"We need to save ourselves," said Melissa Coulam, amid the screeching and chirping of exotic birds at Hogle Zoo. "If we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves."

Highland High School student Coulam joined several fellow students and activist Parker Blackman at the zoo Tuesday to celebrate the 20th birthday of the Endangered Species Act - and to call upon Congress to reauthorize and strengthen the act.The students are members of H.O.P.E. (Highland Organized for Planet Earth), a group that aims to educate students about environmental issues and provide an outlet for activism. The zoo was picked for the celebration/press conference because it seemed a logical choice.

Blackman, the Western States field organizer for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said the "visionary" act has produced good results throughout the United States, including Utah.

Under the act, Blackman said the gray whale population in California has doubled, Illinois' four endangered wildflowers are stable and there have been dramatic improvements in the plight of the bald eagle. In Utah, the Rydberg milk-vetch, a native wildflower, has been recovered and is no longer on the list, the once-endangered Utah prairie dog now is classified as threatened and there are two breeding territories for bald eagles.

"But for all of these success stories, there are problems with the act and a serious need for improvements," Blackman said. "There is currently a backlog of approximately 3,000 candidate species waiting to be listed as either threatened or endangered, some of which have been waiting for close to 10 years."

Utah has 190 species that are candidates for protection.

Two amendments to the act that currently are pending in Congress would serve as preventive measures that would protect species before their situation becomes critical, he said.

Blackman said U.S. Rep. Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, has agreed to co-sponsor the amendment in the House, but there has been no word from U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.

He and the students urged Bennett to support the amendment, and they displayed 300 postcards signed by Utahns also asking Bennett to support the measure. "It's not just environmentalists. It's people all over the state of Utah," Blackman said.

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Student Becky Green said it is important to act now because 500 species have been wiped out in the past 200 years.

"We don't want to wait until a species is close to becoming extinct," Green said. "We feel it is important to protect species when they show signs of declining in numbers."

Student Alicia Elston added, "We need to pay more attention. If the animals are gone, you're not going to get them back."

Student Celeste Christensen agreed. "This is the only place we're ever going to live, unless we move to Mars. We have to protect it because it's such a beautiful place."

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