The US Territories Will Be Key For Achieving the Goals of America the Beautiful

Last week, around 100 frontline conservation advocates met in Washington, DC for meetings organized by the America the Beautiful for All Coalition. Participants came from across the U.S. - Maine to the Marianas, Alaska to Puerto Rico, and everywhere in between.

The America the Beautiful for All Coalition is the largest and most diverse environmental coalition ever assembled for the most ambitious land and water conservation goal ever set in the United States. We are helping to connect, restore, and conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 by uniting land, freshwater, ocean, wildlife, community, recreation, and equity advocates across the nation. We are also working to ensure at least 40% of conservation investments are made in communities of color and frontline communities that have historically seen little to no investment in conservation and equitable access to nature. 

Our coalition met with federal officials, including Senate staff, House committee staff, and senior leadership at the White House, Department of Interior, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency. We also participated in panel discussions and presentations, and met briefly with the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland.

We spoke about existing conservation measures taking place in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico. Our recommendations to these government leaders highlighted three important themes:

Prioritize U.S. territories with conservation jobs, programs, and funding: The Biden administration’s America the Beautiful initiative should prioritize ocean conservation for US territories, as they are home to the largest, most strongly protected marine areas and the highest levels of biodiversity in the United States. But the U.S. territories do not receive federal funding that is proportional to the conservation burden that they carry. In the Pacific, the first step toward actively managing our territories’ marine national monuments —designated in 2009 by the Bush administration—is to develop and publish final management plans so they can be implemented. In the U.S. Caribbean, capacity has been created for local stakeholders to lead conservation efforts but the local conservation community still does not receive the resources and support needed.  Lack of funding will undermine the United States’ long term ability to protect ocean resources because capacity and funding are failing to reach frontline ocean conservation communities.

Restore conservation management and decision-making power to the territories: In particular, the federal government should engage the Puerto Rican, American Samoan, Chamorro, and other Micronesian peoples and territorial governments who are long-time stewards and owners of these resources. The U.S.should also explore further opportunities for the territories to co-manage the federally protected areas and other natural resources in territorial waters. This would increase access for several Indigenous and frontline communities to lead and collaborate in natural resources management in line with the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative.

Engage with territorial governments to determine the unique ocean conservation needs of Indigenous citizens in the territories: The Biden administration recently announced a consultation policy to guide the federal government in engaging with Native Hawaiians. This policy should be extended to all Indigenous peoples in the territories. The federal government uses other models to engage with Native peoples in Alaska and the contiguous United States, and those should also be explored to determine the most appropriate way to engage with Indigenous peoples in the territories. Likewise, for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, further mechanisms need to be explored to shift decision-making power to local communities in the U.S. Caribbean.

Staff and budget capacity, as well as equitable community engagement, are critical to achieve conservation impacts.  The Biden administration’s conservation goals are laudable, but ocean conservation success in the U.S. can only be achieved when federal dollars make their way to Indigenous and frontline communities, and when those citizens have decision-making power and are active in the management of ocean resources. 

Tina Sablan is a former elected representative in the Northern Marianas Legislature, and a member of the Friends of the Mariana Trench and the National Ocean Protection Coalition; her participation in the AtB for All meetings was supported by GreenLatinos.  Angelo Villagomez lives in Washington, DC and works for the Center for American Progress.  Raimundo Espinoza is the Founder and Executive Director of Conservacion ConCiencia

This op-ed was published in the Pacific Daily News, Marianas Variety, and Saipan Tribune.


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