chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


A Thoroughfare for Freedom Beat across the Wilderness

Caitlin Marie Dols


  • Discusses the Biden administration’s goal, the America the Beautiful Initiative, or 30x30, to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and waters by 2030.
  • Looks at the Year One Report and discusses the initial progress on focus areas, highlighting key improvements.
  • Covers the America the Beautiful Initiative and how it prioritizes the perspectives of diverse communities that intimately know and care for the lands and waters they call home.
A Thoroughfare for Freedom Beat across the Wilderness
luoman via Getty Images

For many, wild places are synonymous with freedom. The great outdoors is an idiom invoked frequently, and while its meaning often evolves based on an individual’s perception and life experience, a common thread endures. We pursue the great outdoors in search of solace, inspiration, peace, adventure, escape––and inevitably feel boundless. Without our wild places, this idea of freedom, which is so essential to the human condition, will be just that––an idea.

On both a global and national level, wild places are disappearing. Earth is facing threats of habitat destruction, species extinction, and climate change. Approximately half of the riparian ecosystems and wetlands in the lower 48 states have been lost. Critical ocean habitats are in decline, with an estimated 90 percent loss of live coral reefs in the Florida Keys and up to 90 percent loss of bull kelp off the northern coast of California. In the United States, roughly 12,000 wildlife species need conservation assistance to avoid the threat of extinction. Nature’s plight is compounded by climate change. Warming ocean temperatures are causing sea level rise and species migration, and climate change has contributed to droughts, floods, increasingly frequent wildfires, and the spread of invasive species.

At the start of his term, President Biden issued Executive Order 14008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. It addressed many of these issues head-on, urging that the federal government “must protect America’s natural treasures, increase reforestation, improve access to recreation, and increase resilience to wildfire and storms. . . .” The Biden administration set a goal of conserving 30 percent of the nation’s land and waters by 2030. Deemed the America the Beautiful Initiative, or 30x30, it serves as the first-ever national goal for the stewardship of nature in America.

In May of 2021, the administration released a report developed by the Initiative’s Interagency Working Group, which consists of the Department of the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, and Council on Environmental Quality. The report envisions a 10-year, locally led effort “to support conservation and restoration efforts across public, private, and Tribal lands and waters.” It identifies six priority areas of focus, investment, and collaboration: 1. create more parks and safe outdoor opportunities in nature-deprived communities; 2. support tribally led conservation and restoration priorities; 3. expand collaborative conservation of fish and wildlife habitats and corridors; 4. increase access for outdoor recreation; 5. incentivize and reward the voluntary conservation efforts of fishers, ranchers, farmers, and forest owners; and 6. create jobs by investing in restoration and resilience projects and initiatives.

More recently, on April 11, 2022, the administration launched the $1 billion America the Beautiful Challenge to further bolster conservation goals. Administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the challenge consists of a public-private grant program that aims to support “locally-led ecosystem restoration projects that invest in watershed restoration, resilience, equitable access, workforce development, corridors and connectivity, and collaborative conservation, consistent with the America the Beautiful Initiative.” Funds are to be awarded to projects focused on key areas of need, including conservation and restoration of rivers, coasts, wetlands, forests, and grasslands; increased connectivity in wildlife corridors; increased resilience to coastal flooding, drought, and other climate impacts; and expanding access to the outdoors.

The challenge recognizes that individuals across the nation have their own unique relationship with the outdoors, and indeed embraces it. In its Year One Report, the America the Beautiful Interagency Working Group stressed that the initiative is “rooted in the desire to better support and honor the people and communities who serve as stewards of our lands, waters, and wildlife - from Tribes and Indigenous peoples to fishermen, farmers and ranchers, to local and state governments––and to ensure that all people of this nation benefit from America’s rich and vibrant lands and waters.” The report also includes recommendations to develop the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, which will provide a baseline assessment of how much land, ocean, and other waters are currently conserved or restored, and will measure progress going forward. It seeks to provide a comprehensive picture of conservation work throughout the country while acknowledging that no set of data can truly depict the distinct relationship a community may have with a specific place or region.

The Year One Report discussed initial progress on focus areas, highlighting key improvements. The initiative has funded multiple projects in underserved communities that have historically had less access to the outdoors, including reinstating the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program, which is dedicated to addressing the recreational gap in underserved urban areas. Several federal agencies updated their tribal consultation policies more robustly, and a variety of grants supported tribally led priorities including wetlands development, climate resilience, and environmental mitigation programs. The Fish and Wildlife Service added roughly 4,800 acres to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, 24 states participated in a conservation program to improve landscape health in central and eastern regions of the United States, and three national forests in Arizona established a partnership to enhance landscape connectivity for wildlife. The National Park Service added ten new national recreation trails in eight states.

Through the Great American Outdoors Act, the United States Forest Service (USFS) began work on more than 500 existing recreation sites, 312 trail systems, and more than 200 water and wastewater systems to restore access across national forests and grasslands. The United States Bureau of Land Management opened access to 30,000 acres of previously inaccessible public lands in Arizona by acquiring approximately 2,800 acres of privately owned land through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The USFS provided $4 million through the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program to help local governments, tribes, and nonprofits conserve forested land to be managed locally as parks, nature preserves, or town forests.

Conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 may be an ambitious goal, requiring collaboration among various levels of government and a wide range of stakeholders. But when faced with a reality of dwindling wild places and wildlife, ambition is of paramount importance, and zealous action and partnership are essential. A vast array of ecosystems span this country, and an appreciation for America’s lands and waters has the potential to cross party lines. The America the Beautiful Initiative prioritizes the perspectives of diverse communities that intimately know and care for the lands and waters they call home and provides an opportunity for individuals to form new relationships with nature. By setting aside lands and waters for conservation and protection, a sense of balance should return, and with that, renewed opportunity to seek the boundlessness that the great outdoors can provide. The campaign has garnered real tangible successes in the last year, which should serve as a source of hope for not only environmentalists and conservationists, but for all who seek out wild places.

Katherine Lee Bates’ poem “America the Beautiful” has been called “an expression of patriotism at its finest,” expressing appreciation and gratitude for the nation’s extraordinary physical beauty and abundance, with a sense of humility that one feels when surrounded by nature. Undoubtedly inspired by Bates’ lyricism, the America the Beautiful Initiative echoes her sentiment.