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A house in the hard-hit community of New Dorp Beach on Staten Island, Nov. 4, 2012. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ennuiislife/">Kate Gardiner</a>, CC <a href="creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/deed.en">some rights reserved</a>
A house in the hard-hit community of New Dorp Beach on Staten Island, Nov. 4, 2012. Photo: Kate Gardiner, CC some rights reserved

Will Sandy spark a green response in communities?

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Environmental groups are hoping that the massive damage and economic strain caused by Hurricane Sandy in New York City and New Jersey will spark a new discussion about climate change.

But some activists here in New York state are also pushing for a fresh conversation about the value of land preservation and green space -- the kind of resources that could insulate communities against rising rivers and oceans.

Stuart Gruskin is chief conservation officer for the Nature Conservancy in New York, a group heavily involved in land deals in the North Country and across New York state.

He told Susan Arbetter, host of the public radio program Capital Pressroom, that he thinks communities will learn that there's a lot they can do locally to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

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Certainly we can't lose sight of the steps that ought to be taken generally with respect to climate change, but there are also a lot of steps we can be taking that really address the linkages between natural systems and the ability to protect and defend ourselves from these kinds of events, whether it's a storm surge or a flood or some other kind of severe…in some places in the country or in the world we have drought.

So tell us what some policy ideas you guys have that you're going to be presenting either on the federal level or here in Albany.

So when we talk about coastal resiliency, and when we talk about wetlands and sea grass restoration, and dune restoration, and we talk about providing tools and resources for communities so they can recognize where there's vulnerability and deal with those vulnerabilities, those are all things that now really need to be not just continued but elevated to recognize the impact that it can have in planning and preparing for the next time this is going to happen.

There's no doubt that since the recession Americans have been sort of been more concerned about the economy over the environment. I think Gallup said that Americans have favored economic growth over environmental protection since 2009, and that's after 30 years of public opinion showing the opposite. Do you think just this storm is going to change public opinion back to where it was?

I hope that maybe the storm will expose that its' a phony choice, to be saying environmental protection versus economic prosperity…because you can't have economic prosperity without also addressing the environmental issues and environmental protections.

Give us one example of how they could go hand-in-hand to protect New York City.

Well, I'll give you a sort of bigger picture example, which is the EPF. We have the Environmental Protection Fund here in New York State, and there was a study that was done by the Trust for Public Lands that actually documented, quantitatively, what the return on investment in the environment is.

But it's almost as though people don't quantify those benefits.

It's a lot easier to quantify other kinds of benefits, but as the bills pile up from the storm, I think it's going to be easier for people to understand that, well, if we'd invested in dune restoration, if we had invested a modest amount in land protection so that would have disrupted the storm surge, would have absorbed some of the water, would have protected it, and there are real life examples of where this happened, in Bridgeport, Conn., the mayor has been talking about how having their parks on the shoreline helped protect them.

In southern New Jersey…the Nature Conservancy has worked with the state and with the army corps of engineers on a dune restoration project that survived both Irene and this storm well. And in fact, all over the world we have examples of work the Nature Conservancy is doing that have tangible results, and the return on investment is significant and ultimately it's going to allow the communities to thrive.

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