President Biden takes big steps toward protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters

Mar 22, 2023

By Kate Groetzinger

Protections establish strong presidential conservation legacy, lay groundwork for achieving 30 by 30 goal

From protecting over half a million acres of public land in Nevada to all of the waters around the Pacific Remote Islands, President Joe Biden embraced conservation and moved the country closer to protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. The announcement of two new national monuments formed the centerpiece of the White House Conservation in Action Summit on March 21, 2023. President Biden designated Avi Kwa Ame and Castner Range national monuments using his authority under the Antiquities Act, protecting over half a million acres in perpetuity.

Avi Kwa Ame National Monument makes up the bulk of the land mass protections announced at the Summit, spanning 506,814 acres of Mojave Desert in southern Nevada. The new monument connects a sensitive desert landscape spanning from the Mojave National Preserve in California to Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona and Nevada. Avi Kwa Ame is the Mojave name for Spirit Mountain, a peak that is considered sacred by the Fort Mojave, one of the Tribes that led the campaign to protect the area surrounding Avi Kwa Ame. The area is also considered sacred by ten Yuman-speaking Tribes, as well as the Hopi and Chemehuevi Paiute.

Castner Range National Monument covers 6,672 acres in the Franklin Mountains, which border the city of El Paso. Castner Range is a former military weapons testing site owned by the U.S. Department of Defense. It borders Franklin Mountains State Park, a popular recreation destination. The Range is also a biodiversity hotspot, serving as habitat for hundreds of species of Chihuahuan Desert plants, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The community of El Paso has fought for more than 50 years to gain access to this landscape for the enjoyment of its residents and for greater protections for wildlife that depend on the area.

“This matters. It matters because when we conserve our country’s natural gifts, we’re not just protecting the livelihoods of the people who depend on them… We’re protecting the heart and the soul of our national pride. We’re protecting pieces of history, telling our story that will be told for generations and generations to come,” President Biden said at the Conservation in Action Summit.

These protections move the President closer to his America the Beautiful goal of protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. The 30 by 30 goal was developed by scientists and aims to curb the global extinction crisis by encouraging the protection of natural areas such as parks, seas, forests, and wilderness.

At the Summit, President Biden also directed the Secretary of Commerce to establish marine sanctuary protections for all of the waters surrounding the Pacific Remote Islands — 777,000 square miles of waters southwest of Hawaii. When completed, these protections will fulfill the President’s goal of protecting 30 percent of America’s waters.

But wait, there’s more

In addition to these large-scale land and water protections, the President announced a number of new actions and funding to conserve, restore, and expand access to lands and waters across the country.

The Bureau of Land Management will open a comment period in the coming weeks on a proposed rule that will update and modernize the agency’s tools and strategies for managing federal public lands. The proposed rule “will help ensure that the nation’s lands continue to provide abundant and well-connected wildlife habitat, supply clean drinking water, and power local economies,” according to the White House.

The Ocean Climate Action Plan, created by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, seeks to reduce emissions and protect communities and ecosystems from changes due to a warming climate. The plan calls for increasing offshore wind and marine energy, decarbonizing the maritime shipping sector, conserving and restoring coastal and marine habitats that naturally store carbon, and expanding protected areas in the ocean.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality also issued new guidance to federal agencies regarding the incorporation of wildlife corridors into federal planning and decision-making. The guidance addresses connectivity across terrestrial, marine, and freshwater habitats, as well as airspaces. It requires federal agencies to make new or updated policies publicly available and ready to implement by the first quarter of 2024.

New funding

  • The Federal Highway Administration and the Department of Transportation announced a new $350 million wildlife crossings pilot program.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will allocate $56 million to state agencies to support conservation and stewardship efforts for imperiled wildlife and their habitats.
  • The U.S. Forest Service announced nearly $200 million in grants to communities, including Tribes, across the country to assist them with planning for and mitigating wildfire risks to homes and critical infrastructure.
  • The Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense announced they will allocate $80 million to preserve green space around military installations and expand outdoor access for millions of Americans.
  • The White House also announced a new program to support the conservation efforts of Tribes. The program will be funded by Native Americans in Philanthropy, Biodiversity Funders Group, and 15 other philanthropies, with an initial commitment of over $100 million.

These new programs and protections build on the President’s prior actions to protect U.S. lands and waters, including restoring protections for roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest, protecting the entire U.S. Arctic Ocean from drilling, safeguarding Bristol Bay in Alaska, and protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota from nearby mining proposals. Many of these accomplishments and more are included in the Biden administration’s recently released America the Beautiful 2022 Annual Report.

At this point in his first term, President Biden has established a strong public lands legacy and made a big downpayment on his America the Beautiful goal. But he still has a long way to go to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands. With many conservation proposals languishing in a divided Congress, the only way the President will be able to achieve this goal is by exercising his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate more national monuments. Luckily, there are a number of monument proposals ready for action. The President should move quickly to protect these special habitats and lands.

(Photo credit: Castner Range, Mark Clune)