Center for Progressive Reform

The National Environmental Legacy Act

Preserving the Environment for Our Children and Grandchildren

Gradually but inexorably, we are consuming the planet’s natural resources – burning them for fuel, eating them for food at an unsustainable rate, poisoning them with chemicals, and choking them with pollution.  When large-scale environmental destruction becomes clear to us, we often legislate or regulate to stop it or ameliorate it – creating Superfund to clean up dangerous toxic waste dumps, the Clean Water Act to protect the nation’s waterways from big polluters, the National Forest Management Act to prevent clear-cutting of some forests, and more.

But the fabric of those laws is frayed, and indeed, they were not designed to prevent the kind of steady, incremental environmental losses that so easily slip below radar. In 2010, Center for Progressive Reform Member Scholar Alyson Flournoy, joined by former CPR Policy Analyst Margaret Clune Giblin, and Ryan Feinberg, Heather Halter and Christina Storz, published The Future of Environmental Protection: The Case for a National Environmental Legacy Act, proposing a new and far-seeing approach to protecting the nation’s environment.

The core idea behind their proposal: to establish environmental standards aimed not simply at preventing or mitigating specific abuses, but instead at protecting specific environmental assets from the combined effect of the full range of environmental degradations, large and small. They write: 

Virtually all of the nation’s natural resources – wildlife and ecosystems, air and water, public lands and bodies of water – are in trouble. For example, the U.S. supply of fresh water is drying up, the nation’s wetlands are dwindling, its forest and grazing lands are suffering, and fish populations are plummeting. So for all the good intended and accomplished by existing environmental laws, if the objective is to preserve the environment for successive generations, we are failing. Even though we have identified specific threats and taken aim at them, we continue to pursue a policy – consciously adopted or not – of spending down natural resources to meet current economic objectives rather than preserving a sufficient supply of these resources for future generations.

The National Environmental Legacy Act (NELA) Flournoy and her co-authors propose would identify certain natural resources under federal ownership and control as important, and sometimes finite, and establish resource-specific limits on further depletion, so that future generations would be able to enjoy and use them.  So, as the authors write, “recognizing biodiversity as an environmental asset, NELA would address the problem of alarming rates of species endangerment and extinction by seeking to protect species long before they become endangered or threatened, through efforts to protect ecosystems that account for all the factors in an ecosystem that affect species population.”

NELA takes a broad view of the nation’s environmental challenges, more so than any of the individual environmental protection standards now on the books.  It builds on existing environmental laws, while embodying a sweeping mandate that almost all Americans would endorse: preserving our natural resources for our children and grandchildren.


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© Center for Progressive Reform, 2019