Biden Wants to Protect 30% of US Land by 2030. Where We Are Now in Charts

The U.S. will need to conserve an area twice the size of Texas to meet the goal

Note: Alaska shown at 0.35 scale. See notes about data for details. Source: World Database of Protected Areas
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Last year, President Joe Biden set one of the most ambitious conservation goals in U.S. history: Protect 30 percent of the nation’s land and water by 2030.

Nineteen percent of ocean and coasts are protected, but only 13 percent of land. In the next eight years, the U.S. will need to earmark more than 620,000 square miles, an area over twice the size of Texas. 

But how the U.S. has tackled conservation in the past may not work if it wants to meet its goal.

Source: World Database of Protected Areas
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

The target, known as "30 by 30," has become a rallying cry around the world to protect biodiversity and curb climate change. It’s been embraced by over 50 countries and backed by scientists who argue that reaching it is critical to protect roughly 75 percent of earth’s species.

A century ago, the U.S. was a global leader in conservation. It was the first country to establish and protect a national park when it designated Yellowstone in 1872. Since then, the U.S. has set aside over 40,000 swaths of lands in the form of wildlife sanctuaries, national monuments, wilderness areas and more. 

However, in recent decades, efforts have lagged. 

Land Conservation Has Slowed in 2000s

Total area of protected lands by year.

Note: See notes about the data for details. Sources: World Database of Protected Areas, The Center for American Progress, Conservation International and World Wildlife Fund database of Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, & Degazettement
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

From 2000 to 2019, the U.S. set aside roughly 11,000 square miles, only about a third of the over 30,000 protected in the two previous decades.

“We’re still protecting places, but not at the rate that we need to address the dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. We’ve plateaued,” said Ryan Richards, a senior policy analyst of public lands at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute. 

Part of the plateau can be attributed to the administration of President Donald Trump. Overall land protections fell for the first time ever in 2017 when Trump rolled back large portions of two national monuments in Utah: Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears. Together with other reversals, such as in the Arctic, it led to a contraction of over 4,000 square miles – 1.2 percent of U.S. protected lands.

Since Biden was elected, he’s restored many of these lands, but his plan for reaching 30 by 30 released last May, “America the Beautiful,” is light on details on the way forward. More of a vision statement, it doesn’t identify specific places for new protected areas, what level of protection counts or how much federal funding the goal may take. 

It does suggest Biden may redefine what constitutes “conserved” land and cede power to local communities and tribal nations. It also promises to give disadvantaged communities more access to parks and nature.

For most of the country’s history, protecting lands has been spearheaded by government efforts, such as creating national parks or taking large areas and setting them aside as wilderness. Federal and state lands make up the majority of U.S. protected areas. One of the quickest paths to reaching 30 percent would be for Biden to use his executive powers to create new national monuments and add protections to existing federal lands. 

The Majority of Protected Areas are Government Owned

Total protected areas by ownership.

Note: Excludes coastal and marine protected areas. Source: World Database of Protected Areas
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

But if the goal is to protect biodiversity and store carbon, experts have pointed out that private lands will be key. About two-thirds of U.S. endangered species and more than half of the country’s forests, which act as critical carbon sinks, exist mainly on private land.

Biden is also remapping what might count toward the 30 percent target. Right now, although 13 percent of land falls within permanently protected areas, that figure doesn’t include other areas managed with conservation in mind, such as tribal lands or farmland managed sustainably.

The Biden administration is in the process of creating a new system to map and track the area the country considers conserved or restored, called the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas.

Under a new model, these managed lands, though not meeting the International Union for Conservation of Nature definition of a protected area, may contribute to the 30 percent target.

Richards said there are a lot of different options for how Biden could meet his goal. He pointed to steps like investing in community- and tribally-led conservation projects, creating partnerships to protect wildlife corridors and working with private landowners on voluntary projects. But he said overall 30 by 30 is the right idea to address the climate challenges we face. And it’s popular.

“An overwhelming majority of Americans are in favor of bigger investments in conservation,” he said. “That heritage of conservation is something that they hold near and dear.”

About the data:

Data on protected areas is from the World Database of Protected Areas (WDPA) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, considered the most comprehensive global database on terrestrial and marine protected areas. 

To analyze U.S. protected lands and calculate areas added by year, the data required filtering and cleaning. Additional data was used from the Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD) database to account for annual reductions to protected areas and the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute, for data on protected lands with missing years in the WDPA. 

For filtering, the WDPA areas were isolated to the United States, excluding territories (Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands). Areas categorized as coastal or marine were omitted along with any listed as “unverified” by either a state or an IUCN expert.

Some protected areas overlapped in the source map shapefiles. To minimize repetition and overcounting, protected areas were dissolved by year and total areas were calculated. Additionally, some protected areas were missing designation dates. While some areas with missing dates were updated based on data from the Center for American Progress, together, the remaining lands with missing designation dates represented about 10 percent of total protected area cover.  

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