Energy & Environment

Three questions about Biden's conservation goals

The Biden administration's report on its goal of conserving 30 percent of lands and waters leaves several unanswered questions, including how conservation will be defined and how it specifically plans to make sure such conservation is carried out.

Republicans, some of whom have expressed opposition to the goal of conserving 30 percent of the country's land by the year 2030, are calling for more details. Some suggest Biden's goal could have bipartisan support if certain conditions are met, but the lack of clarity in the current report prompted criticism of vagueness.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said in a statement that the report "does not resolve my concerns that this is nothing but an effort to lock up lands."

And while some supporters of the so-called "30 by 30" initiative agree the report lacks some answers, they also expressed confidence that specifics are coming.

"I don't expect them to solve it all in the 20-page report in three months," said Brett Hartl, the Center for Biological Diversity's government affairs director.

The report, issued Thursday by several administration officials, said the administration will focus on voluntary and locally led efforts instead of a nationally mandated program. The report says that to achieve its goals, the federal government aims to incentivize voluntary actions from fishers, hunters, ranchers and forest owners and create jobs by investing in resilience.

But officials described the report as just the start to the development of a plan. Here are three questions the report left open:

How will "conservation" be defined?

The report emphasized that the administration will aim for conservation - which it said includes "working lands" - rather than pristine preservation. Conservation, to experts, means protecting natural resources while using them rather than preserving nature from any use. 

It argued that recognizing many uses of land and water can be consistent with conserving lands.

The report gave an idea of some of the activities that may be considered "working" like ranching and farming, but doesn't give a specific definition of conservation or lay out activities that won't be permitted.

"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," Rep. Bruce Westerman (Ark.), the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement on Thursday.

A Republican committee aide told The Hill on Friday that if the administration ultimately uses a tight standard for conservation, that's something they'll oppose, but that the proposal could have bipartisan support if it includes a wide variety of land uses.

Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the Western Energy Alliance said that her group plans to argue that land where oil and gas drilling occurs can be considered part of the conservation effort.

"It's good to see that they're acknowledging working landscapes. We'll certainly be making the case that working landscapes include energy development including oil and gas," Sgamma said.

Hartl, from the Center for Biological Diversity, disagreed, but said that other working uses like logging and ranching fall into a "gray area."

"It depends on the ecosystem, it depends on, frankly, the people involved," he said.

What type of waters will be included?

The report also indicates that it wants to conserve 30 percent of the country's land and water, but doesn't say what type of waters it wants to protect.

Asked on a press call whether this only includes marine water, Brenda Mallory, who chairs the White House's environment council, said "the first step of this is to identify what land and waters it makes the most sense for us to be looking at."

"There are ecosystem improvements and restoration that will happen in waters that are not just marine waters and so I think there are opportunities that exist," she said.

"When you basically incorporate private working lands, you're obviously going to have a positive impact on the quality of water in their waterways," added Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "There obviously's going to be activities that impact rivers and streams throughout the United States.

How much progress has been made already?

While President Biden has set the goal of preserving 30 percent of the country's land and water by 2030, it's not clear how close or far away we are from that goal already.

Some estimates exist of how much land and oceans have been conserved, with the Interior Department currently estimating that 12 percent of land is permanently protected and 23 percent of oceans are strongly protected.

But the report indicates that the administration will seek to put together a new estimate for how far along the country is - and how much it has to go - in terms of additional conservation including whatever working lands it ultimately includes in that definition.

It recommended the creation of an "American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas" to gather baseline information on the types of land and waters that are being managed for conservation and restoration.

It said that this will aggregate information from existing databases and also use information from states, tribes, public stakeholders and scientists.

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