Sen. Tom Udall and former secretary of the interior Bruce Babbitt sit on a dais with National Geographic logos everywhere
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and former Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt discuss the “30 by 30” pledge to protect 30% of U.S. land and ocean by 2030. Credit: Randy Showstack

An initiative to conserve at least 30% of land and ocean in the United States by 2030 can help to confront the threats of climate change and biodiversity loss, and it should not be thwarted by White House inaction, said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) at a 7 February briefing in Washington, D.C., about the initiative.

“The important thing is to keep building the movement over time,” Udall said, noting that protecting public lands in the United States is a long-term movement dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt.

“If we have one [president] who is a complete outlier, the movement will survive.”

“If we have one [president] who is a complete outlier, the movement will survive. And many times, the movement gets stronger when you have somebody like President Trump in the White House,” Udall said. “Ask the environmental organizations about their fund-raising right now. My guess is it’s through the roof.”

Udall introduced a Senate resolution in October to express “the sense of the Senate” that the federal government should establish the “30 by 30” goal by measures including making science the foundation of conservation decisions, sequestering carbon and greenhouse gases in U.S. lands and oceans, and addressing environmental justice issues.

Udall wrote in a 31 January High Country News opinion that a further goal should be to protect 50% of U.S. land and water by 2050. At the briefing, he said that all of the Democratic candidates for president either have already endorsed the Senate resolution or are planning to do so.

A Global Initiative As Well

The Senate resolution is part of a broader global initiative to reach the 30 by 30 goal.

Marine biologist Enric Sala, who spoke at the briefing, said that in 2010 a target of protecting 17% of land and 10% of the ocean globally by 2020 had been agreed to by parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Sala, the coauthor of a 2019 paper that calls for protection of at least 30% of lands by 2030, called the CBD goal “a political bargain” that “was the minimum goal that everybody would agree to.”

The 30 by 30 resolution “is a perfect beginning, but we’ve got to sell it both as a slogan and [as] a concept that has real content to it.”

Sala, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, said that 25 countries already have expressed agreement with the 30 by 30 country target. He said that he hopes 100 countries will be in agreement in time for the CBD conference in October.

The 30 by 30 goal “is very ambitious but doable,” he added.

The 30 by 30 framework “provides a kind of synthesizing, consolidating, organizing possibility,” former Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt said at the briefing. Babbitt served in that position from 1993 to 2001.

“We’ve got to put some life into it, because it’s easy to think of it as just another slogan,” he said. The resolution “is a perfect beginning, but we’ve got to sell it both as a slogan and [as] a concept that has real content to it,” Babbitt added.

Protecting the Best and Improving the Rest

The 30 by 30 resolution “means protecting the best, but it’s also about improving the rest.”

Sally Jewell, who was secretary of the interior from 2013 to 2017, said at the briefing that “30 by 30 means protecting the best, but it’s also about improving the rest.”

Jewell, who is the interim chief executive of The Nature Conservancy, asked, “How do we take the balance of our lands and make them better, make them a place that can store carbon, make them a place that can restore habitat for species?”

Jewell said that despite actions by the Trump administration, she sees many positive efforts to protect the environment, including recent climate strikes and local, national, and international conservation efforts.

She called herself “a troubled optimist” about protecting the environment, as did Udall.

“What’s your alternative? To just throw in the towel and say, ‘All right, I’m going to enjoy the rest of my life and not do something about this?’” Jewell said. “No. I mean, we don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children. How are we going to feel if this is what we leave, and we don’t take steps to follow the science that we know, to learn from the indigenous communities that have known, using thousands of years of observation, what we need to do? So the time to act is now, and I think that we are at a moment in our world history [when] people are paying attention.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2020), 30 by 30: A push to protect U.S. land and water, Eos, 101, Published on 07 February 2020.

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