Biden Administration

Will Biden's '30 by 30′ Conservation Plan Protect Both Property Rights and Wild Landscapes?

"Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest," wrote naturalist Aldo Leopold.


Yesterday the Biden administration released a report, "Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful," that outlines the ambitious goal of "conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030." The administration's "30 by 30" proposal is consonant with ongoing negotiations under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a multilateral treaty which the U.S. has signed but not ratified. The treaty aims to preserve sites of particular importance for biodiversity through the implementation of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures. These measures would help cover at least 30 percent of land and sea areas, with at least 10 percent under strict protection.

In March, 60 Republican members of the Senate and the House of Representatives sent a letter to the White House expressing their concern that "the 30 by 30 initiative will be used as a method to undermine private property rights, circumvent the multiple-use mandate, and lock up more land."

In his testimony during a U.S. House Natural Resources Committee forum, Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) CEO Brian Yablonski observed that President Joe Biden's earlier 30 by 30 executive order "references conserving 30 percent of our lands and waters, not protecting or preserving. The word conserve implies multiple and sustainable uses, not locking up land. This means managed and working lands should count."

The 30 by 30 report does, at least rhetorically, endorse this view. "Notably, the President's challenge specifically emphasizes the notion of 'conservation' of 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," states the report. "Efforts to conserve and restore America's lands and waters must respect the rights of private property owners." The report further observes that the administration's 30 percent conservation and restoration goal will be advanced by "providing incentives for voluntary conservation practices," as this "rewards ranchers and farmers for being good stewards of working lands, waters, and wildlife habitat." So far so good.

Yablonski points out that the 30 by 30 goal is quite ambitious since "according to the U.S. Geological Survey, only 12 percent of the land in the United States qualifies as 'protected,' including wilderness areas, national parks and monuments, state parks, and some private lands under conservation easements. To achieve an additional 18 percent, we would need to conserve an extra 440 million acres—an area more than four times the size of California—in the next nine years." Since 12 percent of U.S. land is already "protected," this would more than meet the CBD's 10 percent threshold for strict protection. With respect to the seas, the Biden administration report notes that the country "has already established marine protected areas in approximately one quarter of U.S. waters."

Various conservation groups offered their support for the administration's 30 by 30 vision. "The plan released today recognizes the current pace of conservation is not enough, and that we need to engage tribes, all stakeholders and communities to achieve a 30 percent conservation goal that will bring effective, lasting and equitable results," said Nature Conservancy Chief External Affairs Officer Lynn Scarlett* in a statement. "Protected areas and federal designations are important, but integrating other management authorities and working waters, lands and oceans is also necessary to achieving this goal."

In response to the release of the 30 by 30 report, the conservative environmentalist group ConservAmerica stated, "We are cautiously optimistic about the proposal and its focus on good stewardship and land management. We believe that Biden's conservation goals cannot be achieved without working with private landowners, and, so far, the President appears to agree with us. Many of the principles we recommend in our public comments are reflected in the report, including respect for private property rights, the value of stewardship by farmers and ranchers on the lands they work, and flexibility in what constitutes conservation so that the priority is on outcomes rather than process."

To help the Biden administration get started, here are some ideas that would protect both property rights as well as landscapes and wildlife. First, let's eliminate all agricultural subsidies since they incentivize farmers to plow down millions of acres of land in order to qualify for them. Biofuel subsidies are especially pernicious since they encourage overproduction and do essentially nothing to forestall man-made climate change. Recognizing that congressional political realities may make the abolition of those subsidies unlikely, why not repurpose them to support and expand the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) conservation reserve program?

Another useful step toward conserving our coastlines from overdevelopment would be to eliminate federal flood insurance. Additionally, our federal forests are overgrown fire traps, so funding could be targeted toward thinning them. The 30 by 30 report proposes to use "stakeholder-driven processes for marine fisheries management." What has actually worked well to conserve fisheries is privatization. The Biden administration could propose amending the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to assign property rights to U.S. fisheries that are still being regulated by fishery management councils.

As the great naturalist Aldo Leopold once wrote, "Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest." Here's hoping that the Biden administration will keep this firmly in mind as it seeks to pursue its 30 by 30 plan.

*Disclosure: Scarlett is a former president of Reason Foundation.