The Half Earth theory—setting aside 50 percent of the world for wildlife—seemed like a far-out pipe dream when it was proposed by evolutionary biologist and author Edward O. Wilson in his 2016 book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. He advanced the idea that our plummeting biodiversity could be mitigated by reserving half of the planet for nonhuman species. By linking already existing conservation areas with new ones to create corridors of protected lands, Wilson argued that a tenable system for human coexistence with the rest of life on Earth could become a reality.
I had heard about Wilson’s idea before the book was published, and I wrote to you about it in 2014. At that time, I asked if you thought it could work in practice.
To tell you the truth, back then I didn’t think most of the world would go for it. But here we are, eight years later, and the United States is trying to establish something similar: the recently proposed, ambitious America the Beautiful plan, which seeks to conserve and restore 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.
The goals of the America the Beautiful plan (worldwide known as the “30 x 30 Movement”) go well beyond protecting public lands—they also encourage improving stewardship practices on private agriculture lands, restoring fire-prone forests, repairing ailing streams, and conserving coastal and marine habitats. In addition, they incorporate a more inclusive model for science-based, locally driven conservation of lands, inland waters and ocean areas; and they recognize and will attempt to remedy some environmental injustices.
Where we find ourselves now, in the sixth mass extinction, this is certainly welcome news.
30 x 30 to help a threatened third
Although the United States has more intact ecosystems than most countries, the need to safeguard what remains is clear: about a third of all U.S. species are at risk of extinction. And while 26 percent of U.S. waters already fall within a marine protected area, 98 percent of these are located near remote Pacific Islands. Only 3 percent of U.S. waters fall under the highest level of protection, where commercial fishing and other extractive activities are prohibited.
The country also faces a growing inequity in people’s access to nature. According to the Trust for Public Land’s 2021 ParkScore Index, some 100 million Americans do not have a park within a 10-minute walk of their homes. And a 2020 report co-authored by the Center for American Progress and the Hispanic Access Foundation found that 74 percent of all non-white families live in nature-deprived neighborhoods dominated by asphalt and concrete.
At the same time, blue and green spaces are increasingly viewed as necessities rather than amenities, vital to our mental and physical health. Nature-deprived neighborhoods also tend to be places with worse air and water quality and greater vulnerability to disease, droughts, floods and heat.
The America the Beautiful plan intends to address these challenges. To fund it, existing sources can be tapped, including the Farm Bill’s provisions to encourage stewardship on private lands, the recently passed $1 trillion infrastructure package and the $900-million-per-year Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps the federal government, states and communities enact protection and restoration projects.
Four points to keep front of mind
There are four prominent features of the America the Beautiful plan that make it groundbreaking:
1) The campaign redefines the term “conservation.”
In the U.S., about 12 percent of the land and one-quarter of the oceans are within permanently protected areas, which include marine sanctuaries, national parks and wildlife refuges. What that figure doesn’t encompass are the other areas managed with sustainability in mind, such as farmlands enrolled in conservation programs or tribal lands.
Those kinds of managed lands—although not formally protected—could contribute to the 30 percent target under the plan’s new and much broader definition of conservation.
In the coming months, the administration will develop a system, called the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, to map and track areas in the U.S. that are considered “conserved.” It will likely show that these areas already amount to well over 12 percent.
2) Farms, ranches and other working lands will be part of the 30 percent
U.S. farmers and ranchers have enrolled more than 140 million acres of private lands in conservation programs, and they should be recognized. Many fishing and hunting organizations also want their contributions toward protecting ecosystems and wildlife acknowledged.
If such farming, hunting and ranching lands are managed sustainably, they will be counted. Further, the America the Beautiful plan will work to expand the number of working lands in the tally through voluntary conservation programs and by opening more public lands to fishing and hunting.
There are already examples of this: the Department of Agriculture recently expanded its Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to plant beneficial species and take environmentally sensitive lands out of production. And in May 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal for the largest expansion of fishing and hunting opportunities in U.S. history.
3) Indigenous rights and sovereignty will be foremost.
In a major departure from conservation efforts of centuries past, the new America the Beautiful plan makes the rights and sovereignty of tribal nations a core part of the 30 x 30 Movement.
According to the World Bank, although indigenous peoples comprise less than 5 percent (370 million) of the global population, they—often the most disadvantaged and vulnerable—own, live on or use 25 percent of the world’s land, safeguarding 80 percent of its remaining biodiversity. Some of the most biologically important lands and waters remain intact thanks to their stewardship. Their knowledge and expertise on how to adapt and reduce risks from climate change and natural disasters are considered vital. Research shows that biodiversity tends to decline more slowly on land managed by indigenous peoples.
Over the next decade, the government will support tribal-led conservation efforts and make restoring indigenous homelands a priority. It will also call on federal agencies to help tribal nations access programs that offer funding for conservation projects and to engage with indigenous peoples in the management of public lands and waters.
4) 30 x 30 will increase access to nature for low-income communities and start to restore environmental justice.
As it aims for the 30 percent target, the America the Beautiful plan will prioritize access to nature in disadvantaged communities. It will also hire an equal representation of people of color in nature-related jobs, from park administration to trail building.
A 50 percent fantasy to a 30 percent fact
But will conserving 30 percent of our lands really make a difference for the wildlife that we are so rapidly losing? Science now says an emphatic “yes.”
In a January 2022 study, University of British Columbia researchers analyzed data from 8,671 camera-trap stations spanning four continents and 23 countries, the largest number of wildlife cameras ever examined in a single study. They found that more mammal diversity (from caribou in Canada to panthers in Florida) occurred where habitats had a protected designation compared to forests and other wilderness areas that did not. And this was true even when these protected areas experienced human disturbances, such as logging and recreational use.
While this itself may not be shocking news, it is powerful evidence of the critical role that nature parks and reserves play in wildlife conservation. As the world continues discussions on new global targets for expanding protected areas, it’s highly useful to be able to measure the benefits of the protections that currently exist.
Protected areas are the final strongholds for many endangered mammals, a particularly challenging group to safeguard because they require large habitats and so tend to come into conflict with people. If we want to keep larger mammals around—along with the critical roles they play in ecosystems—we need to focus on increasing networks of space for them.
Setting aside 50 percent of our lands for wildlife seemed like a crazy dream when it was first proposed more than half a decade ago. But now that 30 percent looks like it could be a real possibility in our lifetimes, I’m excited and hopeful.
I hope you are, too.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,