As long-time environmental funders focused on clean water in the Delaware River watershed, we are optimistic about the many areas of shared interest between the Foundation’s philanthropic investments and the Administration’s goals related to the environment. Last week, my colleague Chris Kieran wrote about our region’s farming industry in relation to President Biden’s goals around regenerative agriculture. This post focuses on opportunities around land protection through the proposed 30 by 30 Program.
Earlier this year as part of his climate plan, President Biden unveiled a sweeping goal to protect 30 percent of the nation’s lands by the year 2030, known as the “30-by-30” Initiative. The rationale for this program comes in part from recommendations for what’s needed to fight climate change as we continue to burn fossil fuels and release carbon into the atmosphere, as well as lose forests and natural ecosystems to development: natural landscapes and forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere and help to prevent flooding and other climate change effects, and 30 percent land (and marine) protection has gained scientific acceptance in recent decades as a minimum baseline for making our habitats and ecosystems around the world resilient. However, only about 12 percent of U.S. lands are currently protected – although we are a little ahead of the game here in the Delaware River watershed, where preserved lands exceed 25 percent(1). And we are actively working hard with our partners to grow that number. For the past eight years our program and grantees have been analyzing and prioritizing which lands in the basin can best contribute to maintaining and improving water quality, to benefit 15 million people who depend on this source for drinking water, as well as the aquatic health of the watershed.
LAND PROTECTION: DOING DOUBLE DUTY
Protecting forests can do “double duty” by helping to maintain clean water (which is primarily the Foundation’s interest), while providing climate and other benefits at the same time:
- Offsetting impacts from a changing climate: protected forests captures carbon in the atmosphere, “cleaning” our air while providing the oxygen we need to live.
- Downstream flood relief: forested landscapes reduce stormwater runoff and flooding, which is increasingly likely due to climate change.
- Habitat resiliency: protecting natural habitats helps species to withstand climate change impacts.
- Direct heat relief: trees and forests provide shading and direct relief from extreme heat.
- Human well-being: immersing yourself in nature contributes to healthier mental and physical states – something we might all appreciate now more than ever after this past year of extreme COVID-19 stress. Where natural lands can be protected in close proximity to major metro areas, they also offer important green space access for millions of people, which in turn helps drive local economies.
PRIMED & READY TO LEAN IN ON 30 BY 30
As the Administration advances its 30 by 30 program, the Mid-Atlantic offers great opportunities to harness and expand work already underway to protect critical natural lands that can contribute to this ambitious protection goal. In our watershed, we’ve already invested more than $125 million to support a major nonprofit-driven effort called the Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI) that protects mature forests and restores agricultural land focused on protecting and restoring water quality.
The strength of this Initiative comes from dozens of capable partner organizations who know their local communities well and have experience with successfully protecting land and working with farmers on best practices for their working lands. With this structure in place, including strong land trusts who have already developed pipelines of priority lands eligible for conservation, the Delaware Basin is primed to fast-track land protection efforts to significantly help deliver on the Administration’s 30 by 30 goals; and as my colleague Nathan Boon noted in his previous post, this pipeline of eligible projects could provide job opportunities through programs like the Civilian Climate Corps. Although the prominence of small land parcel ownership typical of the Mid-Atlantic might appear at first glance to be challenging, we’re already working with our grantees to overcome such hurdles. For example, we’re supporting grantees to experiment with forest carbon co-ops which can aggregate small forest parcels, protecting them in perpetuity and expanding carbon uptake as the trees continue to grow.
The Delaware Basin is primed to fast-track land protection efforts to significantly help deliver on the Administration’s 30 by 30 goals; and this pipeline of eligible projects could provide new job opportunities.
READY TO DO MORE
DRWI can act quickly to scale up protection of critical landscapes if additional federal funding is directed to our watershed. With $12 million in capital funding from the Foundation, the DRWI partnership has already preserved more than 28,000 acres of mature forested lands along headwater streams in the basin since 2014 and leveraged more than $75 million from matching sources. And we’ve committed an additional $8 million that could preserve more than 18,000 more forest acres in the next 3 years.
Multiple avenues exist through which additional public funding for land protection could be funneled. The Forest Service’s Highlands Conservation Act is an existing federal funding vehicle that can be expanded, as is the Forest Legacy Fund. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Delaware River Conservation Act was created to support this region, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund can be leveraged along with many U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service programs. Moreover, there are already dozens of state, county and municipal land protection grant programs in each of our four Delaware River watershed states that also offer the opportunity for easy expansion of land protection funding.
Our hats are off to the Biden Administration for their far-sighted vision of the 30 by 30 Initiative and enlightenment about the multiple environmental and human benefits such an approach can deliver – not only in our watershed, but for the Mid-Atlantic region, the country, and around the world.
Each week, my colleagues will share different perspectives on areas of overlapping interest between our Watershed Protection funding and the Administration. Stay tuned for more in this series.
(1) Statistic according to WeConservePA, 5/21/2021.