Center for American Progress

5 Early Takeaways From the Biden Administration’s Conservation Atlas

5 Early Takeaways From the Biden Administration’s Conservation Atlas

The Biden administration has released long-awaited metrics for U.S. land and water conservation that show national progress made toward ambitious “30x30” goals; but there’s also a deeper story to explore about the path ahead for ocean and land protection as well as the value and limits of numeric targets.

People view the sunset from a proposed expansion area of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.
People view the sunset from a proposed expansion area of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument on April 16, 2024, near La Cañada Flintridge, California. (Getty/Mario Tama)

On April 19, 2024, the Biden administration released a long-awaited tool to support the “America the Beautiful” initiative, an effort aimed at dramatically increasing the pace, scale, and impact of land and water conservation in the United States. Dubbed the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas and currently released as a beta version, this data and mapping tool will be both a yardstick for U.S. conservation progress and a resource to inform future action at the federal, state, private, and Tribal levels.

Observers will be quick to focus on the atlas’s topline takeaways, including the announcement that the United States has conserved one-third of its oceans six years ahead of schedule or the current absence of a full land conservation tally. But there’s clearly more to unpack below the surface. While the full atlas will provide fodder for deeper analysis going forward and future updates will make the atlas even more valuable, this column discusses some early takeaways.

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1. There’s reason to celebrate U.S. achievements to conserve nature and address the climate crisis

From week one of his presidency, when President Joe Biden formally established a national goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, the administration has made clear that this won’t be a top-down, solo mission. “America the Beautiful” was launched to bring communities and all levels of government together to conserve nature and share in the benefits it brings. In fact, President Biden’s pledge has inspired action across the country, including the formation of the America the Beautiful for All Coalition, with 200 member organizations across many sectors working together to thwart the rapidly advancing impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. The snapshot provided by the newly released atlas shows that there is reason to celebrate progress made together.

For example, President Biden has restored full protections to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah and designated five new national monuments, including Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in August 2023. The administration is also funding new local parks and community forests; and forestlands and other private lands are being voluntarily conserved thanks to Inflation Reduction Act funding.

“America the Beautiful” was launched to bring communities and all levels of government together to conserve nature and share in the benefits it brings.

One of the Biden administration’s top successes has been directing both attention and investments to the front lines of conservation, including to Tribes and communities historically marginalized and underserved by such investments. In March 2023, the Center for American Progress, Native Americans in Philanthropy, and the Biodiversity Funders Group hosted an event to celebrate some of these successful partnerships. And more conservation efforts are in the works, as the Biden-Harris administration and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced an additional $141.3 million in America the Beautiful Challenge grants in November 2023, with 74 new grants supporting conservation projects across 46 states, three U.S. territories, and 21 Tribal nations.

Learn more about Indigenous-led conservation

With the atlas’s release, the administration also announced that a major ocean conservation milestone has been achieved, with one-third of U.S. ocean waters now conserved, including 26 percent in designated marine protected areas. Building on previous designations of some of the largest protected areas in the world—such as the Mariana Trench and Papahānaumokuākea marine national monuments—the Biden administration reinstated protections, previously overturned by President Donald Trump, for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument and designated the Connecticut National Estuarine Research Reserve.

In total, the administration’s atlas points to more than 41 million acres of land and water conserved in three years, representing a historic acceleration of progress and record levels of investment to support private land conservation.

2. There’s still a lot of work to do to conserve the ocean

While significant progress has undoubtedly been made, focusing only on the total amount of ocean conserved masks some shortcomings in U.S. ocean policy. There are vast protected areas across the remote Pacific Ocean, especially around the U.S. Pacific territories, but very few around the Lower 48. And three of the largest marine protected areas have yet to publish final management plans, despite being designated during the Bush and Obama years.

There is still critical work that needs to be done to increase access to ocean areas for all people, as well as an opportunity to go “beyond 30×30” to protect those smaller nearshore habitats all across the country that are high in biodiversity and carbon sequestration potential, not to mention culturally important to American communities and identities. For example, the administration is advancing six proposed national marine sanctuaries, all of which could be designated by the end of 2024, but there is much more to be done in every region outside of the western Pacific.

3. The United States is far from its 30 percent target on lands, but there are big opportunities for the Biden administration to conserve public lands

Although the atlas does not yet provide a specific number for total conserved lands, available data show that the United States clearly has work to do to reach the ambitious 30 percent conservation goal by 2030. The U.S. Geological Survey’s protected area database shows that approximately 13 percent of U.S. lands are permanently protected from development—what the database calls “Gap 1” and “Gap 2” status. This estimate clearly undercounts conserved lands, but the addition of more categories—such as Forest Service lands protected by the roadless area conservation rules—and better data alone will not close the gap. While recent protections and historic levels of new investment have accelerated progress, the United States needs to increase and sustain the pace of conservation gains to keep its target in reach.

On the brighter side, significant opportunities for public lands conservation remain. For example, only a small fraction of lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), about 245 million acres in total, have durable conservation protections. But several Biden administration actions, particularly the Public Lands Rule, could help balance the management of BLM lands and enable the agency to act on more community- and Tribal-led conservation proposals. Meanwhile, 28 million acres of land in Alaska, which the Trump administration attempted to open for mining, await conservation action from the BLM.

President Biden has also directed his administration to inventory and conserve old and mature forests, and the U.S. Forest Service is now developing a plan amendment to conserve and reestablish old growth across the national forest system.

Learn more about new public lands actions

4. Major investments in private, state, and Tribal land conservation are needed

Despite massive opportunities to conserve public lands, it’s clear that the 30×30 U.S. land conservation goal won’t be met without complementary and rapid progress on private, state, and Tribal lands. Such collaboration is a large part of what makes a national conservation mission exciting and unifying. Notably, analysis from CAP has demonstrated that the United States is losing nature most quickly on private lands, with those lands responsible for more than three-quarters of U.S. nature loss from 2001 to 2017. In describing the newly released atlas, the Biden administration recognizes the important contributions to conservation that Tribal governments and private landowners are already making, although current data limitations make it difficult to accurately quantify that impact.

The United States is losing nature most quickly on private lands, with those lands responsible for more than three-quarters of U.S. nature loss from 2001 to 2017.

Leaders in Washington, D.C., can help accelerate local voluntary leadership. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, for example, provides roughly $1 billion in project funding each year through federal agencies and states, but opportunities continue to outpace available funding, while Tribal land conservation remains underfunded despite improvements under the Biden administration. Additionally, in late 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $1.7 billion in Inflation Reduction Act-funded climate-smart agriculture and conservation projects, which are scheduled to ramp up in future years. Meanwhile, a new Farm Bill could allow congressional leaders to build on this investment, including by boosting funds for popular forest conservation easements.

Nonprofit organizations, private philanthropy, and state governments will likewise need to increase their impact. As a new report from CAP and the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators explores, a number of states, from New York to New Mexico, have recently boosted state funding for conservation; and many more are mapping out new strategies to achieve statewide targets—such as California’s 30×30 and outdoor equity plans—or taking other new steps to conserve nature. These represent important starting points, but local advocates and philanthropic partners will need to dial up this momentum substantially in coming years.

Learn more about state-level conservation action

5. Nature’s value is not measured in acres alone

As CAP has stressed before, numeric conservation targets are valuable but can also lead to missing the forest for the trees. Ongoing nature loss demands bold and urgent action, and the 30×30 mission has helped focus attention on the need to increase the pace and scale of conservation. President Biden deserves credit for embracing this challenge.

At the same time, the 30×30 goal risks succumbing to Goodhart’s Law, by which a measurement ceases to be a good measurement once it becomes a target. Going forward, some observers will likely argue about what should and shouldn’t “count” as conserved in the atlas, particularly around areas where some resource extraction is allowed. Dialogue about how to more effectively prioritize conservation efforts and investments is healthy; but at the same time, conservation experts shouldn’t obsess over accounting so much that we lose our focus on the potential of a national mission to unite people and inspire meaningful action.

See also

The United States must also not lose sight of the importance and power of catalyzing a more inclusive future for U.S. conservation. More conservation of all types is needed to benefit all people, and everyone needs to participate: farmers, front-line community leaders, outdoor enthusiasts, scientists, and many more. With America the Beautiful, President Biden didn’t just raise the bar for acres protected; he committed to building a bigger tent, bringing historically marginalized communities to the table, and respecting the role of sovereign Tribal nations in conserving natural resources they’ve stewarded for generations. The administration’s progress in changing the “who” and “how” of American conservation work is at least as important as “what” has been conserved.


There’s a lot to digest in the administration’s release of the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, and the topline takeaways will certainly prompt some reasonable questions about what has been achieved, what data are missing, and where the country goes next. But that’s the point of a national target: It should force us to think big, remain honest, and focus on the big picture. As imperfect as the atlas still is, the Biden administration just put out a better tool than the United States has ever had to measure conservation progress. More than three years into this decade-long effort, now’s a good time to take stock of that progress and double down on the clear opportunities ahead.

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Drew McConville

Senior Fellow

Angelo Villagomez

Senior Fellow


Conservation Policy

We work to protect our lands, waters, ocean, and wildlife to address the linked climate and biodiversity crises. This work helps to ensure that all people can access and benefit from nature and that conservation and climate investments build a resilient, just, and inclusive economy.

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