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Upholding our conservation laws

Two international treaties dating back nearly a hundred years were invoked in the U.S. Congress, one for its intended purpose of resource protection, the other seeking to abrogate protection.
One involved a Canadian power company’s plan to bury 7 million cubic feet of radioactive nuclear waste in “deep geologic” underground caverns, less than a mile from the shores of Lake Huron. First meant to hold the waste which Canada’s 20 reactors have already generated, it would later also store their decommissioning waste. The materials remain highly toxic and must be safely shielded for 100,000 years.
Forty million people’s drinking water could be affected, and 160 Canadian and U.S. municipalities and counties passed resolutions opposing this plan. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), via language in a relevant appropriations bill, invoked the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty negotiated during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.
The senator, citing potentially “irreparable harm to the shared economic and ecological well-being of the Great Lakes,” requested an International Joint Commission review of the project, as intended in the law.
With implications closer to home, in the House of Representatives, Jeff Duncan (R-SC) sought to end enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the nation’s most effective bird-conservation law, through an amendment cutting off all funding for it.
The MBTA was passed by Congress in 1918, following the establishment of 27 bird-refuge areas, like Pelican Island, under President Roosevelt. Codifying a 1916 treaty with Canada to prevent further extinctions among migratory birds, it was later expanded through incorporation of similar treaties with Mexico, Russia and Japan.
Bald and Golden Eagle, three sparrows, Black-capped Chickadee and the Red-breasted Nuthatch are among 20 species of migration-season visitors in Washington and neighboring counties, as described in ornithologist Richard Knight’s 2008 book, “The Birds of Northeast Tennessee.”
Although the Common Raven is a year-round resident, most of the 20 species spend the summer here but overwinter in Central or South America. The Little Blue Heron is among transients usually seen only during spring or fall migration.
They are infrequent now in East Tennessee, and all have two things in common.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s 2005 survey of terrestrial species with high conservation need rated all as imperiled or critically imperiled in our state; six also show a federal endangerment listing.
They have avoided a worse fate because of the MBTA law. Audubon Society noted that, had the congressman’s amendment become law, disaster damage reparations such as for the BP oil spill in the Gulf, which killed an estimated million birds, could no longer be enforced.
The 2009 “State of the Birds” survey by the Interior Department stated a “troubling message.” In most of the (coastal, grasslands, ocean and other) habitats with which they are traditionally associated, our nation’s birds are experiencing significant decline.
For the critical landscape services they provide, in rodent and insect control, scavenging and pollination, and the inspiration they provide to people through song and behavior, the laws protecting our birds should continue to be upheld.