There are multiple overlapping crises devastating the plants, animals, and other life forms that call Earth home. Climate change is an obvious, urgent, and existential threat. At the same time, the climate crisis is exacerbating a worldwide extinction event. Biodiversity is declining faster than at any other time in human history, largely because of human interference with nature. According to a recent UN global assessment of biodiversity, “An average of around 25% of species in assessed animal and plant groups are threatened . . . suggesting that around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss.” IPBES, Summary for Policymakers of the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, at 11–12 (Nov. 25, 2019). The primary drivers of biodiversity loss, in addition to climate change, include land use change, pollution, and invasive species. With a global rate of species extinction that is “already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years,” the challenge of preserving biodiversity is both urgent and existential. Id.
The biodiversity crisis is a global emergency that requires action at international, national, regional, and local levels. Powerful competing interests, such as urban land development and mining operations, make species protection a contentious policy goal. In the Midwest, intense agricultural production is largely responsible for the disappearance of prairie and wetland habitats and the plants and animals that rely on those ecosystems. This article will discuss conservation challenges and opportunities in the Corn Belt, using Iowa as a case study. It will discuss the federal “30 by 30” (“30×30”) conservation initiative, conservation tools for private working lands, land use in Iowa and barriers to increasing conservation there, and opportunities for cultivating conservation in the number one corn-producing state in the country.
Conserving 30% of Lands and Waters by 2030
The Biden administration has identified biodiversity loss as a crisis, and in 2021, it unveiled an ambitious goal to conserve at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. Exec. Order No. 14,008, 86 Fed. Reg. 7627, § 216 (Jan. 27, 2021). Several months later, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) issued its first America the Beautiful report, laying out the administration’s framework for achieving the 30×30 goal. DOI, Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful 10 (2021) (hereinafter America the Beautiful Report). The America the Beautiful initiative (hereinafter 30×30) relies primarily on supporting and expanding existing conservation efforts. The Biden administration did not create any new legal requirements or direct federal agencies to create new regulatory programs to achieve the 30×30 goal.
In the first two years of 30×30, federal agencies have focused on establishing a baseline of currently conserved land and developing strategies for conservation on federally owned land. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is developing the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, a map-based tool to assess currently conserved lands and plan for future investments, but it has not yet been released. USGS, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: Ecosystem Restoration American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas (July 28, 2022). One significant challenge to identifying the amount of land conserved is that the administration has not defined what qualifies as “conservation” for purposes of the initiative. Michael Blumm & Greg Allen, 30 by 30, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and Tribal Cultural Lands, 52 Env’t L. Rep. 10366 (2022). Without a definition, it is difficult to know what land uses count toward the 30×30 goal. When land is managed for multiple uses, proper classification can be especially challenging. For instance, could a golf course with restored wetland water hazards qualify as conserved land? Environmental groups continue to advocate for clear definitions that ensure lands included will further the goal of increased biodiversity and species protection. Alison Chase, Meeting America’s Conservation Goals, Nat. Res. Def. Council (Mar. 30, 2023).
Land values are high, particularly for prime farm ground, and there is an aversion to government interference with property rights or the economic opportunities provided by fertile soil.
The largest barrier to increased land conservation is resources. Funding is necessary for purchasing land and property rights, providing technical assistance for conservation practice design and installation, and ongoing practice maintenance and monitoring. During the first two years of 30×30, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act have provided a significant influx of resources for agency programs related to 30×30. For instance, the Department of the Interior received $1.4 billion for Ecosystem Restoration and Resilience projects. DOI, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Supports Ecosystem Restoration (2023). Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has used infrastructure funding for locally led watershed protection projects. Press Release, USDA, President Biden, USDA Announce $420 Million Investment in Watershed Infrastructure Projects to Benefit Rural and Historically Underserved Communities (Apr. 22, 2022).
While 30×30 does not create new laws or regulations, it does encourage implementation and creative use of current laws. The federal government’s authority to protect wildlife stems primarily from the Endangered Species Act (ESA), 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531 et seq., which has been instrumental in recovering species like the bald eagle, grizzly bear, and black-footed ferret. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is responsible for implementing the ESA, including listing and classifying species as endangered or threatened, designating critical habitat, developing and implementing recovery plans for listed species, and working with nonfederal partners to develop conservation plans. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serv., Endangered Species (2023). According to the FWS, two-thirds of federally listed species have at least some habitat on private land. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serv., Habitat Conservation Plans (2023). This fact underscores the importance of private land conservation in the effort to save the nation’s biodiversity.
Conservation on Midwest Agricultural Working Lands
The Midwest is a critical region for biodiversity, and it should not be overlooked in national conservation efforts. The Mississippi River and its tributaries are ecologically and culturally significant, providing habitat for migratory birds, monarch butterflies, and many other keystone species. Agricultural pollution in the Mississippi creates an annual “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where dying algae consume all the nearby oxygen, making it impossible for sea life to survive. The middle portion of the country is a critical corridor for hundreds of keystone species.
To successfully protect biodiversity, the nation must invest in land conservation in the Corn Belt. Federally driven conservation efforts are more difficult in this region, however. There is much less publicly owned land than in the West, and agriculture is a key economic driver. Land values are high, particularly for prime farm ground, and there is an aversion to government interference with property rights or the economic opportunities provided by fertile soil.
The Biden administration’s strategy for private land conservation focuses on locally led, partnership-driven, voluntary efforts. The 30×30 initiative lists seven key principles by which the federal government will facilitate and incentivize conservation, including the following:
- Pursuing a collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation;
- Supporting locally led and locally designed conservation efforts;
- Honoring private property rights and supporting the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners; and
- Building on existing tools and strategies with an emphasis on flexibility and adaptive approaches.
America the Beautiful Report, supra, at 13–14.
One risk to the voluntary approach is that, without any sticks, producers may not be inclined to take the offered carrots. Other voluntary conservation initiatives on agricultural land, such as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, have failed to achieve participation at the pace and scale necessary to achieve conservation goals. Iowa Env’t Council, The Slow Reality of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (July 2019).
Some sustainable agriculture advocates see an opportunity for farmers to be part of the solution in the effort to preserve biodiversity. The American Farmland Trust, which focuses on protecting farmland and on environmental stewardship, made several recommendations for achieving 30×30 on farmland. These include using voluntary conservation easements to permanently protect at least 5% of farmland from development and incentivizing conservation on an additional 25% of farmland. Am. Farmland Trust, Agriculture’s Role in 30×30: Partnering with Farmers and Ranchers to Protect Land, Biodiversity, and the Climate (Apr. 5, 2021). These two recommendations illustrate a multiuse approach to private land conservation. Instead of returning large swathes of farmland to native prairie preserves, such approaches attempt to strike a balance between agricultural production and conservation goals such as providing habitat and improving water quality.
One surefire way to conserve land is to purchase it outright or purchase property rights in the form of an easement. Although environmental and agricultural interests frequently find themselves in opposition on land use issues, fighting the loss of land to development is a key area of alignment. Landowners, governmental agencies, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have worked together for decades to protect land from urban and suburban sprawl through conservation easements. In establishing a conservation easement, a landowner relinquishes development rights to an easement holder, typically a government agency or NGO, in exchange for money from the easement sale or tax incentives. Megan Jenkins & Harrison Naftel, Making Private Lands Count for Conservation: Policy Improvements Toward 30×30, Ctr. for Growth & Opportunity at Utah State Univ., at 4 (2022).
Federal programs already exist to facilitate conservation easements. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), part of the USDA, administers the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which includes the Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) Program and the Wetland Reserve Easement Program. An ALE protects “the long-term viability of the nation’s food supply by preventing conversion of productive working lands to non-agricultural uses.” NRCS, USDA, Agricultural Land Easements (2023). NRCS provides funds to purchase ALEs and helps landowners identify an eligible easement holder, typically a land trust such as The Nature Conservancy. ALEs limit nonagricultural land use and protect the land’s conservation value, and the easement holder has the authority to enforce the easement if any land use is outside the easement’s prescribed uses.
Farm Bill Conservation Programs
For decades, the USDA has incentivized conservation through various Farm Bill programs. These programs offer various opportunities for land use change, from taking land out of production to managing working lands according to conservation best practices. Conservation practices include structural practices (e.g., buffer strips) and management measures (e.g., cover crops). Some of the most popular Farm Bill conservation programs are:
- Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program: Ten- to 15-year contracts that provide an annual rental payment to landowners for taking land out of production and planting species that will improve environmental quality;
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program: Technical and financial assistance to landowners to integrate conservation practices into working lands;
- Conservation Stewardship Program: Five-year contracts providing payments to landowners for maintaining the existing level of conservation at the start of the contract and for implementing additional conservation activities;
- Regional Conservation Partnership Program: Contracts and grants for partnership-driven conservation projects;
- Working Lands for Wildlife: Technical and financial assistance to landowners and regulatory certainty regarding potential ESA violations.
NRCS, USDA, Programs and Initiatives (2023).
Conservation Compliance, a program that provides incentives such as crop insurance subsidies for environmental performance on sensitive landscapes like highly erodible land, has been successful by using a carrot (economic incentives) and stick (rescinding benefits for lack of environmental performance) approach to ensure durable environmental protection. Gabriel Medina, Catherine Isley & J. Arbuckle, Iowa Farm Environmental Leaders’ Perspectives on US Farm Bill Conservation Programs, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Sys., at 1–2 (Sept. 9, 2020). These programs have been instrumental in incentivizing conservation practices, but much wider adoption is necessary to achieve 30×30. Congress is set to reauthorize the Farm Bill in 2023, which presents a huge opportunity to put additional resources toward conservation programs in support of the 30×30 goal.
Congress is set to reauthorize the Farm Bill in 2023, which presents a huge opportunity to put additional resources toward conservation programs in support of the 30×30 goal.
Land Use in Iowa
Situated in America’s heartland, Iowa is a quintessential Corn Belt state. Although not as renowned as the mountains and forests in other parts of the country, the vast prairies of pre-settlement Iowa must have been a wonder to behold. As a Denison, Iowa, “old-timer” described it,
the giant rosin weed turned its golden disk to the sun and the stately blue-stem nodded and dipped its plume in every passing breeze . . . butterflies on gorgeous wing wheeled and fluttered in the pulsing air; great dragon flies spread their emblazoned wings over the late blooming flower, and evening’s hush was broken only by the epic ever written was the passing of summer’s pageantry on an Iowa prairie.
State Hist. Soc’y of Iowa, Beautiful Prairies of Early Iowa (1911).
Iowa’s fertile soil, created over centuries by the prairie, is now its primary economic engine, making Iowa a national leader in corn, pork, eggs, soybeans, and ethanol production. Of these commodities, corn is the state’s keystone product, with farms producing around 2.5 billion bushels of corn per year. Of Iowa’s 35.7 million acres of land, roughly 88% is used for agricultural production. Iowa State Univ., Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy—Land Use and In-Field Practices (released 2021) (showing agricultural land averaging 31.4 million acres annually). Surprisingly, less than 1% of Iowa corn is produced for human consumption. Most of the state’s corn crop goes to feed the over 25 million hogs in the state, as well as other livestock such as cattle, chickens, and turkeys. Ethanol accounts for 20–25% of the corn crop, buoyed by the federal renewable fuel standard. Iowa Dep’t of Cultural Aff., How Does Iowa Corn Impact Iowans and the World (2023).
Most conservation practices provide multiple benefits, including habitat preservation and enhancement, water quality improvements, increased capacity to withstand droughts and floods, recreational opportunities, and enhanced natural beauty.
Iowa is a mostly rural state with some large towns and a few small cities. The state does not have large urban centers like many of its Midwest neighbors (e.g., Chicago and Minneapolis). The Des Moines metro area, with a population of less than 750,000 residents, accounts for roughly one-quarter of the state’s population. Urban and suburban areas take up less than 6% of Iowa’s land area. Mark Edwards, Iowa Is America’s Most Biologically Altered State, Ames Trib. (Dec. 27, 2013). Iowa is ranked near the bottom of the country in terms of public lands, with government entities owning less than 3% of the state’s land. Id. As far as federal land goes, Iowa has no national parks and only one small national monument.
Iowa is the most biologically altered state in the country. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, “once it was discovered that Iowa contained extremely productive soil, the transformation of native permanent vegetation resulted in one of the most altered landscapes in the world. When Iowa was discovered by European settlers, it was described as having 76% prairie (27,360,000 acres), 18% forest (6,700,000 acres) and 5% water and wetlands (1,800,000 acres). There is now less than 1% of the original prairie and wetlands left in small, isolated areas and about 8% of the forest cover. Over time, these habitats have been fragmented and dramatically reduced in size, which has led to population losses for wildlife.” Iowa Dep’t of Nat. Res., Conservation of Biological Diversity (June 2010). Iowa’s native plant, animal, and human diversity were reduced, and in some cases extirpated, to make way for agriculture.
The average price for one acre of agricultural land in Iowa is $11,400, with highly productive land selling for upwards of $20,000 per acre. Wendong Zhang, 2022 Iowa State University Land Value Survey: Overview, Ctr. for Agric. & Rural Dev., at 2 (Dec. 13, 2022). Favorable commodity prices and high yields have driven up land values, with prices jumping 17% from 2021 to 2022. Against this backdrop, it is difficult to find the political and economic will to use land for anything other than intensive agricultural production.
Conflicts between agriculture and other land uses, including conservation, are common. There is intense pressure to farm as many acres as possible, especially when commodity prices are high. In recent years, farm advocacy groups have opposed renewable energy installations on farmland and proposed hazardous liquid pipelines. Farm groups also oppose state acquisition of land considered suitable for farming, even if the land is for popular public uses such as recreational trails. Jared Strong, Public Lands Bill Stalls in the Iowa House, Iowa Cap. Dispatch (Mar. 16, 2023). Politics in Iowa have moved sharply to the right over the last decade, bringing resistance to addressing climate change, skepticism toward environmental protection, and distrust of government programs. When several months passed between signing the 30×30 executive order and publication of the framework details in the America the Beautiful Report, conservative commentators, ranchers and farmers, livestock and commodity groups, and other concerned stakeholders were quick to dismiss 30×30 as a federal land grab. Jacob Fischler, Biden’s “30 by 30” Plan Urges Collaboration with Private Landowners, Iowa Cap. Dispatch (May 6, 2021). Given the voluntary and collaborative strategy the Biden administration is pursuing for 30×30, the fear and skepticism created by the land grab narrative will likely make it more difficult to increase participation in conservation programs.
Leveraging 30×30 to Increase Conservation in Iowa
Despite the significant headwinds that land conservation faces in Iowa, 30×30 does present several opportunities to substantially increase conservation in the state. There is a viable path to conserving 30% of farmland by 2030 through conservation easements and conservation programs on working lands. The challenge is finding value propositions to encourage landowners to participate.
Some landowners that manage their land for conservation want to ensure that the land is protected even after sale. These landowners feel deeply connected to their land and view it as their legacy. For instance, in 2021, a prominent western Iowa farm family sold nearly 2,000 acres of farmland with conservation easements attached, requiring practices such as no-till and cover crops. One of the sellers, Liz Garst, stated, “We see this sale as our last act of agricultural innovation—showing farmers that there is not only real value in soil conservation practices in terms of increased yields and in protecting the farm from weather extremes, but also for the next generation of farmers.” Bethany Baratta, Family’s Conservation Legacy Continues Through Sale, Iowa Soybean Ass’n (Aug. 19, 2021).
The Garst quote also highlights the co-benefits associated with conservation practices, and the opportunity to find benefits that fit with landowner values. Farmers and landowners are increasingly concerned about reducing topsoil erosion and preserving and improving soil health to maintain high yields. Additionally, climate change impacts such as floods, drought, and more frequent severe weather increase the risks of crop loss. Most conservation practices provide multiple benefits, including habitat preservation and enhancement, water quality improvements, increased capacity to withstand droughts and floods, recreational opportunities, and enhanced natural beauty. Based on the win-win-win nature of conservation, the question is why more conservation is not being done on working lands already?
With the momentum of 30×30, funding available through recent infrastructure bills, and the opportunity for additional conservation in the new Farm Bill, this is perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to diversify land use in Iowa. Conservation easements and Farm Bill conservation programs are well-established and have program infrastructure to build from. Federal funding can be leveraged to provide more on-the-ground technical support in partnership with state and local organizations. The Conservation Compliance program could be expanded beyond highly erodible land to protect other sensitive habitats and biodiversity goals.
Not all conservation efforts will be equally beneficial for species, however. While taking land out of production is likely the most impactful for species survival and recovery, that approach is more difficult economically, politically, and socially than encouraging sustainable farming practices. Whether land can be considered conserved for biodiversity should be tied to actual species data. Performance measurement, a key part of Conservation Compliance, will be essential for assessing whether conservation practices are effectively protecting species.
It is easy to dismiss fly-over states like Iowa as not worth the effort of conservation. The landscape is too altered, the politics are too divisive, and there aren’t captivating mountains, oceans, or deserts to inspire necessary protection. Nevertheless, there are rivers and lakes, prairie remnants and oak savannahs, and wetlands. Some farm fields that are marginal quality can be taken out of production and put in CRP, returning them to their natural state. Low spots that collect too much water for corn to grow can be converted into small wetlands, a haven for migratory birds passing through. Stream buffers can prevent fertilizers from entering waterways, protecting aquatic species, and providing habitat for amphibians and nesting birds. Species like the Topeka shiner and rusty patched bumblebee could recover, along with dozens of other delightful flora and fauna that provide ecosystem services, recreational opportunities, and natural beauty. While perhaps not the flashiest of targets, Iowa and its fellow Midwest states are key to the nation’s effort to preserve America the Beautiful.