Voluntary conservation efforts by farmers and ranchers play a central role in the Biden administration’s strategy to conserving 30% of the nation’s land and waters by 2030.
“President Biden has recognized and honored the leadership role that farmers, ranchers, forest owners, and fishers already play in the conservation of the nation’s lands, waters, and wildlife, and has made clear that his administration will support voluntary stewardship efforts that are already underway across the country’s lands and waters,” the report outlining the “America the Beautiful” initiative says.
The effort will require increased funding of USDA conservation programs. "It will take more resources than we’ve had in the past," said Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack.
"One of the key areas, obviously, is making sure we have enough capacity to provide technical assistance to allow those local conservation efforts on private working lands to be funded and to be implemented," he told reporters Thursday. "And so we have requested additional capacity at [the Natural Resources Conservation Service] to be able to provide that technical assistance. And we're hopeful that Congress will be supportive of that."
Some lawmakers led by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., are working to get funding for conservation programs included in an upcoming climate and infrastructure package. Environmental groups and some farm organizations have called for doubling the existing funding levels.
Stabenow said the $1 billion included for conservation in Biden's $2.7 trillion infrastructure proposal was "woefully inadequate."
The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, whose membership includes most major farm organizations, also supports increased funding for conservation but hasn't endorsed a specific amount.
The report was submitted to the National Climate Task Force by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory. It includes six areas of “early focus” and eight principles that should guide the initiative.
"The president’s challenge is a call to action to support locally led conservation and restoration efforts of all kinds and all over America," the officials said in a "letter to America" accompanying the report, but added that the report "is only the starting point on the path to fulfilling the conservation vision that President Biden has outlined."
“U.S. working lands and waters give our nation food and fiber and keep rural and coastal communities healthy and prosperous,” the report says. “They are also integral to conserving functioning habitats and connecting lands and waters across the country.”
It adds, pointedly, “Efforts to conserve and restore America’s lands and waters must respect the rights of private property owners.” Some in the farming community have expressed concerns that what has been called the 30x30 initiative would result in a federal “land grab,” a notion Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack has rejected.
Ag groups should find much to like in the report, which includes as one of its eight principles, “honor private property rights and support the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners and fishers” and says, “Maintaining ranching in the West — on both public lands and private lands — is essential to maintaining the health of wildlife, the prosperity of local economies, and an important and proud way of life.”
“Efforts to conserve and restore America’s lands and waters … must … build trust among all communities and stakeholders, including by recognizing and rewarding the voluntary conservation efforts of private landowners and the science-based approaches of fishery managers,” the report says.
It’s unclear how far along the country is toward its goal. U.S. Geological Survey data show about 12% of U.S. lands are permanently protected, and “studies show that roughly 23% of America’s ocean is currently strongly protected, with the vast majority of ocean protections found in the western Pacific Ocean,” according to the Interior Department.
But it’s clear the administration is not talking just about land that is permanently protected via an easement or some other means, but also about the millions of acres enrolled in USDA programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and Conservation Stewardship Program.
The effort began with an executive order issued by President Biden Jan, 27, in which he called for conservation of 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, but the administration emphasized after the E.O. was issued the conservation of 30% of the "lands and ocean" by the end of the decade.
On the call Thursday, CEQ Chair Mallory would not say the initiative is aimed solely at marine waters. "Part of the first step of this is to identify what land and waters it makes the most sense for us to be looking at. There are ecosystem improvements and restoration that will happen in waters that are not just marine waters."
And Vilsack said that "when you ... incorporate an effort with private working lands, you're obviously going to have a positive impact on the quality of human waterways. So I think that to that extent, there obviously are going to be activities and efforts that will impact and affect rivers and streams throughout the United States."
In a section listing “recommendations for early focus and progress,” the report says, “USDA has an array of programs that offer effective strategies for advancing conservation on working lands, such as the Working Lands for Wildlife initiative and the Conservation Reserve Program. The reauthorization of the Farm Bill in 2023 provides a tremendous opportunity for the USDA and Congress to improve the effectiveness of relevant programs to conserve working lands.”
Vilsack noted USDA's recent increase in the cap for the CRP by 4 million acres.
The report recommends the creation of an American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas by the end of the year to come up with a “clear baseline of information on lands and waters that have already been conserved or restored.”
An interagency group led by the U.S. Geological Survey, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in partnership with the Council on Environmental Quality, would get input from the public, states, tribes, a wide range of stakeholders, and scientists “to assess existing databases, and to develop an inclusive, collaborative approach to capture and reflect conservation and restoration of lands and waters,” the report said.
Among other things, including “existing protections and designations on lands and waters across federal, state, local, Tribal, and private lands and waters,” the group would measure “contributions of farmers, ranchers, forest owners, and private landowners through effective and voluntary conservation measures.”
The group also “could consider how to reflect state- and county-presented information, how to capture conservation outcomes on multiple use lands and ocean areas, and how to protect the privacy of landowners, and sensitive or proprietary information.”
The report includes six areas of “early focus” and eight principles that should guide the initiative. The principles are:
- Creating more parks and safe outdoor opportunities in nature-deprived communities
- Supporting Tribally led conservation and restoration priorities.
- Expanding collaborative conservation of fish and wildlife habitats and corridors.
- Increasing access for outdoor recreation.
- Incentivizing and rewarding the voluntary conservation efforts of fishers, ranchers, farmers, and forest owners.
- Creating jobs by investing in restoration and resilience projects and initiatives, including the Civilian Climate Corps.
The principles are:
- Pursue a collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation
- Conserve America’s lands and waters for the benefit of all people
- Support locally led and locally designed conservation efforts
- Honor tribal sovereignty and support the priorities of tribal nations
- Pursue conservation and restoration approaches that create jobs and support healthy communities
- Honor private property rights and support the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners and fishers
- Use science as a guide
- Build on existing tools and strategies with an emphasis on flexibility and adaptive approaches
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Story updated at 12:15 p.m. EST to include additional comments.