A Strong Start for America the Beautiful

©Howard Hecht

Here in Montana, the hills are gaining their first touch of green, drawing bears from hibernation, elk toward the mountains, and trout from their beds to sip at caddisflies. Prairie potholes are filling with ducks, and the air is alive with the sweet sound of insects and loamy scent of cottonwood buds. After her long slumber, nature is waking. Details about President Biden’s plan to conserve 30 percent of American lands and waters by 2030 couldn’t come at a more appropriate time.

Recently, President Biden rebranded his 30 by 30 conservation goal as the “America the Beautiful” campaign in a preliminary report that, for the first time, reveals the effort’s guiding principles. It also alludes to projects the administration may prioritize under the initiative. Although many of the details are a work in progress, the Biden administration seems to have taken Aldo Leopold’s words to heart: “conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”

To the partial relief of private landowners and property rights advocates, it seems the America the Beautiful campaign acknowledges that private land stewardship is the next frontier of conservation and approaches landowners as partners rather than targets. While implementation will ultimately decide the campaign’s success, for now it appears headed in the right direction.

At PERC, we’re particularly pleased to see principles in the report that reflect the basic tenets of free market environmentalism, many of which mirror the “wishlist” I laid out in my testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee Republicans earlier in May. Speaking with Congressman Bruce Westerman and other members of the committee, I hoped that the initiative would focus on conservation over preservation, explicitly recognize the importance of private property rights, and focus on incentivizing locally-led voluntary action instead of regulation and designations. Each was embraced by the report. 

Details come next, and those certainly matter. With this productive starting point, the Biden administration should now implement these principles and achieve conservation outcomes by applying and supporting market-based conservation programs. PERC’s market ideas can be applied to specific priorities included in the preliminary report, such as enhancing winter range and migration corridors for elk, deer, and pronghorn; restoring America’s forests; and collaboratively conserving fish and wildlife habitat. 

If President Biden holds the course, there’s a lot to look forward to. In the meantime, it’s worth unpacking why the campaign’s principles are a step forward and how our work can help lead the way.

A Strong Foundation

Four of 30 by 30’s overarching themes presented throughout the preliminary report are of particular interest to PERC.

1. Focusing on conservation over preservation

In keeping with President Biden’s executive order earlier this year, the report specifically references conserving 30 percent of American lands and waters, not protecting or preserving them. This is important because the word “conserve” implies multiple and sustainable uses, not locking up land. The Biden administration goes so far in the preliminary report as to recognize that “many uses of our lands and waters, including of working lands, can be consistent with the long-term health and sustainability of natural systems,” and “maintaining ranching in the West—on both public lands and private lands—is essential to maintaining the health of wildlife.” 

The use of conservation rather than preservation also means that current public lands don’t need to be closed for hunting, fishing, or recreational opportunities in order to count. PERC has long advocated that sound management of natural resources, rather than reliance on restrictive designation, leads to lasting conservation. This is a victory for ranchers, farmers, hunters, anglers, and other outdoor recreators whose work and dollars steward the land.

2. Recognizing the sanctity of property rights

Private landowners already 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. Two-thirds of all threatened and endangered species depend upon private lands for the majority of their habitat. Eighty percent of biodiversity hotspots exist on private land. Respecting these contributions and supporting the provision of conservation benefits from private landowners without mandating them will bring landowners to the table as allies rather than scaring them away with the threat of burdensome regulation. The Biden administration in crafting its 30 by 30 principles specifically affirmed that “private property rights will be honored and protected” throughout the campaign. 

3. Incentivizing locally led voluntary action

Local knowledge is a critical asset for the future of conservation, and by incentivizing voluntary action, it can be tapped in ways that deliver positive outcomes for people and wildlife. Just as nature is fluid, adaptable, and dynamic, flexible incentive structures avoid rigid, one-size-fits-all mandates that may not work for all landowners, ecosystems, or states. The administration’s report appears to recognize that to achieve conservation goals across America with all its diversity, the implementation of 30 by 30 must be “locally led” and “support the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners and fishers.” These principles should be implemented through incentives that lessen the burdens imposed by government on landowners, recognize the provision of open space and habitat, and promote innovation in local communities, taking full advantage of their expertise.

4. Upholding Native American sovereignty

As one of PERC’s founders wrote nearly 25 years ago, Native Americans developed complex and evolving institutions over centuries to conserve scarce natural resources. Native American history is replete with examples of how property rights mediated the human interaction with the natural environment, and the rules, laws, and habits that have guided Native American societies offer lessons for environmental stewardship today. 

The Biden administration has pledged to “honor tribal sovereignty and support the priorities of tribal nations.” While this is a worthy goal and seeks to improve consultations with tribes, the Biden administration would be wise to take implementation a step further by supporting tribal property rights and directly involving tribal nations in land management rather than just engaging them as advisors or consultants.

Leaning into Market-Based Approaches for Implementation

While the Biden administration did not release details or metrics for how the America the Beautiful campaign will be implemented to reach 30 by 30 goals, it did identify some recommendations for early focus and progress. A few of these focus areas would benefit from being implemented in a free-market manner, and PERC is already making progress.

1. Enhancing winter range and migration corridors for elk, deer, and pronghorn

In the preliminary 30 by 30 report, the Biden administration discusses an initial effort to expand existing migration corridor efforts, started by the Trump administration, to include public partnerships with working ranches and other landowners to conserve corridors and seasonal habitat for elk, deer, and pronghorn. This is a worthy goal that will be best achieved using market mechanisms, and PERC has been part of a small coalition providing input to the Departments of Agriculture and Interior. 

As development pressure reshapes historical migratory routes and threatens private land habitat, new tools are needed to turn wildlife from a liability for private landowners into an asset. Over the last few years, PERC’s work in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has set us on a course to develop a variety of tools that can reduce human-wildlife conflict, increase private land tolerance of migratory species, and help preserve migration pathways in a way that allows them to be flexible, as nature intended them to be. These tools include elk occupancy agreements administered by local organizations and financial risk tools, similar to bonds, that would help compensate for the risk of disease transmission between elk and livestock.

2. Restoring forests to a more resilient condition

The Biden administration is right to acknowledge that “restoring forests to a more resilient condition creates jobs and reduces the threat of catastrophic wildfire.” We agree, and the best way to promote restoration is to enhance partnerships with states, tribes, and private partners. 

Properly restored and managed forests, not just those protected with a restrictive designation, should be counted toward 30 by 30. As PERC’s new report Fix America’s Forests describes, bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles tie public land managers’ hands. With reforms, like reducing disruptive litigation, enhancing partnership abilities, and opening timber markets, these hurdles can be overcome. As the America the Beautiful campaign moves to implementation, reducing barriers to forest restoration should be taken seriously.

3. Collaborative conservation to improve wildlife management

A repeated priority throughout the report is a need for collaborative conservation to improve wildlife management. As we’ve long found, markets and trade are the best way to bring together stakeholders for lasting wildlife conservation. Species credit trading, also known as conservation banking, is one market-based method mentioned in the report for mediating between development pressure and wildlife habitat needs. As for improving fisheries, individual transferable quotas should be promoted. ITQs give fishermen a right to catch a share of a total sustainable catch limit determined by fishery managers each season. This approach to fisheries management not only supports fishing jobs but also creates an incentive for stewardship. 

What’s To Come

Actions speak louder than words, but words matter too. In this case the words are good. As a starting point, the preliminary principles of the America the Beautiful campaign focus on collaboration, voluntary efforts, incentives, local leadership, and honoring property rights—and that looks very much like a recipe for market-based conservation.

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