Section 216 of President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad sets a goal of conserving 30 percent of US lands and waters by 2030. This so-called “30x30” target is consistent with global calls to increase conservation and address the twin challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change. In this blog post, we take stock of where the country currently stands vis-à-vis the 30 percent target and examine the role of federal lands in reaching the target. We also discuss the benefits that protected lands provide and whether federal acreage alone is likely to produce those benefits. Although the Biden administration’s order also impacts US waters, we focus on public lands in this article.
How far is the United States from the 30 percent target?
The US Geological Survey’s Protected Area Database of the United States (PAD-US) helps us answer this question. PAD-US is a continually updated geospatial database of all areas held in public trust and includes public lands managed by federal, state, and local government agencies; preserves owned by nonprofits; and private lands protected through easements. Using the latest version of the PAD-US database, which was released in September 2020, and focusing only on lands and not waters, we calculate that 14.2 percent of US land area is currently protected—a total of 320 million acres.
What does it mean to be “protected”?
The PAD-US database specifies four levels of protective status, or what the database calls Gap Analysis Project (GAP) Status Codes. GAP 1 and 2 are the highest levels of protection and include areas “having permanent protection from conversion of natural land cover and a mandated management plan in operation to maintain a natural state.” National parks, wilderness areas, national wildlife refuges, and state parks are examples of areas in GAP 1 or 2. Our assessment that 14.2 percent of US land area is currently protected means that 14.2 percent of US lands are classified as GAP 1 or 2 protected areas.
We include all manager types and all lands in the fee-acquisition, designation, and easement categories. Fee areas are owned outright; designations include administrative protections, such as national monuments created on existing federal lands; and easements are legal agreements that preclude development for conservation or other purposes, such as historic preservation. Given that federal lands make up the vast majority of protected acreage, we take care to avoid double-counting federal lands where they are duplicated in the spatial dataset—such as wilderness areas inside national parks, duplicates of Fish and Wildlife Service easements, and other cases of overlapping designations.
Who manages these protected lands? Where do the protected lands tend to be located?
Nearly 86 percent of the 320 million protected acres is managed by the federal government. Another 11 percent is managed by states. Thus, only a tiny fraction of protected acreage—at least in these two highest categories of protection—is managed by others, such as local governments, Native American tribes, nongovernmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, and private landowners.
The federal government owns more than half the land in 13 western states; hence, most protected lands are in the western United States. Figure 1 shows the percentage of protected land area in each state. Alaska is in a league of its own, with 41 percent of its land area protected. In fact, if we omit Alaska and Hawaii from our calculations, only 8.7 percent of land in the continental United States is protected.
Figure 1. Percentage of State Land Area under Protective Status
Two agencies manage most of the nation’s protected federal acreage, with the Fish and Wildlife Service accounting for 39 percent of total federal protected lands and the National Park Service accounting for 28 percent. Almost all remaining federal acreage is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service. These two land management agencies manage most of their lands for multiple use, including timber harvesting, livestock grazing, and mining. For example, 96 million acres of Forest Service lands and 6.1 million acres of BLM lands are timberlands currently available for industrial wood production, and 26 million acres of BLM lands are currently leased for oil and gas production. The BLM also issues permits and leases to ranchers to graze their livestock on 155 million acres and allows all-terrain vehicle use across 66 million acres. Lands with these “extractive” uses show up in the PAD-US database in GAP Status Code 3, which we do not include in our estimates.
Can we get to 30 percent with federal acreage alone?
According to our calculations, if all BLM and Forest Service lands in the GAP 3 category were reclassified as GAP 1 or 2, the United States would have a total of 673 million acres of protected lands—approximately 29.8 percent of the US land area. Thus, withdrawing all BLM and Forest Service lands from extractive uses essentially would get the country to the 30 percent goal.
This outcome is unrealistic, of course, but protecting some of these lands is feasible. Increased protections can happen through congressional legislation; one recent bill, passed earlier this year by the House of Representatives, would create 1.5 million acres of new wilderness areas, put 1.2 million acres of land off limits to new oil and gas leasing, and ban mining near Grand Canyon National Park. In addition, the president can use the American Antiquities Act of 1906 to proclaim existing federal lands as national monuments if they contain “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” This unilateral presidential approach is not without controversy, however. Former President Donald Trump used the precedent to drastically reduce the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, for instance. Restoring those original boundaries would add 2 million acres of protected lands.
What is the Biden administration really trying to achieve with the 30x30 goal?
Advocates of the 30x30 goal focus primarily on biodiversity protection and carbon sequestration. Conserving more lands will improve habitat and species richness and help the United States tackle the climate crisis.
But a 2020 Defenders of Wildlife report finds that the locations and characteristics of currently protected lands in the United States are not well-aligned with these goals. According to this analysis, less than 25 percent of ecosystem carbon stocks and only 7 percent of biodiversity hot spots occur on lands that are currently considered GAP 1 or 2. The southeastern United States, for example, is a region high in imperiled species richness and ecosystem carbon potential, but low in protected acreage. The western United States is high in protected acreage, but with many high-altitude and arid sites that are relatively low in carbon and species richness. These findings suggest that, if carbon storage and biodiversity are the primary goals, the Biden administration has reason to look beyond designating more protected sites on BLM and Forest Service lands, which predominantly occur in the western United States.
Moreover, conservation lands do more than store carbon and protect species. They can provide a range of ecosystem services such as clean water and air, flood mitigation and climate resilience, temperature regulation (e.g., reducing the urban heat island effect), and outdoor recreation opportunities. To ensure that these benefits accrue equitably across the country, however, these lands need to be located closer to where people live. Again, simply designating existing federal lands—many of which are remote and far from population centers—may do little to move the needle on these ancillary, but important, benefits.
In a recent RFF Policy Leadership Series event, former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made many of these same points about the Biden administration’s conservation agenda, emphasizing the importance of land “quality” and recognizing the full suite of ecosystem services that natural lands can provide. Former Secretary Jewell expressed the view that conserving 30 percent of US lands is impossible on federal lands alone and that “we need to work with private, state, and indigenous landowners in order to get there.”
What are the next steps for the Biden administration’s conservation goals?
The president’s executive order requires the Secretary of the Interior to prepare a report by April 27 that recommends steps that the United States should take to get to the 30x30 goal. We hope the report looks beyond federal lands and lays some groundwork for encouraging state and local conservation efforts across the country.
In a future blog post, we will discuss how some states have been approaching land conservation, the benefits and drawbacks of alternative conservation funding approaches, and achievements to date in states across the country.