Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts is on a statewide speaking tour to denounce what he and some far-right allies are portraying as an outrageous intrusion by the Biden administration: a conservation program that he says will seize lands from local control.
There’s one problem: The program proposes nothing of the sort, and its chief opponents are not local at all. They include a Texas-based organization whose most vocal associates—including one who met with Ricketts—have likened conservation programs to Nazi and Soviet atrocities.
The “America the Beautiful” or “30x30” initiative is a Biden administration plan to conserve 30 percent of U.S. land by 2030, a goal celebrated by environmentalists. That doesn’t mean seizing private lands, officials say, but offering new protections to public and tribal lands, and extending voluntary programs that pay farmers for adopting sustainable practices.
But many details remain unannounced. And while they are pending, figures on the right are filling the void with their own conjectures about the plan—part of what appears to be a larger mobilization on the far right around land and water issues across the country.
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“The key phrase is ‘returning to its natural state,’” Trent Loos, an associate at American Stewards of Liberty, a Texas-based nonprofit spearheading the anti-30x30 battle, told The Daily Beast. “The natural state of the United States before Lewis and Clark was a horrific place.”
The anti-30x30 effort is one of multiple brewing battles over land use in the Western U.S. In Oregon and California, where extreme drought has pitted farmers against fishers, demonstrators associated with the far-right People’s Rights movement are threatening to open a reservoir’s headgates, in defiance of water regulators. The group’s founder Ammon Bundy, who has so far not been at the ongoing river protests, previously participated in two standoffs against the federal government over public land disputes.
In Nebraska, activists have a powerful ally: the wealthy Republican governor.
“You’ll see that it [the plan] talks about being voluntary and local. Well, they have to say that because the president has no constitutional authority to do this,” Ricketts said at a Monday night event, a recent stop in his campaign against the 30x30 program.
“And that’s why right now they’re saying it has to be all voluntary. Because to do otherwise, they’d have to go to Congress and get the authority to do more.”
Agencies involved in the plan disagree—strenuously.
“The 30x30 initiative is not a ‘land grab,’” U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesperson Kate Waters told The Daily Beast. “Protecting private property rights and supporting the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners are at the core of the 30x30 initiative. These are voluntary conservation programs, like those currently in place, that have proven to be a vital tool in conserving America’s lands and waters with long-lasting benefits.”
Waters pointed to ongoing voluntary conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program and Natural Resources Conservation Service programs, which collectively cover more than 100 million acres.
But that’s not the narrative at county meetings across the West, where local officials have passed resolutions opposed to the still very much in-the-works initiative. Many of those resolutions have been drafted by the American Stewards.
The group, which did not return requests for comment, is run by a married couple. One of the pair, Margaret Byfield, is the daughter of ranchers who waged a notorious decades-long dispute with the federal government over their right to graze their cattle on public lands. At a recent anti-30x30 event, reported by HuffPost, Byfield agreed with a comment likening 30x30 to the Holodomor, a deliberate Soviet-led famine estimated to have killed nearly 4 million Ukrainians.
For his part, Loos has also compared 30x30 to Nazi land use programs. Reached by phone, he stood by the comparison and told The Daily Beast that the 30x30 plan actually called for placing more than 60 percent of land under federal control. (The plan does not call for that.)
Doing so, Loos said, would mean a national return to an inhospitable wild, in which desperate hunters might eat horses.
“You can look at any of the journals of the early explorers,” he said. “They talked about how tough it was to find wildlife, to be able to survive and how they were going to live and eat. And even Lewis and Clark had to eat horses to get across mountain ranges. So to return it to its natural state is to regress us by 250 years.”
In late May, Loos met with Ricketts to discuss their mutual opposition to 30x30. Loos attended the meetings as an individual, not as an American Stewards member, he said, although he had also been attending meetings with the group. (Loos interviewed Bundy during the 2016 Malheur standoff, but did not personally participate.)
When Ricketts began his tour against the policy, the anti-corruption watchdog group Accountable.US accused him of “parroting talking points from the conspiracy-pushing fringe group American Stewards of Liberty.” Reached for comment, Ricketts’ office requested more information on American Stewards.
Earlier this year, Accountable.US filed a complaint to the IRS accusing American Stewards of misusing its nonprofit status to lobby against 30x30. 501(c)(3) nonprofits like American Stewards are not supposed to engage in significant political action. Accountable.US accused American Stewards of violating that rule by urging people to contact their representatives about 30x30, and by distributing anti-30x30 resolutions for counties to pass.
Loos denied that American Stewards was flouting its nonprofit status. “I have seen, witnessed, or heard of zero in-house lobbying with actual legislators,” he said.
At least one Nebraska county has taken up the American Stewards resolution. “We used their draft as a model and modified it for our county,” a spokesperson for the Nance County, Nebraska attorney’s office told The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Colorado, at least four counties have passed American Stewards-drafted resolutions against the initiative, as the Colorado Sun reported in April.
Scott Braden, director of the Colorado Wildlands Project—which supports 30x30’s protections on public lands—said the resolutions played to outlandish fears about land seizures.
“Some of the counties on the western slope of Colorado passed cookie cutter resolutions that have been shared by the American Stewards of Liberty, which is an out-of-state group in Texas,” Braden told The Daily Beast. “They're sort of fear filled with fear-based appeals that aren't really based in fact.”