‘Stop 30×30’ summit panel spotlights conservation and regulatory pitfalls
LINCOLN, Neb. — A diverse coalition of elected officials, farmers, ranchers, and private property rights advocates from across the high plains and mountain west converged on April 22 to discuss 30×30, a Biden Administration push to place 30 percent of all U.S. lands and coastal waters into permanent conservation by the year 2030.
The “Stop 30×30” summit, organized by Texas-based American Stewards of Liberty and sponsored by a number of organizations including R-CALF USA, aimed to raise awareness about the potential pitfalls behind the conservation push and to equip citizens and elected officials with the tools to push back against creeping federal overreach.
The name has changed, but the goal is still the same
Since rolling out its 30×30 executive order in January 2021, the White House has rebranded the push as “America the Beautiful.” The order claims that permanent conservation is needed to combat climate change without citing the specific scientific evidence or congressional authority needed to back up those claims. The Biden Administration has breathlessly insisted that conservation efforts will largely be voluntary — talking points that have been echoed by conservation advocates in Nebraska, where 97 percent of land is in private hands.
Biden’s Department of Interior has yet to provide a clear definition in writing as to what it means by “permanent conservation.” However, precursor policy documents generated by the Center For American Progress, a Washington D.C.-based liberal think tank, indicates that the goal of the 30×30 is to place otherwise productive agricultural and forest land into perpetual conservation easements which protect lands in their “natural state” (meaning devoid of livestock grazing, crop production, or other sustainable management practices).
EXPERIENCE SPEAKS VOLUMES
A panel discussion shortly before noon featured elected officials from Idaho, New Mexico, Montana and Colorado, as well as farmers and ranchers from Kansas and Texas who shared their experiences dealing with federal government agencies, heritage area designations, and conservation easement holders.
Wayne Butts, chairman of the Custer County, Idaho, board of commissioners said that 97 percent of the land in his county – the third largest county in Idaho — is owned by the federal government. Because of such a disproportionate concentration of Federal ownership, the county relies on Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) in order to fund essential services and infrastructure. Butts said that the federal government pays a PILT of about $0.25 an acre, which creates a fragile and volatile property tax burden for the citizens of his county.
“I’ve been a county commissioner for 20 years, and I’m very respected in my community and in my state,” he said. “We’ve been told (by the federal government) that we have too much wilderness in our county and that we won’t be picked on (under 30×30).”
Butts said that he is not entirely convinced the government will honor its promises. Over the last 18 years, the county has had to entertain serious and sometimes emotional discussions about what they will do if the county cannot collect enough taxes in order to operate their government — especially if there’s any additional property valuation loss due to an increase in permanent conservation easements.
“I cannot say, ‘We’ve lost 25 percent of our value, so I need to raise (citizen’s) taxes 25 percent,’ because the state says (counties) can only raise taxes 3 percent,” Butts said. Even if there were taxing authority available to the county, such an increase would likely price county residents off their land.
The only other option for commissioners, Butts said, would be to entertain the dissolution of the county — a feat that would require coordinating with three neighboring county governments to ask if they would be willing to absorb part of Custer County, followed by a vote of the people in those respective counties. Butts would then have to organize a vote and get the consent of his constituents to dissolve Custer County.
“Not a single local judge, county clerk, or elected official wants to have to consider dissolving their county,” he said. “It’s unthinkable.”
LAND USE PLANS KEY TO LOCAL CONTROL
Will Cavin, chairman of the Chaves County, New Mexico, board of commissioners, shared his experiences dealing with federal agencies. Former New Mexico congress woman Deb Haaland is currently Biden’s secretary of interior and has been tasked to implement the 30×30 executive order. The state’s Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, has further overshot Biden’s 30 percent conservation goal and pledged in an executive order to place half of New Mexico’s land in permanent conservation by 2030, which is significant considering 34 percent of the ground in Chaves County is already owned by the federal government, and an additional 24 percent is owned by the state.
“If your county does not have a land use policy on the books, you better get after it,” Cavin said. “You need to get it put together as soon as possible.”
The reason. he said, is because federal agencies looking to establish wilderness areas are required to complete Resource Management Plans that take into account a local government’s land use policies.
“As a county, these entities have to work and coordinate with you,” Cavin said. “If you just stick your heads in the sand and accept (the federal agency’s) plans, you’re not doing your job. You have to stand up to them.”
‘WEAPONIZING’ THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said that his county has been targeted by federal and state land acquisitions and that federal regulations have been used against local government. He relayed a story where Mike Samson, board chairman, was invited to a press conference with the Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. The U.S. Forest Service had transferred land to the State of Colorado for a new state park in Garfield County, an announcement that was news to the county commissioners.
“We had no idea until the press conference,” Jankovsky said. During a subsequent meeting with the U.S. Forest Service, Samson asked the Forest Service for a full Environmental Impact Statement, a requirement for all federal lands under the National Environmental Protection Act, before it transferred the land. In effect, the county was asking the Forest Service to follow the law.
“The Forest Service supervisor said that ‘You guys sound like environmentalists,’” Jankovsky said, which elicited laughter from the mostly conservative crowd. Laughs aside, however, the federal government is bound to adhere to the laws established by congress, including the Endangered Species Act, which Jankovsky said has been “weaponized” against private landowners.
When Jankovsky joined the board in 2011, the federal government had been working on wildlife management plans for the Greater Sage-Grouse, which at the time was being considered for listing under the ESA.
“We talked with the Bureau of Land Management and told them that they were using science gathered in Wyoming and Idaho, where the terrain was rolling hills and sage brush,” he said. “However, in our county the Greater Sage-Grouse habitat is on top of small mountains, about 8,000 feet (elevation), and it’s very fragmented.”
Jankovsky said maps provided to the Bureau of Land Management by the Colorado Game and Fish service were not accurately detailed maps of the habitat, and instead painted a broad brush across the county. Subsequent caps on oil and gas development — including in areas which were not known to be Sage-Grouse habitat — were announced in 2015, and would have tied up a significant portion of the ground in Garfield County. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that listing Sage-Grouse as endangered was not warranted, which freed up some 95 million acres of private land in the Mountain West. The counties in northwest Colorado were also successful in getting more detailed, accurate maps of the Greater Sage-Grouse habitat entered as part of the federal management plan.
After the 2016 election, the Trump Administration revisited the 2015 plan, adopted the new maps, and were ready to finalize the management plan toward the end of 2019.
However, after the 2020 election, a federal court enjoined saying that the Trump plan failed to consider the impact climate change would have on sage-grouse habitat. Following that ruling, the Biden Administration reverted back to the original 2015 plan.
“This is going to be the fourth time as a commissioner that I’ve had to look at this,” Jankovsky said. “This is another tool they use to grab land.”
MONTANA AND AMERICAN PRAIRIE RESERVE
Ross Butcher, chairman of the Fergus County, Montana, board of commissioners, said that about 28 percent of his county is made up of public lands. Butcher said there has been a history of federal encroachment in Montana, including a “National Heritage Area” that has almost been defeated by direct grassroots action by private landowners.
The most recent development, however, is not from the federal government, but from a private group calling itself the American Prairie Reserve.
“They claim they’re a capitalist property rights kind of conservation movement,” Butcher said. “’We come in with money, buy from willing sellers, and it’s a property rights issue for us to do what we want with our property.’”
The American Prairie Reserve is one step beyond the conservation easement concept, however, because instead of just buying the easement, they’re buying the land itself in an attempt to leverage nearby federal lands.
“The base property might only be a few thousand acres, but tied to it is another 10,000 acres of BLM land,” he said. “Their goal is 3.5 million acres of contiguous land in upper and central Montana. They are buying only a small percentage of private land to gain control of a larger area of public land.”
Butcher said that the fight is in the change of use permits for seven allotments of public land. While most of the public lands are already accessible to hunters and anglers, that demographic is specifically being targeted to bolster support for the Prairie Reserve concept. Most of the land APR seeks to acquire mirrors the wildlife migration corridors proposed in Montana in the early 1990s.
“They try to throw at us ‘I thought you believed in private property rights,’” he said. “But like with the conservation easements, it’s predatory.”
“Farming and Ranching is tough. A lot of the times the kids aren’t coming back, the person is ready to retire, and you have someone offering far beyond market value for the land,” he said. Since most agriculture economies are economies of scale, if lands are removed from production and livestock numbers are curtailed due to lack of access, the essential infrastructure needed to maintain rural communities begins to crumble.
The bigger threat, Butcher said, is removing farmers and ranchers from the land, which makes the United States more dependent on foreign interests.
“Local government has to be that bulwark that steps up and pushes back,” he said.
More information about the potentially devastating effects of the American Prairie Reserve can be found at http://www.savethecowboy.net.
KANSAS LANDOWNER TAKES ON SISIYPHEAN TASK
Angel Cushing of Lyon County, Kansas, said her property is modest — only 40 acres with a small duck pond — and that she primarily raises fainting goats. However, her fight began with red flags she noticed in her county’s comprehensive plan.
Cushing said that the federal government waived lucrative grant money before her county’s government — the only caveat: the county would need to update its comprehensive plan and zoning plan. The plan, a joint endeavor between the Lyon County board of commissioners and the Emporia City board of commissioners, would have transitioned the county from Euclidian-based to form-based zoning. Form-based zoning, when applied to an entire county, shifts decisions from local elected officials, and instead puts zoning decisions in the hands of zoning administrators, who then become the gate-keepers that decide how land will be used. Cushing said that the tactic of getting counties to switch to form-based zoning regulations has been used in rural areas in other states like North Carolina and Tennessee.
The Lyon County comprehensive plan was drafted by a Portland, Ore.-based firm called Urban Collaborative, whose lead architect is a woman named Zoe Anton. Anton is also vice president of a company called Craft Crickets, which claims that livestock greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change and are destroying the world. Anton’s solution for livestock methane emissions? Replace beef with bug protein.
Cushing said it could hardly be a coincidence that the first drafts of the comprehensive plan introduced by Anton would have initially outlawed barbed-wire and electric fences in the county — an insane prospect considering that it’s home to the Flint Hills cattle country.
“My county commissioners were about to make their own farms illegal, and they didn’t even know it,” Cushing said. “When I opened the book and showed them, they thought I had faked it.”
At the same time, Cushing learned that her county commissioners were also exploring joining several neighboring counties in establishing Freedom’s Frontier, a National Heritage Area designation across 49 counties in northern Kansas and southern Nebraska. The NHA designation would make the entire region subject to a Federal Land Management plan administered by the U.S. National Parks Service. After sounding the alarm, Cushing said 45 of the 49 counties under the NHA designation have passed resolutions opposing the National Heritage Area designation.
However, Cushing’s fight is not over. For more information about restrictive land designations, visit The Western Region Property Rights Coalition at https://westernregionpropertyrightscoalition.com/.
SECOND-GENERATION EASEMENT HOLDERS
Julie and Scott McIvor of Fort Davis Texas, inherited a ranch from Scott’s father, Don McIvor, who had placed the land in a perpetual conservation easement through The Nature Conservancy. While Don was given tax deductions at the time the easement was sold, as second generation easement holders, Julie and Scott receive none of the tax benefits, yet are required to adhere with all of the conservation restrictions.
Julie and Scott had to spend all of their savings to pay the estate taxes on the ranch when Don passed, and as the surrounding property values have increased, the estate taxes assessed on their land have jeopardized Julie and Scott’s ability to pass on working ranch land to their children. The entities that own the easement also exercise a lot of power over the landowners. Julie told a story about how her daughter inherited a goat. As any farm or ranch family can empathize: one goat will eventually became 100 goats.
“(The Nature Conservancy) showed up at our place and said that our conservation easement did not allow us to have goats and that we had to get rid of them,” she said. However, her father-in-law stood his ground.
“Don said, ‘Wait a second, this is my place. I can have what I want here,’” she said. It was later determined that while the easement didn’t expressly permit goats, it also didn’t expressly forbid them.
“With conservation easements, they have all the control,” she said. “This guy didn’t like goats, and right now they are leaving us alone for the most part. But who’s to say the next guy they hire comes for the yearly review and decides that he doesn’t like cattle? That’s the problem with these easements in perpetuity.
“You have to take three or four hours every year and drive someone around your ranch who you disagree with, so that they can see that nothing has changed since the day that the conservation easement was signed,” she said. “And that’s forever. I don’t think people realize that.”
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