The Pacific Crest Trail can help achieve the goals of the 30×30 initiative

In January of 2021, President Biden signed an executive order putting the nation on a path to protect at least 30% of lands and 30% of its ocean areas by 2030. Known as 30×30, the initiative is a big step toward reversing years of environmental decline, fighting climate change, and protecting the natural life support systems we all depend on. The plan also has the potential to create more equitable access to nature, bring communities together to conserve our shared natural heritage, and honor tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

The PCT can provide a protected corridor between larger protected areas, such as here near Ralston Peak in Southern Calif. near Interstate 15, seen in the distance. Photo by Joe Aguirre

On May 6th, the Biden-Harris administration released a report outlining a vision for how 30×30 can happen. The report was developed by the U.S. Departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Commerce, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Called Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful, the report describes a ten-year, locally-led campaign with six priorities.

One of those priorities is to expand collaborative conservation of fish and wildlife habitats and corridors. The Pacific Crest Trail and other National Scenic Trails are uniquely positioned to play an important role in this goal.

In the mid-20th century, environmental advocates and government leaders had the foresight to protect wild and scenic places by establishing national parks, forests, and wilderness areas. The reason for protecting these places continues today: human impact and presence.

The result is that national parks, forests, and designated wilderness have become islands of biodiversity—separated by roads, power and rail lines, agriculture, towns and cities, and many other forms of development. Nationwide, the natural ecosystem is highly fragmented. And this fragmentation is leading to a well-researched and documented loss of biodiversity throughout our nation and the world.

Several years ago, Travis Belote, lead ecologist for The Wilderness Society, was doing research in Montana near where Lewis and Clark traveled through in the early 19th century. “I knew the path of Lewis and Clark’s journey,” he said, “and realized we were working in one of the few wild areas left along the trail.”

He studied current maps of the places Lewis and Clark travelled between 1804 and 1806 and found that only 4% of the wildlands they visited between St. Louis, Missouri, and Astoria, Oregon, remain untouched by subsequent roads or development. Travis knew this was significant because of a paradigm change in environmental science.

Ecologists began to realize that while establishing protected areas like national parks is an important first step, it isn’t enough to ensure the long-term health of animal and plant species. A growing body of research shows that connecting protected areas with natural corridors creates ecological networks that allow the safe movement of species.

In 2016, Travis and Harvard University graduate researcher Melissa B. Wilson published a paper that identified the wildest corridors between protected areas in the United States. “We used GIS data,” Travis said, “and established modeling techniques to determine the location of all potential natural corridors between protected areas.”

Melissa attended a conference on natural corridors featuring world-renowned biologist E.O. Wilson (no relation). “I got excited while listening to ideas about how to create these corridors, and I asked E.O. Wilson if anyone had ever thought about using long trails as wildlife corridors?” she said. “His reply was ‘Yes—you!’ ”

That was all the encouragement Wilson needed. She began work on her graduate thesis focusing on the potential for long trails as natural corridors. Referring to the 2016 paper on potential natural corridors, Melissa overlaid the path of the Pacific Crest Trail onto a map showing the best potential natural corridors. The two matched almost entirely.

A section of the PCT in Oregon clearly illustrates the trail’s potential as a natural connecting corridor between larger, isolated wilderness areas.

“The PCT crosses 48 (Congressionally designated) wilderness areas, and if you look at maps like the Nature Conservancy’s migrations of wildlife due to climate change, you see that species are already moving up the PCT,” she said. “As the climate warms, species generally move up in elevation and north in latitude—which means they are moving toward the PCT.”

“We based our model on the assumption that most animals avoid human-modified places, and there is a risk of mortality of animals passing through these places,” Travis said. “So we focused on the most wild areas that have the greatest benefit for the greatest number of species. The PCT is already a natural corridor that is literally connecting protected areas. If we focus on the existing trail we’re largely there.”

Melissa adds: “We need to preserve these corridors because they have high conservation value for the preservation of species. Two-thirds of the PCT will continue to be a wildlife corridor over the next 100 years, which makes the PCT even more valuable for conservation.”

The PCT has long been known as an extraordinary wilderness experience with high value as a recreational resource. Over its 2,650-mile length, the trail spans an extraordinary nine different ecoregions—including desert, old-growth forests, alpine tundra, grasslands, and rainforest. The growing research on natural connecting corridors now shows the PCT’s value for conservation—and the 30×30 initiative has specified natural corridors as a priority.

Since 2015 the Pacific Crest Trail Association has been working to protect 100% of the PCT. Currently, roughly 10% of the trail remains on private lands and is vulnerable to development, roads and rail lines, extractive industry and more.

“In order to meet the 30×30 target, the state of California will need to conserve approximately 8 million additional acres of land by 2030,” says Megan Wargo, PCTA’s director of land protection. “These acquisitions will need to be strategic to not only hit the acreage target, but to combat the biodiversity and climate crisis and advance equitable access to our natural lands. Ensuring that the entire Pacific Crest Trail corridor is intact and protected is a unique opportunity to enhance the connectivity of our protected areas on the west coast.”

The connections created by the Pacific Crest Trail are as important for our human populations as animal and plant species—over 25 million people live within an hour’s drive of the PCT. The trail provides a free recreational resource and access to our public lands for millions of Californians and supports our local economies through outdoor recreation tourism.

It’s no coincidence that what is good for the Pacific Crest Trail is also good for the West, our country and the world—and the PCT is well-positioned to play a vital role in meeting the goals of the 30×30 initiative by connecting protected areas in an extraordinary corridor that spans the nation.

Author: Scott Wilkinson

Scott Wilkinson is the PCTA’s Content Development Director. A former professional musician, Scott has 20+ years of experience in almost every marketing role. Before joining the PCTA he was a marketing/creative director at West Virginia University and the University of Oregon. A serious outdoor addict, Scott is an experienced whitewater paddler, hang glider pilot, flyfisher, mountain biker, and (of course) hiker and backpacker.