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U.S. to conserve 30% of land & water. What will it mean for public and private lands?

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SciLine Interviewed: Dr. Justin Brashares, a professor of environmental science, policy, and management at the University of California, Berkeley. He discussed what achieving the national 30% goal might mean for various parts of the country; what counts as “conserved,” and ways this goal can be achieved; how conservation can protect biodiversity, and why that matters; the economic, social, and health benefits of conservation; and how unstable ecosystems gave rise to the current pandemic – and why the next one might originate in the United States.

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Interview with SciLine

Can you discuss how the 30 x 30 goal might be achieved, and the conversation tactics that might be used?


JUSTIN BRASHARES: Absolutely. The 30 x 30 goal is going to require a great diversity of approaches. And as you know, it’s an incredibly ambitious goal. I would argue, and many others have argued, perhaps the most ambitious conservation vision in the history of the U.S. and possibly the world. So it’s going to require an incredible diversity of approaches. And that’s going to range from, you know, the creation of national monuments of sort of more traditional protected areas, but it’s going to have to include the engagement also of private lands and what are often called working lands, so agricultural landscapes and other forms of land that are currently held for forestry and other practices but held in private hands. And I think particularly when you consider the scale of 30 x 30 and the fact that to reach 30% particularly of land conservation in the U.S. means going from 12% of current land protection and adding 18 more percent. And that’s an area equivalent to four Californias or basically larger than the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States. So there’s going to be no one-size-fits-all solution, and it’s going to require every trick and every tool in the conservation toolkit.

What counts as “conserved” for this goal?


JUSTIN BRASHARES: The question of what is conserved is going to be the trillion-dollar question and the execution of a 30 x 30 vision. And so far, conserved – the term conserved in the discussion around 30 x 30, both federally and with the various states that have committed to their own 30 x 30 plans, conserved has really followed traditional protected area designations. And so the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – called IUCN – is sort of the global authority on classification of protection. And so far, most of the 30 x 30 discussion has fit within traditional national park kind of thinking, what the IUCN would call Category I and II. But more and more, the discussion is going to need to include other designations of conservation. And in the classification of IUCN, that would likely be Categories V and VI, which include or allow for sustainable human use of natural areas. And I think ultimately, you know, again, given the scale and the amount of area that needs to be included in – to actually approach a 30 x 30 goal, we’re going to be looking at many different definitions of conservation. And I think simply – the vision will simply not be realized in the U.S. if it only adheres to very strict definitions of conserved.

What is biodiversity, and how can conservation protect it?


JUSTIN BRASHARES: Really what biodiversity refers to is the incredible diversity from the level of genes, so genetic diversity that gives us the variation in crops and gives us the basis for a huge number of the pharmaceuticals that have changed our lives for the better. But biodiversity also scales up through the diversity of species to the diversity of ecosystems. And very importantly, biodiversity includes all of what are called ecosystem services. That is, the goods and functions that nature provides for us free, essentially, as long as we are able to protect it in some way. And so again, those ecosystem services on which we rely so heavily include things like water purification and carbon sequestration or storage of carbon and also regulation of diseases. And we’re seeing very acutely, of course, in the last year what happens when unhealthy ecosystems create new disease outbreaks or in this case, you know, a – what we would call a zoonotic pandemic. That is a disease that is jumping from wild life to humans and, of course, with devastating effect.

Does conservation provide any economic, social, or health benefits to humans?


JUSTIN BRASHARES: Conservation is essential to preserving those multiple layers or dimensions of biodiversity that are so critical to sustaining our health and economies. So we simply – we know from more than a century of research that as we degrade or develop natural areas and we – our impact is to simplify those areas. And by simplify, I mean we’re removing species, we’re reducing diversity. And in the process, we’re impacting or limiting the potential of those areas to provide us the services on which we so depend, including clean air, clean water, pollinators for our crops, regulation of diseases, diseases like Lyme disease that is a – causes multibillion dollar, multi – billions of dollars of damage in the U.S. or impacts on human health. So conservation is – you know, we tend to associate it in the U.S. with protected areas and, you know, outdoor activities, but of course, it’s so – it goes so far beyond that to actually ensuring sort of the future of these services and natural resources on which we so dearly depend.

Could a pandemic like COVID-19 originate in the United States, and if so, how could that happen?


JUSTIN BRASHARES: We’ve certainly have had, you know, many disease outbreaks in the U.S. over the – you know, over the history of our nation. And it’s very possible and some would say likely that we’ll see – continue to see pandemics, COVID-like pandemics, which is a terrifying prospect, but that we’ll continue to see those emerging globally and that there’s no reason why we wouldn’t expect something to emerge or be able to emerge like that in the U.S. You know, generally, tropical areas have greater diversity in everything. They have greater diversity in species, and they have greater diversity in pathogens as well. So it’s not a fluke that we see so many disease or pandemics sort of emerging from more tropical areas. But with climate change and global change generally, we’re seeing whole new frontiers of disease dynamics. Certainly in the U.S., we’re seeing malaria spread through the U.S. We’re seeing new pathogens arriving as the U.S. warms. And that’s going to be a continuing trend. And we’ve already seen, you know, dangerous pathogens emerging from our factory farming industry. And that’s another place where many disease ecologists or epidemiologists predict there will continue to be transmission of diseases from livestock to humans and to wildlife and back.

How do you think we can execute the 30 x 30 plan successfully?


JUSTIN BRASHARES: 30 x 30 in particular is an amazing – you know, is a powerful and unprecedented opportunity to bring Americans together around their love of the outdoors, of recreation, of nature. And that is a truly bipartisan passion. And we’ve seen this from a range of studies. And I think what makes 30 x 30 so important and potentially is exciting is that it has the ability or it has the potential to really bring people together around these shared values. But it also could go horribly wrong. It could become incredibly divisive and feel like a federal land grab if it isn’t able to really execute a vision that is inclusive and a vision that allows for multiple perspectives and multiple definitions of what it means to conserve.

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