The ambitious America the Beautiful plan seeks to conserve and restore 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030
From its southeastern edge, New Mexico’s Caja del Rio plateau stretches northwest over more than 100,000 acres, an intersection of diverse habitats, histories and cultures. (Photo by Minesh Bacrania)
IN A SUNNY, JUNIPER-COVERED ARROYO on the Caja del Rio plateau in northern New Mexico, orange lichen on a basalt boulder frames an ancient petroglyph: a raptor, its wings outstretched in flight.
Carved on these rocks centuries ago, raptors such as hawks and eagles along with dozens of other kinds of animals—mule deer, roadrunners, lizards and rattlesnakes—still swoop, scamper and slither across the Caja del Rio plateau today. Its 104,349 acres of cactus, forests and grasslands connect five mountain ranges as well as the Upper Rio Grande and Santa Fe rivers. This intersection of habitats makes the plateau one of North America’s most ecologically rich wildlife corridors. It is also an intersection of culture and history for the Indigenous peoples who have lived here for more than 10,000 years, the Spanish explorers who traveled through on the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro and the more modern European settlers.
“The Caja is incredibly important on a spiritual, cultural and psychological level to so many people,” says Andrew Black, public lands field director for the National Wildlife Federation. As a Presbyterian minister, Black imbues his conservation work with what he calls “deeper, collaborative spiritual work.” Recently, he brought together 112 Tribal and spiritual leaders in New Mexico who are asking for permanent protection of the Caja. In October 2021, the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society passed a unanimous resolution supporting protection, noting that “to encounter the diverse array of birds, reptiles and mammals that live and move through the Caja is to have a sacred encounter.”
Black hopes a national designation to protect the Caja will serve as one of the flagship projects for the Biden–Harris administration’s America the Beautiful initiative, an ambitious effort to conserve or restore at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. The initiative’s goal goes well beyond protecting public lands—it also encourages improving stewardship practices on private agricultural lands, restoring fire-prone forests, repairing ailing streams and conserving coastal and marine habitats.
Preserving the Caja, Black says, is one example of many queued-up projects nationwide that check the boxes for what the initiative hopes to accomplish. It’s a science-based, ground-up effort led by Tribes, local communities and traditional land users that honors private property and Tribal sovereignty; protects the soil, water and wildlife we depend on; and yields meaningful, equitable benefits for all people.
Although the United States is a global conservation leader with more intact ecosystems than most countries, the need to safeguard our remaining nature is clear: Analyses conducted by NatureServe of the nation’s best-studied groups of plants and animals—including birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians and vascular plants—have determined that about a third of all U.S. species are at risk of extinction. 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.
To address such challenges, President Biden signed an Executive Order in early 2021 directing federal agencies to develop an inclusive and collaborative vision for conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. But while the need for the effort—now known as the America the Beautiful initiative—may be clear, specifics remain vague. “This is a generational opportunity, and it’s important to be strategic,” says NWF Chief Scientist Bruce Stein. “How do we create a well-represented, well-connected network of conserved lands and waters? And how do we make sure to manage these places in a way that they will persist into the future, particularly in the face of climate change?”
Stein helped the Federation develop three guiding science principles to inform federal agencies, partners and affiliates as they identify areas to target for the initiative: 1) Representation: incorporate the full array of species and ecosystem types; 2) Resilience: include sufficient space and multiple examples of each species and habitat to help nature cope with and adapt to disturbances or stressors; and 3) Connectivity: maintain or restore linkages between remaining strongholds of natural habitat.
“From an implementation standpoint, the initiative should rely on and empower existing local and regional conservation and restoration initiatives, both on public and private lands,” says Stein. He points to ready-made priorities for protection created through ongoing collaborative efforts such as the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy or Nature’s Network in the Northeast. But without a dedicated funding source or targeted incentive programs, it’s still unclear how the initiative’s vision becomes reality.
Black believes that existing funding sources can be tapped, including the recently passed $1 trillion infrastructure package, the Farm Bill’s provisions to encourage stewardship on private lands and the $900 million-per-year Land and Water Conservation Fund that helps the federal government, states and communities enact restoration and protection projects. “We have plenty of pathways to get this important work done,” says Black. “The key is to not lose sight of the goal: locally driven, equitable, collaborative conservation that helps communities and wildlife.”
Equity is one of the most notable goals of America the Beautiful, which includes a historic commitment to ensure that 40 percent of federal investments in conservation or parks go to communities that lack access to nature. Unfortunately, many people nationwide lack easy access to clean water, shady spots and beautiful vistas—particularly those who live in low-income areas and people of color. A 2020 report co-authored by the Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF) and Center for American Progress found that 74 percent of all nonwhite families live in nature-deprived neighborhoods dominated by asphalt and concrete.
At the same time, green and blue spaces are increasingly viewed as necessities rather than amenities, vital to our physical and mental health. Nature-deprived neighborhoods also tend to be places with worse air and water quality and greater vulnerability to heat, drought, floods or disease.
“We need to create more close-to-home outdoor opportunities for our communities of color and low-income neighborhoods,” says Brenda Gallegos, conservation program associate at HAF, a national nonprofit organization that connects Latine communities with partners and opportunities that improve their lives, including creating a healthy natural environment. HAF also wants to ensure transparency and inclusivity. For America the Beautiful, this means hiring an equal representation of people of color in nature-related jobs, from trail building to park administration. “Often, people of color feel unsafe or unwelcome when using outdoor spaces, partly because they don’t see people of color working in these spaces,” says Gallegos.
One place where HAF hopes the initiative might play out in a way that includes communities of color is amidst the remaining chaparral-draped foothills that frame Southern California’s most densely populated communities. The proposed 500,000-acre Western Riverside County National Wildlife Refuge—introduced in 2021 by California Congressman Ken Calvert—would give many urban Latines greater access to nature. “Many members of the community have come to us saying that they don’t want more warehouses put up in this area, which bring air pollution, block the beautiful view of the mountains and take away the nature they have,” says Gallegos.
The refuge would also protect some of the nation’s most biodiverse habitats from future development by consolidating 347,000 acres of national forest lands with other public lands and providing funds to acquire an additional 153,000 acres from willing private landowners. These half-million acres of sage scrub, woodlands, mountains and chaparral would provide vital wildlife corridors for 146 species, 33 of which are threatened or endangered, including the Riverside fairy shrimp, Stephen’s kangaroo rat and coastal California gnatcatcher.
America the Beautiful does not overlook species-rich ocean habitats. Although 26 percent of U.S. marine waters already fall within marine protected areas, 98 percent of these are located near remote Pacific Islands. And only 3 percent of U.S. waters fall under the highest level of protection, where commercial fishing and other extractive activities are prohibited. Hoping to better balance ocean conservation across our nation’s diverse coastal and pelagic habitats, the initiative looks to include regional priorities for protecting valuable and at-risk marine resources.
One example is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). Stretching from Miami to Key West, it encompasses North America’s only living coral barrier reef and the third-largest coral barrier reef in the world. The sanctuary’s reefs and blue-green waters, along with vibrant mangrove forests and sandy beaches, teem with life, from sea turtles and snappers to manatees and dolphins to egrets and roseate spoonbills. Slightly larger than Yellowstone National Park, the FKNMS contributes $4.4 billion and 43,000 jobs to the local economy each year.
But even with this sanctuary in place, the Keys face a host of threats, including heavy recreational use and commercial fishing, coral disease and damage, seagrass degradation, water pollution and sea level rise. NWF and its affiliate Florida Wildlife Federation are hoping to address these challenges by supporting efforts to increase protection in some areas and expand the sanctuary’s boundaries, restore dying reefs and other ailing resources and update the protected area’s management plan.
Many stakeholders, for example, strongly support changing fishing regulations at Western Dry Rocks, a vibrant reef 10 miles southwest of Key West. A recently adopted rule that prohibits fishing this reef from April through July will boost populations of popular game fish that aggregate to spawn, including permit and yellowtail snapper.
Other proposed management changes include creating no-wake zones around the remote Marquesas Keys to prevent propellers from harming endangered green sea turtles or scarring seagrass meadows as well as designating additional no-anchor areas to protect fragile coral. Such protections would also create better habitat connectivity between the Keys’ reef systems for a host of marine species. “When we think of migratory corridors, we often think of elk and bison. But restoring and expanding marine corridors for fish is also important,” says Jessica Bibza, a senior specialist for wildlife policy with NWF’s Gulf Program.
Creating or updating marine protected areas (MPAs) takes years of research and public involvement and can entail a lot of “give and take” between stakeholders, says Bibza. “These MPAs are very customized to tie protections and regulations to what’s needed for different resources at different areas. It’s really the best way to balance protection with access so the community can still enjoy the resources.”
Collaborative, ground-up conservation such as these examples in Florida, California and New Mexico are models for how the decades-long America the Beautiful initiative can succeed in conserving one-third of the vital lands and waters that sustain America’s communities and wildlife. “We depend on nature for the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat,” says Black. “To protect our land, water and wildlife—and the cultural identity rooted within all three—we must work together to conserve at least 30 percent of the U.S. by 2030.”
In addition to providing the administration scientific expertise on its America the Beautiful initiative, the National Wildlife Federation, through a unanimous vote by its 53 state and territorial affiliates, passed a resolution at its June 2021 annual meeting endorsing “this bold vision for conserving the nature of America.” To read the full text of the resolution, visit affiliates.nwf.org/2021.
Brianna Randall wrote about America’s vanishing prairies in the October–November 2021 issue.
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