Endangered Species Act celebrates 50 years with local calls for renewed attention
Fifty years after bipartisan federal legislative reform, Pittsburghers promote greater conservation
Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon recognized conservation’s necessity.
The federal government had tried to protect certain animals from extinction through legislative actions in 1966 and 1969, but Nixon sought greater reforms. Congress responded to the President’s wishes with overwhelming bipartisan support and crafted the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which provided a framework for conserving threatened species and their habitats. Following a vote of 92-0 in the Senate, and 355-4 in the House of Representatives, the bill went to Nixon, who signed it into law.
As the Endangered Species Act celebrates its golden anniversary, activists, educators and local residents are marking 2023 as an opportunity to revisit, appreciate and bolster the law’s intent.
Filmmaker, writer and Squirrel Hill gardener Boaz Frankel told the Chronicle his knowledge of the law’s protections were shaped by a project undertaken ten years ago.
While passing through Lincoln, Nebraska, Frankel heard about the Salt Creek Tiger Beetle, an endangered insect whose population tallied around 200. Frankel was captivated by the story and returned to Nebraska months later to interview scientists, public officials, citizens and developers about the insect’s precarious state.
The conversations made clear to Frankel that the Endangered Species Act is “about so much more than one insect, or one bird, or one kind of bear or whatever. It's really about habitat. It's about an ecosystem,” he said.
Frankel packaged his interviews with cute songs — performed by costumed students from his alma mater at Portland Jewish Academy — and titled the work, “Meet the Beetle.” He showcased the material at film festivals nationwide and on select PBS stations.
As much as Frankel’s efforts were about generating attention for a collapsing count of insects, the 2012 documentary was a call for wetland preservation.
Wetlands are among the world’s “most economically valuable ecosystems and essential regulators of the global climate,” but policy and decision-makers have ensured that wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests, according to a 2018 United Nations report.
“A reason that so many modern cities flood, including Pittsburgh, is because we got rid of all these wetlands and marshlands and rivers,” Frankel told the Chronicle.
There are a lot of ways to think about conservation, but one way, Frankel noted, is acknowledging that “by protecting the Salt Creek Tiger Beetles, we’re also protecting ourselves from future flooding.” The mindset is human-centric, but maybe the benefit of such recognition is making the choice “not to destroy things just because we can.”
Dr. Jeremy Goodman, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, told the Chronicle there’s an interesting wrinkle when considering the relationship between humans and conservation.
“You look historically and extinction was typically caused by these mass weather events or climate changing meteors. Obviously the current extinction is caused by people for the most part and the effect people have had on the planet. The fact that it’s people that really just took it upon themselves to pass this legislation is pretty cool,” he said.
Legislators saved numerous species from extinction but also evidenced a desire that wasn’t necessarily intuitive, Goodman noted. Fifty years ago elected officials used their power as a reminder that “even if it's a tiny little insect, or a plant, or whatever it is that might not seem insignificant now, once it's gone, it's gone forever, and there's really no way to get it back.”
For Goodman, there’s another way to consider conservation.
“God doesn't make junk. If it was worth God’s time to make a species to put it on this planet, it's certainly worth our time to make sure that it doesn't go extinct,” he said. “I really believe that we were given this planet to take care of, and the planet was given to us to take care of us.”
Discussions about conservation should really involve responsibility, Goodman continued: “So many people oftentimes look at the Endangered Species Act as an impediment to economic progress, an impediment to making money, an impediment to just harvesting needed resources. But I think the bottom line is we can still do all of those things, but do them in a responsible manner.”
There’s an irony to revisiting former legislative actions and asking people to adopt similar acts of accountability, explained community activist and past president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America Howard Rieger.
“Here we are fifty years later and what are we confronting? We're confronting climate change, which is killing off species, which is causing tremendous drought, which is causing sea level rise. And I can't help but think that one of those significant endangered species is the human race,” Rieger said. “Where does that leave us?”
Rieger splits his time between Pittsburgh and Chicago. While residing in the latter, he serves as past president of the Jewish Neighborhood Development Council of Chicago. Rieger is particularly proud of a proposal the group has worked on, with the Audubon Society and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, to convert eight acres along the North Branch of the Chicago River into a restored prairie vegetation site.
The proposal’s goal, Rieger said, is to reintroduce native plants and pollinators.
Native plants have a “much deeper root system and absorb much more water,” which can help a city like Chicago that — due to its topography and development — suffers from flooding.
“Concrete and asphalt are not permeable so water runs off. Similarly, turf grass, weeds and invasive plants don’t absorb a lot of water,” he said.
Whereas reintroducing native plants will offset flooding, bringing back pollinators will boost crop supply.
“You got to have pollinators for apple trees to blossom, for corn to grow, wheat, etc.,” Rieger said. “When you see tremendous drops in it, even in an area like this, it just tells you that we're not headed in a good direction.”
A 2021 NASA study reported that “potential climate-related impacts on future crop yield are a major societal concern.”
Based on crop and climate models, researchers noted that although corn output is projected to decrease by 24% at the end of the century, effects could be felt as early as 2030.
Rieger told the Chronicle he sees these figures, and data revealed by other climate-related studies, as calls for “pikuach nefesh,” the biblical imperative to preserve human life.
“As Jews we have a right and a responsibility to be leaders and to step up to the plate — and by the way to work in coalition with others, which is exactly what our political leadership should be doing,” he said. “There are certain things that are so basic: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How are we fulfilling that?”
Beginning April 12, 2023, Pittsburgh retailers and grocers can no longer distribute single-use plastic bags. The move was spurred by City Councilperson Erika Strassburger, who introduced the legislation in 2021.
“There are so many things we can do in our backyard to cut down on waste and contamination of our environment, and a plastic bag ban is just one of them,” Strassburger told the Chronicle.
The elected noted several reasons to eradicate single-use plastics: “We know the end product can lead to litter, trash, microplastics that harm human health. Another piece that motivates people, like me included, is ensuring we protect animal life around us. We want to make sure the fish in our rivers, the birds, whatever it may be, aren’t subject to plastic pollutants that would harm their ability to thrive.”
A 2022 study by PennEnvironment sampled water from Pennsylvania’s 50 cleanest streams and rivers. Microplastics — plastic less than 5mm in length — were found in 100% of the Commonwealth’s waterways.
Fish and birds can mistake microplastics for food. Humans also inadvertently consume the tiny pollutants via food, water and breathing; the effect was noted in an April 2022 report in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.
Scientists reviewed 17 previous studies on the toxicological impact of microplastics on human cells and found that cell death, oxidative stress and other bodily damage was caused by the quantity of microplastics ingested.
For Strassburger, the upcoming plastic-bag ban and earlier environmental efforts signal “the interconnected web we as humans are part of.”
“We are all in contact with other life on earth,” and it’s a realization that should trump political division, she said. “A species going extinct is literally the canary in the coal mine. It is a warning as humans that we cannot preserve our environment for ourselves if we can’t preserve it for animals or wildlife.”
Fifty years after bipartisan efforts led to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the City Councilperson told the Chronicle there must be a way of getting people excited about clean air, clean water and a circular economy of reducing, reusing and recycling materials.
Recognizing conservation’s necessity is imperative, Strassburger said: “This is something that affects us all.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at [email protected].