By Rob Gordon
First of three articles on wildlife trends in America.
Decades-long mantras about “vanishing habitat” and ever-growing threats to wildlife have long been used to justify locking up more land through federal ownership or other restrictive measures.
The perfect example is the Biden administration’s proposal to conserve 30% of the nation by 2030—aka “30 by 30.” Exactly what the administration envisions is ambiguous, as it hasn’t defined words like “conserve” and “protect,” although insiders at the Department of the Interior say the 30% language is being incorporated into many Interior Department documents.
At an event leading up to the U.N. conference on climate change in Egypt in November, Monica Medina, the assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, spoke at one of the staggering number of “side events.”
There, her new additional title was mentioned, special envoy for biodiversity and water resources. By glitch or otherwise, a video’s audio of Medina’s remarks cuts out for almost the first minute. After it returns, she states, “ … not only do we need 30%, but one of the other speakers mentioned we need 30% to 50%.”
“So, by aiming for 30%, we’re already aiming at the least ambitious target we can, and it seems like it’s challenging for us to reach. So, if I had one key message first, it’s that 30% is on the low end of what we need.”
She goes on to say, “We have this upcoming [Conference of the Parties] on biodiversity where hopefully we will adopt that [30%] as our North Star.”
That Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity took place in December in Montreal. The draft framework states the purpose of the gathering was “ … to catalyze, enable and galvanize urgent and transformative action by governments, subnational and local governments, and with the involvement of all of society … .”
According to one report, some 18,000 participants convened at the China-chaired conference to hash out the particulars of this “transformative action,” crafting four goals and 23 framework targets. One of the several underlying draft decision documents calls for adoption of “national biodiversity strategies and action plans” to be used as “policy and/or legal instruments and to mainstream them (or elements thereof) with broader strategies and plans, such as national sustainable development plans … .”
The United States, however, does not need “30 by 30” or any other “transformations” to save its biodiversity.
As detailed in a special report from The Heritage Foundation, government—federal, state, and local—already owns more than one-third of the nation’s land mass. Federal lands account for the majority of it, about 27% of the nation. All government lands in the U.S. combined constitute an area larger than India. Land trusts and other nongovernmental organizations own an additional 20 million square miles (about the combined area of Maryland and Vermont).
If that’s not enough, federal regulatory powers under the Endangered Species Act and over wetlands under the Clean Water Act are applicable to hundreds of millions of acres.
As the vast majority of us live in urban or suburban areas, land that is developed to one degree or another is mostly what we see.
Consequently, it’s hard to envision, based on government satellite data, that developed land only constitutes 5.3% of the 48 contiguous states and more than half of that is “developed open space.”
Add intensively managed agriculture—crops, hay, and pasture—and that figure rises to under 30%, leaving more than 70% for forest, scrub, grasslands, wetlands, and other such generally natural land covers.
Separate federal data shows that for Hawaii, 88% of land is in generally natural land covers, while for Alaska, it is more than 99%.
Contrary to what you might hear, the U.S. is not experiencing a dramatic loss of habitat at the national level. In fact, in the decade and a half between 2001 and 2016, developed land increased by only about 0.3% in the lower 48 states.
Take for example this, according to the U.S. Forest Service: “Since the beginning of the past century, the size of this [forest area] inventory has been relatively stable, and the forests it represents remain largely intact.
“This stability is in spite of a nearly threefold increase in population over the same period and is in marked contrast with many countries, where wide-scale deforestation remains a pressing concern,” it continued.
Similarly, Natural Resources Conservation Service data show a large decline in crop and pasture land, from 552 million acres in 1982 to 489 million acres in 2017. Unsurprisingly, this is in large part because agriculture has become increasing efficient.
These government data points do not square with claims that habitat across the country is disappearing at an alarming rate. Consequently, it’s understandable that similar warnings about the general demise of the nation’s wildlife dependent upon this habitat are also inconsistent with much of what one hears.
Just before and after 1900, many species were dramatically depleted. Often, animals were targeted for eradication or were being hunted faster than they could replenish their populations, and the numbers of those animals plummeted and their ranges often contracted.
Today, however, many have recovered, often dramatically. Among them are the pronghorn, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, mule and white-tailed deer, musk ox, black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, otter, fisher, beaver, trumpeter and tundra swans, many species of geese, turkey, osprey, merlin, and red-tailed, red-shouldered, and Cooper’s hawks. There are many more.
There are many reasons for this good news, but one of the most significant is that the unlimited harvest and widespread shooting to eliminate animals once considered threats or competitors to people, domesticated species or crops, or to other “desirable” wild species came to an end, and they have since rebounded.
There is a lot of good news regarding habitat and biodiversity in the U.S. Given the vastness of the nation, it’s difficult for many people—who live in that small fraction of the country that is urban or suburban—to reconcile this reality with the relentless mantras they hear about everything disappearing.
Reality, however, does not justify efforts to enact additional special designations upon, and expanded regulation of, private lands or efforts to enlarge the already massive and unmanageable government land holdings.
The enormous federal real estate portfolio is already plagued by chronic maintenance backlogs. We don’t need more federally “conserved” and “protected” land or any more “transformations” forced by Washington. What we really need is to protect the nation’s unencumbered private property.
Rob Gordon writes on natural resources issues and has served as subcommittee staff director for the House Committee on Natural Resources, as senior adviser to the dIrector of the U.S. Geological Survey, as deputy assistant secretary for policy and environmental management at the Department of the Interior, and on Virginia’s Board of Conservation and Recreation.
Originally published by The Daily Signal. Republished with permission.
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