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Environment and Society, Environmental Controversies

Tellico Dam, Sagebrush Rebellion, northern spotted owl, United States Fish, Endangered Species Act

Not all Americans viewed the growing government efforts to preserve the environment as positive. Some individuals believed that environmental regulations unjustly limited the rights of individuals to use their land or prevented companies from conducting business as they saw fit. This attitude was particularly strong in western states, where the mining and lumber industries employed many people.

In the late 1970s development-minded business executives and politicians in western states organized a movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. Many of them supported the election of U.S. president Ronald Reagan, who took office in 1980. Reagan relaxed environmental standards, stating that the time and expense spent complying with government regulations caused undue hardships for U.S. businesses. Reaganís environmental policies slowed a trend toward more government legislation and regulation to protect and improve the quality of the environment. Existing environmental laws remained in effect, but they were not always enforced stringently.

The Sagebrush Rebellion typified one of the most difficult issues regarding the environment: establishing a balance between economic development and environmental protection. Many people view the natural environment as a national treasure, something to be preserved for future generations. On the other hand, most Americans also want to preserve the high standard of living in the United States, characterized by high levels of consumption. The consumer culture in the United States depends on vigorous industrial output and an expanding economy to provide jobs and income. Almost all forms of economic growth have some kind of effect on the environment. Policy-makers have found it difficult to reconcile those opposing forces.

Public controversies have often emerged when environmental issues delay or cancel projects that developers claim will boost economic growth and create new jobs. For example, in 1974 the discovery of a rare fish known as the snail darter caused a four-year delay in the opening of the $100 million Tellico Dam in Tennessee. It was feared the dam would have flooded the only known habitat of the fish. Congress exempted the dam from the Endangered Species Act. Snail darter communities were later found to exist in other locations.

A similar controversy focused on the northern spotted owl during the 1990s. This rare species breeds in old-growth forests rather than second-growth forests (areas that have grown back after being cleared). In 1990s the United States Fish and Wildlife Service limited the sale of timber from areas where the spotted owl is known to nest. People in the logging industry protested, saying that the limitation prevented them from harvesting valuable timber. They compared the spotted owl episode to the snail darter controversy. Conservationists, however, pointed to the need to protect the dwindling old-growth forests, not only for the spotted owl, but also for a variety of plants and animals that live in that ecosystem.

During the 1980s and 1990s, sustainable development has emerged as the most acceptable approach to environmental problems. Sustainable development advocates policies that would allow for economic growth while at the same time minimizing damage to the environment. However, at the close of the 20th century, those who promote development and those who support environmental preservation were still working to find an acceptable balance between these contradictory goals.

A variety of organizations and community groups have taken the lead in implementing sustainable development programs in the United States during the 1990s, some of them national in scope and others local. In one of the countryís first significant efforts at sustainable development, the nonprofit Ford Foundation provided grants to communities on Virginiaís Eastern Shore, a rural peninsula of about 45,000 residents located between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The money funded programs to develop long-range economic planning, promote jobs with minimum impact on the environment, and protect the wildlife and ecosystems of the regionís barrier islands and coastal marshes.

At the same time, environmentalists on the peninsula worked closely with businesses and residents to ensure that economic prosperity and social services were not sacrificed by efforts to preserve the environment. For example, they promoted the construction of a new industrial park in the port of Cape Charles for companies dedicated to minimizing waste and pollution in their production processes. Community groups also purchased low-income rental units in rural areas and upgraded the unitsí antiquated plumbing systems in order to decrease the impact of pollution from sewage.

The tax-exempt Sonoran Institute has provided assistance to communities in the western United States. Established in 1991 with technical and financial assistance from World Wildlife Fund, the institute works mainly with cities and towns adjacent to protected lands. The institute assists these communities in identifying local goals for development and environmental preservation, drawing up specific timetables and plans, and monitoring progress toward their goals.



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