THERE ANY EVIDENCE THAT ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION WORKS?
Last week I wrote about an email I got from someone who proposed eliminating all wildlife that was a nuisance to anyone in any way. The following question addresses the issue of protection for wildlife and the environment.
Q. We have many environmental and conservation programs in this country. Can you think of some examples of increased biodiversity, effective wildlife species protection, or habitat improvements that have occurred in the past few decades? In other words, does environmental protection work?
A. Like other interest groups, conservationists and environmentalists continually need to justify their actions. So the question is a reasonable one.
It's all too common and fairly easy to look at the downside of any environmental issue. Many species have been forced to extinction during modern times by the actions of humans. We continue to lose biodiversity in many regions of the world on a consistent basis. But the question under consideration is whether any positive strides have been made in environmental protection.
One of the most obvious measures of success is the recovery of several U.S. species that hovered on the brink of extinction less than four decades ago, before Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. For example, enforcement of the ESA probably saved the American alligator. Its Asian counterpart, the Chinese alligator, which did not have comparable protections, is now virtually extinct; fewer than 200 individuals are estimated to exist in the wild.
Other species in the United States that have recovered to various degrees--or at least not gone extinct--due to ESA protection are black-footed ferrets, bald eagles, and California condors. Many other species also occur in greater numbers and are more widespread than in earlier times. American buffalo and whooping cranes persist today due to concerted conservation efforts. Conditions for each of these species have improved greatly from the trajectory of extermination they were once on. All are species that have benefited from conservation measures directed at protecting a few remaining populations. In terms of environmental protection, these are definite signs of improvement.
Another improvement relates to water quality. Prior to the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972, I spent time on two rivers that I would probably not visit again if they looked and smelled like they did then. One was the Black Warrior River in Alabama, which was polluted by a paper mill and other industrial wastes. The river today is far prettier and definitely smells better than it did 30 years ago. Clearly that's an environmental improvement.
Along the same lines, in the 1960s I was involved in a research project to test water quality conditions of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Along one stretch below the city, the river had more than 20 upstream paper mills! I remember setting nets for fish from a boat in a gray-colored river that had paper fibers floating throughout the water column. We never found a single fish; we saw no birds or mammals; and we pulled up only bright red, squirming midge larvae in the nets. Turtles were the only vertebrates in this part of the Kalamazoo River, and their primary food was midge larvae.
I went back to the same area in the late 1990s. In addition to seeing an otter and a bald eagle nest with two babies, I saw people fishing from the bank. The river looked clean and clear. Problems may still exist because of contaminants that remain in the sediments, and perhaps locals are advised not to eat the fish. But today's river conditions are unquestionably an improvement from those 40 years ago.
Many people are critical of restrictions placed on us by the federal government. But without such farsighted and far-reaching laws as the ESA and CWA, our water would not be as clean as it is today, and we would almost certainly have lost many more species than we have.
So in response
to the question of whether we have made progress in protecting biodiversity,
wildlife, and our environment, the answer is clearly yes. Could we do
better? Certainly. Will we do so? The answer to that question is still