As Ricketts Convinces Counties to Oppose 30x30, Critics Say He's Spreading Fear, Disinformation

July 5, 2021, 4:04 p.m. ·

Ricketts at York Town Hall
Governor Pete Ricketts speaks to landowners at the York Country Club in York, Nebraska. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

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America the Beautiful?

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts has been on a mission recently, crisscrossing the state’s rural communities to rally opposition to the Biden administration’s “America the Beautiful” plan, also known as the “30x30 plan”

The initiative began as Executive Order President Biden signed in his first week of office that sets the goal of conserving 30% of the nation’s water and land by the year 2030. According to the US Geological Survey, currently, only 12% of land and 24% of the nation’s waters are considered permanently protected.

Governor Ricketts Signs EXECUTIVE ORDER No. 21-08 "STOP 30 X 30-PROTECT OUR LAND & WATER"
The Governor at his Executive Order Signing. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

In the most recent update to the initiative, dubbed the "Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful 2021," it is made clear that federal conservation efforts should be based on voluntary, local programs and the rights of private landowners should be protected.

It does not, however, define exactly what “conservation” means in the context of the plan, nor does give concrete specifics on how it will achieve its goal (though it gives several recommendations). That grey area has given Ricketts and other critics the chance to define the effort as a so-called "land grab" and raise the specter of federal overreach.

“How are they going to get 30%, nine states of Nebraska, a state of Nebraska every year for the next nine years?” asked Ricketts at a recent town hall in York, Nebraska. “How are they going to do that? How do you do that without major change to be able to take away private property rights of people?”

His opposition has culminated in the signing of his own executive order, formalizing the state’s opposition in several ways, including putting “an 18-month hold on approving any new regulations expanding the definition of endangered species, plants, or wildlife pursuant to Nebraska.”

“Until we have an opportunity to see what the Biden administration actually intends with 30 by 30,” according to Ricketts.

Alongside Ricketts on the issue are the Nebraska Farm Bureau and the American Stewards of Liberty, a non-profit organization that is organizing a national effort against the "America the Beautiful" plan,

Margaret Byfield is the Executive Director of American Stewards and has been touring the state with Ricketts.

“It doesn't come from the grassroots. It does not come from the landowners,” says Byfield. “This is a program to control the land use in America.”

Both Ricketts and Byfield will be the first to admit many of their claims about the plan are speculative and based on a lack of information from the federal government, but that lack of information is also one of their main lines of attack. At his town halls, Ricketts often asks landowners to analyze any federal conservation contracts to ensure the government does not sneak in extra conditions that restrict land use.

Opposition to the Opposition

Ricketts has attracted critics of his own.

John Hansen is President of the Nebraska Farmers Union, the state’s second-largest farm organization in the state behind the Nebraska Farm Bureau. A landowner himself, he says he and his family have a long history with federal conservation efforts. He is familiar with the Biden plan and accuses Ricketts and the American Stewards of Liberty of spreading disinformation,

“The handouts that Governor Ricketts is using at these events and whose information he is using in his speeches are in a lot of instances wrong,” says Hansen. “It's not accurate. It's not consistent with what it is that we already know but it's intended to, well, scare, spread fear, spread doubt, and to ascribe the very worst intentions of President Biden.“

Hansen says  Biden’s Executive order is necessary to combat climate change and that Nebraskans have relied on federal conservation programs for years.

He concedes that he has gotten concerned calls from union members and that many aspects of the plan need to be fleshed out. Still, he says the administration’s plans for conservation and climate change are ambitious undertakings and will have to wait until other priorities, like passing a sweeping infrastructure bill come to fruition.

“And so, this is going to take a little time. And you know, there's no house on fire here. There are no private property rights that are at risk that we can find,” says Hansen. “And so stay tuned.”

He advises concerned landowners to read the plan themselves before casting judgment.

"I would like to get more folks from USDA to come down and meet with stakeholders and the general public," says Hansen. I think that would be helpful.

Be Afraid, Or Not

Despite Hansen's pleas to give Biden the benefit of the doubt, Governor Ricketts' strategy is showing signs of success. 

Dan Shipman is a county commissioner in Webster County in far south-central Nebraska and says his constituents are fearful of the Biden administration’s intentions.

“You know fear is probably worse than anything. The unknown is what scares everybody.”

He supports the governor’s opposition to the plan and he’s not alone.

A growing number of county commissioners across the state have either signed or are debating whether to sign proclamations opposing the administration’s plans, whatever they eventually turn out to be.

Not all landowners share the same opinion though.

Vern Janzten owns over 300 acres of farmland in Plymouth, in southeast Nebraska, and says he does not see any problem with Biden’s plans so far.

“You know this idea that President Biden is gonna swoop down on my little bitty farm and tell me what to do that doesn't keep me up at night because I know there are steps in between Washington DC and my little farm, not here in the corner of Nebraska,” says Jantzen.

In fact, he is supportive of several federal conservation efforts on his land.

“I have, over the years, used a number of conservation programs to install terraces to install tile lines to install dams in the pasture.”

He says government overreach ranks low on his list of problems. Right now, he’s more concerned about property taxes, market concentration, and lack of reliable broadband.

“You know my cell phone is sketchy. You know, for me to access technology it's really tough because I need that to keep doing business as a farmer.”

Jantzen thinks Ricketts, who is term-limited, has his own reasons for holding the town halls.

“The governor is trying to build himself up by creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty so that the press will pick that up and go with that,” says Jantzen. “That gets his name out and so I think he's acting like a politician and running for office. I'm not sure which office.”

Ricketts has previously argued he is simply opposing bad policy.

Whatever his ultimate intentions, landowners will have to continue wait until more details are released to learn more about how the Biden Administration will implement its plan.

Vern Jantzen and a drain tile tower.
Vern Jantzen with a drain rile tower. (Photo courtesy of Vern Jantzen)