Here’s What the ‘America the Beautiful’ Plan Could Mean for Lovers of Public Lands

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To fight climate change and save wildlife, the Biden administration has set a goal to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030. The outdoor recreation community stands to play a pivotal role. Here’s what the plan looks like and how you can support it.

When BJ Orozco is walking through far-out landscapes in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, he keeps an eye out for tracks. Wildlife is sparse in the red desert canyons, he says, but it’s there if you know how to look for it.

Foxes, bobcats, coyotes, rattlesnakes, owls, lizards—Orozco has come across just about every animal that lives in the desert canyons. He’s a guide based in Boulder, Utah, who leads llama-supported treks into Grand Staircase-Escalante and has lived in the area for more than 20 years. The one creature he hasn’t seen out in the wild is a mountain lion, though he’s spotted them in town. Once, Orozco saw a set of small tracks that suddenly disappeared next to what he presumed were wing marks.

“An owl came down, probably, and swooped something up,” he said. “Those are the stories you have to look for. If you’re paying attention to tracks and who’s following who, and what’s going where. That kind of thing.”

Even with such a close eye to the Earth, there are times when Orozco walks into the desert canyons and expects to see tracks or a fox silhouetted on a distant ridge, but instead, he’ll see nothing—not a scratch in the dirt or any other sign of wildlife. The disappearance of animal life seems to be more noticeable during dry years, he said.

“I don’t know if it’s the people or the climate,” he said.

Worldwide, the loss of habitats and ecosystems to human impact are wreaking havoc on biodiversity. According to a 2019 global biodiversity report, some 1 million plant and animal species currently face extinction due to a range of impacts, including resource extraction, pollution and climate change. Many species may disappear in the coming decades if we don’t do something about it.

The good news is, we can do something about it.

A new movement is growing worldwide, driven by global leaders, scientists and grassroots activists, that could make a significant impact to help prevent the mass extinction of species and fight climate change, as well as set aside swaths of land for outdoor recreation and strengthen Indigenous sovereignty.

The movement is called 30 by 30, and it aims to protect 30% of the land and waters across the globe by 2030. In the United States, it is also known as the America the Beautiful initiative.

Here’s a look at what it could mean for the United States, for climate and biodiversity, and for people who identify as recreationists or lovers of public lands.

Where did the idea for 30 by 30 come from?

Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson initially proposed 30 by 30 as a solution to the global biodiversity crisis. In 2016, Wilson argued that the best way to prevent the mass extinction of plants and animals is to protect habitats and ecosystems. His book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, makes the case to return half the planet back to nature.

Indeed, many scientists see 30 by 30 as a half-step toward protecting 50% of the planet by 2050 or 50 by 50.

Across the globe, 30 by 30 has been gaining momentum with commitments from countries to protect land and waters as a means to address the biodiversity crisis and fight climate change. Last fall, the European Union committed to 30 by 30 goals. And in October, nations around the world will convene at an international summit in Kunming, China, to further discuss their commitments to protecting biodiversity and how they will act on goals aligned with 30 by 30.

Early talks of the 30 by 30 movement in the United States

California last year passed its resolution to protect 30% of land and waters by 2030. Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, was the first to propose the initiative to Congress. And then, in an executive order signed on Jan. 27, President Biden set a goal for the U.S. to protect 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030. In May, the Biden administration unveiled a document called Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful, providing the public with a first look at how it plans to implement this bold, ambitious conservation goal. And just last month, the White House established an interagency working group of federal leaders who will focus specifically on its America the Beautiful plan.

The plan emphasizes a “locally led, national scaled” effort and engages a wide range of people, including environmental justice and climate change advocates, ranchers and hunters, Indigenous leaders, mountain bikers, climbers, fly fishers and others.

The Biden administration “put, front and center, that this will be locally led,” said Tania Lown-Hecht, communications director for Outdoor Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for recreation and public lands. (Editor’s note: The author has written for Outdoor Alliance about the group’s efforts to organize in California.)

A local-first effort empowers the people who “know, live, work and care for lands and waters” to implement “the most effective and enduring conservation strategies,” the plan states. Collaboration, local dialogue and leadership, tribal sovereignty and private property rights are “essential ingredients” to achieving the America the Beautiful initiative.

Proponents hope the initiative might restore social and environmental justice, strengthen Indigenous leadership and management of ancestral lands, create more opportunities for equitable access to the outdoors, and rewild urban spaces. Some hope it might even help safeguard against future pandemics by preventing mass deforestation.

The Center for American Progress calls the initiative “the beginning of the significant work to build a strong, ambitious, inclusive, and equitable plan to protect natural systems for the benefit of every U.S. community.” And experts in conservation, outdoor recreation and Indigenous-government relations say it could be a turning point for the country. But can an idea this big truly solve challenges that continue to vex the nation? While not a cure-all, some conservation experts believe it can. And so do a majority of Americans. A February survey conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 4 out of 5 U.S. voters favored plans to protect at least 30% of America’s lands, oceans and inland waters by 2030.

Pat Gonzales-Rogers is the executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group of tribal sovereign nations advocating for protections for Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, a site of cultural and ecological significance that’s been at the center of the U.S. conservation debate in recent years. He’s engaged in discussions with the White House on 30 by 30 and says he hopes BIPOC communities are prioritized at the center of the effort.

“It goes over and above getting their input,” Gonzales-Rogers said. “It really requires them to be at the forefront of decision-making and problem solving, too. From my perspective, that’s what the advancement of [30 by 30] should really look like.”

What will the America the Beautiful initiative look like?

Biden’s vision for America the Beautiful spans the entire United States, not just the West. For the initiative to succeed, many experts say, it must take into account all parts of this country, from the Sierra Nevada to the Adirondack Mountains, from desert canyons in the Southwest to the remote wildlife refuges of Alaska, from new parks in urban landscapes to working land agreements with ranchers.

Conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters would help disrupt a recent trend of human consumption. Between 2001 and 2017, the U.S. lost more than 24 million acres to development. A number that large is difficult to fathom. Scientists say it is the equivalent of nearly nine Grand Canyon National Parks. Although the U.S. was the first country to establish a national park, today, just 12% of U.S. land (public and private) is protected, according to a 2018 report by the Center for American Progress.

Shenandoah National Park at sunset. The Biden administration has said that the ‘America the Beautiful’ plan will go beyond national parks in its goal of conserving 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. It will protect a variety of spaces, including forests and waters close to urban areas, conservation easements that protect privately owned land and more.

The Biden administration’s Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful initiative doesn’t detail how federal officials will achieve this first-of-its-kind national stewardship goal. But it does outline critical principles like collaboration and inclusivity, honoring tribal sovereignty, supporting locally led efforts, creating jobs, respecting private property rights and following science.

To measure progress, the Biden administration will develop a database, known as the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, that will map and inventory areas for conservation. The atlas will be an “accessible, updated and comprehensive tool” to measure “conservation, stewardship, and restoration efforts across the United States,” the America the Beautiful document states.

The places 30 by 30 seeks to protect are valuable, unique ecosystems that play a crucial role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere or connecting wildlife habitat, said Tom Cors, national director for The Nature Conservancy. These qualities often overlap with the same things that people seek in the outdoors and want to see protected.

“We want more conservation, and conservation can take many different flavors,” Cors said. “It depends on the local place and what locals decide they want to do. That, to us, is super important. Conservation plays an important role. It supports farmers and ranchers; it also supports recreation, sports, cultural and historic sites.”

What lands and waters will be protected?

One question that remains is, what counts?

Congress in 1964 created the Wilderness Act to protect land that is “untrammeled by man” and preserve wilderness in its “natural conditions.” For lovers of outdoor recreation, the boundaries of wilderness areas create a space free of motors or mechanized equipment. You can walk or ride a horse through designated wilderness areas, but you cannot ride a bicycle.

Conservation still holds a place for the highest levels of protections like wilderness areas. But the Biden administration, in its opening letter to the America the Beautiful document, says the initiative should go beyond “national parks, wilderness lands, and marine protected areas.” Conservation should recognize and celebrate the “efforts of farmers, ranchers, and forest owners; the leadership of sovereign Tribal Nations in caring for lands, waters, and wildlife; the contributions and stewardship traditions of playgrounds, trails, and open space in park-deprived communities.”

Think of forests and lands close to urban areas or conservation easements that protect privately owned land. Those places may not be suitable for wilderness protections with stringent rules, but they may still deserve to be counted toward climate resiliency, clean air and clean water, and access to outdoor recreation. Having many and diverse options on the menu to conserve land and waters is key to reaching 30 by 30 goals, Lown-Hecht of Outdoor Alliance said.

Still, beyond the guiding principles the report outlines, the Biden administration has yet to draw a line in the sand between what counts toward 30 by 30, and what doesn’t.

“Figuring that out is important,” Lown-Hecht said. “And it should be rooted in science.”

How the outdoor recreation sector can help advance America the Beautiful

An estimated 100 million Americans do not have a park within a 10-minute walk from their home, according to The Trust for Public Land. Historical discrimination and segregation have made it so that low-income and communities of color don’t have the same access to the outdoors, or clean air and water, that wealthier, whiter communities have benefited from for decades.

The America the Beautiful initiative would use conservation to address the country’s current inequitable outdoor access. But the America the Beautiful document states a place shouldn’t be valued based on its biological and ecological properties alone. Instead, we should look to a landscape’s ability to “purify drinking water, to cool the air for a nearby neighborhood, to provide a safe outdoor escape for a community that is park-deprived, to help America prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change, or to unlock access for outdoor recreation, hunting, angling and beyond.”

The outdoor recreation sector can play an influential role in advancing America the Beautiful. In recent years the outdoor community has advocated for legislation that could provide critical funding for the initiative, including the Great American Outdoors Act, which allocated billions of dollars to public lands, and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a bipartisan program that invests revenue from offshore energy development into public lands and waters.

In addition, Outdoor Alliance and its partners, which include retailers like REI Co-op as well as nonprofits that advocate for surfing, climbing, backcountry skiing, mountain biking and whitewater paddling on public lands, are working together to generate awareness about the initiative. More broadly, they are also advocating on behalf of outdoor recreation to the Biden administration to make sure recreationists are heard at the highest level.

“In order for this to be successful, people need to feel the impact of conservation,” Lown-Hecht said. “Outdoor recreation is one of the easiest ways for people to feel that impact, vividly and personally.

In implementing the America the Beautiful initiative, the outdoor recreation sector can be an ally to Indigenous tribes and nations, said Raina Thiele, a strategist who worked in the Obama administration and focused on strengthening relationships between the federal government and Indigenous tribes and nations.

But the relationship between the outdoor recreation community and tribes is a delicate one with a fraught history that, in many cases, still needs to be reconciled with. To create many of the country’s first national parks, white settlers and the federal government forcibly removed Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.

“That’s the history that we have to reconcile in this country,” Thiele said.

As part of 30 by 30, Thiele emphasized the need for a national—and global—conversation about how we can pivot back to the management practices and wisdom of Indigenous peoples.

“It would be wonderful to have outdoor recreation as an ally of tribal priorities under this initiative,” Thiele said. “I know there has been a lot of wonderful progress, but keeping that door of communication open, and using 30 by 30 as an opportunity to do that, is something that I hope for.”

What’s next?

Right now, you can join REI in Cooperative Action by telling Congress to help make the America the Beautiful initiative a reality by passing key pieces of legislation that advance the U.S. to the goal of conserving 30% of our lands and waters by 2030. Visit the Cooperative Action hub to learn more.

Editor’s note: As a part of its commitment to reinvesting in the outdoor community, REI Co-op has partnered with and donated to Outdoor Alliance, The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Lands over the years.