‘America the Beautiful’ Plan Debuts the Biden Administration’s Approach to Conserving the Environment and Habitat

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The Biden administration on Thursday introduced its “America the Beautiful” plan to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and water by 2030, calling it the country’s first-ever national conservation goal and issuing a stark warning about the state of the country’s natural areas.  

“Nature in America is in trouble and Americans across the country are seeing and feeling the impact,” said Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “We need a collective, all hands on deck national effort to conserve and restore the land and water upon which we all depend.”

Administration officials said the decade-long, “voluntary” and locally-led effort would address the “catastrophic extinction crisis” facing the planet by protecting critical habitats and biodiversity. They said the plan would also help combat climate change, create jobs and promote racial equity, in part by making natural spaces more accessible to underserved populations.

The 24-page proposal emphasizes collaboration between the federal government, states and Tribal nations to create and preserve more marine and terrestrial wildlife habitats, as well as public parks. Farmers, ranchers, fishers and local communities would be an essential part of stewardship plans for natural resources they rely on.

The plan doesn’t contain specifics about how the initiative would be funded, but costs could be covered, in part, by existing programs and legislation like the 2019 reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act, which Congress passed with bipartisan support and former President Trump signed into law. Other components of the plan, such as the use of a Civilian Climate Corps to help in conservation efforts, would be funded through President Biden’s American Jobs plan.

Administration officials attempted to blunt early opposition from conservative groups that denounce the plan as a “land grab” by highlighting that it is voluntary, inclusive and locally-led. But they stopped short of detailing how the federal government will meet its goals. 

“We recognize that this is just the beginning,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “We look forward to more formal and informal ways to engage people across America to shape and guide the America the Beautiful Initiative.”

One of the details missing from the report is how the administration will measure progress. 

“A question all of us have is, ‘What do we count?’” said James M. McElfish, Jr., a senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute. McElfish, whose work focuses on development choices and land use, said that “conserving” isn’t the same as preserving and protecting spaces from future development. There is a range of land and water that could be counted towards the 30 percent conservation goal, from public parks and nature preserves to farms and other working or privately held lands.

The report released Thursday describes a new inventory of lands and waters, the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, that would be a comprehensive tool to measure the nation’s progress on conservation, stewardship and restoration that will also help in assessing the payoffs of America the Beautiful—including climate benefits—according to the Council on Environmental Quality. 

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 12 percent of the nation’s land and 23 percent of its oceans are strongly protected now through designations as national parks, wildlife refuges and national monuments. McElfish called those numbers conservative since they do not include land like farms, which the Biden administration could count towards its 30 percent goal.

The plan, developed by the Commerce, Agriculture and Interior Departments, will be refined over the next decade, officials said. Unlike prior conservation efforts that targeted specific locations, America the Beautiful takes a sweeping, nationwide approach that highlights fundamental American values with approaches like honoring private property rights, they said, supporting locally-led efforts and restoring natural spaces for the benefit of all people. It will also prioritize science-based decision making and honoring Tribal concerns and sovereignty. 

An Important Rallying Cry’

Environmentalists largely praised the report as a reversal from the previous administration’s policies and an encouraging step in dealing with the nation’s environmental and social justice challenges. 

“It’s a big deal that the Biden administration recognizes we’re in the midst of a wildlife extinction crisis and a climate emergency,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which last year unveiled its own 30-by-30 style program, Saving Life on Earth. “This report is an important rallying cry.”  

Brian O’Donnell, director of Campaign for Nature, called the plan a good start toward elevating the issue of biodiversity and habitat preservation, but said that a lot of details need to be worked out. 

“Given the pace of loss of nature, it requires this kind of national goal, and so that is an incredible milestone for the country,” he said. “Will we see an improvement in terms of recovery of species? Will we see… a benefit in terms of clean water? Will we see more opportunities for recreation? Those are the things that will really measure the success of this.” 

Mustafa Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation, said the 30-by-30 initiative is an opportunity to clean up polluted and under-resourced communities while creating equitable job opportunities.

“Most businesses in this space aren’t businesses that have been owned by folks of color, and it is not as welcoming a space as we’d hope,” he said. “But there are opportunities there to make sure that businesses of color have a real opportunity to also benefit from what’s going to be needed to make all of this revitalization and protection become real.”

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The Biden proposal builds on key bipartisan initiatives that advanced in recent years, despite the deep partisan divide in Congress and among Americans in general. For instance, after congressional Republicans let the broadly popular Land and Water Conservation Fund lapse in 2015, bipartisan action brought the program back two years ago. And last year, then-President Donald Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act, which was billed as one of the greatest conservation laws in a century. That measure guarantees full funding of $900 million a year for the LWCF and dedicates about $1.9 billion each year for five years to address the maintenance backlog at national parks.

The success of those bills is perhaps a hint at a crucial component of the administration’s strategy for America the Beautiful: harnessing grassroots public support where bipartisan congressional support might not be possible. About 71 percent of Americans think that climate change will harm plants and animals, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps. And 60 percent say that the president and Congress should do more to prevent global warming, according to the Yale polling.

The focus on collaboration with farmers, fishermen, forest companies, the outdoor recreation industry and a broad cross-section of the public would help the initiative advance even if partisanship in Congress becomes an obstacle.

GOP lawmakers have been attacking Building Back Better and 30-by-30 concepts since the Biden administration took office. At a House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands hearing in March, Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, the top-ranking Republican, criticized the Democrats’ conservation initiatives as “radical Green New Deal policies” that would decrease access to public land, kill jobs and restrict access to fire-prone forests.

“We’re talking about millions of acres of land and hundreds of thousands of jobs for people who rely on multiple use and working lands,” Westerman said in his opening statement. “We owe them a lot better than a catchy tagline with no actual substance behind it.”

But, unlike the administration’s multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure and coronavirus relief plans, America the Beautiful appears to rely largely on programs already on the agenda in Washington. One example is the Civilian Climate Corps concept that the administration unveiled last week, parts of which have been represented in legislation sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats over the years.

“Congress can play a big role in advancing locally-led conservation efforts around the country, whether by creating new parks or supporting working lands conservation through Farm Bill programs,” said a spokesperson for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “We look forward to working with Congress on a wide range of conservation and restoration initiatives.”

In praising America the Beautiful, House Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) took a partisan swipe at the Trump administration for what he called its “drill-everywhere obsession.” He applauded the Biden approach for its potential to build a more sustainable economy and preserve valuable landscapes and seascapes across the country for the long term when coupled with the American Jobs Plan. 

“The days of looking across the great American landscape and seaboards and seeing nothing but fossil fuel profits are over,” Grijalva said in a statement. “If we do this right, from now on Americans can look at their country and see cleaner air and water, better preserved natural wildlife habitats, clean and accessible urban parks for millions of Americans to enjoy, and a workforce dedicated to expanding on these achievements for future generations.”

The “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” report comes in response to President Biden’s Jan. 27 Executive Order on climate change, which directed the heads of the Departments of Agriculture, Interior and Commerce, as well as the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, to make recommendations for how the country can conserve at least 30 percent of its lands and waters by 2030. The plan dovetails with the 2020 United Nations proposal to protect about one-third of the planet by 2030 in order to prevent species extinction and limit climate change.

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