By Tommy Hough with Andrew Meyer
The landmark Endangered Species Act of 1973 that we celebrate today, and which continues to be the gold standard by which threatened wildlife is preserved, wasn't created in a vacuum.
Rather, it was built upon a pair of previous iterations of endangered species policies from 1966 and 1969, both of which began the process of tying the survival of species facing imminent extinction with curtailing the activity of humans to create room for that species to recover in their natural habitat.
Part of the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 called upon Congress to begin authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to "acquire land or interests in land that would further the conservation of these species." Coming two years after the passage of the Wilderness Act, which similarly directed an activist Congress to submit wilderness considerations to the Interior Department, this progressive approach was, ideally, to provide a direct route for activists to contact the Interior Department via their congressperson.
In response, the Interior Department issued their inaugural list of endangered species in 1967, including the grizzly bear, alligator, manatee, and bald eagle, whose numbers had become so depleted by the widespread use of DDT, hunting, and habitat loss that by 1963 only 487 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles remained in the U.S.
By 1969, a more global, holistic view on endangered species and the interconnectedness of wildlife and habitats was emerging, and the 1969 Endangered Species Conservation Act included, for the first time, threatened mollusks and crustaceans in addition to charismatic vertebrates. The key legal term "based on the best scientific and commercial data," also made its first appearance in the 1969 bill, ensuring that science would have final word on policy.
By 1972, conservation policy was proving popular with voters, and with 18-year olds having been given the right to vote the year before with the passage of the 26th Amendment, President Richard Nixon was eager to win that demographic for his re-election campaign. Declaring that current endangered species policy was unclear and "inadequate," Nixon called for a comprehensive streamlining of policy, setting into motion what became the Endangered Species Act that was signed into law on December 28, 1973.
Since that time, the Endangered Species Act has facilitated the recovery of species large and small, and became a catalyst in the modern conservation movement as a means of preventing mining or logging operations in areas deemed critical habitat for endangered species.
One of the most notable examples of this was the Northern Spotted Owl of Pacific Northwest old-growth forests, which saw its numbers plummet as clearcutting of ancient forests in Washington, Oregon, and California reached a frenzied peak in the mid-1980s. Marbled Murrelets, a small, football-shaped seabird that lives in the crowns of old-growth Douglas firs and cedars, similarly saw its numbers collapse as timber operations wiped out habitat in areas which some logging interests casually described as biological "dead zones."
Using the ESA in this case, extractive uses became far more regulated, setting a precedent that still applies today – that endangered species should not be wiped off the face of the earth by humanity's actions, however intentional or accidental they may be.
Here in San Diego County, we have the responsibility of living with several ESA-listed species, some of which we shared with you this week. Our San Diego National Wildlife Refuge preserves habitat for endangered birds, our regional Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) was one of the first of its kind and offers a path forward for effective conservation-focused planning, and in tandem with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, our rare birds and other organisms are continuously receiving critical protection at both the state and federal level because of the Endangered Species Act.
We, and our wild neighbors, benefit from the ESA every single day.
California Least Tern photo by Walker Golder, Texas Audubon
By Tommy Hough
It's a great time to be a polluter.
From the moment Donald Trump assumed office in 2017, his cabal quickly became the most anti-environmental administration in modern U.S. history. It was a surprise to no one.
We expected the worst from Trump, and he's delivered. On election night 2016, at the moment the results were clear and the bourbon was beginning to flow, I sat down and wrote my emergency list of "Conservation Points That Must Be Addressed Prior to Inauguration," like National Monument designations, moves to shore up Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, protection of the Wilderness Act and Antiquities Act, etc.
Boy, was I thinking small.
Trump's team had a game plan, and it was a determined effort to rid every federal agency of every last vestige of competence, fact-based rationale, or anyone who could plausibly say "no," and instead, turn our hallowed insititutions into instruments of lazy absurdity to give credible cover to a radicalized, lawless vision of America in the service of a corrupt banana republic ruling family. They were thinking big, and familiar. The pencilnecks in Washington never saw it coming.
Within days of Trump taking office, the EPA was turned upside down and promoting coal (!) and the benefits of mercury, the hallowed National Park Service was bullied into doctoring inauguration photos, and the Interior Department announced plans to either modify the boundaries or entirely do away with 27 National Monuments, essentially undoing the entire reason National Monuments are established in the first place. Unprecedented you say? Well, the boss said so. Precedent would receive no attention or respect from this administration.
Not that his supporters care. And despite all of Trump's characteristically confused bravado pledging to make America great and revive oil, fracking, and even coal in the face of abundant, rational, and profitable (!) renewable energy opportunities, in the days after the election Trump apologists admonished us that Donald Trump was "an American," wishfully hoped that "nothing will change," and that his administration would follow what Chief Justice John Roberts has called "settled" law.
They've done anything but. Trump's packing of federal courts, and quite possibly, one to two more seats on the Supreme Court should he be reelected, or should a tragedy befall one of the justices between now and January 2021, ensures even more wretched, absurd decisions for decades to come, even if we get lucky and bump Trump and his Republican enablers out of office in November – and assuming they actually leave town in January without tanks in the street.
According to the New York Times, "After three years, the Trump administration has dismantled most major climate and environmental policies." Ever the champion of fossil fuels, Trump has described the countless policies he has done away with as "burdensome" to the fossil fuel industry and other extraction businesses. After all, it's so hard to be a billionaire or a multinational corporation in America.
This breathtaking, ongoing assault on America's environmental heritage includes the undoing of 64 long-standing regulatory policies, with 34 more rollbacks in progress for a total of 98. Presidents from FDR to Obama prided themselves on policy they'd passed. Trump, and his rudderlessly embittered supporters cheer every little thing he tears down. So much for the vision of a guy who made a name for himself building buildings, however tacky they are.
I never imagined Team Trump and their GOP enablers would be able to manage an enforced brain drain and literally gut federal agencies into the ether, but that's what they did. For years Republicans whined that government is inefficient, and government can't possibly be an asset to the citizenry. They were so intent on demonstrating this premise they elected Donald Trump to make sure reality fit the pipe dream. I always figured the cabal would need someone around who had a clue in case of a real emergency. Instead, those few civil servants remaining who have a clue and demonstrate it, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, get death threats from emboldened lunatics instead of thanks.
I never imagined modern, Obama-era agreements to limit poisonous emissions from power plants and ensure more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, all made in conjunction with industry leaders, would be gutted as swiftly as rules pertaining to clean air, water, and toxic chemicals. But of course, failure of imagination is what led to disasters like Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The era of modern American conservation can be traced past LBJ and FDR to the hearty, workaholic activism of President Theodore Roosevelt on behalf of wilderness and open space, President Benjamin Harrison's creation of the U.S. Forest Reserve system in 1891 to stop the wanton destruction of western forests, and President Abraham Lincoln's donation of Yosemite Valley to the state of California in 1864 for the purpose of establishing a park in the Sierras.
Trump has put an end to that grand tradition of American conservation, of pride in America's natural heritage. This is a man, after all, who stares at eclipses and is visibly uncomfortable outside. Prior to becoming president, the only time Trump spent outdoors was while walking from his limo to the front door of the building he was entering. Like all of his toxic behavior, Trump projects his contempt and disgust for our natural world onto us all.
To be fair, the golden era of American conservation was already a little wobbly by the time James Watt threw a wrench into it in the early 1980s leading the Reagan administration's Interior Department, but the preservation of the Stanislaus River, 1984 Wilderness Act(s), 1994 California Desert Protection Act, 1994 Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP), and 2001 Roadless Rule were still ahead.
The slope became increasingly slippery during the George W. Bush years, and during the Obama administration the lunatic GOP Congress routinely ran rough drafts of today's conservation rollbacks by the White House, knowing full well Obama would veto them. As I said in presentations at that time, they were just getting the wording right and waiting for a Republican administration.
Ultimately, Obama ended up preserving more federal land than any president before him, so Trump inherited a federal preservation system ripe for exploitation and abuse. As the administration quietly closed off 24 million of acres of public land in the Intermountain West for oil and gas exploration, they loudly announced plans to open some two million acres of conservation lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the absurd claim Trump was "expanding" areas for hunting and fishing. Wait, he closed off 24 and gave them two, did you see that? The pencilnecks will never understand.
But that's not the only American tradition Trump has desecrated and jettisoned. Children remain in cages. Families legally seeking asylum remain separated. Concentration camps are a reality in our nation. Cruelty has been empowered. Walls are being built, have been built, bulldozed over cactus and sliced across wilderness and protected habitat. Convicted war criminals and federal criminals are pardoned, murdering racists and actual Nazis are "fine people," while honorable naval officers who put their crew's safety ahead of the president's fragile ego are fired. The post office's effectiveness is a problem for those who believe government should not be.
People of color are humiliated and then murdered in full view of their neighbors while jogging in deadly, outrageous "citizen's arrests," or while doing nothing more suspicious than sleeping in their own beds at night. Children are in cages.
Children are in cages.
Tell your friends, tell your family, especially in the states that matter – vote this November. Don't ever accept what's changed, and what's been done to this nation since January 19, 2017. It is not, and will never be acceptable.
Tommy Hough is the co-founder and original president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He currently serves as vice president for policy.
By Tommy Hough and Andrew Meyer
All this week the San Diego Audubon Society has been celebrating Endangered Species Day by highlighting five local birds that benefit from federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections. So far we've featured the Ridgway's Rail, Least Bell's Vireo, and Western Snowy Plover. Today we're highlighting both the Bald and Golden Eagle — and though they may be seldom seen, both are found here in San Diego County.
While the Bald Eagle stands as one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act (it was removed from the endangered list in 1995), Golden Eagles haven't been doing as well in San Diego County. In fact, over the last 100 years we've lost more than half of our county's breeding pairs, almost entirely due to sprawl development cutting into and destroying habitat.
Golden Eagles are larger than Bald Eagles, with an average wingspan of five feet, and record wingspans of eight feet or more. They're dark brown with lighter shades on their wingtips, and yellow feathering at the base of the neck. Found throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, the Golden Eagle is one of the world's most widely distributed eagle species.
As a result of its reasonably stable numbers nationally, the Golden Eagle has never been listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or other federal agency, although it was initially earmarked for protection from commercial trapping and hunting as part of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1940.
Despite this early act of preservation, the Golden Eagle saw its numbers decline by mid-century, but it was the Bald Eagle that had become critically endangered by the early 1970s, in part from the widespread use of the "Silent Spring" pesticide DDT, which weakened the integrity of eggs in dozens of bird species.
In many ways, the Bald Eagle's plight enabled passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 in order to save the nation's symbol from extinction. Since the ESA's implementation, the Golden Eagle has similarly benefitted from measures to preserve Bald Eagle numbers. Today, the survival of these magnificent raptors relies on preserving the ecosystems and open spaces that they rely upon for roaming, hunting and nesting.
Phil Lambert, who manages the San Diego Audubon Society's Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary near Lakeside, saw a Bald Eagle two weeks ago circling above the sanctuary's observation area. Flying about 100 ft. above the oak canopy while being attacked by a resident Red Tailed Hawk, this Bald Eagle sighting was only the sixth at Silverwood since 2011. Prior to that, Bald Eagles weren't even on Silverwood's bird list.
Human activity in the form of climate change, poisoning, collisions with buildings, aircraft, and windmills remain serious threats to eagles, but none is more severe than urbanization and habitat destruction, and declines in the availability of the species' natural prey.
Help This Bird: Bald Eagles are one of the nation's great recovery stories, and the ESA quickly demonstrated its value in helping to facilitate the bird's survival. But there are things we can do now, even without an endangered classification, to prevent Golden Eagles from being decimated in the same way Bald Eagles were in the mid-20th century.
Take a moment to let the San Diego County Board of Supervisors know you want protections enacted for Golden Eagle nesting sites on county land, and that you support a strong Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP) for North County. Today is the last day to do so.
Let your supervisors know you especially support option five in the stakeholder survey that fulfills the county's General Plan goals, makes good on the planning and development that's been undertaken to date, and is the best option for the species covered under the plan, and for habitat connectivity in North County.
Fun Fact: Golden Eagles have the largest territory of any bird species in San Diego County.
By Tommy Hough and Megan Flaherty
This Friday is Endangered Species Day, and this week San Diego Audubon is highlighting five local endangered birds that benefit from protections extended by the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). In many cases, these endangered birds have seen their numbers rebound and populations saved as the result of the ESA which, unfortunately, has been subject to a number of recent enforcement rollbacks. So far we've featured the Ridgway's Rail, Least Bell's Vireo, and Golden Eagle.
Today, we spotlight one of the most endangered west coast shorebirds, the Western Snowy Plover, a small, six-inch bird with a sand-colored back, white belly, and black beak. Western Snowy Plovers typically nest directly on sandy beaches, and their preferred natural habitats are the flat, open shorelines and dunes of the Pacific coast, as well as the beaches of our local bays, lagoons, and river mouths.
Locally, some of the best places to view the Western Snowy Plover are San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve in Encinitas, along the Silver Strand State Beach south of Coronado, and nearby the Tijuana River. As humans continue to build up to the waterline and further isolate habitat, these scattered areas of preserved beach and upland areas have become even more critical for the survival of this species.
Warmer ocean waters and non-native beach grasses also jeopardize the survival of the Western Snowy Plover, but the primary culprit may be your own two feet, and the beachgoing habits of your neighbors. Nesting season for the Western Snowy Plover corresponds with the height of summer when humans are on the beach, putting these already delicate birds under further stress.
Plovers lay their eggs in shallow depressions with loose sand and little cover. As a result, eggs are naturally threatened by high tides and weather, but it's the impact of humans on the beach walking, running, playing sports, and even driving off-road vehicles that does the most damage. Adult plovers will abandon their nests for lengthy periods if disturbed.
San Diego Audubon has enlisted the help of local students to create plover awareness signs which are posted at the Silver Strand State Beach. Learn more about our Sharing our Shores program here.
Help This Bird: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the Western Snowy Plover as endangered in 1993, and while only about 500 of the birds remain between Los Angeles and the border with Mexico, that number would surely be less without ESA protections. Do your part and clean up trash and beach litter, keep your dogs leashed, and respect fences and signs to help ensure the survival of this little bird.
Fun Fact: Western Snowy Plover nests are called "scrapes." Male plovers press their chest into the sand and use their legs to scrape out a bowl shaped-depression, which are then lined with small pieces of shells, pebbles, kelp, driftwood, and other beach debris.
Western Snowy Plover photo by Mick Thompson, courtesy of Portland Audubon.
By Tommy Hough with Karina Ornelas and Megan Flaherty
With Friday, May 15, marking Endangered Species Day, this week the San Diego Audubon Society is highlighting endangered birds in San Diego County that benefit from the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the resulting protection of habitat. In a number of cases, these endangered birds have seen their numbers rebound and species saved as a result of the ESA, which has regrettably seen a number of enforcement rollbacks over the last three years.
The Bell's Vireo is a songbird found throughout North America, but its Southern California subspecies, known as the Least Bell's Vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus), was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1986 due to an ongoing loss of habitat in the region, primarily due to development of riparian habitats in canyons and coastal areas.
Least Bell's Vireo are small birds with short, rounded wings and straight, short bills, with a faint ring around their eyes. Their feathers are mostly gray with paler shades of gray running to white along their bellies. Adult species spend their day in small trees and dense shrubs along rivers and streams, relying on a diet of insects and spiders. Beginning in April, female Least Bell's Vireo lay four eggs up to four times per year, with young birds leaving their nest some 10 to 12 days after hatching.
Unfortunately, Least Bell's Vireo nests are typically found within two feet of the ground, which makes unhatched eggs and chicks particularly vulnerable to predation from cats, raccoons, rats, and coyotes, all of which are found near housing and business developments. Scrub jays, hawks, and snakes are also common natural predators.
Although they've been spotted as far north as Santa Clara County, the extraordinarily biodiverse set of habitats and open space in San Diego County remains home to the greatest number of Least Bell’s Vireo. A substantial number of the county’s population lives in the drainages of Camp Pendleton that make up the Santa Margarita River watershed, and the Otay Valley Regional Park offers some of the best, most accessible visibility opportunities. San Diego Audubon is working with the rangers here to improve habitat to benefit riparian species, as well as local pollinators.
Help This Bird: Since its classification as endangered in 1986, the Least Bell's Vireo population has increased from 291 pairs statewide, to 2,968 pairs in Southern California. But the Least Bell's Vireo needs the verdant riparian habitat of canyons and stream beds in coastal areas to survive. The ESA is capable of stopping or requiring modification of proposed developments in order to preserve habitat for this species, which is essential as their population is still so low that they are not safe from extinction.
Please contact your federal elected official and ask them to support conservation policy in Congress to incentivize coastal wetland protection and restoration for carbon storage in order to help the Least Bell's Vireo.
Fun Fact: As songbirds, the Least Bell's Vireo are known to be chatty and melodic, with male birds often signing up to 15 different varieties of song.
Least Bell's Vireo photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
By Tommy Hough
When I was running for San Diego City Council in 2018, I knocked on thousands of doors in District 6.
One afternoon, when I was canvassing in Mira Mesa, I stopped by a house on Gold Coast Drive. When I asked the homeowner if there was anything going on in the neighborhood he was concerned about, he led me by the arm from his front door to his front yard, where we were promptly hit by flying gravel as a car drove by at less than 25 miles per hour. "This is my problem," he told me. He wasn't the first.
If you've driven on Gold Coast east of Camino Ruiz over the last dozen years, this anecdote probably doesn't surprise you. I first drove along Gold Coast some 17 years ago, shortly after I'd arrived in San Diego as part of the inaugural air staff at FM 94/9. Even then I remember remarking on how atrocious the road was – not just with potholes, but with cracks, gaps, bumps, asphalt patches upon patches, and intersections devolving into gravel pits.
I realize it's difficult to find a smooth drive in San Diego. Every neighborhood has their problem streets, but Gold Coast remains a potholed minefield where motorists are forced to drive like a slow-motion skier on a slalom run to avoid the worst parts, especially around the intersections at Westonhill and San Ramon. While not an unusually long stretch of road, it's a heavily-traveled arterial vital to our community and the commuters who drive to and from work in our city's economic engine every day. Gold Coast needs to be rebuilt now, in conjunction with the rebuild of Parkdale Ave. outlined in the city's Community Improvement Program (CIP) number B17188 (you can find other CIPs in District 6 here).
When I attended an informational meeting at the Mira Mesa Senior Center in the summer of 2018 to learn more about the proposal to rebuild Gold Coast Dr. and Parkdale Ave., the city's chief engineer noted with some amazement how bad Gold Coast had become, going so far as to mention his surprise that it hadn't already been rebuilt.
Again, no surprise on our end. Longtime Mira Mesa residents know the roadbed of Gold Coast Dr. and others were built quickly and on the cheap in the early 1970s, and failed long ago from a clear intrusion of water, bad drainage, and loose soils. All of these factors, plus the fact that much of Mira Mesa was rapidly, and unecologically, built upon naturally occurring vernal pools at the time of rapid construction beginning in 1970, have conspired to make Mira Mesa roads notoriously bad. But Gold Coast, one of the most heavily-used arterials in the community, has become the poster child for civic neglect. I made my case on this point in a Times of San Diego piece in February 2019.
I realize the city is looking at a very lean period over the upcoming months, maybe even years, due to the loss of tourism, TOT taxes, and convention revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty over Proposition B, but it's critical the Capital Improvement Program B-17188 to rebuild Gold Coast Drive from Thanksgiving Lane to Camino Ruiz, and Parkdale Ave. from Mira Mesa Blvd. to Northrup Drive, be funded and moved forward as a priority in the 2021 budget. The decaying streets affect my neighbors' property values, even beyond the flying gravel, and puts extraordinary wear and tear on my neighbors' cars that can cost thousands of dollars a year to stay ahead of.
And it isn't just the residents. MTS buses use the otherwise narrow strip of Gold Coast throughout the day, and in normal times under non-pandemic conditions heavy San Diego Unified school buses deliver students to Salk Elementary School on Parkdale, and Wangenheim Middle School via Gold Coast throughout the school year.
To my earlier point, located as we are between the I-15 and I-805 freeways, our neighborhood streets and arterials like Mira Mesa Blvd., Capricorn, Flanders, Bootes, and Gold Coast bear the brunt of the daily nine-to-five commuter traffic as workers head to and from tech centers like Sorrento Valley and western Mira Mesa. I would ask Mayor Faulconer and San Diego City Council, in this 11th hour ahead of the unveiling of the new fiscal year 2021 budget, that the proposal to rebuild Gold Coast Dr. and Parkdale Ave. be funded and enacted upon, according to the plan for Capital Improvement Program B-17188.
Again, I realize we're in the crosshairs of an impending and likely long-term budget crisis, but hopefully we can address more streets in Mira Mesa and District 6 that need to rebuilt from the ground-up, not slathered over with another layer of asphalt that doesn't fix the underlying problem, like Calle Dario, Jade Coast, Pegasus, Port Royale, Perseus, and others. I'm sure you know of some that could use more than a hug and some TLC. If you agree, do me a favor and please let me know.
A San Diego broadcast and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.