Graphic showing people, animals, and general wildlife scene along with buildings
Illustration by Daniele Simonelli

The New Conservation

The 30x30 initiative employs an inclusive, collaborative approach to preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change

In a December 2020 New York Times op-ed, Rausser College wildlife biologists Justin Brashares and Arthur Middleton hailed then-President-elect Biden’s “30x30” environmental initiative as “perhaps the most ambitious commitment to conservation by a U.S. president.” They also raised tough questions about how, exactly, to accomplish the goal.

Just a week after his January 2021 inauguration, Biden codified the target—conserving 30 percent of the country’s land and water by 2030—as part of his sweeping executive order to fight climate change. The Conserving and Restoring the America the Beautiful report followed, establishing key principles for the effort consistent with those California established a few months earlier—preserving biodiversity, mitigating climate change, building ecological and economic sustainability, and advancing social equity.

30x30 Panel

Learn more about 30x30 in this video of our November 10th panel discussion.

There’s a long way to go. To date, the U.S. has conserved only 12 percent of land; at 22 percent, marine areas are further along. California has protected 22 percent of land but only 15 percent of its marine area. Many experts at Rausser College of Natural Resources feel that getting to 30 percent is feasible, but, they say, success depends on both acknowledging conservation’s history and providing a clear vision for its future. What does “conserved” mean today? Who is doing the conserving, who benefits, and who pays?

Walling off so-called wildlands is an outdated conservation philosophy; modern strategies recognize that biodiversity isn’t bound by fences. Instead, the focus is on connecting large-scale landscapes—a mix of public, private, and tribal ownership—to protect vast ecosystems. Removing people from their land to “protect” it is another unacceptable tactic, for both moral and ecological reasons; the current focus is on collaboration and inclusion.

Such complex, interdisciplinary issues have always been at the heart of Rausser College work, including helping to establish a clear role for science in the country’s emergent National Parks System over a century ago. Since then, conservation science has come a long way, and by guiding the 30x30 initiative, Rausser researchers and alumni are helping to bring this new vision of conservation to life.

Keeping Landscapes Connected

Reducing planet-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has always been the focus of climate change mitigation, and natural ecosystems play a key role in sequestering and storing carbon. But as scientists have learned more about the enormous role biodiversity plays in keeping ecosystems healthy and resilient, climate change policies have also prioritized preserving that teeming mix of organisms.

What does “conserved” mean today? Who is doing the conserving, who benefits, and who pays?

“Losing species destabilizes whole ecological communities,” says Brashares, who recently moderated the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) land conservation panel, one of five advisory groups guiding the state’s 30x30 effort. Unhealthy ecosystems can’t deliver the critical services on which society relies—pollination, fresh water, and control of ticks, mosquitoes, and other pests, for example. Biologists have long warned that habitat disruptions lead to stressed-out animal populations, conditions that contribute to animal diseases spilling over to humans, as COVID-19 did.

A researcher standing with some maps

Justin Brashares is advising 30x30 efforts at state and federal levels.

Photo by Adam Sings in the Timber.

Brashares’s research has demonstrated other complex—and often unexpected—connections between climate change, animal populations, and humans. For example, he found that fishery declines led to a rise in child labor in West Africa, and that global wildlife declines have led to social upheavals like war and crime. His lab has studied the effects on wildlife of drought, war, and even cannabis farming.

However, existing public lands do offer some low-hanging fruit. Public land covers 28 percent of the U.S., but logging and grazing in National Forests and on Bureau of Land Management land disqualify vast areas from protected status, says associate adjunct professor Patrick Gonzalez, PhD ’97 Energy and Resources Group. Gonzalez spent a decade as a principal climate change scientist for the National Park Service and recently served as a CNRA climate change panelist.

“That’s a great opportunity,” he says. “Without buying a single additional parcel of land, the U.S. government can upgrade the conservation status of extensive areas of federal lands and double the protected area of the United States,” he says—a process that involves resource-management strategies such as logging limits.

A key 30x30 priority is protecting areas richest in both carbon—to absorb and store climate-warming greenhouse gases—and biodiversity. Gonzalez’s research quantifying carbon in forests can help pinpoint those areas, and his analyses of vegetation shifts are helping to identify refugia, biodiverse areas particularly resilient to climate change. In addition to being on the CNRA climate advisory panel, he is a lead author of the ecosystems chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2022 report, which will inform global 30x30 policies.

While some public lands might be upgraded to protected status, Brashares says, the most biodiverse land is often privately owned, a legacy of European settlers claiming the most productive lands for grazing and agriculture.

Patrick Gonzalez measuring a tree width

Patrick Gonzalez is a lead author of the ecosystems chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2022 report, which will inform global 30x30 policies.

Photo by Al Golub.

“Private lands hold tremendous biodiversity and are a much better return for carbon storage and carbon sequestration per unit area than public lands,” he says, explaining that many of our national parks represent land that was unsuitable for farming and generally less biologically productive. That’s why conservation easements—legal contracts that compensate large landowners to maintain specific conservation standards over decades-long timeframes—have become a highly effective conservation tool.

While some conservatives call 30x30 a “land grab,” others, like many ranchers and hunting associations, are allies.

“Quietly, conservation easements have transformed the ranching world in the U.S.,” Brashares says. “Ranch owners are already interested in protecting their land from housing developments and other habitat conversion, like crop agriculture.” From California, Wyoming, and Montana to the Midwest, he says, many are jumping at the chance to get paid for protecting the land and livelihood they’ve always cared about.

Moreover, such agreements are typically made between landowners and regional or tribal land trusts—nongovernmental stewardship groups. This eliminates the political baggage state or federal transactions carry, Brashares notes. Large landowners often already have relationships with land trusts, so ideally, he says, the government’s role will be to use funding to incentivize easements in areas that scientists and other stakeholders deem critical for biodiversity.

Equity Is the Bedrock

Healthy urban landscapes are another essential part of ecosystem connectivity, says urban ecologist Christopher Schell, who joined the Rausser faculty this summer and served on CNRA’s equity panel.

In urban environments, particularly in historically disadvantaged communities, ecosystems get disrupted by highways, industrial pollution, and “heat islands”—cemented areas that lack trees and other landscaping, which drives temperatures up and biodiversity down.

Christopher Schell sitting, wearing a Wakanda Forever shirt

Christopher Schell stresses that equity must be at the core of new conservation approaches.

Photo by Joshua Bessex / The News Tribune.

Schell’s research shows how entrenched racist policies such as housing discrimination and zoning rules are exacerbating the climate crisis. In a recent review published in Science, for example, Schell and his colleagues highlighted repeated studies that suggest that highways are a major cause of biodiversity loss because they restrict gene flow and dispersal. The “luxury effect”—the wealthier the neighborhood, the more biodiversity is found there—has been well documented, he says, but his review explicitly demonstrates the role systemic racism plays in this relationship.

“That’s why equity has to be the bedrock of conservation,” he says. Limited biodiversity creates localized harms, like increases in pest species, but it also impacts the health of the larger ecosystem, including hindering the movement of wildlife passing through regional landscapes. “We can’t separate ourselves from the systems that we live in,” he says. “Equity in and of itself is an ecological relationship.”

"Equity in and of itself is an ecological relationship."
Christopher Schell

Understanding how racism and racist policies contribute to shaping urban infrastructure can lead to solutions for both wildlife and people, Schell says. For example, tree planting and other landscaping in urban areas can increase bird species, soil health, and microorganism diversity. Schell notes that the solution is not to displace people simply to green the city. This form of green gentrification—when making environmental improvements in the name of “saving the planet” increases property values, driving out lower-income, marginalized residents—is inherently unjust and counterproductive, he says. “If we can figure out how to heal ourselves, we can begin to heal our ecosystems.”

Schell is a biologist, he stresses, not a scholar of urban or African American studies. “But if we ignore these social forces,” he says, “we’re going into the job of solving climate change with only one eye open.”

Reintegrating Indigenous Practices

Opening both eyes also means learning from Indigenous practices that have been suppressed and even outlawed over centuries.

“Across the board, conservation has excluded Indigenous people as not having a place in the landscape being conserved,” says Beth Rose Middleton Manning, PhD ’08 ESPM, professor of Native American Studies at UC Davis and another member of CNRA’s equity panel. She says not repeating the exclusionary conservation of the past will require building relations with tribes and Native nonprofits and putting Indigenous leaders at the forefront of stewardship activities.

In her book Upstream: Trust Lands and Power on the Feather River, Middleton Manning says “the long and ongoing history of cultural and community disruption must inform contemporary conservation measures.”

Beth Rose Middleton in a Cultural Burn

Beth Rose Middleton Manning throws deergrass onto a burning pile as she and students in her “Keepers of the Flame” class at UC Davis take part in a cultural burn.

Photo by Alysha Beck.

Recent research and teaching partnerships offer opportunity and “maybe even healing,” she says. She cites co-managed and Indigenous-led stewardship initiatives like North Fork Mono Tribal Chairman Ron Goode’s work, which includes educational partnerships like her collaborative Keepers of the Flame class, to bring back cultural burning, a traditional way Native peoples managed the landscape and optimized ecosystem benefits.

Such work has raised the water table, reduced woody debris that causes fire danger, and restored fisheries and animal habitat. “It’s inspiring,” she says. “Those ecological gains are intertwined with respecting previously disregarded knowledge and applying it on the landscape.” Cultural burning can take place alongside other strategies such as thinning and prescribed fire, she adds.

Rausser College has numerous similar partnerships. Cooperative Extension specialist Jennifer Sowerwine, co-founder of the Karuk-UC Berkeley Collaborative, has collaborated with the Karuk Tribe since 2007 to support their eco-cultural revitalization efforts to reintroduce cultural burns and Indigenous stewardship practices that enhance food security and improve fire resilience. Fire ecologist Scott Stephens, with anthropologist Kent Lightfoot, is launching a collaborative project with the Amah Mutsun Land Trust.

The Western Klamath Restoration Project is a partnership involving tribes, state and federal agencies, and Rausser faculty, to restore fisheries and improve land stewardship. “It’s a great example of different landowners and land managers working beyond individual property boundaries to protect an economically, culturally, and environmentally critical watershed,” Brashares says. “These are exactly the goals of 30x30.

“It’s the Journey”

Gonzalez points out that community-based conservation isn’t new—the concept has been around since the 1980s or earlier. But operationalizing that approach at the worldwide scale is new. He says inclusivity can contribute to the permanence of the effort, giving more people a stake in its success.

Permanence is an existential challenge. In the U.S. and California, 30x30 is governed by executive orders, rules that can change with administrations. International agreements are nonbinding.

Many Rausser experts agree that addressing such non-science challenges will be what ultimately defines the initiative’s success, not hitting numerical targets. If the effort aligns people through panels, funding, and new partnerships with tribes and historically disenfranchised communities, and advances concepts like landscape connectivity, “those would be amazing outcomes,” Brashares says. “It’s more of the journey than the destination. It’s a rallying cry around a new form of conservation and a new commitment to conservation.”

Globally, the 30x30 rallying cry is led by a major campaign—fundraising, storytelling, lobbying—by the Washington D.C.-based Wyss Foundation, in partnership with the National Geographic Society (Brashares advises the Society as a member of its Committee on Research and Exploration). So far, the push is working. By October 2020, 27 European countries had committed to the goal, and at the 2021 G7 summit this past May, member nations pledged support. Conservation organizations and hunting and fishing groups have backed the effort. At the 15th World Congress on Biodiversity in Kunming, China, this October, more than 100 countries are expected to sign on.

Despite the global buy-in and ever-advancing science, the political and social hurdles make many Rausser scientists view 30x30 with the cautious optimism expressed in the Brashares-Middleton op-ed—achievable, but ambitious.

“The reason I say it’s ambitious is not an ecological or nature issue—it’s a people issue,” Schell says. “How do you convince folks that doing something good for others is good for them too? This is a people issue first. We already have the scientific tools to figure out the rest.”