America’s infrastructure is crumbling.
Our roads are cracked, our bridges are unsafe and our public transportation systems are outdated. Republicans and Democrats agree something must be done to address this growing shortfall — and soon. But there’s another type of infrastructure in desperate need of help, one often overlooked but just as important to our national economy: America’s natural infrastructure.
When President Trump talks about infrastructure, he typically highlights what we think of as urban infrastructure, and that makes sense given his experience. However, our country’s natural infrastructure is just as critical to America’s success story as the things we have built.
Just as a highway provides vital connections between cities, bringing goods and people from place to place, a river is an artery fundamental to the health of a community — aside from its importance as a wildlife habitat, we depend on it to supply drinking water, irrigate farms or fuel breweries. In cities, towns and rural areas across the United States, the state of natural infrastructure is just as degraded as our man-made infrastructure.
As we have seen time and time again, when our natural framework is not kept up to standards, communities and the economy suffer. Raging wildfires scorch adjacent neighborhoods. Extreme storms pummel coastal towns. Algal blooms and toxins contaminate drinking water supplies.
That’s why we need investments in our country’s natural foundation — healthy and resilient forests, coasts, wetlands, rivers, working lands and other open spaces that support people and wildlife. Just as strong, up-to-date transportation infrastructure is essential to America’s manufacturing economy, our outdoor economy and rural communities depend upon a healthy natural infrastructure.
The oft-overlooked outdoor economy supports more jobs than most U.S. industries. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation supports 7.6 million American jobs and contributes $887 billion in economic output. From hunting, fishing and camping gear to outdoor guides and travel to our national parks, our natural treasures are a major driver of our nation’s economy, particularly in rural America.
But our outdoor economy cannot succeed unless we invest in its restoration and upkeep. The outdoor economy relies on accessible public lands for hunting, fishing, hiking and more. When we invest in wildlife habitat and restore our waterways, forests, wetlands, and grasslands, we create millions of jobs in parts of our nation that need them most.
That’s why, as Congress begins to write an infrastructure bill, we must think beyond roads, bridges and airports and support investment in America’s natural framework. Based on the following principles, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) believes we can maximize jobs created and revitalize America’s outdoors.
First, strong, self-sufficient and resilient local economies depend upon healthy natural resources, abundant fish and wildlife populations, access to public lands and natural defenses that protect communities from storms and floods. Investments in these natural resources will support millions of new American jobs.
Second, if public resources are taken out of the ground, some of the monetized value should be put back into the ground through investments in conservation and natural infrastructure.
Third, all communities should have access to clean, abundant water and healthy natural resources regardless of ZIP code. And proactive, collaborative investments in these natural systems reduce the need for regulatory approaches to achieve similar outcomes.
Finally, our nation can have both healthy natural resources and a thriving national economy. It is imperative that infrastructure project planning meets our nation’s environmental standards through an efficient review process.
As Congress debates a major infrastructure investment, NWF urges Congress to include investment in natural resources that will support and bolster the outdoor economy. As such, we recommend that a minimum of 5 percent of any infrastructure package be invested in natural resource conservation, and 5 percent be invested in clean water infrastructure.
Infrastructure is more than the roads we’ve paved, the tracks we’ve laid and the power lines we’ve installed. It’s the rivers and lakes we swim and fish. It’s the forests we hike and hunt. It’s the vistas we visit, which bring travelers from across the Earth to enjoy the wonders of America’s wildlife.
It’s the prairies and grasslands that serve as a breadbasket to the world and provide habitat for innumerable species. Our natural infrastructure is the land we live on, and it’s that foundation that supports the American Dream.
It deserves our investment.
Collin O'Mara is the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
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