Bay Nature magazineWinter 2023


6 Million Acres to Go

How California is trying to stave off the Sixth Extinction.

January 3, 2023

In October 2020, California led the nation when Governor Gavin Newsom signed on to the global effort to conserve 30 percent of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030. Known as “30×30,” the plan was spearheaded by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, with a worldwide aim to “live in harmony with nature.” As of June 2022, the U.S. is one of more than 100 countries committed to the goal. States including Nevada and Maine have followed California’s lead.

California, the nation’s most populous state, is also the country’s most biodiverse, with a variety of unique plants and animals thanks to its dynamic landscape and climate. Encircled by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Mojave Desert, and the Pacific Ocean, the Golden State abounds with isolated pockets of habitat that speed evolution to birth new forms of life. Harsh weather conditions, including prolonged dry seasons, along with regular fires have created diverse and resilient plant communities accustomed to regeneration. One-third of California’s plant species are endemic, meaning they exist nowhere else on earth. The state is blessed with trees that put both time and scale into perspective: the tallest trees in the world (redwoods), the largest (giant sequoias), and some of the oldest (ancient bristlecone pines). 

Despite this natural wealth, some ecosystems have suffered drastic declines, including one biome that covers much of California and is responsible for much of its allure: Mediterranean forests, woodland, and scrub, which has declined nearly 40 percent worldwide since the early 1990s. Filled with fire-adapted plants and hot spots of biodiversity, it occurs in only a few places in the world: California, the Mediterranean region, and small areas in South Africa, Chile, and Australia. The demise of nearly half of these iconic landscapes—the oak-speckled golden hills, their valleys filled with the screeching of red-tailed hawks—during just my own few decades of life is a staggering loss. From the slopes of Mount Tamalpais to the winding trails of Briones, this ecosystem gives us many of the Bay Area’s most beloved places and is what our communities are built upon. 

Unfortunately, the juxtaposition of a flourishing human population alongside such vibrant nonhuman life comes with a toll: nearly 1 in 4 of all threatened animal and plant species in the country live in California. The Bay Area’s California red-legged frog and California tiger salamander are among the 96 animal taxa considered by the state to be threatened or endangered. Hundreds more animal species are on the wane, and the state’s list of plants with varying degrees of vulnerable status is 155 pages long.  

Chinook guppy. (Photo by André Giraldi via iNaturalist, CC0 1.0)

The biodiversity crisis is bound up with the climate emergency, and both are related to a growing disconnection between humans and the rest of the natural world. The 30×30 effort aims to address all three issues simultaneously. “It started as a biodiversity initiative to stop the extinction crisis across the planet,” says Jen Norris, deputy secretary for biodiversity and habitat at the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA), which is leading the charge in the state. “But it was quickly recognized by all parties involved that whenever we conserve habitat and place, we can also increase access to nature, and we can use the landscape to help us combat climate change.” What 30×30 will ultimately look like for Californians and our landscape will depend on decisions made in the coming months, from questions of funding to protected area classification to issues of inclusivity for historically marginalized communities.

What’s conserved so far. Interactive maps are at CA Nature. (Map by CA Natural Resources Agency)

California isn’t far from its terrestrial goals: approximately 24 percent of the state’s land already meets the criteria 30×30 lays out. In the guiding “Pathways to 30×30 California” document released in April 2022, compiled by the CNRA after a year of planning and public input, the state’s overarching 30 percent target includes “land and coastal waters that are durably protected and managed to sustain functional ecosystems, both intact and restored, and the diversity of life that they support.” In deciding which lands qualify under this definition, CNRA managers use the USGS Gap Analysis Project (GAP) to evaluate the conservation status of lands across the state. GAP provides a classification system for biodiversity protections, ranking lands on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 representing the highest level of protection. To qualify as 30×30 land, an area needs to be fully protected with only natural disturbances allowed (GAP 1 criteria) or fully protected with management action possible and allowed (GAP 2 criteria). Land trust properties that are managed to support endangered species qualify, but working landscapes like cattle ranches don’t, unless their managers also incorporate conservation easements. The key component is a management plan that explicitly prioritizes the well-being of the native species living on site. In order for California to reach 30 percent conservation, an additional six million acres of land still need to be protected under these guidelines. 

Overall progress toward California’s 30×30 conservation goals. (CA Natural Resources Agency)

Pursuing such goals, guided by careful planning and scientifically informed decision-making, has benefits that are clear. Land conservation can support wildlife habitat and movement corridors to help species thrive, while creating recreational space for people. Protecting wetlands can help mitigate climate change impact by storing CO2 while buffering neighborhoods from sea level rise and storms. Conserving watersheds helps protect and filter our drinking water; keeping forests intact sequesters carbon and helps regulate rainfall patterns. Our ecosystems evolved over millions of years as complex interconnected living webs that could continue to support more life and provide countless benefits—if we don’t handicap them with rampant extraction and sculpt them into unrecognizable human landscapes.

Admittedly, conservation efforts haven’t always accounted for human communities’ needs to interact with the land and sea, but the 30×30 plan includes an explicit commitment to “expanding meaningful access of conserved areas to all Californians.” Early stages of planning involved consultations with more than 70 California Native American tribes, nine regional workshops, and meetings with community groups across the state. “We don’t just want wilderness areas that are far away from population centers,” says Norris. “We want people to have access to nature, especially those communities that have been traditionally left out of the conservation movement.” Advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion is one of the campaign’s central aims.

Funding for 30×30 will be distributed through existing agencies and grant programs, such as the Wildlife Conservation Board and state conservancies. A state budget addendum signed into law in September 2022 included $1.1 billion for nature-based solutions, such as 30×30, through 2025, and many grant programs are beginning to solicit proposals. This decentralized framework means many land-use decisions can continue to happen at the local level, through land trusts and conservation easements. “Our perspective is that Californians know how to protect land and habitat—we’ve been leaders in this space for a very long time,” Norris says. “To reach 2030, we don’t have to invent something new. We just need to support and accelerate the good work that’s under way.” 

To prioritize land for protection, planners are using a geographic information system (GIS) data set through a suite of tools called CA Nature that compiles information about biodiversity, climate change, and access. But balancing those factors, particularly when it comes to public access, in a state where so much land is privately owned won’t be easy. A recent study from UC Berkeley that is currently being peer-reviewed finds that privately conserved land, including land trusts, reserves, and conservation easements, is often more effective at protecting areas with high biodiversity and the potential to sequester CO2, therefore helping to lessen the effects of climate change nationwide. 

“Meeting these really ambitious targets is necessarily going to require that we thoughtfully invest in both public and private conservation, and engage different types of landowners,” says Millie Chapman, the study’s lead author and a contributing writer for 30×30. She says privately owned lands in California are critical for biodiversity and connecting landscapes. To align that aim with its public access goals, she says, the state could incentivize private land conservation in areas close to communities lacking access to green space, encouraging easement agreements predicated on allowing public access. 

Access to public lands, by county
Data: ESRI Informatics & US Census, via CA Nature.

Protecting 30 percent of coastal waters will require a different tactic, says Jenn Eckerle, acting deputy director of the Ocean Protection Council (OPC), a state policy body within CNRA that focuses on coastal and marine conservation. “Because the ocean is a public trust resource, and it belongs to all of us, the implementation [of 30×30] lends itself to a bit of a more centralized approach,” she says. Although California has 124 marine protected areas (MPAs) lining its coastline, these comprise only 16 percent of our coastal waters—and an additional half-million acres is needed to reach the 30×30 goal. Four national marine sanctuaries cover about 40 percent of coastal waters, but there the focus is primarily on banning oil and gas development of the seafloor, and they don’t yet have strong enough biodiversity protections in place to qualify as protected under 30×30, says Eckerle. To meet the criteria, explicit protections for marine life need to be implemented. Strengthening protections in the sanctuaries—through, for example,  mandatory ship speed reductions to protect whales—could be one way to move toward the 30 percent goal, Eckerle adds. Expanding the MPA network isn’t off the table either, but that won’t be discussed until next year after review of how well MPAs are meeting their goals. 

An opportunity that could receive more support is stronger tribal partnerships. In a recent example, the Wiyot Tribe, one of many that worked with the state during the 30×30 planning process, partnered with OPC to use an environmental justice grant to purchase 46 acres of culturally and ecologically significant land on the edge of Humboldt Bay. Named Mouralherwaqh (“Wolf’s House”), the land is at the heart of Wiyot ancestral territory, with 14 acres of freshwater wetlands, Sitka spruce forest, and a rich diversity of ethnobotanically important species, says Adam Canter, natural resource director for the tribe. The tribe’s plans for protecting and restoring the site meet the qualifications for protected private land under 30×30 guidelines. 

Young Wiyot dancers at the Mouralherwaqh land-return
ceremony, Aug. 19, 2022. (Photo by Caroline Griffith)

With very limited tribal lands, many Wiyot members have lost access to resources required to participate in their culture, says Michelle Vassel, the tribal administrator. The Mouralherwaqh site greatly expands access to these resources for tribal members, she says, and plans are underway to restore native plants and species associated with traditional uses. By returning land like Mouralherwaqh to tribes, “you’re both taking away the opportunity for an extractive practice to happen in that spot, but also, by introducing native-led activities, you’re increasing the opportunity for that more holistic, more balanced approach to land management,” she says.

The Mouralherwaqh land return “is a perfect example of how 30×30 can both protect habitat and wild spaces while also returning land to the Indigenous peoples that reside there,” Canter says. The state has budgeted $100 million through 2024 explicitly for partnering with California Native American tribes under the Tribal Nature-Based Solutions Program. 

The 30×30 effort is still in the early planning stages, but according to Millie Chapman, the UC Berkeley researcher, who studies ways to make more equitable decisions about conservation, it has the potential to address conservation priorities while benefiting Californians across the state. “The idea of 30×30 is catchy and simple in a lot of ways,” she says, “but when you actually dig into it, it’s quite complex and nuanced and does reflect the diversity of environmental values and environments … This is not about taking land and doing fortress conservation or something like this. It really is a reflection, I think, of the era that we live in.”

About the Author

Elyse DeFranco is a writer and ecologist who loves sharing stories about Bay Area wildlife. She is currently honing her craft and enjoying life as a banana slug at the UC Santa Cruz science communication graduate program. Read more at her website.