Free Interactive Report
Life on Land and Nature Conservation in the US
SDG 15: Life on Land, aims to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss by 2030.
Life on Land in Context
Everything that makes the planet inhabitable is supported by biodiversity. Biodiversity is the variety of all forms of life at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels. It is essential for creating the food, air, water, and energy we all depend on and underpins many industries, including agriculture, construction, fisheries, and tourism.
Biodiversity exists worldwide, but 36 biodiversity hotspots have been identified, covering just 2.5% of the Earth’s land surface but supporting over 50% of the world’s plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else in the world.
Forests are one of the most important ecosystems on land for biodiversity, home to more than 80% of all terrestrial species of animals, plants, and insects and covering 1/3 of the Earth’s surface. Over 1.5 billion people depend on them for their livelihood, including 70 million indigenous people.
More than half of the world’s forests are found in only five countries: Russia, Brazil, Canada, the US, and China.
Biodiversity is most directly threatened by land-use changes, climate change, pollution, resource exploitation, and invasive species. As a result of these threats, many from human activities, many scientists have labelled the current loss of species as the 6th mass extinction. The 5th one is what caused dinosaurs to go extinct. It is estimated that species are going extinct up to 1,000x faster than what would occur naturally and that up to 1 million species could go extinct by 2050.
Deforestation and forest degradation from human activities, particularly agriculture, are the biggest threats to forests. Currently, just 18% of the world’s forest area falls within a protected area like a national park, conservation area, or game reserve, while over 1/3 of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of its freshwater sources are used for crop or livestock production. Just 9 plants (sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet, and cassava) make up 66% of the crops produced in the world.
In the US:
- Over 1,600 animal and plant species are currently considered in danger of going extinct.
- Only 7.1% of the land is in a highly protected status that is managed to preserve biodiversity.
- The North American Coastal Plain is the newest biodiversity hotspot, home to over 1,800 plants, 51 birds, and 114 mammals that are found nowhere else in the world.
Biodiversity & Endangered Species in the US
in the US
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is one of the most important international agreements focusing on conserving biodiversity from genes up to ecosystems, using nature in a sustainable way, and sharing the various benefits of genetic resources fairly. While the US was one of the main leaders in the creation of the convention, it has yet to ratify it.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN Red List) has become the world’s most comprehensive assessment of the conservation status of animal, fungi, and plant species.
By 2021, more than 134,400 species have been assessed with a goal of assessing 160,000. Of those, over 37,400 species are currently threatened with extinction.
In the US specifically, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the main law for protecting threatened and endangered species and the habitats they rely on.
- It’s estimated that 99% of species that received protection under the ESA avoid extinction.
- Grizzly bears, humpback whales, and bald eagles are just some of the roughly 291 species whose extinction has been prevented as a result of the ESA.
- 1,665 species found in the US are listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA.
Sustainable Land Use and Protection in the US
Approximately 12% of the US land has been conserved as national parks, wilderness areas, permanent conservation easements, state parks, national wildlife refuges, national monuments, or other protected areas. Only 27% of US land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.
Every 30 seconds, an amount of natural area the size of a football field disappears to roads, houses, pipelines, and other development in the US.
U.S. forest coverage has been relatively stable over the last century, around 750 million acres, accounting for almost 8% of the world’s total forest area. Over half of U.S. forestland is privately owned.
Private land is essential for sustainable land use and biodiversity conservation in the US.
- Over 75% of the natural area that was lost to development between 2001 to 2017 was privately owned.
- About three-quarters of wetlands are located on private and tribal lands, providing important habitats for birds and aquatic life.
- Over 50% of U.S. forests are privately owned, providing 30% of our drinking water.
- 95% of endangered species rely on private land for at least part of their habitat.
According to the USDA and the latest Agriculture Census, there are roughly 900 million acres of farmland in the US – this includes land used to grow crops, pasture for livestock, and woodland within a farm’s boundaries. Over 140 million acres (15% of farmland) in the U.S. are currently receiving conservation-related financial and technical assistance from the federal government to install resource and wildlife preservation practices.
Just over 23 million acres (2.5%) of this land is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the US’s largest private lands conservation program. Run by the USDA Farm Service Agency, farmers volunteer to sign on to 10-15 year contracts and remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health in exchange for yearly payments, to improve water quality, reduce soil erosion, and increasing habitat for endangered and threatened species. Enrollment in the program was limited to no more than 24 million acres during 2017 and 2018, but new legislation has increased this to 27 million acres by 2023.
The major threats to forests are catastrophic wildfire, insect and disease outbreaks, invasive species, housing development, forest fragmentation, and drought.
Whether accidental ( campfires, burning of debris, discarded cigarettes) or intentional (arson), human activities are the cause of 85% of wildfires.
In 2020 58,950 wildfires burned over 10 million acres. Fires are more likely to escape control during drought years, and warming temperatures and variable precipitation due to climate change have led to an increase in drought conditions. The Forest Service predicts that twice as many acres per year will burn by 2050.
Explore more using our interactive report
This interactive report is continuously updated, and it is free thanks to X4Impact Founding Partners. The report highlights some selected indicators related to life on land, the protection of the environment, and biodiversity in the US.
You can use the interactive charts to understand the distribution of forest land in the US, how much land has been affected by wildfires, the farmland area that participates in the Conservation Reserve Program, the endangered species per location, as well as exploring by state the list of nonprofits that work on this issue.
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The Negative Impact of Deforestation, Wildfires, and Losing Biodiversity in the US
Losing forests, whether from deforestation, disease, invasive species. or wildfire means:
- Diminished livelihoods in rural communities.
- Increased carbon emissions – it’s estimated that U.S. forests store 17 billion metric tons of carbon
- Loss of biodiversity
- Reduced soil, air, and water quality
In California alone, more than 162 million trees have died since 2010, due to wildfires, droughts, insect outbreaks, and other climate change. By 2071, nearly half of the 204 fresh water sources in the U.S. may not be able to meet the monthly demand for water—partly due to a decline in forest health.
Losing biodiversity threatens:
- Food security and livelihoods for millions of people.
- Availability of freshwater and the existence of a wide range of crops.
- Potential treatments and other modern medicine discoveries
Damaged ecosystems on land also undermine 35 of 44 UN Sustainable Development Targets across multiple UN SDGs including poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, and oceans.
The Economic Impact
The U.S. Forest Service estimates that between 65 million and 82 million acres of national forest lands require restoration, and over the past decade, the federal government has spent an estimated $34 billion for wildland fire management. In 1995, these costs accounted for 16% of the Forest Service’s annual budget compared to over 50% in 2015.
Close to 1 in 4 of the bee species found in the US is facing extinction – threatening an estimated $3 billion is pollination services they provide annually. Globally, an estimated 40% of insect pollinators are vulnerable to extinction with serious consequences for ecosystem health and food security – nearly 90% of wild plants and 35% of the global food supply rely on insect pollination.
Even though enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program is limited, it is still the largest federal private-land program, spending around $2 billion per fiscal year.
The UN SDG 15 Indicators
The United Nations Impact Indicators related to UN SDG 15 Life On Land:
The United Nations has defined 12 Targets and 14 Indicators to track progress towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goal of Life On Land by 2030. Key indicators in the U.S. relate to biodiversity hotspots, deforestation, invasive species, land degradation, ecosystem services, climate change, endangered species, and more.
The indicators for success outlined by the U.N. include:
- The proportion of important sites for terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity that are covered by protected areas, by ecosystem type.
- End deforestation and restore degraded forests
- End desertification and restore degraded land
- Protect biodiversity and natural habitats
- Eliminate poaching and trafficking of protected species
- Prevent invasive alien species on land and in water ecosystems
Interactive Report Notes:
* The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is one of the largest private lands conservation programs in the US. It is run by the USDA Farm Service Agency where farmers volunteer to sign on to 10-15 year contracts and remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health with the goal of improving water quality, reducing soil erosion, and increasing habitat for endangered and threatened species.
- Forest Coverage: USDA Forest Service Forest Inventory & Analysis 2019 & USDA Forest Service State and Private Forestry Fact Sheets 2021 (accessed via National Association of State Foresters)
- Endangered and Threatened Species: US Fish & Wildlife Service Environmental Conservation Online System 2021
- Farmland data: USDA ERS 2021 & The Agriculture Census 2017
- Total Acres and % Forest Burned: National Interagency Fire Center Wildfires and Acres Statistics 2002 -2020 and X4Impact analysis of
- Nonprofit-related data: X4Impact analysis of over one million forms 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service -IRS 2018-2020
- IISD – Where Are We in Achieving SDG 15?
- UN SDGs – SDG 15
- USDA ERS – State Farm Data
- NWF – The U.S. Biodiversity Crisis
- US EPA – Biodiversity Conservation
- Greenwald et al – Extinction and the U.S. Endangered Species Act
- Center for American Progress – Measuring Conservation Progress in North America
- IUCN Red List
- SDG Tracker – SDG 15
- The Nature Conservancy – Biodiversity: Nature by Another Name
- UNEP – Biodiversity: our solutions are in nature
- FAO – The State of the World’s Forests 2020
- Conservation International
- FAO – The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture 2019
- Center for Biological Diversity – Pollinators in Peril
- USDA Farm Service Agency – The Conservation Reserve Program
- The American Farm Bureau Federation – 140 Million Acres in Federal Farm Conservation Programs
- Clancy et al – Protecting endangered species in the USA requires both public and private land conservation
- EcoWatch – Why Biodiversity Loss Hurts Humans as Much as Climate Change Does
- Center for American Progress – How Much Nature Should America Keep?
- Medium – The key to Biden’s 30×30 is private land
- Pew Charitable Trust