Collaborating on California’s “30 x 30”

By Dr. Lisa Micheli, PhD

Pepperwood President & CEO

The rolling hills of Pepperwood in the springtime. Photo Courtesy of Gerald & Buff Corsi

The rolling hills of Pepperwood in the springtime. Photo Courtesy of Gerald & Buff Corsi

Large landscape conservation is essential to building resilience under a changing climate. It requires bringing people together across geographies, sectors, and cultures to collaborate on conserving diverse ecological, cultural, and economic benefits provided by our dynamic landscapes. Uniting people around this vision is what energizes me everyday. Lately, I’ve been deeply engaged in a collaboration called the California Biodiversity Network focused on making the large landscape conservation vision of “30 x 30” a reality for the State of California.

What exactly is “30 x 30”? It is a call to action to conserve 30% of the planet by 2030. In response to the climate and extinction crisis, “30 x 30” thus embodies a simplistic goal aiming to be measurable, ambitious, realistic and time bound. It’s a vision recently adopted by the United Nations, and 90 countries including the United States. Champions of this campaign hope it promises perhaps one of the biggest global investments in nature’s resilience to date.

California is the first state to launch a parallel effort in alignment with this global movement, California’s “30 x 30” initiative aims to conserve 30% of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030. The current administration has committed to advancing three objectives as part of this goal:

  • protecting California’s unique and rich biodiversity,
  • enhancing equity and access to nature for all Californians, and
  • advancing nature-based solutions and increased resilience of ecosystems in the face of climate change.

I try to be choosy about what I sign up for – collaborations can be both time and energy consuming, and I have a day job at Pepperwood. But when I was asked to collaborate with several of my favorite conservation colleagues to help realize this vision of “30 x 30” for California by working with sister organizations across the state, I simply couldn’t say no.

Our new California Biodiversity Network is providing technical support to help develop a vision for implementation to be released by the Department of Natural Resources early this Spring in a Pathways to 30 x 30 Report. The Network is a consortium of public and private research and conservation organizations framing the science needed to support climate and biodiversity protections for the sake of this and future generations. Thanks to you, Pepperwood is a founding member of this new network.

In addition to serving on the steering committee, my role is to co-chair the new Climate-Biodiversity Sentinel Site Roundtable, which is one of four roundtables that make up the Network. I volunteered for this role because the time is ripe to network field stations, like ours at Pepperwood, to provide an integrated picture of our state’s biodiversity and how it is responding to climate change. I firmly believe California can be a leader in demonstrating how big data can be leveraged to improve our success and reduce the costs of doing effective conservation.

In my opinion, “30 x 30” may have been bolstered to some extent by a very famous and somewhat controversial biologist, E.O. Wilson, who just passed away at the close of last year. A few years ago, Wilson published a book called Half Earth (and launched a nongovernmental organization of the same name) where he argued it was time to set aside half of the planet for nature, and the ecosystem services it provides, and to sacrifice the remaining half of the planet to human development.

When I first heard Wilson present his “half earth” concept, the way he framed it struck me as problematic. First of all, I feel we should aim to save the whole planet, including the people and cities, not just half. Second, biodiversity often aligns with cultural diversity, and people live almost everywhere, so how could this pie-dividing operation work out in an equitable way? As the field of conservation evolves, and we learn from our Indigenous partners, we’re realizing that people are an integral part of conserving the planet. But to Wilson’s credit, perhaps after he drew this 50% target as a line in the sand, it made saving 30% of the planet seem more palatable.

“30 x 30” is all about getting politicians to take action based on conservation science, but as with any ambitious agenda, there are devilish details. It’s a catchy slogan, but what exactly does it mean? Here we need to lean on science to help translate a campaign promise to policy and action. However, setting priorities for conservation that include what, where, and how much to conserve requires subjective considerations as well.

Problem one: what is your definition of conservation? Is it a park? Does it matter if that park has ATV usage or not? Are protected working lands included, like sustainable timber or ranching? Every jurisdiction that adopts “30 x 30” needs to answer this question first.

Problem two: how do you ensure equity in realizing the vision? Historically, in many cases protecting land for conservation has entailed displacing Indigenous, agricultural, and other land-based populations. How do we ensure this is not the case with this initiative? Furthermore, equitable access to these open spaces is a key concern as well. We shouldn’t conserve space for the privileged “some,” we must conserve these places for all. As of February 2022, the California Biodiversity Network, has engaged over 400 experts to provide input via roundtable workshops to define the science needed to support the Pathways to “30 x 30” report that’s to be released this spring.

Thanks to your support, Pepperwood is using this opportunity to help highlight the specific natural science needs to set goals and measure success. We’re also framing the social research needed to ensure solutions are equitable and elevate traditionally unheard voices. Our efforts will contribute to a roadmap for students, community scientists, researchers, policymakers and funders dedicated to realizing the promise of “30 x 30.”

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