Once a bipartisan issue, conservation became controversial after Biden set a new goal

1 Aug 2022, 5 a.m. ·

A man in a button down shirt and baseball cap stands at the right of a photo, looking out over land with green grass and trees.
In the distance, Dean Fedde can see what used to be his grandparent’s farmland. It’s now five housing lots. He and his brother Wayne knew they never wanted their land to leave agriculture production, so they put in a conservation easement. The conservation tool has come under attack by the movement opposing the Biden administration’s 30 by 30 goal. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

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It was Earth Day 2022 in Lincoln, Nebraska. But Gov. Pete Ricketts wasn’t promoting a typical go-green message for the attendees at the American Stewards of Liberty conference.

He was there to talk about the dangers of conservation practices and take aim at President Joe Biden’s goal to conserve 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030.

The "America the Beautiful" plan — more widely known as 30 by 30 — is a “national call to action” to conserve the country’s natural resources. Its supporters say the initiative is a part of tackling climate change and reigning in its impacts.

The goal has stirred up controversy in conservation, a typically mundane part of agriculture. Farmers and ranchers have long protected their land. For example, they may choose to leave land unplanted for a few seasons to rejuvenate the soil, improve water quality and enhance wildlife.

Sometimes the federal government will pay landowners for using conservation practices. But on stage at the conference, Ricketts said the Biden administration and its goal to boost conservation has no place in Nebraska.

“We do the right thing here in Nebraska,” the governor said. “We don’t need the federal government lecturing us about the environment.”

Conservation programs are broadly popular. The federal government receives so much interest in its conservation programs that it often runs out of funding and turns away applicants.

In the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest window for its conservation reserve program, Nebraska was in the top three states for submitting grassland acres.

New Bridge Strategy, a Republican research and polling firm, surveyed Nebraskans on their feelings about conservation last April. The pollsters found wide support that spanned political parties for a national conservation goal.

About 95% of Democrats and Republicans in Nebraska agreed that they supported private landowners’ ability to conserve land through voluntary programs.

“This is one of the most bipartisan things I’ve tested,” pollster Lori Weigel said. “It’s about as strong as a number I ever get, it’s really rare to see 95% support for anything these days.”

A landscape view of a green, grassy prairie with trees in the background.
Dean and Wayne Fedde use conservation practices on their farm. Opponents of Biden’s 30 by 30 goal suggest conservation practices are a slippery slope to government takeover, but the brothers said they are in full control of their farm and property. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

Yet the state’s governor has spearheaded the opposition to the 30 by 30 goal and has said conservation can lead to government takeover.

Ricketts led a group of 15 Republican governors — including Iowa’s Kim Reynolds and Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt — to send a letter with questions about the 30 by 30 initiative. He repeated the questions at the Earth Day event in Lincoln.

“What’s the definition of conservation? How are you planning to do this? Where’s your authority?” the governor asked. “Fifteen months later, the president has still not responded to our letter. Not surprising, because they don’t have the answers. They don’t want to tell you what those answers are. Because it’s being driven by the radical environmentalists.”

Ricketts has filled in the gaps: it could be a federal land grab. He suggests the government wants land out of agriculture production, and will trick landowners if that’s what it takes.

John Berge leads the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in Nebraska, where he oversees farmer-government partnerships including the conservation reserve program.

To him, the opposition mistakes 30 by 30 as a brand new effort, instead of an aspirational goal that builds on voluntary programs that have been in place since the 1930s Dust Bowl.

“I don’t think there’s a massive sea change here,” he said. “Nobody has any intention of seeing any of Nebraska’s acres being permanently set aside. The president used the word ‘conservation’ deliberately, instead of ‘preservation’ or ‘set aside forever.’”

‘Addicted to conspiracy theories’

John Hansen heads up the Nebraska Farmers Union and has worked around conservation for almost 50 years. He said up until now, conservation was a meeting place between people across the political spectrum.

He said he thinks Ricketts has changed that.

“You know, Americans are now addicted to conspiracy theories,” Hansen said. “What he has been doing is to create question marks and fears and suspicions where there should be none.”

Hansen said he’s afraid it could chip away at confidence in conservation programs that have been around for decades. Private landowners play a big role in preserving natural resources and mitigating climate change’s impacts — more than 60% of the U.S. is privately owned.

“Maybe landowners who have traditionally used conservation and thought about them in an extremely positive way are now saying ‘Gee, I don’t know whether I should or not. Maybe the government in the fine print, somehow is going to take over my farm.’”

That’s never been a worry for Dean Fedde. He and his brother Wayne use conservation practices on their farm in southeast Nebraska.

A man in a button down shirt and baseball cap holds a framed photo. A white farmhouse is in the background.
Dean Fedde holds an old picture of his family’s farmstead. He and his brother use conservation practices on their farm and chose to permanently limit the ways the land can be used as a testament to their family legacy. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

Sitting in lawn chairs in front of a white farmhouse, the brothers say they aren’t nervous about losing ownership. Dean looks out at the century-old oak trees where songbirds build their nests and says conservation protects it all.

“There is no land grab, the government is not going to take your farm,” he said. “They want to see working farms continue to be working farms. It’s just the opposite of what’s being told.”

The brothers have done what they can to ensure their land will always be a farm. They entered a legal agreement called a conservation easement a decade ago that permanently limits how their land can be used.

They had already seen some of their family’s farmland make the switch from agriculture to concrete — their aunt and uncle’s land near Omaha was seized through eminent domain to build Eppley Airfield, the state’s largest airport.

And after their grandfather died, their grandmother sold 40 acres to an investor that built houses on what had been grain fields.

“I hate to even drive by and see it, to tell you the truth,” Dean said. “I remember growing up down there and now it’s totally gone. Agriculture will never return to that land.”

Supporters say easements are tools to protect farmland, especially as more of it gets paved into parking lots or housing developments.

But in an interview with Harvest Public Media, Gov. Ricketts laid out how he sees easements as a threat to property rights.

“You are basically agreeing that you do not have property rights anymore. You're restricting the use of that land to whatever those covenants mean,” he said. “But you are giving up your right to use that land in the way you want it, you’re giving up property rights.”

He’s gone as far as to encourage Nebraska’s counties to formally oppose 30 by 30 and rethink allowing conservation easements.

At least two landowners have had their requests denied. During one of the discussions on whether to grant an easement, one county official asked if the request was tied to the 30 by 30 goal.

Dave Sands is the executive director of the Nebraska Land Trust, which works with landowners like the Fedde brothers to grant conservation easements that will keep land in agriculture.

He said the anti-conservation movement is eroding property rights by sweeping conservation easements into its opposition.

“Conservation easements are for landowners who never want to see their legacy broken apart for cabins or subdivisions,” he said. “Counties are denying them the ability to determine the future of their land. That’s a serious violation of property rights. And the worst form of government overreach.”

For now, though, 30 by 30 remains just a goal. The administration has yet to release clarifying details that could ease the fears of a federal land grab in Nebraska.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: @Ekrembert

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM