Biden Set an Ambitious Goal for Nature. It’s Time He Went After It.
Compared with the United Nations climate change summit in Egypt in November, the U.N. biodiversity conference held in Montreal this month may have seemed distinctly minor league.
There were no heads of state, save Canada’s. The proceedings generated few front-page headlines and little play on the evening news. Yet the issue confronting delegates from nearly 200 nations who are parties to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity was nothing less than what many scientists believe to be a planetary emergency: the alarming decline of biodiversity, which threatens the world’s food and water supplies.
This is an emergency, not incidentally, inextricably tied up with global warming. And what the conference ended up agreeing to was also significant: an ambitious pledge to protect nearly one-third of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030, a strategy whose shorthand is 30×30.
The United States has never ratified the biodiversity convention, largely because of Republican opposition, which left the American delegation in Montreal, led by Monica Medina, an assistant secretary of state, cheering from the sidelines.
But President Biden is all in on 30×30. He embraced the goal when he took office and then began a series of steps to undo the damage caused by President Donald Trump’s plundering of America’s natural world — its species-rich public lands and forests — on behalf of oil, coal and timber interests. Most important, he restored three large national monuments created by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama: the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in southern Utah and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean.
He promised to restore protections against logging, mining and road-building in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, home to more than 400 species of wildlife. And he all but ended oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Along the way he has sought robust spending for easements and other conservation programs on farmlands, as well as for the ambitious, decades-long effort to repair the Everglades ecosystem.
Reaching the 30×30 goal in the next eight years will require more than simply undoing Mr. Trump’s damage. While a sizable percentage of America’s oceans are already protected, partly because of a huge marine monument in the western Pacific established by President George W. Bush and later enlarged by Mr. Obama, only about 13 percent of America’s lands enjoy some level of official protection. This means that Mr. Biden must rapidly accelerate conservation measures on federal, state and private lands while keeping intact natural carbon sinks like the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest and the mangroves, wetlands and timberlands in the Southeast.
The administration has yet to identify specific places for enhanced protection or defined what level of conservation would be required to count toward the 30×30 goal. But some useful strategies come to mind.
One is to make vigorous use of the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that gives presidents broad powers to create national monuments on federal lands that have “historic or scientific interest.” The law enabled Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton to embark on monument-creating sprees late in their tenure, but presidents of both parties have invoked it ever since Teddy Roosevelt, often to provide interim protections until Congress could declared them national parks. Mr. Biden recently announced his intention to protect the Avi Kwa Ame, or Spirit Mountain, area in southern Nevada, encompassing roughly 450,000 acres rich in biological diversity. He stopped short of designating the land as a national monument, which would insulate the region from industrial activity. He should do so, as tribes and environmental groups are hoping he will, as the first step in an aggressive effort to use the Antiquities Act to help reach 30×30.
Second, Mr. Biden should press the Agriculture and Interior Departments to complete inventories of old-growth and mature forests and recommend protections in those deemed worthy of protection, much like the Tongass. If there is one alpha culprit in biodiversity loss, it is the clearing of forests and wetlands for farms to feed an exploding world population and, to a lesser extent, to produce biofuels. According to some estimates, the world’s natural forests are home to at least two-thirds of the world’s species. Intact forests also absorb and store enormous amounts of carbon, so preserving them assists not only the species that live there but also the struggle against climate change.
Perhaps most usefully, Mr. Biden could nudge Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to get the Bureau of Land Management to climb aboard the conservation bandwagon. The bureau, which manages 245 million acres of public lands for various uses, has historically favored the short-term interests of oil and gas and mining firms, and has more leeway to protect its holdings from commercial intrusion than it has been inclined to use. Under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act it has the authority to establish “wilderness study areas,” a valuable tool for protecting lands until they can be given permanent wilderness status. Prominent conservationists in the Senate, notably Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Dick Durbin of Illinois, have asked Ms. Haaland to invoke that authority, which has long been dormant.
Executive actions like these have long inspired complaints from members of Congress about federal “land grabs” and other sins, and will do so again. Thus a measure of political tenacity is required. On this score, the environmental community has been heartened by the addition of John Podesta, who occupied commanding roles in the Clinton and Obama administrations, to Mr. Biden’s inner circle. Mr. Podesta’s writ is to oversee the investment of billions of dollars in wind, solar and other clean energy technologies included in the new $370 billion climate law. But conservation has always been close to his heart; having educated two presidents on nature’s role in addressing climate change, he could profitably weigh in on the 30×30 challenge.
While executive action is for Biden a surer path to 30×30 than Congress, there are some useful ideas floating around Capitol Hill. One bill that bears Mr. Heinrich’s imprimatur has bipartisan support and could well appeal to the next Congress: the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would provide $1.4 billion annually to help underfunded state and tribal wildlife agencies identify and protect threatened species by minimizing pollution and protecting habitats.
The bill has strong support from people who hunt and fish, though the money can be used to protect all sorts of plants and animals. New York State’s conservation plan, for instance, identifies 366 species needing help, including the timber rattlesnake and the salt marsh sparrow. These are just the sort of creatures the delegates in Montreal had in mind, and improving their chances of survival would be a useful step. It is one of many steps, big and small, that must be taken on the road to 30×30.
Robert B. Semple Jr., a reporter and an editor for The Times from 1963 to 2018, writes about the environment for the editorial board. He won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1996.
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