Protected lands necessary to accommodate wildlife migrations also translate into healthy wild and pastoral lands that figure at the center of the Biden Administration’s 30 X 30 proposal for safeguarding biological diversity and trying to slow the effects of climate change. Will this convergence become a critical focal point to help Americans wrap their heads around why addressing climate change matters and tangible things that can be done with obvious positive outcomes. Maybe so, observers say. This amazing photo courtesy Joe Riis and The Wyoming Migration Initiative. To see more of Riis’ collectible nature photography go to joeriss.com.
TODD WILKINSON: Welcome back, Tom. It definitely feels like summer and given reports from around the ecosystem, Memorial Day Weekend brought bigger than “normal” crowds to some public lands. How was it in the East?
TOM SADLER: Thanks man, it’s good to be back at it. Memorial Day wasn’t quite a deluge here; it was cold and rainy for the most part, so I think that kept people inside. It’s prime brook trout fishing time so I got out one afternoon. I didn’t see anyone where I was fishing but the guys at Mossy Creek Fly Fishing, the shop I guide for, told me more people than ever are out and getting after it.
TW: Well, don’t reveal the location because it would get hammered. Well, let’s get started. A lot has happened since our last chat. Before we get to discussing the Biden Administration’s 30×30 plan, I wanted to ask you: Was the President’s move to halt energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a surprise to you?
TW: One obvious problem is that the Trump Administration actually issued leases to private companies and if the drilling ban remains in place those leases will have to be bought out. What are your thoughts?
TS: Buying out those leases, if it comes to that, will be another item on the bill for the costs of the poor environmental policies of the previous administration. That tab is gonna be a whopper.
TS: I don’t know how many leases were sold; I don’t think it was that many as interest wasn’t that high by companies. I think high profile extraction projects in Alaska, like timbering in the Tongass, mining in the salmon-rich waters feeding Bristol Bay and drilling in ANWR have to give pause to the money boys behind those and other projects. The politics are dicey and that should be well known in the boardrooms and to investors. I’m not sure how big an appetite there is for betting on the future of hydrocarbon fuel development.
TW: Do you mean the writing is on the wall with profit to be made from renewables?
TS: The light is finally coming on for the oil and gas industry, I think. They see a major shift occurring within energy development. The industry knows policies to address climate change are coming at them fast. The private sector can be nimbler than the government and this may be the case for climate change.
For those unfamiliar with the 30 x 30 concept, it refers to protecting 30 percent of the nation’s land and waters, including oceans, by the year 2030. The goal of 30×30 is to protect those lands and waters so they can help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
TW: Speaking of which, for readers who don’t know what the 30×30 plan is, give them a short explanation and its connection to climate change policy.
NOTE: Below is a very short instructional video narrated by National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence Enric Sala and former US Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico.
TS: Protecting those lands and water will safeguard the essential ecological integrity of those places which in turn values and enhances the ecosystem services that come from nature. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is an excellent example of those services. 30 x 30 aims to give this country and the planet a chance to expand those benefits in the GYE and in other places. Plus, lots of carbon can get sequestered in healthy soil, grass and forests.
TW: You’re in the thick of it back there, in the city where 30×30 was hatched. Overall, what’s your take?
TS: Color me initially cynical because I wasn’t expecting much. In fact, I was pretty pessimistic. The concept hadn’t gotten a lot of traction on Capitol Hill. When it did, it was not well received, especially in the marine space where I work in. But reading Biden’s Climate Task Force report released this spring, I liked what I saw. They put the emphasis on locally led, collaborative efforts and full stakeholder engagement in realizing the rewards of healthy natural systems as opposed to the burdens and missed opportunities of degraded systems.
TW: When you were a young person in your 20s, you worked on Capitol Hill as a staffer for a Republican. You’ve seen many ambitious initiatives rolled out over the years by both parties only to become middling, short-lived or ineffective in the face of partisan resistance that is overturned with regime change. Are you still cynical?
TS: Oh hell yes, more so even. You just described the nature of the government beast. The federal government is where most good ideas go to die. Today it’s worse than I have ever seen in all my years in this arena.
I’m a long-time political hack and I see tribal politics ruining this country on almost all levels. Because of that, federal government is on the road to making itself irrelevant for the most part. This should serve as a caution to state and local governments, by the way.
I continue to believe the private sector and non-governmental organizations are more likely to get results by moving forward than waiting for government to solve a problem. Entrepreneurs and passionate activists can get a shit load done. Put them together and you are talking big medicine. I’m not totally pessimistic—my belief is in private sector business and the NGOs will rise to the occasion.
TW: You noted in a recent chat that 30 x 30 gets at one of the elephants in the room—using public lands to reduce or sequester carbon while acknowledging their connection as homelands to indigenous people.
TS: What I expected was a fairly dry recitation of the aspirational goals of conserving 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 and some vague “guidelines” for getting there. I settled into read it and was stunned by this paragraph in the very introduction:
“Often, our nation’s lands and waters have been venues of struggle and injustice. For well over a century, the U.S. Government waged war against Native peoples, taking their lands, killing their sacred wildlife, implementing brutal assimilation policies, and making and breaking promises. The horrors of the Civil War are still etched in the American landscape, reminders of the costs and consequences of slavery, racism, and division.”
TW: Interpret the meaning of the above.
TS: The authors’ report and action plan didn’t beat around the bush. Right out of the gate, the document pulls no punches when it comes to the historic mistreatment of Native peoples and people of color in this country. In 40-plus years in DC, I have never read a federal natural resources report that made such an unequivocal statement with such undiluted language. It made my heart break to think of the past, but soar to think of the possibilities for a better future.
The authors’ report and action plan didn’t beat around the bush. Right out of the gate, the document pulls no punches when it comes to the historic mistreatment of Native peoples and people of color in this country. In 40-plus years in DC, I have never read a federal natural resources report that made such an unequivocal statement with such undiluted language. It made my heart break to think of the past, but soar to think of the possibilities for a better future.
TW: So that readers understand, why is it important for such a declaration to be made?
TS: I want to be crystal clear about this. I see no future for conservation and natural resource policy that doesn’t acknowledge this history, especially involving tribes. And they need to be embraced as partners who bring a lot of wisdom to the table. As I said to colleagues on a call recently, “If there were nothing else in the report to commend it, this alone would be enough.”
TW: How has it been received in DC’s hyper-partisan climate, no pun intended?
TS: Now that it is out there, the expected complaints from those opposed to conservation will be given voice and coverage. If recent history continues, we can expect the spin to be less than factual and opposition based on exaggerations. To help dispel fact from speculation I encourage MoJo’s readers to actually read the report themselves and not rely on secondhand information about what the report does or doesn’t say.
TS: While none of those things are remotely accurate—the government taking control of private land, banning logging and cows—people are afraid of the unknown and there is a fear of change. And where there is fear of change, there are industries and PR firms at work behind the scenes that don’t want to alter the way they do business. We’ve seen it with climate change and the fossil fuel industry. So what happens: conspiracy theories are invented, circulated on social media and reinforced and if you challenge them then you are considered part of the conspiracy. Because details of the plan are still vague that plays into conspiracy theories
TW: In the National Geographic graphic above, based on data from USGS and Defenders, the amount of acreage that would be protected increases but the report notes that incentives will be offered to private landowners, which might not be different from the myriad ways that the US Department of Agriculture offers sensitive or subsidies to farmers and ranchers for products and land use practices.
TS: The plan would take land management in a new direction but I don’t see it as being a radical departure from how land use has been shaped by evolving federal and state policies over the last 150 years. What’s different is acknowledgment that healthy ecosystems help regulate carbon emissions.
TW: Mountain Journal views wildland and environmental issues in the West and America from the inside-out, in that we use Greater Yellowstone as a lens for pondering the implications of public policy, culture and economic shifts happening more widely. Where does 30x 30 fit into that?
TS: While our focus is rightfully on Greater Yellowstone first, sitting as I do not far from our nation’s capital, I want MoJo readers to understand the threats and opportunities that made real by this report.
TW: A lot of good reports have wound up sitting on shelves. I have stacks of them.
TS: As you pointed out to me recently, too often reports like these are applauded, then ignored and become objects of partisan ping-pong, like one administration protects a place, then another opens it up to development, then another protects it again, and so on. I also agree with you that many urban lawmakers, be they Republicans or Democrats, don’t understand or appreciate what’s at stake in Greater Yellowstone.
TW: You told me the other day this has epic potential.
TS: People I respect on the Hill are calling 30 x 30 a program worthy of FDR or LBJ. My fear: a lot of rhetoric and time and effort will go into this but prove to be of no avail and might be overturned by regime change. I’d hate to see that happen.
TW: Do you think my assertion that many lawmakers are not as ecologically literate as they ought to be is valid? They don’t seem to realize what it means to have an American version of the Serengeti in the middle of the West and it has links both to ecological health, which is a goal of 30 x 30, and a thriving multi-billion-dollar economy. All they have to do is not screw it up.
TS: I’m not convinced that many on Capitol Hill really understand how novel the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is—not only because of what still exists here but that it is the only one like it left in the Lower 48. It’s not just another region, as you say, on the other side of the next mountain range. Unfortunately, many elected officials don’t get how extraordinary it is from a wildlife standpoint. It deserves special attention and lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels need to educate themselves.
I’m not convinced that many on Capitol Hill really understand how novel the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is—not only because of what still exists here but that it is the only one like it left in the Lower 48. It’s not just another region, as you say, on the other side of the next mountain range. Unfortunately, many elected officials don’t get how extraordinary it is from a wildlife standpoint. It deserves special attention and lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels need to educate themselves.
TW: Okay, so what impresses you about 30 x 30?
TS: This report provides an important opportunity. In essence, we have the chance to petition our government to protect the things we love. Every citizen of this great nation has an opportunity to voice their opinion on how our country should manage our lands and waters both public and private.
TW: Well, that doesn’t mean elected officials are going to listen to a groundswell of citizens vs. major campaign contributors whose short-term economic interest is developing public and private lands, does it?
TS: I see 30 x 30 as an invitation to share your views on how best to address the existential threat to our wild places. It is a clarion call to action and the first time in years that an Administration acknowledges an existential threat exists. We would be fools to waste it. When we look at places like Greater Yellowstone we see something so inspirational it moves us to action, whether we live there or claim it as part of our natural heritage.
TW: So, even though you sometimes are skeptical, you think this has the potential to be a big visionary step for the country?
TS: I truly believe this is a once in a millennium moment that future generations would thank us for seizing, not unlike President Theodore Roosevelt’s Conference of Governors that was held in Washington D.C., May 13–15, 1908.
TW: Refresh our memory. What was that significant.
TW: Not to be skeptical but that was more than a century ago and some people want to tear down monuments to Roosevelt.
TS: What Roosevelt said then is still undeniably true today. We have a new chance to plan the future for the little that remains of wildness and its associated values. This is something that people of all colors and backgrounds, including Democrats and Republicans, should want to gift their children and the new America. We must clearly articulate the value of these “national resources” and not tout only their economic value, which is a mistake. What exists in Greater Yellowstone is priceless and, once gone, no amount of money can put back together again. We must clearly articulate the non-economic values of wildness and how we would like to see wild places like the Gallatin Range outside Bozeman for the next millennium.
TW: Before we call it a day, I want to note that 30 x 30 has received rave reviews from most conservation and environmental protection organizations. Surprising, perhaps, it has even won cautionary plaudits from right of center, ardent property rights and free-market groups, including PERC in Bozeman.
TS: I saw that.
TS: You’ve noted that many people don’t realize that public lands alone are insufficient to maintain biodiversity.
TW: That’s right, so the question is how can private landowners emerge as conservation heroes who stand in contrast to developers who don’t care. Of Greater Yellowstone’s nearly 23 million acres about one third comprises private land, mostly located in river valleys that provides essential wildlife habitat for species coming off of public lands.
PERC is influential with conservative private property owners and in his blog Yablonski wrote of 30 x 30: “To the partial relief of private landowners and property rights advocates, it seems the America the Beautiful campaign acknowledges that private land stewardship is the next frontier of conservation and approaches landowners as partners rather than targets. While implementation will ultimately decide the campaign’s success, for now it appears headed in the right direction.”
You identify as a conservative, Tom, do you agree with Yablonski?
TS: Thank you for calling me a conservative and not a Republican. I appreciate the distinction these days. I don’t always agree with Yablonski and his promotion of the free market that doesn’t always have the public interest in mind, but in this case I do, especially the Leopold quote. It’s the private sector, in this case private landowners, who hold the key to durable success if we are to have any hope of holding onto Greater Yellowstone’s unmatched wildlife migrations. And, it should be noted, that if you can protect wildlife migrations, which can fit in nicely with a strategy to address climate change, you are also advocating for healthier soils and grasslands, forests, and less ground being covered by sprawl, asphalt and concrete. And that ought to delight people who value ranchers, farmers and open space, as well as grizzly bears, elk herds, mule deer, pronghorn and other species.
TW: I would add, as a humble journalistic observer, that why Yablonski’s take is important has to do with the fact that without the involvement of nature-sensitive private property owners, especially the larger ones, there is no way that wildlife migration corridors will persist. Free-market, anti-planning and zoning approaches, as adopted by the Gallatin County Commission, may result in us losing key elk migrations in the Gallatin Valley and sprawl inevitably means higher taxes for citizens and loss of quality of life associated with nature. The experts I’ve spoken with say that anyone who believes protection can only happen through markets or, on the other hand, only through planning and zoning, is being foolhardy. Your thoughts?
TS: The engagement and support for conservation by private property owners and businesses, which ironically brings together goals of PERC and 30 X 30, is essential. I see lots of points of possible convergence between entities that previously have been in opposition to each other. That’s the good news. For all the reasons we just talked about and I’ll be blunt, the country is screwed without these points of convergence of common interests. We’re gonna fail if the rhetoric of ideologues sabotages this. Fortunately the Biden Administration acknowledges the importance of working from the ground up but it also necessarily means having a populace that is ecologically literate and that’s where journalism comes in—to be a watchdog against mischief and nonsense.
TW: The majority of lands in Greater Yellowstone are federal public lands, meaning they belong to all Americans and not just to local communities which often are dominated by people pushing short-term agendas for self-enrichment. Of our vast readership, 40 percent is within the Greater Yellowstone region and 60 percent beyond Do you think all citizens, including travelers, have a role to play?
TS: Absolutely. Politicians at all levels respond to what I call noisy, not meek, pressure, advocacy that is civilly expressed yet unrelenting. You can’t expect any elected official to read your mind. What impresses me about MoJo readers is that they understand how extraordinary Greater Yellowstone is and they are passionate about wanting it protected. I would encourage our readers to take a few moments and seriously consider why having wildlife-rich regions like this matters. If you want to have private land habitat protected, you need to be an advocate for the survival of ranchers and farmers.
TW: You told me beforehand that you wanted to mention something.
TS: Yes, I want their passions reflected in MoJo stories. After readers write letters to elected leaders from city council members and county commissioners right up to their senators and governors, they ought to also send them to Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland and demand that she respond.