2023 has been a remarkable year for the conservation of U.S. public lands and waters, with historic actions ranging from the White House’s first-ever Conservation in Action Summit to the nation’s first Ocean Justice Strategy to the designation of four new national monuments for ecological, cultural, and access benefits. The Biden administration has successfully moved from talk to action in demonstrating its commitment to safeguarding lands that tell the histories of the nation, protect clean air and water for communities, and host increasingly vulnerable ecosystems.
This conservation progress is seen most clearly through numerous new monument designations and other protections as well as historic funding that has been channeled to local, Tribal, state, and national conservation programs. Not only is the administration protecting valuable landscapes, it is doing so with Indigenous-led conservation at the forefront, with co-stewardship agreements increasing from 20 to 200 this year. Together, these actions have advanced the country’s progress toward President Joe Biden’s “America the Beautiful” initiative and goal of conserving 30 percent of the nation’s lands, waters, and ocean by 2030.
A new CAP analysis finds that in the Biden administration’s first three years, it has conserved—or is in the process of conserving—more than 24 million acres of public lands across the country and has channeled more than $18 billion dollars toward conservation projects. About half of that land—more than 12.5 million acres—was conserved in 2023 alone, marking a dramatic increase in the administration’s pace of land conservation.
At the same time, the country has seen record-breaking climate events in 2023, including deadly extreme heat in the Southwest, the Colorado River drought, and millions of people under air quality alerts due to wildfire smoke. Climate change and the nature crisis are putting communities, Indigenous cultures, wildlife, and economies at risk. To meet the needs of this moment, President Biden must continue to prioritize environmental protections in his administrative agenda. Conservation is a proven defense against the changing climate and it’s also consistently and overwhelmingly popular among the American public. The administration should not be shy in utilizing every tool at its disposal as it approaches 2024. Doing so will put communities first and keep the country on track toward achieving “30×30.”
Protecting public lands has been a top priority for the administration
The Biden administration designated four new national monuments in 2023—three of which preserve crucial histories of historically marginalized communities, with the fourth serving as a bridge for nature access in its community. Meanwhile, the administration has withdrawn sensitive lands from mining access, taken steps to prioritize conservation and land health on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, and initiated new avenues for conserving lands in states where oil and gas have a strong foothold.
But the largest land conservation move this year was the administration’s return to President Barack Obama’s National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) Integrated Activity Plan for the Western Arctic, which closed nearly 11 million acres to oil and gas leasing. While this was not a new protection under Biden, it restored protections that were removed under the Trump administration.
In 2023 alone, the Biden administration protected more than 12.5 million acres of public lands as national monuments, mineral withdrawals, wildlife refuges, and more. That means that the administration conserved nearly the same amount of lands in one year as it did during its first two years, demonstrating the increased rate of administrative protections. This analysis accounts for lands protected through the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and does not cover proposed conservation measures in pending resource management plans, which would increase the total amount of areas pending protections.*TABLE 1
In the year ahead, the president should focus on finalizing strong protections to conserve more lands through ongoing rulemakings such as the BLM’s Public Lands Rule and Western Arctic conservation rule finalizing conservation measures in proposed BLM management plans restoring protections for tens of millions of acres in Alaska critical for wildlife and Alaska Native communities keeping up the administration’s ambitious and widely supported pace of protections and prioritizing the conservation of wildlife, community access, cultural connection, and outdoor recreation over exploitative industries that already have too strong a grip on the nation’s public lands.
National monuments can be key to the administration’s conservation success
National monument designations are one way the president is securing locally led landscape protection wins. For more than a century, the Antiquities Act of 1906 has been a popular bipartisan tool for presidents to expeditiously protect lands with scientific or historical significance. It has been used to safeguard some of the country’s most iconic sites, including Bears Ears, Muir Woods, and Stonewall national monuments. Even the Grand Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands, and Olympic national parks started as national monument designations.
Thus far during his term, President Biden has designated five new national monuments and restored two monuments whose protections were rolled back under the Trump administration. This year alone, he designated Avi Kwa Ame, Castner Range, Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon, and Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley national monuments. Including his 2022 designation of Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, President Biden has protected nearly 1.5 million acres of land through new national monuments and another 2 million acres through restored national monuments.
The president is now within striking distance of protecting the most acreage of U.S. public lands as monuments of any recent president in their first term. According to an analysis from the Center for Western Priorities, if President Biden protects an additional 215,000 acres in his first term, he will set the record of monument protection by acreage among recent presidents, going back at least six presidencies.
Many community-led proposals could help the president achieve this goal. Potential monuments that could be designated or expanded include the Great Bend of the Gila, 440,000 acres of biodiversity in Arizona Berryessa Snow Mountain, 4,000 acres important to local Tribes in California that should be expanded to include Molok Luyuk San Gabriel Mountains, 109,000 acres for nature access and connectivity in California and Chuckwalla, 660,000 acres of wildlife habitat and connectivity in California. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and other department officials have already visited many of these sites. In fact, the BLM’s deputy director attended a public hearing with the San Gabriel community on December 13, where locals actively asked that the president use his power under the Antiquities Act to protect the area. Each of these sites are prime opportunities for near-term designations and a surefire means to solidify the president’s conservation legacy.
The nation has seen record conservation funding across the past three years
As the Biden administration approaches its three-year mark, it has also set new records for conservation funding in a president’s first term. Specifically, a new CAP analysis finds that in its administration’s first three years, it has invested more than $18 billion toward federal, state, local, and Tribal land conservation efforts in all 50 states. No other president has channeled as much toward conservation projects across the nation. This year alone, President Biden funded more than $7.5 billion toward conservation through the DOI, beating out each of his own annual conservation funding sums for his first two years in office.

Notably, while there are many additional conservation wins outside of the DOI, this analysis takes account of most funding through the department.

Among other programs, the Biden administration has significantly increased funding toward the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s America the Beautiful Challenge grants, which support ecosystem restoration projects, many of which center collaborative conservation and equitable access to nature. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also recently announced its first round of Inflation Reduction Act grantees for farm bill conservation programs at $1.7 billion in awards for climate-smart agriculture and conservation, which is not included in this funding total.

The Biden administration affirmed its commitment to environmental justice by channeling funding toward projects in historically marginalized communities that often bear the burdens of pollution and experience the least access to nature. Funding went toward projects that aim to conserve and restore ecosystems and wetlands, clean up abandoned and orphaned wells, target vulnerable species habitat restoration and connectivity, reclaim abandoned mine lands, and more.

The administration is effectively distributing funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act while focusing on increasing access to funding for rural and Tribal communities. Moreover, it has placed an emphasis on funding ecosystem restoration and water infrastructure in a year that saw climate change-induced habitat destruction and drought. This record funding demonstrates the administration’s continued response to the needs of communities across the country, ensuring that treasured community resources are supported.

In addition to prioritizing conservation funding outcomes, the Biden administration has engaged with and helped rural communities access federal resources, while also coordinating federal programs in ways that deliver multiple benefits when conservation investments are made. Notably, the Rural Partners Network, Economic Recovery Corps, Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers Program, and Local Assistance and Tribal Consistency Fund build local capacity, reduce barriers to accessing federal resources, and align project benefits with locally led economic development goals.

Conclusion

The Biden administration’s remarkable conservation progress is exciting and hard to overstate. Yet there remain many opportunities in 2024 to solidify additional wins for conservation. These include finalizing strong conservation regulations, denying the Ambler Access Project, and designating widely supported community-led national monument proposals. Since the Biden administration took office and announced the America the Beautiful initiative, it has worked to meet community needs through new protections and funding for conservation. Now, it is crucial that President Biden continue to take bold conservation action in order to address climate change and the nature crisis and to solidify his commitments to preserve and protect the vital landscapes of this country for years to come.

The authors would like to thank Jenny Rowland-Shea, Mariel Lutz, Nicole Gentile, Drew McConville, Mark Haggerty, Steve Bonitatibus, Bill Rapp, Beatrice Aronson, and the local and national conservation leaders who are building impactful and equitable conservation solutions every day.

Sam Zeno is CAP Research Associate, Conservation Policy.


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