Author Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Neb., is embroiled in controversy over President Biden’s conservation agenda. (Photo courtesy of Historic Nebraska)
It started as a research project. University of Nebraska landscape architecture professor Kim Wilson asked her students in 2016 to brainstorm a way to increase tourism in Red Cloud, Neb., the childhood home of renowned writer Willa Cather, just north of the Kansas border.
The class found that more than 255 historic sites dot the sweeping Kansas and Nebraska farmland and prairies surrounding Red Cloud, where a national center draws literary fans eager to visit the place Cather described in her early 20th century novels.
Wilson met with others interested in the area’s history during the next few years, and they decided to try to gain National Heritage Area status as a way to bring more visitors to the struggling rural region. The designation, granted by the National Park Service, provides branding to highlight an area’s historic sites and up to $1 million per year in federal matching funds.
“It’s like a no-brainer,” she said.
What they couldn’t have guessed is that their proposal would wind up vilified by local property owners in the largely Republican area as a federal land grab, engineered by bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, D.C.
And when President Joe Biden took office in January and signed an executive order directing his administration to come up with a plan to conserve 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030, the scattering of Kansas and Nebraska counties turned into ground zero for pushback to what’s known as the 30×30 plan.
Opponents organized against the National Heritage designation, in town meetings throughout the region — attended by hundreds, by some estimates — and via social media. Local newspapers ran articles and letters.
The same kinds of fears and accusations are surfacing already across the West and in Congress, though Biden’s 30×30 plan released earlier this month goes to great lengths to stress collaboration with local landowners and voluntary initiatives.
“There is absolutely nothing in 30 x 30 that says ‘we are going to take Kansas’ that I have seen,” Angel Cushing, an organizer opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska proposal, wrote in a Facebook message to States Newsroom. “However, if you were the Department of Interior looking to increase federal land, you would probably go after the dwindling population where there is a federal management plan already set up.”
At a May 5 forum, U.S. House Republican members of the Natural Resources Committee called 30×30 a federal land grab.
“We know that the 30×30 initiative will trample on property rights and extort private lands,” U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said.
Suspicion around Red Cloud about the National Heritage Area designation was strong even before the administration proposed its conservation plan. But the Biden 30×30 executive order gave opponents even more ammunition, Wilson said.
“This has nothing to do with 30×30,” Wilson said. “They globbed everything they could onto this. And it was just bad timing that 30×30 came out. And 30×30 is being misrepresented by this same group.”
Law signed by Reagan
Since former President Ronald Reagan signed the law creating the program in 1984, the National Park Service has designated 55 National Heritage Areas, including one straddling the Kansas-Missouri border and the entire state of Tennessee.
Federal involvement in maintaining the areas is light, with local nonprofits, universities, museums and governments responsible for decision-making and the National Park Service playing a coordinating role.
Though every federal dollar has to be matched by a private or local government, the return on those dollars is more than 5 to 1, Wilson said in an interview.
But as she and her allies began building the effort — establishing a nonprofit, seeking funding for a feasibility study and other preliminary steps before they even started selling the idea to the public — another group, loosely organized through Facebook, sprouted up, concerned the project would open the door to a federal takeover of private property.
Then, days after Biden took office, his administration gave National Heritage designation opponents another argument to use with the 30×30 order.
The order said nothing about how its conservation goals would be accomplished. And with the federal government owning about 28% of U.S. acreage, some assumed taking private property would be part of the plan. Months went by before the administration released its report that sought to reassure private landowners.
The Kansas-Nebraska historical designation was unrelated to the 30×30 plan. But members of the opposition group repeatedly sought to tie the two, and they got results.
Lawmakers are generally supportive of efforts to bring federal dollars to their states, but U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, said last month he would reserve support for the National Heritage Area plan until it had more local backing. The state’s senior U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, also a Republican, has not taken a position publicly.
In the last two months, 14 county commissions, out of 49 counties in the proposed area, adopted resolutions opposing the designation.
Several volunteer directors of the Kansas Nebraska National Heritage Partnership’s 12-member board of directors also held roles with nonprofit or quasi-governmental organizations that depended on local government funding. The ties to the now-controversial partnership were seen as a liability. Four directors resigned and another retired in recent weeks, Wilson said.
Blowback to 30×30 plan
The dispute over a historical designation is only one example of how worries over federal overreach are threatening the Biden administration’s 30×30 goal, which is part of a global effort meant to help reverse the loss of natural areas and biodiversity.
Though the program depends on acceptance in rural areas, local governments across the West, apart from the Kansas-Nebraska group, have passed resolutions opposing it.
“The Biden administration has made it so clear 30×30 is about conservation from the ground up,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director for the liberal conservation group Center for Western Priorities. “It requires getting everyone to the table in good faith, and if county commissions are saying from the beginning, ‘I will not meet you in good faith,’ that’s a big challenge.”
David Willms, the senior director for western wildlife and conservation at the National Wildlife Federation, said he sees two main criticisms of 30×30: That it will produce a federal “land grab” or that it will involve large swaths of lands designated as protected and thus closed off to development.
Those fears may have been understandable before the report came out, but the report made clear that neither would be the administration’s approach, he said.
“For the longest time, we didn’t know what the administration’s visions were of achieving a conservation goal of 30%,” Willms said. “Some groups used that as an opportunity to fill that vacuum of space, and I would say set up a straw man and knock it down of what the worst-case scenario might be.”
The 30×30 report made it apparent the administration took the interests of people in rural areas into consideration, said Murray Feldman, a lawyer who represents developers and state and local governments in environmental litigation at the Boise office of the firm Holland & Hart.
“What stuck with me is the calls for voluntary conservation and the range of things that might count toward this conservation goal, which the report seemed to go to some steps to say we’re not talking about protection/preservation, we’re talking about conservation,” he said. “They were careful to use a lot of phrases to indicate that they were trying to reach across the spectrum of interests.”
‘A Trojan horse’
So far, that hasn’t been enough to win over conservative critics.
The day following the release of the administration’s 30×30 report, Boebert and 22 Republican co-sponsors, including Adrian Smith, who represents almost all the Nebraska counties in the proposed heritage area, introduced a bill to cancel the initiative. The news release announcing the bill used the term “land grab” in its headline, lead image and first paragraph. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, voiced his support for the bill.
A spokesman for Boebert did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Rep. Tracey Mann, a Republican whose district includes the Kansas counties in the proposed National Heritage Area, tweeted of 30×30: “I am deeply concerned with Pres. Biden’s 30×30 plan. It is egregious that the Biden Administration would consider these land grabs to meet an arbitrary climate goal. I will continue to advocate for Kansas agriculture and work to stop Democratic overreach.”
The Kansas opponents of 30×30 and the Heritage Area designation concede there is no explicit tie between the two. But they say there is no way the administration can achieve 30% with solely voluntary participation.
When the government then turns to forcing changes to private land, it will start with areas that have a connection to the executive branch, including National Heritage Areas that must have a management plan approved by the National Park Service, they contend.
At a May 13 forum in Marshall County, Kansas, Cushing and national anti-heritage designation activist Norman Kincaide spoke and took questions for almost two hours as part of a series of events the pair held across the proposed Heritage Area.
They said an expanded federal presence could lead to more regulation and tighter control of private lands.
“I determined it wasn’t about historic preservation,” Kincaide told the group about his experience fighting a National Heritage Area in southeastern Colorado. “It was about controlling private property.”
Cushing voiced similar fears about 30×30.
During the question-and-answer session, it was sometimes unclear whether speakers and audience members were talking about 30×30 or the Heritage Area designation; they painted both with the same brush of federal overreach.
“To me, it’s like a Trojan horse,” an audience member said of the Heritage Area designation. “They’re going to come in all nice and everything and then it’s all going to break loose.”
“Like a trojan horse!” a Facebook viewer commented on the event’s livestream. “Good description!”
The already-entrenched narrative of federal overreach means groups like the National Wildlife Federation that are seeking to build support have to work harder, said Willms, a self-described conservative conservationist.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Interior Department, which manages almost all federal lands and will have among the largest roles in implementing 30×30, declined to comment for this article.
Politics and ‘misinformation’
There is no federal regulatory power associated with National Heritage Areas, said Anthony Schutz, an associate professor of law at the University of Nebraska and a faculty member of its Rural Reconciliation project that seeks “to facilitate engagement” on rural issues.
Cushing and Kincaide argue that there could be more restrictive zoning on property near historic sites. But Schutz said the opposition to heritage sites, like the opposition to 30×30, appears more political than practical.
“I’m not really sure what to make of the opposition to it, other than maybe it’s a flashpoint for sort of a federal-state difference, and maybe that’s what’s going on with 30×30, too,” Schutz said. “There’s an opportunity there to resist federal action, to frame it as an overreach and then drum up some kind of political fight … Most of the objection is just, ‘Hey, we don’t want the federal government here.’”
The politics of opposition to the federal government is somewhat counterintuitive for those involved in agriculture, an industry that is heavily subsidized by government programs, Schutz said.
Weiss labeled some opposition to 30×30 based on private property rights “misinformation” because the government hasn’t actually proposed anything that would violate those rights.
“I think it does play into the bigger state of the [Republican] Party right now. This is the party that the requirement for leadership is belief in the Big Lie,” Weiss said, referring to former President Donald Trump’s debunked claim that he was denied victory in the 2020 election by widespread fraud.
Wilson said she plans to move ahead with the effort, but will take a six- to eight-month pause in the near future to recover from the melee.
In that time, she’ll recruit new board members and maybe revisit the group’s bylaws and mission.
“This has really worn out the board and we don’t have the capacity to deal with this head-on,” she said. “So hopefully in the next six months — people won’t forget it, but maybe it won’t have the same front-page emphasis that it has right now.”
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