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The Biden administration has a game-changing approach to nature conservation

The America the Beautiful initiative could redefine US conservation as we know it.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visits Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah, in April.
Rick Bowmer/AP

The Biden administration is about to embark on a historic mission: to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and water by 2030.

Since President Joe Biden announced the target, known as “30 by 30,” in January, there’s been a mix of hope, especially from environmental groups, and apprehension, largely from people who earn a living off of the land. On both sides, there’s a heightened focus on the fact that just 12 percent of American land is within permanently protected areas today. The question is: Where will the rest come from?

On Thursday, the Interior Department released a report that starts to answer that question — and it shows the government is trying to overhaul how the country thinks about conservation altogether.

The initiative to reach 30 percent, called “America the Beautiful,” aims to redefine what constitutes “conserved” land, to make that new definition distinct from “protected” land, and to cede power to local communities and tribal nations to reach that target. At the same time, it promises to provide disadvantaged communities with more access to parks and the benefits of nature.

Though details are sparse, the report also suggests the US government is trying to iron out tensions that stem from past conservation programs from national parks, some of which were established at the expense of Native Americans, to regulations on ranch lands.

“We know we have to work across public, tribal, and working lands to be successful,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a press call Thursday morning. “Conservation works best when it’s about partnership and collaboration.”

The US is among more than 50 countries that have committed to 30 by 30. The target has become a rallying cry for the global conservation movement as it seeks to thwart an ever-increasing crisis of biodiversity loss.

While the US has some of the world’s strongest environmental policies, its species, ecosystems, and natural spaces are in rapid decline. About 12,000 wildlife species are in need of protection to avoid the threat of extinction, the report says. “We are witnessing staggering declines in wildlife populations,” Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, said on the press call. “Nature in America is in trouble and Americans across the country are seeing and feeling the impacts.”

Many details remain to be seen, such as how the government will fund the campaign and, specifically, what kind of land will be considered as part of the 30 percent. Yet it’s clear that the plan is monumental — and here’s why.

A cattle ranch along the Buffalo Fork River in Wyoming.
A working cattle ranch along the Buffalo Fork River in Wyoming.
Jon G. Fuller/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

1) The campaign redefines what “conservation” means

In the US, about 12 percent of land and one-quarter of the oceans are within permanently protected areas, including national parks, wildlife refuges, and marine protected areas. What that figure doesn’t include is other areas managed with sustainability in mind, such as farmland enrolled in conservation programs or tribal lands.

According to the report, those managed lands — though not formally protected — could contribute to the 30 percent target under a new and much broader definition of conservation. (When the Biden administration wrote the 30 by 30 pledge into an executive order, it notably said “conserved” and not “protected.”)

“We want to make sure that we understand and take advantage of working lands,” Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, said on the press call.

How much US land and water will fall under that new definition? No one knows yet.

“Currently, the US government doesn’t have an answer to that question that adequately captures the conservation contributions of tribal nations, farmers, ranchers, forest owners, fishing communities, and others,” Mallory said.

In the coming months, the administration will come up with a system to map and track the area in the country considered “conserved,” called the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas. It will likely show that conserved areas in the US today already amount to well over 12 percent.

2) Indigenous rights and sovereignty are front and center

In a major departure from conservation efforts of centuries past, the new “America the Beautiful” initiative makes the sovereignty and rights of tribal nations a core part of the 30 by 30 campaign. (Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is a Native American and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe whose territory is in New Mexico.)

Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, is the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Native American communities have inhabited the US for millennia, and they have more experience than anyone in land management. Research has also shown that biodiversity tends to decline more slowly on land managed by Indigenous people.

Plus, the US conservation movement is increasingly aware it needs to right past wrongs — when tribes were removed from their lands in the name of protecting “pristine” landscapes, such as when the government created Yellowstone and Yosemite National Park.

Over the next decade, the government will support tribal-led conservation efforts and make restoring Indigenous homeland a priority, the report said. It also calls on federal agencies to help tribal nations access programs that offer funding for conservation projects and to engage with Indigenous people in the management of public land and water. “Tribal nations have been serving as stewards of their land since time immemorial,” McCarthy said.

3) Farms, ranches, and other working lands will contribute to the 30 percent

Biden’s 30 by 30 pledge initially sparked concern among some farming, ranching, and hunting groups, which rely on large swaths of land for revenue. They worried that the goal might add restrictions to the land they use.

“The concerns of farmers and ranchers are escalating regarding the intent of the 30x30 goal, the definition of conservation, and the metrics for defining success,” Zippy Duvall, the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, wrote in a letter to Biden in late April.

US farmers and ranchers have enrolled more than 140 million acres of private land in conservation programs, and they should be recognized for their contribution to conservation, Duvall wrote in the letter. A large number of hunting and fishing organizations have also urged the administration to recognize their contributions toward protecting wildlife and ecosystems.

A man fishing.
A man fishing in Kaercher Creek Park in Windsor Township, Pennsylvania.
Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

The report suggests the government acknowledged those concerns and will consider many farming, ranching, and hunting lands as part of the 30 percent goal — if they’re managed sustainably. It will also work to expand them through voluntary conservation programs on working lands and by opening up more public land to hunting and fishing.

”The vision we lay out today in this first national conservation goal and report is a win for voluntary conservation practices on working lands,” Vilsack said. “We know that they will help to restore habitat, enhance soil health, and sequester carbon.”

There are already examples of this: Last month, the Department of Agriculture expanded its Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to plant beneficial species and take environmentally sensitive land out of production. Also that month, the Interior Department announced a proposal for the largest expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities in US history.

This is a big deal. In the past, some ranchers and hunters — especially in the West — strongly opposed government efforts to conserve land, which they considered exclusionary. Now, many of them appear ready to get on board. “The report goes out of its way to recognize the concerns raised by Farm Bureau and agriculture, in general,” said Sam Kieffer, an American Farm Bureau Federation spokesperson, in a radio interview Thursday. “It also recognized the contributions that farmers and ranchers have made in conservation.”

4) It will increase access to nature in low-income communities

Access to nature isn’t distributed evenly. People of color and low-income communities generally have been relegated to live in places with fewer green spaces and natural areas. As just one example, 74 percent of nonwhite Americans live in regions with less natural land, such as forests and wetlands, than the state median, compared to 23 percent of white people, according to a report by the Center for American Progress.

Not only do those communities lose out on the many benefits of nature, from clean air to less extreme heat, but they “shoulder a disproportionate share of the costs of nature’s decline,” the authors write. These include the loss of resources for subsistence fishing and hunting, the spread of industrial development, and pollution.

With this in mind, the US government said it will prioritize access to nature in disadvantaged communities as it aims for the 30 percent target. The commitment is in line with a broader goal of the Biden administration to restore environmental justice and channel 40 percent of benefits from government investments to disadvantaged communities.

It’s not entirely clear what steps the administration will take, but Haaland said the National Park Service will soon announce that it’s pouring $150 million into the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program to help underserved communities build more parks.

5) The initiative also seeks to generate a lot of jobs

The pandemic made economic growth and slashing unemployment a huge priority and talking point for the Biden campaign. It’s no surprise to see his team tie job creation to 30 by 30.

The big opportunity is in restoration, another key objective of the initiative. “Restoring forests to a more resilient condition creates jobs and reduces the threat of catastrophic wildfire,” the report says. Many of those jobs will be in rural communities, the authors added.

Biden’s American Jobs Plan plans to create a $10 billion Civilian Climate Corps. The corps would, among other things, employ people to restore lands and waters, which advocates call a win-win.

“Some of the earliest job wins you’re going to see are going to be in the restoration space,” Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, told Vox’s Ella Nilsen in March. “They don’t require materials or construction, new fabrication of different goods and materials. The only thing that’s needed is money.”

A range of groups applauded the report, including environmental organizations and tribal leaders, but there’s still a lot left to hash out. More about setting guiding principles than offering concrete details, the report was a starting point — and so is the 30 percent target.

“30 percent isn’t the end,” said Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo during the press call. “30 percent is the beginning. It’s setting a very strong foundation and we hope [it] will build the momentum for longer-term conservation to benefit current and future generations.”