The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed into law on November 15 does what you’d expect of a bill with that name: It pumps gobs of money into the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, railways, and water pipes. The $1.2 trillion act also puts a modern twist on infrastructure spending by expanding broadband internet access, upgrading the power grid for more renewable energy, and building a national network of electric vehicle chargers.
But what excites wildlife advocates is how the bill aims to stitch back together habitat that our existing highways and other infrastructure frayed and fragmented. In the midst of two interconnected crises—an extinction crisis that is pushing more and more species to the brink, and a climate crisis that is forcing them to seek out new habitats—experts say the funding could mark a turning point in the urgent effort to reconnect and restore ecosystems.
“The fundamental shift in this bill is to better recognize natural infrastructure and better integrate human infrastructure with nature,” says Mike Leahy, the National Wildlife Federation’s director of wildlife and hunting and fishing policy. “These are levels of funding that are really significant and unusual, so the benefits of this funding will be seen for sure.”
Among the benefits visible to many Americans will be more places for animals to safely cross the nation’s highways, thanks to a new $350 million grant program. Past infrastructure spending erected deadly barriers separating patches of intact habitat and cutting off ancient migratory routes that wildlife follow as the seasons change. As a result, drivers hit up to 2 million large animals with their vehicles each year, the Federal Highway Administration reported in 2008. Those collisions kill around 200 people annually, injure 26,000 others, and cost the country $8 billion. Most of the animals involved also die—and the report only covered big game such as deer and elk. All told, if smaller animals like birds and turtles are counted, vehicle collisions in this country may kill more than 1 million wild animals every day, as Vox recently reported. Less obvious, but also disastrous for wildlife, is the role highways play in isolating animal populations, cutting off the genetic intermingling they need to remain healthy.
Wildlife crossings that use bridges, tunnels, fencing, and culverts to usher animals safely across roadways have proven to be an effective way to save lives; they can reduce collisions by up to 97 percent, according to a recent federal report. They also help to reconnect animal populations and give them the mobility they need to survive in a changing climate. But while roughly 1,000 crossings built so far across the country enjoy broad public support, they’re a fraction of what experts say are needed. The main barrier to deploying them more widely has been a lack of funding: The price tags for these projects range from less than $1 million to more than $80 million.
The new infrastructure bill will allocate the millions earmarked for the pilot program through competitive grants to municipalities, states, and tribes over the next five years. “That’s going to have such a tangible, direct benefit to wildlife habitat,” says Curt Chaffin, senior government relations representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “We would definitely consider this bill a victory for wildlife connectivity.” And the results should begin to materialize soon, he says; dozens of crossing projects have received government approvals, have local backing, and are only waiting for funding to get started.
Leahy and Chaffin say they’re also excited about the bill’s $250 million investment in the U.S. Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program to improve and reconnect habitat in less trafficked areas. The agency oversees about 370,000 miles of roads—more than twice as many miles as the national highway system—but lacks funding to maintain them and has built up a $3.7 billion maintenance backlog. That’s more than a transportation problem: Deteriorating roads not only keep the public from safely accessing recreation areas, but also degrade water quality and fish-spawning areas by sloughing off sediment into streams. Damaged and too-small culverts—tunnels that allow streams to flow under roads—block salmon and other vulnerable species from swimming upstream. And obsolete logging roads from an earlier era needlessly fragment habitat.
Congress created the Legacy Roads and Trails program in 2008 to help address those problems. Over a decade the initiative not only repaired 18,000 miles of roads and 137 bridges, but also improved more than 1,000 road crossings for fish passage and storm resilience, and reclaimed 7,000 miles of disused roads, returning them to nature and knitting habitat back together.
Environmentalists championed the program for its ecosystem benefits and the jobs it created, but in 2018 its funding was cut off. Now the infrastructure bill carves out $250 million to restart the work. “Shedding the costly excess of logging roads built over a half a century ago and putting people to work fixing the roads and trails we do need is a common-sense solution for wildlife, fish, clean water, and communities,” said Marlies Wierenga, Pacific Northwest conservation manager for WildEarth Guardians, in a press release.
The act also targets ecosystems themselves for restoration. The Great Lakes, for instance, will see $1 billion in restoration funding over the next five years, with additional funding for the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware River, Gulf of Mexico, and other water bodies. Bird advocates in the West are enthusiastic about $50 million in new funding to restore the sagebrush ecosystem. The Greater Sage-Grouse, an emblematic species for the sagebrush steppe and an indicator of the biome’s health, has seen its population plummet by 80 percent since 1965. It lost half of its original habitat to energy development, conversion to farmland, and other human activities. But in much of the West, the gravest threat to the sagebrush ecosystem is wildfire fueled by invasive cheatgrass—blazes scorched more than 20 percent of the best sage-grouse habitat in the Great Basin over the past two decades.
The act’s funding—including another $200 million to restore vegetation after fires and other disturbance—is a big opportunity to slow the spread of cheatgrass, restore burned-over areas, and otherwise improve the habitat sage-grouse and hundreds of other species rely on, says Alison Holloran, executive director of Audubon Rockies. “This is the biggest investment that we’ll probably see in our lifetime, and it is sorely needed,” she says. “We’re very excited to see this money come through over the next five years, and it couldn’t come at a more critical moment.”
These are far from the only wildlife-related items in the infrastructure bill. And yet, huge as the legislation is, it’s about $1 trillion smaller than the “Build Back Better” spending package the House passed on November 19. That bill faces a tougher vote in the Senate, but the House-passed version includes $555 billion to take on climate change—the biggest threat to birds—and additional investments in protecting and restoring habitat. “We are looking at the infrastructure bill as one half of the ultimate package that is going to be finalized,” says Bart Johnsen-Harris, senior government relations representative with Defenders of Wildlife. “So, until the Build Back Better Act is signed into law, this is incomplete.”
Even so, the infrastructure bill alone should go a long way toward helping preserve and restore ecosystems. If the Senate also passes the larger bill, the result could be a landmark moment for wildlife conservation.