NASHVILLE – If you’re a certain age, you might remember the snail darter, a tiny fish from the Little Tennessee River that caused a firestorm when it was listed as endangered in 1975 At the time, the Tennessee Valley Authority was already in the midst of building a dam on Little Tennessee. Snail stingers need running water to reproduce, and the only known habitat for the whole species was about to be dammed.
The ensuing legal battle continued all the way to the Supreme Court, which sided with the fish. But Congress, pressed by Tennessee politicians, responded by exempting the Tellico Dam project from the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. The little fish seemed doomed.
You might be wondering why I would resurrect the story of an ancient battle that ended badly for environmentalists. Why bring up the sad story of the snail stinger, especially now, with 22 species in the United States newly listed as extinct and a million more on track for the same grim future around the world?
These lost creatures are exactly why.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 garnered the kind of bipartisan support from Congress that we can hardly imagine today. The House voted 355-4 in favor of the passage. It was promulgated by President Richard Nixon, a Republican. Since then he has saved dozens of iconic species like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, the Yellowstone grizzly and the American alligator, and it remains extremely popular. Despite the almost constant challenges of business interests and a large number of elected Republicans, at least 80 percent of Americans, of which 74% of self-identified conservatives, support it.
Even when we don’t use the same language to describe what is happening to the environment – you say “extreme weather”; I say ‘climate change’ – environmental protections are not as divisive as we tend to think. People on both sides of the aisle want to drink clean water and breathe clean air. People on both sides of the aisle want to keep sentient beings alive.
This common ground can create interesting bed companions. Consider the most recent environmental controversy here in Tennessee:
Leaked internal documents recently indicated that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency planned to cut 2,000 acres of deciduous forest in an incredibly beautiful state-owned wilderness on the biodiversity-rich Cumberland Plateau. The deforestation plan is ostensibly part of the state’s long-standing efforts to bring back the Bobwhite quail, a native ground-nesting game bird whose population is in sharp decline.
No one denies that creating habitat for a rapidly endangered native bird is a laudable goal. But like Mike O’Neal, a hunter, said Anita Wadhwani of Tennessee Lookout, wouldn’t it make more sense to cut down one of the many state-owned pine forests instead? Unlike hardwoods, pines can regrow quickly. “It seems like it was a great experience for TWRA to collect the quail,” he said. “But if it doesn’t work, what have you lost?” Thousands of acres of hardwoods that you will never see again in your life.
Donna Knoke Cobb, an archaeologist from Alabama, was more blunt: “Follow that damn money” she told Michael Ray Taylor of Nashville Scene. “Someone is selling these trees. And someone else probably wants to build a hunting lodge in the middle of one of the most scenic spots in the state.
Opposition to the state plan is led by an organization called Save the hardwoods. The group includes deer and turkey hunters, hikers and cavers, local residents and even a few elected officials. One of the people expressing concern about TWRA’s plans is State Representative Paul Sherrell, a Republican.
This question, in other words, transcends typical political positions. Different people have different reasons for wanting to protect this forest, and some of those reasons may seem like the opposite. Nonetheless, a disparate group of angry Tennesseans have come together to stop TWRA from cutting down their trees. Environmental controversies tend to be presented as battles between environmentalists and pragmatists, between liberals and conservatives, but such conflicts are rarely so simple.
With that, let’s come back to the snail sting.
Opposition to the Tellico dam project Came from environmentalists, yes, but it also came from hundreds of family farmers whose lands would be flooded when the dam’s gates were finally closed. It has also come from the Cherokee Nation and trout fishermen and even tax conservatives, who have recognized the dam as a financial mess.
The activists lost the battle to stop the dam, but they did not give up the snail stinger, and it had to be saved another unlikely coalition. Biologists have worked to transplant the fish to other rivers within its natural range. TVA adjusted dam operations to increase oxygen and reduce downstream sediment in the water. The Clean Water Act has dramatically reduced pollution in rivers where fish have been transplanted.
It took over 40 years, but on August 31, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the snail stinger was no longer in danger of extinction. This happy ending was no accident. It was the result of hard work.
It is too early to say what will happen to this magnificent forest on the Cumberland Plateau or the Bobwhite quail. It is far too early to tell what will become of all the species the planet stands to lose in the years to come if humans fail to stop the rate at which our climate is warming, our habitats are fragmenting and our entire planet is poisoned. It is quite possible that we will lose them all.
But it’s also not unthinkable that we still find a way to work together to prevent the worst calamities from happening. A New Yale Climate Change Communication Survey found that 70 percent of Americans are now “very” or “somewhat” concerned about climate change. Public opinion on these subjects is changing rapidly: the number of “very worried” has increased by 10 points just since March.
The biodiversity crisis will not be solved by hyperlocal efforts to save a particular species, or to preserve a particular expanse of forest. But I’m encouraged by these stories of people coming together across huge philosophical and political divisions to save what they love. Stories like this remind us of what is still possible even now.
The most difficult question is whether what is possible can be achieved in time.