February 17, 2021|By Will Allen

Aspirations and Opportunities of the 30x30 Initiative

Even in an era of extreme political divisiveness, clean air, clean water, and land conservation are extremely important goals across the political spectrum. According to recent bi-partisan polling in the U.S., 84% believe we can protect land and water and have a strong economy at the same time, up from 76% in 2009. The Conservation Fund was purpose-built to conserve land and support a strong economy, demonstrating that land conservation is key for our future prosperity in human communities.

The genesis of the 30x30 initiative comes from both global biodiversity initiatives and national policy think tanks. The highest profile effort to articulate bold targets for land set asides has been the Half-Earth Project, spearheaded by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. Dr. Wilson, in a 2016 article in the New York Times, recommended that 50% of the Earth’s surface be conserved in a natural state to support and maintain biodiversity, which he felt was “the only way to save upward of 90% of the rest of life.”

While this has been the highest profile effort to date, the earliest article I found was by Lynn Wilson. In her 2014 article entitled “Nature Needs Half,” she documents the work of the WILD Foundation and its WILD Cities Project. She also references the Fund’s pioneering work establishing a conceptual green infrastructure framework and implementing green infrastructure at multiple scales to explain how the Capital Region District in British Columbia, Canada could consider and implement the Nature Needs Half concept, which advocates protection of 50% of the planet by 2030.

In April 2019, some of the same principals involved in the Nature Needs Half initiative reframed the aspiration in an article in ScienceMag by promoting a Global Deal for Nature, which targets 30% of the Earth to be formally protected and an additional 20% designated as “climate stabilization areas,” which, as defined by the article, are “habitats like mangroves, tundra, other peatlands, ancient grasslands, and boreal and tropical rainforest biomes that store vast reserves of carbon and other greenhouse gases.”

2 17 21 FonesCliffs ConservationAcquisitions VirginiaHarlowChandlerIII 017The Conservation Fund has helped federal, state and local partners advance numerous Land and Water Conservation Fund projects, including the 252-acre Fones Cliffs property on the Rappahannock River in Virginia. Photo by Harlow Chandler III.


In the U.S. in August 2019, the Center for American Progress then tried to convince policy makers they should adopt and implement a goal of protecting 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. The Center stated that the U.S. “lacks a clear, common vision for how much nature it wishes to conserve, in what form, at what cost, and for whom” and therefore has vastly underutilized its capacity to conserve nature. The Executive Order seems clear it is intending to help remedy that by undertaking a “process with broad engagement, including agricultural and forest landowners, fishermen, outdoor enthusiasts, sovereign Tribal nations, States, Territories, local officials, and others to identify strategies that reflect the priorities of all communities.” A major pillar of 30x30 is working toward a more equitable and inclusive distribution of nature’s benefits to all people.


Here is the basic 30x30 math in the continental U.S. context.

According to the Executive Order, “Approximately 60% of land in the continental U.S. is in a natural state, but we are losing a football field worth of it every 30 seconds.” The Executive Order also cites the U.S. Geological Survey analysis that only 12% of the land base is permanently protected. So that means a 150% increase in our protected land base in nine years in the time it took us to protect the original 12% (~244 years). I’d call that a stretch goal and should be interpreted more as a journey than an end game.


So how do we translate this policy intent into action?

Meaningful acceleration of land conservation will require significant investments at multiple scales. Thankfully, the recent bipartisan approval of the Great American Outdoors Act has led to full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually, and there are other programs within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Defense that also can help support voluntary private land conservation. The magnitude of state and local bonds also will need to increase. On Election Day 2020, voters approved over $3.7 billion in new funding for land conservation.

And as funding increases, this will require more investments in The Conservation Fund’s primary vehicle for protecting land with these Federal, state, and local investments—our Revolving Fund. We use our Revolving Fund to help federal, state, and local partners by acting quickly to save priority lands vulnerable to development or fragmentation. As immediate conservation opportunities arise, our conservation partners turn to us to deploy the ready capital of our Revolving Fund. When public and/or private funding later becomes available to secure long-term protection, the Revolving Fund is repaid with interest. Dollar for dollar, our Revolving Fund has protected more land than any other land conservation vehicle. Every $1 million invested in our Revolving Fund has leveraged more than $40 million for the conservation of land—a return on investment that cannot be matched. The Revolving Fund is an essential vehicle in helping the implement the Land and Water Conservation Fund and needs to be right sized to meet the higher demands of full funding.

In addition to funding, it is important to emphasize the need for a broad engagement process and the equitable and inclusive distribution of investments to move towards the goal. An illustration of this is that the ‘easiest’ way to achieve the acreage goal would be to protect large swaths of inexpensive land, but that leaves out important small patches of urban green space and would not account for actual public investment priorities.

The Five 30x30 principles:

  1. Support locally-led conservation;
  2. Work toward a more equitable and inclusive vision for nature conservation;
  3. Honor the sovereignty of tribal nations and Indigenous communities;
  4. Support private land conservation; and
  5. Guided by science.

Understanding conservation priorities of local communities is essential to make sure we are getting the best bang for our buck. In our book The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less, Dr. Kent Messer and I point out that billions have been spent on land conservation but too little attention has been paid to how strategic and cost-effective these investments have been. Understanding priorities and the opportunity cost of investing in one form versus another is essential, and it is important to know you are protecting the right 30%.

Prior to the Executive Order, some states such as Colorado started to lay out a pathway for how they could achieve the 30x30 goals, and The Road to 30 provides an excellent visualization of how the goal can be implemented at multiple scales and include an inclusive array of key elements, including tribal land management, agricultural and working forestland protection, urban conservation, public land access for sportsmen, and wildlife corridors.

2 17 21 Sweetwater Lake CO c Todd Winslow Pierce 201911072 The Conservation Fund worked with the Eagle Valley Land Trust and other partners to purchase the Sweetwater Lake property in Colorado, with the intent to eventually transfer it to the U.S. Forest Service for inclusion in the White River National Forest so it can be protected forever. Photo by Todd Winslow Pierce.


My assessment of the 30x30 goal is informed by some of the fundamental principles of green infrastructure that The Conservation Fund helped outline starting back in the early 2000s, culminating in the book: Green Infrastructure: Linking Landscapes and Communities. These percentage goals are not a substitute for a strategic analysis for identifying what is important to protect that keeps natural systems and human communities thriving. These goals also are not a substitute for building local constituencies to support achieving conservation goals. Ultimately, the protection of additional land and water resources should support local economies and provide multiple benefits for people and wildlife.

In conclusion, the 30x30 moniker is elegant and consistent with our ultimate desired outcome changing the trajectory of land conservation activity across the country in the places that matter most for the environment and the economy. It is a worthy endeavor to support the goal in the right places using the right tools. If we don’t take strong, strategic action now, the chances down the road will be far more limited.
Written By

Will Allen

Will Allen is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Giving & Conservation Services at The Conservation Fund in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. With the Fund more than 20 years, Will oversees the divisions of Marketing & Communications, Development, Freshwater Institute, Resourceful Communities and the Conservation Leadership Network. He is the co-author with Dr. Kent Messer of the Cambridge University Press book entitled The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less. He served as co-editor-in-chief and managing editor of the Journal of Conservation Planning and has published in peer reviewed journals, trade publications, and blogs for the Fund, Jobs for the Future and The Nature of Cities. Will holds a B.A. in Urban Studies from Stanford University and a Masters in Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.