Access to the benefits of nature is a human right, but for many in the San Joaquin Valley, a healthy ecosystem and local green spaces are often out of reach. Historical patterns of habitat conversion and racial exclusion have fostered policies that pressured communities of color into neighborhoods without many basic amenities and have limited access to public lands. These same trends have also led to our region having significant adverse public health impacts and substantial loss of native animals and plants.
While 22% of California’s lands and 16% of waters are protected, this percentage does not provide the resilience needed to meet the ecological and social priorities of the 21st century. In an effort to correct these trends, California and the federal government are following the lead of scientists, policy makers and community advocates by committing to conserve 30% of our lands and waters by the year 2030.
The effort known as 30 x 30 (30 by 30) kicked off in October when Gov. Newsom made California the first state to commit to the conservation goals set by international scientists. On May 6, the U.S. Department of Interior also released “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” a report on using locally led efforts towards achieving the U.S. 30x30 goal. This creates the unprecedented opportunity to protect the San Joaquin Valley from further impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss while supporting equitable access for local green spaces.
Recently, the Hispanic Access Foundation’s “The Nature Gap” report assessed areas nationwide that are the most “nature-deprived,” meaning regions with inequitable access to the outdoors. Compared to other places in the U.S., the report identified parts of California as having both the highest proportion of people of color or low-income households and the most limited access to nature. For example, in Bakersfield, only 6% of the city’s land is used for park space and Visalia is worse at only 2%.
Further exacerbated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our collective need for access to the many benefits of nature — and the unjust experiences that many people of color have in the outdoors — is a problem that national, state, and local leaders can no longer ignore.
The San Joaquin Valley still holds vast potential to address our nature gap. With another year of oncoming drought and wildfire, we can no longer afford to miss this opportunity to protect our precious lands or continue denying equitable access to these lands for our communities.
California’s 30x30 process must protect spaces like the San Joaquin River Gorge Recreation Area, which is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, alongside new green areas like the proposed 3,000-acre Huron Pino Wilderness Park in west Fresno County. These types of green investments also support California’s goal of climate resilience, improving public health, enhancing carbon sequestration, protecting and advancing underground water recharge, and providing habitat for countless species, flora, and fauna.
California, and in particular the Natural Resource Agency, should learn from Black, indigenous, and other people of color in developing strategies for conserving lands, waters, plants and wildlife. Whether it’s wildfire management orpreservation of biodiversity, it’s clear we stand to benefit from taking the lead from their expertise. For example, Indigenous communities already successfully manage or hold tenure over lands that contain 80 percent of the world’s remaining plant and animal diversity. Furthermore, it’s time to give tribal communities a seat at the table as California maps out a vision for the future of the ecosystems we all depend on.
The San Joaquin Valley cannot afford to sit out this process. We must ensure that the state fulfills its promise to conserve 30% of our natural spaces for generations to come with strong protections. We encourage the public to participate throughout the community engagement process that our government is holding as part of its 30x30 implementation. Together, with your help, we can advocate for new parks and open space and help benefit our economy through ecotourism and local stewardship jobs while improving our region’s air and water.