In his first week in office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order establishing a first-of-its-kind national goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and oceans by 2030, later expanding on this commitment through his “America the Beautiful” initiative. Soon after the executive order, media coverage and many conservation experts started orbiting around a narrow question: What conservation measures should and should not “count” toward this new goal? With federal agencies due to soon give the public its first look at the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas—a new mapping tool intended to inform a wide range of conservation efforts—this debate is likely to reemerge.
However, heated arguments about “what counts” can miss the much bigger point behind this national “30×30” conservation goal. The ambitious 30×30 target can, and really must, be an inclusive call to action—a promise to jointly address the climate and biodiversity crises by accelerating the pace at which the country is protecting nature.
Undeniably, measuring progress matters—yet the steps President Biden and other leaders take to conserve nature in 2023 are far more important than perfecting the yard stick while the crisis worsens. Excessively debating what progress toward conservation “counts” is likely to sow new divisions among potential allies and distract government leaders and conservation partners from the important work ahead to protect America’s special places and advance the country’s climate goals.
No matter how efforts toward 30×30 are measured, the United States must act with urgency to conserve the natural areas that remain. President Biden—in collaboration with states, Tribes, Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives, U.S. territories, and private partners—has opportunities to make progress immediately and put the United States on a pathway to its 2030 goal. Most importantly, the president can advance durable, high-quality conservation solutions that benefit communities and wildlife and protect America’s natural and cultural heritage, amounting to more than just protected acres on the scoreboard. Rather than devolving into an accounting debate in 2023, conservationists should keep their focus on action; build a more inclusive and ambitious tent of partners; and hold the country’s leaders accountable where it matters most.
The United States must do much more to address the nature crisis
Substantially more work is needed to conserve the country’s lands, waters, and wildlife. Onshore, the United States is losing natural areas at an astonishing rate—the equivalent of one football field every 30 seconds—and an extinction crisis threatens animal and plant species across the country and globally. The current catalog of the nation’s protected lands and waters, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Protected Area Database, shows that only 13 percent of U.S. lands have permanent conservation protection that excludes extractive use. While new data will likely improve this estimate and new accounting methods could slightly increase that number, the United States will undoubtedly fall far short of its 2030 goal for durable land conservation.
Percentage of U.S. lands with durable conservation protections
Offshore, ocean conservation also demands significantly more attention regardless of how existing protections are tallied. Because the decline in the ocean occurs below the surface and out of view, the reality of this loss is obscure. Nevertheless, the planet has lost half its coral reefs since 1950, and many charismatic and commercially important species are threatened with extinction. For example, in the past year alone, snow crabs have disappeared in Alaska and right whale populations in the Atlantic Ocean have continued to decline severely. Attempts to reduce this decline have been inconsistent across the nation. Nearly 99.5 percent of the marine reserves in the United States are in Hawaii and the Pacific Island territories, and many of these have struggled with staffing, funding, and completing management plans. Throughout the rest of the country, marine protected areas are mostly absent as a conservation tool. Management measures for area-based fisheries exist across more regions of the country and may be captured in the administration’s forthcoming atlas. However, while fisheries measures are important for supporting a fully sustainable ocean, a large body of scientific literature shows that they do not lead to as significant conservation gains as marine reserves.
There are pathways to achieve major conservation gains quickly
Fortunately, President Biden has opportunities within reach to substantially close the conservation gap, if he acts with urgency.
A new and diverse coalition—the America the Beautiful for All Coalition—recently released a shared policy agenda for 2023 that outlines a set of equitable conservation priorities to help achieve the Biden administration’s 30×30 and Justice40 goals. This coalition, which the Center for American Progress has joined, comprises nearly 150 groups, including frontline organizations; Indigenous communities and communities of color; mainstream green groups; wildlife and ocean organizations; hunters and anglers; businesses; land trusts; and others. The coalition has put forward 20 policy priorities to achieve America the Beautiful goals, including supporting increased opportunities for co-management of public lands and waters with Tribes, Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives, and U.S. territories; leveraging the Antiquities Act of 1906 to protect ecologically and culturally important areas; and supporting a network of marine protected areas across the country.
In a November 2022 report from its series on executive action to address the nature crisis, CAP took a deeper look at some of the most powerful conservation tools available to President Biden. In particular, the report identifies the top eight most impactful opportunities for near-term executive action. These include opportunities to designate new protected areas; expand national wildlife refuges; exclude sensitive and sacred places from drilling and mining; and establish national rules to guide conservation of U.S. Bureau of Management lands and the country’s oldest federally owned forests. In another publication from the same series, CAP highlights specific community and Tribally-led proposals for national monuments and marine sanctuaries already primed for executive action, from the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada to the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary in California. Enacting these recommendations will deliver real conservation benefits and should be prioritized.
Another CAP report from November 2022 explored opportunities available for President Biden to achieve 30×30 through well-designed action in the U.S. Pacific territories. The unincorporated U.S. Pacific territories collectively contain an area of ocean twice the size of Alaska, and they are already home to some of the largest marine protected areas on the planet, protecting the waters surrounding iconic locations such as the Mariana Trench, Wake Island, and Palmyra Atoll. However, despite being designated in 2009, the Mariana Trench and Pacific Remote Islands marine national monuments still lack final management plans. The Biden administration should prioritize these regions and work to implement these globally significant protected areas.
Executive action must deliver quality conservation, not just quantity
For effective biodiversity conservation, policymakers must also look beyond topline numbers of protected acreage. Not all protected areas are equally valuable. For example, larger, well-connected areas of protected habitats—those identified for “landscape-scale” conservation—are better than isolated parcels of land for species conservation. Promoting landscape connectivity and landscape diversity is particularly important to allow ecosystems to adapt in the face of climate change. Additionally, conserving places that are accessible to communities that are underserved by nature access—such as Castner Range in Texas—will help ensure that protected lands and waters deliver health, well-being, and economic benefits for all Americans.
Beyond establishing protected areas, high-quality conservation requires effective management and implementation. Management regimes should be appropriately matched to conservation goals and informed by meaningful and inclusive public input. Moreover, studies have shown that protected areas that lack sufficient staffing and funding do a poor job of protecting nature; the same can be said of areas that have not been designed or managed with local input.
Learn more about Indigenous-led conservation:
The principles laid out in President Biden’s America the Beautiful initiative spell out the need for supporting locally led and locally designed conservation efforts, honoring Tribal sovereignty, and supporting the priorities of Tribal nations. The United States is home to diverse Indigenous populations, including more than 600 Tribes speaking 175 languages, with 574 Tribes federally recognized. A December 2022 report by CAP, based on the outcomes of a symposium on Indigenous-led conservation at the 2022 National Diversity in STEM conference, provides a novel framework for helping non-Indigenous conservation practitioners understand and support Indigenous conservation approaches. Notably, this framework includes recommendations on bringing Indigenous identities, knowledge, and values into conservation efforts.
America’s conservation mission must be inclusive
A broad, inclusive coalition of external partners working with government leaders can achieve the America the Beautiful vision and 30×30 goal through conservation gains at the scale and quality needed to address the nature crisis. However, a prolonged debate about what should and should not “count” toward the 30×30 goal could unintentionally devalue some conservation measures and leave certain communities excluded from what should be an “all-hands-on-deck” mission. Indeed, securing ecologically intact lands and waters through permanent conservation protections is a vitally important goal. Yet restoring degraded lands, adopting sustainable agricultural or fishing practices, honoring Indigenous stewardship of lands and oceans, and other measures also have critical roles to play in stemming the biodiversity and nature crises and must not be devalued.
The Biden administration laid out an inclusive vision in its America the Beautiful report, and leading conservation organizations have likewise called for recognizing and supporting a continuum of conservation actions within and beyond the 30 percent goal. An accounting exercise to measure the country’s progress should not undermine that shared mission.
The 30×30 goal—which was also adopted in December 2022 by 196 nations as a global target for conservation—represents a historic and bold commitment. Two years into this national mission, conservation leaders cannot let the 30×30 goal devolve into a lengthy and divisive debate about measurement. By nearly every metric, the United States needs more high-quality conservation and stewardship of its lands, waters, and ocean. In 2023, President Biden must prioritize work with communities—particularly those underrepresented in the conservation movement in the 20th century—to conserve areas of historic, cultural, and ecological importance; improve management of existing protected areas; and enhance access to nature for all people. The true measure of success will be whether the president and other leaders seize those opportunities for action or not.
The authors would like to thank Corinne Muller, Sam Zeno, Nicole Gentile, Miriam Goldstein, Sam Hananel, and Doug Molof for their review and assistance.