The Next Four Years: Invest in Nature for a Stronger America

President Barack Obama speaks at his election night party Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago. President Obama defeated Repub
President Barack Obama speaks at his election night party Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago. President Obama defeated Republican challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

As we look ahead to the next four years, President Obama and Congress have an opportunity to show their leadership on an issue that will greatly benefit all Americans: the preservation of our country's natural heritage. Now is the time for our political leaders to take action to protect the natural resources that strengthen our economy, create jobs and make us more healthy and secure.

Yesterday, voters across the country agreed that conservation is a worthwhile investment. Forty-six out of 57 state and local conservation funding measures passed, for an approval rate of 81 percent. That makes 2012 one of the most successful years for conservation ballots measures ever. These measures will generate over $1 billion for land and water protection.

Federal and state governments should follow the lead of these voters and take the following actions now:

1) Invest in natural infrastructure

Nature is a smart investment -- good not just for wildlife, but for people, communities and economies.

Healthy lands and waters are the backbone of our country's agriculture, commercial fishing, forestry and outdoor recreation industries. They support millions of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity. Mangroves, reefs and wetlands can be more cost-effective than man-made infrastructure in protecting people and property from floods and storms -- hazards that are worsening in the face of a changing climate. And healthy forests filter our drinking water, control floods and sequester harmful carbon emissions.

Government leaders should fully harness the economic value of these benefits and services. They should direct public funds to protect and restore lands and waters and incentivize private investment in natural infrastructure.

2) Address the reality of a changing climate

As Hurricane Sandy made all too clear, communities are already feeling the impacts of climate change, from droughts to crop losses, to more intense coastal storms to declining water supplies and dying forests. Our country's leaders cannot put aside this problem for later. They should work now to put a price on carbon, invest in advanced energy research and development and help communities adapt to climate impacts, especially by investments in natural infrastructure.

3) Help communities conserve their lands, waters and coasts

Both the Obama and Bush administrations have supported large-scale, community-driven conservation projects. With the backing of local landowners, fishermen and hunters, these projects protect critical habitat while strengthening our communities.

To cite one example, government agencies and private landowners in Florida recently joined forces to create the new Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. Through a combination of public acquisition and voluntary conservation easements, this program will save land for cattle grazing, wildlife and recreation, while protecting an important source of water. Collaborative efforts like this can make better use of public dollars than agencies working on their own.

One of the most important actions to take is passage of the Farm Bill -- a critical piece of legislation for restoring and managing America's private lands. A strong Conservation Title of the bill will help farmers, ranchers and foresters act as good stewards of their lands and waters.

4) Finance conservation in innovative ways

At just 1.2 percent of the federal budget, conservation and environmental spending did not cause the budget deficit and cutting conservation cannot fix the deficit. But given current fiscal realities, conservation programs should shoulder their fair share of budget reductions.

But, President Obama and Congress can reduce or reverse the impact of such reductions by making better use of existing sources of funding and developing new dedicated resources for conservation. For example, full and permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund would ensure that a portion of oil and gas drilling fees are reinvested into land and water protection. Environmental fines and penalties should be dedicated to long-term conservation goals. And tax code changes can provide incentives for better stewardship of private land, reducing the need for public land acquisition.

5) Enhance America's global leadership in conservation

The U.S. has long provided international assistance for natural resource conservation. The president and Congress should sustain this leadership by continuing international conservation assistance programs. They should follow through on existing pledges to address climate change in developing countries and better coordinate U.S. conservation assistance so that limited resources are focused on achieving the highest priority goals.

President Obama and Congress have a unique opportunity to come together and show their leadership on an issue that unites the American people. As our newly elected leaders chart their course for the next four years, organizations like The Nature Conservancy stand ready to help them build on our country's bipartisan conservation tradition and sustain the healthy natural systems that underpin our economy, our security and our way of life.