Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Here's how Biden can help conserve 30 percent of U.S. land by 2030

By Arthur Middleton


Co-authored by Justin Brashares, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley

A photo of a mountainous desert landscape at dusk

To slow extinctions and climate change, President-elect Joe Biden has embraced a plan to conserve 30 percent of U.S. land and 30 percent of its ocean waters by 2030. It is perhaps the most ambitious commitment to conservation by a U.S. president. How he proceeds will determine whether he unites or further divides Americans in a pivotal decade for the planet.

The plan is known as “30 by 30.” Behind the catchy phrase is a simple, scientifically informed belief that conserving 30 percent of the planet’s land and 30 percent of its water is required to protect roughly 75 percent of Earth’s species and slow climate change by storing carbon in plants and soil. In the words of a former interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, 30 by 30 is “a kind of synthesizing, consolidating, organizing possibility.”

Twenty-six percent of U.S. ocean waters are now protected consistent with the goals of 30 by 30, but only 12 percent of the land. The goal of conserving 18 percent more of the land within this decade means protecting an area more than twice the size of Texas. It is an enormous challenge and requires carefully assembling a patchwork of not only public but also private land. Still, there are ways to do it that can draw different interests together toward a common goal.

Many difficult questions must now be answered: Which places should we conserve? What do we count as “conserved?” How do we conserve it? And who decides?

The quickest path for the United States to reach its 30 percent land goal would rely on Mr. Biden’s executive powers to increase the protection of federal lands by designating new national monuments and banning drilling, mining and timber harvesting. But most of the country’s biodiversity and potential to store carbon are not on federal lands.

About two-thirds of species on the Endangered Species List exist mainly on private land. More than half of the country’s forests — critical carbon sinks, places that absorb more carbon dioxide than they release — are privately owned. Private lands also connect our public lands, providing seasonal habitat for wide-ranging wildlife and clean drinking water, crop pollination and flood control.

Top-down declarations and land-use restrictions from Washington risk alienating rural Americans who otherwise support healthy lands, waters and wildlife. Instead of taking shortcuts to protect federal lands in ways that could antagonize nearby communities, the administration should work with state, local and tribal governments and the private sector to build on proven models of landscape conservation.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, protecting land meant setting it aside as wilderness. But scientists increasingly view this approach alone as too narrow and rigid. Indigenous scholars have shown that many areas we now call wilderness were shaped over thousands of years by human activities. And the science on how ecosystems respond to climate change shows that they will move, shrink and grow. Modern conservation strategies avoid isolating ecosystems within hard boundaries and instead seek to connect tracts of land with diverse histories of protection and ownership.

Ideally, existing or newly protected public lands can link to surrounding private lands. One important tool is the conservation easement, a legal contract that allows for tax breaks or payments to landowners who give up development rights. But forgoing development forever is too great a commitment for many landowners. Other tools include some federal agricultural programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, which pay landowners annually to set aside sensitive habitats. The problem is that these incentives provide little long-term security against development.

Achieving 30 by 30 on private lands will require the durability of easements and the flexibility of short-term incentive programs. One such approach could be conservation leases with terms of 20 to 30 years that are palatable to landowners while providing meaningful protection. These programs would be less expensive than land purchases or easements, providing new ways for corporations and philanthropists to underwrite land protection at a scale much greater than can be achieved through the outright purchase of land.

The Biden administration can find many useful models of large landscape conservation encompassing both public and private lands. In the East, America’s Longleaf Initiative, a coalition of government agencies, nonprofits and corporate and family forest owners, is restoring the longleaf pine ecosystem that once extended from Texas to Florida and north to Virginia. Since 2007 this work has driven an extraordinary recovery of the longleaf pine ecosystem to 4.7 million acres from 3.4 million acres.

In the West, the Agriculture Department’s Sage Grouse Initiative has secured easements on nearly 700,000 acres of private land across 11 Western states — including areas of Wyoming and Montana that are part of the world’s longest-known mule deer and pronghorn migrations. This initiative has increased sage grouse nesting and foraging habitat on a further seven million acres by working with ranchers to restore grasslands, streams and wetlands.

Americans generally support land conservation, but differ over how it should be carried out. A survey published this year by Duke University suggests that while rural Americans care deeply about conservation, they do not trust big environmental groups like those that have pushed 30 by 30. Instead, they prefer policies overseen by state and local governments that foster collaboration with communities. A failure to engage rural Americans is the fastest way to ensure collapse of 30 by 30.

The administration must also recognize the violence, displacement and marginalization that have often accompanied land conservation. Native Americans and other peoples of color have been largely excluded from U.S. conservation policy, and many of them, living in cities, view public lands as remote and unwelcoming. A successful 30 by 30 strategy must encompass needs as diverse as tribal priorities and urban green spaces in historically excluded communities. Mr. Biden signaled a commitment to environmental justice last week when he said he would nominate Deb Haaland, a congressional representative from New Mexico and a Native American, to lead the Interior Department, which manages more than 440 million acres of federal land.

So where does the Biden White House begin? The administration should move quickly to develop a science-based plan and lay out an inclusive process. At the same time, the sheer scale of the vision will require taking the time to coordinate across the entire federal government and with state, local and tribal governments. With careful planning, the Biden administration can ensure that 30 by 30 doesn’t die as a fleeting national aspiration, but sets the course for a truly inclusive conservation vision.

This piece was originally published in the New York Times on December 21, 2020