Climate change isn’t the only environmental crisis Biden wants to confront

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, October 22, 2020

“We need to hit the ground running undoing the damage of the Trump administration,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a Biden surrogate and one of the leading advocates in Congress for a national “30 by 30” goal, said in an interview this month. “But we can’t stop there because that would be like putting a Band-Aid on a life-threatening wound.”

Udall and his Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) introduced a resolution laying out the objective last year. But the idea of protecting a certain percentage of the planet was planted by the biologist and writer E.O. Wilson in his 2016 book “Half Earth.”

Restricting human intrusion into nature is necessary, conservation proponents say, not only to curtail climate change, but also to stave off the loss of even more plants and animals to extinction as urban sprawl, agriculture, and oil drilling and other extractive activities continue to encroach on it.

Yet politicians here and abroad have made bold conservation promises in the past, only to fall short. And while the idea of protecting nature is broadly popular in the abstract, actually carrying out that goal can face stiff resistance from those who live and work near protected areas.

Biden is just one of the latest — and most prominent — politicians in the United States to back the burgeoning ‘30 by 30’ movement.

His platform calls on the United States to set aside 30 percent of its lands and water for conservation by the end of the decade.

“We should be taking the plan where we allow significant[ly] more land to be put in conservation, plant a deep root of plants, which absorb carbon from the air,” Biden said during a town hall event on ABC.

According to one estimate, around a football field’s worth of green area is lost to human development on average every 30 seconds in the Lower 48 states. That is playing a part in an unparalleled potential loss of 1 million species, which U.N. scientists say may have profound implications for human survival.

The loss of coral reefs worldwide to acidifying oceans, for example, could cause a collapse in populations of edible fish. Farmers increasing reliance on pesticides could kill off bees and other insects those same growers rely on to pollinate their crops.

The U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity — to which every U.N. member has signed onto except for the United States — had pledged to protect 17 percent of terrestrial and inland waters and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by this year. The United Nations says that goal has been “partially achieved.”

Stateside, Biden has called out President Trump for opening the vast swath of caribou and polar bear habitat in the Alaskan Arctic to oil and gas drilling and eyeing more uranium mining in the West.

Even if Biden wins, the country has a ways to go to meet that goal in the next 10 years.

Only 12 percent of the nation’s lands and a little more than a quarter of its waters are sufficiently protected, according to research done by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. Those protected areas include not just parks, but also wilderness areas, game refuges and other public lands with conservation easements.

One powerful tool a Biden administration has to increase the acreage under protection is the Antiquities Act, which would allow the president to designate new national monuments with the stroke of a pen. But new monuments sometimes come with controversy — and are vulnerable to being undone by the next administration.

After years of tension between federal agencies and locals in Utah, Trump scaled back the size of two national monuments established there by his Democratic predecessors — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — by more than 1.1 million acres and more than 800,000 acres, respectively.

Environmental and tribal groups challenged the reduction in federal court, where the case is still pending. More recently, the president similarly lifted limits on commercial fishing in an ocean sanctuary off the coast of New England.

Udall says Congress needs to work with Biden to pass legislation creating more permanent protections, too. “To get to 30 by 30, you need to use every tool in the tool box that all the governmental entities — the feds, the states and the locals — have,” he said.

At the same time, proponents are ready to pressure a new Democratic administration to act quickly, should Biden win, while it still has political capital. Under both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, “the efforts to conserve nature and conserve places really were second-term initiatives,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior CAP fellow.

“The hope here is that,” he added, “there can be more effort, more enthusiasm, more energy put into nature conservation early on.”

Ahead of the election, the plan is gaining momentum — at least among Democrats.

Earlier this month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed an executive order setting a “30 by 30” goal for the state. Hawaii has a similar goal of protecting waters near its store.

And crucially, at the national level, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put down a marker by including the “30 by 30” goal in a House climate package released ahead of the election.

Recently, Republicans have been more open to conserving nature as the economies of Western states increasingly rely on hikers, campers and other tourists. The GOP-controlled Senate passed and Trump signed into law two major public lands packages over the past two years.

“Now Democrats are challenging the GOP by going bigger and bolder with 30 by 30,” Udall said.

The New Mexico Democrat has chosen not to run for reelection this year after two terms in the Senate, but the 72-year-old politician has still filled much of his fall schedule with virtual events promoting the “30 by 30” goal.

Udall still may get another crack at working toward the conservation goal. Udall is talked about as a contender for interior secretary in Biden’s Cabinet — a position his father, Stewart Udall, held more than a half-century ago under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

“I announced two years ago that I wasn’t going to run for the Senate,” he said. “I told folks I’m not retiring. I’m interested in continuing public service.”

“Who wouldn’t be honored to serve in a President Biden Cabinet?” he added. “I’ll just leave it there.”

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.