On Friday, Congress approved a $787 billion Economic Stimulus Bill that will now be signed into law by President Obama. While the analysts are busy debating the politics of the bill and its likely impact on America’s battered economy, there is one aspect of this legislation that, thankfully, seems quite certain — it will provide unprecedented investments in restoring our country’s battered environment.
In doing so, the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 can be an important moment of recognition that our economy and our environment are intertwined, that the health of human communities depends upon the health of natural communities.
It looks like as much as $10 billion in the stimulus bill is allocated for environmental restoration and another $45 billion for energy conservation and for developing new, less-polluting energy technologies. While these may seem like moderate amounts in comparison to the total, they far exceed any previous single appropriation for these purposes. The environmental provisions of the bill do not include earmarks — that is, they don’t specify the use of funds for specific projects. But let me suggest the kinds of things the money should be used for:
- In Florida’s Everglades Ecosystem, wetlands have been ditched and drained so that they can no longer hold water and absorb pollutants in times of flood or retain water in times of drought. This threatens populated areas and estuaries in times of heavy rainfall and water supplies when it is dry. Restoring and expanding the original wetlands will bring back these important functions while also creating exceptional wildlife habitat.
- Along the Front Range of Rocky Mountains in Colorado, years of trying to suppress every fire have caused forests to grow up to unnatural densities such that catastrophic and uncontrollable wildfires threaten whole forest ecosystems, built-up areas and the watersheds of big cities. These forests should be thinned carefully such that they more closely resemble their natural condition. Smaller, more manageable fires will then be the norm and forest ecosystems can fulfill their role of taking up carbon from the atmosphere, protecting water supplies, and providing the venue for outdoor recreation.
- In coastal areas like Chesapeake Bay and the North Carolina sounds, vast reefs of oysters once filtered the water, were nursery grounds for fish and shielded the shoreline from the impacts of storms. Many of these reefs have been damaged or lost by overfishing, pollution and disease. They can be rebuilt and restocked to once again provide a livelihood for baymen and other important benefits to human and natural communities.
- And we have come to understand how excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere threatens to warm our planet at a speed that can have disastrous impacts on people and ecosystems. Energy conservation is by far the most cost-effective means of reducing the input of carbon into the air. Weatherization of homes and schools financed by economic stimulus programs can quickly and practically reduce the demand for energy and, thus, greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, such projects support just as many or more jobs per million dollars of investment as do conventional infrastructure projects, and what we have now come to realize is that they also produce ongoing “ecosystem services” — the kind of real, tangible, cost=effective and measurable benefits to society that come from healthy natural systems.
It is our hope at the Nature Conservancy that the inclusion of environmental restoration in the economic stimulus bill is not a one-time thing, but rather is the beginning of recurring investment in restoration activities that will be carried forward into the federal FY10 and FY11 budgets. These budget allocations should be based on the realization that the healthy natural systems that sustain the diversity of plant and animal species also sustain human well-being.
Our country’s resources are finite. Like it or not, our growing population and our harnessing of technology require that we act as stewards of the air, land and water upon which our own lives depend. The discussions about whether to include substantial environmental expenditures in the stimulus bill were a test of our readiness to recognize the connection between a healthy environment and long-term economic sustainability.
Thanks to Congress and the president, we passed this time. But the next exam — the decisions on ongoing appropriations for federal environmental and conservation spending — will be upon us shortly.
(Image: U.S. Capitol building. Photo: Jonathon Colman via a Creative Commons License.)