California’s Racist Conservation Fantasy

The state needs new conservation the least, but demands to preserve more land from development will disproportionately harm younger, largely non-white residents the most.

California is one of the few states that has embraced the Biden administration’s 2021 proposal to conserve 30 percent of all U.S. lands and waters by 2030, the so-called 30x30 agenda. Environmentalists claim that the agenda, which aims to reach 50 percent land conservation by 2050, is a “science-driven” climate change imperative.

It is anything but that.

In California, for example, the initiative will do far more to harm millions of younger, largely non-white residents than it will do to help the environment—all while needlessly pandering to the state’s overwhelmingly white, older activists. In that state, land and water are already heavily conserved; 50 percent of the state’s open land is permanently preserved in public ownership, 2 percent is covered by conservation easements, and 53 percent of state territorial waters are in marine protected areas.

While new conservation may be important in states like Texas, where 97 percent of the land is not required to be managed as conservation lands, California has far more pressing challenges. Top of mind is the need to alleviate the crushing housing and energy burdens afflicting the nation’s largest population in poverty, a problem resulting from a decades-long housing shortage which California Governor Gavin Newsom concluded must be solved by building 3.5 million new homes. New homes need schools, parks, retail, employment, and infrastructure—none of which can be added at sufficient scale in the "infill" parking lots of struggling malls.

Californian activists have nevertheless rallied for more conservation by narrowing the definition of currently protected land and manufacturing a conservation “crisis.” Permanently preserved natural lands with full endangered species protections are counted as unprotected if any human activities they dislike, such as mining, off-road vehicles, grazing, or logging, could ever occur. Only land they decree as managed for biodiversity is truly considered “conserved”. Even though state agencies and conservation experts admit this approach is subjective, imperfect, and erroneous, it makes millions of acres of California land previously considered permanently preserved disappear and creates an illusory conservation shortfall.

30x30 figure 1
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Figure 1 and 2 : California Protected Areas Database Map of Publicly Owned Protected Lands (top) versus California 30x30 Program Conserved Lands Map (bottom)

In much of the rest of the country, private land really does predominate, and twice the area of Texas would be required to conserve 30 percent of the nation. Not surprisingly, the national 30x30 effort has been largely stalled by opposition from farmers, ranchers, and conservative state leaders.

But in California, where the initiative is needed least, it has not only found a receptive audience but has also been deemed too weak. California’s activists demand that even more state lands must be managed for conservation purposes only (aka no agriculture, no lithium mining, no wildfire forest management, and for sure no new people who need homes or jobs or schools or recreational playfields). Even if 30x30 results in no new land ever being protected, the manufactured conservation crisis has provided activists with yet another basis on which to oppose new housing, manufacturing, other non-keyboard job growth, or transportation improvements. Activists are already lobbying state agencies to restrict public access and exclude “industrial agriculture” or fire management from the state’s conserved land accounts.

The result is a giant, statewide urban growth boundary where no new development, agriculture, mining, biofuel, or logging can occur without significant regulatory and legal risk. California’s existing urban areas are already the most crowded in the country; on the borders of those pockets of density, white activists squabble about whether conservation lands should only restore native plants or be allowed to use fast-growing non-native trees and better sequester carbon. Meanwhile, inside urban bounds, the state’s less affluent, heavily minority-leaning, and impoverished communities are increasingly battered by unaffordable housing and other costs made worse by an inability to expand the state’s urban footprint.

It is particularly galling that these same conservation activists also want to cover millions of acres of land with solar panels and windmills, which will spur massive mining and industrial growth outside of the state. This glaring inconsistency is typically waved off with activists’ claims that “our science shows” that all this will work out.

That is fantasy. California’s environmental activists are degrading California’s natural landscapes on a historic scale while using a fabricated conservation crisis to tighten the state’s environmental policy noose further and choke off future housing and jobs needed by California’s poor and minority residents.

The California Air Resources Board concluded that only 6% of California land was developed for residential and commercial development, a number that is inclusive of infrastructure. States with large populations typically develop over 10% of their land; New Jersey has developed 35%. Even adding 1% more land to accommodate the housing, employment, public service, and infrastructure needs of Californians would release 1,000,000 acres of land for the next generation of planned, sustainable development, all of which would be subject to the world’s most stringent environmental protections, and water and energy conservation standards. California has not “sprawled ” for a generation: its mixed-used, master-planned communities marry housing and jobs and schools and parks with safe and sustainable buildings and infrastructure and multi-modal transportation solutions.

California already has the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the nation: keeping Californians, thereby making more space for them, is also better for climate change than exporting its residents and jobs to higher GHG emitting states and countries.

Equity—environmental justice and civil rights—supports social stability, democracy, liberal freedoms, and enough prosperity to conquer the challenges of climate change. All of these goals are weakened by a no-growth land grab that exacerbates the state's housing and poverty crises.

California doesn’t need 30x30 on steroids to respond to a manufactured “conservation crisis,” it just needs a 7% solution to restore homeownership and upward mobility to its now majority-minority population and crawl out of the nation’s poverty and homelessness cellar.