Biden Enlists Ranchers, Tribes to Conserve 30% of Land and Water

The Biden administration is unveiling a plan to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by the end of the decade, a top priority for environmentalists who see the initiative as a way to fight climate change and safeguard species on the brink of extinction.

The blueprint, set to be released by top administration officials Thursday morning, offers a broad-ranging strategy for encouraging tribes, farmers and ranchers to voluntarily protect land, including by enrolling territory in existing federal conservation programs and the creation of new parks near urban areas.

Yet it does not detail expansive new plans for buying private land or enshrining new national monuments -- ideas that have been battled by conservatives on Capitol Hill. The initiative also does not include specific financial pledges to encourage land protection or set mandates. Even the report itself acknowledges that it is “only the starting point” on a path to fulfilling President Joe Biden’s conservation goal, with the outcome dictated by local communities, not the federal government.

Americans are being asked to “join together” in the conservation effort, wrote Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory in a letter accompanying the report.

“The president’s challenge is a call to action to support locally led conservation and restoration efforts of all kinds and all over America, wherever communities wish to safeguard the lands and waters they know and love,” the four officials wrote.

The effort builds on a campaign pledge by Biden and an executive order he issued in January directing federal agencies to collaborate on the conservation goal. While Republicans in Congress and in statehouses are likely to oppose the program outright, the scaled-back, voluntary approach could have more appeal with Republicans from western states who have regarded previous Democratic environmental initiatives as regulatory juggernauts and potential land grabs.

By almost any measure, the U.S. has a long way to go toward Biden’s 30% target, with some records indicating just 12% of land and 26% of waters have been designated for permanent protection. That may undercount how much territory is actually safeguarded, and the administration is now planning to develop an American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas to better measure protected areas. A new interagency working group would focus on the survey.

Environmentalists praised the initiative, saying it would help drive the restoration and conservation of shrublands, waterways and grasslands critical to the survival of some species. The destruction and fragmentation of milkweed-filled meadows and other habitat along the Monarch butterfly’s migration flyway through the American Midwest, for instance, has been cited for declines in that species.

The plan “rightly focuses on collaboration and restoration” instead of “regulation and designations” to hit the 30% conservation target, said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s a thoughtful blueprint for how we can work together to save one-third wildlife species at heightened risk of extinction, revitalize rural and urban communities, strengthen the outdoor economy and bolster resilience to escalating climate-fueled megafires, floods, and hurricanes.”

The administration envisions conservation extending to working lands -- such as farms where the use of no-till farming and other agricultural practices can reduce erosion and enhance the storage of carbon in soils. Farmers can tap into existing U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that reward the efforts. And while the commitments are made on a voluntary basis, federal programs can ensure they confer enduring protection.

In the administration’s vision, science and humanitarian benefits would guide and inspire the conservation effort. The report also takes pains to emphasize the need to “respect the rights of private property owners” and preserve ranching in the West.

“The conservation value of a particular place should not be measured solely in biological terms, but also by its capacity to purify drinking water, to cool the air for a nearby neighborhood,” or “to provide a safe outdoor escape for a community that is park-deprived,” the report says.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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