Politics

Conservation Is One of the Easiest Things to Greenwash

Joe Biden’s conservation plan is ambitious. But is it specific enough to work?

Elk graze in front of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Getty Images Plus

In May, the Biden administration released its “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” report, outlining the president’s vision for conserving 30 percent of the U.S.’s lands and waters by 2030. It’s an ambitious plan—currently, about 12 percent of the U.S.’s lands and 23 percent of its waters are permanently protected in a natural state. The so-called 30x30 plan was cheered by many environmental advocacy groups who have coalesced around the goal of protecting and restoring at least 30 percent of the planet’s terrestrial and aquatic habitats by 2030, as scientists have argued this is necessary to prevent catastrophic wildlife extinctions and stabilize the climate. And in June, the other six leaders of the G-7 joined Biden in committing to that objective by signing on to the historic “Nature Compact.”

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Some hard-right politicians have made disingenuous arguments that 30x30 is a federal land grab, but these only serve to underscore the most remarkable feature of Biden’s conservation plan: that it favors incentivizing voluntary, community-led stewardship of private property and tribal lands, instead of a dramatic expansion of national parks. The conservation practices of landowners on so-called working lands—farms, ranches, hunting grounds—can be counted toward the 30 percent goal, as can Indigenous-led efforts to sustainably manage traditional homelands. Progress will be cataloged in a federal atlas that will track, map, and tally conserved areas.

There’s just one problem: In an effort to telegraph President Joe Biden’s commitment to bottom-up nature stewardship and appease as many stakeholders as possible, the administration has failed to provide the kind of specificity that would make the plan work. It has avoided even defining conservation or explaining how success will be measured. Even without that clarity—or perhaps as a result of that lack—it’s already apparent that Biden’s plan lowers the bar from what conservation scientists have called for: setting aside 30 percent of lands and waters as “well-managed reserves.” As advocacy groups jockey to advance their constituents’ version of conservation and compete for federal resources, the risk is that projects that don’t actually restore or protect biodiversity and fragile habitats will get counted in the atlas. This means that if Biden doesn’t set robust, science-based benchmarks soon, 30x30 may well facilitate greenwashing.

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The maneuvering has already begun. A number of landowner interest groups that have historically opposed federally led conservation efforts have embraced 30x30 for enabling the contributions that farmers and ranchers make to conservation to be counted. Notably, the Western Landowners Alliance is clamoring for ranchers to receive additional compensation for “conservation and stewardship that landowners already are providing.” Similarly, the American Farmland Trust wants additional funding to flow to popular USDA programs that pay farmers for voluntary (and primarily self-monitored) efforts to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. This is concerning because it attempts to reward people for what they’re already doing or would do on their own rather than extend protections to new places, which was ostensibly the point of the plan. The key to successful conservation is additionality: protecting biodiversity-rich, carbon-sequestering habitats and wildlife corridors that would be lost without a new policy intervention. Further, it’s not even clear these areas should count at all—we can’t call industrial agriculture croplands “conserved” simply because the farmer now uses less weedkiller.

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History has shown that it’s easy to game conservation programs so they appear successful without producing additionality, and many will play along if therea re rewards involved. To wit: The Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts Audubon Society got caught enrolling their own well-protected properties in carbon-offset programs, allowing polluters who purchased credits to claim major emissions reductions for preserving woods that weren’t in danger of deforestation in the first place. Audits of USDA conservation programs have found that the USDA illegally overpaid farmers for conservation benefits by hundreds of millions of dollars and routinely failed to check whether landowners performed the environmental restoration work for which they were paid. (For critics who view farm subsidies as nothing more than pork spending, this was hardly news.)

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Even with greater oversight, there’s reason to be skeptical that funneling additional conservation funds to working lands through the USDA, which the Biden administration supports, would produce additionality. The Environmental Working Group, or EWG, created a Conservation Database that tracks the conservation practices farmers have implemented with $29.8 billion in taxpayer funds over the past decade through four USDA initiatives. EWG concluded that these federal farm bill conservation programs “aren’t leading to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment.” A major problem, it notes, is that the programs allow farmers to choose from among hundreds of individual enhancements “cafeteria-style, letting farmers pick the measures they like best” and that are easiest to incorporate, regardless of whether those remedies do the most good. EWG’s investigation of USDA programs that incentivize farmers to curb polluted runoff points to another fatal flaw: “Farmers who voluntarily start conservation practices can just as easily stop.” This is exactly what happened in eight Iowa watersheds, where the amount of new stream buffers added by farmers was canceled out by others who stopped maintaining their stream buffers. EWG notes that government agencies and farm organizations are eager to point to new acres enrolled as evidence of conservation progress, but they rarely account for the losses.

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Ritwick Ghosh, an environmental sociologist who has analyzed USDA pay-for-performance programs, told me that they are “weak policy instruments.” Some voluntary practices that are part of working lands programs, like cover crops and rotational grazing, “are positive actions,” he noted. But to say a monoculture wheat farm that has implemented a piecemeal practice like nitrogen reduction is now “conserved land” is “a stretch,” he added. Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, concurred, telling me, “If conserving and increasing biodiversity is the objective, then a monocultural crop does not help achieve that goal.” What’s more, incentivizing minor changes may lock farmers into unsustainable agriculture. It may not even provide added benefits to soil nutrition, according to a USDA study.

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There is one incentive for private land stewardship that all sides agree has the potential to truly protect nature: conservation easements and related mechanisms like conservation leases. Such programs take a holistic approach, paying property owners to either “rewild” portions of their land or maintain the integrity of biodiverse landscapes that keep native ecosystems intact. For a land trust or government agency to grant a landowner a lease (which is a long-term contract) or an easement (which is permanent), strict and conservation science–backed criteria must be met. Ecosystem services are measured and audited (e.g., clean water, the resilience of keystone species, carbon sequestration).

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There’s goodwill among a lot of landowner interest groups to expand these programs, even if they don’t want farms replaced with nature preserves. Lesli Allison advocates a related policy called habitat leasing. She gave a hypothetical example of how it works: A rancher receives a 10-year contract that pays her for conserving native prairie ecosystems and wildlife. The lease recognizes the value of the habitat she is already providing as well as any costs associated with adjustments to livestock management to accommodate wildlife needs, such as a change in stock size, rotation, or fencing. Though leases don’t permanently protect nature, landowners get a bonus for every term renewal, which incentivizes them to keep their acreage enrolled in the conservation program. Some have argued that allowing environmental groups to lease federal lands to prevent them from being drilled, lumbered, or grazed could also play an important role in achieving 30x30; currently, “use it or lose it” clauses bar would-be lessees from acquiring the rights to federal lands to protect them.

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While she shied away from specifying a threshold by which land should count as conserved, Allison provided a useful starting point by quoting the famous ecologist Aldo Leopold, who said that “the oldest task in human history” is figuring out how “to live on a piece of land without despoiling it.” Finding that threshold is a challenge, and it’s clear that different stakeholders will propose varying standards that reflect their needs and interests. That’s why it’s incumbent on the Biden administration, which has pledged to follow the science and represent every American, to set clear, evidence-based conservation standards that are in the interests of the commonwealth.

Beyond conservation easements and leases, only working lands that support the ability of diverse native animal and plant life to regenerate and thrive should be considered “conserved.” And only truly sustainable land-use practices should be incentivized as part of Biden’s conservation plan. There’s room for community-led innovation. But 30x30 can’t just be a grab bag of negotiated pet programs. Its success must be measured by the extent to which it provides a foundation for the surviving and flourishing of countless species—including our own.

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