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How best to conserve public and private lands under the 30x30 initiative

How best to conserve public and private lands under the 30x30 initiative
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The Biden administration is now embarking on an ambitious program to protect 30 percent of United States lands and waters by 2030 (the “30x30” initiative). It’s a laudable goal, not just to address the urgent need to do something to stem the biodiversity and climate crises, but to sustain the lands and waters that are vital to life on Earth.

The administration laid out its vision for 30x30 by issuing its “America the Beautiful” report. Unfortunately, it has become obvious that commercial interests also are hard at work to protect their profits by seeking to shift the focus of 30x30 from protection and conservation to “working lands” and “multiple uses,” both catchphrases for commercial exploitation that pepper the report. Thus, a central question dogging this vision is: Which places should qualify as “protected lands” under 30x30, and what kinds of human uses should be allowed on those lands? 

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has created an objective, though imperfect, system for classifying lands according to their conservation status. Although she is now Interior Secretary, then-Rep. Deb HaalandDeb HaalandOvernight Energy: Biden seeks to reassert US climate leadership | President to 'repeal or replace' Trump decision removing protections for Tongass | Administration proposes its first offshore wind lease sale Biden administration proposes its first offshore wind lease sale  Haaland calls on US to address legacy of Native American boarding schools MORE’s original 30x30 legislation informed Biden’s goals using GAP analysis and got it right: Only what are known as “GAP-1” and “GAP-2” lands would count toward the goal of 30 percent protected natural areas. GAP-1 is defined as “an area having permanent protection from conversion of natural land cover and a mandated management plan in operation to maintain a natural state within which disturbance events (of natural type, frequency, intensity and legacy) are allowed to proceed without interference or are mimicked through management.” GAP-2 lands have “permanent protection from conversion of natural land cover and a mandated management plan in operation to maintain a primarily natural state, but which may receive uses or management practices that degrade the quality of existing natural communities, including suppression of natural disturbance.” On federally managed lands, wilderness areas exemplify GAP-1, while national wildlife refuges and state parks are GAP-2.

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On private lands, USGS considers Nature Conservancy preserves as GAP-2, but this does not necessarily apply to Nature Conservancy-held conservation easements. Some other private ranch lands are genuinely managed to restore native biodiversity: The American Prairie Reserve with its bison restoration, and Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch in New Mexico set the standard for this.

However, most undeveloped private lands will never qualify under either the GAP-1 or GAP-2 criteria. Tilled crops obviously aren’t “natural land cover,” and neither are irrigated hayfields, typically seeded with non-native grasses like timothy, or livestock pastures that have been converted to crested wheatgrass or other non-native grasses.

Similarly, hundreds of millions of acres of public lands, and even some wilderness areas, are leased for commercial livestock grazing, bringing their eligibility for 30x30 inclusion into question. For example, the Raid Lake area of Wyoming’s Jim Bridger Wilderness was once so notably degraded by livestock that Forest Service employees called it “The Sheep Desert.” (This grazing lease has since been bought out by conservationists, solving the problem). Since livestock grazing is the most pervasive use of Western public lands, a hard look at its impacts is going to be necessary.

If the Biden administration elects to expand the definition of protected lands to encompass “working landscapes,” it will soon encounter the reality that vast tracts of federal land have been converted to cheatgrass and other invasive species through decades of heavy livestock grazing. Fires follow in the wake of this weed’s establishment and contribute to a vicious cycle that leads to more cheatgrass and frequent repeat fires. Removing the livestock on a permanent basis is a necessary first step to set these lands on a path to recovery, and to ultimately becoming healthy native ecosystems once again.

Other “working landscapes” are degraded by logging and energy development. In order to qualify these to be counted toward 30x30 goals, permanent protections from this kind of the degradation would need to be put in place. Several eastern wilderness areas were established in the wake of logging and even old-field succession after the abandonment of farming, and these are gradually growing into ecologically healthy forests. Someday, centuries into the future, some may even attain old growth status.

In the final analysis, healthy native ecosystems will need to be the backbone of the 30x30 initiative, in order to best attain the biodiversity and climate objectives and fulfill its promise as a landmark conservation initiative. We hope that the Biden administration will prove equal to the task.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and serves as executive director of Wester Watersheds Project, a conservation nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.