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Community Perspective

Biden’s 30x30 conservation plan falls short

The first installment of the Biden administration’s much-anticipated plan to protect 30% of U.S. lands and waters by the year 2030 (the “30x30” initiative) falls short of what was expected and what is needed. In the May 6 report entitled: “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” the administration concedes that it does not intend to protect more federal lands or waters itself, but instead will simply support “voluntary” local efforts to “conserve” working lands and waters. Ironically, the decision for a “local-only” conservation program was made in a closed-door, top-down process from D.C., with no public input.

Here are two relevant passages:

“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; the leadership of sovereign Tribal Nations in caring for lands, waters, and wildlife; the contributions and stewardship traditions of America’s hunters, anglers, and fishing communities; and the vital importance of investing in playgrounds, trails, and open space in park-deprived communities. 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 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 doing nothing at the federal level, and cedes federal responsibility on this issue to local, parochial politics. The Biden “conservation” plan could have as easily been written by the Trump or Reagan administrations.

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 monuments, both onshore and offshore. The Biden plan entirely omits this necessary component.

Given the encouraging first 100 days of the Biden administration, the plan is particularly disappointing.

This “local-only” approach is an old trope used by anti-federal interests to feign concern for the environment while continuing to have their way with the world. And the claimed distinction between “conservation” and “protection or preservation” has been an industry rhetorical device for decades, dating back to the “Wise Use” movement. In fact, these terms are synonymous and interchangeable. This fabricated semantic distinction is an attempt to justify the environmentally unjustifiable — business as usual. 

Local interests do not always align with national interests. For instance, had President Carter taken a local-only approach with the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) — that ultimately protected 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 never would have happened due to local opposition. We now need President Biden to be as bold as President Carter.

The Biden plan seems a capitulation to congressional Republicans and industry to curry political favor on other issues. Rather than the science-based approach we need to protect habitat and biodiversity, it is simple politics. It contains no analysis of ecosystem conservation needs across the nation, on land or offshore, and virtually ignores urgently needed large-scale ocean protections. Significantly, it omits any mention of the need to establish additional, strongly protected Marine National Monuments in federal waters, which can be easily designated by executive order.

If the professed 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, this plan misses that goal entirely. It is an about-face from the administration position that there are things that only the federal government can, and must, do. When conservation science says one thing but local politics says another (which will happen), the Biden plan abandons science and defers to local politics. This is a worrying abrogation of federal responsibility. 

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 best be done by bold federal action.

The administration must reconsider and expand its 30x30 approach to include federal establishment of large-scale ecosystem protection measures, including significant expansion of marine and terrestrial parks, refuges, and monuments.

Our precious and troubled ecosystems deserve no less.

Rick Steiner is a marine conservation biologist in Anchorage and former professor of marine conservation with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010. He now consults on environmental issues.

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