The San Diego Union-Tribune, April 18, 2013
Endangered Species Act deserves protection
By Michael Lehnert
The Endangered Species Act turns 40 this year. Created in response to growing recognition that unbridled development was forcing many North American plant and animal species into extinction, Michigan Democrat John Dingle and California Republican (and former Marine) Pete McCloskey co-sponsored one of the most sweeping bills in our nation’s history. In 1973, President Nixon signed legislation that placed over 2,000 species under formal government protection.
With the passage of time it is easy to forget the condition of the environment when Nixon made the ESA the law of the land. DDT had brought many bird species to the brink of extinction. Water quality in much of the country was hazardous to those who came in contact with it. Ubiquitous smog hung over Los Angeles and other cities like a pall. In order to restore the environment that Americans had enjoyed for generations but had taken for granted and degraded, the Endangered Species Act was passed and the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were tasked with its implementation.
Critics of the Endangered Species Act complain that it restricts growth and development, that it is too expensive, that public interest is better served by more suburbs and shopping malls than saving little known or noticed plants and animals. My views on the environment developed gradually and generally after traveling to other countries that ignored their environment. When Marines deploy they generally don’t visit popular tourist destinations. Marines see firsthand the consequences when a nation takes its laws, its citizens and its natural resources for granted.
Those who live in Southern California enjoy a special existence: the natural beauty of the geography, a climate that doesn’t deserve to be called “weather” and the opportunity to be part of a unique ecosystem. But it won’t last if we don’t take care of it. The habitat that allows plants and wildlife to thrive is the same habitat that contributes so greatly to making Southern California a special place on the planet. Once that habitat is gone, it is gone forever, taking not just the species protected under the Endangered Species Act but Southern California’s way of life as well.
The Marine Corps has always felt a special responsibility toward the citizens it serves and the country that contributes so successfully to the greatness of its people. Its environmental stewardship is second to none and Marines like to say that a country worth defending is a country worth preserving. In Southern California the Marine Corps has preserved (from development) the last significant acreages of contiguous natural landscapes. The last undeveloped California coastal geography are found only at Camp Pendleton and MCAS Miramar. These lands host numerous federally listed threatened and endangered species that have been extirpated from most of the remainder of Southern California due to habitat loss. The Marine Corps carries out its stewardship responsibilities while simultaneously ensuring that its fighting force remains trained and ready, often on the same habitat it protects under the Endangered Species Act. They promote natural habitats by removing invasive exotic plants; partner to support successful breeding programs to enhance the recovery of critically endangered species like the desert tortoise at Twentynine Palms, the Sonoran pronghorn antelope and the Pacific pocket mouse. Partners include UCLA, Arizona Game and Fish and the San Diego Zoo. The Marine Corps conservation efforts have enabled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to recommend downlisting of the California least tern and least Bell’s vireo. If a military service designed as the nation’s 911 force can support the responsibilities of following the Endangered Species Act, so, too, can the private sector, particularly if through our combined efforts, we save our quality of life and endangered species for future generations of Americans.
So on your drive to work tomorrow as you look at the tremendous vistas of Southern California and this great land, know that it was the Endangered Species Act and other environmental legislation that made your day a better one plus a little help from the United States Marines.
Lehnert, a retired major general, served as commanding general of Marine Corps Installations West from June 2005 until September 2009. He was responsible for the environmental programs at all but one of the Marine Corps bases in Southern California and charged with compliance with the Endangered Species Act. In retirement, he serves on the board of the Endangered Species Coalition.
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