IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Biden’s land conservation program to rely on voluntary, local efforts

A new report leaves many details unanswered about how the government will use its dollars and federal powers to promote local conservation.
Montana Forests Struggle With Climate Change
A logged area of forest sits before a mountain range at Flathead Reservation, Montana, September 14, 2018. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

The Biden administration will rely on “locally led and voluntary” efforts to meet President Joe Biden’s goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, the administration said in a report released Thursday.

In his first days in office, Biden signed an executive order on "tackling the climate crisis" that established the "30 by 30" goal and tasked Cabinet officials with drafting a report on how to get there. Although environmental and conservation groups hailed the target as ambitious, the administration did not initially offer specifics about how it would meet that target or how conservation would be defined.

The report, titled "Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful," offers the first look at how the administration believes it can meet the target. It calls on the administration to work with local and tribal governments to create more parks, expand fish and wildlife habitats, boost outdoor recreation and create incentives for fishers, farmers and forest owners to voluntarily conserve some of their land. 

"As the country works to recover and rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic and fully address the climate crisis, now is the time to develop and pursue a locally led, nationally scaled effort to conserve, connect, and restore the lands, waters, and wildlife upon which we all depend," says the report.

Developed by the Interior, Agriculture and Commerce departments and submitted to Biden’s National Climate Task Force, the report still leaves many details unanswered about how the government will use its dollars and federal powers to promote local conservation. Instead, it lays out principles it says will guide the effort over the next decade, including using Agriculture Department programs to incentivize conservation on working lands and avoiding infringement on Tribal sovereignty or private property rights.

Climate and environmental advocates say preserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters is critical for protecting biodiversity and endangered species, and will also help fight climate change, because healthy wildlands and oceans sequester carbon dioxide that’s released through human activity. In a memo last month, NRDC President Mitchell Bernard said the plan would “reduce nature’s decline and mitigate the impacts of climate change while ensuring all Americans have access to the natural world.”

But many Republicans and some landowners have voiced resistance to conserving such a large swath of U.S. lands and waters, describing it as overreach by the federal government. During a virtual forum that Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources held Monday, GOP lawmakers repeatedly described it as Biden’s “radical 30 by 30 land grab initiative.”

“In the West, we are all too familiar with government land grabs, and we can smell this one coming from a mile away,” Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said in testimony that she appeared to deliver from the backseat of a vehicle.

The Biden administration approach, laid out in the report, appears to address those concerns by emphasizing the local and voluntary nature of the effort. Still, the Biden administration is expected to take other steps in the coming months to expand protected lands and waters under federal control. 

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, for example, is weighing a decision on whether to vastly expand Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, restoring both to their previous size after they were slashed under former President Donald Trump.

CORRECTION (May 6, 2021, 1:05 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated what day the conservation report was released. It was released Thursday, not Wednesday.

CORRECTION (May 7, 12:48 p.m. ET): A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misstated the state where Flathead Reservation is located. It is in Montana, not Missouri.