Ricketts, Boebert and others hammer away at Biden’s ’30-by-30′ initiative

Others slam the event as spreading disinformation

By: - April 22, 2022 4:41 pm
Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts welcomed more than 200 people who attended Friday’s “Stop 30-by-30 Summit” in Lincoln. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts and others hammered away Friday at President Joe Biden’s initiative to conserve 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030 to mitigate climate change and the loss of endangered species, and to expand nature.

Ricketts, who has become a leader in the opposition to the “America the Beautiful Initiative,” warned that the Biden administration was planning to use regulations, including increased rules in Conservation Reserve Program contracts, and conservation easements to exert greater control over private lands.

‘Don’t lecture us’

“We don’t need the federal government to tell us what to do. They don’t need to lecture us,” the governor said, to applause from the more than 200 attendees of the “Stop 30-by-30 Summit” in Lincoln.

A spokesman for a Colorado-based environmental advocacy group said, however, that over and over, federal officials have stated that their efforts will involve voluntary cooperation from private landowners.

Aaron Weiss, the deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, said the initiative is not a “land grab,” as claimed by Ricketts and American Stewards of Liberty, which sponsored Friday’s summit.

“I think it’s incredibly condescending for the governor to say that private landowners don’t know what’s best for their land,” Weiss said, as he stood just outside the summit.

‘Disinformation brigade’

The Western Priorities group handed out booklets entitled “The 30×30 Disinformation Brigade” that featured a photo of one of the speakers on Friday, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican who introduced a House bill to “terminate” the program, calling it a “massive land grab.”

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., was among the national conservative figures who spoke Friday at the “Stop 30-by-30 Summit.” (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The Nebraska Examiner attempted to obtain literature passed out by the America Stewards for Liberty but a reporter was told he would have to pay a $120 registration fee for the event. The reporter declined and later was told the $120 fee was required in order to cover the event. At least two other news media representatives covering the event said they had not been asked to pay $120.

In a brief interview, Boebert said Biden’s agricultural policies are hurting farmers and ranchers, who are being “pressured” economically into entering into conservation easements, which pays them for agreeing not to allow their land to be developed into housing subdivisions or businesses.

‘Here to help’

Boebert said it is still true that the most alarming words spoken are “I’m with the federal government and I’m here to help.”

30-by-30
A message board truck, funded by the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, Accountable.US, circled the “Stop 30-by-30 Summit” meeting site Friday. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

During the summit at Lincoln’s Graduate Hotel, a truck with an electronic message board circled the area with the message: “Why is Governor Ricketts Hosting Liars in Lincoln?”

An official with the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Accountable.US, which sponsored the message truck, said Friday that Ricketts and those involved with American Stewards of Liberty are not “telling the truth” about the 30-by-30 plan.

Kyle Herrig, the president of Accountable.US and a native of Omaha, issued a statement that the America the Beautiful Initiative is based on sound science and will be good for business by creating jobs and luring visitors..

“Most importantly, it will ensure future generations of Nebraskans have the same opportunities we all did to enjoy our state’s beautiful land and water,” he said.  

Protects land for the future

Ricketts and other speakers, however, disputed that the plan was backed by science said that it was the Biden administration that hasn’t been forthcoming.

The initiative lacks details, the governor said. Even the word “conservation” hasn’t been defined, said Ricketts, who got 14 fellow governors to sign a letter last year objecting to the plan.

“They don’t have the answers, or they don’t want to tell you what the answers are because this is driven by the radical environmentalists,” Ricketts said.

He added that the initiative had been rebranded as the “America the Beautiful Initiative” because it wasn’t doing well as the 30-by-30 plan.

No changes in CRP program

When reached by phone, John Berge, the state director of the federal Farm Services Agency, said no new requirements are being added to Conservation Reserve Program contracts. Instead, Berge said, some changes are being made to make it easier for farmers to hire help to plant seed.

“We’re making it more producer friendly,” he said, calling the CRP program “voluntary and incentive based.”

“Really, 30-by-30 is just an extension of what’s already happening in conservation programs. It’s a new goal, sure, but nothing is really changing,” Berge said.

Ruth Sorenson, Nebraska’s property tax administrator, gave a short report during the summit about how putting land into conservation easements can reduce its value and thus shift the property tax load onto other landowners.

Shifts some taxes

She said her office had looked into the statewide impact of such easements and had estimated that they have cost Nebraska $329 million in property valuation. The state had a total property valuation of $260 billion in 2020, according to the State Department of Revenue’s website, so that translates into 0.13% of the total.

Sorenson used two examples: One was a 156-acre parcel in Phelps County that was valued at $388,000 in 2015 but sold for $260,000 in 2020 after it was put into a conservation easement. A Phelps County Assessor’s Office spokeswoman said the value of the property dropped because it was no longer valued as irrigated farmland.

Counties sign resolutions

The other example was in Holt County, where a 157-acre parcel had sold for $210,000 in 2007 but was resold in 2020 for $80,000 after it had been put into a conservation easement. Holt County records indicate the parcel had been valued as farmland in 2007, as high as $1,265 per acre for an irrigated portion, but since being placed in a federal wetlands program, it is valued at $500 an acre.

At Friday’s summit, Margaret Byfield, who runs Texas-based American Stewards for Liberty along with her husband, said the public opposes the Biden plan as evidenced by the dozens of rural counties in the western U.S. that have passed nonbinding resolutions against it.

Sixty-seven of Nebraska’s 93 counties have passed such resolutions at the urging of Ricketts, who conducted a series of town hall meetings last year to rally opposition to the 30-by-30 plan.

Small fraction of land in easements

On Thursday, a group of Nebraska conservation groups released polling that showed that 62% of 501 registered voters who responded thought the 30×30 America the Beautiful goal was “good for Nebraska.” Only 16% responded that it would be bad.

Conservationists have said that since so little of Nebraska’s land has been put into conservation — about 0.35% of the state’s total land mass — the impact on property taxes is negligible and doesn’t outweigh the benefits.

 John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union also said the state’s farmers and ranchers had received $1 billion through federal conservation programs over the past decade, which helped not only them, but also local communities, economically.

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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 later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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