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The Endangered Species Act turns 50

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Richard Nixon is the president who signed the Endangered Species Act into law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: Each of us all across this great land has a stake in maintaining and improving environmental quality, clean air and clean water, the wise use of our land, the protection of wildlife and natural beauty, parks for all to enjoy. These are part of the birthright of every American. To guarantee that birthright, we must act and act decisively.

RASCOE: That's from Nixon's 1972 message to Congress on the environment. He signed the law in his San Clemente home more than 22 months later, after taking a commercial flight to California in a public show of energy conservation.

DEB HAALAND: I don't know where we'd be without it, quite frankly.

RASCOE: Deb Haaland is the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

HAALAND: Look at our nation's national bird, the bald eagle, for example...

(SOUNDBITE OF EAGLE CALLING)

HAALAND: ...Is here today in large numbers because of the Endangered Species Act. Tiny fish - the snail darter, for example, in the South, recovered because of the Endangered Species Act.

RASCOE: During Haaland's tenure, the Interior Department has expanded conservation actions to include introducing endangered and threatened species to new habitats.

HAALAND: Climate change has caused a severe drought in the West, for example. Perhaps under drought conditions, a certain species needs more space than they historically needed. And so we take all of those things into consideration.

RASCOE: A major criticism of the Endangered Species Act has been that it's hard for species to get delisted, meaning that they don't need these protections of their habitat anymore. That has been used to say, well, how successful is it if so many species have to remain listed? What do you say to that?

HAALAND: Well, I will say, first of all, that the Department of the Interior absolutely follows the law. The Endangered Species Act is an act of Congress, and so we follow it to the letter. The Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of hundreds of imperiled species, as well as promoted the recovery of many others. And so we are making sure that these species today that face ongoing threats like habitat loss, threats from the climate crisis, have opportunities to thrive into the future.

RASCOE: When it comes down to these debates that will happen - there'll be some big project that's trying to get built, whether it's energy or, you know, apartments or, you know, some type of commercial thing that's being built, a complaint that will come will be like, well, they're trying to block this from being built because of a snail or because of this little fish or because of this little frog. That's going to block all of these jobs and all of this economic development. And isn't that more important than this little snail? What do you say to those arguments that happen so much around the Endangered Species Act?

HAALAND: Right. Well, we work really hard to make sure that we take into consideration the voices of the communities. A lot of our conservation projects during the Biden administration have been community-led, tribally led conservation efforts. There are places to build things. There are places not to build things. And we listen to the science, and we listen to the data. So we're very transparent about this work. And I feel that if we all work together, we can have economic development. We can also protect species.

RASCOE: One of the amazing things to look back on this law is that such a sweeping and influential law - environmental law - was signed and came to be. Do you think that sort of environmental will to protect species or protect land - do you think that's still there in Congress today and that something as sweeping as the Endangered Species Act could happen today?

HAALAND: You know, I was a member of Congress before I came to this position. And I worked incredibly hard to - in a bipartisan way to move important issues for Americans forward. And, you know, I just - I hope that there's enough of folks in those positions to say, we need to put the good of our country first.

RASCOE: Well, you know, under former President Donald Trump, there was some weakening of protections for endangered and threatened species, and President Biden reversed this. Do you have any concerns about the future of the Endangered Species Act and making sure that it remains intact and survives future administrations?

HAALAND: Personally, of course, I believe in the Endangered Species Act. And I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that we are honoring that during this first administration. And so, you know, we have today. We have today to work on this, and I'm proud to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAVINIA MEIJER'S "PASSAGGIO")

RASCOE: That was U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Earlier, we heard from rare plant conservation scientist Heather Schneider. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.