Monday, January 05, 2009

An Open Letter to President-Elect Obama

Americans overwhelmingly live in urban and suburban areas -- 80%, with nearly 60% living in just over 150 urban areas. The remaining 20% live in the vast, productive, often-forgotten America beyond. The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities wishes to share some views about infrastructure investments on behalf of rural America.

America is arguably the most blessed nation on earth. Many of those blessings relate not to the material wealth so evident in our urban/suburban lifestyles but to the natural blessings that we too often take for granted. We are a nation endowed with rich soils that yield “amber waves of grain.” On a planet dominated by salt water, we are a nation of fresh, drinkable waters teaming with aquatic life. And yes, we are a nation of forests -- towering pines, oaks and giant sequoias.

Mr. President-Elect, as you assume your new role we urge you to look not just at the shining cities, concrete ribbons of highways and runways and productive factories as the “infrastructure” that powers America. Indeed, we urge you to consider the potential and power of rural America and the “natural resources infrastructure” that not only “built” America but that still holds great potential for our collective future.

There is a Chinese proverb that says all of life’s blessings can be represented by a “0”; with human health a “1”. Without one’s health all other blessings mean nothing. As you look to invest in America’s “built” infrastructure – highways, schools and factories – we urge you to recall that these investments have little value if we lose the rich soils, plentiful and productive waters and abundant forests that set America apart … our “1”.

Take America’s forests as an example of unmatched potential. Fully one-third of our “sea-to-shining-sea” expanse is covered by forests. Simple and yet complex. Perhaps the greatest single gift to our planet, forests provide not only expected products that form our homes and then warm them, but that also serve as the source of clean waters and fresh air. More than 2/3rds of our nation’s potable water is derived from forests – both public and private.

In a time of climate change perhaps no single tool is more diverse and flexible as forests. Not only can they sequester carbon as they grow, they can serve to provide environmentally-preferable products – lumber, paper, rayon and more – that each sequester carbon through-out their long lives and then can easily be recycled without exacerbating greenhouse gasses or leading to pollution challenges.

Yes, forests serve as homes to much of America’s rich and diverse bird, mammal and reptile populations, while at the same time meeting the needs of our nation’s peoples. While forests have housed our population, provided the means to record our history and communicate our feelings, they too have the potential to play a vital role in setting our nation on a course for sustainable energy independence.

America’s forests are as diverse as its people. Not only do the species and types of forests differ, but so do their owners and potential. While we are blessed with lands held in common for all Americans – parks, national forests and wildlife refuges – many of these lands are beset by unprecedented challenges. Climate change, insect infestations, disease and wildfire are all taking a heavy toll. These challenges are inequitably shouldered by our publicly owned forests; yet, these threats are shared by the bulk of our nation’s forests – those stewarded by America’s families, as well.

Whether the term is “ready to go” or “shovel-ready,” when one considers our nation’s natural resources infrastructure, there are literally tens-of-thousands of investment opportunities that will yield family-supporting jobs and economic activity immediately while at the same time yielding long-lasting benefits. The jobs that come from these “green investments” aren’t likely to be out-sourced to other countries nor will the benefits accrue solely to other countries. Neither will they exacerbate global climate change. We urge you to consider investments in the nation’s forests, parks and refuges as well as in private forests and rangelands to ensure adequate supplies of clean water, enhanced storage of carbon, alternative sources of renewable energy and the multitude of benefits that flow from nature’s bounty – renewable wood and paper products, wildlife habitats and places for recreation and re-creation of the American soul and spirit.

We at the U.S. Endowment are, like you, very new in our position. Yet, we are full of hope and anticipate the great change that will benefit not just our generation, but many generations of Americans to come. We stand ready to do our part and look forward to partnering with you to invest in America’s natural resources infrastructure to serve current and future generations. An investment in our nation’s natural resources infrastructure will yield unprecedented potential in terms of environmental and human health, green energy, environmentally-preferable products, clean air and water and a higher quality of life for all Americans – urban and rural.