Conservation: Red, white and blue is the new green

Posted: Dec 15, 2019

Despite what freshman Republican lawmakers would have us believe, giving a flying finch about the environment is very American.

The authors of recent proposals and bills surrounding the federal budget—which have been called some of the most anti-environmental pieces of legislation in recent history—are out of touch with ordinary Americans. They might expand their narrow agendas by reading a recently-published report to the president called “America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations” (AGO).

The surprisingly eloquent document (from the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, coordinated with a number of other agencies including the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services) is based on 51 listening sessions held around the country last summer, attended by over 10,000 people which solicited over 105,000 comments.

The report is a peek inside the minds of regular citizens, who have something important to say about their environs. These aren’t wilder-nuts but a cross-section of farmers, ranchers, teachers, kids, recreation and conservation organizations, church groups and local and tribal governments. They commented on the critical importance of open space to wildlife and to human economic vitality, physical health and spirit. They lamented becoming disconnected from the lands, coasts, rivers, forests and mountains that have shaped our national psyche.

The AGO report reminds us of our historical tradition of conservation, of how during the Civil War, President Lincoln set aside land in Yosemite Valley that would eventually become part of our third national park. President Theodore Roosevelt further defined our ethos of protection at the turn of the 20th century when he safeguarded 230 million acres of national parks, preserves, forests, monuments and wildlife refuges. Decades later, FDR was a tireless champion of conservation that put Americans back to work during the Great Depression.

In contrast is the un-American nature of the riders that Republicans glommed on to the most recent round of continuing resolutions, which are intended to fund the government through the remainder of this fiscal year. These 500+ provisions assailed the EPA and its ability to keep our air and water clean. They attacked the Endangered Species Act, wilderness designations and environmental justice in general.

Funny thing is, these so-called amendments have nothing to do with the deficit or balancing the budget. They don’t change federal spending at all. They are the actions of elected officials who have interests to protect, and environmental bones to pick. They are an attack on American’s health and well-being.

An amendment proposed by John Carter (R-TX), which passed in the House 250-177, is a good example. It would have blocked the EPA from limiting toxic emissions, including arsenic, lead, mercury and PCBs, from entering our air. This proposition came just prior to the EPA announcing its plan to set the first national standard to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from coal and oil-fired power plants.

Updating the Clean Air Act, says EPA, will “prevent serious illnesses and health problems for thousands of Americans, including: up to 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 120,000 asthma attacks, 12,200 hospital and emergency room visits, 4,500 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 5.1 million restricted activity days.” Air quality improvements will also save upwards of $140 billion per year (for every dollar spent to reduce this pollution, Americans get $5 to $13 in health benefits). The EPA is still accepting comments on the proposed rule.

What the continuing resolutions proposed to cut is not what actual, voting Americans want to lose. For example, at the nationwide AGO listening sessions, citizens roundly supported full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The LWCF is the primary source of federal funding for states and federal agencies to protect and conserve America’s national treasures and to promote outdoor recreation. It is primarily generated from outer continental shelf oil and gas drilling activities. Instead of supporting American’s desires, the House Majority’s budget bill proposed slashing the LWCF by 87 percent.

The AGO report acknowledges that, per year, this country loses 1.6 acres of forests, farms and ranches to fragmentation and development, that many of our waterways are polluted, and that air pollution and climate change present even greater challenges in the future. “Americans communicated clearly that they care deeply about our outdoor heritage, want to enjoy and protect it, and are willing to take collective responsibility to protect it for their children and grandchildren,” the report says. Instead, freshman Republican lawmakers want to take away $3 billion from the EPA and de-fund its greenhouse gas emissions regulations.

While the continuing resolutions were booted by the Senate and Congress is now back at ground zero, efforts to undercut the environment will not diminish. In the coming year, the AGO initiative will work to implement the recommendations in their report and will broaden the conversation with Americans on what we want done with this land (our land), water and air. But the report has it right when it says, “Fulfilling that promise—and the shared obligation—to preserve and protect our natural and cultural heritage for present and future generations is one of the daunting challenges for 21st-century America,” and we must remain vigilant.

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