Congress, agencies should be working toward ecological sustainability

As legislative and administrative solutions to climate change are being debated in Washington D.C., I encourage Congress and the Biden Administration to step back and consider the larger challenge so that we accurately define the problem, and intelligently craft solutions to achieve our goals.

The big picture is our need for ecological sustainability, of which climate change is just one of four dimensions. The three other key legs of the ecological sustainability stool in the United States are controlling invasive species, managing range and forest lands, and striking the right balance between extensive and intensive food production. Unless we take a comprehensive approach to all four of these challenges, we will lose the ecosystems that feed us, keep us healthy, and provide the natural resources we depend on for our physical and psychological well-being.

Invasive species are organisms like kudzu, Burmese pythons, and spotted lantern fly that are non-native to the US and that create economic, environmental or human health problems. They cost the U.S. economy in excess of $130 billion per year and are at least partially responsible for the plight of more than 42% of the organisms on our endangered species list. Congress and the Biden Administration should promptly take the following actions:

  • Congress should pass the Rubio/Schatz bill, S. 626, to restore to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service its longstanding ability to ban interstate commerce in invasive species, authority that was lost due to a court decision several years ago that discovered a drafting flaw in the century-old Lacey Act.
  • The chairman of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality should promptly approve the Interior Department’s longstanding request for five categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act so that Interior’s bureaus can deal effectively and cost-efficiently with invasive species problems when they are small and manageable rather than waiting months on end for the approval of superfluous environmental analyses, while the invasive species spread and become difficult and expensive to control, if they are controllable at all after the long delays.
  • Congress should give the Secretary of the Interior authority to respond to invasive species emergencies declared by state governors by reallocating funds appropriated to other Interior programs in order to conduct rapid response eradication efforts in cooperation with the affected state government. Waiting for routine budget processes to play out loses time and ultimately costs more money when the problem is literally growing exponentially.
  • To protect the nation’s most valuable ecological resources, before the Congress adjourns this fall it should appropriate an additional $4 million above the fiscal year 2021 appropriated level to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System to create eight new Invasive Species Strike Teams, and an additional $6 million to the National Park Service to create 10 new strike teams to control invasive animals and insects infesting national park waters and forests.
  • Congress should appropriate a $10 million increase to the Interior Department’s U.S. Geological Survey to aggressively study zoonotic diseases, which are diseases that can move back and forth between animals and humans. Given their typically foreign origin, zoonotic diseases fit the definition of invasive species. COVID-19 is such a zoonotic disease, and since recent discoveries indicate COVID-19 has now infected the American white tailed deer population, which can be found in almost every state in the country, it is increasingly important that we better understand how zoonotic diseases move back and forth between animals and humans.

The most dramatic manifestation of our historically inadequate management of our range and forest lands is the ever-increasing threat to lives, air quality, property and ecosystems from wildland fire. The summer fire season is now a year-round fire threat. The intensity, size, duration and frequency of wildland fires continue to worsen. To save lives, property, and our range and forest ecosystems:

  • Congress should appropriate all of the wildland fire-related FY 2022 funding increases requested by the Biden Administration. Especially important are the $80 million increase for fuels reduction and the $20 million increase doubling the budget for Burned Area Rehabilitation requested for Interior. Equally deserving of support is the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service, which requested a $100 million increase for similar work. These increases will enable the agencies to reduce the buildup of fuels in our forests and rangelands to better avoid future conflagrations, and restore ecosystems that have been devastated by wildfires. Our forests and rangelands, and their adjacent human communities, are suffering terribly now from decades of misconception that all fire in natural ecosystems needs to be extinguished, even where for millennia small infrequent fires have played a constructive ecological role. As a result, fuels have built up over decades and instead of small low-grade fires we are faced with massive infernos sterilizing hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and range at a time, and emitting tons of greenhouse gases and particulate air pollution in the process. According to MIT Technology Review, in 2020 California’s fires alone emitted more greenhouse gases than all of the COVID-related 2020 emission reductions across the West.
  • The Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture should act now, through the National Invasive Species Council and the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, to achieve better coordination between their programs focused on invasive vegetation control and the programs focused on fuels reduction. Both types of programs often use the same vegetation management practices in the same regions of the country, but at present we are losing opportunities to create synergies between the programs, and achieve multiple policy goals with the same dollar.
  • Congress should amend the authority for Interior’s Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program so the Secretary of the Interior can deny annual PILT payments to local governments that fail to use local zoning authorities to prevent builders from irresponsibly siting new houses in the middle of fire-prone forests. Building houses in locations where it is obvious they are likely to burn the next time a fire moves through the area risks the lives of both homeowners and firefighters, and imposes on taxpayers the cost of dealing with irresponsible individual behavior.

Finally, we need to appreciate that industrialization of agriculture has brought the expanded use of machines, technology, infrastructure and chemicals that allows us to dramatically increase per-acre yields, so that more food is produced in a smaller area using less water, which leaves more land in natural condition for wildlife. There are ecological trade-offs between modern intensive agriculture and the growing interest in more “natural” foods produced “free range,” and without fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals. Such less intensive food production requires more land cleared and therefore less habitat for fish and wildlife.

  • In the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill, Congress should therefore not provide any financial incentives that would encourage producers to clear more land for extensive agricultural production at the expense of natural fields and forests. This would also help achieve the Biden Administration’s goal of keeping 30% of our land area in a natural state.
  • Aquaculture similarly holds out promise that wild fish stocks may not be as over-fished in the future as they have been in the past. At present, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Food and Drug Administration, the Commerce Department, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service each assert authority to regulate aquaculture to some extent. This Gordian knot of bureaucratic red tape would discourage the growth of any industry. In the next Farm Bill Congress should grant USDA exclusive authority to regulate aquaculture.

Only a holistic approach that addresses climate change, invasive species, forest and rangeland management, and a thoughtful approach to agriculture will allow us to achieve ecological sustainability for generations of Americans to come.

Scott Cameron, former acting assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget at the U.S. Department of the Interior and former principal with the National Invasive Species Council, is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

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