In pursuit of the Biden administration’s national conservation goal of conserving at least 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030, key members of the Biden cabinet unveiled its Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful Plan offering insight on the role of working lands and strengthening conservation efforts over the next 10 years to reach the goal.
On January 27, 2021, President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, which launched an all-of-government effort to confront climate change, repower America’s economy with clean energy and create millions of jobs. In that order, he directed the Department of Interior, USDA and Commerce Department to work together to develop recommendations on how the nation could pursue a goal of conserving at least 30% of the nation’s water and lands by 2030. In a call Thursday, the cabinet officials in charge of those agencies detailed the first body of work on how to accomplish those goals.
White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy says the plan looks at not only public lands, but private lands that can voluntarily contribute to conserve the land and sustainably manage resources.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says those making a living from the land are bearing the brunt of climate change, but the good news is that there are known strategies to address these challenges.
“We know that conservation works best when it’s about partnerships and collaboration,” Vilsack says. “Whether our goal is to conserve watersheds or wildlife, to restore forest health or take actions to address climate change through climate smart agriculture and forestry practices, we know we have to work across public, tribal and working lands to be successful.”
Vilsack says the federal government will be looking for ways to bolster the locally-led conservation efforts as well as the inherit flexibility of the farm bill conservation programs to work with producers, landowners, conservation groups and states to accomplish the goal of not just preservation but conservation.
In late April, USDA expanded the Conservation Reserve Program by offering new incentives, higher rental rates, and more focused attention on sensitive lands with a goal of enrolling 4 million acres. Last year, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act on a bipartisan basis, providing the single largest investment in public lands and waters in decades. McCarthy called it a “down payment” for investing in lands.
Vilsack adds the vision laid out in the first conservation national goal is a “win” for voluntary conservation practices on working lands. “We know that they will restore habitat, enhance soil health and sequester carbon,” Vilsack notes.
Vilsack also notes that to build on locally led efforts, in the President’s budget USDA seeks additional funds to provide technical assistance to farmers through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He says additional conservation funds is needed and focus on programs such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to match federal dollars.
Honoring private property rights
Vilsack says the plan also honors private property rights and supports the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners.
Specifically, the report notes, “Efforts to conserve and restore America’s lands and waters must respect the rights of private property owners. Such efforts must also build trust among all communities and stakeholders, including by recognizing and rewarding the voluntary conservation efforts of private landowners.”
The report notes Biden has recognized and honored the leadership role that farmers, ranchers, forest owners and fishers already play in the conservation of the nation’s lands, waters, and wildlife, and has made clear that his administration will support voluntary stewardship efforts that are already underway across the country’s lands and waters.
“This commitment includes a clear recognition that maintaining ranching in the West—on both public lands and private lands—is essential to maintaining the health of wildlife, the prosperity of local economies and an important and proud way of life,” the report adds.
Vilsack adds that when climate smart agriculture activities are incorporated into private working lands, it also provides a positive impact on the quality of water in waterways.
USDA currently closed a comment period April 29 soliciting input on how to meet the 30x30 goal. In previous discussions, Vilsack has downplayed any notion that the government plans to take land away from landowners in its effort to meet their 30 by 30 goals. Vilsack said, “I can assure you this: There’s no intention to have a land grab. There’s no intention to take something away from folks.”
McCarthy adds that the plan recognizes the role farmers, ranchers and foresters all play to manage land appropriately and “gather the economic resources that we want and need as we move forward.”
Guiding future efforts
The report notes as a long-standing global leader in conservation, the U.S. is among the top four countries in the world in the amount of remaining intact natural lands, has already established marine protected areas in approximately one quarter of U.S. waters, has a strong stewardship tradition on working lands among ranchers, farmers, and forest owners, and has been a pioneer in the management of fish and wildlife.
“By supporting and accounting for existing and future conservation of public lands and waters, as well as collaborative and voluntary conservation efforts on working lands, Tribal lands, and State, local, and private lands, the U.S. is well positioned to achieve a 30% goal over the next decade,” the report notes.
To help measure and track progress toward the nation’s first conservation goal, the report calls for the establishment of an interagency working group, led by the U.S. Geological Survey, NRCS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in partnership with other land and ocean management agencies. The working group will develop the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, a tool that will better reflect the voluntary contributions of farmers, ranchers, forest owners and private landowners; the contributions of fishery management councils; and other existing conservation designations on lands and waters across federal, state, local, Tribal, and private lands and waters across the nation.
The report takes into consideration comments made as well as heard at listening sessions. The report notes the question of what should “count” came up regularly in the early listening sessions, followed by various perspectives on how to define conservation on the land and in the ocean. Many stakeholders recommended that a continuum of effective conservation measures be acknowledged, departing from stricter definitions of “protection” that do not recognize the co-benefits that working lands or areas managed for multiple use may offer.
Other feedback encouraged the administration to focus on the quality and durability of conservation outcomes, noting that not every parcel of land or water is equal when it comes to enhancing nature’s contributions to people, ecosystem health, biodiversity or the sequestration of carbon.