Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Opinion

Column: Investing in nature is a better way to meet Florida's needs

We all depend on healthy lands and waters in Florida for jobs, food, security and prosperity. In turn, these irreplaceable natural resources depend on all of us, including our elected officials.

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump's recent budget proposal doesn't meet that end of the bargain. It slashes some critical conservation and environment programs through dramatic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department, Agriculture Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and more. 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 Florida'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. Healthy forests provide 3 million jobs, and healthy fisheries support nearly 1.8 million more. As we approach the five-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, we should remember that intact coastal wetlands shielded communities and prevented $625 million in flood damage.

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. Here in Florida, the fund has provided more than $997 million over the past 50 years, including for Caladesi Island State Park and Honeymoon Island. Over 40,000 grants have been approved throughout the country. 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.

• 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 through commercial and recreational fishing. In Florida, our mangroves, sea grass beds and oyster and coral reefs are nurseries for economically important species including grouper and redfish.

• 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. Reauthorizing and enhancing the Farm Bill's conservation title should be a high priority for Congress and the Trump administration.

Farm Bill funding has resulted in important conservation accomplishments, including perpetual conservation easements on tens of thousands of acres in the Fisheating Creek Watershed, lands critical to the protection of America's Everglades.

• 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 Floridians 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.

Temperince Morgan is executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Florida. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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