“As we write this, America is engaged in an all-hands-on-deck effort to defeat a deadly pandemic and tackle the climate crisis. Our president has laid out a vision and a plan that will repower America with clean energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions at home and abroad, create millions of good-paying jobs, and—importantly—conserve and restore the lands and waters that support and sustain us.”
Those are the opening words of a letter to America from the heads of four U.S. Government agencies: The Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce, and the Council on Environmental Quality. Pay close attention to just those last few words: “conserve and restore the lands and waters that support and sustain us.”
The letter is on the opening pages of a document called “Conserving and Restoring America The Beautiful.” The letter goes on to say the president “has challenged all of us as Americans to join together in pursuit of a goal of conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030. The ambition of this goal reflects the urgency of the challenges we face: the need to do more to safeguard the drinking water, clean air, food supplies, and wildlife upon which we all depend; the need to fight climate change with the natural solutions that our forests, agricultural lands, and the ocean provide; and the need to give every child in America the chance to experience the wonders of nature.”
Strong words. Lofty goals. Important to North and South Dakota, because here, two of those departments, Interior and Agriculture, manage millions of acres of public lands, lands we use to recreate, and lands our farmers and ranchers use to sustain their livelihood. More than four million acres.
And it’s those acres, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, that are going to get special attention under what’s have now being called “American the Beautiful 30-30.” We are all challenged by that short title, to protect and, in some cases, restore, 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.
Now, I know that probably at least half of my readers probably aren’t big fans of our current president (and the other half weren’t fans of the last one). But we ought to be fans, nay, even champions, of his goal for our public lands and waters, a goal, as outlined by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (I’m a big fan of hers, by the way), who wrote “The ambition of this goal reflects the urgency of the challenges we face: the need to do more to safeguard the drinking water, clean air, food supplies, and wildlife upon which we all depend; the need to fight climate change with the natural solutions that our forests, agricultural lands, and the ocean provide; and the need to give every child in America the chance to experience the wonders of nature.”
President Biden challenged his newly appointed secretaries just one week after taking office, on January 27. 2021, to begin a program to protect our public lands. Just four months later, they outlined these goals:
- Pursue a collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation;
- Conserve America’s lands and waters for the benefit of all people;
- Support locally led and locally designed conservation efforts;
- Honor Tribal sovereignty and support the priorities of Tribal Nations;
- Pursue conservation and restoration approaches that create jobs and support healthy communities;
- Honor private property rights and support the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners;
- Use science as a guide; and
- Build on existing tools and strategies with an emphasis on flexibility and adaptive approaches.
Who could be against that? Well, let me tell you. People and businesses who want to use our public lands and water and natural resources for personal gain. Read: Big Oil. And the oil industry’s toadies, including the governors of North and South Dakota, who, almost before the ink was dry on the document, signed a letter opposing it.
But the program has gotten wide support across the western United States, where our public lands exist, from nearly every wildlife organization in America, and numerous landowner groups, especially those who use public lands for grazing their cattle.
The reason for that support is simple: The program will be managed by wildlife and agriculture officials, who have the best interests of their constituents in mind. Listen to what the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior have to say about the initiative:
“The President’s national conservation goal provides an opportunity to better honor and support the people and communities who serve as stewards of our lands and waters. Rather than simply measuring conservation progress by national parks, wilderness lands, and marine protected areas in the care of the government, the President’s vision recognizes and celebrates the voluntary conservation efforts of farmers, ranchers, and forest owners; the leadership of sovereign Tribal Nations in caring for lands, waters, and wildlife; the contributions and stewardship traditions of America’s hunters, anglers, and fishing communities; and the vital importance of investing in playgrounds, trails, and open space in park-deprived communities.
“The President’s challenge is a call to action to support locally-led conservation and restoration efforts of all kinds and all over America, wherever communities wish to safeguard the lands and waters they know and love. Doing so will not only protect our lands and waters but also boost our economy and support jobs nationwide.”
“Locally-led.” I like that part of it. One of the ways that is happening is with our own best hunter-friendly federal program, the Conservation Reserve Program, (CRP). Federal officials, with input from agricultural and wildlife groups, are figuring out ways to make CRP lands part of that 30 percent. Hooray for them.
I’m old enough, as are many of you, to remember the very first years of CRP, those gnarly, chest-high, weed-infested fields where pheasants ran wild and, if the plot was small enough and the hunter group big enough, exploded out at the end in a cacophony of sound and color—remember? Damn, that was marvelous.
CRP is tamer today, and there’s a lot less of it, but this program could bring back some of those glory days. And it could preserve, and maybe even enhance, protection for our national grasslands, home to our mule deer herds and sharptail grouse flocks, lands being eyed for development by greedy oil companies in an era of troubled international politics.
“This report is only the starting point on the path to fulfilling our conservation vision,” the Secretaries wrote. “Where this path leads over the next decade will be determined not by our agencies, but by the ideas and leadership of local communities. It is our job to listen, learn, and provide support along the way to help strengthen economies and pass on healthy lands, waters, and wildlife for generations to come.”
Those are feel-good words, to be sure, but I wanted to write about this program this month because there are folks, even at our local levels here in the Dakotas, who are organizing against what they call big government threats. As I write this, there’s a county commission in western North Dakota about to vote on “a resolution in opposition to 30X30/America The Beautiful.”
I kind of chuckled when I read that on an agenda for their March meeting. Who, I asked, could be “in opposition to America the Beautiful.” The answer is, county commissioners, who’ve been fed a load of BS by the oil companies who pump millions of dollars in oil tax money into county coffers. And governors who toe their line. But I’m thinking—and hoping—they’re a little late. Some programs are already underway.
In its first year, by the end of 2021, there’s been significant progress to support effective and enduring conservation strategies. In their year-end report, the Secretaries wrote this:
“Our effort included listening and learning from the families and communities that know and care for American lands and waters, to be sure that the initiative reflects their priorities, needs, and perspectives. We made huge investments in restoration and conservation through the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA); reversed harmful policies that undermined protections for sacred and special places; supported the remarkable conservation work already underway in communities nationwide; and enhanced exiting tools and strategies that have made the United States a global leader in conservation.”
Well, okay, those are big claims. Now we need to watch for specifics, here on the ground, in places like the North Dakota Badlands, and South Dakota’s National Grasslands. This is going to be an important initiative to follow for those of us who enjoy public lands and waters. I’ll try to keep you up to date from time to time. You can follow it too. Just ask Mr. Google to take you to “3030 America The Beautiful.” I think you’ll like what you find.
(This article first appeared in the April issue of Dakota Country magazine.)