Where do we go from here? Conservation can show the way

Where do we go from here? Conservation can show the way
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In the aftermath of the State of the Union and the Senate’s acquittal vote, Americans are wondering whether Congress can agree on anything this year. Health care? Nope. Immigration? No chance. Climate change? Not yet.

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill On The Money: Economy sheds 701K jobs in March | Why unemployment checks could take weeks | Confusion surrounds 9B in small-business loans 13 things to know for today about coronavirus MORE(R-Ky.) was asked specifically what this Congress could accomplish, he responded, “We’re looking at infrastructure. We’re looking at a park's bill. We’re looking at Land and Water Conservation. There are, even in the midst of the election, some things that I think we can do together.”

This answer shouldn’t be surprising. Infrastructure and conservation are two issues with overwhelming bipartisan support and actionable bipartisan solutions. Three-quarters of voters regularly say that rebuilding America’s infrastructure is extremely or very important and more than 80 percent of voters support conservation priorities, including overwhelming majorities of Republicans.

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Conservation investments in America’s wildlife, national parks and public lands, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund have quietly emerged as rare uniting issues during this divisive time.

In the past few years, Congress overwhelmingly passed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, a wildfire funding fix, a pro-conservation Farm Bill, and the Senate recently passed the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act.

\More recently, Republicans from the Senate and House, led by Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham asks colleagues to support call for China to close wet markets Justice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court Trump says he's considering restricting travel to coronavirus 'hot spots' MORE (R-S.C.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerGOP senator calls for investigation into 'mismanagement' of strategic ventilators Romney says he tested negative for coronavirus, will remain in quarantine Senate GOP super PAC books more than million in fall ads MORE (R-Colo.) and Reps. Brian MastBrian Jeffrey MastGOP congressman gets round of applause for remarks praising American strength Bipartisan lawmakers ask NIH for information on 'disturbing' studies on monkeys Overnight Defense: Lawmakers clash during Pompeo hearing on Iran | Trump touts Taliban deal ahead of signing | Trump sued over plan to use Pentagon funds for border wall MORE (R-Fla.) and Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikOvernight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill Lawmakers press IRS to get coronavirus checks to seniors Hispanic Caucus campaign arm unveils non-Hispanic endorsements MORE (R-N.Y.) joined forces to create the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus to advance constructive solutions to environmental challenges.

It’s strategic that Leader McConnell highlighted conservation. Repairing the crumbling infrastructure of our National Parks and other public lands is wildly popular — with support from 82 percent of Americans. Every year more than 500 million people visit our nation’s public lands to hike, kayak, camp, birdwatch, fish, and hunt.

The problem is that decrepit roads and boardwalks, overgrown trails, and deteriorating education centers are impairing the ability of American families to enjoy our spectacular parks, cultural treasures and wildlife heritage — leading them to spend less time and less money supporting local businesses. Led by Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP senator to donate 2 months of salary in coronavirus fight Senators pen op-ed calling for remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Some Democrats growing antsy as Senate talks drag on MORE (R-Ohio) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Hillicon Valley: Thousands of Zoom recordings exposed online | Google shares location data to counter virus | Dem senator pushes jobless benefits for gig workers | Twitter takes down 20,000 fake accounts Democrat presses Trump administration on jobless benefits for gig workers MORE (D-Va.) and Reps. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Overnight Energy: Panel gives chairman power to subpoena Interior | House passes bill to protect wilderness | House Republicans propose carbon capture bill | Ocasio-Cortez introduces bill to ban fracking House Natural Resources gives Grijalva power to subpoena Interior MORE (R-Utah) and Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Hillicon Valley: Judge approves T-Mobile, Sprint merger | FTC to review past Big Tech deals | State officials ask for more cybersecurity help | House nears draft bill on self-driving cars Bipartisan lawmakers introduce bill to combat cyberattacks on state and local governments MORE (D-Wash.), the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act creates a five-year fund to address the backlog of deferred maintenance projects in these special places. 

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Similarly, securing full, permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), as proposed by Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPoliticians mourn the death of Bill Withers Pressure mounts for national parks closure amid coronavirus White House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package MORE (D-W.Va.) and Gardner enjoys the support of 74 percent of Americans, including 70 percent of Republicans. For more than half a century, LWCF has created and supported urban and rural parks, hiking and biking trails, waterfront access and expansive wildlife habitats.

The fund is authorized to receive $900 million a year from offshore oil revenues at no cost to taxpayers but has only received that full funding twice.

Another critical opportunity is the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, led by Reps. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic Critics blast Trump mileage rollback, citing environment and health concerns Coronavirus stimulus package shouldn't leave out older Americans MORE (D-Mich.) and Jeff FortenberryJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FortenberryWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way House Democrats urge Trump to end deportations of Iraqis after diabetic man's death House Appropriations passes defense bill that would limit funds for border wall, pull US support from Yemen war MORE (R-Neb.), which enjoys more than 80 percent public support and has more than 170 bipartisan co-sponsors.

Right now, one-third of all wildlife species in the United States are at heightened risk of extinction. The bill would fund proactive, collaborative efforts at the state level to help prevent thousands of at-risk species from declining to the point of needing more restrictive protections under the federal Endangered Species Act, reducing the need for regulation and litigation and saving taxpayers and industry tens of billions of dollars. The bill recently sailed through the House Natural Resources Committee on a huge bipartisan vote of 26-6 — including a majority of committee Republicans. 

Even infrastructure legislation is advancing key conservation measures. The partnership between Environment and Public Works Chair John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic Critics blast Trump mileage rollback, citing environment and health concerns Lobbying world MORE (R-Wyo.) and Ranking Member Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic Critics blast Trump mileage rollback, citing environment and health concerns Trump administration rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards MORE (D-Del.) has produced two substantive infrastructure bills: America's Transportation Infrastructure Act, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE highlighted in the State of the Union, and America’s Water Infrastructure Act, which passed in 2018. (They’re drafting another water infrastructure bill now). 

Both of these bills thoughtfully incorporate conservation provisions, such as restoring natural defenses, like healthy wetlands and forests, that bolster community resilience, sequester carbon, reduce air and water pollution, and provide wildlife habitat.

The Transportation bill achieves significant emission reductions and improves driver safety by supporting wildlife crossings that will reconnect migration routes bisected by highways. These bills also work to deliver projects more efficiently without adversely impacting fragile natural resources.  

Despite conventional wisdom that nothing can get done in Washington, conservation can bring Congress together. As President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Of all the questions which can come before this nation … there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” 

Congress has an opportunity to show that Roosevelt’s adage still resonates by swiftly taking up these commonsense conservation priorities.

Collin O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. Jeff Kupfer is president of ConservAmerica. Benji Backer is president of the American Conservation Coalition.