This month, the Biden administration launched the America the Beautiful Challenge, a billion-dollar program that raises funds from a variety of sources to support conservation and restoration projects. Also on the horizon is the Recover US Wildlife Acta bipartisan law that, if passed, could provide $1.4 billion a year to states and tribes to protect their most endangered species.
These conservation funding opportunities come at a critical time. the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed that the world’s current plans to tackle climate change are not ambitious enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a threshold to avoid the most catastrophic impacts. To achieve this goal, governments must now not only switch to clean energy and achieve “net zero” emissions as soon as possible, but also remove massive amounts of carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere.
Protect natural environments that absorb CO2 and storing it in the ground will be the key to making that happen. The Biden administration’s goal of conserve 30% of the country’s natural habitats by 2030– also called the 30×30 initiative – aims to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. With less than a decade to go, the government is beginning to push through the first major policy changes to achieve this goal.
[Related: Here’s where biodiversity is disappearing the quickest in the US]
First on the list, the America the Beautiful Challenge seeks to advance the 30×30 goal by bringing together new and existing funds in one central source, streamlining the process for states, tribes and NGOs to apply for grants. for conservation and restoration projects.
The program has already secured $440 million in federal funding for the next five years, including $375 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law that Congress passed in 2021 to move toward ecosystem restoration, $35 million from Forest Service to improve water quality and prevent invasive species, and $25 million from the defense department preserve natural resources around military installations. The Biden administration plans to raise the remaining $660 million from private and philanthropic contributions.
Dan Rohlf, a wildlife law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, says it’s “a breath of fresh air” to see the federal government respond to conservation needs, but points out that a much of the billion dollars is simply the repackaging of funds that were already available. On whether that’s enough for the country to reach 30×30, he says it’s “not even close”.
“We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction crisis in geological time,” Rohlf replies. “We need a lot more investment than that, and we need to change our own behaviors a bit.”
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act could provide an additional $1.4 billion a year to support the recovery of the nation’s most endangered species. It was introduced by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) last summer and passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this month. He will now advance to the Senate floor for the final passage.
For decades, states and tribes struggled to find sufficient funding for their wildlife conservation plans. State fish and wildlife agencies, in particular, rely heavily on hunting and fishing-related activities, which generate revenue from license fees and excise duties on firearms, ammunition and other equipment. But the decrease in the popularity of these activities resulted in an even greater reduction in the agencies’ already stretched budgets.
Because of the ties between conservation funds and recreation, some state departments spend 90 percent of their budgets on game and fish species management, Rohlf says. This leaves a limited pool of resources for the protection of other animals and their habitats. The US government hopes to fill this critical gap with the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, but in the end, that may be asking too much.
“It would be a good thing to do, but if I’m being realistic, I strongly suspect that the likelihood of this bill passing is pretty low,” Rohlf said. “I suspect Congress will be unwilling to pull another billion dollars from the already oversubscribed federal budget.”
Similar efforts to secure broader funding for state wildlife programs have failed in the past. A previous version of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act that died at the committee level suggested redirecting revenue from energy and mining development on federal lands. Lawmakers have also considered generating cash from a national excise tax on outdoor recreation equipment.
But even with additional funding guaranteed, limiting climate change and biodiversity loss is no guarantee. The actual impact depends on how people choose to care for these lands once they are protected. A recent survey of wetland bird species published in the journal Nature found that simply designating an area as “protected” does not mean that wildlife will thrive there.
“We’re not saying protected areas don’t work,” said lead author Hannah Wauchope of the University of Exeter’s Center for Ecology and Conservation. said in a press release. “The key point is that their impacts vary enormously, and the most important thing that depends on whether they are managed with the species in mind – we cannot simply expect protected areas to operate without proper management.”
[Related: Many Indigenous languages lack a word for ‘conservation.’ Here’s why.]
If the Biden administration is serious about meeting its conservation goals, it will need to dramatically improve how it protects nature from human-related disturbances, Rohlf says. This means maintaining national forests in a way that prioritizes carbon sequestration over the interests of the timber industry. Another issue of particular concern to Rohlf is the conservation of rangelands where cattle graze, particularly given the animal’s methane emissions and impact on plant and soil productivity.
Habitats in particularly difficult situations also require restoration, not just protection. This applies to 60 percent of the Great Plains that have been degraded, mainly due to intensive monoculture. The country’s wetlands, which are disappearing at the rate of 80,000 acres per yearalso urgently need to be saved.
The Biden administration will also need to consider ways to incentivize private landowners to protect biodiversity, Rohlf said. The farm bill, which is due for an update next year, could be part of the solution. Develop programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program supports farmers in managing their land, while developing wildlife habitat and making farming operations more energy efficient.
“Spending money helps, but we’re not going to reverse this biodiversity crisis just by spending money,” Rohlf says. “We are going to have to change our behavior, our way of doing business and our way of living on earth.”