President Joe Biden signed an executive order setting a goal of protecting 30 percent of all U.S. lands and waters by 2030. What does “30×30” mean, and what does it “protect” these lands and waters from?
According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, 30×30 is intended to “prevent mass extinctions and bolster resilience to climate change,” as “scientists warn that we must protect at least 30 percent of our lands, rivers, lakes, and wetlands by 2030.” Biden’s Department of the Interior later issued a fact sheet suggesting only 12 percent of total U.S. acres are “permanently protected,” which amounts to about 293 million acres of land.
Yet the federal government alone owns 617 million acres, much of it permanently set aside as national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national wildlife refuges, roadless areas and other designations.
Active forest management on National Forest System lands is restricted on most of land base, with less than a third available for timber harvest and routine forest management activities such as thinning and fuels reduction. And that small portion is strictly regulated under a complex system of federal environmental laws and regulations. As a result only a fraction of these acres are managed on an annual basis.
In 2020 alone, over 4.9 million acres burned on U.S. Forest Service-protected lands. The fires have devastated populations of endangered species in the West. If the goal is conservation, shouldn’t we accelerate the use of active forest management tools to help mitigate the risks of wildfire, insects and disease on these federal lands?
Judging by recent reports, 30×30 is not a single proposal, but could be used a platform for more designated Wilderness areas and other land set-asides that likely restrict active forest management even further on public lands. These proposals are already piling up in Congress. And as the National Geographic noted, meeting the target will require addressing land uses on private lands, as around 70 percent of land in the U.S. is owned by individuals or companies.
Biden’s executive order stresses the need for cooperation with states, tribes, and the agriculture and forestry sectors in developing the report and “identifying strategies that will encourage broad participation” in meeting this goal. If protection means conservation, this cooperation could facilitate new opportunities to mitigate the real risks to U.S. lands.
But if protection means walking away from these lands, it may only continue the cycle of devastating wildfires that affect our forests, watersheds, wildlife habitat, livelihoods and many other things we value.