The Trump administration recently delivered a blow to wild salmon and San Francisco Bay fishermen. Federal officials with the U.S. Department of the Interior approved a plan to deliver more water to Central Valley farms, while suppressing a lengthy scientific report that found water diversions would further threaten the tasty and commercially-important fish, as well as the orcas that exclusively feed on them.
The decision is absolutely infuriating, but it’s not surprising. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt is a former Big Ag lobbyist. We knew when he was appointed that he would be a disaster for the public spaces he is tasked to protect.
“The Department of the Interior is once again showing its true colors by subverting the scientific process to serve its clients in corporate agriculture, no matter which endangered fish or whales get in the way,” Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said.
In theory, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) should have protected salmon from these sort of disastrous water diversions. The law requires the federal government to protect critical habitat and recover species listed as threatened or endangered. Since it was passed during the Nixon administration, it has brought back numerous animals from the brink of extinction, including Humpback whales and bald eagles.
But the ESA’s successes could be even greater if it wasn’t repeatedly stymied by a small group of special interests and decades of neglect.
Even though polls show 90 percent of voters support the law, a few powerful property owners bristle at the idea of sharing resources with animals and plants. Their control over Washington politics has led to short-sighted and illegal attempts to undermine the ESA, like the Department of Interior’s recent decision to divert water away from salmon.
Congress has also repeatedly failed to give federal officials the funding they need to oversee the Act. According to a report by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, the Fish and Wildlife Service was only allocated $234 million for its entire species program in 2016. This is barely enough for the agency to meet its obligations to list and recover the species, and has created significant backlogs.
“Congress’s failure to provide funding makes for a very challenging situation,” Rebecca Riley of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) told me. “The Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have the resources they need to evaluate and recover species.”
The NRDC is one of a coalition of environmental groups suing the Trump administration after it announced rollbacks to the ESA earlier this month. The changes, undermine protections to threatened species, and permit new development in areas formerly considered critical to species’ recovery. If enacted, it could further exacerbate the alarming drops in the planet’s biodiversity.
Of course, we must not let Trump succeed. But fighting the rollbacks should only be the start. The administration has drawn attention to problems that have been smoldering for decades. Now that people are concerned about the fate of the ESA, we should work to save it and strengthen it. Our legislators must know that we want to see them to increase resources for species’ recovery.
“It takes time and resources to recover species, and that should be everyone’s goal,” Riley told me. “When we recover a species, we can take it off the list. It’s a win win for everyone.”
Ultimately, it’s not the words of a law that protects the environment — it’s the people and decision makers who care. If we truly want to address massive drops in biodiversity, we can’t let critical environmental laws remain underfunded and embattled. We must give them the resources and strength they need to succeed.
Federal officials must hear from the majority of Americans who support protections. When presidential candidates and legislators come to San Francisco to court voters, we should ask them one question: will you be a leader for all species?
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com