After the loss of three giants of conservation, Biden must pick up the mantle

In the final week of 2021, we lost three great luminaries in the fight to protect our lands, waters, and wildlife: former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; creator of the term “biodiversity,” Thomas Lovejoy; and biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson. Their work spanned the globe, many decades, and different fields, but they all left us a shared legacy through their deep connections to nature and the bold conservation actions that will outlive them. 

Now, it is President Joe Biden’s turn to build on that legacy. 

Their commitment to conservation came from a place of love and loss. The unique Nevada desert that Reid treasured as a child was defaced and destroyed. The rainforest Lovejoy explored was burned. Wilson watched species, including those he studied, wink out one by one. As they grieved, each became determined to protect nature, so that nature might in turn sustain us.  

As many remembrances of the former Senate majority leader have noted, a close read of the congressional record shows that Reid spent half of his time in Congress advocating for conservation, seeking to protect countless places across the West to be shared with future generations. 

As the former managing director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality from 2015 to 2017, I experienced Reid’s passion for conserving Nevada’s natural places firsthand, when I worked with him as he urged former President Barack Obama to designate the Basin and Range and Gold Butte National Monuments. At the signing of the proclamation for Basin and Range, he thanked me for my work and said I must have a “cauliflower ear” due to all the times he called me to check on the status of the designation. Truth be told, it was his phenomenal staff that usually made the call, but it was his personal determination that got the job done.   

While Reid was motivated by his deep love for the sweeping Western landscape, his conservation achievements and others like them had a strong scientific basis in the groundbreaking work of Lovejoy and Wilson. In 1980, Lovejoy created the first projection of global extinction rates in a report to then-President Jimmy Carter. The startling estimates that landed on Carter’s desk were based on Wilson’s pioneering work on the linkage between habitat size and species extinction. Essentially, Wilson’s work underpins the now-obvious idea that as forests are cut down and wetlands drained for development, the number of species able to survive in what nature was left over will become smaller and smaller.  

That is the very crisis in which we — as a country and as a world — find ourselves today. Scraps of the natural world are growing fewer and smaller. The United States loses a football-field-sized area of natural space every 30 seconds — and with it, our most powerful tool in the fight against climate change. Due to the destruction of natural areas, the United States is squandering the equivalent of 15 percent of nature’s sequestration potential every year. If we do nothing, as Wilson said, “We will never come out from under the loss of species that we have been carelessly allowing to happen just by our ordinary everyday activities. Extinction is forever.”  

This is why Biden’s historic commitment to protect 30 percent of America’s lands, fresh water and ocean by 2030 is so important. To save ourselves — to ensure that the plants and animals that clean our air, pollinate our crops and shore up our natural areas against our climate emergency continue to survive — we must stop this careless loss of nature. We must look to the leadership of indigenous people around the globe whose stewardship of nature is overwhelmingly effective. We must ensure that all people — both those who make their living from it and those who seek other kinds of sustenance — benefit from nature’s bounty. And we must be guided by science.  

Lovejoy and Wilson showed us that the fate of nature is our fate, and Reid showed us how to walk a bold and ambitious political path to conserve places for future generations. Now, it is Biden’s turn to protect nature, in order to protect us. 

Christy Goldfuss is senior vice president, Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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