My Turn: Congress, administration should invest in nature

For the Monitor
Sunday, March 26, 2017

We all depend on healthy lands and waters in New Hampshire 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 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, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of the Interior and more. Here in New Hampshire, the impacts of these cuts would be felt in communities across the state.

Conserving our natural resources is not a partisan issue, and it is not optional.

In fact, the drive by some to reduce environmental protections has little support among Granite Staters. A recent survey by the University of New Hampshire found that only 20 percent of respondents favored reducing environmental protections, while 75 percent preferred to either strengthen or maintain existing environmental protections.

The president’s proposed budget would eliminate or severely reduce funding for programs that offer technical, financial and other assistance to our state agencies, municipalities and organizations. Take New Hampshire’s Coastal Zone Management Program, which helps municipalities and to protect clean water, restore coastal habitats and reduce the risk of damage from coastal hazards.

Another example is the University of New Hampshire’s Sea Grant, which works with New Hampshire fishermen to help maintain profitable businesses while sustaining the marine resources on which they depend.

The budget would also reduce investment in clean energy, science and efforts to reduce the risk of damage from flooding.

Cutting programs that conserve our natural resources is not the answer America needs. There is a better way. Congress should instead prioritize investments in nature, and New Hampshire’s citizens can help by asking that our representatives in Washington do just that.

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. 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.

New Hampshire has received more than $150 million in LWCF funding, protecting some of our most special places – the White Mountain National Forest, Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, Saint Gaudens National Historic Site and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail – and ensuring recreational access for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities.

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 reefs and wetlands to shield coastal communities from storms, while also providing clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat and jobs.

In New Hampshire, the Nature Conservancy is working with partners such as the University of New Hampshire and community volunteers, to restore oyster reefs in Great Bay as a cost-effective approach to improve water quality, ensure future opportunities for harvest and provide critical fish habitat.

Third, the Farm Bill supports voluntary efforts by New Hampshire farmers 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.

Reauthorizing and enhancing conservation programs within the Farm Bill should be a high priority for Congress and the Trump administration.

Finally, as a part of the tax reform package it’s 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.

In the months ahead, Congress and the administration will have significant opportunities to invest in nature to provide cost-effective solutions to some of our biggest national challenges. Let’s be sure they do.

(Mark Zankel is the executive director of the Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire.)