ducks at conservation area

Ducks in flight at Bear River Conservation Area. Photo by Brian Ferguson.

Following through on President Joe Biden’s executive order to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters, the administration released a 24-page broad report outlining its goals of achieving the vision.

The report, titled, Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful, was developed by the U.S. Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

“The central recommendation of this report, which we submit to the National Climate Task Force, is that the pursuit of a decade-long national conservation effort be faithful to eight core principles,” wrote Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory in the report.

“These principles—which include a commitment to collaboration, support for voluntary and locally led conservation, and honoring of Tribal sovereignty and private property rights—are essential ingredients to building and maintaining broad support, enthusiasm, and trust for this effort.”

Based on feedback from stakeholders in the first 100 days of the administration, they stressed the need for “ongoing dialogue, engagement, and collaboration in developing approaches for conserving America’s lands and waters.” The report identified six priority areas for the administration’s early focus, investments, and collaboration:

• Creating more parks and safe outdoor opportunities in nature-deprived communities;

• Supporting Tribally led conservation and restoration priorities;

• Expanding collaborative conservation of fish and wildlife habitats and corridors;

• Increasing access for outdoor recreation;

• Incentivizing and rewarding the voluntary conservation efforts of fishers, ranchers, farmers, and forest owners; and

• Creating jobs by investing in restoration and resilience projects and initiatives, including the Civilian Climate Corps.

Stakeholders also raised questions and concerns about defining conservation and how to measure progress toward a 2030 conservation goal. They recommended conservation measures that depart from the definition of “protection” be included, such as the co-benefits that working lands or areas managed for multiple use may offer.

The government will launch an interagency working group tasked with measuring and reporting conservation progress in the United States. This includes creating the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas to track the amount of protected land and water.

The working group will use existing measurements from their databases and supplement this information with input from states, Tribal leaders, the public and scientists on how much land, ocean, and other waters in the U.S. are currently conserved or restored. The Interior Department will provide annual reports on the progress being made to achieve the 30 percent goal.

“The President’s goal of conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030 is more than a number—it is a challenge to build on the nation’s best conservation traditions, to be faithful to principles that reflect the country’s values, and to improve the quality of Americans’ lives—now and for decades to come,” the report concludes.

Reaction to report

While the report does not give specifics on what would count towards the goal of conserving 30 percent, conservation groups called it a starting point. “I see it as a starting point that’s telling us this is the direction we want to go in, and this is how we want to do this work to ensure we’re going to get the best outcomes,” said Ali Chase, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“A question all of us have is, ‘What do we count?’” said James M. McElfish, Jr., a senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute. McElfish said that “conserving” is not the same as preserving and protecting spaces from future development. There is a range of land and water such as public parks, farms and other working lands that could be counted towards the 30 percent conservation goal.

Farmersand ranchers are still seeking reassurance that their property rights will be respected and access to public lands for grazing will be maintained, American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said in a statement.

“The report is a philosophical document that emphasizes important principles such as incentive-based voluntary conservation, protecting personal and property rights and continued ranching on public lands, but it lacks specifics,” Duvall said. “I had several positive conversations with Secretary Vilsack about 30x30 and we will work with him and his colleagues to ensure the details live up to promises made to protect American agriculture.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and Public Lands Council (PLC), in a statement, recognized the inclusion of agricultural producers’ recommendations, including preserving private property rights and producers’ expertise on benefitting wildlife land uses.

“If you want to see successful examples of protecting open spaces, improving the health and resiliency of public lands, and balancing durable conservation with multiple use, look no further than American cattle and sheep producers,” said Kaitlynn Glover, NCBA executive director of Natural Resources and PLC executive director.

“We look forward to continuing our dialogue with the administration to make sure that the agencies implementing 30x30 leverage the expertise of our producers and reward them for their good work on the ground.”

Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, called the report “an overdue national conversation” that should occur from those closest to the matter and not from the top down.

“We are pleased to see that the administration is taking seriously that conservation is more than just setting land aside. It is really about how we steward the land,” Allison said in a statement. “The report suggests they understand that economics matter. Farmers and ranchers need to be able to earn a reasonable livelihood providing the many goods and services that society needs, such as food and fiber, but also things like wildlife habitat and healthy forests.”

Democratic lawmakers praised the report’s release and emphasized legislation they introduced to meet some of the report’s goals. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO-1) said on Twitter the Senate should act on her Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act which protects 3 million acres. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ-3), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, stated they are pursuing some legislative efforts supporting the “America the Beautiful” effort. These include Rep. Joe Neguse’s (D-CO-2), reintroduced Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, and Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán’s (D-CA-44) legislation to establish a Parks, Jobs and Equity Program at the Department of the Interior.

Republican lawmakers were skeptical of the report, with Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR-4) stating, “It’s vital that the administration gets past high-level talking points and defines their policies.”

Chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA-4) said while he is pleased that the report was released, it lacks details on how the administration plans to achieve “these seemingly arbitrary conservation goals.” Newhouse said it shouldn’t be at the expense of rural America and amount to “locking up lands” as wilderness designations.

“America is beautiful, which is why we must continue to empower our local communities, farmers, ranchers, Tribes, and landowners to keep it that way,” Newhouse said in a statement. “The administration needs to listen to the voices of rural America who will be directly impacted by these efforts.”

The Western Governors’ Association sent a letter to National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy expressing concern over what is defined as “conserved” in the report and hopes the agency will consult with state, local and Tribal land management agencies. The association said a stringent definition of conserved would have “detrimental” effects on ecosystem health and impede wildfire management.

The letter stated the report has “significant implications for state sovereignty and the lives of our constituents” and should not rely heavily on federal lands “given the high percentage of Western lands under federal ownership.” — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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