What can a small fish, a dam and a group of hippies teach us about liberal environmental alarmists?
Quite a lot, it turns out. Around 45 years ago, the Tellico Dam was being planned in Tennessee. Its construction would help provide electricity to the surrounding area, with no emissions. Sounds like a liberal dream come true.
The problem was a pesky fish called the snail darter. A member of the perch family, the small fish was found in the Little Tennessee River — the same river that would be re-directed if the dam was completed.
Liberals panicked. Even though about $100 million had already been spent on the dam project, the snail darter was listed under the Endangered Species Act… and environmentalists used that fact to halt the entire plan.
People involved in the construction tried to find a compromise, and the Supreme Court even got involved. In 1979, Senator Howard Baker — who would go on to serve as Reagan’s Chief of Staff — summarized the absurdity of the situation during a speech on the Senate floor.
“The awful beast is back. The Tennessee snail darter, the bane of my existence, the nemesis of my golden years, the bold perverter of the Endangered Species Act is back,” began Baker, adding humor to a serious situation.
“He is still insisting that the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River, a dam that is now 99% complete, be destroyed,” the senator continued. “In the midst of a national energy crisis, the snail darter demands that we scuttle a project that would produce 200 million kilowatt hours of hydroelectric power and save an estimated 15 million gallons of oil.”
Baker then reminded the Senate that other habitats had been found for the small fish, and called out radical environmentalism as an opponent of intelligent progress.
“Now seriously Mr. President, the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else,” he explained.
“We who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends,” the senator concluded.
After his impassioned plea, Congress passed an amendment which excluded the Tellico Dam from the Environmental Protection Act.
What happened? Did the innocent snail darter fish go extinct, as liberal alarmists had predicted?
In fact, the fish was transplanted to other nearby rivers. It did so well that it was actually re-classified from “endangered” to the lower status of “threatened” in 1984.
The tale of the Tellico Dam and the snail darter is an important reminder that leftist hand-wringers are not new. Wherever there is progress and engineering and success, there’s a busybody waiting to shut down the project.
From global warming to hunting and conservation, not much has really changed in the last 45 years. The same opponents are always there.
The sky is not falling. Doom and gloom may sell documentaries, but it isn’t the path forward.
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