Executive Action vs. the Nature Crisis: Top 8 Opportunities President Biden Should Pursue To Meet His America the Beautiful Commitment – Center For American Progress


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President Joe Biden committed to putting the United States on a path to conserve 30 percent of its lands and waters by 2030; here are eight major opportunities he must pursue immediately to achieve this goal.
Tackling Climate Change and Environmental Injustice, Biden Administration, Climate Change, +3 More
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On the campaign trail, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden committed to dramatically escalating the pace of conservation in the United States toward a national goal of protecting 30 percent of its lands and waters by 2030, later expanding on this commitment through his “America the Beautiful” initiative. During President Biden’s first two years in office, he has taken important steps to undo damage wrought by the Trump administration—including by restoring Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts national monuments as well as protections for the Tongass National Forest. In addition, he has rebuilt the capacity of America’s land and water management agencies and taken new action to protect threatened lands, address inequity, and empower Tribes.
But the nature crisis and Biden’s own “30×30” goal demand that the president acts with greater urgency: He must use 2023 as a launch pad if he is to keep his promises and his 2030 goals in sight. With existing protections for U.S. lands still hovering around 13 percent, meeting Biden’s 2030 goal will require quickly accelerating the pace of conservation measures for public and private lands,1 while also ensuring these actions expand nature access for underserved communities, address climate change, and respect Tribal sovereignty and priorities. Meeting the president’s already-tight climate goals, likewise, demands that America not allow its natural carbon sinks to slip away as the country makes progress on emissions.

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Several new factors will also require President Biden to lean even further into his executive authorities to protect lands and waters. Although the Inflation Reduction Act was a historic win for the climate, damaging provisions added to the bill mandate new leasing of national lands and waters for oil and gas, which could substantially undermine conservation progress. Meanwhile, mining companies are exploiting skyrocketing demand and subsidies to file thousands of new claims on public lands, rush environmental reviews, and take advantage of century-old legal requirements that leave communities and U.S. lands in the lurch.2
Additionally, the impacts of long-standing inequities regarding access to parks and green space—including those analyzed in the Center for American Progress’ “The Nature Gap” report3—have only grown more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, evidence suggests that the pandemic exacerbated racial and socioeconomic inequities related to local and national park access and recreation opportunities.4
Finally, even as the nature crisis and nature gap have grown, conservation progress in Congress has been slowing, and the 117th Congress has, so far, failed to enact a single bill conserving a significant amount of land.
Figure 1
While the 2022 “lame duck” period presents President Biden and Congress with a short opportunity to pass some pending public lands bills, the positions taken by the incoming House Republican Majority leadership suggest that community-driven conservation proposals are more likely to languish during the 118th Congress.
Despite congressional inaction, President Biden has the executive tools to deliver conservation results for local communities that have spent years, and often decades, working to protect the places they treasure. If the president uses 2023 as a launch pad for action, he can set a trajectory to meet his goal of protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters and turn his America the Beautiful vision into reality.5
Polls and election results show that the public is with Biden in his conservation mission. Recent public opinion analysis from FM3 Research found that conservation actions—such as those discussed below—are deeply and consistently popular.6 And at the ballot box, conservation measures once again demonstrated their deep and bipartisan appeal this year, with state, county, and local measures to fund new parks and land conservation adopted by voters across the country by wide margins.7
Here are eight actions that President Biden should take now to make good on his promise to protect nature and bolster his climate change agenda:
While these represent some of the most significant and immediate steps President Biden and his team can take to proactively deliver on his conservation promise, this is not intended to be a comprehensive list. For example, two crosscutting priorities—supporting Indigenous-led conservation and addressing the inequitable nature gap—are touched on in multiple recommendations in this report but also warrant an independent focus by the Biden administration. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s directive to expand Tribal co-stewardship of public lands8 and a new interagency agreement to create more equitable access to parks and nature9 represent important steps in the right direction.
President Biden has the authority under the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments that protect nationally significant lands and waters, actualize community conservation asks, broaden the stories and cultures represented by America’s system of protected lands, and increase access to nature for communities historically deprived of its benefits.
A recent analysis by CAP and Monumental SHIFT found that just a quarter of national parks and monuments are dedicated to telling the story of underrepresented communities in America. The average rate at which presidents have used the Antiquities Act to protect sites that honor underrepresented communities has tripled since 1981, but this trend peaked during the Obama administration before coming to a near standstill.10
Aug 23, 2022
Sam Zeno, Jenny Rowland-Shea, Cassandra Carmichael, 3 More José G. González, Bennae Calac, Shanna Edberg
On October 12, 2022, President Biden designated his first new national monument, Camp Hale-Continental Divide, which will permanently protect 54,000 acres of mountains and valleys where the famed 10th Mountain Division prepared for World War II.11 Local efforts to permanently protect Camp Hale have been ongoing for more than a decade. In the face of a gridlocked Congress, scores of local advocates, businesses, veterans, and local decision-makers celebrated President Biden for finally taking action.
Figure 2
President Biden should make full use of the Antiquities Act to help meet his conservation promises and follow the recommendations of communities across the country to protect special places, honor diverse histories, and bridge the inequitable gap in nature access.
Some national monument proposals that warrant near-term action include Castner Range in Texas, Avi Kwa Ame in Nevada, and the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley historic site in Illinois and Mississippi. A new CAP issue brief highlights these and other opportunities as well as their potential benefits for conservation, climate, and communities.
Nov 22, 2022
Drew McConville, Angelo Villagomez, Sam Zeno, 2 More Michael Freeman, Nicole Gentile
The Antiquities Act is a uniquely powerful tool for conserving places of historic and cultural significance and expanding the diversity of stories told by the nation’s protected public lands. Additionally, the National Park Service (NPS) administers the National Register of Historic Places, an official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation.12 Recently, the Hispanic Access Foundation recommended updates to the evaluation criteria and related historic preservation processes—as well as specific Latino heritage sites awaiting recognition—that warrant action to help address long-standing problems around cultural representation and diversity on the National Register.13
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has the authority to designate national marine sanctuaries under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) currently manages 15 sanctuaries and two marine national monuments encompassing more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters.
There are two stages to creating sanctuaries: nomination and designation.14 The most successful nominations prove that the area holds national significance and that providing sanctuary designation would uphold the conservation and management goals of that area. Several proposed sanctuaries under consideration by ONMS have Indigenous involvement and leadership, with nominations submitted by Tribes and Indigenous nonprofits or supported by Indigenous groups.15 Although the Biden administration has not designated any new sanctuaries yet, it has begun the designation process for the Chumash Heritage and Hudson Canyon national marine sanctuaries and accepted the Alaĝum Kanuux̂ National Marine Sanctuary onto the inventory of successful nominations.16
To help meet his America the Beautiful commitments for marine conservation, President Biden should direct NOAA to substantially expedite the process for designating potential marine sanctuaries, including by acting on designation proposals currently under consideration by NOAA and advancing successful nominations to the designation stage.
Some of the opportunities NOAA should pursue expeditiously include beginning the designation process for the Mariana Trench National Marine Sanctuary and the Alaĝum Kanuux̂ National Marine Sanctuary. These and other opportunities are highlighted in CAP’s new issue brief mentioned above.17
As the nation’s largest land manager, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees roughly 245 million acres of public lands, or 10.5 percent of all lands in the United States. These include a diversity of landscapes—from Arizona’s Sonoran Desert National Monument to California’s Lost Coast Trail—providing world-class recreation opportunities, habitat for big game and endangered wildlife, clean water supplies, natural carbon reserves, and a home for sacred places, rich histories, and cultural and scientific wonders.
Despite a mandate to manage these public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations, the BLM has never established comprehensive regulations for the conservation of its natural and cultural wonders. Additionally, only 13.6 percent of BLM lands have durable protections that prevent development by extractive industry.18 Meanwhile, work to update plans guiding the management of specific BLM lands—resource management plans—remains woefully behind schedule and underfunded. While the BLM is legally required to review management plans every five years, the vast majority of BLM plans are outdated, with some dating back more than 40 years and some updates taking more than a decade to complete.19
As America’s most vulnerable public lands, BLM lands also represent the single biggest opportunity for President Biden and Secretary Haaland to make conservation progress and balance a system that has overwhelmingly favored the short-term interests of oil, gas, and mining companies.
Through rulemaking under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), the BLM should require lands of the highest value for wildlife, cultural and historic resources, recreation, climate, and other public goods to be managed for long-term protection. Rulemaking—and any other necessary policy revisions—should require a consistent, durable, and high level of protection for existing areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs); improve protections for lands already identified for their wilderness values; and direct the identification and designation of new ACECs, wilderness study areas, wildlife migration corridors, habitat management areas, backcountry conservation areas, and other designations that provide consistent and durable conservation. New BLM rules should also mandate the incorporation of traditional knowledge, consultation with Tribes, and the pursuit of co-management or other Tribal collaboration opportunities consistent with the BLM’s recent instructional memorandum.20
Additionally, the Biden administration should fund a surge effort to complete BLM resource management plan updates that deliver durable conservation protections on a landscape-by-landscape basis. This effort can be aided by utilizing significant portions of the $500 million allocated in the Inflation Reduction Act for the conservation and restoration of BLM and NPS lands.21
The BLM should also ensure that its ongoing review of management plans issued in 2015 to conserve the greater sage-grouse, and the 78 million acres of sagebrush ecosystem managed by the agency, reflects the latest science by adopting new durable conservation and restoration measures.22 In addition to mineral withdrawals discussed below in this report, this should include new ACECs and other habitat protections, no surface occupancy requirements, and a mitigation framework that avoids, minimizes, and compensates for habitat loss from development.
These actions could have the following impacts, consistent with President Biden’s commitments:
The U.S. Forest Service, within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), manages 193 million acres across the country, including a disproportionate amount of the country’s old-growth and mature forests.28 National forests harbor hundreds of endangered species, important habitat and migration corridors for big game species, and the headwaters of many of the United States’ most important rivers. Additionally, older forests are very productive at capturing and storing carbon. But unfortunately, these resources are threatened by a changing climate, uncharacteristic wildfires, and avoidable loss due to logging. The administration has an opportunity and responsibility to conserve these lands and guide their continued stewardship.
In July 2021, the USDA announced important actions to conserve old-growth forest and support local economies in Southeast Alaska. This includes restoring “roadless rule” protections for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska eliminated by the Trump administration, ending large-scale old-growth logging in this forest, and supporting sustainable economic growth through a regional strategy that invests $25 million in near-term funding and technical assistance.29
Building on these actions in Alaska, President Biden issued an executive order this year that established conserving old-growth and mature forests on federal lands as a national policy priority and directed the secretaries of agriculture and the interior to take inventory of old-growth and mature forests across the country and develop policy solutions to address threats.30 Additionally, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has directed the USDA to complete a gap analysis that maps and assesses climate change vulnerabilities and risks to watersheds; identifies important areas for biodiversity and at-risk species, carbon, and mature and old-growth forests; and recommends opportunities for action.31 Lastly, the Inflation Reduction Act provides $50 million for the protection of old-growth forests on National Forest System land and to complete the inventory of old-growth and mature forests.32
Moreover, the Forest Service launched a 10-year “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis” strategy in January to protect communities and address restoration and resiliency needs in the face of uncharacteristic wildfires.33 Addressing wildfire resiliency and conserving old forests are interrelated and mutually supportive: Ecologically appropriate wildfire risk reduction strategies can protect remaining old growth, safeguard the oldest fire-resistant trees, and help restore mature forests so they can become tomorrow’s old growth.
Drawing on the best available science, the Forest Service should immediately initiate a climate rulemaking that affords durable protections for old-growth and mature forests (including “legacy trees”34), properly functioning watersheds, and the most important areas for wildlife movement.35 Such a rule could also help implement the Forest Service’s 10-year wildfire strategy and guide science-based, outcome-driven investments in wildfire risk reduction and restoration through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), Inflation Reduction Act, and regular appropriations. Consistent with the president’s direction to Secretary Haaland, the BLM—which manages close to 58 million acres of forests and woodlands36—should follow suit through rulemaking, potentially integrated into broader conservation regulations discussed above.
Mar 15, 2022
Ryan Richards
Pending final rulemaking, the Forest Service and the BLM should also immediately adopt a policy to retain older trees through commercial timber harvest restrictions to ensure consistency with the administration’s climate and conservation goals and the IIJA and Inflation Reduction Act. Relatedly, the agencies should closely review pending timber projects with significant mature and old-growth impacts and reconsider any with clearly negative impacts.
These actions could have the following impacts:
National wildlife refuges are the only federal land designation focused primarily on wildlife conservation, and they represent a versatile tool for permanent conservation that can be deployed across a wide array of geographies, ecosystems, and scales, from large landscapes to smaller refuges in urban areas. The secretary of the interior has authority under multiple laws to expand the National Wildlife Refuge System by acquiring land or interests in land, such as conservation easements.42 In fact, approximately 500 of the 568 units of the refuge system were initially established by administrative action, not by acts of Congress.43
Secretary Haaland announced her first expansion of the National Wildlife Refuge System on July 13, 2022, with the establishment of the Lost Trail Conservation Area in Montana and the purchase of a 38,052-acre conservation easement. Ultimately, her action authorizes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to purchase up to 100,000 acres of permanent conservation easements within the new unit’s boundaries.44
Secretary Haaland should fully utilize her legal authorities to create new wildlife refuges and expand existing refuges, including through purchases, donations, and land transfers to FWS from other federal agencies. In addition to expanding protections for large, ecologically connected landscapes for their wildlife habitat values, Haaland should pursue actions that will meaningfully increase access for nature-deprived communities, including by designating and expanding urban wildlife refuges. Where needed to evaluate potential expansion of existing refuges, the administration should also prioritize resources to complete updates to comprehensive conservation plans, which formally guide the future management of refuges.
In pursuing opportunities for refuge expansions and designations, Haaland should look to locally led proposals. One example is the proposed expansion of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. A locally based, transnational (U.S.-Mexico-Tohono O’odham) community organization is asking the Department of the Interior (DOI) to consider expanding the refuge to add lands to the east currently managed by the BLM.45 Located between Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, and Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar in Mexico, the Cabeza Prieta refuge currently conserves more than 860,000 acres of Sonoran Desert wildlife habitat. Expansion could help protect wildlife habitat and other natural and cultural resources around Ajo, Arizona; help address the threats of development and unmanaged recreation; and provide an opportunity to explore co-management of culturally significant sites with Tribal entities.
Congress gave the Secretary of the Interior powerful tools to protect lands, including the authority to “withdraw” lands from new oil, gas, and mineral leases and claims in order to maintain another public value or purpose.46 Under FLPMA, the secretary can designate federal lands as off-limits for future mining and drilling, beginning with an immediate pause—known as a “segregation”—lasting up to two years to allow for robust public input and evaluation, followed by a final withdrawal, which can last for up to 20 years and is subject to renewal.
Currently, 90 percent of Bureau of Land Management lands are open to leasing and subsequent development by the oil and gas industry.47 The Trump administration put record amounts of these federal lands up on the auction block, offering more than 25 million acres to the oil and gas industry,48 including large tracts of big game habitat and migration corridors49 and historically and culturally significant lands.50 The Biden administration has an opportunity to balance the scales by ensuring the most ecologically and culturally sensitive lands cannot be leased by future administrations.
Meanwhile, with rising demand for minerals, new domestic mining incentives, and a 150-year-old law giving away mining rights on federal lands with minimal compensation or safeguards, U.S. public lands appear to be slated for a literal and figurative gold rush. Mining laws and regulations should be updated, but it is also critical that the Biden administration act to protect the country’s most sensitive and treasured lands—where mining and drilling are clearly not appropriate—before it is too late.
Secretary Haaland should act swiftly to complete recommended withdrawals that would advance the administration’s conservation goals and protect the most ecologically and culturally significant lands and waters from destructive drilling and mining. Additionally, she should immediately direct the BLM and partner agencies to recommend new areas for potential withdrawal.
The Biden administration has already taken the first steps toward withdrawing more than 350,000 acres surrounding Chaco Culture National Historic Park from oil and gas leasing.51 And just last month, Secretary Haaland initiated a withdrawal of approximately 225,000 acres in the Thompson Divide area of Colorado to protect it from drilling and mining, finally answering the local community’s decades-long fight to protect their drinking water and outdoor recreation economy.
In addition to completing these withdrawals, the BLM should identify and recommend for withdrawal other lands with outstanding ecological and cultural values that are at risk of potential oil and gas development. There are robust data on ecological intactness and connectivity, imperiled species richness, wildlife corridors for big game species, climate accessibility, and other values of federal lands, which could be used to identify those lands of the greatest value for wildlife and with high potential for development conflicts. An upcoming analysis from Conservation Science Partners and CAP will highlight some of these most significant wildlife conflict areas. Similarly, the BLM should draw on existing agency data,52 traditional knowledge, and consultation with sovereign Tribal nations to identify potential withdrawals that are necessary to protect cultural resources, sacred sites, and other areas of significant cultural and historic value.
These actions could have the following impacts:
The pending actions discussed below are a good starting point, but other at-risk lands and waters likely warrant additional action by the administration, including some proposed in legislation and others identified during ongoing BLM management plan updates:
The proposed withdrawal would offer 20-year protection for more than 225,000 acres in the Rainy River Watershed, conserving important lands and waters within Minnesota’s Superior National Forest and preventing mine pollution from directly affecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Multiple studies have projected that the economic benefits of protecting the watershed—including maintaining recreation, tourism, and other economic drivers—clearly outweigh the potential benefits of proposed mining.54
May 8, 2019
Carlos Rivero Lopez, Jenny Rowland-Shea
If finalized, the withdrawals would protect key habitat for sage-grouse and a variety of other species, including big game, from the threat of new and expanded mining. Additionally, sagebrush rangeland soils contain significant carbon stocks. Protection from extractive development, as well as the associated fire risk, can help ensure that slow-accumulating carbon remains sequestered.
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) provided a utility-scale clean energy development and conservation framework for 22.5 million acres of California desert, including the identification of 4.2 million acres of national conservation lands, areas of critical environmental concern, wildlife allocations, and national scenic and historic trail management corridors where renewable energy development is not appropriate.56 However, actions by the Trump administration, including the cancellation of a proposed mineral withdrawal in 201857 and a skewed interpretation of California desert protections added by the Dingell Act of 2019,58 left millions of acres of fragile conservation lands without clear protection from mining and other destructive activities.
After initially halting an effort by the Trump administration to fully revise the DRECP,59 the BLM has an opportunity to ensure the conservation lands within the DRECP boundaries have durable protections through new mineral withdrawals and other administrative measures, including guidance correctly interpreting the Dingell Act. Such action would help conserve millions of acres of sensitive lands that provide vital habitat for the desert tortoise and many other species specific to the region,60 as well as areas of cultural and historic importance for many of the 44 federally recognized Tribes and nine non-federally recognized Tribes that have traditionally inhabited the DRECP area.61
In January 2021, the Trump administration issued five public lands orders, which, if implemented, would have revoked mineral withdrawals prohibiting mining and oil and gas development for 28 million acres of formerly protected lands—also known as “D-1 lands,” after the section of the law designating them.62 These included lands within the Bay, Bering Sea-Western Interior, East Alaska, Kobuk-Seward Peninsula, and Ring of Fire planning areas. The Biden administration put these orders on hold in 2021 and, in August 2022, launched a public process to evaluate the impacts that lifting the D-1 protections would have on fish and wildlife habitat, subsistence resources, and food security for communities.63
These threatened areas include lands that are ecologically sensitive and culturally significant to many Alaska Native communities. The highly productive salmon spawning streams and large intact habitat that supports caribou, moose, and bear populations are critically important to communities statewide for subsistence fishing and hunting, commercial and recreational salmon fishing, and recreational use. Furthermore, they include important migration corridors, subsurface carbon-rich permafrost, and countless fragile ecosystems.64
The BLM should take final action to rescind the Trump-era orders, immediately restoring protections to the 28 million acres directly affected. It should also consider recommendations generated during this public process to pursue new equitable and durable conservation measures across the nearly 50 million acres of D-1 lands, such as exploring opportunities for Alaska Native co-management and other Indigenous-led conservation opportunities.
These actions could have the following impacts:
Consistent with the approach of the America the Beautiful Challenge grants, President Biden should ensure IIJA and Inflation Reduction Act funding is leveraged to maximize progress toward his conservation goals, including across federal, Tribal, state, and private lands.
For relevant programs, the administration should establish clear funding criteria to 1) make measurable progress toward the 30×30 conservation goal, 2) share nature’s benefits more equitably and meet the president’s Justice40 commitment, 3) advance Tribal priorities and honor sovereignty 4) pursue carbon sequestration and other natural climate solutions, 5) ensure collaboration across federal, Tribal, state, and private lands to protect connected lands needed for wildlife, and 6) take advantage of opportunities to leverage private conservation investments. In deploying IIJA, Inflation Reduction Act, and other conservation investments, federal agencies must also address the known barriers that can impede projects and delay benefits from reaching target communities.
Where appropriate, the administration should incorporate Inflation Reduction Act funding to expand the impact of the America the Beautiful Challenge and call on philanthropic leaders to substantially boost this initiative in light of the massive demand.67 For the initial round of these grants, requests from applicants exceeded available funding by more than 11 to 1.68
Finally, because the president’s 30×30 goal cannot be met without strong support for private land conservation, the administration should develop legislative principles for the 2023 Farm Bill that include investment in programs that meet the growing demand for private lands conservation and leverage partnerships to maximize the president’s 30×30 goal, climate, and community outcomes.
Some examples of relevant Inflation Reduction Act and IIJA funding streams:
Harnessing available funding for conservation could have the following impacts:
President Biden has a number of executive powers at his disposal to meet his conservation promise to the nation. With strong actions, including those discussed above, he can still put the United States on a path to conserve 30 percent of its lands and water by 2030 while securing natural solutions to climate change, more equitably connecting people with the benefits of nature, and supporting and sustaining communities. But getting there will require a whole-of-government approach that takes advantage of all available tools, as well as committed leadership from the White House and key Cabinet officials. The clock is ticking, and the coming months will be critical to determining the nation’s conservation trajectory.
The authors would like to thank CAP’s Jarvis Holliday, Anuka Upadhye, Zainab Mirza, Miriam Goldstein, Bill Rapp, Allie Cohen, Keenan Alexander, Steve Bonitatibus, and Sam Hananel as well as our many external reviewers, particularly the local and national conservation leaders who are building impactful and equitable conservation solutions every day.
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President Joe Biden made a historic commitment to escalate the pace of U.S. conservation and put the nation on a trajectory to conserve 30 percent of its lands, waters, and oceans by 2030. His administration has made important progress through its “America the Beautiful” initiative, but the intertwined crises of nature loss, climate change, and inequitable access to nature demand more urgent action. Fortunately, President Biden has a suite of executive authorities at his disposal, and this series from the Center for American Progress offers a number of tangible opportunities and policy recommendations to help the president to deliver on his promise.
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