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To Conserve Vast Areas Of Land, Biden Needs Help From Private Landowners

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This month, nearly two dozen species have been taken off the endangered list because they are now extinct. That news comes as the Biden administration seeks to improve conservation. The plan is focused in large part on privately held land. NPR's Nathan Rott has more.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The idea behind the 30 by '30 conservation movement the Biden administration has joined is pretty simple. To avoid a near-total collapse of our environment and the clean air, water and headspaces we all get from it, we need to quickly protect big chunks of the Earth's land and water. The goal scientists have set in the near term is 30% - 30% of the Earth's land and water by the year 2030 - 30 by '30. Simple, right? Here's where it gets complicated.

OK, so how do you measure that? Like, what counts as a percent of conserved land?

KATE KELLY: Yeah. It's not easy. There are a lot of complex questions that go into considering what counts.

ROTT: Kate Kelly is with the Interior Department, the agency tasked with making Biden's 30 by '30 pledge a reality.

KELLY: When we think about permanent protections, the United States has already conserved approximately 13% of U.S. lands.

ROTT: She's talking national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges and places like that.

KELLY: But the America the Beautiful initiative recognizes that that's not a complete picture of what conservation is, especially when we think about people on the landscape.

ROTT: Generally speaking, there are two big schools of thought in the environmental movement about how to protect nature. One, we should preserve as much intact land and water as we can, treat it like wilderness area - no motors, few humans.

MATT DALLMAN: Pure preservation - the last of the least and the best of the rest.

ROTT: This is Matt Dallman helping us out. He's with The Nature Conservancy. The second school of thought is what Kate Kelly was talking about and what you see at this northern Wisconsin lake that Dallman is standing beside. People are here logging, fishing, recreating. Nature's here, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

ROTT: But that nature is being managed or conserved in a sustainable way.

DALLMAN: It's about, how do we protect nature for nature but nature for people also?

ROTT: It's not pure preservation but a mix. Take, for example, the dense green forest around this lake. It's under what's called a working forest conservation easement. That means logging, which has happened here for more than a hundred years, is still happening today.

DALLMAN: In these northern counties in Wisconsin, we have a high percentage of people dependent upon this industry - timber industry.

ROTT: Logging is this place's legacy. But as the timber industry declined here in the late '90s, the family that owned this land started looking for other ways to make money.

DALLMAN: And properties like this, that had high-value lake frontage, when that real estate market kicked in, they just changed the way that we looked at it.

ROTT: This happened and continues to happen across the country, Dallman says. Major landowners, the timber companies, farmers, railroads and ranchers that held huge swaths of land just 30 years ago are subdividing it. That means instead of trumpeter swans providing the ambiance like you have here...

(SOUNDBITE OF SWANS TRUMPETING)

ROTT: ...At most other lakes in Wisconsin, you have cover bands, lake houses and speedboats.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Going to take a lot to drag me away from you.

ROTT: Just look out the window of a plane or poke around on Google Earth, and you'll see what we're talking about. Land is increasingly becoming a patchwork, and that patchwork is the primary force driving at least a million species globally towards extinction. Dallman says that's why conservation easements like this one, where landowners are incentivized through tax breaks to protect nature or are paid money for development rights, are so crucial.

DALLMAN: Even though we're harvesting timber, preserving these areas intact and not dividing it with roads and houses, this is the way that we can keep a little bit of that biodiversity intact.

ROTT: Preservation through conservation. Many of the details of Biden's 30 by '30 plan are still foggy, including how to pay for it and how to enforce it. But Republicans are already criticizing it as a land grab. It's clear, though, that the administration is going to rely heavily on private landowners and these types of voluntary easements to achieve that goal. And for many environmental advocates, like Tom Goldtooth, that is not enough.

TOM GOLDTOOTH: We have so many concerns that this is just another scam.

ROTT: Goldtooth is with the Indigenous Environmental Network.

GOLDTOOTH: It's another scam to give the impression that these lands are going to be protected, set aside, restoring nature. But these lands are a greenwash for polluting industry.

ROTT: By allowing activities like logging or grazing or mining to still occur in limited fashion, Goldtooth says, nature is not being adequately protected, not when the world's top scientists are warning that the clean air, water and ecosystems that we all depend on are at imminent risk.

Landowner Joe Hovel, sitting on his four-wheeler, understands that sentiment.

JOE HOVEL: When you look at the challenges for, you know, not only protecting land but even managing land wisely, you know, they get pretty overwhelming sometimes.

ROTT: Hovel is a log home builder. He's logged, milled and crafted just about every structure on this northern Wisconsin property he's giving us a tour of.

HOVEL: This is the younger white pine stand.

ROTT: But he's also a conservationist. He runs a local nonprofit called the Northwood Alliance, and his land is under an easement. Off of the four-wheeler and on his handmade front deck, Hovel says in a perfect world, yes, there would be the ability to permanently preserve big chunks of land in the U.S.

HOVEL: The point now is, though, that we are in such a critical time, if something isn't done over these next couple decades, I think it's going to be pretty hard to see a future on the landscape.

ROTT: And the most politically palatable thing to do, he says, is not to hugely expand wilderness areas or create new national parks. It's to engage private landowners like him, who own the vast majority of the land in Wisconsin and other Eastern states, to make them part of the solution.

HOVEL: This problem is so big and so diverse and so dynamic, there isn't one answer to it.

ROTT: It will take everyone and everything, he says, preservation and conservation to keep the natural world from collapsing further.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, northern Wisconsin.

(SOUNDBITE OF RY COODER'S "PARIS, TEXAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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