There is a lot of discussion these days about the conflicts in Washington over how to reduce the Federal budget deficit. Within this larger debate is an unprecedented struggle over the future of America’s land, air, water and wildlife. The current-year spending bill approved by the House of Representatives in mid-February contained deep and disproportionate cuts to a wide range of environmental and conservation programs. It is now up to the Senate, the House and the President to determine a final spending plan for this year. At stake is nothing less than the longstanding bi-partisan commitment this country has made to pass along a clean, safe and beautiful environment to our children.
While The Nature Conservancy believes that environmental and conservation spending should shoulder a fair and proportional share of the budget reductions needed to address the budget deficit, as I looked over the lists of cuts proposed by the House, I could not help but think back nearly 40 years to the beginning of the modern environmental and conservation movement. It seemed to me that our country must be forgetting what things were like in the U.S. then, and forgetting, as well, the critical value of conservation and environmental protection to regular people.
In the early 1970s, just after the first Earth Day, I was the City Planner in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, an old textile mill town on the banks of the Blackstone River — the first industrialized river in America. As it flowed through the center of Woonsocket, the Blackstone was little more than an open sewer—brown and foul-smelling. Its banks were strewn with accumulated refuse. It was often tinged red or yellow by the barely-treated effluent of textile dyeing plants. On hot days the air in our neighborhood was heavy with chemical odors. In this and other New England communities the careless disposal of toxic waste in fields and woods exposed people to levels of risk that would take years to discover.
To escape from crowded neighborhoods of three-decker tenements, Woonsocket’s families went to worn out local parks and to Rhode Island’s crowded state parks and beaches, many of which had not been expanded or upgraded for years. Fathers took their kids fishing or hunting to the ponds and woods of the western part of the state. For a lot of Woonsocket’s people public parks were their only backyards.
Today, the Blackstone River’s water is much cleaner. In a turning point in the mid 70’s thousands of citizens showed up one weekend to haul waste from the river’s shoreline. The Blackstone Valley is now a National Heritage Corridor created through local initiative with the assistance of the National Park Service to recognize its important industrial history, to restore its natural features, and to stimulate economic development. Toxic air pollution and toxic chemical dumping are gone. Local and state parks and public access to Rhode Island’s graceful coastline have been expanded and improved with assistance from the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The Forest Legacy Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has helped to protect forests and wetlands in western Rhode Island particularly along streams and ponds important for fishing and hunting.
Sadly, the long term decline of manufacturing in Rhode Island and the rest of New England, which began well before the onset of environmental regulation, has continued, thus making quality of life, tourism and recreation even more important to the state’s economy.
The deepest cuts and spending restrictions in the House bill focus on investments in clean water and protection of wetlands; acquisition of land for conservation and recreation; protection of habitat for migratory birds enjoyed by sportsmen and nature lovers, and the protection of working farms and forests. There are also specific prohibitions against spending for specific waterway restoration projects and for efforts to reduce the rate of climate change and deal with its impacts within and outside the U.S.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, for example, is cut by 90% and Forest Legacy eliminated entirely. While the savings amount to a tiny proportion of the overall budget, the impacts are devastating to the programs involved.
My experience over the last four decades of work in conservation and the environment suggests strongly that environmental threats and the failed stewardship of natural resources have real impacts on regular people that are far better addressed proactively than repaired later. Think of the dust bowl during the Great Depression, Love Canal, and the near-destruction of water quality and fish habitat in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.
Certainly there have been some regulatory excesses and too much bureaucracy, but on balance our society is healthier and far better off since we realized that rivers are not sewers, woods are not waste dumps, and that America’s most beautiful places are not parking lots in waiting but a legacy to be handed down to our children.
Yes, I’ve been to the 1970s, to the time before elected officials of both parties acted to make America’s air, land and water safer, cleaner, and more accessible for recreation in the outdoors. Trust me, we don’t want to go back there. Please join us in urging the U.S. Congress to continue funding programs that protect the natural resources we need to survive.
(Image: Blackstone River Gorge. Image credit: Flickr/dougtone. Used under a creative commons license.)