A surprising winner in Biden’s infrastructure bill: biodiversity

The $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure package signed by President Joe Biden on Monday will not go down in history as a milestone in the United States’ efforts to control the climate crisis. An analysis of the Princeton University bill, which President Joe Biden initially hoped to deliver on many of his campaign climate-related promises, showed that the policies in the package would only reduce by one. hair the US annual carbon emissions by the end. of this decade, if they make the slightest difference. But the bipartisan infrastructure bill could mark a turning point in how the United States views an equally important environmental problem that many scientists say is the flip side of climate change: biodiversity.

There is an ongoing extinction event in the United States and most other parts of the world. The flora and fauna of the planet are compressed by development, agriculture, deforestation, overfishing and rising temperatures. A million species could become extinct, many of them within decades, because of humans. “The health of the ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating faster than ever,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in 2019. the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life around the world. Guaranteeing a liveable planet does not only mean keeping global warming below a certain threshold; it is also to stem the disappearance of species and strengthen the planet’s biodiversity.

For more than a century, infrastructure projects in the United States have largely sought to thwart nature, not encourage it or coexist alongside it. The Army Corps of Engineers walled the Mississippi River with levees to prevent flooding along its banks, inadvertently cutting Louisiana’s complex network of wetlands from its lifeblood and accelerating the rate of land loss in the ‘State. Federal Highway Administration highways help Americans get from point A to point B, but they cut millions of square miles of habitat in half, and cars on those highways kill hundreds of millions of people. animals every year. Bureau of Reclamation dams generate hydroelectricity, but they prevent fish from moving upstream to spawn, and entire species of salmon are on the verge of collapse.

“If you look at the army corps and even the way we build highways and stuff, it’s almost all fighting against nature,” National CEO Collin O’Mara told Grist. Wildlife Federation. “This bill uses nature as an ally instead of an obstacle.”

Biodiversity experts told Grist that by passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill, U.S. policymakers took an important step to stem the loss of the country’s species and, perhaps, initiated a shift in the way way the country views the natural world. The bill does not explicitly use the word “biodiversity”, but it will put $ 40 billion in funding pots that will go to projects related to natural infrastructure and conservation. Not all of the money allocated to these projects will benefit biodiversity, but much of it is aimed at more carefully managing the natural world and protecting habitats.

“Maybe they’re not talking specifically about biodiversity, but they’re talking about a lot of programs that will benefit biodiversity by improving vegetation and habitat and hydrology and sediment movement,” Rusty Feagin, professor of ecology, conservation biology and engineering at Texas A&M University, said Grist. “There’s a ton in there.”

The biodiversity-friendly financing of the package includes:

  • $ 350 million for a new grant program to help wildlife navigate existing road infrastructure through overpasses, underpasses and fences.
  • $ 8 billion for flood resilience and forest fire prevention and management.
  • $ 130 million a year to regrow some of the trees lost to forest fires.
  • Over $ 15 billion to reclaim abandoned mines and cover orphaned oil and gas wells, sources of pollution that affect wildlife, people and the climate on federal lands.
  • $ 800 million for a grant program focused on the removal, replacement and restoration of old culverts – tunnels or drains that channel water – that are often barriers to fish and other aquatic life.
  • Approximately $ 1.5 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency’s geographic programs to conserve the ecosystems of the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, Delaware River Basin, and Klamath River Basin.

The bill is the largest conservation investment in U.S. history – on par with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was responsible for planting 3 billion new trees, and larger than the RESTORE Act of 2012, which directed billions of dollars in ecosystem funding as part of a federal settlement with BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The scope of the bill’s ambition is no accident – wildlife groups, conservation nonprofits and even hunting associations pressured Biden while he was still presidential candidate to take a firm stance on biodiversity protection. And when the time came for Republican-Democrat negotiations on the infrastructure deal in July, the 10 centrist senators who worked to reach a deal represented states with a strong heritage of conservation. According to O’Mara, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, a state that is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, has asked for resilience funding. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, has advocated for landmine reclamation and plugging orphan wells. Republican Susan Collins of Maine, the most forested state in the United States, was a big supporter of forest finance.

“There was more commonality on investments in resilience than on standards and regulations,” said O’Mara. “This was where the common ground was between the original 10 negotiators. The resulting bill married infrastructure and conservation in a way that had never been done before in the United States.

“This is a significant improvement over the status quo in that traditional highway bills, traditional water resources development bills, barely recognize the importance of wildlife,” he said. told Grist Brett Hartl, director of government affairs at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We are finally seeing a recognition of the need to make these investments. ”

Perhaps the bill’s most significant contribution to biodiversity protection is the way it reframes the conversation about infrastructure in the United States in general. “If it was 20 or 30 years ago, and you had this bill, you wouldn’t have any of that in there, it would be just like crap. Here’s the money for the roads, build a bunch of roads, ”Feagin said. “At least now we come to a point where we are wondering, ‘OK, how can we do these things to repair the damage that we have already done or how can we stop doing the damage? “”

The extinction crisis will not be solved with a single infrastructure bill. All of the experts Grist spoke to agree that there is still a long way to go. There is more money earmarked for endangered species in the Build Back Better Act, the second half of Biden’s agenda that is currently tied to congressional negotiations.

Regardless of what happens to the Build Back Better Act, Feagin believes the infrastructure package will go down in history as a crossroads for the United States. decades, this will be a turning point in the way we conduct our economy, ”he said. “I think that will change it from an economy built to meet human needs without regard for the natural world to an economy in which we build a better world for humans while trying to maintain the foundation on which it is built, which is nature.”

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