By now you’ve likely heard about President Joe Biden’s “30x30” initiative. Also known as “America the Beautiful,” the program aims to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by the year 2030. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about 12% of the United States’ landmass and 23% of its sovereign waters are currently protected. But, in the face of urban sprawl, climate change, fractured habitat, and natural resource exploitation, experts say more is necessary.
There is still much debate over exactly which lands should count as “conserved.” Some groups believe land can only be considered conserved if it does not contain a significant human presence. Others argue that land and water can promote biodiversity while still allowing for hunting, fishing, and agriculture. Beyond such debate, which will be settled soon once the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas is finalized, the initiative could be exactly what the conservation community needs to quantify success. More on the atlas in a bit.
“For the first time ever, the American the Beautiful Initiative lays out a national conservation framework,” Christy Plumer told MeatEater. Plumer is the chief conservation officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and she’s been tracking 30x30 more closely than anyone. Because the outcome of 30x30 will have potentially long-term consequences for how conservation work is done in the United States, she believes it’s critical for our community to “have a seat at the table” as the framework is constructed.
“The hunting and fishing community in the U.S already does tremendous conservation work on the landscape and in watersheds,” she said. “We’ve got to be at the table and paying attention. And we have to be showcasing what we’re doing already.”
What is 30x30? President Biden did not coin the phrase “30x30.” The goal of preserving 30% of lands and waters by the year 2030 was first proposed by a group of scientists writing in Science in 2019. They argued that in order to address biodiversity loss and climate change, humans would need to conserve at least 30% of the Earth’s surface over the next decade.
The Biden administration is pursuing this goal in the United States through the “America the Beautiful” initiative. The president launched it in a 2021 executive order. He directed the Department of the Interior to partner with the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality to “develop initial recommendations on how to advance an inclusive and collaborative conservation vision.”
These agencies released an initial report in May 2021 that outlines key principles that will guide their conservation efforts. The initiative will be “locally-led and voluntary” and will seek to, among other things, “honor private property rights and support the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners.” The federal government will pursue this goal primarily through executive action by federal agencies but could also include federal legislation like the Great American Outdoors Act and the most recent infrastructure bill.
As Plumer explained, the initiative would be voluntary and would work primarily through tools and programs already being used by the federal, state, and local agencies. While the sporting community originally met the plan with some hesitation about how restrictive the protective measures would be and whether they would have a seat at the table, such concerns have largely been addressed. A recent report from the National Wildlife Federation on game species habitat loss noted, “Most recently, the federal government has endorsed 30x30 in its ‘America the Beautiful’ initiative with an explicit recognition of the role of hunters and anglers in its success.”
How Has the Outdoor Community Responded? The hunting and fishing community has largely coalesced behind the principles outlined in the HuntFish30x30 statement. This statement was signed by a wide variety of outdoor-related organizations ranging from the National Rifle Association to Backcountry Hunters & Anglers to the TRCP.
“The undersigned members of the hunting and fishing community support in principle the 30 by 30 initiative’s stated goal of protecting and enhancing biodiversity in terrestrial, wetland, aquatic, and marine habitats by the year 2030,” the groups wrote.
Their support for individual 30x30 proposals will be contingent on whether the administration recognizes the positive role that hunting and fishing play in conservation, defines “protected area” in a way that still allows for sustainable wildlife-dependent activities, and uses science-based conservation measures to address biodiversity threats.
In other words, the outdoors community has been happy to get behind the overarching goal of 30x30 as long as the outdoor recreation coalition has a real opportunity to provide input. And the Biden administration has been willing to listen. The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation hosted a panel discussion featuring members from some of the federal agencies developing the 30x30 framework, and all three reiterated the importance of viewing the definition of “conserved” in a “continuum.”
Bidisha Bhattacharyya, the senior advisor on climate and conservation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, focused on the importance of working lands and pointed to the Sage Grouse Initiative as a good example of what she called “collaborative conservation.”
Letise LaFeir, a senior advisor at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, assured viewers that “conservation” includes members of the recreation community. She also stressed that what counts as conserved will include a wide range of landscape uses.
“In some cases, that means we need to leave certain places alone. In other cases, we need to enhance our management. In other cases, it means helping people fall in love with those places by getting out [into them],” she said.
This kind of language is also reflected in the White House’s latest 30x30 report released in December of 2021. It includes an entire section highlighting the need to increase access to outdoor recreation and emphasizes the “many benefits” that “hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, biking, and other activities offer for healthy communities, economies, and wildlife.”
The Atlas The “American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas” is an online tool that is set to be released at the end of this year that will show which parts of the country the Biden administration considers “conserved.” Much of the debate around America the Beautiful has centered on this atlas, and it’s easy to see why.
If the atlas acknowledges that a wide array of private and public land conserves habitat and biodiversity, both private and government entities can use those success stories to fill in the gaps that still need help, according to Plumer.
“We want this atlas to truly represent the conservation underlay across the country, and for that to be broader than what is considered ‘protected’ under a wilderness definition,” she said. “Since the 1950s, there’s been an evolution in how we do conservation in the United States. It encompasses not only the work that’s happening on public land to conserve and restore those lands, but also the broad set of activities happening on private working lands.”
On the other hand, if the atlas is more selective in what it considers “conserved,” hunters and anglers risk being left out of conservation work and, potentially, the federal funds that pay for that work. At the very least, they might not receive the credit they deserve in this first-of-its-kind national conservation framework. If these selective measures wind up setting the course, the government might pursue more land-use policies that prohibit hunting and fishing and fail to take advantage of all the successful conservation partnerships between the outdoors community and private landowners.
But the Biden administration’s current track record of acknowledging the sporting community’s active role in achieving 30x30’s goals gives hope that such selective measures won’t be an issue. Plumer said it’s too early to say definitively how the federal government will use that atlas but she’s hopeful the administration will take the outdoors community into account. Still, she acknowledged that “there’s work to be done…to make sure that what we want in it is going to be in it.”
The good news is that even if the atlas does come out less than ideal, it won’t stop all the on-the-ground conservation work currently being done. The hunting and fishing community will have additional opportunities for input.
“Even if we get something back that we don’t like, we’ll still have opportunities to improve it, and it in no way stops the great work that the hunting and fishing community has been doing,” Plumer said.
What Now? Not everyone is as optimistic that 30x30 will be a boon for outdoorspeople and wildlife. Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, a frequent Biden critic, said in March that Montana will not participate in the initiative. Calling America the Beautiful “long on philosophy and short on detail,” Gov. Gianforte claimed the Biden administration lacked the jurisdiction or funding “requisite to implement stated efforts.”
It’s unclear what Gianforte’s statement will mean in practice. Plumer pointed out that both federal and state actors have done “fabulous conservation work” in Montana, and that work is unlikely to stop in the wake of Gianforte’s statement.
She also pointed out that since states have sovereignty over the “vast majority” of species under the America the Beautiful framework, their input will be vital to the process.
“Conservation shouldn’t be political,” she said. “Any time we have a lack of coordination on conservation, it means that less conservation gets done. There are great elements of what’s being discussed in [30x30], and we would encourage all our partners at the state level to have that conversation with us.”
As the old saying goes, if you aren’t at the table, you might be on the menu. An unwillingness to engage with the White House on this topic could be, at the very least, an opportunity wasted. For hunters and anglers who don’t want to be on the menu, there’s still an opportunity to engage in the process. The comment period for the atlas has ended, but Plumer said that contacting your state and federal officials is still a great way to make sure hunters and anglers are recognized as key conservation actors.
She also recommended getting involved in a local conservation group. “I would encourage folks to showcase the places they want conserved and restored,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of work underway to restore these landscapes and make sure they have healthy wildlife populations.”
When the TRCP and similar groups interact with the Biden administration, they can showcase this conservation work as proof that hunters and anglers are among the nation’s most passionate and effective conservationists. In the ongoing debate about what should count as “conserved,” these case studies are powerful reminders that lands that allow hunting and fishing can conserve habitat, support wildlife, and help the administration reach its 30x30 goal.