may be the most important environmental law of the last 50 years. Good for them. A few years of wrongheaded policy could do damage that will last forever.