25 years of looking for the unexpected

Over the past quarter-century, the magazine has published more than 2,000 major articles. Starting below is a birthday sampler that revisits and updates one story from each year, adding here and there a few brief reflections on just what it all means

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1970 -- From elephants to red wolves to bald eagles, the trials and triumphs of endangered species

It was a sure sign of things to come when our first issue took up the fate of the Ceylon elephant, whose numbers in the wild had by then fallen from 40,000 to just 3,000. During the next two decades, in story after story, the magazine reported on ways and means of saving endangered habitats as well as species.

In assessing the effects of the Endangered Species Act, which first became law in 1973, the public has been distracted by confrontations involving the likes of the snail darter. But over the years remarkable progress has been made. The California condor has a chance to escape extinction. So has the red wolf, whose wild population was extinct until captive breeding and release into the wild began. The eastern brown pelican and the American alligator have largely come back. International efforts seem to have saved the California gray whale. Outlawing the marketing of ivory has helped Africa's elephants hang on. Our national symbol, the bald eagle, has been removed from the endangered list, and gray wolves are once again on the prowl in the West.

It's sometimes said that the Endangered Species Act, which comes up for reauthorization by Congress this year, is an attempt to outlaw extinction. In fact, it's an attempt to mitigate the depredations of humans, particularly the destruction of critical habitats, which is still going on at an unsettling rate.

The most spectacular save yet involves the American peregrine falcon. Devastated by DDT and habitat loss, peregrines had gone extinct in the East, and in the West their numbers were down by 90 percent. Today, through captive breeding, the bird has been returned to every state in its original range.

1971 -- Solar energy: after a dazzling debut, its prospects don't seem so sunny

Like everyone else, SMITHSONIAN'S editors had high hopes for solar in 1971, but today, nonrenewable sources--coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear--still account for more than 90 percent of our energy. Hydroelectric and wood produce less than 6 percent. Solar and wind? Only 0.2 percent. The problem is cost: solar is twice as expensive as the average energy source in the USA.

1972 -- The King Tut show showed the way


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