Conservation gains in Senate bill would help all Americans

Conservation gains in Senate bill would help all Americans
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The U.S., it seems, has entered an era in which record-breaking hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and other natural disasters are more the norm than the exception. But the news isn’t all bad. In an encouraging sign, Congress might be on the verge of helping the country manage the far-reaching impacts of some of these events: The surface transportation reauthorization proposal recently approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee contains three measures that could signal wins ahead for conservationists, local communities, and the U.S. economy. 

Specifically, the bill would invest in overdue maintenance at national parks, improve the flood-readiness of U.S. infrastructure, and increase the number of safe highway crossings for wildlife to help reduce vehicle-animal collisions. Although none of these measures is a complete solution for the issue it seeks to address, each is a needed step in the right direction.

Let’s start with our National Park System, which has a nearly $12 billion backlog of repairs — many vital to visitor safety, access to recreation opportunities, and protection of park resources. The needed repairs include outdated water, sewer and electrical systems; leaky roofs; crumbling historic structures; rotting artifacts; potholed roads; eroding trails; deteriorating monuments; and much more.

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A recent poll commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that 82 percent of Americans want Congress to pass legislation to restore our national parks. These sites support over 325,000 jobs and, like other public lands, drive significant consumer spending in surrounding communities—economic benefits that could be in jeopardy. 

The bill, called America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, would guarantee $250 million over five years for transportation repairs at National Park Service (NPS) sites and on other public and tribal lands. Although not a panacea for repairing NPS’ aging roads, bridges, and tunnels — the cost for which could exceed $6 billion —  it’s an encouraging start.   

The bill makes a significant down payment on increasing the resiliency of America’s roads, bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure to the impacts of sea level rise and increased flooding—realities that the measure’s authors, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoCentrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid GOP senators discuss impeachment with Trump after House vote MORE (R-Wyo.) and ranking member Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies Democrats give Warren's 'Medicare for All' plan the cold shoulder Liz Cheney applauds Trump for pulling out of Paris climate agreement MORE (D-Del.), agree are growing threats to our economy and environment.

The costs of rebuilding after flood-related disasters have risen steadily in recent decades, topping a combined $845 billion since 2000. Numerous studies show that all levels of government could save enormous amounts of money by investing in disaster mitigation. In the case of the transportation sector, that could mean relocating roads out of the floodway, incorporating natural infrastructure to absorb water, or increasing the capacity of culverts. The bill dedicates $5 billion for states and communities to assess natural disaster vulnerabilities such as flooding and wildfires develop plans to address those risks, and carry out mitigation and resilience projects through a new grant program.

From hurricanes Florence, Harvey, Irma and Michael to the wildfire in Paradise, Calif., and from catastrophic Midwest flooding to asphalt-buckling heat waves, record-setting weather-related events are becoming increasingly common.

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The committee-passed bill makes an earnest attempt to promote activities that blunt the human, property, and financial costs of these events. But as committees in the House of Representatives turn to this legislation, lawmakers must improve it by requiring communities to account for and mitigate risk before they receive financial support for disasters. 

The bill also dedicates $250 million to facilitate safe passage for wildlife across roads and highways while improving driver safety.

For 15 western states plus Texas and the Dakotas, an annual average of 33,571 vehicle collisions with wildlife kill 200 people per year and account for $1.16 billion in costs to families, governments, and insurers. Researchers estimate that these accidents also kill more than 176,000 wild animals annually. 

One solution: Safe passage crossings. The construction of wildlife overpasses and underpasses along Colorado State Highway 9 resulted in an 89 percent drop in vehicle-wildlife collisions in the 2017-2018 winter compared to the average over the five years before construction, while allowing 16,238 mule deer safe passage across the road during that winter, according to research led by the Golden, Colo.-based firm Eco-resolutions.

Similarly, crossings and fencing along U.S. Route 191 in Wyoming yielded an 81 percent fall in such crashes from 2011 to 2014, according to a report prepared by Western Ecosystems Technology Inc. More wildlife crossings, strategically placed, should further lessen the number and severity of these accidents and help preserve many of the big game species that are part of U.S. culture and identity — and of the $887 billion outdoor recreation economy

With these three provisions in the bill, Congress has an opportunity to show strong leadership on issues vital to Americans’ safety, the economy, and the long-term health of our natural and built environments — while also telling a very good news story. 

Tom Wathen leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ land conservation projects, which span the Americas from the Arctic Ocean to the tip of South America.