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Efficient Infrastructure Projects Can Work for the Economy and the Environment

In 1991, the Walt Disney World Company proposed a 20-year build-out plan that would require mitigation activities to compensate for impacts to wetlands. Disney partnered with The Nature Conservancy to undertake a comprehensive mitigation project. A later mitigation obligation for the expansion of the Orlando airport was consolidated into the project, which is now a 11,500 acre preserve.

By Lynn Scarlett, co-Chief External Affairs Officer at The Nature Conservancy and former Deputy Secretary of the Interior in the George W. Bush Administration

Investment in the country’s infrastructure backlog is among the rare issues that has bipartisan support. How we advance legislative and administrative action to increase and accelerate investment in infrastructure, however, is where broad support can start to break down. The sweet spot for breaking through partisan logjams on infrastructure and realizing permitting efficiencies is through renewed support for robust environmental safeguards. An Executive Order issued on infrastructure on August 15 noted the importance of developing infrastructure in “an environmentally sensitive manner.” While there are concerns with the full scope of the order, calling out the environment as a key consideration is important and should be taken seriously.

Roads, dams, bridges and other infrastructure can be built to meet our needs, in an efficient manner, and with the natural resource needs of current and future generations in mind.

This is not a pipe dream. It is also not a new framework. In fact, it is part of a strong American tradition.

President Theodore Roosevelt observed that it was our “right and duty” to “develop and use the natural resources of our land.” He affirmed, however, that Americans also have a moral obligation to ensure that use of public lands and waters be balanced with conservation efforts that sustain and enhance our forests, prairies, grasslands, and waters. Indeed, he stated that this responsibility was second only to defending our country in a time of war:

“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”

This country has long striven to realize this vision of integrating conservation with economic opportunities, and there is a long bipartisan tradition of doing so. These aspirations are reflected through bipartisan commitments and memorialized in the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), Clean Water Act (1972), and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976), among a great many others.

On a practical, day-to-day basis, it is, of course, challenging to approve energy and infrastructure development or resource extraction while also living up to the American tradition of conservation. But it is doable.

In 2014, The Nature Conservancy partnered with the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and the Open Space Institute to protect 4,000 acres of land near the Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina in order to address wetland impacts incurred from expansion of the Boeing Corporation.

Over decades of implementation, we have found ways to achieve these twin goals using a structured decision-making framework—one that affirms that impacts to critical lands and waters should be avoided and minimized and, when impacts cannot be avoided or minimized, they should be offset through the protection and restoration of resources elsewhere.

Past presidential administrations—Republican and Democrat—have championed this framework as a foundation for securing healthy lands and waters and dynamic economies. When done well, this framework can result in positive outcomes for businesses, communities and the environment.

American businesses have long accepted offsetting impacts of their endeavors, sometimes called “mitigation,” as an integral part of the project design and approval process. Companies large and small are part of the fabric of our communities. They understand that they have a responsibility to clean up after themselves.

This concept of responsibility for the impacts of one’s actions lies at the foundation of the rule of law and market economies. And it is reflected not just in our environmental protections but as a basic tenet from the preschool classroom to the workplace.

While there may be legitimate policy questions about exactly how to determine impacts and appropriate offsets, the basic concepts of accountability and responsibility remain sound—from the schoolroom to the board room to Cabinet rooms.

Mitigation can support development and conservation. To achieve those goals, however, we need clear mitigation policies that lay out the rules for meeting statutory obligations that reflect basic notions of responsibility. Otherwise, we can expect delays, conflict and confusion to dominate permitting processes and inhibit the Administration from meeting its energy and infrastructure development goals.

Indeed, mitigation has been recognized by the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC) as one of the “best practices” that federal agencies can use to support efficient infrastructure review. Given this recognition, we hope that legislative and administrative efforts to accelerate infrastructure development take advantage of this important, common sense tool.

Without strong, clear mitigation policies, our nation will struggle to uphold the American values so well-articulated by Roosevelt: “The nation behaves well if it treats its natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”