A Better Way to Meet Washington’s Needs: Invest in Nature

Mike Stevens

Mike Stevens

By Mike Stevens, Washington state director

Washington is blessed with rich and abundant natural resources that are the foundation of our way of life, even our identity. We all depend on healthy lands and waters for jobs, food, security and prosperity. In turn, these irreplaceable natural resources depend on all of us, including our elected officials.

Unfortunately, the president’s recent budget proposal doesn’t meet that end of the bargain. It slashes critical conservation and environment programs through dramatic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA, Department of the Interior and more. Puget Sound recovery as well as other important Washington natural resources are at great risk form this proposal.

Bird's eye view of Puget Sound. Photo © John Marshall.

Conserving our nation’s natural resources is not a partisan issue, and it is not optional. Nature is essential to our well-being, and it offers solutions to some of the greatest economic and security challenges we face.

Cutting programs that conserve our natural resources is not the answer America needs. There is a better way.

Congress can instead prioritize investments in nature, and Washington’s citizens can help by asking our representatives to do that.

Nature is a cost-effective investment that generates impressive returns for all Americans. Across our country, healthy soils support 17 million agricultural jobs—about 9.3 percent of total U.S. employment. In Washington, the food and agriculture industry generates some $49 billion annually. Washington’s seafood industry contributes $6 billion annually to the Puget Sound economy, while four major coastal ports provide 1,100 fishing jobs. And outdoor recreation, dependent on healthy and abundant public lands and waters, contributes more than $21 billion to our state each year.

Canoeing on the Upper Skagit River. Photo © Bridget Besaw.

Congress and the administration will have significant opportunities to invest in nature to provide cost-effective solutions to some of our biggest national challenges in the months ahead.

Here are four ideas to get them started.

First, Congress should maintain strong funding for conservation and science in the federal budget. Natural resource and environmental programs make up only about 1 percent of the federal budget, and funding for them has not kept pace with our growing economy and population. Cutting these programs will contribute little to overall budget savings, but cost much to the Americans who benefit from them.

For example, Congress should permanently reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped protect some of Washington’s most treasured places, including Mount Rainier National Park, Yakima Canyon,  and projects in every corner of the state. This program uses non-tax dollars from royalty payments on offshore energy production to fund conservation work in every state—from local ballparks and boat ramps to national parks and historic places. Congress should also ensure adequate funding for conservation and science programs at other federal agencies, including international programs that support stability and goodwill with allies abroad which, in turn, keeps our citizens safer.

Autumn camping and hiking in the Cascades. Photo by Jacob Hall.

Second, leaders of both parties have identified infrastructure as a “must” for congressional action. Beyond the obvious need to repair and upgrade crumbling roads, bridges and dams, we can invest in proven “natural infrastructure” solutions, like restoring rivers and coastal wetlands to shield communities from storms and flooding, while also providing clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat and jobs through commercial and recreational fishing. We’ve made incredible strides here in Washington through the Floodplains by Design program to bring this kind of solution to communities across the state. It takes both state and federal funding to make these kinds of big projects possible.

Department of Fish and Wildlife and Nature Conservancy staff and others gather at the salmon restoration and snow geese habitat project on Fir Island Farms. Photo © Zoe van Duivenbode/TNC

Third, the Farm Bill supports voluntary efforts by farmers, ranchers and foresters to improve the health of their soils and waters, not only making their lands more productive and profitable, but also improving water and air quality for neighboring communities by restoring natural habitat and reducing nutrient runoff. Here in Washington for example, Farm Bill funding is supporting vital work to help Snohomish County hold on to both wild salmon and local farms. Reauthorizing and enhancing the Farm Bill’s conservation title should be a high priority for Congress and the Trump administration.

Finally, as a part of the tax reform package they are likely to consider, Congress can enact tax credits or other fiscal incentives to stimulate cost-effective private investments in natural infrastructure that creates public benefits.  

We invite our fellow Washingtonians to join us in using our “outside voice” to speak up for nature by encouraging our representatives to take advantage of these promising opportunities to invest in our nation’s lands and waters – and bring benefits to all of us.