The wide expanses of the Western United States have become the recent
site of a fierce battle. At issue: reintroduction of the gray wolf.
Beginning in 1995, wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park as
part of the recovery plan required by the Endangered Species Act. The
original plan called for 35 to 45 wolves constituting a healthy population
in Yellowstone. Today there are 115 to 120 wolves within the Yellowstone
ecosystem, and as many as 664 in the Western Montana-Idaho-Yellowstone
region. Contrary to original beliefs that wolves would restore balance to
the ecosystems of this area, wolves are decimating both domestic livestock
and wild game populations. As ranchers lament the threat to their
livelihood, environmentalists celebrate the "rewilding" of
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is the mechanism by which the
changes are occurring. In this paper, I will explore the history of the
Act itself and the social and philosophical ideologies which precipitated
it. I will focus on the movements and events of the 1960’s which
fostered the Act, and also look at some of the modern aspects.
The environmental movement finds its roots in the 19th
century. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, a book
about living simple in a natural setting. During the same time period,
Ralph Waldo Emerson began writing about nature. In the summer of 1868,
John Muir moved to the Yosemite Valley in California. At first, he worked
as a shepherd and later at a sawmill, but his true passion was the wilds
of Yosemite. He would spend weeks hiking through the mountains. In time he
became convinced that nature had inherent value of its own and needed to
be set aside, put off-limits from the destructiveness of man. Together
with Robert Underwood Johnson, he successfully lobbied Congress for the
creation of a preserve for Yosemite, and in 1890 Yosemite National Park
was born. Shortly thereafter, Johnson and Muir officially joined forces to
create the Sierra Club, one of the first environmental groups and
progenitor of many modern organizations (Weiss).
Gifford Pinchot returned to America in 1890 from France, where he had
been studying forestry. He was shocked to see the inefficient abuse of
national resources in the U.S. He began to work in the forest industry,
and due to his training and experience, he quickly advanced. In 1898 he
became the head of the Division of Forestry. When President Theodore
Roosevelt created the US Forest Service in 1905, he named Pinchot, whom he
personally knew, Chief Forester (Dowie 16). Pinchot used the knowledge he
had gained in France to set up a system of management for natural
resources that focused on selective harvest, rather than indiscriminate
plunder. Large portions of land (hundreds of millions of acres) were
brought under public ownership and made into National Forests, which the
Forest Service managed.
Pinchot and Muir began two subgroups of the environmental movement:
conservation and preservation, respectively. Pinchot advocated a
"wise use" policy (Dowie 16), where natural resources were used
but not abused. Muir supported a more restrictive strategy: setting up
national preserves isolated from all human activity. Both men were friends
with President Roosevelt, and both concepts are visible in the policies of
the Roosevelt Administration. Conservation versus preservation is one of
the central issues in the environmental debate today.
The next major player in the development of the movement was Aldo
Leopold. Leopold began his career with the US Forest Service, where he
worked for 19 years. After leaving the Forest Service, he began to work in
game management. A Sand County Almanac, published one year after
his death in 1948, was a collection of his essays detailing his
observations of the natural world around him (The Aldo Leopold
Foundation). It explored the complex relationship between organisms
and their environment. Aldo Leopold introduced the third branch of the
environmental movement, ecology, which focused more on the scientific
aspects of the natural world.
Rachel Carson published her revolutionary work, Silent Spring,
in 1962. Carson was a scientist and writer who began her career with the
US Bureau of Fisheries and rose to the position of Editor-in-Chief of all
publications for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Much of her earlier
work pertained to the sea. Carson became aware of the problems posed by
pesticides, and described their danger in Silent Spring. The book
received a great deal of attention and caused much controversy, especially
within the chemical industry. President John Kennedy set up a commission
to study pesticides, resulting in a ban on DDT in 1972 (Rachel Carson).
The popular environmental movement began in the mid- to late-1960’s. Silent
Spring and a number of high profile events roused public awareness of
environmental issues. Extreme air pollution resulted in 80 deaths on
Thanksgiving Day, 1966. On January 31, 1969, an oil spill occurred off the
coast of Santa Barbara, California. Five months later, on June 22, the
Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire because of all of the
chemicals floating in the river. All of these events received national
attention. Then, on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day took place,
bringing the environmental movement to the forefront of American
consciousness (Environmental History Timeline).
In response to the sudden barrage of information about the threats to
the environment, many people began to leave main-stream society and seek a
living close to nature. They formed the back-to-the-land movement, which
was a subset to the counterculture that was forming at the same time.
Back-to-the-landers moved to the countryside, where they settled in
communes or on homesteads. Here they attempted to produce everything they
needed for survival, from food to shelter to clothing. They operated small
farms, tended gardens, and raised their own livestock.
There were three main reasons that most people went back to the land.
The first was a feeling of disenchantment with modern society. They had
had enough of the rules and policies of the "establishment,"
such as the lifestyle of consumerism, the Vietnam War, racial prejudice,
poverty, and many other social issues that they attributed to their
parents’ generation. Wanting no part in such a society, they decided to
"tune in, turn on, and drop out" (Anderson 96).
The environment and its apparent poor health were the second reason
back-to-the-landers chose to leave main-stream society and what separated
them from the rest of the counterculture. These people were not content to
live on the fringe of society, satisfying their desires with sex and drugs
while ignoring the misdeeds of the civilization all around them; they
wanted to live in such a way that they were in harmony with the earth.
Their farms did not use pesticides, they used automobiles rarely or not at
all, and they did not purchase consumer goods that produced
The third reason for going back to the land was spiritual. As the
environmental crisis was unfolding, many of the people who later joined
the movement sought more information on the subject from previous writers.
They read Thoreau "describe a spiritual communion with the natural
world. . ." (Walden Express). Leopold wrote of nature’s song:
"To hear even a few notes of it you must first live here for a
long time, and you must know the speech of hills and rivers. . . . Then
you may hear it—a vast pulsing harmony—its score inscribed on a
thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its
rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries." (Leopold 149)
Both writers tended to romanticize their subjects. The spiritualism
they portrayed was more of an inner awakening on the part of the observer
than a literal worship of nature.
Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism did incorporate such
worship. These religions were becoming popular in the American
counterculture during the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, largely due
to their influence on music. Many bands, even the Beatles, were beginning
to experiment with Eastern thought. Such concepts as self-denial were
popular among anti-society hippies. Also, abstract thinking about the
interconnectedness of the universe went well with marijuana and LSD.
Hinduism and Buddhism teach the sacredness of nature. Both are based on
the concept of reincarnation, a "cycle of life, death, and
rebirth" (Gregg 52). Hinduism taught that the environment is sacred,
because of the "intertwining of the natural world and the divine. .
." (Ibid. 50). In Buddhism, there is an interdependence of all life
forms. Everything is, "in essence," one with the rest of the
universe (Ibid. 55).
The religions of Native American cultures were also influential on the
back-to-the-land movement. The American Indian Movement was receiving a
great deal of publicity during the late ‘60’s, and this attracted the
attentions of the back-to-the-landers just as environmental topics did.
Indian beliefs generally held that everything had a spirit, from the rocks
to the trees to the animals. All animals were brothers to the Indians. The
concept of living close to the land but not harming it was modeled from
the Native American lifestyle.
Self-sufficiency turned out to be harder than it looked. Farming took a
lot of work, especially for greenhorns. Most of the people who tried to go
back to the land were from cities and had no previous experience; their
only knowledge of how to tend a garden or build a cabin came from Mother
Earth News or related sources. Long hours of hard work with little
result soon took their toll, and many began to return to the cities. They
did not leave their feelings behind, however. The short experience left
most with a feeling of connection to the earth.
By the end of the ‘60’s, the environmental movement consisted of
many seemingly unrelated branches. Conservation was less popular than it
had once been, but it survived to some degree in the back-to-the-land
movement. Preservation was still going strong, as evidenced by the
Wilderness Act of 1964. Public awareness had led to the passage of laws
regulating air and water pollution. But all of these campaigns seemed to
be independent of one another.
That situation began to change with Arne Naess. Naess was a Norwegian
philosopher and mountaineer who questioned the goals and motives of the
existing environmental movement. He described it as consisting of two
parts: the "shallow ecology movement" and the "long-range,
deep ecology movement" (Drengson). Those in the shallow branch were
only concerned with short-term fixes to the problem, not fundamental
change, which was the focus of the deep ecology. Naess eventually
published an article in 1973 introducing the phrase "deep
ecology" and presenting a Deep Ecology Platform.
Deep ecology was the synthesis of much of the existing environmental
movement. It incorporated the concepts of preservation, ecology, and
spirituality into one movement. Notably excluded, however, was
conservation; deep ecology was fundamentally incompatible with the notion
of using the non-human world for human benefit.
The Deep Ecology Platform had eight tenets. To summarize:
- All life has its own intrinsic value.
- Diversity of life has intrinsic value.
- Human interference is excessive.
- Humans have no right to reduce diversity.
- Human life can survive with substantial decrease in population,
which is necessary for non-human life.
- This requires change in policies and a much different state of
- The ideological change involves appreciating life quality.
- Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation to
implement necessary change. (Naess)
The first two tenets of the platform are similar to the concept of
interconnectedness in Eastern religion. The fifth states that human
population must decrease. This platform represented a major shift from
previous goals of the environmental movement. It did not represent all of
those who considered themselves part of the movement, but it was the most
resolved segment of the movement.
The crowning event of the 1960’s environmental movement was the
Endangered Species Act. It brought together the ideas of the movement in
the most powerful piece of environmental legislation from the time period.
The Endangered Species Act built on other laws of the ‘60’s to form a
tool that would become a threaten both conservation and industry in the
The US Congress began protecting wild animals in 1928 with the
Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which entered the US into a treaty prohibiting
the taking or selling of certain birds (National Research Council 19). The
Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 and the Bald Eagle Protection Act
of 1940 expanded on those restrictions.
In 1955, Congress began to address the issue of pollution. The Air
Pollution Act identified the problem and stated the need for research into
improving the situation. The Clean Air Acts of 1963 and 1970 set emission
standards for stationary and mobile objects, respectively. The Water
Quality Act of 1965 and the Clean Water Acts of 1966 and 1972 established
federal guidelines for pollution in rivers and streams (Legislation).
All of the aforementioned legislation was reactive in nature; the first
proactive bill was the Wilderness Act of 1964. As mentioned earlier, this
was a direct result of the preservation movement. This law required the
federal government to set aside large portions of land where "‘the
earth and its community of life are untrampled by man, where man himself
is a visitor who does not remain’" (Dowie 31). At the time, this
included almost 10 million acres; currently, 90 million acres are
designated wilderness (Ibid.)
The 1969 National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) set policies
which directed all branches of the federal government to protect the
environment. Any action planned by a federal agency had to be preceded by
an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which detailed the effects of the
proposed action upon the environment. The Act also required an annual
report on environmental quality from the President. In 1970, President
Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to
oversee administration of NEPA and consolidate tasks related to the
environment that were currently executed by other agencies.
The direct predecessors of the ESA were the Endangered Species
Preservation Act of 1966 and the Conservation Act of 1969. The
Preservation Act required endangered species listed as such and protected.
It also provided the means for purchase of habitat. The Conservation Act
reinforced the Preservation Act and extended its jurisdiction to include
foreign species brought to the US and sea-going creatures. These two laws
were weak, however, because they did not provide for enforcement and were
The ESA itself was different from the laws that preceded it. It was
similar in format to the Endangered Species Preservation and Conservation
Acts, but it had more power behind it. Much of the earlier body of
legislation would fall under Naess’s classification of shallow—it was
aimed at specific environmental problems and did not address fundamental
issues of industrial expansion. Although the ESA did not appear to deal
with these issues either, its powerful format allowed it to become a tool
for much more than the preservation of endangered species.
The Act begins by finding that some species have already become
extinct, and others are in danger of doing so. It states these species
have "aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational,
and scientific value" (The Endangered Species Act §2). Its
purpose is to provide a means for the protection of endangered species and
their habitat. The Act also requires compliance with several international
treaties regarding endangered species. It further stipulates that federal
agencies shall work to conserve endangered species (Ibid.).
The Act proceeds to set forth several definitions. To conserve means to
use all methods required for the Act to no longer be necessary for a
particular species. This includes habitat acquisition, propagation, and
transplantation. "Critical habitat" defines the specific areas
that are essential to conservation of the species, or which may require
special protection. The term "species" includes any subspecies
of fish, wildlife, or plants, "and any distinct population which
interbreeds when mature" (Ibid. §3). Endangered species are those
which are in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion
of their range. Threatened species are any that are likely to become
endangered within the foreseeable future (Ibid.).
Section Four describes the process for determination of endangered or
threatened species. The Secretary of Interior must list a species for any
one of the following reasons: "destruction or threatened destruction
of habitat; over-utilization; disease or predation; inadequacy of
regulatory mechanisms; other natural or man-made factors" (Ibid.
§4). The listing determination is to be made solely on the basis of the
best scientific and commercial data available. Any person or group can
submit a petition to the Secretary of Interior for the addition or removal
of a species to or from the list, and the Secretary must respond within 90
days whether or not to consider such action with a final determination
taking no more than 12 months. Critical habitat must be defined at the
time of listing, as well as a recovery plan for the conservation and
survival of the listed species. The recovery plan is to include
"site-specific management actions, measurable criteria which, when
met, would result in delisting. . ." (Ibid.). The ESA also provides
for land acquisition in order to satisfy the previous requirements (Ibid.
Sections six and seven explain the cooperation between the federal
government and the states, and between federal agencies. The states are
required to comply with the Department of Interior on any issues regarding
endangered species. Sections eight and nine describe the federal
compliance with international treaties; in particular, the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. Section ten lists
exceptions: scientific purposes, Native Americans who require the species
for subsistence, and certain cases that predate listing. Penalties for
violation of the Act—up to one year in prison and $50,000 in fines—are
given in section eleven. The remaining sections deal with appropriations
and other bookkeeping.
The key to the power behind the ESA lies in its definitions and land
acquisition abilities. The first key term is species; this includes
subspecies and distinct population segments. The Committee on Scientific
Issues in the Endangered Species Act chose to define a new measure—called
an evolutionary unit—for describing different populations segments. An
evolutionary unit represents a group of organisms with a common
evolutionary past and a unique future. The ambiguities inherent in this
definition permit the classification of nearly any geographically distinct
population segment as an evolutionary unit, and worthy of enlistment on
the Endangered Species List.
Critical habitat is a broadly defined term that can apply to any area
which a species might inhabit. Because the critical habitat is critical
for the survival and conservation of the species, any activities which
could possibly pose a threat to the species are severely limited.
Threatened species is another vague definition. Threatened species are not
necessarily endangered, but might become so in the future, and therefore
receive the similar protections.
These nebulous definitions allow the ESA to be used in situations where
the preservation of an endangered species is not the real issue. As
William Perry Pendley states in War on the West, "The purpose
of the Endangered Species Act has become the stopping of all activities of
which environmental extremists disapprove" (Pendley 88). He goes on
to describe a series of instances where the ESA was invoked to stop and
industrial or agricultural project.
The land acquisition authority of the ESA is what poses the greatest
threat to private property owners. If an endangered species is discovered
on their land, it can be designated critical habitat and purchased for
market price. However, if the owners do not wish to sell, things can get
ugly. Pendley cites a case where a Kanab ambersnail was declared
endangered in an emergency listing. "The owner’s refusal to cede
his lands to the FWS or its agent, the Nature Conservancy, resulted in a
cease-and-desist order that prohibited him from using his property" (Pendley
The deep ecology movement immediately realized the potential of the ESA.
In 1975, a petition was filed to halt construction of a dam on the Little
Tennessee River on behalf of the snail darter. The case reached the
Supreme Court on appeal, and on June 15, 1977, the Court upheld the ESA
and ordered construction to stop (Environmental History Timeline).
This case set a precedent—not only by validating the Act’s authority,
but by establishing the method by which environmental groups would begin
to systematically attack property rights and natural resource development.
The ESA was so loosely defined that it could be applied to almost any
situation, giving the deep ecology advocates a means for achieving their
real goal: a gradual reduction of industrialized civilization in order to
achieve much smaller population. Though this may seem an exaggeration, the
stated goals of the Deep Ecology Platform back it up.
The environmental movement began as a desire to manage the natural
resources of our land and protect it from over-industrialization, and
became a drive to undo the perceived ills of civilization. The
conservation ethic that existed as part of environmentalism at the
beginning of the twentieth century is now under attack from the deep
ecology adherents that have come dominate the environmental movement.
Ironically, the shift to stricter environmental laws and a greater
awareness of the earth has made it more difficult to actually enjoy
nature. Many public lands now require fees just for hiking. Hunting and
fishing are no longer acceptable outdoor recreations, but vicious attacks
on the planet. The people who know the land the best are being driven from
it by economic and regulative pressures. I fear that in our haste to save
the environment, we will lose it.
Jeremiah Hall wrote this paper as a project in an Honors Course
at Montana State University. Jeremiah received is BS degree
from MSU and a Masters in Aerospace from Colorado State
University. He is now working on the Orion Project for