The Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1973. Surprisingly, from the vantage point of today’s political climate, it was an act passed with a great deal of bipartisan support. Protecting animals just seemed like the right thing to do. What quickly became clear, though, was that the act was about preserving habitats, which sometimes overlapped with land held by people and developers. And so the Endangered Species Act became a controversial lightning rod in a country that’s always been deeply concerned with its property.
In the most infamous clash, the Supreme Court was compelled by the act to block construction of a massive dam on the Little Tennessee River because it would destroy the habitat of a three-inch fish called the snail darter. That innocent little swimmer with its silly little name became a much-mocked emblem for all that anyone could dislike about conservation. In response to the kerfuffle, Congress maneuvered to change the rules of the E.S.A. Al Gore sided with the dam, while Newt Gingrich voted for the fish. Conservation and constituencies make for strange politics, no? The E.S.A. was changed, the dam was built, and the snail darter went extinct on the Little Tennessee.
In Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act, the organismic and evolutionary biologist Joe Roman makes a new case for why the E.S.A. is so important, and why the debates still surrounding it need to be reshaped. In a recent episode of the HUP Podcast, which you can hear below, Roman succinctly explained the root of the issue:
“People can sort of rally behind the idea of protecting species… If we could just protect species in zoos, then there would probably be no conflict. You could invest a little bit of money and put all these species aside and if that was the goal then that would be fine. The issue is that of course it really is about ecosystems. You can’t protect a species without protecting its ecosystem, and you can’t protect an ecosystem without protecting its species, so it’s a combination of the two. That’s the only sustainable way of really protecting species, is by protecting their habitat. Now, that can put (protection) at conflict with private landowners, for example.”
You can use the player below to hear the podcast, or point your browser here.
The key argument of Roman’s work is that we should shift the conversation from the economic costs of protection to the economic benefits, for which he says there is overwhelming evidence. In the book he describes any number of these, from Florida communities whose entire tourist industry is built around visitors clamoring to see the endangered manatee, to coastal areas where whale watching ventures have helped to replace some of the jobs and money lost by the decline in fisheries, to the storm-protection benefits of preserving Louisiana’s wetlands.
The current issue of Harvard Magazine includes an excerpt adapted from Listed that tells another one of these stories. This one’s about, well, whale poop. And, for real, from now on when you hear “whale poop” you should think “Joe Roman,” because he’s been the leader in imagining and then documenting its benefits, both ecological and economic. It’s a great story of how a eureka moment becomes a game-changing scientific finding. As Roman put it, “One of the great joys of science has to be turning a thought that surfaced one night over a few beers into a full-blown field project.” You can read the story online here.