A reality check on Biden’s ‘30 by 30’ conservation plan

The plan has lofty ambitions, but what’s happening on the ground tells a different story of how it might play out.


A week after Joe Biden became president, he signed an executive order that announced his commitment to protecting 30% of U.S. land and water — over 720 million acres — by 2030. The move brought cheers from conservationists and stakeholders who badly needed a break from the Trump era’s incessant environmental deregulation. Then, on May 6, the Department of Interior published Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful, a preliminary report about what’s become known as the “30 by 30 plan” — and some of that initial excitement waned.

U.S. President Joe Biden signed a raft of executive orders to launch his administration, many aimed at reversing decisions by his predecessor, including a decision to rejoin the Paris climate accord; reversing the process of leaving the World Health Organization; ending the ban on entries from mostly Muslim-majority countries; bolstering environmental protections; and strengthening the fight against COVID-19.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty images

Though the politically savvy report still offers hope for an equitable and sustainable future, Western and Indigenous climate activists and conservationists fear that it promises too much and could hamper conservation by trying too hard to please all the various land users.

In order to tackle three challenges — the disappearance of nature, climate change and inequitable access to the outdoors — the report laid out a locally led, science-based and collaborative road map toward achieving “30 by 30.” As part of it, the Biden administration invited farmers, ranchers and fishermen to get involved, promising to maintain ranching in the West “as an important and proud way of life.” The report also acknowledged the conservation movement’s discriminatory past, including its appropriation of Native American ancestral land and neglect of communities of color, and it vowed to work toward a more inclusive future. 

“Real conservation doesn’t have room for commercial logging and grazing.”

“It’s exciting,” Kay Bounkeua, New Mexico deputy director of The Wilderness Society, said. “Now we are talking about following the lead of local voices. We are thinking about not only the strong science but also the traditional knowledge that Indigenous people have been using to take care of the lands.”

Many conservationists pointed out, however, that, according to the America the Beautiful report, farming, grazing and logging could count as conservation under the 30% designation if the land is managed with “the long-term health and sustainability of natural systems” in mind. While many support this approach, others strongly disagree. Andy Kerr, an Oregon-based conservationist, said: “Real conservation doesn’t have room for commercial logging and grazing.” These lands are not dedicated to the preservation of biodiversity but instead to extractive commodities, he explained.

Some worry that the voluntary conservation programs on working lands are temporary and “only kick the can of problems down the road,” said Ashley McCray Engle (Absentee Shawnee Tribe, Oglala Lakota), a policy coordinator at Indigenous Environmental Network, a grassroots nonprofit that advocates environmental justice for Native American communities. Under the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program of U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, land is exempted from agricultural use for 10 to 15 years. The conservation work on the land, however, can halt after that.

A woman holds a sign reading "Stop Line 3" during a spiritual practice at the headwaters of the Mississippi River for a multi-faith prayer and ceremonial circle guided by Native American and Indigenous spiritual leaders at LaSalle Lake State Recreation Area in Minnesota in early June.
Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty images

And while Indigenous environmentalists are pleased that the Biden administration made tribal consultation a priority in this plan and also helped to kill the Keystone XL pipeline project, ongoing fights over industrial projects and treaty responsibilities continue to weaken Indigenous people’s trust in the federal government. Recently, peaceful protesters, mostly tribal members, were met with riot gear and brutal police tactics in northern Minnesota at the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project, which passes through delicate waterways and damages ancestral tribal lands. “You reap the land continuously. But after a while, there’s not much more you’ll be able to take,” said Bennae Calac (Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians), founder of the 7G Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to cultivating future Native American leaders, and whom the Biden administration consulted with before drafting the recent report. The recent conflicts in Minnesota could undermine the administration’s commitment to tribal consultation, she said: “How much can you stand behind what you just stated back in January or what this initiative (“30 by 30”) means?”

To fulfill its conservation goals, the federal government needs Western states to take the lead. Historically, most conservation projects happen on the region’s public lands. So far, two states have hopped on board. Nevada became the first to pass legislation adopting the conservation goal, while California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that will establish listening sessions with tribal members and private landowners regarding the project. Polls conducted by FM3 Research and New Bridge Strategy in eight Western states show that over 80% of voters support creating new national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges and tribally protected areas. Designating new national monuments is one of the ways to reach the “30 by 30” goals, and places like the Great Bend of the Gila in Arizona, Avi Kwa Ame in southern Nevada and Owyhee Canyonlands in Oregon are promising contenders since they already have strong local and tribal support, said Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a nonpartisan conservation organization.

Volcanic tuff rock makes up the stunning landscape in Leslie Gulch, one of the most popular recreational destinations in the Owyhee Canyonlands of Oregon.
David Moskowitz

“The report definitely takes a broad and widely encompassing view of what conservation is and can be. There’s no conservation plan that’s going to please everyone all the time,” Weiss said. “Now is where the hard work on the ground comes in, working with land managers and tribes to come up with plans and necessary adjustments.”

Wufei Yu is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Note: A misspelling in the photo caption about the Owyhee Canyonlands has been corrected.

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