New York State’s latest conservation and environment funding proposal was wisely named. Each of those five words – Restore, Mother, Nature, Bond, and Act – can stand for good; but especially now, some months after Governor Cuomo proposed this fund, and confronting a global pandemic, these words are exactly what we need.
Humanity faces a pandemic now because we’ve been treating Earth not like a planetary Mother but like a shopping mall and garbage dump. Our fragmentation of natural habitat and exploitation of wild species led to this zoonotic disease spreading round the world; and the fundamental antidote is to Restore wild Nature.
Conservation biologists are converging on a consensus (see Nature Needs Half website) that to stem the extinction and climate crises, we need to protect at least half of Earth in its wild and natural state. So far, we’ve protected less than 15% of land and less than 5% of water worldwide. New York has done better than average, but not yet nearly well enough, protecting a bit over 15% of our state’s combined land and water.
Bond here ought be seen not just in the financial sense, but also in the sense of connection. Another fundamental lesson from conservation biology is that wild beings need connected habitats to survive, just as we humans need connections to open space to be healthy. As we strive to protect at least half of all lands and waters in their natural state, we need to restore connections between these wild lands and waters – for wide-ranging animals like bears and otters and trout and salmon and songbirds, for species dispersal in response to climate change, and for hikers and other ramblers among our own kind.
Act, of course, is what we must all do, if we are to overcome the global crises that characterize our time: biological extinction, climate chaos, and now global pandemic. We need to act to save wild places and species, and our opportunities to commune with them; and the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act will help us do so.
The right time? Now.
Critics may question whether New York State, as a government and a population, can afford to allot billions of dollars for land conservation, wetland restoration, clean water, wildlife movement, and recreation access, at a time when many of our people are in peril of a dread disease and unemployment rates are soaring. Those involved in protecting New York’s and our country’s great natural heritage might answer: the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act is an even better and more vital investment now than it was before this new health crisis emerged.
Along with most conservationists, I believe in natural beauty, in the inherent goodness of other life forms, above and beyond their utility to our over-populated and over-consuming species. Still, if we must justify expenditures for conservation and environment in human terms, that’s easy:
The forests, streams, wetlands, lakes and other natural places that are purchased and protected by New York’s environmental bond acts and environmental protection funds are exactly those places that are giving solace to our people in this time of crisis. My local state trailhead, for Split Rock Wild Forest, for the first time in my memory, had overflow parking on a recent visit. Dozens of families were out there (properly spaced) to breathe the clean forest air, enjoy a break from bad news and electronic media, and maybe glimpse one of their wild neighbors returning (Bald Eagles have returned to their nest above Snake Den Harbor, Winter Wrens are back and starting to sing, Wood Frog and Spring Peeper choruses are lifting, and the first Spring Beauties are blooming, among many other spring renewals).
Our Forest Preserve areas in Adirondack and Catskill Parks most of all, but also land trust holdings statewide and our many state parks and wildlife management areas and state-held conservation easements, sequester so much carbon that as a state we should be able to achieve carbon neutrality in the next two decades. Along with providing wildlife habitat and helping stabilize climate, state-protected wildlands and land trust holdings (sometimes protected with state help) aid greatly in the crucial ecological processes of pollination, predation (crucial for keeping pathogens in check), water infiltration, air filtration, flood mitigation, soil retention, and storm moderation.
Moreover, we can employ more people helping Nature heal than we currently employ exploiting Nature. A restoration economy, as could be initiated by this bond act, will be as good for our people as it will be for our wild neighbors.
How it would work
Drafters of New York’s Restore Mother Nature Bond Act summarize well what it would do:
- Restore Mother Nature. Centered on the Governor’s $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act and supplemented by $740 million in additional State funding, New York State will reduce flood risk, invest in resilient infrastructure and revitalize critical fish and wildlife habitats. It will do this by connecting streams and waterways, right-sizing culverts and dams, restoring freshwater and tidal wetlands, reclaiming natural floodplains, restocking shellfish populations and upgrading fish hatcheries, preserving open space, conserving more forest areas, replanting more trees, reducing contamination from agricultural and storm water runoff, and expanding renewable energy. This wide-reaching environmental conservation and resiliency investment includes support from the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Fund.
By the way, I hope Governor Cuomo – who showed great wisdom in introducing the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, and is now showing exceptional courage in leading the state’s efforts against the coronavirus – will urge folks, during this pandemic, to spread their recreation out more in time and space. Since most of us are working from home now, with somewhat flexible or ill-defined schedules, there’s no reason we all need to hike on Saturday or Sunday. Let’s spread our outings across all days and trailheads, to keep ourselves and the wild forests safer.
This Mother Nature Bond Act is among the most far-seeing conservation and restoration measures yet proposed in our country, in that it will help fund active restoration, particularly for some of our most productive yet sensitive habitats, like wetlands, riparian zones, and shellfish beds. The Act will also help enhance habitat connectivity by targeting wildlife corridors for land conservation and by modifying human-built infrastructure, especially culverts and roads and dams (the obsolete ones of which should be removed), to make it more permeable to wildlife movement. New York will thus take a leading role in an effort that should be waged nationally and globally: adapting our built environment so that it is both more durable in the face of climate chaos and more permeable to wildlife movement. Movement is always a critical part of life for wild creatures – a need as basic as food, water, cover, and mates – but it becomes even more paramount in a century of climate change, when many species will need to shift their ranges to track their climate envelopes.
Examples of high-priority habitat connections that will enhance our state’s climate resilience, and might be secured through this bond act and other conservation programs, include these special parts of New York:
Split Rock Wildway, a botanically-rich wildlife corridor linking Lake Champlain and its valley with the High Peaks to the west via the West Champlain Hills, about half protected thus far by the state and land trusts;
Southern Lake Champlain Valley, vital nexus between New York’s Adirondack Mountains and Vermont’s Green Mountains, mostly private land and vulnerable to development;
Adirondack to Algonquin (A2A) axis along the Frontenac Arch between New York’s greatest park and southern Ontario’s greatest park, crossing the Saint Lawrence River at the Thousand Islands – a wildway is still largely intact but mostly unprotected outside the Blue Line, even though it is of global importance, as the safest crossing of Great Lakes watershed;
Black River Valley, nexus between Adirondack Park and the Tug Hill Plateau to the west, tenuous link for northern species like Marten and Moose, which are especially susceptible to climate warming;
Finger Lakes Emerald Necklace, intact and recoverable forest-lands in the Finger Lakes region, buffering those lakes and providing vital habitat to interior forest species including songbirds, salamanders, bears, and Bobcat;
Shawangunk to Catskill connections, vulnerable forested links between land trust and state holdings in New York’s best climbing area and the state’s second greatest park, complementing habitat connections eastward to the Hudson Valley;
Mohawk Valley, separating Catskill wildlands from Adirondack wildlands, and perhaps the toughest area in the state to bridge for wildlife, but Schoharie Creek shows promise, and I-90 has fast-food crossings, so why not wildlife crossings?;
Waterways and shorelines everywhere, which are crucial for aquatic wildlife, for the many terrestrial species that tend to disperse along wooded stream corridors, and for water quality, and which should be broadly buffered with wild forest wherever possible.
Again, wild places and creatures are good in and of themselves; but for those sad souls who see Nature only in terms of resources, it is important to remember the ecosystem services that wild lands and waters provide. Thanks to New York State’s relatively generous land conservation funds, and our state’s many heroic land trusts, more than a million and a half acres of New York wildlands have gained at least partial protection in the last few decades. These lands, especially those given Forever Wild protection, are cleaning our water and air, slowing climate change, feeding the creatures who pollinate our crops and who limit pathogen numbers, affording us places for quiet recreation, and providing the base for a green economy.
In sum, if you already care about our wild neighbors and their habitats for their own sake, you will vote enthusiastically YES for the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act. If you don’t yet realize that you really care about the natural world but do care about your human community, you’ll vote YES for this visionary environmental measure because it will help assure that you and your family live in a safe place, in a state that cares about all its residents, human and wild.
Photo: Oswegatchie River, Five Ponds Wilderness, western Adirondack Park. Courtesy of John Davis