Why Does a Healthy Environment Matter?
There’s little debate that the physical and psychological well-being of human and natural communities are interrelated: Studies dating back to the 1950s show substantial human health benefits from exposure to green environments, nature and wildlife.
A healthy and resilient natural environment provides clean air and water, feeds us, supports biodiversity, meets our diverse spiritual and cultural needs, provides recreational opportunities, and supports our livelihoods. The social benefits are striking: Exercise in green environments can immediately boost self-esteem. In areas dominated by concrete, people interact less. Those living in view of greenery report less domestic violence and fewer aggressive conflicts.
But balancing human needs with the need to ensure the integrity of our ecosystems presents challenges. In Oregon, projected population growth, climate change and economic shifts add pressures on the environment, calling for approaches that balance conservation, environmental protection and economic interests.
The pressures are serious: climate change in the Pacific Northwest is projected to lead to higher summer temperatures, increased wildfires, earlier snow melts, changes to seasonal river levels and water availability, the long-term transformation of forest landscapes, and coastal impacts, such as sea level rise, more frequent inundation of coastal land, rising coastal temperatures and greater ocean acidification.
Supporting efforts to mitigate those pressures fits squarely in Meyer’s mission of working with and investing in organizations, communities, ideas and efforts that contribute to a flourishing and equitable Oregon.
Equity within the Environment
Oregonians have a strong sense of place based on our unique and diverse landscapes and our encounters with the natural world in our neighborhoods and communities.
But not all of Oregon’s communities have equitable access to the benefits of nature and environmental protection. Listening and responding to the needs of negatively-impacted communities is essential. That’s why much of Meyer’s support will directly address disparities experienced by under-resourced and historically marginalized populations in rural and urban areas, including low-income communities, communities of color, Oregon’s indigenous communities and Tribes, and immigrants and refugees.
Low-income, rural and communities of color are often most impacted by polluted water, soils and air: commercial hazardous waste facilities tend to be clustered in areas where people of color predominate and where poverty rates are 1.5 times greater than in areas without toxic waste facilities. A 2012 study on air pollution in the United States found that exposure to air pollutants was higher for people of color and people with low income for 13 of 14 pollutants studied. And although people of color made up 37.9% of the population in the United States in 2014, they appear on fewer than five percent of the boards of environmental nonprofits, according to the U.S. Census, Green 2.0 report.
Meyer’s Environmental Objectives
We plan to focus on the environment on two levels, through:
Support across the state for:
— equitable distribution of environmental impacts and benefits among communities;
— efforts that mutually support community well-being, economic vitality and environmental stewardship;
— a movement for a healthy environment that is effective and relevant to all of Oregon’s diverse communities; and
— healthy and adaptive natural systems.
Willamette River Initiative, a place-based strategy working to:
— advance river health;
— align river restoration through collective impact;
— build support for long-term efforts to protect and restore the river; and
— advance diversity, equity and inclusion within Willamette River restoration work.
Willamette River Initiative
As an Oregon grantmaker, Meyer views Willamette River restoration as a high priority for focused, strategic funding. Home to two-thirds of the state’s population and 75% of its economic output, the Willamette Basin is one of the state’s defining features. It is an important part of our history and our sense of place, and — because the river and its tributaries are located entirely within Oregon’s boundaries — its destiny rests in our hands.
Though its water quality has improved considerably since the 1960s, the Willamette faces an uncertain future. Many parts of the river exceed state standards for temperature and mercury, and contamination from toxic pollutants is a growing concern. Important habitats and the species that depend on them have markedly declined. A number of cities currently draw on the river as their drinking water source, and that demand will increase significantly. Protecting this resource will become ever more critical to a flourishing Oregon as the population grows and warmer winters reduce the snowpack that provides cold, clean water to the Willamette.
We aim for flexibility to test new approaches to supporting and strengthening restoration efforts. Through the Willamette River Initiative (WRI), Meyer works with other funders and river stakeholders to develop shared priorities and improve coordination of restoration activities. And progress is being made: in 2012, the Willamette restoration movement won the Thiess International Riverprize, one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards, for best practices in river management. Through these efforts, we hope to steer the Willamette toward a healthy, swimmable and fishable future.
WRI is a 10-year program to help improve ecological outcomes for the Willamette River and its tributaries through better knowledge, practice and coordination of agency and nonprofit restoration efforts. WRI was designed with science-driven goals and began several years before Meyer’s redesign brought diversity, equity and inclusion to the forefront. Despite this, there are many opportunities in the remaining years of the initiative to explore the question of how to advance equity within the field of watershed restoration. We’re is committed to supporting WRI’s current cohort of grantees to move equity work forward within their organizations and communities, and to forming new partnerships with groups working in this area.
Visit the Willamette River Initiative’s website for more about efforts focused on improving river conditions on the main channel of the river and tributary systems.