As Biden Eyes a Conservation Plan, Activists Fear Low-Income Communities and People of Color Could Be Left Out

A plan to conserve 30 percent of land and water in the United States by 2030 could help close “staggering” racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to nature.

Ellington Tardy, 9, enjoys the playground in his Orchard Valley neighborhood Nov. 5, 2020 in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Credit: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Ellington Tardy, 9, enjoys the playground in his Orchard Valley neighborhood Nov. 5, 2020 in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Credit: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Share this article

President-elect Joe Biden has said that one of his first steps upon taking office will be to pass an executive order to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. 

The plan is being applauded throughout the conservation world, but it has left some environmental justice groups asking: Which lands will be conserved—and for whom?

Across the United States, communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to lack access to nature, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. When young children walk out the front door, they are less likely to see trees or to find a safe, green place to play. 

Newsletters

We deliver climate news to your inbox like nobody else. Every day or once a week, our original stories and digest of the web’s top headlines deliver the full story, for free.

That inequality is now more obvious than ever, as people are urged to stay home to combat the Covid-19 crisis. “The pandemic has drawn more attention to how inaccessible nature is to much of this country, and the deep economic and racial inequities in accessing the outdoors,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “That’s felt very acutely when you’re locked down in a pandemic.”

Supporters say this is where the so-called “30-by-30” plan could help.

For years, scientists and conservationists have talked about such a plan, one that preserved 30 percent of the world’s oceans and lands and could help stave off a sixth major global extinction and at the same time address climate change.

In January, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity released a draft plan that aimed to do exactly that, and a few weeks later, Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) introduced twin bills in Congress to work toward the 30-by-30 goal. “We have no choice but to be bold and act on climate and conservation in tandem,” Udall said in a statement.

A study published in October in the journal Nature found that achieving the 30-by-30 goal globally by protecting priority areas could save a majority of threatened mammals, amphibians and birds, while soaking up roughly 465 billion tons of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent to nearly half the CO2 that has built up in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age.

Biden’s climate plan said the 30-by-30 executive order would involve ”protecting biodiversity, slowing extinction rates and helping leverage natural climate solutions.” Biden’s plan for tribal nations also touts the 30-by-30 order, stating that his administration will “work with tribal governments and Congress to protect sacred sites and public lands and waters with high conservation and cultural values.”

Between Biden’s pledge and the fact that he has chosen Haaland to be Interior Secretary, it seems likely that some such plan will be formalized. 

In the United States, 12 percent of lands and 26 percent of oceans are already considered permanently protected, according to an analysis by the nonprofit conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife. For some perspective, the United States covers roughly 2.27 billion acres of land and water, according to the Congressional Research Service. Thirty percent would equate to just over the combined areas of Alaska, Texas and Montana.

Conservation groups have put forth proposals for what 30 percent might look like, calling for some mix of wildlife corridors, state and national parks, protected private lands, urban conservation and more. But what that mix is and how best to get there is a subject of debate, Lee-Ashley said.

‘It Will Take Time to Set the Table’

When Haaland announced the House bill and laid out her vision for a 30-by-30 plan earlier this year, she said the conservation goal would be met by working with stakeholders, including the federal government, local communities, Indian Tribes, states and private landowners. 

The land chosen for conservation would have to check a lot of boxes. It would need to improve access to nature for all people in the United States, including communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities; help sequester and store carbon; prevent extinction by recovering and restoring animal and plant species; stabilize, restore and maintain ecosystems; and increase economic opportunities for farmers, ranchers, fishermen and foresters.

Nearly 60 percent of lands in the continental U.S. are in a mostly untouched condition or could be restored, according to a report by the Center for Western Priorities. But to effectively combat the extinction crisis and climate change, the goal isn’t just preserving an amount of land, but  preserving the right kind of land. 

To get to that point, a federal plan would identify state and federally-owned land to designate as parks, protected corridors or wildlife refuges; enter into co-management partnerships with tribal nations; and offer incentives for private landowners of desired lands to participate as well.

Some advocates also are pushing to ensure that urban conservation—whether in the form of regional parks or neighborhood greenspaces—is not left behind. 

“My hope is that 30-by-30 doesn’t just look at the big wild, out-there areas of land,” said Shanna Edberg, the director of Conservation Programs at the Hispanic Access Foundation. “My hope is it improves access in cities, too, where a lot of times it’s the most needed.”

Adrianna Muir, the deputy director of the Nature Conservancy in Alaska, said that she’s wondering what the plan will look like in Alaska, where there are massive swaths of natural landscapes but also competing and sensitive interests, including those of indigenous peoples whose voices should be an integral part of any decisions. “I’m curious how much there will be a robust process with input before decisions are made,” she said.

And with so many stakeholders, “even if there’s an executive order on day one, it’s not going to happen quickly,” she said. “It will take time to set that table.”

An Uncomfortable Reconciling of History

In a report, “The Nature Gap,” released in July by the Hispanic foundation and the Center for American Progress, the authors found staggering discrepancies in access to nature among racial and socio-economic groups.

Across the country, 74 percent of non-white people were living in an area that was considered nature-deprived in 2017, according to the report. That percentage ticked a few points higher—to 76 percent—when looking at people who were nonwhite and also low income. 

The report cited studies that have found that children who spend more time outdoors and in natural environments are more likely to have better health and cognitive function, strong motor coordination, reduced stress and better social skills. But Black and Latino families with children, the report found, were the most nature-deprived of any race or ethnicity the authors examined.

“We need more nature, closer to home, and this is where it could go wrong,” Edberg, of the Hispanic foundation, said of the 30-by-30 plan. “It needs to be managed locally, and inclusively and be accessible to all.”

LaTricea Adams, the president of Black Millennials For Flint, said she’s glad to hear the 30-by-30 plan is on the table. But, like Edberg, she’s apprehensive about what the process will look like.

“A lot of the voices that are the most prominent in the environmental justice space are from the big green organizations, which are majority white,” she said. “We talk about conservation of the land, but in order for this to be productive, there has to be an uncomfortable reconciling of our history to move forward. I think that it’s sometimes swept under the rug because it feels icky. It doesn’t feel good for any of the parties involved, but it’s so necessary.”

The work of Adams’ group extends beyond Flint—the organization also operates in Baltimore, Memphis and Washington—and in each city, she said, blight is common in communities of color. “In these communities that experience the most economic distress you see less or lesser greenspaces,” she said.

Adams and Edberg both said they’re watching the appointments made by the Biden administration closely, hoping that representation of people of color at the top of the administration will lead to representation lower down—especially in the rooms where conservation decisions will ultimately be made.

“We want to make sure we’re always serving those underserved and marginalized communities,” said Edberg. 

Even if a more specific conservation plan takes shape in the Biden administration, Lee-Ashley, of the Center for American Progress, said it’s important to remember that 30-by-30 is just a stepping stone. After that, he said, comes the goal of 50 percent of land and ocean by 2050—50-by-50.

“This is not just about protecting nature in the abstract,” he said. “It’s about keeping the country livable.”