I was there on that day, knee deep in the snow, because I had been given the honor of carrying the first wolves back into that landscape. Through the work of conservation laws, I was there to restore the natural cycle, to make Yellowstone complete.
The first wolf was an Alpha female, and after I set her down in the transition area, where she would later mate and bear wild pups, I looked through the grate into the green eyes of this magnificent creature, within this spectacular landscape, and was profoundly moved by the elevating nature of America's conservation laws: laws with the power to make creation whole.
I then returned to Washington, where a new Congress was being sworn into office, and witnessed power of a different kind. Attack on water, land, creatures.
First I witnessed an attack on our national lands, an all-out attempt to abolish our American tradition of public places -- whether national parks, forests, historic sites, wildlife refuges, and recreation areas. Look quickly about you, name your favorite place: a beach in New York harbor; the Appomattox Courthouse; the great western ski areas; the caribou refuge in the Arctic; or the pristine waters off the Florida Keys. For each of these places is at risk. Last month in the Denver Post, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands estimated that his committee may have to close more than 100 of the Park Service's 369 units. In these times, it seems that no part of our history or our natural heritage is sufficiently important to protect and preserve for the benefit of all Americans.
Next I witnessed an attack that targets the 1972 Clean Water Act, the most successful of all our environmental laws. Until that Act passed, slaughterhouses, pulp mills and factories from Boise to Boston to Baton Rouge spewed raw waste into our waterfronts. Yet 23 years later, as I visited America's cities, I saw that Act restoring those rivers, breathing new life into once-dead waters. I saw people gather on clean banks to fish, sail, swim, eat and live. I saw that, as the Act helps cities restore our waters, those waters restore our cities themselves. And then I saw Congress rushing to tear that Act apart.
But finally, more than any of our environmental laws, the Act they have most aggressively singled out for elimination -- one that made Yellowstone complete -- is the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
Never mind that this Act is working, having saved 99 percent of all listed species; never mind that it effectively protects hundreds of plants and animals, from grizzly bears to whooping cranes to greenback cutthroat trout; never mind that it is doing so while costing each American 16 cents per year.
For the new Congress -- while allowing for the above charismatic species, plus a dozen other species good for hunting and fishing, plus, just for good measure, the bald eagle -- can find absolutely no reason to protect all species in general.
Who cares, they ask, if the spotted owl goes extinct? We won't miss it, or, for that matter, the Texas blind salamander or the kangaroo rat. And that goes double for the fairy shrimp, the burying beetle, the Delphi sands flower-loving fly and the virgin spine dace! If they get in our way, if humans drive some creatures to extinction, well, that's just too bad.
Over the past year that is, I think, a fairly accurate summary of how the new majority in Congress has expressed its opinion of the Endangered Species Act.
The values of children
They are not, however, the only Americans who have expressed an opinion on this issue.
Recently I read an account of a Los Angeles "Eco-Expo" last April, where children were invited to write down their answers to the basic question: "Why save endangered species?"
One child, Gabriel, answered, "Because God gave us the animals." Travis and Gina wrote, "Because we love them." A third answered, "Because we'll be lonely without them." Still another wrote, "Because they're a part of our life. If we didn't have them, it would not be a complete world. The Lord put them on earth to be enjoyed, not destroyed."
Now, in my lifetime I have heard many, many political, agricultural, scientific, medical and ecological reasons for saving endangered species. I have in fact hired biologists and ecologists for just that purpose. All their reasons have to do with providing humans with potential cures for disease, or yielding humans new strains of drought-resistant crops, or offering humans bioremediation of oil spills, or thousands of other justifications of why species are useful to humans.
But none of their reasons moved me like the children's.
For these children are speaking and writing in plain words a complex notion that has either been lost, or forgotten, or never learned by some members of Congress, and indeed by many of us.
The children are expressing the moral and spiritual imperative that there may be a higher purpose inherent in creation, demanding our respect and our stewardship quite apart from whether a particular species is or ever will be of material use to mankind. They see in creation what our adult political leaders refuse to acknowledge. They express an answer that can be reduced to one word: values.
A sacred blue mountain
I remember when I was their age, a child growing up in a small town in Northern Arizona. I learned my religious values through the Catholic Church, which, in that era, in that Judeo-Christian tradition, kept silent on our moral obligation to nature. By its silence the church implicitly sanctioned the prevailing view of the earth as something to be used and disposed however we saw fit, without any higher obligation. In all the years that I attended Sunday mass, hearing hundreds of homilies and sermons, there was never any reference, any link, to our natural heritage or to the spiritual meaning of the land surrounding us.
Yet, outside that church I always had a nagging instinct that the vast landscape was somehow sacred, and holy, and connected to me in a sense that my catechism ignored.
At the edge of my home town a great blue mountain called the San Francisco Peaks soars up out of the desert to a snowy summit, snagging clouds on its crest, changing color with the seasons. It was always a mystical, evocative presence in our daily lives. To me that mountain, named by Spanish missionaries for Saint Francis, remains a manifestation of the presence of our Creator.
That I was not alone in this view was something I had to discover through a very different religion. For on the opposite side of the blue mountain, in small pueblos on the high mesas that stretch away toward the north, lived the Hopi Indians. And it was a young Hopi friend who taught me that the blue mountain was, truly, a sacred place.
One Sunday morning in June he led me out to the mesa top villages where I watched as the Kachina filed into the plaza, arriving from the snowy heights of the mountain, bringing blessings from another world.
Another time he took me to the ceremonials where the priests of the snake clan chanted for rain and then released live rattlesnakes to carry their prayers to the spirits deep within the earth.
Later I went with him to a bubbling spring, deep in the Grand Canyon, lined with pahoes -- the prayer feathers -- where his ancestors had emerged from another world to populate this earth.
By the end of that summer I came to believe, deeply and irrevocably, that the land, and that blue mountain, and all the plants and animals in the natural world are together a direct reflection of divinity, that creation is a plan of God, and I saw, in the words of Emerson, "the visible as proceeding from the invisible."
Genesis and the Deluge
That awakening made me acutely aware of a vacancy, a poverty amidst my own rich religious tradition. I felt I had to either embrace a borrowed culture, or turn back and have a second look at my own. And while priests then, as now, are not too fond of people rummaging about in the Bible to draw our own meanings, I chose the latter, asking: Is there nothing in our Western, Judeo-Christian tradition that speaks to our natural heritage and the sacredness of that blue mountain? Is there nothing that can connect me to the surrounding Creation?
There are those who argue that there isn't.
There are those industrial apologists who, when asked about Judeo-Christian values relating to the environment, reply that the material world, including the environment, is just an incidental fact, of no significance in the relation between us and our Creator.
They cite the first verses of Genesis, concluding that God gave Adam and his descendants the absolute, unqualified right to "subdue" the earth and gave man "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." God, they assert, put the earth here for the disposal of man in whatever manner he sees fit. Period.
They should read a few verses further.
For there, in the account of the Deluge, the Bible conveys a far different message about our relation to God and to the earth. In Genesis, Noah was commanded to take into the ark two by two and seven by seven every living thing in creation, the clean and the unclean.
He did not specify that Noah should limit the ark to two charismatic species, two good for hunting, two species that might provide some cure down the road, and, say, two that draw crowds to the city zoo.
No, He specified the whole of creation. And when the waters receded, and the dove flew off to dry land, God set all the creatures free, commanding them to multiply upon the earth.
Then, in the words of the covenant with Noah, "when the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between me and all living things on earth."
Thus we are instructed that this everlasting covenant was made to protect the whole of creation, not for the exclusive use and disposition of mankind, but for the purposes of the Creator.
Now, we all know that the commandment to protect creation in all its diversity does not come to us with detailed operating instructions. It is left to us to translate a moral imperative into a way of life and into public policy. Which we did. Compelled by this ancient command, modern America turned to the national legislature which forged our collective moral imperative into one landmark law: the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
Lost values, fragmented creation
The trouble is that during the first twenty years of the Endangered Species Act, scientists and administrators and other well-intentioned people somehow lost sight of that value -- to protect the whole of creation -- and instead took a fragmented, mechanistic approach to preserve individual species. Isolated specialists working in secluded regions waited until the eleventh hour to act, then heroically rescued species -- one at a time.
Sometimes the result was dramatic recovery, but often the result was chaos, conflict, and continuing long term decline. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, the spotted owl was listed even as federal agencies went forward with clearcutting. Efforts to save the alligator proceeded even as the Everglades shrivelled from diverted waters. They listed California salmon runs even as water users continued to deplete the spawning streams.
It is only in the last few years that have we recovered, like a lost lens, our ancient religious values. This lens lets us see not human-drawn distinctions -- as if creation could ever be compartmentalized into a million discrete parts, each living in relative isolation from the others -- but rather the interwoven wholeness of creation.
Not surprisingly, when we can see past these man-made divisions, the work of protecting God's creation grows both easier and clearer.
It unites all state, county and federal workers under a common moral goal. It erases artificial borders so we can see the full range of a natural habitat, whether wetland, forest, stream or desert expanse. And it makes us see all the creatures that are collectively rooted to one habitat, and how, by keeping that habitat whole and intact, we ensure the survival of the species.
For example, in the Cascades, the spotted owl's decline was only part of the collapsing habitat of the ancient forests. When seen as a whole, that habitat stretched from Canada to San Francisco. Not one but thousands of species, from waterfowl of the air to the salmon in their streams, depended for their survival on the unique rain forest amidst Douglas fir, hemlock and red cedar.
Our response was the President's Forest Plan, a holistic regional agreement forged with state and local officials and the private sector. Across three state borders, it keeps critical habitat intact, provides buffer zones along salmon streams and coastal areas, and elsewhere provides a sustainable timber harvest for generations to come.
That's also the lesson of Everglades National Park, where great flocks of wading birds are declining because their shallow feeding waters were drying up and dying off. Only by erasing park boundaries could we trace the problem to its source, hundreds of miles upstream, where agriculture and cities were diverting the shallow water for their own needs. Only by looking at the whole South Florida watershed, could state and federal agencies unite to put the parts back together, restore the severed estuaries, revive the Park, and satisfy the needs of farmers, fishermen, ecologists and water users from Miami to Orlando.
This holistic approach is working to protect creation in the most fragmented habitats of America: from salmon runs in California's Central Valley to the red-cockaded woodpecker across Southeastern hardwood forests; from the Sand Hill Cranes on the headwaters of the Platte River in Central Nebraska to the desert tortoise of the Mojave Reserve. I'd like to say that the possibilities are limited only by our imagination and our commitment to honor the instructions of Genesis.
Let us answer
But more and more, the possibilities are also limited by some members of Congress. Whenever I confront some of these bills that are routinely introduced, bills sometimes openly written by industrial lobbyists, bills that systematically eviscerate the Endangered Species Act, I take refuge and inspiration from the simple written answers of those children at the Los Angeles expo.
But I sometimes wonder if children are the only ones who express religious values when talking about endangered species. I wonder if anyone else in America is trying to restore an ounce of humility to mankind, reminding our political leaders that the earth is a sacred precinct, designed by and for the purposes of the Creator.
I got my answer last month.
I read letter after letter from five different religious orders, representing tens of millions of churchgoers, all opposing a House bill to weaken the Endangered Species Act. They opposed it not for technical or scientific or agricultural or medicinal reasons, but for spiritual reasons.
And I was moved not only by how such diverse faiths could reach so pure an agreement against this bill, but by the common language and terms with which they opposed it, language that echoed the voices of the children:
One letter, from the Presbyterian Church, said: "Contemporary moral issues are related to our understanding of nature and humanity's place in them." The Reform Hebrew Congregation wrote: "Our tradition teaches us that the earth and all of its creatures are the work and the possessions of the Creator." And the Mennonite Church wrote: "We need to hear and obey the command of our Creator who instructed us to be stewards of God's creation."
And suddenly, at that moment, I understood exactly why some members of Congress react with such unrestrained fear and loathing towards the Endangered Species Act. I understood why they tried to ban all those letters from the congressional record. I understood why they are so deeply disturbed by the prospect of religious values entering the national debate.
For if they heard that command of our Creator, if they truly listened to His instructions to be responsible stewards, then their entire framework of human rationalizations for tearing apart the Act comes to nought.
I conclude here tonight by affirming that those religious values remain at the heart of the Endangered Species Act, that they make themselves manifest through the green eyes of the grey wolf, through the call of the whooping crane, through the splash of the Pacific salmon, through the voices of America's children.
We are living between the flood and the rainbow: between the threats to creation on the one side and God's covenant to protect life on the other.
Why should we save endangered species?
Let us answer this question with one voice, the voice of the child at that expo, who scrawled her answer at the very bottom of the sheet:
"Because we can."