On Dec. 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. For nearly two years, the legislation’s supporters had fought to keep its language straightforward and its directives clear, intent on its deceptively simple purpose: “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.”

The law won almost unanimous support from Congress, thanks in part to massive public demand for environmental protection. The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had not only powerfully conveyed the far-reaching effects of the pesticide DDT but merged Progressive Era concerns about wildlife conservation and urban public health into a new and broader movement. Major environmental disasters, especially the Santa Barbara, California, oil spill in early 1969, underscored Carson’s warning — delivered to an audience of medical professionals shortly before her death from breast cancer — that “man is affected by the same environmental influences that control the lives of all the many thousands of other species to which he is related by evolutionary ties.”

Membership in national environmental organizations had grown from about 125,000 in 1960 to 1 million in 1970, and would expand sixfold over the next two decades. Environmental activists adopted civil disobedience and mass protest tactics from the civil rights and antiwar movements, making headlines and ultimately contributing to the passage of dozens of environmental and public-health laws between 1963 and 1970 — including two forerunners to the Endangered Species Act in 1966 and 1969.

The Endangered Species Act we know today was developed by Nixon administration staffers and introduced as a House bill in February 1972. The ensuing debates in the House and Senate were substantive and, from our weary modern perspective, almost comically earnest and optimistic. Even Nixon, who by the end of 1973 was facing impeachment proceedings for his role in the Watergate scandal, marked his signing of the law with the cheerful prediction that “America will be more beautiful in the years ahead.” The Endangered Species Act was — and remains — one of the most powerful environmental laws in the world.

As historian Lowell Baier recounts in The Codex of the Endangered Species Act, the law that initially enjoyed such wide approval would attract increasing criticism, deepening existing divisions over land and governance in the Western U.S. and elsewhere. The Endangered Species Act’s allies within and without the federal government have protected its essentials through decades of attacks. But as Baier notes, the chronic controversy has also kept the law largely frozen in time, unable to adapt to new circumstances or realize its full potential. Half a century in, the Endangered Species Act remains unfinished business.

The Endangered Species Act was — and remains — one of the most powerful environmental laws in the world.

THOSE OF US WHO GREW UP with the Endangered Species Act — I was born 10 days after Nixon signed it — learned early on that extinction was not just for dinosaurs. Sometime in elementary school, many of us got a double-edged lesson: Yes, extinction could still happen, even to the animals and plants we knew and loved, but now there wasa law against it. That the adults who delivered this news seemed to believe it themselves was enormously reassuring, especially during a time of palpable Cold War anxiety. Extinction was possible, but unlike nuclear war, it was simply not allowed.

What we didn’t know, of course, was that this comforting idea had already collided with reality. In 1978, after University of Tennessee law student Hiram Hill and his professor, Zygmunt Plater, secured Endangered Species Act protection for a tiny fish called the snail darter, the Supreme Court ruled that construction of a $116 million dam on the Little Tennessee River had to be halted to protect the species. Eventually, Congress approved an exemption to the law, and the Tellico Dam was completed — while the snail darter, which was later discovered in nearby streams, was declared recovered and removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in 2022. The dispute, which made national headlines, reminded legislators and the public that the Endangered Species Act was designed to protect all species, even the smallest, regardless of cost.

Though the Tellico Dam debate eroded the consensus around the law, Baier points out that Congress continued to work productively on endangered species issues well into the 1980s, regularly passing amendments that clarified and elaborated on the law’s original provisions. That changed in 1988, when a coalition of environmental groups sued to protect the northern spotted owl, hoping to stop the clear-cutting of the Pacific Northwest’s remaining ancient forests. 

Yes, extinction could still happen, even to the animals and plants we knew and loved, but now there was a law against it.

Environmentalists turned to the Endangered Species Act because its clarity made it more powerful than most land-use laws, but they also recognized the risks of focusing a sprawling regional dispute on a single species. Many of their fears were realized: Public relations consultants hired by the timber industry effectively framed the conflict as owls against jobs, alienating timber communities and further radicalizing anti-federal activists throughout the West. 

The Northwest Forest Plan, developed by the Clinton administration and formally adopted by federal agencies in 1994, brought an official end to the hostilities. While far from perfect, it enabled agencies to manage the region’s public lands as an ecosystem rather than a patchwork of potential timber sales. A companion economic relief package also helped ease the very real pain of the region’s transition away from timber — a transition that was already underway when the spotted owl was listed. The controversy entrenched political attitudes toward the Endangered Species Act to such an extent, however, that Congress has not managed to substantively update the law since 1988.

Credit: Daryn Ray/High Country News Credit: Daryn Ray/High Country News

THE CODEX of the Endangered Species Act is divided into two volumes: The First Fifty Years, written by Baier and his collaborator Christopher Segal, is an exhaustive but readable history of the law and the politics that have shaped it since its passage. (If you’d prefer a briefer treatment, Baier will publish a shorter and more personal book about the Endangered Species Act in April 2024.) In The Second Fifty Years, edited by Baier, Segal, and wildlife biologist John Organ, an array of scientists, legal scholars and policy experts examine legislative and regulatory paths through the current political stalemate. 

The original architects of the Endangered Species Act, schooled in the top-down strategies of the early conservation movement, favored regulations and penalties over incentives and rewards. Several of the authors in The Second Fifty Years envision an Endangered Species Act that retains its strength as an emergency room for biodiversity while expanding its support for what might be called preventive care. Among their recommendations are more funding for state-level conservation of all species, endangered or not; regulatory changes that encourage collaboration between federal and state agencies; and various incentives for conservation on private land and at landscape scales, designed to finally “provide a means” for protecting not only species but ecosystems. The Codex wouldn’t interest today’s elementary school students, much less reassure them, but its story offers a sliver of genuine encouragement: Given a sense of common purpose, it’s still possible to protect species — not only from extinction but from becoming endangered in the first place.   

This story is part of High Country News’ Conservation Beyond Boundaries project, funded by the BAND Foundation.

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor of HCN and the author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction.

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This article appeared in the print edition of the magazine with the headline The epic history of a landmark law.

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