On Earth Day, Congress should remember investments in nature pay off

Tomorrow’s Earth Day theme — Invest in Our Planet — is more than an aspiration: It’s also a reminder that since the first Earth Day in 1970, Congress has made critical investments that recognize the many benefits that nature provides to people. These investments include landmark statutes that have served to improve air and water quality, protect public lands and rivers, restore aging infrastructure and cultural resources within our national parks and forests and provide more access to outdoor recreation opportunities for all communities.  

The investments have had high rates of return, including helping to fuel this country’s $689 billion outdoor recreation economy. But there are less quantitative benefits as well, such as reducing biodiversity loss, preserving our nation’s evolving history — the good and the bad — and helping wildlife and aquatic species adapt to climate change. 

Scientific studies show that strengthening land and water protections can help to blunt the impacts of climate change while boosting local and regional economies — and people’s well-being. Healthy, intact forests, wetlands, mangroves and peatlands sequester and store carbon far better than fractured landscape does; free-flowing rivers offer needed habitat to stressed species and shuttle nutrients — and carbon — throughout ecosystems, helping to make them more resilient to climate shocks. 

To cite just two examples, Tongass National Forest in Alaska stores more than 40 percent of all the carbon held by the country’s national forests, and U.S. rivers help to transport about 200 million tons of carbon to the ocean each year. What’s more, residents of communities with ample green space and safe, equitable access to outdoor recreation tend to live longer, healthier lives than those in overly developed or polluted areas, and that in turn has a significant effect not only on people’s quality of life but also on the U.S. government’s health care costs as well. 

Investing in the conservation of land, rivers, fish and wildlife makes economic sense. Aside from the national economic output, outdoor recreation supports 4.3 million American jobs, according to 2020 data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That year, our national parks welcomed about 237 million visitors who spent an estimated $14.5 billion in gateway communities and supported 234,000 jobs; other public natural spaces also have proved to significantly boost gateway towns’ bottom lines.

Historically, strong conservation policies have helped people throughout the U.S., from owners of motels, shops and gas stations near natural areas to fishing and hunting guides; members of Indigenous communities that depend on the land and water for food and traditions; river outfitters; and employees of national outdoor retailers. In fact, a 2019 Headwater Economics study found that 16 of the top 20 highest-income rural counties in the West are those that contain or border federally protected land.

Congress is considering a number of bills to safeguard lands and rivers from California to Maine. These include the Protecting Unique and Beautiful Landscapes by Investing in California (PUBLIC) Lands Act, the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, and the York River Wild and Scenic River Act—all of which would also help people by safeguarding vital sources of drinking water, expanding equitable access to nature and helping to limit the damage from climate change. Lawmakers should pass these bills.

To complement this congressional action, states should forge ahead with their own conservation plans. One area that is yielding economic, ecological and safety benefits is the protection of wildlife migration corridors and the construction of wildlife crossings in places with a high incidence of animal-vehicle collisions. Such accidents often kill or injure motorists, harm wildlife species and cost Americans more than $8 billion a year.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in November, provides billions of dollars to improve terrestrial and aquatic connectivity projects, such as wildlife crossings and fish passages. And just this month, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the availability of $9.5 million for wildlife corridors and habitat conservation projects in seven states and three tribal nations. Across the country, states are recognizing that crossings are a wise investment. Earlier this year, bipartisan laws to enhance wildlife migration corridor policies and funding were enacted in New MexicoOregonUtahWyoming and California. Many states are working on similar policy improvements to improve aquatic connectivity for critical freshwater species. 

This Earth Day is a good moment to reflect on how investments in nature — especially those that have become federal law — have benefited Americans for more than a century. It’s time for Congress to double down on those investments to give our remarkable landscapes and waters, and all of those who depend on them for their livelihoods and well-being, the best chance of thriving into the future.

Marcia Argust leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. lands and rivers conservation project.

Tags Climate change Earth Day Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act national parks

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