Improving America’s Ecological Security Requires Public-Private Partnerships

Sharp-tailed grouse. ©USFWS Mountain-Prairie

This article was originally published in New Security Beat.

In January, President Biden joined other world leaders in committing to conserve 30 percent of their nations’ lands and oceans by 2030. Also known as “30 by 30,” the pledge aligns government action with the growing recognition by the intelligence community that the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity presents serious risks to the U.S. economy and national security. Risks to the U.S. include the expanded likelihood of wildlife-borne diseases spilling over into our communities, water system challengesdecreased crop production, and increased natural disasters like floodsReducing these risks will require moving beyond conservation’s traditional concerns of protecting scenery and providing outdoor recreation. Engagement with the private sector to better manage the lands and waters supplying the ecosystem services underlying our national security will need increased prioritization.

The Executive Order announcing the ambitious conservation effort establishes Interior and Agriculture as the endeavor’s lead departments. It is expected that a significant share of the undertaking will fall within the nearly 700 million acres of federal lands administered by agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Lands managed by the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture are concentrated in the 13 western states, a region home to roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population. These public lands are estimated to encompass only 48 percent of the major terrestrial ecosystem types found in the United States.

Federal lands can be important reservoirs of biodiversity and sources of ecosystem services, but they lack the geographic footprint and ecological diversity necessary to mitigate the security and economic risks stemming from environmental degradation. For the 30 by 30 initiative to reduce the threats to communities, the economy, and our national security that stem from ecological degradation, the Biden administration cannot rely exclusively on the federal estate.

To succeed, the administration will need to have a strong focus on conserving private lands and getting the necessary buy-in for conservation efforts from property owners who steward them.

Three-quarters of the nation’s wetlands are in private ownership and Indigenous territories. The loss of wetlands in Nebraska, where 97 percent of the land is privately owned, was a major factor in the 2019 flooding of the Missouri River, which inundated one-third of Offut Air Force Base, home of U.S. Strategic Command. Conserving wetlands can help reduce the impacts of future floodshurricanes, and strong winds on defense installations, as well as protect cities and towns from predicted increases in severe weather events.

The southern states, home to 55 million Americans and roughly half of Department of Defense installations, depend on privately owned forests for some portion of their water supply. Over 25 percent of the nation’s fresh water flows from or is filtered by private forestlands. Maintaining these forests is important to avoid exacerbating looming water shortages in major U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C.

Eighty-four percent of the grasslands in the U.S. are in private ownership. These grasslands provide habitat for migratory songbirds, bees, and other pollinators whose abundance is a determining factor in U.S. crop production. Losing these pollinating species, which enable ecosystems to flourish, and the collapse of agricultural production could have security implications beyond the nation’s food supply. As witnessed during the dustbowl of the 1930s, such events have the potential to create internally displaced persons as well.

The Executive Order committing the U.S. to the 30 by 30 initiative calls for “collecting input” from private landowners. However, executing a conservation program capable of enhancing America’s ecological security will require more than just collecting stakeholders’ opinions. It will depend on scaling up and strategically using existing conservation programs, and possibly developing new ones, to expand conservation measures on private lands.

It will not only be important to involve landowners, it is also necessary to include the growing pool of environmentally conscious investors and conservation organizations capable of providing financial and other resources.

Effectively engaging the private sector begins with consulting property owners and including them in the planning at the start of any conservation effort that may impact their land. Economic and regulatory incentives, public-private partnerships, like the Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program, and the Department of Agriculture’s Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Partnership should also be favored over regulation. Doing so will increase the chances of gaining buy-in from landowners, reducing suspicion of the 30 by 30 vision, and minimizing resentment of federally led conservation efforts in rural America which have fueled violent extremism and armed insurrection in the past.

Additionally, leveraging the strengths of markets to deliver conservation goals by engaging investors in the 30 by 30 initiative would take advantage of the trends toward environmentally sustainable business practices and environmentally aware investing. To this end, improving banking and securities regulations—and creating programs that can help unlock the billions of dollars in potential conservation investment—would be valuable opportunities for the administration.

Generating stakeholder buy-in through partnerships will have the added benefit of allowing the Biden administration to demonstrate that core American values are capable of delivering on global aspirations when it comes to the environment. This is especially important at a time when China is actively promoting its command-and-control system as a panacea to ecological decline in the run up to the United Biodiversity Conference they will be hosting later this year.

Awareness of the role of conservation in our national security is growing. With it must come an awareness of the importance of private land ownership in conserving the ecosystems that contribute to national security. Efforts like the 30 by 30 initiative have the best chance of delivering the kind of conservation America needs when the government engages with the private sector as an equal partner. By making partnerships with the private sector central to the 30 by 30 initiative the Biden administration can make Americans’ shared love and dependence on nature a point around which the country can unify and show the world what we can achieve.

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