President Biden will soon sign an Executive Order committing the federal government to working to achieve the ambitious 30×30 conservation goal: Protecting 30% of the lands and waters of the United States by 2030, to stave off the biodiversity extinction crisis and better prepare our ecosystems for surviving rapid climate change. At Wildlands Network, we have a long history of leading the way on big, bold visions for continental-scale conservation. As such, we are well-positioned to advise on ideas for implementing 30×30 in the U.S. Here is a sketch of our thoughts on using science to guide the success of the Biden Administration in setting our country on the path towards 30×30 success. Given that it is already 2021, there isn’t much time to lose, but those of us who have been working to fight for biodiversity for decades have always known we were racing against the clock.
The obvious scientific question that comes to mind about 30×30 is: “Which 30% of the U.S. should we protect?” The second and third questions that follow are of course, “How much is already protected?” and “What counts as protected to meet the 30×30 goal?”
Which 30% of the U.S. should we protect?
It is clear to us at Wildlands Network that a large component of the 30×30 conservation portfolio must center on establishing connections between the large blocks of habitat that are already protected around the country. This has been the mission of our organization since our founding, and over the last 30 years the science has borne us out. Conservation biologists across the world recognize the urgency and strategic value of working on habitat connectivity. Briefly put, when we join ecosystems together, the sum of conservation value is greater than the parts—more species can be protected, especially keystone species like wolves and mountain lions and grizzly bears.
Large carnivores need so much room to roam that traditional parks and wildlife areas are almost always too small to maintain viable populations. However, if we can meld together networks of habitat, these species have a chance of surviving, with cascading benefits for countless other species (one example of trickle-down effects that actually work!). For example, the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park has resulted in tremendous restorative benefits for the rest of the biodiversity in the park. We can’t expect traditional biodiversity conservation efforts to succeed long term unless the 30×30 habitat network can actually promote the survival of the keystone species that support the integrity of our ecosystems.
Climate connectivity must be a core goal of the 30×30 conservation efforts as well. The good news is that, again, a functional, well-connected network of habitats across the U.S. is precisely what scientists think is needed to allow species to move on their own to keep up with climate change. We have to use strategic land conservation efforts to make sure that animals (and plants, and fungi!) can migrate from where their preferred environmental conditions are now, to where those conditions will exist in the future. Mountain ranges that run south-north, such as the Appalachians, Rockies and Sierra Nevada, are the logical places to start for protecting the fundamental pathways for climate migration. Fortunately, much of these mountain ranges are already protected. Filling in the gaps will be crucial, as well as making sure that outlying core natural areas are connected to the main climate corridor network.
It doesn’t take long thinking about a continental-scale habitat network to save biodiversity before you realize that our numerous busy highways pose critical barriers to wildlife connectivity. For example, Interstate 40 cuts across the spine of the Appalachian Mountains just north of the tremendous biodiversity in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So even as we invest in protecting land, we also have to make much-needed investments in wildlife road crossings, structures like bridges and underpasses that allow animals to safely cross even the busiest of motorways. Wildlands Network is leading the way towards identifying the key spots where these crossings need to be located across the country. Many states are already stepping up to build wildlife crossing structures, with impressive results in terms of reductions in wildlife mortality and improvements in human safety. We hope that the Biden Administration will include a focus on wildlife-road mitigation as part of the overall 30×30 plan.
What would a 30×30 network of habitat look like?
Wildlands Network has already created an even more ambitious plan for what we term the “Eastern Wildway” — a continental-scale vision for how to protect the biodiversity from Florida to Quebec. The recommended protected areas in our Eastern Wildway map already cover close to 50% of the landscape, in line with renowned biologist E.O. Wilson’s call for protecting “Half-Earth” to stop extinctions. We see 30×30 not as a competing goal, but as a logical and timely effort to make progress towards the ultimate goal of protecting enough natural areas on this planet to save ourselves and all of the other incredible species as well. To that end, we’ll be working in the next year or two to pare down our Eastern Wildway vision map to what we feel are the highest priority land conservation investments for achieving 30×30, and we’ll do the same for the Western Wildway, the Pacific Wildway and the rest of North America. With habitat destruction proceeding so quickly in many regions, it is urgent to protect the backbone of the habitat network now before vital wildlife corridors are lost forever.
How much is already protected?
The answer clearly depends on what we count. In the eastern U.S., it is tempting to count the various national forests, such as the beautiful Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests in the mountains of North Carolina. These large core blocks of habitat seem to be functioning well to protect biodiversity, and indeed these national forests may be essential for eastern states to meet 30×30 goals.
On the other hand, the western U.S. has such an abundance of public land that many areas could already be considered to exceed the 30% standard — but few western conservationists would agree. The threats facing federal land in the western states (and in fossil fuel rich parts of the east such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania) are immense. It seems foolish to count a national forest as “protected” if the very land the forest sits on could be converted to a mine or oilfield. More scientific work is needed to identify the most critical parts of our federal land base for biodiversity. Then, mechanisms such as national monuments, wilderness designation, and wildlife corridor designation can be utilized to fully protect these areas from destruction. Wildlands Network is leading an effort right now to pass wildlife corridor legislation in Congress that would establish a clear mechanism for designating and protecting wildlife corridors on existing federal land. The same national Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act would also provide much needed assistance to states and tribes for identifying and protecting wildlife corridors across the country.
The timing is excellent for President Biden to commit the nation towards protecting our vital lands and waters at a scale that is realistic and ambitious at the same time. We can achieve 30×30, but only with substantial new investments in conservation — and only if we use the best available science to actively guide those investments in the direction of a functional network of habitat that is truly up to the task at saving the profoundly rich biodiversity of our great nation.