EMIGRANT, Mont.—It is Earth Day, and as I write this, I am facing out across the vast Yellowstone River Valley at mountains so brilliantly beautiful, you’d swear God deserves a raise. At night, it can be hard to decipher the major constellations through the veil of a billion other stars. Life here is indelibly entwined with the environment—abundant wildlife, fresh snow-fed waters, and clean, cool mountain air.
Earth Day is often a time for Malthusian, apocalyptic speeches on the dire state of the planet and imminent exhaustion of our natural resources due to rapid growth and human overpopulation. But for me, as a conservation optimist, Earth Day is a moment to celebrate the gains of conservation and 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. The traditional Earth Day view is to see growth and conservation in conflict: As our country grows, the state of the environment declines. And yet, counter to what might intuitively seem true, we are finding ways to conserve and score significant improvements to our environment. Consider just 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 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 exceeds 6,000, up from just 1,200 when the surveys began in 1991. Numerous other 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.
Reforestation: Robert Frost wrote that the woods are lovely, dark and deep. In New England, that’s truer than ever before. According to Harvard research, 80 percent of New England is covered by forests or thick woods, up from 30 to 40 percent back in the mid-1800s. Today, forest area in the United States stands at roughly 760 million acres, the same acreage as a century ago, despite our population tripling over that time. And perhaps most surprising, nearly 60 percent of our forest lands are privately owned.
Carbon emissions: 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 since the early 1990s. 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.
Fisheries: As a way to manage overfishing, antiquated command-and-control government regulation has been replaced with innovative rights-based individual fishing quotas in many fisheries. Under these systems, shares of a catch in a fishery are allocated to commercial fishermen based on their historic catch. The tradable quotas have helped significantly rebuild fish stocks from halibut in Alaska to red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. According to a study by university scientists and Environmental Defense Fund, secure fishing rights have the potential to restore 98 percent of the fisheries worldwide by 2050.
Conservation lands: Despite urbanization, America is home to expansive land areas managed for conservation. In addition to state and local lands, 27 percent of the nation’s land or 640 million acres, is managed by federal land agencies, often for conservation purposes. Yet often lost in the discussion are all the private lands voluntarily placed into conservation easements—56 million acres in all—equal to the size of Minnesota and double the amount of land managed by the National Park Service in the lower 48. What’s more, 911 million acres in the U.S. are classified as private farm and ranchland, most of them being sustainably managed, providing habitat for various species, and not being developed. These private lands may not be classified as conservation, but many a rancher or farmer would beg to differ.
What has enabled these conservation success stories? First, precisely because of economic growth, we are a wealthy nation that can “afford” conservation through national and state protected areas, environmental laws, and not for profits—a luxury not found in many other parts of the world.
Second, economic freedom allows creative conservationists and entrepreneurs to find ways to use market forces to stabilize or even reverse the decline of what were considered exhaustible resources.
And 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 this Earth Day. I am optimistic about our environment and the ability of humankind to invent, collaborate, and innovate our way to conservation solutions. For the doubters and worriers, there’s one more reason to stop and smile at the state of our environment: Optimists live longer. And that means more time for all of us to enjoy our natural world.