Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Revitalizing Our Communities and the Environment

By Susan Estep and Bethanie Walder

After all those fights over “jobs versus the environment,” people have finally realized that the color of money and the color of environmental protection are on and the same: green.

The emerging green economy is all the rage in political and media circles, and especially in discussions about how to fix the ailing economy while also fixing some of our energy/climate problems. But this new economy, at least as currently envisioned, is quite urban, and energy focused. What about rural America? What about forests, rivers, grasslands, and deserts that need restoration, and the economic benefits of that?

We’ve spent more than a century extracting resources from our public lands and it’s time to invest some resources back into these special places. In addition to putting rural people back to work healing the land, expanding the green economy to include restoration of our natural environment will also restore clean drinking water, hunting/fishing opportunities, rural property values and other outdoor recreational access.

People who live in rural communities can already clearly understand the connection between restoring a century-old building for a new use and reclaiming an old mine site or road in order to have clean, clear drinking water. It’s these types of activities that make up a restoration economy.

Revitalizing community assets and reclaiming natural resource assets bring benefits to workers, communities, wildlife, wildlands and water quality. The restoration economy is about creating high-wage, high-skill jobs for the environment, and getting rural communities past the old resource extraction, "jobs versus the environment" debate.

Three primary things will help create a restoration economy:
  • Rebuilding community infrastructure helps maintain vital, vibrant, welcoming communities. A well-maintained rural downtown can prompt private residents to also invest in upgrading or maintaining their private property, thus improving the overall conditions of the community.
  • Investing in projects to restore degraded agricultural lands and provide more opportunities for local farming can ensure access to high-quality, lower-cost, safe, local food that does not destroy the very land that supports that food production.
  • Restoring natural areas -- forests, deserts, grasslands, watersheds -- is an investment that will provide jobs while also ensuring that our public lands are as resilient as possible to the unknown impacts of climate change. Reclaiming unneeded logging roads, for example, provides high-wage, high-skill jobs to excavator and bulldozer operators -- the same people who helped build those roads. And reclaiming roads also restores clean drinking water, excellent wildlife habitat, and plentiful fisheries for residents and tourists alike.
Investing in restoration makes sense during this difficult economic downturn. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to put Americans back to work and rebuild local economies. As Congress discusses new economic stimulus, they should consider packages that provide jobs to people, instead of just sending them one-time “stimulus checks” to spend at big box stores. An economy built on long-lasting, well-paying jobs can be sustainable. Any future stimulus should focus on creating new “green-collar” jobs that restore our natural environment (making it more resilient to the impacts of climate change); rebuild local, sustainable, community agriculture; and retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Current discussions about green jobs, however, tend to focus almost exclusively on energy/climate connections.

But in natural areas, restoration is happening on the ground: In March, we stood atop a bluff, with about 500 other people, watching enormous excavators remove the Milltown Dam. As the excavator operators opened a bypass channel, we watched the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers run free for the first time in 100 years. The temporary channel turned into a massive river as what remained in the reservoir emptied and the dam became irrelevant to these rivers. But the Milltown Dam remains extremely relevant to the communities that surround it -- as hundreds of workers have found fulltime, albeit temporary, employment on this $100 million restoration project. The multi-year project will leave Missoula and the surrounding communities with more jobs and a stronger economy, clean water (100 years of toxic mining waste were stuck behind the unstable dam and are now being removed from the site), and restored rivers that will dramatically increase property and amenity values in the area.

It would be great to hear elected officials bring restoration into the green jobs discussion. It’s already happening, just at a limited scale. It’s time to invest in urban and rural green jobs alike and put people to work restoring and revitalizing our communities and our environment.
Estep is a member of the Women Donors Network. Walder is executive director of Wildlands CPR, a national organization working to restore healthy watersheds and rural jobs by building a strong restoration economy.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 9/08

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