This USDA Conservation Reserve Program field was planted to aid pollinators. (Courtesy of Mark Vandever for the USDA)
The Biden administration plans to broadly define conservation and encourage private landowners to adopt sustainable practices to meet a goal of protecting 30% of the land and water in the U.S. by 2030, according to a multi-agency report published Thursday.
The recommendations are short of the most aggressive federal directives congressional Republicans feared would be central to reaching the administration’s “30 by 30” goal, but may still spark objections in a Congress deeply split on how the government should manage its public lands and deal with private landowners, particularly in the West.
Some Republicans already had accused the administration of engineering a “land grab” before seeing the details of the highly anticipated plan.
The report, compiled by the departments of Interior and Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was required under an ambitious executive order President Joe Biden signed a week after taking office that committed the administration to conserving 30% of U.S. acreage by 2030.
The administration in its plan outlines a 10-year conservation program that relies mostly on existing authorities and avoids discussion of the most active steps the federal government could take short of congressional action, which could include rules, executive orders or agency guidance.
“Though President Biden’s national conservation goal is ambitious, it can be achieved using the wide array of existing tools and strategies that tribal nations, territories, state and local governments, private landowners, nonprofit organizations, fishing communities, Congress, and Federal agencies have already developed and deployed effectively,” the report says.
The report does not say what percent of U.S. land and water the administration would currently count toward its goal. It proposes establishing an American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas that would tally conservation areas.
That count would likely include not only pristine wilderness areas already managed by the National Park Service, but also a wide array of protected areas such as private lands that benefit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, which provides incentives to farmers and ranchers to adjust their land management to mitigate climate change.
Encouraging conservation on private lands could be done through existing programs, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters in a briefing after the report’s release, “but with additional resources that would provide opportunities to expand and enhance conservation authorities.”
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said her department would also use existing programs to “support tribally led conservation priorities, enhance wildlife migration corridors,” create more urban parks and create the Civilian Climate Corps program for conservation jobs.
The report outlines eight principles that should be part of a conservation program, including taking “a collaborative and inclusive approach,” letting local communities make decisions and honoring private property rights.
The government should also try and spread the benefits of conservation—providing recreation areas and clean drinking water, for example—and honor tribal sovereignty, the report says.
On Tuesday, several House Republicans said they were worried that the Biden administration plan would mean the federal government would designate large swaths of the country as wilderness, the most restrictive designation of land protection.
House Natural Resources Committee ranking Republican Bruce Westerman of Arkansas said at a forum that he favored “conservation,” which he said allowed for farming, ranching and forestry, rather than “preservation” that blocks land for other uses. Other GOP members of the panel went further, including U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, claiming the initiative was a thinly veiled land grab.
The administration report echoed Westerman’s word choice, highlighting that “working lands” could still count toward conservation.
“The President’s challenge specifically emphasizes the notion of ‘conservation’ of the nation’s natural resources (rather than the related but different concept of ‘protection’ or ‘preservation’) recognizing that many uses of our lands and waters, including of working lands, can be consistent with the long-term health and sustainability of natural systems,” the report says.
Reaching goal would require adding 190,00 square miles of land
The proposal’s reliance on non-federal lands and a broad definition of conservation reflects the magnitude and difficulty of reaching the 30% mark.
By some estimates, including a 2018 study from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank where at least two high-ranking members of the agencies responsible for the report worked before joining the government, only 12% of U.S. lands are protected. Reaching 30% would require adding more than 190,000 square miles — larger than the area of California — beyond that estimate.
But relying on private lands also opens the possibility that some conservation may not be permanent. The success of the program could at least partly depend on how enduring the conservation status of privately held lands is.
Brian O’Donnell, the director of the conservation group Campaign for Nature, said an expansive view of what counts as conservation was workable to achieve environmental goals, as long as conservation status is durable and has “a positive biodiversity outcome.”
“If we focus on that, I think we’re going to be fine, and we’ll keep an open mind on approaches,” he said.
To measure the success of the approach, the government will have to establish baselines of existing biodiversity, O’Donnell said. The report calls for the Interior Department to deliver an annual account of the state of nature.
Other conservation groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, applauded the report.
“President Biden’s historic and inspiring Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful plan rightly focuses on collaboration and restoration to conserve our nation’s unparalleled natural resources, rather than regulation and designations,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s a visionary blueprint.”
The 30 by 30 objective is supported by scientists as a way to reverse the trending loss of biodiversity, or the variety of living species on Earth. A 2019 study by Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a global research nonprofit that provides data to the United Nations, found nature was deteriorating at an unprecedented and accelerating rate, threatening nearly one-quarter of the world’s plant and animal species.
Meeting that target also has implications for mitigating climate change.
“We cannot confront climate change without doing a far better job to conserve our forests, our oceans, our wetlands and our grasslands,” White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy told reporters Thursday. “Natural solutions are some of the most powerful, as well as effective, climate solutions.”
The 30% goal is necessary to reach other international standards, including the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming, O’Donnell said.
“We cannot meet the global climate targets without nature playing a major role,” O’Donnell said. “So on a global scale, unless we protect 30% of our lands and oceans, we have no way that we can reach the Paris Agreement goals.”
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