Improving Infrastructure to Benefit Communities—Without Harming the Environment
Improving and upgrading U.S. roads, bridges, and transportation networks; energy production and transmission systems; and other elements of human-made infrastructure is long overdue. As the new Congress begins its bipartisan, bicameral effort to pass an infrastructure bill, it’s important that it not come at a cost to the natural resources that benefit society. Instead, policymakers should view the infrastructure package as an opportunity to protect bedrock conservation laws and reinvest in America’s natural resource infrastructure.
Parks, forests, and public lands are not only an essential part of the American landscape—they are also foundational to its economy and well-being. They clean our water and air, and they buffer against the effects of climate change by sequestering carbon and mitigating natural disasters. For these reasons, any infrastructure proposals must be managed with natural resources’ short- and long-term benefits in mind.
Below are three ways that Congress can structure the infrastructure package to benefit people and foster a healthy and resilient environment.
1. Don’t allow infrastructure legislation to undermine bedrock environmental laws
For decades, a framework for weighing the effects of growth and development on the environment and natural resources has protected communities from potential harm. Bedrock environmental laws—such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—require project proponents to analyze development impacts to ensure that projects proceed carefully and modify, avoid, or halt actions that could harm the air, water, or wildlife resources. In essence, this framework protects local communities and ensures that the United States invests in less harmful projects.
It is important that these bedrock laws not be circumvented or modified. Despite calls for so-called streamlining and regulatory efficiency, these environmental laws are neither costly nor time-consuming. For example, research on consultations under the ESA—which ensures that projects do not adversely threaten or endanger species of plants and animals—revealed that they do not burden development and are generally completed within weeks.
2. Support measures that advance environmentally sound infrastructure development
Bedrock environmental laws aren’t the only policies that can make infrastructure more environmentally sound. Other tools, including some that the Trump administration has rolled back, can help offset the effects of development and, in some cases, draw private investment into conservation. One such mechanism, known as mitigation, requires developers to first try to avoid damage to the environment. When damages are unavoidable, they may invest in habitat restoration to minimize or compensate for the project’s environmental effects. Originally used to stem the loss of wetlands and streams to development, mitigation projects are now major drivers of the $9.5 billion restoration economy.
Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) detailed how mitigation can be used to manage public lands under the department’s jurisdiction to avoid, minimize, and compensate for project impacts. This gave project proponents and managers space to improve project implementation on public lands for the benefit of resource users and the environment.
Recently, however, the DOI rescinded the requirement to mitigate projects’ effects on public lands. As a result, project proponents, land managers, mitigation providers, and concerned citizens face the prospect of more uncertainty and controversy regarding project impacts on natural resources. This policy should be reinstated both to prevent conflict over projects and ensure that projects proceed in a manner that avoids, minimizes, or offsets their environmental effects.
To further efforts to mitigate damage to wildlife habitat and natural resources where development is planned, new technologies—including satellite data, geospatial mapping, and artificial intelligence—should be used to identify potential conflicts during infrastructure projects’ design phase. Project designers can use this information to site projects where conflicts are minimized or avoided. This approach has been used in the West to identify priority habitat and potential oil and gas production areas as a part of the DOI’s efforts to conserve the greater sage-grouse. This work demonstrated that energy development could proceed across much of the bird’s range without threatening the species’ existence—a valuable lesson in supporting smart development through science and technology.
3. Include funding to strengthen America’s natural infrastructure
The United States’ natural landscapes and ecosystems—including forests, rangelands, wetlands, and coastlines—represent an important part of the natural infrastructure that is as essential to the health of the nation as roads, bridges, and other human-made infrastructure projects. But they lack support relative to their value; there is a backlog of natural resource projects designed to protect endangered species habitat and improve the health and resilience of the nation’s ecosystems. Policymakers must invest in the contributions these natural assets make to communities and economies in order to ensure their future and prepare for the effects of a changing climate.
For example, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that 180 million people access their drinking water from national forests. More than 5 million of these people live in communities served by small- and medium-sized utilities that rely on surface water for their drinking water. At a time when climate-driven droughts and megafires are more common, these communities will need support to protect both homes and water supplies. And in urban areas, investments in natural infrastructure—such as parks and green spaces as well as dunes and wetlands—can help increase cities’ resilience to climate change as well as improve the health, safety, and quality of life of urban residents.
As Congress builds its package of infrastructure investments, members should focus on opportunities to benefit urban and rural communities, commerce, and the environment through sound policy and strong investments. Policymakers should also be aware that the legal and regulatory infrastructure that exists today does not interfere with improving the country’s infrastructure. To the contrary, lessons learned over the past 50 years illustrate that Americans will be better off because of these smart policies that protect communities and improve our air, water, wildlife, and natural resources.
Jim Lyons is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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