As the U.S. Senate adjourns for the November elections without acting on critical conservation legislation now before it, a recent event here in Washington reminded me of the frightening decline of our country’s more than 100 year old bi-partisan conservation tradition.
At the conclusion of its annual dinner, the International Conservation Caucus Foundation—a group of Senators and Representatives from both parties interested in conservation outside the United States—honored two American environmental heroes both born in 1920:
- Stewart Udall, a Democrat, who died last March, served as Secretary of Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and then devoted the rest of his life as a private citizen to conservation and the rights of people to a safe environment.
- Russell Train, a Republican, who was Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Nixon and Ford Administrations and then devoted the rest of his life as a private citizen to protection of the environment in the U.S. and around the world, including serving as President and then Chairman of the World Wildlife Fund.
As I sat in the audience listening to what was accomplished for conservation and the environment during the public tenures of these two men, I could not help but think, “What has happened to us?”
Pending in the U.S. Senate is a bill to provide full and dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). In fact the LWCF was one of the historic legislative accomplishments recommended by President Kennedy and signed into law by President Johnson when Stewart Udall was Interior Secretary—the result of a bi-partisan evaluation of outdoor recreation in America started under President Eisenhower.
The creators of the LWCF had the prescient idea of using a small portion of offshore oil and gas leasing to support acquisition of conservation and recreation land for Federal, state and local parks, wildlife refuges and forests and for building state and local recreational facilities. And LWCF funding has increasingly been used for conservation easements.
The LWCF was promised $900 million a year, but that promise has been repeatedly broken—more than $17 billion has been diverted from the fund to other uses. So, the bill now pending and sponsored by 18 Senators, including Democrats Jeff Bingaman and Max Baucus and Republican Richard Burr, would simply require that the LWCF promise be kept in the years to come.
Also pending is a bi-partisan bill creating a National Endowment for the Oceans. This is an idea that has been around for a long time and has been recommended by two broad-based ocean commissions. It would dedicate another portion of offshore oil revenues to restoration and conservation of coastal areas and coastal waters.
It makes sense—using public proceeds from an activity that depletes non-renewable public resources to care for the ocean and coastal waters that are being affected by oil and gas extraction.
And the third measure is simply the idea of taking the Clean Water Act fines from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and, instead of just putting this money in the Treasury, setting it aside to jump-start the long-awaited restoration of Louisiana’s critical wetlands and other Gulf coast areas. This idea received bi-partisan support in a recent House bill that included, in a somewhat different form, all three of these conservation ideas.
So, here we are: 3 pieces of legislation with bi-partisan support that, if put together, would restore the damaged Gulf of Mexico and provide the tools for the American people to conserve their land, water and coasts for generations to come. The revenue sources are set out and the costs represent a tiny proportion of the Federal budget.
In some former time, all this could have been done, but today nothing is moving. Everyone is quick to blame who is at fault. “Yeah, Bob, why don’t you show some courage, why don’t you use your blog to name names?” Okay, I blame us. I blame all of us for what’s happened since Stewart Udall and Russell Train were in the government.
The fact that citizens in America disagree about some things does not mean that they disagree about everything. In fact, numerous public opinion polls demonstrate clearly that the overwhelming majority of Americans still believe in conservation.
It’s time to get off the sofa and say so. The bills now sitting there would be passed and Congress could go home with the realization that they had done something good and lasting for our grandchildren.
“Our grandchildren” is no longer an abstraction, a rhetorical term, for me. I have 3, soon to be 4, and I worry every day about the world they will face. I cannot imagine much about what life will be like when they are the age of Russell Train, but I can be very, very sure of one thing—that they will be lost without clean air and water and beautiful places to walk in the forest and that they will judge us harshly or well by the actions we take today to save the natural resources that will be needed tomorrow.
(Image: Stewart Udall and Robert Frost walk in the woods. Source: Wikipedia.)