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The Eagle of a Symbol of Environmental Policy Success

I was paddling down the Monocacy River in central Maryland on a cool fall afternoon, watching leaves from sycamores trees drift down into the rocky shallows, when a bald eagle flew from a branch over the river. 

At first, I was startled by the eagle’s closeness to me as it launched, and by its sudden and powerful wing strokes and massive silvery head.

But then I thought to myself: “Oh, it’s just a bald eagle. They’re everywhere these days.”  My mental shrug – my ‘so what?’ -- made me reflect.  All too often, we take environmental progress for granted, because it is so common around us.

  Just 40 years ago, the bird that is our nation’s symbol was nearing extinction – and would be as dead as the dodo today, if it were not for EPA’s controversial action to ban the pesticide DDT in 1972.

Because of this decision by the federal government, many other fish-eating birds that define the skies and waters of the Chesapeake Bay region also came roaring back – including osprey and great blue heron.  Once nearly gone from the bay, these winged fishermen are now so abundant, their piercing cries and rasping croaks are once again part of the background noise.   

There are other environmental success stories all around us that we frequently paddle right past in our daily lives.  For example, after spotting that bald eagle, I continued kayaking down the Monocacy River and slipped beneath an ancient-looking stone aqueduct for the Chesapeake & Ohio canal.

I headed out onto the Potomac River.  There, a thick blanket of underwater grasses with vivid yellow flowers spread out in a vast and colorful sheet, like a constellation of floating stars.  Fish darted in the clear valleys between the tufts of grass. 

When I was a kid, back in the 1970s, the Potomac River was almost devoid of life – almost a reeking toilet. But it improved dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s because the federal government forced sewage treatment plants in Washington D.C. and elsewhere to modernize.

The river still has a long way to go, of course. But as with the return of the bald eagle, the resurgence of the Nation’s River should not be shrugged off.

Likewise we should appreciate the incredible comeback of striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay, which was sparked by a moratorium on catching them from 1985 to 1990.  Great egrets, snowy egrets and other migratory birds were nearly hunted to extinction before the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.  And we have seen dramatic decline in smog and soot air pollution driven by the federal Clean Air Act of 1970 and its amendments in 1990.

 All of these victories have one thing in common:  They were the result of government action to ban or regulate the destructive behavior of humans. They did not grow from consensus, financial incentives, innovation, or Wall Street-style trading in pollution credits. Ironically, however, these types of non-regulatory, industry-shaped approaches have all become much more fashionable among policy makers in recent years than old-school rules that actually work.

The salvation of the bald eagle should be a reminder to us all of how real environmental progress is made. EPA’s decision to ban DDT was hotly contested by industry, based on incomplete scientific evidence, and is still demonized by many Republicans today -- the same politicians who deny science and action on climate change.

The lesson is:  We should act decisively to protect our natural world using the precautionary principal, with the best available evidence, understanding that industry and anti-government politicians will always try to block action, no matter how necessary it is to the common good.

We can’t let selfishness rule, or give in to desperate environmentalism.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.