At the beginning of a new century, a young president faced a financial crisis that threatened to cripple his nation. The New York Stock Exchange lost half of its value, while unemployment doubled. The president was simultaneously accused of socialism and "financial negligence" from opposing political corners.
President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt had his hands full with the Panic of 1907. But he understood that an investment in conserving land and water was an investment in America's future, and he set aside 230 million acres of public lands for conservation, more than any president before or since.
As we face a similar economic crisis today -- and the battle over the U.S. Government's 2011 budget -- I urge Congress and the White House to remember what Roosevelt called "our duty" to steward the country's natural resources and pass them on in good condition to future generations.
Healthy lands and waters generate $730 billion a year for America's economy through such activities as hiking, fishing, hunting and skiing. One out of every 20 jobs in the US is linked to outdoor recreation, according to industry studies.
Our national forests provide more than $4.3 billion in clean water each year, according to economists. New Yorkers, in fact, get most of their drinking water from the Catskill watershed. Replacing the Catskill's filtration services with a man-made treatment plant would cost around $300 million a year in operating costs. Maintaining the health of the Catskill forests is a far less expensive alternative.
But as budget negotiations continue, some have called for severe and short-sighted cuts in America's conservation programs. The budget proposal passed by the House but defeated in the Senate would have cut the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) -- a primary funding source for creating our national, state and local parks, forests and wildlife refuges -- by 85 percent. LWCF was created with bipartisan support in 1965 to offset the loss of one natural resource -- offshore oil and gas -- by using a portion of drilling fees to protect important land and water elsewhere. In addition, the budget proposal eliminated programs to protect endangered species and habitat for waterfowl.
Also being targeted are conservation programs under the Farm Bill that prevent flooding, conserve soil and help farmers restore wetlands and wildlife habitat. Funding to implement the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act also would be severely restricted. According to the EPA, the Clean Air Act helped prevent the deaths of 160,000 adults last year from particle pollution.
Investing in America's natural systems means investing in America's economy, jobs and way of life. A recent study found that every federal dollar invested in national parks generates at least four dollars of economic benefits to the public.
Americans understand the value of keeping our country's lands and waters healthy.
A recent poll by The Nature Conservancy showed that more than three-quarters of Americans believe we can continue to protect the environment while strengthening the economy. In 2010 voters in every region of the country approved some 41 statewide and local ballot measures related to land and water protection at an approval rate of 83%. For example, in Iowa voters approved an historic conservation funding measure by a 63% margin, in part because of their understanding that restored rivers, wetlands and floodplains were the best defense against the disastrous flooding that has affected that state in recent years.
There is no question that action must be taken to control the U.S. budget deficit, and one of the ways to accomplish that is to reduce government spending. Conservation programs should shoulder their fair share of reduced spending. But we should not disproportionately target conservation and the protection of our lands, water, wildlife and clean air.
Such reductions are short-sighted and will only create more expensive -- and possibly irrevocable -- problems in the future. Without public support, the iconic landscapes and waterways that have helped build our nation threaten to be unrecognizable and unproductive for our children and grandchildren.
As the difficult budget process continues, one hopes that the Senate, the House and the President will heed Teddy Roosevelt's words and respect the importance of our environment for America's future. Supporting conservation is not just about protecting nature, it's about protecting our jobs, our families, our heritage and our way of life.
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