Guest columnists Kristen Sykes, Sally Loomis and Markelle Smith: Conserving ‘America the Beautiful’

  • A section of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, off Moody Bridge Road in Hadley. Gazette file photo

Thursday, June 23, 2022

The value of open land accessible to all of us has never been clearer: as the pandemic has shown, available, safe outdoor spaces are critical to our overall health and happiness.

Beyond that, our changing climate is reaching a tipping point that, if unchecked, could lead to mass extinction of species and untold damage to human communities. It follows that protecting our lands and waters should be among the top priorities for lawmakers, advocates and citizens alike.

Where would we be as a state and nation without our fresh air, clean water, and conserved lands that sequester carbon, mitigate temperature extremes and provide refuge for people and wildlife?

The Biden administration has proposed an initiative to promote natural climate solutions and create more places for people to get outside. This initiative, commonly referred to as “America the Beautiful” also known as 30x30, aims to conserve 30% of the country’s land and water by the year 2030. The follow-up campaign to achieve these goals is called the America the Beautiful and is a “call to action to support locally led conservation and restoration efforts of all kinds and all over America, wherever communities wish to safeguard the land and water they know and love.”

Several federal funding programs focus on land conservation, used to further the America the Beautiful/30x30 initiative, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Public and private lands conserved throughout the Northeast by programs such as LWCF, often leveraged by state and local funds, are critically important in our efforts to combat climate change. Without forests and natural lands, we’d have no carbon sequestration — the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, to prevent it from entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Without protection of intact land from subdivision and resulting habitat fragmentation, our wildlife and overall biodiversity would dwindle, causing ripple effects throughout the ecosystems that sustain human life.

And without the federal government supporting and funding land conservation, we’d have no chance of reaching the administration’s goal of 30% of our lands and waters protected by 2030.

You may not realize it, but your community has likely already benefited from federal funding invested in land protection. Generally, the local lands and parks that are conserved are protected forever: to ensure that no parking lots or strip malls can take their place.

In the Connecticut River Valley alone, there are millions of dollars’ worth of examples, including the Ruth Elizabeth Connector Trail in Springfield with an accessible perimeter walking trail; the Fannie Stebbins Unit of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge (Conte Refuge) in Longmeadow featuring a floodplain restoration project next to its extensive trail network; and the Fort River Division of the Conte Refuge in Hadley that boasts a universal access trail enjoyed by double its usual visitors during the pandemic.

Most recently, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced $60 million in LWCF-funded grants to underserved urban communities, including $1.5 million to revitalize Congressman Richard E. Neal Indian Orchard Community Park so that more Springfield residents have close-to-home opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.

There is currently a real and tangible opportunity to build on these project successes and magnify their benefits to those of us in surrounding communities. The Friends of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge have identified more than $35 million worth of land conservation projects and over $10 million of restoration projects throughout the four-state Connecticut River Watershed.

These projects would conserve and restore land adjacent to the Holyoke Range and along the floodplains of the Connecticut River, as well as remove barriers on priority tributaries in the watershed and enhance trail networks and increase access to recreational amenities. Additionally, projects such as the LWCF Stateside grant project at Anniversary Hill in Holyoke will restore urban parks and increase trails and access for nearby communities.

Hilltown Land Trust projects include conserving key lands that provide connected habitat for wildlife and are located in a regionally important forested wildlife corridor in Middlefield and Worthington. These watershed-level efforts are critical to providing clean, safe drinking water for all, protection from excessive flooding, and healthy fish populations for both sport and sustenance.

In the summer of 2020, the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) was passed into federal law. The GAOA dedicates $900 million annually to the LWCF program, as was initially intended in 1964. These are not taxpayer dollars, but royalties paid by energy companies drilling offshore for oil and gas. The passage of GAOA was thanks to the commitment and strong support of our Congressional Reps. Neal and James McGovern, and Sens. Elizabeth and Ed Markey, to whom we extend our deep thanks.

While this investment in conservation and recreation opportunities is a success, this level of funding is a floor, not a ceiling. Scores of projects and willing landowners remain on waiting lists, including in the Conte Refuge and along the Appalachian Trail here in Massachusetts, while the urgency of a changing climate demands that Congress appropriate more money to LWCF and the America the Beautiful initiative to protect more of the land and water that sustains us.

We look forward to collaborating with the members of our congressional delegation, state agencies and municipalities to accelerate land conservation in the Connecticut River Watershed. We aspire to attain the goals of America the Beautiful and most importantly, to ensure that everyone can access beautiful, nearby outdoor places.

Kristen Sykes is with the Appalachian Mountain Club, Sally Loomis is with the Hilltown Land Trust and Markelle Smith is with Mass Audubon.