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Stanford experts discuss California’s 30x30 initiative – one of the most ambitious conservation efforts ever

Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

Aerial view of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Aerial view of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. A state initiative aims to protect plant and animal life across 30 percent of California’s most critical land and water resources by 2030, including urban green spaces. | Steve Proehl / Getty Images

One of the most ambitious conservation efforts ever, California’s 30×30 initiative aims to protect plant and animal life across 30 percent of the state’s most critical land and water by 2030. Gov. Gavin Newsom has described the plan as an important step toward ensuring community well-being, equity, and economic sustainability while staving off mega wildfires, droughts, and other climate change-driven threats. Stanford University experts have informed 30×30 through their participation in public outreach sessions, meetings with the plan’s leadership and a letter of support signed by faculty members from all seven of the university’s schools. Stanford students recently completed research projects to inform the initiative’s implementation.

On the heels of the plan’s rollout April 22, biologists Elizabeth Hadly and Mary Ruckelshaus and environmental law expert Deborah Sivas discuss keys to its success, potential impacts on land owners, legal precedents for federal and international plans with similar conservation goals, and related issues.


How would California’s 30×30 initiative improve equity, access, and inclusion, particularly for historically overlooked communities?

Ruckelshaus: In addition to natural areas, the state of California is considering working landscapes, such as farms, and urban green spaces, such as parks, in its vision for 30×30. Prioritizing lands based on their ecosystem services – the values they provide – allows us to map who benefits, as well as give credit to good forest stewards, sustainable farmers, and other providers of landscape benefits. It also allows us to prioritize socioeconomically vulnerable or underserved populations.

Sivas: The initiative could play a significant role in restorative justice for Native American tribes that have been largely dispossessed of ancestral lands by protecting sacred areas that support abundant biodiversity and perhaps giving tribes some meaningful role in managing these areas.


What does conserving biodiversity have to do with protecting us from climate change-related extreme events, such as wildfires, droughts, and sea level rise? And what are the economic benefits?

Hadly: By understanding and anticipating which species will best survive in future climates, we can better protect the new places, or pre-adapt existing places, for drought or fire. By reimagining which crops will flourish in the future, we can prepare for agricultural transitions that will drive our future economy instead of hindering it. Tourism to our state parks accounts for over $4 billion per year, agriculture is a $100 billion economic activity, and real estate and its supporting sectors amount to over $600 billion. The most desirable places to live and work for some of our largest companies are in California. Without nature, California could lose so much of that on which our economy depends.

Ruckelshaus: Nature-based approaches can help target strategically located protection and restoration of ecosystems such as wetlands or marshes. Coastal marshes can attenuate wave energy from sea level rise and storms that causes damaging flooding and erosion. Intact forests better retain soil moisture, which reduces fire intensity and extent. Vegetated landscapes maintain processes that recharge surface water flows and subsurface aquifers. In turn, these interventions will provide greater yields of clean water, agricultural and forestry products, more opportunities for nature-based recreation, reduced pollution treatment costs, and other economic returns.


Should farmers, ranchers, and other private land landowners have any reason for concern about the provisions of 30×30?

Hadly: Quite the contrary. Small-scale farmers, ranchers, and private landowners are some of the best protectors of biodiversity in California. The 30×30 process includes input from private landowners because their knowledge about the land and ocean and how both are changing is extraordinarily valuable.

Ruckelshaus: Planning guided by diverse objectives from landowners and other stakeholders can guide priorities toward win-win opportunities, where landowners experience greater productivity from agriculture and are compensated for practices aimed at improving public goods. In cases where trade-offs in public and private goals might occur, a stakeholder engagement process can help improve fair and equitable outcomes.


How can academic knowledge and other forms of knowledge, such as citizen science, inform the implementation of 30×30 and related decision-making?

Sivas: So much of what passes for science in government agency decision-making is actually outcome driven and often funded by private entities that stand to benefit monetarily from unsustainable exploitation. Academic scientists can help ensure that decisions are scientifically informed rather than agenda-driven. Citizen scientists also have a role to play because local communities, particularly tribal communities, often understand the landscape in a way that government agencies never can.

Ruckelshaus: Implementation of 30×30 strategies will require quantification of the magnitude of ecosystem benefits, such as securing clean water; reducing fire, heat, and flooding hazards; producing food; and providing access to nature for city dwellers. Such quantification requires research collaborations spanning ecology, hydrology, economics, agronomy, forestry, finance, and other disciplines.

Hadly: We may not be able to prioritize, say, protection of Joshua trees over redwood trees, or freshwater rivers over marine fisheries, but data will inform us what places, species, connections, and ecosystems might be slipping through the cracks. Charismatic preserves, species, and services are recognized more easily, yet biodiversity preservation should consider more than just popularity. Wrestling with big questions about forest management, agricultural resilience, habitat connectivity, development, and climate change adaptation requires engagement of scientists, citizens, and government.


Legally speaking, why has it been so difficult to strategically factor natural assets into our planning, policies, and financial investments until now? If enacted successfully, what legal precedents would 30×30 set for the U.S. and/or other countries?

Sivas: The market values our natural assets in purely financial terms, which generally means appropriation and use by the highest bidder. Many or most of our natural resources laws reinforce this outcome because they were adopted at a time when the prevalent societal view was that resources should be put to productive use for the benefit of humans. By successfully implementing a 30 x 30 process, California has the opportunity to lead a really different way of thinking about the natural world and how we should steward these dwindling and vulnerable assets into the future.

Hadly is the Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor in Environmental Biology in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, a faculty director of Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, a member of Bio-X, and a professor, by courtesy, of geological sciences. Ruckelshaus is a senior research scientist and consulting professor at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and managing director of the Natural Capital Project. Sivas is the Luke W. Cole Professor of Environmental Law and director of Stanford’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program and its Environmental Law Clinic; she is also a senior fellow with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

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