Over the past 20 years, as oil and gas boomed and suburbs sprawled, the United States quietly lost a football field’s worth of natural area to development every 30 seconds.1 This rapid loss of nature is pushing thousands of American wildlife species toward extinction and threatening the clean air, clean water, and food supplies that every person in the country needs to survive.2
In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic recession have further exposed the costs and perils of nature’s decline. Scientists warn that the destruction of nature is increasing the risks of pandemics by making it easier for deadly pathogens—including COVID-19, Zika, Lyme disease, Ebola, and SARS—to make the leap from the natural world into the human world.3 Meanwhile, for many families, the pandemic has underscored the importance of having close-to-home public parks, open spaces, and trails to safely and affordably unwind. Unfortunately, the rapid loss of natural areas in recent decades has left many communities in America—disproportionately communities of color and low-income communities—with too few parks and recreational areas nearby.4
To safeguard America’s clean air, clean water, and wildlife; fight climate change; and provide safer and more equitable access to the outdoors for every person in America, the United States must pursue a far more ambitious approach to the conservation of nature. In particular, policymakers should—as scientists recommend—set a national goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and ocean by 2030 (30×30).5
As a first step toward a 30×30 goal, Congress should make swift and bold investments in the conservation, restoration, and reforestation of America’s remaining natural areas. By doing so, Congress can create millions of jobs in the outdoors, help family farmers and ranchers survive the recession, and stimulate rural and urban economies. This community-led conservation and restoration work can finally give every child in the United States access to close-to-home parks, abundant wildlife, a cleaner ocean, and healthier forests.
This issue brief describes how Congress can jump-start a national campaign to save nature by making a series of investments over the next two years to rebuild the U.S. economy through the protection and restoration of the natural resources on which we all depend. With $39 billion of investments, the United States has the ability to create between 446,900 and 717,000 jobs.6 These investments would help small towns and cities across the country build their economies back to be stronger and healthier. Importantly, however, this type of visionary action to protect and restore America’s outdoors would also give families and children of all races, cultures, and backgrounds a chance to enjoy and share the benefits and bounties of nature—now and forever.
Protecting more parks and natural areas—in all communities
The rapid loss of America’s natural areas—which occurs at a rate of a football field every 30 seconds—is contributing to rising greenhouse gas emissions and reducing the nation’s natural sequestration capacity.7 The Center for American Progress estimates that pursuing a national goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands by 2030 could dramatically slow natural area loss, saving more than 12 million acres of land from development over the next decade. In addition, by reducing emissions from land conversion and preserving sequestration capacity, achieving a 30×30 goal would keep an estimated 34.3 million metric tons (MMT) of greenhouse gas pollution—measured by carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)—out of the air. Meanwhile, to keep a growing population healthy and address the inequitable distribution of parks and natural areas in communities of color and low-income communities, the United States needs to create more parks, trails, and outdoor spaces that are accessible to everyone.8
Congress can take a first step toward slowing the loss of nature and protecting more parks for everyone by fully and permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which uses offshore oil and gas revenues to create new playing fields, protect historic battlefields, conserve wildlife habitat on working lands, expand access to nature, and protect at-risk lands and waters. Each year, however, Congress diverts money out of the LWCF to pay for unrelated spending. A recent study found that every $1 million invested in the LWCF creates between 17 and 31 jobs.9 Furthermore, each dollar invested in the LWCF returns at least $4 in economic benefits for local communities.10
Recommendation: Congress should pass the Great American Outdoors Act, which would fully and permanently fund the LWCF at $900 million per year.11 This annual investment through the LWCF would create between 15,300 and 27,900 jobs per year.
Reforesting America’s lands
According to peer-reviewed spatial analysis, approximately 19.6 million acres of land in the United States are in need of reforestation—an estimated 8.3 million acres of which are public lands managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI).12 Planting trees on these nationally owned public lands would capture approximately 13 MMT of CO2e annually by 2030. Using an estimated cost of $500 per acre to reestablish forest vegetation, reforesting these 8.3 million acres would cost $4.1 billion.13 Based on economic studies of the job creation benefits of environmental restoration projects, Congress can expect that every $1 million investment would create 12 to 30 jobs.
Recommendation: Congress should invest $4.1 billion to reforest 8.3 million acres of national forests and public lands. This investment would create between 49,800 and 124,500 jobs.
Restoring America’s lands
In addition to national public lands that need reforestation, CAP estimates that the United States could restore the ecological health of at least an additional 60 million acres of public lands by 2030, compared with a 2018 baseline. These estimates are conservative, given that the U.S. Forest Service is currently conducting 2 to 4 million acres of forest restoration each year but has identified a backlog of 65 to 82 million acres of lands that are also in need of restoration.14 The Bureau of Land Management, meanwhile, has approximately 50 to 70 million acres of public lands that have been infested with invasive and fire-prone cheatgrass that needs to be removed.15
The United States should increase the pace at which it is restoring national public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management by at least 6 million acres per year, with a goal of restoring an additional 60 million acres of land by 2030. Based on past restoration projects, Congress can assume a per-acre treatment cost of $700 and that each $1 million invested would create 12 to 30 jobs.16
Recommendation: Congress should restore the health of at least 6 million acres of public lands per year by investing approximately $4.2 billion per year. Each annual investment of this size would create between 50,400 and 126,000 jobs.
Restoring America’s coasts
Functional coastal ecosystems create tremendous economic value, producing most of the seafood caught by fishermen, protecting coastal communities from hazardous weather, and capturing pollution.17 One estimate determined that restored coastal habitats produce nearly $13 in benefits to society for every dollar invested.18
As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Congress authorized the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to issue $167 million in grants for projects designed to restore coastal habitats and marine ecosystems. These labor-intensive projects, such as rebuilding oyster reefs, removing marine debris and invasive species, and restoring coastal wetlands, generated an average of 15 jobs per $1 million invested across a wide range of skill levels, including in trades such as heavy equipment operation, plant nurseries, and maritime technicians.19
The needs for funding vastly outstrip available resources; NOAA received more than $3 billion in proposals for “shovel-ready” restoration projects when it announced the ARRA grant program. More recently, the National Coastal Resilience Fund has demonstrated the high demand for coastal resiliency and restoration funding. In 2017, NOAA received more than 167 proposals requesting more than $135 million but was able to award funding to just 19 projects totaling $13.8 million.20 While funding approached almost $30 million in 2018 and 2019, it still fell far short of demand.
Recommendation: By investing $3 billion in shovel-ready restoration projects, Congress could immediately create 45,000 jobs in communities from the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes to rural Maine and coastal Alaska.
Plugging orphan wells and restoring damaged drilling sites
Orphan wells are defunct oil and gas wells with no traceable or fiscally solvent owner. These deserted wells can leak toxic methane, pollute groundwater, and create safety hazards for wildlife and people who live nearby. The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) reports that 30 states have documented nearly 57,000 orphan wells across the United States and estimates another 200,000 to 745,000 undocumented orphan wells across these same states.21 The hazardous sites can be concentrated in cities—Los Angeles has nearly 1,000 abandoned wells dotting the city—or littered across farms, ranches, and backyards.22 The number of orphan wells is sure to increase as the oil bust forces independent producers to fold.
The cost to plug an orphan well and conduct remediation varies widely, depending on the depth of the well and the site’s contamination. The IOGCC finds the average cost to be approximately $24,000 per project on state lands; a separate analysis estimated the average cost of reclamation for orphan wells on federal lands to be $65,000.23
Recommendation: Congress should invest at least $2 billion to plug dangerous orphan wells on private, state, federal, and tribal lands.24 This money should be contingent upon governments demonstrating that they have adequate bonding requirements in place for any future oil and gas development. A $2 billion investment would create between 14,000 and 24,000 jobs.
Fixing aging dams and removing unnecessary ones
There are nearly 2 million dams across the United States, many of which are nearing the end of their useful lifetime or are in need of significant maintenance.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s dam infrastructure a “D” rating and lists more than 15,000 dams as “high-hazard potential.”25 Upgrading these facilities is necessary for safety, and provides opportunities to improve hydropower operations—during retrofits—or provide environmental and outdoor recreation benefits through restoration and removal. Removing dams and restoring rivers also enhances the ability of floodplains and natural areas to capture and store carbon. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that necessary maintenance on the nation’s dams now totals more than $65 billion.26
The federal government currently does not have a program that is dedicated to funding the removal of unnecessary or unsafe dams. CAP has proposed to fill this gap by creating a federal Safe Dams Fund.27 Studies on dam removal have found that every $1 million invested in dam removal creates 10 to 13 jobs.28
Recommendation: Congress should create a $1 billion Safe Dams Fund to remove unnecessary and unsafe dams. This investment would create approximately 10,000 to 13,000 jobs.
Cleaning up abandoned mines and restoring abandoned mine lands
According to the Government Accountability Office, there are an estimated 161,000 abandoned hard-rock mine sites in 11 Western states, including Alaska.29 Of these abandoned mine sites, at least 33,000 are causing ongoing environmental damage, such as through leaching of tailings into surface and groundwater supplies.30 A nonprofit organization has found that, nationwide, the problem is even bigger: As many as 550,000 abandoned hard-rock mine sites dot the country.31 The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it could cost more than $50 billion to clean up these mines.32 A study by the state of Montana indicates that every $1 million spent on mine clean-up and environmental restoration creates 31 1/2 jobs.33
Recommendation: Congress should invest $1 billion per year in abandoned mine clean-up. Some money could be recouped by assessing a reclamation fee on ongoing hard-rock mining operations on federal lands. This $1 billion annual investment would create an estimated 31,500 jobs per year.
Helping family farmers, ranchers, and private forest owners save their lands
Family farmers, ranchers, and forest owners have been a bulwark against the decline of nature on private lands. All across the country, private landowners are going out of their way to protect wildlife habitat, save wetlands, and pass their lands down to their children in a healthy and productive condition.
The coronavirus-induced economic collapse, however, is threatening to deal a catastrophic blow to families who make a living off their lands. Restaurant closures, shutdowns at meatpacking plants, and falling exports of agricultural goods have left farmers and ranchers with fewer places to sell their products and sharply reduced revenues. Unless policymakers can provide relief where it is needed most, family farmers, ranchers, and private forest owners will be forced to sell off their lands and operations—an avoidable turn of events that will have economic and environmental ripple effects in communities across America.
U.S. policymakers need to act quickly and decisively to help America’s family farmers, ranchers, and forest owners keep their lands—and keep them healthy—through this catastrophic pandemic and economic collapse. Specifically, the federal government should immediately expand and accelerate the nation’s private land conservation easement programs, including the USDA’s Forest Legacy program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Healthy Forests Reserve Program, and Regional Conservation Partnership Program; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grasslands and wetland easement programs; and the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program. These programs have a solid track record of protecting lands and supporting economic development; in Colorado alone, the USDA’s agricultural easement program supported more than 1,100 jobs and more than $2 of economic activity for every federal dollar spent.34 Immediately expanding funding for these programs would give farmers, ranchers, and private landowners the option to transform a portion of a traditionally illiquid asset—the development rights to their land—into much-needed cash revenue that can help them weather this economic storm.
Recommendation: A letter signed by 79 members of the House recommends that Congress appropriate at least $6 billion to protect and restore private lands, including through increased funding for USDA conservation easement programs.35 Congress should also increase funding for DOI and DOD conservation easement programs by at least $250 million.
Addressing the maintenance backlog on America’s public lands
Trails, roads, bridges, visitor facilities, and other infrastructure on America’s public lands are in dire need of maintenance and investment. Addressing these maintenance needs would help to protect and expand access to the outdoors for all communities in the country—and help guard the health of the natural and cultural resources that U.S. natural resource agencies are responsible for protecting. Congress can assume that each $1 million invested in fixing maintenance problems would create at least 13 jobs. Here are recent maintenance backlog needs, by agency:
- U.S. Forest Service: The USFS has a long list of backlogged road and river restoration projects where upkeep is required to maintain public access and protect vital watersheds. For the fiscal year 2018, this backlog was estimated at $5.2 billion.36 Fully funding these maintenance needs would create approximately 67,600 jobs.
- National Park Service: CAP released a report revealing that the critical deferred maintenance for all NPS properties totaled $3.5 billion, $1.3 billion of which is considered to be a priority for spending.37 In FY 2018, the NPS reported having $2.8 billion in “critical systems deferred maintenance.”38 Fully addressing these priority maintenance needs would create approximately 36,700 jobs.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: The USFWS has a backlog of maintenance work that needs to be done at the nation’s wildlife refuges, including work on roads, trails, buildings, irrigation, and other infrastructure. In FY 2018, this maintenance was estimated to be $1.3 billion.39 Addressing this backlog would create approximately 16,900 jobs.
- Bureau of Land Management: The BLM’s FY 2018 backlog of maintenance work—mainly on roads, bridges, and trails—was $960 million.40 Fully funding these projects would create approximately 12,480 jobs.
Recommendation: Fully funding the maintenance needs of U.S. land management agencies would require approximately $10.3 billion in investment and create approximately 133,700 jobs. Congress should pass the Great American Outdoors Act—which would fully cover the maintenance needs of the National Park Service and partially fund the maintenance needs of other land management agencies—and then determine what additional immediate maintenance investments are warranted.
As the human and economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic continues to grow, it is clear that Congress will need to take additional action to help the nation rebuild stronger, cleaner, and healthier.
U.S. history provides ample evidence of the economic effectiveness of major investments in nature conservation and outdoor infrastructure. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal put millions of people to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps, building the parks, trails, roads, and bridges that are still powering America’s outdoor economy today.41 Likewise, some of the most economically powerful investments made through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were in environmental work—from restoring the Everglades and the Gulf Coast to repairing visitors centers and roads in wildlife refuges and national parks.42
Congress should respond to today’s economic crisis, pandemic, and racial injustices by making a historic investment in the protection and restoration of nature for the benefit of all communities in the country. With America’s natural areas rapidly disappearing, families finding too few parks and outdoor spaces nearby, and wide racial and economic disparities in how nature’s benefits are distributed in our country, now is the time for U.S. leaders to pursue a new vision for nature conservation in America. By investing at least $39 billion in creating a more equitable and inclusive system of parks and public lands, cleaning up mines and orphan wells, removing “deadbeat” dams, restoring forests, improving the health of U.S. coasts, and fixing up the nation’s aging outdoor recreation infrastructure, Congress can create at least half a million new jobs over the next two years. More importantly, however, this investment would reduce greenhouse gas pollution, safeguard clean drinking water, recover wildlife, help the United States achieve a 30×30 goal, and provide more safe outdoor spaces for every child in America to enjoy. This would be a legacy that would benefit generations to come.
The following people contributed to this issue brief: Matt Lee-Ashley, Ryan Richards, Kate Kelly, Miriam Goldstein, Nicole Gentile, Jenny Rowland-Shea, Alexandra Carter, Sahir Doshi, Margaret Cooney, Will Beaudouin, and Steve Bonitatibus.
To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.