Opinion | Divided Congress finds much common ground, traction on conservation

Andy Buchsbaum

Andy Buchsbaum is the national Vice President for Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation and an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Law School. He previously directed NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Center in Ann Arbor.

This news flash may be shocking: Things in Congress aren’t quite as bad as they seem. Yes, Congress and the rest of the country are deeply polarized on impeachment; yes, the national pundits are at each others’ throats on health care, Iran and immigration; yes, potential voters are already entrenched in their pro-or anti- Trump camps for the 2020 election, incapable of listening to the other side. 

But there are oases of calm, of rationality, and even of unity within the political firmament – and within Congress itself. Standing out among these is conservation.

You might also be surprised that an environmentalist like me working for a conservation organization like the National Wildlife Federation would have anything good to say about a Congress that has been too divided to pass major legislation on climate change or clean water protection or PFAS or endangered species. But here’s a secret: Despite those harmful actions and inactions, this Congress has gotten a lot done for conservation. And they’ve done it in a very bipartisan way — coming to consensus, listening to and acting on the best science, and sharing ownership and credit.  Consider the following:

  • This spring, Congress passed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act -- named for Michigan’s late congressman, the most effective champion of conservation in the history of the U.S. Congress, and championed by his widow, Rep. Debbie Dingell.  The Act is a historic package of legislation that included the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (hundreds of millions of dollars annually to purchase and protect important habitat), the passage of the WILD ACT (protecting vulnerable wildlife, addressing invasive species and combating illegal poaching), and the protection for millions of acres of land and hundreds of miles of rivers. 
  • Last year, Congress passed the most conservation-enhancing Farm Bill in decades. The Farm Bill gets little public coverage, but it may be the most impactful land conservation law in the nation. It creates incentives for conservation on private lands — forests and fields — across the country. Confounding all expectations, the 2018 Farm Bill funds the placement of million acres of farmland into wetlands, grasslands, and conservation easements and creates incentives for enhanced conservation practices on millions of acres of private working farms and ranchlands. The Farm Bill also includes special provisions to fund regional on-the-ground projects that will help protect and enhance special waters such as the Great Lakes. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow negotiated the deal that brought in these conservation gains.
  • Yes, there’s a nasty partisan debate around climate change—but there also are areas of agreement that are getting traction because the majority of Americans want to see action. Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have joined to champion and in places pass measures spurring research and deployment of clean energy and carbon removal strategies that should result in real climate emissions reductions. Others are lining up to support climate resilience policies and climate-friendly infrastructure, while big-ticket items like a carbon fee continue to look more bipartisan on and off the Hill due to state and corporate leadership.
  • Last month, and thanks to advocacy by Rep. Debbie Dingell, the House Natural Resources Committee overwhelmingly and by a bipartisan vote passed Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would dedicate  $1.3 billion annually to wildlife agencies to protect and restore at-risk wildlife populations. This bill would be perhaps the most consequential wildlife law in over a generation. It’s headed to the House floor, where it has 157 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.
  • And then there’s the Great Lakes. Despite funding for Great Lakes restoration having been slashed and zeroed-out by the Trump Administration for three years, each year the Republican-led Congress fully funded the program at $300 million. This year, the administration put the Great Lakes back in its budget and Congress actually increased funding for the program to $320 million. That’s meant over 4,000 on-the-ground restoration projects for the Great Lakes.

There’s a lesson in this: Conservation is an inherently unifying force. People treasure nature, they want clean water and air and land, they want their children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy the same outdoor experiences they did as a child. Conservation transcends party and ideology. Voters feel it, Congress knows it and its record proves it.

Yes, even in conservation there are strong disagreements – the successful legislative actions have largely been around conservation funding and land protection, not regulation. But the common bonds we’ve forged around clean air and water and access to land can be the basis for beginning to heal the deep divisions in our country. The leaders in Congress who have brought us together around the cause of conservation – so many of them common-sense Michiganders, like Representative Dingell and Senator Stabenow—can help bridge the divides that face us on other issues. 

Let’s make that happen. There are plenty of forces – media, pundits, opportunistic politicians—trying to pull us apart. We can do better. Let’s find the places where we agree and expand on those. Saving the planet while healing civil society – what better gift for the new year?

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