Invest in Nature: A Bipartisan Solution for Congress
This month, TNC volunteer leaders—both Republicans and Democrats—traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress.
America’s natural resources are increasingly at the forefront of high-profile political disputes, from the federal budget process to the Paris Agreement withdrawal. Yet lawmakers should view investing in nature as a nonpartisan way to not only help the environment, but also improve the economy, public health and the well-being of citizens across the country. And a small investment goes a long way.
For instance, conservation programs boost local economies. Healthy soils provide 17 million agricultural jobs across the country — more than 9 percent of total U.S. employment. The outdoor recreation industry employs 7.6 million people. Forests support the livelihoods of 3 million Americans, and fisheries sustain nearly 1.8 million jobs.
As the State Director for The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, our team works to protect the state’s lands and waters so they can provide these benefits—and others—to our communities. This month, I joined more than 150 of the Conservancy’s other volunteer leaders—both Republicans and Democrats—in traveling to Capitol Hill. While in Washington, we collectively met with more than 120 members of Congress and urged them to support conservation, science and clean energy policies. I personally met with Illinois’ members of Congress to encourage them to provide robust funding for conservation and science programs and advance clean energy policies.
One important way to do this is through advocating for important conservation issues. For instance, full funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) is critical. The president’s budget proposal reduces the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget by 31 percent and ends the EPA’s regional programs, including the GLRI. Since this bipartisan program was launched in 2010 to accelerate to protect and restore one of the world’s greatest freshwater treasure, GLRI funds have been invested in battling the biggest threats to the Great Lakes—aquatic invasive species, degraded water quality, habitat loss—with significant returns. Congress must set a federal budget that adequately funds the EPA’s conservation and science programs to ensure Americans have the clean air and water we need to survive and thrive.
The Department of Agriculture also faces budget threats that could harm conservation efforts. Its Regional Conservation Partnership Program, for example, needs congressional support to keep doing its good work empowering communities and supporting public-private partnerships to find local solutions to natural resource challenges. Since it was first created three years ago, more than 2,000 conservation partners have committed $1.4 billion in financial and technical assistance to on-the-ground projects—nearly two times the amount provided by the program’s federal funds. There are 76,000 farms and 28 million acres of farmland in the Prairie State. Nearly 80 percent of the land in Illinois is privately owned and Farm Bill programs provide important incentives to fight soil erosion, water contamination and habitat loss.
During my visit to the Hill, I had the opportunity to talk to representative Rep. Rodney Davis (R – IL), who sits on both the Transportation & Infrastructure and Agriculture Committees. Together, we discussed the cost-effectiveness of natural infrastructure and how these solutions work to reduce risk to both people and nature—important in rural areas and urban centers. Nature can and should be considered as a solution in discussions about infrastructure development. Like many other aging cities across North America, Chicago faces infrastructure challenges around water. The city’s sewer system is combined to collect rainwater runoff and domestic sewage in the same pipes. When heavy rains occur, the system’s capacity is overwhelmed, and sewage-contaminated waters flood basements and overflow into rivers and ultimately the Great Lakes. These events are called combined sewer overflow discharges, or, CSO’s. The costs of implementing traditional “gray” infrastructure improvements—such as new pipes and larger containment facilities—are only increasing, “green” infrastructure such as wetlands, bioswales, and rain gardens can absorb, retain, and slow stormwater runoff at a fraction of the cost. As Congress discusses the upcoming infrastructure package, they must consider the uses and benefits of nature-based solutions to America’s challenges.
Finally, Congress can still take steps to protect our nation from climate change impacts—reducing risk while creating economic benefits. For instance, sea level rise will cause property loss, and agricultural yields will decline because of extreme weather. Many practical solutions to the climate challenge — such as boosting energy efficiency, investing in renewable energy sources and putting a price on carbon emissions — will create jobs, increase consumer choices and lower costs for businesses and individuals. Congress must advance energy policies that lead us to this kind of prosperous future.
People from all walks of life and any political party can get behind smart solutions like these. At a time when political tensions are high, Congress must not forget: Investing in nature is a nonpartisan solution for improving our economy, our health and our quality of life.