A Better Way to Meet America’s Needs: Invest in Nature

03/01/2017 11:08 am ET Updated Mar 01, 2017

Media reports this week indicate that the Trump administration is considering substantial funding cuts in federal environmental and natural resource programs. Reportedly, these and other budget cuts are intended to offset increases in funding for national security. While all government functions should be scrutinized for waste and inefficiency, deep cuts in environmental programs that protect the health of our families, communities and businesses would undermine the administration’s goal of enhancing our nation’s security. We all rely on healthy lands and waters for jobs, food, security and prosperity.

There is a better way.

Conserving our nation’s natural resources is not a luxury to be cut during difficult times. It is a cost-effective investment that generates impressive returns to all Americans.

Across our country, healthy soils support 17 million agricultural jobs—about 9.3 percent of total U.S. employment. Healthy forests provide 3 million jobs and healthy fisheries support nearly 1.8 million more. And the economic benefits of nature extend far beyond direct employment. Healthy ecosystems provide vital public services, including water supply, flood protection, air and water quality, and more. As we approach the five-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, for example, we should remember that intact coastal wetlands shielded communities and prevented $625 million in flood damages.

Rather than cutting programs to conserve America’s natural resources, we should be looking for ways to invest in nature to provide cost-effective solutions to some of our biggest national challenges. Congress and the Trump administration will have significant opportunities to do this in the months ahead.

Leaders of both parties have identified infrastructure improvements as a “must” for Congressional action. Beyond the obvious need to repair and upgrade crumbling roads, bridges, dams and other built infrastructure, we can invest in proven “natural infrastructure” solutions, like restoring reefs and wetlands to shield coastal communities from storms, while also providing clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat and jobs and income through commercial and recreational fishing. The Nature Conservancy’s work along the Alabama coast to restore oyster reefs, for example, reduced wave heights by fifty percent—meaning lower risks to coastal communities from extreme storms. We are working with government agencies and leading engineering, industrial, and insurance firms to deploy this natural infrastructure solution in other vulnerable coastal communities across the country.

Nature-based solutions also help our nation’s cities solve pressing problems with aging and inadequate infrastructure. Cities like Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Detroit are reducing the need for costly upgrades to their stormwater and sewer systems by planting trees, creating more open space, and installing other innovative forms of “green infrastructure” to absorb stormwater. Rapidly growing cities like Phoenix and Santa Fe are ensuring sustainable water supplies in an increasingly arid environment by restoring forests and investing in better agricultural practices upstream to deliver more water downstream. These nature-based solutions provide benefits beyond water—they help clean the air, improve public health, and provide an enhanced quality of life in our nation’s cities and surrounding regions. Congress and the Trump administration should prioritize proven and cost-effective natural infrastructure solutions as they consider public funding and private sector incentives for infrastructure improvements.

The Farm Bill is another upcoming policy opportunity. While most know the Farm Bill for the support it provides for commodity production, many don’t know that it also supports voluntary efforts by producers to improve the health of their lands and waters. These investments in soil and water conservation by private landowners not only make farms, ranches and forests more productive and profitable, they also improve water and air quality for neighboring communities by restoring natural habitat and reducing nutrient runoff. The Farm Bill’s conservation programs also improve water use, provide habitat for wildlife, sequester carbon emissions, and much more. Reauthorizing and enhancing the Farm Bill’s conservation title should be a high priority for Congress and the Trump administration.

Congress is poised to consider sweeping tax reform proposals, which presents another promising opportunity to encourage private-sector investments in nature. Tax credits or other fiscal incentives for the kind of nature-based solutions described above would be a cost-effective way to stimulate private investments in natural infrastructure that creates public benefits. The tax code already includes incentives for the donation or sale of easements and land for conservation. These conservation tax incentives should be maintained.

Finally, Congress and the administration should maintain strong funding for conservation and science in the federal budget. These programs have not kept pace with our growing economy and population, and Americans are paying a price for it. The benefits of investing in nature described above highlight the exceptional economic value of federal conservation programs. Every year, federal funding for natural resource conservation generates more than $107 billion in revenue and 9.4 million jobs in the outdoor recreation, natural resource conservation, and historic preservation economy.

Natural resource and environmental programs make up only about 1 percent of the federal budget. Eliminating these programs will contribute little to overall budget savings and cost much to the Americans who benefit from them.

To fund conservation effectively, Congress should permanently reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This program uses non-tax dollars from royalty payments on offshore energy production to fund conservation work in every state for the benefit of all citizens—including everything from local ballparks and boat ramps to national parks and historic places. Congress should also ensure adequate funding for conservation and science programs at other federal agencies, including important international programs that we undertake with our allies abroad.

Infrastructure, the Farm Bill, tax reform and strong funding for conservation and science are four promising opportunities for lawmakers to invest in nature for the benefit of all Americans.

Conserving our nation’s natural resources is not a partisan issue, and it is not a luxury. Nature is essential to our well-being

and it offers solutions to some of the greatest economic and security challenges we face.

We should continue to invest in nature and ensure all Americans reap the returns.

“Originally posted on The Nature Conservancy’s Global Solutions site.”

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