SINCE 1978, endangered species have become ever more endangered as Congress has moved to dilute the Endangered Species Act of 1973. President Carter's moves to protect threatened species since he took office have ranged from the ineffectual to the non-existent. His decision in the next budget message to request funding to supplement the staffs of those agencies charged with enforcing the 1973 legislation is only a small step along the road of environmental sanity; the basic obstacles in the way of those who would prevent the extinction of hundreds of species remains.
In two moves, in 1978 and last year, Congress destroyed much of the power of the Endangered Species Act. In 1978, Congress passed and Carter signed a bill that created a committee of Cabinet and Congressional officials that could overrule the Endangered Species Act--and its provisions for the protection of all endangered species--in favor of any construction project that warranted such an exception. In other words, any species could be exchanged for any project.
This legislation was enacted after the Supreme Court upheld the Interior Department's ban on completing the Tennessee Valley Authority's Tellico Dam because it threatened the snail darter with extinction. After the newly created committee reviewed the Tellico case, and still determined that the dam should not be completed, Senator Howard Baker, (R-Tenn) wrote and passed legislation that exempted Tellico from all federal legislation. The dam's gates closed earlier this year, and the snail darter has been abandoned to its fate.
THE PRECEDENT set in these two pieces of evil law is simple. Congress has determined that any pork barrel project, no matter how ill-conceived, is worth more than any whole species of creatures that share this planet with us. In the face of this blatantly self-interested drive by Congress, Carter has failed to stand by his early attempts to block the construction of useless projects, as he has failed to stand by the Endangered Species Act when it needed him most.
Carter's current move is little better than cosmetic. His budget request would fund only six more biologists for the endangered species listing staff in the Interior Department, a far cry from that department's needs. Carter should press for legislation that would abolish the review committee, and he should veto any ad hoc attempts to pass exceptions to the decisions taken by those charged with protecting the endangered species of this country.
IF THIS WERE the best of all possible worlds, we would drain the lake now forming behind the dam, and restore to life both the darter, and the beautiful Tennessee Valley now drowning. But this isn't the best of all possible worlds, and within a very few months, the only monuments left to the darter will be a huge expanse of water, and the memory of a government too spineless to save it.
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