Just two years ago, the goal of conserving 30% of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030 was an obscure idea circulating among scientists and a handful of advocacy groups. Now, a commitment to the “30 by 30” campaign is an official — albeit loosely defined — policy of the U.S. federal government.

President Joe Biden committed to the goal in one of his first actions as president, a Jan. 27 executive order focused on tackling climate change. Advocates say that rising global temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of biodiversity and natural ecosystems around the world are two closely related issues.

“The two really go hand in hand,” Jim Ramey, Colorado state director for the Wilderness Society, told Newsline in an interview. “We have a nature crisis and a climate crisis, and we have to take urgent action to address both of them.”

Environmental advocates began rallying around 30 by 30 in earnest in 2019, following years of research by wildlife biologists and other scientists, who estimate that preserving 30% of the Earth’s habitats could save about 75% of its remaining species. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet was among the cosponsors of the inaugural 30 by 30 resolution in the U.S. Senate in October 2019, and Reps. Diana DeGette and Joe Neguse signed on to a similar House resolution last year. In January, Neguse reiterated his call for a national strategy to “tackle the biodiversity crisis.”

“It’s so much more than a simple slogan — it’s what science is telling us we need to do,” Ramey said of 30 by 30. “It sounds nice as a slogan, and that’s helpful, but if you look at all the science and the data that’s out there, you can understand the need behind it.”

Conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters within in the next decade is an extremely ambitious goal — one that involves nearly tripling the 289 million acres, or 12%, of U.S. land that is currently protected. (Excluding Alaska, by far the largest state by area and home to 150 million of those protected acres, the figure falls to just 7.1%.)

With roughly 10% of its lands protected, Colorado is only a third of the way to the 30 by 30 goal, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Colorado’s percentage of conserved land is high enough to rank 13th among states but is still lower than in neighbors Wyoming and Utah, and even East Coast states like Florida and New Jersey.

Two Colorado public-lands bills currently pending in Congress could raise that figure — but not by much. The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, sponsored by Bennet and Neguse, and the Colorado Wilderness Act, sponsored by DeGette, would establish or strengthen protections on more than 1 million acres of federally-owned land in the Centennial State. But much of that acreage is already protected under preliminary designations, such as “wilderness study areas,” overseen by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service, while other designations created by the bills don’t meet the standard for biodiversity protections envisioned by the 30 by 30 campaign.

Overall, the CORE Act and the Colorado Wilderness Act would add roughly 363,000 new acres to Colorado’s existing 6.7 million acres of protections, according to a Newsline analysis — raising the percentage of the state that’s conserved from about 10.1% to 10.6%.

Interactive map: Existing and proposed land protections in Colorado

How to use the map: Click the arrow box in the top left corner to toggle the legend. Areas shaded in orange are national parks. Areas in dark green are federally designated wilderness. Areas in light green are otherwise federally protected. Areas in teal are protected by state or local governments. Areas in red are protected through easements or other private means. Areas in purple are proposed protections under the CORE Act, while areas in pink are proposed protections under the Colorado Wilderness Act. (Areas included from CORE and CWA are those that would qualify for GAP Status 1 or 2.) Click on an individual parcel to see its name, size and other details.

 

The most comprehensive data available on current conservation levels comes from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Protected Areas Database, part of the agency’s Gap Analysis Project, or GAP, an assessment of biodiversity protections across the country. Areas are classified as having a “GAP Status” based on how the land in question is managed:

  • GAP Status 1: A protected area that is managed to “maintain a natural state.”
  • GAP Status 2: A protected area that is managed to “maintain a primarily natural state, but which may receive uses or management practices that degrade the quality of existing natural communities.”
  • GAP Status 3: A protected area that is “subject to extractive uses of either a broad, low-intensity type (e.g., logging, Off Highway Vehicle recreation) or localized intense type (e.g., mining).”
  • GAP Status 4: An area with “no known public or private institutional mandates” for biodiversity protection.

Most supporters of the 30 by 30 goal agree that an area must qualify for a GAP Status of 1 or 2 to be considered protected. Such areas include national parks, wildlife refuges, “areas of critical environmental concern” and other federal designations, as well as state- and locally-owned land and private property that is conserved through easements or other means.

The GAP status codes, which must aggregate information from thousands of different public and private sources across the country, aren’t a perfect data set, advocates say. Some easements and private land conservancies are included, while others aren’t. State parks aren’t classified as Status 1 or 2 in the GAP data, Ramey noted, despite the fact that many of Colorado’s parks are at least partially managed to protect certain habitats and species of wildlife.

“I think there’s a little bit of stuff around the edges that influence that 10% and bump it up a little higher,” Ramey said. “Should (state parks) count? Yeah, probably, but I think the jury’s still kind of out on that.”

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is that we’re talking about conserving lands primarily for nature,” he added. “There may be some other uses that go along with that, like the outdoor recreation piece, (which) is obviously a hugely important thing for Coloradans and folks everywhere. You can have sustainable, smart recreation be compatible with conservation in these places.”

The 30 by 30 campaign has drawn opposition from Republican leaders in rural Colorado. Several boards of county commissioners on the Western Slope, home to the vast majority of Colorado’s federally-owned land, have passed nearly identical resolutions denouncing the plan.

“The Board supports the continued management of the public lands and the national forests under principles of multiple use and sustained yield, recognizing the Nation’s need for domestic sources of minerals, energy, timber, food, and fiber,” reads the text of resolutions approved by commissioners in both Garfield and Moffat counties. The group American Stewards of Liberty, a Texas-based nonprofit with ties to the oil and gas industry, has lobbied Western Slope counties to oppose the 30 by 30 campaign, according to an agenda for a March meeting of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado.

The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado spans the White River and Gunnison national forests. (fs.usda.gov)

In a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee last month, DeGette sought to reassure critics that the 30 by 30 commitment wouldn’t mean designating 30% of U.S. lands as wilderness areas. Nearly 3.4 million acres in Colorado, about 5% of the state, are currently protected as wilderness, the federal government’s most restrictive designation, which prohibits all forms of development and motorized transportation.

“For the 30 by 30 goal, we’re not talking about locking up 30% of our lands,” DeGette said. “We’re talking about making some of our lands — a very low number of the total federal lands — wilderness, but then for the rest of those lands, many of them will have multiple use, and that’s appropriate.”

Ramey said that it’s crucial for conservation efforts to be locally driven, pointing to the CORE Act — which supporters hope will soon be passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate — as a model for how additional federal protections can be won.

But given the scale of the highly ambitious 30 by 30 target, advocates say that meeting the goal will likely require moving from a “parcel-based” conservation framework to something more expansive. Groups like the Wilderness Society, Ramey said, are beginning to focus on strategies for protecting biodiversity across much bigger areas through “large landscape conservation.”

“The work that we’re going to be doing over the next decade is not just, ‘Take every acre that you can, and that counts towards 30%,'” Ramey said. “Yes, that’s important, but it’s not the most strategic way to achieve the goal to help as many species as possible, and to preserve the most important habitat that may exist.”

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