Stephen Nash is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines, and Forests” and a visiting senior research scholar in journalism at the University of Richmond.
Mining corporations — many of which are foreign-owned — multimillionaire ranchers and fossil-fuel interests threaten to gut the meager protections afforded wildlife by the federal Endangered Species Act. Those who follow President Trump call it “ streamlining and improving.” To Virginians, it may register only as a distant, muted alarm.
Perhaps it sounds like something out there in the West about wolves or grizzlies or sage grouse. Virginia, 62 percent forested, may feel like a green and stable refuge by comparison. Stark threats to the natural world and its wild species aren’t so far off, though.
Arguing against one set of anti-Endangered Species Act proposals, state natural resources secretary Matthew J. Strickler told a congressional hearing last month that Virginia has dozens of species on the official endangered list, “ranging from a flying squirrel to five varieties of sea turtles, to the Atlantic sturgeon — a fish that can reach 14 feet long and 800 pounds, and has been around since the time of the dinosaurs.”
But his list was understated. Astonishingly, more than 500 Virginia vertebrate animal species are considered to be rare or declining and “at risk of extinction,” many at “extremely high risk,” according to state agencies. That’s 8 percent of our mammal species, 11 percent of birds, 21 percent of freshwater fish, a quarter of our reptiles and amphibians.
As a Department of Game and Inland Fisheries report tells us, they are “imperiled by the ongoing loss or degradation of their habitats,” and accelerating climate change sharpens the threat. Many populations “are already critically impaired, and their long-term survival is in doubt,” the report states. Most of the species on the brink receive little help from the state.
Some commentators argue Virginians should support the assault on the Endangered Species Act. They wheeze the talking points you might have overheard at a small-town Chamber meeting back in, say, 1973, calling out the “uncompromising nature of some elements in the environmental movement.”
As it happens, 1973 was the year President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, signed the act, which he supported as vital protection for “an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage.”
Compromise on environmental issues is a process, not a single event. Here’s what it looks like in Virginia and in Washington:
“Okay so, um, I’ve counted up and you have two legs, right? Tell you what, let’s split the difference. Half for you, half for us. Stop being uncompromising! You sound like some kind of extremist.”
Exaggerated? Using that Virginia imperiled-species list, it is fair to ask what’s in jeopardy just now: the sanctity of commerce or the natural systems on which we and wildlife depend. Are the strong candidates for that “extremism” label really the environmental crowd?
States are even more vulnerable to political pressure than the federal government, so anti-wildlife folks want to hand the Endangered Species Act over to states to administer. As Strickler’s testimony noted, “the primary reason many species are where they are is precisely because states, including Virginia, have not had the resources or the political will to do the job themselves. That’s why the Endangered Species Act is so important.”
We’ve known for a quarter-century that even on our most protected landscapes, the national parks, wild species are quickly losing ground. Among mammals, for example, at least 84 that were known to have lived in the big parks in the United States and Canada are missing — locally extinct.
The public trough is a major factor in why the act, always enfeebled, is now itself endangered.
Ranchers pay less to feed a cow and a calf per month for destructive grazing on 378,000 square miles of public lands than you pay to feed your goldfish. Hard-rock mining corporations — many of them Chinese, Canadian, British or Australian — pay zero federal royalties to us, the owners, as they extract billions of dollars worth of minerals from our public lands and leave vast wrecked landscapes behind. Gas and oil drillers pay us less to lease an acre of public land for a year than you’d pay for a cup of coffee.
As Strickler pointed out, Virginia’s wild species “do not belong to just Virginia, or Wyoming or any other single state. They belong to all Americans.” And vice versa. The thousands of species that are disappearing from the landscapes of those far-off states — they belong to you.