Surprisingly, the snail darter is not extinct.
As you busily prepare for the holidays (you are getting ready, aren’t you?), you might wonder why this is an issue, let alone what it has to do with polar bears, mammoth butterflies and, good grief, President Obama and pipeline politics.
But it sort of is all about life itself.
A note from ancient history, circa 1973. The snail darter is a three-inch fish (the perch family) that lived only in a freshwater river in eastern Tennessee. Only truly desperate fishermen knew it existed until the Tellico Dam was proposed. Building the dam, environmentalists fretted, would propel the little darter into extinction. The scoffers came out in droves: What?! Kill a dam because of a stupid little fish nobody even eats?
And thus was born the concept of protecting endangered species with multiple federal laws, a zillion regulations and an interesting concept. We do not know what species might ultimately have cured cancer or other diseases if we had not destroyed them. We do not know future consequences of tampering with nature.
But progress demands that we build, create jobs, modify our environment and change.
In the 1970s, before the $8 billion Trans-Alaskan pipeline was built, there was great concern it would decimate caribou herds. A recent University of Michigan study found the pipeline hasn’t bothered them.
Back to the snail darter. In stepped the Supreme Court. The dam was built. The Tennessee Valley Authority went into hyperdrive (well, as much as any bureaucracy can), and the darter successfully was transferred to other Tennessee river systems.
The snail darter is annually monitored and is still threatened. But it is no longer endangered.
And that brings us to today.
The U.S. Geological Survey has been studying polar bears since 1985. It and Environment Canada recently ascertained that polar bears tracked by satellites from 2004 to 2010 in the southern Beaufort Sea have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Cubs are starving to death. From 1,600 in 2004, the area’s ursus maritimus population declined to 900. Two of 80 cubs tracked in those six years survived.
Granted, polar bears are not cuddly, sweet animals. They are ferocious beasts, but fascinating barometers of environmental health. Witness the rapt human faces at any polar bear exhibit. They are dying, scientists agree, because of climate change. (And guess what? The most passionate climate-change denier in national politics, Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK., will soon head the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.)
Which naturally brings us to monarch butterflies, whose delightful, totally inoffensive population has dropped 90 percent in less than two decades. Scientists are frantically trying to prevent the extinction of butterflies and hundreds of other threatened species.
Thus, we arrive at the topic of the day — approving the final stretch of the Keystone XL pipeline supposed to take oil from the tar sands of Canada down through southeastern United States. Opponents insist it will increase climate change and irrevocably change the environment. Supporters claim it will create jobs and provide energy.
After furious debate, the Democratic-controlled Senate tentatively failed to approve the pipeline, but the new GOP-controlled Congress will quickly approve it. The milquetoast in the White House infuriatingly has failed to say what he thinks (albeit threatening a veto until the State Department “process” — it is an international pipeline — is finished).
Once again, Obama is kicking the can down the road. (Just how often can we use that cliche? To infinity and beyond.)
As is often true, supporters of the pipeline have vastly overstated its advantages while opponents have gone to extremes in condemning it.
The snail darter brings us back to reality. There are acceptable tradeoffs. The dam was built; the darter is not extinct.
Protecting endangered species and the environment is vital: we do not know what we don’t know. But we must make tradeoffs - and timely decisions.
Mr. President, get off the fence.
Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.
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