The Biden administration’s recent announcement of the 30 by 30 conservation initiative was a welcome ray of light in the dark of winter. The goal is to have 30% of America’s lands “protected” by 2030. But what exactly is meant by and would qualify as “protected”? In this age of ecological meltdown and mass extinction/extermination, ineffective and equivocal “protection” is simply not good enough. Areas pummeled by commercial harvest/extraction that substantially modify the natural state of ecosystems simply do not qualify as “protected” in any rational and meaningful sense of the word.
The gold-standards of real “protection” in the US are Congressionally designated Wilderness Areas and National Parks. Already, there is talk of establishing new National Parks. There are many lands across the US that would certainly qualify, such as the proposed three-million acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve or lands and waters in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Swamp. True, even such so-protected areas can have their problems, such as inappropriate recreation and over-use, grazing, and predator killing. Nonetheless, new Parks would be a conservation boon and beneficial to Americans in countless ways.
But there are lands already in the public domain that are crucially important for real and lasting biodiversity conservation. These lands deserving of conservation attention are still relatively intact, and therefore in many cases do not require costly conservation interventions. Unfortunately, most of this acreage is not truly protected. Some valid restoration is called for, but what they need above all are retention policies, i.e. mandating avoidance of impacts so that these places can remain intact and healthy.
The 190 million acres in the public domain of which I speak are called “National Forests”. In many areas, these public lands provide just about the only places left with expansive relatively natural landscapes. Providing irreplaceable sanctuary to countless plant and animal populations, they are precious arks afloat in a sea of human development. The fact that these ecosystems are managed by the Agriculture Department and not the Interior Department does not negate or diminish their intrinsic significance. At present, what does degrade and diminish them is how they are managed.
As home to much of the nation’s best wildlife habitat, safeguarding the ecological integrity of these wildlands and their wildlife populations should be the highest priority for federal management. Our National Forests still have the potential for providing landscape-scale real protection. By protection, I mean minimizing human activity in order to allow for “as natural a state as possible”. This approach is termed proforestation, letting standing forests grow and develop in complexity to their natural old growth state; such restoration is also the most effective way to counter climate change. At present, however, most Forest lands are open to various forms of commercial exploitation and extraction, such as logging, drilling, and grazing.
Only a paltry 2.7% of the lower 48 states and less than 1% of Virginia are protected Wilderness. And only a tiny fraction of our National Forests are protected as Wilderness, around 18% nationwide and less than 5% of Virginia’s George Washington National Forest (“GWNF”). Though we may not be able to manage National Forests as wilderness in their entirety, far more of their acreage can be. For instance, conservationists identified around 60% of the GWNF as roadless tracts already suitable for designation as new Wilderness Areas (see “Virginia’s Mountain Treasures: The Unprotected Wildlands of the GWNF”). And even if not formally “designated”, the wild character of lands could still be administratively protected by the Forest Service. Unfortunately, at present that is not the agency’s “desired condition” for most Forest acreage.
And even if not capable of being designated as “Wilderness” or otherwise managed as such, certainly the vast majority of National Forest acreage can at least be managed custodially, without the billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidized commercial logging and road building — providing for a broad range of non-industrial low-impact human uses, such as camping and drinking water and recreational sites, while at the same time providing meaningful protection. Like responsible parents, good custodians take care of places, they don’t exploit, degrade, and dominate them. An added bonus of this management direction is that it’s the least costly option in budgetary terms, providing by far the biggest bang for our limited bucks. For one thing, funds would not have to be constantly spent trying to mitigate and rehabilitate damage that could be and should be avoided in the first place.
The 30 X 30 goals should finally provide the long overdue impetus for this crucial improvement and modernization of the legal, regulatory, and management framework for our Forests. If the USDA is to manage National Forests for the perpetuation of the diversity of Creation and for the good of all Americans, not for profiteers and special interests, then this shift to Wilderness designations and custodial management that achieve real on-the-ground “protection” is absolutely essential. Legislation such as the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, that protects and connects multiple western public lands, and the formerly introduced National Forest Protection and Restoration Act can serve as models nationwide.
When the National Forest System was started there were far fewer of us and far more wild places. The time is long past when we need taxpayer-subsidized looting of the commonwealth in order to stimulate development in the USA. With almost 8 billion people on it, with its attendant massive habitat loss and a million species already in danger of extinction, it’s a different world now. And now is the time to defend what’s left of our natural heritage. The land types in shortest supply and what America and the world world need more than anything else are places that we keep our grasping paws off of. Still visited, honored, and enjoyed, but not exploited and desecrated.
It’s imperative to realize that our George Washington and other National Forests are simply not essential for functioning as the nation’s tree farms, feedlots, drilling pads, or recreational thrillcraft areas. There are other parts of the country that are more appropriate landscapes in which to practice these activities: Private lands. Quite simply, the highest value of a Forest such as the GWNF is as an ecological preserve. It truly is the George Washington National Ark.