A narrow path for Biden’s ambitious land conservation plan


WASHINGTON - Months after President Joe Biden set a goal of conserving 30% of the nation’s land and waters by 2030, the administration on Thursday laid out broad principles - but few details - for achieving that vision.

The new 22-page document from the Commerce, Interior and Agriculture Departments highlights one of the Biden administration’s central challenges: having committed to bold environmental goals in their early days in power, officials now face the more uncertain and contentious task of figuring out how to follow through on those ambitions.

The “America the Beautiful” report outlines steps the U.S. could take to safeguard key areas on land and in the sea to restore biodiversity, tackle climate change and make natural spaces more accessible to all Americans.

But it 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% 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 it would be impractical to make that assessment at this point, and that it will take time to muster the kind of grassroots 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.

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 U.S. would slash its greenhouse gas emissions between 50% and 52% by the end of the decade compared to 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% 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 puts the U.S. 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.

At the moment, roughly 12% of U.S. land and 11% its freshwater ecosystems enjoy some level of protection. A much larger portion of U.S. ocean waters enjoy safeguards, in part because in 2016 Barack Obama expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument - first established by George W. Bush - to encompass more than 582,000 square miles of land and sea.

The “America the Beautiful campaign” proposes increasing that protected area through a hodgepodge of policies, including creating new parks in nature-deprived communities, supporting tribally-led management projects and boosting programs that fund conservation efforts on private land.

“I think the idea is to have a massive stakeholder processes,” said National Wildlife Federation president Colin O’Mara. “When there are designations, whether that be parks or monuments or wilderness areas . . . the ones that have the most staying power have massive local buy-in.”

Yet farming, hunting and fishing groups have been wary of how the will affect their members. The American Farm Bureau Federation in April sent Biden a letter asking for assurance that public lands used for grazing would still be considered “conserved” under Biden’s definition and that conservation efforts on private lands would be recognized.

“Any discussion about conservation must begin with the recognition that farmers and ranchers are already leaders in this space and have been for decades,” the letter said.

The report appears aimed at assuaging those concerns. “Honor private property rights and support the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners and fishers,” is listed as one of the effort’s key principles.

Meanwhile, 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, projects that wind and solar projects will occupy roughly 230,000 square miles by mid-century - more than the states of Arizona and Colorado combined.

Jessica Wilkinson, senior policy advisor 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.”