In the course of my travels around California, I often get an overwhelming feeling that we humans have really done a number on the Earth. I feel sorry for the bird that searches for food on beaches littered in plastic bits and cigarette butts. Sometimes I glimpse a solitary hawk sitting on a wire, eyeing the hectic road below, and I wonder what will become of him as he navigates the speeding freeway that cuts across his hunting grounds. Once, I broke down and sobbed for a downed mountain lion I spotted on the side of the road. For me, the signs of rampant human destruction (or “development,” as some people call it), is motivation to fundamentally change the way we “progress” on this planet and to increase the value we place on ecological systems.
Given the sheer amount of work that needs to be done to repair our coasts, watersheds, forests, and deserts, it’s a wonder that restoration workers still have the energy and the heart to keep going. Our wounded planet requires such an effort of healing that something as simple as nurturing a native plant or uncovering a degraded stream becomes an act of bravery. The people who give so much to restore natural ecosystems do their work from an ethic of love. They navigate grant applications, onerous permits and regulations, long hours and little pay because they know that by undoing the damage of the past, they are building hope for a future in which we coexist with the landscapes on which we so intimately depend.
Last December, conservation workers in California had their commitment to their work tested when the state suspended funding for more than 5,000 resource conservation and restoration projects. Already operating on shoestring budgets, dedicated nonprofits were forced to make difficult choices. Nervous project managers helplessly laid off dedicated employees, racked up finance charges on maxed-out lines of credit, and collected interest payments on bank loans to finish the work they had started. At the time of this writing, many restoration workers have gone four long months without a paycheck.
In early April, the State Treasurer was finally able to sell some $6 billion in bonds to restart suspended projects. But government officials have warned that the money – which has to be split among many other important state services – will be enough to fund existing projects for only the next eight months. Additional bond sales will be needed to keep projects going beyond the end of 2009, or to start any new initiatives.
Just as ecological-restoration projects in California were told not to expect any government assistance in the near future, the politicians and the media were busy marking Earth Day with all kinds of environmental hoopla. CNN warned of a “Planet in Peril” and the buzz around “green jobs” got louder than ever. Yet there seemed to be little recognition among those in positions of power that saving our planet (and ourselves) will require an array of approaches. Yes, we need a renewable energy grid that creates jobs and helps protect our climate. But even as we build a 21st-century green economy, we must also make investments in repairing the damage from the 20th-century’s gray economy. At the same time, as we create the next generation of green manufacturers and engineers, we must also create the next generation of stewards. While we focus on producing solar panels and wind turbines, we must also focus on producing spawning habitat for salmon and conservation of forests and soils. We cannot value only the units we produce, but also the units we can conserve – and, above all, the units we can save entirely.
Our environmental priorities must be broad enough to recognize that the work of restoration will have to be central to the emerging green economy. The health of our society and our economy depends upon communities connecting with the natural systems around them and learning how to protect them sustainably. And that, friends, will create a whole lot of green jobs.
When the State of California put the restoration movement on hold, it did more than lay off thousands of people: It suspended the hope of mending our broken landscapes. In the meantime, those engaged in conservation efforts will find some way to work as they always have: watershed by watershed, forest by forest.
To learn more about how restoration organizations in your community are being affected, visit the Reseed California coalition at stopworkimpact.ning.com.
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