Federal Funding and Legislation: The panel described below explores various avenues of federal funding for nature-based solutions, emphasizing the significance of legislative frameworks such as the Inflation Reduction Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Great American Outdoors Act, and Farm Bill that have increased funding to historic levels.
Conservation Strategies: Panelists discuss avenues for conservation funding, including competitive grants and leveraging partnerships. They also describe challenges such as fund monitoring, staffing issues, limitations on fund usage and reaching economically underserved communities.
Community Engagement and Long-Term Impact: The importance of community engagement emerged as a common theme, reflecting the need to shift metrics in how we talk about sustainability and conservation.
Late in 2023, the Conservation Finance Network, in collaboration with the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale University, hosted a panel discussion in New Haven, CT about new federal funding opportunities for nature-based solutions. Moderated by Walker Holmes, Vice President, Mid-Atlantic Region and Connecticut State Director for the Trust for Public Land, the panel featured five professionals representing various federal agencies and partners:
- Amanda Bassow, Director, Northeastern Regional Office, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF)
- Dan Berkman, Emergency Management Specialist, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
- Jen Cherry, Acting Deputy Chief, Land Resources Division, National Park Service (NPS)
- Daimon Meeh, Grazing Specialist-New Hampshire, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
- Nathalie Woolworth, Conservation Finance Manager, U. S. Forest Service (USFS)
Speakers provided an overview of their work and of their partners. They also described how they assess impact through their work and gave examples of programs they are rolling out with new, historic levels of federal funding. They described how these funds are meant to address climate change mitigation and Justice 40 goals, and the ways they have modified programs to achieve these goals. The audience of the panel was primarily graduate students at the Yale School of the Environment, and speakers concluded by encouraging students to consider working with the Federal Government. Below, we summarize comments from each speaker.
Amanda Bassow described how NFWF pools federal, private, and philanthropic resources to provide competitive grants. They have established initiatives like the National Coastal Resilience Fund, which distributed $140 million in grants this year (compared with $35 million just a few years ago), to enhance natural infrastructure in coastal regions. She also described the America the Beautiful Challenge grant program, which recently announced $140 million in grants (up from $91 million in 2022), and how proud she was that 60% of these funds were awarded to tribal governments. She emphasized the work NFWF has done to reach new audiences and address the needs of underserved communities, and described how she feels that under-resourced communities need large, not small, grants to be able to do meaningful projects. She underscored the need for tools to assess community engagement in projects and described NFWF’s work to create such a tool. Additionally, she emphasized how the grants made today are investments in the infrastructure of tomorrow and that we need to anticipate the needs of the future as best we can.
Daimon Meeh spoke about the importance of engaging with landowners to understand and implement climate solutions and durable land conservation. Through his work as the New Hampshire Grazing Specialist, he works one-on-one with the state’s farmers to help them improve their grazing practices. He mentioned the increasing focus of NRCS on climate change mitigation through practices that increase carbon sequestration, reduce carbon emissions, or sometimes both. He described how the Farm Bill historically has provided a major part of NRCS funding, but these funds have been supplemented with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. In fiscal year 2022, $1.9 billion was allocated to conservation programs and technical assistance, spanning 22 million acres. An additional $19.5 billion from the IRA was infused into the program, with efforts to make $3 billion of that accessible in fiscal year 2024, with a specific emphasis on addressing climate change. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law earmarked $803 million for 250 projects, concentrating on watershed initiatives. Daimon spoke about the novel Landscape Conservation Initiatives program that NRCS is leading to bring together individual landowners into groups to amplify the impact of their efforts across the landscape. He also spoke about the Working Lands for Wildlife program, which aims to target conservation efforts to improve agricultural and forest productivity. He highlighted the annual spot-check mechanism (selected through random selection) used by NRCS to monitor the impact of funds.
Jen Cherry, Acting Deputy Chief of the Land Resources Division of the National Park Service (NPS), spoke about how NPS applies their technical expertise in land acquisition and land management to acquire new lands within designated national park boundaries. She explained how Land and Water Conservation Funds finance these projects, and the positive impact that making the Great American Outdoors Act permanent has had on her programs. She now knows that funds will be consistently available to support her work. She described how funds are competitively disbursed among federal level, regional level, and other offices. She also mentioned staffing challenges and how the National Park Service has been trying to expand hiring to address these.
Nathalie Woolworth underscored the significance of the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in financing nature-based projects. She described how these funds are filling a decades-long backlog in funding for the USFS. Woolworth elaborated on the Wildfire Crisis Strategy, specifically targeting 21 high-risk areas in the West for focused wildfire mitigation efforts. USFS is targeting available resources towards these high-risk areas in order to maximize their impact. She mentioned the Forest Service's exploration of external funding sources to maximize their potential following the 5-year timeline of sources like the IRA or BIL, emphasizing the need for a more sustainable, longer-term governance model. Funding for the federal Forest Legacy Program has expanded significantly, and a new USFS program is earmarking $150 million to support underserved and small-acreage landowner participation in emerging private markets. Despite these positive strides, Woolworth acknowledged challenges such as understaffing and constraints on fund utilization. She pointed out that the stringent definitions and domains for fund utilization pose challenges due to potential differences in interpretations and the variance between policy guidelines and on-the-ground realities.
Dan Berkman discussed innovative initiatives at FEMA to build climate resilience as a way to reduce the risks of future disasters. He specifically highlighted the Recovery and Resilience Library and Climate Adaptations Planning Guide, which will be released soon. He provided a detailed overview of Building Resilient Infrastructure Communities (BRIC) funding program, which will support investments that reduce risk in future disasters, and the eligibility of nature-based solutions for BRIC funding. He emphasized how this program now includes user-friendly monitoring mechanisms and provides access to historical data on all applications. He noted the adoption of measures to assess whether infrastructure changes are sufficient to withstand emergencies as severe as previous incidents. Berkman said another positive development is FEMA's provision of technical assistance through the BRIC portal as they keep increasing the amount of money that people can apply to. While according to Justice 40 guidelines, 40% of the benefits should be directed towards lower-income or underserved communities, Berkman said the actual percentage has been much lower to date. Individuals from these communities can apply through a concise two-page application. However, community emergency managers may lack the time or resources to complete such applications. As a result, Berkman emphasized the importance of promoting and increasing awareness about the program among lower-income and underserved communities and stressed the critical role of community engagement in fostering resilient communities.
A common thread throughout the panelists' discussions centered on the extensive opportunities afforded by their respective organizations for career advancement and development, as well as on-the-ground impact. They shared stories of the impact that they have had to date through their work, and why they love doing what they do. For example, Amanda Bassow described how proud she is that her work has helped enhance fish passage in Pennsylvania. Nathalie Woolworth described the satisfaction she derives from working on national-level projects, and how she has been able to help push forward projects that might not otherwise have happened. Each speaker’s emphasis on engaging at the local level to effect substantial change not only underscores their commitment but also contributes to a profound sense of job satisfaction among each of them. For instance, Nathalie mentioned Federal service to be a “really compelling career opportunity, with opportunities to step up and lead and create, innovate, and build. The potential scale of impact is immense at the government and is motivating and inspiring.”