[Opinion] – A Ground-level View of the EPA

As we say almost daily at work, invasive species don’t respect political boundaries. A line on a map, be it county, state, or international, means nothing to a fish swimming upstream, a beetle in a tree, or a plant growing on a field-edge. It’s up to us humans to think outside our self-drawn boxes for solutions. One of the most effective ways to address such problems is through cooperation; agreeing on specific species to control, policies to abide by, or organizations that will have jurisdiction over a larger area and work with a wide variety of stakeholders on an issue. Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Iowa, and many other states have Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas (CISMAs) to do just that; work across borders to manage invasive species, regardless of who owns the property, or who governs it, with the assistance and consent of all involved. This also frees up stakeholders to do their own work on invasive species under a banner organization that holds more confidence than any of the individual partners might on their own.

This is what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does for the United States of America, but on a much wider variety of important topics. Pollution, global climate change, and water quality don’t respect borders any more than invasive species do (and some even less). An agency focused on environmental issues can hit the big picture issues (invasive species are harmful, pollution is bad, water quality is crucial), and the smaller stakeholders “below” can get to work on the ground implementing these policies, even strengthening them or tailoring them to the specific region to make them more applicable. Everyone benefits from less pollution, climate change-combating infrastructure and ecosystems, and high water quality, and the work toward these goals is easier for the cooperation.

As mentioned in an earlier article, cutting funding to the EPA and environmental programs just doesn’t pay.  In a political climate where saving and creating jobs is paramount, it’s more than a little ridiculous to cut such a crucial agency by any amount. Presently, many people are focusing on the Agency jobs that would be lost with drastic (or even moderate) budget cuts. These jobs are incredibly important to the function of the agency and to the protection of our health and environment.

However, there are scores of people not directly employed by the EPA whose employment status could be strongly affected if the EPA has its funding cut. As the Coordinator of a CISMA (one of those invasive species groups), I employ three others full-time year-round, and between two and six full-time workers during the growing season. Our organization is presently half-funded by grants from the EPA. While we’re always seeking new funding, all of our jobs are at risk if federal funding is eliminated or even reduced; grants are competitive as it is. As well as my direct employees, these grant funds allow our organization to spend money. We print brochures, books, posters, and signs, purchase supplies for our work in the field, buy gas, and rent trucks. Whether we’re protecting public roads and private homes from disintegration by Japanese knotweed or conducting Early Detection & Response efforts on giant hogweed (which can cause death, blindness, or painful blistering, depending on how you come in contact), our CISMA and many others are hard at work protecting the environment, human health, and the economy from invasive species.  While I doubt many of the aforementioned companies would file for bankruptcy if we disappeared overnight, significant impacts on home and property values, as well as health consequences and even decreased lumber regeneration are at risk.

Other businesses we support, like invasive species control contractors, would be hit hard. There are hundreds of contractors in Michigan alone, and many are very small. A few in particular essentially “got their start” working on EPA Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects. Erasing EPA funding would severely impact these businesses that travel around Michigan, specializing in controlling invasive Phragmites, Japanese knotweed, and glossy buckthorn. While private and State funding would allow some invasive species control work to continue with these contractors, they would likely be in a similar metaphorical boat as the CISMA I run; more than half of their market would be eliminated overnight. This is especially true for large-scale treatments that are too expensive to fund without these outside dollars. Striking at these enterprises through the EPA cuts is the opposite of job-creation and being friendly to small businesses, and instead puts them at risk of significant downsizing or even closure.  This puts the work of CISMAs at risk a second time; in addition to stopping work, when money does come through for projects, there would be less competition in the bidding process, allowing costs to rise and less of our crucial work to be done for the same amount of money.

In addition to funding so many livelihoods, directly or indirectly, the EPA also allows many other Americans to complete their jobs or live safer lives. One of my friends, who works in environmental consulting, uses a county-level map of radon (a naturally-occurring gas that can cause lung cancer) zones maintained by the EPA as a rationale to conduct preliminary radon testing in nursing homes. EPA reporting requirements help local fire departments know what chemicals are present at businesses and therefore choose the right fire-fighting methods. The lives saved by the EPA are uncountable.

EPA funds aren’t thrown into a hole in the ground: they’re spent in American communities, supporting American businesses and providing services for American people. Large swaths of that funding go to rural communities; my own work is in northern Michigan, about as rural as it gets. Obviously, I have a stake here; I love my job, and I won’t get to do it anymore if EPA grants are slashed. But the good that we do with those funds can’t be overlooked.