Lee Talbot is professor of environmental science, international affairs and public policy at George Mason University. He is former head of Environmental Sciences for the Smithsonian Institution and former chief scientist on the President’s Council on Environmental Quality for presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
When President Richard Nixon asked my old boss at the Smithsonian Institution to loan me, then the institution's head of environmental sciences, to the White House, I took on what may seem like an impossible task: write and help enact one of the country's most important environmental laws. But I did, and the bill passed in a remarkably bipartisan way.
Now that law, the Endangered Species Act, is under vicious attack in Congress by anti-conservation zealots uninterested in working with their counterparts from the other side of the aisle.
Such is the state of our national affairs. The political climate makes it difficult to imagine a Republican president recruiting and encouraging a scientist to author progressive environmental legislation and help push it through Congress.
But that is exactly what Nixon did. At the time, nearly everyone in government, Nixon included, was worried about air and water pollution and environmental degradation from agriculture and development. Everyone wanted to save our wildlife and our natural heritage. They wanted to do what was best for the country.
So in 1970, I was hired to help create the president’s Council on Environmental Quality and develop national environmental policy. Before this, I had dedicated much of my career to the study of endangered species, venturing through dense Javan jungles and arid Arabian deserts to observe some of the world’s most imperiled animals. When I entered the White House, I knew I had to make conserving endangered wildlife our priority.
The law in place at the time — the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 — did little to protect animals on the edge of extinction, and states did next to nothing for threatened wildlife. So I decided to create a new law to fill in the gaps.
When I unveiled my idea to Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, as a win-win initiative, he and Nixon’s advisors agreed. But Haldeman had a caveat.
The Republican Nixon administration was faced with a Congress wholly controlled by Democrats. I had friends on the Hill on both sides of the aisle. I told Haldeman that we needed the Democrats with us to get our legislative initiatives through.
I asked if it was all right to work with the Democrats. Haldeman’s reply: Yes, do whatever you need to do to get our agenda through. His only proviso? Don’t ever appear with a Democrat on the front page of The Post.
I found the rivalry amusing at the time, but in the past, even the inherent divisiveness of party politics seldom stood in the way of making the best decisions for the American people.
Now, the idea of putting national interests ahead of party politics doesn’t seem to even occur to the most anti-wildlife lawmakers in Congress, who launch attack after attack against the Endangered Species Act.
To date, the current Congress has introduced more than 63 bills that would weaken or gut the act. These efforts to undermine one of our bedrock environmental laws are entirely wrongheaded. The Endangered Species Act has saved 99 percent of all animals under its protection from extinction and has put hundreds more on the road to recovery. A report from the Center for Biological Diversity found that 85 percent of the North American birds listed under the Endangered Species Act have either increased in numbers or remained stable since being protected.
This is proof that our laws have preserved critical natural resources. But with a pro-fossil fuels and pro-development administration in the White House, and Republicans controlling Congress, this progress is under threat.
We cannot afford to have our crucial conservation laws weakened. Instead, we should hold politicians who would undermine environmental protections accountable, because, as Americans, we value our wildlife and wild places over short-term profits, and we want them preserved for future generations.
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