Today is the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Endangered Species Act by President Richard Nixon, in 1973. Perhaps more than any other single piece of environmental legislation, this law has generated controversy almost from its inception.
Last August, also 40 years ago, marked the anniversary of the discovery of the snail darter in the Little Tennessee River, by Dr. David Etnier, now emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee. That event ultimately led to the first-ever test of the Endangered Species Act before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1978. In that case, known as “Hill v TVA,” the court ruled that the Tennessee Valley Authority (and by extension any government agency) was subject to the terms of the Act. This decision halted construction on the Tellico Dam, to prevent destruction of the darter’s critical habitat.
It is reasonable to ask how things have played out for the snail darter, and the rest of America’s biodiversity in the intervening 40 years.
|Snail darter, photo by Conservation Fisheries|
In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that I have been good friends with Dr. Etnier for all of that 40 year period, and our acquaintance began even earlier, as he was the first biology professor whose class I took in 1968. My friendship with others who have been involved in the conservation of aquatic biodiversity in the Southeast goes back nearly as far. I have served on the board of Conservation Fisheries since its inception in the 1990s. Conservation Fisheries is a nonprofit organization founded by two of Dr. Etnier’s graduate students. It has accumulated an unsurpassed record of success in the captive propagation of endangered native fishes for restocking wild habitats. They have worked with over 25 listed species of fish. Much of this work was made possible by funding obtained under the Endangered Species Act, which requires that a recovery plan be developed for each and every listed species.
As an environmental issue, biodiversity preservation has been overshadowed by climate change in recent years. In one sense, this is appropriate, because the impact of climate change will be felt by all species on the planet. In another sense, however, it is unfortunate, because human activity continues to place animals and plants in peril.
The rivers and streams of the southern Appalachian region survive as treasure troves of biodiversity that is little known and vastly underappreciated. Tennessee and Georgia, for example, each have more than 300 species of native freshwater fish, a level of diversity that rivals some tropical habitats of similar size. The aquatic biodiversity of this region mirrors the diversity of our forests, which shelter thousands of plants, insects and fungi, many found nowhere else on the planet.
Today, therefore, let us take a moment to reflect on the remarkable ecological bounty harbored by our region, and renew a commitment to protect and preserve it for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.