January 9, 2018

Are Environmental Protection Policies the New Endangered Species?

Habitat Survey of California State Route 150


By the mid-20th century, Americans had come to a reckoning. After more than a century of great industrial achievements and expansion, generations had greatly polluted our waters with raw sewage and industrial waste, and poisoned our air with harmful chemicals. Their encroachment upon natural spaces brought thousands of animal species to near extinction. The planet’s resources, they learned, were finite.

So, they had to make a choice: Do they continue their progress unabashedly and without thought to the future of their children and grandchildren, or do they clean up their mess and make the planet more hospitable for them and for future generations? They made the choice to put in place new laws and regulations to clean our water and air, and to protect threatened species.

The charge was led by President Richard Nixon.

During his January 1970 State of the Union address, Nixon remarked: “The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water? Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.”

Prior to this address to the nation, Nixon had created the Environmental Quality Council, which led to the Environmental Protection Agency, and signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a major piece of legislation with a broad range of environmental protections. Most notably, NEPA requires all federal agencies to consider impacts to the environment before undertaking any major projects and allows for citizen input in the decision-making process. The Nixon Administration instituted sweeping reform, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, both of which regulated polluted discharges into the nation’s waterways and the atmosphere, as well as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

“We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences,” Nixon said. “Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which we are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor's yard.”

Since the 1970s, we have made great progress in environmental cleanup, but it hasn’t come without constant challenge. Our environmental laws, seen by some as burdensome to industry and obstacles to economic growth, are under constant fire as factions have tried to dismantle and weaken them from the beginning. But no more so than right now.

Since January 2017, 25 environmental rules—ones that protect endangered species, such as the grizzly bear, the grey wolf, whales, and sea turtles, and ones that ban the use of harmful chemicals—have been overturned, according to a recent New York Times assessment. Nineteen more, including the Clean Power Plan and drilling in wildlife refuges bans, are in the process of being rolled back. And many others are still threatened.

Like our parents and grandparents before us, we are faced with the choice: Do we continue the fight they started for clean water and air, and for the preservation of natural spaces and wildlife, or do we allow the roll back of “burdensome” protections for the sake of “economic growth”?

Addressing the nation’s citizens, Nixon said we didn’t have to forsake “quality of life” for “economic growth.” The two could exist together.

“The answer is not to abandon growth, but to redirect it. For example, we should turn toward ending congestion and eliminating smog [using] the same reservoir of inventive genius that created them in the first place,” he said. “Continued vigorous economic growth provides us with the means to enrich life itself and to enhance our planet as a place hospitable to man.”