Six months ago, in January 2021, the Biden administration announced a plan to protect 30 percent of the country’s land and water by 2030 (Executive Order 14008). In May, four federal agencies jointly released a preliminary report, entitled Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful, which outlined – in broad strokes – how the administration hoped to achieve this ambitious goal. The foundation of the report is a set of eight guiding principles that – on the whole – emphasize collaboration, inclusiveness, and equity as key aspects of conservation practice. In addition, many of the guiding principles also stress the importance of local leadership in determining when, where, and how to protect threatened lands and waters. Federal mandates or directives will likely not be part of the 30 x 30 plan – at least in terms of determining which sites are prioritized for preservation.
This type of approach, one that takes into consideration the knowledge and experience of people living and working in the places they call home, may not seem radical. But, in terms of the history of federal conservation policy, it does, in fact, represent a significant shift. It wasn’t until the late 20th century (about one hundred years after the creation of the first national parks) that federal land managers began to (fitfully) incorporate outside perspectives, including those of local residents, into their decision-making processes. The late historian Hal Rothman called this transformation “the end of federal hegemony. ”
While the causes of the change are complex, a big impetus was the passage of new environmental and historic preservation laws, especially the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This type of legislation mandated public input and involvement in many federal actions and opened up opaque administrative processes to more scrutiny and review.
Before the 1970s then, the needs and perspectives of community members rarely received much attention from federal agencies – that is unless the affected individuals were especially wealthy or politically influential. Indigenous peoples, African Americans, Latino/as, and Asian Americans were especially subject to such treatment. Indeed, the contemporary public lands infrastructure in the U.S. is a product of Indigenous dispossession. Significantly, Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful does discuss this often times violent history and prioritizes Tribal sovereignty as one of its key values, stating clearly, “Efforts to conserve and restore America’s lands and waters must involve regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal Nations. These efforts must respect and honor Tribal sovereignty, treaty and subsistence rights, and freedom of religious practices.” (14)
Based on history then, achieving the collaboration goals set forward in Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful will be a challenge. But history, especially the recent past, also offers some promising lessons – ones that can hopefully inform the 30 x 30 campaign. Federal agencies have been experimenting with more cooperative approaches for several decades, at sites as varied as Cape Cod National Seashore and Bears Ears National Monument. The Living Landscape Observer has highlighted many of these efforts, especially those that acknowledge the central importance of lived-in landscapes to conservation practice. Here are three models we have profiled that are well worth another look by the Biden administration.
1) The Indigenous Cultural Landscapes (ICL) initiative – In an article on Presquile National Wildlife Refuge from 2012, Deanna Beacham wrote that the ICL idea was “…Developed as part of the planning for the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the concept is intended to represent large landscapes from the perspective of American Indian nations at the time of their first contact with Europeans. These landscapes comprise the cultural and natural resources that would have supported the historic lifestyles and settlement patterns of an Indian group in their totality. The concept attempts to demonstrate that American Indian places were not confined to the sites of houses, towns, or settlements, and that the American Indian view of one’s homeland is holistic rather than compartmentalized into the discrete site elements typically used in our language today such as ‘hunting grounds’, ‘villages’, or ‘sacred sites.’” One place where this innovative approach (which Beacham played a critical role in developing) is being implemented is along the Rappahannock River. Joe McCauley described the early period of the project in this 2016 piece, including the central role of the Rappahannock Tribe. More information is available here.
2) Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC) – Launched in 2009 by a Department of Interior Secretarial Order, the LCCs represented a major cooperative effort to bridge jurisdictional boundaries within the Department of the Interior as well as with other federal, state, and Tribal agencies and private landowners. The LCCs consisted of 22 individual, self-directed conservation areas that covered all of the U.S. including islands, and parts of Canada, Mexico and Pacific Islands. Brenda Barrett wrote about the LCC’s here. The Trump Administration ended the program, but its lessons could prove vital to the 30 x 30 initiative – and recent news reports note a revival of the effort, in some shape or form, is possible.
3) National Heritage Areas (NHA) – There are 55 NHAs across the country, ranging in size from downtown historic districts to multi-state corridors. Management varies significantly across NHAs as does interpretive foci and staffing. What unites the approach – and why it is important for 30 x 30 – is the emphasis on cooperation, partnerships, and planning. NHAs, with a few exceptions, do not own land and have no regulatory authority. They instead serve as a platform for storytelling, community development, and capacity building. One recent development for NHAs is a bill to create program legislation.