“This is the very first national conservation goal we have ever set as a country,” White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy said in a call with reporters. “It really reflects the urgency with which we have to respond to a global extinction crisis, the climate crisis and the deep racial and economic disparities that too often dictate who has access to nature.”
But the new report doesn’t identify specific places for enhanced protection, define what level of conservation would be required for an area to count toward the administration’s 30 percent goal or indicate how much federal funding would be needed to make Biden’s vision a reality.
This ambiguity is partly by design. Some environmentalists said that it would be impractical to make that assessment at this point, and that it will take time to muster the kind of grass-roots support needed to achieve such a sweeping conservation goal.
“I see it as a starting point that’s telling us this is the direction we want to go in, and this is how we want to do this work to ensure we’re going to get the best outcomes,” said Ali Chase, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “In terms of just trying to bring the country around to a conservation ethic, I think it’s pretty significant.”
The report is less a road map than a vision statement, painting a picture of accessible parks, ranchlands that double as wildlife corridors and farms that could also store carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. It lays out guiding principles for the program — utilizing scientific research, pursuing projects that create jobs — and calls for a “voluntary and locally led” approach to conservation, in which the federal government provides support and guidance to efforts led by landowners, cities, states and tribes.
As part of the effort, the government will launch and maintain an “American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas” to track the amount of protected land and water, and the Interior Department will be required to publish annual reports on the progress being made.
Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, said the acreage of protected areas is just one metric for measuring success. Progress will have to be judged, she said, “in the lives of people and the health of ecosystems rather than solely by scale.”
At the moment, roughly 12 percent of U.S. land and 11 percent of its freshwater ecosystems enjoy some level of official protection. About 26 percent of U.S. ocean waters are safeguarded, in part because in 2016 President Barack Obama expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — first established by President George W. Bush — to encompass more than 582,000 square miles of land and sea.
Many private landowners and commercial users of public lands, such as ranchers, anglers and hunters, are leery of Biden’s attempts to more than double that conserved area.
Farmers and ranchers are still seeking reassurance that their property rights will be respected and access to public lands for grazing will be maintained, American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said in an email.
Trout Unlimited president Chris Wood said in an interview that it is important the plan target restoring private lands, rather than just adding new federal protections. “The effects of a changing climate — fire, droughts, floods — don’t respect those boundaries. … The devil is in the details, and it’s yet to be worked out.”
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the report came out of dozens of conversations with scientists, farmers, hunters and outdoor-recreation businesses as well as city, state and tribal officials, and that the agency will solicit more feedback in the months to come.
Meanwhile, the department has plans to stand up the Civilian Climate Corps, Haaland said, which would employ Americans in reforesting and restoring degraded landscapes. The agency this week also proposed opening more than 2 million acres of public lands for hunting and fishing opportunities. And in the coming days, the National Park Service will announce $150 million in new funding to build parks in underserved communities.
On the aquatic side, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said her agency will be expanding the National Marine Sanctuary System and the National Estuarine Research Reserve program, which protects the places where rivers flow into the sea.
One of the looming questions is how Biden can reconcile the new conservation target, which has received relatively little publicity, with his better-known plans to tackle climate change.
Last month, for example, the president announced the United States would slash its greenhouse gas emissions between 50 and 52 percent by the end of the decade compared with 2005 levels. The goal of eliminating planet-warming emissions from fossil fuels is backed by roughly two-thirds of registered voters, according to a December poll by George Mason University and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. But the administration has yet to spell out specific reductions that would need to take place in key sectors of the economy.
Broadly speaking, Americans also support the idea of conserving 30 percent of the nation’s land and water by the end of the decade. Recent polls from left-leaning Center for American Progress and Natural Resources Defense Council found large majorities of respondents favor the plan, often abbreviated as “30x30.” Bipartisan coalitions of 70 mayors and more than 400 state and local elected officials have declared support for the goal, as have environmental groups, hunting and fishing organizations, and tribal leaders.
Scientists have identified land and water conservation as a vital mechanism for protecting biodiversity and addressing climate change. The 30x30 target also puts the United States on par with a group of more than 50 “high-ambition” nations that have pledged to set aside at least that much land for nature.
But when it comes to determining which land to conserve and how it should be protected, the issue becomes much more fraught.
The America the Beautiful initiative proposes increasing that protected area through a hodgepodge of efforts, including creating new parks in nature-deprived communities, supporting tribally led management projects and boosting programs that fund conservation efforts on private land.
Though specific policy mechanisms are not included in the conservation plan, it coincides with other steps from his administration to protect biodiversity. The Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday also proposed reversing a Trump-era rule change that would make it more difficult to hold firms liable for accidentally killing birds in the course of their operations.
But ecologist Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project, said he was disappointed by the absence of specific proposals for conservation on public lands, such as expanding national parks and monuments.
“They can do better than this,” he wrote in an email. “The science they seek already says they need to be bolder.”
On the other hand, conservative groups have voiced fervent opposition to what some call “the 30x30 land grab.” Multiple GOP-led Western counties have issued resolutions opposing the goal. And in March, more than 60 members of the Congressional Western Caucus — all Republicans — signed a letter expressing skepticism about Biden’s approach, which they said displayed “dangerous thoughtlessness.”
Biden’s plans to expand renewable energy — which calls for a major expansion of large-scale solar and wind farms onshore, in addition to offshore wind — could also pose a challenge for his conservation goal.
Princeton University’s recent Net Zero America study, for example, estimates that wind and solar projects will occupy roughly 230,000 square miles by mid-century — more than the states of Arizona and Colorado combined.
“The Department of Interior has a role to play in balancing the interests of clean energy development and conservation,” Sean Gallagher, vice president of state and regulatory affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in an interview. “Because we know it won’t be easy,”
While large-scale solar and wind farms take up a significant amount of space relative to a nuclear or gas-fired power plant, a 2016 article published in PLoS One noted that the disparities between renewable and fossil fuels even out after a number of decades because extractive industries exhaust the resources in one place and have to relocate. Renewable projects, by contrast, can operate indefinitely in the same site. And other forms of renewables, such as rooftop solar, have a much smaller footprint.
Jessica Wilkinson, senior policy adviser for energy and infrastructure at the Nature Conservancy, said in an email that when it comes to addressing climate and conservation: “Our science shows, that we can be successful on both fronts. We do, however, need to get the right policy signals in place now.”