In the effort to reach the 30×30 goals for biodiversity conservation and climate mitigation called for under the Biden administration’s January executive order on tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad, the American Farmland Trust called for policies of voluntary, incentive-based and locally-led conservation.
Roughly 60% of the land in the United States is privately owned and many, if not most, wildlife species rely on these lands for habitat and foraging. Although the areas of greatest biodiversity and carbon sequestration are mostly composed of private lands – such as rangelands, grasslands, and private forests – only a fraction of privately held land is protected. About seven million acres, or less than 1% of our agricultural land, is permanently protected.
AFT in a new report – Agriculture’s Role in 30x30: Partnering with Farmers and Ranchers to Protect Land, Biodiversity and the Climate – offers recommendations to reach the goals of climate mitigation.
“Our nation’s farmers, ranchers and foresters are essential allies in the effort to reach the 30x30 goals for biodiversity conservation and climate mitigation. The lands that they manage are critical for wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, food security, clean water and rural prosperity,” says Mitch Hunter, AFT research director. “The U.S. needs bold, new approaches to enlist their help at the vast scale required to effectively protect biodiversity and stabilize the climate.”
Development has a detrimental effect on biodiversity because it removes habitat, increases disturbances, reduces connectivity and makes it harder for many species to thrive. In contrast, private working lands have the potential to provide habitat and shelter for wildlife while maintaining their productivity, if they are protected from development.
Private working lands can serve as buffers between core wildlife habitat (natural lands) and developed areas. They can also help connect natural areas by providing landscape linkages. These connectivity corridors permit the daily and seasonal movements of animals within home ranges and facilitate dispersal and genetic interchange between populations, AFT says.
“In addition, protecting working lands advances critical environmental and food security benefits that perhaps weren’t front and center when 30x30 was conceived, but which are clearly now priorities,” Hunter adds.
The report notes there can be both synergies and tensions between biodiversity conservation and climate mitigation on private lands. At the farm level, there are mostly synergies: 24 out of the 27 conservation practices recommended by USDA NRCS to improve wildlife habitat also improve soil health and sequester carbon. These practices can be prioritized through cost-share programs in areas where critical wildlife corridors must be maintained.
AFT suggests the administration use voluntary agricultural conservation easements to permanently protect at least 5% of farmland and ranchland from development by 2030, ensuring that it can continue producing food in perpetuity. AFT also encourages the government to incentivize adoption of conservation measures on these permanently protected acres and an additional 25% of farmland and ranchland, with a specific focus on conserving biodiversity and/or implementing natural climate solutions.
“Precision agriculture tools can now identify exactly which parts of a farm are not profitable for crop production and therefore are ideal for conversion to pasture, woodland, or pollinator habitat while saving farmers money,” the report notes. “However, economic tradeoffs can make it difficult for farmers and ranchers to support wildlife conservation efforts on their own.”
AFT also recommends the administration take immediate action to accelerate working lands protection and biodiversity conservation using USDA’s existing programs and authorities. In accomplishing this recommendation, AFT suggests to appoint a high-level USDA 30×30 coordinator and offer support to state agencies; develop a mechanism to account for all acres protected and conserved via federal programs; encourage and enable voluntary reporting on complementary non-federal efforts; use geospatial data to improve targeting of existing conservation cost-share programs, including by expanding the successful Working Lands for Wildlife program; and increase capacity to provide conservation technical assistance, through additional NRCS staffing, partnerships with third-party organizations and Civilian Climate Corps workers.
Additional recommendations encourage expanding or proposing new legislation. AFT suggests to fight the loss of working lands to development by proposing legislation to dramatically expand the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program – Agricultural Land Easements and Healthy Forest Reserve Program and strengthening the Farmland Protection Policy Act.
They also proposed to launch a targeted effort to protect wildlife habitat on working lands by proposing legislation to provide major new funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to establish an initiative focused on protecting and conserving private working lands in biodiversity hotspots and wildlife movement corridors.