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Column | Biden’s plan to protect 30% of US lands and waters lacks specificity

President Biden, shortly after taking office, issued an executive order that sets into motion the administration’s goal of conserving 30% of the nation’s land and waters by 2030 – or, as it’s commonly called, the “America the Beautiful” initiative or “30-by-30” plan.

While long on broad principles, including the pursuit of “a collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation,” the proposal is woefully short on specifics. In fact, nowhere in the 22-page report do the Commerce, Interior and Agriculture departments list specific areas or places to be earmarked for enhanced protection.

So what’s troubling about this initiative, which is being touted as the golden ticket to restoring biodiversity, mitigating the negative effects of climate change, and making even more land accessible to outdoor enthusiasts? It potentially could lead to unnecessary land-use restrictions on federal lands in Arizona and the western U.S., which could have negative impacts on wildlife management.

As chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, we have seen this happen too many times on the federal level. The Western states routinely have been used as the “laboratory” for natural resource policy in Washington, D.C., with issues of commerce, public access, recreation and wildlife management negatively impacted for those of us living and working in these states. The first priority should be to examine Eastern states in particular because of a clear lack of public lands set aside for conservation.

The commission, along with our state wildlife agency, is charged with the primary responsibility to manage more than 820 native species of wildlife (the most of any inland state in the nation) that are held in the public trust. Arizona already has the third-highest total of designated wilderness acreage in the nation (4.5 million acres), coupled with an additional 5.8 million acres of special land-use designations from national monuments and national wildlife refuges, to national conservation areas and areas of critical environmental concern. This has caused the systematic loss of recreational opportunities and erosion of the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s ability to proactively manage wildlife on these combined 10.3 million acres.

Arizona has increasingly experienced adverse impacts resulting from special land-use designations, including the loss of motorized access, project delays, skyrocketing costs and legal challenges. These obstacles and more ultimately lead to decreased efficiency in conserving and managing Arizona’s wildlife resources. While wildlife management is certainly not an easy job, it’s one that our department’s dedicated and professional staff takes pride in meeting head-on each and every day.

The commission supports public land-use designations that provide Arizona’s residents and resources with a net benefit. More than 30% of the state’s total land mass already is held in special designations. The commission opposes further conversion of public lands from multiple-use to land-use designations that result in the net loss of wildlife resources, wildlife-related recreational opportunities and associated economic benefits, without expressed concurrence of the State of Arizona and the commission.

Furthermore, actions under the 30-by-30 initiative must ensure that conservation in Arizona meets the intent of the initiative, is implemented with state concurrence with said actions, and ensures commission authority, jurisdiction and responsibility to manage fish and wildlife is not diminished.

From our perspective, the proposal lacks specificity, and it’s concerning that the administration – as have previous administrations – could pursue this goal by imposing unnecessary land-use restrictions on federal lands in the Western states. Focusing on land-use restriction would ignore more viable options to achieve the administration’s goals of increasing biodiversity and sustainability nationwide.

The good news is that the administration can accomplish much of its agenda without large-scale changes to land-use designations. Improving the biodiversity and sustainability of the nation’s land and waters can occur if the administration prioritizes conservation on private lands in the East, seeks new swaths of open space in the Eastern states, and reverses the long-term mismanagement of forested lands. We would just ask that the administration actually follow the law and earnestly coordinate with the state’s governors and wildlife agencies.

(Kurt R. Davis of Phoenix is the chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission.)

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