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Endangered species could help us survive the great American political divide. Here’s why

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With election season just around the corner, President Biden and other elected officials will be spending more time away from Washington on the campaign trail. But that doesn’t mean all will be quiet on the legislative front, especially when it comes to nature.

Several pieces of pro-conservation legislation are quietly–but quickly–gaining bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. That’s good news for our planet, which faces an array of interconnected environmental threats, like climate change and the loss of wildlife habitat. If we have any hope of addressing these challenges, we’ll need action within years, not decades. 

Conserving nature is an area of common ground in our increasingly divided political atmosphere. For example, a poll last year found that 81% of Republicans, 87% of independents, and 97% of Democrats believe the government should do more to help endangered species.

Congress heard this loud and clear–which is why it developed the bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA). In 2024, Congress should pass this bill, which would allocate funding to state fish and wildlife agencies as well as tribal agencies to save the species that are at risk of extinction.

It’s akin to investing in primary care rather than waiting until patients need to visit the emergency room. Spending money now to help at-risk species recover is less expensive than scrambling to save a species when it’s already endangered.

Another win for nature could be the historically bipartisan “farm bill.” The next version should build off the success of the last by including incentives for farmers and forestland owners to promote regenerative practices, such as cover crops and grazing. The new bill should continue funding efforts to encourage landowners to reforest unproductive lands and streambanks, set aside sensitive ecological areas for conservation, and reconnect streams and wetlands to larger watersheds.

The legislation could make it easier for farmers to contribute real climate solutions and participate in the clean energy economy while preserving valuable natural and working lands.

And to round out legislative actions for the planet, Congress will have an opportunity to carry the U.S. Foundation for International Conservation Act over the finish line. Passing this bill would bolster protected areas outside the United States through public-private partnerships. 

The measure would invest up to $100 million annually in public funding for conservation, with the goal of incentivizing philanthropic and private entities to match the funding. This would provide long-term, sustainable financing for the conservation of threatened lands and bodies of water overseas–which would, in turn, stimulate economic growth and empower local and indigenous communities.

Mongolia–home to the world’s largest intact temperate grasslands–is one of many countries that would benefit. The country is working to conserve 30% of its landscapes by 2030. Money from the U.S. piece of legislation would make that goal achievable, while also supporting livelihoods and enabling the protection of native wildlife such as snow leopards, argali sheep, gazelles, and saiga (an endangered species of antelope).

Understandably, some taxpayers may ask why Americans should care about conservation outside of our borders. Protecting nature abroad isn’t just good for the U.S. and the health of our planet. It can also advance national security interests by combating organized crime and terrorist networks that poach wildlife and traffic in illegal products like ivory, pelts, and drugs.

Governments around the world have funded initiatives that protect the lands and waters that sustain our planet’s health for decades. We have witnessed firsthand how these investments can be transformative–for people and nature, as well as safety and security. But the funding is no longer adequate to meet the growing challenges we face. Passing legislation that helps to unlock the potential of the private sector as a multiplier effect to public funding is a must.

There has already been a surprising amount of bipartisan progress on conservation over the past several years. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden, as well as the Great American Outdoors Act signed by President Donald Trump, included historic provisions that help protect the natural environment. 

We’re optimistic that Congress will continue this momentum by taking bold, bipartisan action to protect nature in 2024. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will want to deliver for future generations by showing how they met the moment and acted to save the planet.

Nature has a history of uniting us. Congress has the chance to reaffirm as much when it reconvenes this month.

Bill Frist is a heart and lung transplant surgeon, former U. S. Senate Majority Leader, and chair of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Board of Directors. Jennifer Morris is CEO of The Nature Conservancy.

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