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PD Editorial: Protecting our natural heritage

  • A bald eagle flies near Cache Creek in Lake County. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

With a little patience and a sharp eye, you might spot a bald eagle perched on a snag or gliding above the Laguna de Santa Rosa or Lake Sonoma.

Not so long ago, these majestic birds faced extinction. By the late 1960s, only a few hundred remained outside Alaska and Canada, mainly in the most remote and wild parts of the lower 48 states. For most Americans, this national symbol existed only on coins and banners, in photos and nature films.

Today, bald eagles can be seen from Alaska to Florida, their recovery a tribute to the Endangered Species Act.

The landmark law was signed 40 years ago today by President Richard M. Nixon.

“Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed,” Nixon said at the time. “It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.”

The law passed the U.S. Senate unanimously and the House with just four dissenting votes, a display of bipartisan unity that’s hard to imagine in contemporary politics.

And, despite inevitable conflicts, it works. Of the approximately 1,500 animal and plant species that have been listed as threatened or endangered, fewer than 1 percent have gone extinct and, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, 68percent are stable or thriving.

The bald eagle came off the endangered species list in 2007. Other successes include the American alligator, the peregrine falcon, the brown pelican and, most recently, the eastern Steller sea lion, which was removed from the list in October.

But success produces fewer headlines than conflict, so you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that red tape and litigation are the only results of the Endangered Species Act.

In reality, few development projects are halted. Only 1 percent of 219,000 projects reviewed between 1998 and 2001 were found to jeopardize endangered species. And, according to the National Wildlife Federation, most were still able to move forward.

Some in Congress are looking to gut the law. They shouldn’t be allowed to succeed. As the recovery of the bald eagle shows, some things are worth extra effort and expense.

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