How to make America the beautiful
The Biden administration recently revealed its report on how to conserve 30 percent of lands and waters in the United States by 2030. Rebranded as the “America the Beautiful” campaign, the report lays out eight principles that will guide the national “30 by 30” effort. Although the report lacks clear details on implementation, the importance of private lands and property rights is noticeably weaved throughout.
Conservation is a worthy goal, and as President Biden appears to acknowledge, private land stewardship is the next frontier of conservation. How the administration does this, however, matters. The preliminary principles of the America the Beautiful campaign focus on collaboration, voluntary effort, incentives, local leadership and honoring property rights — and that’s a recipe for using market-based approaches to help reach the next conservation frontier.
Private landowners sustain much of what many Americans want to conserve — abundant wildlife, clean water and vast open spaces. Altogether, private lands are home to 75 percent of the nation’s wetlands, and two-thirds of all threatened and endangered species depend upon private lands for the majority of their habitat. Eighty percent of biodiversity hot spots exist on private land. Even before the focus on “30 by 30,” farmers, ranchers, timber producers and other landowners were conserving America’s land, water and wildlife.
The Biden administration appears to recognize this: “Rather than simply measuring conservation progress by national parks, wilderness lands and marine protected areas in the care of the government,” write Biden officials, “the President’s vision recognizes and celebrates the voluntary conservation efforts of farmers, ranchers, and forest owners.” The report repeatedly mentions the importance of private landowners and states the intention to “honor private property rights and support the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners and fishers.”
That’s fantastic. But implementation matters. Moving forward, the administration should capitalize on the opportunity to work with landowners as critical partners — not targets — in conservation.
As the Biden administration seeks to support local conservation efforts, they should recognize and include the stewardship work done by private collaboratives and local groups. These groups are positioned with local knowledge to address the unique conservation challenges faced by every community. Here in Montana, the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group and the Blackfoot Challenge are bringing together landowners to promote sustainable and profitable stewardship. Groups such as these should continue to lead and be recognized for their contributions.
Additionally, the administration wants to reward voluntary conservation efforts. This is a strong approach to partner with landowners, and policymakers should do so by upholding existing private efforts. Wild Sky Beef, a for-profit company started by American Prairie Reserve, sells grass-fed beef throughout the country and uses its profits to provide payments to ranchers who implement certain conservation practices. In a similar vein, the Nature Conservancy started a program that pays rice farmers to flood their fields after harvest to provide temporary habitat for birds along their migratory routes. These successful programs demonstrate how the private sector can, and should, lead in rewarding landowner conservation efforts.
Another stated priority of the administration is to maintain ranching in the West. This is an important goal because ranches provide open space that otherwise would be at risk of development. Biden can support these working lands by reducing regulatory burdens. Ranchers in Oregon, for example, found themselves in a regulatory purgatory when they tried to restore streams on their property. Cattle producers in Montana refrained from reintroducing endangered species on their property because they are afraid of potential land use restrictions for them and their neighbors. Reducing unnecessary regulation to lower the burden of conservation on landowners will cut costs, promote stewardship, and help keep working lands working.
A specific project the administration wants to promote as part of the America the Beautiful initiative is to work with landowners to conserve wildlife corridors. This can be achieved by supporting local, market-based approaches led by private groups. What works for one landowner, valley or state might not work for another. Drawing from PERC’s work in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, shorter-term “habitat leases,” rather than permanent easements, are one approach that might entice more ranchers to provide habitat for migratory elk along their journey.
Implementation matters as the America the Beautiful campaign moves forward, and policymakers and conservationists are right to be interested in the details. The initial principles put forward by the Biden administration offer the opportunity to promote market-based environmentalism. Let’s hope the administration continues down this road.
Hannah Downey is a contributor at Young Voices and the policy director at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Mont.