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Bill Frist to Congress: Stand up for nature. Don't starve EPA and conservation programs.

Investing in nature would put us on a stronger path.

I worry about the health of our people, our natural resources and our government institutions.

Earlier this month, my wife Tracy and I explored on horseback for three days the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area — a gem of the national park system in east Tennessee. As we rode the trails, experiencing the gently flowing creeks, the quiet wooded paths, the inspiring sounds of birds and kids playing along the way, we delightfully soaked up the present, reflected fondly on the past and what it took to make our experience possible, but also worried about the future.

The Big South Fork was established in 1974 by a U.S. Senate majority leader before me, my mentor, Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee, through bipartisan, broadly supported congressional legislation. I remember him telling me years later that of all the contributions he made to the country, this act would be the most remembered because of the broad impact it would have on the well-being of millions of people for generations to come. I think he’s right.

As a doctor and scientist, I speak and write often on the well-established connection between the physical, mental and emotional health of people and their natural environment. As a former congressional legislator, I witnessed the synergistic connection between responsible, smart government and cooperative, forward-leaning partnerships that help people from all walks of life thrive and live happier and more fulfilling lives.

But right now, I worry about the health of our people, our natural resources and our government institutions. Getting back to basics for things we all need — healthy land, clean air and water — would be a good start to putting us and our nation on a stronger path. To do that, we need Congress and the administration to fully support our diverse public lands and investments in our natural resources through effective conservation and science programs.

When I served in the Senate, I saw firsthand how healthy lands and waters support our businesses and economies.

More than 24 million jobs are tied to our land — 9.3% of total U.S. employment. More than 7 million of us are employed in outdoor recreation; 17 million of us have agricultural jobs. Forests and fisheries account for another 4.8 million jobs. Even beyond that, natural infrastructure such as reefs, dunes, marshes, floodplains and forests help protect our communities from flooding and other natural disasters.

As Congress shapes the nation’s budget, funding conservation and science programs is essential to sustain the health of our lands and waters. Many of these programs also stretch limited taxpayer dollars through partnerships with farmers, ranchers, companies and communities across the United States.

We should encourage those who represent us in Congress to stand up for nature so nature can do its job sustaining and protecting us. It’s a concept lawmakers from both parties can support. For example:

  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund benefits every state — and nearly every county — across the nation, conserving community parks, local ball fields, public trails and critical water supplies. The program provides states the ability to target funding toward local priorities and expands the impact of federal dollars through millions more in matching public and private fund
  • The Regional Conservation Partnership Program, created under the Farm Bill to empower communities and support public-private partnerships to find local solutions to tough natural resource challenges, has mobilized more than 2,000 conservation partners who themselves have committed $1.4 billion in financial and technical assistance to on-the-ground projects — nearly two times the amount provided by the program’s federal funds
  • Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency faces potentially steep cuts, which would impact regional efforts such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Since its inception in 2010, the Initiative has funded hundreds of projects to combat invasive species like Asian carp, clean up toxic chemicals, and protect and restore wildlife habitat across the region. The program has also been good for the economy, bringing approximately $2 in economic return for every restoration dollar invested, according to a Brookings Institution report

Congress has the power to support these and other cost-effective programs, as well as the public lands that provide so much to all of us.

Our three-day get away on horseback reminded us how grateful we are to our tradition of bipartisan support for conserving America’s natural resources. Investing in nature is a wise investment in the health and well-being of our nation and the American people. It is a worthy and critical investment I hope Congress will support.

Republican Bill Frist of Tennessee, a heart transplant surgeon and a former Senate majority leader, serves on the Board of Directors of The Nature Conservancy.