Friday is the Fourth of July, an American holiday that celebrates the independence and birth of the nation. It’s a day when people in the U.S. look back to remember all the things that make them proud to be American.
In honor of the holiday, here are four monumental conservation efforts by the people and government of the United States — just a few inspirational conservation victories among many that have occurred.
- Preventing the extinction of the bison
Some might not call the story of the American bison a complete success. In the year 1500, there was an estimated 30 to 60 million head of wild bison living across North America. Now that number is only in the tens of thousands.
Still, their complete extinction of this was avoided. As the railroads expanded across the continent in the 1800s, hunters were paid to kill bison. By 1884, there were just over 300 remaining. As this species was made “ecologically extinct,” the plains lost a tremendous grazer and seed disperser that helped to maintain a healthy grassland ecosystem.
By the turn of the century the U.S. government and civil society organizations took actions to conserve and bring back bison; they were even an inspiration for the founding of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
While the bison has not been brought back to its historical numbers, and probably never will be, the work done to prevent its outright extinction can be cited as one of the first successful attempts in this country to stave off the damaging impact humans have had on a species. After all, the bison could have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, which went from a population in the billions to zero in four decades.
The bison’s African counterparts — elephants, gazelles, giraffes and Cape buffalo, to name a few — face a similar human threat from poaching and climate change. They still have a chance to remain wild if preventative actions are taken to manage their populations.
- Banning DDT — and saving the bald eagle
The very symbol of the United States, the bald eagle, was nearly driven to extinction in the 20th century.
Just after the nation was founded there were estimated to be 100,000, but by the 1960s they had fallen to less than 1% of that number. Similar drastic declines were seen in other large North American birds, including brown pelicans and peregrine falcons.
Then in 1962 Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring,” a book that illuminated the danger posed by the pesticide DDT. The introduction of this chemical in the ecosystem went right up the food chain and was the cause of the eagle’s decline. The book came at a critical time for the bald eagle and its winged cousins. DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972.
Rehabilitation and conservation efforts to bring back these birds in the wild began, and over the next 30 years they began to move the needle. Bald eagles, brown pelicans and peregrine falcons have all recovered enough to be removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.
They continue to take to the sky as top predators, keeping a delicate balance maintaining the food web which is critical for sustaining a healthy ecosystem that provides food, clean air and clean water.
- Passing groundbreaking legislation to protect natural resources
Carson’s “Silent Spring” came at a time when Americans were beginning to better understand how humans impact the environment, manifesting in the passing of some revolutionary legislation in the 1960s and 1970s. Between 1963 and 1972, the U.S. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, all of which began to regulate the country’s natural resources.
This legislation has laid the groundwork for environmental protections that safeguard the clean air and fresh water that Americans depend on. Between 1972 and 1990, the measures put in place by the Clean Air Act is estimated to have prevented 205,000 premature deaths and 18 million child respiratory diseases.
Though effective, these laws, are now 40 years old. It will be up to our generation to make sure our lawmakers continue to take actions that will conserve our environment in the face of 21st-century challenges like climate change.
- Creating the American national park system
If you grew up in the U.S., you have likely visited a national park, either on a school field trip or on a vacation with your family. These places are refuges where both history and nature come together to tell our national story. There is nothing else like them.
Founded in 1872, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho was the first established national park. Its creation set an example.
Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres [more than 890,000 hectares] preserve North American wilderness the way it was before it was settled and developed. It is a home to animals like grizzly bears, elk, moose and gray wolves, as well as the geyser Old Faithful, a natural wonder in its own right.
Yellowstone is now one of over 400 national park sites across our nation that cover over 84 million acres [almost 34 million hectares] in every state and several territories. Each one has a special story, whether it be about the people or events of its past or the amazing natural beauty that we seek to preserve and enjoy.
With the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, a bureau of the government was created with the mission of protecting our culturally and ecologically important places. They can teach us about the past, and with the natural services they provide — clean water, clean air and a home for wildlife — they can also help ensure our future.
Kevin Connor is a media manager for CI.