The Nature Conservancy submitted written testimony this week to a hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources on HR 3534, The Consolidated Land, Energy and Aquatic Resources Act of 2009. The hearing was held in the committee room along one of the long corridors of the Longworth House Office building. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco testified on the hearing’s first day.
Most likely, this hearing will go largely unnoticed outside of Washington, but HR 3534 is important. This bill is about giving the American people the means to shape the future of the land and water so critical to the health of our citizens and to the character and quality of their lives. It is about carrying on the highly successful conservation tradition that filmmaker Ken Burns calls in his upcoming film on our National Parks “America’s best idea” — in the face of a new wave of threats that could undo those conservation accomplishments.
HR 3534 would do three things to achieve this:
- Dedicate $900 million of existing offshore oil and gas revenues annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund established in 1965 for the purpose of purchasing land for Federal, state and local parks and providing recreational facilities.
- Create an Ocean Resources Conservation and Assistance Fund, also using the increasing revenues from offshore energy development, to restore, protect and care for our estuaries, coastlines and near-shore waters.
- Establish rational processes for the siting of renewable and conventional energy facilities both onshore and offshore to do the least damage to the environment and to compensate effectively for such damage when it cannot be avoided.
In this time of fiscal concern, energy development on public lands and waters would provide more than enough revenue to support these activities. If combined with tax policy and other initiatives being supported by the Conservancy, HR 3534 would be the foundation of much-needed efforts to protect whole watersheds and landscapes.
While I believe these arguments in favor of these provisions of the bill are sound, I cannot write about these things without a flood of personal conservation memories that convey the real meaning of this legislation to me.
Let me describe just one of those times — a celebration of the creation of the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in rural Alabama.
We stood at the edge of a towering stand of mixed hardwoods. The Cahaba River flowed across boulders around which bloomed, in large patches and drifts, the astonishing white Cahaba lilies. A country band played, and thunder rolled in the distance. There was the smell of good barbeque in the air, and local folks talked about the meaning of the river to them.
A group of children gathered around a Conservancy biologist on the river bank, staring wide eyed at the tiny, colorful fish he had netted from the water and held for a few seconds in his cupped hands. The Cahaba is one of the most biologically diverse rivers in America. It is beautiful. It is a source of water. It is a local landmark of great significance. It is a place to fish and canoe, but while part of it is saved, much of it is still in jeopardy.
The hope and threats surrounding the Cahaba echo those surrounding the deliberations on HR 3534, which represents a fork in the trail of our nation’s history.
On the one hand there is what old Ike McCaslin says in Go Down Moses, William Faulkner’s haunting series of stories about the destruction of the great bottomland forest of the Mississippi Delta: “No wonder the ruined woods I used to know don’t cry for retribution! The people who have destroyed it will accomplish its revenge.”
And, on the other hand. there’s the conclusion to The Nature Conservancy’s own transition proposals to the Obama administration:
While the path ahead is steep, the journey to saving America’s environmental heritage should never be thought of as a burden, but rather as the shared national privilege of passing on to those who follow us the healthy and beautiful natural systems that sustain the diversity of our native plants and animals and upon which our own lives depend.
Which trail would you take? Lasting regret or shared legacy?
(Image: Cahaba River. Credit: Harold E. Malde.)