If there's one takeaway from the new "State of the Birds" report, it's this: America's strong conservation ethic is more important now than ever.
Why? As demand for food, energy, natural resources and commercial production soar on U.S. privately held lands, we should meet those demands in ways that sustain the foundation of our prosperity: our great natural resources.
America's birds are a bellwether for the health of our natural resources, and ultimately, our own prosperity and well-being. Birds need clean air, clean water and healthy natural spaces just like we do. The same wetlands that create homes for waterfowl like Northern Pintail and other birds also filter our water supplies and protect our communities from floods. The forests, grasslands and shrublands that nurture some of our most colorful and iconic birds - from hummingbirds to meadowlarks to quail - also remove harmful pollutants from the air and create the great American landscapes known all over the world.
And because 60 percent of all U.S. land is privately owned and managed, landowners deserve much of the credit for that. Take, for instance, rice-growers in California's Central Valley. Rice-growers have worked with Audubon, The Nature Conservancy and Point Blue Conservation Science to enroll about 100,000 acres in a Natural Resources Conservation Service program designed to increase waterbird habitat in rice fields.
And in the great expanses of sagebrush habitat, we're working with more than 700 ranchers to protect the sage-grouse, a keystone species of the American West. More than one-third of the Greater Sage-Grouse alive today live on privately held land. By partnering with ranchers to implement new grazing systems, together, we are able to create better habitat for sage-grouse while at the same time improving the food resources for livestock.
Across the Great Plains and the East, NRCS and Audubon partner with dozens of other conservation organizations and thousands of landowners in programs that protect and restore privately owned grasslands, wetlands and forests.
In fact, the private lands placed voluntarily into conservation ownership or easement programs alone make up nearly as much land as all the National Parks within the lower 48 states. This is in addition to the millions of acres of conservation practices landowners implement every year.
Many of this country's most successful private lands conservation programs are supported through the Farm Bill. Farm Bill programs help farmers, ranchers and forestland owners maintain millions of acres of habitat that creates homes for birds and benefits for people.
As "The State of the Birds" points out, about 100 U.S. bird species depend heavily on private lands for their survival. That's important because those birds are part of the great natural heritage that we will pass on - or not - to our children.
But it's also important because if the birds do well, we know we'll prosper too. People's enjoyment of birds is a huge economic driver; wildlife recreation contributes $145 billion to the U.S. economy every year. Birds consume insects and rodents that damage crops. They pollinate plants, distribute the seeds that grow into meadows and forests, and even act as nature's clean-up crew.
Birds are a beautiful and irreplaceable part of our lives and livelihoods, and each of us has a vital role to play in securing their future - and our own.
"The State of the Birds" is produced by a coalition of 15 research institutions, conservation organizations and federal agencies. More information is available online at www.StateOfThe Birds.org.
Jason Weller is acting chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and David Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society.