Private Land Stewardship is the Next Frontier of Conservation and a Critical Component to Achieving 30 by 30

Brian Yablonski testifies before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Forum on the 30 by 30 Initiative

©Don Graham
Main Points
  • Conserving land does not require a heavy hand from the federal government. Policymakers should use this moment to explore newer, more creative, market-based solutions.
  • Private land stewardship is the next frontier of conservation, but for it to succeed, landowners need to be partners, not targets.
  • Innovative, private-led approaches are how we can best achieve conservation goals.
  • 30 by 30 should focus on how land is managed, not getting caught up in designations or enrollment in federal programs.
Introduction

Ranking Member Westerman, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you to discuss the 30 by 30 conservation initiative. My name is Brian Yablonski, and I am the CEO of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a conservation research institute based in Bozeman, Montana.[1] PERC has an over 40-year history dedicated to exploring market-based solutions to conservation challenges. Prior to moving to Montana, I was the chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, where I served as a commissioner for 14 years. I am also on the board of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and a professional member of the Boone and Crockett Club.

The 30 by 30 initiative seeks to conserve 30 percent of lands and waters in the United States by 2030. Created as part of President Biden’s January 27 executive order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, this initiative will have lasting impacts on how we approach conservation and natural resource issues as a nation.[2] Conservation is a worthy goal, but how we achieve that goal matters. Congress is wise to think carefully about its implementation. Today, I will aim to highlight some of the opportunities and challenges that rise from the 30 by 30 initiative, particularly as they relate to private land stewardship and public land management.

  1. Conserving land does not require a heavy hand from the federal government. Policymakers should use this moment to explore newer, more creative, market-based solutions.

In the first week following his inauguration, President Biden directed the Secretary of the Interior to work with other members of the administration on a plan to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and water by 2030. Last Tuesday, April 27, the Interior Department provided  recommendations to the White House on how to accomplish the goal, but that report is not yet public. The recommendations are expected to focus more on broad principles and processes for engagement than on specific details for implementation.

What we do know is that, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, only 12 percent of the land in the United States qualifies as “protected,” including wilderness areas, national parks and monuments, state parks, and some private lands under conservation easements. To achieve an additional 18 percent, we would need to conserve an extra 440 million acres—an area more than four times the size of California—in the next nine years.[3]

While it is difficult to evaluate the 30 by 30 initiative without the metrics being established, this also creates the opportunity to inform decision makers on what should count toward the goal and how conservation can be achieved. Now is the time to promote sound conservation and management over regulatory mandates.

There will be a push to use old, divisive tools on public lands to score easy gains, such as designating new monuments. But conserving land does not necessarily require a heavy hand from the federal government. Policymakers should use this moment to explore newer, more-creative, market-based solutions.

  1. Private land stewardship is the next frontier of conservation, but for it to succeed, landowners need to be partners, not targets.

When considering how to meet the 30 by 30 goal, policymakers should recognize the invaluable role private lands play in delivering conservation results and biodiversity. Private landowners sustain much of what many Americans want to conserve—abundant wildlife, clean water, and vast open spaces.

Altogether, private lands are home to 75 percent of the nation’s wetlands and more than 80 percent of its grasslands.[4] Two-thirds of all threatened and endangered species depend upon private lands for the majority of their habitat.[5] Eighty percent of biodiversity hotspots exist on private land.[6] Even before the focus on 30 by 30, private farmers, ranchers, timber producers, and other landowners were providing the sorts of conservation outcomes we want to see.

As we explore ways to enhance conservation as part of the 30 by 30 initiative, private land stewardship is a crucial way to actually get results. Seventy-four percent of land in the continental United States is privately owned. With 900 million acres of farm or ranch lands in America, and another 445 million acres of privately owned forests, these lands are where the greatest outcomes will be won or lost. However, it must be done in a way that brings landowners in as partners, not targets.

Words matter. Prudently, the executive order specifically references conserving 30 percent of our lands and waters, not protecting or preserving. The word conserve implies multiple and sustainable uses, not locking up land. This means managed and working lands should count.

The Biden administration has indicated its 30 by 30 efforts will respect property rights and foster voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners. That needs to be explicitly stated. How this message will play out on the ground and interact with conservation goals remains to be seen, but this is an opportunity for property rights and private lands advocates to weigh in on how to truly promote stewardship rather than expand regulations or require participation in government programs.

The messenger matters as well. The federal government and environmental groups should be careful not to dictate to our rural communities and private landowners what is best for them. Only 25 percent of rural America believes that the federal government should lead on conservation.[7] And only 13 percent of rural America trusts environmental groups as sources of information for conservation issues—the least trusted source of potential options included in one study.[8] Instead, rural landowners are more likely to trust each other and local scientists. Rather than trying to mandate top-down approaches to achieve conservation goals, 30 by 30 leaders need to sit at the tables of rural landowners to learn what works in different areas and empower local solutions.

These rural voices have also voiced strong support for conservation and consider themselves pro-environment, but they often have strong reservations about existing environmental policies. Top-down declarations and land-use restrictions from Washington will alienate these Americans. The focus should be on easing regulatory burdens to promote conservation, not just expanding federal programs. To address these concerns, the Biden administration should come out strongly against the use of regulations or restrictive designations on private lands to reach its target of 30 by 30.

  1. Innovative, private-led approaches are how we can best achieve conservation goals.

Nature is fluid, adaptable, and dynamic, not static or geometric. Our solutions should mimic nature. The current conservation toolkit is inadequate for the task at hand and can be divisive in its use of old tools. The 30 by 30 initiative should be used to adopt more of a portfolio approach to conserving private lands by providing a spectrum of options.[9]

At PERC, we have several projects that are focused on working with private landowners to develop wildlife conservation solutions in the river valleys coming out of Yellowstone National Park. Through this work, I have learned firsthand how every state in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is different, and how every river valley in each state is different, and how every rancher in every river valley in every state is different. What works for one landowner, valley, or state might not work for another.[10] To achieve conservation goals across such a diverse range of places and landowners, the implementation of 30 by 30 must be rooted in innovation and flexible incentives.

Private-land innovators are already harnessing markets for large-landscape conservation. In Montana, the 60,000-acre Matador Ranch, run by the Nature Conservancy, uses a “grass-bank” model to help conserve an additional 285,000 acres outside the ranch’s footprint.[11] Local ranchers pay discounted fees to the organization to graze their cattle at the Matador in exchange for adopting wildlife-friendly practices on their own operations. Prices are based on how much conservation ranches provide back home, through methods such as implementing rotational grazing or securing sage grouse leks.

The American Prairie Reserve is another private example of large-scale conservation where a private organization raises funding from conservationists to purchase land and reintroduces bison as livestock to graze the landscape in a way that restores the prairie.[12]

One well-established way to cement conservation on private lands is through easements, though this approach requires landowners to forego development forever in exchange for valuable tax benefits. Introducing shorter-term “habitat leases” might entice more ranchers and farmers to participate, providing protections for 10 to 30 years in exchange for lesser remuneration than easements.[13] Private habitat leases could appeal to businesses, too, if they could underwrite farming and ranching conservation as an offset for their own environmental impacts.

Finally, simple recognition could go a long way. Some sort of low-cost “conservation certification” might capture the value of overlooked stewardship already occurring on private land. For instance, the National Audubon Society offers market-based incentives for grassland stewardship through special labeling of beef products from Audubon-certified farms and ranches.[14] Such tools could—and should—be considered a key part of 30 by 30.

If the Biden administration is serious about engaging with private landowners and using voluntary approaches to achieve 30 by 30, they should recognize these innovative, local, private-led approaches as key tools.

  1. 30 by 30 should focus on how land is managed, not getting caught up in designations or enrollment in federal programs.

When it comes to public land, there is a lot of debate over what types of lands should be counted toward the 30 by 30 goal. While some groups are calling for more national parks and monuments or vast expansion of federal programs, it is important to recognize that designations do not directly lead to good conservation outcomes. Restoration and active management are essential to achieving healthy ecosystems.

Take, for example, federal forests and the ongoing wildfire crisis. Forests can be designated and set aside in national monuments or wilderness areas, but that does not automatically mean they are providing conservation value or conserving these lands in a way that protects against the subsequent destruction of the ecosystem by wildfire. Mismanagement or no management of our forests contributes to increasingly destructive fires, threatening not only humans and infrastructure but also watersheds and wildlife habitat.

Getting the incentives right for conservation can actually mean lifting restrictions and regulations to promote active management. A new report published by PERC, Fix America’s Forests: Reforms to Restore National Forests and Tackle the Wildfire Crisis, demonstrates how less regulation can actually promote better private partnerships and markets to promote forest ecosystem health and reduce wildfire risk.[15] Rather than focusing on wilderness designations or restrictive regulations that inhibit active management, improving management to benefit forest restoration reduces wildfire risk and protects the biodiversity of forest ecosystems.

As 30 by 30 guidelines are developed, policymakers should remember that the focus needs to be on conservation outcomes rather than restrictive inputs.

Conclusion

Now is the time to evaluate what conservation really means and how it can best be achieved. Regulation and a focus on designations will hinder the ability to engage on conservation with private landowners and promote healthy public lands. By instead upholding private property rights and flexible management, we can find collaborative approaches to enhance clean water, wildlife habitat, open space, and other environmental benefits.

The great naturalist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”[16] With the president’s goal to conserve 30 percent of our nation’s lands, Secretaries Haaland and Vilsack would be wise to etch those words on the walls of the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture as a daily reminder of the ambitious task ahead.


[1] PERC—the Property and Environment Research Center—is a nonprofit research institute located in Bozeman, Montana, dedicated to improving environmental quality through markets and property rights. PERC’s staff and associated scholars conduct original research that applies market principles to resolving environmental problems.

[2] See Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, Sec. 216 (January 27, 2021).

[3] See Sarah Gibbens, “The U.S. Commits to Tripling Its Protects Lands. Here’s How It Could Be Done.” National Geographic (January 27, 2021).

[4] Grégory Sonnier, Pedro F. Quintana‐Ascencio, Patrick J. Bohlen, John E. Fauth, David G. Jenkins, Elizabeth H. Boughton, Pasture management, grazing, and fire interact to determine wetland provisioning in a subtropical agroecosystem, Wildlife Society Bulletin, Volume 43, Issue 3, Pages 338-354 (September 2019).

[5] Holly Doremus, A policy portfolio approach to biodiversity protection on private lands, Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 6, Issue 3, Pages 217-232 (2003).

[6] Kavita Macleod, Ya-Wei Li, and Tim Male, Getting to 30×30: Recommendations to Support Greater Private Investment in Private Lands Conservation, Environmental Policy Innovation Center (2021).

[7] Robert Bonnie, Emily Pechar Diamond, and Elizabeth Rowe, Understanding Rural Attitudes Toward the Environment and Conservation in America, Duke Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions (2020).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Supra n. 5

[10] See Whitney Tilt, Elk in Paradise: Conserving Migratory Wildlife and Working Lands in Montana’s Paradise Valley, PERC (July 2020).

[11] See The Matador Ranch, The Nature Conservancy.

[12] See Shawn Regan, Where the Buffalo Roam: Rewilding the American Serengeti, the Breakthrough Journal, No. 10 (Winter 2019).

[13] Supra n. 10

[14] See Conservation Ranching: Empowering consumers to make a difference in grassland conservation, National Audubon Society.

[15] See Holly Fretwell and Jonathan Wood, Fix America’s Forests: Reforms to Restore National Forests and Tackle the Wildfire Crisis, PERC Public Lands Report (April 2021).

[16] Aldo Leopold, “Conservation Economics” in The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays, Edited by Susan L. Flader and J. Baird Callicott, University of Wisconsin Press (1991).

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