Recently we’ve been seeing great news for the environment coming out of Washington, D.C.
As part of his ‘Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad’ President Biden solidified his commitment to the ambitious goal to protect at least 30% of land and water by the year 2030. This goal — shorthanded as 30×30 — is a extraordinary opportunity for the incoming administration to use landscape level protections as a solution to both the biodiversity and climate crisis.
The momentum for this ambitious — but essential — campaign has been growing exponentially in recent years in the United States. New Mexico’s congressional leaders — Senator Tom Udall (now retired) and Representative Deb Haaland (nominated to be our next Interior Secretary) — have both been leaders in the effort, each having introduced resolutions supporting 30×30. And a report released in June from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis identified the need for Congress to “establish a national goal of protecting at least 30% of all U.S. lands and ocean areas by 2030, prioritizing lands and waters with high ecological, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration value.”
Alaska: An opportunity to protect natural habitats at scale
When considering opportunities for landscape level protection, those in Alaska are unrivaled — the state is home to 220 million acres of federal public lands:
- 85% of the nation’s lands managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service are in Alaska, 76.6 million acres. Home to our nation’s largest national wildlife refuge.
- 65% of the nation’s national park lands are in Alaska, 52.5 million acres. Home to our nation’s largest national park.
- 29% of the nation’s lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are in Alaska, 71.3 million acres. Home to our largest piece of U.S. BLM land.
- 11% of the nation’s lands managed by the Forest Service are in Alaska, 22 million acres. Home to our nation’s largest national forest.
- More coastline than the rest of the United States combined and America’s connection to the Arctic Ocean.
These vast landscapes host tremendous natural abundance, stored carbon, intact ecosystems and thriving Indigenous cultures. Land protection in Alaska should be front and center in a sustained, whole-government national strategy on the environment and centered in justice and equity. Over the past four years, public lands in Alaska were disproportionately targeted by the Trump administration’s anti-conservation agenda — nearly 30 million acres of public land in Alaska faced serious threats of development. Threats to the Arctic Ocean were even larger, as the Trump administration sought to allow oil and gas leasing in 125 million acres of the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf.
And as we look to stop the advance of climate change, there may be no better opportunity to keep carbon in the ground than in Alaska. Scientists have determined that in order to keep warming below 2°C globally, Arctic oil reserves must remain undeveloped. Statewide, Alaska’s public lands and waters are home to 62 percent of the total carbon stored on our nation’s federal lands. And climate change is being more acutely felt in Alaska, where parts of the state are warming at three times the rate of the rest of the world. Threats to food security, traditional ways of life, cultural practices and sustainable industries are rapidly increasing from unpredictable conditions such as melting ice, thawing permafrost, and changes to animal migration patterns and abundance. Fire season is growing longer, and coastal villages are literally falling into the sea. While Alaska’s oil and gas economy has benefited people, communities and governments in Alaska for decades, today the short and long-term costs of these policies are simply too great. Federal policy in Alaska, like the rest of the country, needs to change course. A key step will be prioritizing Alaska lands in a national 30×30 strategy.
The risks of greenlighting development in Alaska’s public lands and waters
At 19.6 million acres, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest wildlife refuge in the United States, however, the Trump administration was able to hold the first-ever oil and gas lease sale on its 1.5 million acre coastal plain before the end of its first term. Oil and gas development would occur on the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd and critical denning habitat for threatened polar bears, and would have massive climate implications via an estimated 4.3 billion metric tons of CO2-eq emitted over the lifetime of extraction.
The largest contiguous piece of public land in the country, the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska spans 23.5 million acres, and while parts of the Reserve have historically been available for oil and gas development, much of its land remains undeveloped. However, in its final days the Trump administration completed a sweeping new management plan that would open 18 million acres of the Reserve up to development, including the entire Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. Teshekpuk Lake and the surrounding wetlands are home to caribou, polar bears, and contain the breeding grounds for migratory birds. An estimated 8.7 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are buried beneath the Reserve, and exploiting these threatens to release more than 5 billion metric tons of CO2-eq into the atmosphere.
The Tongass National Forest encompasses 16.7 million acres, making it the largest national forest in the United States. This forest is home to salmon that feed some of the largest, densest concentrations of brown bears and bald eagles found on the planet. The Tongass sequesters more carbon than any other national forest — a total of 1.5 billion metric tons of CO2-eq and an additional 10 million metric tons each year. Yet the Trump administration went and finalized a new rule to exempt more than 9 million acres of the Tongass from Roadless Rule protections, opening new areas of old-growth forest to clear-cut logging.
Not only does the 30×30 effort focus on protecting land, but our oceans and other waters as well. The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, part of the Arctic Ocean and the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf, are home to hundreds of millions of acres of sensitive marine areas. The entire U.S. population of polar bears relies upon Arctic sea ice, as does prey like walruses and seals. Bowhead whales live almost exclusively in Arctic waters, migrating in accordance with the ice floes. Development in these waters would threaten wildlife with noise and potential oil spills, and the oil and gas reserves found beneath these waters are enormous — 24 billion barrels of oil and 104 trillion cubic feet of natural gas threaten to release 15.8 billion metric tons of CO2-eq into the atmosphere.
Bristol Bay contains the largest wild salmon fishery remaining on the planet, supporting the culture and subsistence activities of Indigenous communities as well as the commercial fishing industry and sportsmen and women. Roughly 50% of the world’s sockeye salmon are supplied by this fishery and up to 40 million salmon return to this watershed each year. Allowing the construction of the proposed Pebble Mine would threaten the health and future of Bristol Bay by permanently destroying 185 miles of streams and 3,841 acres of wetlands, and by poisoning the bay’s headwaters with up to 10 billion tons of mining waste. It’s critical that the Biden administration exercise its authority to veto the project once and for all.
Durable protections for these and other public lands in Alaska are necessary if we’re to take decisive action to end the climate crisis and achieve 30×30. With its large, wild and undeveloped landscapes, Alaska should be one of the first places the Biden administration should look to achieve these goals.