Energy & Environment

Biden officials unveil plan to conserve 30 percent of US lands and water

Biden administration officials on Thursday released a new report detailing how they want to achieve the president’s goal of conserving 30 percent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, focusing on voluntary and locally led efforts instead of a nationally mandated program. 

The report, released Thursday by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory, laid out priorities to achieve the conservation goal. 

Those priorities include creating parks in areas that lack access to nature, supporting tribal priorities, conserving fish and wildlife habitats and increasing outdoor recreation access. 

Officials aim to incentivize voluntary actions from fishers, hunters, ranchers and forest owners and create jobs by investing in resilience. 

“Where this path leads over the next decade will be determined not by our agencies, but by the ideas and leadership of local communities. It is our job to listen, learn, and provide support along the way to help strengthen economies and pass on healthy lands, waters, and wildlife for generations to come,” they wrote in a letter released with the report. 

While the report lacked some detail as to what the federal government would do in order to make sure the goals are met, White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy called it a “kickoff” and said a plan would be developed.

“This is really the kickoff of an interagency working group that’s going to be developing a plan and that plan is going to look at the areas that we already know we’re conserving, what those efforts are, how we look at expanding our protected area database and using science to really tell us what kind of baseline we have and what we’re hoping to accomplish to ensure that we meet this goal,” McCarthy said.

“It’s going to be really the kickoff of a broad engagement strategy here,” she added. “This is an exciting start, it’s not the end.”

The report put forth ideas to achieve the administration’s goals like developing grants to support Indigenous-led conservation, using the 2023 Farm Bill to strengthen relevant programs and expanding existing programs. 

Asked Thursday how the federal government would ensure that it had enough voluntary participation, Vilsack said that his department would seek to provide technical assistance.

“From a private working lands perspective, one of the key areas is making sure we have enough capacity to provide technical assistance,” he said. “We have requested additional capacity at [the Natural Resources Conservation Service] to be able to provide that technical assistance and we’re hoping Congress will be supportive of that.”

Haaland, meanwhile, said that Interior would continue to have conversations “to build opportunities for volunteers to know and understand” how to be involved.

The report notes that the president is aiming for “conservation” rather than “preservation” or “protection” because “many uses of our lands and waters, including of working lands, can be consistent with the long-term health and sustainability of natural systems.”

Specifically, it says that maintaining ranching in the West is “essential” for wildlife health and local economies. 

Asked about this on Thursday, McCarthy stressed the importance of working with private land owners.

“We want to make sure that we understand and take advantage of working lands and take advantage of not just public lands … but private lands,” she said.

“We have farmers and fishers. We have ranchers. We have foresters. All of these are opportunities to manage our land appropriately,” she said.

A key Republican, Rep. Bruce Westerman (Ark.), said in a statement that he was glad the report included things like needing outdoor recreation but also argued it had too many unanswered questions. 

“I appreciate that the report incorporates many of the principles discussed at our forum, such as recognizing the vital distinction between conservation and preservation and the need to improve access to outdoor recreation, particularly for the nation’s sportsmen and women,” said Westerman, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, referring to an event earlier this week. 

“However, this report still falls short of a serious proposal and has far too many unanswered questions, such as how ‘conservation’ of our lands and waters will be defined and the current baseline for what is considered ‘conserved,'” he added. “Although I am pleased to see the administration is finally publicizing information on a previously undefined goal, the lack of specific details in the report is unacceptable.”

While on the campaign trail, President Biden’s climate plan endorsed the so-called 30 by 30 idea to conserve 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030, saying it would do so with aims of “protecting biodiversity, slowing extinction rates and helping leverage natural climate solutions.” 

The left-leaning Center for American Progress estimated in 2018 that about 12 percent of U.S. lands and 26 percent of U.S. oceans were already conserved. 

As part of the report, administration officials said they aim to develop a new tool to keep track of conservation progress called the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas. They also hope the government will publish annual updates about the health of nature in the country and efforts to support conservation and restoration. 

— Updated at 6:11 p.m.

Tags Brenda Mallory Bruce Westerman Conservation Deb Haaland Gina McCarthy Gina Raimondo Joe Biden Tom Vilsack

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