America's landscapes are unlike anything in the world. The nation’s mountains, rivers, forests, coasts, farms and more are central to our identity and a backbone of our economy, our communities and our very lives.
But the twin crises of climate change and global biodiversity loss present an existential threat to these places and our future. If we do not act, we risk losing more of our natural world forever.
The America the Beautiful initiative launched last year is the United States’ response to this threat. It's an ambitious but achievable goal to conserve, connect and restore 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.
But how do we get there?
For over 70 years, The Nature Conservancy has worked to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends, and many of the same principles and strategies we apply in our work will be critical to meeting this goal as well.
We recently submitted our recommendations to the federal government as it develops an “atlas” to guide and measure the progress toward this goal, including requirements and benchmarks for what counts. In our comments, we said America the Beautiful can only be successful if it is guided by five key principles:
- Representation and Resilience. This effort must look at the diversity and quality of ecosystems represented, as well as the connectivity between and within ecosystems—not just a simple percentage of conserved lands and waters.
- Equity and Inclusion. The America the Beautiful goal can only be achieved through strong, transparent and collaborative engagement with all stakeholders. It must also include attention to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice.
- Durability. To last, conservation actions need support from local stakeholders. It is critical to represent a community's needs and perspectives.
- Effective Management. Long-term conservation must include transparent management goals along with specific measures of success and sufficient capacity – including workforce, policies and incentives – to do the work.
- Assuring Adequate Funding. To successfully implement these conservation, management and restoration efforts must receive funding at a scale that can meet the need.
What counts as conserved lands, waters and ocean?
We know public lands and waters will have an essential role, but they alone won’t be enough to reach this goal. It will take working with private and working landowners, Indigenous communities and stakeholders at all levels to determine what kind of places should count as “conserved” and which places are the best options.
To help answer those questions, we recommended several factors the America the Beautiful initiative should consider. For example, although the history of conservation in the United States has been primarily land-based, all realms – land, freshwater and ocean – are interconnected and should be represented equally in this effort. It should also be inclusive of all ecological regions and ecosystem types within each realm.
With climate change leading to habitat fragmentation and driving global biodiversity loss, the initiative should focus on conserving climate-resilient sites and maintaining and expanding connectivity between those sites. This allows animal and plant species to migrate and adapt.
Maximizing natural climate solutions and carbon sequestration is also important, so attention to places with healthy trees and soils as well as marine and coastal habitats that absorb carbon will play a critical role. This should include an assessment of existing carbon stocks, as well as a better understanding of how climate change is impacting these realms.
And while the success of America the Beautiful depends on the resilience, distribution and connectivity between conservation areas, some areas may require restoration and improved management to maximize their ecosystems' health and function.
Not Easy, But Essential
Conserving 30 percent of lands and waters is an ambitious goal that will take coordinated and often complex approaches. Yet we know from experience that if we guide this effort by science, collaboration and these key principles we can create a lasting future for our lands, waters and ocean.