Private Land Conservation: The Unexpected Key to 30 by 30

Canola field on the Hubbard Farm
Photo: Kevin Rhoades
Canola grows beneath the Selkirk and Purcell mountains on the Hubbard Family's farm in northern Idaho's Kootenai Valley. Part of a crucial wildlife corridor connecting mountain ranges, the 1,040-acre farm will remain in agriculture and open space through a conservation easement with Vital Ground completed last week.

Land Trusts Will Be Key to the Biden Administration’s Big Conservation Goal

By Tatum McConnell, Communications Intern

With the passage of last year’s Great American Outdoors Act, conservation became a bigger part of the United States’ national conversation. Now it’s moving into uncharted territory, and with a catchy name: 30 by 30.

Promising to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030, the Biden administration has put forth what University of California Berkeley Environmental Science Professor Justin Brashares describes as “easily the boldest and largest commitment to conservation in U.S. history.”

The road to 30 percent conservation isn’t an easy one, but it’s vital to maintaining biodiversity, carbon storage, and our country’s beautiful natural spaces for future generations. Alongside public land like national parks, forests and wildlife refuges, private lands—voluntarily conserved in partnership with land trusts like Vital Ground—will be a crucial piece in this conservation puzzle.

Why 30 by 30?

Bismark Meadows wetlands
It’s not just high mountain environments that need protection. Lush lowlands like Vital Ground’s Bismark Meadows complex in northern Idaho are crucial to landscape-scale conservation for wildlife. (Linda Lantzy photo)

While certainly snappy, the plan’s name is also scientifically backed. An important research paper in the journal Science Advances put forth the 30 percent conservation number. The study amalgamated data from many ecosystem models to find that this level of conservation, combined with a sensible diet of renewable energy sources, would be enough to avoid a runaway climate change scenario.

Currently, 26 percent of American waters and 12 percent of land is conserved. So, when it comes to our terrestrial ecosystems, we have a long way to go. For perspective, that remaining 18 percent of land is more than double the size of Texas. And it’s not just about quantity—we also need to consider what land is conserved. We do a better job conserving areas like high alpine mountains and deserts because they’re harder for humans to develop. By spreading out future conserved land beyond traditionally-protected environments, the U.S. can make huge strides toward successful and long-lasting conservation.

Private Land: Conservation’s Dark Horse

Privately-owned land makes up 60 percent of the United States, but only 3 percent of it is protected for conservation. It’s here that ecosystems are suffering the most—all that unprotected private land loses habitat for threatened and endangered species, like grizzly bears, at twice the rate of federal lands.

That’s where land trusts like Vital Ground come in. While we occasionally acquire land directly, voluntary conservation agreements with landowners are the heart of private land conservation. The legal term for these agreements is conservation easement: a partnership in which a landowner maintains ownership and the right to use and sell their land, but voluntarily gives the land trust certain development rights, typically preventing activities that would diminish the land’s conservation values. In exchange, the landowner usually receives valuable tax deductions or partial monetary compensation.

Private land conservation can maintain important native fish and wildlife habitat, scenic and open space values, and the rural character of an area. Conservation easements also often take place on agricultural lands, such as Vital Ground’s current Kootenai Valley Linkage Project on the Hubbard Farm in northern Idaho. When managed sustainably, these areas can provide both working lands and biodiversity strongholds. For many landowners, conservation easements provide a great opportunity to earn benefits for sustainable land management while retaining ownership.

The National Conservation Easement Database estimates that nearly 33 million acres are currently held in conservation easements in the U.S., and these numbers are on the rise. Protecting and preventing habitat degradation on private lands will be a crucial way to make conservation strides in the U.S.

Creating Habitat Corridors

Lance Schelvan photo of bull elk bugling
From grizzlies to elk to wolverine, wide-ranging wildlife need the connected habitat that private land conservation provides. (Lance Schelvan photo)

Private land conservation can be highly strategic for protecting wildlife, offering a unique opportunity to conserve habitat corridors. Scientists increasingly recognize protecting these movement areas as a vital way to protect wildlife over the long run.

Federal land conservation often comes in large blocks, such as national forests and national parks. While these offer important safe havens for wildlife, larger animals like grizzly bears, elk and wolverine need to traverse a larger landscape than these islands of protection offer. Conserved private lands can help create a connected mosaic of protected areas that allow animals to move on a landscape scale.

Like all conserved lands, protected private lands don’t just provide habitat and protect biodiversity. They also help secure a stable climate future by storing carbon. All living materials contain carbon, and when we cut down trees or replace natural areas with developed ones that carbon is eventually released, adding to global greenhouse gas emissions. In short, conserving land helps tackle the two intertwined environmental crises the Earth faces—biodiversity loss and climate change.

One Landscape, Connected by Private Land

With our One Landscape Initiative (see video below), Vital Ground is dedicated to conserving habitat corridors and protecting wildlife on a regional scale. We carefully select the locations of our land acquisitions and conservation easements to best support healthy ecosystems. We prioritize connecting grizzly bear protection areas and building links between fragmented populations. With grizzly bears traversing all parts of a landscape, from high mountains to low valleys, these areas provide protected land for countless other more-specialized species.

As the U.S. forges ahead into this bold future for conservation, land trusts like Vital Ground will be an important force in reaching the 30 percent goal. Private lands offer an incredible opportunity to protect and connect large areas of our landscape. Incorporating science, connected ecosystems, and local perspectives, Vital Ground—with supporters like you—will help make some of the biggest impacts on conservation the U.S. has ever seen.

P.S.: If you’re a visual learner and want to further picture how private lands can contribute to 30 by 30, check out the Center for Western Priorities’ amazing story map!

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