Commentary: Our survival depends on the Endangered Species Act

Abigail Dillen, Progressive Perspectives on

Published in Op Eds

Fifty years ago, the right thing happened in Washington, D.C.: A nearly unanimous Congress acknowledged that unfettered development was taking a terrible toll on fish, wildlife and plants, and that we needed a strong law to preserve and recover imperiled species. Recognizing the incalculable “esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value” of our shared natural heritage, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

A landmark law, the ESA became a model for countries around the world, surviving decades of relentless attacks from powerful industries that soon swamped Washington with lobbying dollars. The ESA withstood these challenges largely unscathed — until the Trump administration eviscerated the implementing regulations that make the law work in practice. Now it is not just our web of life that needs saving, but also the law that is our best tool for protecting it.

The dismantling of the ESA could not have come at a worse time. Scientists around the world are telling us that we are on track to lose a million or more species in this century. We have already witnessed a staggering drop of more than two-thirds of all plant and animal life on Earth since 1970. In the United States, nearly half of our ecosystems are now at risk of collapse. It is a staggering pace of loss that climate change is only accelerating.

It would have been far worse without the ESA. The law has saved 99% of listed species from extinction, including the bald eagle, Florida manatee and the gray wolf, one of my first “clients” when I began my career as an environmental lawyer more than two decades ago.

To bring any species back from the brink of extinction is a profound achievement. It is also never about just one species. The resurgence of the wolf — a keystone species — has helped recover the natural balance of the whole Yellowstone ecosystem, making it more resilient to escalating climate threats. When we give nature a chance, it can rebound.

More good news: Even in today’s hyperpartisan environment, more than four out of five Americans support the ESA. That level of consensus speaks to a truth that is hard-wired within us — Even though most people are unlikely to knowingly encounter an endangered butterfly, owl or fern, we understand that the species that stands to gain the most from the ESA is us. If we lose the bees and birds that pollinate plants, our crops will perish with them. If we lose bats that hunt disease-bearing insects like mosquitoes, we lose one of our best defenses against malaria and dengue fever.

As for climate change, the U.N. identifies biodiversity as our strongest natural defense because the forests and wetlands where endangered species live are natural carbon sinks that draw down the heat-trapping gas from our atmosphere.

The ESA is often presented as a barrier to development, but when Congress passed the ESA, it was well aware that our prosperity depends on healthy ecosystems. Today, the ESA is a powerful economic force for good, protecting ecosystems that support $2.1 trillion of the U.S. GDP. Globally, $44 trillion, more than half of the world’s economic value generation, depends on ecosystems staying intact.


And while the dollars and cents matter, they can never begin to capture the value of protecting life on earth. There is a reason why we read our children books that are overwhelmingly populated by animals. There is a reason why plants and animals animate our origin stories, our parables and myths, our rituals and celebrations, our experience of awe and joy in the world.

The ESA was one of the first laws that a newly elected Sen. Joe Biden helped pass. Now, the Biden administration is weighing regulations that could finally undo Trump’s damage. It is essential that the final rules fully recover the ESA. That means throwing out all of the Trump-era rollbacks and taking the opportunity to strengthen protections in a time of escalating crisis.

We are bound to the plants and animals around us. Our humanity, as well as our survival, depends on them.


Abigail Dillen is the president of Earthjustice. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.


©2024 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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