Natural infrastructure—also called nature-based solutions or “green” infrastructure—strategically uses, restores, and conserves natural systems to address infrastructure needs. These approaches safeguard communities and build resilience to a changing climate while benefitting fish and wildlife—a win-win for hunters and anglers.
Natural infrastructure provides an important set of tools for protecting our nation’s critical infrastructure—our roads and bridges, shorelines, and levee systems. But natural infrastructure can also be used to filter our drinking water and treat our wastewater. It can protect our communities from floods, drought, storm surge, and other extreme weather events. And it can provide new opportunities for hunting and fishing access—both in urban and rural landscapes. Here are five examples of how natural infrastructure can tap into the power of natural systems (in other words, habitat!) to address our nation’s infrastructure needs.
Wetlands are natural infrastructure superstars and perhaps the clearest example for sportsmen and women, who already understand the habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities provided by healthy wetlands. From the prairie potholes of the Dakotas to the headwater wetlands system of the Northern Everglades and the coastal marshes of the Mississippi River Delta, functioning wetlands provide a range of benefits to fish, wildlife, and our communities. First, they act like nature’s kidneys and filter polluted runoff that would otherwise make its way to vulnerable fish and wildlife habitat and water resources. Second, wetlands serve as buffers for dangerous flood waters and other extreme storm events. An acre of wetlands can store more than a million gallons of flood water, and coastal wetlands provide an estimated $23.2 billion in storm protection each year. And restoring wetlands can provide essential nesting habitat for America’s waterfowl and important nursery areas for juvenile fish and other species, securing healthy habitat for enhanced hunting and fishing opportunities.
Dune systems, adjacent beaches, and other natural shoreline systems—such as mangroves and oyster reefs—have long been nature’s idea of a seawall. But coastal development and natural forces such as erosion and extreme storms have stripped some communities of these natural barriers to wave action, high winds, and flooding. Increasingly, coastal communities are stabilizing shorelines using natural materials to reduce erosion and increase habitat and resilience. Living shorelines control erosion and flooding by using vegetation and other organic materials. Hybrid techniques are also used. For example, a living shoreline would combine marsh plants and submerged aquatic vegetation with harder materials for added structure and stability, such as oyster shells, rocks, or faux logs made out of coconut fiber. After a few months to a few years, living shorelines are teeming with life and provide both essential nursery grounds for striped bass, redfish, and snook and important stopover areas for migrating waterfowl.
Rivers and streams form the interconnected network of freshwater, brackish, and saltwater systems that, when healthy and intact, ensure healthy fish and wildlife populations and provide clean drinking water. Natural infrastructure opportunities for our rivers and streams often focus on restoring degraded systems, creating stream buffers to filter pollutants, and conserving headwaters to provide water storage for healthy river flows. Thousands of species, including some of the most recreationally valuable species of fish (striped bass, bluefish, red snapper, mackerel), also depend upon estuarine habitats—where rivers meet the sea. Estuaries provide important natural infrastructure benefits by acting as natural buffers, slowing waves and reducing their power during hurricanes and other storm events. Estuaries also filter out sediment and pollutants from rivers and streams before they flow into the ocean and their potential in natural infrastructure solutions is limitless.
Over 60 percent of the U.S. land base is privately owned. These farms, ranches, and timber lands are critical for healthy fish and wildlife populations and our hunting and fishing traditions. Private landowners are partnering with businesses, the conservation community, and federal, state, and tribal interests to advance natural infrastructure solutions in many ways. In addition to stewarding high-value habitats—such as wetlands, grasslands, forests, and rangelands, often with the help of farm bill conservation programs—private landowners support stream and floodplain restoration, migration corridor conservation, and innovative natural approaches to water storage and flood control.
Traditionally, the construction of dams or levees have assisted in flood reduction, but these structures have typically been built with minimal regard for impacts to adjacent natural systems. As we face an increase in extreme weather events, many private lands that would otherwise be farmed or grazed are increasingly at risk of repeated catastrophic flooding that overtake levees and small earthen dam systems. By working with private landowners, local communities, and state and federal water resource managers, we can shift away from low-lying and often marginally productive agricultural lands within historic floodplains to voluntary buy-out programs that help property owners acquire more productive agricultural lands. In turn, resource managers can work to remove earthen berms and dams, set levees back away from riverbanks, and restore natural floodplains to bottomland hardwoods, wetlands, and prairie habitats. And in turn, fully connected and restored floodplains will provide healthier habitat for deer, bears, migratory waterfowl, upland birds, and numerous fish species.
As is apparent from their name, barrier islands form a line of defense for coastal communities and important fish and wildlife habitat. They can help dampen harmful storm surge, block high winds that erode coastal lands, and protect areas that have become vulnerable over time due to rising seas and land loss. The islands themselves may be home to fish and wildlife, and therefore support our hunting and fishing opportunities, but they also create sheltered areas for birds and fish to nest, spawn, or escape extreme weather. Protect inland bays, lakes, and bayous from saltwater intrusion that can damage vegetation and other habitat. Barrier island restoration work on the Gulf Coast has been particularly effective at creating natural infrastructure that makes levees and floodwalls much more effective. Watch the video for an example of one such project in Louisiana.
There are significant opportunities to increase the use of natural infrastructure. But there are challenges that federal agencies will need to overcome. Natural infrastructure approaches are innovative, but relatively new, so federal agencies are more comfortable using the same approaches that have been used for decades. Some federal decision-makers hesitate to use natural infrastructure approaches because there is a lack of data on how natural infrastructure projects will perform during severe weather and other climate disasters. Plus, the number of engineers at the federal level with knowledge of natural infrastructure techniques is still relatively small. Further, the current process of analyzing costs vs benefits typically favors traditional infrastructure over natural infrastructure. The TRCP is advocating for several updates to current federal statutes and regulations to increase the likelihood that natural infrastructure projects are authorized, funded, and implemented.
The TRCP is working to ensure Congress considers natural infrastructure a viable solution for addressing our nation’s infrastructure needs. Often this includes encouraging federal agencies to consider natural infrastructure in combination with more traditional “gray” infrastructure solutions. The TRCP is also focusing on what resources are needed to both sustain healthy and intact systems and restore habitats that have been degraded but could support infrastructure in the future.
There are multiple opportunities to advance natural infrastructure policies and funding streams in upcoming legislation, including the 2021 Highway Bill, the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, the 2023 Farm Bill, and in broad COVID recovery, infrastructure, and climate packages. We are educating lawmakers and America’s sportsmen and women so that when the time is right to debate and pass these laws, natural infrastructure will be top of mind.
In addition to our work with Congress, the TRCP is working with many partners to advance natural infrastructure policies, programs, and funding at several key federal departments and agencies with the goal of conserving fish and wildlife habitat, enhancing access, and building more resilient systems. This includes targeted work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and U.S. Department of the Interior.
The TRCP is pushing decision-makers to advance five key priorities, which would help implement more natural infrastructure across these agencies.
Some natural infrastructure can do even more than protect communities from the growing impacts of climate change—these land- and water-based solutions can help to store or sequester carbon to combat climate change, too. That’s something traditional infrastructure, like seawalls and levees, can’t do. Here are just a few examples of natural infrastructure that also serve as natural climate solutions.
Wetlands across the country already provide critical habitat, reduce erosion, improve water quality, and filter flood waters to protect our communities. But these important waterfowl nesting areas also store carbon. Healthy and intact wetlands systems will be critical to ensuring our natural systems will be able to adapt to a changing climate. The ability of wetlands to not only store but also slowly release water will help to support healthy flows in places like the Colorado River Basin and other arid river systems during ongoing extreme drought events.
Healthy grasslands prevent soil erosion—an infrastructure benefit—but they also absorb huge amounts of carbon. Degraded or converted grasslands are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, so restoring these habitats through natural infrastructure investments can boost two important lines of defense.
Forests can be used as natural infrastructure to clean and filter water, and this is a win-win for wildlife affected by climate change. It helps to have diverse, well-managed forests, because young growing trees draw carbon out of the atmosphere while older trees store it.
Educating lawmakers on the merits of natural infrastructure is important, but sportsmen and women must also advocate for “smart from the start” planning of traditional infrastructure. It’s important for decision-makers to picture more than just roads, bridges, concrete pipes, and hardened seawalls when they think of infrastructure. This is especially true as they debate legislation that will make major investments in these systems that affect the way we live, defend our communities, clean our drinking water, and enjoy the outdoors. Forward-thinking approaches could include incorporating wildlife-friendly overpasses and underpasses into the design of a new or revamped highway that bisects a big game migration corridor. And appropriately sized culverts installed during road repairs can help to reconnect fragmented fish habitat. The TRCP and its partners are working diligently on these important policy areas as well as thinking big about the future of U.S. infrastructure and the need for a paradigm shift in how infrastructure interacts with the natural world.
Natural infrastructure projects can create American jobs right when we need them most. Urge your lawmakers to support these action-ready policy changes that will ensure more natural infrastructure solutions get the green light.
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