This week, Lighting Update welcomes its new writer, Warren Brown. Along with appearances of some guest writers, Warren will now be the regular writer of Lightning Update. Warren had an illustrious career with the National Park Service, including as the Chief of Park Planning and Special Studies, and is now mostly retired.
Barely a week into his term, President Biden began setting the stage for important land conservation and climate change actions. On January 27, 2021, the President signed Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, which directed an all-of-government effort to confront climate change, repower America’s economy with clean energy, and create millions of jobs. On May 6, the Administration released “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” a report on land conservation to advance goals identified in that executive order.
Upon reading the report, it appears that the CCP Steering Committee’s March 2021 letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland may have helped frame the principles and recommendations and it certainly was exciting to see the Chesapeake get a call out alongside the Everglades and the Great Lakes.
It is also clear that the new report reflects many of the key goals of the Obama Administration’s America’s Great Outdoors Report issued on February 15, 2011. That initiative was focused on equitable urban and rural conservation and aimed to “achieve lasting conservation of the outdoor spaces that power our nation’s economy, shape our culture, and build our outdoor traditions.”
Today, conservation organizations were generally enthusiastic about President Biden’s target to conserve 30% of the nation’s landscape by 2030, yet reviews from other sectors were mixed. Some agricultural and property rights interests complained that the plan was a federal land grab. In between those poles, some commentators were disappointed by the lack of specificity on how the ambitious goals would be achieved. Much of the press coverage focused on the 30% target and did not delve into the deeper messages about principles that would guide future actions.
The report’s guiding principles represent key values for next steps. These include:
- Collaboration. The spirit of collaboration and shared purpose should animate all aspects of America’s nature conservation and restoration efforts over the next decade.
- Benefit all Americans. The conservation and restoration of natural places in America should yield meaningful benefits in the lives of all Americans, and these benefits should be equitably distributed. The conservation value of a particular place should not be measured solely in biological terms.
- Locally Led Conservation. The Federal government should support locally led and locally designed conservation efforts to help local communities achieve their own conservation priorities and vision.
- Tribal Led Conservation. Efforts to conserve and restore America’s lands and waters must involve regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal Nations. These efforts must respect and honor Tribal sovereignty, treaty and subsistence rights, and freedom of religious practices.
- Conservation Campaign to Support Healthy Communities and Jobs. A locally driven, nationally scaled conservation campaign over the next decade should pursue conservation and restoration approaches that create jobs and support healthy communities.
- Honor Private Property and Voluntary Stewardship. Private property rights and voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners, as well as anglers, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts should be honored.
- Scientific and Indigenous Knowledge. Conservation efforts are more successful and effective when rooted in the best available science and informed by the recommendations of top scientists and subject matter experts. The use of Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge can complement and integrate these efforts.
- Be Adaptive and Build on Existing Success. Conservation should build on existing tools and strategies with an emphasis on flexibility and adaptive approaches.
A recent webinar presentation by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Council on Environmental Quality chair Brenda Mallory offered the following observations about the report:
- The multi-agency strategy report was completed in a remarkably short few months.
- The report begins with a series of comments documenting an extensive, effective stakeholder engagement process that was conducted in spite of COVID constraints.
- Previous reports addressing the national park, wildlife refuge and forest systems have focused heavily on biological diversity. This report puts issues of social justice, equity, and tribal engagement front and center along with climate change.
- The role of local initiatives is featured throughout the document rather than as an afterthought following descriptions of Federal actions. Tribal authorities are highlighted rather than relegated to a list that includes states and local governments.
- The 30% target seems to some wildly ambitious. But 28% of the nation’s land is already owned by the Federal government. About 13% of the nation’s land is currently classified as “protected” as defined by the world protected area database maintained by the UN Environment Program and International Union for Conservation of Nature.
- The report recognizes that the baseline definition of “conserved” is open for discussion, especially how to count lands that are in active agricultural uses.
- The focus on 30% in the report and press commentary does not directly address the question of what type of land might be most important to conserve. For example, about 65% of the 80 million acres in the national park system are in Alaska. This is fine for preservation of outstanding scenic values, wildlife, and geological features, but not so good for representation of other important ecological processes or convenient public access for urban populations.
The Secretary stressed that this discussion should start with a recognition that, at its core, President Biden’s conservation vision is about doing better for people, for fish and wildlife, for the economy, and for the planet. There is no single metric—including a percentage target—that could fully measure progress toward the fulfillment of those interrelated goals. Similarly, there is no single database that could capture the texture and nuance of the economic and social values of every restoration or conservation action.
Nevertheless, the report acknowledges that several systems are now in place to inventory conserved lands and proposes an interagency working group of experts to build an American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas. The Atlas would aggregate information, identify gaps and be an accessible, updated, and comprehensive tool through which to measure the progress of conservation, stewardship, and restoration efforts across the United States. CCP’s Chesapeake Conservation Atlas does just this, and having this tool in place situates us as a model that can be drawn upon for the larger scale work.
In summary, the report proposes bold goals and specific actions that include:
- Create More Parks and Safe Outdoor Opportunities in Nature-Deprived Communities
- Support Tribally Led Conservation and Restoration Priorities
- Expand Collaborative Conservation of Fish and Wildlife Habitats and Corridors
- Increase Access for Outdoor Recreation
- Incentivize and Reward the Voluntary Conservation Efforts of Fishers, Ranchers, Farmers, and Forest Owners
- Create Jobs by Investing in Restoration and Resilience
Among many inspiring concepts and phrases, one stood out as poignant. The report observes that “building and improving parks in underserved neighborhoods improves public health, reduces temperatures on hot days, and creates joy and opportunity.” Beyond the Organic Act of the National Park Service, we don’t often see government reports discuss creating joy, but the thought is certainly welcome and consistent with so much of the work underway in the Chesapeake.
Thanks to the comprehensive collaboration among the CCP and its Federal, State, Tribal and non-government partners, the Chesapeake is well positioned to participate in and benefit from this new Federal initiative. Landscape scale conservation efforts such as ours will be significant contributors to a national goal, and will go a long way to ensuring that clean air, clean water, beautiful landscapes, and quality public green spaces are accessible to and benefit all people.
Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.