The Endangered Species Act is on the chopping block again. When Congress passed the Act in 1973, it called for periodic review and reauthorization. Thus, in mid-November, right after the fall elections, environmentalists gathered in Washington, D.C., for a strategy session on renewing the Act. A tug and pull ensued between those who want full support for it and those who would go along with weakening the Act.
"America is dying and the Endangered Species Act is needed more than ever," says Jasper Carlton, founder of the Colorado-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation, and one of the environmentalists urging full reauthorization. "It's the strongest conservation law passed by any country ever."
Carlton himself is the country's most confrontational user of the Act. In the past dozen years, he has initiated eighty-five endangered species cases.
"I have successfully sued every secretary of the interior--from James Watt to Bruce Babbitt--to enforce the Endangered Species Act," he says. Under current law, he explains, his cases "cannot lose."
"How can you reasonably compromise the last habitat for endangered species?"
The Biodiversity Legal Foundation differs from other wildlife defenders in that it frequently charges to the aid of unglamorous species, such as toads, frogs, salamanders, and obscure plants. "We aggressively defend all life forms equally," Carlton says. Carlton has a particular fondness for investebrates--bugs to the rest of us--calling them the "building blocks" of natural systems. Another key goal of the Foundation is protecting large habitats for communities of species and natural ecosystems.
But Carlton has also sued to protect "flagship" species, such as Ursus Horribilis--the grizzly bear. His lawsuit terminated the sport-hunting of grizzlies in Montana's wilderness areas. Grizzly bears range extensively in the wild and Carlton thinks if a thriving population can be maintained, then the ecosystem the bears depend on will remain vibrant as well.
The Biodiversity Legal Foundation bases its legal challenges on evidence gathered from the top life-science experts. Its grounding in the law and science has enabled the organization to win even when its lower-court victories have been appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
"Unless I miss my bet," Carlton says, "the world will want to beat a path to intact ecosystems in fifteen to twenty years. Future generations will prize the fact that we can go out and hike in wild areas with grizzlies, hear wolves howl, and see great migrations of trumpeter swans."
The United States has already lost vast chunks of its precolonial habitat, including 95 percent of its old-growth forests, 98 percent of its native prairies, and half of its wetlands. Inadequate funding for the law and political opposition have created a massive backlog of plants and animals awaiting Endangered Species Act classification. Once a species obtains endangered status, it becomes illegal to trade, hunt, kill, collect, or injure it or its habitat.
Of the nation's 9,000 biologically threatened species, less than 20 percent are currently protected by the Endangered Species Act, according to Carlton. "We have more life forms in peril today, on a percent basis, than the Amazon rain forests," he notes.
Many environmentalists point to the Endangered Species Act's twenty-year history of success. Without it, they doubt that the gray whale, peregrine falcon, American alligator, and even the national icon, the bald eagle, would exist today.
Developers, mining companies, and other large economic interests hunger for greater access to the nation's 900 million acres of public lands. "They want the opportunity to go in and squeeze the last ounce of profit out and the ecological consequences be damned," he says. "The Endangered Species Act is our only and last defense."
"The worst thing we can do right now is take a defeatist approach. What's at stake are hundreds and thousands of fascinating life forms. The Endangered Species Act may take a hit, but what it needs is enforcement, funding, and heartfelt support."
"I am a hard-ass, yes," Carlton says. "This is the time we've got to rise to the occasion, to tell the truth. Science is on our side, morals and ethics, too. Hell, attack!"
For more information, contact the Biodiversity Legal Foundation P.O. Box 18327, Boulder, CO 80308; (303)442-3037.
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|Title Annotation:||Jasper Carlton of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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