Let's recognize the Endangered Species Law for what it is: One of the best laws ever passed

For earth’s creatures, nothing is more final than extinction, not even death itself. People talk about the silence of death, but the silence of extinction is even more harrowing – not just one life, but a form of life, gone forever.

In 1944, the National Audubon Society sent illustrator Don Eckelberry to Louisiana to see if he could locate an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He found one, presumably the last of its kind, which he drew for several days. In the new documentary “Ghost Bird,” which chronicles the controversy surrounding the bird, Eckelberry’s widow says that her husband recalled that this last woodpecker was “almost insane” – agitated, expressive – perhaps instinctively desperate in the face of oblivion.

Extinction is natural. No one talks about how suburban sprawl wiped out the pterodactyl. But when extinction happens through human carelessness, it is tragic and intolerable.

Prompted by precipitous declines in the first decades of the 20th Century, Congress was moved to take a stand against this kind of destructive carelessness and passed one of the best laws this nation has ever seen: The Endangered Species Act of 1973.

For all the criticism it has received, and despite its flaws, this “Magna Carta of the environmental movement,” as historian Kevin Starr calls it, has accomplished wondrous things. Without it, we probably would have seen the last of the American Alligator, California Condor, Gray Wolf, Peregrine Falcon and, our National Bird, the Bald Eagle.

Just recently, the Brown Pelican, an icon of the California coast was moved off the Endangered Species List after it mounted an incredible comeback under protection of the law. What would our coastline have been without it?

The Endangered Species Act has been a lightening rod for the property rights movement and others who fear economic harm from the law’s protections. While the application of the law has some times been blunt, federal regulators have crafted tools such as habitat conservation plans to defuse the concerns of landowners. These tools encourage developing comprehensive plans for species conservation, though the results have admittedly been uneven.

Admitting its faults should not diminish the law’s incredible benefits, which often spread far beyond the species themselves. A good example of this occurred this fall, when a judge’s ruling on the little known Delta Smelt compelled California Legislators to set aside decades of procrastination and make tough decisions on California’s water crisis.

Moreover, the Endangered Species Act has given us a vehicle to address larger landscape issues. We would probably have long ago said goodbye to the Pacific Northwest’s old growth forests if not for the law’s protection of the Spotted Owl. Much of Southern California’s rare coastal sage scrub likely would have been plowed under for homes if not for the protection of the California Gnatcatcher.

While the law is a thorn in the side of developers and public agencies, it nonetheless empowers us to demand that proponents of new freeways, housing developments and water projects address the very real impacts on our quality of life. Farsighted developers recognize the power of the Endangered Species Act and reach out early to conservationists and communities to avoid conflicts.

Getting on the Endangered Species List is not necessarily enough. Species such as the Santa Barbara Song Sparrow and Tecopa Pupfish went extinct while on the list. But this isn’t necessarily a failure of the law.

The law brings important protections, but case after case demonstrates that it takes a comprehensive recovery plan and, more importantly, sufficient resources to implement that plan to save a dwindling species. It also takes considerable political courage to take a stand on behalf of a species. 

The Endangered Species Act is a great law, but in the end it is just a law. What really makes it work is the commitment of people to ensuring that we leave this world as we found it.

 -- Graham Chisholm is executive director of Audubon California

How you can help, right now