President Joe Biden put forward an ambitious conservation goal in his Jan. 27 executive order on climate change: conserving 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. If the 30% by 2030 goal is met it could help address the twin ecological catastrophes of our time, the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis — but only with the proper implementation.
The exact amount of land currently protected varies depending on who you ask, but a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress estimates that only about 12% of the nation’s land and 26% of its waters are protected. The Biden administration has a lot of work ahead of it if it's going to increase these numbers, especially if they want to do so in a way that will actually benefit biodiversity, climate, and the myriad of other goals listed in the executive order.
Blake Alexander Simmons, an ecologist with Boston University, was the lead researcher on a recently released white paper that examined how the Biden administration should go about delivering on his conservation commitments. The study created four maps of hypothetical protected area networks in the continental U.S. that could get the country to 30% protection, each with one of four different objectives in mind. The objectives were biodiversity preservation, climate change mitigation, connected landscape preservation, and ease of reaching the area goal by 2030.
Together the maps revealed challenges for the Biden administration going forward. For instance Simmons noted how little land in the U.S. meets all the requirements listed by the administration: “Even just with those four objectives let alone of all of the others that are in Biden’s executive order it’s going to be really hard to find where we can get win, win, win, win; wins across the board. So tradeoffs are gonna come into play and that’s why it’s really important that we get clear very early on what objectives really matter.”
Even the few regions that are highlighted in all four maps like Northern Maine, may be highlighted so often because of local ordinances mandating non-disclosure agreements for land sales, limiting the study’s data set and showing land prices as artificially low and attractive. The unfortunate challenge is that land that hosts biodiverse habitat does not necessarily hold a lot of carbon or sit upon property that can be cheaply bought and converted to conservation purposes.
For instance much of America’s unprotected biodiversity lies in the Southeast where protected areas are rare and small. Buying land to build new preserves could be prohibitively expensive due to the region’s high land costs, so other measures like conservation easements (agreements with landowners to manage their property for biodiversity) will be needed. It would be easy to just preserve large swaths of the West to reach the land goal but this would not deliver biodiversity or climate benefits.
Jacob Malcom, the director for the Center of Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife, expressed hope that the Biden administration was up to the task. His organization has been involved with the White House and numerous other stakeholders in the conservation community and beyond in developing the plan by which the 30% by 2030 will be reached.
He said: “This is something that’s completely doable. We can do this and the fact that this is an all hands on deck — it’s everybody’s involved. It’s not a top down. It is the president setting a goal for the country, but it’s not a dictation of how this will be achieved. We can do this for nature, for climate, for people to be a part of these things.”