Policy News: May 6, 2021

In this issue:

Biden administration unveils 10-year plan to conserve one-third of U.S. land
Plan follows up on Biden’s commitment to conserve 30% of lands and waters by 2030.

Senate holds confirmation hearing for OSTP nominee, House Science Committee holds NSF hearing.

Executive Branch
President Biden announces NOAA, BLM and DOE science nominees.



Scientific Community
NSF releases 2021 Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering report.

Federal Register opportunities

Biden administration unveils 10-year plan to conserve one-third of U.S. land

by Ben Lefebvre, PoliticoPro

The Biden administration unveiled a report Thursday outlining steps it could take in an ambitious 10-year push to place one-third of the country’s land and water under conservation, including offering financial incentives to encourage voluntary participation, but Republicans cast doubt about the administration’s pursuit of and ability to meet the goal.

“Nature in America is in trouble,” Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said during a call with reporters Thursday. “Climate change is reshaping our lands and our oceans and our coasts. We are witnessing staggering declines in wildlife population habitats that are being fragmented into smaller and smaller parcels as ranches, forests and other working lands are being converted into parking lots and subdivisions. We need a collective, all-hands-on-deck national effort to conserve the land and waters upon which we all depend.”

Details: The report offers some details on how Biden could move on the so-called 30×30 initiative, an idea that progressives have gotten behind as a way to protect the country from the worst effects of climate change and bolster local economies but Republicans have criticized as vague at best and a federal land grab at worst.

The goal is to more than double the 12 percent of land currently under conservation in the country, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. More than 20 percent of federal offshore acres are under conservation, according to the Center’s analysis.

“We cannot confront climate change without doing a far better job to protect our forests, our oceans, our wetlands and our grasslands,” Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, said during the call.

The government could explore two broad options for putting more land under conservation: either expanding protections for land and water already under federal oversight or offering monetary incentives and guidance to private entities and local governments to voluntarily conserve their land, according to the report.

This would play out, the report notes in some examples, by encouraging the creation of more public parks in communities that have historically lacked them; expanding state and local coastal restoration projects; and creating more marine sanctuaries in federal waters or the Great Lakes. The Interior Department would spend $150 million to build parks in underserved communities and would expand hunting and fishing at 90 wildlife refuges, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said during the call.

The report also stresses working with Native American tribes to identify and help coordinate conservation and restoration programs on their land.

“As the country works to recover and rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic and fully address the climate crisis, now is the time to develop and pursue a locally led, nationally scaled effort to conserve, connect, and restore the lands, waters, and wildlife upon which we all depend,” the report states.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently announced the expansion of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, nearly tripling the size of the sanctuary.

“The U.S. should seek to build upon the myriad examples where collaboration and consensus-building have led to significant conservation outcomes,” continues the report, alluding to the Great American Outdoors Act, the largest conservation legislation in decades that passed Congress last year with broad bipartisan support.

The report points to the 2023 Farm Bill and existing programs at the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service as prime vehicles for expanding incentives for private property owners to voluntarily conserve their land. But it stopped short of specifics in many cases, including how much money should be spent on incentives, whether new policy measures were being considered to convince land owners to participate or what activity would be allowed on conserved lands.

Administration officials declined to say how much money they thought it would take to bring a third of the country under conversation. “We’re not prepared to put a total figure on this,” McCarthy told reporters.

“It will take more resources than we’ve had in the past,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack added.

The lack of hard numbers from the administration may indicate that it’s still consulting with local groups and governments to determine what exactly they would need to offer up acres for the conservation, said Sharon Buccino, senior lands director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that advocates for conservation programs. Inducements would almost certainly have to include grants and tax incentives, Buccino added.

“What this administration needs to do, and I think they are doing, is give counties and cities a chance to opt in rather than just shove something down their throats,” Buccino said. “They know they have to work with people to develop those” incentives.

Many liberal advocacy groups praised the report. National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara said it “rightly focuses on collaboration and restoration to achieve the goal of 30×30, rather than regulation and designations. It’s a thoughtful blueprint for how we can work together to save one-third wildlife species at heightened risk of extinction, revitalize rural and urban communities, strengthen the outdoor economy, and bolster resilience to escalating climate-fueled megafires, floods, and hurricanes.”

Context: The plan was previously championed by former New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall and Haaland during her time in the House of Representatives before it became a staple of the Biden campaign promise in 2020.

However, Republicans are wary about the initiative — particularly lawmakers in Western states who have argued that the federal government already oversees most of their acreage.

“At this point, the administration has failed to develop its policy beyond a catchy tagline,” House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) said earlier in the week at a forum to discuss the Biden proposal. “They have not defined a baseline of current conservation practices, established metrics for measuring progress, or even provided a clear understanding of how they define the word ‘conservation.’”

Some, including Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS) have also taken up talking points from far-right groups who have alleged the plan amounts to the federal government seizing private property.

The Biden administration’s report pushes back against that argument. “Efforts to conserve and restore America’s lands and waters must respect the rights of private property owners,” the report states. “Such efforts must also build trust among all communities and stakeholders, including by recognizing and rewarding the voluntary conservation efforts of private landowners and the science-based approaches of fishery managers.”

What’s next: The administration will talk with members of Congress about possible funding sources, Vilsack said.


Senate OSTP Hearing: The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a confirmation hearing for White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) director nominee Eric Lander. Questions from Democratic and Republican senators ranged from his interactions with notorious deceased criminal Jeffery Epstein to slighting women researchers. Lander denied any interaction with Epstein except for briefly meeting him twice during events. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) also brought up a 2016 essay penned by Lander that downplayed the work of competitors Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier in developing the CRISPR gene-editing technique. “I made a mistake,” Lander responded, adding, “I have enormous respect for Drs. Doudna and Charpentier and the important work they’ve done throughout their careers.” Lander testified that he would “make full inclusion and equitable outcomes a high priority” for OSTP.” He cited plans to increase OSTP staff diversity and emphasized a plan to increase the numbers of women and underrepresented people in STEM careers by 50%. Although Lander faced harsh questioning, there appears to be no real objection to advancing his nomination.

House NSF Hearing: The House Science Committee held a National Science Foundation hearing “Advancing Research for the Future of U.S. Innovation.”  NSF Director Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, and National Science Board Chair Dr. Ellen Ochoa, appeared before the Committee. The hearing primarily highlighted and advanced the authorizing bill, NSF for the Future Act, that aims to increase annual funding for NSF and create a new Science, Engineering and Solutions Directorate.

House Climate Hearing: The House Science Committee discussed the value of forming a “climate service” across the federal government to facilitate easily sharing climate-related information.

Nominations: The full Senate unanimously voted to confirm former Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) as NASA administrator. Nelson is a former astronaut who served three terms in the Senate before losing re-election in 2018.

The full Senate narrowly voted to confirm Janet McCabe as the deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) joined almost all Senate Democrats to confirm McCabe. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) opposed this nomination. McCabe worked for the EPA during the Obama administration, leading the EPA’s air office. She also served as the air director for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Climate: The Senate Agriculture Committee advanced the Growing Climate Solutions Act (S. 1251) which creates USDA programs to increase farmers access to voluntary carbon markets and help farmers adopt “climate-smart practices.” Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Ranking Member John Boozman (R-KS) and committee member Mike Braun (R-IN) are the bill’s lead sponsors. The bill has 40 sponsors and co-sponsors total, including 17 Republicans.

Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Don Bacon (R-NE) plan to introduce a companion bill in the House.

Harassment: House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) reintroduced the Combatting Harassment in Science Act (H.R. 2695). This bill creates an inter-agency working group to coordinate federal science agency efforts to reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment involving grant personnel and creates a competitive grant program at NSF for research about harassment and the development and assessment of policies, procedures, trainings and interventions intended to address and reduce harassment. Johnson has introduced similar legislation in previous sessions of Congress. This bill passed the full House in 2019 but did not advance in the Senate.

Sens. Tina Smith (D-MN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) reintroduced the Senate version of this bill (S. 1379). Vice President Kamala Harris was the lead sponsor for the Senate version of this bill during the previous session of Congress.

STEM Workforce: Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), John Cornyn (D-TX) and Maggie Hasan (D-NH) reintroduced the Rural STEM Education Act (S. 1374). This bill directs the National Science Foundation to fund STEM education research focused on rural areas and efforts to increase rural students’ participation in STEM. It also directs the Commerce Department to establish a prize competition to encourage innovative ideas to deploy broadband connectivity to rural communities.

House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-TX) introduced the House version of this bill in January 2021 (H.R. 210). A version of this bill passed the U.S. House in September 2020. The U.S. Senate did not consider this bill.

Conservation: Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) reintroduced the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (H.R. 2773). The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would provide an additional $1.4 billion in combined, dedicated funding to state and tribal fish and wildlife agencies to implement state wildlife action plans and conserve at-risk species. A new provision in the bill allocates more funding to states with more federally listed threatened and endangered species. Members of Congress have introduced similar legislation during every Congress since 2016.

The legislation is supported by the Alliance for America’s Fish and Wildlife, which includes the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and a host of scientific and conservation groups and businesses. ESA has joined Alliance members in sending letters of support for previous versions of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.

Legislative updates:


  • Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) sponsored the National Strategy to Ensure American Leadership (SEAL) Act (S. 1213) that would direct the National Academies to identify the “top 10 emerging science and technology challenges” faced by the U.S.
  • Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) reintroduced the Bioeconomy Research and Development Act (S. 1418) which establishes an interagency initiative to advance R&D in engineering biology. 
  • Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) introduced the Protecting Unique and Beautiful Landscapes by Investing in California (PUBLIC) Lands Act (S. 1459), which combines three bills that passed the full House.  The bill designates 600,000 acres in California as wilderness, adds 100,000 acres to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and adds 5833 miles of new wild and scenic rivers.
  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) introduced the Safeguarding America’s Future and Environment (SAFE) Act (S. 1420 and H.R. 2872). This bill directs federal natural resource agencies, with participation from non-federal stakeholders, to create a working group to plan and implement national climate change adaptation strategy. The bill also creates a national Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center to develop and compile scientific information on climate variability.


  • Rep. Jim Baird (R-IN) introduced the Biological Innovation Opportunities Act (H.R. 2961). This bill authorizes the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Research Centers. This includes authorization for basic research in plant and microbial systems biology, bioimaging and analysis, and genomics to inform the production of fuels, chemicals from sustainable biomass resources. In addition, these centers would facilitate the translation of basic research results to industry. House Science Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) is a co-sponsor.
  • The full House passed Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH)’s bill (H.R. 241) to reauthorize the Tropical Forest and Coral Reef Conservation Act through 2026. This law provides loan forgiveness for developing countries that meet specific benchmarks and agree to contribute to tropical forest and coral reef conservation. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced a companion bill (S. 335) in the Senate in March.

More headlines of interest:

Executive Branch

White House: During the international climate leadership summit, President Joe Biden reaffirmed the U.S. is rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and announced to world leaders that by 2030 the U.S. will halve its greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels. In tandem, the White House Council of Economic Advisors released a report last week outlining actions the U.S. could take to accelerate energy innovation to reduce emissions.

President Biden announced a set of environmental and scientific nominees:

  • Tracy Stone-Manning, to be director of the Bureau of Land Management. Stone-Manning is currently a senior advisor for conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation and has been a top aide to former Montana Governor Steve Bullock (D) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT). The agency has not had a Senate-confirmed director since the end of the Obama administration.
  • Richard Spinrad to be NOAA administrator. Spinrad is a professor of oceanography at Oregon State University. He served as NOAA’s chief scientist from 2014 and 2016 and has also led both NOAA’s Office of Atmospheric Research and the National Ocean Service. NOAA did not have a Senate-confirmed administrator during the Trump administration.
  • Asmeret Berhe, to be director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Berhe is a professor of soil biogeochemistry and interim associate dean for graduate education at the University of California, Merced.
  • Bryan Newland, to be the Interior Department’s assistant secretary of Indian Affairs. Newland is the former chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan and worked for the Interior Department during the Obama administration.
  • Geraldine Richmond, to be the Department of Energy’s undersecretary of science. Richmond is a the Presidential Chair in Science and a professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon and has been a member of the National Science Board since 2012.
  • Michael Conner, to be the Department of Defense’s assistant of the Army for civil works, the top position at the Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for Clean Water Act permitting, dams, aquatic ecosystem restoration projects and other issues. Connor was the deputy secretary of the Interior during the Obama administration and is a member of the Taos Pueblo. The Biden administration considered nominating Connor to be Secretary of the Interior, before ultimately nominating Deb Haaland.

FWS: A new proposed rule, to be formally released on Friday, May 7, would repeal the Trump administration’s changes to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act regulations. The Trump administration’s rule, finalized in January 2021, determined that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act does not apply to the “incidental” or accidental killing of birds. Previous administrations have prosecuted and fined companies for violations of the MBTA that harm protected birds. Notably, BP paid a $100 million fine under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act after the Deepwater Horizon spill. The proposed rule will be open for public comments through June 6.

More Headlines of Interest:





Scientific Community

NSF: The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics released its 2021 Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering report, which provides information about participation levels of underrepresented groups in science and engineering education and employment. The report include data collected through 2019 – the next report, to be released in 2023, will cover the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report takeaways include mixed trends for underrepresented groups in STEM:

  • The share of Hispanic or Latino graduate student in science and engineering (S&E) students increased in between 2016 and 2018, while the shares of both American Indian or Alaska Native students and Black or African American students remained the same.
  • Female S&E degree holders were most prevalent in psychology, biological sciences, and agricultural sciences and the least prevalent in computer sciences and engineering.
  • Both the share and number of S&E degrees awarded to underrepresented minorities increased over the past decade.
  • In 2018, women from underrepresented minority group earned more than half of the S&E degrees awarded to their respective racial and ethnic groups at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate levels.
  • The share of academic doctoral positions held by women with science, engineering, and health doctoral degrees increased from 26.4% in 1999 to 38.5% in 2019. Underrepresented minorities also hold a larger share of academic positions than they did in 1999, although their share remains small (8.9%) and is considerably lower than their share of the population.
  • A larger share of S&E doctorate recipients with disability than those without disability reported that their primary graduate school funding was personal or family funds, in particular, loans. In addition, a smaller share of those with disability received research assistantships, traineeships, or internships, or had fellowships, scholarships, or grants than did those without disability.

National Science Board: The nomination period is open for the 2022-2028 class of the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation. A “Dear Colleague” letter issued by NSB Chair Ellen Ochoa details the nomination process and lists particular areas for which the board is seeking expertise. Members of the board are appointed by the president and not subject to Senate confirmation.

Environmental Justice Headlines of Interest:

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ESA’s policy activities work to infuse ecological knowledge into national policy decisions through activities such as policy statements, Capitol Hill briefings, Congressional Visits Days, and coalition involvement. Policy News Updates are bi-monthly summaries of major environmental and science policy news. They are produced by the Public Affairs Office of the Ecological Society of America.

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