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US announces major conservation effort but offers few details

A storm clearing late in the day in October 2019 added to the drama in the sky over Everglades National Park in Florida.  The Biden administration has outlined a plan to sharply increase conservation of public lands and waters.
A storm clearing late in the day in October 2019 added to the drama in the sky over Everglades National Park in Florida. The Biden administration has outlined a plan to sharply increase conservation of public lands and waters.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Months after President Biden set a goal of conserving 30 percent of the nation’s land and waters by 2030, the administration on Thursday laid out broad principles — but few details — for achieving that vision.

A 22-page document from the departments of Commerce, Interior, and Agriculture highlights one of the administration’s central challenges: Having committed to bold environmental goals during their early days in power, officials now face the more uncertain and contentious task of figuring out how to follow through.

The ’'America the Beautiful’' report outlines steps the United States could take to protect key areas on land and in the sea to restore biodiversity, tackle climate change, and make natural spaces more accessible to all Americans.

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’'This is the very first national conservation goal we have ever set as a country,’' Gina McCarthy, White House climate adviser, said on a call with reporters. ’'It really reflects the urgency with which we have to respond to a global extinction crisis, the climate crisis, and the deep racial and economic disparities that too often dictate who has access to nature.’'

But the report does not identify specific places for enhanced protection, define what level of conservation would be required for an area to count toward the administration’s 30 percent goal, or indicate how much federal funding would be needed.

This ambiguity is partly by design. Some environmentalists said that it would be impractical to make those assessments at this point, and that it will take time to muster the kind of support needed to achieve such a conservation goal.

’'I see it as a starting point that’s telling us this is the direction we want to go in, and this is how we want to do this work to ensure we’re going to get the best outcomes,’' said Ali Chase, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. ’'In terms of just trying to bring the country around to a conservation ethic, I think it’s pretty significant.’'

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The report is less a road map than a vision statement, painting a picture of accessible parks, ranchlands that double as wildlife corridors, and farms that could store carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. It lays out guiding principles for the program—- utilizing scientific research, pursuing projects that create jobs — and calls for a ’'voluntary and locally led’' approach to conservation, in which the federal government provides support and guidance to efforts led by landowners, cities, states, and tribes.

As part of the effort, the government will launch and maintain an ’'American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas’' to track the amount of protected land and water, and the Interior Department will be required to publish annual reports on the progress being made.

Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, said the acreage of protected areas is just one metric for measuring success. Progress will have to be judged, she said, ’'in the lives of people and the health of ecosystems rather than solely by scale.’'

About 12 percent of the nation’s land and 11 percent of its freshwater ecosystems have some level of official protection. A much larger portion of US ocean waters is safeguarded, in part because in 2016 President Barack Obama expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — established by President George W. Bush—- to encompass more than 582,000 square miles of land and sea.

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Many private landowners and commercial users of public lands, such as ranchers, anglers, and hunters, are leery of Biden’s attempts to more than double that conserved area.

’'The devil’s in the details, and it’s yet to be worked out,’' Trout Unlimited president Chris Wood said.

He added that landscape restoration on private land — even more so than designating new federal protections — will be key.

’'The effects of a changing climate — fire, droughts, and floods — don’t respect those boundaries.’'

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the report came out of dozens of conversations with scientists, farmers, hunters, and outdoor-recreation businesses as well as city, state, and tribal officials, and that the agency will solicit more feedback in the months to come. Meanwhile, she said, ’'the Interior Department is getting to work.’'

The department also hopes to stand up the Civilian Climate Corps, Haaland said, which would employ Americans in reforesting and restoring degraded landscapes. The agency this week proposed opening more than 2 million acres of public lands for hunting and fishing. And in coming days, the National Park Service will announce $150 million in new funding to build parks in underserved communities.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said that in the coming days the agency will be expanding the National Marine Sanctuary System and the National Estuarine Research Reserve program, which protect the places where rivers flow into the sea.

One of the looming questions is how Biden can reconcile the new conservation target, which has received relatively little publicity, with his better-known plans to tackle climate change.

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