SHERIDAN — Despite being called a “federal land grab” by at least one legislator on the far right, landowners from across the West gathered with leaders in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Interior in a webinar hosted by the Western Landowners Alliance Thursday to discuss the Biden Administration’s “America the Beautiful” 30x30 conservation plan.
“I think the thing that has everybody worried that we just have to tackle head-on is this question about federal lands, this idea that has been pushed out there quite a bit that this is a federal land grab, or that there could be uses of imminent domain and massive federal land expansions and taking of private properties,” WLA Executive Director Lesli Allison said during the live online session.
“All these things have gotten people very nervous,” Allison said. “Is there anything you can say to assuage those concerns? Are those concerns valid?”
Kate Kelly, deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Department of the Interior, said the report, which details the Biden Administration’s proposal to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, known as 30x30, is a call to action. It is a 10-year, locally-led campaign to conserve and restore the lands and waters upon which all Americans depend.
“This is the first time that a president has set a national conservation goal, so there is certainly the question, why is this important?” Kelly said. “This ambitious, inclusive goal is important for three reasons.”
The first is to address the loss of nature, including wildlife, birds and fish across the country. The second is to address the climate crisis, including droughts and longer wildfire seasons, and the last is to address disparities in access to the outdoors. Martha Williams, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the report shows an appreciation for different land uses and recognizes the importance of good stewardship by landowners.
“I hope you can hear in that language a recognition of the great value that you bring to the landscape, that your stewardship lends to the country,” Williams said. “We sincerely want to hear from you. We sincerely want to continue this work with you, and use this as an opportunity.”
Kelly said the administration sought input from ranching and farming coalitions, private landowners, state and local officials and tribal leaders and outdoor recreationalists, among others, in formulating the plan. The preliminary outreach represents “just the start” of intergovernmental and public engagement, she said.
“We are looking to the communities and people on the ground to show what solutions are working, and what we need to do more of. We are looking at where national leadership is helpful, and where we can support what is working,” Kelly said.
In a YouTube video posted after the report’s release from the backseat of a car, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said, though, that “in the West, we are all too familiar with government land grabs, and we can smell this one coming from a mile away.”
“(About) some of the concern and what I would call misinformation out there about this being a federal land grab, I think it is easy to be clear that it is not that,” Kelly said. “There is no imminent domain that will be used here. This is about recognizing and honoring private property, respecting private property and honoring the work that (private landowners) are doing. We are looking to use existing tools and resources to support the work that is happening to keep working lands working in their current state.”
The panel also included three Western landowners from rural New Mexico, California and Idaho.
“When we have productive lands, it is a win-win for everyone, including the climate crisis,” said Tuda Crews, a rancher and owner of the Ute Creek Cattle Company in New Mexico. “I am going to bring up the word leadership here. I so appreciate the comprehensive approach that this America the Beautiful initiative has brought. It means a great deal to everyone on the land that we are at the table, and we continue to have a place at the table.”
In a May 8 statement about the 30x30 report, Gov. Mark Gordon said he is pleased to see the strong recognition of private property rights and the commitment to stewardship that private landowners have shown detailed in the report.
“If 30x30 provides for long-due recognition of the excellent stewardship our ranchers and farmers provide in the West, especially in Wyoming, this is a great step forward,” he said. “I am also happy to see the recognition of a national loss of farms and ranches due to fragmentation and development, something Wyoming is well aware of. I am hopeful this all leads to appropriate compensation for the multiple long-term values agriculture provides.”
He also said that he finds skepticism about the report warranted.
“Although not consulted early in the process, I assigned a small team to convey our suggestions, and the report’s overall tone appears to have captured much of the input. This is encouraging and at least an acknowledgement that our concerns were heard,” Gordon said.
“As always, proof lies in action, not words,” Gordon continued. “I am cautiously optimistic that the administration will leave 30x30 in the hands of locally based, cooperative, and truly voluntary efforts. If this initiative is not implemented in a way that focuses on the local level, it is surely doomed.”
Gordon said much of the implementation of this initiative will come down to what is considered “conservation” and what is not. Brenda Richards, a rancher in Owyhee, Idaho, and coordinator of the Idaho Rangeland Conservation Partnership, said the same.
“What is locally led? Those of us that have a passion for working on this kind of thing, and finding the opportunity in it, also have neighbors and work with stakeholders who might be scared of how that is defined, whether it will be designations or restrictions,” she said, adding that things like stream restoration and cooperative NRCS work on private lands should be counted as conservation.
“Every decision that we make here on the ranch … that is an important thing,” Richards said. “We are very vested in making sure that we have resilient landscapes, biodiversity and really want to see that across land ownership.”