Conservation officials blast Gov. Ricketts’ opposition to ‘America the Beautiful’ initiative

Poll released ahead of American Stewards of Liberty event in Lincoln on Friday

By: - April 21, 2022 6:03 pm
Scenic prairie field

Sunflowers dot a Nebraska field planted to native grasses and flowers as part of the voluntary, federal Conservation Reserve Program. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Conservation groups on Thursday lambasted claims by Gov. Pete Ricketts and a property rights group that a presidential proposal to restore forests and river banks, enhance federal conservation efforts and protect endangered species is a “land grab.”

Officials with the Nebraska Farmers Union, Nebraska Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups said President Joe Biden’s “America the Beautiful Initiative,” initially called the “30-by-30” plan, is a voluntary program to enlist farmers and ranchers in conserving more land to benefit wildlife and combat climate change.

John Hansen, president of the Farmers Union, said Ricketts and other opponents of the plan are using “conspiracy theories, misinformation and mischaracterizations” to spread fear and distrust about voluntary federal conservation programs that have provided millions of dollars to landowners.

“What they are doing, unfortunately, is very hurtful and irresponsible,” Hansen said.

The comments come as Ricketts and a Texas-based landowner rights group called “American Stewards of Liberty” will be hosting an all-day “Stop the 30×30 Summit” in Lincoln on Friday.

George Cunningham of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation added that it was ironic the governor was making false claims about “land grabs” involving the 30-by-30 plan, when he just signed two bills that will likely require the use of eminent domain to complete the Perkins County Canal and a big sandpit lake planned between Omaha and Lincoln.

“It’s really difficult to call this (Biden plan) a land grab when it’s all voluntary,” Cunningham said.

Boebert among headliners

Among the headliners are U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., who recently drew headlines for heckling Biden during his State of the Union address, and David Bernhardt, who headed the U.S. Department of the Interior during the Trump administration.

The name 30-by-30 refers to a goal of conserving 30% of the nation’s land by the year 2030. Advocates say it will aid in combating climate change and the loss of nature through voluntary programs, but critics claim it cannot be achieved without taking or imposing restrictions on private land.

Several phone calls and emails to American Stewards of Liberty this week failed to elicit responses to a series of questions. 

But the executive director of the group, which has been linked to the anti-government “Sagebrush Rebellion” in the western U.S. in the 1970s, has called it the most important conference the group has ever held. Its website said the event was scheduled on Earth Day to “spoil” the day for environmentalists.

“We need every American who sees this agenda as the federal land grab that it is to be there to help us protect our land and our liberty,” said Margaret Byfield, the executive director, on the Stewards of Liberty website.

Ricketts, in his column this week, said Nebraskans need to resist Biden’s “radical environmental agenda.” The president recently pledged an extra $440 million to restore rivers and forests through voluntary, public-private partnerships.

“We conserve without the heavy hand of government,” Ricketts wrote in his column. 

Among the moves condemned by Ricketts was Biden’s restoration of the boundaries of two national monuments in southern Utah, the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, which had been downsized via orders by former President Donald Trump.

Ricketts has also opposed permanent conservation easements, which are a voluntary means by which private landowners can ensure that their property will never be developed into ranchettes or housing but instead remain as agricultural land.

Bill failed to advance

State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil introduced a bill this legislative session to ban such permanent easements and restrict them to no longer than 99 years. But the bill failed to advance.

On Thursday, the conservation groups released new polling of 501 registered voters in Nebraska that indicated overwhelming support for conservation easements and voluntary conservation programs, such as the conservation reserve program, which pays farmers to set aside land for wildlife conservation.

Ninety-five percent of respondents said they supported voluntary conservation programs, which pollster Lori Weigel of New Bridge Strategy called “about as good as it ever gets in support for anything.”

When asked whether landowners should be allowed to make permanent decisions about their property, 89% of respondents said “yes.”

Only 16% of respondents said that 30-by-30 would be “bad” for the state.

New Bridge Strategy, whose website said it primarily caters to Republican candidates and causes, conducted the survey April 8-13. Interviews, the firm said, were done via live telephone calls and online and that they were done proportionally throughout the state, to reflect responses from key demographic subgroups, such as gender and age.

Hansen said the polling clearly shows that Ricketts, who has emerged as a national leader in opposing the America the Beautiful Initiative, is out of step with Nebraskans. He said the governor’s opposition appears to be part of a Republican playbook to have GOP governors oppose all Biden policies.

Dave Sands of the Nebraska Land Trust, which helps landowners put their land into conservation easements, said they are a “conservative” means by which private lands can be conserved while keeping the property in private hands and on the tax rolls.

But Ricketts’ opposition spread across rural Nebraska a year ago like wildfire after he conducted a series of anti 30-by-30 “town halls” across the state.

Sixty-seven of the state’s 93 counties have passed resolutions opposing the plan. At least two counties, Cherry and Holt, have rejected requests by landowners to establish permanent easements on their land.

One county hired Byfield

Cherry County taxpayers are also paying Byfield $100 an hour to advise zoning officials there about conservation easements, according to the June 8 minutes of the Cherry County Planning Commission. Byfield’s father fought a long legal battle over grazing cattle on federal land without a permit.

Hansen, of the Farmers Union, said federal conservation programs have directed more than $1 billion to Nebraska farmers and ranchers over the past decade, which not only helps them but also the local economy. He said every one of those programs are based on asking, not telling, landowners to voluntarily cooperate.

During a press conference Thursday with conservation groups, Katie Torpy of The Nature Conservancy said with 97% of the state’s lands in private ownership, conservation programs have always been voluntary and in collaboration with the government.

“We know we won’t get the results we need by forcing people’s hands,” she said.

Both Hansen and Sands criticized the Biden administration for not providing more details about the America the Beautiful Initiative.

“Lacking details, mystery is the mother of invention when it comes to public policy,” Sands said. “And some people are trying to describe it in a scary way.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and was named editor of the Papillion Times in 1982. He later worked as a sports enterprise reporter at the Lincoln Journal-Star. He joined the Omaha World-Herald in 1990, working as a legislative reporter, then roving state reporter and finally Lincoln bureau chief. Paul has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation and secretary of the Nebraska Hop Growers.

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