Historic conservation success and opportunity
Conservation Northwest / Jul 07, 2020 / Habitat Restoration, Legislation, Public Lands, Restoring Wildlife
Legislation moving through Congress offers optimism for the economy, public health and conservation.
By Mitch Friedman, Executive director
We all know we’re living through a historic time. But did you know that amid the trauma related to public health, economic fallout, and the struggle for racial justice, we’re also experiencing historic conservation success and opportunity?
I don’t want to sugarcoat or obscure horrific environmental news, of which there’s plenty. For instance, the Trump Administration is taking advantage of the dire state of affairs to ram through dangerous environmental deregulation. But as appalling as the setbacks are, they are exceeded in extent by some of our progress.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 73-25. The bill, which will pass the House in late July and, in all likelihood, be signed by the President, provides full funding of almost a billion dollars per year for agencies to buy land via the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was itself permanently reauthorized just last year. Prior to these wins, the Fund (which dates back to 1965) faced annual insult of funding levels typically only half of the original intent, plus periodic battles for its continued existence. That is now behind us!
The Great American Outdoors Act also includes more than $9 billion to fix and upgrade infrastructure (roads, bathrooms, etc.) in our national parks and wildlife refuges. How did such a historically generous bill pass the Senate in this era of congressional dysfunction? Partly because it provides needed economic stimulus. Not only are there thousands of needed jobs in fixing park infrastructure, but Congress has also become aware of the importance of nature and our public lands to both public health and the economy through outdoor recreation. Furthermore, perhaps conservation is regaining its stature as bipartisan common ground, at least as an election nears.
So, what’s next? Green stimulus. Responsible voices across the political spectrum of economists are clamoring for Congress to pass more spending. The House of Representatives passed its $3.5 trillion HEROES Act to help states, cities, citizens and our overall economy. This epic bill is waiting for Senate action. Our state of Washington finds itself with a revenue shortfall of perhaps $7 billion over the coming three years, which makes our legislature eager for Congress to move the HEROES Act forward so we can avoid state budget cuts that would greatly add to jobless rolls and impact vital public services.
But the House isn’t stopping there, and just yesterday passed another round of stimulus to follow the HEROES Act with major infrastructure. Called the Moving Forward Act, this $1.5 trillion package of authorizing bills is designed to move America forward into a more green and efficient future rather than revive antiquated and wasteful infrastructure. This means not only alternative energy but also fixing drinking water systems, protecting habitat corridors, adding wildlife crossings to our highways, recovering imperiled wildlife, and much more. A group of forward-thinking representatives signed this letter to the House leadership calling for green investments. I’m particularly proud that among the 79 signatures were those of all seven of Washington’s Democratic representatives.
The heart of the infrastructure push is transportation. Of the $1.5 trillion that the House includes in the Moving Forward Act, a third is for roads, bridges, airports, etc. In part thanks to the efforts in committee of Rep. Rick Larsen (D), of Washington’s 2nd District, $300 million of that is for construction of wildlife crossings. The Senate version of a transportation bill developed last August includes $250 million for wildlife crossings, making it almost certain that America will have many new underpasses and overpasses in a few years, reducing traffic collisions and saving the lives of drivers and animals. The bill also authorizes (for five years) the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would deliver federal funds to the states to help ailing fish and wildlife departments protect habitat and declining species.
The spending that the Moving Forward Act authorizes still needs to be appropriated, which the House will start work on next week. I feel good about these potential expenditures, as they would benefit both nature and the economy. Aggressive stimulus will shorten the recession, give people meaningful jobs, and, if done right, solve problems in our transportation, energy, and ecological systems that are dragging us down. Whatever doesn’t get funded in coming months may wait a generation or more, so we must push now for all the right actions.
Conservation Northwest is in a good position to help be part of this historic opportunity. Not only are we a respected voice on things like forest restoration and wildlife crossings, but we’re an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation, which has positioned itself as the environmental movement’s leader to Congress on the matter of green stimulus. Decades from now we may speak of the conservation victories of 2020 in the same way we do now about Teddy Roosevelt’s public lands or FDR’s New Deal agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
We will long remember the dark clouds of this period we’re living through. But perhaps there’s a green lining to them that will itself be historic.
For the wild,