My job at The Nature Conservancy is to convince Congress and the executive branch of government that conservation is important. It is an exhausting and challenging position these days because the future of our country’s natural resources is being threatened by actions unfolding in the Congressional budget process.
So a few weeks ago, just after the House of Representatives passed its version of legislation approving a Federal government budget for the current fiscal year, I escaped from Washington to Rhode Island for the weekend. I woke up on a chilly and cloudy Saturday morning, got some coffee and went outside to split firewood. The small stream nearby, swollen by runoff from melting snow, made a pleasant sound. I took a deep breath, picked up the splitting maul and went to work. Wham, wham, wham! I started with smaller logs, then used steel wedges on the larger pieces.
I looked down. The force of the blows had caused my wedding ring to dig into my finger and blood was running down my hand. Wham, wham, wham! I thought about the late-night budget votes in the House that had zeroed out or drastically reduced funding for a bunch of longstanding and effective conservation and environmental programs. These cuts represent a tiny proportion of the Federal budget, but the programs that would be lost had given poor states, like Rhode Island, money to buy up precious shorelines for public use, had created national parks and wildlife refuges across the country, protected wetlands for waterfowl, managed game and non-game wildlife, saved endangered species, and cleaned up dirty air and polluted water. All this and much more was done in good times and bad with leadership from both Republicans and Democrats.
So why, now, is our country’s longstanding conservation tradition being so threatened? (And this is not a one-time problem—the level of funding set for 2011 will affect conservation in America for years to come).
The logical answer might be that the views of the voters have changed—that they once cared about the environment but now they don’t, so their elected representatives are reflecting those opinions.
Except a just-released poll, sponsored by the Colorado College, State of the Rockies Program and done by a team of Republican and Democratic pollsters, reveals that, among voters in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, the opposite is true:
- Only 11% of voters say environmental laws are too strict while 66% say they should be strengthened or better enforced
- 87% believe having clean water, clean air, natural areas and wildlife is extremely or very important to the quality of life in their state
- 88% would rather spend free time outdoors than in a city
- 84% agree that even with state budget problems, we should still find money to protect land, water and wildlife
- 70% consider themselves “conservationists” and that figure holds for those who identify themselves as Tea Party members
- And 77% feel that we can protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs at the same time without having to choose one over the other
Lest one think that this poll is not representative of the country as a whole, a fall 2009 nationwide survey conducted by the same bi-partisan team (at the bottom of the recession) found that 65% of voters supported the idea of a new program for land conservation in America and that virtually the same percentages identified themselves as conservationists and believed that we can have both strong protection of our environment and a strong economy.
In the 2010 elections 83% of state and local conservation referenda on the ballot were successful including a measure in Iowa in which citizens voted in favor of increasing their own taxes to ensure long term restoration and conservation of Iowa’s natural resources.
What gives here? Conservation clearly remains very important to Americans, so it seems that some folks elected on the premise that they are really listening to the people aren’t hearing what the people are saying, at least not on the subject of conservation.
How do we fix this misunderstanding? First, right now citizens all over America must raise their voices in opposition to drastic budget cuts to environmental and conservation programs for 2011 so that the Senate and the Obama Administration will hold the line against the elimination of protection for our air, land and water. Of course conservation and environmental spending can and should shoulder its fair share of the need to reduce Federal spending, but zero is not a fair share. Then we must foster a new recognition among elected officials that conservation is not a special interest but of critical importance to the health, economic well being and quality of life of people in both rural and urban America.
None of this will be easy, but, like putting up wood in the spring for the winter to come, it is about thinking ahead, about recognizing that unless we care for forests and waterways, wetlands and ocean coasts, fish and wildlife there will be no wood, no other natural resources to sustain our lives and lift our spirits in the cold times that always lie ahead.
(Image: Firewood. Image credit: massmatt/Flickr via a Creative Commons license)