Recovering America through the lens of wildlife

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
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Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Despite persistently divisive politics, there are three areas of broad support across the American electorate.

Americans want jobs — over 67 percent said improving the job situation should be a priority for the president and Congress this year.

Americans want better infrastructure, especially for water — 70 percent support “clean water infrastructure” projects.

And Americans want to help wildlife — 62 percent think our government is doing too little to “protect animals and their habitats.”

Congress is now considering a bill, the bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2021 that is co-sponsored by Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), which hits on each of these shared priorities: jobs, infrastructure and wildlife. Given that past iterations of this bill attracted strong bipartisan support, even among polar opposites like Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), this act just might unite our divided political parties in a common cause to stem the massive declines in America’s wildlife.

Birds are some of the biggest decliners. Research published in the journal Science showed that North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970. Half of all grassland birds are gone, including three of every four of the iconic Eastern Meadowlark; forest birds are down by more than 1 billion. But the crisis goes beyond birds.  

Across the U.S., nearly 12,000 species — including more than 700 bird species, 1,000 fish species, 300 mammals, 200 reptiles, 200 amphibians, and 3,600 plants — are identified in State Wildlife Action Plans as requiring conservation attention. Yet states and territories are starved for resources to do the work. According to a National Wildlife Federation report, the federal government spends 5 percent less than what is needed to conserve these species. 

But the bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act can be a game changer. If passed, the act will send roughly $1.4 billion annually to state and tribal wildlife agencies, ensuring that they have the necessary resources to implement projects that benefit both game and nongame species. Tribes alone will receive dedicated and permanent payments of $97.5 million annually to fund proactive wildlife conservation efforts. By funding habitat restoration, the act allocates resources to the states to prevent more species from becoming endangered so that states can avoid the costs and controversies that arise when species decline to the point of requiring federal protection. Even better, the act will use a funding apportionment formula that delivers additional funding to states with high numbers of federally listed species, in order to boost endangered species recovery.

The act also delivers dividends to people. Most restoration projects expand and improve green infrastructure that creates a healthier environment for humans, too. The 2017 State of the Birds report showed how the same restored wetlands and grasslands that provide habitat to wildlife also protect human communities from floods and keep water supplies clean. For example, Farm Bill conservation programs that created wetlands for waterfowl in the Prairie Pothole Region (America’s “Duck Factory”) also added 150 billion gallons of floodwater catchment capacity in the Dakotas and Montana. Likewise, in Illinois farm counties, Conservation Reserve Program lands that created Henslow’s Sparrow habitat also provided $900 million in flood control, groundwater recharge and water purification services. 

These kinds of projects provide literal paybacks, too, to the people living in the communities where habitat is restored. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is expected to boost local economies by funding restoration work that generates $2.50 in local economic activity for every federal dollar in funding. And more than 33,000 jobs will be created every year in communities where Recovering America’s Wildlife Act dollars are invested. Communities will realize these benefits quickly; the shovel-ready projects outlined in State Wildlife Action Plans are ready for implementation.

The act does all this without triggering any new taxes because it redirects just 0.03 percent of existing federal revenue. It makes good economic sense, which isn’t surprising given that the plan was built by business executives with input from industry (Shell Oil Company, Toyota, Hess Corporation) and conservation groups (Ducks Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). That’s why the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act enjoys such strong bipartisan support.

Jobs, infrastructure, wildlife — it’s the legislative equivalent of baseball, hot dogs and apple pie. Congress should act soon on the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act to deliver an easy win on the key issues that unite Americans. 

Amanda D. Rodewald is the Garvin professor and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment at Cornell University and faculty fellow at Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.   Views expressed in this column are theirs alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

Tags Adam Schiff Bipartisan legislation birds at risk of extinction Conservation Debbie Dingell Elise Stefanik Infrastructure Jeff Fortenberry Jobs Recovering America's Wildlife Act wildlife
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