A fight in your own backyard

Published 10:08 pm Tuesday, August 28, 2018

By Stephen Nash

Whether you’re a deer hunter or a tree hugger, if you know the outdoors around Suffolk you know it’s a tapestry, a living weave — not just a random jumble of plants and animals. Start pulling out threads, and the life begins to unravel. Your representatives in Congress are considering, just now, whether to allow a lot more yanking.

Billion-dollar mining, drilling and ranching interests want to gut the Endangered Species Act, which became law during a Republican administration 45 years ago. They call it “streamlining” and “improving.”

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Get in touch and let your Suffolk-area representative in Congress know your thoughts on that now. (You can find the name instantly at the non-partisan VPAP.org.) Because this fight isn’t just about places like Montana or Oregon. Virginia is starkly vulnerable.

Arguing against one set of anti-Endangered Species Act proposals, state natural resources secretary Matthew J. Strickler told a congressional hearing last month that Virginia’s endangered list ranges from “a flying squirrel to five varieties of sea turtles, to the Atlantic sturgeon — a fish that can reach 14 feet long and 800 pounds, and has been around since the time of the dinosaurs.”

In fact, our state fish and game agency reports that an astonishing 500-plus Virginia animal species are now rare or declining and “at risk of extinction” here — many of them at “extremely high risk.” That’s 8 percent of our mammal species, 11 percent of birds, 21 percent of freshwater fish, a quarter of our reptiles and amphibians.

As a state report tells us, these hundreds of species are “imperiled by the ongoing loss or degradation of their habitats,” and accelerating climate change sharpens the threat. Many populations “are already critically impaired, and their long-term survival is in doubt.”

Most of those species at the brink receive little help from our underfunded state natural resource agencies. That’s because states are even more vulnerable to political pressure than the federal government. So, of course, the anti-wildlife campaigners want to hand the ESA over to states to administer. As Strickler’s testimony noted, “the primary reason many species are where they are is precisely because states — including Virginia — have not had the resources or the political will to do the job themselves. That’s why the ESA is so important.”

And the public trough is a major factor in why the Act, always enfeebled, is now itself endangered. On U.S. public lands, ranchers pay less per acre per month to graze a cow and calf on 378,000 square miles of public lands than you pay to feed your goldfish. Hardrock mining corporations — many of them Chinese, Canadian, British or Australian — pay zero royalties to us, the owners, as they extract billions of dollars’ worth of minerals from our public lands and leave vast wrecked landscapes behind. Gas and oil drillers pay us less to lease an acre of public land for a year than you’d pay for a cup of coffee.

As Strickler pointed out, Virginia’s wild species “do not belong to just Virginia, or Wyoming or any other single state. They belong to all Americans.” And vice versa. Public lands are your own big back yard. The thousands of species that are disappearing from the landscapes of those far-off states — they belong to you.

Stephen Nash is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines, and Forests,” published by the University of Virginia Press. He is a visiting senior research scholar in journalism at the University of Richmond.