With the Fourth of July this past weekend, we’re reminded of the lyrics in “America the Beautiful,” and it’s no wonder the Biden administration adopted this name for its ambitious 30x30 initiative to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands by 2030. Our diverse landscapes – from farm and forest lands to rangelands to tribal lands to urban areas – all need investment in conservation, and with increasingly prevalent and severe weather events, they’re under greater threat every day. While the President’s proposed budget allocated funding for its implementation, the America the Beautiful plan has yet to clearly define what it means to “conserve.”
In the original Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1935, Congress correctly identified, and President Franklin Roosevelt agreed, that “wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands of the Nation, resulting from soil erosion, is a menace to the national welfare and that it is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress to provide permanently for the control and prevention of soil erosion and thereby to preserve natural resources, control floods, prevent impairment of reservoirs, and maintain the navigability of rivers and harbors, protect public health, public lands and relieve unemployment.” Conservation districts would argue the 1935 law created a working definition for conservation that is as relevant today as when it was first enacted.
Active, local conservation is more than just preservation, and the America the Beautiful plan has an opportunity to accelerate conservation on America’s working lands as opposed to simply expanding acreage in national monuments or parks. Conservation programs funded through the conservation title of the farm bill, like the Conservation Reserve Program or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, are not permanent – they are reevaluated periodically by local, expert conservation planning professionals to address the resource concerns on the land and to adapt these programs when needed.
This holistic approach to conservation includes regenerative practices that reestablish organic matter and sequester carbon in the soil, restoring critical habitat for our nation’s unique wildlife. Working lands are also integral to sequestering carbon and lessening America’s carbon footprint. Conservation means protecting and enhancing the quality of the living landscape, water and the life that relies upon it, not just preserving the acreage. It means active management, like fire protection through fuels reduction; erosion control through soil health management systems; and improving water quality through technical assistance. Working lands conservation helps restore the health of the land from the roots up, armoring it against extreme weather events and disasters that have devastating social and economic impacts. It’s an infrastructure investment for our nation’s security that relieves pressure on taxpayer funding for natural disasters.
Conservation is not limited to agricultural landscapes, nor to rural areas. It requires all types of lands and landowners working together toward a common goal. Every acre counts, whether establishing pollinator habitat on an urban rooftop or rotational grazing on the wide open plains. It also requires all types of collaboration. When working through America’s longstanding federal, state, tribal and local government collaborative partnership model, we make the best possible management decisions for our local landscapes, building back better, healthier, more productive soils and forests.
The America the Beautiful proposal must strongly and clearly integrate working lands into the definition of conservation. By doing so, we can also consider it an investment in America the Bountiful. By clearly defining conservation beyond the narrow scope of preservation, we’ll be able to meet the goals set forth by the administration and do what is best for all lands at the local level.
Michael Crowder is the president of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) and manages a ranch in eastern Washington.
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