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National conservation goal: 30% of U.S. land and water

The Biden administration announced a 10-year, voluntary and locally led drive to conserve 30% of U.S. land and coastal waters by 2030, an idea President Biden broached in January. “This is the first national conservation goal we have ever set as a country,” Gina McCarthy, the White House climate adviser, said Thursday during a rollout that featured three cabinet secretaries.

Priorities for the initiative include the creation of parks in “nature-deprived communities”; incentives for voluntary stewardship by fishers, farmers, ranchers, and foresters; and job creation in land and water projects through the Civilian Climate Corps.

McCarthy and the secretaries of the Interior, Commerce, and Agriculture departments stressed that progress would be shaped by local, voluntary efforts. It plans continued discussions with interested groups. “Where this path leads over the next decade will be determined not by our agencies but by the ideas and leadership of local communities,” said a report written by the three departments and the Council on Environmental Quality.

The largest U.S. farm group said the proposal lacked specifics, although it recognized “important principals such as incentive-based voluntary conservation, protecting personal and property rights, and continued ranching on public lands.” Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the group would work with the USDA “to ensure the details live up to promises to protect American agriculture.”

“Today’s report understands the valuable work that family farmers are already doing to improve soil, water, and air quality, and commits to advancing that work in the future,” said the National Farmers Union, the second-largest farm group. More than four of every 10 acres of land in the United States is operated by farmers or ranchers.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the USDA would utilize existing programs, such as the Conservation Reserve, with increased funding to encourage stewardship. The USDA is offering higher rental rates and incentive payments, including a new “climate-smart practice” payment, to encourage landowners to idle 4 million acres of fragile farmland for at least 10 years.

“It will take more resources than we had in the past,” said Vilsack, who described “30 by 30” as “a win for voluntary conservation practices on working lands.”

During a teleconference, McCarthy declined to put a price tag on the initiative. Some voluntary stewardship programs are already in place, she said, and legislation, such as the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act, could underwrite conservation work. The act provides up to $9 billion for maintenance at national parks and on federal lands.

“This is an exciting start but not the end,” said McCarthy. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo separately reiterated that point.

To track progress, the report called for the compiling of a conservation and stewardship atlas. It would document voluntary stewardship by landowners, contributions by fishery management councils, and other existing conservation designations on land and waters across the country.

About 12% of U.S. land and 26% of its “ocean territories” are under some form of environmental protection, said Yale Climate Connection earlier this year. “Getting to 30% on land has a long way to go.” Private land would be a crucial part of the effort. Half of U.S. forestland, for example, is privately owned.

“The good news is that communities across the country are already working to protect everything from wilderness to local parks,” said the Sierra Club in applauding the “30 by 30” initiative. “Strong partnerships and an expanded vision of what it means to protect nature will help us reach the 30% target, expand equitable access to the outdoors, and fight the climate crisis.”

To read the report, “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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