EMIGRANT— It is another Earth Day, and as I write this I am looking out across the vast Yellowstone River Valley at mountains so beautiful you’d swear God deserves a raise. Life here is indelibly entwined with the environment — abundant wildlife, snow-fed waters and clean mountain air.
Yet Earth Day often is a time for apocalyptic speeches on the dire state of the planet. For me, as a conservation optimist, Earth Day is a moment to reflect on the gains of conservation and the human role in stewarding the natural world.
Since the first Earth Day in 1970, the population of America has swelled by 120 million people. Gross domestic product has increased from just under $2 trillion to nearly $20 trillion. Yet, counter to what might seem intuitive, we are finding better ways to conserve and improve our environment.
Consider a few examples:
Wildlife: In my backyard, around the time of the first Earth Day, the iconic grizzly bear had dwindled to a scant 136 bears. Today, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is home to more than 700 grizzlies. Look to the other side of the country, and scientific surveys show that the population of the beloved Florida manatee is pushing 10,000, more than eight times the population three decades ago. Numerous species have come back from the brink — bison, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and wolves — all of them more abundant today than on the first Earth Day.
Conservation lands: Despite urbanization, America has expansive areas managed for conservation. In addition to state and local lands, nearly 30 percent of the nation’s land is managed by federal land agencies, much of it for conservation purposes.
Still, often lost in the discussion are all the private lands voluntarily placed into conservation easements — 56 million acres in all, double the amount of land managed by the National Park Service in the lower 48.
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What’s more, more than 900 million acres in the U.S. are classified as private farms and ranchland, and most of them are managed sustainably, provide habitat for various species and are not being developed.
Carbon emissions and climate change: With natural gas production boosted by innovations in fracking, horizontal drilling and deepwater exploration, you might be surprised to know that total U.S. carbon emissions in metric tons has now declined to levels not seen in roughly 25 years. That’s in spite of adding 65 million more people to our population since the 1990s — and virtually all of them using electricity and driving cars today.
What has enabled these conservation success stories? First, precisely because of economic growth, we are a wealthy nation that can “afford” conservation by investing in things like clean technology, wildlife protections, conservation-oriented nonprofits and open spaces — a luxury not found in many other parts of the world.
Second, economic freedom allows conservationists and entrepreneurs to find more creative ways to use market forces to stabilize or even reverse the decline of what were considered exhaustible resources.
Finally, while federal conservation measures often attract the headlines, we can’t overlook the work of the unsung state and local conservation managers, hunters and anglers, and private working landowners — farmers, ranchers, foresters — who manage most of the habitat in this nation.
America’s greatest conservation president, Theodore Roosevelt, understood the balance between growth and preservation when he said, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection.”
No doubt, we still face significant conservation challenges, but in the century since T.R. spoke those words, we’ve written a conservation story worth telling. I am optimistic about the ability of humankind to invent, collaborate and innovate our way to conservation solutions.