August 23, 2021
What if you could snap your fingers and return the world to a sort of Garden of Eden, a wholesome paradise of natural bounty and ecological health?
You'd probably hesitate, knowing from biblical teaching that Eden was troublesome for its clothing-optional human inhabitants. But what if I told you this new Eden contained 10-pound bass and big bucks on public land, and created clean air and water for humans, with none of those bewitched apples?
A version of this new Eden is, in essence, what the Biden administration is pitching with its "30 by 30" initiative, committing the United States to conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and coastal waters by 2030. The details were released in late January via an expansive executive order titled "Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad."
The topic has made for some very interesting discussions in conservation circles since the initiative was detailed in the first weeks of the new presidential administration.
On the one hand, it provides an accelerant to the ambitious landscape-scale protections that many conservation groups have been working toward for decades, and provides federal funds for landscape-scale stewardship. It also addresses some troublesome trends, not only in the U.S., but around the world: catastrophic storm events, climate changes that have resulted in stand-replacing forest fires and redistribution of both animal and human populations, and accelerating loss of habitat for keystone species such as trout and caribou.
On the other hand, most conservationists are deeply skeptical of governmental mandates, realizing from years of work that the most durable solutions are those that are entered voluntarily, or with sustainable incentives. Plus, any mention of "climate change" puts some people, especially those in rural America, on edge because the term has become so politically polarizing.
There are other hurdles, or political perceptions, the initiative faces. The background for "30x30" is a proposal ratified last year by the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity, which commits nations to protect at least 30 percent of the world's land and oceans in order to slow the loss of the planet's biodiversity.
That origin may make some of our country's hunters and anglers squirm. Mandates passed down from the United Nations are sometimes viewed by U.S. citizens as un-American. Some consider biodiversity as being code for socialism, or at least for the taking by governments of private property and individual liberty.
Before you come out of your recliner, recognize that most biologists and ecologists agree that species extinction worldwide is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, owing to not just climate change but also the intrusion of humans into wildlife habitat and the commercial exploitation of many species. It's not only obscure gnats in Borneo that are on the ropes, but entire tree species and many of the ocean's keystone fish, which are links in an elaborate food chain.
We know that many medicines and knowledge of biological systems that benefit humans are derived from uncharismatic species, so anything we can do to protect the biodiversity of our planet also benefits the health of our species. By asking all nations to achieve the same benchmark of conservation, the entire globe should benefit.
If you can agree that it's better to keep more species on the planet than not, then you have to think about how to accomplish that. Conservation incentives, whether in the form of Department of Agriculture Farm Bill programs like CRP, or easements on private land that pay landowners to not build shopping malls or drain swamps, are one set of tools.
So are the creation of wildlife refuges and stewardship areas. That, in essence, is the idea of 30x30. It's a way to quantify the amount of conservation that we are capable of achieving and gives us a goal to measure our success.
It turns out that America is already well on the way to achieving the goals of 30x30. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about 12 percent of the nation's land is permanently conserved and about 23 percent of our coastal waters are "strongly protected."
Permanent conservation takes the shape of state and national wildlife refuges, designated wilderness areas and national monuments. It's fair to ask: How many more acres can we set aside from development? Will private landowners be asked to contribute to the total acreage? How will access for recreationalists be considered?
Those are all important questions, says John Gale, the conservation director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, one of several dozen conservation and critter groups that solidified their views on the initiative into a collective called HuntFish 30x30 (huntfish3030.com). This band of hook-and-bullet organizations recognizes that there is an appetite in Washington, D.C., now to take audacious steps in conservation, and is "raising awareness about the role of hunting and fishing in biodiversity conservation and advocating for solutions that allow hunters and anglers to continue our proud conservation legacy."
The signatories to the HuntFish 30x30 community statement realize that any land-protection efforts that take place without the input of America's original conservationists, hunters and anglers, could leave us out of the conversation. The group suggests that, since hunters and anglers have been doing the hard work of habitat conservation for a century now, we should have a leading voice in how the next century of conservation is delivered.
"30x30 is a laudable but certainly ambitious goal," says Gale. "But perhaps a necessary one that will create urgency and help increase the pace and scale of conservation at a time where our hunting and fishing grounds face a multitude of threats from invasive species, drought, wildfire, development and fragmentation."
If we get global conservation right, then sportsmen and -women can look back on our part in the achievement the same way we look back with pride on our role in restoring populations of game animals, and our work to create science-based wildlife management and state wildlife agencies. Our gift to our children's children might be a modern version of the Garden of Eden.
"As a society, we have a collective obligation to the future of our natural resources and a responsibility to pass down a rich legacy of stewardship to those that follow us," says Gale. "We can realize the vision if we bury the politics and unite around a shared commitment to our lands, waters and wildlife."