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Biden should use private partnerships to save US lands

Biden should use private partnerships to save US lands
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Conserving land is an essential element of any effort to battle climate change, a fact highlighted by the 30x30 plan supported by President BidenJoe BidenGraham: 'I could not disagree more' with Trump support of Afghanistan troop withdrawal Obama, Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley team up to urge communities of color to get coronavirus vaccine Biden to hold second meeting with bipartisan lawmakers on infrastructure MORE.

Fulfilling a campaign pledge, one of Biden’s first actions as president was to sign an executive order that established the goal of conserving a third of America’s land and ocean waters by 2030. Meeting that goal will not be easy, but it can be achieved if we harness both private and government resources and ensure more Americans can participate in land conservation efforts. 

The good news is that ocean conservation is already within reach of this threshold, with 26 percent of U.S. waters already protected. We have significantly more work to do when it comes to land, with only 12 percent conserved. 

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The federal government already controls significant land holdings in the U.S., primarily west of the Mississippi River. But further expansion of federal lands would likely be expensive and slowed by legal challenges, meaning public efforts alone cannot be expected to meet the president’s goal.  

The majority of land in the U.S. is privately owned. We will therefore need to engage private landowners if this effort is to be a success. Fifty-six percent of forest land is privately owned, with 62 percent of that owned by families and individuals. 

Privately owned lands are home to countless endangered species and rare habitats that deserve protection. They serve as carbon sinks, helping improve air quality and pulling greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. And many private owners are dedicated to maintaining the natural state of their land, ensuring it remains unspoiled for future generations. 

In acknowledgement of this, Congress has been wise to create tax incentives for Americans to place their land into conservancy. As a result, landowners forfeit their development rights while ensuring a greener environment for future generations. These incentives have been used by landowners large and small to conserve millions of acres across the country. Without these incentives, many people may have been forced to sell their land to developers. 

Unfortunately, some private land conservation efforts have come under attack in recent years. Legislation has been introduced in Congress that would retroactively penalize Americans who put critical habitats under protection. While improvements must be made to enhance the integrity of all conservation easements, it is the wrong approach to place potentially millions of conserved acres of land at risk, penalize well-intentioned American taxpayers and shut-down access to market-based conservation incentives for an entire class of landowners.

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The leader of one of the primary groups backing this retroactive legislation, the Land Trust Alliance’s Andrew Bowman, recently wrote that “we cannot achieve the 30x30 goal only by adding to the federal estate; we must empower private landowners to conserve their natural and working lands at a much greater pace and scale.” 

That is certainly true. But cheerleading land conservation while working relentlessly to shut off access to participation in land conservation for an entire class of Americans is hypocritical and confounding. Retroactive tax penalties against conservationists will leave us further from our goal, not closer, and anyone who values land conservation should oppose such a policy. 

With Biden’s goal in mind, now is the time for everyone interested in protecting the environment through land conservation to come together to improve the process without doing needless harm. Our priority should be to get more landowners involved in conservation efforts. That is not achieved by stigmatizing certain classes of landowners. 

Our organization, Partnership for Conservation, looks forward to working with members of Congress and all interested parties to achieve our shared goal. Our country, our environment and future generations will be the true beneficiaries. 

Robert Ramsay is the president of Partnership for Conservation (P4C).