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What does ‘conserved’ environment mean? Interior seeks an answer

Definitions and measurements are vague as administration talks up land and water conservation goals

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes an overgrowth of cabbage palms in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Florida. The agency has proposed opening the conserved area to some turkey hunting and sport fishing for the first time.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes an overgrowth of cabbage palms in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Florida. The agency has proposed opening the conserved area to some turkey hunting and sport fishing for the first time. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Thursday that her department is pushing forward with its efforts to conserve 30 percent of U.S. land and waters by 2030, even as the administration’s own findings highlight the need to define what it means for an area to be considered conserved.

Haaland cited a recent move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand hunting and fishing opportunities and previewed an upcoming announcement of $150 million for a program that builds parks in underserved communities.

“This is one way that we can help ensure that all Americans have access to the great outdoors,” Haaland said.

[House panel advances plan to hike oil drilling fees]

She is one of several Cabinet-level officials tasked with pursuing programs to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030, as called for in President Joe Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order.

Haaland and the other officials released a much-anticipated report on that effort Thursday and noted that it aims to serve a trio of purposes: protecting wildlife threatened by habitat losses, providing underserved communities with access to nature and combating global climate change.

“We cannot confront climate change without doing a far better job to conserve our forests, our oceans, our wetlands and our grasslands,” White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy told reporters during a press call about the report. “Natural solutions are some of the most powerful as well as effective climate solutions.”

The 30 by 30 framework has become a rallying cry for many environmental groups. While scientific experts tend to agree on the need to increase conservation, that exact percentage and timing are arguably arbitrary and some advocates have called for more ambitious targets.

The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation has a program devoted to protecting half the world’s land and sea in order to safeguard most of the world’s species. It has praised the administration’s initiative as progress toward that goal.

GOP lawmakers, particularly those from Western states, have pushed back on what they view as a potential trampling of private property rights that would wall off large areas of land from productive use.

Republican members of the House Natural Resources Committee held a forum earlier this week calling for the release of the report and characterizing “30 by 30” as a catchy tagline that lacks substance.

The report itself lays out a series of principles that seem intended to allay some of those criticisms, stressing the importance of respecting property rights and promoting local, voluntary conservation efforts.

While the report stresses voluntary, bottom-up actions, Republicans pointed to a package of bills approved by the House in February that would grant the highly restrictive wilderness designation to 1.5 million acres of public land. The administration specifically touted that package of bills as bolstering the 30 by 30 effort.

‘Fossil fuel profits’

House Natural Resources Chair Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., also cited that lands package and said his panel would keep working on proposals to bolster the administration’s conservation goals, which he said contrast sharply with former President Donald Trump’s approach.

“The days of looking across the great American landscape and seaboards and seeing nothing but fossil fuel profits are over,” Grijalva said.

The panel’s top Republican, Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, said in a statement Thursday that he was pleased the administration made the report public and that it incorporates some of the principles promoted by Republicans, but that it still lacks important details. He urged them to consider his party’s legislative proposals on conservation.

“As the administration continues to formulate this initiative, I hope they focus on these bipartisan, commonsense proposals and avoid efforts to lock up millions of acres of new lands and waters into wilderness areas or national monuments,” Westerman said.

The first step seems to be defining “conservation” and how to measure it. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates only about 12 percent of U.S. lands have permanent protection. About a quarter of U.S. ocean waters have protection.

An overly restrictive definition could require many millions of acres to be set aside in order to achieve the 30-percent goal, while an extremely expansive definition might mean the country is already close to or over that threshold. The administration talked up the role of “working lands” in promoting conservation.

“Notably, 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,” the report.

The administration is moving to set up an interagency task force to work on creating an atlas that will establish a baseline of conserved land and water and track progress over time.

Setting a national U.S. conservation goal for the first time in history requires the country to take stock of where things stand now, said Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“How much land and ocean in America is currently conserved?” Mallory said. “Currently the U.S. government doesn’t have an answer to that question that adequately captures the conservation contributions of tribal nations, farmers, ranchers, forest owners, fishing communities and others.”

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