Biden's 30x30 Plan Sidesteps the Extinction Crisis | Opinion

Roughly 12,000 plant and animal species in the U.S. are currently at risk of extinction. Saving these plants and animals is a project for which failure is not an option.

It is welcome news that a key pillar of President Joe Biden's bold new environmental initiative is a plan to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and water by 2030. If this could be accomplished, it would go a long way toward combating the extinction crisis at the national level.

But here is the rub—the details of how this is going to be accomplished have yet to be worked out. One thing for sure is that conserving private lands must be part of the plan. Vast numbers of threatened and endangered species in the United States have most of their habitat only on private land.

A new study I conducted with a team of researchers, published in Conservation Science and Practice, provides compelling evidence for the promise of one approach to biodiversity protection using private lands: conservation easements. Conservation easements are permanent restrictions on land use associated with a property deed. Easements may prohibit development; they may limit the extent of logging or ranching; they may prohibit mining, or they may limit the total building footprint on a property.

The idea is that these restrictions preserve critical habitat, while allowing private landowners to own, use, sell and bequeath the land subject to easement restrictions. Thus, easements allow land to remain private, yet also be protected in perpetuity for biodiversity.

Until now, no one had studied whether easements are effective at protecting parcels of land for which there are documented occurrences of high-priority species. In our research, we found that well-placed conservation easements are remarkably effective at protecting high-priority species.

President Joe Biden waves at press
President Joe Biden waves at press. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

In particular, we looked at 49 private properties under easement in Alabama and discovered a striking number of at-risk species living on and protected by those lands—38 at-risk species for every 1,000 hectares of private land. To put that in context, comparable tracks of publicly conserved land showed only five at-risk species for every 1,000 hectares of land. That means private land conservation through easements could be roughly seven times more effective at protecting endangered species than public land conservation.

Tax incentives have played a critical role in facilitating the use of easements as a conservation tool. The Tax Reform Act of 1976, for example, established a federal program that enabled private landowners to claim tax deductions after they placed an easement on their land and donated that easement to a land trust or government agency to manage.

The issue of what species are found on easements is both biologically important and important from the perspective of public policy. Tax deductions are given on the assumption of public good—in this case delivering conservation value. Every conservation easement grantor attempting to get a federal tax deduction requires a baseline documentation report that describes what of conservation value is found on the property. These reports and their associated surveys are conducted by professional biologists.

Our findings show that expanding the conservation easement program is one of the best ways lawmakers can help the U.S. achieve the critical goal of restoring biodiversity. Our study also makes clear that if private land conservation is to do all that it can do for biodiversity in the United States, we need to start documenting and making transparent the scope and extent of imperiled species benefiting from conservation easements. In this information age, it is inexcusable that we do not have these data readily available and by having such data, we further affirm the need to execute an initiative like the Biden administration's 30x30 plan.

The bottom line is that the amount of habitat protected in the United States must be dramatically increased if species extinctions are to be averted. Our work shows that priority should be given to promoting more private conservation through a proven incentivization tool that works: conservation easements.

Dr. Peter Kareiva is an adjunct professor at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. He is also president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.