By Jim Labbe of Portland, Oregon. Jim is Portland Audubon's urban conservationist, and worked on natural resource conservation in both rural and urban Oregon for over twenty years.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Especially in Oregon where the products of civilization - if left idle and unused - are quick to be over-run with an onslaught of mosses, lichens, grasses and other encroaching vegetation. Our marvelously verdant Oregon landscape has remarkable beauty in its unyielding green. It imparts us with a healthy awareness of the impermanence of human creations in the face of an ever changing, all encompassing, and ubiquitous natural world. At least those of who haven't totally lost touch with that natural world.
Last Thursday there was clearly a vacuum to be filled in heads of the Oregonian editorial board. The board chose to pick out $400 million for habitat restoration as an example of something in the federal stimulus package that "would startle anybody who thinks of stimulus as government spending on roads, bridges, and infrastructure." Talk about startling.
How is putting people to work restoring the environment not rebuilding our nation's infrastructure? How is it not economic stimulus? One seriously wonders where the Oregonian editorial board has been the last two decades. Did they miss the fact that our economy no longer relies on natural resource extraction? Have they noticed that our economic future increasingly depends on the State's natural beauty, quality of life, and livability to attract and retain skilled workers and capital in knowledge-based industries?
In light of the economic and environmental changes facing the Oregon and obvious links between environmental quality and economic health, the Oregonian's off-hand comment is at best myopic; at worse it is retrograde.
There may be legitimate questions regarding the best way for the federal government to invest in ecosystem restoration as economic stimulus. We should be concerned that this investment will go to the best, highest priority projects at the local level. But unlike the billions being directed to widen highways, ecosystem restoration is the one form of economic stimulus that is largely guaranteed to help build, not squander, our nation's wealth in healthy natural ecosystems.
Economists increasingly view natural ecosystems as economic infrastructure - or green infrastructure - that provide multiple and previously undervalued services to society. These "ecosystem services" include things like provision of clean air, water and healthy habitat for wildlife and people; ecological processes like pollination or carbon sequestration; public health and safety from storage of floodwaters to slope stability and reduced landslide hazard. As the products of nature, ecosystem services are often extremely costly to replace with human engineered systems.
For example, economists recently estimated dollar value of floodplain protection and restoration along about one mile of Johnson Creek in Portland’s Lents neighborhood. Using actual damages reported after the 1996 flood, they found that conservation yielded flood damage savings of $500,000 per flood. Over $30 million could be saved over the next 100 years from the combined benefits of flood control, water and air purification, and increased property values. In many cases it is simply impossible to substitute the economic values provided by rivers, watersheds, wetlands, forests and other natural ecosystems. In short, habitat is infrastructure - green infrastructure.
But habitat restoration is also smart economic stimulus. Funding habitat restoration and water quality improvements could rapidly put people to work and inject money into the economy with limited planning and permitting. This is especially the case in Oregon where we have already started a multi-generational effort to recover threatened salmon and enhance and restore the State's rivers and watersheds.
The last two decades Oregonians have steadily invested public, private, and civic resources in the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds in order to identify the most strategic actions and improvements to enhance the state's watersheds and recover dwindling fish populations. The painstaking effort has yielded lots of under-funded watershed restoration plans with thousands of labor-intensive, "shovel ready" projects. Indeed, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) has over $25 million projects that Oregonians could implement in 6-months with increased funding for environmental restoration. These projects- located across the state- frequently involve simultaneous improvements in roads and traditional "gray" infrastructure that- because of their degraded condition- are causing water quality or habitat problems. Funding environmental restoration projects in Oregon would enhance both the built and natural environments in rural and urban areas.
But that is not all. By creating demand for planting stock and design and engineering expertise, environmental restoration stimulus projects would also bolster Oregon's leading nursery-related agricultural sector and professional landscape design industry. Both Oregon's for-profit and non-profit sectors are extremely well positioned to benefit from smart federal investments in environmental restoration and green infrastructure.
Most of the country has caught the green fever for "sustainability" mostly in terms of energy conservation, renewable energy, and recycling. Oregonians have led in many of these areas. But ecosystem restoration is certainly one of the best ways we - as rural and urban Oregonians - can lead the nation toward conservation-based development that reconnects our economy, our society, and hopefully our newspaper editors to their material foundations: healthy and restored natural ecosystems.