The government owns about one quarter of Minnesota, including a dozen national wildlife refuges, more than 100 state scientific reserves, a vast canoe wilderness and other tracts of the state's heavily forested northeast. Private landowners routinely volunteer to safeguard land from development.
Yet Minnesota may still be millions of acres short of President Biden's "America the Beautiful" target, a voluntary goal to conserve at least 30% of the country's land and water by 2030 to avert a climate and biodiversity catastrophe.
As little as 7% of Minnesota's area carries the strongest natural resource protections, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, behind many other states including North Dakota.
The Geological Survey's numbers are among those officials are drawing on as they struggle to determine what counts as protected and what doesn't. It shows 7% of Minnesota's land and water is permanently protected, a share that rises to 18% if it includes protected areas that allow multiple uses such as logging, mining and off-highway vehicle riding.
The "30x30" target — as the global campaign is known — is a minimum many scientists have agreed must be protected to help avert the worst of global warming and the sixth mass species extinction.
North Dakota has the strongest natural resources protections on 15% of its areas, partly due to permanent conservation easements on private wetland or grassland for waterfowl nesting habitat. Both Minnesota and North Dakota rank ahead of Wisconsin and Iowa in protected lands.
While Minnesota has set targets for cutting greenhouse gases, it has not followed the lead of a half dozen states that have adopted 30x30 conservation policies. Claire Lancaster, press secretary for Gov. Tim Walz, said the governor "strongly supports" Biden's initiative.
"That's why the governor's budget includes nearly $40 million for acquisition of public lands," Lancaster said. "He has also set a goal of enrolling 1 million acres in an agricultural program that protects the state's water resources."
Walz's Climate Change Subcabinet, set to issue the state's new climate action plan this summer, also hasn't adopted the target. Frank Kohlasch, climate director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said the climate plan will advance conservation work "that moves us in the same direction as the federal goal."
Minnesota already has several policies that involve expanding the acreage of protected prairies, forests and scientific and natural areas. Nonprofits such as the Trust for Public Land and the Nature Conservancy also continuously pursue conservation acres.
State lawmakers have been quiet about the new national target, which has generated opposition in other states. The Minnesota House Climate Action Caucus has not taken up the matter. Caucus chair Patty Acomb, a Minnetonka DFLer, said it has been more focused on cutting greenhouse gases.
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, applauded Biden's target as "visionary" but said it's been kind of "back-burnered" in Minnesota, overshadowed by other issues such as clean water and electrification.
When Biden first laid out the 30% conservation goal last year by executive order, Republicans decried it as a federal land grab. Minnesota Republicans dashed off a letter to Biden calling the effort "a threat to Minnesota's way of life." Such federal overreach could harm Minnesota's mining, farming and outdoor recreation businesses, they said.
U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican representing Minnesota's large Eighth District in the north, said he is still waiting for a "clear metric" from the administration on how it gets to conserving 30%. The administration has already reduced recreation permits for the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness and restricted hunting and fishing in national wildlife refuges, he noted.
"This is all 30x30 in action," said Stauber. "Joe Biden and his administration have made it clear what they mean by '30x30' even if they keep it intentionally vague. They mean no more use of our lands."
Rick Horton, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, said he wants to ensure working forests are counted as protected land. As he sees it, Minnesota doesn't have much more forest to set aside.
"Instead of looking at the forest … look at ag," Horton said, noting that half of Minnesota is farmed. "Big picture, that's where the opportunity is."
Farmers can't spare much either, said Wright County dairy farmer Dan Glessing. Glessing, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said his organization doesn't have a position on the 30% conservation goal. But he said much of the appropriate farm land has already been put into conservation programs, and he wants to ensure private property rights are respected.
"At the end of the day, we don't want to take highly productive land out of production when we need to eat," said Glessing. "Farmers have long been the best stewards of their land."
Neal Feeken, director of land conservation at the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, said he sees Minnesota's biggest conservation opportunities in three underrepresented places: its western grasslands where farmers have been taking land out of temporary conservation, the prairie-forest transition belt across the state's center and the bluffs of the southeast's Driftless Area.
Feeken said it is "politically, socially, culturally infeasible" to expect the state to turn another 15% of its area into a nature preserve. Reaching 30% will require counting working lands that balance economic benefits, recreation, clean water and good habitat to protect biodiversity, he said.
"It's the only way that we're ever going to achieve the goals," Feeken said.
What counts as protected
Figuring out what counts as protected is one of the 30x30 plan's thorniest challenges.
"The country has never had a national conservation goal before," said Helen O'Shea, director of the protected areas project at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Geological Survey's Gap Analysis Project (GAP), which analyzes "gaps" in biodiversity protection around the country, has four categories. GAP 1 and 2 areas are the most highly protected from conversion, such as national and state parks, national wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. GAP 3 areas are permanently protected but allow multiple uses for industry and recreation. GAP 4 areas included developed land and private land with no conservation mandates and "unknown lands," a category that includes tribal lands — a serious weakness in the measurement scheme.
Some environmentalists say only GAP 1 and 2 areas should count toward the goal, but O'Shea said that won't work: "There's got to be sort of broader outreach to understand the full scope of conservation."
A beta version of an interactive "American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas" to show and track progress is due out by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, the administration is trying to line up $1 billion in public-private financing to pay for a diverse array of local conservation projects, from restoring rivers to expanding wildlife corridors. It's starting with $440 million, mostly from the bipartisan infrastructure package, for a five-year grant program run by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Requests for proposals will be out in early May; proposals are due by the end of July.