An Ambitious Plan Would Formally Protect 30 Percent of Earth by 2030. But There’s a Problem.


Bison graze on grasslands with snow-topped mountains in the background.
The National Bison Range near Ravali, Montana USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

On Thursday, the Department of the Interior released a plan to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, as directed by President Biden’s executive order of Jan. 27. Intended to tackle the twinned crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, the administration’s “30 by 30” plan is a domestic interpretation of the Global Deal for Nature—a proposal with strong support among scientists, diplomats, and major environmental organizations. The GDN aims for 30 percent of Earth to be formally protected and an additional 20 percent designated as “climate stabilization areas”—natural areas that would sequester carbon and thereby offset greenhouse gas emissions.

This combined 50 percent target emerged among conservation biologists nearly a decade ago and gained traction in 2016 with E.O. Wilson’s book Half Earth, which argues that “only by setting aside half the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilization required for our own survival.” Following a $1 billion campaign funded by Swiss philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, a large intergovernmental coalition is pushing for formal adoption of a 30 by 30 target at the next Convention on Biological Diversity, which will be held in Kunming, China, in October 2021.

This may sound like a laudable goal. But in practice, it’s complicated. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Protected Area Categories recognizes as “protected” everything from “Strict Nature Reserves” (Type Ia), areas managed and monitored to restrict even human visitation, to areas that encompass a “low-level non-industrial use of natural resources compatible with nature conservation” (Type VI). Protected area is thus a capacious term, encompassing a range of mechanisms with radically different implications for human rights and environmental justice.

There is a real danger that nations will use the 30 or 50 percent targets to revoke the land and resource rights of vulnerable groups. Since the mid-20th century, the creation of strict protected areas or “wilderness areas” has dominated conservation thinking and strategy. In 1960, there were approximately 1,000 protected areas worldwide. Today, there are a staggering  267,170 , encompassing 15.6 percent of terrestrial area and 7.6 percent of marine area.

In many instances, governments established protected areas through violent removal and policing. The U.S. military created the nation’s first national park, Yellowstone, by forcibly removing Nez Perce, Bannock, Shoshone, Crow, and Blackfeet communities from their ancestral lands. Such “fortress conservation,” as its detractors call it, still enjoys widespread support among scientists and environmentalists. In a 2004 United Nations meeting, an indigenous delegate (who chose not to identify herself) remarked that conservation, not extractive industries, was the biggest threat to indigenous territorial and human rights. Recent estimates of the number of “conservation refugees”— people forcibly displaced in the name of biodiversity protection – range from 5 million to tens of millions.

At its core, protected area creation is a misanthropic and typically racist strategy, one that rests on the assumption that human presence is incompatible with biodiversity. Conservationists’ emphasis on population growth or human presence obscures the real driver of ecological degradation: the overconsumption of the few in a world of horrific inequality. One recent paper estimates that if Wilson’s half-earth plan were implemented, more than 1 billion people, primarily in middle-income countries, would find themselves living in a newly protected area. These people would become conservation refugees, banished from their homes and histories in the name of protecting other species. Expansion of protection areas would exacerbate global inequalities in the places that have historically contributed least to climate change and biodiversity loss.

There are, however, alternatives to the protected areas approach, including ecological restoration, or the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been damaged—say, by planting native plants, or removing toxic sediments, or re-introducing endangered species. Ecological restoration acknowledges that humans can exert positive ecological agency, co-designing ecosystems and making a shared world more hospitable to other species. Ecological restoration can also counter climate change. A 2018 study of conservation, restoration, and resource management intervention options in the United States concluded that reforestation has the single largest maximum climate change mitigation potential. The majority of this potential occurs in the northeast (35 percent) and south central (31 percent) areas of the United States, and much of this private land.

Restoration, of course, is not devoid of perils. Carbon offsetting projects focused exclusively on maximizing carbon sequestration can threaten local biodiversity, and scientists have used the term “bio-perversity” to refer to outcomes in which, say, a carbon plantation project meant to mitigate climate change ends up reducing native habitat for endemic bird species. Restoration also has as violent a past as wilderness protection—for instance, in the seizure of vast swaths of the Flathead Indian Reservation to form the National Bison Range, the U.S.’s first wildlife restoration site, in 1908.

Nonetheless, restoration supported by local communities and respecting land rights can realize both biodiversity protection and reparative justice. In January 2021, after 113 years, the National Bison Range (and management of the bison) was returned to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes through passage of Public Law 116-260—the massive COVID-relief package.

It is promising, then, that Interior’s 30 by 30 report emphasizes conservation and restoration—to be led by locally designed conservation efforts and the priorities of Tribal Nations—over the establishment of strict protected areas. The report, written under Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as secretary of the interior, acknowledges that in pursing the protection of wildlife and iconic lands, the federal government has “caused pain along the way”—including dispossessing Tribal Nations of their lands, imposing segregationist policies on public lands, and ignoring the contributions of communities of color in the preservation of natural resources. While the language could be stronger, it is a significant shift in tone from past Interior reports.

The Interior report also recommends incentivizing voluntary conservation efforts on private lands, including strengthening existing programs like the USDA’s Working Lands for Wildlife initiative and Conservation Reserve Program. This is critical: Roughly 70 percent of land in the United States is owned by individuals or companies, and approximately two-thirds of species listed on the U.S. endangered species list are found on privately owned lands.

Too often, conservationists have pursued the protection of other species through direct violence against people of color, poor people, and other marginalized groups. Protecting areas therefore will never be an effective solution; it redistributes consumption and environmental degradation, but it does not slow it. Instead, we must bring our ways of living into alignment with those of other species. What is desperately needed is restoration and environmental stewardship in the places where people live and work. This is a necessity for environmental justice as much as it is for biodiversity protection. It is possible for biodiversity conservation to be just. Indeed, it must be.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.