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It was a beautiful spring Sunday here in Washington, so I rode my bike down to the National Mall. There were tens of thousands of people there–walking the paths, sitting on the steps of the monuments, coming in and out of the museums. Lots of families with young children, and busloads of teenagers on school trips many of whom, I expect, were seeing Washington for the first time.

I walked my bike around the base of the Washington Monument, and from that vantage point I could see the expanse of grass and trees extending to the Capitol, the White House, and the Lincoln Memorial. It is not an accident that a great park connects our institutions of government and is the setting for the memorials and museums that record the pain and triumph of our journey as Americans. The Mall is a powerful symbol of the land and water, the rich and varied environment so central to the history, prosperity and character of this country. And it is not an accident that the agencies created to steward that environment are located prominently around the Mall’s edges—Interior, Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and NOAA.

As I looked east toward the Capitol with so many people enjoying the outdoors in the space in front of me, I could not help but be puzzled and troubled that, in the ongoing debate over the Federal budget taking place beneath the Capitol’s dome, conservation and environmental protection programs are under attack and are being singled out for disproportionate cuts. The agreement reached recently on the Fiscal Year 2011 Federal spending bill included significant reductions to programs that protect land, air and water, but, thanks to the efforts of the White House and the Senate, managed to at least keep most conservation programs operational.  Action on the 2012 budget is now underway and could include much more far reaching impacts to programs that conserve natural resources.

If the Mall and its surrounding buildings are symbol and substance of our nation’s longstanding commitment to conservation, should these budget cuts continue, it would be as if we decided that pieces of this great green place should be paved over for parking lots and leased out for unseemly attractions and the departments that steward our natural resources emptied out and relocated to industrial sites on the outskirts of the city.

Is that really what Americans want?

From the defense of the greens at Lexington and Concord 236 years ago this week, to Lincoln’s protection of the Yosemite Valley in the midst of the Civil War, to Teddy Roosevelt’s declaration that conservation is essential to America’s future well being, to the CCC Boys building trails and restoring forests during the Great Depression, and to the environmental movement of the 1970’s when America showed the way for the world to protect land, air and water, conservation has been intertwined with America’s history. It is no less important now when a still-growing population, new demands for energy production, diminishing opportunities for young people to get access to the outdoors, and a changing climate require continuing investment in our environmental future. Even hard-eyed business leaders and economists have concluded that a healthy environment is essential to a healthy economy and a healthy society.

Of course the environment must shoulder its fair share of the budget cuts needed to control our national debt, but singling it out for particularly harsh treatment is a departure from our longstanding, bi-partisan and demonstrably successful conservation tradition.

On my way back home, I stopped for a few minutes at the very west end of the Mall, beyond the Lincoln Memorial, where a broad flight of steps leads down to the Potomac. I watched logs and branches carried along in the swift current of the spring flood. This place might seem to some an odd piece of design–steps to a river? But the steps also have a symbolic purpose. They connect the Mall and its attendant buildings and monuments not to a representation of nature but to the real thing–to the hills and hollows of the Appalachians upstream where the river rises and to the great Chesapeake Bay and the ocean beyond. We disregard the connection of our society to nature at our peril—our lives ultimately depend upon Earth’s natural systems. Just as we have an obligation to save those busloads of wide-eyed and enthusiastic young people from a crushing national debt, we have a responsibility to hand down to them a country with productive lands and healthy rivers flowing gracefully to the sea. We can afford to do both; we would betray the trust of our children if, in our selfishness, we failed to do so.

Thank you for taking action by contacting your members of Congress about the importance of funding for land and water. Your voice will continue to make a difference as we defend the future of conservation. 

—Text by Bob Bendick, Cool Green Science Blog

Spring on the National Mall
The Nature Conservancy's director of U.S. government relations urges you to enjoy the great outdoors and remind Congress of conservation’s important role in A