It was a uniquely American moment and one I will never forget.
Crossing the broad James River by ferry, with my wife and kids, we were our way to the Jamestown settlement. It would be our inaugural visit to the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, in what would later become to be known as the Commonwealth of Virginia. The kids were excited as we took in the sights of the river.
And then it happened. A bald eagle soared high above our heads as if to punctuate this patriotic moment with an exclamation point. There was no mistaking this bird for anything but our nation's iconic symbol. Its stark white head, contrasting against its huge, dark brown wings. And even from afar, I could spot the sharp, bright yellow beak. The eyes, heck, everything about the bird, was fiercely searching for the next meal.
What struck me at the time was that I had been alive for over forty years and had spent a lot of time outdoors, but had never seen this majestic creature, the winged representation of our nation's freedom, first hand.
This moment could have easily never happened. This remarkable bird of prey, the bald eagle, was headed the way of so many other species and died out, at the hands of us humans. Hunting of the bird and our widespread use of the pesticide DDT nearly wiped them out in the early part of last century. Bald eagles once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in our lower 48 states were whittled down to 412 breeding pairs by the 1950's.
Then we began to take notice. Our leaders passed laws like the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty and the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act. But it took listing the bald eagle as an endangered species to really give our national symbol a fighting chance.
And the near demise helped prompt our society to begin to recognize the inherent worth of the creatures with which we share this planet. Congress embraced that concept by enacting the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Recognizing that extinction is irreversible, the United States did what no country had done before, establishing what amounts to a bill of rights for animals and plants.
Enacted in the midst of a worldwide extinction crisis that threatened the bald eagle and so many other species, the act reflected the resolve of a society mature enough to guarantee a future not just for itself but for the rest of creation, even if difficult choices might be required.
Forty years later, America continues to stand behind that guarantee. The experience of four decades has demonstrated the importance of the act's legal safety net.
Because of the act, today's children are able to experience not only bald eagles but also orcas, alligators, condors, grizzly bears and myriad other creatures as living, breathing parts of our natural heritage -- not as dusty museum specimens.
Stemming the tide of extinctions is the most important indicator of the Endangered Species Act's effectiveness, but another is the unrelenting criticism the act has faced from anti-environmental interests. They target the act because it works.
It works so well that the bald eagle can be spotted by a family, crossing a river, in full-on tourist mode. In Virginia, Minnesota, Florida, California, and throughout our great country, we can witness our national bird first hand, in the wild. And we know that this bird is not only a symbol of our freedom, but of our wisdom to protect all species and the areas that they need to survive.
To learn more about the Endangered Species Act, please visit Earthjustice.org.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post for Save the Eagles Day, which occurs on Jan. 10 each year to raise awareness and support efforts to protect the once-endangered American bald eagle. To see all the posts in the series, click here.