Top 5 Pieces of Environmental Legislation

The peregrine falcon. The key deer. The grizzly bear. The red wolf. No, this isn't a character lineup for the next Dreamworks animated movie. It's a fraction of the hundreds of species whose populations have increased because of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

"It is one of the few laws that expressly values non-human life," says Peter Galvin, conservation director, Center for Biological Diversity.

In a sense, the ESA can be traced back to June 20, 1782, when the Continental Congress voted to make the bald eagle the symbol of a nascent country. America's founding fathers chose a bird of majestic beauty and great strength—and which would be on the precipice of extinction (thank you very much, DDT) a little more than 150 years later. Enter Congress, which passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940.

Under this heightened consciousness, Congress acted fast three decades later when another bird, the whooping crane, flew too close to the edge of extinction.

Galvin says that the greatest success of the ESA—signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 28, 1973—is that "no species has gone extinct after being listed."

In simple terms, the act contains two classifications—endangered species and threatened species. The first are at the brink of extinction now. The latter are likely to be at the brink in the near future.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all of the act's protections are provided to endangered species. Many, but not all, of those protections also are available to threatened species.

Marine Mammal Protection Act Was First Law to Mandate Ecosystem Approach

The Environmental Protection Agency's sister law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, was signed in 1972, and was the world's first law that mandated an ecosystem approach to marine resource management.

Today, the primary threat to the ESA has been there from its inception: pushback from well-funded land development and property rights activists.

"The future is better funding, more adequate enforcement, and more proactive efforts to get ahead of the curve," says Galvin.

Montreal Protocol

Signed in 1987, revised seven times, and ratified by 196 nations, the Montreal Protocol—officially known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer—has been hailed as "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date," by Kofi Anan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations.

In scientific terms, it phased out ozone-depleting substances, namely chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). This, in turn, prevents harmful ultraviolet radiation—invisible rays that are part of the sun's energy—from entering earth's atmosphere.

In layman's terms, it got rid of a bunch of bad stuff used in everyday life; CFCs were found in air conditioning systems, fire control solvents and hair spray canisters.

1.5 million cases of skin cancer. 330,000 cancer deaths. 129 million cases of cataracts. That's a tally of human suffering the world is avoiding by implementing this treaty, according to the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.

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