A brown bear.

A brown bear named Grazer fishes at Katmai National Park and Preserve, which was finalized with its current boundaries by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

(Photo credit: National Park Service)

Biden’s 30X30 Conservation Plan Falls Far Short of What Is Needed

To the delight of oil drillers, miners, trophy hunters, ranchers, farmers, loggers, and factory trawlers, the Biden plan calls for not initiating any conservation action at the federal level.

Protecting America’s marine and terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity to give them the best chance to survive the climate catastrophe this century is a critical national challenge. In Executive Order 14008 “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” issued during his first month in office, President Joe Biden committed to address this national imperative by pledging to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by the year 2030—known as the “30x30” initiative.

But now, after three years, the administration’s much-trumpeted plan has clearly fallen far short of what is needed.

This failure was designed from the start. In the program’s 2021 rollout: “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” the administration conceded that it does not intend to initiate protections of more federal lands or waters itself, but instead would simply support “locally led, voluntary” efforts to “conserve” working lands and waters. Ironically, the decision to rely on “locally led” conservation efforts was made in a closed-door, top-down process in D.C., with no public input.

Our terrestrial and ocean ecosystems are in turmoil from decades of overuse, pollution, and climate change, and we need to do everything possible to reduce all anthropogenic impacts and stressors.

In its “America the Beautiful 2023 Annual Report,” the White House lists a number of worthy conservation initiatives, but most focus on public recreation, urban parks, jobs, economic development, and supporting “fishers, ranchers, farmers, and forest owners.” These are all helpful, but collectively fall far short of what is urgently necessary to sustain America’s declining ecosystems in the face of climate change and decades of overexploitation. Nowhere does the administration report any quantitative progress toward the stated “30x30” goal, as there has actually been so little.

Worrying signs in the framing of America the Beautiful included statements such as the following:

Rather than simply measuring conservation progress by national parks, wilderness lands, and marine protected areas in the care of the government, the president’s vision recognizes and celebrates the voluntary conservation efforts of farmers, ranchers, and forest owners… [and] contributions and stewardship traditions of America’s hunters, anglers, and fishing communities….


...the president’s challenge specifically emphasizes the notion of “conservation” of the nation’s natural resources (rather than the related but different concept of “protection” or “preservation”) recognizing that many uses of our lands and waters, including of working lands, can be consistent with the long-term health and sustainability of natural systems.

To the delight of oil drillers, miners, trophy hunters, ranchers, farmers, loggers, and factory trawlers, the Biden plan calls for not initiating any conservation action at the federal level, instead ceding federal responsibility on this to local, parochial politics.

This “locally led” approach is an old trope used by anti-federal interests to feign concern for the environment while continuing to profit from environmental destruction. And the fabricated distinction between “conservation” and “protection or preservation” has been an industry rhetorical device for decades, dating back to the 1980s “Wise Use” movement. In fact, these terms are synonymous and interchangeable. This semantic distinction is an attempt to justify the environmentally unjustifiable—business as usual. Clearly, this is not a plan designed to protect ecological habitat and biodiversity in the face of decades of overexploitation and the growing climate catastrophe.

The America the Beautiful effort makes no mention of the many candidate species the administration continues to ignore for listing under the Endangered Species Act, presents no assessment of critical habitat conservation needs, and essentially ignores the results and recommendations of billions of dollars of ecological science.

Indeed, local conservation efforts are an essential part of the overall puzzle, but alone will not protect the large ecosystems necessary for habitat and biodiversity conservation. For that we need bold leadership at the federal level to establish new, large-scale, strongly protected national parks, wildlife refuges, and national monuments, onshore and offshore.

Put simply, America the Beautiful is a necessary—but not sufficient—response to the catastrophic decline in America’s natural treasures, ecological habitat, and biodiversity. It is a populist palliative, tidying up the deck of the sinking Titanic.

While local communities adjacent to federal lands and waters certainly deserve a voice—even a priority voice—in how these federal resources are managed, they cannot be afforded an exclusive voice or veto authority. Yet that is precisely what the Biden approach does. The federal government has a constitutional mandate to manage federal lands and waters in the national interest, on behalf of all 340 million Americans.

Local interests do not always align with national interests. When they do, great. But when they don’t, the federal government must secure the national interest, even if it upsets local politicians and commercial interests.

For instance, had former President Jimmy Carter taken a “voluntary, locally led” approach on federal lands in Alaska with the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA)—ultimately protecting 157 million acres of some of the most spectacular national parks, preserves, refuges, wilderness areas, and monuments in the world, the largest expansion of protected lands in U.S. history—that historic conservation achievement would never have happened due to overwhelming local opposition in Alaska. In fact, many of America’s national parks were established over the objections of local communities.

If the intent of the 30x30 initiative is to give our struggling terrestrial and marine ecosystems the best chance possible to make it to the far side of the climate chaos this century, the current approach clearly fails. As has been clear for decades, there are things that only the federal government can, and must, do.

The nation deserves more. Our terrestrial and ocean ecosystems are in turmoil from decades of overuse, pollution, and climate change, and we need to do everything possible to reduce all anthropogenic impacts and stressors. That can only be done through bold federal leadership. During the previous administration, we lost four years of federal momentum on this, and if the previous president were to be reelected this November, we will lose another four critical years. This may be our last best chance to get this right.

We now need President Biden to summon his inner Jimmy Carter, identify all of our nation’s most critical and threatened onshore and offshore ecosystems, and use his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to designate strongly protected, large-scale national monuments to fully protect these natural treasures from further exploitation and damage.

Our precious and troubled ecosystems deserve no less.

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